Critical Works: Grand Hotel Abyss / Stuart Jefferies, Imagined Communities / Benedict Anderson
Over the course of Winter break I’ve been reading two books: Grand Hotel Abyss by Stuart Jefferies and Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson. In Grand Hotel Abyss, Jefferies presents an image of a conflicted, contradictory, and ruthlessly critical Frankfurt School, tracing their personal relationships as much as their theory and politics. In Imagined Communities, Anderson looks at the origins of nationalism as an ideology, finding its root in the 19th century advent of print capitalism.
For me, these two books speak to each other relatively easily. Both depict historical actors deeply concerned with freedom of some sort — for the Frankfurt school this was freedom from fascist and capitalist oppression, and for the 18th and 19th century nationalists freedom from the tyranny of colonial and monarchic power. More importantly, I think they both express the radical idea that books, words, and text can radically change the world. Anderson notes that it is in newspapers that the early nationalist movements found their original voice, and it is Marcuse — primarily an intellectual and an academic — who largely inspired the radicalism of the New Left. The nationalist movements, of course, by and large succeeded and the Frankfurt School was mostly ineffectual at achieving its ends. In such world-historic times as these, I think it’s important to interrogate how, why, and which arguments have historically failed or succeeded to motivate large groups. Not only does it help us build a better world, but it makes that world more broadly accessible.