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  • The Politics of Unreason: The Frankfurt School and the Origins of Modern Antisemitism by Lars Rensmann
  • Amy Allen (bio)
The Politics of Unreason: The Frankfurt School and the Origins of Modern Antisemitism.
Lars Rensmann. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2017. ISBN: 978-1-4384-6593-7. Cloth. 600 pages. $95.00.

Lars Rensmann describes his book, The Politics of Unreason, as "the first systematic study of the Frankfurt School's research on and theories about antisemitism in English" (ix). Rensmann contends that despite the massive influence of the Frankfurt School on contemporary intellectual life, their analysis of antisemitism has yet to be widely received, nor has the centrality of this analysis to the overall project of early critical theory been sufficiently appreciated. The aim of this book is thus twofold: first, to reconstruct the analysis of antisemitism at the core of early Frankfurt School critical theory—particularly the work of Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, and Leo Löwenthal—in the interest of enriching our understanding of that project; and, second, to retrieve from that reconstruction useful tools for analyzing and critiquing modern antisemitism. In this way the project seeks to change both "our understanding of the Frankfurt School, and . . . our understanding of antisemitism through the Frankfurt School" (2).

Rensmann sets out to correct five interpretive misunderstandings of this group of thinkers and their theorization of antisemitism and authoritarianism. These five interpretive mistakes are presented as a series of [End Page 392] failures: the failure to fully appreciate or understand (1) the sociological and philosophical breadth of their project; (2) the distinctiveness of early critical theory's analysis of authoritarianism; (3) the centrality of the group's empirical studies to their theoretical work; (4) the deeply political nature and implications of their analysis; and (5) the important differences between the early Frankfurt School and "postmodernism." In connection with this last point, Rensmann emphasizes that the early Frankfurt School is "deeply universalistic in its outlook and, even if critically, indebted to the enlightenment project and cosmopolitan intentions" (10). For reasons I'll discuss further below, I think that the book is largely successful in making its case for the breadth, distinctiveness, empirical richness, and political relevance of the Frankfurt School's analyses of authoritarianism and antisemitism. If I'm less convinced by the last claim, this is because it seems to me to rest on a caricatured portrait of "postmodernism"—as anti-Enlightenment, irrationalist, and anti-universalist—that critical theorists would do well, in my view, to leave behind. However, since this last point does not seem to me to be central to Rensmann's argument or to the achievement of his book, I'll leave further discussion of this issue aside.1

The bulk of this rich and detailed study is dedicated to reconstructing the critical analysis of antisemitism that is spread across a range of important empirical and theoretical studies of the early Frankfurt School. Rensmann begins by helpfully situating this work in the context of early critical theory's reception of Freudian psychoanalysis. Of particular importance here is the Freudian idea that both civilization and the psyche are founded on the repression of instinct. In the hands of early critical theory, this universal Freudian claim was transformed into a historically specific diagnosis of liberal, bourgeois subjectivity. The paradox of this form of subjectivity is that, although it is founded on what the early Frankfurt School called the domination of inner nature, it at least allows for the possibility of autonomy and sublimation. However, in the emergent postliberal capitalist society that was the target of their critique, even this paradoxical form of liberal subjectivity began to disappear. In its place, more direct and unmediated forms of individual domination arose that resulted in a decrease in individual autonomy and thus an increasing susceptibility to social conformity (see 55–57).

This Freudian background sets the stage for early critical theory's diagnosis of the authoritarian personality, a Weberian ideal type of modern subjectivity that is particularly prone to endorsing fascism, racism, and modern [End Page 393] antisemitism (68). Despite widespread reception of The Authoritarian Personality study and its influence in some fields, Rensmann contends that "there has been little...


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