Grand Hotel Abyss

I first read Frankfurt School theorists in college as part of a course called Education in the Matrix. Beyond being a fantastic title, the course was also one of my favorites. It looked at the way popular culture becomes part of education, and the need that creates for a critical perspective and strong media literacy. Reading The Fear of Freedom reminded me of that course and motivated me to add Grand Hotel Abyss to my list.

The book’s title comes from a critique of the Frankfurt School. György Lukács claimed these theorists lived in a hotel, “equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity.” My view of their work is a little more favorable.

What Grand Hotel Abyss covers is a history of the main theorists involved in the Frankfurt School. These are largely German Jewish men who grew up in the early 1900s and were frequently from privileged family backgrounds. Under the Institute for Social Research they came together and created a vein of philosophy called critical theory.

All this work was funded through an endowment from Hermann Weil, a wealthy German businessman. Despite both privileged upbringings and a wealthy benefactor these theorists sought to critique and condemn capitalism and mass culture.

That set up an interesting tension, one of many ironies and contradictions within the school’s work.

The Frankfurt School was thus paid for by the economic system it was established to indict, and the businessman father who bankrolled it stood for values that his son sought to destroy.

Past that, much of the theorists’ work focused on the role of what Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer termed the culture industry. Loosely-speaking they felt mass production led to cultural output that resembles factory-produced goods. Movies, magazines, and radio programs become industrially produced and oriented toward our pleasure and entertainment. Culture focused on objects which pacified the masses. Where capitalism dominated work, the culture industry dominated leisure and:

[changed people] from productive beings to consumers, from the Marxist dream of creatively vital humans to stupefied moviegoers all giggling at the same thing.

They worried our passive cultural consumption dulled our sensibilities toward more radical social and economic change. That may not sound all that novel today, but they were writing this in the mid-1940s.

Another key theorist, Walter Benjamin, challenged what today we might term a flow state of concentration. Focusing on the productive output of thought was a mistake in his eyes. Our thoughts are valuable for more than their economic potential. And Benjamin’s interest, particularly when it came to art, was in the disruptive, dissonant, and absent-minded nature of thought.

Capitalism and culture were the two predominant themes to this work. And the interplay between the two drew much of the theorists’ attention. To them we live in a world where we have the freedom to choose what is always the same. Mass production leads to mass, passive consumption of what is increasingly identical. Their writing is not always uplifting and can be gloomy. But they sought to understand and to challenge popular culture and our relation to it.

All-in-all the book’s an accessible overview of what’s my favorite strain of philosophy. It’s not overly academic and if you enjoy history surveys you’ll likely enjoy reading it.

The Fear of Freedom

A great number of our decisions are not really our own but are suggested to us from the outside; we have succeeded in persuading ourselves that it is we who have made the decision, whereas we have actually conformed with expectations of others, driven by the fear of isolation and by more direct threats to our life, freedom, and comfort.1
Erich Fromm

The other book I picked up while in Singapore was Erich Fromm’s The Fear of Freedom. It’s a relatively short book that contemplates how we relate to freedom and security. Before jumping to my notes, a bit of context is helpful for understanding the book itself.

Like his contemporaries in the Frankfurt School,2 Fromm grew up a German Jew during the early 1900s. In the face of Hitler’s rise he relocated first to Switzerland and later the United States until the 1950s. This kept him safe and allowed him to continue his work. In 1942 Fromm published The Fear of Freedom which focuses on two forces: the development of capitalism plus the rise of Italian and German authoritarianism.

Much of the book is straightforward reading, though parts do skew toward the complex. It’s also remarkably relevant reading for the modern era. Economic and political developments of the last 20 years mean much of what Fromm considers has a modern application. From labor relations to social isolation to authoritarian governments there’s much that’s still top of mind in 2018.

Despite its short length the book is tough to succinctly summarize. There were, however, a couple high-level concepts I took away.


A thread throughout the book concerns how we balance freedom and security. Fromm holds that the more we gain the more we have only one choice in front of us. We can have spontaneity in our love and work, and thus face the insecurity, anxiety, and isolation that brings. Or we can embrace security, and thus impinge our freedom and individuality.


Part of our struggle to balance individualism and security stems from the past feudal social order. This was thought to be a natural order of things. And we had a sense of certainty and security in our place. The dominant social order did not deprive individuals of their freedom as “the individual” did not yet exist.

With the Renaissance and rise of Capitalism we became consumed with an insatiable greed for power and wealth. Our work was increasingly done with no share in the enterprise. Work became a supreme value and there was a deep restlessness that developed alongside a preoccupation with time. Everything in life depended upon a given individual’s effort and we couldn’t even be certain about the basic supply and demand relationship in the market.

Calvanism sowed the seeds for a modern approach to work. Effort and work were not to change one’s fate, which was predetermined. Instead our frantic effort was instead a reassurance against an unbearable feeling of powerlessness. Fromm argues this may be our most important psychological change since the Middle Ages.

  1. The Fear of Freedom, pg. 171.[]
  2. More on them in a bit as I recently read Grand Hotel Abyss.[]