Wednesday, December 15, 2004

The Culture Industry Theodor Adorno

Theodor Adorno must have been a lot of laughs at parties. What else can be said of a theorist whose claim is that “liking” a piece of “commercial music” is just another way of saying a person is “familiar” with it? Adorno explains, “He can neither escape impotence nor decide between the offerings where everything is so completely identical that preference in fact depends merely on biographical details or on the situation in which things are heard” (30). In other words, the consumer of popular music is stuck between rock-n-roll and a hard place in choosing sounds that are indistinguishable from each other. And for that matter, how jaded is a person who claims that all mass culture is “fundamentally adaptation,” done with a “monopolistic filter” (67)? In a discussion on “Free Will,” this Adorno asserts that he has “no hobby,” but those pursuits he follows in his leisure he undertakes, “without exception, very seriously” (188). No doubt! It would be easy to make a joke on type here—one pictures Cloris Leachman’s Germanic nurse in High Anxiety, the sort of “you vill haf fun and you vil like it” type. That is how I picture Adorno at a party.

Reading his book is much like mandated fun. In other words, it isn’t. Susan Sontag compared a book of Adorno’s essays to “a whole shelf of books on literature.” She is probably right, particularly if we stoop to heft the words-per-paragraph. It isn’t just the number—it’s the weight of the words. I unabashedly admit that full passages, pages even, passed by without my having the vaguest comprehension. “What the hell is he talking about,” I wondered, eyelids flagging, trying to find passages, portions, pages that might come in handy later on in papers—because, let’s face it, Adorno is (literally) a heavyweight. Quoting him in a paper is a good thing to do. So I had to slog through these 200 pages. It took me a week or two of agony.

The contextual essay in the beginning helped. Here J.M. Bernstein wrote about Adorno’s points in his essays. For example, he defined some key concepts such as “culture industry,” which in Bernstein’s words “involves the production of works for reproduction and mass consumption, thereby organizing ‘free’ time, the remnant domain of freedom under capital in accordance with the same principles of exchange and equivalence that reign in the sphere of production outside leisure” (4). Now, this definition is important because of the way it connects to popular culture. What Adorno termed “leisure” and we might call “free time,” is when he sees that we might have a use for popular culture. Now, it seems to me that in the present era, popular culture has become so much more important because we have more leisure time. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that more of us have more leisure time. The rich always had it (Adorno would be quick to point this out, I’m sure). But the average person, the bourgeois class, has enough of it in the common era that it has become an industry.

Bernstein explains more of Adorno’s ideas about the culture industry, saying that “the triumph of advertising [...] is that consumers feel compelled to buy even though they see through” the tricks of the advertiser and know they are being tricked (12). This is where Adorno’s definition of irrationality becomes relevant. Rather than being a typical definition where we might seem “wholly disconnected from individual” goals and needs , it would be in situations where one’s own interest “is pushed to extremes so as to become illogical” (13). I could see how this might be reflected in cases of intense consumerism where people pursue wanting things longer after they need them and long after the things cease to be good for them.

Moving right along, though, Adorno’s first essay is a catchy little title, “On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening.” I had a hard time gathering what he meant by a fetish here. It is in this essay where Adorno equates liking with familiarity (30); he really seems to be complaining about the state of popular music. But even he admits that the “complaints about declining taste” in music have been longstanding. Adorno traces back to Plato’s Republic, where in Book III Plato “bans ‘the harmonies expressive of sorrow’ as well as the ‘soft’ harmonies” (31). Ultimately, Plato reminds the citizens of the republic about the serious effects music can have.

Here’s an obscure reference, relevant to only a few music fans who liked electronica of the early 1990s. A group called The Pop Will Eat Itself sampled a section of a evangelical radio preacher’s sermon for the length of the first cut of their CD, The Cure for Sanity. On “PWEI Against the Moral Majority,” the preacher actually speaks on this very topic: “What is the truth about Rock music? Music is a powerful and perhaps the most powerful medium in the world. Music: Plato said when the music of a society changes, the whole society will change. Aristotle, a contemporary of Plato, said when music changes there should be laws to govern the nature and the character of that music. Lenin said the best and the quickest way to undermine any society is through its music. Music, ladies and gentlemen, is a gift of God. It was given by man to offer praises to God and to lift us up to him and to exalt him. And so we can touch the tender resources of our heart and of our mind. Satan has taken music and he has counterfeited it, convoluted it, twisted it, exploited it and now he’s using it to hammer, hammer, hammer, hammer, hammer a message into the mind and the lifestyle of this generation.”

So what is the connection? There’s a fetishistic liking to popular music, one that the modern moral majority likens to a satanic delight. That’s fetishistic, to be sure. It’s a guilty pleasure, I guess. Sure enough, a little later Adorno says of popular music that he’s referring to “the specifically aesthetic” and “forbidden allurements” as well as “sensual gaiety” (31). In our consumer society, “the listener is converted [...] into the acquiescent purchaser” (31). But Adorno also defines the idea of a fetish value according to Marx’s idea of the concept. He explains that when one fetishizes music, the act of acquisition becomes more important than the music itself so then, according to Adorno, the “consumer is really worshipping the money that he himself has paid for the ticket to the Toscanini concert,” not the music or the musicians (38).

Adorno also argues against any sort of communication between the two “spheres” of music, popular or “light music” and “the higher type.” He explains that they “do not hang together in such a way that the lower could serve as a sort of popular introduction to the higher, or that higher could renew its lost collective strength by borrowing from the lower” (35).

True to form, though, Adorno concludes from his analysis that “musical analysis has today decayed as fundamentally as musical charm and has its parody in the stubborn counting of beats.” But not to be undone by his own gloominess, he adds that “the golden age of taste has dawned at the very moment in which taste no longer exists” (40). Ah, Theodor! You cad!

It’s not enough for Adorno to say that our taste has disappeared. He critiques our “psychological household” as well. When we consume popular music, he explains, we are confirmed in our “neurotic stupidity” (47). Thus, “The assent to hit songs and debased cultural goods belongs to the same complex of symptoms as do those faces of which one no longer knows whether the film has alienated them from reality or reality has alienated them from the film” (47). That gorgeous sentence goes on—actually it says “as they wrench open a great formless mouth with shining teeth in a voracious smile, while the tired eyes are wretched and lost above.” I told you Adorno was a load of laughs. He clearly wants us to know that popular music has a “power over its victims” (48).

The mechanism at work is, Adorno says, a “neurotic mechanism of stupidity in listening” which causes “regressive listeners” who “again and again with stubborn malice [...] demand the one dish they have once been served” (51). Nice. I do follow him here, though. Tune in any Top 40 radio station for two hours and you’ll know the words to all the popular songs. The same kind of truth applies, I guess, to the discussion I have with students about poetry being similar to (sometimes the same as) song lyrics; the difference is whether the poem or lyrics endure.

A very interesting point Adorno makes about this regressive listening is that it is “always ready to degenerate into rage” (56). He explains, “If one knows that he is basically marking time, the rage is directed primarily against everything which could disavow the modernity of being with-it and up-to-date and reveal how little has in fact changed” (56). That speaks to much about the phenomenon of popular music. For one, it seems to address the very notion of adolescence. Rage and adolescence feel connected to me. It also pulls in the need to be up-to-date and hip that popular music requires. Interesting.

On to the next essay, “The Schema of Mass Culture.” I won’t spend a great deal of time here. This is the essay where Adorno argues that culture has a “commercial character” (61). In this commercial culture, we learn to develop a certain reverence for products as a result of advertising (63).

In mass culture, the ideal is adaptation, says Adorno, so the “digest has become a particularly popular fofrm of literary distribution and the average film now boasts of its similarity with the successful prototype rather than trying to conceal the fact” (67).
The result of this kind of culture is that the “individual becomes a nihilist. Anything that cannot be recognized, subsumed, and verified he regrets as idiocy or ideology, as subjective in the derogatory sense” (85).

I see where Adorno’s theories are limited by when they were written when he says that mass culture “only recognizes refined people.” His reasoning is that “even the language of the street kids that can never be reproduced too realistic merely serves to ensure that the laughing viewer is never is never tempted to use any such language himself” (92). Fer shizzle, my Thizzle.

Now the next essay, “Culture Industry, Reconsidered,” is just what it looks like. Here he adds to what he said before and emphasizes a few points. For instance, Adorno wants us to remember that the “culture industry misuses its concern for the masses in order to duplicate, reinforce, and strengthen their mentality, which it presumes is given and unchangeable” (99). It seems to me that he’s working overtime here NOT to sound like a communist. Another interesting idea in this essay is that “the culture industry exists in the ‘service’ of third persons,” and “its ideology makes use of the star system.” The result is that the “more dehumanized its methods of operation and content, the more diligently and successfully the culture industry propagates supposedly great personalities and operates with heart-throbs” (101).

I didn’t have a lot to say about “Culture and Administration.” The following chapter, “Freudian Theory and The Pattern of Fascist Propaganda” is much more interesting. Here he’s talking about “American fascist agitators,” which is always a boatload of fun, whether or not I’m having to wrestle with Adorno’s hefty sentences. He begins with the explanation that social sciences have studied “American fascist agitators” carefully. Their studies have shown that most present-day agitators’ attacks are “ad hominem,” psychological in origin instead of “rational” (132). He says “our would-be Hitlers” intend to create “crowds bent on violent action without any sensible political aim, and to create the atmosphere of the pogrom” (133). This is “the psychology of the masses,” a useful term not just to use when we’re talking about fascists, but also when we’re talking about controlling behavior with popular culture. I don’t like to think of Michael Moore’s methods in teerms of fascism, but his work fits into this category as well.

Adorno says that the interesting part of Freud’s approach to this topic is that he consideres not just the psychology of groups but also “which psychological forces result in the transformation of individuals into a mass” (135). Freud theorized that, “If the individuals in the group are combined into a unity, there must surely be something to unite them” (qtd in Adorno 135). Of course he blamed that bond on the libido, but Adorno points out that Hitler was aware of that connection as well and capitalized upon it—the connection would be through identification (136).

So then these groups and agitators tend to be similar; for example Leo Lowenthal demonstrated that “one of the favorite devices of fascist agitators” was to “compare out-groups, all foreigners and partially refugees and Jews, with low animals and vermin” (147). This is certainly something we’ve all seen done.

The next essay is “How to Look at Television.” I was disappointed with this one, having thought it would be better than it actually is. One point Adorno makes is that television has an affect on “various layers of the spectator’s personality” (158).

He also says that “the archetypes of present popular culture were set comparatively early in the development of middle-class society” (159). They were set in the eighteenth century and have remained since then. No wonder so many of us have sunk in then!!

Really that’s about it for that one. The next one is “Transparencies on Film.” Here Adorno says that “fictional characters never resemble their empirical counterparts no matter how minutely they are described” (179). In addition, even though a film tries to be realistic, it isn’t always, so there might not always be a feeling of immediacy in film (179).

The last two, “Free Time” and “Resolution,” I just don’t have much to say about. I found Adorno unbelievably boring as I said. I hope he was worth the unreal amount of time I spent on him!

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