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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
Theodor Adorno
Liam O Ruairc • 17.10. 03

This year marks the centenary of the birth of Theodor W. Adorno, one of the most important thinkers and cultural critics of the twentieth century and a leading figure of the Frankfurt School of critical theory. Born in Germany on 11 September 1903, Adorno attended the University of Frankfurt where he studied philosophy, sociology, psychology, and music. With a passion for music, Adorno went to Vienna to study composition under Alban Berg. To escape from Nazism, Adorno moved to England in 1934 before formally joining the Institute for Social Research (better known as the Frankfurt School), then in exile in New York, in 1938. In 1953, at the age of 50, Adorno returned to Frankfurt to take up a position with the Institute, and in 1959 he became its director. He died in 1969. Adorno can be placed at the outer edge of the Marxist tradition. He differed from the classical Marxist tradition of Marx, Lenin, Trotsky or Gramsci in not being organically linked to either the labour movement and its organisations or the political left and its parties. His excuse was that “the call for unity of theory and practice has irresistibly degraded theory to a servant’s role”, but he was wrong to think that any praxis would turn into blind activism. Adorno was never politically active, and like the rest of the Frankfurt School, remained secluded within the academic world. Towards the end of his life, he became quite conservative. He was famously hostile to the 1960s student movement, and even called the police to deal with the 76 students who occupied his institute on 31 January 1969! Also, his interests were principally cultural, aesthetic and philosophical in nature – he did not give central importance to questions of politics, strategy or political economy.

Central to the thought of Adorno, was his experience of the rise of Nazism, Stalinism and the defeat of the workers movement. Those events were according to him, the outcome of a “Dialectic of Enlightenment” (title of a famous book he wrote with Max Horkheimer in 1944). Enlightenment is not understood as the 18th century philosophy of that name, but as the process of scientific and technological domination of nature. "In the most general sense of progressive thought, the Enlightenment has always aimed at liberating men from fear and establishing their sovereignty. Yet the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant." Science, technology, rationalism rather are blamed for this disaster. "Enlightenment is more totalitarian than any system" – whether Stalinist, Fascist or Capitalist. The domination of nature ultimately extends to the domination of men. "Enlightenment behaves towards things as a dictator towards men: it knows them in so far as he can manipulate them." This "dialectic" of Enlightenment consists in that liberation from the domination of nature resulted in new forms of domination. The liquidation of the individual is the outcome of the subordination of nature to humanity. Enlightened thought and reason attack myth and superstition, but only to create its own mythology. “No universal history leads from savagery to humanitarianism, but there is one leading from the slingshot to the megaton bomb” sums up Adorno’s pessimistic view of history. Adorno aimed to rescue the individual, the particular, the “non-identical” from both the totalising impulse of philosophical systems (such as Hegel’s) and the totalitarian regimes. “The whole is the untrue” he famously wrote. Adorno differed from classical Marxism in so far as he blamed “instrumental reason” (the logic of science, technology and industry) rather than specifically capitalism for those disasters, however his analysis relied heavily on Marxian categories like commodity fetishism, exchange value, reification. The value of Adorno’s writings lies on how he used those categories to analyse new forms of capitalist domination and social phenomena.

Of particular interest is how Adorno extended Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism and the domination of exchange value to cultural forms. He argues that all contemporary cultural life is dominated by the commodity form. Adorno was not hostile to “mass culture” or “popular culture” as such, but to the specific repressive form assumed by it under the impact of monopoly capital, namely the “culture industry”. The culture industry is dominated by two processes: standardisation and pseudo-individualisation. Cultural production is a process of “standardisation” whereby the products acquire the form common to all commodities – like “the romantic comedy familiar to every movie-goer” or the “girls band” in Top of the Pops. Films and popular songs sound more and more like each other, they are interchangeable. “Pseudo-individualisation” is the ideological process which hides the process of “standardisation”, it provides the apparent novelty or uniqueness of the product for the consumer. The culture industry shapes the preferences and tastes of the masses. Standardised production goes hand in hand with “standardised reactions” from the consumers (think of pre recorded laughter). The culture industry is central to the ideological manipulation of the people. The effect of the culture industry is “mass deception”, it impedes the development of critical thinking. “The power of the culture industry’s ideology is such that conformity has replaced consciousness.” Popular music and film act as a form of “social cement”, it encourages people to reconcile themselves to their fate. “It is catharsis for the masses, but catharsis which keeps them all the more firmly in line.”

The major part of Adorno’s work consists in the development of a critical musicology, and his technical musicological knowledge allowed him to make fascinating analysis of how “fetishism in music” goes hand in hand with “regressive listening”. In popular music, Jazz, for example, the commodity form dominates the musical form, providing listeners with a few “patterned” and “pre-digested” recipes. Against the culture industry, Adorno champions modernist avant-garde composers, Schoenberg in particular, in whose work the status of music as a commodity is resisted internally by the music itself. In “Philosophy of the New Music” (1949), Adorno shows that during Schoenberg’s free atonality phase for example, musical dissonances expressed the composer’s refusal to accept the rigid forms of the structures of traditional music, and to capitulate to the prevailing tastes and attitudes promoted by the culture industry. Atonal composition deliberately maintains unresolved tensions and refuses to make easy listening that would favour standardised responses. Adorno’s critique of the culture industry is fascinating, but is not sufficiently differentiated and dialectical. In particular, his essay on Jazz has been widely criticised for its purely negative assessment of that musical form. Also, unlike his friend Walter Benjamin, he neither grasped the contradictions within the culture industry nor its democratic potential. Adorno failed to discuss the weaknesses of the culture industry and relate them to a process of “functional transformation”.

Adorno’s thought cannot be really comprehended if its content is considered without paying attention to its form. His distinctive form of writing is very elaborated. To oppose closed systems of thought that claim completeness and to preserve the particular, he writes in aphorisms or in the form of essays. His writing is deliberately difficult (but not obscure) to evade standardised reactions and recuperation by the culture industry. His philosophical style actually owes something to the atonal composition techniques of Schoenberg. Adorno’s theoretical practice explicitly binds itself to the practices of artistic modernism. For Adorno, style is an important weapon in the struggle against the commodity form. Any reader of his book of aphorisms “Minima Moralia” (1951) or collection of essays “Prisms” (1955) will be struck the rare literary quality of Adorno’s writing. To scrutinise social and cultural phenomena, Adorno employs a method of “immanent critique”. In assessing the object of criticism, Adorno employs the standards the object has of itself in its concept. These standards suggest what the object sought and maybe seeks to be. They also suggest unfulfilled potentialities. Immanent criticism thus preserves the non-identical, the tension between concept and object.

Adorno’s critique of “damaged life” under capitalism would have had a sharper edge had it been related to collective forms of political struggles. Instead, Adorno is convinced that the only opposition possible is that of the isolated individual who intellectually refuses the “totally administered society”: “In face of totalitarian unity, which cries out for the elimination of differences directly as meaning, something of the liberating social forces may even have converged in the sphere of the individual. Critical theory lingers there without a bad conscience.” Remote from any political practice, his thought ultimately remained contemplative. "Philosophy, which once seemed outmoded, remains alive because the moment of its realisation was missed. The summary judgement that it had merely interpreted the world is itself crippled by resignation before reality, and becomes a defeatism of reason after the transformation of the world failed." Adorno’s failure to connect to any political practice is related to his refusal to posit any definite alternative. He thought that to do so was potentially totalitarian. He sought to free philosophy from its affirmative tendencies, by rendering dialectics purely negative. That remained an abstract negation of capitalism. The writings of Adorno retain their value today for their incisive critique of commodification, however we cannot limit ourselves to the “weapon of criticism”, we must also turn to the “criticism of weapons”...






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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



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Index: Current Articles

18 October 2003


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