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« NYC Arts and Media on Film | Main | Free Reads—The Source of Consciousness »

November 19, 2002

Change, Death and Pop Culture


I was a bit surprised by the comments on my recent posting on Theodor Adorno; people who I know to be right wing wrote sympathetically of this avowed Marxist’s criticisms of popular culture. This got me to pondering some aspects of Mr. Adorno that I hadn’t included in my posting. (Hey, there’s a real space limit in blogging, okay?).

In Adorno’s essay, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment As Mass Deception,”he sounds rather nostalgic when discussing the earlier, or, as he terms it, “liberal” phase of capitalism (i.e., prior to the rise of Big Business or “monopoly” capitalism.) Adorno presents Beethoven, despite his commercial success, as a genuine thinker because he didn’t ignore the conflict between moneymaking and art making:

When mortally sick, Beethoven hurled away a novel by Sir Walter Scott with the cry: "Why, the fellow writes for money," and yet proved a most experienced and stubborn businessman in disposing of the last quartets, which were a most extreme renunciation of the market; he is the most outstanding example of the unity of those opposites, market and independence, in bourgeois art. Those who succumb to the ideology are precisely those who cover up the contradiction instead of taking it into the consciousness of their own production as Beethoven did: he went on to express in music his anger at losing a few pence, and derived the metaphysical Es Muss Sein (which attempts an aesthetic banishment of the pressure of the world by taking it into itself) from the housekeeper's demand for her monthly wages.

Adorno also pines in a rather non-Marxist way for the “old fashioned” elements in German culture:

The belief that the barbarity of the culture industry is a result of "cultural lag," of the fact that the American consciousness did not keep up with the growth of technology, is quite wrong. It was pre-Fascist Europe which did not keep up with the trend toward the culture monopoly. But it was this very lag which left intellect and creativity some degree of independence and enabled its last representatives to exist—however dismally. In Germany the failure of democratic control to permeate life had led to a paradoxical situation. Many things were exempt from the market mechanism which had invaded the Western countries. The German educational system, universities, theaters with artistic standards, great orchestras, and museums enjoyed protection. The political powers, state and municipalities, which had inherited such institutions from absolutism, had left them with a measure of the freedom from the forces of power which dominates the market, just as princes and feudal lords had done up to the nineteenth century. This strengthened art in this late phase against the verdict of supply and demand, and increased its resistance far beyond the actual degree of protection.

Adorno’s comments here (which seem much more “genuine” expressions of his feelings than many of his rhetorically bombastic theoretical pronouncements) struck me as very similar to views expressed by a writer who might be thought of as his opposite number: Henry James.

Adorno and James: Band of Brothers?

In Lawrence W. Levine’s “Highbrow Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America” he quotes Mr. James’ impressions of early 20th century America after a quarter-century abroad (from “The American Scene”):

For James…the immigrant was a convenient and tangible sign of a transition that left him with “a horrible, hateful sense of personal antiquity,” with a numbing sense of being an alien in his own land. He visited Ellis Island and came away like a person “who has had an apparition, seen a ghost in his supposedly safe old house.”… It was not only the immigrants, their numbers and manners, that filled James with “the dreadful chill of change,” but the general tone and tenor of his native land, where “the will to grow was everywhere written large, and to grow at no matter what or whose expense.”…There was no better symbol of the “profane overhauling” that had left America a “hustling, bustling desert” than the “insolent” skyscrapers, those “vast money-making” structures, those “impudently new…payers of dividends,” those “monsters of the mere market,” which now overwhelmed such aesthetically and spiritually satisfying landmarks as New York’s Trinity Church or Castle Garden…It was not merely tradition that was in danger but taste itself. James complained that “the huge democratic broom” had swept away the old and ushered in an age of “the new, the simple, the cheap, the common, the commercial, the immediate, and, all too often, the ugly.” Everywhere in this “vast crude democracy of trade” James was assaulted by the “overwhelming preponderance” of the businessman. In this “heaped industrial battle-field” James was “haunted” by a “sense of dispossession.” Constantly he was forced to tighten his “aesthetic waistband,” to protect himself against, “the consummate monotonous commonness,…in which relief, detachment, dignity, meaning, perished utterly and lost all rights.”

Contemplating these, ahem, “reactionary” feelings I realized that I share them, from time to time, as I suppose others do. In fact, I would argue that all forms of anti-capitalist sentiment—aristocratic, Marxist, socialist, environmentalist, you name it—ultimately derive from the same horror at the way in which capitalism has invaded every space, restructured every relationship, “canceled” the past, pushed people and goods all around the world to the point that everyone is a kind of foreigner. In essence, capitalism tells everyone: “You can’t go home again—ever.” Its forces of creative destruction are a constant, only partially repressible reminder of our own mortality; as psychologists remind us, in terms of our emotions, “change equals death.” Nothing makes for more change than capitalism. As a result, I would offer that, on the emotional level where people long for stability, even committed capitalists dislike (or even fear) capitalism.

I suspect that it is this dynamic (an emotional recoil from capitalism's brutal "reality check") that generates our ambivalence to commercial popular culture, which is a sort of animated cartoon of the capitalist enterprise. We love pop culture's energy, its creativity, the way it mirrors our lives, but we hate the way that it buries that song or comic book or movie or TV show we have connected with, emotionally—the little snapshots of our past—under the constant flow of new product. The months-long lifespan of the average pop music performer is a grim reminder of just how short a time all of us have on earth. As we get older we catch on to pop’s endless recycling of the past, its numerous cheap tricks; but while we criticize this aloud as a lack of creativity, I suspect what really depresses us is the indifference to us that such recycling betrays. The masters of pop know that older, more sophisticated consumers will be alienated by the cheap tricks—and they don’t care, because we’re already “dead” to them, like insects whose lifetimes are measured in a single day.

Of course, none of this is a "substantive" criticism of pop culture or capitalism. It is not a bad thing, really, for pop culture/capitalism to explode our comfortable illusions of immortality and force us to face our finite lifespans; indeed, to make us realize the painful truth that no one ever really could go home again, whether in the paleolithic or in the 21st century. But until we can say about ourselves, our very flesh, a la the Buddha: "All conditioned things decay--strive onward vigilantly," we're going to have ambigious feelings about pop culture as we age.



posted by Friedrich at November 19, 2002


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