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November 15, 2002

Adorno's Self Portrait


As you may recall, I had a little fun a few months back with a review of Mr. Adorno’s “Essays on Music.” But given his reputation as a major critic of popular culture—higher today than when he was alive—I decided to take a look at Mr. Adorno’s writings. Scouring the Internet, I found a translation of his 1944 essay, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment As Mass Deception,” written with his collaborator Max Horkheimer. Although it took several readings of this densely worded, convoluted, 16,000-word essay to distill the main concepts—the things I do for 2blowhards!—I think the following summary describes them fairly accurately:

#1—Modern popular culture represents the triumph of fixed entertainment formulas:

Not only are the hit songs, stars, and soap operas cyclically recurrent and rigidly invariable types, but the specific content of the entertainment itself is derived from them and only appears to change. The details are interchangeable…As soon as the film begins, it is quite clear how it will end, and who will be rewarded, punished, or forgotten. In light music, once the trained ear has heard the first notes of the hit song, it can guess what is coming and feel flattered when it does come.

#2—Modern popular culture gains authority from its mechanical reproduction:

The National Socialists knew that the wireless gave shape to their cause just as the printing press did to the Reformation. The…charisma of the Fuhrer…has finally turned out to be no more than the omnipresence of his speeches on the radio, which are a demoniacal parody of the omnipresence of the divine spirit.

#3—Modern popular culture imposes a rigid “house” style on all artworks:

No Palestrina could be more of a purist in eliminating every unprepared and unresolved discord than the jazz arranger in suppressing any development which does not conform to the [rules of commercial music]. When jazzing up Mozart he changes him not only when [Mozart’s music] is too serious or too difficult but when [Mozart] harmonizes the melody in a different way, perhaps more simply, than is customary now.

#4—Modern popular culture converges with advertising:

The highest-paid stars resemble pictures advertising unspecified…articles. [Movie stars are] often selected from the host of commercial models. The prevailing taste takes its ideal from advertising, the beauty in consumption…

With these four ideas Adorno sketched out the salient characteristics of commercial culture in a capitalist-industrial era, and there is at least an argument (if not always a strong one) to be made for his positions. However, he didn’t stop there. He overlaid these points with a unique conspiracy theory, which I would call “The Culture Industry as a Mind Control Mechanism for Monopoly Capitalism.” This theory, although Adorno is a bit sketchy on the details, goes something like this:

#1—Modern popular culture converts citizens into consumer zombies:

The principle [under which the culture industry operates] dictates that [the average citizen] should be shown all his needs as capable of-fulfillment, but that those needs should be so predetermined that he feels himself to be the eternal consumer, the object of the culture industry.

The most intimate reactions of human beings have been so thoroughly reified [i.e., reconceived on commercial principles] that…personality scarcely signifies anything more than shining white teeth and freedom from body odor and emotions..

#2—The culture industry’s thought control mechanism is utilized on behalf of the big time monopoly-capitalists:

In our age [social control] is incarnate in the hidden subjective purposes of [culture industry corporate] directors, the foremost among whom are in the most powerful sectors of industry—steel, petroleum, electricity, and chemicals. Culture monopolies are weak and dependent in comparison. They cannot afford to neglect their appeasement of the real holders of power if [their industry]…is not to undergo a series of purges.

#3—The thought control mechanism involves economic coercion:

The [cultural] consumers are the workers and employees, the farmers and lower middle class. Capitalist production so confines them, body and soul, that they fall helpless victims to what is offered them.

#4—The thought control mechanism involves technological coercion:

Real life is becoming indistinguishable from the movies. The sound film, far surpassing the theater of illusion, leaves no room for imagination or reflection on the part of the audience, who is unable to…deviate from its precise detail without losing the thread of the story; hence the film forces its victims to equate it directly with reality…

#5—The thought control mechanism involves sexual coercion:

In the culture industry…[t]he supreme law is that [the consumers] shall not satisfy their desires at any price; they must laugh and be content with laughter. In every product of the culture industry, the permanent denial imposed by civilization is once again unmistakably demonstrated and inflicted on its victims. To offer and to deprive them of something is one and the same. This is what happens in erotic films. Precisely because it must never take place, everything centers upon copulation…In contrast to the liberal era, industrialized as well as popular culture may wax indignant at capitalism, but it cannot renounce the threat of castration.

Mr. Adorno is evidently more than a bit fixated on the topic of control, coercion, confinement and castration. He constantly dwells on the helplessness of the individual confronted with the culture industry and monopoly capitalism, as a few examples may make clear (emphasis added):

The effrontery of the rhetorical question, "What do people want?" lies in the fact that it is addressed—as if to reflective individuals—to those very people who are deliberately to be deprived of this individuality.

Conciliatory laughter is heard as the echo of an escape from power; the wrong kind overcomes fear by capitulating to the forces which are to be feared. It is the echo of power as something inescapable.

Pleasure always means not to think about anything, to forget suffering even where it is shown. Basically [pleasure] is helplessness.

This isn’t sociology, it’s a masochistic sexual fantasy. Equally striking are his repeated references to exhaustion, to being gradually overpowered:

…cartoons…hammer into every brain the old lesson that continuous friction, the breaking down of all individual resistance, is the condition of life in this society.

The individual who is thoroughly weary must use his weariness as energy for his surrender to the collective power which wears him out.

Everyone must show that he wholly identifies himself with the power which is belaboring him.

This image of monopoly capitalism as a ferocious, exhausting force is of course remarkably similar to the impression made by Adorno’s writing style, which grinds and grinds and grinds, making every point first one way, then another, then another, and then swerving back to repeat itself again even after apparently moving on to other topics. By eschewing any systematic historical context and by making no effort to marshall evidence in support of his arguments, Adorno’s writing style instead consists of making assertion after assertion after assertion, creating the impression not of reasoned argumentation, but rather of an attempt to simply overpower all intellectual resistance.

Adorno evidently struggled all his life to escape the power and influence of his father, Oscar Wiesengrund, a successful Jewish wine wholesaler. As the young Theodore Wiesengrund grew to maturity, he made the first of many “dramatic” attempts to escape his father. His mother, Calvelli Adorno della Piana, came from an Italian Catholic family with a strong musical tradition. By turning his back on the wine business and choosing to study musical composition in Vienna, Adorno attempted to repudiate his paternal inheritance. In Vienna he immersed himself in the challenging work of Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and the Second Viennese School. However, on the brink of an actual musical career, Theodore turned instead to scholarship, getting his doctorate at the University of Frankfort. By 1932 he was associated with the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt. I would submit that becoming an academic (a rather Talmudic profession) instead of an artist was a way of covertly submitting to his father’s influence. Of course, he had to disguise this capitulation by adopting a Marxist point of view and by championing difficult, avant-garde music that resisted commercialization to demonstrate his rejection of his father’s successful commercial career.

Following Hitler's rise to power, Wiesengrund’s interest in rather mechanical models of personality showed itself when he designed a questionnaire known as the "F" scale which aimed at isolating and quantifying the latent traits of the fascist personality. The Institute for Social Research left Germany for New York in 1934, and Wiesengrund followed in 1938 after three years in Britain. There, at the age of 35, he again attempted to free himself from his father’s power by abandoning the Wiesengrund name along with its Jewish associations and adopted his mother’s maiden name, Adorno. In New York, his interest in “psychology” revived when he got a job on the Princeton Radio Research Project, which was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and involved a study of the psychological effects of radio on listeners.

I suspect that Adorno felt constant psychological pressure from his father (or from his internalization of his father’s dominant tendencies) which forced him into a series of dramatic gestures of paternal rejection. Equally, and probably unacceptably to his conscious mind, he was masochistically attracted to the idea of giving up, relaxing, abandoning his individuality, submitting to the overpowering embrace. The idea of controlling and being controlled developed an erotic fascination. Consequently he ended up ostensibly suspicious of “pleasure” while luxuriating in dungeon images of coercion, constriction and dismemberment at the hands of powerful, but unnamed, masculine forces.

In short, in this essay, Adorno seems to have produced far more of a self-portrait than an objective analysis of the “culture industry.” Of course, he's hardly the first or the last cultural critic to be looking in the mirror.



posted by Friedrich at November 15, 2002


Thanks for this very much Friedrich. Because Adorno is a bag of wind that someone like you has to make sense of rather than a good writer who makes sense of himself, I had never given Adorno the time of day, and I was in the market for a bluffer's guide to tell me what I thought, especially because he's very anti-cap;italist and I'm very pro-capitalist. I wanted to know my enemy, and thanks to you I now do, a bit.

However, what I found myself thinking of your summary of his stuff was: It's rather good. Okay, very much his own personal take, but not one that I completely don't recognise. It reminds me of a small book that George Gilder wrote about how "mass", "top down" electronic culture would soon be superceded by a less submissive, more egalitarian, more active (blogging?) electronic culture, with Adorno describing phase one, really rather well (after you'd sorted him out).

Don't get me wrong. I love c20 amd now c21 pop culture, and if it is very formulaic, the answer is to stop whining and to go looking for better stuff, where the formulae are at least played with less predictably and more creatively and surprisingly. But Adorno's laying out of the problem, it seems to me, has merit.

Not for the first time, I find myself thinking of the inconsolable anti-capitalist as a member of capitalism's complaints department. He says that this or that horror is an inevitable, ineradicable feature of capitalism. The capitalists say, right, what are we going to do about this? - and get to work. You see this again and again, a famous early example being Henry Ford deciding to knock Marxist immiseration dead for all time by paying his workers "too much". And then when assembly lines became alienating, the capitalists reorganised them as, I don't know, creative groups or something. Each improvement being accompanied by Marxist wailing that the misery is inevitable.

And maybe also part of why I like Adorno, sort of, is that I too have struggled to get out from under my father's looming presence. (Tell us about your father ...)

Posted by: Brian Micklethwait on November 15, 2002 6:01 AM

So, you made it through all 16,000 words, did you?

You're either a researcher of uncommon perseverance, or a masochist.

I choose to believe the former.


Posted by: acdouglas on November 15, 2002 3:08 PM

Thanks for the summary--I don't think I've ever heard about Adornom, let alone getting around to reading him.

Still, a lot in the review is guesswork--who knows why Adorno chose to become a researcher rather than a composer? Maybe he discovered that he didn't like twelve tone music all that much. Maybe he succumbed to family pressure to get a more certain way of making a living. Maybe he didn't want to succeed in too public a way (I know someone who said that he would have been only too glad to find a cure for cancer and establish world peace if only he could have done it without making his mother proud of him)....but we'll never know.

For that matter, Adorno does seem to be fascinated by domination and submission, but why assume that it's an erotic fascination? As far as I can tell, some people have a strong sexual component in domination and/or submission, and others pursue them for their own sake.

Just to talk about art a little instead of saying that Freudians jump to conclusions....Adorno's right that popular art is highly stylized, but so is folk art. On the available evidence, people just plain like stylized art a lot of the time. On the other hand, Adorno fails to explain the way that commercial art keeps generating new formats.

Posted by: Nancy Lebovitz on November 16, 2002 11:18 AM

Thanks to everybody for your remarks. (If you have to plow through something that's as laborious as Adorno/Horkheimer's prose in order to write a posting, it is enormously gratifying to see people bothering to read it.) I would agree with Brian that Adorno has moments of distinct insight regarding popular culture, and I tried to spell out the parts (i.e., the first four paragraphs) where I thought he was on to something. The material which I described as a conspiracy theory, however, seems to me more projection than observation. My "psychological" analysis of Adorno's reasons for maintaining this theory are of course based on a few biographical details, but I found myself dwelling on them more as I noticed that Adorno's fans seemed determined to gloss over them. (I mean, how many people do you know who change their surname to their mother's maiden name at the age of 35? Wouldn't it strike you as significant if one of your friends did it?) However, my most profound criticism of Adorno is methodological--he spends 16,000 words spewing out what are in essence hypotheses, and no time trying to verify these hypotheses either historically or experimentally. Doesn't it seem as though a real social scientist would be a little more concerned to put his pet theories to the test?

Posted by: Friedrich on November 16, 2002 3:21 PM

Thanks for the excerpts. You actually made Adorno look pretty good by finding the heart of his arguments. I can see why contemporary leftists who are fascinated/repulsed by pop culture find him a predecessor. Still, you've got to wonder about a guy who writes a magnum opus about how much he hates MGM and Benny Goodman in 1944, of all years. Wasn't there anything more important going on in the world at the time?

Posted by: Steve Sailer on November 16, 2002 4:15 PM

You tempt me to actually read Adorno's lengthy essay. :-)

I find some of his points hard to argue with. This is a topic about which I always have something to say so of course I posted more about it on my own weblog.

Posted by: Lynn on November 17, 2002 10:18 AM

Adorno sounds like a brilliant paranoid and nut. Thanks for the summary. Fascinating the way I keep hearing his kind of thing coming from the mouths of recent fancy-college grads. The Frankfurt School will never die, I guess.

Reminds me, though, of a semi-idea of mine, which is that if you take what lefties say with a lot of grains of salt, sometimes it's handy. They can be useful complainers -- this may be what Brian above was writing too. Marx? Skip all the prescriptions, and he's eloquent and prophetic on the horrors of early capitalism. Adorno too is onto something that's true about pop cult, he's just way too rigid about it. And the question always has to be asked of these complaining lefties: what do you propose be done differently? But, still, sometimes the complaints are useful. Would someone who wasn't a nut ever have succeeded in making the general population aware of environmental problems, for instance?

The Wife, who's a classical-music specialist, tells me that the reason Adorno hit a nerve in the classical-music world was that he made discussing the music seem to be about something other than strict formal analysis. Suddenly you could talk about social issues too, and not just note-clusters.

Posted by: Michael on November 17, 2002 10:49 AM

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