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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

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Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Tuesday, March 07, 2006

That Adorno Post

Posted by Lawrence LaRiviere White on 03/07/06 at 10:48 PM

1,000 years ago, in Valve time, Amardeep asked if we shouldn’t be talking about Adorno at some point, yet we still haven’t, at least not directly. So let’s!

What, do I need to say any more? Can’t I just drop the name, like the referee dropping the puck at a face-off, & back out of harm’s way? Or like the zookeeper, can’t I just throw the meat into the lion cage & keep resolutely on my side of the fence? Adorno is, to say the least, a controversial figure, to be criticized from the left as well as the right. Or from up and down, or inside and out. Pick your perspectives.

But I think he’s worth taking seriously, & below the fold I’ll offer a couple of meager reasons why, in hopes of initiating a useful discussion in the comments.

I think Adorno’s great but not always. “The Stars Down to Earth” is some mightily deflavorized chicken, Negative Dialectics is so abstract it’s freeze-dried, & the “Dialectics of Enlightenment” essay might be one interesting idea blowing out sentence after sentence of Nietzschean posturing. Or it might not.

But the good parts are very good, especially, I believe, as writing. When he’s on, he can turn a phrase nicely. His ideas find their form in sentences, as did Nietzsche’s. & he’s got some wit. The “Culture Industry” essay even has a crack on Mickey Rooney, to mention a recent Valve-fave. Of course the tour de force is Minima Moralia. Who else in the twentieth century has come as close to Pascal?

Perhaps, though, I am too enamored of the German seriousness. It’s true, I am. But I’d like to throw out a broader defense:

Those who believe that, among its many depredations, Theory has thrown over the aesthetic artifact in favor of history or sociology or politics or ideology or whatever, might want to consider Adorno as a possible bridge over which to communicate their concerns. If they want to communicate. I am thinking mostly of Aesthetic Theory. I wished my graduate program had made it required reading. No other book so strenuously tries to do both at the same time, aesthetics and theory. I mean, he accuses some folks of “philistinism.” What could be more aesthetic?


Can we start with Adorno’s (and Frankfurt’s generally) WWII divide? I mean, it seems for almost all Frankfurt Schoolers, there is almost a bright line in outlook at September 27, 1940. As a reader of criticism, I at least am drawn to the siren call of the amost excessively optimistic pre-War school in Europe, only to follow it to The Culture Industry‘s attempts to tell me Charlie Chaplin is what is wrong with art today (or we can stick with Mickey Rooney here, for Valve purposes). By the end of The Culture Industry, you half expect Adorno to leap off the last page and shout, “Ja, und? Dein’ Mutti, sie kocht nicht gut!”

I guess the question is, especially with The Culture Industry, where’s what is useful (or is it uselful, if it leads Adorno to tell me the Marx Brothers (for only one example) must be a degeneracy of art)?

By on 03/08/06 at 10:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Lawrence’s mention of name-dropping here brings to mind what I think is the foolproof method of fool-detection: viz., is the subject willing to dismiss a writer like Adorno (or anyone with a similarly forbidding and substantial bibliography) based on limited or nonexistent exposure to the primary texts? This needs a bit a qualification, though: for the best results, “dismiss” should entail a great deal of confidence in the accuracy and righteousness of the assertion.

Furthermore, I think that graduate training sometimes exacerbates the problem.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 03/08/06 at 11:02 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Perhaps the problem has to do w/the trafficing in names rather than texts, as in the old joke, the author is dead, as Foucault has shown us. As several critics of Theory have pointed out, there’s a cult of celebrity. On the other hand, folks before sure were gaga for T.S. Eliot.

The reactions so far to my post have jogged a memory: the one Adorno text that was part of my graduate syllabus was the Culture Industry essay. I don’t think most people even read the rest of the book. But it is highly characteristic that a mention of Adorno shifts immediately to a discussion of movies & jazz. Even my own post is guilty of this. My only concrete example was the Mickey Rooney reference.

I don’t know that Adorno is wrong about popular culture. I do know that I can’t think of it the way he does. It’s too much a part of what I am, just as classical music was a deep part of who he was. He was more than a fan of it.

Adorno had a complete committment to Modernist difficulty. For example, he wanted to dedicate Aesthetic Theory to Beckett, who stands for the exemplary writer. & here is how, for my own sake, I redescribe his division between high art & mass art: the high art piece can pursue ambitions the mass art piece can’t. The mass art piece has to make compromises with its audience.

This distinction doesn’t have to be valorized, it would seem to me. But if one’s interests lie with the particular ambitions of high art objects, & if one is monomaniacal with one’s interests, it won’t be surprising that one is lost to mass art.

In more concrete terms: Adorno’s interest in music was highly specialized & highly developed. (In fact, his theory of aesthetics might be too reliant on the musical model to be well applied to literature.) I don’t share his disdain for jazz, but I find it perfectly understandable that he did disdain it. He had no way of talking about it. None of his analytic techniques applied.

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 03/08/06 at 12:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In case I’ve elbowed you out of the limelight by piling my Adorno post on yours, Lawrence: Thanks for it, I enjoyed it. I want you to encourage these witty little turns of yours. They’re bright. I will say: I think it’s a very goood thing that Adorno has found relatively few imitators of his high modernist attitudinizing. It wouldn’t wear at all well on any sort of epigone. It’s all he himself can do to keep the heavy crown on his head.

By John Holbo on 03/08/06 at 12:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The foolproof method of fool-detection: viz., is the subject willing to dismiss a writer like Adorno ....based on limited or nonexistent exposure to the primary texts?

Well, that would be me. I started the “Dialectics of Enlightment” and read part of one of his things on music, and that was it. (Go to the URL).

The anti-jazz thing was the clincher. Adorno was an actual musician who studied composition with Schoenberg. The Vienna School (of music) ideologized music in a ridiculously historicist way. Adorno’s musical education made it impossible for him to listen to music; I’m confident that he despised Ravel and Prokofiev and Shostakovich and maybe even Stravinsky. (If I admied Schoenberg as much as he did, I might be more sympathetic.)

Part of the problem, I thought, was the critical-theorists’ abolition of categories, which made everything into different versions of the same world-historical Thing, so that literature became philosophy and philosophy became literature and everything became politics, until finally Mozart’s music became a revolutionary act like the Declaration of the Rights of Man or something like that.

I also remember reading about Adorno and company having a session in Hollywood where they sat in a circle and discoursed profoundly in high German style, and asking myself which Hollywood whoremonger was supporting them.

To me the German Seriousness is not the whole problem, but a big part of it, so blaming Louis Armstrong and the Marx Brothers set my teeth on edge. As a pragmatist, I have also been anti-theoretical since long before Theory took over English.

More recently I’ve become slightly more sympathetic, based partly on a realization of what it must have been like for a cultured German to experience and observe the years 1932-1945. So I’ll get Minima Moralia (the German e-text of which incidentally deserves some kind of anti-award) so as to at least be able to refine my dismissal.

By John Emerson on 03/08/06 at 12:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If it seems that I am

willing to dismiss a writer like Adorno (or anyone with a similarly forbidding and substantial bibliography) based on limited or nonexistent exposure to the primary texts

it is only that (perhaps unreasonably) after approaching Adorno by his Culture Industry through the introduction of Benjamin, I was so horrified at the indiscriminate condemnation I thought his methods were producing, that I was chilled from reading his body of worlk any farther.

Now, not being facially opposed to the ideas of any Theorist, I’m rather excited at the possibity of a more useful reading of Adorno being opened up by those more familiar with him. My earlier post was just meant as that, a “please shine a gentler light on Adorno’s work for those of us (I’d bet there’s more than one) who were put off by his acerbity.”

I would like to believe that Adorno and the post-War Frankfurt School has more to it than strikes the eye, and it shouldn’t be too hard to persuade.

By on 03/08/06 at 01:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think people get too jazzercized on this issue, myself. Yes, he’s spectacularly wrong there (and on Donald Duck cartoons for that matter); but he has the cultural prejudices one would expect and perhaps even more self-awareness of them than is usual.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 03/08/06 at 01:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

So the problems are just cultural prejudices? That’s certainly comforting. But he does such a good job masking the distinctions between those prejudices and the ills he diagnoses; is there a surefire way to tell the difference? His prejudices (in The Culture Industry at least) do seem to fall in tightly with the lines he’s drawn.

By on 03/08/06 at 02:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not too bothered by his comments on Jazz; lately, I’ve begun to harbor certain mutinous feelings about Hip Hop that might actually run along somewhat similar lines. (And I speak as someone who knows the lyrics to Nas’s “Illmatic” by heart)

On the one hand, there’s no question that Adorno’s vision of the conditions in which Art is possible has lost out. Are we not all in some way postmodernists when it comes to mixing one’s tastes in low and high culture, especially when even art cinema, serious literature, and experimental music are all acutely commercial (albeit on a smaller economic scale)?

But I think the paragraph that I find most challenging in the “Culture Industry” chapter is the following:

What might be called use value in the reception of cultural commodities is replaced by exchange value; in place of enjoyment there are gallery-visiting and factual knowledge: the prestige seeker replaces the connoisseur. The consumer becomes the ideology of the pleasure industry, whose institutions he cannot escape. One simply “has to” have seen Mrs. Miniver, just as one “has to” subscribe to Life and Time. Everything is looked at from only one aspect: that it can be used for something else, however vague the notion of this use may be. No object has an inherent value; it is valuable only to the extent that it can be exchanged. The use value of art, its mode of being, is treated as a fetish; and the fetish, the work’s social rating (misinterpreted as its artistic status) becomes its use value — the only quality which is enjoyed.

It’s hard not to be guilty of this, and it’s also hard (even as a pro-mass culture person) not to feel like a bit of a sell-out for consuming art for the “prestige” it confers. As a blogger, one is doubly susceptible: how many bloggers consume art without thinking of whether it might be potentially bloggable?

By Amardeep on 03/08/06 at 02:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I am more or less willing to forgive Adorno up to a point, based on post-traumatic stress and talent.

The most annoying thing to me is his attempt to maintain his specifically-German cultural prejudices intact, while somehow claiming that Hitler’s crimes validated that stance.

I think that about Leo Strauss too.

By John Emerson on 03/08/06 at 03:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I have always been very torn on Adorno, having read at least some of his work very closely.  What disturbs me about Adorno is that, for all his sophistication and insight, his underlying analytical framework appears to resolve into something that is, at base, too simple to get him where he wants to go.  He constantly teeters on the brink of offering quite incisive historical insights - only to topple over because his fundamentally transhistorical analytical framework can’t really support them. 

So both Dialectic of Enlightenment and Negative Dialectics, for example, seem at base to retain a quite conventional Marxism at their core - with Adorno suggesting that the awe humanity originally experienced before nature (rational at the time because of nature’s genuine domination over humankind), was incorrectly preserved and extended even as humanity gained increasing mastery over nature.  In Adorno’s account, this inappropriate retention of awe occurred because humanity’s growing mastery of nature occurred through the development of an organised society founded on class domination - in which the new dominant classes simultaneously assisted in the growing mastery of nature, while also cloaking themselves in the mantle of nature and requiring that the dominated treat the (new and contingent) class relations as natural.  For Adorno, then, the core pathology of modern society is that, in the midst of this immense expansion of our command of material nature, we have retained quite primitive psychological dispositions that we could have left behind long ago, were it not for the class basis of our society, etc, etc.

This kind of argument, to me, does some very promising and interesting things - and then (again to my taste) crashes abruptly when it tries to meld them to a critique of class domination as the primary defining characteristic of modern societies.  Among other things, it flattens distinctions between historical periods (hence Dialectic of Enlightenment’s ambiguity of historical reference) and, in the process, divorces critical activity from any analysis of potentials in the present moment…

But this is the kind of point that isn’t well-suited to a comment… Bottom line is, even leaving aside the problematic character of Adorno’s writings on culture, which others have discussed above, I find Adorno to be a bit disappointing - perhaps because in many ways he promises so much, but just can’t quite free himself of his intellectual starting points…

By N. Pepperell on 03/10/06 at 10:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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