Against Popular Culture
February 25, 2018 4:28 PM   Subscribe

 
Adorno is the darling of my heart and a very perceptive fellow, but I think of all the things that would simply have to be ruled dubious under the Adornian rubric and I think that he's kind of full of shit on this one - when you come right down to it, classical music too has its marketable "hooks", Pamela was a popular novel much disapproved of for its corrupting qualities, etc etc. If all we're really left with in utopia is some elevated version of art and music from about 1910 to 1950, I...well, that doesn't seem what was meant somehow. I suppose we'd probably be allowed pre-modern ballads, which are nice...What about the trashier Victorian poets? Can we have Swinburne under the new regime? I do so like Swinburne, but I do not like him with my higher self. Does he do me harm?

I mean, I think his conclusion - that we don't experience art in freedom under capitalism - is right, but he's living in his time. He's living in the efflorescence of modernism and the first great wave of radio and television, and that makes the whole high-versus-low thing seem very stark.

I also always want to ask all those Frankfurt School guys just what pleasure they experienced, what realms of freedom, when they took themselves off to the brothel of an evening. And whether their sweated freedom wasn't someone else's sweated labor, as it were.
posted by Frowner at 4:47 PM on February 25, 2018 [52 favorites]


I don't know about that essay. The idea of a "guilty pleasure" does a lot of work for the author, and I think it's kind of dubious to assume that we feel guilty because we know that our pleasures are bad pleasures, rather than because we've internalized some racist and classist messages that tell us that popular culture is inferior and bad.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 4:50 PM on February 25, 2018 [24 favorites]


Theodor Adorno thought that the work of Schönberg, a composer enjoyed by literally tens of people, was true revolutionary music.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 4:54 PM on February 25, 2018 [16 favorites]


I always think that Adorno's culture stuff is sort of...half true. It's not wrong, exactly, but it's not everything. Like it's the shadow explanation. You can definitely experience culture exactly as he describes, but that doesn't exhaust the experience. I am very fond of him because he's so absolutely bloody-minded. He doesn't even like the people he should like - he hated the student left (and they killed him, poor Teddy, they wrecked up his office and he had a heart attack and died. He survived Hitler to be finished off by a bunch of flower children, which sort of proves his point, I guess.)
posted by Frowner at 5:01 PM on February 25, 2018 [9 favorites]


shorter adorno: your favorite band sucks ethically
posted by murphy slaw at 5:03 PM on February 25, 2018 [50 favorites]


Big Ted says no.
posted by octobersurprise at 5:03 PM on February 25, 2018 [1 favorite]


You have the freedom to like the things Theodor Adorno says you can like.
posted by HypotheticalWoman at 5:09 PM on February 25, 2018 [4 favorites]


I suppose we'd probably be allowed pre-modern ballads

You probably can join a group playing recorder music too, like my parents and their grad school friends in the 60's. I had a bellyful of the idea of SERIOUS music, growing up, the tyranny of the edifying in art...no thanks.
posted by thelonius at 5:27 PM on February 25, 2018 [3 favorites]


Adorno's part of that long philosophical tradition (stretching back to Plato's The Republic and The Laws) in which freedom is redefined as the strict adherence to someone else's aesthetic tastes posing as objective virtues.
posted by AdamCSnider at 5:30 PM on February 25, 2018 [21 favorites]


Freedom’s just another word for neither jazz nor blues?

(not-anti-Frankfurt-School-ist)
posted by Barack Spinoza at 5:41 PM on February 25, 2018 [30 favorites]


By treating tropes and repetition and familiarity as inherently bad, this essay is basically coming out against genre, which strikes me as historically very narrow-minded. Fifth-century Athenians weren't experiencing new stories when they saw tragedies or read or listened to Homer.
posted by praemunire at 5:43 PM on February 25, 2018 [13 favorites]


Adorno is fascinating to read and is often right but he manages sometimes to miss the point with such vigour that you almost roll all the way around the Universe of Discourse and end up with a valid point again. But not quite.
posted by nfalkner at 6:36 PM on February 25, 2018 [6 favorites]


Since when can't you analyze classical music for hooks, or pick out your favorite parts? I once had a professor spend an entire lecture explaining to us why the first 12 bars of Beethoven's 1st symphony are so great. That there's a hook in a Rolling Stones song says... nothing? How many people can hum the first few bars of Beethoven's 5th to themselves? Either that piece can also be "decomposed without loss of meaning – its moments can be pulled out, and re-used" or maybe that's a bullshit statement that means nothing.

When the entire argument rests on the premise that the masses consume trash, you have to have a pretty strong argument that what they're consuming is trash. I'm not seeing that here. This author just relies on broad assumptions ("good art must be long and complex and unpredictable") that place one specific musical tradition above all others, without even having the self-awareness to question where those assumptions came from.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 7:32 PM on February 25, 2018 [5 favorites]


I started reading this essay with great interest, but a couple of sentences in, I could already hear alarm bells going off. Threats to progress? Would the guy who co-wrote Dialectic of Enlightenment, a book that asserts that "myth is already enlightenment, and enlightenment reverts to mythology," worry that "progress was under threat"?

More importantly, the deeply compromised condition of any freedom in modern society is pretty central to Adorno's thought. It is absolutely not the case that Adorno thought we could be free if only we listened to more Schoenberg.

But the essay gets better, as when Warburton notes that "‘High art’ and popular culture are both damaged and harmful. Adorno is not arguing for the abolition of one of them, but both of them." Easy dismissals of Adorno as a crotchety elitist are simplistic: it's the very division of culture, which is itself a kind of division of labor, that is bad. Adorno seems to respect modernism's awareness of its own compromised status as "high art," but that isn't enough. That said, I still think Lukacs put one of the problems with Adorno's position beautifully when he said that the latter had taken up residence in the "Grand Hotel Abyss."
posted by a certain Sysoi Pafnut'evich at 7:50 PM on February 25, 2018 [6 favorites]


Seems appropriate to drop a link to Nein Quarterly for both evidence and counter-evidence.
posted by petrilli at 8:12 PM on February 25, 2018 [1 favorite]


This was a good essay that helpfully fleshed out Adorno's thought on 'popular culture', even if I wasn't convinced of a lot of it. I'm surprised many of the commenters here seem to have taken from it the surface-level understanding of Adorno it actually helped me to move past, i.e. that he was a grouchy old snob who just wanted to impose his aesthetic preferences on others. I think you have to read this essay in a very suspicious and perhaps ungenerous way for that to be the take-home message.
posted by Panthalassa at 8:15 PM on February 25, 2018 [4 favorites]


Meh...the problem is that his supposed turn at the end doesn't really ameliorate his judgments. He may want to abolish the category, but he is not changing his assessment of what's within the category now.
posted by praemunire at 8:40 PM on February 25, 2018 [1 favorite]


Also, I think it's pretty gross and over the top to suggest Adorno is 'redefining freedom' or requiring 'strict adherence' to his own set of aesthetic values. This is a man who fled the Nazis. He was a committed anti-fascist. Commenters who write about him in such ways are unwittingly mirroring far-right rhetoric that suggests left-wingers are the real fascists for merely laying out their vision for society, mistaking a desire for genuine engagement and debate for their own violent, conquering desires.
posted by Panthalassa at 9:07 PM on February 25, 2018 [14 favorites]


Commenters who write about him in such ways are unwittingly mirroring far-right rhetoric that suggests left-wingers are the real fascists for merely laying out their vision for society, mistaking a desire for genuine engagement and debate for their own violent, conquering desires.

I think it's unwittingly naive to suggest that a person in his position wields no authority or that one cannot anticipate such a person's ideas being picked up by others with authority. (Or to suggest that anyone is liberated from violent, conquering desires, for that matter.) Within the system of academic/critical prestige, it just looks like "engagement and debate" on level grounds. If you happen to be outside that system, it looks rather different. Not like fascism, no, but not noncoercive, either. And he happened to be talking about art and audience that, at the time, were both outside the system (some of the texts have migrated in since), so it matters.
posted by praemunire at 9:18 PM on February 25, 2018 [6 favorites]


The thing with Adorno on culture is that he's absolutely confident that what people think they're getting from a given art form is irrelevant but he's confident that he can tell what they're really getting, based on his raw brains and dialectics. You have only to look at the famous essay on jazz to realize that he's an informed critic of music, he's really onto something about the left's tendency to deal with the new by calling it liberatory and that he assumes that his extremely atypical reactions to...well, to fun... are not only valid but are the most valid.

He reminds me of what Orwell says about Tolstoy's parables - that to Orwell Tolstoy is like an old man who, constitutionally uninterested in jumping and climbing, tries to tell a little boy that jumping and climbing are bad and that the boy should sit still like the old man. It's just hard for me to read Adorno's writing about astrology, music and popular culture generally without thinking that he has a strong constitutional distaste for it and that because he's already accepted that theory has to proceed study (which it sort of does, but he seems to take that awfully strongly) he simply runs with his own dislike.

I'm not saying that it's a stupid dislike, or even that he's wrong, but he persistently writes as though his analysis exhausts experience, and as though people experience things exactly as the things are constructed to be experienced.

His feelings about what's wrong with high culture are very different in nature and depth from his feelings about what's wrong with low.

I've always been drawn to Adorno (without being an expert; I've read bits and pieces here and there over the years as one does, not made any serious study) because he is the one who hates everything - he's no Marcuse, being all groovy in California; he's not poor Benjamin, who did seem to get a bit of a kick out of being in the world. He just seems like he's perpetually either grumpy or taking a kind of enjoyment that does not bring him closer to people, and although I am sadly no philosopher, I often feel that I hate things that others uncritically like , or that I enjoy things wrong.

I think you can kind of see what a giant weirdo he was in his response to the student left. On the one hand, he took their politics seriously enough to condemn them, often pretty strongly, but on the other it seems really clear that he couldn't understand the hows and whys of what people were doing. I just always feel that it really was his way or the highway, as far as he was concerned. I don't think that's an insult to him, and while I don't want to be a giant grump about it, just because he was part of the pre-War German left and fled the Nazis doesn't raise him above political criticism or mean that he wasn't kind of authoritarian.

If one were going to do some stupid armchair psychoanalysis, one might speculate that he was so interested in authoritarianism and the personality in part because he himself was a rigid person and so he noticed the phenomenon more than others might.
posted by Frowner at 9:19 PM on February 25, 2018 [23 favorites]


I don't know about that essay. The idea of a "guilty pleasure" does a lot of work for the author, and I think it's kind of dubious to assume that we feel guilty because we know that our pleasures are bad pleasures, rather than because we've internalized some racist and classist messages that tell us that popular culture is inferior and bad.

I mean, some people are guilty because they enjoy pop culture that they know is racist or classist.
posted by atoxyl at 9:36 PM on February 25, 2018 [2 favorites]


From my limited knowledge of Adorno I think he was fundamentally right about a lot about the culture industry but... I dunno about his aesthetic criticism.
posted by atoxyl at 9:42 PM on February 25, 2018 [6 favorites]


I think it's unwittingly naive to suggest that a person in his position wields no authority or that one cannot anticipate such a person's ideas being picked up by others with authority.

I'm suggesting that some commenters in this thread are at risk of wildly overstating his authority (and his intent), not saying that he has none at all.
posted by Panthalassa at 9:46 PM on February 25, 2018 [1 favorite]


Really, seriously, read the essay on Jazz. I hadn't read it for some time and I'm looking at it again now, and it's very strange...also pretty disturbing in the part where he's all "Jazz really isn't a Black form [because it's not a real art form because it's so commercialized]". My assumption is that he's listening to trashy pre-war German jazz and is thinking of the creepy fetishization of Black musicians in the Germany of that period rather than speaking as someone with a deep knowledge of jazz and blues, but it's really not that great a look.

On the "not so disturbing" end, I'm struck by the horror of repetition - you get this sense of Adorno sitting there seeing patterns in everyone's behaviors and responses and finding the patterns - of course everyone says that this or that commercial product is 'liberatory', that's what rich bohemians always say - absolutely horrible and depressing.

Reproduction of art doesn't seem to trouble us much now, and I think theories of art have changed to be less concerned with originality. It seems like a lot of the stuff that was so troubling to people in the first half of the 20th century has become old hat - we're not super troubled by copies (but then, people in say 1800 weren't either, really), we're not super troubled by a lot of the aspects of human sexuality that produced so much anxiety, etc etc. It's weird. Obviously we're not, like, smarter and better - we have our own things that trouble us - but it's odd to see how changes in ideas and material conditions have simple erased those worries.
posted by Frowner at 9:51 PM on February 25, 2018 [9 favorites]


That was what was frustrating about this article. It's one thing for Adorno to feel this way about art and culture, but the author of this article is writing now, when there's been a half century of developments in music and film theory and criticism. It ignores a lot of new and valuable perspectives on art that didn't exist in Adorno's time. Adorno may not truly have been elitist, but it isn't Adorno who wrote that we "are hardly under the impression that a blockbuster movie such as The Dark Knight Rises (2012) is as good as the arthouse film Andrei Rublev (1966)."
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 10:38 PM on February 25, 2018


trashy pre-war German jazz

You can take away Paul Godwin's recording of "Goofus" when you pry it from my cold, dead ears.
posted by non canadian guy at 11:02 PM on February 25, 2018 [3 favorites]


I am very much an Adornoist even though I've never read him, and I'm only going to read the last paragraph of this article: I hate this constant conflation of elitism and critique, because that is hegemonic functioning at its finest, in any age. And if anyone points that out it just increases ideological defensiveness. If that makes any sense.
posted by polymodus at 11:29 PM on February 25, 2018 [2 favorites]


In a broad sense I agree with much of the direction of the argument the article is making, though I think hitching it so strongly to Adorno limits its effectiveness by making it as much about Adorno as the ideas being expressed. Better to have used Adorno and others as an entry point so the ideas are given more freedom and don't lean so heavily on an implicit appeal to authority as both run counter to the points being raised.

One of the major issues I have with popular culture is that it does continually reinforce its own dominance in troubling ways. Repetition, genre, and who controls the message are all elements of this, with all of it working towards ends that are not about freedom of expression or response, even as the control isn't so total as to prevent something more radical to escape as individuals creating and responding to art aren't as monolithic as a strong reading of the argument might seem to suggest.

Popular culture is largely based on the rewards the accompany reinforcement of the familiar, with minor variation on theme and idea being the pleasure it provides. The goal is comfort through convention, where the audience, generally, isn't challenged to see things anew, but to judge them as part of a ongoing system of values that need hold to be understood. When something new does arise and challenge that system, then popular culture will attempt to absorb it and render it as familiar as what it once may have challenged so as to keep the system as a whole functioning as before. There is an inevitability about that cycle that maintains a kind of aesthetic order to culture in ways that allow it to be processed and sold more effectively, with only minor bumps in the system as it adjusts in the cycle of supply and demand.

Thinking of it just in terms of representation, one might see how this can provide both some good and ill outcomes. The recent Black Panther film, for example, shows how shifts in representation in dominant culture can provide real benefit even as it also rewards the same people who acted to prevent or diminish representation or understanding of the same group previously. The value is in providing clear evidence that the same system or cycle of culture can include and has included people outside the notice or comfort of the familiar. That, in this case, expanding the familiar superhero movie genre to include black superheroes allows convention to encompass something the dominant culture had ignored and find some degree of acceptance through comfort with the familiarity of the form, which allows the more radical change in perspective to slip in to popular culture more easily.

At the same time, there is also something really disturbing about the implicit expectation that other voices can only be heard when they adopt a familiar form, that the audience demand for the comfort of repetition makes those who wish to say something outside those bounds of genre and convention, those who wish to speak outside the system, unable to be heard. There is a real selfcenteredness to that which is hard to accept.

The idea that "my" taste is impeccable and "my" values beyond challenge becomes its message in a sense, where it isn't just Adorno saying he knows best, but every member of the audience all the time. Criticism of any piece produced by popular culture which "I" might enjoy is often seen as an implicit attack on "me" for enjoying it, which is seen as authoritarian, elitist, or otherwise arrogant in some fashion. The reward of the familiar seen as legitimate and meaningful even as it is part of a larger system of values that are corrupt.

Putting reward of self ahead of challenge to oneself in potentially hearing or seeing something unfamiliar is a powerful limitation to culture that helps maintain the system as it is, where companies like Disney can count on our children and grandchildren's business because we'll push those same sets of values on to them by example and encouraging them to watch the same things we did in the same ways. That isn't a great method to improve wider representation that challenges the system and its values itself. The "high art"/"low art" divide is just another way to obscure the problem by making it elitist to listen to anyone speaking outside popular conventional norms.
posted by gusottertrout at 12:29 AM on February 26, 2018 [10 favorites]


Being a Marxist would also make him a utopian, and hence a priori wrong (or in denial) about how to effect social change, so if he (supposedly) suggests the abolition of both high and low art (whatever that is), I am wary.
On the other hand, anything pandering to my base craving for being unique and a little better than others, is welcome.
Sometimes I wonder if it is this craving that leads us to create arbitrary divisions and defining characteristics (like - repetition: bad, "true freedom": good) just so that we can feel better than the next man. Also, racism/sexism.
posted by Laotic at 12:46 AM on February 26, 2018


Sometimes I wonder if it is this craving that leads us to create arbitrary divisions and defining characteristics (like - repetition: bad, "true freedom": good) just so that we can feel better than the next man

Yeah, thinking of this as an either/or situation is, I think, a mistake. An example of which can be pointed out perhaps in the author's mention of The Dark Knight/Andre Rublev comparison. The Dark Knight is all sorts of problematic and simplistic in really annoying and troubling ways, but Tarkovsky too has his problems. His films have some deep running streams of sexism that seems to come from his religiosity and definitely need their own noting. Ain't no one gonna have all the "right" answers, but there are better ways to approach the problems.
posted by gusottertrout at 1:03 AM on February 26, 2018 [1 favorite]


Obviously we're not, like, smarter and better - we have our own things that trouble us - but it's odd to see how changes in ideas and material conditions have simple erased those worries.

If by "changes in ideas and material conditions," you mean "the deliberate reëngineering of consensus perception for private gain," then we agree — at least in conversations around what does or does not cause us anxiety.

Consider, for example, the massive turn from the concern with the psychopathology of anxiety that characterized the American 1950s through 1970s to the superseding concern for the psychopathology of depression. These are conditions whose definitions and diagnostic criteria are, that I can tell, almost completely conditioned by the psychopharmaceutical industry. (See, for example, the introduction of "miraculous" SSRIs, just as the patents on best-selling sedatives of the previous generation expired.) And yet so total is the claim of these definitions on collective consciousness that they have the power to transform our interpretation of what we ourselves experience somatically and affectively.

Personally, though there isn't by any means always a pat explanation available for them, I've never been able to find these technosociocultural turns innocent. I generally find the fingerprints of private interest all over them.

tl;dr Frankfurt School? I'm soaking in it!
posted by adamgreenfield at 2:02 AM on February 26, 2018 [2 favorites]


It's not just the discourse around persons and societies that's warped, Marxian and post-Marxist issues have been continuously warped by propaganda, making it impossible to have a sustained conversation about it except in spaces that are partly sympathetic to it. So you get articles like these and then trite, uninformed responses like "[insert superficial reason that's a tendentious reading of the works] therefore Adorno/Marx/etc. irrelevant". It's a kind of intolerance that works through separating the people who would like to discuss these topics.
posted by polymodus at 2:35 AM on February 26, 2018 [3 favorites]


Amusingly enough, some conspiracy theorists hold that Adorno wrote most of The Beatles' songs.
posted by acb at 2:36 AM on February 26, 2018 [4 favorites]


So you get articles like these and then trite, uninformed responses like "[insert superficial reason that's a tendentious reading of the works] therefore Adorno/Marx/etc. irrelevant". It's a kind of intolerance that works through separating the people who would like to discuss these topics.

Well, on the other hand, the monumentalist piety and reflexive dismissal of criticism as misunderstanding, that seems to surround the Frankfurt school thinkers, is pretty off-putting.
posted by thelonius at 2:41 AM on February 26, 2018 [2 favorites]


Well if it helps, I don't give a fuck about that, because I'd be the last person to claim I understand what Adorno, Marx, et al were on about.
posted by polymodus at 3:07 AM on February 26, 2018 [1 favorite]


Well if it helps, I don't give a fuck about that, because I'd be the last person to claim I understand what Adorno, Marx, et al were on about.

But even with that remark, you're treading the same ground. Like, I've had not exactly this conversation about Adorno but this type of conversation about [philosopher] so many times, usually with grad students, and there's a well-established series of "how to win" moves. "My judgements are the best because I am humble, but also v. perceptive, also unlike you approval-seekers I don't care" is usually the winning move, but it's the winning move because there's this pre-established set of "how to show that you're the smartest one" rules to which we all virtuously adhere, although it's not considered appropriate to say that the winning moves in this conversation are part of it - the winning moves are the ones we're supposed to take as 100% sincere. Talk about horror of repetition!

I also wonder about the whole "I don't claim to understand" bit. Surely the whole point of these guys' writings was for people to have a bash at understanding them, not to sit back and say "well, only someone who understands the ineffable genius of Marx can have an opinion on Marxism, and really almost no one possibly can". On the one hand, yes, claiming to understand things entirely is nonsense, but "Oh, I couldn't possibly claim to speak about [thing] because it's just too brilliant and therefore you really shouldn't" seems like a paralyzing move to make when you're talking about a large body of work by a public intellectual. Adorno's writing on culture isn't simple or one-layered but it's not really intended to be opaque either.
posted by Frowner at 4:25 AM on February 26, 2018 [19 favorites]


Well. Adorno was a man of contradictions: "Visitors in the know were careful not to disturb the Adornos when ZDF was screening Daktari, an American wildlife series with Judy the chimpanzee and Clarence the crosseyed lion"
posted by talos at 4:59 AM on February 26, 2018 [2 favorites]


Perhaps with Daktari, Adorno unknowingly inaugurated a neo-Marxist tradition that would culminate in the fateful moment when Slavoj Žižek encountered Kung Fu Panda.
posted by acb at 6:14 AM on February 26, 2018 [4 favorites]


Adorno reminds me of the evangelicals I grew up with/around who refused to listen to “secular” music because of its supposedly corrupting influence. If we had music that suited Adorno’s politics it would probably be as boring and bland as Christian rock.
posted by eustacescrubb at 6:46 AM on February 26, 2018 [1 favorite]


I certainly appreciate the "ineffable genius of Marx" and his impact on popular culture.
posted by mfoight at 6:51 AM on February 26, 2018


No, really, you should read some Adorno - I truly do believe that he was wrong to discount what people say about their own experiences, but try this on for size, I mean if it's the sort of thing you like:

They, the people. [in English in original] – The circumstance that intellectuals mostly deal with other intellectuals should not mislead them into thinking they are worse than the rest of humanity. For they encounter one another primarily in the most embarrassing and degrading situation of all, that of competing supplicants, and are thereby nearly always compelled to show their worst side to each other. Other people, especially the simple folk whose virtues intellectuals are wont to praise, usually meet them in the role of someone trying to sell them something, who doesn’t have to worry about the customer horning in on their turf. It is easy for the auto mechanic and the sales-girl at the liquor store to remain free of impudence: friendliness is in any case mandated from above. If on the other hand illiterates come to intellectuals in order to have letters written, these latter may indeed make a reasonably good impression. But the moment simple folk have to brawl for their share of the social product, they surpass anything in the canon of envy and hatefulness displayed by literati or musical directors. The glorification of the splendid underdogs [in English in original] ends up in glorifying the splendid system which made them so. The justifiable feelings of guilt of those exempted from physical labor ought not become an excuse for rural idiocy [famous phrase used by Marx to describe the stagnation of peasant life]. Intellectuals who write solely about intellectuals and give them their bad name in the name of that which is authentic [Echtheit] only strengthen the lie. A large part of the prevailing anti-intellectualism and irrationalism, all the way to Huxley, is set in motion by the fact that writers complain about the mechanism of competition without themselves being able to see through the latter, and so fall victim to such. In the field most their own, they have shut out the consciousness of tat twam asi ["Thou art this,” quote from Upanishads]. That is why they then rush into Indian temples.

It's a bit heavy going, but isn't the last sentence funny? And isn't it unpleasant but true, or a shadow truth anyway?

It's a pity that people know of Adorno primarily because of what he wrote about popular culture - I imagine he'd say that this is because it's the easiest to dismiss of his writing.

It's not like I could say "here is a precis of Adorno's work" off the top of my head, but as long as you can manage the prose, you'll find his work full of depressing but useful things.
posted by Frowner at 7:04 AM on February 26, 2018 [10 favorites]


As a starry eyed naiive young noise artist, I fell in with some old school post serialist experimental composers who slammed me upside the head with twenty pounds of Adorno anti pop culture.

There's a touch of elitism, sure, but the attitude is actually very humble in practice. I can assure you they don't reject pop culture without listening out taking it seriously, quite the opposite actually. Unlike any peers or audience I had seen before, they worked hard to appreciate things that are unexpected. Many people pay lip service to the new, but few had the patience these people had to listen to something they didn't like yet.

Before meeting my post Adorno post serialist friends every critique I got for my music could be summarized as "it doesn't sound like the music I listen to", and every suggestion was essentially "here's how to make it into pop music". They listened to my noise, they took it in its own terms, and made suggestions that were relevant to its paradigm and what I was attempting.

I'm lucky to experience that even once in my life.
posted by idiopath at 7:42 AM on February 26, 2018 [5 favorites]


I've always been drawn to Adorno (without being an expert; I've read bits and pieces here and there over the years as one does, not made any serious study) because he is the one who hates everything - he's no Marcuse, being all groovy in California; he's not poor Benjamin, who did seem to get a bit of a kick out of being in the world. He just seems like he's perpetually either grumpy or taking a kind of enjoyment that does not bring him closer to people, and although I am sadly no philosopher

Oh, despite comments here, I totally have a soft spot for such an old grump, I really do. I read the relevant sections of The Rest is Noise with sheer glee. I've read Doktor Faustus twice. (When it comes to repetition in particular, I'm a bad reader of fanfic precisely because I get impatient with the repetition of tropes; people always talk about what a hotbed of creativity it is, but in the 8,281,391th coffeeshop AU I see only what Proust called "the formal imitation of variety.") But it's a kind of aesthetic appreciation that inevitably other aspects of my personality rebel against. The element of play has never seemed to be a felt reality in the similarly limited exposure I've had to his work, and that's a pity, because it's real and it's important.
posted by praemunire at 8:06 AM on February 26, 2018


Play is in the music he wants people to notice. There are two sides to performance, and true open ended play for an artist will be hard work for an audience. I think an essential thing to understand is that he Believed in dialectics, so his praxis, in the face of ignorance and hedonistic conservative small mindedness in the name of "freedom" is to emphasize discipline and stoic rationality. Not because he sees that as the end state, but because he wants to offer the contradiction that might move the whole conversation forward.

I think that's what was going on at least. And in the context of the hippies, and what pop culture was making them into, it was a much needed perspective. Though I wouldn't settle down and marry the ideas.
posted by idiopath at 8:22 AM on February 26, 2018


So you get articles like these and then trite, uninformed responses like "[insert superficial reason that's a tendentious reading of the works] therefore Adorno/Marx/etc. irrelevant".

You know, it frankly sucks when you can’t talk about something without being told that your critical read is “tendentious” and that your viewpoint is “trite.” Say what you will about pop music, at least you’re allowed to have your own opinion about it.

Whatever, you all have fun with this.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 8:36 AM on February 26, 2018 [3 favorites]


I apologize if my one-liner contributed to an anti-Adorno vibe in here. Minima Moralia, for instance, is a text I repeatedly return to and (without fail) find something that is still useful/provocative/illuminating/challenging.
posted by Barack Spinoza at 8:41 AM on February 26, 2018 [1 favorite]


Schönberg, a composer enjoyed by literally tens of people

This is the finest burn I'll read this week.
posted by Existential Dread at 8:48 AM on February 26, 2018 [8 favorites]


my earlier flippancy aside…

adorno's central argument strikes me as a useful restatement of the principle of "no ethical consumption under capitalism". clearly, commercial considerations (where promotional dollars are spent) and lower-level economic concerns for artists (how can i create and still eat) have a huge influence on the kinds of art that can become pop.

where he loses me is that he makes the very human error of assuming that in the post-capitalist utopia, the kinds of art that will flourish will be more like what he appreciates.
posted by murphy slaw at 9:16 AM on February 26, 2018 [2 favorites]


You know, it frankly sucks when you can’t talk about something without being told that your critical read is “tendentious” and that your viewpoint is “trite.”
That's kind of polymodus's schtick. I wouldn't let it bother you.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 9:26 AM on February 26, 2018 [3 favorites]


Yeah, what A&C said. Have you tried unplugging your polymodus and plugging it back in?
posted by Barack Spinoza at 9:28 AM on February 26, 2018


Cryptofascist.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:05 AM on February 26, 2018


Cryptofascist.

Adorno, polymodus, or other :) ?

If the former, I will defend Adorno from the charge of cryptofascism; he fled the fascist regime in Germany and seemed to see some of the logic of fascism in mass culture. Beyond that, I think he (and to a lesser extent, Benjamin) were aesthetically conservative, and they tended to see relations of dominance and production in the art they were predisposed to distrust from the start and in modes of artistic consumption and reception that seemed to belong to the technology and systems they critiqued.

But he is not much of an authoritarian -- quite the critic of authoritarians, really, per his work on the Frankfurt School's collaborative book The Authoritarian Personality.

It's really the seeming stridency of Adorno's critique that causes so much trouble. But he does not advocate that his tastes be imposed by force, per se; he was more a disappointed teleologist, a kind of world-historical and cultural pessimist who, as time went by, thought more and more that the moment had already been lost and that the best chance of recapturing it was critique.

He would have characterized his preferred model of government as radical democracy, albeit that he believed it could not be achieved until people arrived, through reason and critical understanding, at its intellectual and social preconditions. His experiences with Nazi Germany turned away from political violence as a way forward, and he ultimately adopted the idea that rigorous discourse, not violent revolution, was the way forward.

A key passage, I think comes form his Negative Dialectics: "Indelible in resistance to the fungible world of exchange is the resistance of the eye that does not want the world's colors to vanish." Note that for Adorno, resistance is not embedded in strength of arms, but in the critic's eye, the search for truth, value, and meaning. This is not the demand for social control, but rather the hope that a critical level of consciousness (as Adorno defines it) an be achieved. It's certainly not the eternal struggle for dominance of fascism, or even the "degeneracy" hypothesis of fascist "critiques" of art.
posted by kewb at 11:43 AM on February 26, 2018 [6 favorites]


But even with that remark, you're treading the same ground.

Well I think it's an all around shitty move to level personal attacks. For example if someone suggests that a person in the room is pious and dismissive. Or if someone says Marxists are utopians. Or that grad students are arrogant. That's what's constantly creating hostile non-discourse, like a DDoS attack on a topic. And the notion that a Marxian should care for that? A double standard. How could a vulnerable leftist not construe this, and not be reinforced in their outlook, that they are surrounded by hegemonic propaganda?

It's not trying to win debate points when expressing not caring about something. It's expressing that whatever precipitated such a response needs to cut that crap out. Criticism is welcome when it is constructive and informed, not because it is necessarily correct. That's an accepted norm of conversation everywhere.
posted by polymodus at 1:05 PM on February 26, 2018 [1 favorite]


Okay, why is it offensive to say that a particular line of Marxism is utopian? That's only wrong if you think that "utopian" means nothing more than "pie in the sky idiot". The only proper academic background I have is science fiction theory, and we talk about the utopian kernel and so on all the time - it's not an insult, it's a legit descriptor, and when I read someone saying that something is utopian, I always assume they're describing something rather than insulting something. I think that Adorno's ideas about music suggest both utopian and almost millenarian tendencies, but I don't mean that as a knock on Adorno, or even a descriptor of everything Adorno wrote.

In re debate points: What I notice in these types of conversations is that it's possible both to try and be sincere and to be sort of recaptured by these pre-existing patterns of discourse, which is why this kind of conversation gets so predictable. I mean, if you feel trapped by the DDOS attack bit, I too feel trapped by the...I dunno, the move-making that gets generated in response; the "lol Adorno" bit clearly really gives you feelings, and what I experience as lofty sneers give me feelings. It feels to me like personal attacks all round, and it doesn't feel especially great, but at the same time it also feels like repetition.

In terms of It's expressing that whatever precipitated such a response needs to cut that crap out, I dunno, I used to know a guy who was very big on "drawing lines in the sand" - a Marxist academic who felt that he was just giving as good as he got. But I never observed it to be experienced that way, and I never saw it to do what he hoped it would. Though this was not his intent, it very visibly came across as "I should be the one who sets the norms in this conversation/shared space, because I am smarter and my values are better and because I alone understand what's really going on here".

In retrospect, I wish I hadn't started off the thread as I did, but I've read Adorno on popular music, on astrology, on the authoritarian personality and so on and I think he is wrong about pop music and that he's trying to draw a wishful thinking distinction about artistic production that really applies only to high modernism. I may be wrong, but I'm not making up my opinion out of whole cloth. I think that his approach is emphatically not a useful one when you're trying to talk about what's wrong with mass culture.
posted by Frowner at 2:26 PM on February 26, 2018 [5 favorites]


In general I think you have useful things and perceptive things to say; don't take this as getting at your ideas under the guise of language.
posted by Frowner at 2:37 PM on February 26, 2018 [1 favorite]


I've read and return often to Minima Moralia, as well as some of his essays on music (I'm a classical musician). More than anything, Adorno leaves me with an awareness of lost potential; that the innumerable forms and structures through which we are made to travel are all destined to come up against the dead ends of late capitalism, i.e. the demands and conventions of commodity exchange relationships.

What are freer aesthetic alternatives to popular culture? Would it even register as "culture" to us having been so conditioned to the predictable aesthetics of the verse-hook-bridge pop song, or the three act structure of most TV and films? Is the machine of late capitalism so omnipotent that alternatives are no longer possible? Adorno's works help me understand the true nature of the machine, and thus the importance of freedom and imagination as an expression of our collective humanity.

Also, in our present media/cultural environment, I find it very useful to check in often with his skepticism of the media-advertising complex and its inherent authoritarianism.
posted by eusebis_w_adorno at 3:02 PM on February 26, 2018 [1 favorite]


Here are some photos that I ran across today showing what life was like back when Adorno was born. I would guess that, for many of the people shown, acquiring "better taste" was the least of their troubles.

In our day, having the leisure to upgrade one's cultural background is largely dependent on whether one can make the rent on $11/hour. Some things haven't changed, Theodore.

As for classical music (which I used to DJ), you have to get to kids while they're still little, else they'll absorb the toxic attitudes about egg-headed intellectuals. Once you've seen the limos and stoled blue-hairs outside symphony hall, it's all over. (Seen those ticket prices lately?)
posted by Twang at 3:59 PM on February 26, 2018


My copy of Black and Blur by Fred Moten came in the mail recently and I finally had a chance to read one of the essays, and it's the best criticism of Adorno and his take on jazz that I've seen (chapter seven, The Phonographic Mise-En-Scène). He avoids the easy dismissal of Schoenberg and instead digs into questions of mediation and abstraction, into what Adorno says about race when he talks about jazz. It's a good book, and I look forward to reading the whole trilogy.
posted by idiopath at 9:07 PM on February 27, 2018 [1 favorite]


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