Adorno on dismantling the affirmative lie of culture

adornoA delightful morning spent meditating on two related thoughts from Theodor Adorno:

‘The eclipse of art which is being propagated by people who are either just plain thoughtless or resentful of art would be false and would play into the hands of conformism. Desublimation – the instantaneous, immediate gratification which art is supposedly able to furnish – is of course beneath art in terms of intra-aesthetic standards. But even in terms of real libidinal gratification, desublimation has little to offer …  The impoverished aestheticism that accompanies the sort of panting politics of the student movement is a complement of the general exhaustion of aesthetic vigour. To recommend the acceptance of jazz and rock-and-roll over Beethoven does nothing to dismantle the affirmative lie of culture. All it does is give the culture industry an excuse for more profit-taking and barbarity. The allegedly vigorous and uncorrupted essence of such products is in reality synthetically put together by the very powers that are the target of this supposed Great Refusal. They are worse than anything else’. – Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (ed. Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann; trans. C. Lenhardt; London/Boston/Melbourne/Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), 440–1.

‘The appeal to order alone, without concrete specificity, is futile; the appeal to the dissemination of norms, without these ever proving themselves in reality or before consciousness, is equally futile. The idea of an objectively binding order, huckstered to people because it is so lacking for them, has no claims if it does not prove itself internally and in confrontation with human beings. But this is precisely what no product of the culture industry would engage in. The concepts of order which it hammers into human beings are always those of the status quo. They remain unquestioned, unanalyzed and undialectically presupposed, even if they no longer have any substance for those who accept them. In contrast to the Kantian, the categorical imperative of the culture industry no longer has anything in common with freedom. It proclaims: you shall conform, without instruction as to what; conform to that which exists anyway, and to that which everyone thinks anyway as a reflex of its power and omnipresence. The power of the culture industry’s ideology is such that conformity has replaced consciousness. The order that springs from it is never confronted with what it claims to be or with the real interests of human beings. Order, however, is not good in itself. It would be so only as a good order. The fact that the culture industry is oblivious to this and extols order in abstracto, bears witness to the impotence and untruth of the messages it conveys. While it claims to lead the perplexed, it deludes them with false conflicts which they are to exchange for their own. It solves conflicts for them only in appearance, in a way that they can hardly be solved in their real lives. In the products of the culture industry human beings get into trouble only so that they can be rescued unharmed, usually by representatives of a benevolent collective; and then in empty harmony, they are reconciled with the general, whose demands they had experienced at the outset as irreconcilable with their interests. For this purpose the culture industry has developed formulas which even reach into such non-conceptual areas as light musical entertainment. Here too one gets into a ‘jam’, into rhythmic problems, which can be instantly disentangled by the triumph of the basic beat. Even its defenders, however, would hardly contradict Plato openly who maintained that what is objectively and intrinsically untrue cannot also be subjectively good and true for human beings. The concoctions of the culture industry are neither guides for a blissful life, nor a new art of moral responsibility, but rather exhortations to toe the line, behind which stand the most powerful interests. The consensus which it propagates strengthens blind, opaque authority. If the culture industry is measured not by its own substance and logic, but by its efficacy, by its position in reality and its explicit pretensions; if the focus of serious concern is with the efficacy to which it always appeals, the potential of its effect becomes twice as weighty. This potential, however, lies in the promotion and exploitation of the ego-weakness to which the powerless members of contemporary society, with its concentration of power, are condemned. Their consciousness is further developed retrogressively. It is no coincidence that cynical American film producers are heard to say that their pictures must take into consideration the level of eleven-year-olds. In doing so they would very much like to make adults into eleven-year-olds’. – Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Culture Industry Reconsidered’.

One comment

  1. Dear Jason,

    It reminds me of some of the sympathy in Hardt and Negri’s Empire, in which individuals can but survey across the City at night as the whole order that holds, grids and manages us as if the Milky Way had fallen onto earth and it’s the standard patterns of human behaviour we can see rolling out every Friday night. He’s definitely right on the one end of rappers who enforce and specific products and on the other the soft sell of lift music to corral daily subject moods, and he was living in a time where cutural and governmental orders both looked pretty mechanistic. I love Adorno’s railing deep left melancholy.

    But is his sentiment still as telling now? People are still successfully marketed to, still able to be categorised, but I think we have got to a point where the market has undone itself; bulky taxonomies are fast and seemingly eternally fractilising, and technology enables us to manufacture our own largely autonomous cultural bubbles as we commute inevitably plugged in. At some point even Adorno would allow that we at least now get to will our own cultural slavery with more precision. Someone should also have taken him to task about how predictable were the power-chords of Wagner and Mahler, and compare against The Flaming LIps or Sigur Ros or something else with a bit of formal ambition.

    Great to see Adorno again.


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