Reading Adorno: On television

This piece concerns my reading of Adorno’s essay ‘How to look at Television’

High art and low art

With the dawn of the televisual medium. Adorno makes the point that the former distinction between ‘long haired’ and ‘short haired’ culture, or high and low art, is simultaneously obliterated and absorbed. I wish I knew some french or german word which captures this contradiction and ambiguity in a single instance. The distinction is obliterated because the means of promulgating television is so broad that access goes to essentially everyone, and in that way there are no class distinctions for television, compared to say how Opera was (and still is to this day) a largely bourgeois affair: access eliminates this distinction.

On the other hand, the division between high and low is absorbed into television by way of the ideological messages of the medium of television. This is an interesting avenue for Adorno to explore psychoanalytical themes. Adorno makes the point of how 17thC to recent folk cultural works expres stories with symbolic gestures to enforce social norms and rules, these norms become internalised by the audience. Instead of looking at the folk cultural and high cultural distinction, I will examine the mechanisms by which Adorno considers the ways in which television has a normative impact on the audience.

Virtual reality

Like the older cultural forms before it, television as a medium exhibits an alternative picture of reality, one which serves to iron out some features while emphasising others. As a mass medium, television seeks to be rational (following the thesis of “Culture and Administration”) and would presumably seek its own preservation. The goal of such medium would then be to preserve its audience. Adorno claims that integration is an important goal for television, so an audience needs to be as diffuse and inarticulate as possible. Adorno claims that: “The ideals of conformity and conventionalism were inherent in popular novels from the very beginning.” [Adorno 2005, p. 163]

The overt and covert messages of media

Adorno stresses that the ideological messages embedded in the televisual medium have multiple layers. What the message of a television programme contains is not always obvious, and not may involve a deeper strata of meaning. Within every funny dick joke in a Judd Apatow film, there is a socially conservative message embedded within it, perhaps something like: a heterosexual woman is incomplete without her man partner.

Adorno tries to show this overt/covert distinction through a few examples, many of which seem like either they came from a television show that he hasn’t chosen to cite, or he’s made up very convoluted instance. I’m not quite sure where he got these ideas from.

One example is this: A young schooolteacher is underpaid and bothered by her boss. We find this acceptable because even though she is brought to starvation by her poverty, we find her amusing demeanour and clumsiness to justify her as a character of worth. The covert message here is that her intelligence is compensation for her poor situation, and in some way justifies it because she will end up okay for being intelligent, regardless of her circumstances.

The other example seems to me a little bit convoluted and I do not understand how Adorno interprets this at all. The example is from the ‘funnies’ of the day where a woman leaves it in her will for her cat to inherit her belongings, but they are dismissed as eccentric items by her family, and they later find out when its too late and the items are about to be destroyed, that each toy carried a hundred dollar bill. Adorno interprets this plausibly funny situation as the implausible ideological message: “Don’t expect the impossible, don’t daydream, but be realistic” [ibidem, 167]. This in a way sounds like an inversion of the aspirational psychology of the American Dream, and plays more to the old fashioned Marxist than I would have expected.


Adorno makes the point that the format of television shows create repetitive features, many of which establish a sense of expectation on the part of the audience, for instance, plotlines must resolve by the end of the episode, the good guy always wins and so forth. This reminds me instantly of music, and the expectations of many pieces of music. Music for dancing is almost invariably 4/4 or perhaps for folk circumstances, ¾. Also, harmonic dissonances are desired by an audience to be resolved, and a certain sense of comfort is established by the familiarity of these similarities. I think Adorno was making a sense of terminology and description which looks like what later will come to be described as the ‘trope’.

Televisual media also seems to replicate the stereotypes of people by way of what I would consider a physiognomy of character. If physiognomy is the notion that a person’s physical appearance defines their outward demeanour, we may say that their character, or aspects of their character, may define their social situation. Shylock is hated by others because he exhibits those characteristics negatively associated with Jews. Similarly, the ‘virgin’ doesn’t die in a horror film, which in turn is a covert message that expresses the desirability of the demure. Consider how last year, when an off-colour comment from a police officer prompted ‘slut walks’ internationally, the messages about the normative constraints on respectable female behaviour were brought to the open from the covert. By defining tropes such as these, we can see what is cliche and what is genuinely challenging.

Throughout this series I have posed the question of whether genuinely challenging and socially thought provoking cultural entities are still allowed to exist in the Adornian world. I think that Adorno shows, via negativa, how to be challenging. This also disappointingly puts a dampener on things that I really like. I see how horribly cliche the recent tv series ‘New Girl’ is for instance, where the quirky character of Jess seems to justify that she’s a metaphorical boxing bag for her flatmates at times, and the implication that she is incomplete without a man, or the obvious physiognomy with characters such as the ‘formerly-fat’ Schmidt. The analysis of tropes has taken into its own, and is a highly fruitful source of analysis. It also shows how terribly cliche so many of my favourite action and superhero films are, but that’s a topic way beyond the intention of this post.


Reading Adorno: The Individual and the Collective

There are many ways to cut across the understanding of culture. One such theme which takes a sociogenic perspective is the way towards how a cultural object expresses a sentiment which is either individual, or a mark of a collective. To pose these terms as a dichotomy is unhelpful, nor what one would suggest, but rather as part of a spectrum.

In this post I shall continue analysis of Adorno’s essay on “Culture and Administration”, as well as on “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda” through a unifying theme: the individual and the collective as a social cultural theme. Adorno points out in the latterly parts of Culture and Administration, that cultural forms eventually become appropriated by mass culture, perhaps the contemporary parlance of this would be if something were to ‘go mainstream’.

I remember a book review I did “Sells like Teen Spirit” where the author compared Adorno to an archetypal hipster. I found this likeness highly troubling. The archetypal hipster (do they really exist by the way?) supposedly claims that their intentions and interests in bands or films or other cultural objects are more authentic than others, exactly because they were fans “before it was cool”. Indeed Adorno makes a point that cultural originality, or the ideological force of a cultural object is diminish once it becomes appropriated into a mass machine, and this industrial process of propagation undermines its message. The joke of the hipster, is that their percieved originality is taking place through a culturally mediated narrative (namely that of the hipster cultural phenotype), or more bluntly put, Adorno did it first.

Culture has to take place within administration once it has been established. In this way, the original sense of its social challenge or ideological message becomes watered down. I remember once going to a Rammstein gig at a large venue a couple of years back, and finding there was a mosh pit right in front of the stage, and further back of the stage were a large collection of stadium seats, filled by grey haired 50 year olds wearing wooly jumpers who periodically went to get hot dogs in between ‘Du Hast’ and ‘Sonne’, they also complained about the fire. As I think of it now when writing an essay on Adorno, it tells me a few things: Heavy Metal is sonic experience turned into socially acceptable sound, and if the genre of working class opposition had any biting teeth of social criticism, it now has dentures.

Appropriation seems inevitable however. Adorno seems to acknowledge this, and I am of mixed opinion on how to interpret this as optimistic or pessimistic. Adorno’s view of culture is that many things eventually have a tendency to become appropriated into the culture machine, in our context this may include gig circuit tours, having an agent, press releases or a social media presence. Adorno’s view is that incorporating culture into a rationalising process that is administration may also make it anodyne. This reminds me of an article in the NME where the band Nickelback is simultaneously called ‘The Biggest Rock Band in the world right now”, as well as heralders of the “death of rock n’roll’. The point being made that stadium rock and larger audiences eventually creates a conformist environment, both aesthetically (Nickelback is highly formulaic, and also very catchy for the same reason) and ideologically stagnant. A Nickelback song couldn’t talk about really divisive issues, exactly because they are unified by such a wide audience.

Over Christmas, I was listening to the Comedian Stewart Lee talk about the role of physical space in comedy performances. Lee pointed out that the number of an audience distinctly affects the kind of performance and material addressed. Edgier performances and smaller interest groups tend to favour the fewer numbers of audience, or physically confined audience spaces. I remember when I went to see comedian Marc Maron last year in a small London venue, a joke was made by looking in the eyes of a young man in the front to the effect of implying that he is looking for a mentor figure in an older man, Maron then says to this man staring at him intensely in the eyes, as if to impersonate him: “Will you be my dad?”. This was highly uncomfortable, very personal comic performance, and there may be more factors to the limited audience than Adorno may have considered as to the success of edgy and uncomfortable art.

Adorno may allow for a sense of social critique and ingenuity within the cultural machine. Adorno’s point is not that such ingenuity and critique is impossible, but that such an oppurtunity has everything against it. I was thinking about the individual and the collective as a way of framing Adorno’s essay on Freud and Fascism. Adorno asserts that it is the power of using an eloquent speaker and a charismatic individual who appeals direclty to an audience that allows for the growth of influence of the Fascist speaker.

Adorno makes the claim that Freud’s thought on the effectiveness of hypnosis on the subject is essentially the same as why Hitler was an influential leader to encouraging Fascism. I feel disturbed as to the use of psychoanalysis in Adorno’s analysis as it seems while nuanced, uncritical of Freud in the way that a contemporary such as Popper had become. However, Adorno sets a lot of observations and conditions about the role of influence that are empirically feasible questions of research and observation. In other words, my ‘Adorno-lite’ interpretation can allow for a Freudian consideration if re-tooled to include empirical questions of mass psychology.

Adorno makes the point that a successful way to create a Fascist influence in the masses is to create collective sentiments. By establishing an identity as a group, where differences are immaterial, except the differences that the group defines itself against (through some ‘other’), a sense of unity is established. I was directly reminded of a time a few years back when I was a few selected passages from Mussolini’s ‘The Doctrine of Fascism’, where he direclty makes the point that individualism and the concern of the individual and self is demolished when compared to the priorities of the state. In facism, there is no individual, there is only definition through the state.

To speak of cultural identity or works of art in this context is to speak of none at all. It is a sign of such totalitarian regimes that culture is controlled in the way that food or housing is distributed. The absolutism of the collectivist ideology allows for no alternative thought. In this extreme way, we find some solace, as culture and difference is anathema and corrosive to absolute rule. We find the real importance of culture by looking at the despicable moral and intellectual conditions in the lack of it.

Hitchens writes in many parts that the true insight of George Orwell is that he identified the communist social states as simply another form of totalitarianism, rather than its alternative, exactly because of their lack of difference when it came to culture and opinion. Hitchens himself talks of his experience of going into Cuba and embarrassingly admitting that he is a liberal, even though a socialist, as if the former is subversive and the latter is acceptable. Through the distinction of the individual and collective, we find a distinction of ideology.

But what of culture? I have been thinking lately about Black Metal. Often it is said that Black Metal is the extreme of individualism, black metal concerns the critique of comfortable European Christendom. The early Norwegian bands speak often of the stuffiness of Norway’s conservatism and their difference is expressed powerfully by the transformative imagery of corpse paint and other such paraphernalia. Often it is said that the notion of genre in music is a way of putting things into acceptable categories against ‘otherness’, while maintaining a sense of individuality. I also recall when new styles are created, they attempt to defy or resist genre, but simultaneously create or revise genre categories. I think for instance of the recent band Alcest, which I quite like, which has been described as ‘Black Metal Shoegaze’ or the even more nebulous ‘Post-Black metal’.

Within Black Metal, there is of course an extreme of anti-individualism. There is the critique of others by the way of establishing a sense of national pride and unity. Many of the so-called NSBM (nationalist socialist black metal) bands seem to exhibit the fascistic tendencies and imageries Adorno describes. The phenomenon of the Straightedge Punk movement in the 1980s has been described as a form of ultraconformism where the avoidance of drugs and alcohol is the stable in which self-identifying members internally are judged or excluded. There is an odd mix, it seems, of concentric circles of conformist collectivism within individualism.

As an open question, I ask this: how can we judge reality television within the individual and collective spectrum of culture? Reality television is successful in attracting large audiences exactly because it is multi-media, social media, internet and television are ways of promoting television shows and in being so broad as a medium, it also must be conservative in terms of the ideology or the types of messages it tries to put across. Is it possible for instance, to be an activist and have a twitter account?

With the enhancement of social media on the culture industry, everyone has become the media. This looks like both a curse and a hope for the Adornian vision, and that of course, is not a new insight.


A free pass at ignorance

A few weeks ago there was released an interview with Brian Leiter, the philosopher behind the surprisingly influential philosophy blog, Leiter Reports. Leiter has been known for various things, one of which is his reluctance or annoyance to acknowledge an ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ distinction in philosophy. The comment that comes to mind is the following:

There are real dividing lines in the history of philosophy, but the one between the “analytic” and the “Continental” isn’t one of them, though it’s interesting today from a sociological point of view, since it allows graduate programs in philosophy to define spheres of permissible ignorance for their students.(Leiter, 3AM magazine)

I was thinking about this cultural phenomenon of how philosophy has been taught, and the phrase ‘permissible ignorance’ seems much more relevant to a wider range of fields than I thought. So often we hear of self-proclaimed experts in various professions, or in the media, but many of which are hardly master practicioners or theoreticians of the art in which they are addressing.

A good electrician is one who knows what they are doing when it comes to aspects of their craft. Likewise, a notable expert would be one with a background in their art or at least knowledgable enough to be pioneering, innovative or at least the most able person in the room in a great many situations.

Permissible ignornace seems to take place in a variety of ways. When people handwave about scientific studies for instance. Another interesting one is when academics in research are unfamiliar with the methodological problems of their research. In particular, a lack of awareness of cognitive bias or social biases is so prevalent in industrial and scientific research that it is shameful.

Some fields have become so autonomous and specialised that not all aspects of its specialism need to be known. A good electrician doesn’t need to know the equations concerning alternating current and direct current. Likewise, I suspect that most software engineers wouldn’t really need to know much mathematical logic.

Wilful ignorance is something that perplexes me. Many times I’ve been in job interviews when I realise some of the professionals haven’t done a literature review. Other times i realise that many so-called experts that I come across are full of shit. I’m reminded of something that Machiavelli says in The Prince, which is also repeated in Grayling’s book of ‘Lawgiver’ in ‘The Good Book’ (which probably is an allusion to Machaivelli). The notion is that a leader should be seen in solidarity with their subjects, and to gain credibility is not only willing to do the things that they themselves ask of their people, but to be exceptional at it.

In recent weeks, I have been weight training with a couple of friends of mine, including Sinistre. I recall saying something to them before I was showing them my routine. I said to them in an almost disingenuous prophet like fashion: I will not ask of you that I cannot do myself. My point was that I can’t claim to be any expert unless I can show what I’m doing to them at least as well as they could do it.

In a few proficiencies, there is no possibility of having a wilful ignorance. Presenting to a crowd of philosophers for instance, who have a background in logic and can comb through inconsistencies and logical tensions, if not any outright contradictions. Likewise the art of live performance, especially when recorded, emphasises every inferiority a performer has, some may be endearing for the performing legends, but for anybody else they are judged in the most harsh way possible.

The fear of judgment is something which keeps a practicioner such as a philosopher, a musician or even a bodybuilder to account. Being accountable to a higher set of standards, competing with people who may be above one’s ability and where one’s flaws or gaps in knowledge and performance are emphasised by the presentation of self to peers really determines what it means to ‘keep a person honest’. This kind of accountability and competition is one way to force away the disingenuous false idols.

By contrast, the dynamics of nepotism and peer enforcement, social advancement and social clades is antithetical to intellectual openness. The virtue of magnanimity is suffocated by the other side of peer review, when one’s peers have a pre-determined vision of their success or a notion of expertise.This is hardly an appeal to higher standards but an exercise in conformity. Wilful ignorance would occur when practicioners operate in social clades. I thought it interesting that Leiter’s sociological point about analytic and continental philosophy is potentially wider. It makes me imagine that social clades as a form of enforcing a status quo of temperament is a means of control by a Nietzschean last man.


A Year in Review: Dissent

(Ed: Apologies that this is late)

If there is one thing that characterises the year that has recently passed, it is the unifying theme of instability. Whether one is working in the so-called public or private sectors, instability is now a constant that is presumed. A generational gap between the Baby Boomers and those after them is emphasised by a differing pension scheme or position on the housing market. The societal myth of social mobility is more in question now than it has ever been (bar the early 20thC). Jobs and public positions are not stable. Even those in governance and the media are not safe from instability. This lesson has been learned by two differing but related aetiologies.

The first aetiology is that of the larger economic forces coming into play. While the nuances of the financial system are beyond my understanding, I can appreciate that economies and various aspects of financial industries and wider industries have implications on wider society and economy. Government debt in most Western/Northern countries is at a fairly ridiculous rate, and much of the popular media emphasises the short term effects and outcomes of the present day. My point about instability is that government debt has cultivated a political penchant for austerity which in turn has affected wider social features.

Another aetiology comes from the influence of public opinion. Public opinion has shown great force in recent months. From the Arab spring, a movement of individuals from Arab nations continue to display signs of dissent relating to their governance. While these events still unfold, many are curious what the long term implications of these forms of dissent will entail. In the US, and to some extent the UK, dissent has reached a new audience of people through a plethora of causes to express disquiet about the status quo. On the year that Gil Scott Heron died, how fitting is the phrase he is most known for: The Revolution will Not be Televised’. Dissent has been facilitated by social media, from the blatant violation of the injunctions on public figures (addressed in a previous post this year), to organised chaos in the English Riots during the summer. It is certainly an interesting year historically, while many of these momentous events go on around the world, we at Noumenal Realm on a day to day basis are actually living boring lives despite it all, perhaps that is the most disappointing feature of our year in review.  My year has been pretty boring as far as life goes, uneventful, and to some extent that is due to the instability of many things going on.

Sinistre (theme of dissent comes from discussions with Destre)