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.
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.