Reading Adorno: In Search of Wagner (6): Phantasmagoria

Phantasmagoria

The only reason why Wagner’s characters can function as universal symbols is that they dissolve in the phantasmagoria like mist.

Adorno’s essay on ‘Phantasmagoria’ starts like a conversation that doesn’t have an introduction or preamble or any kind of context-setting. In the terms of modern gaming or films, it’s a cold beginning. The term Phantasmagoria is one which alludes to something in Marx’s Kapital, so says a translation note from Livingstone in my text. Marx’s Phantasmagoria, according to Livingstone, is the character of the effect that a commodity (that is, a product of human labour) is made to seem separate from the process of being constructed, or the fact that it is itself a result of human creation. Adorno does not lay this out, but presumably relies on our readership to have this familiarity. It’s not helpful to write about a concept without defining it. To describe a concept is not to define it. To ascribe what the concept is, is hardly explicative. Of course Adorno is dealing in a different set of intellectual standards to the likes of the contemporaneous Carnap – the former does not look so favourably in this particular essay. However I shall attempt to salvage some kind of thread from this very poorly written piece.

Wagner’s work is described with this concept ‘phantasmagoria’. Phantasmagoria in this context is a character or illusory status on the music. The illusory character that this work is not of this world, with no relationship with a grounded concrete reality. Surely this is a pretty neat innovation or property? Such a description reminds me of the impressionism of Debussy.

Through certain musical decisions, the instrumentation, the dynamics (volumes) and tempi, we may find ourselves in a world much different to the one that a 19th Century opera-attending audience had outside of the opera house. The air of a mystical fantasy world seems real with Wagner’s instrument choices in his part-writing, and the range of pitches he employs.

Phantasmagoria pertains to the effect an audience has from the music. Wagner successfully puts forward the dramatic worlds of the libretti text through music. A world of magic, of archaic character. This sense of convincing portrayal is illusion to Adorno. What the illusion consists in, is the concealment of the fact that this is a work of music, a work of performing instrumentalists following a score. Phantasmagoria is the end product and outcome that colours the whole experience and the whole process of tens of string players playing.

Adorno seems to suggest that this magic effect or phantasmagoria is the culmination of a Romantic ideal. A preoccupation with mystic, spiritual and dream-like imageries imbued in the musical text. What makes Wagner’s phantasmagoria different, is that this mysticism, this mist is a character of the commodity, it is a character of a wider capitalist, rather than aesthetic story. The problematic quality of the phantasmagoria is that it is a work of human effort, but effectively succeeds to conceal that fact. Perhaps an oversimplified way of describing this is to say that this is Marx’s alienation cashed out through the terms of culture.

Adorno considers phantasmagoria to have some relevance to a Schopenhauerian moral perspective, at this point I’m not knowledgeable enough to comment on this too much. Phantasmagoria disguises an audience to the process of making music, conceals the fact of its construction. In doing so it contributes to a passive audience, phantasmagoria is conducive to duping audiences. In this way the Wagnerian compositional decisions are of a moral quality. Moral in the sense that they pertain to character traits: docility, passivity, subservience. We as the phantasmogorised (sic) audience are duped by the ephemera of fairy dust and glitter. I suspect that is as true today of pop music as it was then with the ignored fiddlers and horn blowers in the orchestra box.

Within the libretti of Wagner’s operas, Adorno (81) identifies an ascetic, self and pleasure denying mentality, which he describes as Feuerbachian (alluding to the Feuerbach idea that the Christian God is an internalisation of our desires and that our self-denial is key to achieving Christian moral ideals of character). Wagner seems to employ a sort of reversal of values, our suffering is a moral good and our pleasures are a form of sickness (82). To do so, according to Adorno is a phantasmagoria. In this description I find what is contained in this concept of phantasmagoria to be exceptionally broad, perhaps too broad to actually be rigorous.

I will focus subsequent attention to the essays as if they were a sequel to the thought begun in the essay on phantasmagoria. This is for two reasons, one is that to me these essays do not seem to make sense to me at all in terms of having some kind of unitary or thematic significance, and secondly, the only way to understand these essays in my view is in relation to Adorno’s concept of phantasmagoria.

Oddly enough, the essays in In Search of Wagner after Phantasmagoria tend to be the more philosophical yet for me, the most difficult to understand.

Michael

On USBM and its alleged uniqueness

Following my discussion on Black Metal hegemonies, and Non-European Black Metal, I thought I would continue in the further vein of the chapters on ‘Black Metal: Beyond the Darkness’ (2012, Stosuy eds.) with American Black Metal.

 

I’ve heard Wolves in the Throne Room bandied about on so many discussions on Twitter, Facebook and the messages I’ve gotten through last.fm. Wolves in the Throne Room are a US black metal band, but are seen to be stylistically unique to the European black metal forbears. Their popularity is also a source of inauthenticity. I’ve often heard through some personal friends the most ‘hurrendous’ allegation that more popular black metal bands, or the infamous ‘post-black metal’ bands have gigs where the performers and audience have….gasp, short hair!

 

This sort of reaction seems to show how embedded some attitudes are within metal communities, or the emphasis on authenticity. Ironically, often these same people complain about the purists who say that black metal is not kvelt enough. You really can’t win sometimes when it comes to authenticity. Although perhaps the best response comes from not giving a shit.

 

Discussion of (in)authenticity aside, some authors have given an attempt at explaining the uniqueness of Wolves in the Throne Room, and the wider so-called ‘cascadian black metal’ that they apparently represent. Brandon Stosuy encapsulates it through the paraphrased Darkthrone album title: A Blaze in the North American Sky.

 

Instead of retelling the Norwegian mythology of the 1990s black metal scene, the US bands who call themselves cascadian, draw from their own sense of mythology, from their own environment and in this way do not end up as derivative as genres such as raw black metal, true black metal etc. are.

 

The US scene has different origins, different founding texts. For one, Death Metal was more influential, as Stosuy points out, and a defining moment of Darkthrone’s second album showed the cultivation of mixing Death and Black metal aesthetics and sound. Often the two scenes are kept seperate or even with some disdain for each other.

 

Stosuy points out how USBM is seen often as a joke, but focusing on the positive mythologies of the Cascadian scene shows how it has something unique to offer. Often these groups draw from more identifiably American genres, such as Punk and Shoegaze. On the other hand, some also point out how the term of USBM is just as cynical and market-y as the same kind of derision to say that it is largely derivative and a carbon-copy. That is a problem of upholding any genre label, the fear that it doesn’t actually fit!

 

It is true that Norway has a different social and economic climate to the US, and the ideal of USBM would presumably reflect that, as Thrash metal reflected the dissent of youth in the 80s, Black Metal should come from its social context and reflect that status quo. Stosuy ends his essay with an interesting reflection:

 

Those who view USBM as inauthentic tend to do so because America seems an unlikely place for the icy, grim strains of Black Metal to flourish. But as the US dollar continues its nosedive, our Black Metal impulses become validated. We’ve become a nation of scrappy, lo-fi underdogs. Have you ever tried to buy a diner in Norway – one of the wealthiest countries in the world – with converted US currency? […] While Americans are often accused of lacking a history, we more than make up for that lack with our bleak view of the future. [Stosuy, 2012]

I have been continually thinking about this notion of being derivative against listening to one’s own sense of sensibilities cultural. It’s important to use those things around us as a source for our creativity, and much more enabling than simply copying what is currently done and what is currently in, in a given scene. I think about how Chopin turns the Nocturne (a genre invented by Irish composer John Field) into an expression of his more polish cultural sensibilities. It’s fair to say that often in European music history through the Modern period, that certain centres of power emerged between Italy and Germany – the lingua franca of written music still is Italian. Chopin expressed his cultural uniqueness by drawing from their sense of identity and context. The same could also be said for Bartok, perhaps even more so, as Bartok tried to do two things: firstly, to embrace and preserve select local folk traditions of central-eastern Europe through his Edison recordings, and also through a slight influence on his own music; and secondly through his attempt to help establish a unique American cultural identity. Bartok was not the only person with this project. One of my favourite composers (even if he’s not a ‘great’ composer like Beethoven), Samuel Coleridge-Taylor inspired the African Americans of his day to engage in the public life through culture, and the evidence seems to suggest, also politics.

 

Often in my Adorno-themed commentaries, there is a focus on the negatives of music and culture, such as homogeneity or the conformist way of cultural thinking leading to dullness of social imagination. However, movements that emphasise uniqueness or identity, such as the so-called Cascadians, may give potential for authentic expression, may give a genuine sense of cultural freshness and originality. It may even give a way of perceiving the world differently.

 

Michael

 

Reading Adorno: In Search of Wagner (4): ‘Sonority’

In Adorno’s two essays ‘Sonority’ and ‘Colour’; Sonority pertains to the significance of Wagner’s chromaticism and the harmonic choices applied in his operatic works; Colour relates to the effective application of instrumentation in Wagner’s score-writing. I will focus on the subject of ‘Sonority’ and Adorno’s reading that Wagner uses Chromaticism as a form of emotional regression, which in turn is an analogue for social regresion.

 

Sonority 

 

Regress 

 

Adorno points out the regressive tendencies of Wagner, even comparing it to the pre-historic alludings of the later composer Stravinski (Adorno 2009, p.51). Within the theme of historical and cultural regression to a previous time, The social subject can find himself within Wagner’s regression (Ibid, p. 52)

 

What is the significance of Regression? The significance is that in the regressive mentality, the subject sacrifices sovereignty to the totality of the music. Regression is in a dictionary sense, the antonym of progress. However, we may establish the equivocation of that term in a similar way. Namely, Adorno’s reading of an emotional and cultural regression of the subject enjoying the Wagnerian work, surrenders a capacity for critical thought or reflection upon the possibility of any alternative to the status quo beyond the options provided in the text, namely, present day, or regress.

 

Perhaps one way of illustrating the power of regression is through the recent Del Toro film ‘Pacific Rim’. There is a scene where a character, Mako, is placed in a machine where (for complicated reasons) she is suddenly stuck immersed into re-living a childhood memory. This memory was so powerful and tragic to Mako that she was unable to pull out of it and return to the present. Mako’s present was a situation in which she was vital and required her agency to effect change. Mako’s disposition to give her past trauma so much power became a hindrance to moving forward. Perhaps this might be a way of trying to illuminate Adorno’s wariness regarding the idea of regress.

 

Regress as a musical notion 

 

Musically speaking, Wagner’s rich harmonies fill the physical space of a venue and emotionally give an otherworldly feel. Adorno describes this other-wordliness specifically as non-temporal. The choices of harmonic decisions in Wagner’s composing are compared to the Impressionists of decades later. The impressionists in Adorno’s view percieved their reality and abstracted from it, and the result was their work of art. Musically speaking, this otehr-worldiness can have very powerful effects. The dreamy nature of Debussy in his most famous piano pieces (such as Clare de Lune) gives an otherworldy nature of perhaps introspection, natural beauty. The celesta in ‘The Hut of Baba Yaga’ of Korsakov’s ‘Pictures from an Exhibition’ has an otherworldly quality of fantasy worlds that do not exist but in the world of paintings and human imagination.

 

I want it to be clear that other-worldy can mean very many things. However for Adorno, Wagner’s other-worldliness, his sonority, is specifically about a specific mental state of introspective regress. Music as a medium is distinctly non-representational, however the medium of Opera, which is also a dramatic and visual medium, gives the audience a specific leaning towards the meaning of the harmony.

 

Adorno says (p. 54) that Romanticism made Chromaticism a thing of progress, but Wagner turned it bland. Adorno puts forward a notion of Romanticism where suffering is expressed through chromaticism (p. 56), and chromaticism shows the poles of suffering and sweetness are blurred. Wagner presents pain in a pleasant way.

 

Wagner’s use of enharmonics as a way of transitioning in a way that alludes to the ‘old’ and original chord (p. 58-9):

 

But, by a strange reversal of the norm, these devices come to occupy the centre of the musical process and this endows them with an unprecedented power. They become fully comprehensible only in the light of a comparison with the most advanced material of contemporary music from which the inexorable presence of the Wagnerian transition has been eliminated (p. 59)

 

Sonority and regression – coda 

Why is this issue important? This issue reminds me of what is at the heart of a concept that I’ve been establishing in my mind that I may call Musical Conservatism. Musical conservatism is the notion that preserving aspects of past music in new music is a good. Musical conservatism is also by such a definition, resistant to innovation and emerging new idioms.

Regression is one aspect of musical conservatism, and I see conservatism everywhere in much current music. As a genre becomes established, new deities are made. Metallica, Slayer or Black Sabbath are deified in metal circles. In Black Metal, it is abit of a cliche to hear lots of underground bands referring to themselves as ‘true black metal’ or ‘raw black metal’ or ‘kvelt’, and despite the originally dire and revolutionary tendencies of the aesthetics of the bands of 20+ years ago in the early black metal scenes, what these ‘raw’ and ‘kvelt’ bands do are simply valorising the now-old Gods, and adding to their mythos by replicating their sound and aesthetic.

Regression is everywhere, even in the revolutionary mindset. The most dangerous aspect and the biggest threat to authenticity of revolutionary movement, political and aesthetic, is a fan base that valorises. Adorno’s discussion of Sonority is far more widespread than Wagner’s romanticism. Such regressive aesthetics permeate within any movement. What is particularly notable is that the forward thinking of the Romantic aesthetic eventually subverted through Wagner, into the repressive.

Michael

Reading Adorno: In Search of Wagner (3) ‘Motiv’

Introduction

 

In this essay I will address a view that I acknowledged in a post last year in an extended discussion I had about film soundtracks and leitmotif, in my critique of a Chris Bateman talk. I will examine Adorno’s view of Wagner’s use of Leitmotif, where the former effectively thinks that leitmotif has been diluted to become simply a marker of a character’s presence. Adorno also has specific points of critique to make about the nature of how leitmotif is applied by Wagner.

 

I shall firstly go into an attempt at exegesis on this essay, to try and get down to the charitable perspective of Adorno’s reservations about Wagner’s use of leitmotif. I should also say that I’ve had a struggle reading and trying to work out this essay. I might read this essay again in 20 years and have a completely different reading!

 

Exegesis – motif 

 

Adorno makes the bold point that leitmotif is being degraded in some way, cheapened even. It is suggested by Adorno that Wagner inter alia reflect the degredation of leitmotif to what it had eventually become:

 

“The degeneration of the leitmoti[f] is implicit in this: via the ingenious illustrative techique of Richard Strauss it leads directly to cinema music where the sole function of the leitmoti[f] is simply to announce heroes or situations so as to help the audience to orientate itself more easily.” [p.36]

 

Adorno makes the point that Wagner makes no progress beyond Viennese Classicism. Wagner advances a particular heritage of classicism that emphasises individuality, which then led to Wagner’s exploitation of communicating ambiguities. I take this kind of ambiguity to refer to a generic sense: psychological, musical (harmonic) and symbolically.

 

Adorno quotes Paul Bekker, a contemporamous music critic, who says that expression is fundamental ‘category’ of Wagner’s work. Adorno examines expressivity specifically through the development of the motif. A motif is a recognisable unit that can constitute melody, harmony or rhythm at its most basic sense. Leitmotif is the effective use of repeating a motif in a notable way. If I were having a cafe conversation with limited time, I would probably say ‘its sort of like a theme tune’. However, it is exactly Adorno’s point that leitmotif should be a more superior thing to just a theme tune. It is this revulsion to considering leitmotif as theme tune-motif  that I want to try to explore, Adorno’s critique of Wagner’s use of leitmotif.

 

The specific allegations 

 

Adorno points out the ambiguities in Wagner’s motifs, of lacking a temporal nature but rather appearing ‘totalising’ like some kind of Kantian or Post-Kantian system of metaphysics. Adorno also points out, with the specific example of the Tristanunde Isolde leitmotif, the use of chromaticism and its consequent ambiguitiy which has an allegorical nature.

 

Adorno says something that almost sounds like a compliment. Wagner’s richly forged chords (with a very overly complicated terminology for non-musicians) allows for a variety of possible interpretations, which could lead to different places, that do many things simultaneously. At the same time this richness of harmony I think Adorno considers as creating an other-worldly unity. One which is very much outside of the established principles of Viennese Classicism.

 

I think Adorno acknowledges that some of the innovations that Wagner makes in his harmonies are very clever. The use of secondary dominants and the particular harmonic progressions that Wagner makes, are psychologised to have a particular philosophical significance. Adorno considers it to be totalising, like the thinking of systematic philosophies, such as (allegedly) Kant, or Hegel, the refusal to return to the tonic is psychologised as a form of psychological regression. This is a very bold claim and one I am almost willing to take seriously.

 

Adorno considers such motifs regressive. There is an irony here. Adorno acknowledges how Wagner is refusing to be classical stylistically in the vein of Mozart, at the same time he uses the innovations of the ‘First Viennese school’. This very fact is an interesting contradiction. Wagner is classically informed, yet romantic. Anti-romantic, and yet anti-classical. I would consider this an interesting form of subversion. Very clever.


Adorno points out another juxtaposition. Wagner stylistically is classical in an atomistic sense, but in a wider global sense is anti-structure. Wagner gives the interesting impression of accessibility to the philistine. I think it is worth having in mind Adorno’s views on totalitarian thinking here, which he exhibits in another essay. Adorno is cautious of instrumental thinking, of rationalisation and totalising thought. Although these are from other essays beyond this collection.

 

Adorno considers the way in which Wagner’s motif is applied as bourgeois. Why? Because within the totality of it, there is a constant allusion and development and emergence of a single motif, that motif is constantly played with and treated as an individual. But it is an illusion, Adorno says. There is a lack of dialectic or antagonism towards the development of such a motif. These things make Wagner distinctly different from Viennese Classicism.

 

The contrast to Viennese Classicism is a significant one. I consider this to underpin the formalism imbued within Adorno’s musical criticism. I think that Adorno is advocating the view of formalism, namely, that it is the structural components of music that construe its aesthetic merit. It is often considered that the ‘First Viennese School’ were the great masters of such form. The allusion to Viennese Classicism is significant for the same reason I am constantly referring to it as the ‘First School’. A first school surely requires a second school, and the second school of Viennese Classicism would be Schoenberg and his disciples.

Adorno speaks of how Wagner appropriates disperately contrasting elements. Wagner attempts to combine opera seria with opera buffa. Wagner is genuinely altering the bourgeosie sensibilities of the time yet also entice a new set of sensibilities while gaining the respectability of a more ‘serious’ or learned audience. Wagner creates an overall more intensive musical experience as the drama and libretti merge with the musical composition and the directions of the conductor.  This sense of unity represents politically repressive themes of Wagner’s overall outlook: the totalisation of his music represents: “a halt to the action and […] the life process of society”.

Perhaps another way of communicating this is when we think about fictional worlds, we often take it at face value due to our lack of familiarity, and rarely, unless the text allows us to do so, critique it. When we look at a film like the Lion King, we are in awe at what is portrayed as the natural order and we do not question it. We become in more modern terminology, passive consumers, accepting the vision of the text that is given to us, because the construction of the cultural artefact encourages that limiting interpretation.

Michael

Reading Adorno: In Search of Wagner (2) ‘Gesture’

 

In this piece I shall address Theodor Adorno’s essay on ‘Gestures’. In this essay, Adorno wears more of a musician’s hat than his many other hats, like say, the Freudian psychoanalysis hat; the sociologist hat; or the philosophers’ hat.

 

Give them what they wantThe Allegory of the Running Man 

 

Perhaps the most informal way of trying to understand this essay, and that is by no means to say that I do in fact understand it; is to try and make a couple of cultural touchstones. There’s an expression among my friends which comes from the film ‘The Running Man’, which is about a totalitarian imagined future (from a 1980s perspective) where in order to ignore the reality of martial law, entertainment is used to pacify the audience, to use crass consumerism and aspiration as a ploy to accept the dominion of the status quo. One of the tools to do so is by the entertainment show ‘The Running Man’, where convicted persons go on a sadistic game show to fight for their lives. The character Killian says at the start of the show: ‘We give ’em what they want’. What an interesting parable to allude to when discussing a Marxian theorist of culture. The film itself is almost like some Frankfurt School parable. Later on in the film, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character makes a step towards overturning  the false class consciousness of the audience and then before he kills Killian, Arnold’s character (Ben Richards) recapitulates the phrase but giving it a new context: ‘and right now, I’m going to give the audience what I think they want’.

 

While I could say more about how this film is a parable for the Culture Industry thesis of Adorno, I might instead talk about Adorno’s damning essay on ‘Gesture’ that accuses Wagner not merely of bad character as he did in the essay ‘Social Character’, but of poor composing ability. I think the most salient and boiled down version of what Adorno says of Wagner in this essay is that the Saxony composer wrote unstylistically, and perhaps even unmusically. Wagner is putatively understood for being the composer of long phrases and lucious chromatics, building tensions and creating erotically charged dissonances, but to Adorno, there is compositional merit to this, and the reputation he has built on his composing is effectively a shallow populism: it is akin to Killian’s ‘give them what they want’. 

 

The Wagnerian Gesture 

 

One of the things I hate about academic writing is when a term is used, and can even be an everyday term, but it is not defined. I’m probably guilty of this myself on occaision. As this essay concerns the gesture. We might ask what is a gesture. Instead of giving a definition as such, Adorno points towards how Wagner’s work is gesture-like. Perhaps that is the closest we can get to for understanding a gesture.

 

One point Adorno makes is that as a person, Wagner’s traits show in his music, and both in terms of his music, and personality; Meister Wilhelm is a dilettante. Perhaps another crude way of putting this is to say that Wagner is a Jack of All Trades, and master of none. Wagner in his later operas put much effort into elements outside of the music itself: the libretti, mythology of the texts. It is even said that Wagner put much effort into the costumes and even the physical considerations of a concert venue in his Bayreuth opera house. Wagner was an ambitious person, and his music met such ambitions. However, to be dilettante is to be amateur. Adorno’s acusation is something as follows: Wagner’s ambitions were shallow, and this is reflected in the lack of depth in his music. This is what seems to me the meaning of a gesture.

 

Wagner as a bad composer 

 

Adorno does not say this without reasons. There are specific things that, within the musical work of Wagner’s work (in contrast to say the mythology of the libretti). Adorno has very specific things to say to accus Wagner of being a bad composer. They are the following:

 

Wagner emphasises the role of the conductor as a ‘master’ of the music. In historical context one may accept this and see this as leading to a future where conductors are on a level of musical artists as say, the composer. A generation after Wagner, notable composers had reputations as conductors, in particular Mahler must be mentioned. Mahler was almost as much a superstar conductor of his day as he was a notable composer!

 

Adorno also makes the point that the music Wagner makes is compatible with or conducive with the emphasised nature and centrality of the conductor with specific respect to tempo. Wagner also makes a claim that I’m still trying to work out in my own head, that there is a distinct atemporality to his music. I may take this to mean the way that the harmonies and textures of the compositions are atemporal both in terms of being otherworldly and not obviously alluding to the work of past composers. Compare this to say Brahms, where in much of his work the Beethovenian and Baroque elements are quite evident (and much pleasantly so). Not being an expert on Wagner, I will take this on face value about atemporality.

 

The other point about atemporality may be construed in terms of being immaterial to the historical based conditions of the music and the settings of the grand stories of Wagner’s operas. Atemporality also refers to the respect that the melodies don’t go anywhere interesting. Instead they simply and frustratingly stay in the same places without a good amount of development. Atemporality is something Adorno is using in a variety of senses, some ideological, some psychoanalytic, but all musically justifiable. To provide and example of the atemporality as a lack of melodic development, Adorno appeals to the infamousTristan concert prelude.

 

Wagnerian gestures try to speak of a grand view through big instrumental sounds of the symphony orchestra, but they are gestures because of the poor score-writing. Adorno specifically refers to poor modulations and disapproves of the secondary modulations present in much of Wagner’s score-writing to be sloppy.

 

Adorno references another Wagner commentator, Alfred Lorenz. Lorenz put forward a notable study of Wagner’s work and points out specifically the use of ‘bar form’ in Wagner’s work. Adorno picks up on this as a lack of form, and this is a big part of what Adorno seems to find disapproving in Wagner. I think something that wikipedia noted to me is that Lorenz is considered as a discredited authority on Wagner, due to the former’s associations with Nazi ideology. Adorno in the purposes of this essay, however, takes the bar form (AAB melodic phrasing) as horribly generic and unstylistic.

 

If I were to pretend to be Zizek and be facetious, I might give a crass analogy. Adorno here is employing something of an Oedipal fascination and protection of his mother against what he percieves as a threat to his mother, the father. In this crass parody of a Freudian analogy (which I urge you not to take seriously), the unwelcome father is Wagner who is courting the mother’s affections.

 

So who is the mother? In this essay I might take it to mean the ideals of Viennese Classicism. But to me this is not a good enough answer. If Adorno valorises the greatness of Mozart and Beethoven, I contend it is only mediated through the other masters of Viennese form: Adorno’s own divinities: Schoenberg and Webern. But let’s take a step back and talk about Viennese Classicism.

 

Viennese Clasccisism

 

What Adorno refers to as Viennese classicism refers to a golden age around the middle of the 18th Century (ah, the 18th century, my favourite time in philosophy), where the greats such as Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn developed stylistic innovations which emphasised a particular brand of balance, and form over feeling. I am led to feel that this historical ideal of the 18th Century is clouded by Adorno through the Schoenberg perspective. Late Beethoven cannot be said to exhibit balance in its emotional temperament. Perhaps Adorno’s understanding is anachronstic. It is often said that talk of a ‘First and Second Reich’ only came about when the Third Reich was conceptualised as a notion. Likewise, there seems to be no Viennese Classicism in Adorno without what had come to be known as the Second Viennese school. There are reasons to support this interpretation in other essays where Adorno compares and contrasts Wagner’s composing and scoring to Schoenberg. The essay ‘Colour’ comes to mind when thinking of Adorno comparing to another ‘Viennese great’, which I shall write about hopefully soon enough.

 

Why is Viennese Classicism so important? This to me is the real issue of this essay. If Wagner is a composer of gestural motions, it is because he does not pay attention to the innovative aspects of his forebears such as Beethoven. Beethoven and Mozart were masters of form when it came to composition, they were masters of developing melodic lines and harmonies and of transitioning keys. I take this to be more than a musical opinion but a strong personal conviction. However I am sceptical of Adorno’s disapproval. I understand the ideological and cultural grounds for saying that Wagner fails as a composer compared to Beethoven. Then again, almost every other composer fails to compare to Beethoven, and those that dare to surpass him number on a four-fingered hand. Of course Adorno would think Schoenberg numbers among that four (as do I!).

 

The Tristan passage which Adorno is highly distainful of, I find hard to be convinced that this is terrible part writing. Adorno talks more about the Tristan passage in his essay ‘Motiv’. Which particularly goes into what I consider as a very contraversial view about Leitmotif. If Wagner was a composer of gestures, then he has fooled even me that his harmonies are luxurious. Indeed Meister Wilhelm even convinced Nietzsche for a time. Adorno stated in his own musicological way of the shallowness of Wagner’s writing which has a simultaneous appeal to it, because it is gestural. Adorno says this where Nietzsche says in much pithier words: Only sick music makes money today.

 

Some conclusions

Part of me wonders as I read this book, and as we had also written an essay on Glenn Gould on this blog some weeks ago: what would have Gould thought of Adorno? Adorno very much resembles one of the personalities that Gould adopted in his broadcasting work, of the avant-garde radical composer. Both are fans of Schoenberg, I keep emphasising this because there are very few of us in the world, living and dead! However, for very similar reasons, Gould enjoys Bach where Adorno valorises the Vienna 18th Century. Gould however, was no big fan of Beethoven or Mozart (Gould once made the infamous comment that ‘Mozart died too late’). Part of me wonders whether Adorno’s vision of music prefigured a character like Glenn Gould, or whether Gould’s later piano career could be seen as reflecting some of the musical ideology that could be said to be ‘Adornian’. This is a thought that I will try to develop more hopefully as I am going further along in assessing these essays.

A serious point is to be made here. I could take Adorno’s views here seriously, and I would respond to say I am not convinced that a lack of form is such a bad thing in something like the Tristan concert prelude. However, I find Adorno’s reasons very apt, if they were applied to other music. Something that I have also been suspecting about Adorno is finding textual evidence. Namely, that Adorno could have been a formalist aesthetically speaking. Formalism is the view that what makes something beautiful is the form of it, and the underlying rules and principles that govern that art form. Those are the things that made Beethoven great, those are also the things that made Schoenberg a great composer too. But if Wagner were a great composer, it would only be for him as a dilettante. But that said, that to me is not necessarily a bad thing. This is an essay where Adorno is uncharitable, but his points force me to take them seriously because of the strength of the psychoanalytic association between Wagner’s character and the shallowness of his writing. Perhaps if we are to take formalism seriously as an aesthetic view, we may draw from an essay like this to evaluate its merits, by looking at the demerits of its alternative.

Michael

Reading Adorno: In Search of Wagner (1) ‘Social Character’

In Adorno’s Essay ‘Social Character’, the philosopher attempts to go into a character study of the composer himself, through a selective history and a look at the Wagnerian texts. In particular I would like to highlight what I shall call ‘the Wagnerian joke’ and internal conflicts about the ideology of Wagner. I should say as I regularly do when I write commentaries like these, that my thoughts are always subject to change, and I am hardly authoritative when thinking and writing about Adorno. I write as if this blog were my digital moleskine diary.

 

A summary of this essay would be that Adorno tries to psychologise Wagner. In doing so, Adorno gives us a reason to consider the composer as a self-aggrandising egotist who relies on the middle-upper classes to fund his composing while at the same time critiquing the order of the status quo. Wagner also portrays his ideological vision of the world using the Jews, or rather, a stereotyped characterisation that his audience would recognise as a Jewish sentiment, as problematic to society. Adorno points out how there is an internal inconsistency, or conflict in the ways that Wagner both relies on the bourgeoisie patronage, as well as the status quo of a culture which celebrates opera; against Wagner’s supposedly revolutionary sentiment. The other ‘conflict’ relates what is casually referred to as Wagner’s secret. Namely, the accusation (which is not explicitly stated in Adorno but only alluded to), that Nietzsche knew ‘the truth’ of Wagner’s parentage, that in spite of all of Wagner’s anti-semitism, he himself may have had a Jewish heritage. So that’s a summary of the essay. I could just end my blog post here! But of course, I never do end at the beginning.

 

The Wagnerian Joke 

 

The Wagnerian Joke reflects a certain personality trait that Adorno is trying to trace in looking at Wagner historically. Adorno draws from materials such responses to Wagner’s earlier works and his own descriptions of them, testimonies about the composer as well as other stories and relationships that are documented. Such as Wagner’s letters to the Romantic heavyweight composer, Franz Liszt; Wagner’s contact with Friedrich Nietzsche and Wagner’s contact with Nietzsche’s sister, Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche, the latter who became infamous for her antisemitism, but that’s another story.

 

What I would call the Wagnerian joke draws a certain unitary concept from the testimonies and characterisations that Adorno seems to string together about the way Wagner believed in his own cultic status and revolutionary character. Wagner’s sense of self-celebration is depicted also in select characters of his works.

 

The Wagnerian joke, as drawn from this essay can be understood in the following ways:

 

  1. Wagner ridicules the plight of a character whose malady comes from a concrete social situation

  2. By doing this Wagner creates a sense of humour while also attempting to create a form of celebration. The joke, and response of laughter serves as a rationalisation and acceptance of the plight in question. Instead of thinking critically about it, we laugh.

  3. A consequence of this is that Wagner makes himself in a janused fashion both malicious behind a magnanimous and friendly face

 

The Wagnerian joke is deeply sinister, and it is imbued within the comedy around Mime’s character. Another example of the Wagnerian Joke is the anecdote of Hermann Levi conducting Parsifal. Levi was a Jew and one might think that this could be something to allay the concern of Wagner’s anti-semitism. Adorno refers to a story in which Wagner gives Levi a letter written anonymously to the effect of telling Levi to step down from composing Parsifal. Levi asks why Wagner gave the conductor this letter and Wagner answers in a way that appears both kind but also deeply sinister and ugly at once. Apparently after Wagner gave the letter to Levi, the latter was deathly silent at a dinner engagement to which Wagner asked Levi why he was so quiet, which was in some darkly way, a gesture of intimidation clothed behind the appearance of concern. The Wagnerian joke is something Adorno describes and I am trying to conceptualise (by calling it the Wagnerian joke), but realistically speaking, I cannot really have a grasp on it as a notion.

 

Perhaps the closest thing that came to mine was the comedy of Ricky Gervais. Particularly in the way that Gervais uses embarrassment and humiliation as a way of breaking a character down and revealing the facade and fakeness that was really underneath. I’ve had conversations about this kind of Gervais reactionhumour (another term I made up on an ad hoc basis) and this seems to be the basis of the dislike or like of Ricky Gervais as a comedic writer. I personally am a fan of the ugliness of the Gervais reaction as there’s something very awkward and untimely about it, television sitcoms and acting seem to have this polished nature to it and the Gervais reaction is an instance of how something in real life happens that is not comedic and not timely. Whether one finds this funny, seems to be the defining question of whether one is a fan of Gervais or not.

 

Wagner’s inner conflicts 

 

Another aspect of Wagner’s social character seems to be the internal conflicts present within his work and his character. One dimension of this is the relationship with the bourgeosisie that Wagner has. Wagner is dependent on the Bourgois classes as patronage and as a paying audience. Adorno notes how Wagner occupied a time before state provisions were introduced for artists, and also when the influence of opera was waning. As such Wagner occupied a position of a bohemian, the artisan without a patron. It is interesting sociologically speaking, to think about the ways in which artists and musicians of the various times in history may find financial support before they become properly established, if they ever become established at all. This is an issue that many people in bands or many artists face today. Have we really escaped the age of the Patron. In the UK we have things like the National Lottery and the Arts Council, who are in some ways not so much different to the House of Esterhazy or Ludwig II of Bavaria.

 

Wagner’s narratives reflect a feudal mentality, and one which is in some respects against the bourgeois status-quo. Adorno points out the compromise of Wagner’s integrity to take the thalers of patrons and appealing to bourgeois sensibilities, while also trying to provide a revolutionary sentiment of a different social order. How far can one be revolutionary while conforming to the modes of the status quo? In some ways this is not a unique issue. Another book I’m currently reading, by filmmaker Kevin Smith: “Tough Shit: Life Advice from a Fat, Lazy Slob Who Did Good”  speaks about the early days of Miramax and the indie films he made with them. Smith speaks about how the rise and rise of Smith’s career was due to a commitment to a specific vision of his stylised view to filmmaking. Smith later admits that the intervention of studio executives interfering with various aspects of his filmic vision led to a compromise and a loss of interest from a large part of his audience. I think the film that Smith refers to as destroying him in the book was ‘Cop out’. Back to Wagner…

 

This kind of compromise might look disingenuous. But I do wonder if Adorno meant it to be so. This kind of tension is based on the social conditions of creating music. If I were to create music today, I’d need access to quite a fair bit of equipment. I would need some fancy software and fancy recording equipment and it’s not too easy to get a hold of a lot of that stuff without a studio, or making one! I’m actually having this problem lately as it happens with another project. On the other hand, Wagner’s ideology that underpins his opera libretti are deeply imbued as social narratives and visions of society. One reading of this inconsistency is suggestive the necessity of a consideration of the means of production in the culture industry and thinking along that narrative, another reading reveals the strained relationship with the bourgoisie that Wagner had following a textual consideration.

 

The other inconsistency needs a bit of unpacking. Wagner as an anti-semite characterised these behaviours and characters that an audience of his time would associate with Jewish connotations and the negative stereotypes of their day, as well as reflecting cultural worries. Wagner’s vitriol was a point of contention when it came to his friendship with Nietzsche. Adorno points out how Niezsche alluded to ‘Wagner’s secret’ or the inconsistency of knowing the truth about Wagner in the light of these antisemitic characterisations and attitudes in the latter’s work. I am slightly perplexed at the way Adorno words this issue, because it seems not explicit. After some digging, I think what Adorno was alluding to in not enough words was the controversial claim that Richard Wagner’s father was not Carl Wagner, but his stepfather, Ludwig Geyer. Also by extension, the rumour that Geyer was Jewish would by this line of speculation entail that Wagner had a Jewish heritage. I think it is reasonable that this is what Adorno is alluding to with Nietzsche’s allegation, which I think comes from Nietzsche’s 1888 work Der Fall Wagner.

 

With this line of thought I am unsure of how seriously to take this. Adorno goes into detail of how the characters Alberich and Mime reflect Wagnerian ideosyncracies which rely on cultural prejudices and the “Race theory [which] assumes its rightful place in the no man’s land between idiosyncracy and paranoia” (Adorno 2009: 15). Adorno thinks that the racialised characterisation and the ‘ideosyncracies’ as he calls it, reflect and betray the deeply anti-semitic character of Wagner’s work.

 

Concluding thoughts 

 

Adorno reads into the ugliness of Wagner’s character in this essay. The beautiful music and lyricism of works such as Der Meistersingers von Nürnberg are met by the inexorable ugliness of the character of Wagner. Reading this book we are led to ask that open question: how do we square this circle of a great composer who is, according to Adorno, ugly to the core. Perhaps this is an ongoing question we should have when reading this book.

Another thing I might worry about when reading Adorno is that there seems to be an internal logic to reading this book. If one is reading ‘In Search of Adorno’ as a way to interpreting Wagner, we would be dealing with the simplistic reading of ‘is this how to interpret Wagner?’, and the answer to that is probably better answered by reading some more specialised Wagner literature. There does seem however, to be another alternate route to reading this text, and that is by a principle of charity, taking serious the internal logic and argumentation of where Adorno is going with his line of thought. This involves a suspension of judgment more akin to when I’m reading say Descartes or Kant. An example of this would be: when reading Descartes on the soul or on God, or Kant on his metaphysics, one simply has to assume we can validly talk about the soul, or God before engaging critically with their thoughts, failing to do so is failing to be an exegete. That said, I do wonder how far Adorno’s internal logic is seperatable from reading the text without having such a charitable hermeneutical perspective.

Michael

In Search of Wagner: a preamble

I thought that we’d begin a new ‘Reading’ series, as I’ve not done one in a very long time. After the passing of Gary Banham and seeing the end of his ‘Inter Kant’ blog being updated, I thought about the influential way that his blogging style has been so informative to me, particularly his ongoing commentaries on Kant monographs; his commentaries on Parfit and Ethics, as well as his commentary on ‘A Theory of Justice’. If there’s one thing that exercises philosophical ability is the role of commentary and exegesis, which in turn may be a useful reference for our thoughts later on down the line.

 

I’m going to start on a book that was unknown and new to me. I did not truly realise the breadth of Theodor Adorno’s writing on music beyond individual essay vignettes. The book I wish to review in serial format is Theodor Adorno’s ‘In Search of Wagner’. In this piece I shall have some reflections propaedeutic. This piece primarily reflects on the introduction note written by Adorno and the Verso publication introduction which was written by Slavoj Žižek, which is notably interesting in its own right.

 

Why should we be interested in Wagner? 

 

Let’s start with the question: why should we be interested in this book? I’m no expert in Wagner studies or 19th Century musical history. Žižek’s introduction, and Adorno’s own introduction preface seem a little bit disingenuous to me. Both of them effectively acknowledge that the main subject of this book: the ideological baggage of composer Richard Wagner’s work in a way that prefigures the later cultural tropes and notions of the later 20th Century, particularly when located within the context of class. Adorno acknowledges in the preface how surviving copies of the original work were limited as a consequence of the Second World War, and so a few additional essays were added and some edits made. Adorno also acknowledges that his views had moved on slightly since the original time of writing, and so this book is in a strange way already outdated.

 

Why should we be interested in Wagner? Perhaps Žižek answers this in the most interesting way:

 

In 1995, at a conference on Wagner at Columbia University in New York, after the majority of participants had exceeded each other in the art of unmasking the anti-Semitic and proto-Fascist dimension of Wagner’s art, a member of the public asked a wonderful naive question: ‘So if you all are saying is true, if anti-Semitism is not just Wagner’s private idiosyncracy, but something which concerns the very core of his art, why, then, should we still listen to Wagner today, after the experience of the Holocaust? When we enjoy Wagner’s music, does this stigmatize us with complicity or acquiescence, at least, in the Holocaust? The embarrassed participants – with the honourable exception of one honest fanatical anti-Wagnerite who really meant it, proposing that we stop performing Wagner – replied with confused versions of ‘No, of course we did not mean that, Wagner wrote wonderful music…’ – a totally unconvincing compromise, even worse than the standard aestheticist answer: ‘Wagner as a private person had his defects, but he wrote music of incomparable beauty, and in his art, there is no trace of anti-semitism…’ […] The battle for Wagner is not over: today, after the exhaustion of the critical-historicist and aestheticist paradigms, it is entering its decisive phase.

 

This thought reflects the uncomfortable tension. To acknowledge a composer whose sign of influence is significant even by those who would oppose him; a composer whose rich chromaticism has taken us musically into directions that we cannot turn back from; whether we like it or not, in terms of harmony; and a composer it seems, who has a deeply troubling set of ideas underlying his work. In Žižek’s essay, the Lacanian goes into detail of how characters such as Mime, or the cultural text of the Ring Cycle alludes to the 19th Century context of a discussion of what at the time had been described as ‘The Jewish Question’. The issue of Wagner’s anti-semitism is a very deep one. Considering that the oft-attributed quote of Adorno that ‘After the Holocaust, poetry is barbaric’, for me the Wagnarian themes of folk-culture revival, mysticism, sentimentality, the place of the bourgeoisie, and big narratives of ‘love’ and ‘death’ are not harmless and isolated cultural phenomena, they are ideological, and subjects for ethical and critical analysis.

 

If there is such a thing as being an Adornian, I would like to think that it is someone who takes a critical view at our mass culture, and sees the ideology that underpins it. Whether that is the misogynist and anti-authority narratives of NWA’s ‘A Bitch iz a Bitch’ or ‘Fuck tha police’, and not seeing these cultural items as anodyne. Culture reflects our sentiments and the better we can be aware of it, the more we can realise that the ways in which culture affects us when we are in our downtime forms of an influential force that affects our decisions which in turn affects consumption, environmental and social behaviours and perhaps even things as high up as ideology. We cannot take the ideologies underlying cultural texts sitting down, we must take it as seriously as say, a speech from a politician or a newspaper headline, as politically and ideologically significant.

 

Who should read this? 

 

I should say that the more I give Adorno a bit of charity and favour, the more I should be aware of the ways reading Adorno may be problematic. A side question to this is: how should we read ‘In Search of Wagner?’ This is a book of interest to critical theorists (which I’m not); maybe sociologists; and more likely Wagner scholars. Adorno writes in a way that is so expansive that one does need to have a good amount of familiarity with a variety of subjects before really engaging with him. It so happens that many of the subjects Adorno appeals to (such as early social theory, German Philosophy and the European tradition of classical music) are not unfamiliar staples to me. Reading Žižek’s introduction makes me understand slightly more the anecdotal ways in which he appeals to cultural references to explain something philosophical. Just as an interesting aside, I am completely astounded at the description of an Eastern European marriage custom to reflect the sexually confused nature of Wagner’s Siegfried character. I’m always amused by Žižek’s anecdotes even if one should be wary of how he uses them (we’ve discussed the topic of Žižek‘paraphrasing in a previous post).

 

In search of Wagner 

 

Žižek points out how long after the publication of these essays in ‘In Search of Wagner’, Adorno’s views slightly softened and he came to appreciate Wagner more. Perhaps there is a general philosophical question here which has come from times ancient: how can we be drawn to something that gives us such an adverse reaction? Back to the likes of Aristotle, Plato and Hume we go to the topic of how it is that we are drawn to tragedy and sad emotions in theatre. Or perhaps to reframe the question in less general terms: can we consider something like Reifenstahl’s Triumph of the Will to be a great work, knowing how it is an obvious propaganda tool for the Nationalist Socialists of the time.

Digging into the cultural dimensions of Wagner is fruitful enough. I must admit I didn’t really understand what Žižek was trying to say about Wagner’s sexually repressive attitudes as it bordered on psychoanalysis and perhaps a perspective too eccentric for me to understand.  When I read this book, I am in search of a view of musical history. I’ve spoken about my performing aspects of being a musician in the past, but in my practicing and performing, and more recent engagements, there is something of a connection between my musical mind and my cultural thoughts. Or I should say the former informs the latter in some ways.

Coda: Why read Adorno?

I am convinced of the genius of Theodor Adorno’s work. I hold that Adorno’s breadth of work and topics are so wide they cannot be constrained in the ways that they have been, by introductions to critical theory overviews that don’t go into depth, or speaking of the genius in the same breath of his inferior peers like Benjamin or Mercuse; without in some way undermining what is deep and unique about this thinker. I am curious about the internal contradiction I have: of this period of history I have followed an interest in movement of philosophy from Vienna completely different to the Frankfurters. I am also interested in the magician-like way in which Adorno escapes a definition: is Adorno a Marxist? Is Adorno a philosopher? Is Adorno a musicologist? Is Adorno a Sociologist? Is Adorno part of the Frankfurt School? I am interested in the fact that many people call Adorno elitist but also in the same breath admit they cannot understand many of the notions he appeals to. I am attracted to the fact that like Kant, Adorno was not exactly an easy writer to read. Questions like these are in the back of my mind in this exploration. I am in search of a method of doing philosophy. I thinking about what it could mean to be a musical philosopher. I am thinking about how being theoretically minded about culture may be of contemporary relevance. I am in search of Adorno.

Michael

On Guilty Pleasures (or, shall we eat cake?)

The more I think about it, the more I see the proliferation of guilty pleasures. What is a guilty pleasure? A guilty pleasure is a thoughtless form of satisfaction, it requires little critical effort and one engages with it in one’s own terms. The more a guilty pleasure is consumed, the more it is made as a desirable end. A guilty pleasure is something that usually one knows that they should for whatever reason know better than enjoying. One should know that there are more thoughtful, more refined or more engaging sensibilities. But for whatever reason, we will always have our guilty pleasure. So ends my definition.

I was thinking about this from one particular thing. It started with a bus advert, it was for the upcoming Sly Stallone film ‘Bullet to the Head’, which reminded me of how comforting I have found Stallone films. The comfort comes from the predictable nature of action films. It is predictable that there will be juxtapositions: of the older man handling a post 2010s world with a 1970s outlook; the juxtaposition of how physical violence is socially unacceptable, but seeing it on film gives one such an animalistic buzz when it is executed with comedy and finesse, or a one-liner. The year is 2013 and there are a whole lot of bus adverts with a 60-something action hero returning to doing films of a genre that was out of date two decades ago. However I might poo-poo on the action film. I grew up with it and many other people my age and older had, and it is a guilty pleasure. For all the critical things I have said I’m probably going to watch the film in the cinema and I’m probably going to laugh at the gags and have a good time with my friends. I find it interesting how the film critic, who is supposedly the bastion of cultural sensibility and critique, have so easily chosen to take an uncritical view of a film.

I think perhaps the most notable way of showing the guilty pleasure and how it affects our mindset is when certain topics come to mind that evoke comforting associations and a completely different way of thinking to normal, this may involve things such as: cake, sex, alcohol, LAN parties, football, poetry slams (delete as appropriate). I’ve been following the film reviews of the upcoming Kim Ji-Woon directed film ‘The Last Stand’ and many have pointed out how the film is mediocre, except for the fact that it serves as a return of action film star Arnold Schwarzenegger. Richard Roeper gives it a B- review. The editor of Shortlist Magazine, Martin Robinson (sic) said something to the effect of how despite how he may boast of his refined cultural sensibilities: he has seen The Seventh Seal maybe twice, but he’s seen Commando over 160 times. The Guardian Film Review’s Peter Bradshaw reflects on effectively giving the film a metaphorical get out of jail freecard just for reinforcing the cult of Arnold Schwarzenegger and the ‘good old days’ of action films. A guilty pleasure is a great way to hide critical thinking.

The guilty pleasure may be seen as harmless and sometimes it is not necessarily making an explicit point about the world. However, it is hardly apolitical, insofar as the following truism remains. If one chooses to indulge in a guilty pleasure, they do so willingly to the avoidance of something else. This is not harmless in itself, but what if we are surrounded by advertising appealing to guilty pleasures to a degree that temptation and it acknowledgement is impossible. Advertising for package holidays, nice shoes, the next series of your favourite drama series, celebrity gossip on your news feeds or the desserts that are right by the door on supermarkets the country over. If the way we spend our time is oriented or centred around guilty pleasures? Where is the time to think, and think differently? Where is the time to challenge the status quo? It’s one thing to talk about figuratively voting with our feet, what we choose to watch on television (or whether we choose to watch it) is something we can control. But we cannot escape many of the advertisements ubiquitous in social spaces to remind us of the ways we can find hedonistic enjoyment.

I definitely would hold that the guilty pleasure is something that is here to stay and it would be wrong to deny this. I must admit that I have mine. In my mission to redefine my body mass through weight training and other strenuous activities on a regular basis, the proclusion of cake (inter alia) is advisable. However my other guilty pleasures involve little games on my smartphone; the occaisional day in or night out with my friends; comic books; or old-school heavy metal tunes pretend to say that I have moved on from. Despite the ways in which I am otherwise Spartan and ascetic. I still accept the occaisional frequent guilty pleasure.

Part of me wonders if Adorno would have really denied the importance of guilty pleasures in addressing its ideological implications for capitalism. Adorno himself was a fan of very bad cowboy western films. I am in a broad agreement with the Adornian point that a culture of satiation has political ramifications for late Capitalism and the eroision of counter-discourses. Shall we let ourselves eat cake?

Michael (based on a conversation with Antisophie)

Reading Adorno: “Resignation”

I suspect this will be the last blog post specifically following our reading of Adorno for a little while.  After reading the essay ‘Resignation’  I discovered that Adorno wrote this piece towards the twilight of his life, and it was his final publication . For me, this has a powerful resonance for a variety of reasons. It sounds like the writing of a man who has seen a lot in his life: the fall of Marxism’s theoretical worth; the rise and fall of Nationalist Socialism and the implosion of expressionism and the early 20thC avant-garde, in a way you could say there is a correlation between all of those three things. Marxism and the avant-garde became perverted by ideology through its idealist advocates. Idealism of political ideology is the enemy of Adorno’s last essay.

One of the themes I’ve had throughout my reading of Herr Adorno’s essays is this: if we are to accept Adorno’s cultural vision of the world as an oppressive mechanism of capitalism to promote the status quo, where is the oppurtunity for change, and what are the grounds of its possibility? A related criticism of Adorno is this: in his perspective on culture and his use of a Marxist framework, where is the potential for radical change and challenge against the status quo?

A critique of ‘absolutised’ praxis

I think the one thing that I found amusing is how Adorno refers to ‘the eleventh thesis’ (my personal ideosyncracy) as ..Feuerbach’s ‘eleventh thesis’. Adorno has become so tired of hearing this dictum that it has become a painful dogma of any Marxist thinker. In the essay ‘Resignation’, Adorno answers the common question that he apparently got: why is there no scope for radical reform or activism in his theoretical view of culture and society. In a sense, Adorno does not answer this but instead critiques the presumed view that praxis must accompany theory. Adorno makes the following specific points:

  1. Extreme action in the name of radical social change is a form of resignation
  2. Those who emphasis praxis so much tend to be ‘light’ on theory
  3. Those who say praxis must accompany theoria place an arbitrary limitation on thinking; a form of suppression
  4. ‘Absolutised activism’ is an activity which accepts the impossibility of the change such advocates try to promote, in that way it is a form of pseudo-activity where the only form of response to the status quo is reaction. This is basically the equivalent of someone shouting as loud as they can at poor customer service when they realise nothing will happen through this activity of shouting, but their indignant reaction is the only limited option they have, for their theoria limited minds.
  5. ‘pseudo-activity’ as Adorno calls the overly excited activism of a person who is too much praxis, not enough thought, is a form of resignation, an acceptance that by creating an immediate action to the present, they cannot resolve the disconnect between their lofty idealism of a utopian world, with the status quo. Adorno considers ‘political acts violence’, and anarchism as examples of ‘pseudo-activity’
  6. Adorno considers this form of resignation in Freudian terms: to regress one’s understanding of the world to simplistic terms and overly simplistic means of achieving a satisfactory outcome is a sign of dissatisfaction or acknowledgment of the impossibility of change. Or as Adorno puts it:

“The feeling of a new security is purchased with the sacrifice of autonomous thinking. […] According to Freud [..]whoever regresses has not achieved the goal of his drives. Objectively viewed, reformation is renunciation, even if it considers itself the opposite and innocently propagates the pleasure principle”

Adorno calls out two ironies. Firstly, that so-called critical discourses of Marxists and activists, genera, are so keen to uncritical simplifications. Secondly, Adorno would point out the irony that those who would be so eager to critique him for proposing no means of radical reform or change are themselves the people who are resigning their fate to the status quo. Their extreme political actions are an acceptance that they will achieve nothing. To paraphrase Doctor Johnson, absolutised praxis is the last resort of a scoundrel. Where is the critical thinking in the arbitrary division of labour between praxis and theoria? If we are to say it is 50/50, any reason we have would be arbitrary. If we are to take praxis in any way seriously, we have to take into account what the analysis says, or allows for political and social change. To limit theory in this way of emphasising praxis is to cease critical though. Activism becomes terrorism, both terrorism of the intellect and literal terrorism.

Let’s not sidestep this issue

Adorno is asked a question about the space for political action in his theoretical world, and does not answer it, instead sidestepping into an interesting critique at the uncritical and untheoretical aspects of people who would call themselves critical theorists. I think its interesting how Adorno dedicates an essay to one of his most important criticisms, and yet refuses to answer it! Maybe I can do a bit of archaeology here and mete out an answer to this question. To repeat the question: Why does Adorno propose no form of political action or model of change to the capitalist status quo? I think this answer would take place in the theory, or to put it in other words: there really isn’t much scope for social change.

Adorno makes the point in ‘Resignation’, that thinking, and ideas are the most powerful form of criticism. Feminists circles would perhaps call this ‘consciousness raising’, and many in such circles see this as one of the first steps in feminist activism. Adorno’s vision of the world is fundamentally pessimistic. Adorno follows an ethical philosophical pessimism of the likes of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Adorno’s pessimism has a sociological bent as well, following the likes of Max Weber’s take on the role of (instrumental) rationality taking over the industrialised world, Weber himself, I think, was influenced by Nietzsche. The reason that there is little scope for change is that capitalism subverts even that which was subversive to the status quo, that is the essence of the culture industry.

With success and a greater engagement into established channels of the means of production, we see former revolutionary bands like Judas Priest or Megadeth who capitalised on highlighting the disenchanted youth of their respective 1970s and 1980s, have become whirring tools in the capitalist machine. Their degree of social critique is still present, but within the confines of their means of production. It is fair to say that Adorno allows a theoretical possibility for social critique and by extension, social change. Adorno would also think that each new innovation that came, and that will come in the future, will provide new ways of social challenge (consider the way that social media can be used to organise protests), but these new means also provide new forms of control (consider the way social media claims more ownership on your information, advertises to you more aggressively and can be controlled by external agencies). The culture industry is clever, and will always find new ways of making money and controlling social space.

Destre

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.

Michael