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.


Reading Adorno: Culture, Administration and ‘institutionalised culture’

As I further read Adorno, I find many of the cultural references he establishes interesting, they are interesting in that they show a man’s familiarity with what he essentially finds repulsive and corrosive. I myself make a purposeful effort to listen to music that I wouldn’t normally like, or I might say it in a different way: if I listened only to the things that I liked, I would be incredibly dull and unchallenged aesthetically speaking, even if my music interests are typically subversive ideologically. Adorno was well aware that subversive cultural objects can be sanitsed and appropriated by the culture industry to become an anodyne machination to enforce the cultural status quo.

I am reading an essay ‘Culture and Administration’, where he addresses a certain kind of putative dichotomy between these two notions. Administration may be typified as the Weberian concept of rationality. According to Adorno’s reading of Weber, institutions which become increasingly organised and efficient seek as a norm, to become even more efficient and organised, I wonder what both sociologists would have thought of Machine Learning! Culture by contrast, is fuzzy, culture is ideological but also without a system of order and can manifest organically and in its various infestations, manifest in its own unique way. I take Adorno to appropriate this dichotomy as a late 19thC or Romantic notion (I must admit that I’ve not quite finished the essay yet). However, for the context of Adorno’s broader cultural industry notion, it seems interesting to invoke this contrast.

Perhaps there is a normative role for culture, a still existent rational possibility for the emergence of Culture in the way he has construed. Emergent forms of art representing ideologies may simply come from various historical and cultural contexts and remain fresh and relevant. When I read about Adorno’s distinction, I immediately thought about the state of the arts in the UK. Many artists and projects are maintained institutionally. A lot of Classical Music in the UK through the BBC is essentially tax payer funded (or whoever pays a TV license). This is an instance where ‘culture’ directly has an administrative character. There are manifold other instances of this, the British Government has a ‘ministry for culture’, which does sound quite Orwellian (as in 1984) to me.

If I were to take an Adornian perspective to the current affairs of ‘institutionalised culture’ we might see the institutionalisation of culture, that is to say, by paying and supporting artists, funding bodies take an areopagite role of determining the agenda of future successess, at least as far as financially supported artists may go. Of course, as we have learned from the bohemians, financial support goes a long way to recognition among the public, and as we have also learned from history, it is not always the ones who are popular who are remembered.

When I think of Adorno’s contrast between culture and administration there is the air of the old ‘creativity versus rationality’ dichotomy, and I am also reminded of Kant’s notion of the genius, which I am sure Adorno had in the back of his mind. The Genius is a creative potential to redefine the rules of a given art, genuine innovation comes not from following the rules of an artistic norm, but working from one’s inner creativity to establish an internal logic and order. Perhaps simply said, the truely eminent don’t follow rules and principles of their art but create their own. I think by this contrast of culture and administration, Adorno allows for the possibility of the Genius, and I’m pretty sure that he thought Alban Berg/Arnold Schoenberg were exemplars [and he’s not wrong!].

As I close this piece I realise that there is an amphiboly here. I used three senses of the term culture. Culture qua culture industry, which involves the oppressive machination of late capitalism to use media such as radio and television to have an impact upon the social consciousness. Culture versus administration, which allows for a positive notion of art, perhaps through the Kantian genius, or the emergence of underground movements. Lastly, I considered an undefined and perhaps putative use of the word in my address of ‘culture’ institutionalised. The state of funded cultural projects today shows both the administrative and autonomous aspects of various cultural practices (such as say, Grayson Perry’s British Museum exhibit). Perhaps this infrastructure is a more rationalised form of the patron. Institutionalised culture does not challenge the terminology of Adorno, rather, it emphasises that terms need to be pulled apart.


Cultural Connections: The protest generation

I was currently reading an essay “The Schema of Mass Culture” by Adorno over the past couple of weeks. I was planning to write about it and make some notes, but I need a lot of time to think about it, to connect the dots as it were and I know that any interpretation that I do have is hardly definitive or worth reading. Connecting to the present, I have been catching up on the news events around the world from room with a window facing dull suburbia. With the recent riots behind me, I am observing that there is a protest movement in the USA. There are already internet memes mockingly referring to the sincerity of the movement, which in a way both undermines its seriousness, as well as acknowledges its influence.The phrase ‘we are the 99%’ is coming up a lot.

Around the world, protests are popping up. This is hardly a uniquely pan-Arab phenomena, as so-called ‘developed’ or ‘northern/western’ countries are experiencing moments of civil unrest. Credit rating agencies are looking poorly on the borrowing records of governments, and many pundits foresee more difficult economic times before it gets better. This issue exascerbates already underlying social inequalities, and in a way creating new ones. This is a recipe for civil unrest.

Over the past few years of writing this blog, I’ve noted a certain cynicism (namely, mine) about protest movements in general. I’m cynical that they got hijacked by families of causes, or they are simply not listened to, or that apathy rules stronger. There are a great number of interests groups these days. If we are to look at the UK, there are a huge family of interests which form the broad ‘anti-cuts’ protest movement. In a way I still feel cynical about whether they will make any affective change, but their voices are definately going to be heard. In some way, protest methods have become more plural, more inclusive, and not necessarily more direct-action based (although there’s a lot of that too).

Reading Adorno, I am reminded that certain Frankfurt school representatives would engage with student protest interests, combining praxis with their theory. The social sciences, and to a lesser extent, philosophy, had become relevant to the protest sensibilities of the time. What happened with the protest movements were that they fizzled out, and the failure of which set the cultural tone of pessimism for the 1970s in the manifold of cultural movements. I wonder how this situation will pan out, but I’m certainly not optimistic of the emergence of a world soul, or socialist utopia. Perhaps, like Adorno thought: culture will be schematised to expected conditions and the terms of collusion will be carved out by culture, cutting the protest motive from the jugular. Television popular light entertainment in the UK is at a peak high that it has not seen in decades, a fixation on such a culture seems to be an interesting contemporamous bedfellow of the protest movement. I find something distinctly Adornian about that.


Cultural Connections: Music Fetishism

One of the things that I carry on my person at any given time outside of the home is my MP3 player. I suppose its a fetish of mine, or a totem (the subtle difference between the two is an ommitted discussion for now), I of course mean fetish in the traditional (and non-sexual) sense of the term. I try to be as aware as I can about my music listening habits, and in a sense it helps that there are such things as metadata, and even apps which analyse music listening statistics. I have recently put a manual record system to pasture which used to keep a note of my music listening habits, solely for the fact that it was no longer relevant or coped with the comparatively advanced ways that I can analyse and order my music preferences. I suppose you could say that I am a music fetishist, perhaps more so than others, but according to Adorno, it is an inevitable social condition.

Reading ‘On the Fetish-Character in Music’ was a delightful, yet exceptionally difficult essay. I read sections of it as an undergraduate, and I now realise that my lecturer omitted the sections about Schoenberg and the more technical musical terminology of the essay. If you thought Kant was hard, try reading a work which requires you to have a background in music theory and intimate familiarity with the work of Bach, Mahler, Schoenberg or Wagner. I must admit that I’m a little sketchy on details about Wagner and Mahler. For this piece I shall consider distinct themes:firstly I shall address the notion of Commodity Fetishism in relation to music specifically, then the ‘regression thesis’, I will then consider in perhaps an artificially seperate fashion the specific cultural examples that Adorno brings to highlight his case and I shall close my considerations by reflecting on the possibility of modern examples of Adorno’s fetishism as well as addressing a topic that is implicit in a lot of my writing about music which I have taken deeply to heart from my early reading of Adorno, namely, the cultural importance and superiority of composer Arnold Schoenberg. 


Commodity Fetishism revisited

One of the really powerful ways in which Marxism’s general thesis of the ideological control of society can really take force is if we look at Culture. Engels and Marx make a good attempt at this through their look at journalism and some anecdotal cases, but it is in the decades of the Twentieth Century where Culture takes to a more Marxian analysis. One general thesis about Marxism (I’m in no knowledgeable position to be an exegete on Marx) is that of Commodity Fetishism (CF). CF can be understood as the notion that value of an object becomes distinct and independently valued from its means of production, and the consumption of that object (whether it is food, or technological, or cultural) from the process in which it was manufactured. The criterion of value is solely based on its consumption or other social forces that relate to its consumption, but explicitly not by means of production value.

(As a lemma, a contrasting set of terms can be applied which originates in Aristotle’s Politics (which Marx himself borrows), between Chrematistics and ‘Oikonomikon’ (sic). As with most thins, a discussion on Aristotle is fruitful and relevant to Marx, but we’ll have to skip this for now..)

For Adorno, music has become an extension of what the Marxists saw around them as a capitalist appropriation of music and wider culture. Adorno makes two appeals to this claim, the first is stylistic/musicological and the second appeal is subjective (that is, focusing on the social subject). Music is repetitive, and popular music appeals to hooks and certain ideosyncracies in order to be listenable, appealing and satisfying. This may be the equivalent of saying in modern terms: pop music appeals to the lowest common denominator and a bunch of old tired cliches, appealing to our indulgences and sense of pleasure and contentment. Adorno is implicitly making the critical point from a musical perspective that popular music is usually not very good either. Adorno notes for instance how few musicians in Jazz for instance barely know how to play instruments and learn by ear or by ‘sign-posting’ notations (I think he must mean some form of Tablature) instead of the traditional stave-and-line means of music.

Why is this important? It’s important because music lacks subtlety and accuracy. Traditional heresies and rules of writing good music (e.g. don’t double your 5ths, avoid consecutive octaves) are not only ignored, it makes the modern audience of Adorno brandish him as some kind of ‘elitist’ and probably undermines the case that Adorno makes by such readers. The ‘signposting’ or ‘traffic signal’ method of music notation that Jazz and other such popular music (that is, popular by the standards of 1938) lacks the sophistication of making chords more sophisticated than simple triads and melody lines. Music is made simple so that it can be reproduced easily. This can also be true not just for (what we now call) live performance but also in terms of listening for the ear. Jazz is easy listening, as is the music by the crooners.

Now on to the subject. The social subject treats music as an object, a thing that is a means to an end. By objectifying music, we ignore the process of its creation, or other factors such as the underlying musical style features or whether it is innovative. Music becomes part of the social life and an objectified object just like many other social phenomena. Perhaps we can liken the kind of objectification to the ultimate form of objectification: sexual. Music has become appropriated as a thing for use, a thing for deriving pleasure or perhaps sorrow, but essentially a tool to be used for the satisfaction of the user. It helps to have norms such as identifying ownership such as associating a performer or composer with the song, or appealing to a canon of Jazz standards. Music has become isolated from its means of production, or any meaning that was originally imbued into it.

For Adorno, commodification divorces music from its original value. In a sense, it doesn’t even matter whether a song is good or not when it is commodified, because in a fundamental way, its value is divorced, alienated from any kind of critique internal to the piece itself, and is ideologically construed by its locus to the consumer. Creativity and originality are no longer relevant terms, as they have been reconstrued and defined with an ellipsis. Creativity is ‘creativity….in relation to the consumer’.

The ‘regression’ thesis

The further prong of the music fetishism discusion relates a particular aspect of the way music is consumed. Music, when fetishised enforces a set of values, these values are distinctly conformist and promote sameness. Commodified also has the psychological affect of creating a ‘regress’ in mentality. Critical adults are made into children by commodified music. Perhaps the best way that Adorno highlights this is by the metaphor or speaking. When an adult speaks, a child is supposed to listen. Music operates in a similar way by silencing people and promoting the subject’s role to listen to music. Listening in this way gives a relationship of authority and education to music, music can be the mediator of values and norms by this way. By inducing the silence of the listener, music also becomes a silencer for critical thought and space for the individual’s thought. While that is not to say that individuals cannot speak or think, but within the context of music, they will have to speak through listening to it.

Regress occurs in the manner of taking the subject back, this may be in terms of a ‘golden age’, of a better past, or a sentimental time when things were seemingly simpler. In my translation, the word ‘retardation’ is used, which is perhaps an apt term to describe the way in which the listener is forced to a less critical and more receptive state (although not very politically correct these days). By regress, music can stunt the emotional and psychological development of a person. Music can also be a powerful ideological tool, as a means of mediating messages such as: the past was a much better time, we should return to it. Regression is important because in the metaphor, if one is to make a listener more child like, it also makes them more amenable to subservience and obedience.

Critically speaking there are a plurality of ways that regression occurs:

  1. Emotional regression: Regress to emotional simplicities which are comforting, Depressive and Suicidal Black Metal can sometimes do this by emphasising the negative modalities.
  2. Social regression: Some songs emphasise the simplicity of relationships, such as the value of ‘finding the right boy/girl to romance’ as well as the ironically incompatible cultural companion of this: just plain sex. Songs which are commodified rarely put forward a complex or nuanced message
  3. Ideological/political regression: Some songs emphasise a particular history which is inherently political ‘dark satanic mills’ or ‘green and pleasant lands’ were originally lines from Blake, who was an avid Romantic and sentimentalist, what better way to communicate such values by singing it before an England Rugby match!


I shall now consider Adorno’s examples.

Adorno’s examples

1. Beethoven’s Fourth

Adorno mentions how some classical music has been made into packaged and sanitised objects which are repeatedly played until it becomes part of the social consciousness. When it is played so much, the sonic experience of music is isolated from its original context. What would have been the great beauty of Beethoven is now an annoying ringtone, what value is left in such commodified music is not from the context of Beethoven the composer, and an emphasis is made on pieces to create a canon. Adorno notes how Beethoven’s fourth symphony is almost never played, he doesn’t even mention number five, but the point is, we are already thinking about it and it doesn’t even need to be stated that the work has become an iconic example of a commodity.

2. Mahler

One of my raconteur conversation pieces is that I don’t understand why people love Mahler so much, to my humour its an enjoyable experience because it’s actually my way of gauging a conversation by judging their response. I do however, feel that I just don’t understand why Mahler is in such high repute and after reading Adorno, there is an extent to which I still am not. Adorno gives the example of Mahler to emphasis regress, because commodification takes place in high art as well.

Mahler exemplifies regression sylistically. Mahler emphasises repetition and long drawn out melodic phrases, in a grossly hyperbolised way, this is much like how popular music standards work. Mahler is considered the height of innovation, yet by the time he was composing, his style was already ‘old’. What Adorno means by this is that in isolating music’s value from its production by emphasising the consumer, the genuine musical innovations are lost, and things which are called innovations and modern are already established tropes. This cannot be more true of Mahler, who represented the High Romantic. In some respects, Adorno is being unfair to Mahler, but the emphasis for highlighting Mahler as an archetype makes more sense when compared to a contemporary of the composer: Schoenberg. I’ll get back to this later.

3. Jazz music

Adorno is given a lot of flack about Jazz, Adorno does have a low opinion of Jazz and many call him elitist (see aforementioned comment), or accuse him of not understanding what Jazz was. Adorno had a range of cultural interests, and like myself, I suspect he probably made a point of listening to music he didn’t like in order to understand it. Adorno identifies the sentimentality of Jazz, as well as anticipates phenomena such as the unwritten Jazz songbook of standards, as well as the other amusing archetype of the ‘White Jazz Collector’. The White Jazz Collector is usually a man, and usually white, they are also probably from a middle class background, and they obsessively collect jazz records. Such a jazz collector emphasises a holy canon of jazz music, where performers such as Miles Davis or Louis Armstrong take positions much akin to saints. Songs are fetishised and worshipped in terms of which recording they are, what year or who the performer/producer/collaborators/recording artists were. Now, although Adorno didn’t refer to such an archetype, that he describes jazz in the fetish way directly anticipates this phenomenon. Also notable is the ‘white’ aspect of the collector, as Jazz was initially a Black endeavour, there is the implication that the music had become established, perhaps civilised and able to be appropriated into the comfortable conformity of bourgeois (or as its also known, BBC Radio 3 audiences).

There are variants of the White Jazz Collector, Rock Enthusiasts, or even subcultural enthusiasts such as Punk obsessives or Metalheads also fit the similar mould of the White Jazz Collector. I think that Adorno wasn’t as unfamiliar with the culture of Jazz as his critics think, especially considering that he was a German man who barely knew English during the 1930s.  Another remark I wish to add is tha the canonification of the jazz standard is much similar today to a canonification of a popular music songbook. Consider for instance how shows such as the X Factor (both in the UK and US, and probably numerous other countries now) canonise pop songs by covers. Songs such as Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody are covered and parodied so much that they were probably first known by someone referencing it rather than the original. The phenomenon of the cover song emphasises the canonicity of certain songs and gives a near mysterious quality to cultural works.

4. The ‘Radio Ham’

One unexpected example of cultural fetishism is what Adorno eccentrically calls ‘The Radio Ham’, as a 21st Century reader of Adorno, I barely understood this example, although I have heard a little bit about Ham Radio. The Radio Ham is a person (almost always a man) who is probably socially isolated, and probably has poor prospects with women (Adorno’s words, NOT mine!). One way of mediating this sense of inadequacy is by learning the skill of detecting short wave radio and discovering secret messages and communications. In a sense I did not understand the point of this example or where it was going, but then Adorno says that the hallowed skill of the Ham Radio became a way of expressing individuality or seperateness and was a behaviour that was exemplary of fetishism. After reading this article and talking with Antisophie and Destre about it, they commented amusingly that this archetype comfortably fits into the geek/nerd duality (perhaps more nerd than geek), where technical skill and obscure interests may seem different or deviant to commodifiation fetishism, but it is basically another flavour of the same brand of pie.

Our allegiance to Schoenberg

“The terror in which Schoenberg and Webern spread, today as in the past, comes not from their incomprehensibility but from the fact that they are all too correctly understood. Their music gives form to that anxiety, that terror, that insight into the catastrophic situation which others evage merely by regressing [Adorno, 2005]”

My final word goes to Schoenberg. Schoenberg is the archetype of greatness for Adorno, but reading this essay does not make the composer as revolutionary as I think he is. Schoenberg subverts classical music by using the traditions of it and by the innovation of dodecacophony (serialism) created somehing quite new out of a tradition that was otherwise old. Adorno insinuates but doesn’t go as far as I would like, that Schoenberg’s music differs from his notion of cultural commodification, in a sense, it resists commodification in the way that Mahler and Beethoven did. While the music of the past did in fact have revolutionary potential, it eventually becomes subverted into conformity and commodity. If it is not for the inaccessible and difficult to understand musical style of Schoenberg that makes his music difficult to commodify (Adorno seems to imply this isn’t a good accusation), it is what his music represents: discomfort, despair and the dissonance that characterised the Twentieth Century. Schoenberg’s music was a mirror on the state of the world, where cultural commodification was more like the mirror owned by the Queen in Snow White: looking at ourselves to the ignorance of everything else.


Adorno on rigid thinking

In my readings, I have encountered an anti-metaphysical view from the corpus of Adorno. Adorno claims that the system-building kinds of philosophy, that goes back to Aristotle is unhelpful to the picturing we have of the world. For Adorno, putting things into a system is like how people commonly typify as ‘pigeonholing’. In the previous post concerning ‘types’, I addressed the kind of view that Adorno opposes. Adorno’s rejection of system-thinking is a strong statement that makes him typical (excuse me for pigeonholing) of the Continental philosophers (or so-called ‘critical theorists’, or as some hard analytics would call, ‘bullshit merchants’ or ‘frauds’) insofar as they oppose what they see as the large rationalisation of reality by the imposition of metaphysics and dense systems.

It is also true that analytic philosophers in mixed portions are resistant to the kind of system-building philosophy that the early 20thC continentals had opposed. It was championned perhaps at its worst by Hegel, and at its best by Kant or perhaps Aristotle himself.

For Adorno, putting things into a system makes the mind stale. We categorise, systematise and sterilise. Philosophy, or analysis becomes cold and clinical, it becomes a lifeless and unchanging model of our analysan, be that history or social theory or knowledge itself. Adorno was certainly right in pointing out that the historicism of Hegel and Marx, which was essential to their own ‘system’ of thought, made them almost dogmatic in their insight as to how their philosophies related to their historical situation. For Hegel, he believed that history was unfolding in a process, the world-spirit was moving towards its point of perfection which funny enough, happened to be located within early-mid 19thC Prussia (or as Hegel would have known it: the present). For Marx, the social mechanisms that started from early human civilisations would culminate in a process of thesis and antithesis and continual oppression of the lower caste (be they deemed so by brute force, religion, or capitalism). The communist revolution was inevitable in the historical process of things and it was coming very soon.

Adorno was right that theorising through philosophy should not be so fixed as not to be real. The heart of Adorno’s worry was this insight: the system-building tendency of philosophy was problematic insofar as abstraction eventually becomes detached from reality in how the latter is described by the former.

Being a systematicity advocate, this is certainly something to be concerned about. Often, sceptics of scientific theories point that our grounds for disbelieving current theories is to note how every theory until the current theory has been legitimately dismissed. I think this objection can be met by Kant’s notion of the regulative a priori, paired with the notion of the reflective equilibrium character of theories where experience modifies our insight, and our theories in turn have a place in placing predictions which succeed insofar as such predictions obtain.

System building requires a few foundations. One of them is to expect that the structure of a theory can and probably will change. Kant’s systematicity account acknowledges this, and makes the even stronger claim that such a dictum of changing theoretical strata is a desideratum for any future theory; scientific or metaphysical.

Perhaps the most salient point is a psychological adege. Rigid thinking is always bad. For Adorno, systematic thinking meant a solidification of what should be fluid. Our understanding of the social world, and metaphysics should be open minded so as to account that our theory may be wrong, but if we are informed by a theory from the outset; we end up being dogmatic and so closed minded as to make the world fit our theory, instead of vice versa. The notion of a desiderata for theoretical reflective equilibrium would account for this.