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that his views had moved on slightly since the original time of writing, and so this book is in a strange way already outdated.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.


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.


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.