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

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






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


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


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


Regress as a musical notion 


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


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


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


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


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


Sonority and regression – coda 

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

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

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


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


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


Give them what they wantThe Allegory of the Running Man 


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


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


The Wagnerian Gesture 


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


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


Wagner as a bad composer 


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Viennese Clasccisism


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


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


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


Some conclusions

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

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


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

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


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


The Wagnerian Joke 


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


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


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


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

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

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


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


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


Wagner’s inner conflicts 


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


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


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


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


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


Concluding thoughts 


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

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


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: On television

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

High art and low art

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

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

Virtual reality

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

The overt and covert messages of media

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Reading Adorno: The Individual and the Collective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.