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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



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


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


Exegesis – motif 


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


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


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


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


The specific allegations 


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


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


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


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

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


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


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

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

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


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: 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.