Adornos Critique Of Popular Culture Cultural Studies Essay

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In the decades since his death, Adorno's thinking has lost none of its capacity to unsettle the settled, to discomfort those who believe, implicitly or explicitly, that the world can be mastered, or even that they have a secure home in it. Adorno struck out against modern popular culture in all its forms. He spared nothing in his relentless critique. To most people, the comforts at the heart of modern living, the entertainment provided by television, radio, film, newspapers, astrology charts and CD players seem harmless enough. The 'media' give pleasure, put people in touch with the wider world, provide amusement, excitement and entertainment, improve the access of all social classes to what were hitherto the cultural goods of the rich, relieve the boredom and loneliness of living alone and so forth. The best of their contents are genuinely 'popular'. For Adorno, however, this popularity becomes part of the object of criticism. He challenges the notion that the elements of popular culture are harmless. He insists on treating popular culture as a deadly serious business, as something that is ultimately toxic in its effects on the social process. If the defenders of popular culture have not been persuaded by Adorno, they have often been discomforted by him, and his thesis, like a bone in the throat, still commands their attention

To appreciate the force of Adorno's critique of popular culture, however, it is necessary to set on one side all those easy judgements to the effect that his is a snobbish reaction to the vulgarity of popular art advanced by a devotee of so-called high art. What Adorno offers is not a judgement of taste but a theory concerning the moral and political projects inhering in both 'serious' and 'popular' art. It is not even true to say that he was incapable of appreciating any popular culture. He was certainly responsive to the films of Chaplin and to the anarchistic humour of the Marx Brothers. And it is clear from his writings that he kept abreast of developments in the major media - films, radio, television and advertising. The odd comment betrays certain implicit preferences - for the screen personality of Greta Garbo, for example. Nor did Adorno fail to recognize that there were highly skilled and talented skill or talent that mattered to him, here, but the interests it served and the uses to which it was put.

Adorno took all art - and that includes the art produced by the culture industries - very seriously. Many of his critics regard them less seriously than he does and, to them, his judgements are more likely to seem extreme or unwarranted. He preferred the term 'culture industry' and even 'mass culture' to that of 'popular art' or 'popular culture'. The latter terms carried a connotation of 'coming from the people'. The products of the culture industry, in Adorno's view, did not come from the people, were not an expression of the life-process of individuals or communities but were manufactured and disseminated under conditions that reflected the interests of the producers and the exigencies of the market, both of which demanded the domination and manipulation of mass consciousness. The disparity in power between the individual and the rational-technical monolith of modern capitalism that dominated every waking and sleeping moment was at the heart of his preoccupations. The machinery of this administered world operated to disempower those whom it organized. This was true for the individual at work, where the advances of the micro-division of labour were making each individual into a more or less de-skilled and disempowered cog in the machine; it was true, too, for the individual in his leisure time, where the Hollywood dream machine, radio and television, Tin Pan Alley and the music industry, were disempowering him further, rendering him even more conformist and dependent. The entertainment industry directed its appeal to the more regressive features of a collective narcissism. Adorno did not deny that people desired the products of the culture industry. He simply saw that desire as an index of the pathology of modern society, as capitulation to the domination of a total machinery. For the individual to resist this process is difficult. It requires both an appreciation of the fact that it is actually happening and some understanding of how it all works. Today, as Martin Jay has argued, we should perhaps view Adorno's writings on popular culture as prototypical deconstructions ( Jay 1984).

The theoretical roots of Adorno's thesis concerning popular culture are as wide as they are deep. He was a sophisticated philosopher, steeped in German idealist philosophy, writing critically about the philosophies of Hegel, Heidegger, Kierkegaard , Husserl, etc. He was a serious musician and composer, a pupil of Alban Berg and a member of the circle of composers and musicians surrounding Arnold Schoenberg. He was a Marxist sociologist (albeit an unorthodox one) and together with Horkheimer and other members of the Frankfurt Institute, developed the critical theory of modern culture along Marxist lines. He was also a student of psychology and a Freudian thinker (again, an unorthodox one) who developed a Freudian analysis of modern character. The strength of his theoretical contribution owes a great deal to the originality with which he traced pathways between the central themes of German idealist philosophy, Marxist sociology and Freudian psychopathology.

Those persistent themes of Adorno's critique of modern culture - the commodification, fetishization and standardization of its products, together with the authoritarian submissiveness, irrationality, conformity, ego-weakness and dependency behaviour of its recipients - are developed by him in ways that forge tacit links among diverse theoretical sources, making, for example, the theory of 'commodity fetishism' from a Marxist point of view continuous with ideas about authoritarianism in a Freudian context. Adorno does not attempt to unify theories, to create some kind of master system that subsumes them all. That would be a betrayal of his version of dialectical method. If we liken theoretical systems to an archipelago, then Adorno's links are the pathways traced by the movement of his thinking as it charts its own course between the separate islands. Nevertheless, his restless theoretical work in charting this course effectively develops, albeit tacitly, a unified theory of art and social formation; one that maps the ground between the structuration of social, political and economic relations and their psychic correlates in the consciousness of individuals.


In so-called simple societies, where goods are produced by families and communities in the process of providing for known local needs and for realizing and sustaining a traditional way of life, an individual could see the life-process of his or her community reflected in the goods produced. A pot or a spear in such a society would not appear to consciousness as a thing detached from the social relations involved in its production; those relations - aesthetic, political and religious as well as instrumental - would fill out such objects as their spiritual core.

In Marx's analysis of capitalism, the objects 'manufactured' are commodities. They are not the outcome of any such 'organic' social process; they are not the expression or realization of the life-process of genuine 'communities' nor of the life-process of the individual labourers whose labour power is utilized for their manufacture (Marx 1986: 31-78). The development of capitalism demands, in the interests of a relentless pursuit of economic efficiency, a progressive de-individualisation and de-skilling of labour. The process of production comes to be initiated, ordered and controlled not by the direct producers but by the production system that keeps them employed. Workers become 'appendages' to this system, slowly lose their free will and give in to the pandering of the Culture Society. The Culture Society decides where they should holiday, how they should tan, if camping is the best leisure time activity. The freedom to think and decide is taken away. Every one becomes a voluntary slave to the Culture Machine. The Capitalist System makes money from the Free Time of people. It is too gory a tale, Worshipping of the Mammon.


It is this radical disjunction between the subject and the objects that are made through him but not by him that is the key factor in the alienation of man from the world of commodities. Capitalism is portrayed by Marx as a system that progressively destroys the individual's sense of himself as participating in ordering, shaping and making his world. To that extent, the world is opaque to the subject. He gives in to the fads, the propagandas. Truth becomes a lie repeated hundred times

What stands apart from us in our consciousness - what is 'alien' - appears self-possessed and sui generis and ceases, as a consequence, to be 'historical'; it becomes a fetish-object. Its qualities and powers are projected onto it by individuals who then submit to them as though they truly were powers originating outside themselves. The desire of the individual registers as the power of the object over him, his dependency upon it. From here it is easy to move into the Freudian realm of psychopathology and to see, from Adorno's perspective, that psychoses and even illnesses such as schizophrenia can be assimilated to a discourse of capitalist economic relations and alienation. The system of consumption is no less authoritarian than the system of production. It, too, is not answerable to the subjects whose lives it shapes. Submissiveness and dependency is demanded of individuals both at work and in leisure. The appeal of the (desociated) fetish-object is always to the de-sociated consumer. It reinforces the narcissism of the individual whose ego-weakness and dependency is a manifestation of the loss of any formative or constructive power in relation to commodities. The consumer submits to the 'appeal' of commodities, to the effects they can work upon him as a desociated body, but lacks power over them; lacks the power, that is, to express or realize his life-process in them. The object's gain in power here is the subject's loss. The subject responds rigidly to fetish-objects (stimulus- response fashion) and every response becomes a more or less reliable and predictable reflex. ( Remember FREE TIME where the Workers are goaded to exercise to remain fit in free time)

The psychological correlates of fetish-consciousness are the counterpart of the socio-economic form of capitalist social relations. Products are standardized; the response of the consumer to the product is presupposed in the design of the product. It could not be otherwise unless the recipients were to be freely involved in the creation of the product and they are not. Marketization does not encourage self-expression but is its antithesis; it maximizes predictability and repeatability. The system of production thus manipulates and controls the psyches of those who must make it work both as producers and as consumers; as a consequence, the individual ends up disempowered in both domains.

In the modern world, the entertainment industry, radio, television, jazz and popular music as well as film, variety, etc., had become central to everyday life. Adorno believed that all these media helped to reinforce the regressive and dependent personality. Show business was taken seriously by the masses and its stars fetishized and 'hero-worshipped'. The repetitive and formulaic character of cultural goods, their utter standardization, makes them more 'cosy' and predictable and capable of answering to the individual's need for security and for meeting the producer's need for predicatability in the market.