Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Was Adorno culturally conservative?

I see the core of his thinking as consisting in the redemption of aesthetic experience as key to criticism. To be more specific, it consists in the idea that a “felt contact” with the object can provide the motor force for a special type of materialist critique of culture, which seeks not only to denounce the ideological content of cultural artifacts as false but also to show how ideology can be made to reveal a truth content of its own, a promesse du bonheur similar to Bloch's Utopian not-yet. He also tried to show that this Utopian function was preserved most faithfully in the bleakest and most mercilessly “black” cultural products, those that were seemingly most devoid of hope.

These ideas were central to Adorno from his early writings in the 20s to the end of his life. By contrast, the ideas that many associate him with today - those of the "culture industry", the administered society or the near total Verblendungszusammenhang - were only developed later.

Does this core idea necessarily leads to cultural conservativsm? I don’t think so. To begin with: was he really culturally conservative? Think of the situation in which he grew to maturity, the end of the war, the twenties. What did it mean to be progressive in those years? It meant to be driven by the urge to shock and tear down bourgeois culture, as in Dada, Kafka, atonal music, and psycho analysis. It also meant to be attracted to Marxism. All that fits in with Adorno. What he chose to like was in a sense the punk of his day.

What then is the reason that Adorno is today so often regarded as conservative? Because he was an elitist who disdained popular culture and “disliked jazz”? Well, but then you have to understand what popular culture was in those formative years of the 20s and 30s. Certainly, there were those, like Lukács, who believed that progressive art needed to be anchored in the masses (the proletariat) - a standpoint that in a certain fashion adumbrates the kneejerk tendency in recent cultural studies to see progressive qualities only in popular as opposed to high culture. But as the so-called "realism debate" showed, Lukács was marginal and isolated in the context of Western Marxism.

To Adorno and many of his intellectual fellow-travellers, popular culture was still not a major issue in those years, not as it would later become when several of them migrated to the USA. Instead, the major cultural struggle to most of them was between the older, established culture and modernist avant-garde art. To be sure, some of the people around Adorno developed an interest in popular culture. Kracauer, in particular, pioneered the study of it. In Kracauer’s early studies of film, cabarets etc, popular culture was the expression of mass society. But to him, popular culture was something ominous, a foreboding of fascism. Adorno may well have learnt a lot from Kracauer when it came to popular culture. To him, it becomes associated with danger, with the ascent of those social forces which he fears and detests most. When Adorno writes about popular culture in those years, what makes him critical is the foreboding of worse to come, a brutality and insensitivity to what is weak and powerless. As mentioned, nothing of this diminished the progressive nature of his stance in those years. During the interwar years, Adorno lived in a discursive universe in which there was nothing progressive about affirming popular culture. To put it bluntly, progressiveness tended to be associated with the blackest and most shocking aspects of modernist art, while much of what passed as popular culture was associated with conformism and the dangers of fascism.

What awaited him in the US wasn't just a culture in the iron grip of Hollywood and jazz, but a different discursive universe where the yardsticks that had worked in Frankfurt, Berlin and Vienna no longer made much sense. Only there did his fear of and disdain for popular culture lead him to take up a position that many today view as conservative and elitist.

Since then, of course, American popular culture has spread across and conquered the world. It's become the culture most of us have grown up with. A result of that culture's hegemony is that we, today, have become socialized into a position from which Adorno almost by necessarity appears like a quaint old fossil. So who is “really” conservative? Is it him, or is it us – who reject him because we are so immersed in the hegemonic culture that it's hard for us to think outside it?

In any case, we who have grown up with this culture also, perhaps, have a better eye than Adorno for its ambivalence, for the presence in it of more than trash. Hopefully that means that we are also in a better position to do justice to his core idea and search not only for falsehoods to impatiently discard but also for ways to strike them against each other in order to produce a Utopian spark.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.