Adorno and the Vitality of Critique

The closing paragraph of Theodore Adorno’s “The Culture Industry” is a rousing one:

“But freedom to choose an ideology, which always reflects economic coercion, everywhere proves to be freedom in the same. The way in which the young girl accepts and performs the obligatory date, the tone of voice used on the telephone and in the most intimate situations, the choice of words in conversation, indeed, the whole inner life compartmentalized according to the categories of vulgarized depth psychology, bears witness to the attempt to turn oneself into an apparatus meeting the requirements of success, an apparatus which, even in its unconscious impulses, conforms to the model presented by the culture industry. The most intimate reactions of the idea of anything peculiar to them survives only in extreme abstraction: personality means hardly more than dazzling white teeth and freedom from body odor and emotions. That is the triumph of advertising in the culture industry: the compulsive imitation by consumers of cultural commodities which, at the same time, they recognize as false.”

-pages 135-136, Jephcott edition

While I was initially enchanted by this passage due to the caustic pleasure of Adorno’s sweet, sweet burns, what’s making me linger here a little longer is the rich intellectual lineage buried in this tiny paragraph. Walter Benjamin’s influence is immediately felt in Adorno’s discussion of technically-conditioned route behaviours and affects, developed throughout the essay and bearing witness to Adorno’s long role as correspondent, mentor, and failed savior of the ill-fated German writer. After having completed a seminar devoted exclusively to Benjamin’s fragmentary works the semester prior, it was charming to encounter the immediate legacy of Mr. Bungle himself, enduring (if uncredited) in the work of others in the decade following his suicide.

Similarly, just as one extends into the past to contextualize the excerpt, the lineage of this work extends forward as well, as the parts about “the apparatus” and the pervasive influence of disciplinary discursive surely bring Michel Foucault to mind. The philosopher’s archaeological method, a fair bit more rigorous than Adorno’s uncompromising critique, brings the depth of history to the project initiated here, while Adorno in turn might be seen to make Foucault’s Marxist sympathies a fair bit more explicit than often apprehended by the casual reader. While Adorno’s notorious hatred for jazz seems to be happily disabused in every re-reading of this essay in seminars around the world, I don’t think we often pause to note the continued legacy of his thought in some of the most complex Leftist thinkers. There’s a power, perhaps a reassurance, in watching ideas endure and transform both themselves and the field open to their readers.

This last point brings me more directly to the charge of the text itself: the problem of Adorno’s present–one that is still an under-acknowledged challenge of politics and theory today. How does one make interventions, or think even subversive thoughts, when the ideological language of politics is nullified and political choice is largely a dead end? This darkly deterministic note on which Adorno ends his work is often a bit too grim for the student to bear gladly. The usual platitudes that Adorno does not sufficiently allow for agency certainly ring true, as do accusations of a stifling sense of nihilism if one is to take this text as inert doctrine. Yet, for all the temperance of absolutes that are called for here, to what extent do these accusations rise above the mere reaction to an unfortunate truth?

While reading this text certainly impressed upon me the necessity of Culture Studies’ intervention into theoverly simplistic or classed and raced handling of culture by the Frankfurt School, I still see enormous value in seriously taking up the question Adorno poses for the scholar, even or especially in the unforgiving light of such negativity. I’m reminded of Karen Barad’s assertion that agency is something that one does, not something that one has. Accordingly, it strikes me that the Adorno’s assessment of the Culture Industry (and so much of it resonates with contemporary media politics and political discourse!) illustrates that critical thought faces a momentous challenge. Critique is not merely given, its very action is a performative one. Like Searle’s early thinking on the term, speaking against capitalism requires one to create a language and a culture in which this thought can come into being. More than just Marx’s affirmation of a ruthless critique of everything existing, critique (if it is to be effectual, if it is not simply to be a foregone and illusory choice in a marketplace of ideas) requires creation. Perhaps this is the comfort and energy I take in the task of tracing the intellectual histories that run through this text; they are a testament to the capacities of thought to continually change the conditions of knowledge they are describing.