Theodor Adorno: Inveterate Critic or Arbiter of Idealism?

Theodor Adorno: Inveterate Critic or Arbiter of Idealism?

by Ryan Drummond

‘With Adorno, critical social philosophy becomes a pessimistic self-clarification which, given the total social reification of late capitalism, is confined to aesthetics and to a philosophical critique of the false totality’

(J. Bernstein ed., 1994, p. 41).

Theodor Adorno. It is a name which any seasoned scholar will have heard, and the name itself will inevitably provoke profound reactions from those who understand the implications of his work. The sheer volume of publications concerning Adorno’s work, in a number of academic fields, self-iterates his influence. The tendency of his opinions and observations to attract both ardent support and vehement criticism, however, has remained a significant divider of philosophers, cultural historians and musicologists for most of the twentieth century and continues to perpetuate academic division to this day. With regards to his ultimate goal of providing enlightenment for the reification of a cultural utopia, his propensity to fundamentally divide his readers propels his objectives, for many critics at least, little further than self-immolation. Jürgen Habermas, perhaps the best-known of these critics of Adorno’s social theory, accuses him of:

‘Defending an account of instrumental reasoning that is so encompassing and extensive, as to exclude the possibility of rationally overcoming these conditions and thereby realising the aims of critical theory’

(Fagan, n.d).

Before any substantial judgement on his philosophies can be passed, however, one must surely ask themselves the following questions: To what extent could his notions of instrumental reasoning be considered fundamentally flawed? As an outspoken critic of the various elements of Western society, complete with an inclination to paint black and white pictures of naturally complex issues, was it the projection of his ideals, rather than the ideals themselves, which have rendered his writings susceptible to decades of academic haranguing? What is the cultural potential of his philosophies if they were to be given a universally accepted form of clarification?

Of course, discussing the entire spectrum of Adorno’s cultural philosophy is, for the purpose of this paper at least, an impossible task. I intend, therefore, to look briefly at just one area of society that has fallen victim to Adorno’s strict criticism: ‘popular’ music, and attempt to provide some insight into how and why Adorno’s observations drew himself to such conclusions, and in turn drew a plethora of critics, via those aforementioned essential questions.

At first glance, his opinions on ‘popular’ music appear as both simultaneously pretentious and scathing. Pretentious in the sense that he zealously reveres the music that he compares it to; ‘serious’ (Adorno, 1941, p. 17) music that many would consider an elitist form of art, and uncompromisingly scathing towards popular music itself; music that he considers too widely commercialised for the purpose of mass profit within a society built firmly upon high capitalism. The terms ‘standardised’, ‘rigid’, ‘nonsense’ and ‘primitive’ are used by Adorno within the first primarily descriptive paragraph within his article On Popular Music (1941, p. 18), and simply allow no room for invalid interpretation. His fundamentally obdurate opinions can be seen to take form in the principles of G. W. F. Hegel, and Adorno’s relationship to Hegel’s idealism of aesthetics can be seen in a well-chosen quotation to introduce his essays on The Philosophy of New Music (2006, p. 7):

“For in art we have to do not with any agreeable or useful child’s play but…with an unfolding of the truth” 1 – G. W. F. Hegel.

To Adorno, popular music represented precisely what Idealism was firmly against with regards to art: agreeable, useful child’s play. ‘Agreeable’, because it preyed on the institutionalised2 desires of the common person, in turn gaining immediate and easily acquired acceptance. ‘Useful’ because it provided a viable medium through which mass-production could aid in supporting the illogical (when compared to the Idealist concept of ‘truth’, at least) infrastructure of high capitalism, and ‘child’s play’ because he argued that it contains fundamentally simplistic structures and harmonies that require no independent thought on behalf of the listener in order to make sense of. Thus restricting both their capacity and their need for general objective thought and therefore limiting their ability to observe critically the world around them:

‘The composition hears for the listener. This is how popular music divests the listener of his spontaneity and promotes conditioned reflexes’

(Adorno, 1941, p. 24)

To those who agree with Adorno, his claims seem relatively self-explanatory in truth and are easily solidified with rather basic musical analysis and a consideration of the place in society held by the modern music industry. Take, for example, the plethora of ‘hit’ songs in recent decades following nothing more musically elaborate than the repetitive 4-chord sequences: I, V, vi, IV or vi, IV, I, V (to name but two of the most prevalent). Songs such as ‘Let it Be’ (The Beatles, 1970), ‘Head over Feet’ (Alanis Morissette, 1996), ‘Don’t Matter’ (Akon, 2006), ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ (Journey, 1981), ‘Paparazzi’ (Lady Gaga, 2009), ‘Run’ (Snow Patrol, 2004), ‘Wrecking Ball’ (Miley Cyrus, 2013), ‘Feeling This’ (Blink 182, 2003), ‘Grenade’ (Bruno Mars, 2010), ‘Africa’ (Toto, 1983), ‘No Woman No Cry’ (Bob Marley, 1974), ‘The Scientist’ (Coldplay, 2002), ‘Zombie’ (The Cranberries, 1994), ‘Wherever You Will Go’ (The Calling, 2001) and ‘If We Ever Meet Again’ (Timbaland feat. Katy Perry, 2010)3 are an incredibly tiny fraction of exceptionally popular music from the last five decades which have made extensive, near identical use of the aforementioned basic chord progressions: ‘child’s play’, with regards to their fundamental musical simplicity, seems not so much a personal, pejorative accusation but a simple statement of fact.

This sentiment is merely amplified when one considers that of the fifteen examples given, eleven of them fundamentally revolve around an abstract element of human emotion that is, for the most part, biologically unavoidable for all living people: love, and the various stages of both euphoria and desolation that it bequeaths. It makes one wonder how lyrics regarding such a well-known abstract concept, sung over identical fundamental chord progressions, can keep entertained millions of people worldwide for over five decades with little to no objection to its, quite simply, basic nature. Adorno offers a solution for this cultural enigma in the form of a concept coined ‘pseudo-individualisation’. He describes it as ‘endowing cultural mass-production with the halo of free choice’ (Adorno, 1941, p. 28), or granting the masses the illusion of freedom in order to pacify them into believing that their illusion is in fact a reality. One might consider that we live in a world governed by social pressures to conform to what is deemed ‘the norm’. This begins from the moment we are able to conceive of our own existence within the world. Often advertisements, coupled with a multitude of mass media outlets, inform us (with our true freedom of choice, as to whether or not we choose to even hear or see such material, rendered non-existent), via what can only be described as sensory rape, what we should enjoy as first-world citizens in order to become accepted into a world of people whose opinions have already been moulded for them. We are taught that to fit in we must enjoy certain things or behave in certain ways. One needs only to turn on a radio or television, walk down any street or into any retail outlet, read any magazine or even look on any webpage before they are overwhelmed by forced advertising. It is little wonder, then, that we feel pressures to comply with many of the demands placed upon us as it offers us a means of finding both group solidarity and individual ‘freedom’ of expression.

Zimbardo calls this innate desire for group acceptance ‘normative conformity’ (Zimbardo, 2014) and it exists in all elements of life where the interpersonal nature of human beings is exercised. As music is, by its very nature, a form of interpersonal communication it must fall into the category of areas in which normative conformity occurs. People are, admittedly, given the illusion of free-will with the choice of varying musical ‘artists’ but, with the overwhelming barrage of perpetual social pressure to conform coupled with incessant reminders via advertising and media outlets as to what is considered ‘normal’ to enjoy, our free-will is often only ever pre-determined to lead most down a restricted number of paths. Adorno would have argued that all of those paths lead to some form of capitalist profit, in turn sacrificing Idealist enlightenment under a flurry of nonessential cathartic outpourings.

Although each of the aforementioned songs were written after Adorno’s death in 1969, his philosophies on popular music have seemingly transcended the decades of his own life and self-empirical observations. They are, if anything, being reinforced more powerfully in our own times than they perhaps were during his life which spanned, arguably, the more developmental stages of popular music as a societal construct; as a new sphere of music. Societal capitalism, after all, has lived on. Adorno’s notion of popular music becoming standardised is one such observation that struggles to justify any logical opposition. Yet opposition to his observations still exists. Miklitsch, in his book Roll Over Adorno, subtly accuses Adorno of merely feeling bitter about the fact that the ‘spheres’4 of music had switched in their levels of cultural prestige:

‘In other words (and Adorno never forgot this), the real problem with popular music was not the music but the division [of the spheres] itself…From this perspective, the greatness of a song like ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ is that it announces the historic moment when the musical spheres abruptly reverse places: Beethoven and Tchaikovsky are out, Berry and Presley, Bo Diddley, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis are in…More generally, ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ represents the rise of mass popular culture and the demise of high sublime culture’

(Miklitsch, 2006, p. 55).

Adorno’s bitterness is, however, self-evident and he makes no attempt to mask that it in his own work. Accusing Adorno of bitterness seems the academic equivalent of accusing the sky of being blue, in turn doing little to support justifiable objection but more so perpetuates blind dismissal for refusal to accept ignorance to any more substantial cultural problems than the almost childlike argument of ‘my music is better than your music’.

Adorno claims widespread cultural ignorance (with popular music acting as but one element within a plethora of its fundamental cause) and, in turn, culture, as a whole, refuses to accept it. This often automated anti-Adorno attitude does, however, have a form of psychological reasoning behind it. One might consider the publications of Dunning and Kruger, whose ideas attempt to explain the reasons behind the human tendency to deny ignorance. The Dunning-Kruger effect theoretically puts in place an automatic cognitive bias caused by illusory superiority which, in turn, is caused by the lack of thorough understanding of a given topic, concept or ideology:

‘Unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than is accurate. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled [Or, even in skilled individuals, their areas of in-depth knowledge may be limited to but a few areas; thus restricting their ability to conceptualise the whole] to recognise their ineptitude’

(Morris, 2010).

Given the fact that Adorno’s theories imply utopian ideals, in a world that arguably offers the opposite, an understanding of his work suggests a need to have an objective cultural understanding of relative totality; a level of understanding which few individuals currently possess. A downside of this where Adorno’s work is concerned, however, comes in the form of Dunning and Kruger’s psychological conclusion:

‘The miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self [the unwillingness to accept a lack of knowledge or understanding, or simply the lack of knowledge of any shortcomings that they may have], whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others [The belief that others have the capacity of understanding that they do]’

(Dunning and Kruger, 1999, p. 1127).

Adorno’s own writing style can be argued to reinforce the latter claim within Dunning and Kruger’s conclusion. Consider the following:

‘Adorno can be very difficult to read. He writes in a manner which does not lend itself to ready comprehension. This is intentional. Adorno views language itself as having become an object of, and vehicle for, the perpetuation of domination…His answer to this problem, although not intended to be ultimately satisfying, is to write in a way that requires hard and concentrated efforts on the part of the reader, to write in a way that explicitly defies convention and the familiar’

(Fagan, n.d).

In psychological terms, Adorno appears to be doing precisely what Dunning and Kruger describe as the miscalculation of the highly intelligent. He seems to be expecting his readers to possess his own levels of cultural understanding, and thus possess the cognitive ability to interpret his often convoluted prose identically to himself. It seems hardly surprising, then, that his style of projection often has the adverse tendency to divide, rather than unite, his audience. To Adorno, his style of writing forces his receptive audience into a mode of deep independent thought through the use of convoluted language which the reader must prise into objective reason. To his audience, he often comes across as unnecessarily pretentious; immediately putting into place, for many, an element of cognitive bias and rejection. He expects too much of his readers and often his readers are unable to adhere to those expectations; not through the innate lack of intelligence needed to process his concepts individually per se, but arguably through the lack of knowledge of the lack of knowledge needed to process his concepts in their totality.

The totalising aspect of Adorno’s philosophy is what led Jürgen Habermas to his ultimate conclusion that realisation of his critical theories is an impossible dream, and led Bernstein to conclude that his aesthetics are resigned to the realm of philosophy. Such attitudes, however, seem ultimately defeatist ones. It seems almost nonsensical to assume that a society that offers each individual an enlightened and worthwhile experience on Earth should be consigned to the realm of the metaphysical. Pseudo-individualisation, however, offers neither; simply an illusion of the former and restricts a shallow latter to those with capital. In a world where millions of individuals starve to death on a yearly basis, yet the music industry earns wealth well into the billions of pounds Sterling from iterating nonessential, cathartic jargon over repetitive 4-chord sequences, one can only logically ever offer the ‘pessimistic self-clarification’ found resonating from Adorno’s work. The ‘elitist’ music that he is often condemned for revering, namely the works of Beethoven, he revered for what he believed offered visions of utopia. Take the words of Schiller’s Ode to Joy, set to music in Beethoven’s famous choral finale to his Symphony No. 9 in D minor, for example:

‘Deiner Zauber binden wieder Was die Mode streng geteilt. Alle Menschen werden Brüder…Sied Umschlungen, Millionen! Diesen Kuß der ganzen Welt!’5

(Beethoven, 1863, pp. 174 – 276).

Adorno wrote of Beethoven that the reason his music never goes out of date ‘is connected, perhaps, to the fact that reality has not yet caught up with his music: real humanism’ (Adorno, 1998, p. 32). There is no pretentiousness in that statement; that firm understanding that Adorno held of Beethoven’s music throughout his life. Pessimism: yes. Realism: yes. The dismissal, perhaps, of music that purports humane mediocrity: yes, but pretentiousness for pretentiousness’ sake or illogical thought: absolutely not. If one views the works of Adorno not so much as the works of a needlessly pretentious critic, but as a deliberately convoluted cry for humanitarian help, a new perspective can be gained; one which transcends the boundaries of differing musical opinions and allows for unanimous objective thought. One thing that could hardly be disputed, however, is that if Adorno could witness the direction that society has headed, despite the technological advancements, regarding mass-produced music and the worldwide flaws inherent in our societal regime of high capitalism, he would turn in his grave.

1 – The concept of truth and the seemingly innate human preoccupation with its definition meant, for Hegel, a journey through time in which it is our duty as sentient beings to uncover the presently abstract, metaphysical form of absolute knowledge; allowing for us to give concrete meaning to the seemingly hollow rationale behind our very existence.
2 – ‘[Popular music delivers] institutionalised prescriptions capable of producing only institutionalised effects…Popular music…is composed in such a way that the process of translation of the unique into the norm is already planned and, to a certain extent, achieved within the composition itself’ (Adorno, 1941, p. 25)
3 – For the purpose of empirical objectivity, no two songs chosen for comparison were by the same artist and they span a number of sub-genres inherent in the sphere of ‘popular music’.
4 – The ‘spheres’ of music refer to the sphere of ‘popular’ music and the sphere of ‘serious’ music (Adorno, 1941, p. 17).
5 – Trans: ‘Your magic brings together what custom has sternly divided. All men shall become brothers…Be embraced, you millions! This kiss is for the whole world!’

Reference List

Adorno, T. W. (1998) Beethoven: The Philosophy of Music. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Adorno, T. W. (1941). On Popular Music. Studies in Philosophy and Social Science, ix, pp. 17–48

Adorno, T. W. (2006). The Philosophy of New Music. London: University of Minnesota Press

Beethoven, L. v. (1863) Ludwig van Beethoven’s Werke, Serie 1: Symphonien Nr. 9. Leipzig: Breitkopf und Härtel. Music score.

Bernstein, J. (1994). The Frankfurt School: Critical Assessments, Volume 6. London: Routledge.

Fagan, A. (N/D). Theodor Adorno (1903 – 1969). [Online] Available at: <http://www.iep.utm.edu/adorno/> [Accessed 22nd April 2014]

Dunning, D. and Kruger, J. (1999) Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognising One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self Assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 77 (6) pp. 1121 – 1134

Miklitsch, R. (2006). Roll Over Adorno: Critical Theory, Popular Culture, Audiovisual Media. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Morris, E. (2010). The Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong but You’ll Never Know What It Is (Part 1). New York Times. [Online] Available at: <http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/20/the-anosognosics-dilemma-1/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0> [Accessed 22nd April 2014]

Zimbardo, P. (2006) Why We Conform: The Power of Groups. The Lucifer Effect. [Online] Available at: http://www.lucifereffect.com/guide_conform.htm [Accessed 7th May 2014]

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