Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Frankfurt School

A friend of mine likes to ridicule my general distaste for and lack of interest in mass-culture, so I suggested that he read The Culture Industry by Theodor Adorno. Here is the basic introduction to Adorno and the Frankfurt School that I wrote for him, to give him some background. I doubt he will read it, or the book, but I got enjoyment out of writing some more anyway :

It would help to have some background in philosophical and historical terminology/vocabulary, but you are not a moron, and will probably be able to logically connect a lot of the stuff. Before you read any of this book, you will have to have some idea where these people were coming from.

The Frankfurt School was the name given to the group of theorists at The Institute of Social Research in Frankfurt, Germany from the 1920s to the 1950s. Almost all of them continued writing after the Institute was disbanded. One of the guys who came in later and made a name for himself there is still alive, and remains an immensely influential figure in contemporary philosophy. (Jurgen Habermas - this guy is big on the emancipatory power of unrestricted communication. His main thing is what he calls “communicative rationality” but don’t worry about that. He is one of the guys who entered the debate on the “post-modern” later on, and became well known in that context.).

All of them were Marxist in orientation, but recognized that the failure of the Revolution in Russia, (The Soviet "Revolution" of 1917 had led to a nightmare society, culminating in Stalinist totalitarianism.) World War I, Anti-Communist Fascist regimes, and of course the devastation of World War II and the Holocaust had reduced Europe to ruin. It was clear to rational Marxists that the hopes and promises of the Revolution had not delivered the goods Karl Marx had promised in the 19th century. A revision of Marxist thought was what they were after, updated for the needs and situations of the mid 20th century. The theories they formulated ended up being called “critical theory”. For me, the ideas these guys came up with are more powerful than anything before or after, at least as it relates to the 20th century. From the 70s until now, philosophical theory has increasingly gone in some surprising directions, and most of the “post-modern” guys don’t agree with each other about what is really going on in the world. Theory moved into analysis of the nature of language itself, and this changed everything, allowing some of these people to come up with very bizarre theorizations. This is called the “linguistic turn”, and influenced not only philosophy, but all of the social sciences (history, anthro., sociology, etc.). Basically, language is seen as actively constituting reality, contributing to our empirical world, rather than simply reflecting it in words. As an undergraduate in the social sciences, you are generally spared this stuff, but some professors start drilling this stuff into you during your last few semesters… it is sort of a preparation for grad school, where Foucault is shoved down your throat. The linguistic turn is interesting, and a few of these guys are fucking awesome…Foucault, Derrida, Baudrillard, Jameson. But if you check it out on your own, you have to wade through a lot of crap to get to the good stuff, after 1980 especially, when things go off the deep end.
So…. the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School, in my opinion, still had their feet on the ground, still concentrated on concrete happenings in economics, linguistics. Basically, they make the most sense for normal people. One of the problems with later theory (post-modern, post-structuralist) is that it tends to defocus on things happening to real people on a day to day basis, and relies more on abstract theorizations.

Ok, back to the thread… Adorno’s critical theory contains/involves some basic assumptions about the nature of society/culture/economics/politics that you must understand before proceeding with this stuff.

He believed that culture, in the past, was a reflection of the reality of a particular people, a reaction to the entire social/economic mileu. For example, the Aztecs worshipped a sun-god because they depended on the sun for a plentiful corn harvest. If the sun-god was not satisfied by human sacrifice, and harvest was bad at the same time, this was reinforced. A cause-effect type of principle. Or, medieval art reflected the culture of strong Christianity in Europe. These aren’t the best examples, but you get the idea. As capitalism ascended to its dominant position from the 15th to the 20th century, culture became something to be sold (commodified), rather than a reflection of society itself. The culture created by consumption began to feed back into itself, creating a new cultural reality, which now has gone out of control in a sort of feedback loop based on culture-for- profit. (It has been speculated as to how Adorno would have judged the spiraling acceleration of our current cultural situation).

He also felt that there had been, before the 1930s or so, a distinction between what was know as “high” art, and “low” art. High art was highly critical of society, low art was not. High art could be plays, novels, epic poetry, things of that nature. It was generally considered to be very high quality, and appealed to the upper classes, even though it tended to be critical of the world. High art was supposed to be timeless, transcendent.
An example would be some modernist novel that was critical of power itself, or something like that. William Faulkner, Franz Kafka, etc….stuff they made us read in high school. Low art would be the decorative or applied arts. Things which reflected popular opinions, tastes. Low art was seen as lesser quality. As the 20th century progressed, and art took on new, more inventive forms, high and low art began to blend. With the rise in technologies of mass communication, this separation disappeared. The invention of cinema (“moving pictures”) was a landmark event for most people, and was seen as a big part in this blending of high and low art. This is why many theorists were obsessed with deconstructing cinema in the early years, something we don’t see much of anymore. If you think about it, the invention of movies was absolutely earth-shattering in that context. So high art, which formerly criticized society itself, was mostly available to the upper classes, the lower classes didn’t really bother with it. But as the separation disappeared, this critical, high art got absorbed into capitalist production, and its critical power was eliminated. “culture is taken over by the very powers it criticized” (introduction to the Culture Industry). This is a big part of Adorno’s theory.

The introduction to this book was written by J.M. Bernstein, and gives a brief overview of Adorno’s views on culture, and kind of puts a postmodernist spin on things. Here it is in a nutshell, and it will help clarify some things.
It is important to remember that Adorno is not being objective or unbiased, and he never made any claims to be. He is speaking strictly in terms of the culture industry’s relationship to the possibility for social transformation (i.e., liberation). He was trying to transcend an earlier form of Marxism that saw in capitalist development the hope of emancipation. I don’t know if you remember any of this from high school, but Marx said a society had to move through capitalism before coming to Communism, which would be ultimate freedom. So Marx felt that capitalism had elements of emancipation in it, even though it would be overthrown. Adorno, on the other hand, saw that capitalist development leads to more integration, more domination. I mentioned world wars, facism, Stalinism, etc earlier…this was a big part of Adorno’s thought on this. A lot of these guys were trying to come to terms with what the original hopes of the Enlightenment had brought forth…namely, horror. The Enlightenment was supposed to be a great enterprise, not spawn historical nightmares.
Adorno’s theories on the culture industry first appeared in Dialectic of Enlightenment, co-authored by Max Horkheimer. In it they wrote that Enlightenment rationality, which led to freedom from feudal structures, ultimately turned on itself, “the reason which was to be the means to satisfying human ends becomes its own end, and thereby turns against the true aims of the Enlightenment : freedom and happiness.” (intro)
Under capitalism, instead of all production being for the satisfaction of human needs (which it should be), things are produced for the sake of profit, the accumulation of more capital. Exchange value begins to dominate use value. This idea was taken to extremes by some of the later postmodern guys, my favorite example being Baudrillard. If you have gotten this far, and care at all, ask me about him, he’s a trip.

Adorno was one of the people that really began to bring the language thing into this type of philosophy. I don’t think he could have forseen how far it eventually went. The basic idea for the critical theorists is that language is being manipulated, especially in the media, and also takes a life of its own, so it cannot be trusted. So since public opinion is now bought and sold, and language is the medium of exchange for this, linguistic conventions cannot be trusted. This is why these people were big on street language, and oppositional language. So Herbert Marcuse in the 1960’s wrote about the phrases “far out”, “head trip”, blah blah blah. This still happens today. If you look at the mainstream media, the language is so stifling and ridiculous, dumbed down. The post-moderists and post-structuralists took the language thing much further, as I have said, but the Adorno and the Frankfurt School stayed on fairly stable ground with it.

Here is another important point. He is not condemning the culture industry for parading any particular ideology, or for hiding how things really are from the masses. It’s power rests on its ability to remove the thought of “any alternative to the status quo” (intro). So…even when things like death, destruction, poverty, war, and injustice are shown to everyone, it loses its poignancy. “to explain is to explain away” (intro). Somehow, by letting things out, it is ok for it to be happening, or not, but either way you are no longer required to think of alternatives in some sense.
Another point... Adorno also makes it clear that the behavior promoted by the culture industry makes people perform on themselves “the magic that is already worked upon them” (intro). “doing the work of the man, for the man” (Terence McKenna).
For me, this is perhaps the most important part : Adorno does not think it is necessary for people to be naïve, “duped”, convinced, or whatever, (e.g. “they’ve got you hooked, Dan”) for the culture industry to succeed - “the triumph of advertising in the culture industry is that consumers feel compelled to buy and use its products even though they see through them” (intro).

But who cares, right? What makes Adorno, or any of these other people think that they have the answers? Why the sense of righteousness? Adorno recognized that the cultural critic has a very curious position to take, and is easily criticized himself. The cultural critic voices a profound discontent with the very culture that he owes his discontent. He wrote quite a bit about this problem, but I recommend starting at page 20, which is the end of the introduction to this book. Here is where Bernstein talks about critics of Adorno, and what problems they have with him. I think it would be a good idea to start there and read to the end of the intro. If you can get through all this without killing yourself, read just two of the essays in here, The Schema of Mass Culture, and Culture Industry Reconsidered. If you get through all THAT, then try How to Look At Television, and Free Time. Throughout, pay attention to the brackets and underlines I made when I first read it, they may help narrow the focus. Have fun…

Read this addendum if you want more information about Herbert Marcuse. His theories about the ideological character of advanced industrial society may shed some light on Adorno, and critical theory in general. His book One-Dimensional Man, published in 1964, was quickly picked up by the American counterculture of the 1960's New Left, and was a major influence in that era. I am about half-way through reading it right now, and here is a sample of what I have read so far. Some quotes and analysis follow :

"the distinguishing feature of advanced industrial society is its effective suffocation of those needs which demand liberation - liberation also from that which is tolerable and rewarding and comfortable - while it sustains and absolves the destructive power and repressive function of the affluent society. Here, the social controls exact the overwhelming need for the production and consumption of waste; the need for stupefying work where it is no longer a real necessity; the need for modes of relaxation which soothe and prolong this stupefication; the need for maintaining such deceptive liberties as free competition at administered prices, a free press which censors itself, free choice between brands and gadgets" (p.8)

"can one really distinguish between the mass media as instruments of information and entertainment, and as agents of manipulation and indoctrination? Between the automobile as nuisance and as convenience? Between the horrors and comforts of functional architecture? Between the work for national defense and the work for corporate gain? Between the private pleasure and the commercial and political unity involved in increasing the birth rate?" (p.8-9)

Marcuse liked to emphasize the fact that in our current mode of existence, where the needs of most people in advanced society are provided for, protest is presented as something silly, unnecessary, and childish. Even talking about these things becomes a joke, because everyone is happy, right? not so, 97% of the world, outside our little bubble (advanced industrial capitalism), lives in poverty, fear, and violence. "its productivity and efficiency, its capacity to increase and spread comforts, to turn waste into need, and destruction into construction, the extent to which this civilization transforms the object world into an extension of man's mind and body makes the very notion of alienation questionable. The people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment. The very mechanism which ties the individual to society has changed, and social control is anchored in the new needs which it has produced...the intellectual and emotional refusal 'to go along' appears neurotic and impotent." (ibid).

Here is another guy's take on Marcuse...this comes from a weblog I found a while ago. the guy that writes the blog is hilarious. i like this post :

This Christmas day, I reread the last chapters of Herbert Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man. If you don't know it, this book is the most profound critique of modern industrial society ever written - published in 1964, it remains a laser beam of analysis and articulation. In One-Dimensional Man, Marcuse attacked the fundamental "irrational rationality" of our present system. Mechanized progress could - and logically should - have led to a reduction in labor time and the creation of a post-work and post-scarcity global society - what Marcuse calls a "pacified" existence. Since World War Two, the response to this deep threat to the ruling elite was the creation of "false needs" in the consumer; the perpetuation of the fear of nuclear war and terrorism; and the use of the mass media to enforce consensus consciousness.

Marcuse wrote: "Perhaps an accident may alter the situation, but unless the recognition of what is being done and what is being prevented subverts the consciousness and the behavior of man, not even a catastrophe will bring about the change." This was clear after 9-11: Awareness opened for a moment, but the media and the government worked overtime to close it and reinforce the usual trance.
The last chapters of One Dimensional Man are tragic - I wept as I reread them. Marcuse realized that with the increasing power of technology, the human imagination - rather than any abstract "necessity" - had become the determining force in creating social reality. Marcuse writes: "In the light of the capabilities of advanced industrial civilization, is not all play of the imagination playing with technical possibilities, which can be tested as to their chances of realization? The romantic idea of a "science of the imagination" seems to assume an ever-more-empirical aspect." If the imagination running a technological society is one of dominance and death and control, then you get what we now have in the world.
The global misery we are currently enduring is not a problem of reality: It represents, in fact, a failure of the human imagination and of human consciousness. The mass culture, advertising, and propaganda industries work to limit consciousness to a low vibration - a frequency of mindless fear and insatiable material greed - to construct the subjects, the workers and consumers and soldiers, who are the requisite "biomass" needed to feed the technosphere's doom spiral. Yet, as Marcuse puts it, "the chance of the alternative" hovers over every manifestation, every moment, of this dreary dystopia.
A post-Marxist, Marcuse could see no practical or realistic way to transform the society from its doom-orientation to a happier one. In the end, he writes, "The critical theory of society possesses no concepts which could bridge the gap between the present and its future; holding no promise and showing no success, it remains negative." His book ends on a note of sorrow: "It is only for the sake of those without hope that hope is given to us."
Posted by spiros at January 6, 2004 08:32 PM


Blogger unknownideal said...

Everything socialists blame on the capitalism is in reality a result of the socialist aspects of society. The trade people seem to be making (at our age, it's a terrible thing we see many of our friends undergo)-- their minds and duty to use them for a life of anonymous, stupefied sorrow interspersed with somnambulistic giggling, is a not a deal into which they were tricked or conned by culture. It's only the natural and logical manifestation of their core collectivist sense of life. It's collectivism of the soul. Capitalism, the exact opposite, reflects individualism of the soul. (By "soul" I mean consciousness in a profound sense.) If I had to make this concrete, I would mention that a true individualist such as myself, simply turns the TV off (and actually cancels his cable) when he doesn't wish to participate in a hive society. If you don't want to play beer pong, don't play beer pong. The collectivist of the soul is simply incapable of doing this; the pressure is too great. And the notion that reality is a sociolinguistic construct is a reflection of the fact that the collectivist perception of reality is a sociolinguistic construct. It's not surprising that they would analyze language in attempt to uncover philosophical principles.

I'm Jason Bruno by the way. We had Mrs. Papagno for English. I once fixed a computer at a house in which you were present. I did not know if you lived there. I found you on MySpace.

7:28 AM  

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