Tagged: critical theory

Alte liebe

Some feudal institutions live on in a significantly diminished form (e.g., the English fox hunt). Others are more robust than they were in the twelfth century (e.g., the University).

If Jürgen Habermas is correct, the public sphere has been a cesspool since the middle of the nineteenth century. There’s nothing new about the level of debasement found in the twitterverse. All that has changed is the method and speed of delivery of the textual rubbish.

Mr Geldof has overtaken Bono as the most disdained rocker in the world.

It’s important to dress well for the revolution. The “Young Spartacist League” (or “Young Sparts”) used to turn up at rallies in the most modish attire (at least on the West Coast). It was enough to make me think twice about abandoning the Orthodox Marxist worker’s bib for Critical Theory’s classic couture. In contrast, today’s Black Bloc are the Ninja Turtles of radical dressing.

Adorno in brief

Another swing and miss on Adorno. [1]

According to Alex Ross,

When Adorno issued his own analyses of pop culture, though, he went off the beam. He was too irritated by the new Olympus of celebrities—and, even more, by the enthusiasm they inspired in younger intellectuals—to give a measured view. In the wake of “The Work of Art,” Adorno published two essays, “On Jazz,” and “On the Fetish Character of Music and the Regression of Listening,” that ignored the particulars of pop sounds and instead resorted to crude generalizations. Notoriously, Adorno compares jitterbugging to “St. Vitus’ dance or the reflexes of mutilated animals.” He shows no sympathy for the African-American experience, which was finding a new platform through jazz and popular song. The writing is polemical, and not remotely dialectical.

The critique Adorno levels against jazz (circa the 1930s) and the ham radio operator is also leveled against Stravinsky. He is not a simplistic or merely polemical enemy of pop culture. In “On Jazz,” Adorno writes

In this context, it may be decisively illuminating that the only important composer who is at all close to jazz is Stravinsky, whose principal work, Le Sacre du Printemps, famous for its artful syncopation, makes the subject of the work a human sacrifice, that of the principal dancer – a sacrifice which the music not so much interprets as ritualistically accompanies. [2]

He characterizes the jazz aesthetic as modern archaic: “The modern archaic stance of jazz is nothing other than its commodity character.” This commodity character stands oppose to any potential liberation from the straitjacket of modernity (and bourgeois music that is not jazz) a return to the archaic might promise.

Whatever primordial instinct is recovered in this is not a longed-for freedom, but rather a regression through suppression; there is nothing archaic in jazz but that which is engendered out of modernity through the mechanism of suppression. It is not old and repressed instincts which are freed in the form of standardized rhythms and standardized explosive outbursts; it is new, repressed, and mutilated instincts which have stiffened into the masks of those in the distant past. [3]

The deployment of the modern archaic is not solely the province of jazz. Again, one finds Adorno detecting similar tendencies in Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, particularly in the function of sacrifice.

Stravinsky undertakes such a rebellion [against culture] not only in the familiar aesthetic game with barbarism, but furthermore in the fierce suspension of that element of music which is called culture — the suspension, that is, of the humanly eloquent work of art. He is drawn in that direction where music — in its retarded state, far behind the fully developed bourgeois subject — functions as an element lacking intention, arousing only bodily animation instead of offering meaning. [4]

In Stravinsky’s case, subjectivity assumes the character of sacrifice, but — and this is where he sneers at the tradition of humanistic art — the music does not identify with the victim, but rather with the destructive element. Through the liquidation of the victim it rids itself of all intentions — that is, of its own subjectivity. [5]

The archaic effect of Sacre is a product of musical censorship, a self-denial of all impulses which do not agree with the basic stylistic principle. Artistically produced regression then leads, however, to the regression of the composition itself — to the progressive deterioration of compositional procedures, to the ruin of technique. Stravinsky’s admirers have grown accustomed to living with the resulting discomfort, by declaring him a rhythmist and testifying that he has restored the rhythmic dimension of music — which had been overgrown by melodic-harmonic thinking — again to honor. In so doing, they assert, he has excavated the buried origins of music; as, for example, the events of Sacre might well evoke the simultaneously complex and, at the same time, strictly disciplined rhythms of primitive rites. [6]

Compare Adorno’s analogous comment on the paradox of what could be called regimented spontaneity in jazz:

Even the much-invoked improvisations, the “hot” passages and breaks, are merely ornamental in their significance, and never part of the overall construction or determinant of the form. Not only is their placement, right down to the number of beats, assigned stereotypically; not only is their duration and harmonic structure as a dominant effect completely predetermined; even its melodic form and its potential for simultaneous combinations rely on a minimum of basic forms: they can be traced back to the paraphrasing of the cadence, the harmonically figurative counterpoint. . . . The archaic stance of jazz is as modern as the “primitives” who fabricate it. The improvisational immediacy which constitutes its partial success counts strictly among those attempts to break out of the fetishized commodity world which want to escape that world without ever changing it, thus moving ever deeper into its snare. [7]


Contra Ross, I read Adorno as saying “high culture” is a matter of bad faith; the “culture industry” is a matter of no faith.

One could question Adorno’s starting premises which are a mix of Kant, Freud, and Marx. E.g., his insistence on critique over enjoyment. In other words, under the heteronomous conditions of capitalism, autonomous enjoyment of cultural products (enjoyment without compulsion) is impossible. Hence, negative dialectics.

One can ask whether this point of view is correct.


[1] Discussion sparked by Leah Reich.

[2] Theodor W. Adorno, “On Jazz” (1936), Discourse 12, 1 (Fall Winter 1989-1990): 64.

[3] “On Jazz,” 54.

[4] Theodor W. Adorno, Philosophy of Modern Music (1948) (New York: Seabury Press, 1980), 140.

[5] Philosophy of Modern Music, 143.

[6] Philosophy of Modern Music, 154.

[7] “On Jazz,” 53.