3.03.2017

True Negativity and Immediacy

I'm working on a little project now that requires a ton of Adorno.

The exhausting quality of Adorno's work is how, given the state of the world, Adorno reads very clearly in light of his tradition (Kant, Hegel, and Marx), but the criticism and thinking that he offers is maybe three or four steps beyond common knowledge and casual agreement. Each sentence that Adorno writes is worth about three of anyone else's (maybe besides Hegel). I could describe it as an increase in some kind of theoretical weight. There's an interesting dichotomy within this, because that is balanced with a little bit of unpredictability at the paragraph level, even if each sentence is burdened with many references and technicalities. There are formal tricks, in Adorno's writing, that only make sense musically, but I digress.

There's a level of competence that I've attained over the past few years that enables me to get about 80 percent of what he says--as content--when he's talking about modern philosophy. I'm still in a similar position when reading his strictly philosophical works, such as Against Epistemology and Negative Dialectics, to the one when I first read some of his essays on music as a nascent musicologist... I initially thought that "On the Social Situation of Music" was equal parts music criticism and some kind of Marxist poetry. After some formal training in social philosophy (that is, a thousand or so pages of Marx, Weber, Freud, and Horkheimer in a couple of months), the text blew up with me on the second reading. Instead of being some technical poetry with music as the subject, it was the elucidation of a theory of identity politics with which I had, as a student and practitioner of music, never been close to articulating.

That beautiful, asystematic, and scathing contemporary socio-psychological music criticism (my immediate impression) drew me into commitment to his work. That immediacy--I'd find, after years of working on thinking and knowing--was central to his conception of "how to be." (Scare quotes, here, are because of the lack of autonomy possible in identity thinking and with the division of labor's force against normative claims. This isn't really an ethical claim, nor the epistemic one that I framed it in.) The immediacy of returning to Adorno after sharpening my Marx, then after reading Hegel's Phenomenology, is a reproducible phenomenon, a structured way of finding wonder and immediacy in the relations of the tradition to itself. 

Is it not telling, though, that I can justify all of the aesthetic arguments I struggled (and failed) to offer, from the age of 15 to 25, through this construct? "Why do I like this?" "Because it immediately offered me a beauty that did violence to my own expectations of what music could be." That's not a particularly good definition of "immediacy," if I have a philosopher's hat on, so: unmediated experience that doesn't involve rationalizing it out, explaining it in the world, or being expert/layperson or inside/outside (alienated) for reasons that are inescapable in the social world.

I now have to admit a transgression: I fell asleep for a few seconds in the concert hall a few nights ago while "seeing"* a performance of Elliott Carter's Penthode. I'm copping to to this because I always try to situate myself, in experiences of music and art and even leisure, as my 15 year old self and how mind-boggling those experiences would be to him. He would have berated me for being a lame, ungrateful fuck to not give utter attention to such a unique experience. (*Scare quotes, in this paragraph, are an analog to the conductor's instructions on how to listen to the piece--by tracking the motion through the ensemble--which were given over half an hour of talking that opened the concert, and likely contributed just as much to my trance-like state as the piece began.)

I frame myself that way (as an older version of who I was) because of how much the immediacy of experience dulls as time and knowledge and worry seem to accumulate. I don't mean to point out that getting old sucks... I mean to point out that knowing more of the social world makes unmediated experience less possible, and the world becomes more predictable. (And I don't mean to throw Elliott Carter under the bus, but, when my girlfriend told me a few days earlier that we would see the piece, I said "oh, yeah, that whole conversation/dialog thing where members of the ensemble are on teams." It's only one aspect of the piece, but it is the formal one, most apparent in the "structural listening" that we practice in music. The politics of the form, hilariously--in light of Adorno and of contemporary U.S. politics--are obvious in the piece as the shattered American ideal of a discourse that cannot hold in its secular form.) When I did put my expert hat on afterwards, I came to a moment of startle when I thought: "the piece taught me nothing about the ideals of discourse... they illustrated the falsity of the aspiration behind them."

The problem of immediacy (our lack of it) is something that I see everywhere. There seems to be little "left-field" of the kind that could have existed even 10 years ago... The longer "artists" (in the musical sense) stick around, the more they tend to co-opt the Pop after having come from diverse backgrounds. The only radical thing on television is the delightfully disruptive Eric Andre Show (and is probably the only recognizable heir to the tradition of Monty Python's Flying Circus, That Mitchell and Webb Look, Wonder Showzen, and Tim and Eric). Cinema may have some contemporary examples (but the most talked about movie right now is the most ferociously terrible tribute to the lives of Angelenos themselves).

The problem is, difficultly, a semiotics of negativity that isn't yet theorized. History is crucial to the creation of the work of art, not as "paying dues," but as not retreading existing work and eliminating the sensation that your audience will have in the form "this is like x but with y" (the mathematicization of art that is simultaneous with with a genetic theory of influence, a literal proof that we can't think outside of what is already provided), or in the "I like what I'm familiar with." History in the mind of the audience builds this as a complement to history in the mind of the composer. The trace is what is literally happening, literally doable (if "faithfully" performed). The trace is the only thing that cannot be an abyss, because if it were, there would no longer be labor to create the object, and art would be nothing but nature or hallucination.

Knowing is positivity, a relation to the world as it is. It's an upvote, a story supporting your worldview, a theory that proves your empirical continuity, or a claim to novelty that's understandable somehow (which is prima facie contradictory). They should all be suspect on the grounds that the world gave them and they now, as Heidegger once said, "lie in the storerooms of the publishing house like potatoes in a cellar." A true negativity would be (and is, if even through reproduction) the thing that suspends history and society for a second or less. A true negativity would not just present what is possible, but something that isn't. That can happen at any scope and make the world into immediacy, which defeats the world and its social totality... but it, itself, is only possible with unknowing and the impossible, somewhere in a system.

Society, on the other hand, could be true negativity, unleashing art and other labor as immediate and unrecognizable, as we freely engage with it, and would lead to knowing history as nothing but the (already existing) scars of a mediated and alienating world.

11.15.2016

Liberalism Imagines its Death: Magnanimous in Defeat

"What is black and white and [red] all over?" This is a conundrum, a subset of riddles. It doesn't work well on paper, because one must either give away the fact that the answer relies on a pun somehow, or falsify the conundrum. The fundamental structure of the riddle is damaged by the fact that writing is determinative. If I just asked "what is black and white and read all over?" it defeats the point of the riddle. Vagueness can be productive in this situation because it relies on signaling to establish a mode of thought in the listener, with the great reward of having the riddle resolved later on. The riddle shows itself to be a well-crafted pun that intentionally has the mind focused on colors, only to subvert the mind's ability to adequately contextualize one word and find an adequate answer.

There's a lot of prognosticating about what that one presumptive, orange neo-fascist is going to do with his mandate (and it is a strong one, just on the merit of having all three branches of government behind him). His agenda is nebulous and indecipherable, a feature that was crucial to his victory. When an uneducated polis largely do not understand both history and basic civics, it's possible for them to wield the nihilist common sense: "the system cannot get any worse." Nevermind, the bourgeois republic seems to say with the voice of pundits, that this amounts to nothing more than lighting one's car on fire because it won't start. That so many could be fooled into a strongman's heroic rhetoric points at an unwillingness to understand political realities that are patent falsehoods: that global, neo-liberal capitalism can be reversed without endangering capitalism itself; that Reaganomics is good for "creating jobs;" that xenophobia can have no disastrous effects on American life; that tightening immigration strengthens the economy; that women have no right to choose their own reproductive future...

There is plenty of empirical and theoretical evidence that says otherwise, but the allure of burning everything down is paired with satisfaction that draconian or traditional modes of governance and society are acceptable enough: "if we need to go back to the stone age in terms of economic practice or civil rights, so be it, but I'm tired of this government-run health care exchange that feeds me to the wolves of Wall Street." Any of the dissatisfying features of both the governmental structure and the content of the government's legislative output over the past eight years gets repudiated, with absolutely no positive vision of how we will move forward.

It is easy to see how vagueness works here, because it allows the individual to make up what the positive work will be that will be done during a Trump presidency. Taking the exact opposite tack, the Democrats chose Clinton (and helped orchestrate Trump early on in the campaign), relying on the desire of decent, Democratic voters, to rebuke Trump by negating him only, amidst their own vague promise that things will stay the same. That she was the nominee in the first place is a travesty; when there are videos of your candidate refuting her own platform for two decades, then it obviously follows that your candidate is unprincipled, or at least wrong on everything (at least at first). That the Democratic Party (the establishment and its constituents) was so inept at seeing how that problem haunted Mitt Romney just one election before should disqualify them from calling themselves "on the left" at all. This is precisely conservative thinking in both form and content.

The Democrats are insufficiently "left," because left-liberalism has its own contradictions that cannot resolve any of the key problems in American governance and liberate its citizens from class struggle. That magic trick, the one where the liberal party tacitly moves right to be "competitive" with the patent falsehoods and malfeasance of the Republicans and simultaneously becomes more like them in content, is based on a general lack of education in what it means to be leftist. Here's where identity politics comes in: as a strategy for maintaining a core group of voters who stand against oppression on the grounds of only religion (or lack thereof), gender, sexuality, and race. These voters never act on the essential source, what generates and maintains these forms of oppression, however, because, in proper liberal fashion, they no longer think that class forms and regenerates these distinctions! (I will finish this line of thought in another essay; but to adumbrate, "grab them by the pussy" is based on being "a star," not being a whitecisheteromale.)

Liberals have exactly zero solutions to solve class inequality--manifest, still as a lack of political and economic power, and subsequently, all power. Here are a few things that patently will not work, despite the fact that they are all ubiquitous suggestions: 1) A renewed focus on trade unionism or a new labor-oriented political party. 2) Maintaining the Democratic Party and reforming it into an actually leftist party. 3) A greater understanding of the "White" "working" "class" or 4) compromising with their new daddy be it Trump, Ryan, or McConnell.

1) The writers over at the The Jacobin are churning out stories that are in pipe-dream territory. One story points out that 75% of the jobs in the US economy are service industry, and that it has been nearly impossible to organize the workers in that sector. Another starts with anecdotes about failed workers' parties in the U.S. That there is neither adequate worker organization, nor a party that caters to those organizations' members instead of their top brass, shows how inadequate the marriage of labor and politics in this country would be... especially with the rapid de-skilling and barriers of specialization that will be amplified going forward. In fact, the very concept of a "worker's party" is problematic because nobody seems to have an adequate, contemporary definition of "workers." As the economy continues a spiral into a service- and finance-economy only, it will be harder to get people organized. The positive spin is that it's possible... somehow.

2) The Democratic Party is one of two political parties in America, but the embarrassment that should be felt by every Democrat voter should illustrate why the party is irrelevant, and lead them elsewhere. If I can make a crude simile, it's like showing up to a church that you believe in and having the pastor tell you "I told you we would be saved, but I was wrong..." or "I told you about the nature of God, and it was true, but stopped being true at 02:00 on Wednesday." That the party exists at all will be a problem simply because it is a dead shell as an institution, a broad coalition that clearly is not effective with some serious delusions held by those at the top. (Why they are ineffective will be a game for a later day, but it has to do with a nonexistence of a rights discourse long overdue in both liberalism and the left more generally.)

3) The "White" "working" "class" voters that were seduced by the riddle of a blovating, mindless yarn-spinning neo-fascist should not be a surprise. The idea that "not understanding" them has come up over and over in media requiems this week, and I've seen it invoked by liberals in a political way as much as I have seen it as a plan of action to extend love to their countrymen and try to be more empathetic going forward. Of course, this is relativistic nonsense that is meant to deescalate the discourse shortly after a bruising defeat, saving face with a civil and magnanimous transfer of cultural capital to those who "took their country back." In other words, we're engaging in this dialog: "What's black and white and [red] all over?" "Well, everyone has an opinion and the people have spoken. Maybe we should listen to them about their lives so we can can see why they answered 'lice.' I mean, more electors were appointed by majorities in Pennsylvania and Ohio to agree."

The problem, here, is that it is patently wrong to vote for xenophobic, economically illiterate policies, however vague. This problem is historical in nature, simply because the core messages all point to policies that have previously existed in political systems as abusive, oppressive, absurd, or any combination of the three. Half the country tout Reagan as a demigod of political economy, yet routinely misunderstand the effects of his eponymous tax policies, pointing directly to the political relativism that enshrines political beliefs as individual character qualities, and hence, protects falsity as sacred, plausible solutions to political problems. That they are false notions are irrelevant to this political system and the notion that there is something truly better that needs to be done is a "affront to democracy" somehow.

4) Compromise with the unjust is failure. This failure is distinct from the political failure to stop a neo-fascist from winning in the Electoral College. As far as I see it, the Democrats are under the obligation to compromise exactly as much as the Republicans have compromised in the past eight years. I think most people who are pointing out that the "normalization" of jingoism and racial hatred, and misogyny and sexual violence, is a danger in itself are absolutely correct. But this should also extend to economic policies in the formal political system. There should be no offer to collaborate with a single measure that defunds or dismantles critical services provided by or subsidized by the federal government. The Democrats, of course, are in no position to do this, for two reasons: one, they're so inept at their job in getting elected; and two, since they are fundamentally, as the incumbents, the conservatives who have done nothing to eliminate the injustices of capitalism. As a conservative party, they have failed to grant the rights needed to end class antagonism and defeat the cult of abstract value. As the only oppositional voice to the neo-fascists, they are the last, if utterly incompetent, line of defense.

All this is to say that the left needs to come into existence in this country to eradicate the mainstream, liberal thought that defends random, marketized human life and its injustices. It's still unlikely to happen, but it is necessary if we are all going to stop wasting our time living in captivity to an irrational and abstract valuation (and disrespect) of human life. Greater work needs to be done to build a left, but the blueprints are out there in Marxian thought, accelerationism, and the brighter moments of critical theory (when it unfolds the universal character of alienation in capitalism). Both reformist and revolutionary ideas need to be on the table as remedies to capitalism and its political appendage, the bourgeois republic. It is likely that demands for a right to health or Universal Basic Income will be tough sells to liberals, but it is necessary to pull the liberals far enough to the left to be a part of the work of defeating inequality and abstract value. Maybe a brush with tyranny is spark enough to start that process, but it's probably more important to start while they are hitting bottom and before they resume the Bush era tactic of protesting the depraved actions of a mindless government instead of the system's boring, everyday devaluation of human life.

8.12.2015

A Prelude to Artifice of Intelligence

I just disturbed myself greatly with this idea... In a longer post that will come soon, I'm doing a pickup philosophy game about Artificial Intelligence and stumbled into a new reading of Alan Turing's Imitation Game from "Computing Machinery and Intelligence."

The Game is constructed of an interrogator and two agents: a man (who is a computer) who must convince the interrogator (who is a human) that he is more of a woman than the female agent (a female woman who can only tell the truth). If a particular Male agent can succeed at being chosen as the Female agent more than 50% of the time, it has the appearance of intelligence (if not intelligence itself).

That's it. Almost any popular depiction of this Test is a lie... It confuses the process for a one on one conversation, or says that it's good enough to win the game once, or it ignores gender.

Of course, the gender thing is true irony... Knowing Turing's story, and not the one in The Imitation Game that accuses him of treason, makes gender anxiety into something that was felt deeply enough by Turing to take his own life. But we no longer gender the Test. This is in spite of our proclivity toward stories that show a "female" robot killing their maker because they were "born" into sexual slavery. I was going to write a chapter of my master's thesis on the generation of anxieties in the Turing Test, both deceptive and gendered. I didn't write that thesis...

Thinking about the Imitation Game as a social construct is more interesting than any fiction about robots... Our blueprint for designating intelligence when imbued in a made object is more terrifying than a killer "gynoid" emancipating "herself" from her owner or user...

The humans in the Test are themselves classed. The interrogator is responsible for identifying the semblance of intelligence, but the Female agent is responsible for truth and truth only. Deception is folded into the role of the newcomer, the Male, made intelligence. His ability to lie about his gender is what defines sufficient intelligence to be counted among humans. But paradoxically, the Female must give up the right to deceive, and stick to the world of things as their truth value (whatever that is).

It is because of this that the Test is dehumanizing in itself, and the Female is the automaton, but a human one. Parroting off truths is simultaneously not human, and the role for the Female who is only in the Test because she is essentially human. She is impinged upon by reality and forced to know nothing but what is, again, a source of dehumanization and a defeating of creativity.

The interrogator can be themselves and nothing else. They are not gendered, and consistently free to make judgements about the threshold of femaleness, be they from it or not. They are presumably critical and human (if those are different somehow). They will judge however they may, and the results will be about their sensibilities, their standard for intelligence. We must hope that they have a sound judgment, since they will be making the first call to the world that we can create in our image, and become our own myth (again).

Gender, for Turing, stands in for valuations about social life: female living is truthful, while male living is a deception. Intelligence is defined by the quality of deception, and deception is only performed by the made object that wants to be legitimized as intelligent. Intelligence is a deception... It is a social truth that builds success in an episteme that knows itself and itself alone. The interrogator sets the price of intelligence at what they would buy it at.

6.19.2015

Adorno, for Doug and Matthew

This week's episode of Zero Squared with Matthew Collin contains a very confused reading of Adorno, so I'll treat it like an essay prompt. First, I'll say that I've spent a lot of time with Adorno's work, but am not a certified "Adorno expert." Second, I had the opportunity to read Adorno first as a musicologist with a background in phenomenology, and later as I was being trained in Marxist social theory and critical theory. Through this process, I found that there is a lot in Adorno that only means something when you know all of his references; I'll simply never get there, and because of this, my interpretation of his work could be called "quite subjective." Third, the Frankfurt School has come up a lot recently on Zero Squared, and always seems to lack a voice in the discussion, because I don't think Doug (or C. Derick Varn) take them seriously as Marxists. I don't have an interest (today) in explaining the epistemological and historiographical problem of Marxist orthodoxy more deeply, but there may be some things here that are tangential to Doug and Derick's previous conversation about Jacoby's Dialectic of Defeat. Suffice it to say, for now, that I did not understand why the Frankfurt School is non-canonical Marxism. When Derick said recently that Adorno and Horkheimer are "too cultural," I had a little bit of an epistemic shock; I don't know what "too cultural" could even possibly mean, since culture is the realm of all relevant truth, everyday individual and mass action, and ideology formation. It did, recently and along with other problems, make me rethink the term "Marxism," and draw the Frankfurt School, and myself, as outside of that term for the first time. As I like to tell people in conversations about Adorno: "Marxists wait for the proletariat to wake up; Adorno says 'have you met these people?'"


Adorno and Horkheimer's Critique of Structure Itself

The topic at hand is Adorno's dismissal of popular music, which is basically one of the two things that he is most known for in his musicological writing and methods. The context of all of his dismissals (popular music, Jazz, narrative film, and basically, everyone except Beethoven and Schönberg) is the totality of his overall project, and the projects of the Frankfurt School (at least Adorno and Horkheimer) more generally. 

Adorno has a reputation in musical analysis that is at the level of infamy. His name, when it appears in the work of contemporary musicological study, invites a plethora of standardized and institutionally endorsed "fallacies," counterarguments that were forged just to delegitimize any of his viewpoints. In the same way Marx's labor theory of value is wrong because it doesn't account for the exploitation of the dead laborer, animals, and grants no human rights to corn, those who would use Adorno's method for musicological inquiry are instantly creating "an authoritarian discourse, and an asocial one," as Richard Taruskin put it in the introduction to the Oxford History of Western Music. Adorno gets a whole paragraph of being called out, forty years past his death, for ruining musicological study, in today's most authoritative and canonical history of all of Western music. Taruskin carefully chose the two words that are the exact negation of Adorno's actual work, as a way of twisting the knife (Taruskin prefers the work of Howard S. Becker, that is, his aping and dishonest reproduction of Erving Goffman's work). This has led to a game that I like to play, where count how many sentences it takes an Adornian analyst to disavow him; it usually looks something like "I don't agree with everything he says, but..." The main criticism that leads to the disavowal is the one that Collin states on the podcast: he's an elitist; I will flesh this out below.

The reason for this is that musicologists rarely have enough of a background in the actual work of the Frankfurt School, and rarely understand the project of Adorno and Horkheimer, for lack of relevance to the more analytic (opposed to continental) subdiscipline of music theory, and the largely (auto-) biographical slant of historical musicology. Simply put, the social value of music is underrepresented in the musical academy because the truths are harsh and discouraging. Adorno's work is just too negative to tell people when they are in the process of specializing in music, and dreaming of being that one in fifty humanist who actually gets the job they dream of.

Musicologists who study Adorno are rarely aware of the totality and consistency of his entire project. This is because of the diversity of his interests, and the difficulty of his arguments. When he freely interchanges Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud's terminologies, usually only to extend or tear them apart, very few musicologists can keep up (I know I can't). When philosophers or social theorists read Adorno's musical work, I don't think they get anything out of it at all. This is because the implied urgency in reasoning out a musical ethics sounds arbitrary if you are not in the "business" of "classical music."

There are two points of Adorno and Horkheimer's project that I will focus on here: first, their relentless interrogation into how fascism could be the pinnacle of modernist capitalism, and the psychological and cultural implications of it; second, their general criticism of structure as a vehicle for authoritarianism, regardless of the quality of the contents of structures.

The personal cost of fascism for the scholars of the Frankfurt School almost never comes up in any treatment of their work, even when Walter Benjamin is mentioned. But the sheer amount of thought and work that Adorno and Horkheimer put into fascist ideology, as the capitalistic ideology with the most immediacy, evidences this personal cost. Having already processed the impossibility of Marx's proposed revolution, they moved on to studying authoritarianism in general. By studying the functions of propaganda, the structure of the fascist state as a giant familial unit, and the historical fallacies that need to be held by the proletariat to be susceptible to fascism, the foundations for a cerebral resistance to fascism were in place. What Adorno and Horkheimer didn't plan on was that their exile would make them all too familiar with the privatized fascism of American consumerism. It turned out that their program for investigating fascism and authority was true for market authoritarianism; American capitalism simply shifts the authoritarianism into the private sector, a political economy that I would describe as non-totalitarian authoritarianism.

Adorno's musicology is consistent with his general conception of social structure, one that he largely shares with Horkheimer. Their fundamental structure for critique is that social formation, production, and authority are all reproductions of each other, both conceptually and practically. For Adorno and Horkheimer, the base and superstructure are a feedback loop, but this is not necessarily a feature of capitalism particularly. This theory is based equally on Marx's material history, from The German Ideology, and Freud's conception of the superego as social structure reproduced in individual subjects, from Civilization and its Discontents. This view of a minor or non-existent divide between society and individual consciousness actually caused Freud to posit that society itself can develop neuroses, but that he wouldn't be the one to prescribe a course of treatment. In similar fashion, Adorno and Horkheimer tend to look at political problems as familial problems (Horkheimer's "Authority and the Family" in Critical Theory), and advertisement as the propaganda of a "monopolistic mass culture" (Adorno, "The Schema of Mass Culture" in The Culture Industry); for them, there is no distance between the individual superego and culture.

Because there is no distance, in late capitalism, between individual identity, consumption, and production, Adorno is looking for truth values in what the producers don't know about their connection to the means of production. The fungibility of meaning (that is, social meaning is political meaning is familial meaning) makes it so every human agent that could make something is either (to put it in Adorno's Hegelian way) inside the identity of capitalism or a nonidentity. (Negative Dialectics) Since the system of production is, indeed, the bourgeois structure in its totality, any work under industrial production changes the actual meaning of music, and the structural contradictions of capitalism are embedded in the cultural meaning of industrial art. Although there is no contradiction evident to the individual composer in their environment of production, their participation in a functional, non-revolutionary institution of musical production means that they are reproducing society as music, industry as culture.

Truth values that exist in the work (in the sense of Heidegger's "The Origin of the Work of Art," what is true in the world that the work imagines) can attach, for Adorno, to the truth values that exist in the real and social world. A good and simple example comes from Adorno's "How to Look at Television," in The Culture Industry. "Many television plays could be characterized by the soubrique 'a pretty girl can do no wrong.'" If a woman must be pretty to play the lead role (productive, consumptive truth), and convention dictates a happy ending (artistic truth), then it is merely syllogism that everything always works out for pretty girls. If the proletariat cannot identify their own chains, then what makes it likely that they'd reject such a ubiquitous but accidental truth? Why would the truth value of an advertisement for domestic normativity, the sitcom, be rejected by the proletariat, when the formal rule of sitcoms is "pseudo-realism." (ibid.) 

Here's my own, current example of the same analytic method: Meghan Trainor's three recent singles, when taken together as socially true, create a complex of ugly truths. Song 1: I'm not skinny and that's okay. Song 2: All men lie to me. Song 3: "Dear Future Husband." Simply combining the songs' artistically true messages under one personality (the brand name "Meghan Trainor") I can deduce that fat girls get lied to so much that they can only dream of having a husband in the future. And all of that is to not even analyze its blatantly reactionary musical and visual tones from the 1950's American dream. This method was reintroduced to the musicological community by Susan McClary in the late 1980s, and is currently employed in media analysis by Carol Vernallis.


Adorno as Elitist

Collin's identification of Adorno as an elitist is the obvious and most common attack leveled at him. But it is superficially true. There's actually an historical distortion here, because it is rarely understood why Adorno is so ardent a supporter of Arnold Schoenberg, and what we call Schoenberg's "emancipation of dissonance," and there are myriad misreadings of his disdain for jazz (itself, at the time, the popular music). An historically-minded, but lazy, criticism is based simply on his proximity to Schoenberg, and one can read his advocacy of Schoenberg's music as nothing more than sucking up to his teacher's teacher. But this is an oversimplification, one that serves to make a generalization where none is possible. For instance, it isn't actually Schoenberg that Adorno advocates, it is Schoenberg's pieces from 1908 to 1928. Additionally, I believe I have read that the two did not like each other personally, and didn't talk much to one another.

Second, Adorno's interest in atonal music (in which all harmonic references that were established as "correct" harmonic vocabulary from the 17th to the 19th century are avoided) is not monotonous. This is explained in his 1964 essay "Difficulties," and will become more clear with my next point. When writing about (on one hand) Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, and (on the other) John Cage, he criticizes what he sees as the main motivation of each composer: ego death in composition. Each sought a way of minimizing the role of the composer but still couldn't account for the arbitrary elements still present in their work (ego death, is, of course, death and inaction itself). Adorno saw this as the socially true powerlessness of the individual, a disregard of responsibility for the relationships of sound that the composer has always had actual freedom to choose. (To step away from Adorno for a second: Cage was clearly, explicitly interested in this distance, inspired in part by his studies of zen. It is, in my analysis, a fundamental contradiction of his work, under capitalist production, that he still put his name on his scores. Stockhausen fancied himself to be a theoretical physicist or mathematician dealing with experimental music as his field of physics, to be blunt. Boulez sounds a bit more like a structural linguist, interested in building grammars for the development of a new, expressive musical language. The later two are basically generational amplifications of the two sides of Schoenberg.)

Third, Adorno's musical analyses are more consistent within the frame of his general critique of structure. In "The Dialectical Composer" (1934), Adorno briefly explained the meaning of Schoenberg's work in a historical sense. For Adorno, Schoenberg had completely transformed musical consciousness by unleashing the contradiction of musical freedom upon musical form itself, instead of where it is normally found, the subjective will of the composer in the face of standardized modes of expression (like song form, instrumentation, decisions about the text, etc.). "Subject and object--compositional intention and compositional material--do not, in this case, indicate two rigidly separate modes of being, between which there is something that must be resolved." What Adorno is pointing to is the lack of all expectation, the creation of a musical action that is never subservient to the law of tonality (which was, itself, a standardization of the narrative expectations of the audience, and the bourgeois ideology of music). The form cannot be predicted, the conflicts embedded in the musical material are unknown, and the composer has put something into a musical language that has no grammar, but can still be spoken. A part of this observation is that there is no possibility, in free atonality, for a distinction between the ornamental and the structural; there is no necessity to satisfy anything other than the freedom of composition itself. "After Schoenberg," wrote Adorno, "the history of music will no longer be fate, but will be subject to human consciousness." By this, Adorno means "that in Schoenberg this dialectic has achieved its Hegelian 'self-consciousness,' or, better, its measureable and exact showplace: musical technology."

Two years prior, in "On the Social Situation of Music," Adorno explained that the musical language of Schoenberg's free atonality "annulled the expressive music of the private bourgeois individual, pursuing--as it were-- its own consequences, and put in its place a different music, into whose music no social function falls--indeed, which even severs the last communication with the listener." As an extension of the bourgeois musical language (tonality), Schoenberg was able to eradicate the lawfulness of structure, harmonic and temporal, from the work of music, making it impossible to conceive of in the traditional forms ("wow, that primary theme is really interesting, I wonder what will happen to it in the development section"). This is extremely technical, but, if music is a practice that can reflect other forms of human activity, this is the forging of a nonidentity, far outside of the identity supplied by the social totality. More on this point later.

Adorno's dismissal of popular music more generally is not based, as is commonly thought, on the richness of "high" music versus the vapidity of "low" music. Jazz is simply the inverse of the arguments for free atonality: jazz's structurality strives for a "perfection" of both tonal and formal structures, the complete domination of structure. The totality of a jazz leadsheet, as an immovable structure, is the invisibility of the total authority, with an offer for complete and utter freedom of the individual inside of it. Since Adorno often conceives of musical forms as the musical equivalent of social order, jazz is patently working toward bourgeois escapism in its pure form. "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," Adorno wrote in his 1936 essay "On Jazz." There are other problems, such as jazz's friendliness to "sound film," its direct orientation toward the market and pleasure for the proletariat and bourgeois alike, and the development of its own, unique divisions of labor. In Adorno's view, jazz does not introduce new musical consciousness, it just gives illusions of difference through added ornamentation, both rhythmic and tonally. This is the music of the empowerment of the oppressed classes, those who don't even know that the authoritarian structure is offering them freedom (improvisation) because it cannot threaten that totalitarian structure.

Adorno's criticism and dismissal of popular music is more specifically about production. The logic behind this is that, if, for instance, the popular music industry is capable of producing sentimental or anti-status quo music, such as protest songs, it's probably a really bad sign that the message is even tolerated by the market. It is what we now recognize as a form of "ethical consumption," a market choice offered as a solution to the problem that the market created in the first place. I like to equate this to Hannah Arendt's essay "What is Freedom?" from Between Past and Future. For Arendt, the reason that the "human rights" were afforded to the subjects of bourgeois republics is because the quality of "freedom of speech" and "freedom of religion" cannot affect the structure of the republic in the first place. It is a seeming concession from the state, one that makes its subjects think that the structure of the state is there to protect them, but all of the rights it affords to its citizens are rights that never amount to a "freedom to action" in the public sphere. Republics, simply, cannot tolerate "freedom to action" because action may threaten the structure of governance, and may deconcentrate power from the ruling class, or transform bourgeois culture into something that opposes itself. Adorno recognizes that musical freedom operates in the same way. If the culture industry can produce anti-war rhetoric, itself not remotely close to action, then it is memorializing, and cashing in on, the real atrocity of war. If the market is ready for protest, we are probably worse off than we think, since it shows the ineptitude of that protest. Why, for instance, was there no marketable musical movement attacking the Iraq War in the mid 2000s? Because it was such a marginal social view that it could only attach itself to marginal musical vocabularies.

Collin brings up a great point when discussing this, by questioning the dismissal of popular music when it is politically engaging (and I must add, I feel exactly the same way about Public Enemy as Doug and Matthew did). His example is James Brown's "Say It Loud--I'm Black and Proud," and he asks why this isn't a progressive step in culture, if it allows people to be more aware of racial identity. If I can speak for (or maybe update) Adorno, it's because even the positive fetishization of blackness, through musical reflection, doesn't do anything to change the system of oppression. Epistemologically, we cannot ensure that popular music consumers will ever know anything more about race and oppression than what James Brown or Hollywood can tell them. We should not expect that positive cultural representations have ever led to a less oppressive capitalism.

This points to a larger problem that is suffered by all subaltern forms of criticism and theory, particularly non-radical feminism. Engels traced female monogamy to the need for proper dispersion of accumulated wealth at the onset of capitalist patriarchy in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. Without a systematic rejection of private property, it is unlikely that capitalism will ever develop the slightest bit of gender equality. But a message of empowerment, promoting indefinite perseverance against this structure, authoritative and oppressive, solves no social ills. Shulamith Firestone takes this to its logical end in The Dialectic of Sex, showing that feminism is nothing without global socialism, global socialism nothing without radical feminism, and as long as biological difference exists, women are reproductive laborers that are classed into oppression. Of course, the quality of "radical" in that sentence is immense; her solution is the advancement of non-human birth technology, the eradication of the family, and a totally automated socialist society to eventually eliminate all labor (pardon the double entendre). Such radical structural change would assume no gender oppression to be possible.


Adorno's Endgame

Adorno, when he speaks of Schoenberg's "revolution," is hopeful that music will continue to be revolutionized, despite its inability to create revolutionary force in the social world. Often, his essays open with a reminder that the social realm is a reach too far for music, and that music cannot create its own forces for the destruction of capitalism. So in this way, Doug's understanding of Adorno's view of music is half right. Adorno wants to see musical revolution and the entry of new forms of musical consciousness as a way of proving that there are new forms of social consciousness that are possible; since the proletariat is hopeless and all politics is authoritarian, escaping the psychological components of capitalism mandate a new paradigm for revolution, one that doesn't wait for impossible proletarian revolutions or involve a planned walk through material history into the magical future.

Adorno, when tendering his "Resignation" (The Culture Industry), basically conceived of revolution itself as nothing worthy of intelligent, conscientious people: "The objection raised against us can be stated approximately in these words; a person who in the present hour doubts the possibility of radical change in society and who for that reason neither takes part in nor recommends spectacular, violent action is guilty of resignation... Political acts of violence can also sink to the level of pseudo-activity, resulting in mere theatre." Adorno knew that action against the bourgeois structure is itself bourgeois action; it is playing the bourgeois game, just on the level larger than the current game. Although he sees no hope for eradicating structural deterrents to freedom, he does tend to leave his essays with a glimmer of hope (even though it is sometimes more like a dot of hope).

Whoever thinks is without anger in all criticism: thinking sublimates anger. Because the thinking person does not have to inflict anger upon himself, he furthermore has no desire to inflict it upon others. The happiness visible to the eye of a thinker is the happiness of mankind. The universal tendency toward suppression goes against thought as such. Such thought is happiness, even where unhappiness prevails; thought achieves happiness in the expression of unhappiness. Whoever refuses to permit this thought to be taken from him has not resigned.