Stations of the Cross: Adorno and Christian Right Radio

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Since the 1970s, American society has provided especially fertile ground for the growth of the Christian right and its influence on both political and cultural discourse. In Stations of the Cross political theorist Paul Apostolidis shows how a critical component of this movement’s popular culture—evangelical conservative radio—interacts with the current U.S. political economy. By examining in particular James Dobson’s enormously influential program, Focus on the Family—its messages, politics, and effects—Apostolidis reveals the complex nature of contemporary conservative religious culture.
Public ideology and institutional tendencies clash, the author argues, in the restructuring of the welfare state, the financing of the electoral system, and the backlash against women and minorities. These frictions are nowhere more apparent than on Christian right radio. Reinvigorating the intellectual tradition of the Frankfurt School, Apostolidis shows how ideas derived from early critical theory—in particular that of Theodor W. Adorno—can illuminate the political and social dynamics of this aspect of contemporary American culture. He uses and reworks Adorno’s theories to interpret the nationally broadcast Focus on the Family, revealing how the cultural discourse of the Christian right resonates with recent structural transformations in the American political economy. Apostolidis shows that the antidote to the Christian right’s marriage of religious and market fundamentalism lies not in a reinvocation of liberal fundamentals, but rather depends on a patient cultivation of the affinities between religion’s utopian impulses and radical, democratic challenges to the present political-economic order.
Mixing critical theory with detailed analysis, Stations of the Cross provides a needed contribution to sociopolitical studies of mass movements and will attract readers in sociology, political science, philosophy, and history.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Apostolidis’s application of dialectical criticism to the evangelical radio program Focus on the Family is theoretically innovative and politically daring. Reading Christian conservatism as cultural critique, he discerns in its narrative structures the same utopian desire for ethical autonomy that animates ‘left’ criticisms of our post-Fordist social order. No apologist for the New Right but a democratic provocateur, Apostolidis challenges progressives to set aside their secular disdain for evangelicalism and consider how its powerful cultural idiom might provide intellectual and political radicalism with a new voice.”—Lisa Disch, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities

“Paul Apostolidis’s excellent study Stations of the Cross: Adorno and Christian Right Radio provides one of the sharpest analyses yet to appear of the Christian right and its media politics. The book is also an important contribution to critical theory, applying and reconstructing T. W. Adorno’s approach to cultural criticism. Focusing on James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, Apostolidis skillfully dissects the program’s messages, politics, and effects, producing a first-rate study of contemporary conservative religious culture.”—Douglas Kellner, UCLA

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822325413
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 6/28/2000
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 5.96 (w) x 9.26 (h) x 0.82 (d)

Meet the Author

Paul Apostolidis is Assistant Professor of Politics at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.

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Adorno and Christian Right Radio
By Paul Apostolidis


Copyright © 2000 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-2541-3

Chapter One

Adorno on Mass Culture and Cultural Criticism

* * *

Baby with the bath water.-Among the motifs of cultural criticism one of the most long-established and central is that of the lie: that culture creates the illusion of a society worthy of human beings which does not exist; that it conceals the material conditions upon which everything human arises, and that, comforting and soothing, it serves to nourish the bad economic determinacy of existence.... This is the notion of culture as ideology.... But precisely this notion, like all expostulation about lies, has a suspicious tendency to become itself ideology.-Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia, 1944

Marx famously concluded his Theses on Feuerbach by declaring: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it." Many Marxian theorists over the past century have received this injunction as a warning against theory becoming so preoccupied with the analysis of culture that it loses touch with concrete efforts to revolutionize society. This suspicious predisposition toward cultural critique has been further bolsteredby the example Marx himself seems to have set, as he moved from the critique of Hegelian philosophy to the critical analysis of political economy.

Adorno's distinctive position among twentieth-century Marxist theorists stems largely from his steadfast repudiation of this predisposition and his ardent defense of cultural criticism as a valid and necessary task for Marxist theory. To be sure, various forms of cultural critique have featured prominently in the writings of Adorno's Frankfurt School colleagues (notably Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, and Jürgen Habermas) and other thinkers from outside this tradition (especially Antonio Gramsci and Raymond Williams). But Adorno's texts are unusual in the intensity and centrality that the exhortation toward cultural criticism assumes within them. For Adorno, it was both intellectually axiomatic and historically imperative to recognize that theory which dismissed intellectual and artistic phenomena as "mere ideology"-that is, as essentially just instruments for perpetuating class domination-was itself ideological. Aspiring to critical insight into society meant resisting the delusion that abstract, social-theoretical categories provided all the knowledge of their objects that was needed to penetrate ideology. Instead, Adorno argued, under late capitalism critical thinking hinged on subjectivity preserving a critical, yet also empathetic and spontaneous, experience of the cultural object. For Adorno, engaging cultural phenomena in this way could generate both self-critical theory and transformative praxis, in an era when the petrifying instrumentalization of thought not only permeated bourgeois social relations but moreover threatened socialist politics from within.

The major portion of this book is devoted to locating the position of Focus on the Family within the contemporary structure of U.S. society and to extracting lessons from this endeavor for critical social theory today. Adorno's method of cultural criticism systematically informs this account of Christian right radio. Before delving into the details of James Dobson's program, therefore, it is first necessary to explain the method of dialectical criticism (or "social physiognomy"), as Adorno conceived of it. We shall also explore the specific historical experiences, along with the distinctive social-theoretical conceptualizations of these experiences (above all, the theories of state capitalism and the culture industry), in relation to which this method was initially formulated. Why did Adorno consider cultural criticism so crucial for Marxian theory? What was this intellectual practice supposed to reveal about the cultural object? In what sense, for Adorno, were the object's relations to the social totality and to social theory "dialectical," and how were these "dialectical" relationships associated with transformative politics? Why was "mass culture" almost entirely hostile to revolutionary theory and practice, in Adorno's view, and what aspects or possibilities of "mass culture" did this view exclude? These questions furnish the guiding concerns of this chapter. In the next chapter, I glean important lessons for a critique of the contemporary Christian right from Adorno's own study of fundamentalist radio in the Depression era. Chapter 2 then confronts the issue of how changing historical conditions, specifically the transition to post-Fordism, should influence the development of a method of cultural analysis that preserves vital insights from Adorno but is also appropriate to the current social situation.

Social Physiognomy and Culture's Utopian Negativity

Adorno did not characteristically engage in straightforward and systematic reflection on theoretical and philosophical methods in his writings. Instead, the greater part of his written work focuses directly on cultural phenomena-above all, modern music and philosophy-making an implicit argument for dialectical criticism by demonstrating its interpretive power rather than describing a method step-by-step and building a logical case for it. Negative Dialectics (1966), the last major work that Adorno completed, did indeed concentrate on issues of philosophical method and presents the closest approximation to a formal program of dialectical thought that can be found among Adorno's writings. Yet the method of negative dialectics had taken shape over many years and in many different documents, some of which openly addressed matters of critical methodology. Crucial elements of this approach were already foremost in Adorno's mind in his 1931 inaugural lecture, "The Actuality of Philosophy." The essay "Cultural Criticism and Society" (1955) offers a particularly vivid and concise argument for Adorno's distinctive mode of dialectical reflection on culture. This short piece provides a suitable point of departure for several reasons: the essay's reflections are rigorously and explicitly methodological yet unencumbered by the creeping formalism that at times besets Negative Dialectics; it manifests one of Adorno's boldest attempts to set himself apart from other Marxists; and it articulates Adorno's method of dialectical criticism in the context of historico-critical reflections on mass culture.

In "Culture Criticism and Society," Adorno argues that the very concept of "culture" as an intellectual realm distinct from and ideally untarnished by the realm of material necessity is ideological. Rather, he writes, "all culture takes part in society's guilty coherence; it ekes out its existence only by virtue of injustice already perpetrated in the sphere of production, much as does commerce." For Adorno, this injustice is specifically "the radical division of mental and physical labor," from which culture itself originates. Thus the "traditional" cultural criticism that responds to the rise of "consumer culture" by denouncing "the entanglement of culture in commerce," though it claims to be "criticism of ideology," is itself "ideology." Such cultural criticism, Adorno contends, implicitly sanctions the division of mental and physical labor by asserting culture's essential difference from the sphere of physical necessity.

However, Adorno contends further that although cultural criticism perpetuates a deception by overlooking the fundamental complicity of culture with domination, a more demystifying critique must still insist on the autonomy of culture rather than unequivocally opposing this notion. For culture "draws its strength" (Kräfte) from its independence from that which is necessary at a given historical moment for socioeconomic production and reproduction, even if this independence is not absolute. Adorno defines this "strength" as "the preservation of an image of existence pointing beyond the compulsion which stands behind all labor." other words, culture has the potential to contribute to the radical transformation of society, insofar as it maintains an aspect that is both negative and utopian in relation to sociohistorical conditions.

Adorno asserts that Marxist social theory cannot do without this negative-utopian "ferment," for this is the "very truth" of culture. And he directly attacks "dialectical theory which shows itself to be uninterested in culture as a mere epiphenomenon" of the economic "base" and which treats cultural objects simply as tools either to bolster or to subvert class rule. Such "economism" not only fails to recognize the autonomous protest that culture may lodge against power, but moreover signals that its epistemological basis for criticism is suspect. According to Adorno, critical subjectivity can only emerge on the basis of a "spontaneous relation to the object"-an "experience of the object" prior to theoretical understanding and therefore providing mind with the capacity to call its own concepts into question. This notion of spontaneous experience stands at the very core of Adorno's theory of critical thought. It suggests an empirical sensibility, in the sense that it connotes a direct encounter with the object that is not mediated by theoretical lenses-that is, a prior conception of the object's meaning in relation to other objects or to society. This experience, however, is decidedly not "empirical" in the (positivist) sense that it examines the object in order to formulate generalizations about abstract categories of which the object will ultimately be seen as an exemplar. Nor does Adorno here join hands with existentialism and fundamental ontology, which he detested because of their presupposition that full knowledge of the object was attainable without the mediating rigors of dialectical thought. Rather, Adorno's idea of the spontaneous "experience of the object" reflects the Hegelian underpinnings of his thought, inasmuch as it presupposes that critical subjectivity can neither generate itself from within the architecture of its own conceptual labyrinths nor spring up fully formed on the basis of unmediated contact with "being" (like Athena emerging from the head of Zeus), but becomes actual only when a subject enters into an immediate relation with an object outside itself and then raises this "true" experience to self-consciousness, thereby exposing the poverty of its concept of the object. Adorno crucially differs from Hegel as well, however, because he denies that the subject ever actually "finds itself" in its object and contends that the subject's sense of identity with the object is not the ground of freedom but rather the seed of domination. In Negative Dialectics, Adorno argues that thought can only extricate itself from its propensity toward a form of thinking that is in league with domination by granting "precedence to the object." That is, thought must ground its self-reflection in an experience of the object that recognizes that the object is distinct from the subject (and thus from the subject's concept of the object, which Hegel's idealism, social-scientific positivism, and existentialism's "jargon of authenticity" all alike forget) and "loves" the object without forgetting that distinctness.

Adorno contends in "Cultural Criticism and Society" that much cultural analysis performed in the name of dialectical materialism shuns precisely this kind of experience and thereby develops "an affinity to barbarism." He allows that the characteristically "ambivalent attitude of social theory toward cultural criticism" is justified, acknowledging that "the hypostasis of culture" makes culture both a distraction from and a "complement to horror." In other words, Adorno insists that cultural criticism must not become an end in itself, for such "enthrallment in the cultural object" is simply a reversion to "idealism"-that is, to the installation of mind as the ultimate reality and the consequent mystification of material oppression. Adorno thus by no means advocates dispensing with the project of analyzing culture from a standpoint that transcends culture so as to determine "the role of ideology in social conflicts." But to abandon cultural criticism altogether on the grounds that all culture is "superstructure," Adorno argues, amounts to "idealism" in a different guise, since theory here subsumes cultural objects under an abstract category of theory's own devising and absolutizes thought by erroneously identifying the object with that abstraction. To Adorno, this theoretical move betrays a contempt for precisely that experience of the object that alone would enable thought to achieve critical self-reflection. Adorno hesitates to say that social theory that considers cultural criticism irrelevant must necessarily become the slave of domination. He insists, however, that "no theory, not even that which is true, is safe from perversion into delusion once it has renounced a spontaneous relation to the object," and he repeatedly draws attention to the coexistence of an economistic attitude toward culture with totalitarian rule in the Soviet Union.

As an alternative to both traditional cultural criticism and vulgar Marxist economism, Adorno proposes a method of dialectical criticism that he names "social physiognomy." Although refusing to formalize this method, Adorno etches out its contours in his distinctive, deliberately antisystematic mode of writing in "Cultural Criticism and Society." This critical procedure grounds itself in a spontaneous "experience of the object" by taking "immanent criticism" as its starting point. "Immanent criticism" involves the reflection on the theorist's spontaneous perception of the object's immediate appearance in light of an analysis of the object's structural composition.

Through immanent criticism, the theorist analyzes the object's structural form in terms of the relationship between the general idea, which the object is meant to express, and the particular elements (or "moments," or materials), which have been combined so as to give that idea concrete expression. For traditional cultural criticism, the knowledge of the object gained through such an analysis (that is, its success or failure in fulfilling historically developed principles of aesthetic form) would constitute an end in itself. "The threshold of dialectical over cultural criticism, however," writes Adorno, "is crossed when the former intensifies the latter until the concept of culture itself is at once fulfilled, negated, and transcended" (bis zur Aufhebung des Begriffs der Kultur selber). Social physiognomy accomplishes this Aufhebung or transcendence of cultural criticism, which both completes and cancels the latter, by interpreting the results of immanent criticism in relation to social theory. Adorno argues that the character of the relationship between the general and the particular within the object's structure unintentionally but inevitably bears the traces of social power relations. It follows that no complete reconciliation of the general and the particular within the object's form is possible as long as social contradictions remain unresolved. Counterintuitively, then, the object's "truth-content" does not lie in its positive achievement of the formal task that the artist sets for herself, but instead in its inability to complete this endeavor: "The moment in the work of art which enables it to transcend reality ... does not consist in the harmony achieved, of the dubious unity of form and content, the internal and the external, the individual and society, but rather in those features in which discrepancy appears, in the necessary failure of the passionate striving toward identity." Inasmuch as the object's "failure" is "necessary," then, the theorist can decipher the object's formal deficiencies as the gaps subsisting between the general idea of society as a reconciled community of human beings and society's actual existence as a historical totality fraught with antagonism. Social physiognomy thus means "naming what the consistency and inconsistency of the work in itself expresses of the constitution of the existent.... Where it comes across inadequacy it ... seeks to derive it from the irreconcilability of the object's moments. It pursues the logic of the object's aporias, the insolubility located in the task itself. In such antinomies it perceives those of society."


Excerpted from STATIONS OF THE CROSS by Paul Apostolidis Copyright © 2000 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


1 Adorno on Mass Culture and Cultural Criticism....................31
2 Adorno's Critique of Christian Right Radio in the New Deal Era....................57
3 Christian Professionals and the Fraying Fabric of Health and Human Services....................90
4 Christian Politicians and the Decline of Democratic Accountability....................130
5 Christian Victims in the Backlash Society....................172
6 Negative Dialectics and Political Practice....................208
Appendix A Complete Listing of Focus on the Family Broadcasts Selected for Research....................221
Appendix B Itinerary for Research Visit to Colorado Springs, 21-25 February 1996....................228
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