While Theodor Adorno has continued to be influential since his death in 1969, his very centrality has led to the left simplifying his ideas while the right placed him at the center of a myriad of wild conspiracy theories, all of them filed under the category of Cultural Marxism. Adorno has wrongly been blamed for everything from the Beatles to postmodernism, but he has continued to be read, if read badly. Stuart Walton's introduction to Adorno attempts to explain how this idiosyncratic thinker reframed elements of the Hegelian-Marxist dialectical in the fields of philosophy, sociology, politics and aesthetics and to rectify some of the major misunderstandings about Adorno and the Frankfurt School. When Walton began studying Adorno at Oxford in 1983 he felt that Adorno was nowhere in the English-speaking world, but that he should be everywhere. Now Adorno is everywhere, but hardly anywhere sufficiently or deeply understood.
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Society and the Individual
Within repressive society the individual's emancipation not only benefits but damages him. Freedom from society robs him of the strength for freedom. For however real he may be in his relations to others, he is, considered absolutely, a mere abstraction.
In February 2014, targeted advertising and the communications systems that enable it achieved another significant advance in their capabilities, when it was announced that a pair of satellite television companies in the United States had joined forces to offer to clients a newly developed package called Addressable TV. For the first time, advertisers would be able to tailor their messages to specific consumers through TV commercials that target individual viewers. While the TV in one home might be encouraging its undecided viewers to vote for a particular candidate in the forthcoming general election, their neighbours would be receiving an ad urging them to switch their shortly expiring home insurance to another company. Data about the economic circumstances and likely consumer preferences of each household, derived from the information gleaned about their customers' identities known by the broadcast companies, would be made available to advertisers so that they need not waste their resources by beaming commercials to those who have no interest in them. The system works on exactly the same principle as the targeted advertising facilitated by retailers' loyalty cards, or by the spyware that captures the browsing history of Internet subscribers. Advertisers are accorded the right to know as much as is practically, and more or less legally, available about their potential customers, whose interests they affect to serve by assuring them that they will target them with only such advertisements as they are interested in seeing. When social media websites that allow users to reject particular ads then ask them what it was that they didn't like about them, the options never include the right to say that they don't like advertising. Anybody objecting that they don't wish advertising to be aimed at them at all, at whatever degree of personal specificity, is viewed by the industry as a recalcitrant dissident who must be brought to heel, and by broadband providers and media companies as a foolish puritan who wilfully refuses to appreciate that the services he is enjoying must be bought not just by his subscription, but also by his dutiful attention to the commercial propaganda of the companies' own clients. Those who do not wish to comply can invest in an online ad-blocker, or press the Mute button on the remote control every time the TV ad-breaks begin, but the onus, which may well be a financial one in itself, has shifted to the intended recipient of advertising to try to escape it, where once it fell on the advertiser to solicit his attention. A powerful distillate of contemporary experience might be the Internet user being interrupted while trying to read the news by being made to look at targeted ads for ad-blockers.
To the Adorno who wrote, with Max Horkheimer, in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) that in late capitalist consumer culture, 'something is provided for everyone so that none may escape', nothing about targeted advertising would have seemed unfamiliar. What it is predicated on is the shameless mendacity that its potential recipients are individuals. The emphases of this circumstance have undoubtedly shifted in the seventy years since Adorno and Horkheimer wrote. If it seemed the case in the 1940s that a one-size-fits-all approach conformed the culture industry's clients into one amorphous mass, training them to react in the same ways to the emotional and ideological stimuli of mass entertainments, such as popular music radio stations and the productions of Hollywood, the present practice is very much for constituting them as a collective of individuals, each with his or her own respective tastes, inclinations and interests, which are courteously acknowledged by the system so that it might speak more personally to each of them, but for the greater concealed purpose of bringing them into line with other participants in the consumer economy. A pretence to a belief in the preciousness of individuality was only a belated accrual on the balance-sheet of capitalist economic relations, which had otherwise relegated it to the status of a sundry item, except where it served the self-image of entrepreneurialism. If business ventures themselves were allegedly always started by far-seeing innovators with the imaginative energy and resources to get them off the ground, their potential clients were an indistinguishable mass, amalgamated into the sum-totals on the asset side. What people's individual preferences might be were once their own affair, as long as one of their preferences turned out to be for the entrepreneur's wares. Now capitalism in its globalised phase is keen to know everything it can about them, partly because gigantic corporate entities have so many different products and services they might sell them, but also because flattering them that they are individuals is thought to be the best way of bringing them into the commercial fold. The concept of individuality, excoriated as a personal tenet in the form of bourgeois individualism in the era of revolutionary collective subjects, endured as a stance of libertarian defiance on the western flank of the Cold War divide, since the demise of which it has become transformed from a hardened pigheadedness into a gentler insistence on universal mutual respect, but is no less ideology for that. Indeed, inasmuch as its assumptions largely pass unnoticed, it is arguably more ideological than ever, because a society that would crumble to bits if individuals were allowed the full measure of their constitutional gains hardly has the interests of individuals at heart. It was the insight of Marx that economic relations at the nascent monopolistic stage of capitalist development had taken on the lineaments of primitive anthropology, one that subordinated consciousness to revered fetish-objects invested with mystical significance, a mechanism that members of the Frankfurt School would argue in the following century had extended from the economic relations of production to the overall structure of society itself and the cultural forms it has historically generated. To understand this thought-process, it is necessary to turn back to the opening chapter of the Dialectic of Enlightenment, on 'The Concept of Enlightenment', to see how the most formidable critique of western civilisation mounted in the twentieth century, and perhaps in the entire Marxist tradition, came to view the fate of the individual in mass society.
The narrative structure within which Adorno and Horkheimer frame their argument about the progress of enlightenment is a circular one, in which human history has coiled back on itself like the narrative of Finnegans Wake. This is not to say that a technological society has literally regressed to prehistoric conditions, but that the context into which consciousness has been led by the progress of rationality bears elements of the thought-forms of the age of primal fear. The circularity of this process lies in the fact that mythological thinking, by which the terrors of the natural world were attributed to gods, contained within itself the seeds of the enlightenment towards which it strove, which then, as enlightenment became the total context of the quest for scientific knowledge and understanding in the eighteenth century, began to revert to the monolithic nature of myth in the form of the unquestioned and changeless objectivity that science took as its ideal. As the authors succinctly put it: 'Just as the myths already realise enlightenment, so enlightenment with every step becomes more deeply engulfed in mythology'. What this movement contradicts is the official notion that enlightenment, as one of its consequences, produces a progressive liberation of the individual human spirit, which is now freed from its incarceration in antique superstition and set at liberty in a society that has the interests of each at heart. The project of enlightenment is dominion over all, the idea that everything will fall to the disposal of learning and therefore of control. Science realises the edict of God in the Judaic creation myth, that all things that live will be subject to the executive power of a humankind made in his image. The power that knowledge also always is becomes the structuring principle not just of learning, but of relations between the thinking intelligence and the whole objective world that it submits to itself, and ultimately of society itself. 'The awakening of the self is paid for by the acknowledgement of power as the principle of all relations'. Sovereignty over the objective constitutes everything there is as an undifferentiated mass, in that every element is equally susceptible to rational inquiry, which respects the distinctions between phenomena only in order that, by subsuming them to the force of reason, they may be homogenised. The raw material of the myths were the occurrences of the natural world, of what was experienced as sheer contingency in human affairs, subjected to a categorising and ordering principle, in which narrative form they prepared the compartmentalisation of knowledge into which the universities would eventually organise it. Mythology was humankind's way of telling itself what it needed to know, but instead of liberating thought from the entanglement of blind conceptual domination, enlightenment only enmeshed it further in real domination by making the mastery of nature simultaneously the principle of social organisation. In this sense, the Frankfurt School turned Hegel's notion of human history as an incremental progress in the consciousness of freedom against itself, so that the purely abstract freedom that Hegel saw in the Greek city-states reverts to worldwide domination, rather than developing towards the concrete freedom that he thought had been imperfectly realised in his own time.
Nowhere is the perpetuation of heteronomy over the individual to be more starkly seen than in capitalist exchange relations, the economic form par excellence of the European Enlightenment. The formal equivalence of all under the exchange principle, which abolishes the social hierarchies of feudalism, in a market in which all alike may theoretically become consumers to the limit of their economic resources, is the motor of a social process by which, concomitantly, the raw material of each consumer's individuality is shaped into an isomorphism with all others. The democratisation of the market, which will sell its goods to anybody without regard to their station in life, simultaneously abolishes distinctions of character among its customers, whose innate talents and potentials become in turn so many commodities to be sold on the market. The progress of homogenisation, spiritually as much as economically, requires that there be initially some heterogeneous material that must be conformed. If everything was already the same anyway, there would be no principle of equality. Equality is the banner behind which exchange society already marched long before the storming of the Bastille, albeit not egalitarianism in political representation, but in the availability of all for exploitation. The degree to which enlightenment aligned itself with social actuality, in Adorno and Horkheimer's argument, was the precise degree to which it acknowledged that a residue of individuality nonetheless remains. Individuality is an affront to a society conceived on the model of a collectivity, and inasmuch as individual properties never quite disappear, even in the bourgeois age, the enlightenment process sides with the social impulse in functionally suppressing them. Instead of the anarchy of a mass of self-determining individuals, what enlightenment results in, through the abstraction to which it conforms the objects of knowledge, finds its social counterpart in the malleable horde into which its economic structures have moulded society.
There is a fundamental lacuna for Adorno and Horkheimer between the ideology of equality's fairness and the primal injustice of treating everybody in the same way. The universality of the law of equivalence is after all derived from the subordination of brute nature, which no longer operates on human beings with unmitigated and inscrutable force, but is now mediated through the perceptions of consciousness, and thereby comes to inform both the conceptualising labour of enlightenment and the structures and operations of justice in bourgeois society. What is gained by no longer seeing the world as an amorphous, heterogeneous, fathomless chaos is paid for by surrendering to the principle of universal equivalence. Humans were once only at the mercy of the elements as much as were the animals, but the transition to civilisation, in constituting natural forces as a single power, entailed their coming to worship the elements as no mere animal ever could, so granting them an alienating power over themselves. It is this which reduces individuals to equivalents, the status that liberalism then erects as a fetish. By subjecting the primordial forces to the law of equivalence, civilisation prepared the way for equivalence itself to become a fetish, a process that can be seen as much in legal proceedings as it can in economic relations. 'The blindfold over Justitia's eyes,' the authors write, referring to traditional allegorical representations of Justice as being blind to the claims of one vested interest over another, 'does not only mean that there should be no assault upon justice, but that justice does not originate in freedom'. In the medieval era, the principle of equality before the law intended only that all should be answerable to an objective body of statute regardless of caste, instead of the mass being subjected to the executive whim of the privileged, but succeeded instead in making the law a monolithic authority, before which, ever since, all must exhibit due obeisance or be ground down, but which nonetheless accommodates the ruses of the privileged to evade it, even where it might still fulfil its own concept by putting unearned privilege on trial.
The proposition that individuality exists only to reaffirm the principle of equivalence is one of the fundamental dialectical paradoxes on which the thinking of Adorno and Horkheimer's text rests. Equivalence is less a static state, or an abstract principle, than a social process. It is the subsuming of particular attributes in the mass that makes the mass manipulable, and which constitutes it as a homogeneous mass in the first place. Political movements, from the French Revolution on, that have taken equality as a goal to be achieved, a state of affairs to be brought about and realised through the application of policy, which has turned out to be no better than ideologically assuming equality to be a present fact, reached their culmination in the totalitarianisms of the mid-twentieth century. 'That all men are alike is exactly what society would like to hear,' Adorno argues in Minima Moralia (1951). 'It considers actual or imagined differences as stigmas indicating that not enough has yet been done; that something has still been left outside its machinery, not quite determined by its totality'. Nothing prepares each individual for the equalisation process as concretely as the bullying he or she will undergo at some point in school, when the power of the mass is expressed in its derisive refusal to tolerate differences of character, physical demeanour or academic ability. If the victim is to achieve peace, it must always be on the oppressors' own terms, which are as non-negotiable for him as they once were for the oppressors themselves. The radical critique of multiculturalism mounted in the present day has its moment of truth in the sense that the multicultural society is predicated on an assimilationist elision of differences between cultures, which issues in everybody being expected to salute the flag of the dominant culture, for all that the untruth of the critique consists in its advancement of a static relativism, in which the dialectic of better and worse attributes between cultures is hushed to the respectful silence of the mausoleum. The better state, for Adorno, would be 'one in which people could be different without fear'. Inasmuch as equivalence must annihilate traces of individuality wherever it finds them, even while claiming in the voice of the advertisers to be honouring them, it could be said to rely on a certain measure of recalcitrant individualism as its fuel, on much the same principle as in a reactionary predicative logic, the exception is always held to prove the rule, rather than standing for what it ought honourably to be, the means by which the power of the rule is subverted.
Excerpted from "Neglected or Misunderstood: Introducing Theodor Adorno"
Copyright © 2016 Stuart Walton.
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Table of Contents
Preface and Acknowledgements, 1,
Introduction: Nothing Innocuous Left, 5,
Chapter 1 Society and the Individual, 29,
Chapter 2 History, Philosophy, Politics, 75,
Chapter 3 Metamorphosis of the Dialectic, 128,
Chapter 4 Aesthetics and the Promise of Happiness, 166,
Chapter 5 Cracking the Shells: Adorno in the Present Day, 246,