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Archive for the ‘Adorno’ Category

The basic goal of Theodor Adorno’s “Progress” is made apparent in the very first sentence: to provide a clear, theoretical and philosophical understanding of the concept of progress. Though he does not clarify until later, the author is referring to the progress of humanity in the widest possible sense. Simply contemplating this task immediately sparks a number of questions. How does one define progress? What are its positive and negative effects, if any? Which things progress and which things do not? Has there ever been progress? Is there progress now? Can there ever even be progress?
For answers, Adorno draws primarily upon Kant, but also utilizes writings by St. Augustine and (to a lesser extent) Benjamin, Hegel, Marx, and others. Using these sources, he establishes first the inseparable bond between progress and humanity. “As little as humanity tel quell progresses by the advertising slogan of the ever new and improved, so little can there be an idea of progress without the idea of humanity,” Adorno says. Subsequently, (according to Adorno’s interpretation of “Theses on the Philosophy of History”) progress is thus inextricably linked to the human desire for redemption, particularly in the eyes of future generations. This feeds directly into the idea (which Adorno links rather elaborately to Kafka) that humanity’s only purpose—both in the past and today–is the propagation of the species. According to this logic true progress is nonexistent. Not much attention is given to this definition, though, nor is it given to almost all totalitarian or limiting arguments brought up in the essay. In fact, the author problematizes almost every key term he uses and avoids oversimplifications and assumptions at all costs. The result is painfully dense, but dialectically bullet-proof.
After musing on the nature of humanity, Adorno smoothly transitions into establishing the dual societal and philosophical nature of progress. He posits society as the window through which we see progress, and philosophy he equates to a vital tool of society. As he progresses in his argument, summarizing the varying opinions of progress as both good and bad (but mostly bad), Adorno forms a complete, if paradoxical, new understanding of progress.

“Progress means: to step out of the magic spell, even out of the spell of progress, which is itself nature, in that humanity becomes aware of its own inbred nature and brings to a halt the domination it exacts upon nature and through which domination by nature continues. In this way it could be said that progress occurs where it ends” (130).

As hinted at in that quotation, the essay concludes that every conceptualization of progress is ultimately cyclical. This allows connection to another circular concept. Progress is established as stemming from the bourgeois principal of exchange, of purporting to trade one thing for another thing of equal value. However, if exchange actually worked like this, there would be no shift of power. Nothing would change and there would be no real trade. This system is maintained, then, by “the truth of the expansion [which] feeds on the lie of the equality” (140). Thus is the bleak truth (in Adorno’s eyes) of progress today—a steady building of philosophical thought now stuck in a rhetorical loop, like an album forever skipping on its final track.
All is not lost, though. Adorno suggests that should the exchange be made even, should there be a shift away from the dominant capitalist bourgeois mode of thought, progress would then be freed to defend society from relapse. This harkens back to Adorno’s collaboration with Max Horkheimer on Dialectic of Enlightenment, specifically, “Odysseus or Myth and Enlightenment,” in which they equate sacrifice to the principal of bourgeois exchange. They also use Odysseus’ cunning manipulation of that system as evidence of his status as a prototypical bourgeoisie—and also suggest that an even exchange would cause the very same system Adorno is so concerned with, that of our current “progress,” to crumble. It would dissolve like an angler fish pulled from the briny crags of the deepest seas and baptized in our liquefying air.

Adorno, Theodor. “Progress.” Can One Live After Auschwitz? Trans. Henry W. Pickford. New York: Stanford University Press, 2003.

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In Max Pensky’s “The Trash of History,” taken from the larger Melancholy Dialectics: Walter Benjamin and the Play of Mourning, Walter Benjamin’s use of the objective dialectical image is viewed in juxtaposition–and unwanted collaboration -with subjective allegorical imagery. The dialectical image, where past and present interact with one another, is Benjamin’s method and subject of critical analysis. The allegorical image that has arbitrary meaning is melancholic: the passing of time is marked by sadness. The dialectic image “cannot be” (Pensky, 211), and yet it is as our history is a “catastrophic history” (Pensky, 211). This issue of imagery is one aspect of the larger subject/object problem and is how Benjamin incorporated Kabalistic elements into his criticism. (more…)

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The Long Friendship: Theoretical Differences Between Horkheimer and Adorno originally appeared in the book On Max Horkheimer: New Perspectives. In this essay Stefan Breuer successfully highlights the contrasting viewpoints that arise when juxtaposing the works of Horkheimer and Adorno.

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Ziarek’s Beyond Critique? Art and Power details the complicated relationship of art and power after modernity’s realization of the limits of critique. This essay would be ideal for anyone interested in the power of art to open up the critical conversation while freeing critique in some sense from the oppressive structures of rhetoric. Ziarek works through Adorno and Heidegger ultimately finding Heidegger’s treatment of instrumentality useful in freeing art from problematic dynamics of power. (more…)

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In the “ Culture Industry” chapter of The Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer wrote of jazz, “ No Palestrina could have eliminated the unprepared or unresolved dissonance more puristically than the jazz arranger excludes any phrase which does not exactly fit the jargon. If he jazzes up Mozart, he changes the music not only where it is too difficult or serious but also where the melody is merely harmonized differently, indeed, more simply, than is usual today” (Adorno and Horkheimer 101). The essay “ Adorno, Ellison, and the Critique of Jazz”, examines the conceptual and historical factors surrounding Adorno’s controversial essays on jazz, by comparing and contrasting Adorno’s jazz criticism with representations of jazz in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952).

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In order to discover the central cause of the pronounced social and economic divisions according to Theodor Adorno it is first necessary to define the word “society” in terms of the individual and the forces by which individuals remain connected to it. The common representation of a society is any group of people who share ideas and are capable of being a force of reason and a structure by which individuals can discuss intellectually significant matters. It was once supposed that the only societies in existence were those of the elite and intellectuals, but the availability of new information and modes of communicating complex ideas led to discussions within communities of people allowing comparisons within a society in order to formulate a collective capable of analyzing that which is necessary for improving its structure. The predictability within the industrialization of commodities that satisfy the material needs of the society who remains connected even to the point of congruent desires proves that on the end opposite the intellectual properties of collectivism are the numerous affects of the psychological fixations of the society detrimental to the individual. Further analysis leads one to question the representations of society that are functional for extracting theory, and to specify the affect as it relates to the individual. The individual in relation to this constantly expanding industrialized society is seemingly a commodity studied by the marketers of satisfaction, but as more than a consumer, the individual is the force aware of his role in maintaining the system who is continually satisfied by the empathetic value of the surrounding society. Adorno’s conceptual theory on society shows that society as a whole can only cease comprehension and create “relationships among men which grow increasingly independent of them” (63). In order to further define the means by which this occurs it is necessary to define the role of society in the identity and actions of the individual separate from the affect on reasoning and intellectual process. Structured society is capable of causing a change in the individual’s perception of his actions. This concept relates to the identity as it is the result of introspection on one interactions within society and leads to reasoning that has the potential to affect actions. This seems beneficial as a strengthening to reasoning, but can lead to the continued unawareness of the individual whose inhibitions may grow as a result of his awareness of a self image in the face of society. Sadly, it is this attribute that is the connectedness as well as the primary problem of society. The connectedness of a society is a result of the comfort of the existence of standards by which all members of a society live, but at the same time, interacting in an environment as such leads to a formalization of reason given one’s interpretation of appropriate actions within the society. The affect of society on the nature of individuality is central to understanding the application of functionalized reason, because the concept of a society entails the means of definition within it thereby furthering the predictability of the desirable commodities. According to Adorno the state of the society was, “a vast network of consumers whose needs and wants have been predetermined by entrepreneurs and the consumers engaging in purchasable forms of remaining a part of the society”(64). Adorno considers that some individuals begin to have a “role” in society. The term role in his case does not establish the possibility of permanence, but the increased awareness of oneself as a member of society enables an individual to formulate a representative self that is the way one believes he is most capable of being a normal member of society. The common individual is always representative of the society in some way, and comparisons of representations would prove one of the first ways in which it was established that different societies existed. The economies in both capitalist and non capitalist systems rely on the predictability and existence of the network of consumers. The variable difference though is the amount of distance between the societies, the large scale response to the differences, and the availability of obtainable satisfaction. The repression here can be seen in that although differences exist, there is consistent satisfaction in terms of each group of people who can relate life experiences. The negative shared aspects and the exchanges that make the awareness of class difference universal are a positive result of the existence of a society. Unfortunately, the class struggle for improvements within a society and the individual struggle for a better life remain merely objects of conversation. The possibility for change is apparently kept open by the existence of a working upper class, but remains unattainable for the average individual. The structure of society proves beneficial as a suitable way of exchanging ideas suitable for implementation in the right conditions, and also creates a social standard by which the members of the society can be understood collectively and can relate. The negative aspect remains the detrimental affect on individuality and the way the structure can generate social and psychological satisfaction from undesirable conditions ceasing the progressive thought that eventually leads to large scale social change. Individuals continue to remain enchanted by society because a subjective standard is established within that is seemingly the representation of the ideal experience of its members. The subjective standard is another way that that the standardization of thought is comfortably continued, but the representations of society become so immediately intertwined with the habits and idiosyncrasies of its members, that there is no desire or possibility of escaping it. It is the structure of society which creates desire and fixations, satiates them, and further allows individuals to see both the standard and a clearer vision of individuality by comparison, but it is also that which continues the predictability of markets and funds the increase in the difference between social societies. In closing, the structure of society can be viewed as many forces: a force for that creates comfort, but fuels oppression through ignorance, a force that is highly predictable but at times defines modernity, a force that promotes empathy but brings out the major differences in people, and a force that is capable of enacting its own form of reason, but provides the means by which one can draw conclusions that transcend time, and it is this vast array of necessities fulfilled by the society that makes it capable of being analyzed as a structure consistent throughout history .

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The article I read was a conversation between Theodor Adorno and Elias Canetti after Canetti’s publication of his book Crowds and Power in 1960. Adorno asks Canetti about the close relationship between crowds and power, survival and self-preservation, and his idea of the “invisible crowd.” Adorno begins by commenting that Canetti’s anthropological works reveal a usually neglected theory about human society and its power structures. This essay was meant to diagnose the key problems of contemporary post-World War II society.

Canetti speaks about death and survival: “the moment in which one person survives another is very concrete…I believe that this experience is obscured by convention, by the things we are supposed to feel when we witness the death of another human being.” (Canetti, 183.) Hidden beneath these conventions we feel satisfaction and triumph and this dangerous accumulation of experiences of other people’s deaths is one of the essential seeds of power. Adorno says that when self-preservation grows “wild,” when it loses its relationship with those around it, it turns into a destructive force—it is always a self-destructive force. This points to an objective reality that has sprung from our contemporary crisis—the crisis of self-preservation, of an instinct for survival gone wild. Canetti then brings up what he calls “the fear of being touched,” referring to the moment where individuals feel threatened by other people, and because of that, they try to protect themselves from contact with the unfamiliar by creating a space around themselves and by striving to keep other people at a distance. (Canetti, 184.) People never entirely lose this fear of being touched, and yet somehow people are able to lose themselves in a crowd; this presents a paradox. A person loses his fear of being touched only when packed in a crowd, and at this moment his fear of being touched reverses itself into its opposite. Canetti believes that one of the reasons people like to become part of a crowd is the relief they feel at this process of reversal. (Canetti, 185.) Adorno digs deeper and inquires about Canetti’s thought on self-preservation and man’s drive to reproduce (in terms of having children.) Throughout the conversation, it is clear that both Adorno and Canetti are trying to both piece together myths and ideologies from the past only to re-evaluate them and deconstruct them with critical objective and subjective reason. Adorno’s founding critical work on the functioning of power and political thought is illustrated well with Canetti’s anthropological work serving as examples of mass movements from different time periods and from different subjective perspectives. Canetti’s research is an imaginative study of mass movements, death and disordered society which drew on history, folklore, myth and literature. Canetti explores the idea of the “invisible crowd” by pointing to “primitive” societies and their religions that are full of “crowds” people cannot see. I think that here Canetti is using the term “crowds” to signify a sort of general mentality, or ideology that were (and arguably still are) present in many societies. There are many instances of people genuinely believing that the air is full of spirits that manifest themselves in massive quantities. For example, Christianity, during the Medieval period, had many followers who thought they saw the Devil. (Canetti, 185.) Canetti points out that such “invisible crowds” still exist today and compares this invisible fear of the Devil with the modern day fear of bacteria. Most of us haven’t looked through a microscope to see bacteria, but we all know it is there, and that it is a real threat. This could also refer to threats upon huge masses of people—an example of this could be the constant possibility of natural disasters. The fact that people act upon their feelings brought on by “invisible crowds,” or more logically put, ideologies and beliefs, suggests that the influence of “invisible crowds” enacts real reactions and real events that cannot be ignored. (Canetti, 186.) Canetti believes that “crowd symbols” are actually collective identities that do not consist of human beings (no physical, bodily mass) but are nevertheless felt as crowd-like; these symbols are experienced as something we can all relate to, for example, fire, the sea, the forest, etc. These symbols function as “mass” symbols in the minds of individuals. These mass symbols were important for the formation of national consciousness: “When people think of themselves as belonging to a nation at moments of national crisis, let us say at moments of national turmoil such as the outbreak of war, when they think of themselves as Englishmen or Frenchmen or Germans, what they have in mind is a crowd or a crowd symbol, something that they can relate to themselves.” (Canetti, 186.) Adorno says that Canetti focuses on the concept of the symbol and categories too much and that they are already internalized and directed towards the imagination. Adorno then poses the question of whether Canetti believes that these symbols really are the key problems of contemporary society and whether or not the real masses, with the implications of real political pressures, has an even greater importance for society rather than these factors of the imagination. Adorno asks Canetti, “In your conception of society and the masses, what importance do you attach to this pressure, this living weight of the masses, in contrast to the entire realm of the symbolical?” To this Canetti responds that the value and importance of the real masses is incomparably greater. (Canetti, 188.) Canetti says that without the conscious artificial stimulation of larger and larger masses, the power of dictatorships would be inconceivable: “Any human being, any contemporary of the events of the last fifty years, anyone who has witnessed wars…will surely feel the importance of masses.” Adorno goes on to say that movements like fascism and national socialism, no matter how destructive and inhumane, they still possessed an element of compromise in that even in these forms of domination, a certain concern for the real interests of the masses have shown to break through, however subterranean they may be. I don’t think that Adorno is trying to reduce or trivialize these forms of domination, but rather I think he is pointing to the fact that without a compliant mass, such a totalizing dominating system could never be in place, and that is what we need to try to fix. The essay then turns to a closer analysis of how the categories of crowds and power are deeply intertwined. Adorno says that the individual finds it extremely difficult to resist or assert himself as individual. This increases the symbolic significance of these categories. In their (individuals) inwardness, in their emotional life people seem to revert to an archaic stage in which these internalized categories have such a corporal significance that they become fully identified with them. The only way for individuals to be able to agree or consent to their own disempowerment is for them to reinterpret these complementary categories so as to make them seem meaningful, even irrational, and therefore sacred. Adorno says that this is the link between the growing symbolic significance of these things and their reality. The irrational symbolism that then recurs is not what it was previously, but rather a product of their actual situation in which humans find themselves regressing to the images with which we have been implanting in people’s minds for centuries. These connotations (“leader” and “masses”) are present because we are not really dealing with the archaic societies in which they had some validity, but instead these archaic societies are somehow conjured up and anything that is conjured up from the past, but holds no contemporary truth, is transformed by its own untruth in the present into a kind of poisonous substance. (Adorno, 188.) Canetti discusses four concepts or types of the “pack” which Canetti defines as a small group of people who are easily excited and influenced by each other. Furthermore, Canetti believes that these packs are equivalent to our modern masses, except for the difference that masses strive to grow while packs do not generally strive for numeric growth. The four types of packs are as follows: (1) ‘hunting pack,’ (2) ‘war pack,’ (the war pack evolved from the hunting pack) (3) ‘lamenting pack’ (when a member of the pack is dying they try to hold him back from leaving them, but once he dies they will turn to some rite to detach him from the group, reconcile him to his fate, and prevent him from becoming a dangerous enemy to the group), and (4) the ‘increase pack’ (the drive to grow in numbers.) The first three packs are all elements of archaic survival and no longer apply to the modern world (we no longer have to hunt, we no longer have to ritualize each death.) However, the ‘increase pack’ has undergone serious qualitative changes since its archaic past; it has changed in relation to production, consumerism, and industrialism, and as such the ‘increase pack’ has survived our modern existence. Adorno critiques the category of the ‘increase pack’ and says that he believes that the ‘increase pack’ is based on property, especially inheritable property (which has to be maintained, fetishized, and passed down to an heir.) This act of solidifying and marking one’s territory does not only come from the self-preservation imperative but it also comes from an economic imperative. Therefore growth and reproduction is a secondary factor and not primary factor. Property is the imperative for humans to reproduce, as it supplies more bodies for the culture industry to appeal to. Adorno goes on to talk about the widening fear that with the rise of consumerism of all forms, the growing population will shorten the time-span of humankind on earth. “…Mankind can sense in its quantitative growth the danger threatening its survival within the existing forms of organization.” (Adorno, 195.) Adorno points to the economic relations that are imposed on the value of a human life: “In other words, under existing conditions the apparatus of production, and with it the relations of production as a whole, can be kept going only by constantly creating new lots of buyers for their products, thus creating that curious reversal of primary and secondary in which human beings, for whom allegedly everything exists, are in fact just dragged along by the machine that has been made from them.” (Adorno, 195.) Adorno goes on to say that Canetti’s theory fulfills a very useful function, because Adorno just doesn’t buy that this ‘cult of production’ would thrive everywhere on earth (from “primitive” aborigines in Australia to highly developed Chinese societies) considering the many differences in political systems and religions. This points to something in human subjectivity, in people’s subconscious, in their entire archaic inheritance to which this idea makes a powerful appeal. (Canetti, 196.) In this ambivalence there is a very profound consciousness that on the one hand all possible forms of life actually have the right to exist but that on the other hand, because of the self-preservation instinct present in all humans coupled with the institutional apparatuses in which we live, every new human being that arrives represents something of a threat, no matter how miniscule, to the existence of all other human beings. (Canetti, 195.) Adorno continues to ask Canetti to compare his ideas of command to Freud’s theory of the civilization of man and the authority of the father. Canetti derives the notion of command—biologically—from the order to flee. He relates that a lion on the prowl that reveals its presence to other animals by its roar has the effect of making them flee. The command to flee or vacate is in our origin. It drives a threatened animal from the source of danger, and this fact has been built into our society. Orders are handed out without people suspecting that they are simultaneously receiving a death threat. Here Canetti explains that in every command there is the threat of death (You are warned that if you do not comply with orders from above, something bad will happen to you, like death for instance.) Through his study of command, Canetti concludes that a command can be broken down into its impulse, the motor energy that carries it out, and something he calls “the sting,” which refers to the slight sting that comes from a command that remains stuck in the individual, and over time, they accumulate, leading him to a suppression of festering rage against authority. People want to free themselves from these stings, and that is why they often seek out situations that are the exact reverse of the original situation in which they received commands, in order to get rid of the sting. Canetti finally answers Adorno’s initial question and explains the difference between his own theories and those of Freud. Canetti explains that for Freud, there are two concrete “crowds” that he uses as examples: the church and the army. For Canetti, the army is not a crowd at all; in fact, the army is a group of people held together by a specific chain of command in such a way that it can become divisible at any time, in correspondence to a specific command. Adorno later agrees with Canetti’s belief of armies and churches and says that the church and the army are not really crowds but rather a negation of crowds in that they both operate within a rational hierarchy whereas crowds are always subject to irrationality. Instead, the army and the church must be regarded as reaction-formations, namely regressions to social stages that are no longer reconcilable with present realities. (Canetti, 199.) Canetti concludes by saying that the threat of direct force (from some higher authority or maybe even your neighbor) survives in all mediations, and that every attempt to escape from it remains under the spell of the mythical circular process of doing to others what has been done to oneself. Repression leads to rebellion which leads to “wild” self-preservation which leads to death and destruction. Adorno reconciles Canetti’s conclusion by saying that by speaking about this feature of humans, by writing about it and critically analyzing it, we might find an escape from the spell. Some considerations… Is this idea of the “invisible crowd” relatable to the idea of a mass subconscious? How do we see this paradox of the self-preserving individual reverting to his herd-like mass mentality in relation to Nazism? Works Cited 1. Canetti, Elias and Theodor Adorno, “Crowds and Power: Conversation with Elias Canetti.” (1972)

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