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Thursday, February 25, 2010


"Amusement and all the elements of the culture industry existed long before the latter came into existence. Now they are taken over from above and brought up to date... “Light” art as such, distraction, is not a decadent form. Anyone who complains that it is a betrayal of the ideal of pure expression is under an illusion about society. The purity of bourgeois art, which hypostasised itself as a world of freedom in contrast to what was happening in the material world, was from the beginning bought with the exclusion of the lower classes – with whose cause, the real universality, art keeps faith precisely by its freedom from the ends of the false universality. Serious art has been withheld from those for whom the hardship and oppression of life make a mockery of seriousness, and who must be glad if they can use time not spent at the production line just to keep going."-- Adorno and Horkheimer, DIALECTICS OF ENLIGHTENMENT.

Before proceeding to tear apart any current comics-critics as promised in my last essay, I may as well show an example of a deductive theorist who, unlike my examples of Frye and Jung, did put his foot in a whole mess o' hubris: Theodor W. Adorno. Noted Frankfurter Adorno authored DIALECT OF ENLIGHTENMENT with his colleague Max Horkheimer, but for my own convenience I will credit Adorno alone for everything I quote here, speaking as if the dark brown theory of the "culture industry" originated from Adorno's bowels alone. Certainly this essay, to which I linked earlier, gives indications that Adorno was the more vociferous opponent of what he termed "the culture industry," and so I feel justified in making him the prime devil in my scenario, much as many Journalistas focus their vilifications on Stan Lee and ignore Martin Goodman.

I will also note up front that I still have not slogged through any more of Adorno's work than the one essay I'll be quoting from. Adorno's definitive statement on the culture industry can be found on this site, which I consider a concise enough representation of the elitist cant Adorno propounded.

The work of Northrop Frye has at least one thing in common with that of Adorno: both relied heavily upon deductive arguments. Frye argues a long and involved continuity between man's early mythico-religious history and what modern people now call "art." Adorno argues that the "culture industry"-- which one may choose to view as nothing more than Marx's "Capital" as it manifests in the entertainment world-- has suborned the whole of modern culture and made it worse through its wholesale employment of soul-killing "mechanical reproduction."

Neither author privileges the inductive method to start: neither starts from a collection of raw data and weighs it until arriving at a conclusion. Once Frye has deduced the outlines of his theory, however, he brings to bear a tremendous amount of specific examples to prove the various fine points of his theory.

What examples does Adorno bring forth to prove his theory?

Given that Adorno is lamenting the tragedy of the decline of "serious art," it seems odd that he says so little about it in this essay. The above quote makes clear that he thinks it was a crime that the bourgeoise "withheld" the benefits of serious art from the oppressed classes. What the lower classes were given instead was mere "light art," i.e., "bread and circuses." This art had no identity of its own but existed in a "shadow" relationship to "autonomous art." Possibly in other essays Adorno defines this kind of art with greater resort to examples, but very few artists or their specific works are cited here. For that matter, one never knows from this essay what would constitute "light art" prior to the rise of the bourgeoise and of industrialization, with one exception:

"Whether folk-songs were rightly or wrongly called upper-class culture in decay, their elements have only acquired their popular form through a long process of repeated transmission. The spread of popular songs, on the other hand, takes place at lightning speed."

Thus folk-songs come by their "popular form" legitimately, through "repeated transmission" among actual human beings, rather than being promulgated via the mechanical means of productions controlled by the culture industry. I'm not sure why there's nothing at all mechanical in the larger sense about all this repetition of familiar ballads and such, but clearly Adorno considers the speed of mass culture's promulgation to be proof of its manipulation by Capital.

(I should note that Adorno later said that he meant "culture industry" to take the place of the earlier term "mass culture," in order to make clear how thoroughly this culture was NOT the expression of the oppressed who lived in its matrices. But I've never seen anyone but him use "culture industry" that way: "mass culture" is still generally used for the oppressed and "culture industry" for those doing the oppressing. I'll continue to use them both in this way.)

Of serious art, pre-industrial "light art," and "culture industry" art, the last category is the one of which Adorno supplies the most examples, mostly taken from popular movies. However, in keeping with his view that all of these products must be interchangeable, he cites no movie-titles, much the way his possible disciple Frederic Wertham rarely cited issue-numbers to the comic books he assailed. Adorno does name various stars, both those living and those brought to life by pen and ink, in curious passages like this one:

"As naturally as the ruled always took the morality imposed upon them more seriously than did the rulers themselves, the deceived masses are today captivated by the myth of success even more than the successful are. Immovably, they insist on the very ideology which enslaves them... [This ideology] calls for Mickey Rooney in preference to the tragic Garbo, for Donald Duck instead of Betty Boop. The industry submits to the vote which it has itself inspired."

In this comments-section I asked Charles Reece to explain what this section meant, but he declined, after having claimed that I just didn't understand Adorno's argument. I do understand that if everything that follows pre-industrial mass culture is controlled by the culture industry, then all four of these stellar figures should be equally implicated as the "rubbish" of the culture industry. I do understand that Adorno considers mere novelty to be one of the means by which the hidden controllers manipulate the masses, but his reference to "the tragic Garbo" suggests that on some level he *does not* consider her work to be the same sort of "rubbish" as that of Mickey Rooney. The parallelism of his sentence would suggest that Betty Boop also holds some slightly-higher vantage than Donald Duck, particularly since he singles Donald out for more lofty scorn in a passage I'll quote in Part II.

So against all his rhetoric, Adorno may have recognized distinctions in what he claimed was undifferentiated.

What can one say of a writer whose own chosen examples poke holes in his theory?

Find out in Part II.

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