Alex Ross on the influence of Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno, who had “one of the twentieth century’s richest intellectual conversations.”
in Benjamin’s essay. Pop culture was acquiring its own cultic aspect, one neatly configured for technological dissemination. Why, after all, would the need for ritual subside when the economic system remained the same? (Benjamin once wrote, “Capitalism is a purely cultic religion, perhaps the most extreme that ever existed.”) Celebrities were rising to the status of secular gods: publicity stills froze their faces in the manner of religious icons. Pop musicians elicited Dionysian screams as they danced across the altar of the stage. And their aura became, in a sense, even more magical: instead of drawing pilgrims from afar, the pop masterpiece is broadcast outward, to a captive world congregation. It radiates and saturates.
When Adorno issued his own analyses of pop culture, though, he went off the beam. He was too irritated by the new Olympus of celebrities—and, even more, by the enthusiasm they inspired in younger intellectuals—to give a measured view. In the wake of “The Work of Art,” Adorno published two essays, “On Jazz,” and “On the Fetish Character of Music and the Regression of Listening,” that ignored the particulars of pop sounds and instead resorted to crude generalizations. Notoriously, Adorno compares jitterbugging to “St. Vitus’ dance or the reflexes of mutilated animals.” He shows no sympathy for the African-American experience, which was finding a new platform through jazz and popular song. The writing is polemical, and not remotely dialectical.
In the 1936 letter to Benjamin, Adorno offers a subtler argument—more of a plea for parity. Commercial logic is triumphant, he says, ensnaring culture high and low: “Both bear the stigmata of capitalism, both contain elements of change. . . . Both are torn halves of an integral freedom to which, however, they do not add up. It would be romantic to sacrifice one for the other.” In particular, it would be a mistake to romanticize the new mass forms, as Benjamin seems to do in his mesmerizing essay. Adorno makes the opposite mistake of romanticizing bourgeois tradition by denying humanity to the alternative. The two thinkers are themselves torn halves of a missing picture. One collateral misfortune of Benjamin’s early death is that it ended one of the richest intellectual conversations of the twentieth century.
If Adorno were to look upon the cultural landscape of the twenty-first century, he might take grim satisfaction in seeing his fondest fears realized. The pop hegemony is all but complete, its superstars dominating the media and wielding the economic might of tycoons. They live full time in the unreal realm of the mega-rich, yet they hide behind a folksy façade, wolfing down pizza at the Oscars and cheering sports teams from V.I.P. boxes. Meanwhile, traditional bourgeois genres are kicked to the margins, their demographics undesirable, their life styles uncool, their formal intricacies ill suited to the transmission networks of the digital age. Opera, dance, poetry, and the literary novel are still called “élitist,” despite the fact that the world’s real power has little use for them. The old hierarchy of high and low has become a sham: pop is the ruling party.
The Internet threatens final confirmation of Adorno and Horkheimer’s dictum that the culture industry allows the “freedom to choose what is always the same.” Champions of online life promised a utopia of infinite availability: a “long tail” of perpetually in-stock products would revive interest in non-mainstream culture. One need not have read Astra Taylor and other critics to sense that this utopia has been slow in arriving. Culture appears more monolithic than ever, with a few gigantic corporations—Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon—presiding over unprecedented monopolies. Internet discourse has become tighter, more coercive. Search engines guide you away from peculiar words. (“Did you mean . . . ?”) Headlines have an authoritarian bark (“This Map of Planes in the Air Right Now Will Blow Your Mind”). “Most Read” lists at the top of Web sites imply that you should read the same stories everyone else is reading. Technology conspires with populism to create an ideologically vacant dictatorship of likes.
This, at least, is the drastic view. Benjamin’s heirs have suggested how messages of dissent can emanate from the heart of the culture industry, particularly in giving voice to oppressed or marginalized groups. Any narrative of cultural regression must confront evidence of social advance: the position of Jews, women, gay men, and people of color is a great deal more secure in today’s neo-liberal democracies than it was in the old bourgeois Europe. (The Frankfurt School’s indifference to race and gender is a conspicuous flaw.) The late Jamaican-born British scholar Stuart Hall, a pioneer of cultural studies, presented a double-sided picture of youth pop, defining it, in an essay co-written with Paddy Whannel, as a “contradictory mixture of the authentic and the manufactured.” In the same vein, the NPR pop critic Ann Powers wrote last month about listening to Nico & Vinz’s slickly soulful hit “Am I Wrong” in the wake of the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, and catching the song’s undercurrents of unease. “Pop is all about commodification: the soft center of what adapts,” Powers writes. “But sometimes, when history collides with it, a simple song gains dimension.”
One way or another, the Frankfurt School mode of criticism—its skeptical ardor, its relentless scouring of mundane surfaces—has spread far. When online recappers expend thousands of words debating the depiction of rape on “Game of Thrones,” or when writers publish histories of sneakers or of the office cubicle, they show intense awareness of mass culture’s ability to shape society. And in some cases the analysis takes a recognizably dialectical turn, as in Hua Hsu’s 2011 essay, for Grantland, on Kanye West and Jay-Z’s album “Watch the Throne.” A dispassionate hip-hop fan, Hua Hsu ponders the spectacle of two leading rappers making an “album against austerity,” in which they mark their ascension to a world of “MoMA and Rothko, Larry Gagosian, and luxury hotels across three continents,” and at the same time forfeit a hip-hop tradition of fantasy and protest. Citing the Kanye track “Power”—“Grab a camera, shoot a viral / Take the power in your own hands”—Hsu writes, “This version of power is entrancing—it explains an entire generation. But it also confuses ubiquity for importance, the familiarity of a celebrity’s face for true authority.” There is no telling how Adorno and Benjamin might have negotiated such contemporary labyrinths. Perhaps, on a peaceful day, they would have accepted the compromise devised by Fredric Jameson, who has written that the “cultural evolution of late capitalism” can be understood “dialectically, as catastrophe and progress all together.”
These implacable voices should stay active in our minds. Their dialectic of doubt prods us to pursue connections between what troubles us and what distracts us, to see the riven world behind the seamless screen. “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism”: Benjamin’s great formula, as forceful as a Klieg light, should be fixed as steadily on pop culture, the ritual apparatus of American capitalism, as it has been on the art works of the European bourgeoisie. Adorno asked for only so much. Above all, these figures present a model for thinking differently, and not in the glib sense touted by Steve Jobs. As the homogenization of culture proceeds apace, as the technology of surveillance hovers at the borders of our brains, such spaces are becoming rarer and more confined. I am haunted by a sentence from Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves”: “One cannot live outside the machine for more perhaps than half an hour.” ♦