Adorno as a critical theorist of temporality

Any critique of Adorno’s concept of the culture industry or mass culture that begins by introducing the notion of identity and the relation between identity and any segment of culture focuses on what is essentially the weakest, if not inconsequential, part of Adorno’s critique. The ‘identity’ critique is based on an overvaluation of the importance of variation (aesthetic or otherwise) in a cultural commodity or a range of cultural commodities. For example, the distinction made by Bernard Gedron between a cultural text and a functional artefact in his critique of Adorno’s critique of popular music relies on the kind of ‘information’ that Adorno argued was required for patrons of mass culture to be able to identify the objects of their ‘curiosity’. Gedron argues that unlike a particular part of a particular model of a mass produced automobile that can be swapped out for another part, a cultural text does not have this parts interchangeability. A more sophisticated version of this critique in the latter part of Gedron’s article is to suggest that the apparent changes within a given market of popular culture is clearly evident of Adorno’s inability to sufficiently account for variability of identity. A focus on cultural commodities at the expense of other aspects of Adorno’s critique signals an utter misapprehension of Adorno’s critique. More broadly, as noted by Max Pensky, there is a normative mode of engagement with Adorno’s writings that is little more than a “ritualistic gesture, reiterating the familiar charges of elitism, pessimism, and high-modernist myopia.” Pensky continues to say that the “trouble is that such accounts effectively preclude critical engagement with the body of thought in question.”

A far more useful way to read Adorno is as a critical theorist of temporality. By ‘temporality’ I do not mean a temporality in the Hegelian-Marxist sense of a dialectical movement that attempts to capture a teleological historical development from one historical mode to another. Bruno Latour’s argument that we have never been modern strongly suggests an alternative thesis to a developmental conception of history. For Latour, modernity is an event that is differentially repeated and (re)produces particular configurations of relations. This is a Foucauldian type of argument, where epistemic shifts are aggregated dispositifs that must continually (re)produce particular compositions of hierarchical power relations. Power does not come from above however, it runs through populations in the ways they reproduce the conditions of their own subjection.

The theory of temporality that I am extracting from Adorno’s writing has more in common with the later writings of Althusser than with a dialectical negative critique of historical development. A productive ‘philosophy of contingency’ dominates the later work of Althusser, and is very useful for understanding the properly immanent nature of contingency. The ‘encounter’ of an ‘aleatory materialism’ “becomes the basis of all reality”:

Whence the form of order and the form of beings whose birth is induced by this pile-up, determined as they are by the structure of the encounter; whence, once the encounter has been effected (but not before), the primacy of the structure over its elements; whence, finally, what one must call an affinity and a complementarity [completude] of the elements that come into play in the encounter, their `readiness to collide-interlock’ [accrochabilite], in order that this encounter `take hold’, that is to say, `take form’, at last give birth to Forms, and new Forms — just as water ‘takes hold’ when ice is there waiting for it, or milk does when it curdles, mayonnaise when it emulsifies. Hence the primacy of ‘nothing’ over all ‘form’, and of aleatory materialism over all formalism.

“The Schema of Mass Culture” presents an argument for how mass culture produces populations that are trained to process contingencies in ways that reproduce the culture. That is, the schema of mass culture is to modulate the capacity of populations to process a temporal order that belongs to an aleatory materialism. Adorno initially describes this modulation as ‘pre-digestion’: the “permanent self-reflection based upon the infantile compulsion towards the repetition of needs which it creates in the first place”. Difference as that which forces repetition is annihilated; instead there is a circularity that short-circuits self-reflection. This is the ‘totality’ of mass culture, a series of “pre-digested” tendential movements. The elements of this short-circuiting relation are practically irrelevant (which geek with which Apple product? Does it matter beyond an “infantile compulsion”?).

Consumers therefore find themselves in what Adorno calls an “abstract present”. Co-ordinates of recall beyond the short-circuit are extinguished, except in peculiar discursive moments where the past, as ‘nostalgia, is mobilised to valorise the appropriateness or not of the present. The reward for this erasure is that the “tension” of the consumer suspended by the short-circuit is guaranteed a ‘happy ending’ in the “ritual conclusion”. Adorno relates this ‘tension’ to the capacity to witness suffering, that is, negative affect. In its place is a passive affection of the ‘happy ending’. Negative affects are not necessarily passive, as Elspeth Probyn has noted in her work on ‘shame’. The experience of shame signals, in the first instance, that a subject is interested, thus sending the subject off on what Sylvan Tomkins called an ‘activation contour’ that develops in the body as the experience of shame. Perhaps the subject is spurred into action by this negative affect, and thus suffers from ‘active affections’ and the correlative increase in the capacity to act. The resolution of tension in the short-circuit of the ‘happy-ending’ is a depotentialisation of affect, so the short-circuit becomes a mechanism for the production of passive affections or what Weber called ‘charisma’.

What post-structuralist philosophers call a relation of futurity is therefore hobbled. This is not some kind of magical process however. There is a mechanics of the event structurated in perception through a suspended expectation. This is the happiest ending, as it were. An ending where this in fact no resolution, but the constant repetition of tension. Adorno likens this to the variety act, which for spectators is experienced as a kind of ‘waiting’; where the “waiting for the thing in question, which takes place as long as the juggler manages to keep the balls going, is precisely the thing itself”. Adorno describes this as a “suspension of living developmenet”, an apparatus of capture produced through the riveting experience of observing potential failure.

There are therefore two ways that the short-circuits produced by the culture industry ‘end’ (or, better, cycle again for another ‘beginning’) and that is through the projection of a ‘happy ending’ as a resolution of tension to produce the subservience of passive affections or a manipulation of tension as a way to capture attention. What if one becomes aware of this short-circuit? What if it is simply refused? What is the secondary apparatus of capture produced by mass culture that ensures there is no escape?

The secondary apparatus of capture is located in the total commodification of ‘curiosity’ and its relation to what Adorno terms ‘information’. Like the surplus labour that is used to control workers, there is a “reserve army of outsiders” ready to participate. They are organised in relation not to the exchange value of their labour but in the production of visibilities of the latest novelty. Did you hear about…?!

The less the system tolerates anything new, the more those who have been forsaken must be acquainted with all the latest novelties if they are to continue living in society rather than feeling themselves excluded from it.

Mass culture becomes a sport, which is “not play but ritual in which the subjected celebrate their subjection”. There is a compulsive repetition to inflict upon oneself “the same injustice he has already endured at the violent hands of society”. Exemplar: Love it or leave it. Kiss the flag. Are you with us or against us. “The act of repetition schools obedience,” Adorno writes, and in doing so absorbs the radical potential of anxiety. Beyond participation, the spectator contains nothing of the potentially redeemable characteristics of sportsmen (“certain virtues like solidarity, readiness to help others or even enthusiasm which could prove valuable in critical political moments”). Mass culture only wants the “howling devotees of the stadium” as they replace spontaneity is a “crude contemplative curiosity”. There is another circuit here, both an extension and an intensification of the short-circuit of pre-digested interest. Instead of facing towards a circular ending planned into the commodity, the commodification of curiosity is a way of incorporating contingency and dissolving its radical potential.

Adorno describes information as the socialisation of curiosity; that is, information “refers constantly to what has been preformed, to what others already know”.
Information is a socialisation of curiosity in the sense that information as a mechanism of control “enforces solidarity with what has already be judged”. It is a deprivation of knowledge about the object of curiosity for the purposes of bestowing the curiosity with satisfaction. Is this not how the entirety of online ‘discussion’ functions? The distribution of knowledge as a diluted ‘information’ about whatever contingency in the world fires up our ‘curiosity’? Whoever cannot answer the challenge of providing curiosity with its palliative antidote of information, that is, of “effortlessly reproducing the formulas, conventions and judgements of mass culture as if they were his own, is threatened in his very existence, suspected of being an idiot or an intellectual”. This is played out in the production of “hieroglyphic meaning” as consumers cannot escape either short-circuit. They turned inward, that is, turn into the elements of the relation rather than the implication in the relation at all.

The more the film-goer, the hit song enthusiast, the reader of detective and magazine stories anticipates the outcome, the solution, the structure and so on, the more his attention is displaced towards the question of how the nugatory result is achieved, to the rebus-like details involved, and in this searching process of displacement the hieroglyphic meaning suddenly reveals itself. It articulates every phenomenon right down to the subtlest nuance according to a simplistic two-term logic of ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’, and by virtue of this reduction of everything alien and unintelligible it overtakes the consumers.

Hence, the tension is reproduced as a general anxiety of whether or not the subject of mass culture, the consumer, is sufficiently implicated in its workings: “Participation in mass culture itself stands under the sign of terror”. The micro-fascisms of everyday life betray an anxiety that is harboured “within the very medium of technological communication”. It is not that you are anxious about leaving your mobile phone at home, it is the anxiety produced when you do. What short-circuits have you accidently disconnected yourself from? How will you be an insufficient spectator of pre-digested curiosities? Under a hieroglyphic aegis, how will you be able to smuggle in the judgement of contingency with the satisfaction of knowing what comes next?

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