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?

Online Niche/Enthusiast Media: Business Models

Online business models. I hadn’t thought about ‘business’ at all except in a critical (but not always negative) sense until about a year ago. Here is an abstract to a paper I have in the works. However, I’ve been thinking about business models for the magazines since I’ve been involved in developing a new online presence for some of them. This post is the result of some of the thinking I have been doing on the subject and has been in the works for a while now (several weeks). I’ve been thinking about it constantly but have little time to actually work on it.

I work at Express Media Group, which publishes a number of niche-market enthusiast titles. EMG is currently developing its online presence and is working on ways to successfully integrate print and online publishing. As well as working as a Production Editor, I’ve been involved in developing some of the websites for the motoring titles. The first new website up is that for Zoom magazine.

We have a massive advertising campaign starting tomorrow that requires the other websites to be up and I am waiting on our overworked web team to finish them. I look forward to seeing the results.

I’ve been carrying out research in my own time to think about new business models that integrate print and online publishing. I have no official role in this at EMG (yet), rather I have been treating it as an extension of my PhD research on enthusiasm in modified-car culture where I looked at the relation between the enthusiast media and the scene over a 30 year period.

I used philosophical concepts to examine the composition of power relations in the organisation of the scene (dispositif) and how this has changed a number of times over the time period (an event-based conception of history). Now it seems my research is going to be the most relevant if it is developed in a simple set of critical tools for understanding legacy business models.

The general character of these legacy business models is mostly well understood. The current public workshops being hosted by the FTC are working on the issues and problems of “how the Internet has affected journalism”. The FTC has posted a Staff Discussion Draft paper that explores some of the points raised over the course of several months worth of hearings. In the first few pages of the paper (2-3) the FTC outlines the general problem with legacy business models faced by all print-based publishers. I have extracted the three main points below:

1. Newspapers’ revenues from advertising have fallen approximately 45% since 2000. For example, classified advertising accounted for $19.6 billion in revenue for newspapers in 2000, $10.2 billion in 2008, and is estimated to be only $6.0 billion in 2009.
2. With the advent of the Internet, advertisers have many more ways in which to reach consumers, including, for example, through a marketer’s own website or through topical websites that relate to the products that an advertiser wants to sell (e.g., a soccer blog for soccer equipment). Search engines also provide sites for advertising related to particular search queries.
3. Although some types of online advertising (e.g., advertising targeted to a consumer’s known interests) can generate greater revenue than other types (e.g., banner ads), the vast supply of online sites for advertising reduces the amount that an online news site can charge for advertising at its site. This means that online advertising typically generates much less revenue than print advertising (often described as “digital dimes” as compared to the dollars generated by print ads). It appears unlikely that online advertising revenues will ever be sufficient to replace the print advertising revenues that newspapers previously received.

First year journalism students are taught about the ‘news hole’ well in the actual publishing business there is often an ‘advertising hole’ as well. As more advertisers have moved online to directly target the niche market enthusiast communities that the advertiser services, there are less advertisers looking at print-based advertising. Of course, this is a generalisation as there are many enthusiast communities, of mostly older enthusiasts, that have not gone online.

All is not lost, however. There are other ways to sell advertising beyond simple ‘display’-type advertising. Dan Blank has a good post up from over a year ago on different sources of revenue for online media publishers.

The main goal here is for editorial teams to be pursuing fewer standalone articles that rely solely on CPM ads, and look to more integrated packages that build many products from a single effort.

For the last six years or so I have long looked at this from the flip side. Media events assembled from a series of inter-related texts. Often these texts are assembled around a non-media product, so a product is doubled as its media-based simulacra. It was the basis of my work I carried out on exchange to Sweden during my PhD looking at media events not as the media coverage of an event, but the event produced through the media.

In social media circles posting the same material across a number of channels is called ‘content leverage’. So a Facebook post about a blog post describing a Youtube video is Tweeted. At EMG I have been working on producing media content from single opportunities that can be distributed across a number of media channels. So far the best example of this was an ECU guide in Zoom issue 147 that is currently on the stands. I have several hours of video that I shot and I am currently editing to be posted to our Youtube channel and posted to our blog. Here is an example:

The real problem with thinking about new business models for niche/enthusiast media that integrate online and print elements is that most of the current discussion about the state of print media has been about ‘hard news’. Niche/enthusiast media and ‘hard news’ work following different journalistic models of content production. For example, Blank writes:

An underlying theme in many of these is to create evergreen content whose shelf life is longer than a news article – with multiple segments that extend the ways you can market it and sell it. Focusing on business needs beyond the cycle of “breaking news” may diminish the reliance on the single revenue model of advertising.

We already do this to a certain extent, but we are going to be doing much more of this style of content production and it is going to be a real challenge for editorial teams working under increasingly tight deadlines (we make a magazine per week on average!). To make this possible Blank has two suggestions:

1) Editorial teams mapping out a product roadmap, not just an editorial calendar.
2) Editorial teams working more closely with their sales teams to come up with these ideas, and ensure that the sales dept has this information with enough time to test the market, and ideally, sell these products.

Working closer to advertising sales teams is not a problem, the other challenge, beyond deadlines, is getting a sense of what is happening in the scene. There is so much activity nowadays that to track it all, even just all the online activity, for the scene in Australia is a full-time role.

So where to go from here? I am currently rewriting some of my PhD research for a draft paper about legacy media business models for niche/enthusiast media.

Biopolitics Reading Group Notes 3 – Lazzarato

Another round of notes for Biopolitics reading group. For Maurizio Lazzarato’s essay From Biopower to Biopolitics.

We are going to do the first chapter of Foucault’s lectures (biopolitics, territory, security), and Lazzarato’s chapter in Deleuze and the Social next time.

Over the fold.

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