Theodor Adorno

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Theodor W. Adorno (1903–1969) was a sociologist, leftist, and ultracrepidarian jazz critic born in central Germany. He went to Frankfurt University, and was influenced by Marx, Hegel, and Nietzsche. Adorno was a strong proponent of socialism, deeply criticizing capitalism. After the beginning of the Third Reich, he was forced to exile himself to Merton College, Oxford, where he pursued his PhD, ultimately residing in Southern California. He focused his studies largely on the effects of capitalism on the individuality of the members of society, coining terms such as 'culture industry' and 'commodity fetishism', putting him squarely into the realm of critical theoryWikipedia in sociology and philosophy. In particular, he emphasized that elements of work manifest in all other spheres of life, putting people unwittingly into a perceived but illusory freedom.

Although his works were criticized for a variety of reasons, his type of thought encouraged further theorists to establish their own critical theories and laid a groundwork for future works embodying all the perceived flaws of capitalism that they considered to exist. Adorno's works are also incredibly complicated and specific, reflecting language that he himself addresses with the point that he must use the system to criticize the system itself, recognizing the limitations that that sort of avenue of thought would entail. Therefore, it can be difficult to understand Adorno's original works to what they are truly saying. Fortunately, we have a wiki to help with this![1] Adorno's critique of modernity, along with that of Max Horkheimer,Wikipedia were notable for inspiring postmodernist philosophy.[2]

The culture industry[edit]

One of Adorno's main points and criticisms about our capitalistic system is something he coins as the 'culture industry'. When Adorno talks about the culture industry, he is referring to the mass production of goods and services that result in the construction of one's daily life and activities within the capitalistic system of today, including but not limited to the constant production of toys, games, TV shows, movies, music, beauty products, and many other things that all contribute to the totality of what is available for us to consume or buy.

His main point for referencing this concept of critique is that capitalism results in a necessary implementation of the culture industry in order to stay afloat, presenting a certain set of already-established ideas and objects within the underlying confines of realizing a profit motive, inscribing some sort of value on the object, placing the focus not on the object itself but on the capital that one receives by utilizing it. In particular, this is achieved by presenting these cultural commodities as reflections of individuality, where a consumer would buy a certain set of objects with the pretense that what they're buying represents what they believe their personal individuality is, where in actuality each person is simply another being who has fallen for the lie of individuality, buying and consuming goods that are mass-produced and mass-consumed. By believing that one is an individual, one is conforming to the presented values that the capitalistic system thrives and lives upon to continue to be propagated.[3]

Administrated Culture[edit]

In order to understand what the super-rationality of the bureaucratic system has to do with our freedom, Adorno addresses the link between culture and administration. Administration here refers to a set of mechanisms designed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining a cultural idea or practice. Firstly, it notes the concession that a bureaucratic society must uphold: In order for it to be sufficiently operating, it must necessarily disregard a number of desires and thoughts to be capable of achieving its purpose. Otherwise, it would be no different than an ad-hoc establishment of distributing resources and ideas, resulting in a somewhat consistent, and therefore relatively limited, avenues/paths at which people can operate through.

It is important to understand this because administration essentially demands all cultures within its bureaucratic limitations to conform to a certain set of 'absolute' and underlying rules that all cultures within are subject to. In addition, the rationalized world that these underlying rules are assumed to be true must necessarily disregard and ignore all questioning and rejection of these underlying bases, lest they lose their control over the legitimacy of the culture that they are currently producing. Though heavily 'cultural' artifacts such as art or poetry commonly exist within a society, they cannot be defined as such in the first place unless the system implicitly legitimizes them by producing or rewarding the art that is being created within the confines of the previously mentioned underlying assumptions about what 'art' even is. Thus lies an underlying contradiction between art and administration: while art is heralded as contrasting and being separated from the system, for it to be recognized as art in the first place requires an approval from administration itself, absorbing it into what it enforces.

This rational ordering process that administration can give actually can have a positive effect: reducing or removing types of nepotism, favoritism, or even blind control over others. However, a problem pointed out is that individuals themselves reduce their capability to do three things: they lose their autonomy, because they are concerned with moving along with the pre-ordained system rather than doing what they so choose, they lose their spontaneity, because they live in a place where things are pre-determined rather than ad-hoc or otherwise pseudo-random causing them to reduce their sudden impulses to illusory actions, and they lose their ability to criticize, as criticism for this system is akin to throwing a wrench in it, and to reduce the effectiveness of the system or administration is to move against the wishes of the society they live in. Despite what a person is aware of in regards to their own conformity, they nonetheless succumb to the machinations of the administration, taking in the ideological and material goods that are produced and hesitantly applying it to their own person. While not a new concept that culture is paradoxically administered by education, it bleeds into the material sector in the form of large-scale production and systematic distribution.[4]

The Parade of Progress[edit]

A sub-section of the culture industry that Adorno and his colleague Horkheimer saw particular interest in was something he coined the 'Parade of Progress,' in which the culture industry convinces individuals that we are continuing to "'innovate' and establish 'new' objects into our market where originality does not actually exist. The parade of progress specifically refers to the continuous onslaught of seemingly new and original ideas developed by the culture industry, but instead are simply rebrandings or refurbishments of already existing products within the confines of what is expected within the 'cultures' that are presented. Indeed, the presentation of culture provides a contradiction: By showing your individuality by choosing a culture, you would be succumbing to the norms and expectations that are attributed to that culture, necessarily remaining within the confines of a nearly-totalitarian definition of what is acceptable in that culture. There, the parade of progress takes advantage of these restrictions by presenting items and services within the definitions and expectations of that culture, pretending to present them as new and innovative, where in fact they are deceptive and continuing to propagate conformity. Where art as a medium can only be considered art if it rests within the definitions of what art 'ought' to be is where the culture industry has succeeded in convincing the members of society that they have agency in their decisions. The contradiction of defining art as such consequently classifying it as something non-artistic is but one effect of the culture industry.[5]

Commodity fetishism[edit]

Through this reasoning of the culture industry and the parade of progress, Adorno talks about one last concept called 'commodity fetishism', reflecting from the values of commercialism and the focus we have on the purchasing on these commodities in the first place. Indeed, when television is accessible to everyone, the capitalistic game that television utilizes to continue to be profitable is not reflected by the creation of art, but rather the creation of a variety of consumer products where the value comes not from the product itself, but from the interaction with the products themselves. In particular, this refers to the banality of creating a list of 'likes' and 'dislikes', value judgments of 'good quality' and 'bad quality' television(or other types of commodities) as an enjoyment in it of itself. Indeed, when conversations happen about products, they are constantly framed in the form of why you liked/disliked it, thus continuously proving that one is within the system, performing a type of worship for the commodities that they so enjoy every day.

Commodity fetishism has a necessary result in individuals within an administered society treating objects as things to herald, things to worship. Despite having a use-value, they are also regarded as having a societal and meaningful value, such as the appreciation for diamonds or other brands that are considered high culture: these things are appreciated not simply because of the cost, but also due to the name brand that they have, and the simple occurrence of buying a new thing in the first place. Buying an object 'for the sake of buying something' is a prime example of commodity fetishism, exemplifying a situation at which someone bought something they didn't actually need, borne from a driving force to consume things and exert your capital on the world around you. Despite an individual finding value in an object during its consumption, that individual has no appreciation for the object itself, continuously starved by an industry that continuously feeds the never-ending appetite for commodity. It is in reality this blatant predictability of content being continuously consumed and causing short-term happiness that is taken advantage of. [6]

Adorno's perspective on fascism[edit]

Because of his stance on the over-rationalization about our culture in a capitalist economy, Adorno went on to write about how morality itself is being commodified and sold with the sole intent for attaining power and profit. Indeed, in his writings about fascism, he notes that there usually is a rise of it where there resides a sort of 'cult of personality', where narcissistic tendencies expand into a sort of "group ego", where the individual surrenders all rational decision-making to whatever fascist leader/personality they choose to follow. Instead of holding a position based on individual reasoning, they instead base it on personal conviction and desire, or in lay terms, 'feels over reals'. There exists some sort of interim commodified object that is referenced to that people hold 'love' to, such as holding love for Germany during the 1940s, or holding love for America in the current era. This commodity fetishism for the country as a whole provides a necessary object that can be focused on where the fascist is believed to be the means to achieve the goal of attaining greatness for your country, where in fact the love for the country is the means at which a fascist gains power.

This reduction of 'love' towards a concept as abstract as 'Germany' or 'America' and the focus on those concepts that follow create a situation where the people involved in this line of thought are more easily primed to support people that they believe will solve the constructed problem they believe exists. As such, people believe that, stemming from this perceived love, these proto-fascists or fascists that they elect or support are simply 'passionate', and do not care whether or not they are objectively improving whatever it is that they want to improve, rather focusing on the core idea of a charismatic leader that seems to agree with them in the first place. This idea of having a "primal father", an all-powerful authoritarian figure on your side that seems to realize your passionate belief in the support for your country or whatever abstract object you may worship.

As evidenced by this trickery and sublimation as to what really drives this 'worship' to authority at the top, it is increasingly difficult to enact some form of 'negations', a way to criticize the system as a whole, questioning basic assumptions, and counteracting perceived "objective truths". Instead, the systemic approval of treating concepts as commodities, hyper-focusing on the perceived improvements rather than legitimate ones, and the overwhelmingness of the culture industry all work together in tandem to create an environment where fascism is not only accepted, but actually a normative function of the system that exists. With the illusion of individuality and the banal statements of choice being equivalent to freedom, people are losing their abilities to negate key assumptions around them and think only in a way that legitimizes the oppressions and assumptions of the system at large, and are unable to fight against it.[7]

The various signs of fascism[edit]

Through his work, he pointed out various aspects of fascism to look for as warning signs for a fascist regime. While a single one of these does not necessarily mean that the current politicians are fascist, many of them put together in a single group of people points to a stronger indicator of fascism. The traits are as follows:

  • There must be something that unites all individuals involved on a collective level.
  • Identifying that it's not simply groupthink or herdthink, but something involved much further via 'libido', or something that they care about.
  • A love not for the other members of the social group, but some ulterior concept or object (such as the country you live in, your ethnic group, etc.)
  • An overemphasis on the leader's role in achieving this goal, no matter how they actually perform as a leader.
  • Simultaneously treating the leaders as the same social group as the people that are supporting them and as a nearly all-powerful person capable of doing anything.
  • Oppressing the weak and helpless, and sharply criticizing anyone outside the group.
  • Differentiating themselves greatly from anyone outside the group but homogenizing within their group.
  • Simple use of language, devoid of rational significance, with the sole purpose to unite those within the group.
  • A frequent boasting of strength to compensate for weakness.
  • Rhetoric that is not rational, and instead preying on subjective, feelings-based thoughts and attitudes.
  • A status quo that is established, that is easier to morph into your own viewpoint than directly addressing and contradicting it.
  • A frequent use of both: bizarre and completely negative recommendations that are not connected to tangible political issues, or constant ad hominem attacks designed not to gain followers but to disparage people that aren't them.
  • A set of clear-cut 'devices' that are used and repeated ad nauseam with little variety and content, meant as propaganda for a group of people to understand.

Understanding when these strategies are generally used and implemented, one is able to effectively have a broad but narrowed understanding of the rise of fascism. Each fascist regime has different content from the last, e.g. not every fascist will be anti-semetic, for instance. However, as it stands, identifying these traits in form, not in content, can make one capable of identifying fascism much easier than wildly making accusations.

See also[edit]