Adorno on Music


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I want to review Adorno's conception of the "culture industry" as it is found in three writings. IX, No. This essay both summarized Adorno's studies of popular music and immediately prefigured the emergence of the theory of the culture industry. In , Horkheimer and Adorno completed writing Dialektik der Aufklarung. This manuscript remained unpublished until , when it came out under the imprint of Querido in Amsterdam. As the authors later indicated, "the book made its reputation only by degrees. A chapter in the book entitled "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception" is the second item of interest to us.

The third is "Culture Industry Reconsidered.

This has been translated in New German Critique , No. All human artifacts consist of materializations of labor; they incorporate labor and realize its intentions. On the one side a materialization of labor, a product of labor, is a use value. As such, an artifact has utility for someone, i. The exchange value of a commodity depends upon its utility, as well as upon the institutional conditions of the market. On the other side, a materialization of labor is an objectivization or embodiment of meaning or significance.

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Theodor Adorno's Theory of Music and its Social Implications

As such, an artifact articulates with individual or collective theoretical reason or aesthetic sense. The monopolistic rental value of an artifact depends upon its significance, as well as the institutional conditions which preserve the monopoly e. Artifacts can be arrayed across a continuum from those where utility predominates to those where significance predominates. A piece of firewood illustrates the former, a book of poetry, the latter.


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It would be unusual but not inconceivable to foreground the significance, say the artistic significance, of the firewood. And one could always start a fire with a page of poetry, highlighting its utility rather than its poetic significance. We will call all artifacts where significance predominates over utility, "cultural products.

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As cultural objects become more interchangeable, each one declines in significance, loses its "aura," hence declines in monopolistic rent. Since the value of the cultural object is based on the monopolistic rent or, to a subordinate degree, on the object's utility, the value of the cultural object should decline as well. This doesn't occur under late capitalism, however. As Horkheimer and Adorno have put it, "what might be called use value in the reception of cultural commodities is replaced by exchange value.

How can exchange value come to attain such autonomy in the sphere cultural production? Only through a widespread process of fetishization. The consumer is paying, not for the product but for the packaging. Rather than assessments of value based on the qualities of the product, judgments about the qualities of the product are based upon its exchange value, its price, its top-ten rating.

This is the height of commodity fetishism. As Horkheimer and Adorno stressed, the essential characteristic of the culture industry is repetition. As early as his essay "On Jazz," Adorno had argued that an essential characteristic of popular music was its standardization. Standardization extends from the most general features to the most specific ones. By contrast, "serious music" is a "concrete totality" for Adorno, whereby "every detail derives its musical sense from the concrete totality of the piece.

On Adorno On Music – The Forward

In the case of serious music, interchangeability is not possible; if a detail is omitted, "all is lost. Other illustrations could be given, such as the soap operas with their substitutable episodes, horror films with their formulas, etc. This repetition is due to the reflection in the sphere of cultural production of the standardized and repetitive processes of monopoly capitalist industry.

Under late capitalism, what happens at work, in the factory, or in the office can only be escaped by approximating it in one's leisure time. This sets the terms for cultural products: "no independent thinking must be expected from the audiences" instead, "the product prescribes every reaction. Now any person signifies only those attributes by which he can replace everybody else; he is interchangeable. Adorno wrote essays in the opposite of sonata form, where every theme is brought back, after exploitation, to a restatement.

A coda: The secrets revealed by Adorno at his most reckless, by Benjamin in mystical mode, and by a few other German-Jewish hierophants of Theory before it became Frenchified and just another requisite of the core curriculum were, perhaps, the only secrets of an openly barbaric century — not because they were, rather because their creators said they were.


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