1 Kajitilar

The Culture Industry Selected Essays On Mass Culture In The 1920S

1. Biographical Sketch

Born on September 11, 1903 as Theodor Ludwig Wiesengrund, Adorno lived in Frankfurt am Main for the first three decades of his life and the last two (Müller-Doohm 2005, Claussen 2008). He was the only son of a wealthy German wine merchant of assimilated Jewish background and an accomplished musician of Corsican Catholic descent. Adorno studied philosophy with the neo-Kantian Hans Cornelius and music composition with Alban Berg. He completed his Habilitationsschrift on Kierkegaard's aesthetics in 1931, under the supervision of the Christian socialist Paul Tillich. After just two years as a university instructor (Privatdozent), he was expelled by the Nazis, along with other professors of Jewish heritage or on the political left. A few years later he turned his father's surname into a middle initial and adopted “Adorno,” the maternal surname by which he is best known.

Adorno left Germany in the spring of 1934. During the Nazi era he resided in Oxford, New York City, and southern California. There he wrote several books for which he later became famous, including Dialectic of Enlightenment (with Max Horkheimer), Philosophy of New Music, The Authoritarian Personality (a collaborative project), and Minima Moralia. From these years come his provocative critiques of mass culture and the culture industry. Returning to Frankfurt in 1949 to take up a position in the philosophy department, Adorno quickly established himself as a leading German intellectual and a central figure in the Institute of Social Research. Founded as a free-standing center for Marxist scholarship in 1923, the Institute had been led by Max Horkheimer since 1930. It provided the hub to what has come to be known as the Frankfurt School. Adorno became the Institute's director in 1958. From the 1950s stem In Search of Wagner, Adorno's ideology-critique of the Nazi's favorite composer; Prisms, a collection of social and cultural studies; Against Epistemology, an antifoundationalist critique of Husserlian phenomenology; and the first volume of Notes to Literature, a collection of essays in literary criticism.

Conflict and consolidation marked the last decade of Adorno's life. A leading figure in the “positivism dispute” in German sociology, Adorno was a key player in debates about restructuring German universities and a lightning rod for both student activists and their right-wing critics. These controversies did not prevent him from publishing numerous volumes of music criticism, two more volumes of Notes to Literature, books on Hegel and on existential philosophy, and collected essays in sociology and in aesthetics. Negative Dialectics, Adorno's magnum opus on epistemology and metaphysics, appeared in 1966. Aesthetic Theory, the other magnum opus on which he had worked throughout the 1960s, appeared posthumously in 1970. He died of a heart attack on August 6, 1969, one month shy of his sixty-sixth birthday.

2. Dialectic of Enlightenment

Long before “postmodernism” became fashionable, Adorno and Horkheimer wrote one of the most searching critiques of modernity to have emerged among progressive European intellectuals. Dialectic of Enlightenment is a product of their wartime exile. It first appeared as a mimeograph titled Philosophical Fragments in 1944. This title became the subtitle when the book was published in 1947. Their book opens with a grim assessment of the modern West: “Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth radiates under the sign of disaster triumphant” (DE 1, translation modified). How can this be, the authors ask. How can the progress of modern science and medicine and industry promise to liberate people from ignorance, disease, and brutal, mind-numbing work, yet help create a world where people willingly swallow fascist ideology, knowingly practice deliberate genocide, and energetically develop lethal weapons of mass destruction? Reason, they answer, has become irrational.

Although they cite Francis Bacon as a leading spokesman for an instrumentalized reason that becomes irrational, Horkheimer and Adorno do not think that modern science and scientism are the sole culprits. The tendency of rational progress to become irrational regress arises much earlier. Indeed, they cite both the Hebrew scriptures and Greek philosophers as contributing to regressive tendencies. If Horkheimer and Adorno are right, then a critique of modernity must also be a critique of premodernity, and a turn toward the postmodern cannot simply be a return to the premodern. Otherwise the failures of modernity will continue in a new guise under contemporary conditions. Society as a whole needs to be transformed.

Horkheimer and Adorno believe that society and culture form a historical totality, such that the pursuit of freedom in society is inseparable from the pursuit of enlightenment in culture (DE xvi). There is a flip side to this: a lack or loss of freedom in society—in the political, economic, and legal structures within which we live—signals a concomitant failure in cultural enlightenment—in philosophy, the arts, religion, and the like. The Nazi death camps are not an aberration, nor are mindless studio movies innocent entertainment. Both indicate that something fundamental has gone wrong in the modern West.

According to Horkheimer and Adorno, the source of today's disaster is a pattern of blind domination, domination in a triple sense: the domination of nature by human beings, the domination of nature within human beings, and, in both of these forms of domination, the domination of some human beings by others. What motivates such triple domination is an irrational fear of the unknown: “Humans believe themselves free of fear when there is no longer anything unknown. This has determined the path of demythologization … . Enlightenment is mythical fear radicalized” (DE 11). In an unfree society whose culture pursues so-called progress no matter what the cost, that which is “other,” whether human or nonhuman, gets shoved aside, exploited, or destroyed. The means of destruction may be more sophisticated in the modern West, and the exploitation may be less direct than outright slavery, but blind, fear-driven domination continues, with ever greater global consequences. The all-consuming engine driving this process is an ever-expanding capitalist economy, fed by scientific research and the latest technologies.

Contrary to some interpretations, Horkheimer and Adorno do not reject the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Nor do they provide a negative “metanarrative” of universal historical decline. Rather, through a highly unusual combination of philosophical argument, sociological reflection, and literary and cultural commentary, they construct a “double perspective” on the modern West as a historical formation (Jarvis 1998, 23). They summarize this double perspective in two interlinked theses: “Myth is already enlightenment, and enlightenment reverts to mythology” (DE xviii). The first thesis allows them to suggest that, despite being declared mythical and outmoded by the forces of secularization, older rituals, religions, and philosophies may have contributed to the process of enlightenment and may still have something worthwhile to contribute. The second thesis allows them to expose ideological and destructive tendencies within modern forces of secularization, but without denying either that these forces are progressive and enlightening or that the older conceptions they displace were themselves ideological and destructive.

A fundamental mistake in many interpretations of Dialectic of Enlightenment occurs when readers take such theses to be theoretical definitions of unchanging categories rather than critical judgments about historical tendencies. The authors are not saying that myth is “by nature” a force of enlightenment. Nor are they claiming that enlightenment “inevitably” reverts to mythology. In fact, what they find really mythical in both myth and enlightenment is the thought that fundamental change is impossible. Such resistance to change characterizes both ancient myths of fate and modern devotion to the facts.

Accordingly, in constructing a “dialectic of enlightenment” the authors simultaneously aim to carry out a dialectical enlightenment of enlightenment not unlike Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. Two Hegelian concepts anchor this project, namely, determinate negation and conceptual self-reflection. “Determinate negation” (bestimmte Negation) indicates that immanent criticism is the way to wrest truth from ideology. A dialectical enlightenment of enlightenment “discloses each image as script. It teaches us to read from [the image's] features the admission of falseness which cancels its power and hands it over to truth” (DE 18). Beyond and through such determinate negation, a dialectical enlightenment of enlightenment also recalls the origin and goal of thought itself. Such recollection is the work of the concept as the self-reflection of thought (der Begriff als Selbstbesinnung des Denkens, DE 32). Conceptual self-reflection reveals that thought arises from the very corporeal needs and desires that get forgotten when thought becomes a mere instrument of human self-preservation. It also reveals that the goal of thought is not to continue the blind domination of nature and humans but to point toward reconciliation. Adorno works out the details of this conception in his subsequent lectures on Kant (KC), ethics (PMP), and metaphysics (MCP) and in his books on Husserl (AE), Hegel (H), and Heidegger (JA). His most comprehensive statement occurs in Negative Dialectics, which is discussed later.

3. Critical Social Theory

Dialectic of Enlightenment presupposes a critical social theory indebted to Karl Marx. Adorno reads Marx as a Hegelian materialist whose critique of capitalism unavoidably includes a critique of the ideologies that capitalism sustains and requires. The most important of these is what Marx called “the fetishism of commodities.” Marx aimed his critique of commodity fetishism against bourgeois social scientists who simply describe the capitalist economy but, in so doing, simultaneously misdescribe it and prescribe a false social vision. According to Marx, bourgeois economists necessarily ignore the exploitation intrinsic to capitalist production. They fail to understand that capitalist production, for all its surface “freedom” and “fairness,” must extract surplus value from the labor of the working class. Like ordinary producers and consumers under capitalist conditions, bourgeois economists treat the commodity as a fetish. They treat it as if it were a neutral object, with a life of its own, that directly relates to other commodities, in independence from the human interactions that actually sustain all commodities. Marx, by contrast, argues that whatever makes a product a commodity goes back to human needs, desires, and practices. The commodity would not have “use value” if it did not satisfy human wants. It would not have “exchange value” if no one wished to exchange it for something else. And its exchange value could not be calculated if the commodity did not share with other commodities a “value” created by the expenditure of human labor power and measured by the average labor time socially necessary to produce commodities of various sorts.

Adorno's social theory attempts to make Marx's central insights applicable to “late capitalism.” Although in agreement with Marx's analysis of the commodity, Adorno thinks his critique of commodity fetishism does not go far enough. Significant changes have occurred in the structure of capitalism since Marx's day. This requires revisions on a number of topics: the dialectic between forces of production and relations of production; the relationship between state and economy; the sociology of classes and class consciousness; the nature and function of ideology; and the role of expert cultures, such as modern art and social theory, in criticizing capitalism and calling for the transformation of society as a whole.

The primary clues to these revisions come from a theory of reification proposed by the Hungarian socialist Georg Lukács in the 1920s and from interdisciplinary projects and debates conducted by members of the Institute of Social Research in the 1930s and 1940s. Building on Max Weber's theory of rationalization, Lukács argues that the capitalist economy is no longer one sector of society alongside others. Rather, commodity exchange has become the central organizing principle for all sectors of society. This allows commodity fetishism to permeate all social institutions (e.g., law, administration, journalism) as well as all academic disciplines, including philosophy. “Reification” refers to “the structural process whereby the commodity form permeates life in capitalist society.” Lukács was especially concerned with how reification makes human beings “seem like mere things obeying the inexorable laws of the marketplace” (Zuidervaart 1991, 76).

Initially Adorno shared this concern, even though he never had Lukács's confidence that the revolutionary working class could overcome reification. Later Adorno called the reification of consciousness an “epiphenomenon.” What a critical social theory really needs to address is why hunger, poverty, and other forms of human suffering persist despite the technological and scientific potential to mitigate them or to eliminate them altogether. The root cause, Adorno says, lies in how capitalist relations of production have come to dominate society as a whole, leading to extreme, albeit often invisible, concentrations of wealth and power (ND 189–92). Society has come to be organized around the production of exchange values for the sake of producing exchange values, which, of course, always already requires a silent appropriation of surplus value. Adorno refers to this nexus of production and power as the “principle of exchange” (Tauschprinzip). A society where this nexus prevails is an “exchange society” (Tauschgesellschaft).

Adorno's diagnosis of the exchange society has three levels: politico-economic, social-psychological, and cultural. Politically and economically he responds to a theory of state capitalism proposed by Friedrich Pollock during the war years. An economist by training who was supposed to contribute a chapter to Dialectic of Enlightenment but never did (Wiggershaus 1994, 313–19), Pollock argued that the state had acquired dominant economic power in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and New Deal America. He called this new constellation of politics and economics “state capitalism.” While acknowledging with Pollock that political and economic power have become more tightly meshed, Adorno does not think this fact changes the fundamentally economic character of capitalist exploitation. Rather, such exploitation has become even more abstract than it was in Marx's day, and therefore all the more effective and pervasive.

The social-psychological level in Adorno's diagnosis serves to demonstrate the effectiveness and pervasiveness of late capitalist exploitation. His American studies of anti-Semitism and the “authoritarian personality” argue that these pathologically extend “the logic of late capitalism itself, with its associated dialectic of enlightenment.” People who embrace anti-Semitism and fascism tend to project their fear of abstract domination onto the supposed mediators of capitalism, while rejecting as elitist “all claims to a qualitative difference transcending exchange” (Jarvis 1998, 63).

Adorno's cultural studies show that a similar logic prevails in television, film, and the recording industries. In fact, Adorno first discovered late capitalism's structural change through his work with sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld on the Princeton University Radio Research Project. He articulated this discovery in a widely anthologized essay “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening” (1938) and in “The Culture Industry,” a chapter in Dialectic of Enlightenment. There Adorno argues that the culture industry involves a change in the commodity character of art, such that art's commodity character is deliberately acknowledged and art “abjures its autonomy” (DE 127). With its emphasis on marketability, the culture industry dispenses entirely with the “purposelessness” that was central to art's autonomy. Once marketability becomes a total demand, the internal economic structure of cultural commodities shifts. Instead of promising freedom from societally dictated uses, and thereby having a genuine use value that people can enjoy, products mediated by the culture industry have their use value replaced by exchange value: “Everything has value only in so far as it can be exchanged, not in so far as it is something in itself. For consumers the use value of art, its essence, is a fetish, and the fetish—the social valuation [gesellschaftliche Schätzung] which they mistake for the merit [Rang] of works of art— becomes its only use value, the only quality they enjoy” (DE 128). Hence the culture industry dissolves the “genuine commodity character” that artworks once possessed when exchange value still presupposed use value (DE 129–30). Lacking a background in Marxist theory, and desiring to secure legitimacy for “mass art” or “popular culture,” too many of Adorno's anglophone critics simply ignore the main point to his critique of the culture industry. His main point is that culture-industrial hypercommercialization evidences a fateful shift in the structure of all commodities and therefore in the structure of capitalism itself.

4. Aesthetic Theory

Philosophical and sociological studies of the arts and literature make up more than half of Adorno's collected works (Gesammelte Schriften). All of his most important social-theoretical claims show up in these studies. Yet his “aesthetic writings” are not simply “applications” or “test cases” for theses developed in “nonaesthetic” texts. Adorno rejects any such separation of subject matter from methodology and all neat divisions of philosophy into specialized subdisciplines. This is one reason why academic specialists find his texts so challenging, not only musicologists and literary critics but also epistemologists and aestheticians. All of his writings contribute to a comprehensive and interdisciplinary social philosophy (Zuidervaart 2007).

First published the year after Adorno died, Aesthetic Theory marks the unfinished culmination of his remarkably rich body of aesthetic reflections. It casts retrospective light on the entire corpus. It also comes closest to the model of “paratactical presentation” (Hullot-Kentor in AT xi-xxi) that Adorno, inspired especially by Walter Benjamin, found most appropriate for his own “atonal philosophy.” Relentlessly tracing concentric circles, Aesthetic Theory carries out a dialectical double reconstruction. It reconstructs the modern art movement from the perspective of philosophical aesthetics. It simultaneously reconstructs philosophical aesthetics, especially that of Kant and Hegel, from the perspective of modern art. From both sides Adorno tries to elicit the sociohistorical significance of the art and philosophy discussed.

Adorno's claims about art in general stem from his reconstruction of the modern art movement. So a summary of his philosophy of art sometimes needs to signal this by putting “modern” in parentheses. The book begins and ends with reflections on the social character of (modern) art. Two themes stand out in these reflections. One is an updated Hegelian question whether art can survive in a late capitalist world. The other is an updated Marxian question whether art can contribute to the transformation of this world. When addressing both questions, Adorno retains from Kant the notion that art proper (“fine art” or “beautiful art”—schöne Kunst—in Kant's vocabulary) is characterized by formal autonomy. But Adorno combines this Kantian emphasis on form with Hegel's emphasis on intellectual import (geistiger Gehalt) and Marx's emphasis on art's embeddedness in society as a whole. The result is a complex account of the simultaneous necessity and illusoriness of the artwork's autonomy. The artwork's necessary and illusory autonomy, in turn, is the key to (modern) art's social character, namely, to be “the social antithesis of society” (AT 8).

Adorno regards authentic works of (modern) art as social monads. The unavoidable tensions within them express unavoidable conflicts within the larger sociohistorical process from which they arise and to which they belong. These tensions enter the artwork through the artist's struggle with sociohistorically laden materials, and they call forth conflicting interpretations, many of which misread either the work-internal tensions or their connection to conflicts in society as a whole. Adorno sees all of these tensions and conflicts as “contradictions” to be worked through and eventually to be resolved. Their complete resolution, however, would require a transformation in society as a whole, which, given his social theory, does not seem imminent.

As commentary and criticism, Adorno's aesthetic writings are unparalleled in the subtlety and sophistication with which they trace work-internal tensions and relate them to unavoidable sociohistorical conflicts. One gets frequent glimpses of this in Aesthetic Theory. For the most part, however, the book proceeds at the level of “third reflections”—reflections on categories employed in actual commentary and criticism, with a view to their suitability for what artworks express and to their societal implications. Typically he elaborates these categories as polarities or dialectical pairs.

One such polarity, and a central one in Adorno's theory of artworks as social monads, occurs between the categories of import (Gehalt) and function (Funktion). Adorno's account of these categories distinguishes his sociology of art from both hermeneutical and empirical approaches. A hermeneutical approach would emphasize the artwork's inherent meaning or its cultural significance and downplay the artwork's political or economic functions. An empirical approach would investigate causal connections between the artwork and various social factors without asking hermeneutical questions about its meaning or significance. Adorno, by contrast, argues that, both as categories and as phenomena, import and function need to be understood in terms of each other. On the one hand, an artwork's import and its functions in society can be diametrically opposed. On the other hand, one cannot give a proper account of an artwork's social functions if one does not raise import-related questions about their significance. So too, an artwork's import embodies the work's social functions and has potential relevance for various social contexts. In general, however, and in line with his critiques of positivism and instrumentalized reason, Adorno gives priority to import, understood as societally mediated and socially significant meaning. The social functions emphasized in his own commentaries and criticisms are primarily intellectual functions rather than straightforwardly political or economic functions. This is consistent with a hyperbolic version of the claim that (modern) art is society's social antithesis: “Insofar as a social function can be predicated for artworks, it is their functionlessness” (AT 227).

The priority of import also informs Adorno's stance on art and politics, which derives from debates with Lukács, Benjamin, and Bertolt Brecht in the 1930s (Lunn 1982; Zuidervaart 1991, 28–43). Because of the shift in capitalism's structure, and because of Adorno's own complex emphasis on (modern) art's autonomy, he doubts both the effectiveness and the legitimacy of tendentious, agitative, or deliberately consciousness-raising art. Yet he does see politically engaged art as a partial corrective to the bankrupt aestheticism of much mainstream art. Under the conditions of late capitalism, the best art, and politically the most effective, so thoroughly works out its own internal contradictions that the hidden contradictions in society can no longer be ignored. The plays of Samuel Beckett, to whom Adorno had intended to dedicate Aesthetic Theory, are emblematic in that regard. Adorno finds them more true than many other artworks.

Arguably, the idea of “truth content” (Wahrheitsgehalt) is the pivotal center around which all the concentric circles of Adorno's aesthetics turn (Zuidervaart 1991; Wellmer 1991, 1–35 ; Jarvis 1998, 90–123). To gain access to this center, one must temporarily suspend standard theories about the nature of truth (whether as correspondence, coherence, or pragmatic success) and allow for artistic truth to be dialectical, disclosive, and nonpropositional. According to Adorno, each artwork has its own import (Gehalt) by virtue of an internal dialectic between content (Inhalt) and form (Form). This import invites critical judgments about its truth or falsity. To do justice to the artwork and its import, such critical judgments need to grasp both the artwork's complex internal dynamics and the dynamics of the sociohistorical totality to which the artwork belongs. The artwork has an internal truth content to the extent that the artwork's import can be found internally and externally either true or false. Such truth content is not a metaphysical idea or essence hovering outside the artwork. But neither is it a merely human construct. It is historical but not arbitrary; nonpropositional, yet calling for propositional claims to be made about it; utopian in its reach, yet firmly tied to specific societal conditions. Truth content is the way in which an artwork simultaneously challenges the way things are and suggests how things could be better, but leaves things practically unchanged: “Art has truth as the semblance of the illusionless” (AT 132).

5. Negative Dialectics

Adorno's idea of artistic truth content presupposes the epistemological and metaphysical claims he works out most thoroughly in Negative Dialectics. These claims, in turn, consolidate and extend the historiographic and social-theoretical arguments already canvassed. As Simon Jarvis demonstrates, Negative Dialectics tries to formulate a “philosophical materialism” that is historical and critical but not dogmatic. Alternatively, one can describe the book as a “metacritique” of idealist philosophy, especially of the philosophy of Kant and Hegel (Jarvis 1998, 148–74; O'Connor 2004). Adorno says the book aims to complete what he considered his lifelong task as a philosopher: “to use the strength of the [epistemic] subject to break through the deception [Trug] of constitutive subjectivity” (ND xx).

This occurs in four stages. First, a long Introduction (ND 1–57) works out a concept of “philosophical experience” that both challenges Kant's distinction between “phenomena” and “noumena” and rejects Hegel's construction of “absolute spirit.” Then Part One (ND 59–131) distinguishes Adorno's project from the “fundamental ontology” in Heidegger's Being and Time. Part Two (ND 133–207) works out Adorno's alternative with respect to the categories he reconfigures from German idealism. Part Three (ND 209–408), composing nearly half the book, elaborates philosophical “models.” These present negative dialectics in action upon key concepts of moral philosophy (“freedom”), philosophy of history (“world spirit” and “natural history”), and metaphysics. Adorno says the final model, devoted to metaphysical questions, “tries by critical self reflection to give the Copernican revolution an axial turn” (ND xx). Alluding to Kant's self-proclaimed “second Copernican revolution,” this description echoes Adorno's comment about breaking through the deception of constitutive subjectivity.

Like Hegel, Adorno criticizes Kant's distinction between phenomena and noumena by arguing that the transcendental conditions of experience can be neither so pure nor so separate from each other as Kant seems to claim. As concepts, for example, the a priori categories of the faculty of understanding (Verstand) would be unintelligible if they were not already about something that is nonconceptual. Conversely, the supposedly pure forms of space and time cannot simply be nonconceptual intuitions. Not even a transcendental philosopher would have access to them apart from concepts about them. So too, what makes possible any genuine experience cannot simply be the “application” of a priori concepts to a priori intuitions via the “schematism” of the imagination (Einbildungskraft). Genuine experience is made possible by that which exceeds the grasp of thought and sensibility. Adorno does not call this excess the “thing in itself,” however, for that would assume the Kantian framework he criticizes. Rather, he calls it “the nonidentical” (das Nichtidentische).

The concept of the nonidentical, in turn, marks the difference between Adorno's materialism and Hegel's idealism. Although he shares Hegel's emphasis on a speculative identity between thought and being, between subject and object, and between reason and reality, Adorno denies that this identity has been achieved in a positive fashion. For the most part this identity has occurred negatively instead. That is to say, human thought, in achieving identity and unity, has imposed these upon objects, suppressing or ignoring their differences and diversity. Such imposition is driven by a societal formation whose exchange principle demands the equivalence (exchange value) of what is inherently nonequivalent (use value). Whereas Hegel's speculative identity amounts to an identity between identity and nonidentity, Adorno's amounts to a nonidentity between identity and nonidentity. That is why Adorno calls for a “negative dialectic” and why he rejects the affirmative character of Hegel's dialectic (ND 143–61).

Adorno does not reject the necessity of conceptual identification, however, nor does his philosophy claim to have direct access to the nonidentical. Under current societal conditions, thought can only have access to the nonidentical via conceptual criticisms of false identifications. Such criticisms must be “determinate negations,” pointing up specific contradictions between what thought claims and what it actually delivers. Through determinate negation, those aspects of the object which thought misidentifies receive an indirect, conceptual articulation.

The motivation for Adorno's negative dialectic is not simply conceptual, however, nor are its intellectual resources. His epistemology is “materialist” in both regards. It is motivated, he says, by undeniable human suffering—a fact of unreason, if you will, to counter Kant's “fact of reason.” Suffering is the corporeal imprint of society and the object upon human consciousness: “The need to let suffering speak is a condition of all truth. For suffering is objectivity that weighs upon the subject … ” (ND 17–18). The resources available to philosophy in this regard include the “expressive” or “mimetic” dimensions of language, which conflict with “ordinary” (i.e., societally sanctioned) syntax and semantics. In philosophy, this requires an emphasis on “presentation” (Darstellung) in which logical stringency and expressive flexibility interact (ND 18–19, 52–53). Another resource lies in unscripted relationships among established concepts. By taking such concepts out of their established patterns and rearranging them in “constellations” around a specific subject matter, philosophy can unlock some of the historical dynamic hidden within objects whose identity exceeds the classifications imposed upon them (ND 52–53, 162–66).

What unifies all of these desiderata, and what most clearly distinguishes Adorno's materialist epistemology from “idealism,” whether Kantian or Hegelian, is his insisting on the “priority of the object” (Vorrang des Objekts, ND 183–97). Adorno regards as “idealist” any philosophy that affirms an identity between subject and object and thereby assigns constitutive priority to the epistemic subject. In insisting on the priority of the object, Adorno repeatedly makes three claims: first, that the epistemic subject is itself objectively constituted by the society to which it belongs and without which the subject could not exist; second, that no object can be fully known according to the rules and procedures of identitarian thinking; third, that the goal of thought itself, even when thought forgets its goal under societally induced pressures to impose identity on objects, is to honor them in their nonidentity, in their difference from what a restricted rationality declares them to be. Against empiricism, however, he argues that no object is simply “given” either, both because it can be an object only in relation to a subject and because objects are historical and have the potential to change.

Under current conditions the only way for philosophy to give priority to the object is dialectically, Adorno argues. He describes dialectics as the attempt to recognize the nonidentity between thought and the object while carrying out the project of conceptual identification. Dialectics is “the consistent consciousness of nonidentity,” and contradiction, its central category, is “the nonidentical under the aspect of identity.” Thought itself forces this emphasis on contradiction upon us, he says. To think is to identify, and thought can achieve truth only by identifying. So the semblance (Schein) of total identity lives within thought itself, mingled with thought's truth (Wahrheit). The only way to break through the semblance of total identity is immanently, using the concept. Accordingly, everything that is qualitatively different and that resists conceptualization will show up as a contradiction. “The contradiction is the nonidentical under the aspect of [conceptual] identity; the primacy of the principle of contradiction in dialectics tests the heterogeneous according to unitary thought [Einheitsdenken]. By colliding with its own boundary [Grenze], unitary thought surpasses itself. Dialectics is the consistent consciousness of nonidentity” (ND 5).

But thinking in contradictions is also forced upon philosophy by society itself. Society is riven with fundamental antagonisms, which, in accordance with the exchange principle, get covered up by identitarian thought. The only way to expose these antagonisms, and thereby to point toward their possible resolution, is to think against thought—in other words, to think in contradictions. In this way “contradiction” cannot be ascribed neatly to either thought or reality. Instead it is a “category of reflection” (Reflexionskategorie) , enabling a thoughtful confrontation between concept (Begriff) and subject matter or object (Sache): “To proceed dialectically means to think in contradictions, for the sake of the contradiction already experienced in the object [Sache], and against that contradiction. A contradiction in reality, [dialectics] is a contradiction against reality” (ND 144–45).

The point of thinking in contradictions is not simply negative, however. It has a fragile, transformative horizon, namely, a society that would no longer be riven with fundamental antagonisms, thinking that would be rid of the compulsion to dominate through conceptual identification, and the flourishing of particular objects in their particularity. Because Adorno is convinced that contemporary society has the resources to alleviate the suffering it nevertheless perpetuates, his negative dialectics has a utopian reach: “In view of the concrete possibility of utopia, dialectics is the ontology of the false condition. A right condition would be freed from dialectics, no more system than contradiction” (ND 11). Such a “right condition” would be one of reconciliation between humans and nature, including the nature within human beings, and among human beings themselves. This idea of reconciliation sustains Adorno's reflections on ethics and metaphysics.

6. Ethics and Metaphysics after Auschwitz

Like Adorno's epistemology, his moral philosophy derives from a materialistic metacritique of German idealism. The model on “Freedom” in Negative Dialectics (ND 211–99) conducts a metacritique of Kant's critique of practical reason. So too, the model on “World Spirit and Natural History” (ND 300–60) provides a metacritique of Hegel's philosophy of history. Both models simultaneously carry out a subterranean debate with the Marxist tradition, and this debate guides Adorno's appropriation of both Kantian and Hegelian “practical philosophy.”

The first section in the Introduction to Negative Dialectics indicates the direction Adorno's appropriation will take (ND 3–4). There he asks whether and how philosophy is still possible. Adorno asks this against the backdrop of Karl Marx's Theses on Feuerbach, which famously proclaimed that philosophy's task is not simply to interpret the world but to change it. In distinguishing his historical materialism from the sensory materialism of Ludwig Feuerbach, Marx portrays human beings as fundamentally productive and political organisms whose interrelations are not merely interpersonal but societal and historical. Marx's emphasis on production, politics, society, and history takes his epistemology in a “pragmatic” direction. “Truth” does not indicate the abstract correspondence between thought and reality, between proposition and fact, he says. Instead, “truth” refers to the economic, political, societal, and historical fruitfulness of thought in practice.

Although Adorno shares many of Marx's anthropological intuitions, he thinks that a twentieth-century equation of truth with practical fruitfulness had disastrous effects on both sides of the iron curtain. The Introduction to Negative Dialectics begins by making two claims. First, although apparently obsolete, philosophy remains necessary because capitalism has not been overthrown. Second, Marx's interpretation of capitalist society was inadequate and his critique is outmoded. Hence, praxis no longer serves as an adequate basis for challenging (philosophical) theory. In fact, praxis serves mostly as a pretext for shutting down the theoretical critique that transformative praxis would require. Having missed the moment of its realization (via the proletarian revolution, according to early Marx), philosophy today must criticize itself: its societal naivete, its intellectual antiquation, its inability to grasp the power at work in industrial late capitalism. While still pretending to grasp the whole, philosophy fails to recognize how thoroughly it depends upon society as a whole, all the way into philosophy's “immanent truth” (ND 4). Philosophy must shed such naivete. It must ask, as Kant asked about metaphysics after Hume's critique of rationalism, How is philosophy still possible? More specifically, How, after the collapse of Hegelian thought, is philosophy still possible? How can the dialectical effort to conceptualize the nonconceptual—which Marx also pursued—how can this philosophy be continued?

This self-implicating critique of the relation between theory and practice is one crucial source to Adorno's reflections on ethics and metaphysics. Another is the catastrophic impact of twentieth-century history on the prospects for imagining and achieving a more humane world. Adorno's is an ethics and metaphysics “after Auschwitz” (Bernstein 2001, 371–414; Zuidervaart 2007, 48–76). Ethically, he says, Hitler's barbarism imposes a “new categorical imperative” on human beings in their condition of unfreedom: so to arrange their thought and action that “Auschwitz would not repeat itself, [that] nothing similar would happen” (ND 365). Metaphysically, philosophers must find historically appropriate ways to speak about meaning and truth and suffering that neither deny nor affirm the existence of a world transcendent to the one we know. Whereas denying it would suppress the suffering that calls out for fundamental change, straightforwardly affirming the existence of utopia would cut off the critique of contemporary society and the struggle to change it. The basis for Adorno's double strategy is not a hidden ontology, as some have suggested, but rather a “speculative” or “metaphysical” experience. Adorno appeals to the experience that thought which “does not decapitate itself” flows into the idea of a world where “not only extant suffering would be abolished but also suffering that is irrevocably past would be revoked” (403). Neither logical positivist antimetaphysics nor Heideggerian hypermetaphysics can do justice to this experience.

Adorno indicates his own alternative to both traditional metaphysics and more recent antimetaphysics in passages that juxtapose resolute self-criticism and impassioned hope. His historiographic, social theoretical, aesthetic, and negative dialectical concerns meet in passages such as this:

Thought that does not capitulate before wretched existence comes to nought before its criteria, truth becomes untruth, philosophy becomes folly. And yet philosophy cannot give up, lest idiocy triumph in actualized unreason [Widervernunft] … Folly is truth in the shape that human beings must accept whenever, amid the untrue, they do not give up truth. Even at the highest peaks art is semblance; but art receives the semblance … from nonsemblance [vom Scheinlosen] … . No light falls on people and things in which transcendence would not appear [widerschiene]. Indelible in resistance to the fungible world of exchange is the resistance of the eye that does not want the world's colors to vanish. In semblance nonsemblance is promised (ND 404–5).

Addressing such passages is crucial in the ongoing assessment of Adorno's philosophy.


Section 1 lists many of Adorno's books in English, including several he co-authored, in the order of their abbreviations. Section 2 lists some anthologies of Adorno's writings in English. Books listed in section 1 without abbreviations were originally published in English; all others were originally published in German. A date in parentheses following a title indicates either the first German edition or, in the case of posthumous publications, the date of the original lectures. Often the translations cited above have been silently modified. The abbreviation “GS” or “NS” after an entry below tells where this book can be found in Adorno's collected writings. “GS” indicates writings published during Adorno's lifetime and collected in the 20 volumes of Theodor W. Adorno, Gesammelte Schriften, edited by Rolf Tiedemann et al. (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1970–1986). “NS” indicates posthumous works that are appearing as editions of the Theodor W. Adorno Archive in the collection Nachgelassene Schriften (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1993–).

For more extensive Adorno bibliographies, see Huhn 2004, Müller-Doohm 2005, and Zuidervaart 2014, an annotated bibliography.

Primary Literature

ATAesthetic Theory (1970), trans. R. Hullot-Kentor, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997. (GS 7)
AEAgainst Epistemology: A Metacritique; Studies in Husserl and the Phenomenological Antinomies (1956), trans. W. Domingo, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1982. (GS 5)
The Authoritarian Personality, T. W. Adorno, et al., New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950. (GS 9.1)
BAlban Berg: Master of the Smallest Link (1968), trans. J. Brand and C. Hailey, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. (GS 13)
BPMBeethoven: The Philosophy of Music; Fragments and Texts (1993), ed. R. Tiedemann, trans. E. Jephcott, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998. (NS I.1)
CCThe Complete Correspondence, 1928–1940 (1994), T. W. Adorno and W. Benjamin, ed. H. Lonitz, trans. N. Walker, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999.
CMCritical Models: Interventions and Catchwords (1963, 1969), trans. H. W. Pickford, New York: Columbia University Press, 1998. (GS 10.2)
DEDialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments (1947), M. Horkheimer and T. W. Adorno, ed. G. S. Noerr, trans. E. Jephcott, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002. (GS 3)
HHegel: Three Studies (1963), trans. S. Weber Nicholsen, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1993. (GS 5)
HFHistory and Freedom: Lectures 1964-1965, trans. R. Livingstone, Cambridge, Mass.: Polity, 2006.
ISIntroduction to Sociology (1968), ed. C. Gödde, trans. E. Jephcott, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000. (NS IV.15)
JAThe Jargon of Authenticity (1964), trans. K. Tarnowski and F. Will, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973. (GS 6)
KCKant's Critique of Pure Reason (1959), ed. R. Tiedemann, trans. R. Livingstone, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001. (NS IV.4)
KCAKierkegaard: Construction of the Aesthetic (1933), trans. R. Hullot-Kentor, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989. (GS 2)
LNDLectures on Negative Dialectics: Fragments of a Lecture Course 1965/1966, ed. R. Tiedemann, trans. R. Livingstone, Cambridge: Polity, 2008. (NS IV.16)
MMahler: A Musical Physiognomy (1960), trans. E. Jephcott, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. (GS 13)
MCPMetaphysics: Concept and Problems (1965), ed. R. Tiedemann, trans. E. Jephcott, Stanford University Press, 2000. (NS IV.14)
MMMinima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life (1951), trans. E. F. N. Jephcott, London: NLB, 1974. (GS 4)
NDNegative Dialectics (1966), trans. E. B. Ashton, New York: Seabury Press, 1973. (GS 6)
NLNotes to Literature (1958, 1961, 1965, 1974), 2 vols., ed. R. Tiedemann, trans. S. Weber Nicholsen, New York: Columbia University Press, 1991, 1992. (GS 11)
PPrisms (1955), trans. S. Weber and S. Weber, London: Neville Spearman, 1967; Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1981. (GS 10.1)
PMPhilosophy of New Music (1949), trans., ed., and with an introduction by R. Hullot-Kentor, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. (GS 12)
PMPProblems of Moral Philosophy (1963), ed. T. Schröder, trans. R. Livingstone, University Press, 2000. (NS IV.10)
PSThe Positivist Dispute in German Sociology (1969), T. W. Adorno, et al., trans. G. Adey and D. Frisby, London: Heinemann, 1976. (GS 8)
WIn Search of Wagner (1952), trans. R. Livingstone, London: NLB, 1981. (GS 13)

2. Adorno Anthologies

  • The Adorno Reader, ed. B. O'Connor, Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.
  • Can One Live after Auschwitz?: A Philosophical Reader, ed. R. Tiedemann, trans. R. Livingstone et al., Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003.
  • The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, ed. J. M. Bernstein, London: Routledge, 1991.
  • Essays on Music: Theodor W. Adorno, ed. R. D. Leppert, trans. S. H. Gillespie et al., Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

3. Secondary Literature

  • Benhabib, S., 1986, Critique, Norm, and Utopia: A Study of the Foundations of Critical Theory, New York: Colombia University Press.
  • Benzer, M., 2011, The Sociology of Theodor Adorno, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Bernstein, J. M., 1992, The Fate of Art: Aesthetic Alienation from Kant to Derrida and Adorno, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.
  • –––, 2001, Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • ––– (ed.), 2010, Art and Aesthetics after Adorno, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Boucher, G., 2013, Adorno Reframed: Interpreting Key Thinkers for the Arts, London: I. B. Tauris.
  • Bowie, A., 2013, Adorno and the Ends of Philosophy, Cambridge, Mass.: Polity.
  • Brittain, C. C., 2010, Adorno and Theology, London: T. & T. Clark.
  • Brunkhorst, H., 1999, Adorno and Critical Theory, Cardiff: University of Wales Press.
  • Buck-Morss, S., 1977, The Origin of Negative Dialectics; Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin and the Frankfurt Institute, New York: Free Press.
  • Bürger, P., 1984, Theory of the Avant Garde, trans. M. Shaw, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Burke, D. A., et al. (eds.), 2007, Adorno and the Need in Thinking: New Critical Essays, Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
  • Claussen, D., 2008, Theodor W. Adorno: One Last Genius, trans. R. Livingstone, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
  • Cook, D., 2004, Adorno, Habermas, and the Search for a Rational Society, New York: Routledge.
  • –––, 2011, Adorno on Nature, Durham, UK: Acumen.
  • ––– (ed.), 2008, Theodor Adorno: Key Concepts, Durham, UK: Acumen.
  • de Vries, H., 2005, Minimal Theologies: Critiques of Secular Reason in Adorno and Levinas, trans. G. Hale, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Foster, R., 2007, Adorno: The Recovery of Experience, Albany: State University of New York Press.
  • Frankfurter Adorno Blätter, 1992–2003, ed. Theodor W. Adorno Archiv, Munich: Edition Text + Kritik. (Published annually, more or less.)
  • Freyenhagen, F., 2013, Adorno’s Practical Philosophy: Living Less Wrongly, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Gibson, N. C., and A. Rubin, (eds.), 2002, Adorno: A Critical Reader, Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Geuss, R., 2005, Outside Ethics, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Habermas, J., 1987, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures, trans. F. Lawrence, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
  • Hammer, E., 2005, Adorno and the Political, New York: Routledge.
  • –––, 2015, Adorno’s Modernism: Art, Experience, and Catastrophe, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Hansen, M. B., 2012, Cinema and Experience: Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor W. Adorno, Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Heberle, R. J. (ed.), 2006, Feminist Interpretations of Theodor Adorno. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.
  • Hellings, J., 2014, Adorno and Art: Aesthetic Theory contra Critical Theory, Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Hohendahl, P. U., 1995, Prismatic Thought: Theodor W. Adorno, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
  • –––, 2013, The Fleeting Promise of Art: Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory Revisited, Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press.
  • Honneth, Axel, 1991, The Critique of Power: Reflective Stages in a Critical Social Theory, trans. K. Baynes, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
  • –––, 2009, Pathologies of Reason: On the Legacy of Critical Theory, trans. J. Ingram et al., New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Huhn, T., and L. Zuidervaart (eds.), 1997, The Semblance of Subjectivity: Essays in Adorno's Aesthetic Theory, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
  • Huhn, T. (ed.), 2004, The Cambridge Companion to Adorno, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Hullot-Kentor, R., 2006, Things beyond Resemblance: Collected Essays on Theodor W. Adorno, New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Jäger, L., 2004, Adorno: A Political Biography, trans. S. Spencer, New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.
  • Jameson, F. 1990, Late Marxism: Adorno, or, The Persistence of the Dialectic, London; New York: Verso.
  • Jarvis, S., 1998, Adorno: A Critical Introduction, New York: Routledge.
  • ––– (ed.), 2006, Theodor Adorno, 4 vols., London: Routledge.
  • Jay, M., 1984, Adorno, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
  • –––, 1996, The Dialectical Imagination, 2d ed., Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Jenemann, D., 2007, Adorno in America, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Krakauer, E. L., 1998, The Disposition of the Subject: Reading Adorno's Dialectic of Technology, Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press.
  • Lee, L. Y., 2005, Dialectics of the Body: Corporeality in the Philosophy of T. W. Adorno, New York: Routledge.
  • Lunn, E., 1982, Marxism and Modernism: An Historical Study of Lukács, Brecht, Benjamin, and Adorno, Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Macdonald, I. and K. Ziarek (eds.), 2008, Adorno and Heidegger: Philosophical Questions, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Martinson, M., 2000, Perseverance without Doctrine: Adorno, Self-Critique, and the Ends of Academic Theology, Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.
  • McArthur, J., 2013, Rethinking Knowledge within Higher Education: Adorno and Social Justice, New York: Bloomsbury Academic.
  • Menke, C., 1998, The Sovereignty of Art: Aesthetic Negativity in Adorno and Derrida, trans. N. Solomon, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
  • Morgan, A., 2007, Adorno’s Concept of Life, New York: Continuum.
  • Morris, M., 2001. Rethinking the Communicative Turn: Adorno, Habermas, and the Problem of Communicative Freedom, Albany: State University of New York Press.
  • Müller-Doohm, S., 2005, Adorno: A Biography, trans. Rodney Livingstone, Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • Nicholsen, S. W., 1997, Exact Imagination, Late Work: On Adorno's Aesthetics, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
  • O'Connor, B., 2004, Adorno's Negative Dialectic: Philosophy and the Possibility of Critical Rationality, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
  • –––, 2013, Adorno, London: Routledge.
  • Paddison, M., 1993, Adorno's Aesthetics of Music, New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Pensky, M., (ed.), 1997, The Actuality of Adorno: Critical Essays on Adorno and the Postmodern, Albany: State University of New York Press.
  • Rensmann, L., and S. Gandesha (eds.), 2012, Arendt and Adorno: Political and Philosophical Investigations, Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.
  • Rose, G., 1978, The Melancholy Science: An Introduction to the Thought of Theodor W. Adorno, London: Macmillan Press.
  • Ross, N. (ed.), 2015, The Aesthetic Ground of Critical Theory: New Readings of Benjamin and Adorno, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
  • Schweppenhäuser, G., 2009, Theodor W. Adorno: An Introduction, Durham: Duke University Press.
  • Sherman, D., 2007, Sartre and Adorno: The Dialectics of Subjectivity, Albany: State University of New York Press.
  • Sherratt, Y., 2002, Adorno's Positive Dialectic, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Shuster, M., 2014, Autonomy after Auschwitz: Adorno, German Idealism, and Modernity, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Vogel, S., 1996, Against Nature: The Concept of Nature in Critical Theory, Albany: State University of New York Press.
  • Vries, H. de, 2005, Minimal Theologies: Critiques of Secular Reason in Adorno and Levinas, trans. G. Hale., Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Wellmer, A., 1991, The Persistence of Modernity: Essays on Aesthetics, Ethics, and Postmodernism, trans. D. Midgley, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
  • –––, 1998, Endgames: The Irreconcilable Nature of Modernity; Essays and Lectures, trans. D. Midgley, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
  • Whitebook, J., 1995, Perversion and Utopia: A Study in Psychoanalysis and Critical Theory, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
  • Wiggershaus, R., 1994, The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Political Significance, trans. M. Robertson, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
  • Witkin, R. W., 2003, Adorno on Popular Culture, New York: Routledge.
  • Zuidervaart, L., 1991, Adorno's Aesthetic Theory: The Redemption of Illusion, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
  • Zuidervaart, L., et al., 1998, “Adorno, Theodor Wiesengrund,” Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, Vol. 1, pp. 16–32, ed. M. Kelly, New York: Oxford University Press; second edition, 2014.
  • Zuidervaart, L., 2007, Social Philosophy after Adorno, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Zuidervaart, L., 2014, “Theodor Adorno,” Oxford Bibliographies in Philosophy, ed. D. Pritchard, Oxford: Oxford University Press, abridged version available online

The Frankfurt School and Communication Theory[edit]

“I thought Adorno, on our first meeting, the most arrogant, self-indulgent (intellectually and culturally) man I have ever met. Some 20 years later, I can think of additional claimants for that position, but I doubt if they are serious rivals” (Donald MacRae, cited in Morrison, 1978, pp. 331–332).

The Frankfurt School was a group of critical theorists associated with the Institut für Sozialforschung (Institute of Social Research) which was located first at the University of Frankfurt (1923–1933), then in Geneva, Switzerland (1933–35), Columbia University in New York (1935–1949), and finally back at the University of Frankfurt, from 1949 to present. Some of the theorists associated with what became known as the Frankfurt School included Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno (née Wiesengrund), [w:Herbert Marcuse], Walter Benjamin, Erich Fromm, Leo Lowenthal, and Friedrich Pollock.

Felix Weil began the Institute of Social Research in 1923. The theoretical basis of the Institute was Marxist, to no small degree because of Carl Grünberg, who served as director from 1923-1930. Max Horkheimer succeeded Grünberg as director and served in that capacity until 1960, when Theodor Adorno became director, until his death in 1969. These theorists were all associated with the Institute in the 1920s, except for Marcuse, who began working with the Institute in 1932. From the late 1950s Jürgen Habermas would be involved with the Institute, but for a number of reasons his work is often considered separate from that of the Frankfurt School. The Institute for Social Research continues to operate at the University of Frankfurt, but what is known as the Frankfurt School did not extend beyond the theorists associated with it.

The interests of the Frankfurt School theorists in the 1920s and 1930s lay predominantly in a Marxist analysis of social and economic processes, and the role of the individual and the group in relation to these processes. Their particular relevance to communication theory lies primarily in Adorno's idea of the culture industry, and Marcuse's concept of the "one dimensional" man.

The Culture Industry[edit]

In 1947 Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno published Dialektik der Aufklärung: Philosophische Fragmente, whose title was translated into English (in 1972) as Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. One of the sections of this book was concerned with what Horkheimer and Adorno called the culture industry. It was their contention that the culture industry was the result of an historical process that with an increase in technology (including mass communication technology) there was an increase in the ability to produce commodities, which enabled increased consumption of goods. The consumption of mechanically reproduced cultural products—predominantly radio and film—led to formulas of producing them for entertainment purposes, and it did not occur to consumers to question the idea that the entertainment presented to them had an ideological purpose or purposes. Consumers adapted their needs around these cultural products, and in doing so no longer knew of anything else that they might desire, or that there might be anything else they could desire. The entertainment that they enjoyed did not reflect their real social, political, or economic interests, but instead blinded them from questioning the prevailing system. Entertainment also had the function of allowing the dominant system to replicate itself, which allowed for further expansion in production and consumption. Thus, for Adorno and Horkheimer the culture industry worked in such a way that those who were under its influence would not even notice that they were being manipulated.

Subsequent to the book’s publication in 1947, theorists of the Frankfurt School knew of Adorno's concept of the culture industry, but the impact of his analysis of the culture industry was limited well into the sixties. Dialectic of Enlightenment did not receive a wider distribution until 1969, and although Herbert Marcuse continued the general idea of the culture industry in his One-Dimensional Man of 1964, he did not refer to it as such. In spite of Marcuse’s incisive criticism of dominant ideological structures, there is not a cultural component in his thought that can be separated out from ideology as a whole, as appears in the work of Adorno and Horkheimer. Thus, as a concept relating to communication theory in the United States, the culture industry can more properly be said to have come to existence due to the English translation of Adorno and Horkheimer’s book in 1972.

Genesis of “The Culture Industry”[edit]

In order to understand the creation of the idea of the culture industry as well as its reception the concept can be examined chronologically, from its pre-conditions, through its generation, to its subsequent impact. The idea of the culture industry grows out of a concern with culture, is developed through insights into the mechanical reproduction of culture, and is ultimately generated in opposition not only to popular music, but also to Hollywood movies. That this is so grows out of a number of historical contingencies.

Theordor Wiesengrund enrolled at the University of Frankfurt in 1921 not only to study philosophy, but music. Wiesengrund published in the 1920s and early 1930s under the name Theodor Wiesengrund-Adorno, and later took the name Adorno, which had been his mother’s maiden name. According to Thomas Mann, Adorno refused to choose between music and philosophy throughout his entire life, believing that he was pursuing the same objective in two disparate fields (Jäger, 2004, p. 31). Although he wrote his doctoral thesis on Husserl, and a postdoctoral thesis on Kierkegaard, Adorno moved to Vienna to study music composition with Alban Berg. Most of Adorno's music was written between 1925 and 1930, though he continued to compose music for the rest of his life. In addition to composing, Adorno was a music critic and editor of Musikblatter des Anbruch from 1928 to 1932. As a composer and music critic Adorno was aware of conditions relating to the production and dissemination of music in the 1920s and 1930s. This aspect of Adorno’s career is important in understanding his subsequent approach to culture. Because he had a profound knowledge of art, which is great part of culture, his belief what the real art should be like influenced on his criticism against culture industry. To Adorno, the gist of real art is autonomy. Both of the production and the consumption of cultural product should be originated by autonomy which arouses uniqueness of real art. According to Adorno, culture industry which products and consumes the mass cultural product is not based on autonomy but passivity so that it never seeks for uniqueness of real art or culture.

Adorno was introduced to Walter Benjamin in 1923, and the two theorists became friends. Since Benjamin never received a degree that would allow him to teach at a university, according to Hannah Arendt, Adorno became in effect Benjamin's only pupil. After Benjamin’s death “it was Adorno who then introduced a rationalized version of his ideas into academic philosophy.” (Jäger, 2004, p. 65-6). The relationship with Benjamin had an impact on the development of Adorno's thought during this period.

Returning to Frankfurt, Adorno began teaching at the Institute, and published articles in the Zeitschrift fur Socialforschung (Journal for Social Research) that had been set up by the Institute in 1932. Adorno lost his right to teach in September 1933 due to the rise to power of the Nazi party. Horkheimer had already set up a branch of the Institute in Geneva, Switzerland, and the Institute began operating there. The Nazis' rise to power not only meant that Adorno lost his job and would eventually force his departure from Germany, but also affected his philosophical thought. As Jürgen Habermas would later note, the fact that labor movements were co-opted in the development of fascist regimes was one of the historical experiences influencing the development of critical theory, the others being Stalinist repression and the production of mass culture in the United States (Morris, 2001, p. 48).

Adorno was at Oxford from 1934 to 1938, where he worked on a manuscript on Husserl. He was considered an outsider, never integrating into the British academic mainstream, and he looked forward to joining his Frankfurt School colleagues, many of whom had in the meantime moved to the United States.

Already in the late 1930s Adorno evidenced little hope for mass culture. As propaganda and entertainment increased during the 1930s, Benjamin and Adorno debated mass culture, since film and radio became the two most popular means to disseminate propaganda under the fascist and Stalinist dictatorships. The essay translated as “On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression in Listening” is in effect a pessimistic reply to Walter Benjamin’s more optimistic essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (Brunkhorst, 1999, p. 62). A primary problem for Adorno lay in the fact that instead of being enjoyed in a concert hall, symphonic works could now be heard over the radio, and could be reproduced on phonograph records. The result was inferior to the original, and Adorno was emphatic in his condemnation of the mechanical reproduction of music: “Together with sport and film, mass music and the new listening help to make escape from the whole infantile milieu impossible” (Adorno, 2001b, p. 47). While Benjamin regarded the destruction of aura by photograph or film as the emancipation from hierarchical tastes tied to class, to Adorno, the aura of the original artwork was the essential of the artistic authenticity. To Benjamin, the mechanical reproduction was the challenge against the authority of Platonic order from the top-the original or Idea- to down of layers of imitations; to Adorno, mass production was nothing but the destruction of the authenticity. The general attitude of the Frankfurt school was that of Adorno.

In 1938 Max Horkheimer, who had succeeding in establishing a relationship for the Institute of Social Research with Columbia University that enabled the Institute to continue working in New York, obtained a position for Adorno at the Princeton Radio Research Project, run by Paul Lazarsfeld. Adorno, anxious to leave Britain in the hopes of being with other members of the Institute, accepted the position, although he later claimed that he did not know what a “radio project” was. For his part, Lazarsfeld looked forward to working with Adorno, whom he knew to be an expert on music. Adorno wrote for the Project’s journal Radio Research in 1941, reiterating his position that radio was only an image of a live performance. In addition, he questioned the claim by the radio industry that the medium was bringing serious music to the masses (Wiggershaus, 1994, p. 243). While working at the Princeton Radio Research Project Adorno became shocked at the degree to which culture had become commercialized in the United States. Commercialization of culture in the United States had gone far beyond anything he had seen in Europe. Further, the prevalence of advertising in the United States was something with no correlative in Europe. The closest thing in Adorno’s experience to the advertising industry in the United States was fascist propaganda (Jäger, 2004, p. 122).

Adorno was later to allude to his experience with the Princeton Radio Research Project in the essay on the culture industry by noting the statistical division of consumers, and stating that he saw this research as being “indistinguishable from political propaganda” (Horkheimer and Adorno, 2002, p. 97). It became obvious that Lazarsfeld and Adorno did not agree on the value of empirical studies, and Adorno left the project. Adorno’s dissatisfaction with the work of the Princeton Radio Research Project would eventually motivate him to further develop the idea of the culture industry.

Because of the relationship between the Institute for Social Research and Columbia University, Horkheimer, who had already moved to California, could not bring Adorno to the West Coast until November 1941. When Adorno was finally able to relocate, he joined an expatriate community that included Fritz Lang, Arnold Schoenberg, Hans Eisler, Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Alfred Döblin, and Bertolt Brecht, several of which found work in the Hollywood movie industry. The fact that Adorno was part of this intellectual community whose members were involved in the production of Hollywood movies must have had some influence in developing his thoughts on culture, since the Hollywood system inhibited the creative freedom that many of the expatriates had enjoyed in Weimar Germany.

According to Douglas Kellner, Max Horkheimer wanted to write a “great book on dialectics,” and Herbert Marcuse, who had been admitted to the Institute in 1932, was eager to work on the project. While Horkheimer (and later Adorno) moved to California, Marcuse went to work for the Office of Strategic Services (the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency), and later the State Department. Thus it was Adorno and not Marcuse who became Horkheimer’s co-author on the project on dialectics (Kellner, 1991, p. xviii). The work that resulted was The Dialectic of Enlightenment, with its section titled “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” drafted by Adorno.

These preconditions—Adorno’s interest in music, his friendship with Benjamin, and his work on the Princeton Radio Project, as well as involvement with the expatriate community in California and the relationship of several of these to the Hollywood film industry—are all important to an understanding of his concern for the idea of the culture industry.

“The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception”[edit]

For Adorno, popular culture on film and radio did not bother to present itself as art. They were instead a business, and this in turn became an ideology “to legitimize the trash they intentionally produce” (Horkheimer and Adorno, 2002, p. 95). This business was based on what Adorno referred to as “Fordist capitalism,” in which mass production based on the techniques used by Henry Ford were implemented in the cultural sphere, insofar as these tendencies were based on centralization and hierarchy (Hohendahl, 1995, p. 142). Examples of this—not specified by Adorno—were the Hollywood production system, or the CBS radio network that had been associated with the Princeton Radio Research Project. Movies and hit songs were based on formulas, and “the formula supplants the work” (Horkheimer and Adorno, 2002, p. 99). Mechanical reproduction ensured that there would not be any real change to the system, and that nothing truly adversarial to the system would emerge (Horkheimer and Adorno, 2002, p. 106-7). Paradoxically, any innovation would only reaffirm the system, and Adorno cited Orson Welles as an example of someone who was allowed to break the rules. The elasticity in the system would allow it to assume the stance of any opposition and make it its own, ultimately rendering it ineffectual (Friedman, 1981, p. 165). Like religion and other institutions, the culture industry was an instrument of social control (Horkheimer and Adorno, 2002, p. 120), but freedom to choose in a system of economic coercion ultimately meant the “freedom to be the same” (Horkheimer and Adorno, 2002, p. 136).

Since Adorno had been, in his essays on music and radio, an apparent defender of high art, “The Culture Industry” has been criticized as being a defense of high art, as opposed to popular culture. Adorno specifically defines avant-garde art as the adversary of the culture industry (Horkheimer and Adorno, 2002, p. 101). It was not high art that Adorno was presenting as an alternative to the culture industry, but modernism. Although he provides the idea of an opposing force to the culture industry, Adorno provides no overt Marxist analysis. Instead, he notes in passing that the dominant system utilized capacities for mass consumption for entertainment or amusement, but refused to do so when it was a question of abolishing hunger (Horkheimer and Adorno, 2002, p. 111).

Dialectic of Enlightenment was issued in mimeograph form in 1944, in German, and thus would have limited impact outside of the expatriate community. In the meantime Adorno began working, along with Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel Levinson, and R. Nevitt Sanford, on an empirical investigation into prejudice titled The Authoritarian Personality. He wrote Minima Moralia: Reflections on Damaged Life in 1945, and this work, upon its publication in Germany in 1951, would mark the beginning of his impact in Germany (Jäger, 2004, p. 167). Adorno would also co-author Composing for the Films with Hans Eisler, and in this text Adorno made it clear that the culture industry is not identical with high or low art (Hohendahl, 1995, p. 134). This is perhaps the first of several of Adorno’s attempts at redefining the culture industry to an audience that in all probability had no exposure to the concept as it was detailed in the original essay.

Return to Germany[edit]

Dialectic of Enlightenment was published in Amsterdam in German in 1947 with a number of variants, excluding words and phrases in the published edition that could be construed as being Marxist (Morris, 2001, p. 48). Their apparent intent was to not attract the attention of the American occupation authorities in Germany. One of the main reasons for this is that Horkheimer wanted to return the Institute for Social Research to Germany, not only because of the desire to return to Frankfurt but also because a committee at Columbia University had evaluated the work of the Institute and recommended that the Institute become a department of Paul Lazarsfeld’s Bureau of Applied Social Research at Columbia (Jäger, 2004, p. 149). Marcuse, who had been producing propaganda for the OSS during the war based on his expert knowledge of Germany, published revolutionary theses in a journal in 1947, and these theses could not be reconciled with the direction of the Institute due to an apparent change in Horkheimer’s attitude towards Marxism. Thus, when excerpts from Dialectic of Enlightenment were published without their permission in 1949, Horkheimer and Adorno protested, distancing themselves from their own work, in order not to jeopardize their return to Germany. In the late 1940s the Institute relocated to Frankfurt, and opened in its new premises in 1951. Horkheimer became the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Frankfurt.

In 1954 Adorno published an essay entitled “How to Look at Television” that was the result of a study that had been done for the Hacker Foundation, with the involvement of George Gerbner and others. In this essay Adorno warned, “rigid institutionalization transforms modern mass culture into a medium of undreamed of psychological control” (Adorno, 2001a, p. 160). It was one of the few occasions in the 1950s that Adorno would discuss the implications of mass culture. At least one observer found it strange that “the leading cultural theorist of his day” did not take part in cultural developments of the fifties (Jäger, 2004, p. 191). Adorno would nonetheless on occasion attempt to reshape his thought on the culture industry. For example, in 1959 he wrote of a “universal pseudo-culture” in the United States (Adorno, 1993, p. 21), and gave a radio talk in Germany in 1963 on “The Culture Industry Reconsidered.” In 1966, when writing the essay “Transparencies on Film,” Adorno conceded that film-making might be an acceptable cultural practice in opposition to the culture industry, within the context of modernism (Hohendahl, 1995, p. 131).

One-Dimensional Man, and Suppression of “The Culture Industry”[edit]

Adorno took over running the Institute in 1960, and his primary philosophical concern in the 1960s was his critical engagement with Martin Heidegger, especially Heidegger’s language, as detailed in the book The Jargon of Authenticity. In the meantime, Marcuse had developed a critique of Stalinism, and was developing a critique of social conditions in Western democracies, in part based on his familiarity with Adorno's work. He was, for example, connecting “the analysis and critique of false needs to a critical theory of mass media and popular culture” (Agger, 1995, p. 34). Marcuse did not oppose popular culture as completely as Adorno, however, recognizing “fissures in the edifice of mainstream mass culture which could be pried open still further” (Agger, 1995, p. 34). In One-Dimensional Man Marcuse put an analysis “of late capitalist society into a systematic context,” as opposed to other writers in the Frankfurt School (Wiggershaus, 1994, p. 609). Instead of culture serving ideological ends, for Marcuse “social control mechanisms in advanced industrial society ensure the wholesale integration of the individual into mass society” (Reitz, 2000, p. 144). Capitalist production and the tremendous wealth that resulted from it formed a “system of repressive affluence” that kept elements of society satisfied and quiescent (Alway, 1995, p. 83). The entirety of society had become organized around an ideology whose main objectives were to maintain social control and continue to perpetuate the ideology that maintained that control.

Echoing Adorno, Marcuse wondered whether the information and entertainment aspects of mass media could be differentiated from their manipulation and indoctrination functions (Marcuse, 1991, p. 8). However, it is difficult in Marcuse's argument to separate culture or mass media from society as a whole because Marcuse did not distinguish culture or mass media as entities separate from the totality of dominant ideology in the same way that Adorno had done. In the end Marcuse’s analysis of society allowed for no opposition to the dominant ideology. Marcuse wrote, "how can the administered individuals—who have made their mutilation into their own liberties and satisfactions, and thus reproduce it on an enlarged scale—liberate themselves from themselves as well as from their masters? How is it even thinkable that the vicious circle be broken?” (Marcuse, 1991, p. 251). Given the pessimistic tone of the book, it is somewhat ironic that largely because of it he would be perceived as an icon for leftist movements of the 1960s in the U.S. and Germany that developed an oppositional stance. In spite of this, Marcuse maintained that he was a philosopher, and not an activist. Like others associated with the Frankfurt School, he was wary of the idea that theory could be translated into practice (Chambers, 2004, p. 226).

While Marcuse was writing a work that would become essential to student movements in the 1960s, in 1961 Adorno and Horkheimer resisted the reissue of Dialectic of Enlightenment that had been proposed to them by the publishing house of Fischer. The publisher felt that the book could be read as a description of prevailing conditions in Germany. Marcuse enthusiastically supported the reissue of the book in 1962, but Adorno and Horkheimer withheld their consent (Jäger, 2004, p. 194). The reasons that Horkheimer and Adorno tried to keep Dialectic of Enlightenment from reaching a wider audience are not entirely clear. In reviewing the text in 1961, Friedrich Pollack reported to Adorno and Horkheimer that the work required too much revision to receive mass dissemination. The two authors continued to negotiate with the Fischer publishing house until 1969, and may have only agreed to republish the work since pirate copies had already been disseminated by individuals in the German student movement. Students also began posting snippets of the text as handbills.

While student movements in the United States and Germany looked to Herbert Marcuse as their idol, the situation in Frankfurt degenerated to the point at which Adorno could no longer effectively conduct classes. He complained to the dean about the radical students in his classes who were making teaching impossible. In the winter term of 1968-69 students occupied a number of buildings at the University at Frankfurt, including the Institute for Social Research. After the strike ended, Adorno returned to teaching, but his lectures continued to be disrupted, including one “tasteless demonstration” in which three females bared their breasts. Adorno died a few months later (Jäger, 2004, p. 201-08).

Critical Response to “The Culture Industry”[edit]

The 1972 English-language translation marked the first real appearance of the idea of the culture industry outside of a German context. In the years since there have been numerous criticisms of the text, not least since Adorno made sweeping generalizations about “the commodified and fetishized character of all cultural goods” (Cook, 1996, p. 113). For the generally sympathetic Deborah Cook, Adorno erred in not discussing the processes of cultural production, and failed to examine the culture industry’s economic dependence on other business sectors, including marketing and advertising (Cook, 1996, p. 48).

For Terry Eagleton, both Adorno and Marcuse overestimated the dominant ideology, believing that “capitalist society languishes in the grip of an all-pervasive reification” (Eagleton, 1991, p. 46). Still, Eagleton conceded that “the diffusion of dominant values and beliefs among oppressed peoples in society has some part to play in the reproduction of the system as a whole” (Eagleton, 1991, p. 36). Fredric Jameson pointed out that Adorno’s idea of a culture industry was historically limited, since the society that developed in the 1960s and 1970s with new media went beyond the cultural possibilities available during the 1940s. While the idea of the culture industry can be defended as a useful theory for industrial societies between 1920 and 1970, trying to use it today weakens its effectiveness (Hohendahl, 1995, p. 146-48). Thus, for a some critics, the value of the idea of the culture industry would appear to be merely historical, if they in fact conceded that it had any value at all.

According to Hohendahl, for many postmodern critics the essay on the culture industry is problematic because they confuse the defense of modernist art with a defense of high culture, against popular culture. In the context of Dialectic of Enlightenment it is the destruction of traditional culture that is in question, along with its replacement with new forms depending on commodity exchange (Hohendahl, 1995, p. 137). In relation to this Deborah Cook cites such artists as Schoenberg, Beckett, and Kafka as cultural producers who are not entirely subject to commodification, and notes that Jameson is in agreement that modernism is the “dialectical opposite of mass culture” (Cook, 1996, p. 107). Thus for some critics modernist works would be counteracting forces against the dominant ideology. As noted in the example of Orson Welles, however, it may be the case that the dominant ideology can co-opt modernist works for its own ends.

The idea of the culture industry has had an importance in critical theory since its appearance in the 1940s, in that it has led to thought about the role of mass communications in relation to ideology, and hence, society. Since Adorno made sweeping generalizations about the impact of the culture industry, and since he did not systematically explore how the culture industry operated, it has been generally easy for some to dismiss the idea of a culture industry. It is nonetheless the case that motion pictures are still made by large companies and that their movies largely rely on formulaic plots. It is also the case that radio is increasingly controlled by a small number of companies, which tend to impose restrictions on how stations operate. As a broadcast medium, television is very much related to both radio and film, and shares with them qualities that situation it in the culture industry. While there is a democratizing aspect to the Internet (in that anyone can create a web site), it happens that the commercial companies operating on the Internet continue to maintain an ideological function. For example, one seldom sees new stories on MSNBC or Yahoo that would question the prerogatives of corporate America. A reexamination of the idea of the culture industry may be necessary in order to theorize on how mass communication media propagate dominant ideologies.


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