Theodor W. Adorno - Theory - Music

Music

In his early essays for the Vienna-based journal Anbruch, Adorno claimed that musical progress is proportional to the composer's ability to constructively deal with the possibilities and limitations contained within what Adorno called the "musical material." For Adorno, twelve-tone serialism constitutes a decisive, historically developed method of composition. The objective validity of the composition, according to Adorno, rests with neither the composer's genius nor the work's conformity with prior standards, but with the way in which the work coherently expresses the dialectic of the material. In this sense, the contemporary absence of composers of the status of Bach or Beethoven is not the sign of musical regression; instead, new music is to be credited with laying bare aspects of the musical material previously repressed: The musical material's liberation from number, the harmonic series and tonal harmony. Thus, historical progress is only achieved by the composer who "submits to the work and seemingly does not undertake anything active except to follow where it leads." Because historical experience and social relations are embedded within this musical material, it is to the analysis of such material that the critic must turn. In the face of this radical liberation of the musical material, Adorno came to criticize those who, like Stravinsky, withdrew from this freedom by tasking recourse to forms of the past as well as those who turned twelve-tone composition into a technique which dictated the rules of composition.

Adorno saw the culture industry as an arena in which critical tendencies or potentialities were eliminated. He argued that the culture industry, which produced and circulated cultural commodities through the mass media, manipulated the population. Popular culture was identified as a reason why people become passive; the easy pleasures available through consumption of popular culture made people docile and content, no matter how terrible their economic circumstances." Capitalist production so confines them, body and soul, that they fall helpless victims to what is offered them." The differences among cultural goods make them appear different, but they are in fact just variations on the same theme. He wrote that "the same thing is offered to everybody by the standardized production of consumption goods" but this is concealed under "the manipulation of taste and the official culture's pretense of individualism".By doing so, the culture industry appeals to every single consumer in a unique and personalized way, all while maintaining minimal costs and effort on their behalf. Consumers purchase the illusion that every commodity or product is tailored to the individual's personal preference, by incorporating subtle modifications or inexpensive "add-ons" in order to keep the consumer returning for new purchases, and therefor more revenue for the corporation system. Adorno conceptualized this phenomenon as pseudo-individualization and the always-the-same.

Adorno's analysis allowed for a critique of mass culture from the left which balanced the critique of popular culture from the right. From both perspectives – left and right – the nature of cultural production was felt to be at the root of social and moral problems resulting from the consumption of culture. However, while the critique from the right emphasized moral degeneracy ascribed to sexual and racial influences within popular culture, Adorno located the problem not with the content, but with the objective realities of the production of mass culture and its effects, e.g. as a form of reverse psychology. Thinkers influenced by Adorno believe that today's society has evolved in a direction foreseen by him, especially in regard to the past (Auschwitz), morals or the Culture Industry. The latter has become a particularly productive, yet highly contested term in cultural studies. Many of Adorno's reflections on aesthetics and music have only just begun to be debated, as a collection of essays on the subject, many of which had not previously been translated into English, has only recently been collected and published as Essays on Music.

Adorno's work in the years before his death was shaped by the idea of "negative dialectics", set out especially in his book of that title. A key notion in the work of the Frankfurt School since Dialectic of Enlightenment had been the idea of thought becoming an instrument of domination that subsumes all objects under the control of the (dominant) subject, especially through the notion of identity, i.e. of identifying as real in nature and society only that which harmonized or fit with dominant concepts, and regarding as unreal or non-existent everything that did not. Adorno's "negative dialectics" was an attempt to articulate a non-dominating thought that would recognize its limitations and accept the non-identity and reality of that which could not be subsumed under the subject's concepts. Indeed, Adorno sought to ground the critical bite of his sociological work in his critique of identity, which he took to be a reification in thought of the commodity form or exchange relation which always presumes a false identity between different things. The potential to criticise arises from the gap between the concept and the object, which can never go into the former without remainder. This gap, this non-identity in identity, was the secret to a critique of both material life and conceptual reflection.

Read more about this topic:  Theodor W. Adorno, Theory

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