Please note that the poems and essays on this site are copyright and may not be reproduced without the author's permission.

Tuesday 5 October 2010

Theodor Adorno: Unadorned Make-Up



Annette del Sur publicizing salvage campaign in yard of Douglas Aircraft Company, Long Beach, California: photo by Alfred T. Palmer, October 1942

The omnipresence of technology imprints itself upon objects and everything historical... Prototypical here is the actress who manages to appear fresh and painstakingly made up with her hair perfectly arranged even in the midst of the most appalling dangers... She is so closely, so precisely and so pitilessly photographed that the magic which her make-up is intended to exert is heightened by the lack of illusion with which it is thrust before the viewer as literally true and unexaggerated. Mass culture is unadorned make-up.


Annette del Sur publicizing salvage campaign in yard of Douglas Aircraft Company, Long Beach, California: photo by Alfred T. Palmer, October 1942

Theodor Adorno, The Schema of Mass Culture, 1978 (translated by Nicholas Walker), from The Culture Industry, 1991


John B-R said...

"Mass culture is unadorned make-up." Not much of a step from there to Debord's Spectacle Culture. Or much of one from there to our mass virtual post-culture in which illiteracy is the order of the day (Christine O'Donnell). The question I have is what does "mass" mean in these so-atomized times? 6 billion people experiencing the same thing at the same time w/no contact with each other?

Anonymous said...

I love the Adorno passage (it makes me wish I could read it in the original German) and Miss Del Sur's necklace is charming. I'll take John at his word on the Debord observation because I've never read Debord's work, and join him in his final questions. But I may be behind in some of my newsreading because even after Googling the subject, I'm not sure what he means by the Christine O'Donnell/illiteracy comment. I know that she is regarded with scorn by many, but I haven't seen any evidence of illiteracy. That being said, I can point to examples of American politicians of both parties whose literacy skills seem suspect.

John B-R said...

Curtis, O'Donnell probably *is* functionally literate. I should have written ignorant instead of illiterate. My bad. I do think she is culturally illiterate, but I don't want to fudge my error. Sorry. And you're right, she's not the only illiterate or culturally illiterate politician, parties be damned. But she is a particularly egregious case, I think. And it's frightening to me that the more culturally illiterate a politician is, the more popular they seem to be these days ... that's really what I was (unfortunately *illiterately*) getting at.

billymills said...

I also thought of Debord:

"Once society has lost its myth-based community, it loses all the reference points of truly common language until such time as the divisions within the inactive community can be overcome by the inauguration of a real historical community. When art, which was the common language of social inaction, develops into independent art in the modern sense, emerging from its original religious universe and becoming individual production of separate works, it too becomes subject to the movement governing the history of all separate culture. Its declaration of independence is the beginning of its end."

billymills said...


"The sociologists who have begun to raise questions about the living conditions created by modern social developments (first of all in the United States) have gathered a great deal of empirical data, but they have failed to grasp the true nature of their object of study because they fail to recognize the critique that is inherent in that object. As a result, those among them who sincerely wish to reform these conditions can only appeal to ethical standards, common sense, moderation, and other measures that are equally inadequate for dealing with the problems in question. Because this method of criticism is unaware of the negativity at the heart of its world, it focuses on describing and deploring an excessive sort of negativity that seems to blight the surface of that world like some irrational parasitic infestation. This outraged good will, which even within its own moralizing framework ends up blaming only the external consequences of the system, can see itself as critical only by ignoring the essentially apologetic character of its assumptions and methods."

The word verification string for this comment is "moider"; how apt.

TC said...

They used to say travel broadens, and in something like that same sense, it must be, blogging narrows... because in fact I have somehow managed until a few hours ago to exist without having had the slightest knowledge of Christine O'Donnell. (I now learn she is a celebrity, like Meg Whitman and Paris Hilton and A-Rod... and of course this is a celebrity culture, so confessing one's ignorance in this area amounts to a devastating admission of cultural deficit.) In truth I just can't keep up any more... I find these days as a rapidly perishing citizen of a rapidly perishing republic my distracted consideration of public matters, such as it is, runs more to the doomed practicalities of health care and housing and... oh, the fact that in this city where in my sepia-pond years of residual unemployment and encroaching disability my Medicare cane and the public buses are my only transportation aids, service of the latter will soon be eliminated at night and on weekends (because the unionized drivers, who make more in a year than I made in any given five years in my last job as a teacher, won't take a pay cut), so I will be left with a terrible case of Medicarecanedependence: thus increasingly a "part of the problem," in short.

Anyhow, one tries. So one has now belatedly gathered some kernels from Christine's store of wisdom.

(Teddy, meet Paris... say, doesn't that drink need a bit of freshening?)

E.g. Christine O'Donnell on foreign policy, while campaigning in her home state, 2006:

"China [has] a carefully thought out and strategic plan to take over America... There's much I want to say. I wish I wasn't privy to some of the classified information that I am privy to."

("I feel exactly the same way myself, Paris," murmurs Teddy Adorno sympathetically.)

"A country that forces women to have abortions and mandates that you can only have one child and will not allow you the freedom to read the Bible, you think they can be our friend? We have to look at our history and realize that if they pretend to be our friend it's because they've got something up their sleeve."

Anyway, here we go.


The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind. K. Marx. Manifesto of the Communist Party. 1848.

What the mass media offers is not popular art, but entertainment which is intended to be consumed like food, forgotten, and replaced by a new dish. W. H. Auden.

Anonymous said...

If I knew my comment was going to get you to embark on Christine O'Donnell research that would distress you, I don't think I would have raised the point. But honestly, for anyone to raise a neophyte, would-be senator from Delaware as a potent symbol of the things that are wrong today when our current group of culturally (and in other ways) illiterate, corrupt, venal and entrenched office-holders still commands the stage seems a matter of misplaced emphasis. It's all very nasty business. I like the Auden comment very much.

John B-R said...

Curtis, I didn't make O'Donnell famous. I only noticed. And used her as an example of the actual *decline* of mass culture since Adorno's day, not as an example of "what's wrong with politics."

I think you misread me a tad.

I will admit, however, that tho it wasn't my point, the rise of her ilk to power lately does frighten me. Remember Roman Hruska's "What's wrong with mediocrity?" comment? And how he was mocked for it? Ah, for the good old days of mediocrity, instead of this sub- sub- whatever you want to call it we're now saddled with.

One last thing: You write "...when our current group of culturally (and in other ways) illiterate, corrupt, venal and entrenched office-holders still commands the stage ..."

We agree on everything, but. I take issue with the word "current." Twas ever thus, dude. This world's been bought and sold since ... well, since forever. As my son (32) says, "When *didn't* K St [or its equivalent] own everything?"

Anonymous said...

John: I agree with you about "current". There's a statement attributed to John F. Kennedy (I've never been able to verify that he did say it, however) to the effect that "everyone wants his kid to grow up to be president, but nobody wants them to grow up to be a politician", which I think applies. For what it's worth (and maybe I'm not noticing enough or have become too cynical), Ms. O'Donnell doesn't frighten me at all, not nearly as much as the already established spectacle of unfunny comedian Al Franken in the US Senate or Delaware's former (but always beneath contempt plagiarist and buffoon)senator Joe Biden having "failed up" one last time to his current VP role. I only mentioned "current" to focus on the upcoming elections. I find it very reassuring, whatever their outcome, to be able to cast my vote for the U.S. House of Representatives every two years. One thing that bothers me lately, however, is the way certain journalists, trying to make a political point by indirection (in this case it's to emphasize their preference for Democrat candidates and to try to account for the predicament the Democrats seem to be finding themselves in at the moment), refer to this period as not "normal". Obviously, it's normal for now and is the result both of unforeseeable events (like the weather) and foreseeable ones (like volitional policy and political choices by current and past office-holders) that have brought us to this pass. Your son is, of course, basically right.

TC said...


Don't worry, I was beginning from a distressed position. I found the research, if anything, amusing, like visiting another planet. (If you knew the kind of week we're having here, you'd understand that means a pleasant holiday from reality.) I suppose I subscribe to the view that a politician is a politician is a politician. Stirring a few brain cells into the broth wouldn't hurt, but of course the same could be said of this blogger.

TC said...

Wait just a minute... are we having fun yet?

Anonymous said...

Actually, yes. So far, it's been a pretty good day, but colder than I'd prefer. We put off a trip in to Philadelphia to purchase some small gifts for children we're seeing this weekend at our annual China adoption group weekend in New Hampshire because a work assignment came in, so I'm pleased about that. Someone I know once described what lawyers in my line of work do as putting quotation marks all over pieces of paper (we call it designating defined terms when we're forced to describe it), so that's what I'm doing. It's kind of enjoyable once you get the hang of it and it affords more freedom of expression than you might imagine. It also gets me away from the tv and the enervating news.

TC said...

A quiet throb of envy for the private pleasure of making marks on paper.

John B-R said...

Curtis, you won't be able to get me to say anything nice about Franken and/or Biden. You won't get me to say anything nice about O'Donnell. But this is why she frightens me: because her stupidity and ignorance, which I don't hold against her, she was born stupid and most people are ignorant, has no effect on voters. So take her as a symbol of the constant lowering of the bar. I keep hoping that won't be possible anymore, but then ...

Maybe it's just my pride talking ... but.

I mean, if my life-among-humans is gonna suck, let the people who destroy it be smarter than me, please. Tho I didn't agree with him about anything, I didn't mind getting screwed by Karl Rove, in a way, because he's brilliant and because he's good at it. The O'Donnell's of the world, on the other hand ... nuff said.

It's the public that has no pride that REALLY bothers me, not the politicians ...

TC said...

The one thing in her brief but curiously multifarious bio that stuck out for me was the fact that she is or anyway claims to be both a Protestant and a Catholic. I could not help saying to myself, Why stop there? Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, there's lots of melons on that tree, and it's all good.

Her "positions" (pardon the pun) on matters sexual, well... which century is this again?

One thing I seem to have missed out in my research however was: exactly what office is she now running for?

In case she hasn't yet picked one out, I can attest from hard and bloody experience that this here town could surely use an efficient dogcatcher. The more religions the better. As it is the poor civilians haven't a prayer.

John B-R said...

Tom, she is running for US Senate in Delaware.

Interesting her multiple religions, especially in conjunction with a very recent ad campaign which has her intoning "I am not a witch" (meaning wiccan)

TC said...

Oh, Jeez.

In a few hours the wrecking crew descends upon the collapsing domicile, even as the mistress of the house departs once again for cancer treatment.

And I'm doing what?

Researching the astonishing history of Gidget the Born-Again Multi-Faith ex-Sex Sorceress.


She appears to consider a bit of blood on the altar during the orgy pretty much standard operating procedure at Rosemary's Baby High, or wherever she was hatched into adulthood.

Really, enough already with this American Evangelical Politics stuff. I had been hoping to die without further awareness of the terrifying new political celebrities who are busy etching the name of this nation right up there with that of Nazi Germany in the historical annals.

But hey, it's an entertainment medium, we're all just doing our jobs.

Senatorial candidate shares re. how she "dabbled in witchcraft".

TC said...

Oh and the worst news is: the head of the Delaware Republican party declared a few weeks ago that the woman is not qualified to be dogcatcher. There went my last illusion. Poof.

(No, I'd better not say that, the woman appears to think a poof is someone with an inbuilt identity crisis.)

Anonymous said...

Just catching up on this. You guys are worrying too much about Christine O'Donnell. I could cite a number of examples of beyond the pale (sorry) behavior by current office holders (some of them quite prominent) that should probably take precedence. I'll definitely research Ms. O'Donnell's Catholic/Protestant confusion/conundrum. I suspect she's not a deep thinker on these matters and certain passages of the Book of Common Prayer got stuck in her mind the wrong way without being fully digested. But it's difficult to bestir oneself about such things after experiencing such marvels as Nancy Pelosi's expositions on Roman Catholic doctrine throughout the ages or Harry Reid's comments about the smelly tourists who pollute and spoil his Washington, DC summers. (For design symmetry, I'm leaving bad Republican behavior that could certainly be mentioned out of this for the moment.)

I used to work with some feckless internet kids whose verbal response to every situation was "it's all good". That drove me crazy. It's never all good or all bad, but our current political situation seems scary and dire. (By the way, I read a Bob Dylan interview where he said that he hated "it's all good too". I was pleased to learn that.)

Greetings from Manchester, New Hampshire. We've never been here before and it's quite beautiful. Every year we have a reunion of the group of people we traveled with in China when we adopted our daughter Jane. It's our twelth reunion and it's wonderful that we still do this and look forward to the event. The next two days are supposedly to be spent largely on horseback. We'll see. But at least it will be a break from the news.

John B-R said...

Enjoy your reunion, Curtis. No news, no politics. No O'Donnell, no Harry Reid.

We were in New Hampshire a month ago. It is very beautiful. We wan to to go back, and to see Vermont, too. We've never been to Vermont.

TC said...

I have seen Vermont, I have been to the top of the mountain, I have endured the terrifying thought of Nancy Pelosi, I have seen the repulsive Christine O'Donnell videos.

If I had a blogging whisk broom, I'd sweep those unpeakable political simulations of humans out the back door of my mind in the blink of an eye.

If I had a house, I might have a back door. Instead I cower in an amorphous rubble pile amid the insane racket of continuing deconstuction. Perhaps this is the ideal situation for creative political thinking.

I was reminded of that yesterday when in the ark of the covenant of the inner sanctum of the central boiler room of the blogger temple (of all places). When I pushed the "Publish" button, what appeared, instead of the intended post was, believe it or no (is somebody trying to tell me something), a large bold Meg Whitman advertisement. In the same moment, I lost all my toolbar icons, my default settings, & c. There is no escaping politics, it seems, there is no tuning out. We are the perpetual victims of anybody who has billions of dollars at their disposal to run for "office".

Once upon a time, "office" meant duty, obligation, responsibility. But that was a long, long time ago. And, of course, in another language.

But... when in Rome, & c.

As to those political simulations of humans named in the top paragraph above, I am sorry to say I'd toss either or both of them under a bus right now if I thought that might cure my wife's cancer. No, I wouldn't be strong enough. No, the bus service would have been terminated. And of course God would never permit such a reckless action anyway. How could He continue to ruin the universe without Democrats and Republicans to do the little self-aggrandizing dirty work for him?