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Thursday, 11 November 2010

Theodor Adorno: Polymorphic Meaning in Mass Media


Shrek at Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, New York City: photo by Joiseyshowaa, 2007

Mass media are not simply the sum total of the actions they portray or of the messages that radiate from those actions. Mass media also consist of various layers of meanings superimposed on one another, all of which contribute to the effect. True, due to their calculative nature, these rationalized products seem to be more clear-cut in their meaning than authentic works of art, which can never be boiled down to some unmistakeable 'message'. But the heritage of polymorphic meaning has been taken over by culture industry inasmuch as what it conveys becomes itself organized in order to enthral the spectators on various psychological levels simultaneously. As a matter of fact, the hidden message may be more important than the overt, since this hidden message will escape the controls of consciousness, will not be 'looked through', will not be warded off by sales resistance but is likely to sink into the spectator's mind.

File:2006 Thanksgiving Day Parade.jpg

Spongebob Squarepants, Energizer Bunny and Pikachu with Poké Ball shown tied down before 2006 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, New York City: photo by Sullnyflhi, 2007

File:Miley Cyrus and Bolt.jpg

Miley Cyrus on board the Bolt float at Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, New York City: photo by Ben W, 2008

Theodor Adorno: How to Look at Television (excerpt), from The Quarterly of Film, Radio and Television 8 (3), 1954, in The Culture Industry, ed. J.M. Bernstein, 1991


Julia said...

Tom, this is exactly my interest in what I study (or what I pretend to be studying...) in reference to the symbolic culture of the Baroque and Cervantes' work.

Perfectly illustrated here. Another great post, very inspirational

TC said...

Many thanks, dear Julia.

Your inspiring comment has helped me to see American culture -- a culture which all through its several permutations and transformations has always been unable to accept its own symbolic dimensions -- in a whole new light, particularly illuminating at the present moment.

That is, as the Inflated Baroque.

TC said...

(Well, perhaps I should have said Inflatable; one can't always count on things staying inflated, even, or perhaps especially, an Inflatable Baroque.)

TC said...

Yes, yes, Julia, the more I think about it the more I like it: I have always hoped someday to be living in an actual Epoch, and now I believe I have learned its name...

Julia said...

Well, thank you!
Yo no he hecho nada sólo mencionar lo que hago y me interesa. Me has dado tú la pista de Adorno, el resto de las relaciones se deben a tu propio ingenio. Comparto lo que dices, pero no te lo dicho yo.
De todos modos, es verdad que se puede entender el Barroco como la cultura que da comienzo a todas las manipulaciones del público con las que ahora convivimos casi sin darnos cuenta.

Anonymous said...

But I really love Baroque architecture. Am I a bad person?

Julia said...

Not for me!!!
At least, I would never ever say that you're a bad person... because of that ;-)
I love the Baroque (it's that what I study!), I love baroque music, literature, painting, architecture, etc., etc.

Anonymous said...

I was sort of hoping to reach my bed in a state of "living in hope" and then saw the unforgettable (well, I'll let you know in the morning whether or not it inhabited my dreams) Shrek photograph and the others also. "Inflatable Baroque". Oh my. (But it's an extremely good image.) As so often seems to be the case when you read something really perceptive, I'm incredibly impressed that Adorno's 1954 observations are both so acute and so accurate still. I was about to ask whether Adorno ever sat for television interviews, but then I went to youtube and found a couple (including one on the subject of 1960s protest songs and Joan Baez), which I will watch again tomorrow. I must say, he's so self-assured and poised (he's riveting, really), but he seems to be on German TV and speaking to people who know and respect him. I wonder how he would fare in the mostly vacuous world of contemporary US news/public interest television where any amount of time and space can be and is filled with any amount of blather.

Anonymous said...

Adorno on US TV? I can picture it...

Host: Welcome to Back Chat, where tomorrow's ideas are discussed today. Our guest tonight is Theodor Adorno and he's going to be talking to us about television. Welcome to Backchat, Ted. What's your new book about?

Adorno: Well, Bill, it's essentially a meditation on the semiotics of television imagery and what the work of Walter Benjamin can tell us about...

Host: Whoa...'semiotics'? Is that even English? Hahaha... So tell us, Ted: Wally Benjamin--hot or not?

Adorno: I'm sorry, I, erm...

Host: Well, that's all we've got time for. Join us tomorrow evening when we'll be talking to Adam Sandler who'll tell us about his latest smash hit rom-com, Kant In Love...

Julia said...

Oh, yes I can imagine this scene!
Absolutely verosimile...

TC said...

Julia and Arthur, I love the Baroque too, but it's just that I also love to take a pin to large inflatable objects.

Curtis, thanks for the Youtube tip...and you've made me wonder, what might Adorno have thought of the Ramones?

And Mishari, that great seer, has it spot-on: Talkshow Teddy finds Joan Baez, er, unbearable.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Julia.

Adorno about Popular Music looks like it was filmed in about 1966, and boy, was he ever wrong. He saw popular music as nothing more than entertainment at the very moment when it was becoming a global political force. He's visibly clueless; if he'd known more about popular music, especially about its roots in black culture, then he might have been less disdainful, but his idea of pop music must have come from the Eurovision Song Contest.

Incidentally, I don't think Wally would have made a similar mistake about popular culture. Wally was a much nicer man.

Today's "word verification": lobot.


TC said...

A "cross-eyed transfixion with amusement", though, does sound rather... painful.

TC said...

Well, I would have to agree with Arthur that Teddy was visibly clueless on the subject of popular music. It was one of those aporia, or blind spots, he was always on about.

Perhaps he would have been better off undergoing that cross-eyed transfixion procedure. The Pleasure Principle and all that, not such a bad thing. A bit of rhythm, etc.

The ability to take, or for that matter get, a joke, was another notable blind spot.

Jürgen Habermas told the anecdote of Teddy and the one-armed soldier.

This was in Hollywood during the War. A celebrity party was thrown in honour of a war hero who'd lost his right arm in combat, Purple Heart and all that. The glitch for Teddy was that he had not been informed of the soldier's loss of limb. They were duly introduced. Teddy reached out to shake hands, but, at the last moment, noticing that the whole business was going wrong, attempted, in one maladroit motion, to pretend he'd actually been extending his hand into his own pocket.

Charlie Chaplin was at the party, and he observed all this from behind Adorno's back.

Lightning-quick, Chaplin mimed Adorno's entire awkward and uncomfortable gaffe, silently and perfectly imitating it, to the great (perhaps transfixed) amusement of all present.

Joan Baez, had she been there, might have had a laugh.

Anonymous said...

A great story. It must be the lack of a sense of humour that I don't like about Ted.


*I'm going upmarket.

TC said...

Well, Artur, the new moniker is quite dashing, actually. One imagines a suave and cosmopolitan figure in a beret, mustachioed, with a cigarette of exotic brand nonchalantly tweezered between fingertips, basking among his kind in one of the elegant watering holes of the Mediterranean coast of Norway.

Yes, the lack of a sense of humour in Adorno, crippling, probably worse than the lack of a right arm.

No, wait, I go too far -- as a pianist, he would have needed the arm more than the funnybone.

...But here's the sad thing. The ending for him was not so amusing. He and his Frankfurt Institute were caught directly in the (cross-eyed?) cross-hairs of the post-1967 Euro-student faux-revolution. The know-nothingism of the epoch swept over him, and over all those wonderfully constructed sentences of his negative dialectic (and who else before or after has ever made such sentences?).

Bare-breasted young women invaded his lectures, an incursion even more devastating to poor Teddy than that of the soldier with the empty uniform sleeve.

Again, a sense of humour might have helped. But no. He took it all personally. He wrote the famous understated line in the letter to Samuel Beckett: "The feeling of suddenly being attacked as a reactionary at least has a surprising note." Then he and his wife escaped the brouhaha, into the Swiss Alps. His doctor warned him to take it easy. Instead Teddy climbed the steepest Alp in sight, and had a fatal heart attack.

Student "revolutionaries" pissed on his grave.

So, although he hated pop music, one can't help but feel a bit of sympathy.

Anonymous said...

Thanks again. I didn't know that about about Teddy. Don't forget Ludwig Wittgenstein's one-armed-pianist brother Paul.


Anonymous said...

I'm very happy the T. Adorno youtube library is receiving visitors. I would imagine that it's a lot easier to find a place to sit down and read between the stacks in the Adorno section than where Justin Bieber's works are stored. What's funny, I think, is that Joan Baez, although undeniably talented and extremely beautiful, is sometimes unbearable. (It's not precisely Adorno's point, but still it's true.) I would love to see the Adorno-Charlie Chaplin scene incorporated into a play (at least a one-act play). For years I've been carrying around thoughts in my mind about a possible one-act play concerning Bob Marley's life and times working as a busboy and waiter in Wilmington, DE restaurants during a US visit made to earn extra money following the Wailers' first Jamaican successes, where they achieved some celebrity but little fortune. I would not have wanted to be the customer complaining to Bob about the dirty fork, for instance, or to face his vexation by giving the wrong answer when he asked whether I was still "working on" my main course. Bob had a lot of drive and personality.

Anonymous said...

I could never stand Joan Baez's work myself. Funnily enough I first heard of Bieber today, in an article in the Guardian. Much pop music is and always has been simple entertainment, but that doesn't make Adorno any righter.


TC said...


Well, yes, a long way from Joan Baez to Bob Marley... let us hope that atop his negative-dialectical Alp in Heaven, I and I and Teddy are hearing things in a new light.


Thanks for reminding us of Paul Wittgenstein.

Angelica's paternal grandfather, Franz Feilchenfeld (Violet-Field), who was a friend of Paul Wittgenstein in Vienna -- and who, like Paul, fled Austria to the US with the advance of the Nazis -- told her often of his great admiration for the remarkable courage and determination that enabled Paul to continue with his music after losing his right arm in the War.

Here is Paul doing his thing:

Paul Wittgenstein plays Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand (I)

Paul Wittgenstein plays Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand (II)

And too, Paul poured a good bit of the immense family fortune into commissioning composers to write new works for the left hand alone.

This site, which is dedicated to him, catalogues some of them:

piano music for the left hand alone

Paul Heinegg said...

Hi Tom. I found your site on a search of Franz Feilchenfeld. Hard to believe it's been 50 years since we saw Angelica and over 50 years since we've seen grandfather Franz. Paul Heinegg