Printer Friendly

Adorno, Modernism and Mass Culture.

Following in the wake of Adorno's Aesthetics of Music (Cambridge, 1993), Max Paddison's second book contributes to the belated musicological engagement with Adornian critical theory and seeks to provide orientation in 'unfamiliar terrain' (p. 7). The earlier study (reviewed in Music & Letters, lxxvi (1995), 125-7) fulfils an important role, and the present one takes up interesting debates, confirming the author's extensive knowledge of Adornian aesthetics. It is, however, questionable whether Adornian aesthetics is uncharted territory for the interdisciplinary field of cultural theory, whatever its neglect by Anglo-American musicology. Many translations and critical discussions have appeared over the years in journals such as Telos and New German Critique, while a whole book has been written on Aesthetic Theory. The complexity of Adorno's writing certainly makes it hard to imagine critical engagement that does not, at least, indicate the intended readings of particular issues before branching out from them; but the pressing need now is for a reworking of Adorno's themes capable of intersecting with the concerns identified by 'critical/cultural musicology' and acknowledged by Paddison.

Chapter 4 observes that musicological reception of Adorno - at least, that written in English - often does little more than refer to comments on various works or composers, while steering clear of the framework informing these statements (p. 106). Given the range of sources now assimilated by musicology, one would envisage that Frankfurt theory would be very much in its domain; instead it seems that, once 'too speculative' and now 'rigidly modernist', Adorno is permanently out of fashion. Ironically, the 'new musicology', like Adorno, strives to transcribe the subjectivity encoded in music, but it has been inclined to leap straight from positivism to post-structuralism and postmodernism, with only patchy credit given to previous work in this field. Modern critical theory certainly does offer some advances on Adorno, and Susan McClary has acknowledged the formative influence of his work (alongside its presentation by Rose Rosengard Subotnik) on her thinking, but, it seems, Adorno engineered an inbuilt resistance to widespread assimilation of his ideas.

Chapter 3, 'Adorno, Popular Music and Mass Culture', ventures further than its companion essays in rethinking Adorno. After explaining Adorno's theory of the culture industry, Paddison goes on to support Wolfgang Sandner by arguing that Adorno's category of popular music fails to differentiate between a variety of styles such as 'light music, hit themes, dance music, jazz and folk music' (p. 91); consequently Adorno was never able to hear jazz as anything other than the jazz-influenced dance music of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Paddison suggests, as have others, that the limitations of Adorno's approach to popular music can be overcome by the application of his own brand of critical theory to the blind spots inhibiting responses to this repertory; that is, to coin an ugly word, the reading can be 'redialecticized', thereby transferring the dialectic between music that celebrates its commodity status and music that resists this condition into the realm of popular music. This strategy enables Paddison to identify Frank Zappa, The Velvet Underground and Henry Cow as exponents of a popular music that resists the culture industry; but he acknowledges that the procedure teeters on a knife-edge because such practices risk moving away from popular culture and encountering the predicaments of mass culture's other half: High Art. This is indeed a problem, and, as Paddison argues, it is still with us because the conditions that informed Adorno's critique have not disappeared. The difficulty derives partly, however, from reproduction of the dialectic of modernist art and mass culture in the sphere of popular music, although this strategy can be modified by turning to Jurgen Habermas's version of Frankfurt critical theory, which Paddison touches on in the conclusion of Chapter 1.

Adorno's theory of mass culture protests that an overbearing instrumental rationality manipulates consciousness and distorts desire into pseudo-individualism; Habermas's theory of modernization reworks this diagnosis by means of a distinction between systems-world and lifeworld, the former describing specialized, but impaired because limited, technological and economic practices, the latter identifying the processes by which cultural formations are articulated. Much of the dysfunctionalism in modernization, Habermas argues, can be attributed to systems-world practices colonizing the lifeworld, instead of being rooted in the latter and meeting its needs. Nevertheless, this is not an automatic process, and systems-world integration encounters lifeworld resistance - the ecology movement would be an example of this process. Put in this context, the issue of authenticity in music (truth-value in Adornian aesthetics) would turn on whether its processes of production and reception offer alternatives to instrumentalized formations of individual and intersubjective fulfilment. In art music these issues are likely to be mediated through material and perhaps expressed in an abstract manner, while for more popular practices material may be of less importance and associated subjectivities are likely to be closer to actual life-word practices. Asking whether music is rooted in lifeworld practices renders distinctions between art and popular musics less oppositional.

The ensuing implication is that production need not completely determine reception, a point that Paddison makes in further discussion of popular music in Chapter 4. Adorno himself modified his opinion on this subject: a paraphrase given by Paddison emphasizes that mediation of art by the total social process renders reception/ consumption contingent (p. 62), while in a late essay ('Transparencies on Film') Adorno acknowledges that there may be a gap between intended and perceived effects in a film. The inconsistency is, of course, Adorno's, not Paddison's, but if Paddison had developed the theory in its more tolerant mode, greater dialogue with the critical musicology acknowledged in his introduction would have been possible. Certainly, Adorno at no stage contemplates the almost complete switch from production to reception advocated by some postmodernists, nor does he abandon the notion of artistic material being mediated through the social process; but, when feeling magnanimous, he does concede that mediation of the social process is differentiated, and accepts that cultural practices may contain both ideological blind spots and enlightened aspects. There is, however, enough flexibility in his position to engage his notion of musical material - perhaps the central issue in Paddison's previous book, and returned to in Chapter 4 of the present one - with modern critical theory's examination of the subjectivities that 'readers' bring to texts, Adorno's theory of mediation adding a salutary historical specificity to the threat of relativism.

Paddison explains well the mediation of musical material, but his enthusiasm for distinguishing immanent analytical concerns from sociological and philosophical matters flows into a frustration with Adorno's 'anti-systematic system' and his gnomic prose style (p. 130). It can be revealing to break down Adorno's aesthetic meditations into their constituent components, as is undertaken in Chapter 2, but these need eventually to be reconstructed because it is in their constellation that sparks jump from one constituent to the other. For a philosophy that finds the principles of fungibility and exchange-value within the supposedly unified and abstract concept, sociology and philosophy are not easily separated. Nor can the difficulties of a style of writing that deliberately and awkwardly seeks to constellate supposedly unrelated disciplines within the same space be completely dissolved (though unfortunate typographical errors in two quotations from Adorno (pp. 52, 83) do little to help the process). In a confusing discussion Paddison berates perception of Adorno's style as a form of art, presumably because such an approach champions sensibility over discursive rigour, while supporting Adorno's attempts to convey the experience of art. Certainly, Adorno's prose style should not be fetishized, nor should his assumptions remain unexamined; but his writing does emulate art by attempting to turn discursive logic towards its non-discursive other. While this process cannot be reduced to style, neither can it eliminate literary considerations; indeed Adorno pre-echoes Jacques Derrida on this matter. When Paddison comments that 'Adorno has succeeded in building alienation into the very structure of his texts, in spite of the adulation they excite, in certain quarters, as works of art', he fails, surprisingly, to contemplate that it is the alienation built into his texts that affiliates them with art (p. 130).

Little space is devoted to postmodernism, which is surprising given that one of its principal targets is the dialectic between modernism and mass culture embodied in the book's title. The subject is, however, broached at the end of Chapter 1, after an outline of the aims of Frankfurt critical theory, and returned to in the study's conclusion. Andreas Huyssen is put forward as an exponent of postmodernism, albeit a critical one, and Habermas as an opponent, insisting that the project of modernity remains incomplete. This characterization is correct, but the arguments are highly nuanced: Huyssen is also opposed to what Habermas calls neo-conservatism, while Habermas's general opposition to postmodernism is receptive to the idea, often associated with post-modernism, that artistic practice should foster links with its socio-cultural environment. Referring to the, admittedly pragmatic, realm of architecture, Habermas is insistent that the high modernist ideal of inhabitants conforming to the imposed lifestyle of an architectural model should be replaced by a style of building responsive to people's needs. This argument is not so different from the view put forward in 'The Ageing of the New Music', where Adorno expresses regrets that the obsession with construction, to use Habermas's terminology, imposes a closed system on lifeworld experience. When Paddison concludes that Adorno's modernist aesthetics of music 'provides the tools for a devastating critique of post-modernist complacency' he is not wrong (p. 132), but the other side of the coin is that the same tools also expose modernist complacency and identify some of the issues confronted by postmodernism. Opposition between modernism and postmodernism echoes the hallowed division between modernist and mass culture, while obscuring Adorno's thematization within a modernist framework of many ideas that resurface, though often more superficially, in postmodernism. Indeed, an interesting discussion of Aesthetic Theory as 'open forum', a constellation of 'partial complexes', shows Adorno tackling a concern at the heart of postmodernist debates (pp. 52-3); the thorny problem of how to evoke affinities between differentiated issues without imposing unity. It is true that certain currents in postmodernism simply put a positive gloss on some of Adorno's worst fears, but Huyssen is justified when he argues that the myriad currents in postmodernism facilitate neither condemnation nor celebration. Negotiation of the various ruptures and continuities between modernism and postmodernism requires the hermeneutic differentiation lacking in Adorno's understanding of popular music.

The author finds it striking that, in the aftermath of the eastern European revolutions of 1989, social forces have been reactivated similar to those that informed Adornian critical theory. There is a certain validity to this argument: Adorno witnessed the consolidation of Communism and institutionalized High Modernism as responses to crises in modernity, while we are beholding the collapse of both and the emergence, once again, of an underlying turbulence. Yet, while neither pluralist relativism nor evocations of a premodern Arcadia provide adequate responses to the present situation, Paddison's condemnation of music written since 1989 is cursory. In turning to an earlier fin de siecle, along with other influences, some of this repertory may be seeking a route through modernism that avoids both institutionalized autonomy and socialist realism. In doing so it is, like contemporary theory, exploring how subjectivities can respond to the environment we have created.

Distinctions between Frankfurt critical theory and critical theory in general are discussed in Chapter 1 and are undoubtedly important, but it is well to remember that contemporary Frankfurt theorists, such as Habermas and Albrecht Wellmer, have an omnivorous theoretical diet: Habermas has been keen to expand the range of Frankfurt theory by drawing upon the reconstructive sciences, particularly speech-act theory, although this is, admittedly, a controversial aspect of his project, and both have engaged with post-structuralism. Frankfurt critical theory does, nevertheless, retain a certain individuality, and mingles uneasily with the discourses that inform modern critical musicology, yet it would be worth the latter's while to make a substantial connection with Adornian theory because it offers a rich seam for the exploration of many contemporary issues. Paddison's work provides a valuable resource for musicologists wishing to draw on this store of knowledge.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Oxford University Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Williams, Alastair
Publication:Music & Letters
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1997
Previous Article:Gyorgy Ligeti: Jenseits von Avantgarde und Postmoderne.
Next Article:Dryden and Draghi in harmony in the 1687 'Song for St Cecilia's Day.' (John Dryden's poem set to music by Giovanni Battista Draghi)

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |