Pop Culture Critique – Alex Ross reviews Adorno and Benjamin

“Technology conspires with populism to create an ideology vacant dictatorship of likes.”


If you read my blog regularly, you know I am an avid reader of The New Yorker.  There are many varying stories in any given issue of the magazine, and I usually read them all.  But, I am want to ever read something that compels me enough to write about it. Today, one of those articles did just that.

The article was a review written by my one of my favorite music and culture writers – Alex Ross.  The article is titled “The Naysayers: Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and the critique of pop culture.”  I have linked to the article here, but chances are, readers won’t be able to access it unless one has an online New Yorker account.  That being said, I recommend getting one. 🙂

What intrigued from the beginning about this article was that it expounds upon a topic for which I devoted much of master’s thesis to – the influence and role of popular culture in our modern society, and how it has come to affect the consumption of culture and art from within a consumerist mindset, as opposed to experiencing it as a representation of our humanity through personal expression.

Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin
Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin

In the article, Ross discusses the lives and works of Benjamin and Adorno, as described in a new biography.  I expect that Ross is reviewing these men in conjunction with a new book on Wagner he is currently writing, but that is only a hunch.  Throughout, Ross compares and contrasts the similar, although at times contrasting views of the two gentleman, and concludes the article with his own poignant take on the state of affairs.

It is worth producing the last few paragraphs of the article here in full:

If Adorno were to look upon the cultural landscape of the twenty-first century, he might take grim satisfaction in seeing his fondest fears realized.  The pop hegemony is all but complete, its superstars dominating the media and wielding the economic might of tycoons. They live full time in the unreal realm of the mega-rich, yet they hide behind a folksy façade, wolfing down pizza at the Oscars and cheering sports teams from V.I.P. boxes. Meanwhile, traditional bourgeois genres are kicked to the margins, their demographics undesirable, their life styles uncool, their formal intricacies ill suited to the transmission networks of the digital age. Opera, dance, poetry, and the literary novel are still called “élitist,” despite the fact that the world’s real power has little use for them. The old hierarchy of high and low has become a sham: pop is the ruling party.

The Internet threatens final confirmation of Adorno and Horkheimer’s dictum that the culture industry allows the “freedom to choose what is always the same.” Champions of online life promised a utopia of infinite availability: a “long tail” of perpetually in-stock products would revive interest in non-mainstream culture. One need not have read Astra Taylor and other critics to sense that this utopia has been slow in arriving. Culture appears more monolithic than ever, with a few gigantic corporations—Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon—presiding over unprecedented monopolies. Internet discourse has become tighter, more coercive. Search engines guide you away from peculiar words. (“Did you mean . . . ?”) Headlines have an authoritarian bark (“This Map of Planes in the Air Right Now Will Blow Your Mind”). “Most Read” lists at the top of Web sites imply that you should read the same stories everyone else is reading. Technology conspires with populism to create an ideologically vacant dictatorship of likes.

This, at least, is the drastic view. Benjamin’s heirs have suggested how messages of dissent can emanate from the heart of the culture industry, particularly in giving voice to oppressed or marginalized groups. Any narrative of cultural regression must confront evidence of social advance: the position of Jews, women, gay men, and people of color is a great deal more secure in today’s neo-liberal democracies than it was in the old bourgeois Europe. (The Frankfurt School’s indifference to race and gender is a conspicuous flaw.) The late Jamaican-born British scholar Stuart Hall, a pioneer of cultural studies, presented a double-sided picture of youth pop, defining it, in an essay co-written with Paddy Whannel, as a “contradictory mixture of the authentic and the manufactured.” In the same vein, the NPR pop critic Ann Powers wrote last month about listening to Nico & Vinz’s slickly soulful hit “Am I Wrong” in the wake of the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, and catching the song’s undercurrents of unease. “Pop is all about commodification: the soft center of what adapts,” Powers writes. “But sometimes, when history collides with it, a simple song gains dimension.”

One way or another, the Frankfurt School mode of criticism—its skeptical ardor, its relentless scouring of mundane surfaces—has spread far. When online recappers expend thousands of words debating the depiction of rape on “Game of Thrones,” or when writers publish histories of sneakers or of the office cubicle, they show intense awareness of mass culture’s ability to shape society. And in some cases the analysis takes a recognizably dialectical turn, as in Hua Hsu’s 2011 essay, for Grantland, on Kanye West and Jay-Z’s album “Watch the Throne.” A dispassionate hip-hop fan, Hua Hsu ponders the spectacle of two leading rappers making an “album against austerity,” in which they mark their ascension to a world of “MoMA and Rothko, Larry Gagosian, and luxury hotels across three continents,” and at the same time forfeit a hip-hop tradition of fantasy and protest. Citing the Kanye track “Power”—“Grab a camera, shoot a viral / Take the power in your own hands”—Hsu writes, “This version of power is entrancing—it explains an entire generation. But it also confuses ubiquity for importance, the familiarity of a celebrity’s face for true authority.” There is no telling how Adorno and Benjamin might have negotiated such contemporary labyrinths. Perhaps, on a peaceful day, they would have accepted the compromise devised by Fredric Jameson, who has written that the “cultural evolution of late capitalism” can be understood “dialectically, as catastrophe and progress all together.”

These implacable voices should stay active in our minds. Their dialectic of doubt prods us to pursue connections between what troubles us and what distracts us, to see the riven world behind the seamless screen. “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism”: Benjamin’s great formula, as forceful as a Klieg light, should be fixed as steadily on pop culture, the ritual apparatus of American capitalism, as it has been on the art works of the European bourgeoisie. Adorno asked for only so much. Above all, these figures present a model for thinking differently, and not in the glib sense touted by Steve Jobs. As the homogenization of culture proceeds apace, as the technology of surveillance hovers at the borders of our brains, such spaces are becoming rarer and more confined. I am haunted by a sentence from Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves”: “One cannot live outside the machine for more perhaps than half an hour.” ♦ 

– Alex Ross, The New Yorker, September 15, 2014

Two quotes from within this last section of the article really hit home:

“Technology conspires with populism to create an ideology vacant dictatorship of likes.”  and the quote he ends with of Virginia Woolf’s, “One cannot live outside the machine for more perhaps than half an hour.”


Author: Zack Hayhurst

New Yorker enthusiast, cartoon caption contest contender, book hoarder, cultural omnivore, writer

2 thoughts on “Pop Culture Critique – Alex Ross reviews Adorno and Benjamin”

Tell me what you think

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s