THEODOR ADORNO

Dates: 1903-1969

Nationality: German

Theodor Ludwig Wiesengrund Adorno (September 11, 1903 – August 6, 1969) was a German-born international sociologist, philosopher, and musicologist. He was a member of the Frankfurt School of social theory along with Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, Jürgen Habermas, and others. He was also the Music Director of the Radio Project from 1937 to 1941, in the U.S. Already as a young music critic and amateur sociologist, Adorno considered himself primarily a philosophical thinker.

Whilst Adorno’s work focuses on art, literature and music as key areas of sensual, indirect critique of the established culture and modes of thought, there is also a strand of distinctly political utopianism evident in his reflections especially on history. The argument, which is complex and dialectic, dominates his Aesthetic Theory, Philosophy of New Music and many other works.

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. 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 standardised production of consumption goods” but this is concealed under “the manipulation of taste and the official culture’s pretense of individualism.” Adorno conceptualized this phenomenon as pseudo-individualization and the always-the-same. He saw this mass-produced culture as a danger to the more difficult high arts. Culture industries cultivate false needs; that is, needs created and satisfied by capitalism. True needs, in contrast, are freedom, creativity, and genuine happiness. But the subtle dialectician was also able to say that the problem with capitalism was that it blurred the line between false and true needs altogether.

The work of Adorno and Horkheimer heavily influenced intellectual discourse on popular culture and scholarly popular culture studies. At the time Adorno began writing, there was a tremendous unease among many intellectuals as to the results of mass culture and mass production on the character of individuals within a nation. By exploring the mechanisms for the creation of mass culture, Adorno presented a framework which gave specific terms to what had been a more general concern.

At the time this was considered important because of the role which the state took in cultural production; 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.

Wikipedia contributors, ‘Theodor W. Adorno’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 9 December 2010, 09:54 UTC, <en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Theodor_W._Adorno&oldid=401422585>

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