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Friday, 2 September 2011

Adorno and Jazz

A piece of mine written some years ago critical of Theodor Adorno's attitude to jazz. Written as part of a study of the blues form and its essentially subversive nature. I am deconstructing his essay "On the Fetish-Character in music and the Regression of Listening"

Adorno here considers the nature of commodity fetishism as it relates to popular music, but his Eurocentric view of cultural standards and norms, together with his mechanical, undialectical notion of "the masses" as utterly passive, lead him into an ideological position of extreme pessimism. Although, in his critique of the way commodity fetishism and mass consumerism degrade cultural artefacts, he concedes that both "light" and "serious" music are affected, he starts from a position of extreme personal antipathy towards the ‘popular’ music of his day, both its performers and those who listened to it. In so doing he draws some profoundly elitist conclusions.

Adorno believed that in an age marked by the decline of the individual, there were decreasing chances of "adequate" aesthetic response. This was, he believed, because of the way that capitalism and the market commodify art, as they commodify everything. Adorno's "commodity fetishism" comes from Marx, who uses it to explain the ideological effects of the exchange and circulation of alienated labour on the market - in other words, the way that the products of human labour appear and circulate on the market as commodities. This mystifies what is really an exploitative relationship between classes, making it seem a natural, inevitable, unalterable process. The market interposes itself between the workers and the owners of the means of production, making what are actually human and class relations appear as relations between the inanimate products of labour - relations between commodities. Adorno applies this to cultural products - in this case music- investigating the ways in which both "light" and "serious" music are commodified and how this has profound effects upon the listener, with "fetishized music" evoking a debased form of listening which Adorno calls "regressive listening".

Adorno describes the ways in which the commodification of music feeds in to and confirms existing alienation. In Marxist terms, alienation occurs in modern capitalist society because the mass of workers have completely lost control over the means of production and the products of their labour. Although alienation springs from the central fact of alienated labour, it penetrates through the whole of human life, and in the process ruins the mental and emotional capacity of the worker. It dehumanises individuals by removing from them any control over the most fundamental of human attributes, the ability to freely direct their own creativity.

Adorno powerfully critiques the ways in which commodity fetishism distorts and deforms human appreciation of culture. He points out that when a consumer buys a ticket to a concert, he "is really worshipping the money that he himself has paid for the ticket ... He has literally "made" the success which he reifies and accepts as an objective criterion, without recognising himself in it. But he has not "made" it by liking the concert, but rather by buying the ticket." (1) Adorno draws a parallel between these contradictions in the cultural superstructure and the tensions in the economic base: "...the musical balance between partial stimulus and totality, between expression and synthesis, between the surface and the underlying, remains as unstable as the moments of balance between supply and demand in the capitalist economy." He has nothing but scorn for promoters and others who provide a certain type of cultural product for the masses and then, when they are accused of providing only the bland and banal, are "ready with the reply that this is what they (the masses) wanted."

He also develops a useful analysis of the ways in which commercial pressures debase art and culture, and the ways in which these debased products are used to provide relief and distraction for workers suffering under capitalism. In their alienated state workers are subjected to the blandishments of the "culture industry", in a process which only serves to further confirm and reinforce their alienation. In a haunting passage, Adorno talks of how "...it (music for entertainment) seems to complement the reduction of people to silence, the dying out of speech as expression, the inability to communicate at all. It inhabits the pockets of silence that develop between people molded by anxiety, work and undemanding docility...It is perceived purely as background. If nobody can any longer speak, then certainly nobody can any longer listen." In an era where all pressures were geared to the obliteration of the individual, Adorno stresses this "liquidation", relating it to the "pseudodemocratic" pre-arranged harmonising of the collective whole.

Not only do these debased cultural products fail to provide workers with an authentic aesthetic experience, they further confirm them in a passivity which renders them incapable of the insights and the independent collective action which would be their only hope of change: "The illusion of a social preference for light music...is based on that passivity of the masses which makes the consumption of light music contradict the objective interest of those who consume it." Adorno is scathing, too, about what he called the "totalitarian" star system, in which attempts are made to re-create the shattered aura of a debased cultural experience by adding to it from outside the aesthetic experience itself, so that "success" becomes the issue, a "cumulative success" which can be manipulated and which "dates back to the command of publishers, sound film magnates and rulers of radio." In other words, the value of the aesthetic experience becomes less and less to do with that experience itself, and more and more to do with the perceived "star quality" of the performer, which is refracted through the process of accumulating prior commercial success. The "star system" robs the aesthetic experience of any immediacy or authenticity, replacing it with values accreted by the process of commodity fetishization.

Adorno was also concerned with the reception of this music by the masses, with their experience of listening to it, and how it affected those who listened. He argued that the moments of sensual pleasure derived from aspects of music are, in the production and consumption of fetishized music, turned into fetishes which are ripped away from their true context, depriving them of meaning. Adorno describes the process of fetishization as "the veneration of the thing made by oneself which, as exchange value, simultaneously alienates itself from producer to consumer." The relationship between product and consumer here becomes "completely alien", as does the product itself, which exists "as if cut off from the consciousness of the masses by a dense screen". When the consumers react at all, says Adorno, "it no longer makes any difference whether it is to Beethoven's Seventh Symphony or to a bikini."

This occurs because of the complete domination of society by the commodity form, and the disappearance of the last "pre-capitalist residues." Today in America, says Adorno (writing in 1938), despite all the "ethereal and sublime" attributes which are imputed to music, its objective function is actually to serve "as an advertisement for commodities which one must acquire in order to be able to hear music." Adorno argues that the potential for the derivation of pleasure from an aesthetic experience is splintered under the impact of commodification, as the dominant form of the exchange-value invades and inhabits the space in which that enjoyment could occur. He will have no truck with those who believe that art is somehow exempted from the commodifying pressures of capitalism, even though, as he shows, it is the appearance of being so, of apparently involving the consumer in a direct, immediate relationship with the product, which gives such weight, such exchange value, to cultural goods. He insists that they "fall completely into the world of commodities, are produced for the market, and are aimed at the market."

Moreover, the more that use-values are destroyed by the domination of the principle of exchange-value, the more does exchange-value present itself as the focus, the object of enjoyment. In other words, the use-value is transferred to the exchange-value. This process has a particular cohesive function for society, since those who have money to buy are "intoxicated by the act of buying". Thus do consumers derive happiness, satisfaction and legitimisation from their personal identification with certain aspects of this commodification. This identification becomes known as "personal taste" and is seen by the individual as being the ultimate expression of individuality, of subjective essence, although in fact it only enmeshes him further in his own alienation, in his own subjugation to the form of the exchange-value. "Before the theological caprices of commodities, the consumers become temple slaves. Those who sacrifice themselves nowhere else can do so here, and here they are fully betrayed." To be contd...

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