An interview with Theodor Adorno scholar Gerhard Schweppenhäuser, who notes that the influential German Philosopher became a critic of “culture industry" theory himself.
By Kamran Baradaran
Born in 1960, Gerhard Schweppenhäuser (Ph.D.) is the professor of design and media theory at the faculty of design at the University of Applied Sciences in Würzburg, private lecturer for philosophy at the University of Kassel and co-editor of ‘The Journal for Critical Theory’. He taught as a professor of aesthetics at the Faculty of Design and Arts at the University of Bolzano, as a substitute professor for philosophy and for aesthetics at the University of Fine Arts in Dresden and as a visiting professor at the literature department at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Following is IBNA’s interview with this authentic intellectual about Theodor Adorno, his legacy and how to re-read his ideas in today’s world.
As you mentioned in “Theodor W. Adorno: an introduction”, the social formation of nature and the dialectical connection between internal and external nature are two motifs that are treated paradigmatically in “Dialectic of Enlightenment”. Today, with the warning about global warming and ecological disasters, how are we to define the idea of human interventions in nature, from Adorno's point of view?
Gerhard Schweppenhäuser:To a certain extent, an answer in the sense of Adorno would also be an answer in the sense of Marx. The putting into value (Inwertsetzung), i.e. the commodification of nature, has long since gone beyond the point to which it was progressive. Here, progressive means that it has helped us to cope with life through the mastery of nature. However, domination of nature, which is considered an end in itself, reduces again the scope of freedom that domination of nature creates when it is understood as a means of human emancipation. Without domination of nature through science and technology, survival will not be possible. But neither will survival be possible without the social domination of domination of nature.
In the 1960s Adorno distinguished two sides of the term “progress”. There is the progress, I quote, “that conciliatory nestles up to nature”. It implies a “redemption” of human suffering. And there is the “blinded, unreflected, nature-controlling” progress. If progress is exclusively the science-based technical subjugation of nature, then its results contradict the humane purposes formulated in the epoch of Enlightenment. The project of modernity is dominated by an instrumental rationality that follows the logic of capitalist accumulation. According to Adorno, our task is the critique of the heteronomous social and economic conditions under which the technical productive forces unfold. The transformation into critique takes up the Enlightenment’s concept of progress, whose horizon was nothing less than “reconciliation
with nature,” says Adorno.
I sympathize with the Fridays For Future movement. And I assume that a New Green Deal in the northern hemisphere could postpone the ecological catastrophe for some time, provided that the fascist ruler in Brazil accepts compensation and stops the destruction of the rain forests. But a New Green Deal will not eliminate the cause of the exploitation of nature. It will result in the entire African continent being massively subjected to the laws of capitalist accumulation. And that we will see struggles for drinking water in the North that we have no idea about as of yet.
The economic situation of the world, the mode of production, and formation of capitalism have changed a lot from the time and age Theodor Adorno lived in. How do you assess the idea of the “emancipated society” in our current situation?
GS: Soon after Adorno’s death, the Fordist class compromise ended in the West. The collapse of authoritarian socialism opened large parts of the world to the regiment of commodity production on radical market terms. One reason for the collapse was that the backlog in the field of microelectronics could not be made up there.
Adorno still spoke of the “administrated world”. Not that there is no more administration, no management in deregulated capitalism. But what Adorno’s diagnosis was aiming at no longer exists. It was the rationalized administrative domination that infiltrates mind and emotions. Of course there is a new form of rule that determines us to the core. The compulsion to sell labor force and erotic attractiveness as goods dominates everything. But to much more uncertain conditions than those that prevailed in Europe until the great crisis of 1974 and a few years later.
In 1967 Adorno said very clear-sightedly that behind the vaunted “full employment” there was already “the specter of technological unemployment”. He said: “In the age of automation, even the people who are in the production process would already feel potentially superfluous, as potential unemployed people”. This diagnosis can still claim validity today. It names a factor that prevents us from thinking about the goals and the shape of a liberated society. You can do this as a critical individual, but without solidarity you will not get very far with it.
Another factor that can block thinking about a liberated society is the strange mixture of faith in science and skepticism about science that we experience today. Facts are supposed to provide unshakable grounding for reliable statistically calculated data. But facts are not immediate “given”. Facts are the results of social activity. The structures in which this activity takes place are mediated by social domination.
In the so called “post-truth era”, we can observe how instrumental rationality, the logic of technology and statistics, tends to turn into mythology. One can believe in myths, but they elude examination by critical reason. Today’s climate of authoritarianism, the rejection of science and enlightenment is an indication of the “Dialectic of Enlightenment”.
In Germany, “post-truth era” is translated “post-facts-era”. That sounds funny to “Adornian” ears. Critical theory distinguishes between facts and truth. Truth is the adequacy of statements to facts. And above all, truth is the adequacy of social relations to the concepts we have of society. If there is any truth in the complaint that truth in social media has lost its claim to validity, it is not because facts are no longer created there. Resistance to the dominant ideologies of power is regressing more and more frequently, inasmuch as it is oriented not toward rational criticism but toward conspiracy narratives. And these are, as Adorno showed in the USA more than 70 years ago, generally anti-semitic.
“People have so manipulated the concept of freedom that it finally boils down to the right of the stronger and richer to take from the weaker and poorer whatever they still have,” Adorno once said. The idea of freedom and ideology were key factors for Adorno and also Louis Althusser. How can one retrieve these concepts in a time that liberalism declares itself as the ultimate victor in the world and the only manifestation of freedom and equality?
GS: Freedom today is the ideological topic par excellence. Wars are waged in its alleged defense. It is about freedom of the market and of competition. It is about freedom that has a very different meaning for the owners of the means of production than for those who must sell their labor as a commodity if they wish to live. Freedom of trade is not a sufficient condition for political freedom when it comes to the freedom of all people. In political philosophy today, the contradiction between formal freedom and social unfreedom is often not understood anymore as dialectical. It is misunderstood as a paradoxical state or as a kind of backwardness.
The ideological hypostasis of the concept “freedom” corresponds to the emptying of the concept “ideology”. Althusser replaced the concept of ideology critique with ideology theory. Ideology should no longer be conceived as a “false consciousness”, because there is no “right consciousness” against which to measure the wrong one. According to Althusser, ideology materializes in institutions and recurring forms of everyday practice. Through ritualized patterns of action and materialized institutions, we are socialized, from within and without, into existing practices.
This is reminiscent of Adorno’s thesis that ideology has migrated into the social base. Adorno considered the classical concept of ideology critique to be outdated. In late capitalism, elaborate theories for the legitimation of social domination were no longer needed. Domination has become insurmountable. Its irrationality is obvious, but there is no longer any attempt to abolish it. Adorno’s example is National Socialism. It did not lead to a serious ideology, but it didn’t need one.
Even today one could say that power and domination are a direct indication that they are insurmountable. Nevertheless, Adorno’s thesis that control and exploitation today no longer require ideological legitimation is wrong. I will try to explain this using the example of the so-called “Bologna reform” of European universities. The market’s requirements were brought to the universities by the Bertelsmann Group and by politicians who are well-disposed towards Bertelsmann. But the requirements were not simply enforced by decree. They were based on ideological justifications: more competition of ideas, more freedom to choose where to study, more practical relevance, fewer dropouts, and so on. These arguments are demonstrably false. But they were necessary so that university teachers and education politicians could identify with a structural reform that empowers the markets and will be fatal in the long term for critical autonomy of the spirit.
On the other hand, one can make a concession to Adorno at this point. No elaborate theory had to be worked out in order to justify the Bologna ideology. In this respect, one can perhaps say that Adorno's thesis of the end of ideology is partly wrong.
The technological advancement of the 20th century had an inherently irrational character for both Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin. Nonetheless, the thinkers famously disagreed when it came to the implications of the marriage between technology and mass culture. In the age of technological domination over all aspects of human life, how can one analyze the relationship between these developments and mass culture?
GS: In the last years of his life, Adorno was self-critical of his criticism of the culture industry. He saw that it was somewhat dogmatic. In 1968, during a lecture in Frankfurt, he said that he had previously assumed that the culture industry “actually makes, shapes or at least maintains people as they are”. And he continued: “But there is really something dogmatic and something unchecked in it”. That means, one should not simply claim that the spirit of the culture industry is instilled in the masses. We must constantly examine to what extent this is the case. Adorno said that in the course of the student revolt he had “learned that one cannot easily assume the identity of objective stimuli and objective structures of consciousness and behavior of people”. A critical theory of mass culture would have to empirically examine “how far people really act and think as they are made by the mechanisms of the culture industry”.
I would say, today there are two legitimate readings of cultural industry critique, one universalist and one particularist. The universalist reading says that there is no outside at all. There are no pieces of art and cultural goods in which the exchange value is only accidental. The utility value, i.e. aesthetic experience, spontaneous participation or obstinate recoding, is always subsumed under the exchange value. In addition, there is the expanding education industry. In the early and heyday of the bourgeoisie, culture and education were also commodified. But today they are commodity-shaped through and through.
The particularist reading emphasizes that not every production marketed by the culture industry is entirely subject to its logic. Indeed, it would be nonsense to claim that “The Aesthetics of Resistance” by Peter Weiss, installations by Hans Haacke or productions by Christoph Schlingensief are completely subject to the logic of the culture industry. Yes, we cannot receive them other than through the culture industry’s channels of communication. But reception can open up precisely that which cannot be channelled through these channels. Even the music and theater business in Europe is not yet thoroughly culture-industrialized. OK, but it does tend to be. Anyway, we cannot deny that in microelectronic lay, culture experiences can manifest themselves that are not totally economically overformed. Yes, in the images, videos, texts and sound files that the users produce in DIY shapes, we see the domination of mimetic reproduction of codes and templates. But we see also free appropriation and recoding. The microelectronic forms of symbolization and visualization would not be so successful if they did not also offer something relevant and new. But then again, you can interpret precisely this, in turn, as an indication that cultural-industrial forms are asserting themselves everywhere.
However, the point is that communication today is completely commodified. By this I do not only mean that we are taken hostage by the advertising industry when we use the new media. I mean that our communications themselves become material, which is brought into commodity form via social media platforms.