Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Kulturpessimismus - or Kultursnobbismus?

Do you ever feel as if modern capitalist society tends to make work, and take the fun, out of everything, from sex to art to education? And what's the point of "leisure" anyway? If you've ever wondered about such things, read on, because some very smart but hard-to-understand German thinkers pondered hard on this question earlier in the century just ended.

Moralists disguised as nominal Marxists, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer pioneered a cultural critique of capitalism familiar to most of us in a filtered, retail form. It drops key assumptions of classical Marxism based on economic analysis and the class theory of history. Their version of this critique features no progressive proletarianization or immiseration of the masses, ideas that were already implausible by the end of the 19th century. We know now - as smart people knew then - that, if you want wealth, capitalism is your answer. Their critique comes from a different direction and asks a different question: Why do we want wealth, and what price do we have to pay when we make it our sole goal? Their line of thinking resonates with an older critique of commercial society, borrowing from aristocratic and religious ideals: value independent of market price, contemplation, and "useless" activities done for their own sakes.

This neo-Marxist critique came together in 1920s Germany, against the background of incipient European decline, the arrival of the first wave of modern popular culture, and the publication of Marx's early, "humanistic" writings. The crucial turning point was the 1923 founding of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research - later known as the "Frankfurt School" - endowed by a wealthy German-Jewish grain merchant who believed that modern commercial society had missed something important in trying to make everything, everyone, and every activity utilitarian. Reviewed here by Thomas Meaney, a new biography of Adorno explores his life through his multifaceted work, which touched on art, history, economics, and much else besides.*

The price is evident when we turn "fun" into work and when our full personalities become defined only by our work. We should also keep in mind the numbing impact of the "culture industry" - in those days, radio, newsreels, and low-end, trashy journalism - today, 24/7 television news, blockbuster books more assembled than written, and trashy, low-end journalism. From watching the Nazi takeover of Germany and the Nazis' horrible misuse of this modern, hi-tech system of mass culture, Adorno wrongly came to believe that modernity was somehow inherently fascist. After he came to the US in 1938, he retained many of the attitudes of the pre-1914 German mandarin class (best typified by novelist and humanist Thomas Mann) and simply hated mass culture. Adorno became quite obsessed with finding "fascist tendencies" and capitalist co-optation everywhere: radio quiz shows, Sunday afternoon classical music for kids (imagine that today) - even disposable diapers.

It's a mentality that can border on self-parody. Adorno's own attitude toward the Nazis was highly ambivalent, before it turned decisively negative. Like many old-school Germans, he welcomed the Nazi attempt to ban jazz and other manifestations of popular culture - especially American ones - and half-hoped that maybe something authentically pre-capitalist would emerge from the Nazi obsession with völkischkeit. (This is identity politics and noble savagery, German-style: Wagner is playing the background, and, sporting little horns, Siegfried and Brünnhilde are running naked through the dark Teutonic forest.) Like many of the old-fashioned after 1945, Adorno retained a strong suspicion of democracy and an equally strong belief in an elite class to guide the masses to the right things. Europe had had such a class before 1918 and, for all its faults, it did keep the worst effects of mass politics in check. Some German conservatives believed that the Nazis might do something like that for Germany, after the unstable and widely-resented experiment of the Weimar Republic. It took them until the late 1930s before it started to dawn on them that the Nazis were the disease, not the cure - in fact, the disease in a far worse form than anyone could have imagined.** Many were wallowing in a confusion that should be clear today and should have been even then: there's a big difference between mass manipulation and democratic politics. If there's a danger to democracy from a fascist grouping, the cure is to keep applying democratic rules, not suspend them. That's the fatal mistake the leaders of the Weimar Republic made in 1930, when they suspended the constitution. They were decent-minded politicians, but totally blind to how the Nazis could, three years later, obtain total power by just taking over a Germany already in a "state of emergency." They failed at succeeding Germany's panicked and ruined post-1918 mandarin class, itself frustrated by its inability to find a place in an age of mass politics and thus attracted to alliance with the Nazis.

In spite of his dislike of American pop culture and suspicion of democracy (it could lead to fascism, ya know!), Adorno's best work was written in America, including the book he will certainly be remembered for, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life. As Meaney puts it, this work lifted Adorno into the class of such great aphorists as Nietzsche and Montaigne. Similarly, Adorno's Frankfurt colleague Max Horkheimer also wrote his best work in the US, particularly his most accessible and famous book, Eclipse of Reason. Being fish out of cultural water, without the universe of German idealist philosophy and Marxism alike to fall back on, they were forced to reformulate their ideas from scratch and state them in clear, direct English. This brought the ideas and their style far closer to the liberal Enlightenment culture more familiar to educated American audiences.

The Frankfurters reached their intellectual peak in the 1940s and 50s and included cultural figures later well-known in their own right, like psychologist Erich Fromm. In the end, the School became an important source of the "new" Left that started to emerge at the end of the 1950s. It rejected classical Marxist critiques of capitalist society and reached for a smorgasbord of cultural criticism - sometimes perceptive, often incoherent, occasionally even sounding like old-fashioned religious and aristocratic critiques of capitalism and democracy. But the new Left was unable to put what limited intellectual substance it had into a serious intellectual structure or a political program. It ended up in fatal competition with the more accessible aspects of the counterculture - sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. Even today, people are often confused by this, since they tend to link counterculture and new-leftism. In fact, the former killed the latter. For the Boomers, sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll were the serious point - politics was just a distraction. Both Horkheimer and Adorno ended up taking a dim view of the 60s student rebels anyway, seeing them more as advanced representatives of consumerism than as real radicals. In this, they were surely right.

The mid-century Frankfurt and Marxist theories seems quaint today. But both Eclipse of Reason and Minima Moralia remain relevant and highly readable.
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* Adorno was a student of modernist composer Alban Berg, himself a student of Schoenberg.

** A significant minority of these German conservatives, especially the Prussians, had Jewish ancestry, making the issue even sharper. In the late 1930s, elements of the old Prussian aristocracy, Catholic lay leaders, and a few remaining figures of the democratic Left started a series of attempts to kill Hitler. On July 20, 1944, they nearly succeeded. They, not the Communists (who happily took credit after the war for "anti-fascism"), formed the only effective internal opposition against the Nazis. The later savage Nazi reprisals against this class marked the end of the old German aristocracy. They had started by compromising with Nazism in the early 1930s and ended up being eaten alive by it.

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