This article was the author’s working notes for his since published book “Adorno: A guide for the perplexed”, available from Waterstones, reputable booksellers, and Amazon


Introduction, by Alex Thomson

In many ways Adorno exemplifies the image problem faced by critical theory today. Adorno is not a sexy figure. He comes over in his writing as severe, curmudgeonly and patrician. His prose is deliberately and unrepentantly dense and complex. His philosophical and cultural reference points are out of tune with contemporary fashions.

Nowhere has Adorno’s reputation taken such a beating as in the field of popular culture. In the 1970s a generation of tight-trousered academic pioneers in the uncharted waters of cultural studies took their turns to ridicule Adorno for his supposed pessimism and elitism. Later, Adorno played the fall-guy in the postmodernism wars of the 1980s and 1990s. Because his work appeared to prefigure the ideas of then fashionable Frenchmen like Foucault and Derrida, he could be presented as a ‘safe’ Marxist alternative: but as the ‘post-ism’ tide ebbed, the compromised Frankfurter was caught in the undertow, and subsequently lost out to sea.

All we have been left of Adorno is the flotsam and jetsam of a life’s work: odd phrases, bleached of their colour and cast up among the other detritus of the twentieth century’s intellectual heritage at the high-tide line which marks the limits of any theory’s intrusion on the coast of common knowledge. ‘Negative dialectics’, that was one of his; something about poetry and Auschwitz, too; oh, and who could forget ‘the culture industry’?

Perversely appropriate perhaps: Adorno insists on understanding history as a process of continuous destruction. There can be no looking back from the broken present for a past whose wholeness could only ever be an imaginary projection; and for which any nostalgia would be a betrayal, a further obliteration of the suffering whose traces history has already scrubbed out.

Yet it’s too early to give up on Adorno. His analysis of the question of culture, elaborated from the middle of the 1930s until his death in 1968, remains one of the most rigorous and far-sighted of the last century. Indeed from the perspective of the man who remarked that ‘the value of a thought can be measured by its distance from the continuity of the familiar’, the extent to which his work has remained unreadable – to judge by the inaccuracies and misconstructions that characterise much of the commentary on his work – might be taken as an index of its power. This is not an invitation to obscurantism, but simply to claim that if thinking doesn’t challenge assumptions, and first and foremost those from which it begins, it is worthless.

The common currency of the idea that Adorno was an old fuddy-duddy who hated popular culture can only be partly explained by the internecine politics of the academy. The importance of his work stems from the way it disconcerts many of the ordinary ways we in which use the concept of culture. But it is often easier to assimilate what seems strange to the familiarity and security of the already-known, and Adorno has often been accused of holding positions his work explicitly criticises.

The aim of A User’s Guide to the Culture Industry is to explore the continuing relevance of Adorno’s analysis of the problem of culture. Rather than attempt to reconstruct Adorno’s thought as a system, A User’s Guide will proceed rather more in the spirit of his work, i.e. dialectically. Each section of the Guide will confront some more or less recent cultural phenomenon – artifact, discussion, event – with some aspect of Adorno’s work. My hope is that over time the Guide will shed light both on how to read and respond to Adorno’s thought, and suggest ways to think critically about the contemporary world.

Here are the questions which at the outset will guide the project:

1. Adorno’s criticisms of the culture industry begin from the premise that the concept of culture implies a critical stance towards the world. It is this promise against which Adorno judges culture and finds it wanting. But is the concept of ‘culture’ still relevant or adequate today? If no-one any longer imagines culture to hold some kind of critical or redemptive possibility, then the time for the critique of that possibility will have passed as well.

2. Alternatively, perhaps it is the limitations of the concept of culture which explain the apparent clumsiness of Adorno’s work, in which case could we find new ways to examine ‘cultural’ phenomena while maintaining the critical force of negative dialectics?

3. What are the respective priorities of historical and epistemological arguments in Adorno’s work? My hypothesis is that for Adorno the historical genealogy of culture is always dependent on prior philosophical and methodological assumptions. (For example, if it is acceptable to identify positive value in past cultural configurations but not in the present, is this because anything other than total rejection of the contemporary world becomes an affirmation of the world as domination.)

4. If this is the case, the attempt to bypass Adorno’s challenge by arguing that times have changed must involve renouncing his critical principles, by presuming the validity of historical argument which Adorno’s work seeks to question.

5. But if it is the case, we still need to accept that changing times will make a difference. To simply repeat Adorno’s analyses would also mean renouncing the possibility of a critical stance towards the present.