Jan 03

A User’s Guide To The Culture Industry

FT/9 comments • 6,295 views

So what’s the problem? That The Thrills charted where Cosmic Rough Riders, or whoever, crashed and burned? No – the fantasy being peddled is precisely that of perma-bronzed popularity, of the entire teenage nation bunking off school to follow the pied piper in his Volkswagon combi to the coast.

Certainly this is cultural babyfood – utterly familiar, reassuring and pre-pulped, easy to love because you loved it last year, and the year before, and… well, you get the picture. But although there is a strand of Adorno’s argument which does pick up on the modernist demand that art should defamiliarise, disarrange the world as we thought we knew it and refuse to put it back together again, this is not culture aspiring to be ‘art’. No great claims being made here.

So having skipped the category mistake of upbraiding popular culture for being something it doesn’t claim to be, we can examine the idea from which I began. Is this what Adorno means by endless repetition of the same? If it is, we run into a curious problem. For if Adorno is demanding endless innovation, his argument begins to look rather like the aesthetic complement to the enlightenment teleology of reason. Should culture keep moving forward too?

To understand Adorno we need to bear in mind that repetition here does not mean slavish imitation. Kierkegaard distinguishes between two forms of repetition, the recollection of the past in which nothing really changes and a positive repetition forward which cannot be grasped conceptually or aesthetically but only by faith. This latter step must be a repetition in order to distinguish it from the merely aesthetic freedom postulated by the Romantics against a neoclassical art based on imitation of prior models, and supposed to enable us to transcend a mundane world also characterised by mere repetition.

Repetition then, rather than the freedom of expressive creation which links us to the spiritual world. Such a repetition, for Kierkegaard, cannot be described or imagined, it could only ever be experienced, and so must be presented ironically: in his book of the same name, repetition emerges between the lines, as the conclusion not drawn, the road not travelled by the book’s supposed author Constantin Constantius.

The redemption offered us by the surfing USA pop nation mentality is clearly aesthetic: it is based on bodily pleasure and a suspect notion of escape from the everyday world, not the kind of religious leap of faith Kierkegaard has in mind. The video for ‘So Much For the City’, a song in which The Thrills invoke The Monkees both musically and lyrically, projects its beach paradise as a fantastic rebirth from the mundane world in which the musicians are pool cleaners. Equally spurious are the antiquated sexual politics in which bikini-clad girls fawn over the group.

But the emphasis on paradise lost, the foregrounding of the implicit escapism manifest in the music, means that we have to read this as equally a dismantling of the romantic myth of the west coast. As ideology, The Thrills drive their retro-wagon along the fine line that holds together and separates the perpetuation of a myth from its exposure as myth. But unless we hold to the Enlightenment paradigm in which reason frees us from superstition, such is the structure of every repetition of a myth.

If we assume that Adorno has a similar opposition in mind to Kierkegaard, with a bad repetition opposed to something like a good repetition, rather than some kind of easy escape into another world, his complaint about the repetition of the same in the culture industry becomes not so much a fact as a critical given. Because the impetus of the culture industry is always towards novelty, the ‘new’ is already compromised, no matter which actual product we examine.

Adorno’s antipathy to the avant-garde of culture politically, whatever his sympathy in terms of aesthetics, is that making-it-new has also become the watchword of the entertainment industry. In this, as ever, capitalism proves more forward-thinking than the cultural and social establishment. But the novelty of industrial culture is false in that it perpetuates the reign of capital.

Of course, Adorno’s virtuous repetition would not be religious but political, economic and first and foremost the invention of a new way of thinking. Only in the transformation of objectifying rationality would there be progress: but progress would no longer be the right word for this something else, beyond the triumph of terror in the mechanisation of both consciousness and the world.

From this perspective turning back the clock musically might even represent an act of defiance to the industrialised music of progression: but one that can easily be co-opted to help sustain the prevailing ideological equation. The traces of resistance might still be available for anyone hearing the sound of the jingle-jangle men for the first time; but certainly not for those grey-hairs wetting themselves over recent Neil Young and Gene Clark CD reissues.

A full critical analysis would also need to open up further questions: what makes such a repetition of the past different every time? How do changing configurations of conditions of production and consumption release certain possibilities (record sales, chart positions, play-list places) at certain times but not others? How do we differentiate between the divergent audience for such music?

Of course the thrill of The Thrills lies in obscuring such concerns. The magic holds only so long as we forget that there is no one teen nation, if there ever was; that the summer must always turns into autumn; and that today’s real beach music is more about DJ Sammy than Gram Parsons.

The more complex consequence for a critical analysis which seeks to follow Adorno is that the non-conceptual content of culture cannot set us free. The ‘magic’ will never be enough: experience (drugs, desire, dancing) will always be recuperated as the opposite of reason, a compensatory by-product. Hence it is the conceptual content of the artwork to which Adorno returns again and again.

A sheer repetition of Adorno would of course be impossible. Even to cite Adorno verbatim is to bring his work into a new configuration of the actual and the possible. Trying to follow the imperative of his thought means entering every time anew into the convoluted dialectics of freedom and reflection, a procedure in which success can never be assured. Such a dialectic means thinking against rather than with the thrills of culture; or resisting the culture of The Thrills.

Western culture has a massive metaphysical investment in the direction of the setting sun. Travelling on the Skye coast one frozen winter, looking further West felt visionary and unsettling. But perhaps this summer’s lesson would be: turn your back to the surf, take off your sunglasses, stride towards the darkness rising from the East.


  1. 1
    Admin on 30 Aug 2006 #

    what is the etiquette of copying and pasting the entire article elsewhere?

  2. 2
    CarsmileSteve on 30 Aug 2006 #

    may i suggest sending in the marines?

  3. 3
    alext on 30 Aug 2006 #

    Given I’ve been pondering the question of having what were sort of working notes for my now-published book still available online, I have to say I’m a bit unimpressed by this. If they’d linked I wouldn’t be so bothered. Although I can’t quite work out what the site is, or who it’s for.

  4. 4
    alext on 30 Aug 2006 #

    Can we just replace the essay with a giant ad for Adorno: A Guide For The Perplexed?

  5. 5
    pˆnk s lord sükråt cunctør on 30 Aug 2006 #

    can we not just retitle alex’s book “ADORNO & HOFMANN: STEAL THIS GUIDE FOR THE PERPLEXED”?

  6. 6
    Admin on 31 Aug 2006 #

    if you feel strongly go to the site and “Postar um comentário” – it’s a blogger site.

  7. 7
    polycarpo on 8 Dec 2006 #

    1. As You all have seen, I do not (or did not) know about “the etiquette of copying and pasting [an] entire article” in the web. But I should care about it. And I will. The the question about the webetiquette is a good and necessary one.
    2. As You all could not know, I really do not care about the marines. I really even do not care if they die on a war or – better said – on a invasion.
    3. it’s just a blog for myself, a kind of notebook on which I put some interesting links. This time: an interesting text, all the text and not just a part of it.
    4. I’m perplexed that it can cause perplexity. But I’m not so sure about the title. The book probably deserves a better one.
    5. I would recommend as subtitle: don’t steal this guide, read it! NO need for perplexity. By the way, the guide hasn’t been really stolen. It has been to be read by me, only by me. It’s here to be read by all. I think it’s good and generous to publish the text on the web, so that people can read it.
    6. A second good sugestion. But ‘if if the mountain doesn’t come to Mehemet, Mehemet will go to the mountain’. I’m neither a mountain nor a celestial fiction. But shall a female allah bless we all.
    7. I maybe should be sorry about a possible neglection of the webetiquette. The text is not in the blog anymore. There’s still just a link to it. If you want, Thomas, I’ll surely remove it from there. But I’d like to let it there just for the case that I make the blog public, so that other people can have access to your valuable text. In times when culture is converted into commodities, we should remember Adorno. Neither the nuisance nor the severeness. But the warning dystopian message he has sent to our times.

    Kind, freaky and Best regards.


  8. 9

    […] THOMSON, A – A User’s Guide To The Culture Industry [03] […]

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