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Music "Pushed to the Edge of Existence" (Adorno, Listening, and the Question of Hope)

From: Cultural Critique
60, Spring 2005
pp. 92-133 | 10.1353/cul.2005.0022

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Music "Pushed to the Edge of Existence" (Adorno, Listening, and the Question of Hope)

That art stands as a reminder of what does not exist, prompts rage.

—Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory

Hope is not confidence. Hope is surrounded by dangers, and it is theconsciousness of danger and at the same time the determined negation of that which continually makes the opposite of the hoped-for object possible.

—Ernst Bloch [in conversation with Adorno], "Something's Missing"


These days it's often nearly as difficult to escape music as it is to close one's ears to sound generally. Or, to state the matter more directly, wherever there's commerce—and commerce is everywhere (in the public selling of goods, ideologies, subjectivities, identities)—there's music to help grease the skids of attraction. Music promises good times as you prepare to part with your coin, whatever you're buying or buying into. Given the virtually sacred nature of late capitalism's secular materialism, the ritual of selling is rampantly overdetermined, and here music plays a fundamental role, no matter the product and without regard to whether the consumers are presumed to be the de facto proles, on the lower end of the social spectrum, or the Quality, on the upper end. As it were, pretty much everyone has music in his or her ears throughout the exchange process. The ubiquity of music in commerce, broadly conceived—in a postindustrial world defined by commerce—engenders repetition on a vast scale, more and more of the same so long as it sells, like sitcom spin-offs [End Page 92] gone cosmic: interchangeable music Clearly Channeled into a would-be mass consciousness, as though life were lived within the confines of a global elevator outfitted with surround sound. Positive social effects pretty much go begging, so the story goes. Decades ago, Theodor Adorno diagnosed and predicted all this, repeatedly, and to the considerable consternation of music lovers of nearly every bent.

But things aren't quite that simple, and in particular not for Adorno. Indeed, though Adorno is commonly (if carelessly) charged with unrelenting pessimism, at the very heart of his sustained and often bitter critique of modernity there lies fundamental hopefulness, if not precisely optimism, conceived within the context of art's role—music especially—in providing the wherewithal to imagine social utopia. But for Adorno to imagine a better reality, the actuality of the present dystopia must be directly confronted.

In about 1934 Adorno drafted an essay called "Music in the Background," so aphoristically brief that it might be taken almost as an afterthought. Anecdotal and (atypically) almost conversational in tone, the text hints at a foundation for hope, but indirectly. Adorno describes the everyday, utterly ordinary—and indeed clichéd—live entertainment music typical of 1930s European cafés and pubs, music that for the time served a similar function to the most ritualistically commercial musics of today. Adorno's concern, in essence, was music in a state of ruins, whose sounds he nonetheless pursued with both determination and sadness.

He opens the essay with a series of images of music—or, perhaps better, of musical life—now silenced in the administration and bustle of mundane existence. If one sings aloud on the street there's the risk of being arrested as a disturber of the peace; if one hums while in the car, the very lack of attention to the task of (hectic) driving may produce an accident. In short, "If you are looking for music, you have to step outside the space of immediate life, because it no longer is one, and find the lost immediacy where it costs the price of admission, at the opera, at a concert" (Adorno 2002b, 506). In the 1930s Adorno "heard" the silencing of music—except in the sanctioned venues of high bourgeois art—at a time when the phonograph and the radio were already well established as the foundation for musical mass culture. Modern life as he perceived it was unmusical, and the only way to recoup the loss was to see that life [End Page 93] restaged, on museumlike historical display, and in designated...