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Left-Wing Elitism: Adorno on Popular Culture

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 14, Number 1, April 1990
pp. 65-78 | 10.1353/phl.1990.0054

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Bruce Baugh LEFT-WING ELITISM: ADORNO ON POPULAR CULTURE Although the declared aim of every left-wing movement since 1789 has been the emancipation of broader and broader segments of society, there exists a kind of left-wing elitism. In politics, there is the theory of the "revolutionary vanguard": since the masses are too mystified by ruling-class ideology to see the need for revolution, emancipation can only come from an elite composed of those whose theoretical tools allow them to grasp the contradictions in society ignored by the masses. In aesthetics, there is the avowedly left-wing yet antipopulist cultural criticism ofTheodor Adorno,1 whose essential position is most succinctly expressed in Herbert Marcuse's short, posthumous work, The Aesthetic Dimension.2 The paradox of the Adorno-Marcuse position is this: mass culture is condemned in the name of the wellbeing of the masses as being a hindrance to their emancipation. Adorno and Marcuse thus argue that popular liberation is best served by a critique of popular culture, and by an aesthetic that resolutely opposes the aesthetic preferences of the masses. I think this position rests on a misapprehension of the nature and capacities of popular culture, and that this is particularly evident in Adorno's treatment ofpopular music.3 But however mistaken they may be, Adorno and Marcuse cannot simply be brushed off as reactionaries whose contempt for mass culture is matched only by their contempt for the masses. Quite the opposite: it is because of their concern for mass emancipation that they find popular art objectionable. Moreover, their position is based on a penetrating critique of late capitalist society. Any serious left-wing aesthetics is obliged, then, to take the AdornoMarcuse position seriously. What I hope to show here, however, is that 65 66Philosophy and Literature one can accept Adorno's and Marcuse's analysis of late capitalism, as well as the basic definition ofemancipatory art drawn from this analysis, without being obliged to accept their pessimistic conclusions concerning popular culture. Contrary to Adorno and Marcuse, I will argue that popular art can in fact better meet their requirements for emancipatory art than any other kind. Adorno's and Marcuse's critique of popular culture hinges on their conception of the role of mass culture in late capitalism. Since this position is so well known, I will merely outline it here, returning to it in more detail later, during my discussion of Adorno's theory of emancipatory art. "Late capitalism" is the stage of economic development where, the concentration ofcapital (in factories and infrastructure) having already taken place, productive capacities have been so far developed that the problem is to find enough consumers so that supply does not outstrip demand. In order to maintain profits, it is necessary to prevent the market from being flooded, either by cutting back on production or by increasing consumption. Since the former tends to create crises for the economy as a whole (unemployment, depressions), the solution is to make workers into consumers by paying them higher wages. This, however, does not constitute worker emancipation, but a new form of alienation. Whereas in the early capitalism analyzed by Marx it is the worker's labor that is alienated, here consumption is alienated as well: instead ofone's consumption being based on one's own needs, it is based on the capitalist's need to keep demand high enough that profits can be maintained. It might appear that here there is a happy coincidence of the needs of the worker with those of the capitalist, but this is not the case, as the former's needs are manipulated to the latter's benefit, especially by advertising, which does not seek to inform the consumer of the existence of a product that could satisfy a need the consumer already had, but rather aims at creating a need for the product that was not previously felt, an "artificial need." This advertising does through an appeal to fantasy, so that the consumption of the product comes to be associated with the gratification of a desire that has been repressed and disguised because its immediate and uninhibited satisfaction would threaten social order. The result is that in...