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  • Watchmen from the Point of View of Cinema and Media Study
  • Dana Polan (bio)

For thinking about medium specificity and contrast or comparisons among the practices of contemporary popular and media culture, I have personally found most productive the writings on radio music that Theodor Adorno crafted in American exile in the late 1930s and early 1940s and that were edited into a book, Current of Music, published in English in 2008.1 Most of the material derived from Adorno’s efforts as head of the Music Division of the Princeton Radio Research Project, which a number of scholars have considered a key early moment in the history of communication research. Wanting to understand what modern media of mass reproduction did to live performance—especially in works from that European tradition we associate most with classical music—Adorno looks at the technologies of radio and, for further comparison, the phonograph. If—and it’s of course a big “if ” given his well-known prejudices against the culture industry—we bracket out the ways Adorno turns distinctions among media into aesthetic judgments of the worthiness of this or that medium, Adorno can offer, to my mind, [End Page 144] one of the most productive approaches to thinking out the specificities in and among media in all their concrete detail.

What’s singular for me in Adorno’s approach is that he looks, years before French apparatus theory, at what we might call the apparatical aspects of these media. For Adorno, potential differences among media are not just issues of content or meaningful style; they have to do with the entire institution of the forms from production to reception. The apparatus of a medium includes the sociology of its authorship, the basic effects inherent in its technologies and vehicle of transmission, its modes of dissemination, the psychical makeup of its audience, and so on. In other words, what describes a medium is not an ontology whether in form or content—or even a set of thematic or stylistic traits alone—but a social phenomenology, how that medium works materially in space and time: what it does to its consumers. To take one of Adorno’s examples, listening to classical music on the radio often occurs domestically; it happens by the radio being turned on willfully by the listener and, unless that was done according to a program guide or some such, it means perhaps coming in on the middle of a piece of music—music, moreover, that one hasn’t chosen for oneself. And in the 1930s, it would generally have meant listening to a live studio performance that would not have been repeatable. All these contribute in their way to the experience the listener then would have of radio music. Differently, then, phonograph listening (to continue Adorno’s example) might well happen domestically, but this time even more at the will of the listener, choosing time and place and enabling mechanical repeatability and without radio’s impression of liveness and sharedness, of many people listening to the same broadcast and at the same time. Differently from both of these would be a live performance at a concert hall: the listener chooses to go but at a time chosen by others and with a program chosen by others, and so on.

Adorno is reminding us that media always take place in contexts and that these make meaning as much as the expressive content or style of the works: there are contexts of material presentation, contexts of audience awareness and preparation, contexts of conventions agreed upon or negotiated over, protocols of reception, and so on, and all of these make the experience of the specific work. My own remit for this dossier on Watchmen is to think about what film and media studies might contribute to the understanding of comics, and Adorno’s reflections are at the back of my reflections here. Of course, we can find formal similarities between comics and film, and scholars of comics have often been at pains to pinpoint these for reasons that are themselves often perhaps sociological, having to do with a new disciplinary area turning to another for inspiration or contrast. (Think, for instance, of Scott...


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pp. 144-149
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