Katherout Essays On Music


Richard Leppert Life and Works

Adorno was a genius; I say that without reservation. . . . [He] had a presence of mind, a spontaneity of thought, a power of formulation that I have never seen before or since. One was unable to grasp the emerging process of Adorno's thoughts; they emerged, as it were, finished. That was his virtuosity. . . . When you were with Adorno you were in the movement of his thought. Adorno was not trivial; it was denied him, in a clearly painful way, ever to be trivial. But at the same time, he lacked the pretensions and the affectations of the stilted and "auratic" avant-garde that one saw in George's disciples. . . . By all notable standards, Adorno remained anti-elitist. Incidentally, he was a genius also in that he preserved certain child-like traits, both the character of a prodigy and the dependence of one "not-yet-grownup." He was characteristically helpless before institutions or legal procedures. Jürgen Habermas, "A Generation Apart from Adorno"

Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno was born in Frankfurt am Main on 11 September 1903.1 He died from a heart attack just short of his sixty-sixth birthday on 6 August 1969 while on vacation in Switzerland.

Adorno's father, Oskar Wiesengrund (1870-1946), was a wine merchant and an assimilated Jew who converted to Protestantism at about the time of his son's birth. The family was well off. Adorno was an only child whose youth was as sheltered as it was happy. As Martin Jay put it, "His childhood provided him a model of happiness whose memory served as a standard against which he would measure all subsequent disappointments."2 His mother, Maria Calvelli-Adorno della Piana (1864-1952), was Catholic, and it was her family name that Adorno exchanged for Wiesengrund in 1938.3 Also living in the household throughout Adorno's childhood was his mother's unmarried sister, Agathe Calvelli-Adorno (1868-1935). Adorno referred to both as Mother. Maria had been a very successful professional singer, her career ending with her marriage; Agathe had been a successful professional pianist; she had accompanied singer Adelina Patti in numerous recitals.

Adorno's intellectual training was rigorous and came early. By age fifteen, he began a long period of study—occupying Saturday afternoons—of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason mentored by family friend Siegfried Kracauer (1889-1966), who at the time was editor of the Frankfurter Zeitung. By Adorno's own account, the Kant study sessions went on "for years." By 1923 Kracauer and Adorno were studying Goethe's Elective Affinities and, thereafter, the first draft of Walter Benjamin's essay on this work.4 Hauke Brunkhorst states the impact of the Kant studies as "the key work in Adorno's intellectual development. The idea of a negative dialectic, which is Adorno's most unique philosophical contribution, owes much to it."5 Adorno himself acknowledged as much: "I am not exaggerating in the slightest when I say that I owe more to this reading [of Kant] than to my academic teachers."6

Leo Lowenthal (1900-1993), later the distinguished sociologist of literature, whom Adorno met in 1921, also studied with Kracauer. In a letter to Lowenthal of 4 December 1921, Kracauer mused about their mutual friend: "Something incomparable puts him in a position over both of us, an admirable material existence [referring to Adorno's family's wealth] and a wonderfully self-confident character. He is truly a beautiful specimen of a human being; even if I am not without some skepticism concerning his future, I am surely delighted by him in the present." Lowenthal, late in life, described Adorno at eighteen in more personal terms as "a delicate, slender young man. Indeed, he was the classical image of a poet, with a delicate way of moving and talking that one scarcely finds nowadays. We would meet either at a coffee house—mostly at the famous Café Westend at the opera, where intellectual enfants terribles met—or at one or at the other of our parents' places. Naturally, I knew Adorno's parents well, also his aunt Agathe. It was an existence you just had to love—if you were not dying of jealousy of this protected beautiful life—and in it Adorno had gained the confidence that never left him his entire life."7

With Kracauer's guidance Adorno notes that he experienced Kant "from the beginning not as mere epistemology, not as an analysis of the conditions of scientifically valid judgments, but as a kind of coded text from which the historical situation of spirit could be read, with the vague expectation that in doing so one could acquire something of truth itself." No less important, Adorno noted that "What pressed for philosophical expression in [Kracauer] was an almost boundless capacity for suffering: expression and suffering are intimately related. Kracauer's relationship to truth was that suffering entered into the idea—which usually dissipates it—in undistorted, unmitigated form; suffering could be rediscovered in ideas from the past as well."8 The question of suffering, and the responsibility of both philosophy and art to address it, remained with Adorno his entire career.

In 1921, at age seventeen, Adorno entered Frankfurt's Johann Wolfgang Goethe University where he studied philosophy, sociology, psychology, and music. He completed a doctorate in philosophy just three years later at age twenty-one. During these years he met and formed friendships with two men of particular importance to his later professional and intellectual life, respectively: in 1922 Max Horkheimer (1895-1973), eight years Adorno's senior; and in 1923 Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), eleven years older. By the late 1920s Adorno was also acquainted with a number of other heterodox Marxists, including Ernst Bloch, Bertolt Brecht, Herbert Marcuse, and Kurt Weill.

As an adolescent, Adorno's musical training included piano lessons from Bernhard Sekles, also the teacher of Hindemith. As a young man he seriously entertained the possibility of a career as a composer and concert pianist. He acted on this ambition in January 1925 with a move to Vienna, after having been deeply affected by excerpts from Berg's Wozzeck, prior to the opera's world premiere, played at a concert in Frankfurt, where he also met Berg. Berg accepted him as a composition student and gave him lessons twice weekly.9 Adorno also took additional piano training from Eduard Steuermann, a champion of twentieth-century piano works, who like Berg was part of the Schoenberg circle.

Adorno did not find Vienna to his liking. Moreover, the Schoenberg "circle," which he hoped to join, turned out to be not much of one. Schoenberg himself was remote personally and inaccessible physically, having moved outside the city to Mödling following his second marriage; and in 1926 Schoenberg moved to Berlin. Not least, Schoenberg and Adorno did not hit it off, despite Adorno's admiration for the composer's music. Adorno returned to Frankfurt in the summer of 1925, though he traveled back to Vienna on and off until 1927, maintaining his contacts and publishing music criticism, notably in the music journals Pult und Taktstock and Anbruch; for the latter he acquired an editorial position with Berg's help in 1929 which he retained until 1932.10 Both journals championed new music. Adorno's career in music journalism in fact predated his Vienna experience—and vastly exceeded his publication in philosophy, the first philosophical essay appearing only in 1933. Between 1921, while still a teenager, and 1931 he published dozens of opera and concert reviews, reviews of published new music, as well as essays on aesthetics, and heavily favoring new music.11 Thus in 1922, at nineteen, he praised in print Schoenberg's Pierrot lunaire (1912) in the Neue Blätter für Kunst und Literatur. During the late 1920s and early 1930s he and Ernst Krenek carried on in-print debates about free tonality and serialism, and problems of musical form and genre; he also collaborated with violinist Rudolf Kolisch on developing a theory of musical performance.12

Returning to Frankfurt at twenty-four, Adorno began his association with the Institute of Social Research, founded in 1923, with which Horkheimer was already connected—only after the Second World War was the Institute's work referred to as the "Frankfurt School." Adorno's first publication for the Institute came in 1932, with the essay "On the Social Situation in Music," included in this volume; it appeared in the first issue of the Institute's journal, Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung. Adorno formally joined the Institute only in 1938, during its American exile.

The right to teach in German universities depends on the Habilitationsschrift, a kind of second dissertation. Adorno's first attempt ("The Concept of the Unconscious in the Transcendental Theory of Mind") in 1927 was rejected by his advisor, philosopher Hans Cornelius. His second effort, successful, concerned Kierkegaard ("Kierkegaard: Construction of the Aesthetic") and constituted one of the early critiques of Existentialism. Paul Tillich, the theologian, was Adorno's official advisor to this project, since Cornelius had left the university, emigrating to Finland. Adorno's Kierkegaard study was published in 1933, on the very day that Hitler assumed office.

The Marxist orientation of the Institute of Social Research was well known and in no sense disguised; moreover, its members were almost exclusively Jewish. On 30 January 1933, the day of Hitler's ascendancy, the house shared by Horkheimer and Friedrich Pollock in a Frankfurt suburb was seized by Hitler's SS.13 The Institute itself was searched and closed by the police on 13 March. In July the Gestapo office in Berlin sent notice of the confiscation of "Communist property," charging that the Institute "has encouraged activities hostile to the state."14 Most of its sixty-thousand-volume library was confiscated. (The Institute's substantial private endowment had been transferred to Holland two years earlier and was later moved again to the United States, thereby protecting it from seizure.) In September, on his thirtieth birthday, Adorno's right to teach, the venia legendi, was revoked by the Nazi government, and he moved, briefly, to Berlin.15 (To that point in his career Adorno had principally supported himself, however poorly, by journalistic music criticism, rather than teaching.)16

Horkheimer, who had assumed the directorship in 1931, and his colleagues initially moved the Institute to Geneva, where a branch office had been established the same year as Horkheimer became director—until the start of the war there were also branch offices in Paris and London. In May 1934 Horkheimer traveled to New York and secured an affiliation for the Institute with Columbia University. Soon thereafter, Horkheimer was joined by Leo Lowenthal, Herbert Marcuse, and Friedrich Pollock.

In 1934 Adorno left Germany for England, dividing his time between London and Oxford where he studied at Merton College. (His entry to Merton was supported by references from philosopher Ernst Cassirer and musicologist Edward Dent; Adorno had written to Alban Berg for the favor of intervening with Dent, whom Adorno had met through the International Society for New Music.)17 Thereafter, Adorno made numerous trips back to Germany, some quite extended, in particular to see Gretel Karplus (1902-1993) in Berlin, whom he married in 1937. It was possible for Adorno to return to Germany more or less freely for two reasons. First, he was not politically active, nor was he a member of the Institute; second, he was, as Rolf Wiggershaus puts it, "'only' a 'half-Jew'";18 the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 treated Mischlinge like Adorno more leniently than "full" Jews.19 Leo Lowenthal accounts for Adorno's reluctance to leave Germany as typical of the assimilated German-Jewish middle class, the upper middle class especially. "Adorno had such an incredibly hard time finally leaving Germany (we had to drag him almost physically); he just couldn't believe that to him, son of Oskar Wiesengrund, nephew of aunt Agathe, and son of Maria, anything might ever happen [i.e., so secure and happy was his childhood], for it was absolutely clear that the bourgeoisie would soon become fed up with Hitler. This kind of naïve unfamiliarity with the real world—particularly that of Germany and the at-first complicated and then not-so-complicated relations of Christians and Jews—must be borne in mind if one is to fully understand Adorno's personal history."20

In June 1937 Adorno briefly visited the United States for the first time, at the urging of Horkheimer. Adorno and Gretel emigrated in February 1938, thanks to a part-time position established for him by Horkheimer in the music division of the Princeton University Radio Research Project.21 Adorno remained in New York until November 1941, when he moved to Los Angeles, following Horkheimer who had gone West for health and climate reasons several months earlier.22 Adorno's nearly eight-year California exile was intellectually highly productive. Indeed, in a 1957 letter to Lowenthal he confided that "I believe 90 percent of all that I've published in Germany was written in America."23

Major works written during this period include Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) written with Horkheimer at the beginning of his stay, and, at the end, TheAuthoritarian Personality (1950), a multi-person collaboration with Adorno the senior author.24The Authoritarian Personality, by far the largest monograph Adorno wrote in English, was part of a series of projects that fell under the heading Studies in Prejudice, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, which had hired Horkheimer to direct its Department of Scientific Research. Between these two major collaborative projects came Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life completed by 1946 but published only in 1951. Dedicated to Horkheimer, it is Adorno's most personal book, an often deeply moving analysis of late modernity viewed through the condition of exile. At about the same time, he collaborated with Hanns Eisler on Composing for the Films (1947), the first monograph on film music. Philosophy of Modern Music (Adorno's German title is more accurately rendered "New Music"), a highly influential—and controversial—account of music by Schoenberg and Stravinsky, appeared in 1949, though part of it was written several years earlier. In Search of Wagner, parts of which he had published in essay form in 1939, appeared in 1952.

During the war years, Adorno came into close contact with fellow émigré Thomas Mann, then writing his great novel Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn as Told by a Friend, a sustained critique of Nazism using the fictional composer's biography and work as a metaphor for Germany's cultural decline. In 1943 Mann read both Adorno's Wagner manuscript, and the Schoenberg essay that constitutes the first part of Philosophy of Modern Music. Mann, much impressed, informally secured Adorno's services as de facto principal musical advisor to the novel, which among other things, involved Adorno's coaching Mann on Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique,25 for which he received Mann's public expression of gratitude in his monograph account of the writing of the novel, The Story of a Novel: The Genesis of Doctor Faustus.26 Mann's reaction to reading Adorno's Schoenberg essay: "Here indeed was something important. The manuscript dealt with modern music both on an artistic and on a sociological plane. The spirit of it was remarkably forward-looking, subtle and deep, and the whole thing had the strangest affinity to the idea of my book, to the 'composition' in which I lived and moved and had my being. The decision was made of itself: this was my man. . . . His knowledge of tradition, his mastery of the whole historical body of music, is enormous. An American singer who works with him said to me: 'It is incredible. [Adorno] knows every note in the world.'"27

During the late 1940s Horkheimer, Pollock, and Adorno gradually reached a decision to return to Frankfurt and reestablish the Institute. Horkheimer made a brief exploratory visit in April 1948, and for a longer time during the spring and summer of 1949. In 1950 Horkheimer, together with Pollock, resettled there, though he made a number of return visits to the United States in subsequent years. The Institute's new home, located near the ruins of its prewar structure, officially reopened in 1951. Adorno's first return to Germany since his departure in 1938 came in November 1949; he was now forty-six. The Germany, and the university, to which Horkheimer, Pollock, and Adorno returned was profoundly different from what they had experienced before the war, as Wiggershaus summarizes:

They saw themselves as Jews, as left-wing intellectuals and as critical sociologists in an environment which had been more or less completely purged of people like themselves, and in which all the signs had long since been pointing clearly to the restoration of the old order. The unique symbiosis represented by German-Jewish culture [whose liberal traditions had been a marked feature of Frankfurt University prior to Nazism] had been irreversibly destroyed. Apart from Horkheimer and Adorno, none of the distinguished lecturers or professors from the heyday of Frankfurt University—the last years of the Weimar Republic—returned. Horkheimer, Adorno and Pollock could count on being met with patience and good intentions precisely because they were, and remained, the exceptions.28
Indeed, there was resentment toward the returned Jewish émigrés. In 1953 Adorno was given a tenured faculty position, but as a special case—the precise title was "Extraordinary Chair of Philosophy and Sociology"—as a form of compensation and restitution. But Adorno's position, even in official university language, came to be called the "Compensation Chair, " the very name of which in German (Wiedergutmachungslehrstuhl) is rendered absurd by the extraordinary length of the coinage.29 Indeed, Adorno was never granted a regular appointment, despite his qualifications—or, for that matter, fame. He was finally granted a full professorship in 1957.30

Between October 1952 and August 1953, Adorno was (unhappily) back in Los Angeles—after which he never again returned to the United States, although at the time of his death he was preparing to deliver a series of lectures at Princeton. Horkheimer had signed a research contract with the Hacker Foundation, the brainchild of Friedrich Hacker, a Viennese-born psychiatrist who had opened a clinic in Beverly Hills. The matter was mutually beneficial. Hacker "hoped to gain an academic reputation and advertising for his clinic through collaboration with the leading members of the Institute of Social Research";31 and the Institute's principal figures needed the funding that Hacker was able to provide. Adorno was sent to fulfill the contract; he also needed to return to the United States, else lose his American citizenship which was in fact subsequently surrendered. Under sponsorship from the Hacker Foundation, Adorno produced two studies on popular culture, "The Stars Down to Earth," a monograph-length essay on popular astrology, and the much shorter foray into television, "How to Look at Television."

In his essay "On the Question: 'What Is German?'" originally a radio lecture delivered in 1965, Adorno moved from a broad critique of national identity and its collectivizing tendencies to a much more personal account, in the second half, of his decision after the war to return to Germany. He acknowledges that "At no moment during my emigration did I relinquish the hope of coming back. . . . I simply wanted to go back to the place where I spent my childhood, where what is specifically mine was imparted to the very core. Perhaps I sensed that whatever one accomplishes in life is little other than the attempt to regain childhood."32 But of course the reasons were more complicated. Adorno played up the ordinary European disdain for American commercialism "because it has produced nothing but refrigerators and automobiles while Germany produced the culture of the spirit." But this polemical remark was actually one he intended to undercut. The issue was not America or its commercialism. Indeed, in America, he pointed out, "there also flourishes sympathy, compassion, and commiseration with the lot of the weaker. The energetic will to establish a free society—rather than only apprehensively thinking of freedom and, even in thought, degrading it into voluntary submission [i.e., as he sees European experience]—does not forfeit its goodness because the societal system imposes limits to its realization. In Germany, arrogance toward America is inappropriate. By misusing a higher good, it serves only the mustiest of instincts."33

Adorno made abundantly clear that his American experience was fundamentally, if not surprisingly, shaped by his life before exile, just as his life's work after his return to Germany was reshaped by his years in America.34 High among his reasons for returning to Germany was the desire to be immersed in his native language, not least due to frustrations with American academic publishing. He relates a particularly telling experience involving an American editor, "incidentally a European emigrant," who wanted to publish a portion of Philosophy of Modern Music in English translation, a draft of which Adorno prepared for him to consider. The result was rejection on grounds that it was "badly organized." And also he relates a tale about an essay, "Psychoanalysis Revised," that was virtually rewritten by copy editors of an American professional journal in an effort to achieve stylistic uniformity in the issue ("The entire text had been disfigured beyond recognition").35

From 1955 until his death in 1969, Adorno's publication proceeded at an astounding pace. Taken as a whole, the sheer quantity of his oeuvre is staggering. The German Collected Edition (twenty volumes, printed in twenty-three) comprises more than ten thousand pages, of which more than four thousand concern music; put differently, if pedantically, something over three million words in all, of which a million concern music. And much more remains to be published. The Nachlass, slowly appearing, is estimated to equal the length of the Gesammelte Schriften when complete.36 Besides In Search of Wagner and Philosophy of Modern Music, which concerns Schoenberg and Stravinsky, Adorno wrote monographs on Berg (1956) and Mahler (1960). He left unfinished a virtually career-long project on Beethoven—first published more than twenty years after his death and only recently translated into English—Beethoven: The Philosophy of Music. He supervised publication of six essay collections devoted solely to music: Dissonanzen (1956), Sound Figures [1959, Klangfiguren],Der getreue Korrepetitor (1963), Quasi una fantasia (1963), Moments musicaux (1964), and Impromptus (1968). The collection Prisms appeared in 1955, containing several important music essays in addition to others on a variety of subjects. He also published a loosely structured monograph on musical sociology, Introduction to the Sociology of Music (1962). The range of these collections is noteworthy: composers from Bach to Boulez, but focusing on the nineteenth century, Beethoven especially, and on the twentieth century up to the 1960s; specific musical works; the institution of early music (leading the way into the "authenticity debates" of the 1980s); compositional procedure; musical form; radio music; jazz; and kitsch; chamber music; opera; new music; popular and light music; conductors and conducting; musical nationalism; the role of the critic; recording technology; types of musical conduct; a theory of listening and listeners; and music pedagogy to touch on only some of the most important topoi.37 Besides performance reviews and reviews of published music, he also published book reviews between 1930 and 1968.38 Adorno also composed music much of his adult life, beginning before he went to Vienna in 1925 to study composition with Alban Berg and continuing through the 1930s and 1940s, during his exile in both England and the United States. In 1926 Berg confided to Schoenberg in a letter that he found "Wiesengrund's work very good and I believe it would also meet with your approval, should you ever hear it. In any event, in its seriousness, its brevity, and above all in the absolute purity of its entire style it is worthy of being grouped with the Schönberg school (and nowhere else!)."39 Thomas Mann noted that Adorno was composing music during their association in Southern California during the 1940s.40

Adorno's position as an advocate of avant-garde music was at once reflected and secured by his frequent participation, whether as a composition course director or discussant, in the Darmstadt International [Summer] Vacation Courses on New Music which he attended over nine summers between 1950 and 1966.41Philosophy of Modern Music, published in Germany in 1949, had a significant impact on the postwar generation of avant-garde composers active at Darmstadt—one reflection of which was that Adorno's own compositions were performed with some regularity during this period, though in fact most were written before 1945. And this despite the fact that Adorno was highly critical of the canonic status that serial compositional procedures attained in the aftermath of Schoenberg and Webern, a critique which was, in fact, explicitly voiced in Philosophy of Modern Music and later in "The Aging of the New Music," included in this volume. Indeed, Adorno welcomed aleatoric composition, exemplified in 1957 by Karlheinz Stockhausen (Klavierstück XI)42 and Pierre Boulez (his lecture "Alea," that is, "Dice"), each breaking with his earlier serialist phase.43

Following Horkheimer's retirement in 1958, Adorno assumed directorship of the Institute for Social Research (he had been Horkheimer's co-director since 1955), a post he retained until his death. Between 1958 and 1965, Adorno produced four volumes of essays on a broad array of literary topics, Notes to Literature I-IV. His philosophical monographs from this period include Against Epistemology: A Metacritique (1956), a critique of Husserl and phenomenology; and The Jargon of Authenticity (1964), attacking Heidegger and other proponents of Existentialism. Negative Dialectics, a sustained critique of canonic Western philosophy and metaphysics from Kant and Hegel to Husserl, Heidegger, and Sartre, appeared in 1966. Not quite finished at the time of his death was Aesthetic Theory. And there is much more that I have not mentioned, including several other essay collections, and many single essays.

Often lost sight of in American consideration of Adorno, likely due to the difficulty of his major philosophical works, is that he was in every sense a public intellectual. Thus between 1950 and 1969 he was heard on more than 160 radio programs on highly varied subjects, including music. Other topics included matters of general political interest, such as the state of German public education and the question of historical memory in the light of National Socialism. He spoke about philosophy, his experiences as an émigré in America, and even free time (leisure and "hobbies," a word he spoke in English, and which he disparaged). Often Adorno revised the radio lectures for publication, principally in popular journals, and later collected them in paperback editions. As Henry W. Pickford notes, "His engagement in the mass media was a logical consequence of his eminently practical intentions to effect change."44

Adorno's regular lectures at his university were widely attended, some filling lecture halls seating one thousand. And of course he often lectured at other German academic institutions. In short, he was a major intellectual force in both academic and public spheres. In the words of his friend Leo Lowenthal—who chose to remain in the United States after the war and achieved a notably distinguished career at Berkeley—Adorno was "Germany's most prominent academic teacher and outstanding citizen of the Western-European avant-garde."45

The left student movement of the late 1960s produced a dramatic change in Adorno's fortune among the very students much influenced by his philosophical and sociological writings. Adorno had refused to join the student protests in Frankfurt in 1969. Worse, on 31 January he had called in the police to end what he mistakenly thought was a student occupation of the Institute (in fact, the seventy-six students arrested had merely been looking for a place to meet). Matters came to a final head in April when three women activists of the SDS interrupted Adorno's philosophy lecture ("An Introduction to Dialectical Thinking") by surrounding him at the podium, bearing their breasts, simulating caresses, and "attacking" him with flowers. As Martin Jay described it, "Adorno, unnerved and humiliated, left the lecture hall with the students mockingly proclaiming that 'as an institution, Adorno is dead.'"46 His physical death from a heart attack followed four months later.

  Critical Theory

Whoever doesn't entertain any idle thoughts doesn't throw any wrenches into the machinery. Theodor Adorno, "Meaning of Working through the Past"

Critical Theory—the designation comes from Adorno's friend and mentor Max Horkheimer in an essay published in 193747—is constituted as a loose amalgamation of philosophical principles rather than as either a neatly packaged system or a methodological recipe.48 In what follows I lay out the defining issues and the social and cultural stakes to which these principles respond. To be sure, Frankfurt School Critical Theory evolved over time and was never regarded as a seamless entity. Nonetheless, some basic parameters are clear and well established.

Horkheimer's lengthy essay, "Traditional and Critical Theory" (1937), is a good place to start. He opens the text with a question: "What is 'theory'?" and immediately proceeds to provide the "traditional" answer, articulated as an outgrowth of scientific method employed in the natural sciences but also adopted by the social sciences—for which, as he will argue, traditional theory is sorely inadequate. "Theory for most researchers is the sum-total of propositions about a subject, the propositions being so linked with each other that a few are basic and the rest derive from these. The smaller the number of primary principles in comparison with the derivations, the more perfect the theory. The real validity of the theory depends on the derived propositions being consonant with the actual facts."49 The inadequacy of traditional theory, Horkheimer argues, lies in its "assiduous collecting of facts"—not in the facts themselves but the invisibility and even irrelevance of the historicity of facts, and of the fact-perceiving human subject: "The facts which our senses present to us are socially preformed in two ways: through the historical character of the object perceived and through the historical character of the perceiving organ. Both are not simply natural; they are shaped by human activity, and yet the individual perceives himself as receptive and passive in the act of perception."50

Horkheimer's intention is not to attack scientific method but to delineate its inadequacy in theorizing the social, cultural, and political realms of human experience. Stated simply, traditional theory cannot address the fact and problem of the social totality precisely because the social totality develops less from the relation of fact to fact and more from the relation of fact to value. Further, fact and value are invariably history-laden, and the "facts" of history become facts not as the result of some natural order but because they are made so, indeed even willed so, by the social orders that prevail in a given time and place, which is to suggest that a social or cultural "fact" is not necessarily either permanently or universally so regarded. Moreover, the thinking subject—who will produce or define social "facts"—is never external to the processes for which explanation is sought. The scholar-subject is not autonomous; to assume autonomy is blindly to accept as "natural" fact the ideology of the Cartesian ego itself (the mind "is not cut loose from the life of society; it does not hang suspended over it").51 In short, as Christoph Menke accounts for this issue, "The limits that Horkheimer sees imposed on traditional theory derive from the fact that it cannot grasp itself—its own functioning—as theory: it is not reflexive."52

Horkheimer provides an example in the modern intellectual division of labor: "In society as it is, the power of thought has never controlled itself but has always functioned as a nonindependent moment in the work process, and the latter has its own orientation and tendency."53 Thought in modernity is fundamentally instrumental. And further, thought is marked by social privilege; it bears the mark of society's lack of equality. That some individuals are intellectuals occurs in relation to the denial of the intellectual practice to others, and this social fact affects thought itself. Expressed in more global language, the happiness of some comes about via the denial of happiness to others; it is this crucial mediation of happiness that is erased unless the "fact" of happiness is examined in relation to value and history.

The Marxian insight that drives Horkheimer's concern is the demand for equal justice. But unlike Marx he does not see a rising up of the proletariat (neither did Adorno). That the poor and oppressed deserve, or for that matter might even demand, justice does not constitute its guarantee. Indeed, Horkheimer notes that the situation of social degradation and domination is "no guarantee of correct knowledge." Accordingly, he insists on the responsibility of the intellectual to "be a critical, promotive factor in the development of the masses."54 The critical theoretician's role is to help change society by explaining it—but all the while remembering that his or her own position of relative intellectual privilege ironically exemplifies the very problem for which redress is sought.

Horkheimer acknowledges the utopian character of Critical Theory; its goal is not the perpetuation of present society but society's transformation.55 Or, as he expressed it elsewhere, "The real social function of philosophy lies in its criticism of what is prevalent."56 Nonetheless the extreme difficulty of effecting progressive change was recognized by Horkheimer, not least in light of Stalinism and National Socialism. Salvaging the possibility of thought itself appeared to be an enormous challenge: anti-reason seemed to drive modernity toward dystopian fulfillment. As he pointed out, "the first consequence of the theory which urges a transformation of society as a whole is only an intensification of the struggle with which the theory is connected."57 Adorno, in Negative Dialectics, voiced what he saw as an increasing prohibition on thought itself: "When men are forbidden to think, their thinking sanctions what simply exists. The genuinely critical need of thought to awaken from the cultural phantasmagoria is trapped, channeled, steered into the wrong consciousness. The culture of its environment has broken thought of the habit to ask what all this may be, and to what end; it has enfeebled the question [of] what it all means—a question growing in urgency as fewer people find some such sense self-evident, as it yields more and more to cultural bustle."58

Critical Theory, responding to the specific historical circumstances of Western modernity, constitutes a Marxian-indebted critique of exchange economy and its impact on the subject and society—though Adorno's critical-theoretical practice, by contrast with most of his Frankfurt School compatriots, involved socio-cultural rather than socio-economic critique. Here is Horkheimer's summary statement: "The critical theory of society is, in its totality, the unfolding of a single existential judgment. To put it in broad terms, the theory says that the basic form of the historically given commodity economy on which modern history rests contains in itself the internal and external tensions of the modern era; it generates these tensions over and over again in an increasingly heightened form; and after a period of progress, development of human powers, and emancipation for the individual after an enormous extension of human control over nature, it finally hinders further development and drives humanity into a new barbarism."59 The "point" of Critical Theory develops from the presupposition of freedom, even to the extent that general freedom does not yet exist.60 As Horkheimer states near the end of his essay, Critical Theory "has no specific influence on its side, except concern for the abolition of social injustice."61

Critical Theory stands in opposition to closed philosophical systems—Hegel's is a prime example—precisely because of the idealism that governs such systems' operation. That is, Critical Theory opposes philosophical systems designed to achieve a "logical" closure or absolute truth without necessary reference to the reality that stands outside thought itself. Thus the "totality" achieved in Hegel's dialectical overcoming of contradiction is at heart false to the extent that its philosophical logic fails to address actual social contradiction. Critical Theory by contrast draws attention to social contradiction—material existence—expressed as antagonism and suffering, not only by what it attends to and "says" but also by how its speaks: in fragments, aphorisms, short forms, in a word, anti-systematically, and by formulating a negative dialectics, in opposition to the (positive) dialectics of the Hegelian model, a topic I'll pursue later. Critical Theory seeks to conjoin philosophy with social analysis, the practice governed by a materialist, as opposed to idealist, dialectics, the ultimate concern being human happiness.62

Now to Adorno. The parameters that define his thought are several, and their principal features have been mapped by Martin Jay:63 Marxism of a distinctly heterodox variety; aesthetic modernism; what Jay names "mandarin cultural conservatism," in particular reference to Adorno's writing on mass culture (Jay's position here is, in my judgment, too baldly stated, as I shall discuss later); a "Jewish impulse," particularly notable after the onset of the war and the horrors of the Holocaust—the first sustained discussion by Adorno of anti-Semitism appears in Dialectic of Enlightenment; and, finally, what Jay names "Deconstructionism," as much as anything, I think, reflecting the moment Jay's Adorno monograph was written.64

Finally, Adorno's thought reflects his reading of Freud,65 and the place he defined for psychology in his social theory, notably pertinent in light of what Jay has termed "the unexpected rise of an irrationalist mass politics in fascism, which was unforeseen by orthodox Marxists."66 In point of fact, Adorno's principal interest in psychoanalysis was its de facto delineation of social trauma. To mark social trauma constituted a step toward the healing of the individual within society, to the extent that diagnosis precedes cure. But this is not to suggest that Adorno's interest was with psychoanalytic therapy, which addressed the individual psyche and whose healing remained distinct from the social whole. The diagnosis Adorno sought was social not individual, though the specific detail of individual psychosis could in turn inform social diagnostics. As he put it in the Dedication of Minima Moralia, "society is essentially the substance of the individual."67 (Adorno's social psychology is in fact much governed by a study of the family, as a kind of middle ground between the individual and the larger society.)68 More important for Adorno, Freudian psychoanalysis, ahistorical and based on a biological premise, nonetheless "expressed, at least metaphorically, one aspect of the nonidentity of man in an unreconciled totality."69

During the early 1940s, while living in Southern California, Adorno and Horkheimer jointly authored a text they first named Philosophical Fragments in a 1944 mimeographed edition, and later Dialectic of Enlightenment when the text was formally published in a revised version in Amsterdam in 1947; the book first appeared in English only in 1972.70 Douglas Kellner comments that Dialectic of Enlightenment "provides the first critical questioning of modernity, Marxism and the Enlightenment from within the tradition of critical social theory," thereby anticipating by several decades postmodernism's critique of modernity.71 The book is unconventionally structured and in a way that reflects the function of writing as Adorno understood it, though it might likewise be argued that the text is something of a hybrid, perhaps the result of an amalgamation of two quite different narrative styles: Horkheimer's distinctly the more conventional, organized in standard essay or chapter format; Adorno's the opposite, markedly more constellational, fragmented, and aphoristic. Elements of both are replete throughout the text.

The book opens conventionally, with an introduction, followed by a chapter on "The Concept of Enlightenment." Thereafter, chapter organization is interrupted by two paired sections called "Excursus," each of chapter length and on topics seemingly far removed from an investigation of (modern) enlightenment: The Odyssey and the Marquis de Sade. What follows next is still more jarring in light of the immediately preceding excursuses, namely, the much cited chapter on "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception," followed in turn by a chapter on anti-Semitism. At the end the text fragments radically in a lengthy section simply named "Notes and Drafts," organized as a series of twenty-four aphorisms, similar to those in Minima Moralia, which Adorno was beginning to write at the time. The book's organization, philosophically and socially grounded, is anti-philosophical to the extent it abandons any model of closed systematic investigation in its attempt to understand modernity. Nonetheless, it is fundamentally philosophical within the context of Critical Theory's critique of traditional philosophical practice. As regards both its narrative structure and its stance on history, the book is of singular importance for understanding Adorno.

The Marxian foundation of Critical Theory is shifted away from class conflict to what Adorno and Horkheimer regard as something more fundamental, namely, the subject's historical relation to nature as one of conflict which turns the subject against others and, ultimately, against the self. "What men want to learn from nature is how to use it in order wholly to dominate it and other men.72 That is its only aim. Ruthlessly, in despite of itself, the Enlightenment has extinguished any trace of its own self-consciousness." And later: "Enlightenment is totalitarian."73 This, in essence ultimate, conflict, in other words, long predates capitalism. As Adorno and Horkheimer (in)famously argue, the fundamental forms of domination that organize modernity have their roots in the primordial efforts of human beings to survive in a nature—primordial totality—of which they are at once a part yet deeply alienated from and fearful.

And yet human subjects lament the very separation from nature upon which their subjectivity is ultimately grounded. Thus by the principle Adorno and Horkheimer articulate, the designation of national parks which first occurred during the heyday of the Industrial Revolution—itself signaling a kind of final triumph over nature—directly responded to the fractured relation of the subject to nature; the setting aside of small and as yet "untamed" geographies signified less a nostalgic return to nature than a material acknowledgment of the permanence of the fracture, in the same way that salvage anthropology in essence picks among the graves and ruins to remember what "advanced man" has destroyed to become advanced. In this sense, of course, charity—compassionate conservatism—falls in line as a substitute for justice, not to alter the foundation of domination74 but to make injustice more tolerable to some people's stomachs and other people's conscience.

The driving theme of Dialectic of Enlightenment is the ironic regression of enlightenment, reason's alleged goal, into myth, whose deadly consequences at the level of the subject and society were so dramatically enacted in the Aryan myths of the Third Reich. The book's "purpose" was to produce a critique that made visible enlightenment's internal contradictions, the recognition of which would necessarily constitute the first step in rescuing enlightenment from itself—from its unrecognized debased form. In this regard, for all its often cited pessimism, Dialectic of Enlightenment is at heart utopian.

The fundamental rhetorical device of Dialectic of Enlightenment is exaggeration, embodied in the vast historical sweep from Homer to the movies, in an implicitly unbroken historical thread, as exemplars of domination to the point of self-domination—a gesture narratologically as effective as it was grist for subsequent criticism.75 As Susan Buck-Morss points out: "The polemical, iconoclastic intent of the study is the reason why it focused on two sacred cows of bourgeois rational thought, the harmonious age of ancient Greece and the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. These moments of an idealized past were juxtaposed to the most barbaric, most irrational phenomena of the present in order to demythologize the present and the past's hold over it."76 Not the least of the book's intent is the effort to dismantle the self-satisfied ideology that structures the heart of historicism, the myth of history as progress, which itself underwrites the ideological ground of modernity as the supposed realization of the Enlightenment.

Though both Adorno and Horkheimer were modernists to the core, they attack the degree to which modern enlightenment is defined in terms of technological achievement. Neither was nostalgic for a supposed lost Golden Age, whether that of Homeric myth or the progressive moment of the bourgeois revolution in the early decades of the nineteenth century ("The task to be accomplished is not the conservation of the past, but the redemption of the hopes of the past").77 Technological achievement as such is a neutral element in their critique. Rather, it is the fetishization of technological achievement, and how technology comes to made a fetish, that locates their concern. The real issue is instrumental reason and its function in domination: "Reason itself has become the mere instrument of the all-inclusive economic apparatus. It serves as a general tool, useful for the manufacture of all other tools, firmly directed towards its ends, as fateful as the precisely calculated movement of material production, whose result for mankind is beyond all calculation. At last its old ambition, to be a pure organ of ends, has been realized."78 That is, reason instrumentalized is reason not concerned with social truth and its implications for social justice, but reason of the bottom line, whether in economics or cultural politics—reason degraded to wit, smarts, and especially cunning,79 which functions as a tool on behalf of the self, not the other. Instrumental reason serves as agent in the subject's war on nature, broadly understood. Reason's "cunning [List] consists in turning men into animals with more and more far-reaching powers, and not in establishing the identity between subject and object."80

Adorno and Horkheimer argue that the dilemma of instrumental reason functions as a defining principle in Western history as far back as written records survive. Instrumental reason, the determinate agent in domination—so they scandalously argue—determines the primordial hero of Western history, Odysseus himself, in essence the First Modern Man, the hero as relentless Can-Do specialist of the ancient world. His cunning defeats Polyphemus, and by techniques of wanton cruelty;81 his wit saves him from the Sirens, but only at the expense of his men whose ears he orders stopped up with wax to render them deaf to the Sirens' song, whose pleasure he denies them not for their own good, to avoid being drawn thereby to the rocks, but so that he can hear the song without risk to himself. Good planner, he buys himself some insurance by ordering his men to tie him securely to the mast, a gesture that also "pays" for the pleasure through a gesture of self-renunciation. Odysseus's ears are unstopped; he hears the song, but cannot act on the desires thereby lavishly produced. Lashed to the mast, he is at once the simulacrum of phallic power and self-rendered impotence.82 Desire for desire is a recurring trope, as is desire's defeat through seemingly perpetual deferral, the Weberian Protestant work ethic avant la lettre. "The history of civilization is the history of the introversion of sacrifice. In other words: the history of renunciation. Everyone who practices renunciation gives away more of his life than is given back to him: and more than the life that he vindicates."83

Fear, and fear's resentment, is the dominant trope of Dialectic of Enlightenment: Polyphemus is feared hence blinded; the self is feared and disciplined; the Jew Other is feared and destroyed. Put differently, humankind's long "modernity" is constituted by a radical act of othering, in which each instance of the other exists either to serve or be destroyed.84 Fear's causes are real. The human being in a primordial state confronts the world at once as provider and threat. Language initiates the process of ordering nature's apparent randomness and, worse, chaos. Myth narrates an order, via an already advanced form of reason—but not advanced enough. The language-act of myth is a device for coping with nature, not controlling it. The subject (in actuality not yet a subject) functioning under the order of myth only "imagines himself free from fear when there is no longer anything unknown." Enlightenment supplants myth, itself a lesser form of enlightenment but enlightenment nonetheless: "Enlightenment is mythic fear turned radical." Enlightenment supersedes myth, by means of which the subject controls nature absolutely. Enlightenment is determined by the need for nothing to escape its insight: "Nothing at all may remain outside, because the mere idea of outsideness is the very source of fear."85 But to banish fear, through enlightenment, leads as well to the banishment of pity. Enlightenment is relentless, its demands total. The world must be rationalized, myth banned for its sin of fiction. The elimination of "outsideness" demands the identification of the Other, all others, and by whatever means necessary, the most efficient of which is reason instrumentalized, reason put to the task of naming, labeling, identifying. The modern forms of identification numbers—whether registered on magnetic disk or tattooed on one's arm—mark the outer limits of the territory. This is the form of rationality that conjoins Odysseus and Sade, whose accounts of the body involve systematically cataloguing its orifices and demonstrating their functionality for others' pleasure with imaginative—yet disciplined—concentration:86 a modernity of sex in which the subject effectively others itself in the most fearsome manner that the human mind can envision—fully codified, a systematic law of outrage. Reason reverts, reasonably, under the circumstances, to its own other: Cartesian duality is enacted without mercy, the mind and body87 in an embrace defined by hatred via the allegory of rape. The exchange principle is here worked out in an economy of hungry and degraded flesh, and the world is organized into binary principles: strong and weak, agents and their victims. "Enlightenment has relinquished its own realization."88 And yet the antidote to instrumentalized reason is reason—the paradox and contradiction at the heart of the dialectic of enlightenment. As Adorno pointed out in Negative Dialectics, "Today as in Kant's time, philosophy demands a rational critique of reason, not its banishment or abolition."89

To summarize: enlightenment and domination are co-dependent. And in the end, the survival that accrues by othering nature produces at the same moment an othering of the self: "As soon as man discards his awareness that he himself is nature, all the aims for which he keeps himself alive—social progress, the intensification of all his material and spiritual powers, even consciousness itself—are nullified, and the enthronement of the means as an end, which under late capitalism is tantamount to open insanity, is already perceptible in the prehistory of subjectivity. Man's domination over himself, which grounds his selfhood, is almost always the destruction of the subject in whose service it is undertaken."90

Adorno's position on natural beauty, which deeply informs both his social and aesthetic theory, is anchored in these concerns. "Nothing in the world is worthy of attention except that for which the autonomous subject has himself to thank."91 In this regard, nature is lacking. Yet human subjects, by nature of nature, thereby are constituted by a lack of their own making. Adorno argues that authentic artworks silently hail natural beauty, which, like nature, is not directly available to us to the extent that "nature" is both pre-determined and pre-structured by history (just as language itself is historical). (Our longing for nature—for example, ecological regard, wilderness preservation, but also art, in Adorno's argument—is a projection of a lack that develops alongside our separation from and domination of nature.) Adorno suggests that the lack of interest in natural beauty in nineteenth-century aesthetics is part and parcel of the larger historical separation he critiques.92 "The concept of natural beauty rubs on a wound."93 Art is called upon to answer for natural beauty, in effect to substitute for it; art—wholly artifactual, that is, literally unnatural—by this means enacts or perpetuates the attack on nature. And yet art does more, for it acknowledges the natural beauty that the subject has otherwise degraded yet nonetheless desires in its nonexistent "perfect" state, and it reflects on this fact. Art, as Adorno put it, "want[s] to keep nature's promise. . . . What nature strives for in vain, artworks fulfill."94 Natural beauty, he insists, is "the trace of the nonidentical in things under the spell of universal identity."95


The true nihilists are the ones who oppose nihilism with their more and more faded positivities, the ones who are thus conspiring with all extant malice, and eventually with the destructive principle itself. Thought honors itself by defending what is damned as nihilism. Adorno, Negative Dialectics

Adorno's critique of philosophy was isomorphic with his critique of society. The truth of modern society, for Adorno, was its falseness through and through. Modernity was structured around the commodity fetish and a commodified subjectivity which together functioned in a deadly, mutually self-sustaining embrace. Philosophy's role—in effect, philosophy's social and ethical responsibility—was to conceptualize this condition: "Conscience," Adorno wrote in Negative Dialectics, "is the mark of shame of an unfree society."96 But philosophy's ability in so doing was doubly compromised; first, by its own history, which in the West was fundamentally idealist with its idealism in turn systematically totalizing and self-referential; second, philosophy, an act of language, failed to reveal the truth that it claimed, a principal cause of which was philosophy's conventionalized practice of treating language—hence thought itself—as a transparent mechanism, in essence autonomous from its own historical contingency. Under present conditions in particular, Adorno argued, thought—notably including his own—was deeply compromised by the forces driving modernity, as he acknowledged at the very beginning of Negative Dialectics, his greatest philosophical work: "No theory today escapes the marketplace. Each one is offered as a possibility among competing opinions; all are put up for choice; all are swallowed. There are no blinders for thought to don against this, and the self-righteous conviction that my own theory is spared that fate will surely deteriorate into self-advertising."97 Today the awful phrase "marketplace of ideas" rarely provokes critique, so second-nature is the reduction of human activity to the metaphor of consumerism. The truth or falsity of ideas is collapsed under the myth that free subjects may simply pay their money and make a choice, presumably because our self-engendered consumer-alert function will guide us to choose wisely. Adorno's point is that the social reality determining the marketplace metaphor, and myriad others like it, locates itself in the very soul of language, and by this means corrupts the ability to think beyond the parameters thereby established. In Negative Dialectics Adorno acknowledged the impact on thought of a society governed by the fetish of the bottom line: "We like to present alternatives to choose from, to be marked True or False. The decisions of a bureaucracy are frequently reduced to Yes or No answers to drafts submitted to it; the bureaucratic way of thinking has become the secret model for a thought allegedly still free. But the responsibility of philosophical thought in its essential situations is not to play this game."98

Truth is the result of an immense struggle against multiple levels of self-deceit: in particular, the self-defeating notion of a non-contradictory form of subjecthood, founded on the ideology of personal autonomy, together with the self-deceitful belief that one can unproblematically think outside the mediating impact of general falsehood, though the urgent social need to do so was philosophy's justification.99 Indeed, for Adorno, the practice of philosophy represented an explicitly personal struggle against instrumental reason. Philosophy, in other words, was necessary to Adorno as a condition for his own subjecthood.

The challenge he set for himself was to write a philosophy that did not replicate that which the practice otherwise sought to confront: general and seemingly overwhelming falsehood. Borrowing from a distinction that had a lengthy history in German philosophy (Kant and Hegel, notably), Adorno distinguished between two forms of reason: Verstand and Vernunft. The former, essentially, refers at best to something like common sense, though in its darker forms it degenerates into cunning; it provides the foundation for instrumental reason—reason of the bottom line. Vernunft, the higher form, is coterminous with Adorno's sense of dialectical thought. Dialectics, for Adorno, was a language-act by means of which suppressed details were made visible, palimpsests read, and otherness articulated instead of subsumed. Dialectics retrieved leftovers—particulars—from the universalizing tendencies of concepts that conventionally determine philosophical practice. "The name of dialectics says no more, to begin with, than that objects do not go into their concepts without leaving a remainder, that they come to contradict the traditional norm of adequacy."100 The goal of dialectics was utopian, reflecting the effort to preserve the promesse de bonheur, a phrase borrowed from Stendhal, through self-reflexive thought that confronted social contradiction. Dialectics attempted to preserve nonidentity in the face of a seemingly overwhelming identity—that is, to preserve difference in the face of its increasingly pervasive abolition.101

Dialectics' "agony is the world's agony raised to a concept. . . . Dialectics serves the end of reconcilement."102 Adorno held that the domination of nature—nature broadly understood as that other which stands apart from the subject, and upon which the possibility of the subject ironically depends—is, in the end, destructive of both humankind and nature ("No universal history leads from savagery to humanitarianism, but there is one leading from the slingshot to the megaton bomb").103 The rupture from nature that produced "Man" (in Foucault's sense: man as a cultural construct)104 will in the end be man's undoing, unless a reconciliation can be staged. For this to occur two connected premises must guide thought: first, that the subject is also an object, that is, part of the very nature over which the subject claims dominion; second, that the object—nature, the object world external to the self—ultimately stands outside the totality of the subject's conceptual grasp, as it were, as a remainder. To recognize this ungraspable leftover, and indeed to think the self in the context of the object, marks the first step toward a possible reconciliation of subject and object, the subject and its other.105 Adorno's concern was to retain in thought the object's fundamental particularity against its universal analogue captured in concepts.106

Hegel's pursuit of philosophical truth recognized contradiction as a component part of the whole. His dialectics articulates thesis as a category of preliminary affirmation and unification which recognizes apparent unity. But every thesis contains its own antithesis—contradiction—defined by a negation of the affirmation, as well as differentiation. Whereas the first stage, thesis, is dogmatic (as it were received wisdom), antithesis is skeptical, and structured by "negative reason." In Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) Hegel speaks of negative dialectic's skepticism as

a moment of self-consciousness, to which it does not happen that its truth and reality vanish without its knowing how, but which, in the certainty of its freedom, makes this other which claims to be real, vanish. What Skepticism causes to vanish is not only objective reality as such, but its own relationship to it, in which the "other" is held to be objective and is established as such, and hence, too, its perceiving, along with firmly securing what it is in danger of losing, viz. sophistry, and the truth it has itself determined and established. Through this self-conscious negation it procures for its own self the certainty of its freedom, generates the experience of that freedom, and thereby raises it to truth.107

Hegel advances a third stage, synthesis, wherein the dialectic turns positive once more, though reconfigured in light of the skeptical second stage. Ultimately, negation is philosophically overcome and a resolution achieved. It is at the level of this third stage where Adorno parts company with Hegel, precisely due to the fundamental idealism of the exercise, where a philosophical truth has no necessary connection to the truth of material reality. Accordingly, whereas Hegel could claim that "The True is the whole,"108 Adorno countered in Minima Moralia that "The whole is the false."109 That is, the truth about totality was its actual falseness, resolution to which could not be achieved in idealist pronouncement as an act of language, or, in Buck-Morss's words, "reason and reality did not coincide. . . . Because the contradictions of society could not be banished by means of thought, contradiction could not be banished from thought either."110 Not coincidentally, in Adorno's aesthetic theory contradiction lies at the heart of any art which has any claim to truth. "A successful work," he pointed out, "is not one which resolves objective contradictions in a spurious harmony, but one which expresses the idea of harmony negatively by embodying the contradictions, pure and uncompromised, in its innermost structure."111

In 1960 Herbert Marcuse published "A Note on Dialectic" as a new preface to the second edition of Reason and Revolution (1941). He opens the text by expressing the hope that his book will contribute to the revival of a mental faculty "in danger of being obliterated: the power of negative thinking,"112 almost certainly a wry reference to the then-popular Sunday affirmations of the radio preacher Reverend Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, whose signature phrase was "the power of positive thinking," a line about strictly personal do-it-yourself self-fulfillment.113 The ethical claim of negative thought, by contrast, is determined by a fundamentally social purpose. "The negation which dialectic applies to ['facts'] is not only a critique of conformist logic, which denies the reality of contradictions; it is also a critique of the given state of affairs on its own grounds—of the established system of life, which denies its own promises and potentialities."114 Marcuse's concern, mirroring Adorno's, is to connect objective fact to social-subjective value, to insist on the defining impact of one on its other, and, not least, to foreground the historicity of the relationship. Dialectical thought begins with a social concern, namely, "the experience that the world is unfree; that is to say, man and nature exist in conditions of alienation, exist as 'other than as they are,'"—to which Marcuse appends a corollary: "Any mode of thought which excludes this contradiction from its logic is a faulty logic."115

Marcuse identifies a central component of negative dialectics, what Adorno called "immanent criticism": the critical power of negative dialectics was not the result of applying philosophical categories from the outside, so to speak, but the result of critiquing facts and concepts on the very basis of their own terminology and established processes. Further, as Adorno expressed the point in Minima Moralia, "the dialectic advances by way of extremes, driving thoughts with the utmost consequentiality to the point where they turn back on themselves, instead of qualifying them."116

The function of dialectical thought, Marcuse summarizes, "is to break down the self-assurance and self-contentment of common sense, to undermine the sinister confidence in the power and language of facts, to demonstrate that unfreedom is so much at the core of things that the development of their internal contradictions leads necessarily to qualitative change: the explosion and catastrophe of the established state of affairs."117 He ends his remarks with an implicit homage to Adorno: "No method can claim a monopoly of cognition, but no method seems authentic which does not recognize that these two propositions are meaningful descriptions of our situation: 'The whole is the truth,' and the whole is false."118

If philosophy was at the heart of Adorno's effort to imagine a subject worthy of the name, his philosophical practice functioned against philosophical tradition—which tradition, he argued, ultimately promoted the untruth against which he struggled. The immanent difficulty of succeeding at this practice was not lost on him. The penultimate aphorism in Minima Moralia, in effect, looking back over the 151 preceding fragments, reviews the anti-philosophical philosophical practice the book engages and issues a "Warning: not to be misused." Dialectical thought has served historically as "a refuge for all the thoughts of the oppressed, even those unthought by them," he insists, but dialectical thought also has the capacity to poison itself. "As a means of proving oneself right [dialectical thought] was also from the first an instrument of domination, a formal technique of apologetics unconcerned with content, serviceable to those who could pay: the principle of constantly and successfully turning the tables. Its truth or untruth, therefore, is not inherent in the method itself, but in its intention in the historical process."119

Adorno is haunted by the potential for untruth in the pursuit of untruth's truth, tinged not least with the fact that thinking itself is always already in modernity marked by cultural and economic privilege. Earlier in Minima Moralia, in an aphorism titled "Bequest," he tempers his enthusiasm for dialectic's socially progressive potential: "Dialectical thought is an attempt to break through the coercion of logic by its own means. But since it must use these means, it is at every moment in danger of itself acquiring a coercive character: the ruse of reason would like to hold sway over the dialectic too."120

Adorno frequently voiced this concern in later years, whenever the project of philosophy came under his scrutiny. Thus in the essay "Why Still Philosophy?" first given as a radio lecture, he expands the caveat:

A philosophy that would still set itself up as total, as a system, would become a delusional system. Yet if philosophy renounces the claim to totality and no longer claims to develop out of itself the whole that should be the truth, then it comes into conflict with its entire tradition. This is the price it must pay for the fact that, once cured of its own delusional system, it denounces the delusional system of reality. . . . After everything, the only responsible philosophy is one that no longer imagines it had the Absolute at its command; indeed philosophy must forbid the thought of it in order not to betray that thought, and at the same time it must not bargain away anything of the emphatic concept of truth. This contradiction is philosophy's element. It defines philosophy as negative.121
The last aphorism of Minima Moralia, no. 153, is named "Zum Ende."122 I want to risk quoting the entire aphorism, since it decisively marks Adorno's commitment alike to negative dialectics and to the social stakes that determine the necessity of this philosophical choice. The aphorism aptly, and gracefully, demonstrates Adornian dialectics at work.123 Movingly, the aphorism is saturated with Benjamin's utopian projection of social redemption, personally ironic to Adorno, without question, as regards his friend's then-still-recent politically motivated suicide. "Zum Ende" recapitulates the critical themes of Minima Moralia: the history of damaged life, but not a life relinquished; life clinging to hope in the face of catastrophe via the lifeline of critical thought: the insistence on thinking critically—negatively—to think something better. Adorno reiterates the image of enlightenment, and its corollary, philosophical intentionality. And in the process of defining one last time the necessity of negativity, he retains, at the end of "Zum Ende," negativity itself. There is, in the end, no ultimate escape in thought from the conditions that destroy thought. Such is the condition for thought's possibility. The only philosophy which can be responsibly practised in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption. Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light. To gain such perspectives without velleity or violence, entirely from felt contact with its objects—this alone is the task of thought. It is the simplest of all things, because the situation calls imperatively for such knowledge, indeed because consummate negativity, once squarely faced, delineates the mirror-image of its opposite. But it is also the utterly impossible thing, because it presupposes a standpoint removed, even though by a hair's breadth, from the scope of existence, whereas we well know that any possible knowledge must not only be first wrested from what is, if it shall hold good, but is also marked, for this very reason, by the same distortion and indigence which it seeks to escape. The more passionately thought denies its conditionality for the sake of the unconditional, the more unconsciously, and so calamitously, it is delivered up to the world. Even its own impossibility it must at last comprehend for the sake of the possible. But beside the demand thus placed on thought, the question of the reality or unreality of redemption itself hardly matters.

History: Walter Benjamin

The need to lend a voice to suffering is a condition of all truth. Adorno, Negative Dialectics

Corollary to Adorno's dialectics is his concern to connect philosophy to history—but history of a particular kind, one which chooses to remember what is conventionally forgotten: in essence, history's victims. Adorno's sense of the writing of history registers the influence of Walter Benjamin, whose views are encapsulated in his "Theses on the Philosophy of History," a series of eighteen aphorisms drafted shortly before his death in 1940.124

Benjamin attacks historicism, the doctrine of history as progress, which he regards at best as highly selective, socially regressive remembering. His concern is that history all too conventionally conforms to tradition, choosing to remember only that which responds to the requirements of the elite and powerful. The danger to the truth of history, he noted, is that history largely belongs to the victors, in whose interest the past is normalized and, in effect, made to affirm the here and now. "Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious."125 The task of the historian, Benjamin insists, is "to brush history against the grain."126

Benjamin, devoted to art, quickly turns his eye to culture to argue his point. Long enjoying a kind of ideological free ride as the ultimate mark of European bourgeois social distinction and achievement, as it were the sign of the mature subject, art—or to be more precise, what he polemically calls "the spoils"—is scrutinized for the immanent social inequality that stains its soul. "Cultural treasures," he suggests, are viewed by the historical materialist "with cautious detachment"; their origin cannot be contemplated "without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism."127

Above all, "it is the sufferings of men that should be shared," Adorno wrote in Minima Moralia, a responsibility that constituted a principal function of art.128 He later made this same point by way of a rhetorical query: "But then what would art be, as the writing of history, if it shook off the memory of accumulated suffering."129 This is the ending of Adorno's last, and unfinished, major work, Aesthetic Theory. Reason can conceptualize suffering but, Adorno noted, it cannot express its experience.130 That responsibility falls to art, which can "anticipate emancipation, but only on the basis of a solidarity with the current state of human existence."131 In the late essay "Why Still Philosophy?" (1962), Adorno summarized the urgency that drove his practice: "Philosophy must come to know, without any mitigation, why the world—which could be paradise here and now—can become hell itself tomorrow. Such knowledge would indeed truly be philosophy."132

  The Culture Industry

Mass culture is a kind of training for life when things have gone wrong. Adorno, "The Schema of Mass Culture"

Adorno distrusted any concept of culture that forgot its tainted origins in social inequality, and he further held that to celebrate culture only for its transcendence of, and autonomy from, material concerns undercut culture's critical and progressive potential. He insisted that Culture and culture alike bore the scars of modernity, though the social impact on subjects of "high" culture and "low" were often significantly different. He further argued that within the guise of modern technological society all culture, high and low, was profoundly marked by mass culture. These general concerns focused Adorno's attention throughout his career, but his first sustained discussion of the topic was the essay, included in this volume, "The Social Situation in Music" (1932), followed later by the famous chapter from Dialectic of Enlightenment, "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,"133 written with Max Horkheimer while living next to Hollywood in the early 1940s, and reflecting their earlier experience in Weimar Germany as well as their current situation in California.134

The principles that organize the "Culture Industry" (CI) argument fundamentally shape virtually all of Adorno's subsequent thought, especially his later essays on mass and popular culture, although near the end of his life he modified his original position to some degree, as I will discuss later. Given the centrality of this essay to Adorno's lifelong study of culture generally, especially the tension between high culture and popular/mass culture, and the essay's centrality to popular culture studies to this day (whether praised or condemned, it is not ignored), I want to take some care in delineating the essay's most important claims.

First the name. Adorno and Horkheimer consciously substituted "culture industry" for mass (or popular) culture, terms already then current, on the grounds that "mass" and "popular" were strictly ideological (that is, false consciousness), that these terms disguised the true nature that lay behind them: a culture that was administered from above, rather than one emerging from below. Mass culture, as they saw it, was fundamentally imposed, not chosen ("Whoever speaks of culture speaks of administration as well").135 Adorno and Horkheimer mince no words about their theory of total administration; in the opening paragraph they refer to its possessing a steel-like rhythm [strählernen Rhythmus], as though functioning in stiff and perpetual motion. The essay itself, however, as Frederic Jameson has pointed out, is "not a theory of culture but the theory of an industry, of a branch of the interlocking monopolies of late capitalism that makes money out of what used to be called culture. The topic here is the commercialization of life,"136 in effect the integration of the individual into the exchange principle.137

The essay's lengthy opening paragraph, seldom remarked upon in any critical literature, does not concern mass culture in the ways we have come to expect. Instead, it's structured as a kind of urban allegory using architecture and urban development, housing especially, as the defining trope. That is, whereas "culture" is conventionally understood at once as superstructural and spiritual/immaterial to the extent that its appeal is to the mind and spirit, Adorno and Horkheimer conversely—perversely—talk about the mundane and notably material: where people live. They cite the power of international capital to define cities and the people in them: monumental gleaming business towers juxtaposed to slums, and on the outskirts flimsily built bungalows (with which Adorno was personally familiar in the new development where he lived in Brentwood), which they liken to the stage-set buildings of world (trade) fairs functioning to praise technical progress, and thereafter to be discarded "like empty food cans." Not least, they cite planned housing projects, said to promote the ideal of the autonomous (private) individual, yet defined by mass-production, monotony, cookie-cutter dwellings, with the strictest economy of permissible living space, and convenient to the centers of production (work) and consumption (leisure, pleasure), both determined by the labor of the projects' inhabitants. Macrocosm and microcosm mirror one another in a model of culture that advertises the subject (individuality), whose particular identity nonetheless is intended to merge perfectly with the general, thereby promoting identity solely as a mirage. These striking Marxian images emphasize a homology between the material and the cultural: "Under monopoly all mass culture is identical."138

The CI essay is organized around a central paradox: "To speak of culture was always contrary to culture."139 In modernity, culture rendered self-reflexive is culture for sale; culture "spoken of" has regressed to its own advertising, functioning spatially as a terrain for maximizing economic development and the social structures to achieve it. Once named, in other words, culture is transformed from a process to a product. Culture becomes business,140 and as such it requires administration at once to render it "safe" for consumption, and so that it will in fact be consumed.141

The account of the CI is principally a critique of mass entertainment—movies, music, radio, magazines, etc.—to whose impact, Adorno and Horkheimer argue, no one remains immune. Film more than any other form of mass entertainment constitutes the material for their ensuing critique. Adorno and Horkheimer dismiss the claim that the entertainment industries simply give people what they want, that they are (democratically) sensitive to general needs. They argue that the CI instead acts as a "circle of manipulation and retroactive need."142 In Minima Moralia Adorno reiterated the point: "The culture industry not so much adapts to the reactions of its customers as it counterfeits them. It drills them in their attitudes by behaving as if it were itself a customer."143 The result, they argue, is the shaping of human identity by cultural "products" that are fully standardized, ever the same. Identity itself, formed in the image of the CI's products, tends toward the identical. The industry "robs the individual of his function. Its prime service to the customer is to do his schematizing for him."144 The products of the CI, including by implication the human subjects shaped by the CI, lose all relation to spontaneity; as much as possible, even the reactions to mass art are as pre-planned, however imperfectly, as the cityscape described in the essay's opening paragraph. And planned first for profit: business (the word the industry uses to describe itself, just as it describes its production as product—to this day both films and recordings are thus conventionally referred to).

However, they did not mean to suggest that every "product" is literally the same. On the contrary, they argued that difference is structured into and explicitly manifested by the products but often only as a marketing technique endlessly promising claims for the new, commonly without providing it. Adorno and Horkheimer point to the CI's differential catering to the various social-class sectors—what they name "obedience to the social hierarchy."145 Thus, in terms of our own time, a Chevy is not a Buick; a tabloid is not Newsweek. But nor are they as utterly different as their respective advertising claims might suggest. Given models of the Chevy and Buick share the same chassis; and the sensational celebrity features of National Enquirer are commonly matched, if slightly dressed up, in the "respectable" weekly news magazine's stories. None of this is this left to chance nor can it be, given the demands of the bottom line. Consumer "choice" and market research are conjoined in a perpetual embrace. "Consumers appear as statistics on research organization charts, and are divided by income groups; . . . the technique is that used for any type of propaganda."146 (Marcuse once sarcastically noted that "choice" meant the freedom to choose between brands of toilet paper.)147 The true "value" of the consumer is to consume what's offered. Adorno and Horkheimer attack the sameness and standardization in the products of the CI and the identification by subjects with what is offered, invariably in the name of free choice: the invitation to conceptualize one's subjecthood as the replication of the identical which, to be sure, claims to be different. The CI "consists of repetition."148

It’s easy to think about music as just a sequence of sounds – recorded and encoded in a Spotify stream, these days, but still: an acoustic phenomenon that we respond to because of how it sounds. The source of music’s power, according to this account, lies in the notes themselves. To pick apart how music affects us would be a matter of analysing the notes and our responses to them: in come notes, out tumbles our perception of music. How does Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah work its magic? Simple: the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift…

Yet thinking about music in this way – as sound, notes and responses to notes, kept separate from the rest of human experience – relegates music to a special, inscrutable sphere accessible only to the initiated. Notes, after all, are things that most people feel insecure about singing, and even less sure about reading. The vision of an isolated note-calculator in the brain, taking sound as input and producing musical perceptions as output, consigns music to a kind of mental silo.

But how could a cognitive capacity so removed from the rest of human experience have possibly evolved independently? And why would something so rarified generate such powerful emotions and memories for so many of us?

In fact, the past few decades of work in the cognitive sciences of music have demonstrated with increasing persuasiveness that the human capacity for music is not cordoned off from the rest of the mind. On the contrary, music perception is deeply interwoven with other perceptual systems, making music less a matter of notes, the province of theorists and professional musicians, and more a matter of fundamental human experience.

Brain imaging produces a particularly clear picture of this interconnectedness. When people listen to music, no single ‘music centre’ lights up. Instead, a widely distributed network activates, including areas devoted to vision, motor control, emotion, speech, memory and planning. Far from revealing an isolated, music-specific area, the most sophisticated technology we have available to peer inside the brain suggests that listening to music calls on a broad range of faculties, testifying to how deeply its perception is interwoven with other aspects of human experience. Beyond just what we hear, what we see, what we expect, how we move, and the sum of our life experiences all contribute to how we experience music.

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If you close your eyes, you might be able to picture a highly expressive musical performance: you might see, for instance, a mouth open wide, a torso swaying, and arms lifting a guitar high into the air. Once you start picturing this expressive display, it’s easy to start hearing the sounds it might produce. In fact, it might be difficult to picture these movements without also imagining the sound.

Or you could look – with the volume muted – at two performances of the same piano sonata on YouTube, one by an artist who gesticulates and makes emotional facial expressions, and the other by a tight-lipped pianist who sits rigid and unmoving at the keyboard. Despite the fact that the only information you’re receiving is visual, you’ll likely imagine very different sounds: from the first pianist, highly expressive fluctuations in dynamics and timing, and from the second, more straightforward and uninflected progressions.

Could it be that visual information actually affects the perception of musical sound, and contributes substantially to the overall experience of a performance? Numerous studies have attempted to address this question. In one approach, the psychologist Bradley Vines at McGill University in Canada and colleagues video-recorded performances intended to be highly expressive as well as ‘deadpan’ performances, in which performers are instructed to play with as little expressivity as possible. Then the researchers presented these recordings to the participants, either showing them just the video with no sound, or playing them just the audio with no video, or playing them the full audiovisual recording – or, in a particularly sneaky twist, playing them a hybrid video, in which the video from the expressive performance was paired with the audio from the deadpan performance, and vice versa.

It turns out that participants tend to describe as more expressive and emotional whichever performance is paired with the more expressive video – rather than the recording with the more expressive sound. In a separate experiment, the psychologist Chia-Jung Tsay at University College London showed that people predicted the winners of music competitions more successfully when they watched silent videos of their performances than when they merely heard the performances, or watched the video with the sound on.

Pairing minor (sad) audio with major (happy) video leads to the minor music being rated as happier

Music, it seems, is a highly multimodal phenomenon. The movements that produce the sound contribute essentially, not just peripherally, to our experience of it – and the visual input can sometimes outweigh the influence of the sound itself.

Visual information can convey not only information about a performance’s emotional content, but also about its basic structural characteristics. Work by the psychologists Bill Thompson at Macquarie University in Sydney and Frank Russo at Ryerson University in Toronto showed that people could judge the size of an interval being sung even when they couldn’t hear it – merely by watching facial expressions and head movements. When video of a person singing a longer interval was crossed with audio from a shorter one, people actually heard the interval as longer. Similarly, when Michael Schutz and Scott Lipscomb, then both at Northwestern University in Illinois, crossed video of a percussionist playing a long note with audio from a short note, people actually heard the note’s duration as longer.

Multisensory integration at this basic level feeds into some of the higher-level effects of vision on perceived emotion. For example, pairing audio of a sung minor interval, typically heard as sad, with video footage of someone singing a major interval, typically heard as happy, leads to the minor interval being rated as happier.

A musical experience is more than an audiovisual signal. Maybe you’re trying out a new band because your best friend recommended it, or because you’re doing your parent a favour. Maybe you’re experiencing a concert in a gorgeous hall with a blissed-out audience, or maybe you’ve wandered into a forlorn venue with a smattering of bored-looking folks, all of whom seem to have positioned themselves as far from the stage as possible. These situations elicit markedly different sets of expectations. The information and inferences brought to the concert can make or break it before it even starts.

Joshua Bell is a star violinist who plays at the world’s great concert halls. People regularly pay more than $100 per ticket to hear him perform. Everything about the setting of a typical concert implies how worthy the music is of a listener’s full attention: the grand spaces with far-away ceilings, the hush among the thousand attendees, the elevation of the stage itself. In 2007, a reporter from theWashington Post had an idea for a social experiment: what would happen if this world-renowned violinist performed incognito in the city’s subway? Surely the exquisiteness of his sound would lure morning commuters out of their morning routine and into a rhapsodic listening experience.

Instead, across the 35 minutes that he performed the music of Bach, only seven people stopped for any length of time. Passers-by left a total of $32 and, after the last note sounded, there was no applause – only the continued rustle of people hurrying to their trains. Commentators have interpreted this anecdote as emblematic of many things: the time pressures faced by urban commuters, the daily grind’s power to overshadow potentially meaningful moments, or the preciousness of childhood (several children stopped to listen, only to be pulled away by their parents). But just as significantly, it could suggest that the immense power of Bell’s violin-playing does not lie exclusively in the sounds that he’s producing. Without overt or covert signalling that prepared them to have a significant aesthetic experience, listeners did not activate the filters necessary to absorb the aspects of his sound that, in other circumstances, might lead to rhapsodic experiences. Even musicianship of the highest level is susceptible to these framing effects. The sound just isn’t enough.

People liked the music more and were more moved by it when they thought it had been written for a happy reason 

Other studies also suggest a powerful role for context in the experience of music. In 2016, with my colleague Carolyn Kroger at the University of Arkansas, we exposed participants to pairs of performances of the same excerpt, but told them that one was performed by a world-renowned professional pianist and the other by a conservatory student: people consistently preferred the professional performance – whether they were listening to the professional, to the student, or had in fact just heard the exact same sound played twice. And, in another factor unrelated to the sound itself, listeners tended to show a preference for the second excerpt that they heard in the pair. When these two factors coincided – when the second performance was also primed as professional – their tendency to prefer it was especially strong. My own subsequent neuroimaging work using the same paradigm revealed that reward circuitry was activated in response to the professional prime, and persisted throughout the duration of the excerpt; this finding is in line with previous neuroimaging studies that demonstrated the sensitivity of the reward network to contextual information, affecting or even improving the pleasantness of a sensual experience.

It’s not only our sense of the quality of a performance that is manipulable by extrinsic information; our sense of its expressive content can also vary. In a recent study, we told people that we had special information about the musical excerpts that they were going to hear: in particular, we knew something about the composer’s intent when writing it. Unbeknown to the participants, we created the intent descriptions so that some were highly positive, some highly negative, and some neutral. For example, we could say that a composer wrote the piece to celebrate the wedding of a dear friend, to mourn the loss of a friend, or to fulfil a commission. We scrambled the description-excerpt pairings so that the same excerpts were matched with different descriptions for different participants. In each trial, participants read the composer-intent description, listened to the excerpt, and answered questions about it.

When told that the excerpt had been written for some positive reason, people heard the music as happier, but when told that the excerpt had been written in a negative circumstance, they heard it as sadder. Recasting the emotional tenor of an excerpt had important consequences for the listeners’ experience of it. People liked the excerpts more and were more moved by them when they thought they had been written for a happy reason (intriguingly, another part of the same study showed that people liked and were more moved by poetry when they thought it had been written for a sad reason). The social and communicative context within which a performance occurs – rudimentarily approximated-by-intent descriptions in this study – can imbue the same sounds with very different meanings.

The right music can get a roomfull of people dancing. Even people at classical concerts that discourage overt movement sometimes find it irresistible to tap a finger or foot. Neuroimaging has revealed that passive music-listening can activate the motor system. This intertwining of music and movement is a deep and widespread phenomenon, prevalent in cultures throughout the world. Infants’ first musical experiences often involve being rocked as they’re sung to. The interconnection means not only that what we hear can influence how we move, but also that how we move can influence what we hear.

To investigate this influence, the psychologists Jessica Phillips-Silver and Laurel Trainor at McMaster University in Ontario bounced babies either every two or every three beats while listening to an ambiguous musical excerpt that was capable of being understood as characterised by perceived accents every two or three beats. During this exposure phase, babies were hearing the same music, but some of them were being moved in a duple pattern (every two beats, or a march) and some of them were being moved in a triple pattern (every three beats, or a waltz). In a later test phase, babies were presented with versions of the excerpt featuring added accents every two or every three beats, translating the emphasis from the kinaesthetic to the auditory domain. They listened longer to the version that matched the bouncing pattern to which they had been exposed – babies who had been bounced every two beats preferred the version with a clear auditory duple meter, and babies who had been bounced every three beats preferred the version with the triple meter. To put it another way, these infants transferred the patterns they had learned kinaesthetically, through movement, to the patterns they were experiencing auditorily, through sound. What they perceived in the sound was framed by the way they had moved.

The findings paint an embodied picture of music-listening: the way you physically interact with music matters

Testing whether this transfer from movement to sound occurs in adults required a few modifications to the study design – it’s not as easy to pick up adults and bounce them. Instead, adults were taught how to bend their knees every two or three beats as a musical excerpt played. And rather than devising a listening-time paradigm to infer aspects of perception from preverbal infants, researchers simply asked participants which of two excerpts sounded more similar to the one in the exposure phase. Participants chose from versions of the excerpt to which auditory accents had been added every two or three beats. Mirroring results with the infants, the adults judged the version to be most similar when it featured the accent pattern that matched the way they’d moved. The effect persisted even when participants were blindfolded while moving, demonstrating that perception could transfer from movement to sound even in the absence of a mediating visual influence. Movements much subtler than full-body bounding can also influence auditory perception. Participants asked to detect target tones occurring on the beat from within a series of distractor tones performed better when they tapped a finger on a noiseless pad than when they listened without tapping.

Together, these findings paint an embodied picture of music-listening, where not just what you see, hear and know about the music shapes the experience, but also the way you physically interact with it matters as well. This is true in the more common participatory musical cultures around the world, where everyone tends to join in the music-making, but also in the less common presentational cultures, where circumstances seem to call for stationary, passive listening. Even in these contexts, when and how a person moves can shape what they hear.

The musical vocabularies and styles that people hear while growing up can shape the structures and expressive elements they are capable of hearing in a new piece. For example, people show better recognition memory and different emotional responses to new music composed in a culturally familiar style, as compared with new music from an unfamiliar culture. But it’s not just previous musical exposure that shapes their perceptual system: the linguistic soundscape within which a person is raised also reconfigures how they orient to music.

In languages such as English, the pitch at which a word is pronounced doesn’t influence its dictionary meaning. Motorcycle means a two-wheeled vehicle with an engine whether I say it in a really high or really low voice. But other languages, such as Mandarin Chinese and Thai, are tone languages: when Chinese speakers say ma with a high, stable pitch it means ‘mother’, but if they say it with a pitch that starts high, declines, then goes back up again, it means ‘horse’. The centrality of pitch to basic definitional content in these languages means that tone-language speakers produce and attend to pitch differently than non-tone-language speakers, day in and day out over the course of years. This cumulative sonic environment tunes the auditory system in ways that alter basic aspects of music perception. Speakers of tone languages, for example, detect and repeat musical melodies and pitch relationships more accurately than non-tone language speakers.

Culture and experience can change how music is heard, not just how people derive meaning from it

The psychologist Diana Deutsch at the University of California, San Diego concocted tritones (two pitches separated by half an octave) using digitally manipulated tones of ambiguous pitch height. People heard these tritones as ascending or descending (the first note lower or higher than the second) depending on the linguistic background in which they had been raised. Speakers of English who grew up in California tended to hear a particular tritone as ascending, but English speakers raised in the south of England tended to hear it as descending. Chinese listeners raised in villages with different dialects showed similar differences. A striking characteristic of this ‘tritone paradox’ is that listeners who hear the interval as ascending generally experience this upward motion as part of the perception, and have trouble imagining what it would be like to experience it the other way, and vice versa for listeners who hear it as descending. The effect influences what feels like the raw perception of the sound, not some interpretation layered on later. Culture and experience can change how music is heard, not just how people derive meaning from it.

Music’s interdependence on so many diverse capacities likely underlies some of its beneficial and therapeutic applications. As the late neurologist Oliver Sacks showed in Musicophilia (2007), when a person with dementia listens to music from her adolescence, she can become engaged and responsive, revealing the extent to which these tunes carry robust autobiographical memories.

Music cannot be conceptualised as a straightforwardly acoustic phenomenon. It is a deeply culturally embedded, multimodal experience. At a moment in history when neuroscience enjoys almost magical authority, it is instructive to be reminded that the path from sound to perception weaves through imagery, memories, stories, movement and words. Lyrics aside, the power of Cohen’s Hallelujah doesn’t stem directly from the fourth, the fifth, or even the minor fall or the major lift. Contemporary experiences of the song tend to be coloured by exposure to myriad cover versions, and their prominent use in movies such as Shrek. The sound might carry images of an adorable green ogre or of a wizened man from Montreal, or feelings experienced at a concert decades ago.

Despite sometimes being thought about as an abstract art form, akin to the world of numbers and mathematics, music carries with it and is shaped by nearly all other aspects of human experience: how we speak and move, what we see and know. Its immense power to sweep people up into its sound relies fundamentally on these tight linkages between hearing and our myriad other ways of sensing and knowing.

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Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis

is director of the music cognition lab at the University of Arkansas, a trained concert pianist, and the author of On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind (2013).


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