A Vocabulary Lesson from my New Friend Theo

This week I read two essays, lent to me by one of my best friends (he’s not a composer, but he’s a very talented listener): Walter Benjamin’s “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” and Theodor Adorno’s “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening.” Upon first read, I was slightly annoyed by both essays, since it seemed like both writers were taking fairly simple concepts and using extremely verbose language to tell you things any composer could’ve told you. Funny how easy it is to dismiss critical writing when you’re tired and don’t want to read the big words, and get mad that critics can’t state their ideas in plain English (which, I guess, makes sense because they were writing German). The second and third reads were more fruitful. Since I have only just read the essays, and not any modern responses or criticisms to them, I won’t offer too much of my own opinion in order to avoid the risk of redundantly repeating someone else’s critique.

Theo and Walt both have really interesting ways of analyzing the sociology of art with Marxist ideas. Walter Benjamin is describing a theory of art that says, in the absence of any traditional, ritualistic value, art in the age of mechanical reproduction may be “useful for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art.” Benjamin backs up his theory with some unnecessary, prefatory rhapsodizing about vague characteristics of ideal art, like upholding “aura” (“changes in the medium of contemporary perception can be comprehended as decay of the aura…we define the aura of [natural objects] as the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be”) and authenticity (“the presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity”). The rest of the essay was mostly a critique of film, which was fascinating, but not about music—except for the discussion of how film creates a passive, absent-minded viewer, which Adorno later applies to music.

Theodor Adorno is worried that consumerism has made art lose its potential for being revolutionary and for ultimately provoking the imagination. He touches on critiques about the irreconcilable differences between high and low music that any stodgy old teacher could’ve eschewed, but he gets there by using dense language about the “power of the banal” and “reification” and the “dialectical in music.” So, now you can impress your friends with some of the phrases from Theo’s Dictionary that describe things you probably already knew:

  • Commodity fetishism: Capitalism has turned music into commodity, something to which the consumer has irrational emotional connections to. “[Success] is the mere reflection of what one pays in the market for the product. The consumer is really worshipping the money that he himself has paid for the ticket to the Toscanini concert. He has literally made the success which he reifies and accepts as an objective criterion, without recognizing himself in it. But he has not made it by liking the concert, but rather by buying the ticket,” “where they react at all, it no longer makes any difference whether it is to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony or to a bikini.”

  • Barbarism of perfection: Apparently a phrase of Eduard Steuermann, where “the new fetish is the flawlessly functioning, metallically brilliant apparatus as such, in which all the cogwheels mesh so perfectly that not the slightest hole remains open for the meaning of the whole.” Meaning that you buy a ticket to a concert to hear a piece presented flawlessly, exactly as it sounds on the record.

  • The regression of listening: Theo calls popular music “prescribed pleasure,” and argues that the fetishism surrounding this dumbing-down of music represents a large-scale sociological music retardation. “Even the most insensitive hit song enthusiast cannot always escape the feeling that the child with a sweet tooth comes to know in the candy store.”
  • Grappling with Adorno’s text was a fun experience. I think he was a little unnecessarily harsh on jazz, radio, arrangers, and jazz enthusiasts. I also think he has nostalgia for some sort of ideal pre-capitalist past where the average listener has the perfect music education, which I’m not entirely sure is entirely historically accurate. His ideas about the liquidation of the individual, and the “cult of personality” reminded me of this British documentary series by Adam Curtis, “The Century of the Self”.

    What do you think about Walty and Theo? Are they on to something or are they just into themselves? Do you think these old articles apply to contemporary music sociology and, if so, isn’t it kind of sad how slowly capitalism progresses?

    7 thoughts on “A Vocabulary Lesson from my New Friend Theo

    1. davidwolfson

      For those of us who practice a discipline, those who theorize about it often seem to be coming from outer space. I have spent much of the last several years working with Experience Bryon (excuse me, Dr. Experience Bryon) (and yes, that’s her real name) as music director, resident composer and Associate Artistic Director of Experience Vocal Dance Company. Experience is that rare bird who’s equally accomplished as an academic and as a practitioner—in her case, theatrical director/deviser.

      I suspect that, in her case, that means she’s just as likely to seem like a visitor from another planet to her academic colleagues as she sometimes does to those of us working on making art with her. I’ve learned a great deal from Experience, particularly from one-on-one collaboration with her—she’s much less likely to drop unguarded academese in the rehearsal room, where it could distract.

      As much as I’ve appreciated learning about performativity, hermeneutics, liminality and the rest of the theoretical zoo, though, I’m still a little suspicious about the role of theory in an artist’s life. If theory follows practice, well, the practitioners are going to read it say, “Well, duh. Of course.” If it doesn’t—if it charges out ahead—then it could indeed lead to wondrous new developments, or it could lead to something that would not necessarily make the world a better place. (I’m thinking somehow of Marxist theory and the Soviet Union here.)

      However—Experience introduced me to the academic notion that a composer doesn’t create a text, but rather a blueprint for a performance, which is definitely comes by way of postmodern theorizing, and which has changed the way I look at composing. For the better, I hope!

      David Wolfson

      Reply
    2. colin holter

      As I wrote a little over a year ago, I think engaging with critical theory can be enormously helpful as a spur to creative activity. Every once in a while I’ll overhear a composer saying something to effect that we should just write music and worry about the whys and wherefores later, if ever; to me, this just sounds like a license to be blithely and willfully ignorant. (Of course, continental cultural theory is just one way to assess your practice.)

      Speaking personally, though, I find it very daunting to deal with the theoretical literature because every book is resting on a precarious pile of older books, and if you nudge one of those older books, all the books above it sway ominously. I’ve read Adorno, but not Hegel or Kant – which means that if I have a misapprehension about something in Hegel (which I almost certainly do), I’ll probably miss out on something in Adorno that I should have gotten. And if you read Eagleton or Jameson without knowing Adorno, you might be in the same boat. So that’s pretty scary.

      Reply
    3. rtanaka

      Well, in order to understand Adorno you have to understand Marx, since that’s where his convictions largely come from. And in order to understand Marx, you need to have an idea of what Hegel was about. Basically Hegel’s main idea was dialectical idealism, which implied that ideas and events went through a continual process of synthesis, with the final destination being God. It’s extremely optimistic and very high in its conviction, which is why it was popular during the 19th centuries when the Western world was going through its nationalistic phase. Marx turned that idea on its head, arguing that the dialectical process was actually the exact opposite — that the interactions of ideas were representative of class struggles, as opposed to the process of unification that Hegel had argued for during his lifetime. Adorno would say, especially after the happenings of WWI and WWII, that the romantic ideals of his previous generations were naive and dangerous.

      Ideas that music needs to be “critical” and “revolutionary” come largely from Adorno, which originally came from Marx. As with most marxist ideologies, it’s also very pessimistic, since it doesn’t offer the possibility of redemption or reconciliation. He also said that art was supposed to be necessarily contradictory, which I’m guessing was used a way to avoid the type of Hegelian synthesis that his predecessors had envisioned. I think this attitude is pretty much reflected in the music of the 20th century, especially among the avant-garde.

      The problem with Adorno is that his loathing of popular musics turned him into a snooty elitist — I’m not so much into populism anymore so this in itself doesn’t bother me much, but there is an obvious contradiction in his thinking because Marxism is supposed to be the championing of the proletariat. And the consumers of popular music were largely of the sort of people he was supposed to be defending against the evil intentions of the bourgeois. So now we’re kind of in a weird situation where political leaders disparage working class people as being inferor, while at the same time, pretending that they have their best interests in mind. This was probably the most apparent during the Bush years, with the hight of its absurdity culminating into the vice presidential run of Sarah Palin. It’s that sort of faux-populism that people find incredibly annoying, and probably why people began to lose interest in politics during the last few decades.

      Though I think it’s important to read Adorno because his perspective adds a level of realism to our thinking of music through his ability to connect musical ideas and practices to economic matters, which classical musicians rarely seem to want to talk about. My favorite philosopher right now, though, is Jurgen Habermas, who was a student of Adorno but eventually took his own path after feeling that the Frankfurt school was too pessimistic for its own good. He offers a lot of practical and reasonable solutions to many of the problems that the world faces today, and he managed to earn himself a lot of respect through the clarity of his ideas and willingness to put himself in the cross-fires of public discourse. One of those rare cases where an academic lives up to the standards of what an intellectual is supposed to be contributing to society.

      I’m lucky to have had friends who studied critical theory to help me sort through all of that turgid German prose — would’ve taken me years, otherwise.

      Reply
    4. rtanaka

      Oh, if you’re looking for what’s “hot” in the philosophy world right now, there’s Slavoj Žižek, whom a lot of people seem to like. He’s sort of on the other side of the isle of Habermas — a pessimist and interested in ideas about contradiction and insanity, but he’s sort of a good counter-point to the latter’s assumption that people are capable of being rational and reasonable, given the right conditions.

      When it comes down to it, though, critical theory is all about ethics and being self-aware of the implications of your actions. If we don’t take an interest in it, we’re pretty much screwed.

      Reply
    5. Joyfulgirl

      Awesome comments! Thanks for the kind words and advice.

      rtanaka: The same friend who gave me the Adorno and Benjamin texts also forced me to watch documentaries and lectures about Slavoj Zizek on youtube over winter break. I agree, it’s nice to have friends who read critical theory so that you don’t have to dig through so much material yourself.

      Reply
    6. JNarum

      (I apologize if the moment for this comment has passed, but login issues prevented a timely response.)

      Generally, I am a fan of both Benjamin and Adorno, though I have more
      experience with the work of the latter. That said …

      1. Perhaps their ideas seem like “simple concepts” of which “any
      composer” would be aware, but you may be underestimating the extent to
      which the methods and ideas of critical theory have worked their way into
      contemporary discourse. Perhaps these ideas are familiar to you because
      past and current teachers and colleagues have engaged with these concepts.
      A somewhat silly example: it would be foolish to read Isaac Newton and
      think he’s just using “big words” because “we” already know about the
      law of universal gravitation.

      2. Congratulations for rereading these articles! It seems that that’s the
      purpose of the “extremely verbose language” or the “unnecessary [!],
      prefatory rhapsodizing” you mention – these texts require concentrated,
      thoughtful, un-lazy attention, and thorough, repeated readings seems to be
      the best way to “work through” some of these ideas.

      Reply
    7. CM Zimmermann

      ‘isn’t it kind of sad how slowly capitalism progresses?’

      There are many things to say about capitalism, and there are certainly rich critical traditions, however your question simply does not correspond to the reality and dynamics of capitalism. It would shrivel if it ‘progressed slowly’.

      Reply

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