Facing the music

In time, music in particular and culture in general would provide Adorno the perfect vantage point from which to criticize what he saw as the alienation and false consciousness of bourgeois society. This was especially the case once Adorno reached Los Angeles, in the 1940s, where he could observe the radio and film industries first hand.

Yet even Mr. Claussen is embarrassed by Adorno’s ignorant and snobbish dismissal of American popular music, all of which he lumped together as “jazz.” This “seems to be a blind spot in his work,” Mr. Claussen acknowledges; but in fact it is more than that. Adorno’s contempt for jazz and those who listen to it, his belief that popular music is simply the tool of the Culture Industry for colonizing the consciousness of the masses, is suggestive of the arrogant absolutism that characterizes his thought in general.

Because he viewed music as a Hegelian progress from Beethoven to Schoenberg, keeping pace with the inexorable alienation of bourgeois society, Adorno viewed any 20th-century music that was less alienated than Schoenberg’s as a cowardly retreat, a refusal of difficult knowledge. (This applied to Stravinsky’s neoclassicism as much as to the Andrews Sisters.) In an analogous way, critical theory attempts to explain all of contemporary history as the inevitable working-out of a historical dialectic that culminates in Nazism. Adorno is upside-down Hegel: instead of trying to prove that history is driven by the cunning of reason, he tries to show that it is marching in lock-step toward mindlessness.

The Stern German