As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Charles Kollmer looks at David Jenemann’s “Adorno Unplugged: The Ambivalence of the Machine Age,” from Telos 149 (Winter 2009).
The work of Theodor W. Adorno is replete with paradox, and the abundant and irresolvable tensions in his writings reflect the disheartening milieu in which he wrote. Based on a cursory reading of “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” from Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, we might be left with the impression that Adorno wielded this rhetorical weapon in a uniform manner, indicating the ways in which the modern fruits of Enlightenment contradict the original ethos of Enlightenment thought. Indeed, these are difficult charges to refute, as modernity’s myriad episodes of mass violence render notions of teleological “progress” rather untenable. Poststructuralist thought exhibits a reverence for this innovation in thinking. According to Antoni Negri, “Adorno’s model of cultural criticism genuinely uncovered the ontology of the new world” (cited in Jenemann). Yet these same tracts always contain caveats, noting that, despite the paradox and contradiction inherent in modern infrastructure and society, modernity presents us with multitudinous opportunities for radically disrupting the stasis of the status quo. This is the “situation of those who are living through the passage from modernity to postmodernity,” writes Negri. Such caveats imply that Adorno’s critical theory fails to recognize these possibilities for change, at worst typecasting him as a grumpy Luddite.
In “Adorno Unplugged: The Ambivalence of the Machine Age,” David Jenemann discusses Adorno’s recently published work Current of Music: Elements of Radio Theory, taking the opportunity to reassess the relationship between Adorno’s modern critical theory and the subsequent “post-workerist thought” of authors like Negri and Giorgio Agamben. Jenemann’s starting point is a paradox typical of Adorno’s critiques of American culture, which relates to a common broadcasting practice called “plugging,” or the saturation of the market with a song in the hopes of making it popular with listeners. Adorno remarks, “Once a certain level of economic backing has been reached, the plugging process transcends its own cause and becomes an autonomous social force.” In other words, plugging engenders a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy: a song becomes popular because it is broadcast as if it already were popular. Here, however, Adorno’s rhetoric takes an unexpected turn that invites comparison to the Italian poststructuralists. He writes that the goal of plugging is the indoctrination of listeners in to a “radio . . . physiognomy,” explaining that “whenever we switch on our radio the phenomena which are forthcoming bear a kind of expression. . . . Radio ‘speaks to us’ even when we are not listening to a speaker.” Jenemann takes special interest in the directionality of this figure of speech. Adorno is describing a configuration of machines that takes on the semblance of humanity, rather than vice versa (i.e., his usual modus operandi).
From this observation, Jenemann makes a compelling argument for Adorno’s prescient understanding of postmodern aesthetics. The bi-directionality of Adorno’s radio physiognomy figure gives Jenemann the textual purchase he needs to make a case for a “heroic ambivalence” extant in Adorno’s philosophy. He illustrates this notion via several vignettes from Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, the protagonist of Modern Times. Adorno valorizes Chaplin’s opportunism, writing that “his powerful, explosive and quick-witted agility recalls a predator ready to pounce.” In Modern Times, we frequently see the Little Tramp abused and mistreated by the forces of modern industry, but, Jenemann reminds us, we also see the Little Tramp reappropriate these same forces to his own ends. He writes, “No, the machine is not the problem. Instead, the issue here is the articulation of the individual with the machine, an ambiguous relationship that can gesture toward either the diminution or the potential elevation of the individual.” The following excerpt from Jenemann’s essay, which begins with a quotation from Current of Music on the ambivalent relationship of listeners to broadcasts, should reinforce this argumentation. However, readers with an interest in contemporary philosophy will likely appreciate Jenemann’s text in its entirety, particularly for his refreshing insistence on the relevance of modern critical theory to our postmodern times.
“Of course, this whole scheme is too rationalistic, and it is not to serve as more than an indicator of direction. . . . Superficially, our thesis about the acceptance of the unescapable [sic] seems to indicate nothing but a giving up of spontaneity; that the subjects are deprived of any spontaneous behavior and tend to produce mere passive reactions to what is given them. . . . Closer consideration leads me to qualify this thesis which I formerly was inclined to maintain too primitively. If the phenomenon of ambivalence actually plays the role which has been attributed to it in this Memorandum, it implies that the subjects cannot simply ‘react passively,’ accepting a material toward which they behave ambivalently. For enabling them to accept the unescapable, it does not suffice that they give up their resistance. They must invest positive psychological energies in order to overcome a resistance that does not simply disappear but in a way still survives at the very moment of acceptance. Here, the factor of spitefulness comes into play.” [from Adorno, Current of Music]
This passage overturns much of the conventional wisdom about Adorno’s pessimism and resignation in favor of something far more nuanced. The common take on Adorno, dating at least from his 1930s work on jazz and jitterbuggers, is that he simply believed (American) consumers of mass culture were reduced to mindless automata, bobbing their heads in slavish acquiescence. But in the “Plugging” memorandum, Adorno acknowledges a range of responses to mass culture that include detachment, cynicism, and satire. Indeed, from a contemporary perspective, one could say without too much hyperbole that Adorno’s assessment of the resistance to radio engendered by ambivalence anticipates the postmodernist modes of pastiche, parody, and camp. At their most progressive, irony, ridicule, and play become coequals with non-identity. However, this spitefulness is not unproblematic, for throughout his career Adorno will assert that laughter and sadism are closely related, and he does so in the memo on plugging as well: “To express it most simply: if people like something only before they are forced to accept it, they will take their revenge in the moment the grip is eased and will compensate their bad conscience for having accepted trash by making fun of it.”
Nevertheless, it is with the transformation of ambivalence into ridicule and laughter that the ethic of Charlie Chaplin comes into sharp focus, and Negri’s “figures without measure,” Virno’s “virtuosos,” and Agamben’s omnivalent “whatever beings” are sanctified. These are the patron saints of ambivalence, for what is ambivalence if not the ability to resist identification, to exist without measure, to produce without product, and in so doing turn that which is oppressive into objects of ridicule, to pivot on the point where our “own culpability” within the whole social field “produces that innocence which endows with more power than all power possesses”?
Read the full version of David Jenemann’s “Adorno Unplugged: The Ambivalence of the Machine Age” at the TELOS Online website. If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this and other Telos articles at the low rate of $10/article.