Tag Archives: art

Immanuel Kant’s Manifesto for Dad Rock


If there is one point that should be reasonably clear to anyone who has read “The Culture Industry,” it is that Adorno and Horkheimer do not reject popular culture. That essay, it’s true, gives us reasons to question any number of things that we typically hold dear: free time (for being unfree time, nearly as programmed as the work from which it nominally releases us), laughter (for being the consolation prize you get for not having a life worth living), style (for funneling all social and historical content into a pre-arranged matrix or inflexible scheme of aesthetic quirks and twitches; for holding out the promise of artistic individualism—the personal signature in literature or music—and then transposing this into its opposite, the iterative, unresponsive art-machine). Most of us remember “The Culture Industry” as anti-pop’s cahier de doléance, its encyclopedia of anathema, the night in which all bêtes sont noires. But alongside the essay’s admittedly austere bill of grievances, it is easy enough to compile a second list, an inventory of things that Adorno and Horkheimer say they like and suggest we might admire: Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, Greta Garbo, the circus, old cartoons, Felix the Cat (maybe), Gertie the Dinosaur (perhaps), Betty Boop (for sure, because they name her). Just to be clear: “The Culture Industry,” Exhibit A in any case against critical theory’s Left elitism, is also the essay in which Adorno attacks Mozart while praising “stunt films,” which we might more idiomatically translate as “Jackie Chan.” One can thus cite authentically Adornian precedence for an attitude that distrusts classical music and celebrates kung fu movies, and this will be hard to believe only if you prefer a critical theory shorn of its dialectics, stripped of the contradictory judgments that thought renders upon contradictory material—only, that is, if you prefer the Adorno of joke Twitter feeds and scowling author photos: bald, moon-faced, a Central European frown emoji inexplicably mad at his own piano. One suspects that readers have generally refused to take seriously the essay’s central category. For the culture industry is neither an epithet nor a gratuitously Marxist synonym for popular culture, but rather a different concept, distorted every time we paraphrase it in that other, more comfortable idiom, as a calumny upon pop culture or pop. There is plenty of evidence, in the essay itself, that Adorno and Horkheimer were drawing distinctions between forms of popular culture, and not just pitting the Glenn Miller Orchestra against Alban Berg.[1]

Such, then, is one way of taking the measure of Nicholas Brown’s Autonomy.[2] This is one of those books that you might have thought no-one could write anymore: four chapters that mean to restate the old, left-wing case for art, unapologetically named as such, as the artwork—and not as text or culture or cultural production—the idea being that art represents the survival of independent human activity under conditions hostile to such a thing. No longer homogenized under those master terms, art can again take as its rival entertainment, a word whose German equivalent derives from the verb unterhalten, which even English speakers can tell means “to hold under,” as though movies and TV shows existed to keep us down, as though R&B were a ducking or a swirlie. That the English word borrows the same roots from the French only confirms the point: entre + tenir, to keep amidst or hold in position. Entertain used to mean “to hire, as a servant.”

Autonomy is also the book in which a next-generation American Marxist out-Mandarins Adorno, who, after all, begins his essay by insisting that the cultural conservatives are wrong. There has been no decline of standards, no cultural anarchy let loose by the weakening of the churches and the vanishing of the old, agrarian societies, hence no permissive culture in which anything goes. Just the contrary: Magazines and radio and Hollywood form a system with its own rigidly enforced standards, a highly regulated domain in which almost nothing goes. Adorno’s way of saying this is that there is no “cultural chaos.”[3] But Nicholas Brown prefers the chaos thesis, endorsing the position that Adorno has preemptively rejected as both reactionary and implausible: “The culture industry,” Brown writes, couching in Frankfurtese his not-at-all Adornian point, is “the confusion in which everything worth saving is lost” (135).

Similarly, readers are usually surprised to find Adorno writing in defense of “mindlessness.” His hunch is that Kantian aesthetics might find its niche among the lowest art forms and not, as we more commonly expect, among the most elevated. Sometimes I encounter an object and find it beautiful, and in that moment of wonderment, my attitude towards the object is adjusted. I stop trying to discern what the thing is for or how to use it. Where a moment ago, I was still scanning its instruction manual, I am now glad for the thing just so. Perhaps I am even moved to disenroll the beautiful thing from the inventory of useful objects, or find myself doting on it even having ascertained that it’s not good for much. But then sometimes this purposiveness without a purpose is going to strike me not as beautiful, but as stupid, and Adorno’s point is that the stupid can do the work of the beautiful, that the beaux arts are If anything outmatched by the imbecile kind. The activities that we do for their own sake, for the idiot joy of our own capacities, are the ones that our pragmatic selves are likely to dismiss as dopey: someone you know can pay two recorders at once with her nose; a guy you once met could burp louder than a riding mower; you’ve heard about people who can vomit at will and recreationally. Kantian Zweckmäßigkeit ohne Zweck enters the vernacular every time we mutter “That was pointless.” It is in this spirit that Adorno sticks up for “entertainment free of all restraint,” “pure entertainment,” “stubbornly purposeless expertise,” and “mindless artistry.” His claim, in fact, is that the culture industry is hostile to such “meaninglessness,” that Hollywood is “making meaninglessness disappear.”[4] It might be enough here to recall the difficulties that the major studios have in making comedies that are funny all the way through, preferring as they do to recruit their clowns from improv clubs and sketch shows, to promote them to the rank of movie star, and then to impound them in the regularities of the well-made plot, complete with third-act twists and character arcs, gracelessly telegraphed in the film’s final twenty-five minutes, to make up for all the time squandered on jokes, and tending to position the buffo’s comic persona as a pathology to be cured, scripting a return to normalcy whose hallmark is a neutralized mirthlessness. Hollywood’s comic plots model the supersession of comedy and not its vindication.

But Nicholas Brown is not on the side of meaninglessness. “In commercial culture,” he writes, “there are no works to critique and no meanings to be found”—and he does not mean this as praise (10). In Autonomy, there is no liberating nonsense, but only the English professor’s compulsion to discern meaning, his impatience with any art for which one could not readily devise an essay prompt. Whatever independence the book’s title is offering us, it is not the freedom to stop making sense. It feels bracing, in fact, to read a book so willing to discard the institutionalized anti-elitism of cultural studies and 200-level seminars offering to “introduce” 20-year-olds to horror movies. When Brown rolls his eyes over Avatar because of some dumb thing its director once said in an interview, or when he calls off a wholly promising reading of True Detective by announcing that it is “nothing more than an entertainment,” we need to see him as turning his back on the aging pseudo-Gramscians of the contemporary academy, all those populists without a movement, the media-studies scholars who imagine themselves as part of a Cultural Front that no-one else can see, a two-term alliance consisting entirely of Beyoncé fans and themselves; the shopping-mall Maoists of the 1990s who couldn’t tell the difference between aller au peuple and aller au cinema (71). Adorno, of course, was concerned that the desires and tastes of ordinary audiences could be manipulated or even in some sense produced. “The Culture Industry” prompts in its readers the still Kantian project to figure out which of the many pleasures they experience are authentically their own. Which are the pleasures that will survive your reflection upon them, and which are the ones that you might reject for having made you more object-like, for having come to you as mere stimulation or conditioning? The autonomy that Adorno is trying to imagine is therefore ours, in opposition to a mass media that muscles in to tell us what we want before we have had a chance to consider what else there is to want or how a person might want differently, to work out not just different objects of desire, but different modes of desiring and of seeking satisfaction. Brown, by contrast, complains repeatedly that artists more than ever have to make things that people like. The autonomy that he is after is thus not our autonomy from an insinuating system but the artist’s autonomy from us. It is no longer surprising for a tenured literature professor to disclose, in writing, that he’s been listening to early Bruno Mars records. The unusual bit comes when Brown says he doesn’t think they’re any good (24).


[1] See Adorno and Horkheimer’s “Culture Industry,” in The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944/1947), translated by Edmund Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), pp. 94 – 136. On free time, p. 104; on laughter, p. 112; on style, pp. 100ff; Chaplin and the Marx Brothers, p. 109; Greta Garbo, p. 106; the circus, p. 114; Betty Boop, p. 106.

[2] Nicholas Brown, Autonomy (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019); subsequent citations will be given by page number in parentheses.

[3] Adorno and Horkheimer, p. 94.

[4] Ibid., p. 114.