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Theory

Adorno, Barthes, andBenjamin

The way I read Theodor Adornos (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/adorno/) Culture Industry Reconsidered


(http://www.icce.rug.nl/~soundscapes/DATABASES/SWA/Culture_industry_reconsidered.shtml) was at least
partially as a response to Walter Benjamins (http://www.egs.edu/resources/benjamin.html) The Work of Art in the
Age of its Technological Reproducibility
(http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm). I also read Roland Barthes
(http://www.kirjasto.sci./rbarthes.htm) Rhetoric of the Image (http://www.amazon.com/Responsibility-Forms-
Critical-Essays-Representation/dp/0520072383/ref=sr_1_7/102-8938260-2217728?
ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1177640428&sr=1-7) that way. So I am going to try to elaborate the three in relation to each
other. These are all three difcult texts, so there is a good chance that I am completely missing the point. As such,
any comments of a critical nature are welcome (non-critical comments, as I shall show, are either fascist or
conformist).

Adorno argues that a critical attitude must be adopted towards the culture industry, precisely because of its
importance (Adorno, 58). Benjamin articulates a specic kind of critical attitude as appropriate for art as
technologically reproducible. [Footnote: I see Adorno and Benjamin as both talking about the same object, an art
that they delineate in a variety of ways from what they understand to be traditional art. Thus, I understand the
culture industry as the same object as the technologically reproducible age of art. Of course, that does not stop
differences existing in what each theorist nds in that object. For example, Adorno sees the star system as being a
dening element of this new kind of art, where Benjamin sees it as the last stage of the aura that is destined to
disappear. But they are both discussing the same phenomena, despite their different perspectives on it.] The kind of
criticism, with attendant new tasks of apperception, that Benjamin understands as belonging to the new art is a
distracted one (Benjamin, 268). The constant disruption of the individual scenes by the ones following them in
movies prevent us from being immersed into art, and instead force the art to be absorbed into us. Benjamin
understands this art as fundamentally progressive, as helping to advance the revolution by inducing the masses to
understand and accept the new things demanded of them. Adorno understands it as reafrming the status quo. It
seems like Benjamins distracted examiner does not achieve the critical consciousness sought after by Adorno.

But, at the same time, I do not think that Adorno is simply advocating the immersion of oneself into art.
Benjamins argument is that that leads to fascism. He claims that the inevitable result of immersing oneself in art is
self-alienation, a separation from the human meaning of art through a lifting-up of art for arts sake. Aestheticized
politics, the result of valuing art for arts sake and not caring about the human impacts of it, leads to a fascist
celebration of war, where people experience their own annihilation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure (Benjamin,
270). This viewpoint seems alien to Adorno (even more alien to Adorno, I would argue, then it is to Benjamin). And
I think it is compelling as a predictive result of what will happen when people are contemplatively immersed in art.
But, it seems to me, Benjamin is missing a third option that Adorno is beginning to elaborate, and that Barthes takes
on more strongly. Adorno is indicting the new art for precisely the same reason that Benjamin was indicting the old
art. Adornos point is that the culture industry leads to an order that is never confronted with what it claims to be
or with the real interests of human beings (Adorno, 59). He sees the culture industry as ultimately pacifying,
preventing any revolution through the empty harmony which reconciles all discontents with the general
(Adorno, 59). Adorno is arguing, I think, that though the audience might occupy the testing position of the camera,
the empathy felt towards the camera actually denies the capacity for criticism (Benjamin, 260). [Footnote: I am
probably putting words in Adornos mouth, or at least applying his argument in a way that he does not in this
article, but I think it is a valid interpretation of his basic point.] While certainly the position of the camera is not
compatible with cult value, understood as what makes immersing oneself in art as bad, it is still a horrifyingly
bad position to occupy (Benjamin, 260).
Interestingly, however, Adorno does seem to afrm (at least relatively) the spiritual, cultic consciousness that
Benjamin understands as grounding the traditional art and its fascism. Adorno claims that it is only the last residue
of the difference between art and empirical reality in the spiritual make-up of the masses that explains why they
have not, to a person, long since perceived and accepted the world as it is construed for them by the culture
industry (Adorno, 60). I think that Benjamin would agree completely with this statement, but that they would each
evaluate it in very different lights. Adorno sees this as being the last thing left that prevents the stupecation that
seems to me to be identical with Benjamins distracted examination. But I do not think that Adorno is truly
celebrating this spiritual remainder. I think he is contending it as better than the alternative of the culture industry,
but I do not think he is contending that it is the solution, or the alternative to the problems posed by the new art.
Instead, I think the critical consciousness that he advocates (though does not develop in this essay) is opposed to
both a retrograde cultic spiritualism and the shameless conformism of the new art. The critical consciousness that he
advocates is, I believe, locatable in the general themes which Barthes (and Hall, and possibly the entire enterprise of
cultural studies) takes up in an examination of cultural artifacts. It is constituted by a resistance to the distraction
that the culture industry depends on. [Footnote: I might be missing the point. Adorno seems to contend that people
want to be deceived, and are even aware of it (Adorno, 58). But if that is the case, than a critical consciousness does
not seem to be the answer desired, since the public apparently already has it. Instead, what seems called for is what
he names elsewhere as the we resist the call of practicality with all our might in order ruthlessly to follow through
an idea and its logical implications, which would be imbued with a critical consciousness but goes one step further,
I think, then what he outlines in this essay (Adorno, Problems of Mora Philosophy
(http://www.amazon.com/Problems-Moral-Philosophy-Theodor-Adorno/dp/0804739366), 4). It would probably
be constituted by both an awareness that it is impossible to live a good life in a bad world, and an advocacy of
resistance dened by an unwillingness to participate in the bad world. Examining that would take me too far aeld,
I think, and so I will not pursue these speculations here.]

Now I want to elaborate just a little on the critical consciousness that I understand Barthes to be examining. It does
not exist in distraction, although of course it is aware of the state of distraction that the audience welcomes the piece
in. The critical consciousness does not absorb the image into itself or get absorbed into the image. Rather, it seems
that there is an attempt at a permanent distance between the image and the self. [Footnote: Barthes denies that we
are actually talking about images in the way that Benjamin is and this is why I presume that Barthes was
responding to Benjamin at least in part in his essay, although I do not actually know if that is true. Barthes claims
that it is not very accurate to talk of a civilization of the image we are still, and more than ever, a civilization of
writing (Barthes, 37). I am not sure that I accept this objection to Benjamins argument. Obviously we are still a
writing culture, but I think we are becoming more and more the imagistic culture at least partially envisioned by
Benjamin. It seems to me that writing has started to be more and more afxed to images, as opposed to the other
way around, and that that is a step in the direction of an imagistic culture. This point, however, is not integral to the
thesis of this essay, and I do not have time to develop it sufciently.] The distance is garnered through a making
conscious of the distracted information gathered naturally. Benjamin was not thinking about a world where
someone could watch Thelma and Louise thirty times and become conscious of all of the complicated inner
workings of the lm which are designed to operate on an unconscious level for Benjamins audience.

Here, it gets even more interesting. Barthes ends up afrming something that looks suspiciously like the auratic
existence of art condemned by both Benjamin and (I think) Adorno. The consciousness he sees as being articulated
by the photograph is not of the being-there of the thing (which any copy could provoke) but an awareness of its
having-been-there (Barthes, 40). The conjunction of the here-now and there-then is identical at least with Adornos
reconstruction of Benjamins point (the presence of that which is not present) (Barthes, 40; Adorno 57). This is
fascinating. I think the dilemma posed here is at least somewhat resolvable through the criticism I gave of Barthes
view on the blog Girlpower2 (http://girlpower2.wordpress.com/) (that the camera does radically transform
reality). But I am not sure that that completely satises, since Benjamins point is also that reality becomes
technologized, so that the only natural that we can accept in art becomes increasingly dependent upon technology.
Thus, it would make sense for Barthes to say that people gradually grow to see the opposition of the cultural code
and the natural non-code (or, as Stuart Hall
(http://web.archive.org/web/20011110032650/http://carmen.artsci.washington.edu/panop/author_H.htm#HALL)
points out in his essay Signication, Representation, Ideology: Althusser and the Post-Structuralist Debates
(http://www.amazon.com/Cultural-Studies-Communications-James-Curran/dp/034061417X), the naturalized
code) in photography from Benjamins perspective. Perhaps the actual resolution has to do with the having-been-
there that Barthes talks about as actually exhibiting the having-been-there. The original, after all, is truly lost with
the camera, and thus the aura does atrophy; but I think Barthes is pointing out that it is a mistake to think that the
aura disappears. Barthes having-been-there might be speaking about the auratic existence of the original object
which is no longer present. But in so doing, he is not reducing arts value to that aura (which would, after all, not be
a new kind of consciousness at all, but rather making present the absence of that aura. This, I think, is closest to
Adornos viewpoint: by this explanation, Barthes is arguing that the auratic existence haunts the photograph and is
never completely eliminated, even though there is a celebration of a new kind of exhibitionary here-now).

He afrms this position with an attitude close to Adornos, because the opposition between the naturalized code
and the cultural code risks masking the constructed nature of the cultural code, and thus denying critical
consciousness. Thus, he does, in the end, seem to afrm a critical consciousness, an awareness of this masking, that
Benjamin misses and that Adorno points to.

The Benjamin article was taken from the third version unpublished during his lifetime translated by Harry Zohn
and Edmund Jephcott

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March 28, 2007 - Posted by andyw | Aesthetics, Alienation, Art, Communism, Critique, Cult of the Movie Star,
Culture Industry, Fascism, Politics, Roland Barthes, Technology, Teleology, The Revolution, Theodor Adorno,
Walter Benjamin

3 Comments

1. [] [xi] Andreas Viklund, Adorno, Barthes, and Benjamin.


https://andyw.wordpress.com/2007/03/28/adorno-barthes-and-benjamin/ []

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2. [] [xi] Andreas Viklund, Adorno, Barthes, and Benjamin.


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If we speak and try to give an account from this place, we will not be irresponsible, or, if we are, we will surely be
forgiven Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself, 136

This is a site designed to explore various theories as they apply to the eld of cultural studies. The chief purpose is
to develop an understanding of different theories and to practice applying those theories to cultural objects. Some
(though by no means all) theorists that I will be working on are: Theodor Adorno, Roland Barthes, Stuart Hall,
Walter Benjemin, Robert Cover, Judith Butler, Giorgio Agamben, and many more.

The cultural objects range over a fairly large eld, though they will primarily come from American media (lms, t.v.,
newspapers, etc.). Many posts will combine theory and a specic cultural object, while some will just examine a
theory, and a very few will just take on a cultural object.

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