It was all just a big misunderstanding: Culture and Agency in the Frankfurt and Birmingham Schools
What are the differences in the use of the word "culture" between the Frankfurt and the Birmingham Schools, especially in the work of Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall and Adorno and Horkeimer; and according to them, how has culture functioned as an impediment to or an enabler of agency?
Culture, according to Raymond Williams, is one of the most complex words in the English language, second only to a word it is often opposed to: nature. In his work and others who were influenced by him, especially those associated with the Contemporary Centre for Cultural Studies (CCCS) at Birmingham, culture takes on a quasi-anthropological meaning approximating a total “way of life,” organically deriving from humans, their communications practices, and their activities. The Frankfurt School and its affiliates, on the other hand, had a strategic conception of culture that was conceived in their much discussed full frontal assault on “the culture industry.” They re-introduced the idealism of Hegel and Kant into Marx’s materialism in a thoroughly dialectical manner (Buck-Morss 1977). In this essay, I will draw from the work of Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall to clarify the way they conceptualized culture, as well as the work of Adorno and Horkheimer of the Frankfurt school to demonstrate how they conceptualized culture specifically within their critique of the “culture industry.” I will then go on to argue that the linguistic complexity of the word culture is at the root of the perception that these two schools are incompatible with regards to their stances towards the individual’s agency in navigating the heavily mediated lifeworld of advanced capitalism and its institutions. Once you account for this linguistic complexity, their work is not incompatible at all; indeed, there is a good deal of overlap in their lesser known work, which I will discuss briefly because of constraints of time and space. It should be noted in this regard, that Gunster (2004) has written an excellent partial synthesis of the two approaches in his book Capitalizing on Culture: Critical Theory for Cultural Studies. More work, in this vein, remains to be done.
Addressing this central misconception regarding the work of Adorno and Horkheimer, Fredric Jameson contends:
“the ‘Culture Industry’ chapter [the most widely cited and read work of the Frankfurt School] does not propose a theory of culture at all, in the modern sense; and the passionate responses it has most often aroused have tended equally often to stem from this misunderstanding and from thinking that it does.” (1990, 143)
Jameson then cites Williams’ account of ‘hegemony’ to argue that there is no equivalent concept in Adorno and Horkheimer, and it is worth quoting this account at length here:
[It is] a whole body of practices and expectations, over the whole of living: our senses and assignments of energy, our shaping perceptions of ourselves and our world. It is a lived system of meanings and values – constitutive and constituting – which as they are experienced as practices appear as reciprocally confirming. It thus constitutes a sense of reality for most people in the society, a sense of absolute because experienced reality beyond which it is very difficult for most members of the society to move, in most areas of their lives. It is, that is to say, in the strongest sense a ‘culture’ … (Williams, qtd. In Jameson 143).
In the work that Jameson is quoting, Williams then goes on to substantiate the concept of hegemony as the lived dominance or subordination of particular classes, but the part that Jameson quoted is a great exemplar of both Williams’ and Hall’s conception of culture. In William’s lesser known essay “A Hundred Years of Culture and Anarchy,” one can find Williams historicizing and comparing the clashes between the political right and left in the 1960s to a period one hundred years earlier, when Mathew Arnold wrote his book Culture and Anarchy in response to a protest movement that often met in public spaces such as Hyde Park in London. This protest movement rallied for the enfranchisement of working class men, to extend the vote beyond the propertied classes. Arnold’s stance was that Culture was “the acquainting ourselves with the best that has been known and said in the world” (qtd. in Bennett 2005, 90). He thought that the “anarchy” wrought by this protest movement could be diffused most effectively by a mass pedagogy via Culture as he defined it. Put simply, Arnold saw in “Culture” a form of social control, the prerequisite order for society to work itself towards perfection.
Williams’ response to Arnold was ambiguous; on the one hand, he thought the “anarchy” that Arnold demonized, wrought by popular uprisings, was a necessary and positive extension of the rights and freedoms supposedly guaranteed by democratic theory. That is, such social movements contributed to the actualization of the emancipatory content of democratic theory. On the other hand, you can detect in Williams’ prose a tone of sympathy towards Arnold, which isn’t without irony, when he summarizes some of Arnold’s points:
He criticized the national obsession with wealth and production; there were other things more important in the life of a people. He criticized the manipulation of opinion, by politicians and newspapers: a minority talking down, simplifying, sloganeering, to people they thought of as ‘the masses’. He criticized the abstraction of ‘freedom’; it was not only a question of being free to speak but of a kind of national life in which people know enough to have something to say (2005, 5).
In the end, Williams sided with the protest movement because of this sympathy with Arnold’s criticism of the abstraction of freedom; he thought the movements to make this abstraction real were ultimately justified and beneficial for the ongoing renewal of society.
In this summary, one can detect quite a bit of resonance between Arnold and the critique of the “culture industry” in Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, and Adorno’s further work The Culture Industry. Indeed, many of the dismissals of Adorno and Horkheimer are based on a facile conflation of their critique and the work of conservative cultural critics such as Arnold, F.R. Leavis, and T.S. Eliot. This conflation is somewhat understandable, considering such statements as “The culture industry intentionally integrates its consumers from above. To the detriment of both it forces together the spheres of high and low art, separated for thousands of years” (Adorno 1991, 107). Jameson thinks of Williams’ previously quoted account of hegemony as a “missing link” in the work of Adorno and Horkheimer, but in “The Culture Industry, Reconsidered,” Adorno specifies his and Horkheimer’s use of the word in their earlier work. In this specification, he registers a conception of culture that Jameson argues is missing in his work. Adorno says that in the drafts of The Dialectic of Enlightenment, the authors “spoke of a ‘mass culture’. We replaced that expression with ‘culture industry’ in order to exclude from the outset the interpretation agreeable to its advocates: that it is a matter of something like a culture that arises spontaneously from the masses themselves, the contemporary form of popular art” (1991, 107). Although Jameson does an admirable job of defending Adorno from his critics in Late Marxism: Adorno, or the Persistance of the Dialectic, he misses the point that this commentary on the choice of vocabulary used in The Dialectic of Enlightenment actually reveals an awareness of a more anthropological concept of culture as arising spontaneously from the activities of people. Or, as Terry Eagleton puts it “Whereas culture as civilization [in the sense that Arnold uses the term] is rigorously discriminating, culture as a way of life is not. What is good is whatever springs automatically from the people, whoever they may be” (2000, 14). It is simply that Adorno and Horkheimer avoided the more anthropological use of the word culture to distinguish between authentic culture and manufactured culture, a distinction necessary to produce the “genuine individual” who can exercise agency in a more substantive sense .
Furthermore, most of the dismissals of Adorno and Horkheimer are predicated upon this single book, and they don’t take the historical situations of the respective authors into account, nor do they properly register Adorno’s method of negative dialectics. They are based largely on a projection of the idea of the industrial-age masses as passive dupes into their work, without contextualizing it in the larger projects of the Frankfurt School and especially without an adequate appraisal of their methodologies. Indeed, “Horkheimer stressed the active element of cognition, which idealism [in the tradition of Kant] had correctly affirmed. The objects of perception, he argued, are themselves the product of man’s actions, although the relationship tends to be masked by reification. Indeed, nature itself has a historical element, in the dual sense that man conceives of it differently at different times, and that he actively works to change it” (Jay 1973, 53-54). Having witnessed the failure of the proletariat to become the collective subject of history in an international revolution, many of the Frankfurt School members abandoned this idea after 1930 and focused on the potentials inherent in the bourgeois concept of the individual in philosophy, and on the relationship between individual consciousness and social situation and structures of authority in the empirical social sciences. The promise of the concept of the free and socially equal individual had not been realized, especially with the tendency of entrepreneurial capitalism to cyclically bottleneck into monopoly and oligopoly capitalism in Europe and America from the 1920s onwards. Under the leadership of Horkheimer, the second generation Frankfurt school members sought to explain this phenomenon by shifting their attention to the superstructure, especially the ideational contents of science, philosophy, and the arts. Conversely, the first generation Frankfurt School, under the leadership of Kurt Albert Gerlach (Jay 1973, 9) and later Carl Grünberg and typified in the work of Friedrich Pollack and Henryk Grossman, focused on empirical investigations of the economic base of society.
Therefore, the second generation of Frankfurt School theorists, which this essay examines more closely than the first, figuratively flipped the classical Marxist problematic of the base and the superstructure on its head. While orthodox Marxists insisted on the primacy of the base, Critical Theory searched for the articulations of this primacy in the superstructure itself. It would be a mistake to say they utterly abandoned Marx’s assignment of chronological, logical, and social priority to production in the conceptual quadrangle he drew out in The Grundrisse: production, distribution, exchange (circulation), and consumption. But they adjusted their theory to the historical unfolding of the relationship between theory, practice, and praxis (theoretically informed practice). This reframing of a Marxist problematic is a familiar trope in the work of the CCCS as well, especially as derived from Williams’ essay “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory.” In this essay, Williams locates part of the problem of the notion that according to Marx the base determines the superstructure in a lack of insight into the flexibility of the word “determine” and its other forms. According to Williams it has a “hard” and a “soft” meaning: the “hard” meaning has “a theological inheritance, the notion of an external cause which totally predicts or prefigures, indeed totally controls a subsequent activity” (Williams 2005, 32). Alternatively, the “soft” and ultimately preferable, interpretation of the word in the Marxist formula is “a notion of determination as setting limits, exerting pressures” (ibid. 32). Williams elaborates:
It is not only the depths to which this process reaches, selecting and organizing and interpreting our experience. It is also that it is continually active and adjusting; it isn’t just the past, the dry husks of ideology which we can more easily discard. And this can only be so, in a complex society, if it is something more substantial and more flexible than any abstract imposed ideology. Thus we have to recognize the alternative meanings and values, the alternative opinions and attitudes, even some alternative senses of the world, which can be accommodated and tolerated within a particular effective and dominant culture. (2005, 39)
Just as the Critical Theorists shifted gears from examining economic policies and practices to an analysis of the arts and tendencies in science and philosophy, the CCCS, under the directorship of Stuart Hall, shifted gears from the process of encoding (production) to decoding (consumption). The mediating work in this sequence of events is Williams’ essay “Means of Communication as Means of Production” (2005). Furthermore, there was a member of the Frankfurt School who urged the necessity of reception studies in a materialist, sociological analysis of literature as early as 1932: Leo Lowenthal (1989, 42). This anticipates the “struggle over meaning” that was the object of study for the CCCS in the 1970s, many of whom studied the reception (decoding) of cultural products. Indeed, Lowenthal argues that:
Contrary to common assertions, this theory (Critical Theory) neither postulates that culture in its entirety can be explained in terms of economic relations, nor that specific cultural or psychological phenomena are nothing but reflections of the social substructure. Rather a materialistic theory places its emphasis on mediation: the mediating processes between a mode of production and the modes of cultural life including literature. (45)
There lies the rub. Mediation is one of the essences of the dialectic method, especially its Hegelian variants. Some of the people who dismiss The Dialectic of Enlightenment on account of its alleged treatment of people as ‘passive dupes’, on account of its overwhelming pessimism, or even on account of its purported disdainful treatment of jazz (properly historicized, it is the specific form of swing that is criticized, as opposed to virtuoso variants of jazz such as bebop) should take this to heart. If anything, The Dialectic of Enlightenment is the supreme antithesis of advanced capitalism; as it registers its mechanisms, its betrayals, and the trajectories of its highest ideal – Reason – it opposes the totality of the commodity fetish as the pre-eminent structuring form of society. To react to such a complete antithesis with simple rejection and dismissal is to counter antithesis with antithesis, that is, to completely obstruct the realization of the dialectic in synthesis. The kernals of such a synthesis can be found in the pages of The Dialectic of Enlightenment, The Culture Industry, The Eclipse of Reason, and Negative Dialectics themselves.
Take this sample passage from Dialectic of Enlightenment, for example:
The old experience of the movie-goer, who sees the world outside as an extension of the film he has just left (because the latter is intent upon reproducing the world of everyday perceptions), is now the producer’s guideline. The more intensely and flawlessly his techniques duplicate empirical objects, the easier it is today for the illusion to prevail that the outside world is the straightforward continuation of that presented on the screen. This purpose has been furthered by mechanical reproduction since the lightning takeover by the sound film. Real life is becoming indistinguishable from the movies. The sound film, far surpassing the theater of illusion, leaves no room for imagination or reflection on the part of the audience, who is unable to respond within the structure of the film, yet deviate from its precise detail without losing the thread of the story; hence the film forces its victims to equate it directly with reality.
Agency for the individual, according to this passage, is obstructed by the surfeit of information (“precise detail”) framed by the filmic representation. Its mimetic faculty – the ability of sound film to reproduce reality – reinforces the practice of reification: the transformation of phenomena into objects bought and sold on the market. In “The Schema of Mass Culture,” Adorno states that “in so far as the individual images are played past in an uninterrupted photographic series on the screen they have already become mere objects in advance.” (1991, 81). The identity logic of the commodity, that objects are rendered equivalent through exchange value – for example, two pigs are worth the same amount as a used Ford focus – is inherent in the form of subjectivity itself. Under the aegis of capitalism, each individual is coerced into selling their wage labour as a product on the market, thus becoming an object. The documentary form of this self-objectification is the resumé. The inability, or more precisely, the strategically undermined ability of the individual to distinguish between life as it is lived in the film and as it is lived in reality, or objecthood and subjecthood, compromises their ability to exercise their agency. As Deborah Cook (2004) argues, “Adorno maintains that individuals are incapable of relating to one another immediately because they now see themselves, and are seen by others, as ‘economic subjects’; that is, as defined by their wages or salaries, and levels of consumption” (26). Just as in the quoted passage, the boundaries between the commoditized representation of reality and reality itself become blurred, “Dissimilar life contexts and situations are thereby forced into a legal mould where differences are effectively leveled and dissolved” (Cook 2004, 31). And yet, the accusation of “pessimism” so frequently leveled against Adorno and Horkheimer misses the mark, for it is Adorno who argues that “as little as regressive listening is a symptom of progress in consciousness of freedom, it could suddenly turn around if art, in unity with the society, should ever leave the road of the always-identical” (italics mine, 1991, 59). For Adorno, art’s function was to hold before us the possibility of happiness, a happiness Adorno distinguished from pleasure because of the former’s truth content. Pleasure, for him, is a partial happiness that compensates for the absence of real happiness. Finally, Cook also finds an optimistic streak in Adorno:
Indeed, Habermas makes the same category mistake as many others who have taken the linguistic turn: from the proposition that needs and desires are expressed in language, he infers wrongly that needs and desires are themselves inherently linguistic. At the same time, however, if nature were radically Other than reason, it would be fruitless to speculate – as Adorno certainly does – about a future reconciliation between reason and nature. (89)
The imperialism of Capital is that it has conquered both space and time: space in the guise of colonialism and then arbitrage (Carey 1989), and time in the expansion of market activity to the commotization of leisure, and the elimination of sacred temporalities such as the Sabbath. It does not eliminate social classes by generating wealth; it disguises the operation of class in terms of both wealth and power. The elimination of poverty is thus akin to the proverbial carrot, hung in front of the donkey, not coincidentally a “beast of burden.” Stuart Hall, sees these “masks” disguising the operation of class as “an ideological effect of the new consumer culture, a sense that increasing access to commodities and consumer culture has released the working classes from a prior state of poverty” (Proctor 2004, 16). Hall, in his book Resistance through Rituals, examines the way subcultures develop as a result of the perennial “struggle over meaning” that is part and parcel of the multi-accentuality of discourse, an idea he derived from the Russian linguist Volosinov. He adopts an idea from the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss to describe the practices of subcultures in re-contextualizing meaning according to their particular weltanschauung: bricolage. This practice, which Levi-Strauss used to delineate how pre-modern societies engage with the everyday world around them, Hall labels as a means of “negotiating (as opposed to overcoming) class difference” (Proctor, 2004, 91). This sounds quite similar to Adorno’s valorization of Mahler’s music in his essay “On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening:”
Not popular music but artistic music has furnished a model for this possibility [to transcend the repetition compulsion of the always-identical]. It is not for nothing that Mahler is the scandal of all bourgeois musical aesthetics. They call him uncreative because he suspends their concept of creation itself. Everything with which he occupies himself is already there. He accepts it in its vulgarized form; his themes are expropriated ones. (59)
Indeed, just as Jameson finds in Adorno, who identified most closely with modernism, an appropriate antidote for the postmodern logic of late capitalism, this passage could be read in the documentary RiP: A Remix Manifesto, which launches an attack against copyright, without missing a beat.
However, while Hall finds in the engagement with the popular the crux of agency, Adorno found possibilities for escape from the toxic totality and for individual agency in high modernism. Where Hall differs from Adorno is his privileging of the moment of decoding: he elevates consumption over production. According to Proctor “his [Hall’s] emphasis on the audience’s active role in the production of meaning signals his culturalist faith in human agency” (Proctor, 2004, 70). However, if we use the German word aufheben, which usually is translated as “sublation” and which means both elevation and cancellation in Hegelian dialectics, in place of “elevates,” then Hall’s elevation of consumption simultaneously cancels it, leaving production bared in its wake. Hall has successfully integrated Gramsci’s concept of hegemony to describe how the struggle over meaning articulated in culture works to secure rule by the dominant class by consent rather than force. Finally, Proctor contends “It is pointless, Hall and Whannel might argue, to compare the music of Kylie Minogue and Mozart because ‘different kinds of music offer different sorts of satisfaction’” and that such a comparison neglects “giving credence to the specific pleasures of different audiences” (2004, 21). As I argued before, however, Adorno was more interested in happiness than pleasure, and as such, he didn’t develop a positive engagement with popular culture like Hall did. Happiness for Adorno constituted more than the simple absence of suffering or the evanescent quality of pleasure.
Therefore, the perception that the Frankfurt and Birmingham Schools are fundamentally incompatible is a classic case of overstatement. It is at least somewhat due to a flawed conflation of the way both Schools used the world “culture.” They share a lot of common ground, from Horkheimer’s affirmation of the active nature of cognition as a salvageable concept from bourgeois idealism, to Hall’s location of agency in the manner in which popular culture is received and subsequently mobilized. They also share some important differences, as I have shown with the comparison of Adorno and Hall. I would conclude, however, that the polarizing nature of the perception of them as incompatible is counter-productive, and that the overarching and enduring influence of Marx on both schools hails a dialectical reconciliation of the two approaches to culture.
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