The Philosopher and Culture: How We Should Regard the Tension Between Adorno and Benjamin

Alex Ross has a lovely essay in the New Yorker about Adorno and Benjamin, and their relationship to popular culture. In this post, I do not want to echo Ross’s gleaning insights about them. Ross is right about their necessity. Instead, I want to cite at length a passage that elicits much for me.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, free-market capitalism had triumphed, and no one seemed badly hurt. In light of recent events, however, it may be time to unpack those texts again. Economic and environmental crisis, terrorism and counterterrorism, deepening inequality, unchecked tech and media monopolies, a withering away of intellectual institutions, an ostensibly liberating Internet culture in which we are constantly checking to see if we are being watched: none of this would have surprised the prophets of Frankfurt, who, upon reaching America, failed to experience the sensation of entering Paradise. Watching newsreels of the Second World War, Adorno wrote, “Men are reduced to walk-on parts in a monster documentary film which has no spectators, since the least of them has his bit to do on the screen.” He would not revise his remarks now.

In this passage, the necessity to revive Leftist critiques of our contemporary situation is mediated by both Adorno and Benjamin’s reactions to popular culture.

The Frankfurt School, which arose in the early nineteen-twenties, never presented a united front; it was, after all, a gaggle of intellectuals. One zone in which they clashed was that of mass culture. Benjamin saw the popular arena as a potential site of resistance, from which left-leaning artists like Charlie Chaplin could transmit subversive signals. Adorno and Horkheimer, by contrast, viewed pop culture as an instrument of economic and political control, enforcing conformity behind a permissive screen. The “culture industry,” as they called it, offered the “freedom to choose what is always the same.”

There are two directions we could take culture: 1. Culture as a site of necessary resistance, or 2. Culture is an instrument of economic and political control enforcing conformity to subjugating values. Before touching these options, let me share with you some thoughts about crisis to which 1 and 2 are only responses to.

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As such, the question this post faces falls on exactly how a philosopher should relate to an American culture devoid of Adorno or Benjamin’s Leftism. How do we as philosophers relate to culture? We are in constant crisis to which maybe Husserl’s crisis of spirit was just a prelude to the more material crises of global terrorism, poverty and inequality, monopolized media corporations that own political discourse, and an internet culture obsessed with the consumption of questionable goods and female bodies. On my reading, Husserl picked up on the cultural spirit animating Western rationality. When there is no more insight to be gleaned from the subject, when the subject disappears as a cultural ideal, then so too does the person qua subject. That opens all types of cultural possibilities of exploitation. Persons are no longer subjects; they are no longer treated as the sources of meaning in the world. Even though phenomenologically I accept the previous sentence as a truism, the West has created a culture that delimits the value of persons in many ways socially, politically, and economically. Let’s leave it aside whether a politics of the Right or the Left are the best ways to ameliorate that de-personalization. In The Crisis of the European Sciences, Husserl merely picked upon the de-personalizing tendencies of Western culture that percolate into the material cultural. The need for moralizing has never been greater.

For some philosophers, culture is a bad word. It is the rabble, unsophisticated and dirty “folk.” Philosophy purges folk beliefs and intuitions and clarifies our shared thinking with rationality, and in this way, philosophy is antagonistic to culture. This antagonism is the source of a critique against analytic philosophy made popular by John McCumber’s Time in a Ditch. Analytic philosophy of the 1940s and 1950s sought to contemplate de-politicized problems because of the unwanted attention Leftist intellectuals garnered during McCarthyism. At that point, the subject of philosophy and philosophers became divorced from cultural life.

However, readers here know that I do not disentangle culture from the purpose of reflection. At the heart of pragmatic commitment, if not metaphilosophical commitment, we reflect upon the purposes to which we assign experience. We are to be experimental with our analyses. We ought to project our thoughts onto culture, and the philosopher should be an exemplar of insight to those not thinking. There are people who merely absorb the world in terms of its consumption. They cannot reach the abstract conceptions of pure intellectual enterprise. Why should we demand of everyone that ability? Instead, let a thousand flowers bloom. Let’s return to 1 and 2 above.

1 and 2 are responses to de-personalizing elements of culture. First and foremost, culture is a site of resistance only against a culture that threatens the person and its inherent dignity. When de-personalization carries onward, when the source of it is left unchecked, there is no resistance to speak for the person, but resistance itself can be found wanting. In some ways, the Left exposes the cultural elements that threaten the person, and the Right exposes the need for freedom of the person, even if the Right can only articulate a watered-down expression of self-determination in entrepreneurial form. They at least acknowledge the necessity for freedom. But freedom and resistance mean little if not guided by higher purpose to which the value of the person is the highest expression. The person is the source of all value, and delimiting the value of the locus and bearer of values harms us all. In acknowledging that, we should see Adorno and Benjamin as offering two sides of the same coin.

So as to end this post, here’s an image of Harvey Dent flipping his coin:
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