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Adorno in America

by David Jenemann
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2007
288 pp. Paper, $22.95
ISBN: 0-8166-4809-2.

Reviewed by Michael R. (Mike) Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University


David Jenemann argues that severe cultural critic and German exile Theodor W. Adorno wasn't a fish out of water in America but was an active and engaged participant in the cultural and intellectual issues and arguments of his time concerning mass media and its messages. Adorno arrived in New York in 1938, to work in collaboration between the Institute for Social Research (ISR) and the Columbia University Office of Radio Research. One day he was struck by the experience of walking out of one downtown building while a piece of music was playing on the radio, and hearing it several times coming out of other buildings as he walked down the block.

In Adorno's critique of the authoritarian logic of radio, he felt the mass media's own seamless narrative of the culture industry prevents any historical understanding of it. CBS Marketing material privileged European music, especially musicians from the Axis countries or imperial capitals. Cultured Europeans in evening dress were photographed in sharp contrast to rustic, outdoorsy American folk musicians (the publicity omitted any mention of jazz or black music). Radio, movies, early television were all strongly girded with white, male authoritative (or authoritarian) voices, from the 1930s through WWII and the 1950s to the mid 1960s, voices that spoke in a confident and un-ironic tone difficult to fathom in a world where most students get their news from the Daily Show's John Stewart or his colleague Steven Colbert.

Adorno noted atomized listening was the condition fostered by the repetition and interchangeability of radio programs, where all pop culture and programming were merely tools of workplace productivity. Adorno fumed, "Music under present radio auspices serves to keep listeners from criticizing social realities; in short, it has a soporific effect upon social consciousness". His colleague Max Horkehimer worked on building the relationship between the critical theory of the Frankfurt School and empirical research. In 1945 Adorno lamented the "sneering empiricist sabotage" of social research, when sociologists like Paul Lazarsfeld turned it into venal market research. Audience measurement and reductio-ad-absurdum product rating systems and focus groups grated upon Adorno. Lazarsfeld, in turn, found Adorno an elitist and odd dilettante.

Adorno was interested in new musical technology, including the electronic violin, the Hammond organ, and especially the theremin, all of them dispensing with imitation of natural sound for something entirely new. The theremin, now re-popularized by Michigan rock songwriter Mr. Largebeat, was used in many horror and science fiction movie soundtracks of the 1950s as an audio signifier of weirdness and alien presence.

In 1941 Adorno moved from New York City to what he called "a small university town", Los Angeles, and soon completed a book on film music with Hans Eisler. He also advised Hollywood director William Dieterle on scripts and was criticized by Hans Richter for unconscious racism in depiction of a black character in a possible version (several were proposed) of a movie called "Below the Surface" that Dieterle and Adorno developed concerning anti-semitism and ethnic prejudices.

Adorno advised Thomas Mann on musical sections of his novel Doctor Faustus, and some of his ideas turned up in the dialogue of characters in the book. The novel tells of an artist's retreat from the world, and the communist critic Georg Lukacs claimed it——despite some self-conscious techniques of fragmentation of dialogue and chronology--as anti-modernist, socialist realist work. This reviewer recalls how the book was suggested by Chilean novelist José Donoso to students in his 1970s fiction workshops who proposed rock n' roll settings for novels.

David Riesman argued in The Lonely Crowd (1949) that comic strips encouraged kids to think in terms of winners and losers rather than complexity of life's situations. Driving around Los Angeles in his Plymouth, Adorno was a fan of a Chrysler-sponsored comic strip Chuck Carson, whose crime-fighting hero was an automobile dealer. In his summary to his book on Theodor W. Adorno's American years, Jenemann compares Adorno, (Jewish) exile from a doomed foreign world, to the comic book superhero Superman, or at the least the Man of Steel's creators Siegel and Shuster. In making this comparison, Jenemann might have cited Michael Chabon's 2000 novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which explores the mindset of Jewish superhero creators. Theodor Adorno, regrettably, failed to live to read and critique that novel, though in his heightened sensitivity to American pop media, surely would have done it justice.



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