T.W. Adorno

By: Joshua Glenn
September 11, 2009


Infamous among middlebrow intellectuals then and now for dismissing mainstream American music, movies, and magazines of the 1940s and ’50s as nothing more than vehicles for a relentless message of “adjustment and unreflecting obedience,” the German social philosopher and theorist T.W. ADORNO (1903-69) had a relentless message of his own. Thanks to the “introjection and integration of social pressure and coercion, men resign themselves to loving what they have to do, without even being aware that they are resigned,” he insisted, in everything he wrote: i.e., even though there’s no shepherd issuing orders, we behave like docile sheep. (Sound Foucauldian? In a 1978 interview, Foucault said that if he’d been familiar with Adorno’s work, “I would have avoided many of the detours which I made while trying to pursue my own humble path.”) But Adorno was not entirely pessimistic, even about pop culture. In fact, he enjoyed unique and eccentric lowbrow productions — which he described as being every bit as “embarrassing” to the coercive aims of the Disneyfied culture industry as were those highbrow works (e.g., Schoenberg) for which he is a better-known advocate. The HiLobrow.com project is deeply indebted to Adorno’s anti-middlebrow negative dialectics.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: | Arvo Part |

READ MORE about members of the Hardboiled Generation (1894-1903).

What do you think?

  1. In response to questions, here’s a quote.

    Theodor Adorno And Max Horkheimer, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment As Mass Deception” (from Dialectic of Enlightenment, 1944): In a passage that begins by agreeing with Tocqueville’s analysis that liberal capitalism might become an insidious form of bondage for worker and capitalist alike, Adorno (who scholars claim is primarily responsible for this essay) writes that “the misplaced love of the common people for the wrong which is done them … calls for Mickey Rooney in preference to the tragic Garbo, for Donald Duck instead of Betty Boop.”

    This is not a rejection of all pop culture; he’s criticizing Disneyfied pop culture only.

  2. I was one of the questioners, so thanks. I do remember Donald Duck’s name coming up in D of E (despite my disappointment in finding that the co-author was not Star Hustler Jack Horkheimer), but had forgotten that Adorno also knew the names of other pop culture figures.

    I didn’t do so hot on my SATs, and I know symmetry and logic are comforting bourgeois self-deceptions, but I’m still not getting the parallel:

    Mickey Rooney is to Garbo as Donald Duck is to Betty Boop.

    Is it that A = boys and B = girls? Color vs. black and white?

  3. Hi, Tim. Always good to hear from you.

    Adorno is not being asymmetrical or illogical. Donald Duck is a Disney cartoon figure; Rooney is (in Adorno’s opinion) a Disney cartoon figure who also happens to be a human actor. To quote Scott Hamrah: “Which brings us back to Mickey Rooney, the shriveled, diminutive star of The Private Lives of Adam and Eve and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini. The sight of him standing before a huge frame-blowup of a heel crushing a mouse begs an obvious question: if you were as close to a mouse in the class Mammalia as Rooney is, wouldn’t you be nervous, too? This is after all the guy for whom Walt Disney supposedly named his signature rodent.”

    Garbo, in Adorno’s opinion, wasn’t cranked out of the Hollywood/Disney machine (I think he also hated Victor Mature); she’s unique, eccentric. Same goes for Betty Boop, among cartoon characters; he probably also liked the first Popeye cartoons, but I’m just guessing.

    From our vantage point, Betty Boop and early Donald Duck might not seem that different. But at the time, you had to decide which side you were on. This is the background of Kim Deitch’s terrific graphic novel The Boulevard of Broken Dreams

  4. Disney v. Fleischer I get. But couldn’t you make a better case that Rooney was actually the more complex and subversive figure: A manifestly short and plain-looking superstar whose charm (if you’re charmed by it) derived from his overbearing, non-heroic personality and whose mysterious popular appeal depended on a certain goofy sense of self, as opposed to a beauty whose charisma is based on a non-ironic submission to the conventions of prewar European cafe society? Plus, by the time this was written Ninotchka had already been made.

  5. From our vantage point, you can make a case for the subversiveness and complexity of just about anything from the 1940s. And of course, back then Adorno was arguing about Mickey Mouse with Walter Benjamin, who thought Mickey was very subversive. The point is: Adorno paid attention to pop culture, and if he judged something unique and eccentric, he liked it; if it seemed stamped out of some master mold in a culture-extruding factory, he didn’t. He had rigorous standards, yes, but they weren’t snobbish highbrow vs. lowbrow standards.

    PS: I like Ninotchka, but I get your point about it showing a different aspect of Garbo. Still, Adorno isn’t saying he likes Garbo because she’s a great thespian; of course she’s a hoofer like Rooney. But she’s unlike run-of-the-mill, mass-produced movie stars.

  6. Anti-Adorno craziness, from a 5/24/2010 New Yorker profile of Andrew Breitbart:

    “Breitbart, who is Jewish, grew up in Brentwood, an affluent part of Los Angeles. He seems a familiar bicoastal type until he starts explaining his conviction that President Barack Obama’s election was the culmination of a plot, set in place in the nineteen-thirties by émigré members of the Frankfurt School, to take over Hollywood, the media, the academy, and the government, with the aim of imposing socialism. “He’s a Marxist,” Breitbart says of Obama. “His life work, his life experience, his life writings, and now his legislative legacy speak to his ideological point of view.”

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