Thursday, September 17, 2009

Gissing reads Adorno

I don't usually go for the kind of cute anachronism that is a popular argumentative device amongst postmodern Humanities scholars. You know what I mean: using the past to legitimise the present (more specifically, present-day research) in publications and lectures with quaffable titles like "The Postmodern Renaissance". "Shakespeare reading Joyce". "Did Jane Austen watch Sex and the City?"

But then I couldn't resist pirating that little intellectual sleight of hand when I came across the following passage from George Gissing's The Nether World (yes, still reading Gissing here), which proves the writer's prophetic - nay, clairvoyant - capacities. It is a passage dedicated to plebeian bank holiday pleasures; the scene is Crystal Palace:
Ha! Pennyloaf was happy! The last trace of tears vanished. She too was sensible of the influences of music; her heart throbbed as she let herself lean against her husband.

Well, as every one must needs have his panacea for the ills of society, let me inform you of mine. To humanise the multitude two things are necessary - two things of the simplest kind conceivable. In the first place, you must effect an entire change of economic conditions: a preliminary step of which every tyro will recognise the easiness; then you must bring to bear on the new order of things the constant influence of music. Does not the prescription recommend itself? It is jesting in earnest. For, work as you will, there is no chance of a new and better world until the old be utterly destroyed. Destroy, sweep away, prepare the ground; then shall music the holy, music the civiliser, breathe over the renewed earth, and with Orphean magic raise in perfected beauty the towers of the City of Man.
I felt oddly reminded of a passage from a text published half a century later, Theodor Adorno's essay on popular music from 1941:
In our present society the masses themselves are kneaded by the same mode of production as the arti-craft material foisted upon them .... They want standardized goods and pseudo-individualization, because their leisure is an escape from work and at the same time is moulded after those psychological attitudes to which their workaday world exclusively habituates them. Popular music is for the masses a perpetual bus man's holiday. Thus, there is justification for speaking of a preestablished harmony today between production and consumption of popular music. The people clamour for what they are going to get anyhow.

To escape boredom and avoid effort are incompatible — hence the reproduction of the very attitude from which escape is sought. To be sure, the way in which they must work on the assembly line, in the factory, or at office machines denies people any novelty. They seek novelty, but the strain and boredom associated with actual work leads to avoidance of effort in that leisure time which offers the only chance for really new experience. As a substitute, they crave a stimulant. Popular music comes to offer it. Its stimulations are met with the inability to vest effort in the ever-identical. This means boredom again. It is a circle which makes escape impossible. The impossibility of escape causes the widespread attitude of inattention toward popular music. The moment of recognition is that of effortless sensation. The sudden attention attached to this moment burns itself out instanter and relegates the listener to a realm of inattention and distraction. On the one hand, the domain of production and plugging presupposes distraction and, on the other, produces it.
So they both are concerned with how music helps sustain our mind-forg'd manacles. But I can't help feeling that Gissing's sarcasm is so much more effective than Adorno's school masterly pomposity.

Oops - that.was.an.academic.clanger. How dare I doubt a member of the Frankfurt School pantheon? But really, Adorno's hatred of popular music - which in 1941 of course meant jazz - is infuriatingly crude.

He'd have found "Leaving on a Jet Plane" abominable, too.

Interesting footage with Adorno on pop music and the Vietnam War here.

15 comments:

mikeovswinton said...

Heer Professor Adorno might have noted, had he read "Angel Pavement", that when Mr Herbert Smeeth sought novelty and blah blah blah he went to classical music concerts. (He probably hadn't read it, but his mate Walt Benjamin was a big fan of Arnold Bennett, apparently enjoying particularly "Clayhanger". So your pomo Englit paper could be; "Walter Benjamin - was he a City or a Vale fan?")

mikeovswinton, about to try to disprove adorno said...

"To escape boredom and avoid effort are incompatible". Discuss. I'm not sure that Porfessor Adorno is doing anything here other than stating his own prejudices. I rather think that a lot of humanity spends a lot of time disproving him - or at least trying to. Its all a bit Protestant , isn't it?

The Wife said...

The world disproves most of the things that Humanities scholars consider the truth most of the time. And yet they go on believing bullshit.

But Protestant? I don't know. I was inculcated with a concept of cuddly Lutheranism by my fervently anti- Catholic mother, for whom Protestantism has always been the "kinder" denomination. I find Adorno more of an intellectual flaggelant.

I read an article today in which the author seemed to argue that Mary Shelley had read the psychoanalyst Karen Horney. Which reminded me of the bewilderment that one of my academic teachers once voiced about Bram Stoker's failure to "see" that the staking of Dracula was a phallic act.

Which leads me back to my opening sentence. About the dung.

mikeovswinton said...

You clearly haven't too much contact with English and Scottish Non-Conformists, who in different ways are what I'm thinking of. Some of them would say that if you could escape boredom without effort, you would clearly be sinning. The Scottish Presbyterian type would probably have a split over which kind of sin you were comitting. I wonder if the Muggletonians ever read Foucault? (They were, I think, called Sandemanians in Scotland. Rather good articles in the Sept and Oct Fortean Times about them.)

The Wife said...

It's worse than you thought. The Muggletonians read J.K. Rowling.

Sandemanians? As in sherry?

mikeovswinton escaping boredom without effort said...

Sorry. The Sandemanians weren't the Scottish version of the Muggletonians. Michale Faraday the Scientist was a Sandemanian elder. Perhaps Faraday read Sokal?

mikeovswinton said...

Does reading JK Rowling embody an attempt to escape boredom without effort? Did Tolkien read JK Rowling?

mikeovswinton, bemused said...

Just watched your Youtube of Adorno. (Readers without German can get a version with English sous titres). He was a barrel of laffs, wasn't he? If he'd been Scottish he might have made good Wee Free preacher. I like the comment "entertainment music". Does this mean music should actually be positively unpleasant to listen to if its any good? He's have liked Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, then.

J. Carter Wood said...

So, what's 'positively unpleasant' about Black Sabbath?

Or are you making the opposite point?

I love 'entertainment music', I do.

Mr. Joyboy said...

Adorno on classical music (especially Beethoven) is brilliant more often than not. On other forms of music, worthless. What's unmistakably European about Adorno, I find, is his almost unwitting intellectual authoritarianism. With him, 'I don't like pop music...' inevitably leads to '...and neither should anybody else.' He wastes a great deal of time registering horror and revulsion at the fact that people exist who believe or like things he considers ludicrous or primitive. I suppose considering his time and background, it's understandable. (However, this style of discourse has had a rather tiresome influence on later generations of German intellectuals, who waste plenty of column-inches denouncing discount stores, video games, or Springer press publications.)

But I digress. Back to Teddy! When Adorno ventures out of his depth -- as his stay in the U.S. led him to do with alarming frequency -- he immediately lapses into Ignatius Reilly-esque self-parody.

Fortunately, jazz and laughter were much too vibrant to be affected by his silly attacks, but his malign influence haunts German orchestras to this day, who criminally under-perform Jean Sibelius.

The Wife said...

I'm glad I'm not alone in my ... dissatisfaction with Adorno's notion of culture. In fact, I'm particularly happy about your intellectual solidarity after returning in a somewhat melancholy mood from a conference where Adorno seemed to provide the main/only point of reference in a panel enticingly labelled "Historicising the Popular".

Granted, I didn't hear all the papers, but in those I attended, Mr. A. was mentioned like, constantly, and typically in formulations that exasperatingly ran along the lines of "Did Adam Smith read Adorno?"

No mention of Gramsci. Gramsci is ignored by German cultural scholars. Philistines!

mikeovswinton said...

Gramsci, eh? Had a look at "Domination and the Arts of Resistance" by James Scott (Prof of Politics and of Anthropology at Princeton and shepherd). Has a bit of a pop at the notion of hegemony, and is generally very interesting. Not sure what its got to do with jazz or Black Sabbath, tho'.

mikeovswinton - too much time on his hands. said...

PS Re Black Sabbath may I respectfully cite Sir Kevin Rowland; "No, not those guitars. They're too noisy and crude." I think he may have had his fellow Brummies in mind when he penned those immortal lines.

The Wife said...

Mike, what is it with you and Dexy's Midnight Runners?

BTW, I met a colleague of yours from the English department at the conference I mentioned.

mikeovswinton said...

Okay. Don't listen to the records. Read the book by the shepherd instead.