Adorno’s critique of popular culture is probably more relevant now than it ever has been. The situation of music in society has deteriorated much as he may have predicted in 1932, but is it quite likely that it has gone further than he imagined possible, the standardisation, institutionalisation and superficiality of Western popular music and its anaesthetising effects (Adorno, 1941) reaching across cultural and geopolitical boundaries. In this age of information and globalisation it is possible to access almost any music, literature or statistical or historic data from virtually any country via the electronic collective consciousness of the internet. The immortal words of Winston Churchill that ‘history is written by the victors’ may still ring true today to the extent that the official version of events may be endorsed by the dominant powers, but which version of current political developments will eventually end up in the history books is an open question. In the case
of Israel and Palestine, some considerable revisions may have been made on both sides of the wall (Peled-Elhanan, 2012; Said, 2004).
By : Julia A’isha
Even in recent history it has sometimes taken a decade or two for the full scale of atrocities
committed to emerge into general awareness, as was certainly the case with the Soviet Union and East Timor. Now with the availability of information and in the light of recent leaks of Western and Middle Eastern government secrets (e.g. Swisher, 2011), it is much easier to learn the truth about any given situation, regardless of the media PR enterprise which may be attempting to cover it up. The question is, when the reality is made apparent, what is the reaction? What can be done when it is seemingly impossible to exert any influence on the situation, particularly after the event? The usual, and natural, reaction is to look for a way of protecting oneself from the pain associated with awareness of these human issues (Said, 2004), and avoid contemplating the incomprehensible scale of the problem, by seeking refuge in the relative safety of the more banal and trivial distractions thatmass media and popular culture have to offer.
This tendency will be examined in relation to Adorno’s critique of mass culture, kitsch (1932)
and popular music (1941) and their socio-political uses early last century, and Said’s articles on the devastating effects on Palestine and Iraq of Western politico-economic domination (2000 – 2004), which will provide a concrete example of how a situation can still be whitewashed by the mainstream media and airbrushed out of the mass consciousness of the global community. The unfolding realities in focus will be viewed through an Adornian theoretical lens in order to analyse how western and westernised popular culture and the propagandistic aspects of commoditised art may be manipulating and controlling populations on all sides of the situation, specifically in regard to the so called peace process, and could also be contributing to a disconnection of people from their cultural heritage, and an identification with their aggressors on the one hand, and with the nationalistic, racist discourse of their leaders on the other, through the false collectivity (Hansen,1992; Leppert, 2002) of mass culture.
2 On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening (1938) Non-Resistance
“The illusion of a social preference for light music as against serious [music] is based on that
passivity of the masses which makes the consumption of light music contradict the objective
interest of those who consume it” (Adorno, 2002, p. 292).
“The power of the banal extends over the entire society” (Adorno, 2002, p. 292).
The music of the people used to be critical of the bourgeois elite and the ruling classes (Adorno, 2002). Now, however, it is the ‘alternative’ genres, such as avant-garde rock (Born, 1993), punk, post-punk and experimental electronic music (Paddison, 1996), political rap (Martinez, 1997) and underground hip-hop (Rose, 1994, in Frith, 2004) which rage against their corruption and abuses of power; mainstream pop only distracts and dumbs down critical thinking and is unsuitable for dealing with political issues and inspiring resistance, due to its inauthentic and commercialised nature (Rolston, 2001). This commoditised and packaged music (Barenboim & Said, 2003) is based on a “children’s language consisting exclusively of fragments and distortions of the artistic language of music” (Adorno, 2002, p.307) leading to a regression in listening by reducing music to its most basic elements. This in turn may affect thinking in a similar way, through the causative properties of music, in which Adorno was a believer (DeNora, 2003).
“It suffices to remember how many sorrows he is spared who no longer thinks too many thoughts.” (Adorno, 2002, p.303)
2.1 On Popular Music (1941) Repetition, Recognition and Acceptance – the Plugging Process.
“In our present society the masses themselves are kneaded by the same mode of production as
the articraft material foisted upon them” (Adorno, 2002, p.458).
Adorno compares popular music to serious music, making the distinction between good and
bad serious music, but no such distinction in popular music. The rigid, mechanical structure, which characterises popular music had already been employed in more anodyne classical music and represents a rather undemocratic form, in its inhibition of the development of musical ideas, rendering them powerless to affect change upon the whole piece. The process of acceptance through recognition involved in listening to repetitively “plugged” pop music, which he maintains is all quite similar, is divided into five components: a. vague remembrance, b. actual identification, c. subsumption by the label, d. self reflection on the act of recognition, and e. psychological transfer of recognition-authority to the object. This process may be applied to a wider cultural context, particularly component c., which implies a kind of “safety in numbers” (p. 455) herd mentality.
This mentality carries with it a predisposition to obedience and conformity, a susceptibility to
manipulation through fear – of loss, the unknown, isolation or even annihilation – and a desire to be entertained and distracted from the stress and boredom of perceived reality, whilst being required to contribute the least possible effort. Thus an artificial need is created to buy the new product, which will only satisfy this false need for a short time before the next new product must be bought, serving no real need, other than perhaps an attempt to fill the meaningless void in the lives of the masses. Adorno speaks again here of the repetitive patterns of a childish musical language replete with oversimplifications and of material which is “pre-digested”, rather like processed fast-food (DeNora, 2003). He concludes by somewhat sarcastically suggesting that the consumers of popular dance music are becoming insects – presumably by collectively regressing into a mindless, primitive state – rather than growing into men and effectively facing reality, in his final statement:
“To become transformed into an insect, man needs that energy which might possibly achieve his transformation into a man” (Adorno, 2002, p.468).
2.2 What National Socialism has Done to the Arts (1945)
“Hatred of thinking, hostility against the development of independent thought is what makes for fascism” (Adorno, 2002, p.381).
Adorno refers to Goethe and Hegel as proponents of facing reality and naming evil as a means of overcoming it, as opposed to glossing it over with a venire of feigned harmony whilst avoiding its essential nature (some concrete examples of the latter will be presented in sections 5 –5.3). The stigma attached to the expression of essence and depth, and the preoccupation with the superficial, accepting it as reality, he asserts, is a disturbing phenomenon left over from the fascist era. He goes on to list four tendencies in the arts which may be indicative of the survival of the fascist spirit, but without specifying which aspects of fascism they are proposed to represent. Some aspects may, however be discernible through close scrutiny of the tendencies described, the first of which is a propagandistic subtext in art, the second being escapism through art as a recreational activity, the third, a trend towards collectivism for its own sake and the forth, the artificial preservation of European culture as a quaint exhibit.
These tendencies, which he blames for the near total destruction of artistic autonomy, will provide a lens through which to observe modern fascist and imperialist practices (and their masking by the mainstream media), described in Said’s accounts of international government level corruption and the western economic and military contribution to the disastrous chain of events in Palestine and Iraq.
3 From Oslo to Iraq and the Roadmap (2004) – Mass Media Deception, Failed Peace Processes & Asymmetrical Reality:
“Reliable information is the greatest enemy of oppression and secret injustice” (Said, 2004, p.24).
Edward Said came to be seen as something of a threat to status quo by American, Israeli and
Palestinian officials alike, at a time when opposition to U.S. plans was being silenced, for revealing uncomfortable truths about the Middle East conflicts, which often ran contrary to the version of events portrayed in the mainstream media. He was heavily critical of the unconditional U.S. support of Israel’s continuous human rights abuses, listed in A Monumental Hypocrisy (2003) and described in more detail throughout the book, and the subsequent suppression of information on the atrocities which could not have been committed without their backing. He was also deeply dismayed by the compliance of the majority of Western and Israeli journalists – with a very few exceptions mentioned in Palestinians Under Siege (2000) and Slow Death: Punishment by Detail (2002) respectively – who accept gagging orders from mainstream newspapers, and by the intellectuals and artists who conform to state endorsed ideologies and compromise their integrity, as described in a
historic context in Thoughts About America (2002).
Said predicted much of the continuing deterioration of the situationin Palestine following the
deception of the Oslo Accords (DOP, 1993), the fraud of Camp David (Hanieh, 2001; Reinhart, 2006) and the ‘Road Map for Peace’ (Quartet, 2003). He criticised the Palestinian leadership for co-operating even though the U.S. and Israeli designed contracts excluded such vital issues as Jerusalem and the Right of Return of four million refugees – the official figure now well over five million (UNRWA, 2012). Far from being a peace agreement, as it was sold to the rest of the world, signing the Declaration of Principles (DOP, 1993) turned out to be the kiss of death to Palestinian autonomy, as was refusing to sign at Camp David in 2000 for Arafat himself, who was, according to Said in Israel, Iraq and the United States (2002) “hanging on to life by his teeth” as Sharon did everything in his power to undermine him “short of actually having him killed” (p.215). The latter has been a point of ongoing debate and a recent investigation suggests he may have been poisoned with polonium-210 (Al Jazeera, 2012), although it remains unclear whether it would implicate Sharon’s men or his own (Fisk, 2012).
The imbalance of the two ‘sides’ of the conflict – the state of Israel with probably the fourth strongest military in the world and the stateless Palestinians without an army or actual control of a territory, is pointed out in These are the Realities (2001) and elsewhere. Given that the last war to be fought on anything approaching equal terms was in 1948, before the newly founded Jewish State broke the rules of the UN ceasefire and re-armed (Tolan, 2008) to claim independence from its British brokers, it is extraordinary that many people still believe it is a balanced situation. This “disparity in power” has been augmented by the fact that the U.S. tax payer is providing Israel with financial support to the tune of over $3 billion, plus the necessary hardware for the bombardment of “defenceless Palestinian towns and villages” (Said, 2004, p. 65-66) and the imprisonment and torture of an entire population, described in Slow Death: Punishment by Detail (2002), without which these violations would be impracticable. Indeed it seems to be a tradition for the U.S. to supply arms to the oppressors, examples of which are listed in Palestinians Under Siege (2000).
4 Adorno and Said – a Synthesis:
This section will deal with how these seemly unrelated worlds may be united, how these two
great intellectuals of the last century, discussing two distinct subject areas may be seen to converge in a similar worldview. Both men were accomplished musicians, music and literary critics and champions of abstract modern classical music, and both were deeply engaged in the political developments of the day, particularly those involving the respective homelands from which they were exiled, and the relevance of music and culture in general to those developments. In what follows, four main themes extracted from Said’s observations of the Palestinian situation will be presented alongside four main themes derived from Adorno’s theory and critique of mass culture, in an attempt to reveal possible connections between them and offer an explanation as to why, notwithstanding the great respect and acclaim he received, Said was confronted with such a barrage of criticism in the U.S. and Israel, as well as in the Arab world.
First, however, some aspects of the socio-cultural situation on the ground in Said’s homeland,
Palestine, will be considered, and some examples of how local culture is being diluted and
manipulated by Western popular culture will become apparent. These examples, in the context of the political situation, may immediately bring the two worlds into closer proximity and demonstrate the mutual influence of culture and politics, as well as the political manipulation of the people through popular music, the westernisation of an Eastern culture and the Western dominated globalisation of mass media.
4.1 Cultural Identity
Where in traditional rural communities and refugee camps there is often a strong identification with Arabic music and culture and a reflex rejection of anything foreign, even by the younger generations, not sharing the fascination with western popular culture with their urban compatriots, the western influence creeps in through the Arabic pop they hear on the radio wherever they go and on TV at home, and through products available in the local shops. The majority drink cola or similar drinks daily and are quite convinced that they are locally produced commodity because they are labelled as being manufactured in a neighbouring country, and so it is with music. If the songs are sung in Arabic then it must be Arabic music, despite not being in Arabic modes or based on Arabic rhythms or the Maqam system, even if the accompanying video is entirely culturally inappropriate.
There has been a gradual transition from classical and traditional Arabic music via cross-over
artists, such as the well-loved Fairuz from Lebanon and Hany Shaker from Egypt, to purely
commercial pop, and there is very little contemporary classical music being composed in parallel, as there is in the West. The older generations still listen to much revered and internationally renowned artists such as Om Kulthum, Abdel Halim, Abdel Wahab, Esmahan and Farid al-Atrash, but although they are still aware of this heritage, the younger generations are becoming increasingly disinterested, and are instead being seduced by the glamorous pop scene or marginal genres, such as jazz and hip-hop.
While jazz is still a very new development, slowly gathering momentum, Palestinian hip-hop is now quite well established, as of the past decade, as a creative and cathartic medium for the frustrated and disillusioned urban youth, giving them a political voice and a means of non-violent protest less likely to be met with teargas and bullets than the weekly demonstrations in the villages of Bil’in, Ni’lin and Nabi Saleh. The gradual introduction of Western classical music through the music schools may work to counter mass culture influence and political and social ills (Allen, 2012).
4.2 Requiem to Revolution
Popular uprisings, such as the world has recently witnessed in the so called ‘Arab Spring’ – a
wave of revolutions which started in Tunis and surged eastwards through Libya and Egypt to Al-Yemen, Bahrain and then northwards to Syria, causing mini-tremors in neighbouring states – are invariably met with atrocious and disproportionate violence by order of the dictatorial regimes they have in some cases seemingly managed to overthrow. The first and second Intifada (1989 & 2002) were certainly no exception, with poorly armed Palestinians confronting the large and extremely well equipped force of the Israeli army who, unlike the aforementioned, were able to brutalise them without even having to cope with the moral dilemma of massacring their own people as they bulldozed villages, urban neighbourhoods and refugee camps.
It is not necessary to look very far back in history to find a plethora of examples of even
peaceful protests being repressed with unyielding aggression and unspeakable acts of violence, not to mention the self-righteous barbarity that traditionally meets an oppressed population who dares to resort to armed struggle against its aggressors. With martyrs to the cause and civilian deaths unnumbered, with cemeteries full of countless tiny graves, collateral damage for the imposition of an international political agenda or, worse still, an economic one – rendering them little more than victims of institutionalised murder for money – it is unsurprising that the Palestinian people are sick of violence, tired of revolution and ready to accept any distraction from the debilitating hopeless reality and create at least an illusion of normality.
4.3 Cultural Resistance
This opens the opportunity for resistance through traditional culture, the transformative powers of high culture or critical and subversive forms of popular culture (Allen, 2012). Where these cultural forms are unavailable, however, or not supported or encouraged through education or intervention, people will understandably veer towards the path of least resistance and the consumption of whatever culture is most accessible, finding an escape through the mass cultural media of television and commercial pop music, as well as the general material, kitsch and junk food abundantly available to them. It appears that this opportunity is being exploited by agents of international mass culture production, more than by artists, educators and institutions, such as theatres and international music schools, who might facilitate the development of higher cultural forms. However, many of these institutions do exist and are doing extraordinary work throughout the country, work which is essential both to its cultural integrity and to the rehabilitation of a traumatised population (Osborne, 2012).
5 The Rhetoric of Power and the Illusion of Benevolence:
“Israelis, Arabs and Americans are told that love of country requires such expenditures and such destruction because a good cause is at stake. Nonsense. What is at stake are material interests that keep rulers in power, corporations making profits, and people in a state of manufactured consent, just so long as they don’t get up one morning and start to think about where, in all this mad, technologized rush to bomb and kill, we are going” (Said, 2004, p. 163).
New imperial structures of global hegemony (Dallmayr, 1997) are often justified by the ‘illusion of benevolence’ enforced by the ‘rhetoric of power’(Said, 1993) and adopted by patriots of the invading countries, as a means of lightening the burden of guilt by convincing themselves that their military is actually doing a great service to the country it is occupying by ridding it of a dictator, as in Iraq, or generally exerting a civilising effect on its violent and primitive population (Said, 2004). It may, therefore, not be the people’s lack of empathy and understanding for the other (Said, 1993) but rather government endorsed art and mainstream media manipulation of their sympathy and antipathy, or simply convincing the masses that it is all part of the mythical “war on terror” towards maintaining their own security (Said, 2004)**.
This propaganda works throughout the culture industry, in film, music, television (see section 5.1), not only the daily papers and newsrooms which have become a form of entertainment in themselves, relieving boredom and producing a strangely addictive stimulant, their repetitive mantra accepted, through recognition and identification (Adorno, 2002), although they are known on some level to be untrustworthy (Hansen, 1992).
5.1 Propaganda in Mainstream Media and Art.
Said lamented the general lack of political transparency and journalistic and artist autonomy. Bad journalism makes people feel they know something of the reality, while keeping them ignorant and misinformed (Brooker, 2010), while one of the main differences between artists and politicians, according to Said’s colleague, Daniel Barenboim, is that a true artist has to be uncompromising and a politician must be able to compromise (Barenboim & Said, 2003). There appears to have been a role reversal, in that certain politicians are almost totally uncompromising (Said, 2000, 2004) and mainstream artists compromise their integrity under corporate pressure. The result is an unhealthy,co-dependent merging of politics and art (Rolston, 2001) and the emergence of the four tendencies (see section 2.4) which Adorno proposed may be symbolise the survival of the fascist spirit in art.
5.2 The End of the Peace Process
The Palestinians are continuing to pay the price for the signing, by their cornered leader and
representatives, of the deceptively benign-looking DOP (1993) at the culmination of the Oslo Peace Process, which fooled the world with pictures of the friendly handshake between Arafat and Rabin (Said, 2004). The fraudulent document produced by Clinton at Camp David amid intense pressure, (Hanieh, 2001; Reinhart, 2006) just added insult to injury. Occupation denier, Uzi Landau of the Likud party’s U.S. TV line about being “a people coming home” Said, 2004, p. 219) corresponds nicely to Adorno’s definition of kitsch as a soft-focus, misremembered past, which glosses over the catastrophe buried underneath (Adorno, 2002). Israel and America’s well-rehearsed rhetoric (Said, 2000) follows similar principles as the plugging process of commercial music (section 2.3) and, like a hit song, is accepted due to its being made familiar through incessant repetition (Adorno, 2002), the suppressed Palestinian narrative, if heard, is not taken seriously in the “regressive listeners arrogantly ignorant rejection of anything unfamiliar.” (ibid, p.307)
5.3 The Democracy Delusion
“Masochism in listening is only defined by self-surrender and pseudo-pleasure through
identification with power.” (Adorno, 2002, p.311)
The imbalance of power between Israel and Palestine is barely mentioned in the media, and
rising popular support for Palestine and demonstrations against the bombardments of Iraq (Said, 2004) and Gaza (Levy, 2010) are underplayed in many wealthy countries for fear of embarrassing their pro-Israeli governments. Ironically, in the so-called democracies, as in the non-democratic regimes, the majority are powerless in the face of superimposed politico-economic and military structures (Said, 2004). The culture industries (Witkin, 1999) create the illusion of free choice and, simultaneously, the reality of forced choice between identical products (Adorno, 2002) motivated by fear of being left behind or excluded by the powerful collective, wherein lies strength and safety. Component c. of the process of acceptance of plugged music outlined in section 2.3 may offer an insight into the reasons behind people’s mass gravitation towards the established, standardised and widely accepted, led by a feeling of ‘safety in numbers’ (ibid. p.455).
This ‘safety in numbers’ attitude espoused by the majority engenders a certain reluctance to
question authority or a source of information made easily available and generally accepted as fact. When it comes to investigating doubts of widely trusted institutions, much courage is needed to face the isolation and disillusionment that inevitably accompany the discovery that they are in fact false, and reward investment with lies. Such close scrutiny is discouraged and often rejected in favour of the far more comfortable pseudo-reality offered by the consumption of mass culture, including mainstream media with its consistently slanted, whitewashed, biased, manipulated or otherwise distorted version of events. Popular music plays an impressive role in this pantomime and its rigid and repetitive structures (Adorno, 2002) may effectively restrict thought patterns within similar boundaries (DeNora, 2003) and limit listeners to the familiar 4/4 beat and 32 bar chorus.
To listen to a socially rejected autonomous music (ibid.) and a marginalised independent media (Said, 2004) takes courage as it is accompanied by isolation and despair, but may lead to understanding and transformation. The rewards are few for those who choose to pull the ground from under their own feet by bursting the bubble of their manufactured pseudo-reality and exploding the myth of their national heritage. Those few who refuse to serve an unjust regime by brutalising helpless populations, refugeed on their own land, in lawless militias claiming to be the world’s most moral army (Levy, 2010) are often imprisoned or exiled. This may go some way towards explaining why the majority are content to believe the self-righteous lies, consume the synthetic rubbish with which they are ceaselessly bombarded (Adorno, 2002) and be led down the path of least resistance. However, evil that wears a mask of benevolence (Said, 1993, 2004) is the more corrupt.
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