The Canon. Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life. Theodor Adorno

September 3, 2009

What might Theodor Adorno have said about Michael Jackson? Frank Zappa claimed that rock music writing was produced by people who can't write, interviewing people who can't talk, to provide articles for people who can't read. Given the continuing maelstrom in the tabloids, this seems like a defensible view. An unlikely bedfellow, perhaps, but his view would surely have accorded with those of Adorno, whose Minima Moralia (1951) I'm currently re-reading. In relation to cultural studies, he has always occupied an ambiguous position - on the one hand, he is represented as purveying a pessimistic and conservative view of popular music, and popular culture in general, as a massive system of manipulation and ideological mystification. Anyone with less than a fanatical engagement with the persons, products and performances of that huge global industry may be well disposed to this viewpoint after the first few bars of Wind Beneath My Wings wafts out of a passing car on a Saturday evening.

In fact, Adorno's views were much more complex and sophisticated. He was a polymath working at the highest levels in both music and the human sciences, and for him each was a distinct way of knowing the world, neither sufficient in itself nor reducible to the other. In itself, the Enlightenment project of rational accounting of the world subverted the possibility of truth production, constrained by the limits of language use and concepts already directed away from freedom, change and exploration - the "negative dialectic".

The only way forward, he argued, was "fragmentary writing" of the kind contained in Minima Moralia, where multiple perspectives and contrasting views are brought together in a discourse unconstrained by the conventional tropes of operations establishing rational connections between statements, termed "markers for dominance in the conceptual realm". Rather, this writing should aspire to the condition of modernist music, and tolerate dissonances in its cognitive forms as music does in its expansions of harmonic possibilities.

Seeing music as a uniquely valuable and distinctive kind of knowledge and discovery, Adorno's insistence on the need to create works that both celebrate the power of its forms and move forward the possibilities in the modes of expression it employs is a compelling vision. He didn't think this applied to the popular music of his day, but that, in a way, makes him even more credible and timelessly relevant; as Howard Becker showed in his study of jazz musicians, "squares" have no taste, whatever the era or the genre.

The depth and sophistication of Adorno's analysis, combining a musician's immersion in the processes of creation and performance with a critical philosopher's conceptual range and depth, is a constant challenge and benchmark for anyone trying to understand what music is and why/when it matters. Like Soren Kierkegaard, Adorno believed that music expressed ethical rather than aesthetic values. Even those who disagree must still engage with ideas this powerful.

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