Utopian pessimism for the twenty-first century.
This year marks fifty years since Theodor Adorno’s death, providing an opportunity to reflect on his relevance to a radically altered cultural landscape, in which the objects of his criticism have changed or disappeared. The German philosopher has proved controversial for his disdain of jazz music and his rebuke of his students during the 1968 and ’69 German student uprisings, actions that have cast him as out of touch and elitist. However, there is much we can still take from his theoretical writings, not least his coupling of a thoroughgoing negativity with a seemingly contradictory belief in the transcendental power of creative production. A German Jew exiled from Nazi Germany in the 1930s, and indirect witness to the worst the century had to offer, Adorno finds himself strangely allied with a millennial generation he would no doubt have despised, through his insistence on making and believing in artistic production even in the worst of times.
Millennials are unique in having grown up with no hope of deliverance from a world dominated by capitalist values. Despite their pessimism, their Generation X forebears still held out some hope of transcending the excesses of capital in their formative years, via benefit concerts (such as Band Aid), consumer protest (à la Naomi Klein), and a perceived utopian capacity for the early internet. Even the punk refrain of “No Future” bemoaned the loss of a potential utopia that still felt like a birthright to this generation so close to the starry-eyed 1960s. Millennials, however, know only the certainty of capitalism’s insurmountability (embodied in the late Mark Fisher’s re-formulation of “TINA,” or “there is no alternative,” Margaret Thatcher’s phrase) and the inevitability of climate catastrophe, denying them even the loss of a utopia to bemoan.
Despite the collapsed economy and the nightmare of climate change, the millennial generation—aided by new media technology—engages daily in an unprecedented level of creative output and distribution, principally via memes, shared photographs, and video-making. Not that this directly alleviates the drudgery of twenty-first-century living. The dry sarcasm that accompanies a lack of prospects—both in terms of work and positive political change—can be seen in movements such as vaporwave, the online music phenomenon that takes slowed-down eighties tracks and pairs them with visuals of shopping malls and software from the pre-internet, personal computing era, as well as in individual productions such as Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared, the YouTube puppet show that turns a Sesame Street aesthetic into doom-laden existentialist horror (and which will soon make the transition to TV).
Phenomena such as vaporwave and Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared express Adorno’s injunction to make art in spite of its impossibility, which is the flip side to his often misunderstood claim that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” from his 1949 essay “Cultural Criticism and Society.” He revisits the claim in his later essay on “Commitment,” whereby the very impossibility of making art impels people to keep trying, forcing artists to become increasingly negative. This, he argued, could be achieved via a senseless, thoroughly abstract aesthetic able to jilt the viewer out of the rigid structures of modern, industrialized society. In his writing on aesthetic theory, Adorno called this momentary revelation of truth the “shudder” and wrote that it could be experienced in absurdist theater and literature, as well as experimental classical music. He was clear, however, that such an experience is highly personal, raising the question of where, if anywhere, it might be found today. Given Adorno’s predilection for high art—Beckett, Poe, Kafka, Mahler, and Schoenberg were among his preferred artists—it may seem a stretch to locate “shudder” on the internet.
Adorno’s tastes were influenced by his social position—an upper-class German-Italian born in the early twentieth century and schooled in philosophy and classical music from a very young age. This naturally gave him a lofty view of culture, inclining him towards high art in his search for an aesthetic that challenged the monotone culture sanctioned by the elite in order to keep the masses stupefied. Even given this, his contempt toward the culture industry did not mean he saw its products unworthy of contemplation—on the contrary, he demonstrated how it deserved serious inquiry and dedicated texts to an analysis of beaming “toothpaste beauties” and daily horoscopes, among other topics. This was part of Adorno’s particular rebellion against both the established order and orthodox Marxism, as well as his contribution to opening up academia to the modern world. While the culture industry travestied human possibility through a fully commodified culture, his hope for high art nonetheless required that it engage the commodity form. In other words, art would copy that ability of capitalist products to offer something in excess of their material properties: a perfume may make you more appealing to potential partners, while a pair of sneakers may serve as spiritual affirmation, etc. In much the same way, for Adorno, the experience of listening to classical music or seeing Beckett in the theater presents an exaggerated form of going to the cinema or purchasing toothpaste: that is to say, where a simple product offers us fleeting deliverance from misery, or increases our attractiveness to the opposite sex, the artwork ostensibly offers us deliverance from the mortal and pitiful conditions of life itself. And just like a commodity, its promise soon fails, delivering us unto a truth: transcendence from our material confines will always be impossible so long as both the object that offers transcendence (i.e., the artwork) and the viewing subject remain themselves materially determined by class society. It is the shudder at the moment of realizing this truth that Adorno believes can lead the art viewer (or listener) to temporarily break through the false consciousness of late-capitalist society.
Given that this occurs via an exaggeration of the commodity’s promise (and its attendant disappointment), it is possible that culture-industry products might convey some kind of truth under the right conditions, despite Adorno’s pessimism. His main criticisms of mass-produced culture were that it offers little choice, it is a one-way communicative street, and its products (film, magazines, radio, TV) are homogeneous, thereby stifling the formal novelty that might lead to the shudder. However, today’s internet is far from “one-way,” given that anybody can publish their own creative productions virtually for free, a factor that in turn leads to multifarious choice. Given this, it may be less a case of asking whether the internet as medium can elicit the shudder in the viewer and more of asking under what conditions it may do so. To do this, it is enough to understand that Adorno’s principal criteria for an artwork that could jolt the spectator from false consciousness was its unintelligibility. Simply, the more unfathomable an artwork, the less likely it is to be measured, controlled, and co-opted by capital. In this light, it is precisely the millennial generation’s embrace of senseless messages—via “shitposting,” nihilistic music trends, and absurdist videos—that arguably align it with Adorno’s silver-lined negativity, however unwittingly.
Both Adorno and Horkheimer had been exiled to the US from Nazi Germany as Jews associated with the Frankfurt School, a group of left-wing scholars dedicated to studying the relevance of culture to Marxism. A fundamental premise of The Dialectic of Enlightenment, the book Adorno wrote with Max Horkheimer when they landed in the strange land of Southern California, and which contains the chapter on “the culture industry” and Hollywood, is that US liberal democracy and liberalism mirrors European fascism, with the “culture industry” performing the role of state propaganda, devoid of any element of perceived coercion. As a form of coercion it was particularly effective for its sensuous allure, which enticed people into compliance with conservative values. That sensuousness derives from culture’s embedded position within the industrialized economy, where gleaming products give capitalism a sense of aesthetic beauty linked to Earth’s raw materials as they become commodities. As a direct reflection of this, art, which might have otherwise resisted the drudgery of capital—whether by providing the conditions for reflection, as Adorno argued, or by encouraging insurrection—has entered into the service of capitalist production. The cultural product, for Adorno and Horkheimer, became indistinguishable from advertising, itself tantamount to propaganda for capitalist democracy. Only the most opaque, dark, and unfathomable art could escape such forces.
For Adorno, artworks are assimilated within the system of commodities almost as soon as they are produced, either via their marketization through the art system or, more frequently, via their assimilation into the data and advertising markets of the internet: consequently, an image’s first appearance in public generally coincides directly with its commodification. This is barely avoidable with online creative output, as even a thoroughly novel image or audio piece finds itself involved in the wider process of monetization via advertising and data sales due to its viewing within a browser and often through a social media platform, magazine, or news site with featured advertising. For this reason, even a high degree of abstraction or unintelligibility may be unable to lift an image out of the realm of commodification that it practically must inhabit in order to come into being in the world.
Today we still willingly accede to our incorporation within the capitalist machine, absorbed by that same machine’s sensuousness, its allure, and its continual offer of pending gratification. Despite this, the worm appears to be turning. The dominant critique of the mass media as homogeneous, profit driven, and spoon fed to a passive public no longer holds entirely true. We not only choose the media we consume, we often make media to be engaged by our peers, in turn receiving their productions, and perhaps commenting on them publicly. Beyond these reconfigured networks of distribution and creation, it is the base level of cynicism deployed in their own media productions that may enable the millennial generation to resist naive co-optation by the system they interact with daily. This can be seen in the practice of “shitposting,” which is essentially the production of lo-fi montage memes made to deliberately disparage or undermine a cause (often political, always irreverent). The tendency in itself has become more of an aesthetic than a political tactic, inspiring a descent into a trash visual culture whereby jokey, low-resolution, and glitched productions are seen as inherently more valuable than serious and polished mainstream products.
In Minima Moralia—Adorno’s book of aphorisms on “damaged life”— he states:
The pictorial jokes which fill the magazines, are for the most part pointless, empty of meaning. . . .What such pictures act out, in anticipation of their completion by the well-versed observer, is the throwing of all meaning overboard like ballast in the snapshot of the situation, in the unresisting subjugation to the empty hegemony of things.
Yet he could not have known to what extent comic and low-grade images would be turned against the rational order, becoming as dark and abstract as the artists who for him embodied resistance to the order of things: Beckett, Schoenberg, Mahler, Poe. Indeed, it is the sum of meme production, and the total disregard for mass-produced images that uphold a sense of logic and civilization, that presents a radically darkened cultural vision not dissimilar to the atonal music and absurd theater that Adorno favored. The point of Adorno’s predilection for works that had no internal pivot point around which a narrative could coalesce was to refuse any narrative that imported back into the artwork the fundamental failings of human thought. This could only be overcome by a radical embrace of the natural object, of which we are part, but from which we remain basically estranged.
In this sense, “shitposting”—its very name signifying a deliberate “race to the bottom” in terms of aesthetic values—is indicative of a tendency towards cynicism both in meme culture and millennial culture at large. This cynicism means that readily produced popular culture may be able to achieve what Adorno envisaged for high-art abstraction, with its refusal of any discernible value system: it exacerbates our discomfort, amplifying our discord with nature until the artifice we create around us comes tumbling down. The impossibility of capturing this moment in any sensible or reasoned way may be why it must come about via experimentation into the fundamentally unknowable and dark realms of cultural expression. It also favors a clumsiness present in Beckett’s theater and in the haplessness of Kafka’s Gregor Samsa as he wakes to find he has metamorphosed into a giant bug. As Adorno argues in Aesthetic Theory, in a passage one can imagine applying to meme culture: “The collusion of children with clowns is a collusion with art, which adults drive out of them just as they drive out their collusion with animals. . . . [T]he constellation animal/fool/clown is a fundamental layer of art.”
For Adorno, play or clownishness is an adaptation to the rules of a game—of human existence even—that appears fundamentally unreasonable, while art presents a similar refusal to comply with the falsity of society. Today the meme community refuses to play along with a political system that itself refuses any rational recourse. What’s more, the fact that memes cannot be spread without being hosted on the internet and thereby complicit in the data economy would appear to repeat precisely the ruse played by Adorno’s abstract artwork. The “shitpost” claims precisely to be free of any monetary, ethical, or other constraint, playing the trick that the commodity plays by claiming a capacity that goes beyond its material basis, which consists of data alone. The leftist shitpost meme is a series of 0s and 1s fired through internet cable or across wireless networks and assembled upon a screen via a technological process that directly links to the data economy. Yet all the while it appears to transcend the stifling conditions of capital through its refusal to play along with the injunction to pump out ever better, ever slicker products.
This sleight of hand can be clearly seen in the productions of the grittiest of the leftist YouTube video-makers, which include channels such as Art House Politics and Posadist Pacman. Both of these producers belong to the loosely affiliated group of meme-makers known either as LeftTube or BreadTube (the latter name deriving from Pyotr Kropotkin’s anarchist program, The Conquest of Bread), which have in the last two years emerged on YouTube as a viable media movement spreading a broad leftist message. Of these, Art House Politics (which has recently been affiliated with Means TV) and Posadist Pacman occupy the grungier, deadbeat, and left corner of the aesthetic field. One recent video by the former, entitled “IDENTIFYING FASCISM: Mahua Moitra gives the world a lesson,” features a speech by Mahua Moitra, an Indian member of parliament, in which she identifies the main signifiers of fascism, applying them to the current state of her country. Glitched and set to music, the piece appears as a celebration of both the speech and the bravery of the politician herself in making such a forthright intervention within India’s patriarchal culture. In an earlier video, “Sonic 2 and the Politics of Speed,” a play-through of the video game Sonic 2 is accompanied by a voice-over exploring the political implications of the game, as its hero takes on the evil capitalist Dr. Robotnik. While containing discernible figurative elements, the juxtaposition of political debate and electronic music with a glitched aesthetic and shitpost manner do enough to pose an abstraction that resists even YouTube’s capitalist tendencies. The left, it turns out, can exploit the dissonance of memes too, alongside the right’s parallel attempts to turn nihilism toward its own ends.
With the horizontalization of culture having passed from the era of blogging to the era of meme-posting, DIY video-making, and livestreaming, the message of the ruling elite has become increasingly obscured, leaving the media landscape open to anyone. This offers enormous opportunity, yet poses great risks at the same time. Producers must be careful not to be subsumed by online corporations. Resistance to this possibility may reside in embracing dark abstraction rather than a programmatic elaboration of leftist values. The grittier extremes of LeftTube/BreadTube reflect Adorno’s principal aim of using the irrationality of a radically abstract culture to counter the controlling tendencies of both totalitarianism and US capitalism. Its success depends on millennials keeping up the Adornian oath to continue producing art, come what may.