T.W. Adorno: Cinema in Spite of Itself – But Cinema all the Same
The logic of the principle of expression implies the moment of its negation, a negative form of truth that changes love into an inflexible power of protest.
Few theorists have been as critical of cinema as T.W. Adorno. Critical in this context implies all of the following: methodical, negative and subtle. The Frankfurt School took as its object of critique the processes whereby phenomena become reified; in the symbolic field the school concentrated therefore on the workings of industrialisation and “the transformation of culture into a system of regimentation”.2 T.W. Adorno developed a basic critique of two of the cultural fields that entail recording: music and cinema. For him, cinema and popular or popularised music (music recorded, broadcast, its forms contaminated by their use as social wallpaper, music in short viewed as an emanation pure and simple of the world of industry) were emblematic of how works of art had become commodified cultural products. A cultural “commodity” represents simultaneously the means of a confiscation, a mode of corruption, a simulacrum, and a sort of formal joke. Music, though, lays claim of course to its own immense past, as well as to the demands it was contemporaneously making (demands embodied in the person of Schönberg). As a consequence it continues to exist as an art even in its “lighter” form. But cinema, which arose out of techniques of recording and whose primary goal is reproduction organised into an industry, appears from the start as a powerful instrument of domination, propaganda and falsification. Adorno’s achievement consists in his having furnished us with instruments for understanding ideology as much as for defining the concept of art.
In 1934, Adorno spent a day visiting the Neubabelsberg studios, and in 1936 described the experience in a letter to Walter Benjamin: “reality is always constructed with an infantile attachment to the mimetic and then ‘photographed’.”3 In 1944, now an exile in Santa Monica, he wrote, with Hanns Eisler, a book on cinema music that draws heavily on statements taken from texts by Eisenstein and examples deriving from the films of Victor Trivas, Joris Ivens, John Ford, Joseph Losey, etc. In Hollywood he met a number of film-makers, notably Charlie Chaplin, Billy Wilder and Fritz Lang, for whom, along with Bertolt Brecht and Hanns Eisler, “he was looking for ideas/materials/concepts”, as the film maker Alexander Kluge puts it.4 Kluge, with whom he was to rewrite Composing for the Films, was his student. Adorno himself devoted a number of articles to cinema: ‘Prophesied by Kierkegaard’, ‘In Malibu’ and ‘Transparencies on Film’.5 Most importantly, Adorno frequently refers to cinema, both implicitly, as is the case when another discipline, such as erudite music, his preferred field of analysis, has his attention, and also explicitly. Taken together, his remarks amount to the most pitiless indictment ever drawn up against cinema, the “central sector of the culture industry”.6
Adorno did go to the movies. In his letters and articles, you can feel how pained he was by the lack of formal consistency, the emotional blackmail and the behavior – servile, travestied or infamous – lauded in industry films.7 His friend and co-writer Max Horkheimer described the profound feeling of melancholy that grips a spectator watching even a decent movie.8 From Henry Porten to Clark Gable,9 the movie star, as the iconic instance of the transformation of a human being into a commodity, is viewed by Adorno as the final stage in a process of liquidation: the liquidation of expressivity, singularity and individuation – this last being a fundamental concept of Critical Theory, for which it is a touchstone of emancipation, freedom and justice.
Better Greta Garbo than Mickey Rooney, but better King Kong than Greta Garbo:10 Adorno spontaneously reverses the hierarchical ordering of popular films and films with artistic pretensions, A movies and B movies. Thus he writes to Benjamin of Max Reinhardt’s and William Dieterle’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, that the film’s ambitions to attain the “auratic” dimension itself lead inevitably to the destruction of the aura. Rather like the cinematographic Manet served up to us in Anna Karenina.11 One must possess nerves of steel to be able to endure this kind of liquidation.’12 (Incidentally, the Reinhardt film is a historical relay-station in that it provided the matrix out of which Kenneth Anger’s film-making emerged. In it, Anger performed his first role as a child; and throughout his career he attempted to take up and develop the issue of aura, under the term “magick“). Conversely, the critical power of the music-hall trained comics or “burlesque comedians”, from Chaplin to the Marx Brothers, did not escape Adorno any more than it did Antonin Artaud. More generally, and this unheeded hypothesis seems not to have lost its force, any film, “even the poorest motion pictures”, can show occasional flashes that hint at the possibility of art.13
Among other topics, Adorno suggested to Benjamin that he give the Institute for Social Research an essay on “film in the narrower sense”, meaning thereby with reference to a corpus of films as opposed to cinema understood globally as an industrial apparatus.14 This invitation to Benjamin allows us a rare glimpse of a programmatic willingness on Adorno’s part to allow for difference between individual films (as industrial commodities) and cinema (as a means of production), as if for a brief moment he was empathising with his friend’s position on the matter. In his turn Benjamin, an exemplary cinephile who one day urged Adorno to see “the memorable Old Dark House”,15 eventually subscribed to his correspondent’s negative positions, when the talkies came in and began to spread. “It becomes steadily clearer to me that the launching of sound film must be considered an action on the part of the industry to crush the revolutionary primacy of silent film, which more readily produced reactions that were difficult to control and politically dangerous. An analysis of sound film would provide a critique of contemporary art that would dialectically mediate your viewpoint and mine.”16
Not content to critique the culture industry in its most common products – a laundry list would include the stars, the films of Walt Disney, Zanuck, Mrs. Miniver ... – Adorno deliberately goes after the best of them: for different reasons a Frank Capra scene or Orson Welles’s media status are adduced as samples of the way the publicity machine goes about the process of corruption and reification. Discussing images of the professor in the public domain, he describes Sternberg’s The Blue Angel by contrast with Heinrich Mann’s original novel, as its “kitsch film version”.17 In view of his argument concerning “touch” as what transforms style into a trademark and an advertising device, Ernst Lubitsch is not spared, even though The Shop Around the Corner is an apposite filmic illustration of Adorno’s own argument concerning the way capitalism makes man and his economic destiny virtually interchangeable. A crucial point in his analyses relates to the way the culture industry makes use of legendary criminals and asocial personalities in order to eradicate tendencies to revolt and to empty the tragic of all meaning. It makes sense that, always supposing they had read them, the proponents of “Auteur” politics in France failed to see the point of Adorno’s theses, in which he viewed auteur films as a democratic alibi (“liberal deviations”, he wrote) for an industry tailored to meet the needs of capitalist social administration.
Nevertheless, like many artists and theorists of the time, Adorno accords Chaplin a sort of extraterritorial status. The film Adorno returns to most frequently as an emblem of failure is The Great Dictator:18 he highlights different instances of and different causes for the satire’s ineffectiveness. When he assigns the wheatfields “swaying in the wind at the end of Chaplin’s film”19 to Aryan imagery, this is no arbitrary judgment based on taste or extremist eccentricity; Adorno’s comments are grounded in his reflections on Auschwitz and are those of a viewer who watches the film in the perspective of Nazism’s victims, and cannot entertain the compensatory imagery that runs through it (in particular the sequence in which the heroine strikes the Nazi soldier and escapes). Adorno once described his own concrete existence in the following terms: “[b]y way of atonement he will be plagued by dreams such as that he is no longer living at all, that he was sent to the ovens in 1944 and his whole existence since has been imaginary, an emanation of the insane wish of a man killed twenty years earlier.”20 So his fierce criticisms of The Great Dictator, which can seem so unjust toward one of the rare works in which cinema one day showed itself capable of meeting the imperatives of history, in fact restore to the film the desperate urgency that authorised Chaplin to create it. We need to try to imagine the situation: a man suffering from survivor guilt watching Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. How could it not intensify his suffering, as a return of the trauma, a reminder of the insufficiency of the symbolic, as well as an altogether too horrible demand made on the human spirit? The violence of Adorno’s remarks on The Great Dictator is in proportion to such demands. The inevitable faltering of writing in the face of horror was the subject of very clear methodological commentary in the preamble to his article ‘Education After Auschwitz’ (a lecture given in 1966 and published the following year):
“The author was unable to revise the essay on Auschwitz and had to content himself with removing the crudest deficiencies of expression. Where the text speaks of the most extreme things, of harrowing death, the form arouses shame, as though it were sinning against the suffering by unavoidably reducing it to so much available material.”21
The need to think through the conditions that made Auschwitz possible, the degradation of the human that transformed men and women into anonymous things to be destroyed or industrialised at will, is what determines Adorno’s project, which consists of sheeting home the nature, role and functions of thought, knowledge, rationality, social organization and within the latter the culture industry, to processes of subjection and fake individuation. The exceptional importance of Chaplin’s work for Adorno can be perceived further in his analyses of the actor’s comic invention, in which by contrast he sees the working out of a model of freedom (a “utopia”, in the sense he gives that word). Chaplin’s status is confirmed even more clearly, perhaps, when here and there in the course of other articles he mentions Modern Times or Monsieur Verdoux.22 in the same breath as texts by Karl Kraus or plays by Beckett, his favorite references. The fact that one can think with certain films, and not simply about them, is the irrefutable sign of their value. Adorno points also to the existential role played by the figure of Chaplin in the thought of his friend Kracauer.
One would have to go back over the dialogues that took place between Adorno and those of his interlocutors who did not reject cinema in itself but only the uses to which it is put. Certain of these, like Walter Benjamin or Bertolt Brecht, thought it might be used for revolutionary purposes; others, such as György Lukács or Siegfried Kracauer, started from the same political analysis but developed very different theories. Parallels should also be drawn between Adorno’s thinking and that of the great theorists who were his contemporaries, in particular Jean Epstein who a priori might appear to be assignable to an area of speculative thought incompatible with Adorno in that it is inspired by models other than those of the rational. Yet Epstein, starting from exactly opposite postulates (the cinema as a fresh new revelation of the world), arrives by way of conclusion at the same premises as Adorno (the cinema as a confiscation of the imaginary), while Adorno’s thought in its last form is in agreement with Epstein’s initial postulates (the existence of cinema redefines the very field of art).
Guy Debord’s thinking about spectacle is informed by Adorno’s thought. Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (the book and the film) is something like a belated jacket-blurb for the Dialectic of Enlightenment, and Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory was to discuss the project of perpetual transcendence of art that was then being given its latest rendition by Situationism. Texts by Rainer Werner Fassbinder or Pier Paolo Pasolini yield a crop of statements taken from Adorno, in particular with respect to the principle of ‘non self-preservation’ that had emerged from Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s work on Max Weber. Toward the end of Negative Dialectics, when Adorno is discussing what remains of metaphysics following Auschwitz, there is something like a synopsis of Porcile: “The man who managed to recall what used to strike him in the words ‘dung hill’ and ‘pig sty’ might be closer to absolute knowledge than Hegel’s chapter in which readers are promised such knowledge only to have it withheld with a superior mien”.23 Youssef Ishaghpour has shown how certain films by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet resonate with some of Adorno’s analyses, or with his studies on Schönberg in Philosophy of Modern Music and Quasi una fantasia; and the same could be said of ‘Bach defended against his Devotees’ in Prisms,24 for example. Conversely, a maxim of Jean-Marie Straub’s: “cinema will only begin when the film industry is dead”,25 might serve as a point of entry into Adorno’s thought. One of Adorno’s most unexpected and attractive statements, which arises at the very heart of a passage concerning Schönberg, asserts precisely that the very possibility of film (by implication: film as art) is simultaneously sabotaged by the industrial conditions of its production and safeguarded by avant-garde painting and music.26
In 1995, the quintessentially Benjaminian Jean-Luc Godard was awarded the Adorno Prize and for the occasion wrote the gloomiest of all his pronouncements.27 Godard’s concept of the screen-image, which he developed in his Dziga-Vertov period – a screen image is one that is made as a cover for the image one does not make – had been developed by Horkheimer as early as 1926.
“Today, the massacres of St. Bartholomew that imperialism stages, or the heroic courage of the person that resists them, have become daily events which are reported as miscellaneous items in the press. [...] Of course, there are people who shed tears over ‘Sunny Boy’ at the movies. And they do that at the very moment that, in the service of their own interests, real persons are slowly being tortured to death, simply because they were suspected of fighting for the liberation of mankind. Photography, telegraphy and the radio have shrunk the far- away into the close-to. The populations of the cities witness the misery of the entire earth. One would think that this might prompt them to demand its abolition. But simultaneously, what is close-to become the far-away. Now, the horror of one’s city is submerged in the general suffering, and people turn their attention to the marital problems of movie stars. In every respect, the past is being beaten up by the present.”28
For Adorno and Horkheimer, cinema belongs to an overall apparatus of control: along-side, and in the same way as, the institutions of politics, education, religion and art (in which are included philosophy and the humanities), it functions as a way of concealing the obvious fact that the West possesses the necessary resources to put an end to poverty and injustice, but uses them instead to spread repression and terror. Adorno’s philosophy represses all signs of emotional self-indulgence, but as in the case of Diogenes or Marx, it is written from beginning to end from the point of view of concrete pain and suffering, that of the beggar whose house has been burned to the ground, that for which the name Auschwitz stands, that of economic victims wherever they survive, and that of a lost dog on its way to the pound.29
Adorno’s intellectual pathway concerning cinema will be traced here through a selected anthology of quotations which is intended to give an idea of the radicalness of his critique and the complexity of his thought, which is often reductively boiled down to an attitude of unequivocal and systematic opposition. Of jazz it is true that he had nothing good to say, acknowledging the aesthetic greatness of certain musicians without seeing in it any reason to modify his understanding of jazz itself as a form of music engendered by the world of industry.30 Absolutely nothing of television was worth saving, witness the essays written between 1952 and 1954, ‘Prologue to Television’, ‘Television as Ideology’,31 and ‘How to Look at Television’.32 By contrast, his absolute rejection of cinema as a part of the culture industry, a rejection that leads him to refuse any kind of ‘auteur’ initiative and derives its value from its very intransigence, did not prevent him from seeing cinema as a field of possibilities both practical and theoretical.
On the practical plane, Alexander Kluge tells us he owes his career as a filmmaker to Adorno. “My teacher Adorno, whose lectures I was following at the Frankfurt School, was given to saying that after Proust literature no longer existed. In order to divert me from writing, he introduced me into Fritz Lang’s group in 1958 and I became his assistant on The Indian Tomb [Das Indische Grabmal].”33 On the theoretical plane, Adorno’s articles show that when cinema was not being confronted head-on as a model of mass confiscation, it was a landmark reference for Adorno, and useful for purposes of comparison. For example, cinema comes up three times in the course of ‘Notes on Kafka’ in support of a speculation of some kind. More broadly, a methodological principle in Adorno’s experimental analysis of texts by Hegel is the Zeitlupenverfahren or “intellectual slow motion” – which is a cinematic technique: the same device, and for the same purpose, that Barthes calls for in S/Z.34 Most importantly, the idea of montage plays an important role in Adorno’s perception of forms. As part of the general field of modes of rupture, irruption, dissonance and heteronomy that Adorno was concerned with, it allies the properties of collage, Surrealist metaphor and cinematic montage. And cinema montage is doubly relevant: in the way it was theorised by Eisenstein, that is essentially as conflict, and in the way observed by Adorno in his work on cinema music with Eisler, that is, essentially as a mode of separation – something that is now less the outcome of an aesthetic achievement than it is a legacy of the medium itself. “In film”, Adorno writes, “image, word and sound are disparate.”35
In the sixties, Adorno’s observations on cinema undergo a sea change as a consequence of his discovery of the work of Godard and the New German Cinema,36 but also of an experimental film by Mauricio Kagel. Even so, he does not choose any of the three traditional lines of argument that have served to counter the culture industry or to relativise it. He is not concerned with theorising other general properties of cinema. He is particularly unconcerned to credit “Auteur” politics as an artistic alternative to the industry, since to the contrary this is the industry’s most characteristic, efficacious and falsifying dimension. Nor does he want a guerilla theater, the “Third Cinema” that was being defended at that time by Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas.37 Adorno was unaware of its existence, and in any case would doubtless have been no more interested in it than in any other attempt to translate his critical understanding of history into a praxis. What he is interested in are simply particular formal developments of cinema; they are not given, as a consequence of cinema’s technical possibilities, nor are they even demonstrated in actual films, perhaps. Rather they exist as potentialities that can be discerned through an effort of thought. Still, in Aesthetic Theory there is no extended discussion of cinema and no filmmaker cited.
These aesthetic potentialities arise in several registers and move in several directions; their very diversity demonstrates the number of solutions Adorno envisaged as ways of bringing something of cinema into the field of the aesthetic: the use of sensations and of acting, even the hijacking of cinema by its spectators. Two proposals are worth emphasising. First, cinema understood in the perspective of unmediated realism as analysed by Siegfried Kracauer in Theory of Film.38 As early as Composing for the Films and even in one paragraph of Aesthetic Theory,39 there is the sketchy outline of an idea that, as against all the forms of aesthetic transposition, cinema is of interest to art by virtue of its capacity for unmediated objectivity. But obviously such objectivity has nothing to do with recording the world as it is, the “terrorism of the world that art rejects”. So, even though the corpus of actual films has no particular standing in Adorno’s eyes, one can only wonder what he would have made of Marcel Hanoun’s or Christian Boltanski’s minimalist and political experiments had he discovered them. Second, cinema turns out to be capable of objectifying the discontinuous functioning of images in the psyche. In ‘Transparencies on Film’ there is a proposition that brings together the Proustian iconography of memory – the magic lantern passage in Combray – with Einstein’s celebrated idea that the cinema’s vocation is to make manifest the complex, discontinuous and stratified workings of the human psyche, beginning with the stream of consciousness. (Whence Thomas Y. Levin’s skillful translation of the title ‘Film-transparente’, in which “transparencies“ signifies both effects of transparency and photographic slides.)40 These potentialities of film, which appear divergent and were never synthesised by Adorno, do come together, or at least many of them do, in that they are comparable with the same thing: writing. Not writing as a system of signs, but writing as a physical action performed by the hand and the eyes – that is, Adorno’s own main occupation.
Carried out as they were from the 1940s on an audiovisual industry still emerging, Adorno’s analyses have turned out to have been highly predictive: point for point what they describe is our own present-day symbolic and material environment. “Television points the way to a development which easily enough could push the Warner brothers into the doubtless unwelcome position of little theatre performers and cultural conservatives”, he wrote as early as 1944.41 And so it is that today Ernst Lubitsch and Orson Welles have become beloved classics, Andy Warhol’s multiples are considered the very acme of artistic pertinence and cinema has been marginalised upward in the image industry, where it now has the same standing as electronics research in the defense industry or fashion design in the textile industry. “The dictatorship of the culture industry”, as Adorno did not hesitate to call it,42 has so well absorbed the phenomenon whereby each generation makes a fetish of what it was exposed to in childhood that the subculture of any given era, however much of a travesty it may be, comes to represent nirvana for the following generation. And Adorno’s analyses are still predictive: the apparatus described in ‘The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception’ was just the journeyman stage of means of social control that are now developing faster and faster.
“In a society of large-scale fascistic rackets which agree among themselves on how much of the national product is to be allocated to providing for the needs of the people, to invite the people to use a particular soap powder would, in the end, seem anachronistic. In a more modern, less ceremonious style, the Führer directly orders both the holocaust and the supply of trash.”43
(Recall that this essay begins on the thesis that “Film, radio, and magazines form a system.”44 There is no real difference between cinema and advertising, only an illusory hierarchy created by the apparatus of power.) Outside of Hans Haacke, Abel Ferrara or Paul Verhoeven, it is still rare to find systems of thought that dare, as Adorno and Horkheimer did, to describe Nazism as capitalism’s preferred transcription of itself into politics and the goal toward which it naturally tends to develop, hampered only by the regrettable propensity for survival dis- played by the peoples of the world. And finally, in proportion to the demands his critique makes on us, Adorno’s analyses provide us with anthropological evidence of aesthetic ideals and ethical exigencies that today are as much swallowed into oblivion as the city of Atlantis, that being their most operative dimension. Whatever he himself says of it, Adorno’s under- standing of art is in the German idealist tradition that sees it as a manifestation of the absolute and of truth (albeit in forms quite different, of course, from those propounded by Moritz and Schiller). But Adorno immediately deduces from that understanding concrete and practical obligations that are many times more radical than the gentle invitations to morality described by Kant and Schiller. This ethical imperative is summed up in a note of Horkheimer’s: “Art is identical with truth, and truth forces us to adopt the only true praxis, which is to carry on the endless unequal struggle on behalf of the human creature.”45
The purpose of our too brief anthology is to provide an introduction to a fundamental theory that has been insufficiently taken account of in France, except by Youssef Ishagpour’s pioneering writing, in particular in D’une image l’autre46 or Visconti, le sens et l’image47 .48 Among the French analysts who do not refer to Adorno but are spontaneously closest to him are, for example, Edgar Morin, Paul Virilio, Christian Pociello, Jean-Michel Valantin – all four writing in different disciplinary areas. In The Stars,49 Edgar Morin studies one of the epiphenomena of the capitalist fetishisation of human appearance in the way that, one year earlier, Adorno had studied the mythification of social relations in astrology columns.50 In War and Cinema: the Logic of Perception,51 Paul Virilio studies how the articulations that connect cinematic techniques and military technology are constantly renewed. In La science en mouvements. Etienne Marey et Georges Demenÿ,52 Christian Pociello documents the financial, technical and ideological beginnings of scientific cinema in the context of a rationalisation of the disciplines of the body. In Hollywood, le Pentagone et Washington,53 Jean-Michel Valantin outlines the practical workings of so-called “national security” cinema. One of the greatest missed opportunities in France was the failed encounter between the Frankfurt School and Michel Foucault, regretted by the latter.54 Important initiatives are emerging at the level of both method and theory.
Like all philosophies of cinema, Adorno’s in our opinion is open to criticism from the point of view of the films themselves, including, radically enough, those that are products of the culture industry. The point of such a confrontation would not be to invalidate, confirm or enrich the theory, but to grasp the degree to which films can or cannot be as lavishly fruitful as the ideas that arise from them – ideas that are as definitional of cinema as the films. In Adorno’s thought there is an armamentarium of principles, outcomes and problems that has uncommon beauty. Few theorists have been as critical of cinema as Adorno. Critical in this context implies all of the following: dialectical, bracing and redemptive.
One last phenomenon should be stressed. Adorno’s writing, which is sometimes fragmentary, as in Minima Moralia, but is most often organised by a logistics of argument that is as inexorable as the thunderclap that precedes a flash of lightning, loses a great deal from the difficult process of extraction made necessary by quoting it. To quote from it contributes to converting the work produced by its logical energy – and hence its most active ingredient – into a slogan. Violent and beneficial as thought so reduced might appear, it has nevertheless been simplified; its spirit, letter, nature and function have been betrayed. That we provide subheads only makes the crime more heinous.
Against Aura and the Educational Function of Cinema
“[I]f anything can be said to possess an auratic character now, it is precisely the film which does so, and to an extreme and highly suspect degree. To make one small additional point: the idea that a reactionary individual can be transformed into a member of the avant-garde through an intimate acquaintance with the films of Chaplin, strikes me as simple romanticization. [...] After all, it is hardly an accident if that modern art [cinema], which you counterpose as auratic in character to technological art, is of such inherently dubious quality as Vlaminck and Rilke. It is certainly an easy matter for the lower sphere to score a victory over art like that; but if we were to mention the names of Kafka, say, or Schönberg in this connection instead, then the problem would look rather different. Schönberg’s music is emphatically not auratic.”55
Deadly Sad Prescriptions of Silent Cinema
With the same justice, it can be asked whom music for entertainment still entertains. Rather, it seems to complement the reduction of people to silence, the dying out of speech as expression, the inability to communicate at all. It inhabits the pockets of silence that develop between people molded by anxiety, work and undemanding docility. Everywhere it takes over, unnoticed, the deadly sad role that fell to it in the time and the specific situation of the silent films.56
A Boon of Cinema: It Permits Floating Attention
“But the film as a whole seems to be apprehended in a distracted manner, deconcentrated listening makes the perception of a whole impossible.”57
The Marx Brothers as Introduction to the Philosophy of History
“In the face of regressive listening, music as a whole begins to take on a comic aspect. [...] The experience was caught with great force in a film by the Marx brothers, who demolish an opera set as if to clothe in allegory the insight of the philosophy of history on the decay of the operatic form, or in a most estimable piece of refined entertainment, break up a grand piano in order to take possession of the strings in their frame as the true harp of the future, on which to play a prelude.”58
Avant-Garde Art Safeguards the Possibility of Film
“Painting a picture or composing a quartet today might well be far behind the division of labor and experiments with technical arrangement in the film; but the objective technical structure of the picture and the quartet secures the possibility of the film, a possibility which today is frustrated only by the social convention behind film production.”59
Cinema, the Realm of Pseudo-Poetry
“In the cinema, this misalliance between photography and the novel, such pseudo-poetry becomes complete.”60
Cinema Holds Life in Suspension
“Mass culture treats conflicts but in fact proceeds without conflict. The representation of lliving reality becomes a technique for suspending its development.”61
The Message of Capital
“The looser the connection in the sequence of events or the development of the action, the more the shattered image becomes an allegorical seal. Even from the visual point of view the sudden evanescent images of the cinema come to resemble a sort of script. The images are seized but not contemplated. The film reel draws the eye along just like a line of writing and it turns the page with the gentle jolt of every scene change. On occasion aesthetically crafted films like Guitry’s Perles de la couronne have emphasised this book-like character of the film as an explicit framework. Thus the technology of the mass work of art accomplishes that transition from image to writing in which the absorption of art by monopolistic practice culminates. But the secret doctrine which is communicated here is the message of capital. It must be secret because total domination likes to keep itself invisible.”62
“That is the secret of the ‘keep smiling’ attitude. The fact becomes a dead letter by freezing the most living thing about it, namely its laughter. The film fulfils the old Children’s threat of the ugly grimace which freezes when wind changes or the clock strikes. And here it strikes the hour of total domination. The masks of the film are so many emblems of authority. Their horror grows to the extent that these masks are able to move and speak, although this does nothing to alter their inexorability: everything that lives is captured in such masks. As far as mass culture is concerned reification is no metaphor.”63
The Obscenity of the Culture Industry
“Works of art are ascetic and shameless; the culture industry is pornographic and prudish.”64
Entertainment Leads to Total Misery
“Fun is a medicinal bath which the entertainment industry never ceases to prescribe. It makes laughter the instrument for cheating happiness. To moments of happiness, laughter is foreign; only operettas, and now films, present sex amid peals of merriment. But Baudelaire is as humorless as Hölderlin. In wrong society laughter is a sickness infecting happiness and drawing it into society’s worthless totality.”65
Entertainment Maintains Powerlessness
“To be entertained means to be in agreement. [...] Amusement always means putting things out of mind, forgetting suffering, even when it is on display. At its roots is powerlessness. It is indeed escape, but not, as it claims, escape from bad reality but from the last thought of resisting that reality.”66
The Domestication of the Tragic
“Just as totalitarian society does not abolish the suffering of its members, but registers and plans it, mass culture does the same with tragedy. [...] Tragedy, included in society’s calculations and affirmed as a moment of the world, becomes a blessing. [...] To all it grants the solace that human fate in its strength and authenticity is possible even now and its unflinching depiction inescapable. [...] Tragic cinema is becoming truly a house of moral correction.”67
Aesthetic Potential in a Free Society
“A discussion of industrialized culture must show the interaction of these two factors: the aesthetic potentialities of mass art in the future, and its ideological character at present.”68
Cinema is the Art of Interruption
“This relation is entirely absent in the motion picture, which requires continual interruption of one element by another rather than continuity. The constantly changing scenes are characteristic of the structure of the motion picture.”69
Standardisation Versus Affectation
“As in many other aspects of contemporary motion pictures, it is not standardisation as such that is objectionable here. Pictures that frankly follow an established pattern such as ‘westerns’ or gangster and horror pictures, often are in a certain way superior to pretentious grade-A films. What is objectionable is the standardized character of pictures that claim to be unique; or, conversely, the individual disguise of the standardized pattern.”70
In Defense of the Sensational
“The horrors of sensational literary and cinematic trash lay bare part of the barbaric foundation of civilization. To the extent that the motion picture in its sensationalism is the heir of the popular horror story and dime novel and remains below the established standards of middle-class art, it is in a position to shatter those standards, precisely through the use of sensation and to gain access to collective energies that are inaccessible to sophisticated literature and painting.”71
Cinema Liquidates Individuation
“In the ready-made faces of film heroes and private persons fabricated according to magazine-cover stereotypes, a semblance of individuality – in which no one believes in any case – is fading, and the love for such hero-models is nourished by the secret satisfaction that the effort of individuation is at last being replaced by the admittedly more breathless one of imitation. The hope that the contradictory, disintegrating person could not survive for generations, that the psychological fracture within it must split the system itself, and that human beings might refuse to tolerate the mendacious substitution of the stereotype for the individual – that hope is vain. The unity of the personality has been recognized as illusory since Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In the synthetically manufactured physiognomies of today the fact that the concept of human life ever existed is already forgotten. For centuries society has prepared for Victor Mature and Mickey Rooney. They come to fulfill the very individuality they destroy.”72
The World of Censorship
“Perhaps a film that strictly and in all respects satisfied the code of the Hays Office might turn out a great work of art, but not in a world in which there is a Hays Office.”73
Cinema as a Lapsus in Domination
“The film has a retroactive effect: its optimistic horror brings to light in the fairy-tale what always served injustice, and shows dimly in the reprimanded miscreants the faces of those whom integral society condemns, and to condemn whom has from the first been the dream of socialization.”74
Dehumanisation Perfected by Xinema
“[B]etween the old injustice, in whose voice a lament is audible even where it glorifies itself, and alienation proclaiming itself togetherness, insidiously creating an appearance of human closeness with loudspeakers and advertising psychology, is a difference equal to that between the mother telling her child, to allay its terror of demons, the fairy-tale in which the good are rewarded and the bad punished, and the cinema product which forces the justice of each and every world order, in every country, stridently and threateningly into the audience’s eyes and ears, in order to teach them anew, and more thoroughly, the old fear. The fairy-tale dreams, appealing so eagerly to the child in the man, are nothing other than regression organized by total enlightenment, and where they pat the onlooker most confidentially on the shoulder, they most thoroughly betray him. Immediacy, the popular community concocted by films, amounts to variation without residue, reducing men and everything human so perfectly to things, that their contrast to things, indeed the spell of reification itself, becomes imperceptible. The film has succeeded in transforming subjects so indistinguishably into social functions, that those wholly encompassed, no longer aware of any conflict, enjoy their own dehumanization as something human, as the joy of warmth.”75
The Ultimate in Montage
“Infantilism is the style of the wornout and ruined. Its sound resembles the appearance of pictures pasted together out of postage stamps – disjunct – but on the other hand a montage which has been constructed with labyrinthine density. It is as threatening as the worst nightmares. Its pathogenic arrangement, which is at the same time hoveringly hermetic and disintegrated, leaves the listener breathless. In this work the decisive anthropological condition of the era at whose beginning it stands is musically indicated: it is characterized by the impossibility of experience.”76
Film Titles as the Disease of Naming
“Just as the whole ontology of the culture industry dates back to the early eighteenth century, so too does the practice of repeating titles; the tendency to cling parasitically to something that is already in existence and suck it dry, a tendency that ultimately spreads over all meaning like a disease. Just as nowadays every film that makes a lot of money brings a flock of others behind it hoping to continue to profit from it, so it is with titles; how many have exploited associations to A Streetcar Named Desire, and how many philosophers have hooked themselves up to Being and Time. This tendency reflects in the intellectual sphere the compulsion in material production for innovations that get introduced to spread over the whole in some way or other insofar as they permit the commodity to be produced more cheaply. But when this compulsion extends to names it irresistibly annihilates them. Repetition reveals the lazy magic of concreteness.”77
Critical Power of Chaplin’s Performance
“The Rastelli of mime, he plays with the countless balls of pure possibility, and fixes their restless circling into a fabric that has barely more in common with the causal world than Cloud Cuckoo Land has with the gravity of Newtonian physics. Incessant and spontaneous change: in Chaplin, this is the utopia of an existence that would be free of the burden of being one’s self.”78
Chaplin a Repository for Individuation
“Kracauer, opposing me, was not willing to grant the concept of solidarity much significance. But the pure individuality to which he seemed to adhere so obstinately virtually unmasks itself in its self-reflection. In evading philosophy, the existential becomes clowning, not far removed from Brecht’s paradoxical line, ‘In mir habt ihr einen, auf den könnt ihr nicht bauen’ [‘In me you have someone you can’t count on’]. Kracaeur projected his self-understanding of the individual onto Chaplin: Chaplin, he said, is a hole. What had taken over the place of existence there was the private individual as imago, the Socratic crank as the bearer of ideas, an irritant by the criteria of the prevailing universal.”79
Experimental Cinema Against the Inadequacies of a Theory of Cinema
“His [Kracauer’s] predilection for lower-order things, things excluded by higher culture – something on which he and Ernst Bloch were in agreement – led him to continue to take delight in the annual fair and the hurdy-gurdy even after large-scale industrial planning had long since swallowed them up. In From Caligari to Hitler he recounts film plots in all seriousness, without batting an eyelash; and recently, in his Theory of Film, he narrates such atrocities as the visible genesis of a piece of music in the composer, the hero, as though something like the technical rationality of the medium were at work in them.80 The commercial film Kracauer attacked profited inadvertently from his tolerance; at times the latter reaches its limit at the intolerant – the experimental film.”81
Cinema: the Art That Objectifies the Discontinuity of Psychic Imagery
“Anyone who, following a year spent in the city, stays for several weeks in the high Alps and abstains ascetically from all work, can have the unexpected experience of seeing brightly colored images of the landscape pass before his eyes or traverse his consciousness, to beneficial effect, as he sleeps or lies half-awake. The images do not merge imperceptibly into one another, but as in the magic lantern of one’s childhood, succeed one another discontinuously. It is to this self-containment in movement that the images of the stream of consciousness owe their resemblance to writing: in just the same way, we see writing as something that moves while simultaneously it is laid out in a series of discrete signs. The trains of images might be to film what the visible world is to painting or the acoustic world to music. Film art would be an objectifying representation of this mode of experience. At a deep level, the technical medium par excellence is close kin to the beautiful in nature.”82
The Antidote to Its Own Lies
“If today you see everywhere, in Germany, Prague, conservative Switzerland or Catholic Rome, young men and women crossing the street locked in each other’s arms and kissing without embarrassment, they have learned to do this, and probably more than this, from the films that peddle Parisian libertinage as folklore. In its attempt to manipulate the masses, even the ideology of the culture industry falls into an antagonistic relation with itself, as antagonistic as the society on which it has set its sights. It contains the antidote to its own lies. It should be enough to refer to this in order to redeem it.”83
In Praise of Experimental Cinema
“At the moment, it is evident that cinema has to look for its most fruitful potential in other media that merge with it, like a good deal of music. The television film Antithesis by the composer Mauricio Kagel offers one of the most vivid examples of such merging84 .”85
Concerning Cinéma Brut and Asceticism in Cinema
“Compelled by a certain inherent law, film may well seek to eject what is most artistic in it, as if in contradiction with its own artistic principle. For at the same time it remains an art even in its rebellion against art, and widens art’s range. This contradiction, which film in any case cannot settle given its dependency on profit, is the vital element in every authentically modern art. It may be that the phenomenon whereby the different arts overstep one another’s borders secretly stems from the same contradictory impulse.”86
- 1Adorno, 1952.[Translators’ note: Theodor Adorno, Prisms, trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber, MIT Press, 1981, Cambridge, p. 137.]
- 2Prisms, 66.
- 3Theodor W. Adorno and Walter Benjamin, The Complete Correspondance 1928–1940, Henri Lonitz (ed), trans. Nicholas Walker (Polity Press: Cambridge, 1999), p. 131.
- 4Alexander Kluge, letter to the author, 5 January 2004. See the postface to Musique de cinema, in 1969: “It is striking that in every country, New Cinema has not apparently reconsidered the use of music in films. I hope to be able to write in the future a contribution to this omission with the help of Alexander Kluge” (Theodor W. Adorno and Hanns Eisler, Musique de Cinéma, 1944, trans. Jean-Pierre Hammer (L’Arche: Paris, 1972), p. 178). The English-language edition of this book, Composing for the Films, was reprinted by Athlone in 1994.
- 5Theodor W. Adorno, Ohne Leitbild, Surhrkamp Verlap, Frankfurt, 1967. Adorno’s articles on Chaplin have yet to be translated into French and English. Jean Lauxerois translated and wrote a commentary of ‘Filmtransparente’ in Pratiques no. 14, Fall 2003.
- 6‘Culture Industry Reconsidered’, 1963. Theodor W. Adorno, The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, J.M. Bernstein (ed) (Routledge: London, 1991), p. 100.
- 7In a brief text that today inevitably resonates with Roland Barthes’s famous ‘Leaving the Movie Theater’. [Translators’ note: Roland Barthes, ‘Leaving the Movie Theater’, The Rustle of Language (Hill and Wang: New York, 1986), p. 345.]
- 8‘Nach dem Kino’, 1949. Max Horkheimer, Gesammelte Schriften. Band 6: Zur Kritik der Iinstrumentellen Vernunft und Notizen 1949-1969, (S. Fischer Verlag GmbH: Frankfurt, 1991), p. 203. [Translators’ note: ‘Nach dem Kino’ was not translated in the English edition of Dawn and Decline (Seabury Press: New York, 1978).]
- 9‘Commodity Music Analyzed’, 1934; ‘The Schema of Mass Culture’, 1942. Theodor W. Adorno, Quasi Una Fantasia: Essays on Modern Music, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Verso: London, 1992), p. 37 and The Culture Industry, p. 76.
- 10“The pernicious love of the common people for the harm done to them outstrips even the cunning of the authorities [...] It calls for Mickey Rooney rather than the tragic Garbo, Donald Duck rather than Betty Boop”, Dialectic of Enlightenment, p. 106. On the Betty Boop craze, see Esther Leslie, Hollywood Flatlands: Animation, Critical Theory and the Avant-Garde(Verso: London, 2000), p. 174.
- 11Directed by Clarence Brown, 1935, starring Greta Garbo.
- 12Letter of 28 May 1936.
- 13Composing for the Films, p. xi.
- 14Letter of 2 July 1937.
- 15Directed by James Whale, 1932, starring Boris Karloff.
- 16Letter to Adorno 9 December 1938. [Translators’ note: Our translation from the French.]
- 17Taboos on the Teaching Vocation’, 1965. Theodor W. Adorno, Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. Henry Pickford (Columbia University Press: New York, 1998), p. 184.
- 18‘Negative Dialectics’ 1944, Composing for the Films; ‘Commitment’ 1962. Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E.B. Ashton (Continuum: New York, 1990), pp. 161–62; Composing for the Films, pp. 125–26 and Theodor Adorno, Notes to Literature, vol. 2, Rolf Tiedemann (ed), trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen (Columbia University Press: New York, 1992) p. 76.
- 19Translators’ note: our translation, the citation is on page 119 of the English edition of Dialectic of Enlightenment.
- 20Negative Dialectics, p. 363.
- 21Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, p. 125.
- 22 ‘Notes on Kafka’ 1942–1953, ‘The Schema of Mass Culture’. The Culture Industry, p. 94 and Prisms, p. 243.
- 23Translators’note: Negative Dialectics (Seabury Press: New York, 1973), p. 366.
- 24Youssef Ishagpour, ‘L’irreprésentable et ses signes’, Cinéma contemporain de ce côté du miroir (La Différence: Paris, 1986).
- 25Pierre Clémenti, Milos Jancsó, Glauber Rocha and Jean-Marie Straub, “There’s Nothing More International Than a Pack of Pimps,” Rouge, no. 3, 2004.
- 26‘Schönberg and Progress’, 1941. Theodor Adorno, Philosophy of Modern Music, trans. Anne Mitchell and Wesley Blomster (The Seabury Press: New York, 1973), p. 29.
- 27Jean-Luc Godard, ‘A propos de cinéma et d’histoire’, Trafic, no. 18, Spring 1996.
- 28Max Horkheimer, Dawn and Decline: Notes 1926–1931 and 1950–1969, trans. Michael Shaw (The Seabury Press: New York, 1978), p. 19. [Translators’ note: Translation modified.]
- 29These instances are taken from Negative Dialectics.
- 30See in particular his letter to Joachim-Ernst Berendt, ‘Réponse à une critique de ‘Mode intemporelle’, in Prismes, 1953. Critique de la culture et de la société Paris: Payot, 1986), pp. 243–47. [Translators’ note: This letter is not included in Prisms, MIT Press, Cambridge, 1981].
- 31Both in Critical Models.
- 32The Culture Industry.
- 33Alexander Kluge, ‘Les métamorphoses des sentiments. Entretien’, Le Nouvel Observateur, no. 2041, 18–24 December 2003, p. 106.
- 34‘Skoteinos or How to Read Hegel’. Theodor W.Adorno, Hegel: Three Studies, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen, (MIT Press: Cambridge, 1993), p. 106. This idea was analysed by Eliane Escoubas in her preface to T.W. Adorno, Jargon de l’authenticité. De l’idéologie allemande (1964) (Payot: Paris, 1989), p. 11.
- 35Philosophy of Modern Music, note 28, p. 176.
- 36“He was struck by Godard’s films and by a few examples of the New German Cinema, because of their blatant difference between them and Hollywood productions.” Alexander Kluge, letter to the author, 5 January 2004.
- 37Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas, ‘Towards a Third Cinema’, in Michael Chanan (ed), Twenty-five Years of the New Latin-American Cinema (British Film Institute/Channel 4: London, 1989).
- 38See ‘Kunst und die Künste’, 1967.
- 39p. 33, note 1 in Composing for the Films; and Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1997, p. 192.
- 40Thomas Y. Levin points out however that in German, ‘Transparent’ also means ‘banner’. (Letter to the author, 4 February 2004.)
- 41In Dialectic of Enlightenment, co-authored with Horkheimer. [Translators’ note: pp. 130–31.]
- 42‘Is Art Lighthearted?’ 1967, Notes to Literature, vol. 2, p. 250.
- 43Dialectic of Enlightenment [Translators’ note p. 129.]
- 44Translators’ note: Dialectic of Enlightenment, p. 94.
- 45‘Kunst und Kino’, 1949. Max Horkheimer, Gesammelte Schriften. Band 6: Zur Kritik der Instrumentellen Vernunft und Notizen 1949–1969, S. Fischer Verlag GmbH, Frankfurt, 1991, p. 198. [Translators’ note: ‘Kunst und Kino’ was not translated in the English version of Dawn and Decline.]
- 46Denoël, 1982.
- 47La Différence, 1984.
- 48Needless to say, we are only taking into consideration in this article texts which deal directly with Adorno’s relation to cinema. For questions of aesthetics, there are a number of important references, for example, Marc Jimenez, Adorno: art, idéologie et théorie de l’art, Paris, 10–18, 1973 and Rainer Rochlitz (ed), Théories esthétiques après Adorno, Actes Sud, 1990. Abroad, the works of Miriam Hansen, Gertrud Koch or Esther Leslie are indispensable keys to understanding Adorno’s relation to cinema. On Adorno’s articles about Chaplin, see Miriam Hansen, ‘Introduction to Adorno’s Transparencies on Film (1966), New German Critique, 24–25, Fall–Winter 1981–1982 and Miriam Hansen, ‘Of Mice and Ducks: Benjamin and Adorno on Disney’, South Atlantic Quaterly, vol. 92, no. 1, Winter, 1993. On Adorno in Hollywood, see Esther Leslie, Hollywood Flatlands. For an analytical approach to Adorno, see Stratis Vouyoucas’s article ‘Ford à Francfort’, Trafic, no. 47, Fall 2003.
- 49Grove Press, 1960; Les Stars (Seuil, 1957).
- 50Translators’ note: Theodor W. Adorno, The Stars Down to Earth and Other Essays on the Irrational in Culture, Routledge, London, 1994.
- 51War and Cinema: the Logic of Perception, Verso, London, 1989. (Guerre et Cinéma, de l’Etoile (ed), 1984.)
- 52La science en mouvements. Etienne Marey et Georges Demenÿ, PUF, 1999.
- 53Hollywood, le Pentagone et Washington, Autrement, 2003.
- 54“When I acknowledge the good work of the philosophers of the Frankfurt school, I do so with the guilty conscience of someone who should have read them and understood them much earlier than I did. Had I read their works, there would have been many things that I would not have had to say, and I would have avoided making some mistakes. It is possible that, if I had known the philosophers of that school when I was young, I would have been attracted to them so much that all I would have done would have been to comment on their works. With retrospective influences of that kind, and people like that whom you discover well after the time when you should have felt their influence, it is difficult to know whether you should be delighted or regretful.” D. Trombatori, ‘Entretien avec Michel Foucault’, 1980, Dits et écrits IV (Gallimard: Paris, 1994), p. 74.
- 55Letter to Walter Benjamin, 18 March 1936, pp. 130–31.
- 56Theodor W. Adorno, ‘On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening’, Essays on Music, Richard Leppert (ed) (University of California Press: Berkeley, 2002), p. 289.
- 571938, ‘On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening’, p. 305.
- 58‘On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening’, 1938, p. 314.
- 59‘Schönberg and Progress’, in Philosophy of Modern Music, 1941, p. 114.
- 601942, ‘The Schema of Mass Culture’, The Culture Industry, p. 63.
- 611942, ‘The Schema of Mass Culture’, The Culture Industry, p. 71.
- 621942, ‘The Schema of Mass Culture’, The Culture Industry, pp. 93–4.
- 631942, ‘The Schema of Mass Culture’, The Culture Industry, p. 93.
- 641944, Dialectic of Enlightenment, p. 111.
- 651944, Dialectic of Enlightenment, p. 112.
- 661944, Dialectic of Enlightenment, pp. 115–16.
- 671944, Dialectic of Enlightenment, pp. 122–23.
- 681944, Composing for the Films, p. xi.
- 691944, Composing for the Films, p. 5.
- 701944, Composing for the Films, pp. 16–7.
- 711944, Composing for the Films, p. 36.
- 721944, Dialectic of Enlightenment, p. 126.
- 73Minima Moralia, 1946–47, p. 191. (Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia, trans. E.F.N. Jephcott (Verso: London, 1994))
- 74Minima Moralia, p. 204.
- 751946–47, Minima Moralia, pp. 205–06.
- 761948, ‘Stravinsky and Restoration’, Philosophy of Modern Music, pp. 180–81.
- 771962, ‘Titles’, Notes to Literature, vol. 2, p. 10.
- 781964, ‘Chaplin in Malibu’, cited in Hollywood Flatlands, p. 179.
- 791964, ‘The Curious Realist: On Siegfried Kracauer’, Notes to Literature, vol. 2, pp. 62–3.
- 80In all likeliness, Toute la ville danse by Julien Duvivier (1938), on Johann Strauss, described by Kracauer in Theory of Film, p. 151. In our opinion, in both From Caligari to Hitler and in Theory of Film, Kracauer in fact showed himself to be an exemplary historian of avant-garde cinema.
- 811964, ‘The Curious Realist: On Siegfried Kracauer’, Notes to Literature, vol. 2, p. 66.
- 82‘Filmtransparente’, Ohne Leitbild, p. 82. [Translators’ note: We have translated citations from Ohne Leitbild directly from the German. We were unable to locate an English translation.]
- 83‘Filmtransparente’, Ohne Leitbild, p. 83.
- 84Antithèse: Film pour un performer avec sons électroniques et quotidiens, 1965, broadcast on German television in April 1966 (notes by Thomas Y. Levin for the American edition).
- 85‘Filmtransparente’, Ohne Leitbild, p. 85.
- 861967, ‘Die Kunst und die Künste’, Ohne Leitbild, p. 181.
My warm thanks to Edward Dimendberg, Alexander Kluge, Thomas Y. Levin, Pierre Rusch and Beata Wiggen
Originally published in Trafic, no. 50, Summer, 2004, pp. 278–94. Reprinted with permission.