[Editor's Note: We welcome Derick from our semiotics episode You can read more of him
With Slavoj Zizek’s Lacanized form of Hegelian Marxism being all the rage these days, it is interesting to look at the Frankfurt School’s earlier Freudian version of the Hegelian Marxism. One can wonder why the specter Hegel of looms in a discussion of popular music by two Marxist of entirely different time periods?
There is a certain kind of embrace of popular culture in Zizek that is absolutely abhorred by Theodor Adorno, and yet both Zizek and Adorno see a relationship between the strange way protest music functions in general society works and its supposed function as a check for governmental or social aggression.
There is less of a difference between the two than you might think. Here’s Zizek in an interview talking about Adorno:
…that Adorno and Horkheimer’s formal logic was correct. The whole project in The Dialectic of Enlightenment is “let’s paint the ultimate outcome of the administered world as unavoidable, as catastrophe, for this is the only way to effectively counteract it.” Adorno and Horkheimer had the right insight; I agree with their formal procedure, but as for the positive content, I think it’s a little bit too light. Although all is not as bad as it might appear. Let me give you an interesting anecdote, which may amuse you. Officially, for the youth generation the standard position is “Adorno is bad; he hated jazz. Marcuse is good; solidarity with the students and so on.” I know people in Germany who knew Adorno and I know people, such as Fred[ric] Jameson, who knew Marcuse. Marcuse was much nastier. …Marcuse was a conscious manipulator. Marcuse wanted to be popular with students, so he superficially flirted with them. Privately, he despised them. Jameson was Marcuse’s student in San Diego, and he told me how he brought Marcuse a Rolling Stones album. Marcuse’s reaction: Total aggressive dismissal; he despised it. With Adorno, interestingly enough, you always have this margin of curiosity. He was tempted, but how does something become a hit? Is it really true that the hitmaking process is totally manipulated. For example, if you look in the Introduction to Music Sociology, in the chapter on popular music, Adorno argues that a hit cannot be totally planned. There are some magic explosions of quality here and there.
So Zizek is partially absolving Adorno’s view of popular culture and his attack on jazz as less “reactionary” than it is commonly read as being. So what is the function of the popular in psychological readings of Marxism? The function seems deeply embedded in a Hegelian notion of history of which popular culture is constantly an artifact or a symptom. We can look at Adorno again on this:
The whole structure of popular music is standardized, even where the attempt is made to circumvent standardization.
The Hegelian concept of a totality (or total structure) is crucial here, but this whole structure is a partial reflection and partial production of a larger totality: capitalist modernity. It’s interesting to see Zizek’s popularity when building on a concept that so many people who valorize Zizek would reject as evidence of the Frankfurt’s schools fundamental conservatism.
The root of the similarity can be found in Hegel’s philosophy of history, and yet the difference between Zizek and Adorno here seems to be more aesthetic than philosophically substantive. The very idea of a social totality is contentious, but crucial to the various forms of the Marxist tradition as well as other Hegelian forms of thinking (such as that of Kojeve), and this idea that the way people interact in a totality shapes and limits certain forms of expression formally is rooted in both Zizek’s manic readings of 300 and Adorno’s skepticism of protest music. This general shift leads to an irony to the idea that somehow Zizek’s is more radical than Frankfurt school critical theory.
Oh, the perils of philosophical genealogy and the popular theorists.
-C. Derick Varn