Zizek and Adorno: The Function of the Popular?

[Editor's Note: We welcome Derick from our semiotics episode You can read more of him on his blog.]


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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


  1. says

    “This general shift leads to an irony to the idea that somehow Zizek’s is more radical than Frankfurt school critical theory.”

    You don’t make a case for why this should be ironic.

  2. Profile photo of C.-Derick-Varn says

    Ironic may be the wrong work, but the idea that Zizek obviously seem the difference as being minor or one of taste is obvious in the interview I posted which means all the graduate school students who see Zizek as more radical on this point haven’t really been listening to Zizek’s own words on Adorno. This is “ironic” in the popular sense, I think, as it is the opposite on what one would expect from fans of one of the most popular philosophers going today. That said, I suppose it isn’t ironic because close readers of Zizek seem far fewer than people posting his talks on the internet.

    I think a lot of those graduate students are assuming that Adorno is the same as Habermas and reading his readings on Jazz in that context. This would be the same kind of missing the point that protest music’s function in society. Perhaps that is ironic?

    Anyway, I think the similarities do stem from the fact that Hegel (and Marx more obviously) are at root in both Zizek and Adorno. That’s not ironic at all.

  3. says

    I guess a Zizekian way because Hegel rarely made references to the Matrix whereas Zizek does all the time.

    One interesting point is that a differnce personal taste and method can cloud philosophical similarities.

  4. Profile photo of C.-Derick-Varn says

    That is a huge point for me. Zizek seems to be opposite of Adorno in presentation, but the underlying historical diagnosis rooted in Hegel is there tying them together.

  5. says

    To be clear: All in all I was very interested in how Zizek and Adorno share a common perspective on popular culture while seeming to engage with this terrain in opposite ways.

  6. Nick Burbidge says

    “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.”

    It might be that the concept of social totality, and its derivatives such as false consciousness, is unsustainable outside a narrow context for limited political action. By positing such a totality, both Zizek and Adorno make a claim for the exceptional, including maybe themselves, even if they admit that the exception is no more than a “moveable” part of the totality so to speak. What is claimed as exceptional is their/our decision, probably motivated by aesthetics and manifested as (theoretically) an exceptional ethical practice in a dialectic with, but operationally untainted by, a social totality. But the totality creeps in again: how much was our decision, how much was determined by the totality? And who but the rich can afford to see Wagner at Bayreuth?

    Zizek has given up on this question, and thrown himself into pop culture (and Wagner), by saying something along the lines of “choose your ideology”. It’s all ideology, it’s all symptomatic. I’m not so sure. Perhaps the only thing that can be know for sure is that that view is that it is the result of positing a totality.

    I’m not sure why Adorno takes exception to, for example, some “maudlin” song about Vietnam. Even if a song like that is apparently taken more seriously than “Love Me Do”, does he think that either the composer or the listeners really believe that the song is not a product of a generalised culture, including especially consumerism when they hold the hit single in their hands? I suspect that they take such a song more plainly as a symbol, which they can take or reject as an aesthetic inspiration and/or a spur to action. Some people may even respond to this deeply moving protest song without laughter:

    Adorno’s criticism of jazz etc has lowered his analysis in the eyes of many people. This is what I guess the structuralists hoped to avoid, but perhaps it is unavoidable if you want to say anything definite and make a political statement.

    Zizek himself has a very productive, “crosseyed fixation” with culture because he is obsessed with producing meaning, particularly to make an idea of social totality omnipresent…

    I bet he doesn’t dance!

  7. Nick Burbidge says


    Drugs suck, man! Good video. I’m part of The Alliance for a Drug-Free America. Sponsored by Pfizer.

    Like my last comment, I’m thinking aloud a bit here… You’re right: parodies have to be parodying something and laughter can be very subversive weapon. I havent seen the film, but is this parody of the cornball American right, a parody of a “social totality”? Maybe. How total are these totalities..? Is it only total if you’re a Republican, or Democrat, or a communist? I get the impression that both Zizek and Adorno mean something bigger – capitalist modernity, as Derick says – and this is where I think it starts to come undone.

    Please summarise capitalist modernity (aka all human life right now) in 500 words or less. Yes, 500 words or less, Slavoj!

    Possible answer: It stinks! (set to music)

  8. David Buchanan says

    Sponsored by Pfizer… Nice. Thanks for the laugh.

    The thing I like about Bob Roberts is that he represents that faux-populism (What’s the Matter with Kansas?) wherein subversion itself is subverted and appropriated by the target of the original subversion. I mean, Bob Roberts is an upside version of Bob Dylan, the quintessential protest singer. The topic is narrowed from civil rights and foreign wars to clean living, to mere prudery. Hey, you dirty hippie freaks, these times they are a changing – back. Bob Roberts is singing a song of murderous fascism, but dressed up with baby-faced smile and tons of self-righteousness.

    Capitalist modernity in 500 words or less?! I’m not really qualified but it sounds like fun, so I’ll do it anyway.

    Capitalist modernity is the manifestation or instantiation of the metaphysics of presence in the cultural, political and economic spheres, particularly the metaphysics of substance or what might be more plainly called scientific physicalism. Pirsig and Heidegger both speak to the role that technology plays in converting everything into a product or a resource – producing a worldview with shallow utilitarian values and even a pretended value-neutrality in all these spheres. Capitalist modernity is a monumental tower of steel and glass but, through it’s shape and design and lack of style, it carefully avoids being a monument to anything in particular. It’s the church of instrumental goodness and vacuous nihilism.


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