J'ai une plume

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Month: June, 2012

A few reasons to take Adorno and Horkheimer’s ‘Culture Industry’ seriously

In their Dialectic of Enlightenment Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer were giving warnings as far back as the 1940s about the effects of capitalism on culture. As well as reducing labour to a commodity to be bought and sold, capitalism also inevitably applies this same logic to artistic works. Such a change is justified on technological grounds as the only method to deliver this ‘product’ to consumers – consumers who in any case demanded such a ‘product’.

The underlying structure of the culture industry is the usual method of capitalist profit-motive which follows closely the technological instrumental reason of the Enlightenment. It may seem like a cliché of recent times to describe popular music as mass-produced, but this is precisely the point being made by the Frankfurt school 70 years ago. The justification for the narrow forms of culture which are delivered to consumers is simply public demand. What such an excuse fails to take into account is that public demand is generated by the industry itself and is circularly defined by the system – the idea that there is a Public to whose changing and unpredictable tastes the industry must adapt is a myth. The tendency for the music of developing nations to imitate the styles of First World countries is good evidence for this, although it is not an example mentioned by Adorno and Horkheimer specifically. Unless it is the case that Western society has discovered some objectively ‘correct’ trajectory in the development of its popular music, it certainly seems telling that the emergence of a capitalist economy in the Third World is accompanied by at least some standardisation of the popular music scene to Western capitalist norms.

The authors were also concerned that the over-abundance of culture was leading to a ‘satiation’ where no-one would look for real aesthetic enjoyment and instead be content with access to a lesser form of satisfaction, characterised in their eyes by the ‘hook’ of a popular song or the laughter of affirmation at a film. Adorno and Horkheimer were strikingly prescient about the transformative power of the television on society, but matters are perhaps graver than they imagined with the rise of the internet and personal digital music players. On the other hand, in its present state the internet allows access to a wider variety of culture which falls outside the remit of the industry itself and so could be a neutralising influence on the dominance of the culture industry. However, the industry itself seems to be aware of such a threat and the steady locking-down of the internet into a few highly regulated services such as Facebook and YouTube makes it seem more likely that this is a mere aberration, rather than a sign of future developments in culture.

The Dialectic is also prescient in its analysis of the ways that the culture industry attempts to assimilate anything lying outside its remit and to thereby remain dominant. Adorno writes of ‘talent scouts’ and ‘competitions’ which bring independent or autonomous music into its fold. Television programmes such as “Britain’s Got Talent” and “The Voice” show that this observation is as relevant today as it was in the 1940s. The argument that such programmes perform a service by giving an otherwise unavailable opening into the performing arts is itself an admission of the inseparable nature of the works of culture and the social system within which they are produced. In these programmes the industry plays the role of a beneficent gatekeeper, willing to allow admission into some sort of Great City of Culture whilst hiding the fact that it is they who erected the walls to this city in the first place.

A final justification for Adorno and Horkheimer’s work on the culture industry remaining relevant today is their analysis of ‘niche’ tastes. Any variance within the wants of the consumer audience is brought under control by assimilating a prima-facie wide variety of styles into the industry. The market is even capable of fulfilling an individual’s desire to be different by an artificial designation of a work of culture as ‘cult’. For evidence of this one need only examine the ‘genre’ labels of much popular music to find that the terms ‘Alternative’ and ‘Indie’ (ironically short for ‘independent’) occur with remarkable frequency.

These are just a few musings which require individual attention in order to ascertain their validity. Some of the insights here have become old hat but it is worth remembering that they were original at the time. On the other hand some are less commonly accepted but in my view they may well be worth reconsidering.

Understanding theological fatalism

Since the time of Boethius and even before, it has been recognised that there is a worrying contradiction which emerges when a theist makes the two following claims:

1. God is omniscient; he knows the truth-value of every proposition, including those which refer to events in the future.

2. Human beings have real, libertarian (in the philosophical ‘could have done otherwise’ sense, not the political sense) freedom.

There is an obvious problem here. If God knows the decisions I will make ahead of the actual act of deciding, then how can I possibly be said to have been ‘able to do otherwise’? This argument about ‘theological fatalism’ is one which many people are aware of, but most theists ignore. On the rare occasions when it is actually confronted head-on, the theist will usually spin a convoluted theodicy which will inevitably be based on a careful cherry-picking of likely sounding phrases from scripture. Failing that we will be confronted with a more or less convincing compatibilism which will turn out, upon analysis, to be just another form of fatalism, albeit a more subtle one.

The issues surrounding this problem are numerous and filled a dissertation in my undergraduate degree (they could have ended up filling several books if left unchecked) but here I wish to focus on a mere clarification. The issue of divine foreknowledge is perpetually misunderstood by philosophers and theologians, believers and non-believers. There is an element of the dialectic above which amounts simply to a logical claim, but has been dressed up in theological language. Susan Haack calls the argument “a needlessly (and confusingly) elaborated version of the argument for fatalism discussed by Aristotle in de Interpretatione 9.”

It turns out the problem predates Christianity and, indeed, is still a philosophical worry if God is removed from the situation. In order for God to be in a position to know any facts about the future, it must be the case that there is some fact of the matter to know in the first place. Aristotle’s own version of this problem used the example of a naval battle which was to take place the following day. As the commander in this situation, I have the power to give an order which will lead to this battle, or I have the power to give a different order which would prevent it. Aristotle’s problem was that (meaningful) propositions are either true or false – either the battle will take place or it will not – but if that is the case, then my decision today is not really free because, if there will be a sea battle tomorrow then I must be about to give the order which will lead to such a battle, rather than the opposite one.

This argument looks close to mere sophistry, although it has been revived in the last 50 years by Richard Taylor with the added weight of modal logic. The point is that Aristotle’s argument works from the exact same assumption as the theological argument for fatalism we considered before. Aristotle’s main concern was with whether the same logical laws applied to statements about the future or whether they were ‘neither true nor false’ or ‘undecided’ or some other variation. This is the real issue which we must face – if there is a God who knows everything then this may exclude statements about the future if they are simply ‘logically unknowable’. The other side of this coin should make the atheist just as uncomfortable as the theist since if the future has the same ontological status as the present then it seems like free will still goes down the toilet, even without God.

‘Physicalism or dualism?’ is the wrong question

It has become uncommon for philosophers in this country to hold any form of idealism, whether Berkeleian or Kantian. Within the philosophy of mind the two types of position usually defended are forms of physicalism and forms of dualism. Nor is the split between these two symmetrical – physicalism has more or less become the consensus position and dualism, with its Cartesian baggage, has been cast aside. Is this an advancement? In some respects it is, since Descartes’ notion of the subject raises the old question of how it is that mind and matter interact given that the physical ‘world’ seems to be causally closed, making mental considerations superfluous and leaving us with an epiphenomenal dualism.

On the other hand, accounts of physicalism do not seem to fare too well when faced with David Chalmer’s ‘hard problem’ of consciousness – scientific attempts to explain why there is subjective experience at all or ‘something it is like’ to be a bat (or indeed a human) have so far given no sort of explanation at all. I believe I am a conscious being who has certain types of experiences, but there is nothing in a physical explanation of my body that would seem to account for this. It seems just as likely that my species could have evolved doing all the things it currently does now, but with the mental processes occurring in the dark. Everything would seem explanatorily simpler if the lights were on but nobody was home. To appeal to something like ‘quantum consciousness’ is to falsely and unhelpfully equate two phenomena we have incomplete knowledge of. Patricia Churchland points out that such ‘explanations’ amount to nothing better than ‘pixie dust in the synapses’.

Hempel’s dilemma seems to be the final blow to the false physicalism/dualism dichotomy. If everything in the world is explicable in terms of physical laws, as the physicalist will usually claim, then one is entitled to ask the question of what one means by physical laws. If we are referring to our current physical theories, then we are in the dangerous position of asserting that physics has succeeded in explaining every phenomenon in the world. If we are referring to some ‘complete’ physics which we may reach in the future, then we have made the circular claim that everything in the universe is physical, so physicalism is true. Under this second alternative this ‘future physics’ could well have an account of mental phenomena and so to say that the physical is ‘all there is’ is simply vacuously true. Dualism does not escape unscathed either. Current physics has as much right to call itself a ‘dualism’ by distinguishing the two major types of (as-yet non-interreducible) phenomena in its canon (relativistic and quantum effects) as philosophical dualism does based on a distinction between physical and mental phenomena. The aim of a future physics would be to unite its fundamental forces and unless consciousness is utterly fundamental, it will be included in this endeavour too.

If we can no longer divide the world into physicalists or dualists, what is there remaining for us to say? It is here that both transcendental idealism and phenomenology come into their own. I shall save a discussion of them for another post.

Being Nietzsche’s confidant

As an admirer of both Kant and Schopenhauer it seemed natural to attempt to actually take Nietzsche seriously. Anglo-American analytic philosophy is oddly dismissive of transcendental idealism and I tend to agree with Bryan Magee that this comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of Kant’s project. It does take many years of patient study to get to grips with Kant (hence the crossover with the drawn-out meditation required by Indian philosophers to understand their own version of transcendental idealism) but one finds at the end that it is actually the Humean naive realism which is counter-intuitive. Likewise Russell’s treatment of Nietzsche in his History of Western Philosophy is particularly brutal. Until recently my only reaction to this was amusement but now I wonder whether the same dismissive attitude was preventing me appreciating some worthwhile insights.

I recently reread Beyond Good and Evil and, predictably, was struck by the beautiful literary writing style. I also realised there was something deeper to his appeal. Something insidious. While it is clear from his book that the line often drawn from him to the Final Solution is justified, I was more perturbed by the style than the content. Nietzsche constantly rails against pretty much every group but, at the same time cultivates a strikingly intimate relationship with the reader. Jonathan Swift wrote that satire is “a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own” and it turns out that, under this definition, Nietzsche is the greatest of all satirists. On an intellectual level, anyone with a modicum of intelligence who reads Nietzsche will be well aware that they themselves could well have been targets for his capricious wrath, but people tend to ignore this fact and act as though they are part of his Solution, rather than the problem.

The root of all these misgivings is simply the way that Nietzsche writes. He draws you in. You feel like he is addressing you alone and handing over a quest and purpose to your life. You can’t all be Supermen, but nevertheless every single person with any self-esteem whatsoever sees themselves reflected in Nietzsche’s Übermensch and those they are contemptuous of represented by his “herd”. It is beautiful. It is escapism. I won’t deny that it is philosophy, but it must be subject to the same thorough criticism which Nietzsche so generously dishes out to others. I’m sorry to say that if you have read his work and felt yourself become his confidant, felt yourself ready to accept the burden of being “superior” and ready to claim your place as a leader of men – if this sounds at all familiar, you should know that you are part of a different “herd”. This herd also has the vice of unwarranted self-importance, and one day you will meet someone inferior to you who has been charmed by Nietzsche’s seductive style – and if you have any sense you will question your own qualifications as a Superman. If you never meet such a person then you yourself are at the bottom of the hierarchy and are too inferior to realise it. Thanks for playing.