Theodor W. Adorno, “Little Heresy”

The public has an interest only in judgments.  Either it is a judging public, or it is none.  But it is precisely the purpose of the public opinion generated by the press to make the public incapable of judging to insinuate into it the attitude of someone irresponsible, uninformed. – Walter Benjamin, “Karl Kraus”, in Peter Demetz, ed.Walter Benjamin: Reflections, p.239

In the empires bereft of imagination, where man id saying of spiritual starvation while not feeling spiritual hunger, where pens are dipped in blood and swords in ink, that which is not thought must be done, but that which is only thought is inexpressible.  Expect from me no word of my own.  Not should I be capable of saying anything new; for in the room where someone writes the noise is so great, and whether it comes from animals, from children, or merely from mortars shall not be decided now.  He who addresses deeds violates both word and deed and is twice despicable.  This profession is not extinct.  Those who not have nothing to say because it is the turn of deed to speak, talk on.  Let him who has something to say step forward and be silent! – Karl Kraus, “In This Great Age”, quoted in part by Benjamin, “Karl Krause”, Demetz, ed., p.243

If the true musical whole does not impose a blind dominance of so-called form, but is rather result and process in one- very closely related, by the way, to the metaphysical conceptions of great philosophy – then it makes sense that the way to understand the whole would have to lead up from the individual part, as well as down from the whole.  Musical experience is all the more impelled to take this route since there are no longer any overarching forms to which the ear could entrust itself blindly. – Theodor W. Adorno, “Little Heresy”, in Richard Leppert, ed., pp. 321-322

The final essay in this section section of Leppert’s collection, “Little Heresy”, is so entitled precisely because Adorno is softening his opposition to arguments with the way the Culture Industry (CI) strips the parts from the whole in music, all in the name of commodifying and reifying music.  It is interesting that he refuses to surrender his basic position regarding the dialectical relationship between the part and the whole, their incompleteness even when fully analyzed (as he has defined it) and how in that incompleteness the truth-value of the music lay, not so much as a synthesis of part and whole, but as the remainder that could not be reconciled.  He cites Benjamin, and Benjamin of Kraus, in defense of an altered view not only of the CI, but of the public who has been, up until now, a target of so much of Adorno’s ire.

Part of that is accepting that the reality within which music now exists is one in which parts and wholes no longer bear much of a relationship to one another; that parts have come to substitute for the whole, while the whole becomes just so much noise in between those parts the quotation of which has become so much a part of the musical and aesthetic tapestry of modern life.  Thus, following Kraus, it might be better not so much to acquiesce as to arise and remain silent, precisely because there is no action that can deflect the course of this history, and any words only render any action meaningless prior to the action itself.  Thus the quote from Benjamin, as background against which to understand the cultural changes that have resulted in Adorno’s “little heresy” – seeing in the quoting something that is better than nothing, even while continuing to insist it is inferior to coming to know the part precisely as part of a whole.

The very end of this very brief essay is as follows: “The light of the beauty of the details, once perceived, destroys the appearance in which cultivation drape music, and which is only too much at home with music’s dubious aspect – as if it were already the joyful whole that humanity, up to now, denies itself.  The image of the latter is more readily captured by the single scattered measure than by the triumphal whole.”(p. 322)  Too often, we celebrate a particular moment – what blues and rock musicians call “a riff” or “chorus” – without hearing it within the larger context within which it appears.  The simplest example of this is the opening of Deep Purple’s “Smoke On The Water”, which does not exist on its own or for itself, but is the basis for an entire song that unfolds, with full instrumentation and vocals.  Yet, those opening chords are usually what people know, and all they care about.  So, too, the video above – something from my childhood, by the way – of an updating of part of the fourth movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, with the lyrics altered to fit the times (the late 1960’s).  That chorus, Schiller’s poem “Ode To Joy”, exists within the entire context of Beethoven’s Symphony, is the culmination as well as recapitulation of the basic thematic material that preceded it, and brings to a climax Beethoven’s most Hegelian musical statement.  Reduced to a four minute pop song, the “Ode” loses its power.

Yet, as Adorno notes, it’s better than nothing.

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