Monday, 7 February 2011

Objective Spirit

In his Notes on Literature Adorno offers his reflections on the re-issue of Heinrich Mann's Professor Unrat ('Professor Garbage'), and notes that the re-issue has been retitled The Blue Angel after the Sternberg film that took the novel as a source (amusingly the only thing Adorno likes about the film are 'Marlene Dietrich's beautiful legs': 'The venerable film masterpiece is one of those revoltingly false and also - apart from the famous legs - fairly boring products that make the excursion into full human life only to trap customers[...]'. He speculates that this title change is the work of some committee of tycoons and filmmakers.

He then receives a reply from the publishers that no-one wanted this change of title. As Adorno comments: 'If one could lay one's hands on the committee I invented, it would presumably turn out that every individual had already indignantly rejected the title The Blue Angel and that it had been decided upon by a majority that consisted of no one.'

In a long passage Adorno anatomises this situation in which 'Although positivist science indignantly rejects the concept of objective spirit as metaphysics, this concept is becoming more and more palpable.' In the culture industry individuals experience a 'split consciousness' between what they consider correct and 'what they believe corresponds to the schema of the industry they disparage'. But they choose the schema, so there is no need for heavy-handed 'discipline', and when one attacks any concrete instance 'there is nothing one can get hold of'.

Adorno links this to a generalised dispersion of responsibility, and certainly I've been involved in more than a few meetings in which such 'decisions' have taken place. The worst decisions are made but no-one is responsible, because responsibility is displaced onto the imaginary Other. As a very minor example, virtually every book I've published has had its title changed by publishers, and not on their own behalf but that of 'prospective readers' (few enough...). Adorno goes on to note the effect of 'reified guilt' as we all become responsible for these 'decisions' that are never made by anyone and so made by all...


Shannon Bain said...

Interesting. This seems somewhat similar to what's called "pluralistic ignorance" in social psychology: our mistaken assumptions about others' values or beliefs push us to act contrary to our own values and beliefs. It's clearly not identical, but it reminds me of Philip Pettit's writings on norms perpetuated by mutual ignorance of the populace's true feelings ("value-mistaken" norms) and our natural bias to misidentify structural causes as personal or internal causes ("virtue-mistaken" norms). These mistakes or biases are almost certainly in play in these formalized, norm bounded and structured "committee" situations as well.

Benjamin said...

thanks for these refs, I'll follow up. Adorno's argument is also similar to Zizek's later arguments about the 'objectivity' of ideology; one thing I know from academia is when people say 'students' want X' it is usually they who want X, which probably also applies to me... but I try to be a little more honest about why I might want X and why that might make our working better