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Questions for Adorno and Barthes March 28, 2007

Posted by andyw in Adorno, Barthes.

Here are some questions that I had while I was reading the texts for Thursday’s class. Any help in understanding the issues involved would be much appreciated.

I’m puzzled by the ending to Adorno’s article. It looks like he is affirming a naïve form of Enlightenment reasoning that is very alien to, and in fact the opposite of, the heart of his theoretical position. The line “[i]t impedes the development of autonomous, independent, individuals who judge and decide consciously for themselves” could have come straight out of Kant’s “What is Enlightenment” (especially with the reference to adults in the next sentence) (Adorno, 60). I am fundamentally confused by this embrace of the Enlightenment, when the work he references just above argues that the Enlightenment is defined by its horrifying undercurrent of the technical domination of nature. I can understand the previous advocacy of critical consciousness, and the somewhat nostalgic comment about the spiritual make-up of the masses (and perhaps even the slightly attenuated faith in the communist revolution of the very last line), but this line and the idea behind it escapes me.

Barthes contends that the third message (the non-arbitrary images of the picture) is not transformed from reality. Although “the photograph involves a certain arrangement of the scene (framing, reduction, flattening)”, this arrangement “is not a transformation (in the way a coding can be)” (Barthes, 35). Ignoring Hall’s compelling objection to this point, Walter Benjamin also, I think, raises an interesting objection (obviously he wasn’t aware of it as an objection, but I think it amounts to one). He argues (in the Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility) that the camera actually gives us two entirely new kinds of vision that we otherwise don’t have. Film can use the close-up to expand space in a way that is invisible to the naked eye, and slow motion to extent movement to an otherwise impossible length. “[E]nlargement not merely clarifies what we see indistinctly ‘in any case,’ but brings to light entirely new structures of matter” just as “slow motion not only reveals familiar aspects of movements, but discloses quite unknown aspects within them” (Benjamin, 266). For Barthes’ point to stand, I think, he needs to maintain that what is being seen is a reproduction that doesn’t transform what is seen. But Benjamin’s point, and I find it fairly compelling, is that there is a large qualitative shift between what is being seen by the eye without the camera, and what is capable of being reproduced by the camera. Indeed, Benjamin’s point is that technology “has penetrated so deeply into reality that a pure view of that reality, free of the foreign body of equipment, is the result of a special procedure, namely, the shooting by the specially adjusted photographic device and the assembly of that shot with others of the same kind” (Benjamin, 263). So, I think there is not one, but two reasons to reject Barthes’ argument that there is a message that isn’t transformed in advertisements (the other objection being Hall’s argument about the naturalization of the code). To conclude this point on an uncertain note, it seems like Benjamin’s transformation may not be only a recoding of reality – although it is that – but also, and perhaps more fundamentally, a different material reality which can then be – and always already is – coded. So, I’m not actually positive that Benjamin’s argument does raise an additional objection to Barthes’ point. (Of course, it is an obvious objection to the point that the camera doesn’t profoundly affect the nature of what is filmed, or the idea that the camera “cannot intervene within the object” (Barthes, 39). But that is, I think, a less important point then the existence of an uncoded message.)

I am uncertain what attitude Adorno expresses towards the unconscious and the ego. He writes that, “[t]his potential [the potential of the effects of the culture industry], however, lies in the promotion and exploitation of the ego-weakness to which the powerless members of contemporary society, with its concentration of power, are condemned” (Adorno, 59). It seems like he is claiming that the masses have a weak ego, which in the next sentence he seems to conflate with consciousness (I could be very wrong, but doesn’t Freud affirm that the ego also has an unconscious element to it?), and that this one of the problems at stake in the culture industry. This seems to commit him to a vision of psychoanalysis that affirms the primacy of the ego at the expense of the unconscious (and thus seems utterly alien to Benjamin’s celebration of the imagistic unconscious). How compelling is this position? Does this liquidate (or at least make it theoretically possible to liquidate) the unconscious? Is it possible to affirm a critical consciousness that doesn’t undermine the primacy of the unconscious? Is it possible to affirm a critical unconscious (which is arguably what Benjamin is going for)? To what extent does cultural studies need Adorno’s critical consciousness, and, therefore, to what extent does cultural studies depend on a rejection of the unconscious?


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