Adorno: Semi-Formation as Cultural Reconstruction of Society
Wolfgang Leo Maar
In the Dialectic of Enlightenment (1985), written with Horkheimer, Adorno analyzed the social formation of a State interventionist order, that followed the earlier liberal one. To the authors, then emigrated to the USA, the north-American experience of mass culture complemented the experience of cultural manipulation of the totalitarian fascism, conditioning the famous conception of culture industry. The manipulation of the masses by the totalitarian fascist State in its function as the main economic agent would be found again in the consumers' society. Such society, apparently did not need the support of a legitimating ideology. By representing the fulfillment of ideals as consumers goods the society itself becomes ideology.
The rise of the living standards of the inferior classes, materially reprehensible and socially regretful, reflects itself on the hypocrite expansion of the spirit. Its true aspiration is the negation of reification. But, it necessarily fades away when it is made concrete in a cultural good and is distributed for consumers goods. The enormous outpouring of precise information and of aseptic play leads on to awaken and to become idiot ... (Adorno; Horkheimer, 1985, p.4)
In 1963, Adorno reaffirmed the political character of the concept of culture industry as a process of social construction of the culture in its formative (or deformative) dimension.
The culture industry is the deliberate integration, from above, of its consumers ... The consumer is not a king, as the culture industry would pretend, he is not the subject of this industry, but its object. The term 'mass media', introduced in order to ascribe the culture industry, from the start, distorts the emphasis to that which is innocuous. It does not refer either to the masses in the first place, or to the communication techniques as such, but to the spirit that is created, that is, its master's voice. The culture industry overuses the respect in relation to the masses in order to reaffirm, to take a stand and to reinforce their mentality, which it takes as an 'a priori' and immutable datum. The masses are not the measure, they are the ideology of the culture industry. (Adorno, 1973, p.60)
Here the process of mass manipulation as performed through the culture industry becomes clear. The masses are not pre-existent, they are not presuppositions, they are formed by the culture industry, to which ideology they correspond by appearing as subjects, which they are not. The disintegration of the working class, its reconstitution as a mass, the so called end of the working society are not pre-existent, on the contrary, they are results of the same historical process of social formation in which the culture industry develops as a moment of society's constitution. The appearance of the effective object as an apparent subject corresponds to the expansion of the access to cultural goods. The culture industry's goods effectively lead to real satisfaction which legitimates in the course of the deformative experience they build. There is not a 'society' that became barbaric. What has to be denounced as barbaric is simultaneously the chore of society as a process.
In an appendix to the chapter about culture industry, published later - The Scheme of Mass Culture (1981) - Adorno shows how the culture industry is at the chore of the formation process of contemporary capitalist society, refusing the autonomy even in imagination.
Back to Germany, Adorno returned to the issue especially in Theory of Semi-Formation (1979). In the essay of 1959 he elucidates that for him the dimension of culture does not circumscribe itself to the world of cultural goods, commodities - appearing as exterior objectivations - but it implies a formative dimension, even though deformed.
The articulation between culture and formation, induced by the peculiarity of late capitalism and by the German cultural situation compared to the Enlightenment in the period of the German idealism, therefore constitutes a compulsory reference for the exam of Adorno's contribution. The Bildung, the cultural formation as a German experience does not express a national idiosyncrasy. To the contrary, in a situation that is favorable to its coming out such as the German one, it only translates the effective contents of cultural elements in the very composition of the modern social formation, which are, most of the time, ideologically hidden away. The formation is a feature of a fundamental relation in the constellation that informs the idea of culture in its relationship with society in the prism of a totality process. So culture might appear as society using formation relations and simultaneously hiding them.
This would be exactly the case of the American mass culture. Martin Jay reported in the Conference on Adorno (1983) how Adorno had been confronted, in America, with a culture which would be deprived of formative reference, mere exterior reality, commodity as any other commodity, apparently without any relation with formation, possibly contrasted with the ingrained relevance of the spiritual culture of German tradition, foundation for the cultural formation.
However - and this is the most important issue - to Adorno the formative dimension was not absent, but it was present in a deformed and concealed way. Therefore, history is revealed in the object. In relation to the Bildung, what appears as mass culture turns out to be Halbbildung, semi-formation, amputated formation that does not allow the immanent criticism. The mass culture was not taken as a pseudo-culture, but as a manipulative reconstruction of the formative culture, by the culture industry, which controls the media through the passiveness imposed to the consumer and through the strict control of the owner. Therefore, to Adorno, the culture industry is taken as the social reconstruction of the culture with a formative dimension that is an integrating semi-formation. Such a reconstruction, disguising its own ideological function, would reveal itself as a cultural reconstruction of society. The socialization process, appearing as cultural, avoids the ideological immanent criticism.
In 1949, just before Adorno returned to Germany, in Cultural Criticism and Society (1977), the connection between culture and formation was discussed as an identity between culture and fetishism, as a total draining out of the moment of autonomy of the cultural-formative realm.
The greatest fetish (of the culture industry) is the very concept of culture (Kultur) ... The fact that the European culture was misconducted into ideology in all its extension in everything that becomes consumption and that is advised by the managers and psycho-technicians is due to the change in the culture's function in relation to the material praxis, to the refusal of participative action. However, such a change is not a sin, but a historical outcome. The idea of purity in relation to the deforming remains of disorder spread out as totality in all dimensions of existence, can be tolerated by bourgeois culture only as defeated in the return to itself. ... It may only be idolized if it is made neutral and turned into a thing. ... Because the cultural criticism only opposes to integration without revealing it, it turns back, astonished by the pledge of the immediate. (Adorno, 1979, p. 16)
Adorno rejects the cultural criticism of the manipulative culture of the totalitarian State made by the culture industry as the "worst fetish", the choice for the authentic formative culture in its classical model, in the reconstruction by the return to the "high culture". There is no culture after the holocaust: this is the barbaric as culture. The cultural criticism is conditioned by the context in which the reference to the authentic culture existed as a dimension of immanent criticism. The cultural reconstruction, the "reeducation of Germany", as it was usual to say at the time, could not, for a fact, be built on the mere reconstruction of the ideals of the humanist German culture, because the experience of such ideals did not exist anymore in the material production as they did when the late bourgeois capitalist society in Germany was installed.
To Adorno, to reject the cultural criticism does not mean to reject the formative dimension, it means to reject its limits which make impossible the immanent criticism. Such limits are due to the specific articulation to a given historical form in the social process and in the production that could, therefore, lead to the stagnation of the critical theory behind its own potentiality (Adorno, 1979, p. 577) if the apprehension of the obscured formative dimension would not be - theoretically - restored, thus restoring the possibility of autonomy.
It is necessary to connect the cultural issue to the formative dimension, regaining the effective dimension in which culture is socially reconstructed in the realm of domination of a given economic structure. The changes in society as a process of construction of a cultural formation, are opposed to the potential for criticism.
What was formation through labor, guided mainly by the artisan model, now, in times of developed industrial production, would be the socialization of the apprehension of society by its subjects in terms of the culture industry. That is why Claus Offe (1984) asserted, for instance, that labor does not socialize anymore in the advanced capitalism. Nevertheless, this is only the self-apprehension of the concrete socialization, and it is not the effective situation. Offe was not able to conclude, because of such 'premise', that the social labor was not be anymore a key sociological category, just because this is not a 'premise'; it is a moment of social labor, of the social and productive process, and of social reconstruction of the correspondent culture. The social experience in terms of labor also depends on the context of social production. According to the contemporary capitalist social formation, the mechanism is one of adaptation to the total socialization as in terms of the culture industry.
To focus on the culture industry does not imply questioning directly the cultural aspects, but to examine in what extent in the culture industry are maintained its effective presuppositions in terms of the experience of the social labor, as it was asserted above, as a production process in which the social conditions and relations of production are formed and reproduced. Therefore the cultural dimension domain would maintain a link with the social production beyond its immediate relationships to economicism. The corollary to this thesis would be a non immediate determination of the formation of the social classes, a mediation that based the attention dispensed on the elements of ideological reproduction, and on the cultural conditioners, without representing a renouncement of a class perspective - given the difficulties of visualizing empirically the class structures, motivated by the political resolution of conflicts.
In his Theory of the Semi-Formation (1979), Adorno asserts: "The conditions of material production of the advanced capitalism have difficulty in dealing with that type of experience (autonomy) to which the traditional contents of culture were attuned." (p. 101)
The consolidation of the bourgeois production process had required a social reconstruction of culture in order to form a universality trough ideals culturally expressed in the Bildung of the German classical period as "autonomy", "freedom". The changes due to the "advancement" of the productive process would occur with a new social reconstruction of the cultural sphere, as formation that now is restrained in its moment of autonomy, in favor of the integration through the culture industry modeling into a uniform mass the difference between those who produce and those who appropriate themselves. What happens in the cultural domain would not be the... lack of cultural formation (but) is semi- formation. ... the pre-bourgeois conception of the world ... was destroyed ... displaced by the spirit of the culture industry. Nevertheless, the a priori of the essentially bourgeois concept of culture - autonomy - had no time to develop. Consciousness goes immediately from one heteronomy to another. The bible is replaced ... by the television. (Adorno, 1979, p. 99)
To not change within the economic domain, it reconstructs itself as a cultural-formative dimension. The categories of semi-formation may still fail to embrace numerous workers ... because class consciousness ... is still a vital force. From the side of production, however, this categories are so powerful ... they characterize so adequately the ubiquitous forms in which culture appears that they deserve to be represented ... If, as antithesis to the socialization of the semi-formation, only the traditional concept of cultural formation is adequate, which itself can be criticized, this expresses a situation which disposes of nothing better than this albeit dubious criterion, because it has missed its chance. (Adorno, 1979, p. 102)
The social reconstruction of the culture formative function would now be an artificial cultural "formation", as mere socialization apparently exterior, deprived of bonds between subject and object, as it was supposed to be in the cultural tradition of the German Bildung. In the essay Cultural Criticism and Society, the objective illusion had become total. The ideology, the socially necessary appearance for the "advancement" of production would be the very society: a socialization of objects, which included the ideals formerly present at the Bildung and now not perceived as formed anymore, but acquired as external data. Society would be a constitution, from the start ideological, with an affirmative aim of socialization by itself, avoiding any contradictions that referred to an experience of formative autonomy of a potential criticism.
Formation would be displaced by semi-formation, not allowing for class consciousness, as it is said in Society, in 1965:
All society still is a class society, as in the period during which the concept of class society emerged ... Although the prognosis of rising in misery was not confirmed, the end of the classes is an epiphenomenon. In the highly developed countries, class consciousness may be subjectively weakened (in America it was always absent), but it was never merely given, it needed to be revealed as a result of theory. The more society integrates, including also the shapes of consciousness, the more it becomes difficult ...
Subjectively hidden, objectively the difference among classes inexorably grows .... Such difference manifests itself more importantly, really, on the individual life: if it was not for this, the concept of classes would be a fetish. While consuming habits are made equal, the difference between power and social impotence is greater than ever. Anyone may experience as his/her social existence is almost completely not determined by his/her initiative anymore, but, instead, it is determined according to breaks, open spaces, job hunting in order to guarantee subsistence, without any respect to what is ahead by human determination. (Adorno, 1979, p. 15)
The semi-formation forbids formation by relating to something given, exterior, but only as representation of things, and not the objective things. The criticism also limits itself to being fetish criticism, the criticism of the objectified commodity fetishism, given, and not the criticism of the effective production of the fetishism, which corresponds to an old fashioned working context. It is not anymore the case of a formation of the subject through his externalization in the working object, as it was in the Bildung that allowed for criticism, but the externalization in terms of cultural goods of an abstract mass playing the role of subject without being a subject. Such a socialization seeks to replace the apprehension of the society effectively constituted through the social labor, by manipulating it. It is semi-formation, it is a cultural reconstruction integrating society.
The reification is no more a metaphor. The social struggle seems to be now in a contest on the dimension of the things of culture: the criticism of the social relations of production seems to end as criticism of the relations of bewilderment, cultural criticism. However, culture is not really an outcome or an epiphenomenon, but it is instead a historical objectivity constitutive of society as socialization of the objectified abstraction. It is not anymore culture as society's superstructure; culture is a hegemonic factor of socialization of society, or else, society presents itself as "social culture". Culture is the experience of abstraction replacing the concrete contemporary social experience of capitalism.
The cultural formation by means of social labor, in the twenties still opposed, by Lukács, to the capitalist reification as the basis for class consciousness, had changed into the apparent disconnection between culture and formation as a function of a social reconstruction of culture with an ideological aim. In such a way, culture, apparently detached of formation, provides a substitute for the formative experience - outside the working society - which, because of its objective semblance does not allow the apprehension of the effective formation, hiding and overturning its essence, which is to be formation in the process of social production in its socially given shapes.
Adorno points to a theory of social construction of culture arising from the experience of effective material production in its formative dimension that appears as formative cultural reconstruction of integrated society, inaccessible in its semi-formation in its own terms. This culture, as culture industry, also prevents its bond with the dimension of social production, by maintaining with it the same strict bond of integration and adaptation, thus appearing as a communicative interaction without relation to the sphere of social labor.
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