SOCIOLOGY Theodor Adorno – Free Ebook

Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno was born in Frankfurt in 1903 into a wealthy and cultured family. His father, a wine merchant, was of Jewish origin but had converted to Protestantism at university. Until his twenties, Adorno planned for a career as a composer, but eventually focused on philosophy. In 1934, he was barred on racial grounds from teaching in Germany. So he moved to Oxford and later to New York and then Los Angeles. He was both fascinated and repelled by Californian consumer culture and thought with unusual depth about sun tans and drive-ins. Adorno was closely connected with a pioneering institute of social research also known as the Frankfurt School which had been founded and funded by his friend Felix Weil. The institute aimed to develop a psychological understanding of the problems thrown up modern capitalism, especially the culture and mindset it generates. Adorno drew attention to three significant ways in which capitalism corrupts and degrades us. Adorno believed that the primary focus for progressive philosophers should be the study of how the working and middle classes of developed nations think and feel and in particular the manner in in which they spend their evenings and weekends. Adorno had a highly ambitious view of what leisure time should be for. It was not to relax and take one’s mind of things. Free time should be our prime opportunity to expand and develop ourselves to reach after our better nature and to acquire the tools with which to change society. It’s a time when we might see films that can help us to understand our relationships with new clarity or read books that give us fresh insights into politics or listen to music that gives us courage to reform ourselves and collective life But in the modern world, Adorno bemoaned that leisure has fallen into the hands of an omnipresent and deeply malevolent entertainment machine which he called The Culture Industry. Modern films, TV, radio, magazines and now social media seemed for Adorno to be almost designed to keep us distracted, unable to understand ourselves and without the will to alter political reality. So for example, the news will feed us a mixture of salacious nonsense and political stories, that scramble any possibility of understanding the open prison within which we exist. The cinema shows us the adventures of an alien invasion, while the real calamities of our world go unattended. Pop music focuses relentlessly on the emotions around romantic love, suggesting that happiness can only come from meeting one very special person, rather that awakening us to the pleasures of community and of a more broadly distributed human sympathy. We wander through museum galleries, privately unsure what they really mean and why we should care. The Culture Industry likes to keep us like that, distracted, pliant, confused and a bit intimidated. Adorno perceptively described Walt Disney as the most dangerous man in America. Because of the huge range of consumer goods available in modern capitalism, we naturally suppose that everything we could possible want is available. The only problem, if there is one, is that we can’t afford it. But Adorno pointed out that our real wants are carefully shielded from us by capitalist industry so that we end up forgetting what it is we truly need and settle instead for desires manufactured for us by cooperations without any interest in our true welfare. Though we think we live in world of plenty, what we really require to thrive, namely tenderness, understanding, calm, insight, community – all these things are in painfully short supply and are utterly disconnected from the present economy. When they’re trying to sell something, advertisers show us the thing that we really want and then connect it to something, we don’t actually need. So we can see an advert showing a group of friends walking along a beach chatting amiably or a family having a picnic and laughing warmly together. These adverts show us these things because they know we crave community and connection. But the industrial economy prefers to keep us lonely and consuming. So at the end of the adverts, we’ll be urged to buy some 25 year old whiskey or a car so powerful that no road will ever let us legally drive it at top speed. Adorno was writing at the dawn of the age of the psychological questionnaire. These were widely in use in the United States where they were measuring consumer attitudes and commercial behaviour. Adorno was intrigued by the underlying concept of a questionnaire and so together with colleagues devoted himself to designing a rather different kind of questionnaire, one designed to spot fascists. The questionnaire that he designed asked contributors to assess their level of agreement with statements like: “Obedience and respect for authority are the most important virtues children should learn” and “If people would talk less and work more, everybody would be better off” and “When a person has a problem or worry, it’s best for him not to think about it, but to keep busy with more cheerful things”. Given the traumas Germany had just been through, it is no surprise that Adorno gave his questionnaire and what he called the F-scale, fascist scale, such attention. His team even sent the F-scale to every school in West Germany. But a more widely applicable lesson to be drawn from this experiment is that psychology comes ahead of politics. Long before someone is racist, homophobic or authoritarian, they are, Adorno skillfully suggested, likely to be suffering from psychological frailties and immaturities which is the task of a good society to get better at spotting and responding to. Rather than leaving problems to fester so long that there’s eventually no way to deal with them other than through force, we should learn to understand the psychological of everyday insanity from the earliest moments. Adorno was a left-wing thinker who recognized that the primary obstacles to social progress are cultural and psychological rather than narrowly political or economic. We already have the money, the resources, the time and the skills to make sure that everyone can sleep at a house, stop destroying the planet, is given fulfilling job and feel supported by the community. So the reason why we continue to suffer and hurt one another, is first and foremost because our minds are sick. This is the continuing provocation offered by the beguiling and calmly furious work of Theodor Adorno. Thank you so much for watching! If you like the videos we produce at The School of Life, then may we suggest you visit our friends over at a channel called Wisecrack. They, too, created wonderful videos about philosophy, literature, cinema, psychology and more, all with a cheeky twist. So click here to visit their channel and we highly suggest that you subscribe. You might especially interested in their show called 8-bit Philosophy. Click here to watch their classic episode on Plato’s allegory of the cave as explained through the video game Selter.

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