From Vladislav Zubok’s A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin To Gorbachev:
American radio broadcasts and music exercised huge “soft” power upon many young Soviets. American jazz and swing were repeatedly banned in the Soviet Union before World War II and again when the Cold War started. Many young people developed the habit of listening to Voice of America’s radio programs, almost exclusively because of the VOA’s music programs. The number of shortwave radios in Soviet homes grew from half a million in 1949 to twenty million in 1958. At the end of his life, Stalin ordered the production of shortwave radios to be stopped by 1954. Instead, Soviet industry began to produce four million such radios annually, primarily for commercial reasons. Particularly popular was the VOA’s Time for Jazz. Its disc jockey, Willis Conover, owner of a fabulous deep baritone, became a secret hero of many Moscow and Leningrad youngsters. They sang, without understanding many of the words, the songs of Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller and listened to Ella fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and the improvisations of Charlie Parker. Later came Elvis Presley. According to all accounds, the VOA’s audience numbered millions. Records of American music stars were not available in stores, and gettinga foreign-made vinyl disk was considered a miracle. By the late 1950s, tape recorders began to change this and broaden the exposure of Soviet youth to Western music.
Fans of Adorno’s work may or may not be surprised to see that one of the oppositions set up here is between totalitarian/authoritarian power and jazz/popular music (not that, I suspect, anyone even really believes Adorno’s lines about the relationship between popular music and totalitarianism, but maybe!) (or maybe they wouldn’t! I’m not even sure anymore). Even members of Adorno’s cast of characters reappear here, as heroes (of course, that would be the case in a book that celebrates the demise of, to date, one of the only serious contenders to capitalism), working to overthrow the oppressor. Which is, maybe, one of the elements of Adorno’s work that bothers me – the way it aligns with the systems it claims to oppose. Ignoring for a minute whether or not jazz fans were really (effectively) working against a system of absolute oppression, it is odd, isn’t it (I mean, isn’t it?), the ways that Stalin(ism) seemed to work toward an Adornoian utopia, a society free of the evils Adorno got so worked up about.
Filed under: school
While I was standing outside of school, smoking, a couple weeks ago, a man in a car pulled up to the intersection I was facing and leaned out his window, grinning, and yelled, “You’ll never get a job!”
Filed under: DILFs, history, Russia, Soviet Union, Stalin, Uncategorized
Young Stalin, I’m embarassed to say, was a total DILF (Dictator I’d Like to Fuck). That may be the most uncomfortable sentence I’ve ever typed.
I’m reading Redefining Stalinism, which so far isn’t doing much redefining. Or, rather, it is using ‘Stalinism’ in its classically pejorative sense, where ‘Stalinism’ means something like ‘scary totalitarianism’ and ‘scary totalitarianism’ more or less means ‘Bad’. Which, if you’re going to play that game – the one where you look at a series of historical events and call them names – is fine, I guess (though, really, is that game even that interesting to play?). But as far as a historical analysis of events, as far as deepening our understanding of historical events (which, to be fair, I’m not even sure is the game that we do play/should be playing with respect to history), doesn’t go far, since in this case ‘Stalinism’ just reduces to ‘Bad’, and questions like “What was Stalinism?” (which seems to be the focus of the book) just reduce, somehow, to “How did such a Bad Thing happen?”, and descriptives become causal explanations, themselves working as a kind of historical apologia, either for History, or for the Everyday Soviet Man (rarely, if ever, for Stalin himself). But, I guess, what is History that we need to defend Its actions (or, is such a theodicy even necessary)? And who are we to try to justify the lives of Soviets (and, implicitly, suggest that their lives need such a defense [and, by way of a lack of such an explanation in the here and now, that our lives don’t])?
Filed under: Adorno, Benjamin, fascism, feminism, Freud, gay rights, heteronormativity, homosexuality, Nietzsche, philosophy, queer, Sedgwick, sexuality, Soviet Union, Uncategorized
I’ve been meaning to write this for a while, and have decided that maybe it was time to really articulate my thoughts on why I really, really hate Adorno’s work. It had something to do with his posturing toward homosexuality, and something to do with what I sensed as a certain kind of awful elitism. It is also connected with the alarming number of gay Adorno fanboy apologists I’ve run into over the last while. So I went to the library and picked up Minima Moralia, which I hadn’t actually read before (and still haven’t gotten far into).The opening line of the dedication reads :
The melancholy science from which I make this offering to my friend relates to a region that from time immemorial was regarded as the true field of philosophy, but which, since the latter’s conversion into method, has lapsed into intellectual neglect, sententious whimsy and finally oblivion: the teaching of the good life.
An astute student or, I guess, professor maybe, who wrote all over the library’s copy of this book (I actually often enjoy what other people write in books) had written, in pencil, above the word ‘melancholy’, gay. And of course, yes: In this first sentence of a dedication, Adorno takes a stance toward Nietzsche. His “melancholy science” (die traurige Wissenschaft) is in direct opposition to Nietzsche’s gay science (die fröliche Wissenschaft). Of course Adorno isn’t articulating a simple opposition here – both Adorno and Nietzsche are engaged in similar projects, “the teaching of the good life”. Rather, for Adorno, something fundamental about the world had changed since Nietzsche: Fascism had reared its artificially beblondened head.
Rather than focus directly on fascism here, though, I’d like to spend some time articulating that astute student’s one-word note: gay. As Kauffmann notes in his introduction to The Gay Science, it is “no accident that the homosexuals as well as Nietzsche opted for ‘gay’ rather than ‘cheerful'” because it “has overtones of a light-hearted defiance of convention; it suggests Nietzsche’s ‘immoralism’ and his ‘revaluation of values.'” Gay, then, I think forms one axis of a possible analysis of Adorno’s work, which lays out vertically as an opposition between Nietzsche’s joyful, light-hearted revaluation of all values and Adorno’s “melancholy science”, and horizontally as an opposition between homosexuality in its Western, twentieth-century guise with its light-hearted defiance of conventions, on the one hand, and heterosexuality and the status quo on the other.
Adorno is – the astute student was correct – gay. Where Nietzsche took to delight, Adorno took to despair. Where Nietzsche undermined, Adorno reinforced. One of the things that bugs me about Adorno, which I think this introductory sentence makes clear, is that Adorno is not aiming at a Nietzschean revaluation of all values, not even the values of those systems that he claimed so ardently to oppose. His melancholy science is one for the perpetuation of a system of values – which could be defined in several ways (Adorno’s own, fascist, bourgeois, anti-working-class, racist, homophobic) – that already exist in the world. Where Nietzsche looked (or at least claimed to look) forward, Adorno looked back.
Though it certainly isn’t clear that Adorno looked to the golden past with an eye toward a return – he didn’t seem to think such a return was possible – it was nevertheless in the past that “technical virtuosity, at least, was demanded of singing stars”, that melody had not come “to mean eight-beat symmetrical treble melody”, that there was at least a difference in terms of reaction to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony and a bikini. The past, on Adorno’s analysis, was one in which fetishism had not yet come to dominate the musical (and, indeed, cultural) scene.
It is at the site of the fetish where Adorno most strongly attempts to rhetorically establish links between homosexuality, or sexual deviance more generally, and fascism. Musical fascism, one can only surmise given Adorno’s peculiar language, becomes embodied as the homosexual rapist. As the first part of a key to Adorno’s aggressively homophobic rhetorical construction here, I will turn to Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility”, a work which Adorno openly stated radically influenced his “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening”. Benjamin, late in the essay, announces that “The violation of the masses, whom Fascism, with its Führer cult, forces to their knees, has its counterpart in the violation of an apparatus which is pressed into the production of ritual values.” This apparatus (camera or phallus?), which artificially reproduces a process that has at least come to be natural to humankind, now (re)produces reality, substituting “a space consciously explored by man” with “an unconsciously penetrated space”, opening up “a different nature”, the process of which can, apparently, only mimic that “violation of the masses” at the hand of the Führer.
Adorno puts it more clearly: “Totalitarianism and homosexuality belong together.” Gorky had already stated it yet more clearly in 1934:
In the land where the proletariat governs courageously and successfully, homosexuality, with its corrupting effect on the young, is considered a social crime punishable under the law. By contrast, in the “cultivated land” of the great philosophers, scholars and musicians, it is practiced freely and with impunity. There is already a sarcastic saying: “Destroy homosexuality and fascism will disappear.”
Marxism, in this mode of analysis, acts as the cure for both homosexuality and for fascism. For Gorky, this was no doubt due to a presumed direct relationship between the means of production and the superstructural effect of sexual expression. For Adorno, the mysterious relationship between fascism and homosexuality expressed the structure of much, if not all, of contemporary society. Despite his near-continual analyses of this or that phenomenon as homosexual/fascist, Adorno never quite gets to analyzing this relationship (he would later, possibly having developed a more sympathetic eye toward gay men and women, analyze this relationship in terms of repressed homosexuality (and, as the old chestnut goes, necessarily homophobia) and tendencies toward fascism, but as far as I can tell this is a turn for Adorno, something new). Benjamin, though, is fairly more explicit: In a discussion of Futurism, he suggests that “[i]f the natural utilization of productive forces is impeded by the property system, the increase in technical devices, in speed, and in the sources of energy will press for an unnatural utilization, and this is found in war. … Instead of draining rivers, society directs a human stream into a bed of trenches; instead of dropping seeds from airplanes, it drops incendiary bombs over citites; and through gas warfare the aura is abolished in a new way.” There is, here, a “natural utilization” for “productive forces” (and, I suggest, Benjamin was saying that this was true for all (re)productive forces) which, could be, in unnatural circumstances, pressed “for an unnatural utilization”. The words “human stream”, “bed of trenches”, “seeds”, “bombs” underline the stakes here: This is a life or death struggle. Not simply a struggle against the forces of death, but a choice between life – the “human stream” or “seeds” (that is, semen) – or death, first in the form of an unnatural destination for the “human stream”, and second as an unnatural replacement of that “seed” being “dropped” with “bombs”.
This theme, first mobilized around the cluster of homosexuality and fascism and, now, the military, and second around the axis of life/death is repeated in Adorno’s Minima Morlia, in the section titled “Tough Baby”. The argument developed here, one I myself saw repeated many times while in high school, takes the form “I’m not the fag, you are!” Adorno, apparently upset that intellectuals – and he seemed to value intellectuals as the only possible saviors for humankind – were viewed as effeminate, analyzes the cigarette-smoking, whisky-drinking “tough guy” image in terms of a presumed masochism and hidden homosexuality (like fascism and homosexuality, intimately and mysteriously connected). Adorno, the intellectual, is gay. It is, rather, the masochistic tough guy who is “revealed” to have homosexual impulses. Adorno, the anti-Nietzsche, is also gay. It is, here, the “tough guy” who attempts a nearly Nietzschean mastery of the body, of which Adorno is maybe (or likely) jealous.
Here is the cluster Adorno has, with the help of Benjamin, developed so far: homosexuality, fascism, masculinity (to which Adorno opposed a “true” – his – masculinity), the military, war, death. It is with the fetish (which, as with Adorno’s brand of theory itself, is both Freudian and Marxist, both sexual and economic) that pop culture, and with it all culture, gets thrown in the mix. In “On the Fetish-Character in Music”, Adorno introduces a cast of characters: the “radio ham”, who “is shy and inhibited, perhaps has no luck with girls”, “‘occupies’ himself with music in the quiet of his bedroom” and “insert[s] himself, with his private equipment, into the public mechanism”; the “listening expert” who, like a secret masturbator, “must practice the piano for hours in secret” “in nimble subordination to what the instrument demands of him”, in “agreement with everything dominant”, and “produc[ing] no resistance” to the demands of authority; and, finally, the jitterbugg(er)er, the “infantile listener” (the influence of Freudian theory of homosexuality, that homosexuality is the result of a failure to develop properly, is a clear mark here) whose “ecstasy”, which “takes possession of its object”, “is without content”, who imitate “the gestures of the sensual”, “copy[ing] the stages of sexual excitement only to make fun of them”. The imitation here, of “true” (heterosexual) sensuality, maps both onto “false” (homosexual) imitations of sensuality and the false imitations of sensuality produced via the jitterbug. The result is the production of “the masses”, almost always in Adorno accompanied by the adjective “passive”, who, as mentioned earlier, according to Benjamin, await their “violation” at the hands of the Führer.
Assuming for a minute that I’m right here, that Adorno’s analysis is motivated by a peculiar homophobia, a fear of the Führer-rapist’s sodomizing authority, so what? Why care? Other than the fun of queering texts, why bother?
- Adorno in particular continues to be wildly influential in cultural theory.
- The presumed connection between homosexuality and fascism, despite fascist atrocities against gay people, gay men particularly, continues to this day. McCarthy, during a period where Soviet communism was presumably nearly identical with fascism in the United States, made this connection both openly and clearly when he said, “If you want to be against McCarthy, boys, you’ve got to be a Communist or a cocksucker.” This certainly isn’t new to Adorno (Adorno wasn’t an original thinker, I think, though he was a brilliant synthesizer), and certainly not peculiar to Adorno. Indeed, it is most readily found in fairly recent feminist theory, as Eve Sedgwick points out in her book Tendencies.
- To me at least, it is disturbing that, despite his openly antagonistic stance toward homosexuality (don’t forget, “Totalitarianism and homosexuality belong together.”), Adorno’s theory remains fairly popular among gay men. While this is understandable – anyone who grew up gay in the high schools of the 1990s would likely sympathize with Adorno’s outsider position with respect to contemporary culture, as well as have an affinity with his fantasy of the tough-guy-as-closet-homosexual – it is also deeply disturbing.