As the world tries to adjust to the election of a narcissistic fantasist and incorrigible liar as President of the US, thoughtful people have been re-reading those prickly academics of the Frankfurt School, particularly Theodor Adorno. Long before Trump appeared on the horizon, though, the New Yorker critic Alex Ross wrote an interesting review article about a raft of biographies of these guys and noted that they were enjoying
a modest resurgence. They are cited in brainy magazines like n+1, The Jacobin, and the latest iteration of The Baffler. Evgeny Morozov, in his critiques of Internet boosterism, has quoted Adorno’s early mentor Siegfried Kracauer, who registered the information and entertainment overload of the nineteen-twenties. The novelist Benjamin Kunkel, in his recent essay collection “Utopia or Bust,” extolls the criticism of Jameson, who has taught Marxist literary theory at Duke University for decades. (Kunkel also mentions “The Corrections,” noting that Chip gets his salmon at a shop winkingly named the Nightmare of Consumption.) The critic Astra Taylor, in “The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age,” argues that Adorno and Max Horkheimer, in their 1944 book “Dialectic of Enlightenment,” gave early warnings about corporations “drowning out democracy in pursuit of profit.”
Having recently been corresponding with Tim Wu about his new book, The Attention Merchants: From the Daily Newspaper to Social Media, How Our Time and Attention is Harvested and Sold — about the way the Internet’s early promise has been attenuated by corporate capture, Ross’s perceptive essay resonated with me. Especially in this passage:
The Internet threatens final confirmation of Adorno and Horkheimer’s dictum that the culture industry allows the “freedom to choose what is always the same.” Champions of online life promised a utopia of infinite availability: a “long tail” of perpetually in-stock products would revive interest in non-mainstream culture. One need not have read Astra Taylor and other critics to sense that this utopia has been slow in arriving. Culture appears more monolithic than ever, with a few gigantic corporations—Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon—presiding over unprecedented monopolies. Internet discourse has become tighter, more coercive. Search engines guide you away from peculiar words. (“Did you mean . . . ?”) Headlines have an authoritarian bark (“This Map of Planes in the Air Right Now Will Blow Your Mind”). “Most Read” lists at the top of Web sites imply that you should read the same stories everyone else is reading. Technology conspires with populism to create an ideologically vacant dictatorship of likes.
Ross concluded the piece (which was published in 2014) with the thought that “If Adorno were to look upon the cultural landscape of the twenty-first century, he might take grim satisfaction in seeing his fondest fears realized.”
Well, guess what? In a new essay, “The Frankfurt School Knew Trump Was Coming”, Ross writes:
I spoke too soon. His moment of vindication is arriving now. With the election of Donald Trump, the latent threat of American authoritarianism is on the verge of being realized, its characteristics already mapped by latter-day sociologists who have updated Adorno’s “F-scale” for fascist tendencies. To read “Prophets of Deceit” is to see clear anticipations of Trump’s bigoted harangues. (The script in 1949: “We are coming to the crossroads where we must decide whether we are going to preserve law and order and decency or whether we are going to be sold down the river to these Red traitors who are undermining America.”) As early as the forties, Adorno saw American life as a kind of reality show: “Men are reduced to walk-on parts in a monster documentary film which has no spectators, since the least of them has his bit to do on the screen.” Now a businessman turned reality-show star has been elected President. Like it or not, Trump is as much a pop-culture phenomenon as he is a political one.
What Adorno identified as the erasure of the “borderline between culture and empirical reality” is endemic on social media. The failure of Facebook to halt the proliferation of fake news during the campaign season should have surprised no one; the local hirelings of logic are too enamored of their algorithms—and of the revenue they generate—to intervene. From the start, Silicon Valley monopolies have taken a hands-off, ideologically vacant attitude toward the upwelling of ugliness on the Internet. A defining moment was the turn-of-the-century wave of music piracy, which did lasting damage to the idea of intellectual property. Fake news is an extension of the same phenomenon, and, as in the Napster era, no one is taking responsibility. Traffic trumps ethics.
So here we are, living in a novel that Don DeLillo hasn’t quite finished yet.