Ben Watson, Adorno for Revolutionaries, Unkant, London, 2011. 217 pp., £10.99 pb., 978 0 95681 760 0.

David Cunningham

In a much-cited March 1936 letter to Walter Benjamin, Adorno famously remarks of the separation between autonomous art and mass culture that, while both ‘bear the stigmata of capitalism’, and ‘both contain elements of change’, they are nevertheless only ever the ‘torn halves of an integral freedom, to which however they do not add up’. Perhaps much the same could be said of the divergent modes of ‘critical’ reception that have attended these different forms of cultural production. In this case, however, the primary division would not so much be one between ‘high’ art and ‘low’ art themselves, but between the ‘academic’ and the ‘journalistic’ response to each. At its most extreme, this can still seem to follow the broad lineaments of a division set out in 1960 by Roman Jakobson between a journalistic ‘criticism’ which ‘is concerned with evaluation’, and operating according to the temporalities of ‘news’, and an academic model of interpretation focused on the far slower temporality of an ‘objective scholarly analysis’. And while claims to scientific status may only very rarely be heard within the contemporary academic humanities, a suspicion of the evaluative seems, in the wake of various post-structuralist ‘demystifications’, more pervasive than ever.

At the same time, this also reflects the force of different economic imperatives imposed increasingly on both journalism and the academy today – a progressive submission, on the one hand, to culture industry marketing schedules, ‘tie-ins’ and the commodity logics of fashion, and, on the other, the rebranding of all ‘serious’ academic work as a form of positive ‘research’ in an economic context dominated by the assessment and funding of ‘excellence’. What, at any rate, risks getting lost down the chasm opened up by such divisions is precisely what Benjamin and Adorno articulated under the name of criticism itself: that is, the interpretative engagement with those forms of social and historical experience ‘sedimented’ within the artwork’s own immanent movement, and the judgement of its historical ‘truth content’ according to a criteria set by what Adorno termed the ‘irresistibility of the modern’.

Possibly the best compliment one can pay to Ben Watson’s Adorno for Revolutionaries – which collects together a number of short pieces from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, drawn variously from music journalism and contributions to leftist journals (including this one), as well as unpublished conference and seminar papers – is to say that it precisely aspires to live up to the demands of criticism in this sense. Tellingly, by contrast to the feting of those public intellectuals who are often said to move effortlessly between academia and mass media – which by and large serves only to indicate the essential vacuity of their activities in each – not least among the virtues of Watson’s own traversal of the two is the degree to which it is anything but ‘effortless’. It is thus not a mere contingency of biography that it is to ‘non-classical’ music criticism that Watson should have devoted the majority of his writing. For it is in criticism’s (largely acritical) engagement with the post-1950s musical forms of jazz, rock, soul, hip hop, electronica, and the rest, that those kinds of division to which the ‘torn halves of an integral freedom’ attest have arguably been at their most extreme and most intense.

Adorno for Revolutionaries is the first in a projected series of books published by Watson’s own Association of Musical Marxists (AMM), formed in collaboration with Andy Wilson. As AMM’s manifesto relates, the association was founded in 2010 ‘after being subjected to a thirty-minute eternity of Bourdieu-style “objective” sociology of music’ at a Historical Materialism conference. Thus railing against the products of what is called the ‘popsicle academy’ of sociological ‘objectivity’ (Simon Frith, Sarah Thornton, Dick Hebdige), on the one hand, and those who Watson believes to have betrayed Adorno’s ‘revolutionary’ legacy in repackaging him for philosophical respectability, on the other, Watson’s criticism is, above all, that which is elaborated via the power it accords to argument. The desires and struggles manifested in the ‘proclivities and animosities’ that art generates are understood, in this way, to be directly relevant to those at stake in politics. ‘For US’, declares the manifesto, ‘music is a test of you and everything about you, and if you fail the test YOU ARE THE ENEMY!!!’ Or, as Watson puts it later, music ‘articulates itself around negation. If you can’t despise those idiots over there for liking that cack – what’s the point?’ (Although Watson is not, it has to be said, entirely consistent in his application of these Wyndham Lewis-style exclamations; certainly SWPers like Chris Harman get off fairly lightly.) In turn, it is precisely the lack of such negation – in favour of positivist ‘politeness’ – that is a major part of Watson’s objection to any academic sociology of ‘pop’: its ‘fear that registering a direct response to music – anything tantamount, in other words, to a judgement – would slacken academic stringency’. As he puts it, ‘normative sociology applauds the mere act of description’. Moreover, in claiming to ‘explain’ social division, as Rancière has also argued, such Bourdieu-like description merely reproduces it, rigidly placing its ‘objects’ into class-defined boxes of different ‘taste’ groups. Against this, Watson asserts, it is precisely in Adorno that we find the necessary resources for thinking musical taste as itself a ‘political question’.

While Adorno for Revolutionaries functions successfully in its attempts to counter a common image of Adorno as a kind of German Leavis, a ‘shrill proselytiser for high culture depicted in the average Routledge “student guide”’, this seems a perhaps less pressing task than it did in the 1990s, when cultural studies and ‘postmodernism’ were at the height of their influence (and Marxism at its lowest). More interesting, and far more theoretically enervating, is what might be described as Watson’s attempt to expand radically the field of the avant-garde itself, and hence – in an ‘Aufhebung of Adorno’s score-based aesthetic’ – to extend the latter’s own arguments beyond the relatively narrow cultural field to which he restricted them. Here, as opposed to sociology’s fixed stylistic and consumer-based classifications of the ‘popular’ and the ‘avant-garde’, Watson’s ‘materialist study of music … finds antagonism and “avant-garde” postures at every level’. At the heart of this is, of course, a reworking of Adorno’s own claim to a ‘politics of form’, for which ‘the revolution and the cause of modern art go hand-in-hand’ in their respective commitments to the new. The avant-garde is understood in this sense both as a form of opposition and resistance – to be found as much in jazz’s ‘response to the brutality and tempo of a modern system of exploitation’ as in Webern – and, at times at least, as a quasi-utopian foreshadowing of alternate forms of collective practice and experience. Most importantly, Watson argues, it is that modern music which owes its existence to the technologies of mass production, and which Adorno himself largely failed to engage, that is, precisely because of its inextricable dialectical relations to a mass culture mediated through the form of the commodity, able to ‘inject the workings of commodity mass culture with an antagonistic principle’, inhabiting it as a form of ‘thwarted subaltern expression – a potential created by capitalism that its property relations deny’. As the book’s final piece succinctly puts it, if ‘[r]ap and jazz and rock are immediately implicated in capitalist relations of alienation and exploitation’, because of this they also render such relations ‘an area of conflict, political through-and-through’, the site of a struggle over the communicative power of new media and forms of collectivity.

This desire to rescue Adorno from that conformism which is always about to overcome him by representing his theory of musical modernism as a formally revolutionary conception of something like a ‘permanent avant-garde’ is broadly convincing. Watson’s complementary attempt to depict him as some actual Leninist firebrand in the field of politics itself is, unsurprisingly, considerably less so. (Although Adorno for Revolutionaries does a far more plausible job in this respect than did the other recent attempt to produce an ‘activist’ Adorno: John Holloway’s 2008 post-autonomist Negativity and Revolution). Watson tracks down some positive references to Lenin in Adorno’s writings of the 1930s, which, he argues, came to be subsequently submerged (but not forgotten) beneath a Cold War ‘Aesopian language’ that ‘rarely mentioned Marx by name’. However, accurate as this might be, it’s rather more of a stretch to take seriously the idea that, on this basis, ‘Adorno’s aesthetic’ can be regarded as ‘a musical version of the Bolshevik “all power to the workers councils” slogan which summarized Lenin’s 1917 pamphlet State and Revolution’. The troubled relations between radical art and politics that mark the history of the avant-garde, from Dada to free jazz, and which are interrogated throughout Adorno’s œuvre, are not, I think, quite so easily dealt with!

At the same time, a healthy, politicized suspicion of the ‘passivity’ of the academic, and a concomitant desire for a materialist dynamics of expression, can at times all too easily turn into simple anti-intellectualism per se, reinstituting all those dichotomies between theoria and praxis, action and reflection, that Watson is elsewhere so rightly keen to overcome. This is most apparent in the wildly over-the-top assault on Simon Jarvis’s 1998 book Adorno: A Critical Introduction, reprinted here from the second issue of Historical Materialism, which is presented as little more than a form of ‘scholastic gibberish [mobilized] to justify ivory-tower inertia’. In fact, the review starts out from some not unreasonable concerns about a recent tendency to sever Adorno’s work from its specific historical connections to avant-gardism in the effort to assert its ‘properly’ philosophical credentials – though, as opposed to more recent studies by Brian O’Connor and others, Jarvis seems to me largely the wrong target in this respect. However, the sheer vehemence of the review rapidly sends it spinning off into the realms of fantasy. Perhaps one does not expect polemic of this type to ‘play fair’ – and, indeed, Watson misquotes, for example, Jarvis’s account of the concept as that which is ‘always more and less than what can be subsumed under it’, so that it becomes a wishy-washy liberal assertion of the fact that ‘everything is “more or less” accurate in the realm of epistemology’. Yet, even in light of an Adornian justification for ‘exaggeration as a means of reaching the truth’, can one really imagine Adorno himself endorsing a position for which, apparently, the only materialism worth attending to would be that which ‘can act collectively or build a picket line’? Too often the latter’s own complex accounts of philosophy’s complicity with social division and instrumental rationality are subjected, in this way, to a crude ‘materialist’ reduction – ironically reminiscent in some respects of Bourdieuian sociology – in which, for instance, ‘the domination of the concept’ can then be presented as a straightforward ‘shorthand’ for the domination of the ‘boss over the employee’.

I suspect that pieces like the Jarvis review (or the diatribe against Georgina Born, tactfully entitled ‘Born to Die’!) are ones that some readers will enjoy most – and, certainly, they’re very readable – but, to me, they don’t display Watson’s criticism at its strongest. The review of Adorno: A Critical Introduction engendered a spectacularly bad-tempered response from Gordon Finlayson, also reproduced here, that, with its high-handed defence of ‘academic respectability’, and patronizing accusations of ‘banality of truly undergraduate proportion’, hardly presented him in the best light. But, then, Watson’s own rejoinder is not terribly satisfying either, putting him on the defensive in such a way as to reduce him to such clichés as ‘I am not a stranger to controversy’ (a declaration that makes him sound more like Liam Gallagher than Guy Debord).

Watson is on far stronger ground when he is more practically pursuing a different ‘legacy’ for Adorno. In a recent issue of this journal Drew Milne suggested, not without justification, that what he calls the ‘research paradigms gleaned from Adorno’s work appear now to be nearing exhaustion’ (‘Hegelian Leninism Today!’, RP 171). Watson’s retort, we might say, is to show that this rather depends on what one intends to do with them… It is for this reason that ‘Adorno’s philosophy of music’, Watson writes, ‘only makes sense once it is taken outside the confines of an academic, “actually existing” avant-garde’. Through an interrogation of the inadequacy of terms like ‘jazz’, ‘rock’ or ‘pop’ (or, indeed, ‘classical’), one can thereby seek to show the degree to which ‘mass culture’ is actually ‘riddled with avant-garde defiance of formal prescription’, in ways which continue to conform to the ‘abstract’ logic of the modern(ist) that Adorno most rigorously elaborated. From this perspective, as Watson puts it, ‘Britain’s initial forays into Black music’, in the 1950s and ’60s, ‘were all experienced as “avant-gardes”’.

In insisting upon this radical variability in what has the potential to be cognitively experienced or judged as avant-garde, depending upon differences within the fields in which it operates, it is also unsurprising that Watson should looks to ‘reanimate Adorno’s dialogue with Walter Benjamin’. Still, this is not without its tensions. First, as I have argued in a review of Watson’s previous book on the guitarist Derek Bailey (‘The revolution will be live’, RP 128), while Watson places a Benjaminian emphasis on the avant-garde’s immanent engagement with new technological means of production as a prime site of any struggle for emancipation, there is a strong sense in which (much like Adorno himself in the early 1960s) the confrontation with advanced contemporary forms can reveal a blockage at this point. Watson thus writes disdainfully of an electronic music that would ‘surrender to the simple options supplied by capitalist technology (Cubase programmes running on Sony equipment)’, but it’s not terribly clear why, in principle, this is any less true of Fender guitars running through Marshall amps. (As with, say, acid house’s creative ‘misuse’ of the Roland TB-303 bass synthesizer, the real point of course is what is done with such technology, as Watson would surely concede.) As such, while Watson may disavow any ‘abstract commitment’ to the ‘human’ over the ‘machine’, it’s not clear that Adorno’s own objection to the ban on a use of recording for radio transmission, that it ‘conserves more primitive forms of labour at the expense of more highly developed ones, thus chaining productive powers’, is entirely registered here.

A second point would concern Watson’s expanded conception of the avant-garde itself, in so far as, while this expanded field radically diagonalizes, so to speak, conventional demarcations between ‘high’ and ‘low’, it doesn’t really tackle the very ‘torn halves’ of culture to which Adorno refers in the 1936 letter to Benjamin, but rather resituates the tear in new places. Watson rightly stresses ‘the dialectical role of the unpopular in the genesis of Pop’. But he tends quickly to lose sight of the other side of the dialectic, and hence risks becoming undialectical himself. On what basis can we account for the capacity to find an ‘explosive art’ not only where we might well expect to find it (Coltrane, Beefheart) but also where we might not (The Beach Boys, Donna Summer); a moment of the ‘true’ to be found within the ‘false’? This is where, one would think, Benjamin’s own emphases on the ‘traces of utopia’ to be located inside the dreamworlds of commodity culture itself would need to be far more directly addressed.

There’s a lot of silly, ill-informed stuff about French theory, not to mention New Order, along the way in Adorno for Revolutionaries. But in the face of pop sociology, on the one hand, and journalistic puff, on the other, Watson’s commitment to the dialectical capacity ‘to make musical judgements that leap the divide between subjective response and objective analysis’ is a powerful one, even if, at times, the ‘leap’ can seem rather too smooth – Watson’s own personal ‘proclivities and animosities’ matching up all too neatly to an objectively progressive ‘truth’. Above all, however, and with inevitable slippages, what lies at the root of Watson’s unquestionable power as a writer is his defence of judgement and of argument as a necessary means of elaborating critical praxis itself. Despite Watson’s best efforts, the results of our testing out a ‘historicalmaterialist understanding of the world’ upon different musical objects may not cohere. (For me, there’s more genuine ‘formal innovation’ and ‘explosive art’ in the first minute of Bjork’s Volta than in the whole of Zappa’s back catalogue.) But it is, first and foremost, this rebarbative desire to argue that makes Watson’s return from his recent ‘semi-retirement’ so welcome. It hasn’t stopped me loving Joy Division though.