Sunday, February 02, 2020

At Scripture and Cities Ben Smith writes "Toward a Christian Critical Theory", which reminds me that in my comparing of Francis Schaeffer and Adorno that what the post-Schaeffer worldview scene tried to be was a kind of paradoxically anti-Marxist Christian critical theory

Dialectic of Enlightenment by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer is a foundational text of Critical Theory, the use of the social sciences to critique the oppressive structures and systems of contemporary society. It's also a tough read, despite its relatively short length (258 pages in my Verso edition), but, in my view, one that is ultimately worthwhile.

In nuce, Adorno and Horkheimer sought to critique Enlightenment thought, a rationalising and quantifying outlook that seeks to dominate the earth through the use of science and technology. Far from escaping the superstitions of pre-modern myth, enlightenment thought, as an outlook that includes, but goes beyond, the historical movement of the 18th century, is a continuation of myth insofar as myth also sought to dominate the world and societies, although by prescribing unquestionable values and hierarchies rooted in a supposedly natural or divine order. Fascism, then, is the logical product of Enlightenment, and not its negation.

It's a pretty sweeping project that leaves little of modern civilization uncriticised. Adorno and Horkheimer give no indication about what can or should be done, perhaps because Leftist projects, too, are themselves products of Enlightenment thought and method. Some would echo the sentiments of the late ex-Marxist Leszek Kolakowski, who, after generally lambasting the text for equating enlightenment with anything the authors didn't like, opined that the book's 'final response to the human condition can only be an inarticulate cry' (Main Currents of Marxism 3. The Breakdown, OUP, p.380).

To many Christians today Critical Theory in general is an object of immense suspicion, as that which apparently seeks to overthrow the Christian family and societal order. But even apart from the fact that Adorno's own views on the family were not as negative as some are led to believe, I think there is something of value to be found in his broader project, as bracing as it is. For the Bible itself presents a thoroughly pessimistic verdict on the wisdom of the world.

18 Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” 20 and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” (1 Cor 3:18-20)
In fact, the entire sweep of 1 Cor 1-3 gives us a masterclass in the critical demolition of worldly wisdom, identifying such a radical project as a key reason for the crucified form that God's salvation has taken in order to shame and bring to nothing the worldly-wise and strong.


What has been interesting reading Adorno over the last five or six years and comparing his writing on aesthetics and culture to Francis Schaeffer is I find it's as if the Frankfurt school forerunners of what evangelicals call "cultural Marxism" had a parallel and ostensibly opposed development in the post-Van Til/Francis Schaeffer "worldview" approach to arts and cultural criticism.  To keep things simple for the sake of a weekend post, whatever cultural Marxism is, it is a kind of pejoratively defined secular-left variation on a project that evangelical/conservative Protestants (and ... some Catholics, to be sure) have attempted to formulate in the last fifty years.  The antagonism toward the perceived triumph of "cultural Marxism" in the academy may be as simple as the sourest of sour grapes on the part of Christian scholars often in the Reformed or neo-Reformed traditions who, hoping to have "gotten there first" can only discover that the Marxist-Leninists got there generations ago, did a better job at it, and have even, particularly in the work of Adorno, formulated arguments regarding form and aesthetics in music that have been, at best, merely echoed or mirrored sans Marxism by philosophers such as Roger Scruton. 

Of course I've compared Francis Schaeffer's criticism and Maoist criticisms of John Cage in the past to show how basically congruent they are.  It may have been that in the midst of the Cold War Marxist and anti-Marxist polemicists were not going to quickly realize how much they had in common against John Cage.  That Scruton's arguments against Stockhausen and Cage were basically the same as, and not even as vitriolic as, those made by Adorno is also something I've written about in the past. Scruton's final innovation in contrast to Adorno was to say we should take popular song seriously as an art form, even if Scruton never got around to exploring ways in which the materials of popular song could be transformed into larger-scale approaches to form.  Critical Theory scholars have understandably been squeamish about Adorno's vitriolic rants against jazz and while Eric Oberle's new book Theodor Adorno and the Century of Negative Identity is a fascinating read, all of the discussion of negative identity compared to positive identity and stereotypology will not, at least not right away, provide musicians a practical approach to establishing a musical path that demonstrates why Adorno was so obviously wrong in his overall take on jazz as musical art.

But ... Adorno did something from his Marxist-Leninist perspective that conservatives and reactionaries were basically not doing.  What he did was formulate a formal and aesthetic reason why popular songs failed to qualify as art and formulated an argument that included what he regarded as light classical music, too.  Conservative arguments against jazz as art tended to reflexively fall back on assertions about cultural barbarism that were not even really concealed racist dog whistles.  Yet because Adorno infamously claimed that there was no evidence there was anything legitimately African or African American in the jazz he heard in "On Jazz", his earliest and most vitriolic rant against jazz, Scruton could pass off Adorno's rejection of jazz as predicated on a rejection of popular styles without necessarily connecting the dots of Adorno's condemnation of the fascist tendencies he perceived in Stravinsky's music in connection to Stravinsky's publicly avowed sympathy for fascism.  But Adorno was probably right to insist that a generic liberalism would be insufficient to address the arguments against new music (a la Stockhausen or Cage) on the basis of aesthetic and formal objections.  For that matter even a composer as radical as Iannis Xenakis could more or less make a comparable argument to Adorno that aleatory and integral serialism removed decision-making power from the composer to such a degree that the idea of a composer getting any credit for the finished result seemed dubious.

To compare all of this to Francis Schaeffer being filmed listening to Mahler and more or less signalling with his face "yuck!" is to highlight that there are a whole lot of reasons conservative Protestants and Catholics more or less completely failed to develop their would be counter to what some of them now regard as "cultural Marxism".  Perhaps we could consider the possibility that by the time evangelicals began to take seriously that some kind of Christian critical theory equivalent should be developed Critical Theory was already born and here we are generations later and the game of catch up does not seem to have produced much of anything by way of a philosophy of aesthetics beyond, well, Roger Scruton ... and his avid Wagnerian take on the arts probably would not pass muster with any of the Reformed or neo-Reformed who couldn't realistically take on board Scruton's quasi-sacramentalist view of the arts. 


blert said...

It's curious that the label "cultural Marxism" has been reassigned to the right as a pejorative label. In the early 2000s, a grad school professor of mine boasted, "I understand some people wanting to be called 'progressive' instead of 'liberal,' but I don't like either of those labels. If I had to label myself politically, I'm a cultural Marxist." It's a term that was embraced by those who practiced its views...until it wasn't. It's as if reading Adorno and plotting the deconstruction of Western culture was secret code in a secret club. Once someone outside spoke their name and drew attention, the "cultural Marxism" label shifted in the span of a decade from a preferred term to a right-wing plot.

That's not to say that a lot of Christians aren't struggling culturally to find relevance. Christians largely abandoned the playing field in the 20th century, and more than a few seeking to renew the fight have slavishly tried to copy Adorno and others. Becoming the DC Talk of cultural criticism, however, is no great achievement.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

well, there was a lot of use of aesopian language within the Frankfurt school which, had comparable insider lingo been deployed within the right would be recognized as a dog whistle. Dog whistles across the spectrum garner different shorthands from ideological adversaries. It may be that once the term "cultural Marxist" was a term that anyone outside the club managed to use those in the club felt a need to either drop the terminology or just admit to being Marxist Marxist.

The baggage of socialist realism in the Soviet bloc in terms of practical policy might be another reason that Westerners might not like to get labeled cultural Marxist. Since I'm kind of a fan of Soviet music I'll admit that there's a lot, strictly on paper, I can admire about the doctrine that was known as socialist realism. There was a LOT wrong with how it got practiced but the book Composing The Party Line, about the rise and fall of socialist realism in Poland and East Germany and how composers adapted to or ignored socialist realism is worth several books worth of discussion. It was fascinating to learn how much more lax Poland and East Germany were on a variety of issues. Lutoslawski, for instance, felt free to get way weirder faster than any of his Russian contemporaries, around the time some futurist influenced composers were kinda finally getting out of gulags if they weren't disappeared.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

In light of books I've been reading on the evolution of gospel blues and the black gospel field it might be a bit more accurate and a bit more controversial to say that white Christians ceded the field whereas black Christians were immersed in a culture war of liturgical styles over Euro-American assimilation or letting gospel blues become the sound of the black American church. It's been fascinating to read how much that battle was worked out in the black mainlines in the 1920s through the 1940s and how thoroughly Thomas A Dorsey's side prevailed with help from superstars like Mahalia Jackson. Whether or not that was all good I'm not so sure about, since some accomplished African American composers may have been sidelined not merely by institutional racism in classical music run by white leadership but ALSO sidelined by an exploding pop music industry that defined "black" music more in terms of jazz, popular styles, and dance hall styles that were more readily assimilated by Pentecostals than other groups.

When I consider some of the musicians who came up in or from Pentecostal backgrounds in the mid-20th century it's hard to ignore Elvis, Aretha, Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Thelonious Monk. They may have been very bad Pentecostals but the long-term cultural influence of Pentecostalism may have been ... I don't know ... ignored for so long that their cultural influence could be bigger than academics have been comfortable giving them credit for, if for nothing else the musical cultures they often unwillingly contributed to. It's almost as if all the denominations that had prestige a century ago were so busy trying to keep it and use it that the Pentecostal movement, kind of a by-word in a lot of ways, ended up having a potent but not necessarily intentional influence on popular styles. Anthony Heilbut has made an ardent case that when you dig into black Pentecostal gospel music you'll find a great deal of American popular styles are indebted to the black Pentecostal music scene in the U.S.