Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Adorno (and Critical Social Theory) Summarized in a 1940s New Yorker Cartoon

I haven't yet found the New Yorker cartoon.  Just a description of it.

I like to run across bits that express a complex matter without sacrificing its difficult contours.  To be sure such bits do not express all the conceptual argumentation and examination that such a "X in a nutshell" bit provides.

In the case of communicating and understanding the way a critical social theorist approaches social and cultural phenomena, one difficult matter to communicate is the suspicion and hesitations these theorists have in using polls and surveys.  They do not think that just asking the "man in the street" can disclose the sign of the times.  Or even to have a massive survey or poll.

But to the cartoon.

Theodor Adorno, one of the major contributors to critical social theory, emigrated to the United States from Germany (by way of the UK) in the 1940s.  He joined Paul Lazersfeld's Princeton Radio Research Project.  Lazersfeld, himself an emigree, had pioneered the study of media in the United States through his consideration of emerging radio networks.  Lazersfeld is a name any cultural critic should know since he constructed many of the ways that media firms and corporations research and develop their programming.  He cut what some consider a devil's deal between research and the industry he researched.  He studied the social and cultural effects of media by working closely with NBC and other media companies on their behalf.  He called his work "administrative research" and to his credit, he held out the hope that mass media would improve culture (in the high sense of culture) by disseminating the gems of music, plays, and other news features more widely than before.  Lazersfeld championed reader and listener surveys, the poll, and other forms of research that are still in use as a way to gauge what is going on in media.

Adorno and Lazersfeld clashed from the beginning of their mutual involvement since Adorno was and would be utterly opposed to the dominance of empirical research in social science.  It had its place but required considerable and complex interpretation through what Adorno sometimes called a "dialectical theory of society."

Adorno wrote a considerable body of material in his short tenure at the Princeton Radio Research Project.  These unpublished papers have been collected as Current of Music.  They are wide-ranging and fascinating discussions of radio and emerging medias that have a wide range of applicability to contemporary social media and other cultural concerns.  This collection includes various research memos and notes, one of which refers to the particular approach of Adorno and critical social theory in general:

Dr. Lazersfeld once characterized my approach by a joke [cartoon] from the New Yorker:  An old Negro cook who believes in metempsychosis shows to her mistress a dog playing in the street and hints at the probability that the dog might be the reincarnation of the old man.  The mistress, well aware of her cook's crotchet, replies cautiously that this might easily be the case, but that the dog is playing with some children, which certainly would not be the thing for the old man to do.  "That's all right," replies the cook, "but I am not so sure about them children either."  Current of Music, p. 141 n.

Adorno readily accepts Lazersfeld's characterization.  He goes on to state that
In our situation we do not have on the one side the social mechanism [that is, media or institutions] like radio operating on human beings and on the other side human beings as a sort of tabula rasa.

Surveys and polls in Adorno's view do not reveal much since they assume what is not the case -- that human beings have a clear window on themselves and on what they are experiencing from without (the media acting on them, for instance).  This view assumes people are in full control of themselves, know what they think, understand their situation in the world.  Adorno does not claim that people are utterly duped, that ideology is so pervasive its influence is total, and that the sign of the times is so utterly distorted and obscure that no one can figure out what is going on.  Rather, Adorno holds that misperception is reality, which is a story for another day.

But I haven't yet managed to find this cartoon since it is neither by a famous cartoonist (it seems).

Update (April 18, 2012): 

My colleague at St. Olaf, Professor Dr. Torin Alexander, discovered that this refers to a joke in the "Talk of the Town" column from the July 1, 1939 issue of the New Yorker.  The authors are Stewart Schakne and Russel Maloney.  I thought it was a cartoon so I was searching that database instead.

Here's the original text:

A friend of ours, a true skeptic, has always treated with respect the psychic theoris of his colored maid, who is inclined to believe in reincarnation. The other morning she said, "Mr. Harrison, you know that little old dog with the wrinkled face that lives in the next block? Well, I don't think he's a dog at all. I think he's a little old man." Our friend said that the dog's appearance certainly favored this notion, but there was a serious objection. "That dog is always playing with the children in the neigborhood," he said. "A little old man wouldn't want to play with children, would he?" The maid shook her head darkly. "Just between you and me," she said. "I ain't none too sure about them children."

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