The sound film, far surpassing the theater of illusion, leaves no room for imagination or reflection on the part of the audience, who is unable to respond within the structure of the film, yet deviate from its precise detail without losing the thread of the story.… [Sound films] are so designed that quickness, powers of observation, and experience are undeniably needed to apprehend them at all; yet sustained thought is out of the question if the spectator is not to miss the relentless rush of facts.
— Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 126
It seems like a bit of a cheap shot to characterize Adorno and Horkheimer’s analysis of the culture industry as the complaints of old men bewildered by modern culture. But I think there’s something to that, not just in the culture industry theory, but in the Frankfurt school’s theory more generally. Consider Marcuse’s claim that the development of technology is increasingly dismantling the structures of industrial capitalism, and thereby weakening the position of the industrial proletariat as capital’s negative image. This seems perfectly true, but also rather unilluminating: what does it amount to but the claim that we no longer live in the 19th century? Marcuse, establishing the passing of the 19th century revolutionary era, doesn’t then go on to apply to contemporary capitalism a “‘transcending’ analysis of the facts in the light of their arrested and denied possibilities” (xi), but simply goes into mourning. Or consider:
True, this romantic pre-technical world was permeated with misery, toil, and filth, and these in turn were the background of all pleasure and joy. Still, there was a “landscape,” a medium of libidinal experience which no longer exists.… For example, compare love-making in a meadow and in an automobile, or a lover’s walk outside the town walls and on a Manhattan street. In the former case, the environment partakes of and invites libidinal cathexis and tends to be eroticized.… In contrast, a mechanized environment seems to block such self-transcendence of the ego.
— Marcuse, One Dimensional Man, 73
But couldn’t we interpret this precisely the other way round? Not seeing the loss of pre-technological forms of libidinal investment as a loss of eroticism tout court, but rather, seeing it as a provocation to consider how libidinal investments arise in new ways in connection with the city or the machine; this is in fact what Benjamin did in the Arcades project, which met with scorn from Adorno. I think the problem for the Frankfurt school here is that they confuse looking for revolutionary possibilities within contemporary society with an endorsement in some sense of that society: as with Marcuse’s contrast between the one-dimensionality of a positivist social science, and the negation at the center of critical theory. But the problem is that this negation must nonetheless be connected up somehow with the world as it is, or the Hegelian historical subject vanises into a Kantian transcendental subject, the freedom of which prevents it from doing anything at all.