The point of criticism

Some continued mining from Martin Jay’s The Dialectical Imagination: Of mass culture, Leo Lowenthal wrote that “the criterion of love is continuity and this is just the phenomenon which is never admitted. Mass culture is a total conspiracy against love as well as against sex…. Spectators are continuously betrayed and robbed of real pleasure by sadistic tricks.” This sort of puts into perspective what is at stake in writing tirades about the vulgarization of culture, of bothering to worry about tendencies in entertainment. It can’t simply be ignored; it has the power to inhibit people’s ability to even apprehend the possibilities for life’s pleasures. Usually I feel as if I can barely see them, and even then it is only with a great deal of effort — such effort shouldn’t be necessary; that effort is an expense of my labor power that is likely being harvested and exploited by the culture industries whose products inhibit pleasure while promising to grant it. What the effort of criticism consists of is to point out continuities and traditions and patterns where consumer culture wants people only to see the now, the incommensurable newness, the pseudo spontaneity of all packaged experiences. Finding this continuity is not a matter of congratulating oneself for exposing the man behind the curtain or proving that you are more perceptive than the “masses” but a matter of love — the very possibility of maintaining an emotional commitment (be it to a person, an idea, or an ideal) over time. So that’s my fatuous excuse for writing this blog about the topics I write about.

Thinking of schematized biographies, the way an entire life can be conveyed in biographical shorthand through a few heightened moments altogether predictable, in a few scenes in a movie montage, Horkheimer wrote that the “trimming of an existence into some futile moments which can be characterized schematically symbolizes the dissolution of humanity into elements of administration” and that when “eating, drinking, looking, loving, sleeping become ‘consumption’ … that means that man has become a machine outside as well as inside of the workshop.” A critical turn of mind, a ceaseless critical practice is required to salvage moments of real life, totally unpredictable moments, from the totalizing administration of a planned life conducted by our culture via the media blanket that wraps itself all around us. Then we live life as opposed to consume it. Then we create experience rather than replicate what we see in films. Then we move the species forward rather than repeat what status quo has been established. This is always happening, and there are reasons to be optimistic, but there are powerful forces (not to sound like Bob Shrum here, but) out to prevent it. It is always necessary that people choose to resist them.

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