Read Chapter 8

Gianna Cappello on Theodor Adorno

CITE AS: Cappello, G. (2016). Gianna Cappello on Theodor Adorno. In R. Hobbs (Ed.) Exploring the Roots of Digital and Media Literacy through Personal Narrative (pp. 107 - 125). Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Chapter 8
Gianna Cappello on Theodor Adorno
Renee Hobbs’s invitation to consider my media literacy “grandparents” came at the very moment when I was trying to come to terms with my growing sense of uneasiness with the populist and technologist drift that is happening lately within the fields of media studies and media literacy. The uncritical celebration of audience sovereignty, as further enhanced by the infinite benefits of technological innovation, has brought a proliferation of educational-policy agendas in which digital skills are promoted as (and reduced to) readymade expertise for the job market and the critical-political thrust of media literacy is exchanged for a long-awaited legitimation within institutional settings (schools in primis). To counteract this drift, I have been developing the idea that we need to (re)theorize and (re)politicize media literacy by taking a detour through Theodor Adorno’s critical theory (Cappello 2013).

“The splinter in your eye is the best magnifying glass” is an aphorism from Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life ([1951] 2005), a small book Adorno started writing in 1944, while he was exiled in the United States, and completed in 1949. Despite his pessimistic views about the “damaged life” he happened to live, one that had just seen the horrors of the Holocaust, Minima Moralia is, in fact, a book about the hope and redemption achievable through knowledge and social commitment. To illustrate this, Adorno uses a powerful visual metaphor: the eye and the magnifying glass. Usually these are used to see and to improve seeing, but Adorno here shatters the lens and a splinter lands in the eye, magnifying the power of seeing in a totally new and noninstrumental way (Leppert 2002). Although the splinter hurts, Adorno believes that it is better to keep the eyes open wide and look rather than look away. Social redemption may only come from this kind of looking-knowing, and from the social uses we make of it. This is also the ultimate utopian function of art (and education, I would add): to stare at history straight in the eyes and then posit an “otherwise” that is currently unavailable. Art can help us understand not only what prevents utopia from happening but also how a utopian world might look and how we might fight for it. As Adorno puts it, “Art is the ever broken promise of happiness” ([1970] 1997, 136), “the promise of a life without fear” ([1952] 1981,156).
A Nagging Presence
Adorno has basically accompanied my entire intellectual life, from my early high-school years, back in a small town in southern Italy, to my university time in Catania, when I was inspired by the devastating critique made by Jerzy Kosinski in his novel Being There (1970) and decided to write my thesis about television. Adorno’s critical views about mass culture supported my argument against the negative effects of television and a national television system in which Silvio Berlusconi’s commercial networks had definitely won it all, so to speak, against quite traditional (and, I must say, rather boring) public-service broadcasting (RAI) and were thus ready to support him in his rising political career. Right after, I encountered his ideas again during my graduate studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the early 1990s. I thought I had gone there to study media and communication (which, in fact, I did, albeit with an unexpected approach), but instead,  there I was, attending my very first cultural studies class, held by a ponytailed Larry Grossberg who, sipping a Diet Coke while sitting on his desk, introduced his syllabus by dropping names such as Spinoza, Kant, Adorno, Benjamin, Althusser, and Gramsci but also Eco, de Certeau, Hall, Fiske, Hebdige, McRobbie, Morley, Spivak, and many others. Some I already knew, but a lot of them were totally new to me. As I learned in the following weeks, these people were part of the “theoretical legacies” of cultural studies and were all somehow related to the notion of mediation, to the relationships between subjectivity and structure, culture and power. I learned that the media’s negative effects and audiences’ passivity could not be taken for granted (as I thought when I wrote my undergraduate thesis). I learned that popular culture—redefined as “lived experience” and “polysemic”—represents an important symbolic resource that people actively use in their everyday life to make sense of the world and “resist” dominant culture, as proved by innumerable ethnographic studies.

It was indeed a huge sigh of relief to be able to slightly untighten the leash of puritanical critical theory toward the manipulative mechanisms of “the system” and the alienating ideology of the culture industry. That was when I started to question my Adornian views about popular culture, to “wrestle with my angel,” as Stuart Hall would put it[1]—not so much in the sense that I wanted to give up on him but as a “problematic” (again, Hall’s term) that is as much about struggling against the constraints and limits of Adorno’s  ideas as about the necessary questions I still felt he required me to address. Eventually, when I returned to Italy in the mid-1990s, I casually met Roberto Giannatelli, who—together with some colleagues from the Catholic University in Milan, a couple of media professionals from RAI (the Italian public-service broadcasting), and a group of gutsy middle-school teachers—was about to found the Italian Association for Media Education (MED).[2] At local and national levels, we then started to meet and train dozens of teachers, trying to convince them that their critiques of popular culture were in fact an act of cultural elitism toward their students, whom they snobbishly looked at as cultural dupes, and that we needed to think of them as actively committed in diverse and creative interpretations of media messages. And yet, although I am fascinated by the notion of the “active audience,” throughout these years I have always been somehow unsatisfied with the simplistic and somewhat caricaturist Adornian vulgate that this notion{AU: OK?} seems to assume. In other words, like a karstic river that you don’t see but know it flows somewhere underneath, Adorno has always been there, a nagging presence to remind me that the story is a bit more complex and that we constantly need to reconstruct—beyond the traps of binary thinking (powerful media versus active audience, manipulation versus resistance, culture as ideology versus culture as lived experience, etc.)—the intricate interplay between popular culture and everyday life, and popular culture as everyday life. Adorno has marked my entire intellectual life, fueling my uneasiness with the populist views about the power of the people to subvert or circumvent dominant structures of power and also reinforcing my conviction that education (like art) is the key to “a life without fear,” as he would put it. Education (and art) can help us look history straight in the eyes—that is, lucidly look at the limits and constraints of contemporary popular culture (at a macro level) and yet be able to develop with our students (at a micro level) ways of interacting with it in more creative and critical ways and, in doing so, posit an “otherwise” that is currently unavailable.
The Challenges and Limitations of Popular Culture
Writers after the Holocaust were challenged by a profound moral and philosophical failure: How can one bear witness when left speechless? Adorno recognizes that such a failure was due to the assumption that reason could comprehend reality in its complexities and planes of development. Anticipating contemporary poststructuralist theory, he viewed ideas (and all the related paraphernalia of words, measurements, categories, indicators, etc.) as, at best, approximations of reality because they inevitably derive from some historical processes of representation. If reason is equated with reality, it inevitably becomes either a conformist and sterile academic exercise (at best) or an authoritarian act of power (at worst). In both cases, it objectifies reality by making it appear axiomatic and therefore indisputable; in both cases, it loses its critical, reflexive edge and its capacity to transform consciousness. Adorno is not at all interested in positivistic knowledge that reproduces general axioms rather than interrogate them; he seeks instead to look for and speculate about difference and contradiction—the aporia, the residual, the ill-fitting—in short, all that does not cohere with existing categories of thought. To Adorno, reason must be reconfigured as a constant negation of any attempt to reduce rational thinking into a reality made of givens, a negative dialectic challenging the habits of mind and stereotypes that replace lived, material experience with preordered “facts” that “simply exist” (Horkheimer and Adorno [1947] 2002).

Adorno’s critique of reason runs parallel to his critique of popular culture. He uses the term “culture industry” to acknowledge that standardized cultural goods like movies, music, and magazines were being produced in a factory-like manner, which contributed to audience passivity. Having very high expectations about the social role of culture, he harshly complains about its debasement at the level of the subjective—that is, as an expression of mere personal emotions and events with neither a connection to wider social and historical questions nor a cognitive function to play in terms of activating and transforming consciousness. According to Adorno, cultural products—insofar as they enable or constrain (through their specific formal and aesthetic properties) particular modes of production and consumption—can structure consciousness and, hence, produce particular social consequences. The culture industry can be dehumanizing. In particular, he writes, “the repetitiveness, the selfsameness, and the ubiquity of modern mass culture tend to make for automatized reactions and to weaken the forces of individual resistance” (1957, 476).

To make this clear to the teachers I work with, I usually make reference to Adorno’s ideas about stereotypes. In the age of the culture industry, he argues, the standardization and stereotyped nature of cultural products conjure up a powerful system for social control through cultural consumption. The problem is not with stereotypes themselves. In fact, since they “are an indispensable element of the organization and anticipation of experience, preventing us from falling into mental disorganization and chaos, no art can entirely dispense with them” (Adorno 1957, 484). The problem arises when this organizing and simplifying function is turned into something else. Once stereotypes are adopted within the ideological and economic logic of mass production, this function is altered and exploited for quite different reasons. The more people consume representations of reality that are constantly and consistently clichéd and formulaic, the less they are likely to change their preconceived ideas; the more modern life gets complex and opaque, the more people are “tempted to cling desperately to clichés” to make sense of it. “Thus, people may not only lose true insight into reality, but ultimately their very capacity for life experience may be dulled by the constant wearing of blue and pink spectacles” (484).

Contrary to all this, Adorno believes that true experience (both aesthetic and of other kinds) arises from the tension or dialectic between the familiar and the unfamiliar, so that people are forced to actively speculate on (and eventually negate) what they are seeing, reading, or listening to; compare it with their past and future; and then think of possible alternatives. Mass culture, instead, limits consciousness as it offers predigested products that have already been conceptually and formally organized for easy consumption, undermining people’s capacity to have new experiences by critically reflecting on things that do not fit into predetermined cognitive or cultural schemes. Both the products of the culture industry and the way they are consumed work against the mediation necessary for critical thought to deploy its emancipatory potential. As Adorno writes in Minima Moralia, “The value of a thought is measured by its distance from the continuity of the familiar. It is objectively devaluated as this distance is reduced; the more it approximates to the pre-existing standards, the further its antithetical function is diminished” ([1951] 2005, 80).

Although Adorno offers many examples of how mass culture has given up on art’s cognitive function (i.e., its power to produce social change), I want to focus on one of them that may prove particularly useful when working with young people in a media literacy class: popular music. In his well-known essay on popular music written in 1941, Adorno launches a caustic critique of the ways in which mass production negatively affects the political and cognitive potential of music by creating a tension between standardization and its “necessary correlate,” pseudoindividualism (or product differentiation, as marketers would call it today). To be mass-produced, a hit song must have at least one trait that distinguishes it from all the others and yet belong to the same conventional framework. Thanks to this tension, the song can be sold automatically as customers are seduced into believing that they are experiencing something unique when, in fact, they are not. As Adorno writes, “Structural standardization aims at standard reactions” to the extent that “popular music becomes a multiple-choice questionnaire” (1990, 305, 309), implying the dissolution of any critical capacities. He then concludes that the industrial standardization of popular music must be taken seriously if one wants to make a political assessment of it and give it back the power to transform consciousness.

This is how far I can get with Adorno’s critique of popular music (and popular culture as a whole) before I start wrestling with him. As I mentioned, dozens of empirical studies have showed us that the relationships between texts, people, and contexts, as they deploy in daily life and not at the highly speculative level at which Adorno writes, are in fact much more nuanced and complex. I have learned that texts contain multilayered meanings depending on the circumstances of their use. They do not have one single meaning but rather a delimited a range of potential meanings: which meaning is preferred is determined as much by the reader as by the text in a constant process of negotiation between the two. But if this is true, do I ask media literacy educators to give up on critical textual analysis? Are texts imposing ideological meanings on people, and therefore, does media literacy have the task to teach them how to decode and criticize them? Or are people actively producing their own meanings, in which case media literacy has no role to play? In other words, if people are always already actively negotiating their own meanings, isn’t the teacher’s request to look for stereotypical, ideological meanings useless, if not an exercise of power over his or her negotiating students? Indeed, quite a dilemma that cannot be easily answered in one sense or another. In fact, both possibilities are true. Texts are ideologically constructed and tend to “close” meanings,[3] and, at the same time, readers have the capacity to creatively produce their own meanings. In both cases, media literacy educators have a major role to play: in the first one, they teach their students to deconstruct and distance themselves from the ideological nature of texts; in the second one, they teach their students how to turn their spontaneous activity of meaning-making (either as a symbolical activity of interpretation or, with the advent of digital media, as a practical activity of content production) into a more reflexive act of expression and participation in the public sphere, as I argue later.

So, to go back to Adorno, he is right to point out the alienating power of stereotypical media representations, and yet not only does he fail to recognize the negotiating power of the audience; he also fails to recognize that standardization and stereotyping may also be sources of pleasure as they are “somehow connected to deep and entrenched psychological dispositions” (Gendron 1986, 29) that the human ear learns and develops beginning very early in childhood.[4] The psychological pleasure of recognizing the familiar (and being reassured by it) is paired with the self-assurance derived from getting social recognition by sharing, commenting on, and reworking it with friends, family, and fellow fans. Adorno also fails to recognize that, diachronically, musical pieces (and cultural products in general) may be differently judged according to either the conventions and traditions dominating in a particular epoch or the connotations evoked. For example, let us compare, following Bernard Gendron, two different versions of the hit song “Blue Moon”: the original one, recorded by Connee Boswell in 1935, and the version recorded in 1961 by the doo-wop group the Marcels. These two versions certainly share the same melody and harmony (suffering from standardization, as Adorno would promptly notice), and yet there are some remarkable differences—at the level of timbre and connotation—that do not simply amount to mere commodified “embellishments” (as Adorno would dismiss them). In Gendron’s words, “Boswell gives us a muted torch song, while The Marcels do an upbeat number in which the soloist is constantly bombarded with an amazing variety of doo-wop sound from the backup singers. . . . Correspondingly, the connotations are radically different, though the lyrics are the same. The first is a song of pining world-weariness, the second a let’s-have-fun song, resplendent of the innocent (though vaguely threatening) enthusiasm of fifties pop culture. The first song conjures up images of art-deco nightclubs; the second song, images of urban street corners” (1986, 30–31). A historical materialist like Adorno would explain change in one tradition in terms of its own conventions and practices, rejecting as repetitive and standardized all that does not fall within that tradition. Therefore, judging popular music from the standpoint of Western classical music, he would conclude that the two versions of “Blue Moon” are the same standardized product of the culture industry, opening himself to charges of ethnocentrism and elitism. Yet while melody and harmony are central features in Western classical music, rhythm and connotation are central in contemporary pop music. As Gendron continues, “It would be absurd for example to conclude that traditional African music is backward because its harmonic and melodic schemes are considerably more elementary than those of European classical music. Harmony is simply less important in African music than are rhythm, vocal expressivity, and participation” (1986, 31).

Gendron’s reference to “connotation” as a defining characteristic of popular music brings us back to the complex interplay between texts, readers, markets, and society. In fact, the meaning of popular music (and culture) is both “writerly” and “readerly” defined, as Barthes (1975) would say. Meaning is the result either of the conventions and traditions to which creators more or less unconsciously conform or of the reinterpretations and rewritings it undergoes once it enters into the practices and rituals of consumers. Although Adorno brilliantly shows how political economy must be combined with semiotics if we want to understand the successful production mechanisms of the culture industry, he fails to fully take into account what happens at the other end of them: consumption. Not only is he blind to any possible transformative activity of consumers, but he also presumes that the logic of culture can be read automatically from the logic of the industry. He also assumes a cultural homogeneity that is, in fact, the result of his own homogenizing theories. In short, he fails to acknowledge that culture is produced by both individual and collective actions, in more or less distinctive ways that are more or less free from the tentacles of the culture industry.
Media Literacy as Critical Cultural Analysis
I think that the grafting of ideas and practices from the field of communication research (particularly the “active” audience tradition) within the field of media literacy pedagogy has powerfully increased the capacity of media literacy educators to achieve a multidimensional understanding of the media’s role in contemporary society and thus develop more effective activities in the class. At the same time, however, Adorno raises some important questions that are still relevant today, urging media literacy educators to look at popular culture in terms of the constant tension between production and consumption. The culture industry relentlessly recurs to standardization and stereotyping to make profit and reach consensus. To ignore this and celebrate the unconditioned creativity of the active audience is to ignore the paradoxical nature of media consumption as resulting from processes that are both hetero- and autodirected. As Roger Silverstone rightly argues, “In consumption we express at the same time and in the same actions, both our irredeemable dependence and our creative freedoms as participants in contemporary culture” (1994, 104–105).

Since the ways in which popular culture is subjectively experienced are inevitably connected with power and commodification, we cannot but conclude that popular culture is both self-empowering and manufactured, which requires us to account for how people experience it in their everyday lives and, at the same time, reconstruct how it is materially shaped by forces that go beyond their immediate comprehension and control. Pleasure—as audience studies have largely shown—is a key element here. Defined in dialectical terms, pleasure is an organized and organizing principle of social action, enabling and at the same time escaping control by social agents. As such, it produces (and operates within) certain “mattering maps” that direct people’s investments in what they do and with what intensities, determining where and how otherwise-disparate individuals may locate themselves into certain configurations of social order, albeit temporarily, superficially, or inadvertently (Grossberg 1988).

This is ultimately where media literacy meets critical cultural analysis. In other words, I think that media literacy educators, in order for their activities to have a real impact on their students’ lives, should know not only how to decode media messages—how they convey meaning and produce certain effects—but also how these effects happen with reference to specific social relationships and contexts of action; how media provide both constraining and enabling resources for their students; and how media uses are negotiated within certain conditions of possibility. For example, if educators want to work with their students on video games (not just use them as teaching aids but work on and around them), not only do they need to look at what individual video games mean as texts (in terms of plots, characters, actions, settings, etc.), but, more importantly, they must look at how the video gaming experience is part of their students’ everyday routines; where, when, and how video gaming occurs within the domestic economy of the family; how parents regulate it; how students negotiate and circumvent this regulation; how video gaming is constrained by the market or by technology (and to what degree students are aware of that); and how students use video gaming to develop social status among peers and to acquire expertise in domains such as retrieval of information about games and gaming on the Internet.

I know. That is a lot to do, and teachers are not trained for it (as they always tell me), at least in Italy, where teachers’ media training is often narrowly defined as instruction for the use of educational technologies in the digital class. In our association, MED, throughout these years, we have been precisely trying to counteract this limitation by stressing the importance of adopting a more culturalist approach, which inevitably requires teachers to be able (and willing) to work as an interdisciplinary team with their colleagues, not only because they can get help and save time but, more importantly, because the complexities of popular culture inevitably demand a holistic and multidimensional approach.

Admittedly, Adorno would not be of much help here. His theories about the interplay between power, culture, and social control rest at the level of speculation; he is uninterested in verifying how abstract structures of domination are negotiated, resisted, or violated through the “logic of practice” enacted by individuals in their everyday lives, as Bourdieu (1990b) would say. To ignore this logic, as Adorno seems to do, may produce a “symbolic violence,” to again use Bourdieu’s words, that denies people’s active participation in the social world. But the contrary—that is, to celebrate the innumerable cases of activism that occur in media use—is also equally questionable. As a matter of fact, when looking at how empowering media use can be, cultural analysts do not always take into account Bourdieu’s “insoluble contradiction” by which symbolic domination is reinstated at the very moment it is questioned. As Bourdieu explains:

When the dominated quest for distinction leads the dominated to affirm what distinguishes them, that is, that in the name of which they are dominated and constituted as vulgar, do we have to talk of resistance? In other words, if, in order to resist, I have no other resources than to lay claim to that in the name of which I am dominated, is this resistance? Second question: when, on the other hand, the dominated work at destroying what marks them out as “vulgar” and at appropriating that in relation to which they appear as vulgar (for instance, in France, the Parisian language), is this submission? I think this is an insoluble contradiction: this contradiction, which is inscribed in the very logic of symbolic domination, is something those who talk about “popular culture” won’t admit. (1990a, 155)

Similarly, when messing around in class with technology in the name of progress and digital learning, teachers do not always take the time to question and define the broader pedagogy of what they are doing. Think, for example, of a teacher proudly showing during a conference the school website his or her students have enthusiastically created for their media literacy class.
At the end of the presentation, let’s ask the teacher some very basic questions: Was the activity organically part of the school curriculum? Were all students involved in it, or were some of them were excluded, for whatever reason? What strategies did the teacher think of to overcome this exclusion? What, exactly, did the teacher want his or her students to learn? Some specific content from a discipline; some communication, cooperation, or metacognitive skills; or something else? Was this project also an occasion to think about the ways in which meaning is produced and presented in websites (including institutional ones) and for what reasons? What is the ideology behind it? What is the role of online advertising (when included)? What kind of assessment and evaluation of the whole activity was made? And what, exactly, needs to be assessed and evaluated? Can the apparent enthusiasm and motivation of the students be a good indicator of learning achievement? Can the activity be easily transferred to and repeated by students in some other class? We can imagine our teacher answering these questions with some embarrassment.

In other words, when cultural analysts (and teachers alike) celebrate engagement with the media as an act of resistance to the dominant order or as a learning experience, without ever taking into account either how the dominant order is more or less overtly and deeply affecting them or how the broader pedagogy of this learning experience ought to be defined, aren’t they in fact celebrating their own empowering pleasure to act out their subjectivity as media consumers themselves? Aren’t they simply enjoying the possibility to ease up the puritanical zeal of radical critical theory? As Judith Williamson acutely asks to those left-wing practitioners who, in the late 1980s, were accounting for people’s pleasurable engagement with The Price Is Right, “How about a radical left critique of [it]? With all our education, have we nothing more to say than ‘people like it’?” (quoted in McGuigan 1992, 78). Indeed, the risk is always there to turn cultural analysis (and media literacy) into yet another exercise of power.
Self-Reflection as Educational Liberation
A well-known thesis of Adorno is that, since the Enlightenment, society has increasingly become colder and more violent. Humans’ first encounter with this coldness and violence is school—“virtually the prototype of societal alienation per se” (1998c, 186)—as it is based on an authoritarianism expressed through two forms of hierarchies, an official one “founded on intellect, achievement, and grades” and a latent one founded on “physical strength” and discipline (186). In “Philosophy and Teachers,” Adorno offers an alternative by proposing self-reflection as a way for teachers to reflect on “their specialized discipline—that is, reflect upon what they are fulfilling—and in reflecting upon themselves transcend the bounds of what they have actually learned” (1998b, 21). Self-reflection has nothing to do with psychological introspection, as it always implies the reconstruction of the material conditions causing alienation in view of social change. Thus, “education must transform itself into sociology, that is, it must teach about the societal play of forces that operates beneath the surface of political forms” (1998a, 203). As Daniel K. Cho writes, “The practice [of self-reflecting] never stops at the level of the self or the individual; rather, it becomes an expansive form of thinking that maps the self within the conditions of society as a whole. It is a type of thinking that treats the self as a particular through which the whole is mediated” (2009, 76–77).

Only by self-reflecting on their work and its relationship with society at large may teachers be regarded as “intellectuals” and not “merely specialized technicians” (Adorno 1998b, 21) working for an institution which reifies consciousness into standardized and bureaucratized practices. This reifying process produces what Adorno calls “half-education” (Halbbildung), an example of which are those manuals that instruct readers to appreciate the so-called classical music by teaching them to recognize bits and pieces of well-known symphonic themes. Undoubtedly, these readers do gain some kind of knowledge of classical music, and yet what worries Adorno is their arrogant belief that they possess absolute knowledge of it, as if being able to recognize, name, and classify tunes represented knowledge per se. “The half-educated, unlike the merely uneducated, hypostatize limited knowledge as truth” (Horkheimer and Adorno [1947] 2002, 162) and thus are “at once intellectually pretentious and barbarically anti-intellectual” (Adorno 1998a, 200).

In short, Adorno urges educators to call into question their work and teach their students to resist commonsensical knowledge and practices in any field. Although he is well aware that education played a crucial role in creating the psychological, intellectual, and social conditions that made Auschwitz possible, Adorno refuses to reduce education to an institution and a set of practices exclusively concerned with domination and social reproduction. This very basic lesson from Adorno has probably inspired my entire work on media literacy. Following him, I have always thought that education is part of the problem but also part of the solution insofar as it refuses to substitute critical learning (i.e., self-reflection) with mere training (i.e., half-education).
This is even more so these days, when formal education (at all levels) is embracing a kind of consumerist, instrumentalist, and administrative ideology claiming the cost-effectiveness of digital assessments of students’ and teachers’ performance, downsizing schools and universities to “factories” for training a digitally skilled work force, and ultimately reifying knowledge behind a pseudoprogressive discourse of student-centeredness and creativity, digital empowerment, job standardization, professionalization, and meritocracy. On the contrary, digital literacy requires education (redefined as media literacy education) to play a liberating and empowering role by which students can operate in full autonomy and agency for collectively building democracy. As Henry Giroux puts it, Adorno’s “call to refashion education in order to prevent inhuman acts has to take as one of its founding tasks today the necessity to understand how free market ideology, privatization, outsourcing, and the relentless drive for commodified public space radically diminish those political and pedagogical sites crucial for sustaining democratic identities, values, and practices” (2004, 18). In fact, if education has a political role to play, it cannot stop at criticism; it must also “imagine itself as a mechanism for changing the world . . . [and] engage democratic values, principles, and practices as a force for resistance and hope in order to challenge unquestioned modes of authority while also enabling individuals to connect such principles and values to ‘the world in which they live as citizens’” (19).
The Adornian Detour of Media Literacy
For this to happen I think we need to retheorize and repoliticize media literacy as a detour through Adorno so that media literacy educators can gain new powerful insights to resist the populist and technologist drift dominating their field and also redefine one of the most challenging tensions they face daily in their work—that is, the nexus between critical analysis and creative production (Cappello 2010). I believe this tension is at the core of media literacy itself, as it ultimately points to the interplay that exists between the conditioning power of ideology and the subjective agency that people express when they use media in daily life. As I said, such tension has basically nagged at me my entire intellectual life, and I think it still somehow nags media literacy educators today. When I first started working with teachers (almost twenty years ago, when we founded MED), I met many who were eager to learn about how to deconstruct media (namely, soap operas, advertising, and the news) as ideological texts that manipulated the consciousness and cultural taste of their students; these teachers’ ultimate concern was the location and critical assessment of meaning.

Yet, over the years, I have been trying to explain that people (and youth in particular) do not primarily experience media as devices for conveying meaning and producing cognitive processes but rather as symbolic resources (and technical devices) providing opportunities for imaginative self-expression, play, and action that cannot be reduced to narrowly ideological formulas. Often, youth use media to pursue hobbies and sports, chat and exchange instant messages with friends, play games, download music and movies, and so on. Indeed, critical analysis—we have tried to explain to teachers—is not of much help for understanding all that. With the advent of digital media, teachers have discovered low-cost production opportunities to allow a refreshing immersion—after years of gloomy analyses of manipulative media texts—in the flux of students’ emotions, lived experiences, and creative action. However, as I have previously said, there is always a risk that these activities may become a pedagogical goal per se, dominated by a technologist and instrumentalist orientation. Therefore, while critical analysis, taken alone, risks a focus on mere abstract knowledge far removed from students’ lived experience, conversely, media production itself, taken alone, may result in a kind of self-referential and unproblematic activity emanating from an authentic self who can finally find free and creative expression. Ultimately, it “runs the risk of simply leaving students where they are” (Buckingham and Sefton-Green 1994, 130).

In fact, media literacy pedagogy is not an either/or choice. We need to recompose the schism between the two, between the macro level (media as a social institution structuring individuals’ lives and consciousness) and the micro level (where individuals use the media as a source of pleasure and personal action). But how do we do that? How do we reconnect the macro with the micro? How do we help students interact more reflexively with media by learning to acquire, select, process, and create information on their own; generating critical knowledge; playing an active and poetic role in the construction of reality; and triggering a critical process of social inclusion and participation? Following Adorno, I argue here that critical analysis and media production, to be pedagogically valid as a form of self-reflection, should dialectically feed each other, originating a kind of reflexive practice (or, if you will, practical reflection) by which students can engage with media production as a legitimate source of pleasure and subjective empowerment and yet also with systematic reflection about the broader modes of knowledge and social structuring that construct them as citizens and consumers. As products of this practice, their media productions will be fraught with difference and contradiction as they simultaneously seem to reproduce and yet subvert dominant values and beliefs, offering new possible ways of expression and active participation in public discourse by using an aesthetic of montage, appropriation, fragmentation, and juxtaposition, constantly backboned by critical thinking. Ultimately, I think that if media literacy is to make a real difference in our students’ eyes, it needs to establish a strong connection between critical analysis and those media uses to which students commit most of their passion and energy. Indeed, learning has to be meaningful to them in their own terms before it can become critical. And yet once their media habits, tastes, and preferences become a legitimate object of interest in the media literacy class, students must also be critically interrogated and used as a resource to make sense of broader modes of knowledge and social structuring. To put it briefly, when lived experience is evoked in the media literacy class, we must take “a detour through theory” (as Marx would say) and then develop a process of self-reflection and critique by which media literacy becomes an effective, transformative pedagogical praxis.

True, like Adorno’s splinter in the eye, media literacy—redefined as reflexive practice and practical reflectionwill painfully challenge students to engage the familiar and the unfamiliar, but while doing that, it will also magnify their power of seeing, and knowing, in a totally new and progressive way. That is ultimately art’s (and education’s) “broken promise of happiness.”
Adorno, W. T. (1951) 2005. Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life. London: Verso.
———. (1952) 1981. In Search of Wagner. London: Verso.
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[1] Going back to his early years as director of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, Hall uses the metaphor of “wrestling with angels” to describe good theoretical work. “The only theory worth having is that which you have to fight off, not that which you speak with profound fluency” (Hall 1992, 280).{AU: Is “wrestling with angels” on the same page?}
[3] Umberto Eco (1981) uses the term “closed” to refer to texts that try, through the way they are structured, to impose their influence on the reader. “Open” texts allow the reader a greater and more creative role in the negotiation of meanings.
[4] Surprisingly, Adorno himself alludes in one passage to the process by which musical preferences are shaped and rigidified through “the nursery rhymes, the hymns [one] sings in Sunday school, the little tunes [one] whistles on [one’s] way home from school” (1990, 307).

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