Notes on Adorno, “Radio Physiognomics” (Chapter VII: Ubiquity-Standardization and Pseudo-Activity)

This was originally posted at the TAXIS group blog on 11 February 2021.

All page references are to Adorno, Theodor W. (Robert Hullot-Kentor, trans.) Current of Music: Elements of a Radio Theory. English edition. Cambridge: Polity, 2009.

Chapter VII: Ubiquity-Standardization and Pseudo-Activity

a) Preliminary Notes on Terminology and Method (92)

Adorno reemphasizes that in this section his concern is exclusively with the “objective” features of radio, considered phenomenologically. We’re not interested how different life backgrounds affect radio listening: we’re interested in those features that are pre-personal.

Adorno is gearing up to introduce a new distinction between “subjective” and “objective” in this section. Adorno says if this is bothering the reader, we may forget the old distinctions for a moment and just home in on the topic of this section:

  • What are the “categories” of the radio voice?
  • What is the “framework” in which its phenomena take place?

He is not interested in analyzing “causal mechanisms” (sound engineering workflows) or “things” (radio circuitry/radio as a technical apparatus), and in that sense the topic appears to be subjective (in the earlier sense). To avoid this, Adorno introduces the following new distinction:

  • objective: “phenomena which are suitable to their own structure“
  • subjective: “phenomena which conceal this structure even though they are bound to it

Radio’s ubiquity was considered “subjective” in the preceding chapters: it was discerned in the “phenomenal field”, out in the world: in the psychogeographic wandering-down-the-street described in Günther Stern’s article (1930) (see Adorno’s analysis of same above, 81ff. [Hullot-Kentor’s translation]). But we can also call radio’s ubiquity “objective” (newly) “insofar as every radio phenomenon takes place within this ubiquity”. Radio, in principle, is receivable everywhere, thus the “here-ness” of radio is subjective because it conceals its the conditions for its very reception: its ubiquity. This is why Adorno says it’s a category. He means “category” in a Kantian sense: meaning a condition of possibility for radio in general, not as part of a classification system.

This helps us make sense of Adorno’s next claim, which is that there appears to be a contradiction between the idea that “ubiquity” and “here-ness” are both part of how the radio phenomena appear to us. These are almost opposed, so both cannot be categories of radio (in the strict sense). Adorno’s reply is that his goal is not (transcendental-)philosophical, and accordingly, neither are the categories he wishes to use: they are physiognomic, precisely because they express the (contingent) historical and social situation in which the phenomenon they describe appears.

If these categories hold contradictions, they “express contradictions in the subject matter itself and, in the last analysis, contradictions in our society” (94). We continue to uphold concepts like aura, authenticity, the “original” in radio even though they are “basically opposed” to technical reproduction (Benjamin). (Elsewhere, Adorno digs into the relationship between ubiquity and “here-ness” in terms of the public/private distinction, and here he ties the survival of the antagonism between these spheres to the survival of the very idea of the original.)

b) The Standardization of the Phenomenon (94)

Radio standardizes not because the context is standard but simply because radio’s structure means that the same material is offered—broadcast—to a large number of people, and, if you want to use the radio set at all, you are “more or less forced to listen to this material” (94). This is a “phenomenal” aspect of radio, owing to its “structure”, due neither to its content nor the prevailing conditions of monopoly capitalism. In relation to the latter, Adorno qualifies that although radio is a product of the same forces that work for capitalism, it is not a product of monopoly capitalism, per se (94 fn. y). Radio’s tendencies are being realised “over the heads” of its originators.

Standardization is “more or less authoritarian“, and tweaking program policies is not going to improves the situation: the prevailing technical conditions mean that this is destined to failure (for now). Adorno says we shouldn’t hide this fact nor the constraints themselves; radio should, indeed, try to make the best of the situation. It’s not worth dwelling on this feature of radio any further, except to note that standardization is the background against which radio’s “countertendencies”—closeness, “here-ness”, authenticity: all opposed to its categorical ubiquity—can be understood. Even the “knowing” listener’s reactionary disposition can be considered a countertendency, and thus symptomatic: listeners both resist and succumb to standardization (for psychological reasons not treated here by Adorno). Every countertendency—and Adorno is about to enumerate them—tries to alter this fundamental principle of radio as it is currently technically formed. These attempts are in vain.

c) Countertendencies (95)

1) Selection (95)

The listener desires to select from the palette of already-existing—thus, already-competing—stations. This strategy presupposes the existence of options, which is not a categorical fact of radio, but a contingent feature of particular social and economic trends. We might expect the choices available to listeners under monopoly capitalism to collapse, and this kind of lack of choice was the case in Germany (with widespread syndication). But in the US, it’s more complicated: there seems to be widespread listener choice, despite the prevailing economic structure.

As radio stations grow, they strive toward diverse programming. This might be a feature of radio’s increasing ubiquity–standardization but that hypothesis doesn’t make a huge amount of sense, as it is supposed to be a categorical (and thus invariant) aspect of the medium. It is more likely to be a (paradoxical) consequence of the growth of monopoly, though Adorno concedes that a study of this relationship (“how different stations manage to broadcast ‘the same’ even though they present totally different programs”, 96) does not fall under the scope of radio physiognomics. Adorno notes a feeling also remarked by Krenek that even internationally, radio programming is not all that different in different places. It seems to be a key part of radio (everywhere) that aimless dial-twirling leads to the feel that the same stuff is everywhere.

There obvious dangerous cases—the totalitarian German Volksempfänger—where arbitrary limitations on what content can be picked up are built into the devices, but arbitrary limitations are in fact everywhere. Even on a regular radio, the choice is less great than one’s record collection. The act of selection makes the listener feel like he is playing a musical instrument: turning the dial can effect a sense of changing “musical colors” (97). (cf. Nicolas Collins’s Devil’s Music (1986)).

Adorno—creatively if pejoratively—compares this to the “dragging sound of an accordion”. Since the accordion has pre-formed chords, “apparently free efforts can produce pre-formed effects” (97). Adorno notes that a cabaret artist in New York does a bit where he imitates the turning of the radio dial and reasons that this would be ineffective were it not for the fact that this dial-twirling behavior has some grounding in practice. He puts the whole situation pithily:

the man who plays “on his radio“ as if it were an instrument, obtaining ready-made, accordion-like chords dragged into each other in a dilettantish way, is a sort of model for all behavior where individual initiative attempts to alter ubiquity-standardization. (97)

2) The “Good Reception”

In this section, Adorno describes how listeners try to take control over what they hear through the apparently interactive adjustment of the tuning and volume dials, as well as by using other technological tweaks and know-how. Adorno even includes contacting the station to suggest programs as a kind of interaction that appears to push against ubiquity–standardization. Generally, this is in the pursuit of the ideal of “good reception”, rather than an attempt “to modify the radio phenomenon to express his own taste” (98). The pursuit of “good reception” remains firmly within the radio’s pre-existing structures, and does not lead to empowerment. Adorno’s diagnosis of “good reception” is not all that different to the ideology of hi-fi, as we will see. It is probably still useful as such.

“Good reception” varies. Some think that good reception is loud reception (a consequence of stations competing for spectrum); others think that it is inobtrusive reception (i.e. radio should be in the background). This foreground–background axis is not always entirely dependent on volume. The tone-control dial is another locus of “getting good reception”. Getting it to sound good only using the volume control presupposes a lot knowledge on the part of the listener, regarding the expected acoustic features of the broadcast sound and the its relationship to those of the listening environment. Still, Adorno gives the benefit of the doubt to the average listener, suggesting that although it the notion of “good reception” clearly depends on the individual there is some uniformity of its application and its pursuit is hardly to be understood as “self-expression” in any meaningful way. Since noo matter how far a listener goes to tweak things, he has no power over it since these adjustments work within the larger standardizing framewrk of radio. Adorno reckons attempts to impose one’s expression on the tone-color will end up spoiling the radio phenomenon, that few listeners when interrogated will admit to carrying out such tweaks, and calls this activity “pseudo-activity”. That this activity is “ridiculous” and “spoiling comes from

the fact that all of the listener’s possible attempts to modify the phenomenon remain external to it, an arbitrary addition instead of a really constitutive element. (100)

Here Adorno compares this behavior the case of child comically fiddling with the volume control of a player piano, which results in an obvious caricature of the underlying work: outlandish in proportion but recognizably related to the original. For this reason Adorno suspects that most listeners just give up the ghost and stop trying to influence the radio phenomenon. So how can we still speak of resistance to ubiquity–standardization if so few do it? Perhaps there is a hidden reason for it, going beyond idea of “good reception”.

Adorno has a hunch that listeners are not as guided by “good reception”, and, indeed, are not as rational as they pretend to be. Adorno notices that people fiddle with their sets more than is required—indeed, “good reception” becomes an ideal in itself, rather than anything the listener wants to hear. One activity is dial twirling, which Adorno says people just do for the sake of it, even if they rationalize ex post facto that they want to scan for something they want to listen to. The dial-twirler “gets his main pleasure from the very fact of turning the dial and from the possibilities of the machine, without caring very much about what he gets” (101). As program content becomes more and more similar, this explanation grows in plausibility. There are, Adorno notes, even listeners who obsess skillfully about getting good reception and, once they achieve it, switch off.

Adorno concludes that when “good reception” becomes divorced from the desire to actually pick up a broadcast, then it’s clear that the listener really only cares about “good reception” insofar as it is something that they can do “as well as possible”. “Good reception becomes a fetish. […] [T]he means are considered the end” (102) Indeed, Adorno writes:

Doing the best job for receiving a radio broadcast no longer opposes ubiquity–standardization but obeys its laws so completely that the listener gets the illusionary self-satisfaction that the workings of the mechanism are his own. (102)

Adorno develops this into an oblique polemic against the failure to resist fascism’s allure, arguing that the way the radio listener succumbs to the radio apparatus’s demand ubiquity–standardization is analogous to how individualism is compatible with—and maybe even the precondition for—totalitarianism. (102)

In this digression, Adorno anticipates the objection that this seems far-fetched. For one thing, this is far from the kind of investigation, that, say, a market researcher or an industrialist would be interested in—and, perhaps, wouldn’t tolerate. But it is within the remit of the present (physiognomic) study (which, implicitly, is opposed to these aims) as it sets out “relate radio to the basic structure of our society”: to relate radio-as-phenomenon, “radio-voice”, dial-twirling etc. as symptom (103).

Adorno continues to defend this mode of explanation, and admits the account so far is sketchy. Interestingly, Adorno notes that the structures discussed so far are not unique to radio: “they can be observed in all fields of mechanization,“ though they were less prevalent in the phonograph era. (For the reason that Adorno elaborates on p. 103 fn. bb.) He even concedes that the pleasure the radio listener takes in dial-twirling comes from the enjoyment of other technical devices like the car; attitudes are borrowed from other technical fields. This suggests a vastly larger scope of inquiry than the present study:

The “harmless joy” in technical devices, and being able to master the machine, are empty phrases. Pleasure in technical tools has several components and cannot be reduced without hesitation to the categories we have tried to develop. (104)

Adorno supposes the delight we take in technology is a relic of the genuine naive pleasure of a child’s attitude towards their toys, transposed to the “adult” toys of the technical world, of which the radio is but one. But he cautions against a solely psychologistic reading: these structures are only properly understood in a given social and economic condition. (104)

Again, he relapses into a general defense of his “far-fetched” method and concludes, somewhat deflatingly, that all we have settled at this stage is “that the listener’s attitude to the radio phenomenon goes beyond his professed desire to get a good reception of the material.” (105)

3) Fan Mail (105)

In this section, Adorno draws on the analysis of “fan-mail” sent into radio stations (presumably as part of the larger Princeton Radio Project). He reminds us that writing into stations isn’t exactly part of the remit of radio physigonomy—as it’s essentially futile in an attempt to affect ubiquity–standardization—but it’s worth discussing as a “foothold” to understand the dial-twirler. Usually listener will write into the station, as they either lack or cannot establish personal contacts with management in the stations. In any case, those who are in regular contact with management are already in some way on the “other side of the fence”: Adorno is more interested in ordinary listener reactions, expressed by those who try to align themselves not with “good reception” (the dial-twirler’s value) but with the supposed thought processes and interests of the broadcaster. Fan mail is an exercise in taking on the mantle of the broadcasting authority, which is likely why Adorno is skeptical of it.

Adorno duly notes that it’s doubtful that letter writers are representative of those who do not write in; he posits their “psychological make-up” is likely different. He also notes that he’s not looking at letters that were solicited—for example, as part of a contest—or letters by pressure-groups. This means that he’s interested in what he dubiously calls “spontaneous“ submissions. These letters deal with “more or less ‘objective‘ phenomena”: reception problems; bad, inconvenient, or imbalanced programming; etc. Despite this, these letters are riddled with references to the subjectivity of the writer: biographic details are defended by writers as crucial to understanding their feedback as “expressions of their particular personalities” (107).

Adorno wonders: why would an individual making a supposedly objective suggestion dwell so much on themselves, when writing to an institution that cares little about them personally. He diagnoses this as a feeling of loss and neglect in the face of ubiquity–standardisation: a way to reclaim or compensate for lost ground, by reinvesting themselves in the situation. The apparent mismatch between the disinterest of the broadcasting corporation and the personal investment of the writers tips off Adorno: the psychological motivation is probably stronger than anything explicit in the texts. Indeed, Adorno concludes that the writers are ashamed of their letters: they distance themselves from other fans etc., unconciously defending themselves. Other writers affirm their status as discriminate listeners and defenders of good taste—pre-emptively distinguishing themselves from other “ordinary” writers.

All this, claims Adorno, is an attempt to establish a rapport between the writer and the management he addresses: they try to make their cause common with those who oppress them. It’s the same process of “self-identification” when it comes to “good reception: the listener essentially defects, all the while clinging to the narrative of resistance against the power of the radio phenomenon and the notion that they are in some way different from—more discriminating than—the average man on the street. Adorno sense a deep irony here, as the radio executive is trying (cynically) to identify with the “ordinary” person, while the letter-writer—who aspires to the managerial role—doesn’t want anything to do with them.

Adorno again goes on the methodological defensive here, admitting that perhaps the above examples are individually a bit weak but that, if combined, might finally resolve into a clearer picture about reactions against ubiquity–standardization. He identifies a provisional roles for further examination of the mail-in material, as it seems to provide “quantitative psychological material in an objectified form” (109). The two main objections that Adorno wishes to anticipate follow. First, Adorno makes the point that drawing on diverse examples—dial-twirling and fan-mail—might be viewed as an attempt to prove a theory with “facts“ that presuppose the broader applicability of the theory across incommensurable domains. Adorno’s (predictable) reply is that these domains are only apparently independent: the goal of physiognomy (and, I suppose, his project as a whole) is to give “common expression” to the strategies and formations he studies.

The second objection anticipated is that the study is biased by dint of being theoretical. To this, Adorno replies that theory permeates any research—even choices as to what to study in the first place are in some way theoretical. “The abandonment of theory does not guarantee greater security” (110). Even facticity in a particular game is a theoretical construct. Adorno puts it memorably:

There may be situations where the given facts build a solid wall in front of what is actually taking place. And if this wall can be torn down only by referring to inconsistencies (like the irrationalities we hinted at) these inconsistencies are only small chinks. The wall can be torn down only by speculative thinking, in spite of the danger that the person who dares to speculate may be struck by some of the stones he loosens. (110)

4) Examples (110)

The broadcaster also has devices at their disposal to effect a kind of apparent resistance of ubiquity–standardization. Adorno discusses two examples: “The Home Symphony” and “Music Is My Hobby”. In the first example, players are amateurs invited—at home—to play along with a professional orchestra under the “direction” of a conductor. Adorno, predictably, believes the amateur adds little to the overall musical performance (indeed, harms it) and finds that the only pleasure a participant finds in this is the pleasure in “doing something which is already objectified, and doing it not so well.” (110) This, Adorno claims, is really the pleasure of identifying with the “central institution” of radio broadcast. Indeed, any influence the home player might have over the way the music goes is only negative: much like the dial-twirler or the volume-tweaking nut. Adorno concedes there may be a minimal pedagogic value here, but argues that the form of the activity is less effective than e.g. playing a Haydn symphony (however poorly) in piano reduction.

In the second example, amateur musicians—usually commercially successful bankers, clerks and so on—are allowed to appear “on the ‘other side of the fence’” and become representatives or totems for the millions of others who will never be heard on the radio. Adorno diagnoses the seduction of this program as a call to participate in the phenomenon (of broadcast performance) which “seems extinguish your own personality,” and to produce it oneself. (112) How the music sounds is, again, irrelevant from a pedagogical perspective and also—more importantly—from the physiognomic perspective: what matters is how the participant stands for the millions otherwise locked out of the broadcasting phenomenon. These two shows are

symptoms of a state of affairs where the individual is stripped of his own individuality and all his “activation“ is only a cloak for this expropriation (112)

5) Switching off (112)

There is one final way (apparently) to resist ubiquity–standardization: switching off. There is, Adorno claims, an “irrationality” behind this gesture. We turn off when we no longer care to list: but we derive some pleasure from switching off. Adorno views switching off as the last-gasp attempt to “actually impress [one’s] own will”: a loophole. Adorno is tempted to characterize this psychologically—as a “drive for destruction“—but, as ever, this psychological explanation is more accurately a desire stemming from social-economic situation: being doomed to impoverishment.

Totalitarian governments have addressed this loophole explicitly: German authorities virtually threatened those who would listen to Hitler’s speech on the annexation of Czechoslovakia. The listener who thinks switching off is a good idea converts and possible pleasure that could come from the radio into the pleasure of destruction. It’s a fruitless, illusory gesture: withdrawal from the scene of affairs and far from powerful. For Adorno, switching off is a kind of philistinism even though, he concedes that “[t]he listener can really influence ubiquity-standardization only when the phenomenon no longer exists and he is no longer a listener” (113).