T.W. Adorno was one of the first and most pungent radical critics of mass culture. In early essays on popular music in the 1930s, Adorno developed a critical methodology to analyze the production, texts, and reception of the artifacts of what became known as "popular culture," thus anticipating the approach of later forms of "cultural studies." With Max Horkheimer, he developed in _Dialectic of Enlightenment_ (1947) the first critical theory which discerned the crucial roles of mass culture and communication in contemporary capitalist societies. Emigrants from Nazi Germany, Adorno and his colleagues observed the use of mass culture in German fascism and were shocked to see in the United States the same sort of ideological culture which reproduced the existing social relations and served as propaganda for the established socio-economic and political order.
Landing in the U.S. in 1938, Adorno worked with Paul Lazarsfeld as part-time director of the music division of Princeton University's Radio Research project, learning the American empirical research techniques of which he became highly critical, though he learned to make selective use of such methodology in later studies. With Max Horkheimer, Leo Lowenthal, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, and others, Adorno helped develop a critical analysis of mass culture which interpreted it in terms of the developmental tendencies of contemporary capitalism. Later, Adorno worked with a Berkeley group on the pioneering studies of _The Authoritarian Personality_ (1950), and with George Gerbner and others wrote an article "How to Watch Television" (1954), which developed critical and analytical categories to dissect American television. Some Frankfurt School texts were collected in Rosenberg and White's influential 1954 anthology _Mass Culture_, and the critical theory approach influenced such American social theorists and communication researchers as C. Wright Mills, David Riesman, Alvin Gouldner, George Gerbner, and others.
Although the Frankfurt School established a model of critical studies of mass culture and communication that deeply influenced critical studies in the United States, Germany, and elsewhere, in recent years the Frankfurt School, and especially Adorno, has served as an ideal-type of an approach that homogenizes mass culture, reifies its audience as cultural dupes, and serves as a strawman of a one-dimensional and reductive approach to mass culture that an allegedly more sophisticated cultural studies should overcome. Of course, there are passages in Adorno and the Frankfurt School that allow such a reading, and Adorno in particular is a notoriously difficult writer whose collected works surpass twenty volumes in the German edition.
In this context, it is therefore especially welcome to have an introduction to Adorno's work for English-speaking readers that surveys a broad expanse of his work and provides an overview of his positions useful for critique of contemporary mass culture and communication, or what I prefer to call "media culture." Adorno's critical perspectives are not well-enough known, and Cook makes accessible Adorno's complex thought to a general audience -- not a small achievement. The text is well-organized, written, and argued, and demonstrates the relevancy of Adorno's work to contemporary debates. Cook has both mastered Adorno's primary texts -- including many not yet translated -- and the secondary literature on Adorno, critical theory, and mass culture. Indeed, one of the most interesting features of the book is her insertion of Adorno in contemporary debates in cultural studies, political economy, politics, and social theory. She clearly presents Adorno's positions, a variety of counterpositions, and how Adorno's work helps us move forward on a number of crucial issues. Yet Cook is not uncritical of Adorno and challenges his positions frequently and lucidly.
In sum, the book is a refreshing departure from the frequent tendency to bash and dismiss Adorno without further ado, or the tendency on behalf of his followers to simply celebrate him as the great theorist of the contemporary moment. Cook's book should thus be of significant use to those interested in Adorno and critical theory, cultural studies and mass communications, and contemporary social theory. Adorno's work itself is transdisciplinary and Cook presents him in a fashion in which he could be of use to a broad transdisciplinary audience.
It is, of course, exceedingly difficult to write a book on Adorno. An incomparable stylist, he defies summary. The Adorno adventure involves entering into his language, letting his writing and style carry you into a new way of seeing. Adorno's bon mot concerning Kafka--"He over whom Kafka's wheels have passed, has lost for ever both any peace with the world and any chance of consoling himself with the judgement that the way of the world is bad"-- holds as well for him: once one has genuinely appropriated Adorno's insights one cannot see the media and society in quite the same way. Once one has appropriated Adorno's vision, one finds his ideas instantiated and confirmed over and over, day after day. One has lost one's innocence, one finds one's self distanced from media culture, detects its standardization, pseudo-individualism, stereotypes and schemata, and the baleful effects of cultural commodification and reification. In a postmodern scene that celebrates the active audience, that finds resistance everywhere, that ritualistically acclaims the popular, Adorno is thus a salutatory counterforce.
On a personal note, I found Cook's study very useful for making clear to me what is still extremely useful and relevant in Adorno and the Frankfurt School approach and what is problematical and needs to be reconstructed. Although there are many criticisms of Adorno's positions throughout the book, upon occasion Cook defends an extreme form of Adornoian orthodoxy, making Adorno more flexible and multidimensional than he is usually taken to be, and in these cases Cook strongly defends his fundamental positions against his critics. For instance, Cook criticizes Jameson, myself, and others who attempt to find critical, oppositional, and utopian moments in media culture, claiming that we do not properly understand the logic and force of commodification which Cook seems to think precludes any progressive effects (124-5). But against Cook, precisely because of the commodification of mass communications there is at least the possibility of oppositional and utopian elements. The products of media culture are aimed at gathering audiences and thus must resonate to audience experience, desires, and hopes. Consequently, if there are progressive images and ideas circulating in society, the culture industries will appropriate and circulate them, occasionally advancing the discourses of movements like the 1960s counterculture, the feminist movement, the anti-nuclear movement, the civil rights movement, the gay and lesbian movement, and other new social movements, and encouraging resistance to oppressive cultural and social forms.
Of course, Adorno/Cook could counter that scrutiny of "the consumption of allegedly 'utopian' elements of mass culture often shows inadvertently how they serve to keep individuals content with capitalism" (134). But such a one-dimensional reading of audience reception precludes potentially critical and oppositional readings. Yet occasionally, I have a nightmare that in some sense Adorno is right, that media culture by and large keeps individuals gratified and subservient to the logic and practices of market capitalism, that the culture industry has become thoroughly commodified and absorbs and deflects all oppositional culture to subservient ends. At times, channel-surfing cable systems or scanning commercial radio also provides a view that most media culture is reified crap, that culture has been fundamentally commercialized, homogenized, and banalized in contemporary capitalism. Yet when such nightmare thoughts dissolve, one sees a society in conflict with competing groups struggling to control the direction of society, with progressive and regressive forces in contention. In this situation, to have a dialectical and oppositional cultural criticism that intervenes in the struggles of the present moment, Frankfurt School orthodoxy needs more critical reconstruction than Cook offers, and we must move beyond Adorno while assimilating his intransigent oppositional stance and critical insights.