Adorno: Webern’s Bagatelles as Expressing Woman

By Juniper Alcorn

In this essay I will offer a feminist reading of Theodor Adorno’s discussion of music, from jazz in The Culture Industry and Dialectic of Enlightenment, to his reading of Bach’s Ninth Symphony and Webern’s Bagetelles in Aesthetic Theory.  By placing these three instances in line with each other, I will show how Adorno’s own work creates clear oppositional binaries—figured in terms of gender—in the performance and reception of music, by extending his critique of the effeminate masses of jazz listeners to his aesthetic description of authentic artworks.  My ultimate goal in tracing these binaries, from his discussion of jazz music and its consumption to his positive reading of Webern, is not simply to critique a noted problematic in Adorno’s work.  Rather, I provide a more comprehensive look at his work that makes space for a deeper feminist critique of Adorno’s thought as a whole.

I will begin by explaining why it is important to trace the distinctions that Adorno makes between men and women. This is a fair path of interpretation because of the consistently problematic representation of women throughout Adorno’s work, including his and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment.  Adorno’s periodic inclusion and exclusion of women from his analyses, as well as his consistently pejorative examples of femininity, points to his own understanding of woman as inferior other.  As Adorno considers “the masses” throughout his work, he tends to single out “women” or “woman” as specific examples of cultural weak-mindedness.  Except for the prolonged example of the lonely and awkward ham radio enthusiast with “no luck with girls,” men as such are exempt from this criticism.  Woman are not only infantilized but also objectified in contrast to an active, if even pathetic, male subject.  Only men, either as a collective or as individuals, are typically singled out in reference to their own productive work.

On the other hand, Adorno consistently identifies particular moments in his cultural critiques as especially feminine, or as negative insofar as they pose a threat to masculinity traditionally conceived. The Dialectic of Enlightenment is full of back-handed gestures in just these ways: “Puritanism . . . still asserts itself in the form of women’s organizations,” “industrial no less than nationalist culture can permit itself to inveigh against capitalism, but not to renounce the threat of castration.  This threat constitutes its essence,” as well as the lengthy discussion of the imagery of Homer’s Sirens. More often than not the casual examples referring to women are of the sort that highlight their passivity, their inaction under the eyes of men like their “natural faces” or “fetching” sun-tans. Thus, men are consistently found worthy of specific reference and analysis, but women as a whole are rejected, their problems belittled, and their own attempts to restructure the culture industry and bring awareness to its power disparities found useless.

Adorno identifies popular and jass music with maleness by connecting it to the task of reifying social structures and expanding the realm of culture.  In his essay “The Perennial Fashion—Jazz,” he states that “the paradoxical immortality of jazz has its roots in the economy . . . all that remains is the results of the competition, itself not very ‘free’, and the entire business is then touched up, in particular by the radio.” Popular music, then, is a commodity in the basest sense, and as such is symptomatic and representative of an entire capitalist system.  As a commodity, popular music contains a kind of economic power: an economic power created by, and for the economic advantage of, a ruling class of men.  Furthermore the social content of such music invites its listeners to participate actively in its manifest emotion and social “gesticulations,” expressed through its lyrical and musical content as well as its status as commodity.  The manifest content reaffirms musical structure and theme (the two/three minute pop song, gender roles, female singers, love songs, circumscribed “solos”) as well as music as commodity (radio, records, record stores, record players, as well as jingles etc.). Eahc structurally identical musical quality must actively compete, through the degree of its approximation to a socially normalized style, to be on top economically.  Music becomes popular through economic competition, gaining its place through economic investment and then dominance in the market, and through the passivity of the consumers that accept it for what it is, allowing themselves to be pushed around by its “gesticulations.”

Music’s cultural dominance is knowingly “manipulate[d]” by the “specialists in a field in which there is little to understand besides rules.” While the “specialists” are not specifically gender identified (although historically, considering them as dominantly male is not a stretch), out of the “masses” who consume the music, “girls” are singled out as prime examples of the “vague, inarticulate followers . . . trained . . . to faint upon hearing the voice of a ‘crooner’.  Their applause, cued in by a light-signal . . . they call themselves ‘jitter-bugs’, bugs which carry out reflex movements, performers of their own ecstasy.” Here Adorno creates an oppositional gender binary, between the “specialists” and the female “followers,” whose physical and emotional response to music not only defines them as specifically feminine but also completely unable to be the leaders.  As “girls,” Adorno presupposes his later identification of the audience with the “gesture of adolescence,” in that they are fickle to the “specialists” who manipulate who is to be popular and when.  Dancing here, the jitterbug, is taken as an overt technique of physical control, with undertones of sexuality.  Hence popular music means something specifically physical, the gratification of music does directly affect the body (whereas Webern’s music not only does not gratify but pains).

All of this ultimately characterizes popular music, jazz music, and the music/culture industry as particularly masculine entities in a heteronormative paradigm, exerting economic and sexual power over the masses.  The masses’ weakness is specifically feminine, since even though the masses are not homogeneously one gender, they are characterized by Adorno’s description of “girls”—all the masses act as “girls” always do, willing followers looking for sexual gratification via the music industry.  The masculinity of the music industry and the “specialists” invites a certain kind of sexual exchange between the male power of the industry and the female physical reaction to the music, in a way which allows for the “gratification and frustration of desires” to continually entice the female audience to passively accept its power. By putting the relationship between the culture industry and the masses in terms of gender, Adorno’s critique rings immature.  Indeed the masses are homogenized, but are his gendered terms the most effective way of critiquing a dualistic paradigm, produced by the culture industry itself?

Adorno’s discussion of commodified music contrasts with his Aesthetic Theory, wherein he considers art and music qua art.  Furthermore, here again we see a discussion of the interaction between music and the audience, which I will briefly outline in comparison with the interaction with popular music. I will then move to Adorno’s commentary on the emotional response of the audience to Beethoven and Webern’s Bagatelles, in order to support my reading of Adorno’s sexualization of the artwork and its audience.

Adorno writes that, “a listener is . . . to become excited when the music seems to do so, whereas to the extent that one understands anything, one should become emotionally all the more disinterested the pushier the work’s gesticulations become.“ Adorno, then, understands a power to exist in music (especially over the “masses”), but since music is so often a product of the culture industry, one must remain critically aware and detached from the emotions that the culture industry demands.  It is simplistic to allow music to have this kind of emotive power—it is weak-minded in the face of the culture industry, and a true critical listener must note the emotion but remain “disinterested” and distanced.

Yet he does not shy away from describing and thus admiring Webern’s music as “terrifying,” hardly a disinterested term, because this emotion gives “insight into the catastrophic situation” of the assertion and loss of individuality.  It seems that an emotional reaction such as Adorno’s “terror” would only be appropriate in the face of an “autonomous” work of art, but what mode or narrative of individuality must exist in the artwork to justify such a reaction?

Adorno’s describes Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as “the irruption of objectivity into subjective consciousness . . . it resonates like an overwhelming ‘Thus it is.’” Beethoven’s Ninth is “the result of the symphonic process,” a longer piece that finds its climax in its immanent structure and declares itself positively, “Thus it is.”  Adorno states that there is a “shudder” in response, “colored by fear of the overwhelming,” with a “mesmerizing effect.” The Ninth Symphony causes a “shudder” in its grandeur, and it “poses the question whether the power of being thus-and-not-otherwise . . . is the index of its truth.” This question, of the “thus-and-not-otherwise” nature of the Ninth Symphony is in its statement of “Thus it is” a sort of jouissance. As a declaration of truth and reality, it is a fearlessness of affirmation in the face of impermanence and death.  Considered as such, this affirmation stands for typically “masculine” values, and the music itself is figured as male.

The grandeur of the music, its “overwhelming” power that invites a “spontaneous reaction” from its listener (which Adorno implies to be a reaction similar among all listeners—in a Kantian response to the Sublime) is a statement of its own identity and power.  Its clarity and its “shudder, radically opposed to the conventional idea of experience [Erlebnis], provides no particular satisfaction for the I; it bears no similarity to desire.  Rather it is a memento of the liquidation of the I.” The Ninth Symphony’s power here is the loss of desire: the “I” is lost, but affirmed spectacularly in its ability to transcend the “I” and to procreate, to “overwhelm” but also to “[perceive] its own limitedness and finitude.” The “I,” which is male, is affirmed and lost, the implied “other” of the audience, who experiences the “shudder” in response is figured as female, “colored by fear of the overwhelming,” responding to the power of the male of the Symphony. That is to say, the male is the only subject capable of affirming himself, as women (as we have seen) are merely consumers, awed aesthetically but incapable of judgment, activity.  If this seems to be an essentializing reading of Adorno’s discussion of Beethoven, I maintain that this is a necessary criticism of his use of activity/passivity in a binary fashion.  What it brings into question is whether or not this declaration of male power is an adequate way of discerning power: if gender binaries of male as active and declarative and woman as passive and submissive is in fact the truth expressed by Beethoven, and if this need be the truth, if response need be gendered and music need be masculine.

What Adorno finds in Beethoven as the fraught expression of confidence in truth and maleness is what he realizes in Webern as being an antithesis to this and therefore, by my reading, more womanly.  The power of these pieces is found in their structure: what creates the grandeur and the jouissance of the Ninth Symphony and the brief, unsettling frustration of the Bagatelles is wound up in the formal length of either.  Whereas Beethoven writes a lengthy declaration of self, in a musically teleological narrative, climaxing in a paradoxical moment of truth wherein the self radically affirms itself, “Thus it is,” but loses itself in the “shudder” of the audience, Webern presents a series of “aphorisms” which resound terrifyingly in their unrecognizable structure, resounding as the truth of a voice unheard, the truth of uncertainty and confusion in the face of greater musical structures.

Adorno comments that “no particular in the artwork is legitimate without also becoming universal through its particularization . . . Exemplary here are Anton Webern’s works, in which sonata movements shrink to aphorisms.” In relation to Adorno’s discussion on “autonomous art” or rather, “all art that is still possible”: this art must contain a “social critique . . . raised to the level of form, to the point that it wipes out all manifestly social content [Inhalt].” Thus Webern’s music, as an example of autonomous art, stands in opposition to the music of the culture industry, specifically jazz because it tries to manipulate through “push[y] gesticulations.”

Webern’s music seems to hesitate between a variety of possible conclusions.  The music presents us with an “other” in social terms, cultural terms, sonic terms; Adorno’s interpretation places such music in a position to challenge to what we find familiar.  In this way it is similar to contemporary characterizations of women, as “other” or in their agency—even characterizations going further back to the classical era.  In music contemporary to Adorno this connects with the role of female singers in jazz and pop bands: as singers they give voice to the manifest content of songs, and more often than not sing about love and relationships.  Woman’s role in the music of the culture industry is prescribed and limited, but this could be read as structuring a safe space for the inclusion of women considering their classical role as destabilizing and threatening to masculine social structures.

Presumably, then, since Adorno finds musicians such as Webern to break all of these norms and conformities of popular music, this is part of what makes the music so terrifying.  Webern is not “pushy,” he does not attempt to become universal through lyrics nor through a recognizable and predictable form.  His music is somewhat difficult to classify by genre, and as Adorno writes, it is difficult to even call his work “songs” or “movements” but truly “aphorisms” of music, brief and to the point.  Thus Webern’s bagatelles not only break the rules of music but break the rules of social behaviors and hierarchies—it therefore displaces the listener from a familiar social position, by being positively valued in its role as other.

Webern’s music is unstable, dangerous, emotional, and voiceless.  Yet for Adorno music reveals, through the particular, a universal terror at certain essential truths of our condition.  If we are to take Adorno’s continually sexualized and gendered critique of music in the culture industry, alongside the powerful jouissance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, it seems apparent that whatever assumptions are jarred by Webern’s music must, in a sense, fall along this register. In an Adornian framework, Webern’s bagatelles represent the voice of women, the truly radical other to the accepted structure of active artwork and passive audience.  Webern’s work can be seen to upset the social order by presenting the “catastrophic situation,” which is this very same paradigm of gendered binary in Adorno’s aesthetic theory.

In conclusion, there is a theoretical gap in Adorno’s work, between his lucid and provocative critique of the culture industry, and the immanent contradictions of his inability to move past a binary, gendered criticism. This indicates the usefulness of a more intensive analysis of the interaction between Adorno’s various critiques of music. ❉