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Analysis of Theodor Adorno's "Cultural Criticism and Society"

I love writing and I have a BA in sociology and English and comparative literary studies from Occidental College.


In 1951, German sociologist Theodor Adorno wrote “Cultural Criticism and Society,” one of the most important essays through which we can understand the concept of critical theory. This essay details a striking tension between the philosophical methods of "transcendent criticism" and "immanent criticism." In this complex work, Adorno explains these styles of criticism by analyzing the position of the critic both within and outside of culture. Furthermore, Adorno argues that in order for art to be considered successful, it must contain some truth that society is contradictory. To further understand the tension between transcendent criticism and immanent criticism, it is important to examine how each method has been contextualized within the world of critical theory.

Adorno begins by explaining that transcendent criticism, the traditional model for critiquing culture, has failed to be truly critical. In transcendent criticism, a critic generally sees both their position and artistic phenomena as completely independent of society and its norms. In other words, these traditional critics sought to interpret culture as objectively as they could. However, Adorno states that “professional critics were first of all ‘reporters’: they oriented people in the market of intellectual products” (Adorno 1951:259). These conventional critics functioned like brokers, mediating sales between the producer and the consumer. However, in doing so, these critics “gained insights into the matter at hand, yet remained continually traffic agents, in agreement with the sphere as such if not with its individual products” (Adorno, 1951: 259). This explanation is important because it shows that transcendent critics had gained privileged positions in society and were intricately connected to the development of culture. Furthermore, this notion suggests that from this privileged position, it is much more difficult to be truly critical of culture.

Adorno argues that the transcendent perspective is ideological. In order to prove this claim, he outlines his own theory of ideology. Adorno’s theory of ideology is a materialist transformation of German philosopher Georg Hegel’s concept of “Geist.” In order to understand how this theory has been re-contextualized, it is crucial to explain Hegel’s original concept. “Geist” (the German word for spirit, mind, and soul) can be subdivided into three categories: subjective spirit, objective spirit, and absolute spirit. Subjective spirit can be thought of as potential force (past), while objective spirit is active force (present), and absolute spirit is the goal, aim, or target of the force (future). The relationship between these three subdivisions of the concept “Geist” is that there is continuous cycle between them. Similarly, Adorno argued that there was a continuous cycle between the economic world of exchange and the transcendent critics (Adorno, 1951: 254). For example, if the work of a critic functions as an advertisement for consumable culture, then it parallels the economic world of exchange. Therefore, Hegel’s concept of “Geist” facilitates Adorno’s explanation that society and culture are two extreme poles of a self-producing social totality.

However, Hegel’s theory differs substantially from classic Marxist thought. Instead of arguing that base (economic life) determines superstructure (culture and social institutions), Hegel claimed that both base and superstructure frequently cause one another—a continuous cycle of economic life producing culture, and culture producing economic life. This distinction between the two theories is important because it further illustrates the extent, to which, transcendent critics were connected to the economic development of culture.

Adorno also explains another important type of cultural criticism: immanent criticism. Ideologically, this contemporary style of cultural criticism is very different from transcendent criticism. While transcendent criticism explains how cultural phenomena are an indirect expression of the regrettable condition of human society, immanent criticism seeks to retrieve the social meaning of these cultural phenomena altogether. Furthermore, immanent criticism analyzes cultural phenomena by the societal contradictions in the rules and systems that offer the most determinate possibilities for emancipatory social change (Adorno, 1951: 266). For example, in the early 1980s, an American hip-hop group named Public Enemy became well known for their politically charged lyrics and criticism of the American media and state. With an active interest in the frustrations and concerns of the African-American community, Public Enemy attempted to expose many societal contradictions in the American concept of freedom: race-profiling, police brutality, and the delay of emergency response units in black communities. By critiquing these lamentable cultural phenomena, Public Enemy utilized immanent criticism to create emancipatory social change.

Immanent criticism also aims to contextualize not only the object of its investigation but also the ideological basis of that object. Adorno argues that both the object and the category to which it belongs are shown to be products of a historical process (Adorno, 1951: 263). For example, Public Enemy attempted to critique the societal contradictions in the American concept of freedom. However, in doing so, the hip-hop group changed the ideological basis of freedom within the African-American community.


Tarik Aarbaoui from Morocco on November 23, 2012:

Very interesting hub on a subject which I like and I wrote on :) thx for enlightening us!

MichaelStonehill on September 19, 2012:

An interesting hub on an important issue. I think that Adorno's claims had been stated previously in other forms or as complementary ideas by Hyppolite Taine and Saint-Beuve. Anyway, I suggest you to read books by Gyorgy Lukas whose cultural criticism is perhaps deeper than that of the Frankfurt school.