Titus Stahl

Adorno on how to look at television and how to use punctuation

Although Adorno has the reputation of being highly abstract, anyone who has at least read Minima Moralia knows that this reputation is not justified – Adorno quite often uses small details of daily life to explain how the totality of social relations can be discovered by looking at such details.

Next to his more famous publications, two smaller and less well-known essays are quite interesting in this regard:

How to look at television (link goes to JSTOR) is a 1954 publication, based on the research on mass culture Adorno did in the United States:

Every spectator of a television mystery knows with absolute certainty how it is going to end. Tension is but superficially maintained and is unlikely to have a serious effect any more. On the contrary, the spectator feels on safe ground all the time. This longing for “feeling on safe ground”-reflecting an infantile need for protection, rather than his desire for a thrill-is catered to. The element of excitement is preserved only with tongue in cheek. Such changes fall in line with the potential change from a freely competitive to a virtually “closed” society into which one wants to be admitted or from which one fears to be rejected. Everything somehow appears “predestined.”

Punctuation marks (link goes to a PDF file):

Literary dilettantes can be recognized by their desire to connect everything. Their products hook sentences together with logical connectives even though the logical relationship asserted by those connectives does not hold. To the person who cannot truly conceive anything as a unit, anything that suggests disintegration or discontinuity is unbearable; only a person who can grasp totality can understand caesuras. But the dash provides instruction in them. In the dash, thought becomes aware of its fragmentary character. It is no accident that in the era of the progressive degeneration of language, this mark of punctuation is neglected precisely insofar as it fulfills its function: when it separates things that feign a connection. All the dash claims to do now is to prepare us in a foolish way for surprises that by that very token are no longer surprising.

These observations can also be useful when reading philosophy papers!