Get You Back Home

Two Worlds of Fortune: Culture and Dying in the Global Zone

Fools lament the decay of criticism. For its day is long past. Criticism is a matter of correct distancing. It was at home in a world where perspectives and prospects counted and where it was still possible to take a standpoint. Now things press too closely on human society. The 'unclouded', 'innocent' eye has become a lie, perhaps the whole naïve mode of expression sheer incompetence. Today the most real, the mercantile gaze into the heart of things is the advertisement. It abolishes the space where contemplation moved and all but hits us between the eyes with things as a car, growing to gigantic proportions, careers at us out of a film screen. … 'Matter of a factness' is finally dispatched, and in the face of the huge images across the walls of houses, where toothpaste and cosmetics lie handy for giants, sentimentality is restored to health and liberated in American style, just as people whom nothing moves or touches any longer are taught to cry again by films.

Walter Benjamin, One Way Street 1926


*Michael Jackson publicity campaign East Berlin, History tour

In the 1940s, horrified by Nazism in Germany and destabilised by the dominant mode of life and value system of the United Sates, their exile home, Adorno and Horkheimer wrote Dialectic of Enlightenment. One of its vignettes is called ‘Two Worlds’. It begins

Here in America there is no difference between a man and his economic fate. A man is made by his assets, income, position, and prospects. The economic mask coincides completely with a man’s inner character. Everyone is worth what he earns and earns what he is worth. He learns what he is through the vicissitudes of his economic existence. He knows nothing else.

Undoubtedly, the shock for the German exiles was that, in the US, money was not a private affair. Money was not a subject to be avoided in polite company, but, on the contrary, it was a measure of self-worth to be publicly brandished. But the Europeans’ repulsion at this brash materialism was not simply result of their gentlemanly politesse, and their horror at what should remain secret and yet be enjoyed privately. It was an inkling that commodification of the self, and the invasion of commodity relations into all areas of life, was an advancing, intensifying process and that the new Empire led the way where others would follow. In Adorno and Horkheimer’s statement that ‘everyone is worth what he earns and earns what he is worth’ - there is irony, or inhabitation of the speech patterns of the enemy, for surely Adorno and Horkheimer, students of Marxism, know that within capitalism precisely the wage recipient does not earn what he is worth in any genuine sense. The measure is a skewed one - ‘worth’ or value arises only via a complex set of mechanisms and mediations. Contrary to the appearance of transparency, the reality of value is not so immediately apparent.

For Adorno and Horkheimer the citizens of the US have assimilated a crude version of materialism, fully accepting what was previously considered a Marxist maxim: that social existence determines consciousness. Adorno and Horkheimer write of the US male: ‘They judge themselves by their own market value and learn what they are from what happens to them in the capitalistic economy’.

Newly trapped inside that capitalist economy is also culture. Dialectic of Enlightenment’s chapter on the ‘culture industry’ squeals out a protest against the entertainments that emerge from standardization and capitalist, be that free world or state-directed – methods of production, both dictatorships by the market, whether or not mediated through bureaucratic administration. Adorno and Horkheimer observe plenty of opportunities for the culture industry to broadcast cultural propaganda, dreams, tales of success and the ‘it could be you’ of lottery tickets, all re-asserting an ideology of luck and chance, that is the system’s get-out clause, circumventing the slogan about everyone getting the price that’s right. For the lucky few, there’s always a chance - or hope - of being one of the fortunate few who shoots out of the crowd into easy money or fame. If it doesn’t happen, say Adorno and Horkheimer, then it was simply your fault or your fate. Positivistic and anti-idealist the American way may be, but it cannot do away with the ancient concept of destiny. However fate’s motive force is not the gods but something emerging from the sorry masses themselves, their own efforts or lack of them. Adorno and Horkheimer write:

Their fate, however sad it may be, is not something outside of them; they recognise its validity.
A dying man in China might say, in a lowered voice:
Fortune did not smile on me in this world,
Where am I going now? Up into the mountains
To seek peace for my lonely heart.
I am a failure, the American says - and that is that.

‘Two Cultures’ proposes, then, two different modes of being in the world, linked to two types of fortune – luck or monetary, both covered by the English word fortune. Here cultural difference is registered – one world where the caprice of the gods organizes and determines life’s meaning, and one world where even the internal sense of self is measured in terms of hard cash equivalent.1. And what is that internal self - something pre-articulated, the inside as pure externality indeed. In his 1938 essay ‘On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening’,2. Adorno notes the insidious methods that advertisers use to promote awareness of their products. He writes:

For a while an English brewery used for propaganda purposes a billboard that bore a deceptive likeness to one of the whitewashed brick walls which are so numerous in the slums of London and the industrial cities of the North. Properly placed, the billboard was barely distinguishable from a real wall. On it, chalk-white, was a careful imitation of awkward writing. The words said: ‘What we want is Watney’s’.

The brand of beer is presented as a political preference, the ad-line a type of slogan, parodying political demands from below. The masses are meant to make a commodity recommended to them the object of their own desires and actions. There is compulsion at work. Compulsion operates bodily too. Capitalist cultural forms infiltrate themselves into the body when its victims are compelled to whistle pop tunes, when movements imitate the movements on the screen, when street language limps behind media formulations. Language presses in from the outside, transporting with it domination.

In identifying the monopolistic character of culture, and industry in general – and its compulsive invasion of mind-space and bodily gesture, Adorno and Horkheimer perceive a tendency that – despite recent sunny pronouncements about niche culture, cultural proliferation, audience empowerment and the world of choice – has continued unabated into our era. What they called ‘the system which is uniform as a whole and in every part’ still persists and, despite well broadcast assertions of diversity and choice, in this world too ‘all the living units crystallise into well-organized complexes’.3 Indeed the monopolistic tendency is even more pronounced nowadays, when, for example, in the United States media concentration is far greater than ever before – a huge world market divided up between the ‘big ten’ media conglomerates that have billion-dollar interests in publishing, television, film, video and radio, music, theme-parks, internet and sports.4 Concentrated ownership across these areas makes it so much easier to cross-promote products, i.e. to produce material in multiple formats, as in the Disney animation film that becomes video, theme-park attraction, book, in magazines, pop hit, toy and accessories, and McDonald’s or Burger King ‘freebie’. It all locks together tightly and forms an unavoidable bulk. This is a world of exhausted internationalised formats, where repetition is compulsive, as Big Brother 2, 3 and 4 and Celebrity Big Brother, or Celebrity Survivor, or another so called Reality TV show or quiz show format replicates around the world. Boredom inhabits this process as a permanent threat, and so hopes are high for short memories as the next re-recycling comes round, and celebrities rise and fall, to give the illusion that something is really happening, when really everything in essence stays the same: the business as usual of the expropriation of surplus-value.

*prepare for an even richer aroma

In this system language corruption is now well-advanced. The commodity has infiltrated our most intimate moments. It speaks to us like a friend, lover, employer, teacher, nurse - or simply as our inner voice.

*I can’t believe its not butter

The branders of products take it upon themselves to pre-determine our experience by naming things – in ways that leave no room for a spontaneous relation to the object: They try to speak for us, just as Adorno observed in the ‘What We Want’ advert for Watney’s beer. The branders regulate the words, but its seems as if the products, these little fetishes, speak to us, or rather for us:

The brands try to pre-empt our senses, putting words into our mouths, until words like ‘delicious’ are applied to the patently non-delicious, and ‘speciality’ to the ordinary - these become trademark properties of poor quality mass foodstuffs.

*Deliciously flavoured rice

Or they try to join up the dots of our experience by reflection across its domains.

*tinned food – tv themed.

And every available space is devoted to this invasion of subjectivity by objectivity:

* Beer advert, Camden 2003

The rich aroma is moments away, uttered Nescafe coffee, just as your thumb was poised to burst the gold foil.

*Rich aroma is moments away

Continuing their one-way conversation, a few months later it changed to: ‘Prepare for an even richer aroma’.

*Prepare for an even richer aroma

When Coca Cola entered the Chinese market back in the 1920s, it initiated a process in branding which was perhaps anticipatory. The characters for the name were apparently chosen in order to prescribe the experience to be had, and so Mandarin Chinese spelt out ‘to permit mouth to be able to rejoice’ - or something palatable from which one derives pleasure.’5


The contemporary echo of this is the occupation of a word like cool or bliss or sublime until it is shaken of meaning, and turns banal.

*Cool crisps

In the 1940s, Adorno and Horkheimer still spoke of two worlds, but they saw that standardization of culture was linked to industrial capitalist forms of manufacture, and so, as that form became everywhere the dominant form, in its trail would follow a global standardization of cultural forms. The dying peasant in China - or at least the peasant’s cousin, the factory worker - is exposed eventually to the same images and sounds. The extension of the standardised domain brings with it the promise of pleasures that are never fulfilled but keep people hoping and holding on to the edge of the abyss, instead of struggling out of it. But there is a flip-side. A global working class is forged, with common reference points. Even in Adorno’s day, such exposure to identical cultural experiences was developing. After all, it was in 1928 that Coca Cola entered the Chinese market, though - given its repulsion again when Sino-US relations were bad - it was not until September 2002 that Coca Cola could announce its 50% share of the Chinese beverage market, and rising. Worldwide, experience of labour and cultural experience standardise, shrinking that field of experience, but making the points of contact more extensive. If there is now a common language, of work processes and management-speak, of products and advertising, of establishment political slogans world-wide, there is also be a world-wide language of criticism, of counter-slogans, of organization and resistance. A single language is shared –and languages - even individual words - can be made to say very different things, depending on the spin. Subversion too has the chance to be universally understood, and that means universally reiterated to potentially devastating effect. This is where art and politics conjoin. Or, better, cultural practice is recast.

No longer is art met by an anti-art that was excited by the massifying and anti-hierarchical powers of labels, packaging, illustrated magazines.



Or a cool aestheticism of the new glossy object caught on the new glossy photographic paper.

* Alfred Renger-Patzsch

Perhaps this commercialised effusion has become too much a part of our environment to propose new modes of social relations beyond art, and the system of inequity that shores it up. Instead anti-culture is needed - a more specific type of subversion of the signs that exist. No longer is it enough to incorporate them into artistic statements.




*Jeff Koons - hoover

*Jeff Koons - hoover

Pop Art showed that Dada’s commercial redeployments might simply, in the end, flatter the market. The imagery of commercial detritus has to be detonated, challenged on the level of the sign itself, as in today’s anti-logos, anti-brandings and subvertisements. All these practices recognise both the spread of the power of the corporations, but can also exploit the widespread intelligibility of capitalist commercial signage. As much as the world-wide deployment of the commodity excites businessmen and advertisers who forge their grand-scale images, increasingly it is subversion of these common factors that excites art activists, and is carried out by sometimes high-tech, sometimes low-tech, local means. The wish is to speak globally to a global field of domination, in which populations are more normally expected to remain mute and adopt the role of consumer.

*Jacket of One Way Street

In the mid-1920s, Walter Benjamin considered the language of the streets, in his book One Way Street, a book that signalled his break with traditional modes of literary scholarship, with its subheadings retrieved from street signage and advertisements. Its programmatic opening clause asserted that the languages of mass communication provide the template for modern articulation. Benjamin proposed the urgent communication of the telegram, postcard, leaflet or the economically articulate photomontage. He writes:

true literary activity cannot aspire to take place within a literary framework this is, rather, the habitual expression of its sterility. Significant literary work can only come into being in a strict alternation between action and writing; it must nurture the inconspicuous forms that better fit its influence in active communities than does the pretentious universal gesture of the book - in leaflets, brochures, articles and placards. Only this prompt language shows itself actively equal to the moment.6

Benjamin saw mass communications dialectically. Universally understood languages - words, forms, reference points - emerge. However, at the same time, there is a danger of control of meanings from above, of a degradation, of an emptying out of meaning as words and signs are hitched to selling commodities or selling newspapers or selling political lines and ideology, and all experience is filtered through exchange relations. Benjamin recognised an equally dialectical strategy to combat this, and quotation was at its core: if found materials are cited in critical contexts there is a chance of regaining expressability in an age of degraded communication. The languages around us are the vehicles of communication, but they must be re-imbued with meanings for us. In a letter to Gershom Scholem in August 1935, Benjamin set such redemptive quoting at the heart of his method, a salvaging of scraps, the penetrant but trivial flotsam of our daily lives, and, in redeploying them, re-articulate them. He recorded his ‘attempt to hold the image of history in the most unprepossessing fixations of being, so to speak, the scraps of being’.7

Such a strategy of redeeming the scraps and rubbish is connected to another of Benjamin’s espousals- the promotion of a new and positive concept of barbarism, as presented in Benjamin’s 1933 essay ‘Experience and Poverty’.8 ‘A NEW BARBARISM’- this has become something of a catchphrase now, operative as category in bestsellers such as The Coming Anarchy by warmongering US journalist Robert Kaplan or the liberal moral critique in The Empire and the New Barbarians by Jean-Christophe Rufin from Doctors Without Borders. Michael Hardt and Toni Negri also speak of barbarism, though positively, in fact drawing on Walter Benjamin, in a part of Empire called ‘New Barbarians’. Benjamin is evoked as author of a strategy of ‘new, positive notion of barbarism’. Quoting from Benjamin’s vignette ‘The Destructive Character’, they write of how the poverty of experience obliges the barbarian to begin anew, that the ‘new barbarian ‘sees nothing permanent. But for this very reason he sees ways everywhere’.9

For Hardt and Negri, the new barbarians ruin the old order through affirmative violence. Hardt and Negri argue, then, for the progressive nature of barbarism following the collapse of the Soviet Union. A migrant barbarian multitude - former ‘productive cadres’ who desert socialist discipline and bureaucracy in a bid for freedom.10 Its barbarianism manifests in modes of life - their bodies transform and mutate to create new posthuman bodies, fluid both in sexuality and gender ascription, cyborgish and simian, bodies that are ‘completely incapable of submitting to command’, and ‘incapable of adapting to family life, to factory discipline, to the regulations of a traditional sex life’. There is a technological supplement to this. Hardt and Negri write: ‘The contemporary form of exodus and the new barbarian life demand that tools become poietic prostheses, liberating us from the conditions of modern humanity.’ And these protheses are, according to Hardt/Negri, those of the ‘plastic and fluid terrain of the new communicative, biological, and mechanical technologies.’

But Hardt and Negri’s Benjaminian barbarian is misconceived. This fluidity and self-modification mistakes itself if it believes it draws on Benjamin’s ‘positive concept of barbarism’. Benjamin’s barbarism relates to art producers and consumers and is instead strategic and negational - that is to say it operates in contradictory relation to the points of tension, rather than setting up a parallel existence. Experience – Erfahrung – is on the wane, noted Benjamin in the 1930s, and war’s technological traumas have instated experience as Erlebnis, as adventure, as shock. This is an impoverished form of experience, but, as realist, Benjamin advises that the poverty of experience be acknowledged so as to begin anew, through this ‘new positive concept of barbarism’.11 Artists should not ignore or mourn experience’s impoverishment, but retransmit it, precisely by imitating the technology and the forms that give rise to alienation. ‘Experience and Poverty’ applauds cultural producers who do this, who incorporate formally, in various ways, capitalism’s alienating ‘barbarism’: Brecht with his social-political dramaturgy of alienation, Adolf Loos with his brute unornamented buildings, and Paul Scheerbart with his utopian figments of telescopes and aeroplanes and space rockets transforming people who now live new mass and public lives inside glass houses.12 Also invoked are the cubists who drew on mathematics to re-form the world stereoscopically, and Paul Klee who borrows the work of engineers, his figures are car-like, mechanical and with interiors rather than innerness, or souls. Benjamin says that they are conceived on a car’s drawing board’ and just ‘as a good car in its bodywork obeys above all the necessities of the motor’ they obey ‘their interior in the expression on their faces. The interior more than inwardness: that is what makes them barbaric.13 Present too in the list of barbaric producers is early Disney with his deranged film-world of spirited technologies and animals. The laughter that his films set off can sound barbaric or inhuman, but that is only because it is a damaged articulation on the part of the exploited. The audience craves some dreamy form of compensation in the jaws of shock experience. What Benjamin finds is that Mickey Mouse films mock the technology that rules over people in the labour process, in particular, while at the same time understanding the utopian impulse that this technology plugs. This is no sleek techno-fetishism, as promoted by New Objectivity and others since. In fact, the film scenarios turn technical invention back into a feat of nature. In so doing they oblige audiences to confront how technology rules over them as a fetish, as second nature. But it also gives an inkling of how technology might work with them in the service of liberation.

In all these examples, Benjamin’s positive concept of barbarism has less to do with an effortless prosthetic use of technologies to modify bodies, flowing in the direction of capital’s own unfolding, and more to do with a scornful appropriation for strategic purposes of representation, which feed into both nightmarish and utopian visions of technological potential. 'Impoverished experience' is overpowered only if the fact of poverty is made into the underpinning of a political strategy of a ‘new barbarism’ that corresponds faithfully to the new realities of the constellation of Masse and Technik, in all their potential combinations.

*Heartfield - Das ist das Heil

In his day, Benjamin was buoyed up by a mass media worker, John Heartfield, who developed a critical method of working with refuse, especially technological detritus, and who turned the barbarism of capitalism back against itself.

*Heartfield 1930 - The Fish

Heartfield’s photomontages took the enemies’ words and images - from the press, from speeches, advertising and so on - and used them as evidence against those enemies in humorous jokes, fastened explosively to the moment, in a skirmish over the meaning of words.

* Heartfield, The Cross 1933

For Heartfield there is no other place from which to view the world – no place of exodus out of contemporary exigencies, only a battle over a particular word in this world, a class struggle in the realm of signs.14

* Heartfield Xmas Tree

This struggle in the realm of signs, over the meaning of the shared terms is one of the fields in which much anti-capitalist and anti-globalization activism has occurred - in parody adverts, in detourned corporate logos, in billboard subversion, in spoof engagements with corporations such as the infamous Nike shoe personalisation story. ‘Globalisation’ produced its antithesis, a globalised resistance - or, more specifically, resistance to world capitalism on a world scale. This resistance brought forth another world of cultural activity - epitomised in anti-capitalist activism, and much of which is instinctively or consciously based on avant-gardist theories and practices, such as montage and detournement. These practices take on digital form through various types of 'net-activism' and also in old-school styles (as in the activities of 'Billboard Liberation', or subvertising). Both sets of practices might be fruitfully thought of in relation to Benjamin's concept of the 'new barbarism' - a kind of squatting of the enemy's methods, tools and modes of address, a squatting which forces a confrontation rather than builds a parallel universe. It makes little sense to speak of such practices - which happen both locally on any street corner or globally via the world wide web, frequently anonymously, eschewing the personal mark of the creator - as either art, on the one hand, or politics, on the other. They are both. And they are also a response to the cheapening of technologies and new forms of reproduction and distribution, as well as a response to the world-wide marketing of signs, and, along with them, the values that they attempt to enforce globally. The tendency of the commodity form is to universalise itself, presenting us then with shared experiences, shared languages. In this context, today's impoverished experience being is taken to task and re-animated - en masse and technically - by 'newly barbaric' strategies of occupation - and occupation means not relinquishing the ground.

* Chrsto - Berlin Mesiterwerke

In the global zone of impoverished experience language is made identical to the commodity, and the experience that the commodity is to provide. The commodity is the only measure of value - this is an illusion - for commodity and person alike pass through the largely invisible abstraction of money. It is not its use value that is encoded but another type of pre-processed value, already enmeshed in mechanisms of exchange. Experience is filtered through the commodity. Capitalists fight to protect themselves, through copyright and libel laws, of course, and also through organizations such as the Brand Names Education Foundation whose stated mission is:

to advance worldwide knowledge of the nature, purpose and value of brand names and the responsibilities associated with their use. The Foundation believes that trademarks and brand names enable consumers to make intelligent choices among competing products and services while encouraging accountability, quality and honest competition.15

It is important to remember that these words are not theirs to own but ours to use. Any sign can be a terrain of struggle over meaning - such as fortune, with its meanings pertaining to the economic, to luck, to fate, or other meanings. The tendency of the commodity form is to universalise itself, and so we are back with shared experiences, shared languages. In that context the struggle over signs is a type of Esperanto, internationally experienced and internationally understood. It has its moments of irony and subtlety - subvertisements, net activism spoofs, ironically positioned billboard liberation front activities - all of these anti-culture struggles against the clutter of commercial signs in the environment. Our response to the copyrighting and commodification of language and experience must be to find ways of mocking their commodity-bliss and commercial spray-on sublime, in order to produce our own self-determined versions and reveries. These may be subtle. But equally there are times when a simple direct utterance is called for. This simple direct utterance refixes words and their meanings, in a language everyone can understand - from the US citizen to the dying Chinese peasant in Adorno’s 1940s, or at least his factory-worker granddaughter.


*American Airlines advert – graffitied with US planes drop bombs …..fuckers.

1. In Adorno and Horkheimer’s America there was only conformity, a smoothly functioning capitalist whole, as uniform as the totalitarian Germany that they had left behind. Admittedly they overlooked certain tensions, the class struggles that pitted the glossy surface and which found a response – albeit a paranoid one – in the anti-Communist witch-hunts of the 1940s and 1950s. Adorno and Horkheimer were apparently unable to concede that even in an industry that epitomised for them the motor of ideological industrialised culture – Hollywood - there were fights, since the Wagner Act of 1935, upheld by the Supreme Court in April 1937, which encouraged employees to take seriously the right to organise and to protect themselves against unfair labour practices. Indeed, the 1940s saw a number of strikes in Hollywood, even at the core of the monstrous machinery of sadistic fun, at Disney’s Burbank Studio. But maybe labour militancy was not enough for Adorno and Horkheimer. They were seeking something more fundamental than fair pay and class solidarity, something akin to a revolution of the whole way in which life is lived, and culture experienced.

2. The Culture Industry p42

3. Dialectic of Enlightenment

4. See The Nation’s report on the ‘Big Ten’ media conglomerates – available online.

5. See Transliteration of Coca-Cola Trademark to Chinese Characters, by H.F. Allman, formerly Legal Counsel in China for The Coca-Cola Company, cited at and, as evidence of the truth of this story.

6. The quote beigins: ‘The construction of life is at present in the power of facts far more than of convictions, and of such facts as have scarcely ever become the basis of convictions. Under these circumstances …’ Walter Benjamin, One Way Street and Other Writings, New Left Books, London 1979, p45.

7. Walter Benjamin, Briefe 2, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt/Main 1978 p685.

8. See ‘Erfahrung und Armut’ [1933] Walter Benjamin, G.S.II.1 p214.

9. The quote continues: ‘Where others encounter walls or mountains, there, too, he sees a way. But because he sees a way everywhere, he has to clear things from it everywhere. … Because he sees ways everywhere, he always positions himself at crossroads. No moment can know what the next will bring. What exists he reduces to rubble, not for the sake of the rubble, but for that of the way leading through it.’

10 A Negri, M Hardt Empire Boston 2000, p214

11. ‘Erfahrung und Armut’ [1933] Walter Benjamin, G.S.II.1 p215.

12. Scholem introduced Benjamin to Scheerbart’s writing in 1917.

13. ‘Erfahrung und Armut’ [1933] Walter Benjamin, G.S.II.1 p216.

14. Reminiscing in 1967, Heartfield said: 'how I got the idea of making photomontages. I’d say I started making photomontages during the First World War I found out how you can fool people with photos, really fool them. You can lie and tell the truth by putting the wrong title or wrong captions under them, and that’s roughly what was being done. Photos of the war were being used to support the policy to hold out when the war had long since been settled on the Marne and the German army had already been beaten - I was a soldier from very early on. Then we pasted, I pasted and quickly cut out a photo and then put one under another. Of course that produced another counterpoint, a contradiction that expressed something different.’ Cited in Peter Pachnicke and Klaus Honnef (eds), John Heartfield, Abrams, New York 1992.

15 Cited from BNEF website.

Back to Adornoism

Get You Back Home