Adorno vs. Lüthi

So after my last post, Linda recommended I take a look at Theodor Adorno’s “Culture Industry Reconsidered”. And she was right, it’s quite relevant to what I’m thinking about right now. But as I was chewing my way through Adorno, I found myself, in the back of my mind, hearing the voice of Lüthi – and I was thinking to myself, “I’m sorry, Theo, Max makes more sense.” Now, I know it’s a piece of infernal cheek of me to presume to disagree with Herr Professor Adorno, and it’s quite likely that I don’t really know what I’m talking about. But, for what it’s worth, here’s the thoughts I thunk.

First, here’s Adorno:

“In our drafts we spoke of ‘mass culture’. We replaced that expression with ‘culture industry’ in order to exclude from the outset the interpretation agreeable to its advocates: that it is a matter of something like a culture that arises spontaneously from the masses themselves, the contemporary form of popular art [the German says “Volkskunst“, “folk art, folklore”].”

“In so far as the culture industry arouses a feeling of well-being that the world is precisely in that order suggested by the culture industry, the substitute gratification which it prepares for human beings cheats them out of the same happiness which it deceitfully projects.”

Adorno, “Culture Industry Reconsidered” (from The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture. London: Routledge, 1991) retrieved from here.

So, two points: according to him, “mass culture” is not the same as “folk culture” (Massenkultur vs. Volkskultur); to oversimplify, the former is bad, the latter is good. He and Horkheimer renamed “mass culture” to “culture industry” for the sake of making their points, but I’m going to keep to “mass culture” here (because it allows me to make my point better). Secondly, mass culture “arouses a feeling of well-being that the world is … in … order” (in this case the particular order suggested by the culture industry), which is only a “substitute gratification”.

Now, that’s what triggered the thoughts of Lüthi. Listen to this:

“The folktale is normative [Seinsollensdichtung, literature of what ought to be], but not in the sense that it presents us with a merely possible world that, unlike the real world, represents the way things should be, so that the real world can be contrasted to it. The folktale does not show us a world that is in order; it shows us the world that is in order. It shows us that the world is the way it should be. At one and the same time, the folktale depicts the world as it is [Seinsdichtung, literature of being] and as it ought to be [Seinsollensdichtung].” (89, bold-face mine)

“As a narrative type, the folktale simultaneously entertains and illuminates the nature of existence.” (92)

“It is as though the folktale wishes to give us assurance: even if you yourself do not know whence you come and whither you are going, even if you do not know what forces are influencing you and how they are doing so, even if you do not know what kind of [connections] you are embedded in, you may rest assured that you do stand in the midst of meaningful [connections].” (92)

Lüthi, The European Folktale: Form and Nature (Philadelphia: ISHI, 1982)

The folktale, Lüthi says, gives meaning, deep, existential meaning, by letting us experience a world that is in order, or rather, “the world that is in order”. And the way it draws us into that experience is by being entertaining. It entertains, and thereby presents a model of the nature of existence, of order, which is deeply fulfilling, existentially meaning-making.

Now, if it wasn’t for Adorno’s emphatic declaration that mass culture IS NOT folk culture, you’d almost think they were talking about the same thing, wouldn’t you? The entertainment that “arouses a feeling of well-being that the world is in order…” Mass culture – folk culture… To be quite honest, I’m not sure where the line is between “the mass” (as in, the common people, the crowds, the great unwashed and uneducated conglomerations of humanity) and “the folk”, “das Volk” (as in, the common people, the crowds, the – you get the picture, hygiene and education level aside). See, when the Grimms and their friends started to collect folktales, part of the big idea behind it was that they were folk tales, Volksmärchen – stories of the common people that the educated intelligentsia used to look down their noses at because they were so low-class, so low-culture. The Grimms, and many other folktale collectors following in their shoes, tried to collect tales “directly from the mouth of the people”, down to sometimes phonetically transcribing the dialect of the speaker (or so they claimed – but that’s another topic which I won’t go into now). They saw value in the art of the common folk, just like their contemporaries, the Romantic poets and painters, discovered the value of dirty, messy, uncivilised nature. The key point here is “common“, “plebeian”.

There are some folklore theorists who hold to the (quite controversial) idea that fairy tales are actually not originally “folk” tales which were “literacized” by collectors, i.e. came from the bottom of society and penetrated to the top, but that they are literary tales, written as “high culture” by specific authors, which have been assimilated and “popularized” by the people – top to bottom, as it were. Now, the validity of that theory, or lack thereof, is another topic for another day. But there are documented cases of that top-to-bottom movement happening – “Beauty and the Beast” being one, or “The Little Mermaid” another (Andersen wrote it as an original story, but the story that’s known today is not “his” any more, it’s been assimilated and altered by common culture). And when that kind of adaptation happens, the style of the piece can change. The people accept it as “theirs”, and adapt it. Lüthi says: “Therefore one may indeed say that in the oral tradition of the folk, the folktale style passes through a process of self-correction […] The fate of the tales of Grimm and Musäus [or de Villeneuve or Andersen] when returned to oral tradition shows in what sense the folktale may be called a collective composition” (112). And he concludes:  “The tale-telling folk takes part in the creation of the work.” (102, German edition).

So why, may I ask, is today’s mass culture not the contemporary form of folk art? If the answer is because it didn’t “arise[] spontaneously from the masses themselves”, well then, much of our cherished folklore doesn’t qualify either. But if “Beauty and the Beast”, which was written by a seventeenth-century French noblewoman (people-suppressing ancien régime much?), is allowed into the hallowed halls of “culture”, then, perhaps, much as I dislike the thought – and now I am, quite consciously, moving onto very thin ice – even Disney might lay some claim to entry? Professor Adorno would be horrified.

8 thoughts on “Adorno vs. Lüthi

  1. Awesome post!! I want to comment about your observation that people adopt stories and make them their own. Or do they? When I was researching my last paper, I found that countries and cultures around the globe had Cinderella stories that were alarmingly similar. Even the North American aboriginal peoples have a Cinderella-esque story that could not have been influenced by the 17th century Perrault tale, so I don’t know how that can be explained, except by suggesting that the moral of the tale is true everywhere, and was “taught” through folk tales. What do you think…yes…no…?


  2. Well, yes – like I said, the theory of the “top-down” origin of folktales is quite controversial, and I for one don’t buy it. For some tales, we *know* that’s the path they took, but I do believe that for most, their genesis was “from the bottom up”. So for something like Cinderella, I believe those stories express universal human truths. The scenario of a girl trapped in conflict with her mother/stepmother and competing with (step)sisters, and finally emerging triumphant, is replayed over and over in human history, and so retold over and over in our stories. So it’s not even so much about a “moral” of the tale, but about a *truth* that is being told that strikes a chord with us – like Lüthi says, folktales tell us what the world is like. I think the stories that start at the top, as it were, and then become adapted into folklore, are ones that capture a universal truth, which then makes them worth retelling and assimilating.


    • Exactly. I agree that there is such a thing as a “universal truth”. I remember a huge debate over this in one of my undergrad seminars. Lol. Fur flew. Polysyllable words were flung across the room. Opponents intimidated each other with fierce glares. Philosophers were quoted with utter vehemence. It was absolute mayhem.


      • LOL, polysyllabic fierce fur-flying frenzies.
        Well, I do believe in universal truth, as well, for a certain value of the term, but in this case I meant more something along the lines of “universally applicable to all humankind”. I think even the strongest believer in relativism is not going to deny that all humans have two arms, two legs, and two parents, i.e. that there *are* traits that all people share and there are certain experiences that apply across the board. And we use Story to process those experiences, to understand the framework in which we live. The more universal the experience, the more common the Story that tells about them.


  3. Ok, you HAVE to read The Princess Bride now. It’s marvelous, because it was first written by S. Morgenstern as a thousand page “Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure” (so named by the author himself) and was then abridged by William Goldman, who also wrote the screen play for the movie. What I have here is the 30th anniversary edition, and there is so much written about the writing of the story – it’s fascinating, including the description of a conversation with Stephen King himself about it. And then, the story itself it is heavily annotated by the author about what he took out and why, mostly centering around the fact that it was first read to him as a very sick 10 year old, by his father. As it turns out, his loving father had heavily abridged the reading of it, as the original story had pages and pages of boring detail that would NOT have captivated a sick 10 year old non-reader boy the way it did Goldman. I just read a part where he describes the effect upon him when first hearing that Buttercup married Humperdinck and life went on – how WRONG it seemed to him, not knowing yet that it was the first of Buttercup’s bad dreams, and finally, much later, realizing that the story served, in a way, to teach him that “life’s not fair”. Anyway, I think in this telling of the telling of a story there is much fodder for your explorations into the inexorable link between stories and people – because this story has all the elements of “folk tale” and yet is rather modern, with a clear author and much scholarly thought about the author’s purpose and intentions and whatnot, and yet this amazing, recorded process of its affect upon the lives of many people (including 4 generations of Goldmans). It’s delicious – what more can I say, this “story within a story within a story” that is going on. It clearly follows both a “top-down” and “bottom-up” journey – and it’s one that is probably still in process. The fact that the movie came first to most of us is also unique………I would love to hear what you make of it all. Ok, I have left Westley being tortured now and must return to him.


    • Ok, so now I discover that S. Morgenstern was never real and that the whole abridgement thing was part of the story! OMG – he is really quite brilliant! So even the conversation with Stephen King was fictional – LOLOL – I’ve been had! But so wonderfully…………(hope this isn’t a spoiler – but the info is there on the internet and the way you research things, you would have found out anyway….


    • Oh, I’ve read it. S. Morgenstern and his original 1000-page work don’t exist, they’re a literary device invented by Goldman. So all the “footnotes” and what-not are just facsimiles; actually, in literary terms, that’s what’s known as a simulacrum, the copy of something that has no original. The whole Princess Bride book is an exercise in tongue-in-cheek-ism.
      Sorry if I’m bursting any bubbles for you; but looking up Morgenstern was the first thing I did when I got that book – I like originals, that’s why I read the book in the first place, and was disappointed by what I found. As I said, I think The Princess Bride is one of the few cases where the movie is better than the book; they’ve turned a satire into the magic of a real fairy tale (still satirical, but somehow sweet).
      However, if you’re enjoying the PB book, check out “Forrest Gump”, the book, you’d probably like it. It’s got a similar tongue-in-cheek quality.


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