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On Theodor Adorno


I have never fully bought (albeit often tempted to) into the simplistic and somewhat caricaturist versions of Theodor Adorno’s ideas about the cultural industry and the alienated consumer given by some supporters of the “active” audience. Even more so today, when digital social media seem to make participatory culture, creativity and active citizenship a dream coming true. I have always thought instead that, beyond the traps of binary thinking (powerful media vs active audience), there is a much more complex story to be told and that we, as cultural analysts and media literacy educators, need to patiently reconstruct – with all possible evidence coming from empirical data – the intricacy of the intersections and contradictions between the constraining discipline of structures at macro level and the empowering anti-discipline of individuals at micro level, between power as strategy and power as tactic, between society at large and the sitting room where I watch my favorite TV show, between culture as meaning and culture as action. Drawing from my personal encounters with Adorno’s writings, particularly those devoted to socio-musical enquiry, in this chapter I want to argue that these writings offer impressive keys to a perspective where much broader questions about the media in/as everyday life can be addressed: how media are defined as (and in relation to) social process, how media materials (including the ways they are interpreted and evaluated) are created, revised, and undercut with reference to specific social relations and social contexts of action, how media provide constraining and enabling resources for social agents, i. e., modes of conduct, evaluative judgments, social scenarios and institutional arrangements, emotional conditions and so forth. Ultimately, I want to argue that, by taking a detour through Adorno, media literacy education can better respond to the urgent need to (re)theorize and (re)politicize its discourses and practices as “negative dialectics”, as Adorno would put it.