In Jonathan Franzen’s 2001 novel, “The Corrections,” a disgraced academic named Chip Lambert, who has abandoned Marxist theory in favor of screenwriting, goes to the Strand Bookstore, in downtown Manhattan, to sell off his library of dialectical tomes. The works of Theodor W. Adorno, Jürgen Habermas, Fredric Jameson, and various others cost Chip nearly four thousand dollars to acquire; their resale value is sixty-five. “He turned away from their reproachful spines, remembering how each of them had called out in a bookstore with a promise of a radical critique of late-capitalist society,” Franzen writes. After several more book-selling expeditions, Chip enters a high-end grocery store and walks out with an overpriced filet of wild Norwegian salmon.
Anyone who underwent a liberal-arts education in recent decades probably encountered the thorny theorists associated with the Institute for Social Research, better known as the Frankfurt School. Their minatory titles, filled with dark talk of “Negative Dialectics” and “One-Dimensional Man,” were once proudly displayed on college-dorm shelves, as markers of seriousness; now they are probably consigned to taped-up boxes in garages, if they have not been discarded altogether. Once in a while, the present-day Web designer or business editor may open the books and see in the margins the excited queries of a younger self, next to pronouncements on the order of “There is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” (Walter Benjamin) or “The whole is the false” (Adorno).
The triumph of advertising in the culture industry is that consumers feel compelled to buy and use its products even though they see through them.
Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment
"The less punctuation marks, taken in isolation, convey meaning or expression and the more they constitute the opposite pole in language to names, the more each of them acquires a definitive physiognomic status of its own, an expression of its own, which cannot be separated from its syntactic function but is by no means exhausted by it. When the hero of Gottfried Keller’s novel Der grune Heinrich was asked about the German capital letter P, he exclaimed, "That’s Pumpernickel!" That experience is certainly true of the figures of punctuation. An exclamation point looks like an index finger raised in warning; a question mark looks like a flashing light or the blink of an eye. A colon, says Karl Kraus, opens its mouth wide: woe to the writer who does not fill it with something nourishing. Visually, the semicolon looks like a drooping moustache; I am even more aware of its gamey taste. With self-satisfied peasant cunning, German quotation marks (« ») lick their lips…"
The predicament of private life today is shown by its arena. Dwelling, in the proper sense, is now impossible. The traditional residences we grew up in have grown intolerable: each trait of comfort in them is paid for with a betrayal of knowledge, each vestige of shelter with the musty pact of family interests. The functional modern habitations designed from a tabula rasa, are living-cases manufactured by experts for philistines, or factory sites that have strayed into the consumption sphere, devoid of all relation to the occupant: in them even the nostalgia of independent existence, defunct in any case, is sent packing.
Theodor Adorno - Minima Moralia
Just as Borges’s system groups animals by seemingly aleatory characteristics entirely divorced from their actual biological attributes, DSM-5 arranges its various strains of madness solely in terms of the behaviors exhibited. This is a recurring theme in the novel, while any consideration of the mind itself is entirely absent. In its place we’re given diagnoses such as “frotteurism,” “oppositional defiant disorder,” and “caffeine intoxication disorder.” That said, these classifications aren’t arranged at random; rather, they follow a stately progression comparable to that of Dante’s Divine Comedy, rising from the infernal pit of the body and its weaknesses (intellectual disabilities, motor tics) through our purgatorial interactions with the outside world (tobacco use, erectile dysfunction, kleptomania) and finally arriving in the limpid-blue heavens of our libidinal selves (delirium, personality disorders, sexual fetishism). It’s unusual, and at times frustrating in its postmodern knowingness, but what is being told is first and foremost a story.
This is a story without any of the elements that are traditionally held to constitute a setting or a plot. A few characters make an appearance, but they are nameless, spectral shapes, ones that wander in and out of view as the story progresses, briefly embodying their various illnesses before vanishing as quickly as they came – figures comparable to the cacophony of voices in The Waste Land or the anonymously universal figures of Jose Saramago’s Blindness. A sufferer of major depression and of hyperchondriasis might eventually be revealed to be the same person, but for the most part the boundaries between diagnoses keep the characters apart from one another, and there are only flashes. On one page we meet a hoarder, on the next a trichotillomaniac; he builds enormous “stacks of worthless objects,” she idly pulls out her pubic hairs while watching television. But the two are never allowed to meet and see if they can work through their problems together.
The ruthless unity in the culture industry is evidence of what will happen in politics. Marked differentiations such as those of A and B films, or of stories in magazines in different price ranges, depend not so much on subject matter as on classifying, organising, and labelling consumers. Something is provided for all so that none may escape; the distinctions are emphasised and extended. The public is catered for with a hierarchical range of mass-produced products of varying quality, thus advancing the rule of complete quantification. Everybody must behave (as if spontaneously) in accordance with his previously determined and indexed level, and choose the category of mass product turned out for his type. Consumers appear as statistics on research organisation charts, and are divided by income groups into red, green, and blue areas; the technique is that used for any type of propaganda.
How formalised the procedure is can be seen when the mechanically differentiated products prove to be all alike in the end. That the difference between the Chrysler range and General Motors products is basically illusory strikes every child with a keen interest in varieties. What connoisseurs discuss as good or bad points serve only to perpetuate the semblance of competition and range of choice. The same applies to the Warner Brothers and Metro Goldwyn Mayer productions. But even the differences between the more expensive and cheaper models put out by the same firm steadily diminish: for automobiles, there are such differences as the number of cylinders, cubic capacity, details of patented gadgets; and for films there are the number of stars, the extravagant use of technology, labor, and equipment, and the introduction of the latest psychological formulas. The universal criterion of merit is the amount of “conspicuous production,” of blatant cash investment. The varying budgets in the culture industry do not bear the slightest relation to factual values, to the meaning of the products themselves.
[Theodor Adorno & Max Horkheimer, The Culture Industry, Enlightment as Mass Deception]