“Thinking as Negation”: Adorno, Vertigo, and the Paradoxical Promise of Popular Cinema


By Benjamin Bergholtz.

“Each single manifestation of the culture industry inescapably reproduces human beings as what the whole has made them.” (Adorno and Horkheimer 2002 [Dialectic of Enlightenment]: 99)

Few critics have sought to bring the ideas of Theodor Adorno to the films of Alfred Hitchcock. In itself, this is not surprising; the notorious remarks on the “culture industry” recorded in Dialectic of Enlightenment (DE) – much more polemical and widely-read than Adorno’s posthumously published Aesthetic Theory (AT) – seem to curtail the possibility of reading Adorno with Hitchcock in any affirmative sense without doing significant interpretive violence to the former. That is, if popular cinema remains anathema to Adorno because it is inextricably linked to the machinations of capital, what can be gained by analyzing Hitchcock’s films with Adorno beyond a strained confirmation or simple refutation of the “culture industry” thesis? As Jonathan Freedman argues, Adorno and Hitchcock make a dubious pair because “each might profitably be viewed as the precise embodiment of qualities the other particularly distrusted” (1999: 78). One of the only critics to connect the philosopher and filmmaker, Freedman sees common ground only in the critical response they shared towards Americans’ “enthusiasm for – and transformation of – psychoanalysis” (Ibid.: 79).

My reading, by contrast, is significantly more optimistic, perhaps naively so; I’d like to suggest that we can and should view Hitchcock’s films in Adornian terms, as aporetic works of art which resist their own commodification by formally exposing this commodification to critical reflection. As a test case I offer Vertigo, a film which dramatizes, enacts, and then violently reveals its own manufactured romance. While Vertigo is hardly the only film in Hitchcock’s oeuvre to engage in Adornian questions – Rear Window immediately comes to mind – the film’s exposure of the ways in which the protagonist, the viewer, and art itself enable and occlude a variety of forms of domination (of women, of history, of nature) make it particularly germane to conversations about Adorno’s relevance to popular cinema. I argue that Vertigo’s self-exposure seems to confirm – and, in doing so, negate – the arguments about the aesthetic and political potential of popular cinema laid out in Dialectic of Enlightenment; in doing so, the film implicitly gestures toward a more affirmative and nuanced model for considering this potential.

I should immediately note that, despite their rarity, I am not the first critic to consider Vertigo in light of Adorno.[1] In “Beyond an Aesthetics of the West: Hitchcock’s Vertigo,” Wilhelm Wurzer brings Adorno into a fold that includes Socrates and Plato in order to analyze the ways in which Vertigo both discloses “Scottie’s (and everyman’s) peculiar manner of looking” (2000: 80) and nods toward an alternative form of film. This alternative, which Wurzer calls the “softmodern,” is characterized by a “playing/judging/imagining in and beyond cinematic criteria” (Ibid.: 95). Wurzer describes the appeal of the “softmodern” in the following terms:

“It is time […] to lighten up, to dispense with the spirit of gravity […]. [—] What is so intriguing about the softmodern is that it lets the goods come and go without worrying about when they’re going to come and when they’re going to go. Additionally, the goods are not bad for us […]. [—] They are good for us precisely because they are not durable. We no longer want the ideas to be durable.” (Ibid.: 96)

vertigo-0Though his analysis of Vertigo is intriguing, Wurzer’s suggestion that Hitchcock gestures toward the sort of ephemerality-embracing, “softmodern” aesthetic outlined here is difficult to reconcile with the austerity characterizing both Adorno’s thought and the outcome of the film; for while we may both agree that “Madeleine blooms as work of art, exceedingly disruptive in each cinematic moment” (Ibid.: 95), I consider this “work of art” to be a representation of false utopia rather than a hopeful gesture. This seems more faithful to both Adorno – who insists that art’s “yet-to-exist” should always be “draped in black” (AT: 135) – and to the conclusion of Vertigo, which exposes the victims initially obstructed by the construction of Madeleine as a work of art. This exposure is particularly disturbing because it suggests that the very material used to encourage the participation of Scottie and the viewer in a fantasy promising “freedom” and “power” – the narratives of Gavin Elster and Pop Liebl, the dreamlike temporal setting, the tourist sites –simultaneously point toward the domination this fantasy hides; the viewer of Vertigo becomes uncomfortably aware that the suffering he has ignored was written on the wall.[2] If there is a utopian movement to the film, it comes from the reflection engendered by this awareness upon the compromised, complicit status of Scottie, the viewer, and art itself in the domination dramatized on screen; this reflection does not suggest, in my reading, that we ought to “lighten up” (Wurzer 2000: 96).

vertigo_alfred_hitchcock_pic02In suggesting that Adorno’s thought is amenable to popular film, I put forth a thesis that is not common, but not entirely new either. Nearly twenty years ago, both Deborah Cook and Patrick McGee laid out strategies for moving beyond the seemingly intransigent binary situating the elitist Adorno in strict opposition to popular filmmakers such as Hitchcock. In The Culture Industry Revisited, Cook noted that it was both logically and politically suspect to dismiss the possibility that some popular films might “follow the model for cultural practice with political import which Adorno discovered in some works of high modernism” (1996: 129). Through a viewing of The Crying Game, McGee provided evidence for Cook’s claim by analyzing the ways in which the film “discloses its commodity form as the fetish that defetishizes itself” (1997: xii), a process that reveals what Adorno would call the “truth content” of the film.

Recent work by Peter Uwe Hohendahl and Brian Wall seems to resonate with the earlier work of Cook and McGee. One of Adorno’s sharpest contemporary readers, Hohendahl argues persuasively in his 2013 study The Fleeting Promise of Art that the temptation of reading Adorno exclusively as a cultural pessimist and defender of modern art – a position which “the philosophical perspective developed in Dialectic of Enlightenment would encourage” (2013: 159) – could greatly “undercut the contemporary force of Adorno’s critique and deprive it of its future potential” (Ibid.: 160). Instead, Hohendahl suggests it is Adorno’s questions and thought processes, “his peculiar and unique form of dialectical thought that resolutely resists generalization” (Ibid.: 158), rather than any dogmatic methodology, which merit continued attention today. Wall expresses a similar sentiment in the only book-length treatment of Adorno’s relationship to film, Theodor Adorno and Film Theory, where he asserts that juxtaposing Adornian thought with the sorts of popular works he resisted creates “the crucial opportunity to ask if there persists in some filmic commodities a truth that resists commodification and exchange value” (2013: 4). It is in the vein of these approaches, different though not necessarily antagonistic to Miriam Hansen’s careful tracing of “alternative impulses in Adorno’s thinking on film” (2012: 210), which I’d like to follow here. In other words, while I do not wish to misrepresent Adorno’s thought, reading Adorno against the grain seems well worth the risk insofar as it allows us to think about the link between the aesthetic and the political in new, perhaps socially relevant ways, as I hope to demonstrate here through my reading of Vertigo. The alternative – insisting that we read Adorno only with a small coterie of “high modernist” artists and dismiss popular cinema tout court –means greatly depriving ourselves of a more comprehensive understanding of the force of these works, a force both always-already compromised but also potentially utopian.

It also risks misreading Adorno himself. That is, maintaining an absolute division between “high modernism” and “popular” art tacitly valorizes the former, which suggests a misunderstanding of one of Adorno’s basic premises, namely, that all art is a priori guilty by virtue of its existence. He writes on the very first page of Aesthetic Theory that any notion of “absolute freedom in art, always limited to a particular, comes into contradiction with the perennial unfreedom of the whole. In it the place of art became uncertain” (AT: 1). Art’s autonomy does not come without its social cost, since the imagined world of the work of art automatically separates itself from the suffering of the world as it actually exists, a problem Adorno insists is only exacerbated when artists testify to this suffering by trusting a representation which risks neutralization. The inability to atone for its separation from suffering via representation puts the artist committed to resistance in an aporetic position, but one Adorno suggests is no different from the aporetic position which every individual faces in the world of global capitalism: “the guilt they bear of fetishism does not disqualify art, any more so than it disqualifies anything culpable; for in the universally, socially mediated world nothing stands external to its nexus of guilt” (AT: 227, emphasis added). Here Adorno anticipates the thinking of Jacques Derrida, who goes as far as suggesting that the possibility of justice depends upon grappling with the aporias created by one’s relation to this “nexus of guilt.” Like Derrida, who proclaims that “there is no justice without this experience, however impossible it may be, of aporia” (1992: 16), Adorno sees a glimmer of hope in the aporia, a hope that artworks participate in by virtue of the very separation that marks them as guilty. He writes that all artworks “even the affirmative, are a priori polemical. The idea of a conservative artwork is inherently absurd. By emphatically separating themselves from the empirical world, their other, they bear witness that the world itself should be other than it is” (AT: 177). As noted above, Adorno argues that this art’s potential is not exploded by actually representing a utopian image of the world as it should be – a cardinal sin that Hitchcock explores in Vertigo through the utopian image of Madeleine – but rather by organizing the work in such a way that it induces a reflection upon its own commodity status, and through it, the status of the world: “Art keeps itself alive through its social force of resistance; unless it reifies itself, it becomes a commodity” (AT: 226).

It should be acknowledged that introducing the ideas laid out in Aesthetic Theory in this linear manner, while perhaps necessary, risks oversimplifying much of Adorno’s thought. Aesthetic Theory resists commodification through its paratactic structure, which translator Robert Hullot-Kentor justly describes in his introduction as “visibly antagonistic” (1997: xi) and “inimical to exposition” (Ibid.: xvi). If Adorno’s ideas resist exposition, they also resist any formulaic application, putting the critic looking to read with Adorno in a bit of a tricky position. Adorno himself insists that the experience of art depends upon resisting the subjective, personal agenda implicit in any sort of “applied Adorno” formula: “The spectator must not project what transpires in himself on the artwork in order to find himself confirmed, uplifted, and satisfied in it, but must, on the contrary, relinquish himself to the artwork, assimilate himself to it, and fulfill the work in its own terms” (AT: 275).

To fulfill the work “in its own terms” and perform what Adorno refers to as “immanent analysis” means to turn exclusively to the work’s formal movements and processes, but also, through an analysis of these processes, to bring forth what formal analysis risks occluding, the social reflection taking place inside the work. It is this form of analysis –clearly, a paradoxical one – that I attempt here. Adorno explains this paradox by insisting that “the spiritual and social standpoint of an artwork can only be discerned on the basis of its internal crystallization” (AT: 349), not based on external events or effects which “for social reasons often totally diverge from the artworks and their objective social content” (AT: 228). (The tragic events of the “Rushdie Affair,” for example, tell us little about the social content of Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses.) An “immanent analysis” helps us analyze and understand the inextricable link between the work’s formal features and its social significance, and helps us avoid the Scylla and Charybdis of criticism represented by pure formalism or “art for art’s sake” approaches on the one hand and rigid political readings on the other. Following Adorno, we can say that the viewer whose formal analysis insists that the work of art is its own object is as misguided as the ideological critic who seeks to describe the artwork’s causes and prescribe its effects based solely on material forces, or based on a totalizing theory (e.g., “applied Adorno”); while the former ignores the work’s social implications and turns art into an apolitical tautology, the latter attempts to control these implications and, in doing so, risks reducing art to the one thing it resists – the ends-means rationality of capital. It is with these twin risks in mind that I turn to Vertigo, a film whose critical reception has, at times, divided precisely upon these fault lines.[3]

Vertigo_054PyxurzWe might begin with a (seemingly) simple question: what is the difference between Madeleine and Judy? The obvious answer is that they are not different at all, played by the same actress twice over (Kim Novak plays Madeleine and Judy, but so too does Judy herself). And yet, Slavoj Žižek’s description of Judy as “a proto-entity, an incomplete, formless slime […] a pure receptable for the sublime Idea of Madeleine” (2012: 144) seems perfectly apt; how is this possible? The answer seems ineluctable: what makes Judy – and Midge, the would-be artist turned advertisement designer – so different from the mysterious, aristocratic Madeleine is to a large extent the product of class difference and the machinations of Gavin Elster. As Virginia Wright Wexman asserts in a well-known study of Vertigo, the film “illustrates” the ways in which “the oppression of women in our culture is intimately related to particular political conditions” (1986: 40). Based on this, the viewer might conclude that the film implicitly critiques the economic, patriarchal system that creates and sustains this difference, since the “combination of grace, mysteriousness, and vulnerability” it grants Madeleine is denied to the “entirely known quantity” that is Midge and the “cheap and vulgar” Judy, as Robin Wood describes them, for no reason other than class privilege (2002: 113-114, 121).

vertigo-stewart-novakWhile this all may be true, extracting a polemical or singular conclusion based on these observations – e.g., “Hitchcock attacks patriarchy” – reveals little about what makes the film so enigmatic and haunting; in itself, this conclusion risks turning the film into a didactic lesson which misses what Adorno would call the work’s “truth content.” “Hitchcock attacks patriarchy” does not approach the “truth content” of Vertigo because it stifles the necessary tension in the artwork, a tension Adorno insists we stress, not suppress. Adorno writes that only an “immanent analysis” which “grasps the relation of its elements to each other processually rather than reducing them analytically to purported fundamental elements” (AT: 176) can approach a work’s “truth content.” It is not enough to identify the formal elements of Vertigo; one must examine these elements dialectically, though not in order to resolve the tension identified by dialectical thinking, but rather to draw the tension out: “their truth is to be sought in their conflict” (AT: 353).

The notion that truth is tied more to conflict than resolution seems particularly important to understanding the social force of Vertigo, as Murray Pomerance suggests. He argues that “to see the real vertigo in Vertigo we should attend less to what happens in the film than to how the happenings are shown” (2004: 226). Pomerance echoes Robin Wood’s 1965 assertion that the film’s “profundity is inseparable from the perfection of form” (2002: 129), a conclusion Adorno would surely appreciate. Wood adds that the formal decision to reveal Judy’s “true” identity well before the end of the film detaches the viewer from identifying with Scottie’s consciousness and initiates a radical reconsideration of everything we assumed to be true: “we shall be watching him as much as watching with him […]. [—] Knowing the truth, we also have far more opportunity, during the last part of the film, to consider the implications of what we see” (Ibid.: 124-125, emphasis in original). Revisiting this thesis in 2002, Wood makes the political import of this shift in clearer terms: “The revelation immediately exposes the entire ‘romantic love’ project of the first two-thirds as a fantasy and a fraud; thus it turns us back, quite ruthlessly, on to Scottie and on to ourselves” (Ibid.: 386).

This “turning back” of manufactured romance seems to both endorse – and, through its critical exposure, refute—the arguments denouncing popular cinema found in Dialectic of Enlightenment. In that book, Adorno and Horkheimer note that the “spectator must need no thoughts of his own: the product prescribes each reaction, not through any actual coherence – which collapses once exposed to thought – but through signals” (109). The amalgam known to Scottie as “Madeleine” is quite literally a product. Constructed orally by the narratives of Elster and Pop and captured visually by the camera, the presentation of Madeleine encourages both Scottie and the viewer to tap into a reservoir of revisionist cultural and sexual fantasies which collapse when exposed to thought. These fantasies serve multiple, even conflicting roles, allowing us to briefly embody both the “freedom” and the “power” promised by Elster, Pop, and the film itself. What becomes particularly troubling upon reflection is the relationship between this presentation and our participation before Judy’s revelation. Vertigo disturbs not simply because it misleads us, but because the very things that draw us in – the seductive oral narratives, the beautiful tourist sites, the campy kisses, in short, the “culture industry” conventions – announce their artifice well before this deception is confirmed by Judy. Why, we must ask, do we so willingly fall into the vertigo with Scottie, and what are the effects of our desire for fantasy? The answers suggested by the film are profoundly Adornian: the fantasy of Madeleine, who embodies the utopian desire and potential happiness of Scottie and the viewer, conceals and depends upon the suffering of Judy, of Carlotta, and of the landscape of San Francisco.

vertigoConsider the object of our romance. On one hand, “Madeleine” is Madeleine, the free “wanderer” whose old money connections – Elster runs her family’s business – suggest the height of European luxury and aristocracy; this is the Madeleine who eats at Ernie’s and speaks with a cultured accent. Part of Scottie’s fantasy, whose claim of “independent means” must immediately be qualified (“fairly independent”), involves possessing this freedom. This is the freedom from restraint, from the work Scottie and Elster explicitly detest, and from any other obligation, a freedom paralleling the (false) freedom of the work of art which Madeleine, as a work of art herself, literally embodies. But this explains only part of the allure of this strange romance, for both Scottie and the viewer know that the “Madeleine” he falls in love with doesn’t exist outside of her “possession” by the ghost of Carlotta Valdes long before Judy confirms this inexistence. As a mysterious foreigner (her ethnicity is never specified), Carlotta’s presence links Scottie’s romance with imperial American history in a way that grants Scottie a “power” or “freedom to” which complements – and, upon reflection, exposes the underside of—the “freedom from” embodied by Madeleine. Through their merging, Scottie’s romance can thus become a sort of uber-fantasy, for not only can he “wander” around San Francisco with the graceful, white Madeleine, but also – at the very same time and in the very same person! – dominate Carlotta, the exotic, sensual, “mad” property.

3527Now consider the narrative framing of our romance. It is appropriate that we have access to Madeleine and Carlotta exclusively through a series of representations: the narratives of Elster and Pop, Carlotta’s portrait at the Legion of Honor, Scottie’s nightmare, and Judy “playing” both Madeleine and Carlotta. These representations replicate the domination motif and ensure that Scottie’s paradoxical, double fantasy (white and dark, elegant and exotic, Madeleine and Carlotta) isn’t soiled by an actual relationship which could only disappoint. The parallel narratives of Elster and Pop are particularly fascinating, as they both foster the participation of the listener and subtly allude to their status as fantasy. Pop explains that the “young, yes, very young” Carlotta arrived in San Francisco from somewhere “south to the city,” before being found “dancing and singing in cabaret” by “a rich man, a powerful man.” This nameless man “took her,” impregnated her, and “threw her away.” The very anonymity of this “rich man” – our raconteur Pop cannot even recall his name – suggests the previous ubiquity of such men, and thus the possibility that Scottie can easily slip into his place, a possibility seemingly confirmed by Pop’s reminder that Carlotta’s was “not an unusual story.”

If the possibility of slipping into the fantasy was engendered first through the charming narrative of Scottie’s “old college chum” Elster, it is cemented here, in Pop’s Argosy Book Store. An unofficial historian operating what Lawrence Shaffer fittingly describes as a “richly storied antiquarian treasure trove where the Carlotta legend is perpetuated in the dim shadows of the late afternoon” (1984: 390), Pop adds a layer of authenticity to the romantic narrative laid out in Elster’s similarly quaint office. While Pop does not explicitly suggest, as Elster does, that he “should have liked to live here then; the color, excitement, power, freedom,” both the old-worldly setting and Pop’s words parallel Elster’s, and in doing so validate them: “he kept the child, and threw her [Carlotta] away; you know, men could do that in those days. They had the power, and the freedom.” The fact that Pop, rather uncannily, echoes Elster’s language demonstrates the degree to which the subjective, selectively framed narrative of Carlotta is embedded in the imagined community of the film’s male participants. (The cause of this nearly identical language remains ambiguous. Since Midge suggests visiting Pop, we cannot assume Pop is “in” on Elster’s plot. The parallel language, therefore, is either a remarkable coincidence or, alternatively, it’s actually Elster who parrots Pop’s narrative. We know neither how Elster concocted the Carlotta story, nor if she is actually related to Madeleine at all, and thus it seems quite possible, perhaps even probable, that the story he tells Scottie is based on hearing Pop’s tale himself, and creating “Madeleine” accordingly.)

While membership in an imagined community distinguished by “power” and “freedom” make Carlotta’s tale alluring for both Scottie and the male viewer, both Elster and Pop consistently emphasize the pastness of their narratives, and hence the need for fulfillment through a “culture industry”-style fantasy that “endlessly cheats its consumers out of what it endlessly promises” (DE: 111). Everything these men recollect is past-tense, and clearly selective: “San Francisco’s changed,” Elster tells us; “men could do that in those days,” says Pop, in a tone bordering on the wistful. As the film unfolds, the sense of melancholic longing characterizing Pop and Elster is slowly transposed onto Scottie and the viewer. Initially skeptical, by the time Scottie travels to Argosy Book Shop he clearly seeks confirmation of the ghost story he wants to believe. This is evident in the exchange he has with Midge directly before they head to Pop’s bookstore:

Scottie: “Who do you know that’s an authority on San Francisco history?” […]
Midge: “Professor Saunders, over in Berkley.”
Scottie: “No, no I don’t mean that kind of history. I mean the small stuff, you know of people you’ve never heard of.”
Midge: “Oh you mean the gay old bohemian days of gay old San Francisco, juicy stories, like who shot who in the Embarcadero in August, 1879?”

After what appears to be a single day – as a paid investigator following who he believes to be his friend’s wife, mind you – Scottie has discarded the objectivity one expects from a detective in order to chase a ghost story. Here and elsewhere, Midge sees right through Scottie, recognizing immediately that his “small stuff” does not refer to confirmed historical events, but rather to the more fantastic, mythical “gay old bohemian days” one can recollect with Pop. Midge’s presence as a “real,” conventional-American, and above all intelligent woman, creates both a contrast with Madeleine and a degree of tension in these scenes that the viewer should recognize; to see Midge awkwardly staring down at the books while Scottie becomes enraptured by Pop’s romantic narrative means seeing the ways in which the presentation of said narrative masks and even recreates elements of domination. Scottie becomes a sort of surrogate for the male viewer, implying that our own participation in the fantasy the film projects might also mask and perpetuate domination, something the film will eventually and violently see through. The fact that we don’t recognize this tension initially – even with the help of Midge’s perceptive commentary—speaks to the power, and danger, of these selective reconstructions, and our desire to inhabit them.

Vertigo_082PyxurzThe temporal framework of the romance also seems to invite and disturb viewer identification. As indicated above, Madeleine’s allure is predicated upon her presentation as a dream-like ideal: the lack of dialogue, the enchanting music, the eerie white light often surrounding her, and, above all, the camerawork – each of these encourage the viewer to fall into a timeless fantasy. Ostensibly then, a reprieve from the constraints of normal space and time both characterizes and structures this fantasy. But this is complicated from the very start, because the romance clearly exists in a specific locale with a specific imperial history, which Carlotta inscribes into the fantasy itself. Having seen her grave, we know that Carlotta lived from 1831-1857. We also know that a great part of Madeleine’s pull depends upon Carlotta’s ghostly presence; Madeleine is Carlotta for much of the romance, or at least appears to be. Therefore what appears to be an atemporal fantasy is simultaneously an imperial one.

Interestingly, if Pop’s “those days” is the same as the “then” to which Elster so painfully wishes to return, then the political charge of the romance with Carlotta’s “ghost” becomes even more specific, and revealing. Elster’s office is lined with paintings – we see 20 in a single frame – but Elster’s nostalgic recollection to “have liked to live here then” comes only after Scottie approaches a painting clearly dated “San Francisco in July 1848.” Thus Elster’s “then” arguably refers specifically to 1848, which was the precise year that California – along with what would become six other states – was declared “property” of the U.S. through the end of the Mexican-American War. This declaration precipitated massive immigration, the California Gold Rush, and the culmination of a Manifest Destiny ideology which had disastrous consequences for native populations of California, including those at the Mission Delores, where Carlotta is buried. In considering these subtle hints—others include Scottie’s car (a DeSoto), the 1492 mark of the “Discovery of America” on a dead Sequoia, and Judy’s hotel (“The Empire”) – one begins to see a disturbing parallelism between the domination of Judy-as-Madeleine, the domination of Carlotta-in-Judy-as-Madeleine, and the domination of the natural landscape and populations of California, all of which the film’s recursive features tie back to the domination of art.

That this parallelism is intentional, and that it might encourage the viewer to reflect upon our complicit participation in this domination, seems pretty clear. Accepting this assertion – and I think we should – makes the arguments of critics like Wexman appear somewhat strange. Examining the colonial context of Carlotta’s presentation, Wexman initially determines that “traces” of a unsettling link between “the romantic ideal of the love goddess and the escapist ideal of the tourist attraction” are “readily observable in Hitchcock’s film” (1986: 36). She then argues that, regardless of these traces, the “film’s abrupt and unresolved ending can be viewed as a signal of its refusal to confront the implications of its strategies […] Hitchcock has masked the ideological workings of racism and xenophobia beneath a discourse of sexuality that is itself idealized as romantic love” (Ibid.: 40). In an otherwise illuminating article, there is much worth questioning here – how, exactly, does the film which “illustrates” these “ideological workings” simultaneously mask them? After the brutal deaths of Madeleine and Judy, for whom is romance “idealized”? – but it’s her premise, insofar as it reveals a conception of the relation between art and praxis very different from that of Adorno (and, seemingly, Hitchcock), that’s pertinent here. That is, by assuming that the film’s refusal to “confront the implications” of what it “illustrates” equals an act of ideological masking, Wexman implicitly privileges a form of art – what Adorno might call “committed art” – that makes judgments over one that uses ambiguity to force its viewers to make these judgments for themselves. For Adorno, “art does not make judgments and when it does, it shatters its own concept” (AT: 57); a work’s “second-hand” (AT: 242) social effect comes from the “second reflection” induced by its treatment of antagonistic forces, not from its opinions: “art itself is objectively praxis as the cultivation of consciousness; but it only becomes this by renouncing persuasion” (AT: 243).

vertigo-6It’s worth stressing that Adorno’s insistence on renouncing persuasion is not at all apolitical; somewhat paradoxically, this renouncement is essential to his understanding of the political import of art. For Adorno, persuasion implicitly subordinates art to the “principle of exchange,” making it antithetical to art: “Only what does not submit to that principle acts as the plenipotentiary of what is free from domination” (AT: 227). Though Adorno’s categorical presentation of these ideas warrants qualification – does art ever totally renounce persuasion? – his arguments are both compelling in principle and useful in enhancing our understanding of Vertigo’s social content, chiefly because they suggest any analysis of the film that separates its ideological or social content from its formal construction is false from the start. While critics such as Wexman, like Laura Mulvey before her, are surely right to critique the way Hollywood cinema both utilizes and encourages a “male gaze” that objectifies its women, it seems unfair to castigate Vertigo on these grounds, given how relentlessly the film itself prompts this critique.

As indicated above, Midge’s role is integral to the success of this prompting. Consider how clearly and accurately Midge deconstructs Scottie’s fantasy at the very moment she recognizes its principal pieces, after driving back from Pop’s bookstore:

Midge: “The idea is that the beautiful mad Carlotta has come back from the dead and taken possession of Elster’s wife. Oh now Johnny really, come on!”
Scottie: “Well I’m not telling you what I think; I’m telling you what he thinks!”
Midge: “What do you think?”
Scottie: “Well”
Midge: “Is she pretty?”
Scottie: “Carlotta?”
Midge: “No, not Carlotta, Elster’s wife.”
Scottie: “Well, yes, I guess you’d consider that she would be called…”
Midge: “I think I’ll go take a look at that portrait. Goodbye!”

Just as she did before the trip to Pop’s, here Midge easily discerns the motivation behind Scottie’s equivocal answers, immediately and correctly linking them to Madeleine’s appearance. Considering her acuity of mind throughout the film, we might modify Wood’s appraisal: perhaps it is not the “motherly” Midge who “is an entirely known quantity” (2002: 113) after all, but rather Scottie, and through him, the male viewer sharing his silly charade. Perhaps what makes Midge appear “charming, uncomplicated, safe, superficial” (Ibid.: 112) has little to do with Midge and everything to do with the fact that she, unlike Scottie and Madeleine, works rather than “wanders.” Deborah Linderman supports this claim, noting that “we might see Midge as a surrogate for Hitchcock […] [who] counteracts the vertigo, straitens the wandering, recuperates misalignment” (1991: 70). The inability of Scottie and the viewer to recognize Midge as a counteracting force speaks to the power of the vertigo and the pull of the fantasy; our reduction of her to the “motherly” features and “boyish” (Wood 2002: 111) clothes speaks not to her superficiality, but to our own. Midge essentially makes this point herself when she presents Scottie with a parodied self-portrait highlighting the absurdity of his superficial romance later in the film. Like each of her previous interventions, this one meets deaf ears.

VertigoFlowersAlong with the double object (Madeleine/Carlotta) of our fantasy and the temporal and narrative frames used to cultivate it, analyzing the settings of this fantasy’s enactment is central to understanding the film’s social content, and its vicious exposure of its own “culture-industry”-style romance. As with the object and frames, the settings both encourage our continued participation and subtly gesture toward the domination this participation engenders and hides. When Scottie and Madeleine travel to the Palace of the Legion of Honor, to the McKittrick Hotel, and to Golden Gate Park, we travel right along with them, becoming what Kriss Ravetto-Biagioli aptly calls “tourists twice removed” (2011: 109); what, after all, does one do at tourist locations but look? But in looking, the viewer is struck by the fact that each of these sites is of an antediluvian nature: the grave, the museum, the ancient Sequoias – these are “Portals of the Past,” but portals which, like those alluded to by Elster but never shown in the film, we cannot actually enter. Furthermore, just like the nameless “powerful man” of the Carlotta narrative, what makes the viewer’s possession of both Madeleine and these sites so easy to achieve on one hand cheapens the experiences’ appeal on the other. During Pop’s narrative, we might have asked: if anyone could have been a “rich man, powerful man” “in those days,” did anything at all make Pop’s anonymous man – or, through him, the anonymous viewer – uniquely deserving of “freedom” and “power”? Similarly here: if my romance with San Francisco is reducible to the price of a tour, what makes the romance “mine” at all? Our identification with this man and city parallel the identification cultivated by every product of the “culture industry,” and in doing so reveal this identification’s incurable affliction. Because the fantasy must be easily consumable for all, it ends up confirming the very thing it sought to conceal: that in the world of capital, “Everyone amounts only to those qualities by which he or she can replace everyone else; all are fungible, mere specimens” (DE: 117).

0161The scenes between Madeleine’s apparent death and her reappearance as Judy seem to confirm this disturbing conclusion. Pomerance notes that each of the three scenes of “mistaken identity” – outside of Madeleine’s old apartment, eating at Ernie’s, at the Palace of the Legion of Honor – are directed in such a way that “once again both he and we are swept into the past in hopes of a substantiation in the belief of resurrection” (2004: 243). We know (or at least we think we know) that Madeleine is dead, and yet she seems to come alive again so quickly in these other women! But she’s not alive, of course, something that leads to an unbearable conclusion: if both Scottie and the viewer can easily become enraptured with not one but three women who look and dress like Madeleine but are unequivocally not Madeleine, perhaps not only the viewer and the city but even Madeleine is contaminated by the stain of sameness. If all are “absolutely replaceable, pure nothingness” (DE: 117), what made our romance ours? At these moments, both Madeleine and the viewer, like the tourists sites that constitute our romance, appear to be unambiguously disposable, an unsettling conclusion that Scottie will literally and brazenly see through when he reconstructs “Madeleine” in Judy, the very actress that originally “played” Madeleine. The film suggests that, like us, Madeleine, the supreme and seemingly singular ideal, is not so singular after all, and perhaps neither is her beauty.

v3The dual presentation of the beauty of Madeleine and the tourist sites, which Adorno would call the “cultural landscape,” merits further consideration, for it seems that the deconstruction of the former is paralleled by a deconstruction of the latter. Recalling what Adorno describes as an “artifactitious domain that must at first seem totally opposed to natural beauty” (AT: 64), the “cultural landscape” in Vertigo is as toxic as the “culture industry”; both involve the market’s appropriation of something (nature, art) ostensibly opposed to the ends-means telos of capitalism. As with the “culture industry,” Adorno argues that this appropriation serves to not only neutralize but fundamentally subvert the critical function of the experience of natural beauty: “natural beauty is ideology when it serves to disguise mediatedness as immediacy” (AT: 68). Like his romance with Madeleine, Scottie’s romance (and ours) with San Francisco proves to be highly mediated, and tied directly to commodity fetishism – both Hitchcock and Elster offer an image of beauty (the film’s tour of San Francisco, “Madeleine”) in exchange for capital, a trade that sounds fair enough until one recognizes the blood this exchange occludes: we eventually learn about the deaths of Madeleine, and Judy, and even Carlotta, but just how much Native American blood must have been spilt at the Mission Delores? Just what sort of history was whitewashed in the creation of the Portrait of Carlotta? The uneasy relation between Scottie’s romance and this blood suggests that Vertigo’s viewers might pause before they too become enchanted with the film’s iconic locales, something apparently lost on the cinephiles who continue to recreate Scottie’s fantasy through the “Vertigo tours” whose popularity can only be considered ironic.[4] Participants of these tours – which cost as much as $600 – would seem to ignore the ways in which, as Ravetto-Biagioli notes, “the line dividing cinematic escapism and the tourist’s experience of place is called into question” (2011: 109) throughout the film. With the help of Adorno, one might take Ravetto-Biagioli’s point a step further and argue that there isn’t a dividing line here at all; the experience of cinema and the tourist’s experience of the “cultural landscape” suffer from the same problem – i.e., their claim to natural beauty is sullied by its own enunciation, an enunciation which a priori reveals their mediated, and hence unnatural, status.

This “a priori” is pertinent, as it both helps us understand another aporia that plays out in Vertigo and offers a corrective to any implication of an absolute division between the images of the “cultural landscape” and “culture industry” on one hand and any purportedly “pure” representation of nature or art on the other. Adorno writes that the constructed work of art “seems to be the opposite of what is not made, nature” (AT: 62). The beauty one finds in nature by definition cannot be made, because a made object ceases to be natural: “nature, as something beautiful, cannot be copied […]. Its portrayal is a tautology that, by objectifying what appears, eliminates it” (AT: 67). Like suffering then, natural beauty is irreducible for Adorno. This means that any attempt at simply representing natural beauty is bound to fail, regardless of whether the attempt is produced by the “culture industry,” “high modernism,” or anything in between. And yet, like suffering, art is inextricably linked to nature, both as an object whose purposelessness resists the ends-means rationale of the status quo and as an object which attempts through mediation to embody the beauty intrinsic to nature. This makes art’s object indeterminate and aporetic, since its aim of imitating “natural beauty as such” (AT: 72) is immediately annulled when it imitates actual objects of natural beauty. Every work of art, for Adorno, is both stained and empowered by this conflicted relationship to natural beauty:

“Lodged even in the highest work is an element that is for-other, a mortal remnant of seeking applause. Perfection, beauty itself, asks: ‘Am I not beautiful?’ and thus sins against itself. Conversely, the most lamentable kitsch, which yet necessarily appears as art, cannot help raising a claim to that which it disdains, the element of being in-itself, which it betrays.” (AT: 314)

The implications are (by Adorno’s standards) quite clear here; a paradoxical relationship to natural beauty is ingrained in both the “highest work[s]” and in the “lamentable kitsch” Adorno tends to associate with the “culture industry.” Both products are marked by the stain of ends-means relations, “an element that is for-other,” and by the germ of resistance to these relations, “the element of being in-itself.” Because every work belies the ends-means logic of capital in some incipient or muted form, any a priori denunciation of all products of the “culture industry” doesn’t hold weight; “the division of the spheres,” Adorno himself writes, “is not absolute” (AT: 314). Though monetary considerations can and nearly always do trump dealing with these paradoxes in any “serious” manner, in principle there is no reason objects of the “culture industry” cannot also wrestle with the aporias of art. I’ve already analyzed a number of ways in which Vertigo does just this by delineating how the object, temporal and narrative framework, and physical setting of Scottie’s fantasy all self-reflexively point to the domination this fantasy masks. To conclude, I’d like to turn to the scene which perhaps most obviously embodies qualities of the “culture industry,” Scottie and Madeleine’s first kiss, for this kiss represents both the culmination and negation of their (and our) false romance, and hence the hinge of the film’s social force.

vertigoOn first glance, the scene at Cypress Point appears precisely like the hackneyed dross Adorno so often eviscerates in his remarks about the “culture industry.” Consider first the narrative context: 65 minutes and nearly exactly halfway through the film, the kiss comes after the seductive narratives of Elster and Pop, after the hypnotic, nearly dialogue-free half hour of Scottie’s surveillance, after he has gallantly “saved” Madeleine from the San Francisco Bay, after they have agreed to “wander” together and tour the city, and, finally, after Scottie has boldly claimed, in true Hollywood-style and with some performative force, to be “responsible” for Madeleine not only now but, as “the Chinese say,” “forever.” In other words, the scene comes at the very height of our credulity, just twelve minutes before everything will come crashing down along with the dead body of the “real” Madeleine. Now consider the dialogue immediately preceding their kiss:

Madeleine: “Oh Scottie, don’t let me go.”
Scottie: “I’m here, I’ve got you.”
Madeleine: “I’m so afraid.”

Finally, consider the clichéd framing of the shot: horizontal view, Madeleine staring up at Scottie, waves swirling upon the rocks underneath them. The “culture industry” converges with the “cultural landscape,” as the churning waves announce themselves as sublime objects in the same way the scene announces itself as the apex of our romance; rather explicitly, they both scream, “I am beautiful.” Then, to no one’s surprise, the waves crash behind Scottie and Madeleine milliseconds before they kiss, Bernard Herrmann’s score reaches its crescendo, and our lovers’ kiss presumably ensures their undying affection. Together, the scene’s temporal location in the film, its tired dialogue, and its overly-picturesque setting make it conspicuously derivative, ostensibly confirming Adorno’s assertion that the “bread of which the culture industry feeds humanity, remains the stone of stereotype” (DE: 119). This conclusion would seem to be confirmed by the fact that the scene literally repeats itself. Seconds after the first kiss, both Madeleine (“Don’t leave me. Stay with me”) and Scottie (“All the time”) echo their previous lines, another wave hits milliseconds before they kiss, the music reaches another crescendo, and the scene reaches its mawkish, predictable conclusion.

On one hand then, this scene’s clunky convergence of romantic love and natural beauty serve to dramatize Adorno’s assertion that “Natural beauty, in the age of its total mediatedness, is transformed into a caricature of itself” (AT: 67). On the other hand, the very caricatured nature of the scene gives us pause: why, exactly, would Hitchcock seem to draw attention to his own artifice at the moment we’d perhaps least like to see it, at the consummation of Scottie’s romance, and of our own? The answer points to something the viewer likely perceived all along but chose to ignore – mainly, an element of unreality and even parody that second reflection reveals to be central to understanding the film’s explosive social content. (It’s no coincidence that Midge’s mocking self-portrait is revealed in the very next scene.) Here we might recall Adorno’s words on amusement:

“Amusement always means putting things out of mind, forgetting suffering, even when it is on display. At its root is powerlessness. It is indeed escape, but not, as it claims, from bad reality but from the last thought of resisting that reality. The liberation which amusement promises is from thinking as negation.” (DE: 116, emphasis added)

Vertigo, it seems to me, both courts and curtails the viewer’s desire for this sort of escapism. The film asks us to come along for the ride and enjoy the stops, but it keeps providing clues that force us to think that its liberation, its promesse de bonheur, is not just fleeting but false. The romance, the look, the landscape, the waves – it gives us all, but its giving is excessive, one that highlights the artificiality of this sort of romance, of this sort of experience of nature, of this sort of utopia.

vertigo48This artificiality becomes painfully evident in the last third of the film, as we are forced to watch Scottie reenact what Elster and the film have already done: dominate Judy in order to construct a fantasy. What becomes particularly troubling about this fantasy upon reflection is not necessarily that we were tricked, but that we were tricked by something so obviously false. There were quite a few signs that something was amiss, and in fact the very things that invited us in served as warnings: the narratives of Elster and Pop, the imperial temporality, the tourist settings – all of these should have allowed us to separate ourselves from Scottie’s foolish fantasy. The blood is on Scottie’s hands far before he forces Judy up the bell tower at the Mission San Juan Bautista, and on ours as well.

This sounds profoundly depressing, and in a certain sense it is. And yet, I would contend that something profoundly utopian takes place here. To call a film consistently described as among Hitchcock’s most pessimistic “utopian” may seem odd. Adorno’s words from a 1964 interview with Ernst Bloch help explain this incongruity: “utopia is essentially in the determined negation, in the determined negation of that which merely is, and by concretizing itself as something false, it always points at the same time to what it should be” (1988: 12). In Vertigo, what appear to be caricatures of natural beauty and romance turn out to be not merely capitulation to the status quo but negation, a negation which takes place through a capitulation that violently exposes itself as such. The film “concretizes” the contradiction between a “culture industry” promise of freedom and the domination this freedom depends upon by writing both freedom and domination onto a single woman. This woman – Judy-Madeleine-Carlotta – simultaneously demonstrates the paradoxes of romance, of tourism, of nation-building, and of art.

0547It is important to recognize this as a demonstration of paradox and not a denunciation. There is something radically utopian in Madeleine, and it would be reductive to suggest that the film’s exposure of its problematic representation of beauty amounts to a rejection of representation, or of romance, or of beauty, or of art. The film is more complex than any of these categorical judgments, as Wood reminds us: “the illusion is not just an illusion; Judy was not merely acting” (2002: 121, emphasis in original), a fact which becomes clear when Judy willfully risks (and loses) everything to be with Scottie again. But we shouldn’t move, with Wurzer, to the other extreme. He writes that “Madeleine emerges as nonimaginal Gestalt of promise, of resistance, of freedom from conventional identity. She is not mimesis of something real but anticipation of ‘how-it-is-yet-to-be,’ yet to come” (2000: 91). Wurzer is certainly correct in noting that Madeleine’s representation offers the viewer a fleeting glimpse of a world “yet to come,” an image free of what leaves this world in chains – the subordination of nearly every walk of life to the ends-means logic of capital, the logic that clearly separates Madeleine from Judy and Midge. But to lend attention to Madeleine only as a utopian object, and to use her as an example of a “softmodern” aesthetic that champions “what is light, radiant and momentary” (Ibid.: 96) is to repeat precisely what Scottie and the viewer do throughout the first half of the film: ignore the suffering which is repressed and reproduced by Madeleine as a “light, radiant and momentary” image, the suffering of Madeleine and Judy, of Carlotta and the countless victims of San Francisco’s colonial past, and of the natural landscape appropriated and reshaped by this violent history.

To grasp the truth content of Vertigo, the viewer must resist reducing the film’s elements to either a denunciation or celebration of what we might aptly call the “power” and “freedom” of art, but instead hold these poles in dialectical tension. Keeping this tension alive is essential to understanding the power of Adorno’s aesthetic, and, I believe, of Hitchcock’s film. “The only authentic form of critical thinking in our time,” as Fredric Jameson explains in his reading of Adorno, requires

“A consciousness of contradiction which resists the latter’s solution, its dissolution either into satiric positivism and cynical empiricism on the one hand, or into utopian positivity on the other. To succeed in thinking art as both aesthetic and anti-aesthetic at one and the same time is to achieve, in this area, the determinate negation.” (Jameson 1990: 131)

To think about Vertigo, and to perhaps approach its truth content, we must recognize that Madeleine is both a figure of utopia and an object of domination. We must see the potential in Madeleine the “wanderer,” the purposeless work of art that becomes “the plenipotentiary of an undamaged life in the midst of mutilated life” (AT: 117). But we must also realize what Madeleine, as an image of freedom in an unfree world, betrays: the link between this image and the domination of Judy, of Madeleine, of Carlotta, and of the landscape of San Francisco. Hitchcock thrusts these contradictory conclusions upon the viewer concurrently, making the experience of watching Vertigo truly, as the cliché goes, vertiginous; but it also testifies to the utopian potential of his work, a potential that manifests itself through the negation of the very “culture industry” to which the film remains inextricably tethered. This negation does not – it cannot – “overcome” its commodity status, but it does make it an explosive, utopian work of art, a work of art that illustrates the paradoxical promise of popular cinema.

Ben Bergholtz is a PhD candidate at Louisiana State University, USA.


Adorno, Theodor W. (1988) “Something’s Missing: A Discussion between Ernst Bloch and Theodor W. Adorno on the Contradictions of Utopian Longing,” in Ernst Bloch, The Utopian Function of Art and Literature, Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, pp. 1-17.

____. (1997), Aesthetic Theory, Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis.

Adorno, Theodor W., and Max Horkheimer (2002), Dialectic of Enlightenment, California: Stanford University Press.

Cook, Deborah (1996), The Culture Industry Revisited: Theodor W. Adorno and Mass Culture, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.

Cunningham, Douglas (2008),“‘It’s All There, It’s No Dream’: Vertigo and the Redemptive Pleasures of the Cinephilic Pilgrimage,” Screen, Vol. 49, Issue 2, pp. 123-141.

Derrida, Jacques (1992), “Force of Law,” in Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, edited by Cornell Drucilla, Michael Rosenfeld, and David Gray Carlson, New York: Routledge, pp. 3-67.

Fabe, Marilyn (2009), “Mourning Vertigo,” American Imago: Psychoanalysis and the Human 66.3, pp. 343-367.

Freedman, Jonathan (1997), “From Spellbound to Vertigo: Alfred Hitchcock and Therapeutic Culture in America,” in Jonathan Freedman and Richard Millington (eds.), Hitchcock’s America, York: Oxford University Press, pp. 77-98.

Hansen, Miriam (2012), Cinema and Experience: Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor W. Adorno, California: University of California Press.

Hohendahl, Uwe Peter (2013), The Fleeting Promise of Art: Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory Revisited, New York: Cornell University Press.

Hullot-Kentor, Robert (1997), Translator’s Introduction, in Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis, pp. xi-xxi.

Jameson, Fredric (1990), Late Marxism: Adorno, or, The Persistence of the Dialectic, Lodon and New York: Verso.

Linderman, Deborah (1991), “The Mise-en-Abîme in Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo,’” Cinema Journal 30.4, pp. 51-74.

McGee, Patrick (1997), Cinema, Theory, and Political Responsibility in Contemporary Culture, Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Pomerance, Murray (2004), An Eye for Hitchcock, New Brunswick, New Jersey and London: Rutgers University Press.

Ravetto-Biagioli, Kriss (2011), “Vertigo and the Vertiginous History of Film Theory,” Camera Obscura: A Journal of Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies 25.75, pp. 101-141.

Shaffer, Lawrence (1984), “Obsessed with ‘Vertigo,’” The Massachusetts Review 25.3, pp. 383-397.

Wall, Brian (2013), Theodor Adorno and Film Theory: The Fingerprint of Spirit, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Wexman, Virginia Wright (1986), “The Critic as Consumer: Film Study in the University, ‘Vertigo,’ and the Film Canon,” Film Quarterly 39.3, pp. 32-41.

Wood, Robin (2002), Hitchcock’s Films Revisited: Revised Edition, New York: Columbia University Press.

Wurzer, Wilhelm S. (2000), “Beyond an Aesthetics of the West: Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Budhi: A Journal of Ideas and Culture 4.1, pp. 79-96.

Žižek, Slavoj (2012), Organs without Bodies: On Deleuze and Consequences, New York: Routledge Classics.


[1] To my knowledge, Freedman and Wilhelm S. Wurzer are the only two other critics to carry out such a reading.

[2] My lack of gender neutrality is intentional. As various critics – beginning with Laura Mulvey and Robin Wood – have demonstrated, the assumed viewer of Vertigo is clearly male.

[3] Criticism of the film is so divisive that there are now at least three articles exclusively focused on explicating the history of these divisions. For a general history, see Tim Groves’ Vertigo and the Maelstrom of Criticism”; for a history focused more specifically on these divisions’ relation to film theory, see Kriss Ravetto-Biagioli’s Vertigo and the Vertiginous History of Film Theory”; for a history tracing divisions within feminist readings of the film, see Susan White’s “Vertigo and Problems of Knowledge in Feminist Film Theory,” in Richard Allen and S. Ishii-Gonzales (eds.) (1999), Alfred Hitchcock: Centenary Essays; London: BFI, pp. 279-298.

[4] For competing views on this odd phenomenon, see Fabe 2009 and Cunningham 2008. Fabe suggests participants on Vertigo tours “replicate or perform the actions of its hero throughout much of the second half of the film” (345). Cunningham recognizes this, but offers a more optimistic reading of the phenomenon. This issue is also examined in the 2011 collection, The San Francisco of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo: Place, Pilgrimage, and Commemoration, edited by Cunningham. For tour prices follow link.

Leave a Reply