Culture Industry

Amusing Ourselves to Death


Culture industry is a term coined by critical theorists Theodor Adorno (1903–1969) and Max Horkheimer (1895–1973), who argued in the chapter of their book ‘Dialectic of Enlightenment, ‘The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,’ that popular culture is akin to a factory producing standardized cultural goods – through film, radio and magazines – to manipulate the masses into passivity; the easy pleasures available through consumption of popular culture make people docile and content, no matter how difficult their economic circumstances.

Adorno and Horkheimer saw this mass-produced culture as a danger to the more difficult high arts. Culture industries may cultivate false needs; that is, needs created and satisfied by capitalism. True needs, in contrast, are freedom, creativity, or genuine happiness. This was reference to an earlier demarcation in needs by Herbert Marcuse.

Adorno and Horkheimer were key members of the Frankfurt School. They were much influenced by the dialectical materialism and historical materialism of Karl Marx, as well the revisitation of the dialectical idealism of Hegel, in both of which events are studied not in isolation but as part of the process of change. As a group later joined by Jürgen Habermas, they were responsible for the formulation of Critical Theory. In works such as ‘Dialectic of Enlightenment’ and ‘Negative Dialectics,’ Adorno and Horkheimer theorized that the phenomenon of mass culture has a political implication, namely that all the many forms of popular culture are a single culture industry whose purpose is to ensure the continued obedience of the masses to market interests.

Although Western culture used to be divided into national markets and then into highbrow, middlebrow and lowbrow, the modern view of mass culture is that there is a single marketplace in which the best or most popular works succeed. This recognizes that the consolidation of media companies has centralized power in the hands of the few remaining multinational corporations now controlling production and distribution.

The rationale of the theory is to promote the emancipation of the consumer from the tyranny of the producers by inducing the consumer to question beliefs and ideologies. Adorno claims that enlightenment was supposed to bring pluralism and demystification but instead society is said to have suffered a major fall as it is corrupted by capitalist industry with exploitative motives.

Anything made by a person is a materialization of their labor and an expression of their intentions. There will also be a use value: the benefit to the consumer will be derived from its utility. The exchange value will reflect its utility and the conditions of the market: the prices paid by the television broadcaster or at the box office. Yet, the modern soap operas with their interchangeable plots and formulaic narrative conventions reflect standardized production techniques and the falling value of a mass produced cultural product. Only rarely is a film released that makes a more positive impression on the general discourse and achieves a higher exchange value, e.g. ‘Patton’ (1970) starring George C. Scott as the eponymous American general, was released at a time of considerable anti-war sentiment. The opening shot is of Patton in front of an American flag making an impassioned speech. This was a form of dialectic in which the audience could identify with the patriotism either sincerely (the thesis) or ironically (the antithesis) and so set the tone of the interpretation for the remainder of the film. However, the film is manipulating specific historical events, not only as entertainment, but also as a form of propaganda by demonstrating a link between success in strategic resource management situations and specified leadership qualities. Given that the subtext was instrumental and not ‘value free,’ ethical and philosophical considerations arise.

Normally, only high art criticizes the world outside its boundaries, but access to this form of communication is limited to the elite classes where the risks of introducing social instability are slight. A film like Patton is popular art which intends controversy in a world of social order and unity which, according to Adorno, is regressing into a cultural blandness. To Hegel, order is good a priori, i.e. it does not have to answer to those living under it. In ‘Negative Dialectics,’ Adorno writes that this tended towards progress by stimulating the possibility of class conflict. Marx’s theory of Historical Materialism was teleological, i.e. society follows through a dialectic of unfolding stages from ancient modes of production to feudalism to capitalism to a future communism. But Adorno felt that the culture industry would never permit a sufficient core of challenging material to emerge on to the market that might disturb the status quo and stimulate the final communist state to emerge.

Critics of the theory say that the products of mass culture would not be popular if people did not enjoy them, and that culture is self-determining in its administration. This would deny Adorno contemporary political significance, arguing that politics in a prosperous society is more concerned with action than with thought. The young generation of critical theorists largely ignore Adorno’s work which, in part, stems from Adorno’s inability to draw practical conclusions from his theories. Adorno is also accused of a lack of consistency in his claims to be implementing Marxism. Whereas he accepted the classical Marxist analysis of society showing how one class exercises domination over another, he deviated from Marx in his failure to use dialectic as a method to propose ways to change. Marx’s theory depended on the willingness of the working class to overthrow the ruling class, but Adorno and Horkheimer postulated that the culture industry has undermined the revolutionary movement. Adorno’s idea that the mass of the people are only objects of the culture industry is linked to his feeling that the time when the working class could be the tool of overthrowing capitalism is over. Other critics note that ‘High culture’ too is not exempt from a role in the justification of capitalism. The establishment and reinforcement of elitism is seen by these critics as a key element in the role of such genres as opera and ballet.

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