Frederic Jameson and Postmodernity, Part Three


Postmodernism and Consumer Society (1983)

Part Three

As a literary scholar, Frederic Jameson was trained in the generation of “close reading” and has used literary analysis combined with a neo-Marxism of Karl Marx and the idea of the unconscious of Sigmund Freud to “read” culture through the lens of an economic analysis of the unconscious of society. The theoretical position/s of Jameson are typical of his era, which is Postmodernism, and are therefore hybrid. For him, Postmodernism is the result of a shift in economic conditions when in turn shaped the cultural cognitive. In “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” Jameson carefully explained the connection between Postmodernity and capitalism which functions on the basis of a society that must consume to support the mode of production. In writing of Postmodernism, Jameson said,

It is also, at least in my use, a periodizing concept whose function is to correlate the emergence of new formal features in culture with the emergence of a new type of social life and a new economic order-what is often euphemistically called modernization, postindustrial or consumer society, the society of the media or the spectacle, or multinational capitalism. This new moment of capitalism can be dated from the postwar boom in the United States in the late 1940s and early ’50s or, in France, from the establishment of the Fifth Republic in 1958. The 1960s are in many ways the key transitional period, a period in which the new international order (neocolonialism, the Green Revolution, computerization and electronic information) is at one and the same time set in place and is swept and shaken by its own internal contradictions and by external resistance. I want here to sketch a few of the ways in which the new postmodernism expresses the inner truth of that newly emergent social order of late capitalism, but will haul to limit the description to only two of its significant features, which I will call pastiche and schizophrenia: they will give us a chance to sense the specificity of the postmodernist experience of space and time respectively.

In tracking the marks of late capitalism upon the human consciousness, Jameson used the culture industry as a place where economics and culture and human thought clashed and combined. He considered cinema to be the primary Postmodern art, “the last machine,” as Holis Frampton called it, a product of the most sophisticated form of industrial production. As a cultural form, film is permeated by marketing and lives and dies on its particular modes of production and distribution and the carefully calculated effects upon the audiences. Cinema involves what the theorist called “cognitive mapping” or the psychology of the “political unconscious.” “ Cognitive Mapping,” with Jameson, who was always conceded with the connection between film and politics, is a metaphor for processes of the political unconscious. In the Preface to Jameson’s The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World Space (1992), Colin McCabe, who remarked that “cognitive mapping is the least articulated but also the most crucial of the Jameson categories,” explained the idea of “cognitive mapping as,

The term is taken from the geographer Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City (1960) and is used by him to describe the phenomenon by which people make sense of their urban surroundings. Effectively, it works as an intersection of the people to function in the urban spaces through which they move. For Jameson, cognitive mapping is a way of understanding how the individual’s representation of his or her social world can escape the traditional critique of representation because the mapping is intimately related to practice–to the individual’s successful negotiation of urban space. Cognitive mapping in this sense is the metaphor for the processes of the political unconscious.

Film is a what he called a “conspiratorial text” with unconscious and collective effects that are concealed by bureaucratic impersonality of production and profit. But what is concealed? The particular fantasy that is projected by films must be collective and reassuring in order to contribute to a social totality. What occurs in postmodern film is Walter Benjamin’s allegory as articulated in his 1925 book, The Origin of German Tragic Drama or Origin of the German Mourning-Play (Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels). The goal of Benjamin’s analysis of Baroque drama in Germany was to find a theory for the Baroque which had always been castigated as a “fall” from the purity of Classical drama. As opposed to clear symbolism, Baroque drama presented allegory or an overabundance of symbols assembled from the ruins of Classicism. In the same way, Postmodernism pillaged the resources of a ruined and exhausted Modernism. This lack of an authentic time or historical period, this untimelessness of Postmodern time is called schizophrenia. As Jameson explained that,

..schizophrenic experience is an experience of isolated, disconnected, discontinuous material signifiers which fail to link up into a coherent sequence. The schizophrenic thus does not know personal identity in our sense, since our feeling of identity depends on our sense of the persistence of the “I” and the “me” over time. On the other hand, the schizophrenic will clearly have a far more intense experience of any given present of the world than we do, since our own present is always part of some larger set of projects which force us selectively to focus our perceptions.

Postmodern film and architecture was allegorized consumption of the past familiars that constructed an object-world composed of utopian wishes that allow the spectators to grasp their new (artificial and constructed) “being” in the world. Postmodern anxieties were soaked up at the movies and fantasy films became the solution that filled the cognitive and psychological vacuum. From what in this postmodern present were the audiences being distracted? Because traditional representation had become so tainted some form of representation had to be posited for the film audiences, raising the question of how would the present be represented? As an acknowledgement of the death of representation, the phenomenon of “Post” was a satisfactory solution to the problem, because allegory allowed random and isolated elements to function in fluid fashion and to form a schizoid constellation that was very Baroque, laden with plural and often entertaining feints towards “meaning.” In Postmodernism, new Post-generic films, therefore, were allegories of each other, abandoning the authenticity of the Modernist auteur.


The Westin Bonaventure, Los Angeles

Jameson considered that the Postmodern “time” was an extension of late modernism in which there has been a collapse of the distinction between the base and superstructure and film or cinema is representative of this third stage of capitalism, which is all-encompassing and global and inescapable. As he wrote in “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,”

What we must now affirm is that it is precisely this whole extraordinarily demoralising and depressing original new global space which is the “moment of truth” of postmodernism. What has been called the postmodernist “sublime” is only the moment in which this content has become most explicit, has moved the closest to the surface of consciousness as a coherent new type of space in its own right – even though a certain figural concealment or disguise is still at work here, most notably in the high-tech thematics in which the new spatial content is still dramatised and articulated. Yet the earlier features of the postmodern which were enumerated above can all now be seen as themselves partial (yet constitutive) aspects of the same general spatial object.

Film is both a mode of production and an art form, a form of creation and a commodity—the difference is impossible to distinguish and therefore the “movies” are linked to never-ending attempts on the part of the dominant class to reinforce ideologies that reified human beings. Film in the Postmodern era could never be modern or new; it can only be allegorical, endlessly attached to a past that never was. Postmodern allegory was an expression of the inability of the human object (o longer a subject) to locate him or herself in time. Jameson posited that one must locate oneself in a space that had not one point of focus but was plural and is dispersed without hierarchal arrangement, what he considered a loss of perspective or a sense of place. No where is this loss of perspective, this inability to “map” better manifested than in the Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, a building that Jameson described in great and theoretical detail. Jameson “diagnosed” the Bonaventure, designed by John Portman in 1974 and completed in 1976, and while the building lacks the façade of quotations used by Charles Moore and Michael Graves, the hotel lent itself well to the concept of cognitive mapping.


The Bonaventure Interior

As anyone who lives in Los Angeles knows, the Bonaventure is located in one of the spaghetti bowls of intersecting freeways and surface streets, making arriving at the site quite a feat in itself. Jameson notes the three separate entrances to the building which is a visually confusing cluster of five mirrored cylinders with the component parts visible only from the air. (Interestingly, Jameson himself miscounted the number of towers, stating that there are four.) Jameson wrote of the confusion for visitors who arrive at the hotel:

The entryways of the Bonaventure are, as its were, lateral and rather backdoor affairs: the gardens in the back admit you to the sixth floor of the towers, and even there you must walk down one flight to find the elevator by which you gain access to the lobby. Meanwhile, what one is still tempted to think of as the front entry on Figueroa, admits you, baggage and all, onto the second-story shopping balcony, from which you must take an escalator down to the main registration desk.

As if the entries and their presumed goals were not confusing enough, Jameson discussed the elevators which are both inside and outside, reflecting, so to speak, the mirrored surfaces of the buildings which attract and repeal the natural/cultural cityscape surrounding the hotel–outside become splashed onto the surface. According to the analysis of Jameson, the Bonadventue is all outside, all exterior, tight towers, clinging together into a conjoined unit, but the interior is subordinated to the allegorical ensemble of abstract shiny shapes. There is on focal point, no central level, the visitor is condemned to a futile wandering in search of a registration desk or a room down a rabbit warren of dark halls or rendered a passive onlooker from a vantage point that achieves no perspective and no horizon line. Without the old fashioned hierarchies of Modernist architecture, Postmodern architecture is playful and dysfunctional in its deconstruction of itself, mirroring, in a pun like fashion, the no-place of Late Capitalism.


The Bonaventure Exterior

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Defining Postmodernism


The End of History

“Postmodernism” was a term coined in 1939 by Arnold Toynbee early in the twentieth century to refer to the last quarter of the 19th century, a time where capitalism and imperialism and Western civilization in general began to decline. At first, in the art world, the term simply meant, “after” Modernism; but by the mid 1970s, Postmodernism came to refer more and more to a theoretical stance, rather than to a temporal event. If the temporality of Postmodernism has always been problematic, for there are multiple points of beginning or terminus, then defining the term is also fraught with peril.

First, it is dangerous to attempt to define Postmodernism, which accepts contradictions, as one unified phenomenon is simply absurd. Second, Postmodernism was a discursive field, held more or less loosely together by the artificial boundaries of of the disciplines of literary theory and philosophy within which numerous theories and viewpoints proliferated. Third, the perspective on Postmodernity or the condition of being Postmodern depended upon which nation one was living in or upon which intellectual tradition one was drawing.

It is often said that Postmodernism was founded by French theorists, but this would be a Francophilic perspective. German theorists, notably Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno, predicted some of the affects of Postmodernity in culture. The French writers were disillusioned Marxists, but three decades after the Frankfurt School had begun a critique of Marxism in a consumer society. In America, Postmodernism entered into academia as “critical theory,” a smorgasbord of philosophical samplings. But these bits and pieces of “theory” were presented without the cultural underpinnings that generated the authors and Americans assimilated elements without fully comprehending the cultural framework.

For Postmodernism, however, American would have been ground zero. Late capitalism, the founding condition of Postmodernity was at its unapologetic peak in American when Postmodern theories came into vogue. But America lacked the historical experience—the devastation of the Second World War—to understand the defining elements of Postmodern studies—disillusionment, despair, nihilism and hopelessness. One of the first theorists to attempt to define Postmodernism, Ihab Hassan, complained eloquently about the difficulty and isolated “a number of conceptual problems that both conceal and constitute postmodernism itself.” After he had noted his ten problems, Hassan provided the reader with a neat and useful chart comparing Modernism and Postmodernism.

Echoing the pessimism of Postmodernism, Hassan summed up the nature of Postmodernism in one word:

“indetermanence,” which “designate two central, constitutive tendencies in postmodernism: one of indeterminancy, the other of immanence. The two tendencies are not dialectical; for they are not exactly antithetical; nor do they lead to a synthesis. Each contains its own contradictions, and alludes to elements of the other. Their interplay suggests the action of a “polylectic,” pervading postmodernism.”

The “diverse concepts” brought forward by Hassan are all negative, at least when compared to Modernist positivism and optimism: “ambiguity, discontinuity, heterodoxy, pluralism, randomness, revolt, perversion, deformation…(which) subsumes a dozen current terms of unmaking: decreation, disintegration, deconstruction, decenterment, displacement, difference, discontinuity, disjunction, disappearance, decomposition, de-definition, demystification, detotalization, delegitimization” which can lead “to the rhetoric of irony, rupture, silence…loss, perversion, and dissolution..” Hassan’s The Postmodern Turn of 1987 was deeply pessimistic, denoting a singular and significant loss of certainty and unity that occurred with the death of Modernism.

Revising the topic of Postmodernism in the early 21st century, Hassan wrote From Postmodernism to Postmodernity: the Local/Global Context and defined his second term in terms of

…the fluent imperium of technology. Thus I call the second major tendency of postmodernism immanences, a term that I employ without religious echo to designate the capacity of mind to generalize itself in symbols, intervene more and more into nature, act through its own abstractions, and project human consciousness to the edges of the cosmos. This mental tendency may be further described by words like diffusion, dissemination, projection, interplay, communication, which all derive from the emergence of human beings as language animals, homo pictor or homo significans, creatures constituting themselves, and also their universe, by symbols of their own making.

The question is does Postmodern reflect or cause the crisis in confidence in contemporary life? Critical theory tended to be so dense that it is important when defining Postmodernism to isolated two recurring themes: technology and the death of the master narrative, which are entwined. With the demise of the metanarrative comes the end of truth and when truth falls so too does the capacity to represent. One of the earliest writers on Postmodernism was Jean-François Lyotard. In 1984, he attempted to answer the question What is Postmodernism? After a long prologue, he decided,

The postmodern would be that which, in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself; that which denies itself the solace of good forms, the consensus of a taste which would make it possible to share collectively the nostalgia for the unattainable; that which searches for new presentations, not in order to enjoy them but m order to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable. A postmodern artist or writer is in the position of a philosopher: the text he writes, the work he produces are not in principle governed by preestablished rules, and they cannot be judged according to a determining Judgment, by applying familiar categories to the text or to the work. Those rules and categories are what the work of art itself is looking for. The artist and the writer, then, are working without rules in order to formulate the rules of what will have been done.Hence the fact that work and text have the characters of an event; hence also, they always come too late for their author, or, what amounts to the same thing, their being put into work, their realization (mise en oeuvre) always begin too soon. Post modern would have to be understood according to the paradox of the future (post) anterior (modo).

Although Lyotard was one of the French Postmodern philosophers most concerned with the visual arts, I would argue that his primary impact upon Postmodernism was his attempt to discern the impact of technology upon science and the possibility of forming an entity called “knowledge.” Lyotard critiqued the Enlightenment mode of thinking—now outmoded—and noted the end of “le grand récit” also known as the “master narrative.” Although in 1979 The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge was forty years away from blogging and Facebook, Lyotard understood that technology made possible the “imaginative invention” of what he called “le petit récit” or the little narrative.

Lyotard’s celebration of the singular over the universal followed Theodor Adorno’s critique of the Enlightenment and how the concept of totality resulted in the near extermination of the particular (the Jews). The “Condition” of Postmodernity, for Lyotard, is more than a breakdown of the master narrative, it is also the postindustrial world in which information has become a commodity. If information is a commodity in a consumerist world, then information, like any other commodity, will proliferate into these “little narratives.” In 2002 Ben Dorfman explained the “postmodern condition” in regards to knowledge:

In computerized society, where knowledge is mercantilized, it invades a space formerly occupied only by material production. Thus, knowledge is the only new product worth noticing, at any rate; it is really the only new element (or non-element, as the case might be) emerging from capitalist productivity. However, that knowledge has become a product is also noticeable. This is so not only because it changes the scenery of the capitalist landscape, but because it effects a transformation in the meaning and use of knowledge.

But what is the result of “our” refusal of the “grand narrative” that defined who we were? Without the metanarrative, we have no place in the contemporary and we must refer to the frozen certainty of history. As Dorfman stated,

We have, on one hand, a constant reference to the past – the antecedent to the present. Underneath our dismissal of grand narrative is our nostalgia for it. We wish we had a direction and participated in a story; stories and directions are what grand narrative.

To conclude, computer technology has the capability to disperse such large amounts of information, called “content,” in internet terms, that authority is ended. There is no single source of “knowledge.” There are no “experts” that exist above debate and contradiction. Knowledge becomes local, contingent or used when convenient. With the death of the center and the dissemination of many little stories, an intense subjectivity comes about. The individual who used to define herself within the grand narrative is now part of a local narrative and the old concept of the person as a subject who is part of a larger culture comes to an end. The result is a great hunger for stability and Postmodernism became a “before” instead of an “after” through nostalgia, a return to the past, the last bastion of certainty.

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Theodor Adorno and “The Culture Industry”





Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) was born in the sun of Hollywood, beside the pools of Santa Monica, in the capital of mass culture designed to entertain and to (literally) stupefy the American public. It would seem that the focal point for such a book, popular culture, is a slender reed for such a weighty philosophical discourse, but the authors Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer were German refugees who understood all too well the power of mass media. Although in their early years in the Frankfurt School, or the Institute of Social Research, the scholars attached to this group were Marxist, they were not doctrinaire and were not orthodox. Led by Horkheimer, the philosophers sought a way to update Marxism and to get beyond the failure of social revolution and to understand why this uprising among the lower classes did not take place.

Part of the very notion of “Late Capitalism” is the concept that economic forces invade all relationships and all aspects of a lived social life. In other words, the economic model, fueled by the profit motive, is now in full control. In contrast to earlier modes of Capitalism (or Feudalism), which were limited in their effects, Late Capitalism is theoretically limitless, thanks in no small part of technology. It is modern technology that spreads the ideas of the dominant group currently in control of society through radio, film and published documents. Marx certainly anticipated the role of the commodity as creating “desire” but he could not have envisioned the extension of capitalist control through technology.

Even before the Frankfurt School was forced to leave German in 1933, it was clear that the modern world had gone beyond the old-fashioned version of Marxism and that other disciplines had to be brought to a new critique of a new culture. The culture of the 20th century was “administered” and the administration of this new society was facilitated by the “culture industry.” It was this unholy alliance between state and entertainment that had caught the attention of Adorno and Horkheimer and the Frankfurt School during the rise of Fascism in Germany. And now the exiled philosophers were at Ground Zero of the Culture Industry—Hollywood.

Theodor W. Adorno was born Theodor Adorno-Wiesengrund, his father’s (Jewish) name retained only as an initial. He took his Italian mother’s name, perhaps in honor of their mutual love of music, perhaps to highlight the non-Jewish half of his parentage, and almost certainly to veil the Jewish-ness of the Frankfurt School when the scholars moved to New York City. Just as Walter Benjamin was a poet as much as he was a philosopher, so too Adorno was as much a musician as he was a philosopher. Adorno wanted to become a professional pianist but lacked the talent necessary for such a career. He drifted into philosophy and, influenced by early twentieth century Neo-Kantianism, took up the task of making the theories of Karl Marx relevant to the new century. His philosophy was always about praxis, but, paradoxically, he refused to write in a way that could be easily understood or paraphrased. According to the authoritative scholar of the Frankfurt School, Martin Jay, his style of writing is so dense and so obscure that it has a name all its own: “Adorno Deutsch” that resists easy translation. However, Dialectic of Enlightenment, perhaps because it was co-written, is a fairly straightforward book to read and, because of its readability, the central notion of the Culture Industry has had a profound impact upon Neo-Marxist thinking and upon its cousin in critique, Critical Theory and upon modern thinkers from Jurgen Habermas to Guy Debrod.

Adorno, like his colleagues, had inherited the notion of the superiority of Germany’s Kultur, as opposed to commercialized Zivilisation of other nations, such as America. The role of Kulture in Germany was what might also be called “high culture,” which would be opposed to popular culture or the mass culture of the entertainment industry. High culture enlightens and lifts up, while low or popular culture flattens and homogenizes public “taste.” Decades later, Pierre Bourdieu would point out that “taste” is, in fact, a social divider, marking out high class “taste” from low class “taste.” Perhaps because of such a class divide, or perhaps because he had a background as a classical pianist, Adorno had a famously limited appreciation for popular culture.

He was an unrepentant snob and, even after living in the United States for years, he could not understand the value of jazz. Some have accused Adorno of being a racist for this blind spot, but it is more likely that he disliked the improvisational nature of this form of music that seemed so casual, without structure or compositional permanency. Having lived in Hollywood, Adorno watched Walt Disney appropriate Stravinsky and, after the War, he rejected any possibility of high “culture” and thought of culture as “neutral and ready-made” simply because it could be borrowed and reused for any purposes. Rather than being a living, growing creative enterprise, culture, by whatever name—high, low, popular—replicated itself. Nevertheless, Adorno maintained his task as “cultural critic” and produced a large body of works as a music critic.

The perspective of Dialectic of Enlightenment was also impacted by the role that mass entertainment played in the Weimar Republic and in the rise of the Nazis. In New York, the Frankfurt School could view the cunning and dangerous use of the apparatus of media on behalf of Nazi propaganda from a safe distance. During the Second World War, the scholars witnessed a full-scale effort in America to deploy mass entertainment and mass information to keep Americans patriotically involved in what would be a long and costly war. In 1943 Max Horkheimer had to leave New York and go to Los Angeles for his health. Here, he was joined by Theodor Adorno and the two Germans joined a large colony of émigrés and exiles in Hollywood. There they could watch the local “industry”—mass entertainment—at work. The resulting book Dialectic of Enlightenment contained the essay “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” a seminal study of contemporary mass media. The book, written by Adorno and Horkheimer just after the end of the war, is reflective of their Hollywood experiences. But the essays also recall their experiences as witnesses to the rise of fascism. The book was originally published by a Dutch publishing firm and was reissued in 1970, a year after Adorno’s death.

The Culture Industry, as the name implies, is part of the Industrial Revolution, a product of industrial technology. The industrial aspect had long since taken over the “cultural” aspects and, since the late nineteenth century, “culture” had been co-opted by a vast capitalist profit-making machine. The result was, for Adorno, a great loss to humanity. Unlike his friend Walter Benjamin, Adorno could not envision any possibility that technology could be used to either arouse or liberate the masses. Indeed in his time, culture was a captive of corporations that used music and dance, the performing arts, to make a profit. In order to make this profit, the culture proffered to the public had to appeal to the greatest number. The result was that “high” culture had to be supported by a small and wealthy and dedicated group of those who were educated enough to appreciate it. There was little profit in this elitist form of culture until the technology of the record player could be used to sell records to a wider audience.

Mass culture, or culture for the masses, was vastly more popular and profitable. Popular culture emerged from the lower classes, from the folk, from the middle classes, but these distinctions were lost under the homogenizing impact of the industry, which needed to level out differences to sell to the greatest number of buyers. The enterprises that manufacture and promote and sell “culture” on an “industrial” scale are capitalist in nature and, in the process of selling their product, they sell capitalism and capitalist ideology as well. For example, the creation of the “star” and the “cult” of worship around the star him or herself gives rise to the illusion among the worshipers that a rise to stardom is in her or his grasp. Thus the dull truth of class division and unequal opportunity is overlaid by unrealistic hope.

In her book on Adorno, Culture Industry Revisited: Theodor W. Adorno on Mass Culture, Deborah Cook begins with Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and states, “Adorno transformed, in broad but clear strokes, the ancient allegory of the cave into an explosive critique of the culture industry.” The idea is that people prefer the cave and its shadows to the reality outside in the bright sunlight, but the real question is why? Why do people prefer the commodity to class equality? Why do people while away hours in a darkened theater? Marx, long before Freud, understood that the commodity was a “symptom” of a desire for something else, and Adorno connected Marx and Freud through the Culture Industry, the cave of the masses. As Adorno wrote, “This dreamless art for the people fulfills the dreamy idealism which went too far for idealism in its critical form.” Parenthetically, it should be pointed out that the “psychology” of the culture industry differed between Germany and America. In Germany, the culture industry, especially under the Nazis, led the citizens into regressive pleasures and towards a narcissistic worship of the “Leader,” Adolf Hitler. In America, the culture industry distracts the view of the people away from economic and social issues and points them towards the pleasure of escapism through entertainment.

Whatever nationalistic differences an audience may share, the result is the same—indoctrination of the masses into a sameness that serves the needs of the masters. “The whole world is passed through the filter of the culture industry,” the authors stated. According to Adorno, the individual does not exist but has been reconfigured into a “social object” shaped for the administered world, ruled by capitalism. Earlier work by scholars of the Frankfurt School showed that the role of the father in a patriarchal society had been supplanted by the state, which in concert with the Culture Industry, now controlled the collective cultural psyche. It matters not whether the society is totalitarian or “non-totalitarian,” the result will be the same—a society under enchantment and trained to seek pleasure over confrontation with the authorities. The question is who is in control?

The forces which generate the economic engine behind the Culture Industry are not unknown but, to be more precise, are abstract. The Culture Industry is not ruled by people but by profit and the need to acquire a monopolistic position in order to acquire more profit. Marx’s metaphor of an “engine” is an apt one in that it conjures up a sense of a force that no one controls or commands. The Culture Industry is particularly efficient as definitionally it is a collaborative enterprise composes of many people all of whom want to earn a living, laboring away as cogs in a wheel, thinking they are being “artists” or that they merely want to entertain.

The real workings of culture are invisible to them, for the true purpose of any system is to preserve itself and the Culture Industry protects itself by calling up emotions that produce the pleasurable and manufacture and artificial desire for more pleasure. The industry, whether it is the movies or pornography, has the same result: reification. The individual is dissolved into abstract relations between, not people, but things. These “social things,” so to speak, these reified people can now be compartmentalized and labeled and thus controlled by the capitalist system that has need of their services. Capitalism appears to be “rational” and “logical” and claims to be “inevitable” but in order to function, psychological forces within humans must be both suppressed and deployed.

Culture becomes a commodity that provides pleasure-giving entertainment to the repressed masses that are allowed to express their regressive and childlike impulses and instincts through emotional music and exciting films. The result is the replacement of any social critique by the masses with spectacle. People, the audience, is thus, through spectacle, is trained into certain habits of thought and taught to think and act against their own best interests and to instead align themselves with the abstract powers of capitalism which themselves become reified into political slogans. Politics follows the lead of the movies. Adolf Hitler understood himself as a film star and his “director” Albert Speer created magnificent sets for his leader at Nuremberg. The essay also commented on the Führer’s use of a new instrument of propaganda, the radio:

The National Socialists knew that broadcasting gave their cause statue as the printing press did to the Reformation. The Führer’s metaphysical charisma, invented by the sociology of religion, turned out finally to be merely the omnipresence of his radio addresses, which demonically parodies that of the divine spirit.

While reading Dialectic of Enlightenment one begins to recognize the voice and the thoughts and the preoccupations of Adorno verses Horkheimer. Threaded throughout the essay on the culture industry are Adorno’s ideas on aesthetics. He wrote little about artists, who were once shielded from the market by their patrons, and more about the state of “art” itself in the culture industry. Although Adorno’s aesthetic viewpoint is more fully laid out in his books on music, he often mentioned the fact that art is no longer a privileged object but simply one more commodity in a world of consumerism. Influenced by Walter Benjamin’s concept of “aura,” Adorno felt that art retained some of its mystic only to the extent the relationship between art and the marketplace was disguised and kept form the art audience. Museums, as much as art galleries, are part of the larger cultural industry, one hawking art for profit and the other corralling the items for entertainment and exhibition value in an artificially “sacred” space.

Adorno did not live long enough to see the rise of the Internet and the subsequent rise of Information technology that, at this writing, is still (precariously and contentiously) in the hands of “the people.” He was well aware that the culture industry of his time did not all allow for a response, but now the one-sidedness of communication has changed. The watcher and answer back. Adorno would certainly have pointed out that however “democratic” the Web might seem, the main concern of the corporations has been how to monetize its potential profit.

As the world has been flooded with information or facts or knowledge, people have replicated the habits of thinking taught by the Culture Industry. Confrontation with information that one does not agree with causes “cognitive dissonance” for the viewer, and to protect each group from the minds of other groups, various economic forces have divided and have created separate spaces so that disparate entities can receive pleasure by hearing what they want to hear and seeing what they want to see. Adorno’s macro view of a totalitarian Culture Industry has been replace by the reality of many micro “cultures,” whether as cable television stations, newspapers with a certain slant, or Internet outlets on the Web.

According to Martin Jay’s The Dialectical Imagination, the book by Horkheimer and Adorno became an underground must-read that fueled anti-bourgeois students in the sixties. This connection, whether appropriate or not, whether or not the students understood the scholarship of the Frankfurt School, was perhaps the cause for the decades long opposition to its philosophy from the right wing. Adorno’s death is claimed, by many, to have been hastened by the assault of his rebelling students who chastised the old revolutionary for not being revolutionary enough. The repudiation of his students and their accusations that he had mistreated Walter Benjamin broke the heart of the scholar who had worked so hard to preserve the writer’s memory and works. Benjamin’s writings deeply affected the thinking of Adorno who, in many ways, carried on his earlier work on popular culture. Adorno never fully recovered psychology from the shock of being exposed the Counter Culture and he died in 1969.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]