Theodor Adorno and “The Culture Industry”

THEODOR ADORNO

(1903-1969)

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.

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