3 February Readings

This week's readings revolve around the nature of reproduction and transmission, and how the normalization and circulation of both of these have shaped our culture in illuminating and alarming ways over the course of the past century. Although each author approaches the ideas of art objects and mass production from differing angles, they all seek to understand the manner in which the commodification of art and the disembodiment of the inherently human have developed and continue to impact us.

Enlightenment and Mass Deception

"Language based entirely on truth simply arouses impatience to get on with the business deal it is probably advancing. The words that are not means appear senseless; the others seem to be fiction, untrue. Value judgments are taken either as advertising or as empty talk. Accordingly ideology has been made vague and noncommittal, and thus neither clearer nor weaker." - Adorno & Horkheimer, "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception" (1947)

In their 1947 Dialectic of Enlightenment, critical theorists Adorno and Horkheimer sought to shed light on the manner in which mass culture seeks to commodify everything- down to the very emotions and desires of the individual, as well as the individual themselves. During a time period in which our society experienced the advent of radio broadcasting and film, Adorno and Horkheimer claimed that those at the top of the food chain utilized the overarching dominance and omnipresence of these newfound technologies to classify, organize, and eventually control the movements and desires of those beneath them.

Where art had previously been valued for the purity of intentions and truths it communicated, technology now enabled mass producers to easily replace these truths with dishonest advertisements and elevator pitches. Playing on the unfulfilled desires and "manufactured needs" of the lower classes, the perpetrators of the culture industry used amusement and empty promises to further lure them further into the capitalist machine in which they had become entrenched. Through cookie-cutter music and films, mass culture juxtaposed the contexts of work and play in the lives of the average person, blinding them to the fact that work and play are one and the same in the context of a "buy/sell" capitalist clockwork.

Adorno and Horkheimer predict the decline of society through these ever-present prompts to seek pleasure. In seeking pleasure and becoming numb to it, the common person becomes used to saying "yes," to being docile or perhaps even stupid to the forces at play in their lives as consumers. Through the technological control of music and art, mass culture simultaneously creates and commodifies the identity of the individual.

Sound History: Finite/Infinite

"Both sound recording and alphabetic writing lifted old limits that held voices in check- distance, dissipation, and dis- cretion. A captured voice forfeits its body, mortality, and authorial control. With the ability to record, amplify, and transmit sound by machines, the voice apparently lost its finitude." -John Durham Peters, "Heimholtz, Edison, and Sound History" (2004)

John Peters' exploration of sound history begins in a manner similar to Adorno and Horkheimer's Culture Industry. Using the contemporaneous work of Hermann von Heimholtz and and Thomas Edison, Peters seeks to comprehend how recording and the subsequent disembodiment of human qualities both liberates humans and makes them (in a fashion) obsolete. By distorting the dimension of interpersonal dialogue and allowing machines to relate to human audiences, the ear and voice become disembodied. Although Marshall McLuhan's appraisal of recording as "extension of the human nervous system" was only intended as a metaphor, it eventually became understood that recording and reproduction indeed utilized "applied physiology" to stimulate sensory organs.

Although Heimholtz was purely a theorist and Edison only an empiricist, their work merges to form a more complete body of understanding about how recording and the human anatomy affect and imitate one another. While Heimholtz found that the human senses and sense organs are flawed through his mechanized reproductions of them, Edison discovered that recording (specifically, through phonographs) could immortalize humans as well as extend the range of their perceptions.

These revelations led to the startling realization that humans were finite and could become obscure as machines became increasingly powerful, present, and depended on in everyday life. While recordings could liberate human legacies from the passage of time, it also made humans painfully aware of their mortality and physical limitations. In this way, modern technology survives and improves through the possibility (or perhaps, an empty promise) of immortality, of a legacy, and the existence of information just outside our grasp.

Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

"[…]The amazing growth of our techniques, the adaptability and precision they have attained, the ideas and habits they are creating, make it a certainty that profound changes are impending in the ancient craft of the Beautiful. In all the arts there is a physical component which can no longer be considered or treated as it used to be, which cannot remain unaffected by our modern knowledge and power." -Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1935)

Walter Benjamin's article seems to expand upon a single facet of the process described in the work by Adorno and Horkheimer above. He approaches his arguments through an understanding of production and reproduction, and how these affect cultural consciousness. He opens by drawing parallels between the "uniqueness" of art of bygone eras and the reproduction made possible in more recent times. While reproductions may lack "presence" or authenticity, they do have the ability to meet the consumer- anyone, anywhere- halfway. Although reproduction gives aesthetic experiences a previously unexperienced universality, it still depreciates from the impact of beholding a work of art firsthand.

Reproduction eventually liberated art from the statuses of "pure," "absolute," and "sacred," instead exemplifying the artwork and giving consumers the ability to divine the mysterious intentions of the artist. Furthermore, sterile reproductions allowed audiences to see the world for what it is. However, in the human sense (in the case of actors on screen or stage), the act of simply being human became disembodied and distant, almost in the same sense as Edison's work with phonographs disembodied just the voice. Art inspired with humanity and emotion becomes relatable, but is also commodified as audiences understand and capitalize upon it.

Movements exist that seek to subvert the mass-produced humanity within art. Benjamin cites Dadaism, which is a chaotic attempt to make the intentions of a work unreadable and therefore impossible to commodify. Adorno and Horkheimer speak of a future society which seeks to keep the masses complicit through omnipresent works of canned art, and Benjamin confirms its existence through his reference to Dada. Where mass culture would attempt to commodify art as a means to a socio-economic end, "communist" or leftist groups would seek to politicize and decontextualize art in hopes of reclaiming it.

Questions to consider…

1.) How might Adorno and Horkheimer's Dialectic be considered polemical? prophetic?
2.) How might the developments described in Peters' article have eventually contributed to the circumstances described in the other two articles? Would you say these developments are positive or negative overall?
3.) Would you say that movements similar to Dadaism are alive and at work today? How?
4.) Are the mechanisms of mass culture at work today? How?
5.) If yes to the previous, how would one propose to combat mass culture as an artist or "resister"? Is it possible to make an effort as an individual within that system?


Add a New Comment
Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License