September 7 Readings - The Culture Industry

Adorno, Theodor W. and Max Horkheimer. “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” In Dialectic of Enlightenment. London: Verso, 1979. 120-167. (Originally published as: Dialektik der Aufklärung. Amsterdam: Querido, 1947).

The most informative background on Horkheimer & Adorno comes from Peters & Simonson (2004):

“After 1933, North American intellectual life benefited from what Robert Merton once called ‘the unintended benevolence of Hitler’: scores of émigré scholars, many of them German and Austrian Jews, were forced to flee to North America, where they made enormous contributions to fields ranging from atomic physics to art history” (84).

Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno (H&A from hereon) were two of these scholars. At Princeton and Columbia Universities, H&A worked with another émigré scholar, Paul Lazarsfeld. H&A were in a field loosely defined as sociology, but their work was a different breed than scientific approaches to social study. As Peters & Simonson point out, “Intellectually, Horkheimer’s group was developing a nonorthodox Marxian analysis, what the group called ‘critical theory,’ that drew on Freud and the idealist tradition of German philosophy” (86). While most social studies were asking questions of individual or small group interaction (e.g. What do you do when you read a newspaper? How long do you listen to the radio?), Horkheimer and Adorno saw individual experiences as symptoms of a larger sociohistorical context. In other words, they assume that individuals operate in cultural structures much larger than themselves.

The writing is scattered, much like Walter Benjamin’s work (see especially his “Arcades Project”), and H&A admit this: “The section on "the culture industry" is even more fragmentary than the others” (1). Why do the authors knowingly use this stylistic feature? As intellectuals in a foreign land, it reads like a list of observations on a culture structurally different from one’s own. H&A even contrast their home country, Germany, to “liberal industrial nations” like the U.S., England, and France (10). Because Germany was “exempt from the market mechanism which had invaded the Western countries,” its cultural institutions (education, theaters, orchestras, museums) enjoyed “protection” (11). The authors believe a lack of cultural monopoly gives artists freedom and creativity outside of the market for their goods. H&A even go so far as to compare this situation to the times of feudal lords. The point is that artists under feudalism produced work that was paid for by a single wealthy entity. The dark turn for H&A is now that creative types are part of an industrial system of cultural production, they must appeal to a large number of consumers. Consumers, after all, want their products cheap. And as it turns out, machines of mechanical reproduction provide cheap copies. Here is where these critics claim that the culture industry produces products that are dumbed down, generalized, and somewhat compromised in order to appeal to this undifferentiated mass audience.

A large part of H&A’s style incorporates what we might call maxims or aphorisms. Rather than factual accounts of history or events, maxims or aphorisms work much better as potential claims that the reader is supposed to test or question. As an early rhetoric teacher of mine said, we read textbooks for answers but we read arguments for questions. In that vein, and the style of this essay, I am supplying a list of H&A’s maxims or aphorisms below. These will be useful not only as a catalog of H&A’s scattered thoughts, but they can serve as jumping off points for discussion. I will start the list below, and have modeled a few responses, but please add as you see fit.

  • “for culture now impresses the same stamp on everything” (1).
  • “Under monopoly all mass culture is identical, and the lines of its artificial framework begin to show through” (2).
  • “[Radio] is democratic: it turns all participants into listeners and authoritatively subjects them to broadcast programs which are all exactly the same” (2).
  • “The ruthless unity in the culture industry is evidence of what will happen in politics” (3).
  • “The development of the culture industry has led to the predominance of the effect, the obvious touch, and the technical detail over the work itself — which once expressed an idea, but was liquidated together with the idea” (6).
  • “Real life is becoming indistinguishable from the movies” (7).
  • “the general can replace the particular, and vice versa” (8).
  • “Anyone who resists can only survive by fitting in. Once his particular brand of deviation from the norm has been noted by the industry, he belongs to it as does the land-reformer to capitalism” (10).
  • “Not to conform means to be rendered powerless, economically and therefore spiritually — to be "self- employed" (11).
  • “The only choice is either to join in or to be left behind” (21).
  • “The movie-makers distrust any manuscript which is not reassuringly backed by a bestseller” (12).
  • “Nevertheless the culture industry remains the entertainment business. Its influence over the consumers is established by entertainment” (13).
    • H&A go back-and-forth on this point. At times you wonder whether they are criticizing the fact that the culture industries merely produce content to satisfy consumer audiences. Here, however, H&A seem to suggest that the industries of entertainment have a direct influence on consumers. This is a classic mass media question: Who determines content? Producers or Audiences? Or both?
  • “Amusement under late capitalism is the prolongation of work” (13).
  • “Amusement, if released from every restraint, would not only be the antithesis of art but its extreme role” (16).
    • Amusement is the medicine of the culture industry, say H&A (e.g. “Culture has always played its part in taming revolutionary and barbaric instincts” (25). It may be easier to point out the differences between amusement and art, but are there characteristics of amusement that overlap with art? For instance, can an aesthetic experience be also amusing? Earlier H&A give a clue in which they assume that amusement is part and parcel of mechanical reproduction. Note the similarities to Walter Benjamin: “The mechanical reproduction of beauty, which reactionary cultural fanaticism wholeheartedly serves in its methodical idolization of individuality, leaves no room for that unconscious idolatry which was once essential to beauty” (15). The experience of “unconscious idolatry” seems only possible in a singular work of art. It’s aura is that experience.
  • “Amusement itself becomes an ideal, taking the place of the higher things of which it completely deprives the masses by repeating them in a manner even more stereotyped than the slogans paid for by advertising interests” (17).
    • This is perhaps why H&A are upset with an industry of copies. As they see it, copies require viewers or auditors in a way which they believe is more passive than listening to orchestras, seeing a theater play, or thinking critically. If we think about Gitelman’s article on piano rolls, the passive reproduction of a hole-punched piano roll is a much less involved experience when compared to someone actually playing the tune from a book of sheet music. More important for H&A, this passive reproduction of copies leads “inevitably to an intellectualization of amusement” (17). Meaning, consumers end up praising the tune or film that diverts their immediate attention the best. In contrast, look how H&A describe audiences before mass culture: “Those who spent their money in the nineteenth or the early twentieth century to see a play or to go to a concert respected the performance as much as the money they spent. The bourgeois who wanted to get something out of it tried occasionally to establish some rapport with the work” (31). Nevermind the complexity of the music, as I’m sure H&A value. The authors praise the “thinking individual,” who, alas, “is already defeated” (22). When culture industry producers create works for an imagined audience, the content outcome is general stereotypes.
  • “To be pleased means to say Yes” (19).
  • “Ideology conceals itself in the calculation of probabilities. Not everyone will be lucky one day — but the person who draws the winning ticket, or rather the one who is marked out to do so by a higher power — usually by the pleasure industry itself, which is represented as unceasingly in search of talent” (20).
    • An object was certainly left out of the latter half of this second sentence, but it is clear that H&A are invoking a perennial Marxist lament: those in the lower and working classes (whom H&A assume are the consumers of mass media) believe they have a chance, in their lifetime, to become part of the managerial or upper classes. As they say earlier, “the deceived masses are today captivated by the myth of success even more than the successful are. Immovably, they insist on the very ideology which enslaves them” (11). Even though the odds are stacked against them, the working class believes in the slim probability. Why? H&A claim the “prize” of social and economic advancement is part of the culture industries which produce romantic fantasies to stimulate and seduce consumers. The terms stimulation, pleasure, and desire are part of H&A’s Freudian psychological explanation of why the culture industry has gained such widespread success. Consumers don’t rebel because it is their desire to “make it.”
  • “ideology has been made vague and noncommittal… It becomes a vigorous and prearranged promulgation of the status quo” (21).
    • If ideology can be understood simply as “the way things are” or “the ways of the world,” then how do those ways change? For instance, the culture industries were a new development in the era of mechanical reproduction.
  • “Today, when the free market is coming to an end, those who control the system are entrenching themselves in it” (32).
    • Of course today the existence of a free market is disputed, but H&A are early to point out that the large industry of cultural production operates much like other industries. The difference is that the culture industry produces the content of culture: music, films, and advertising. However in order to produce one of these items, one must have a great amount of money to reach a large audience. Therefore competition in this free market is less about the most competitive work, but more about who has the most money with which to reach audiences and produce the greatest number of copies.
  • “The spread of popular songs…takes place at lightning speed.” (34).
    • While we might have been able to read the music industry into other parts of this work, here H&A are explicit about the rate at which songs become prevalent in a culture. Networks of communication are important here. Radio and advertising hype the stars. Yet why is it necessary that advertising will cause artists and songs to become popular? This might explain the repeated comparisons with Hitler, radio, and fascist Germany. The process of one becoming popular is not as important for H&A than is the fact that in this new culture industry popularity waxes and wanes with increased intensity, like fads or “fashions which appear like epidemics” (34).

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