Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Culture Industry

The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception, written jointly by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, is probably the most famous text of the early critical theory Frankfurt school.

The 1944 essay explains the two authors' coining of the term "culture industry," and refers, in true Marxist fashion, to the way in which centers of power manipulate the common masses of people through a semblance of culture in order to not only enrich themselves, but also, more importantly, to keep them in a docile and predictable state of mind. By giving them, as Adorno and Horkheimer say, the "menu" at the restaurant table, the owners give customers the illusion of choice, even though the menu is already set for them.

This menu is popular culture, the "light" entertainment provided by radio, tv, cinema, art, and fashion. Contrary to what people think, this type of culture has nothing to do with personal and individual emancipation and growth. Quite the opposite, in fact: the more steeped one is in the daily details of soap operas, of serials, of "block-busters," of "best-sellers," and of the latest fashion, the more one is subservient to a model of reality constructed, piece by piece, to afford the greatest (economic) returns to those in power. Financial heaven needs customers-as-slaves in order to thrive.

The essay blends sociology, economics, and history to show how the con-game developed, giving the technological revolution at the end of the 19th century as its start:

The step from the telephone to the radio has clearly distinguished the roles. The former still allowed the subscriber to play the role of subject, and was liberal. The latter is democratic: it turns all participants into listeners and authoritatively subjects them to broadcast programs which are all exactly the same.

Not content with keeping the common people as chattel to be disposed of at will, the culture industry also dictates how we "should" see the world around us: who is the hero and who is the villain, how lovers should behave, what is a "just" war, what is beauty (how many people, nowadays, desperately want to whiten their teeth?); in a word, judgment about reality is taken care of by this industry which, of course, knows better:

The old experience of the movie-goer, who sees the world outside as an extension of the film he has just left (because the latter is intent upon reproducing the world of everyday perceptions), is now the producer’s guideline.

If Adorno and Horkheimer were living now, what would they have to say about our hyper-technologized, digital, and simulated world(s)? Is the internet a "virtual agora" where the voiceless, finally, have a voice, or is it just another "trick" of the culture industry, where even more affordable simulacra of real culture are thrown around in the shape of webpages (think about, for example, YouTube), chat rooms, blogs, and advocacy sites? Under the illusion of having more choice, do we have, in fact, only a bigger "menu"?

A seminal essay indeed which marks the beginnings of a body of ideas and tools (the "theory" part) to be pro-actively used in investigating the discursive productions of the post-19th-century world (the "critical" part), The Culture Industry can be found online here.

(Image above taken in 1965 with Horkheimer on the left, Adorno on the right, and J├╝rgen Habermas in the background, on the right, with hand on head. Public domain).

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