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 Jürgen Habermas in the background, on the right, with hand on head. Public domain).

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Frankfurt School

The term "critical theory," as indicated in the previous post, goes back to a large extent to what was later known as the "Frankfurt School." The school was, according to David Sherman in his chapter on critical theory in The Blackwell Guide to Continental Philosophy (2003), active from approximately the end of the 1920s to the early 1970s and included, among other figures, Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin, Friedrich Pollock, and Erich Fromm. These shared "a loose set of methodological commitments, the most important of which was to a multidisciplinary approach for constructing a comprehensive, neo-Marxist theory of contemporary society" (188). Finding themselves caught between an idealism which holds on to ethereal values devoid of social reality and a sociological practice which views opposition as meaningless, the members of the Frankfurt School brought "the insights of both into a dynamic tension to produce a materialist social theory" (189).

Originally based at the Institute for Social Research (Institut für Sozialforschung) at the University of Frankfurt am Main in Germany (the Institute is still operational, with a webpage containing an overview of its history) with Max Horkheimer as its director in 1930, the institute soon became a magnet for thinkers who energized Marxism with newer ideas after the collapse effected by the first world war and the emergence of fascist ideologies.

An index to the biographies and writings of members of the Frankfurt School is available at the Marxist Internet Archive here, and a "sociologically informed history" of the School, "Origin Myths in the Social Sciences: Fromm, the Frankfurt School and the Emergence of Critical Theory," which appeared in the Canadian Journal of Sociology in 1999, can be found here.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Scope of Critical Theory

The (online) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy introduces critical theory in the following words:

"Critical Theory has a narrow and a broad meaning in philosophy and in the history of the social sciences. 'Critical Theory' in the narrow sense designates several generations of German philosophers and social theorists in the Western European Marxist tradition known as the Frankfurt School. According to these theorists, a 'critical' theory may be distinguished from a 'traditional' theory according to a specific practical purpose: a theory is critical to the extent that it seeks human emancipation, 'to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them' (Horkheimer 1982, 244). Because such theories aim to explain and transform all the circumstances that enslave human beings, many 'critical theories' in the broader sense have been developed. They have emerged in connection with the many social movements that identify varied dimensions of the domination of human beings in modern societies. In both the broad and the narrow senses, however, a critical theory provides the descriptive and normative bases for social inquiry aimed at decreasing domination and increasing freedom in all their forms" (read the full essay here).

Indeed, the departure effected by critical theory has been revolutionary to say the least, as almost every aspect of human civilization has been put under the intense scrutiny of a new type of reading that has challenged traditionally accepted modes of interpretation. Sometimes referred to as "French Theory," or simply as "Theory," and intimately connected to what is known as the "postmodern condition," critical theory is firmly based on a Marxist view of society putting into question oppresive systems of all levels. As such, it is an activity where interpretation shifts from being passive, consumer-based, and acquiescing, to being active, producer-oriented, and challenging of social, cultural, political, and artistic artefacts (an interesting essay on critical social science along with a review of what critical theory is capable of achieving can be found here).

With the explosion of the "new technologies" and the progressively pervading simulations of reality (-ies), a political consciousness that spans the spectrum of human discourse is not only fascinating but also necessary.

Saturday, January 10, 2009


Welcome to Readings in Critical Theory.

We read texts (fiction and non-fiction) that have a bearing on critical theory covering, but not limited to, the rise and development of the postmodern (and post-postmodern) era.

Topics related to textuality, structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction, narratology, colonialism and post-colonialism, history, religion, gender, ethnicity, hybridity, urban studies, film studies, pop culture, art, architecture, photography, cybertheory, and others, will be discussed as readings are subjected to the dialogic exchanges offered by the new technologies of the Internet.

In practice, this means that when a text is suggested for reading, discussion starts as soon as possible!