Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Culture Industry Twenty Years Later

The original piece, The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception, was published in 1944, but Theodor Adorno revisited the subject almost twenty years later, in 1963, in a lecture followed by a full publication in 1967. The English translation appeared in 1975 under the title The Culture Industry Reconsidered (Adorno was dead by then).

The years' span was good not only for providing a necessary distance from which to reassess the progress made (both by one's ideas and by society), but also for allowing criticism of the "culture industry" to develop and acquire momentum and substance.

Adorno's use of the term "culture industry" has gained in expansiveness and versatility; it has also acquired theoretical status by being anchored in a specific model:

Thus, the expression ‘industry’ is not to be taken too literally. It refers to the standardization of the thing itself – such as that of the Western, familiar to every movie-goer – and to the rationalization of distribution techniques, but not strictly to the production process...It is industrial more in a sociological sense, in the incorporation of industrial forms of organization even when nothing is manufactured – as in the rationalization of office work – rather than in the sense of anything really and actually produced by technological rationality.

In true Emersonian fashion, conformity is the great socio-economic goal of the culture industry: by conforming to pre-packaged models, consumers of popular culture are kept on leash as "human dependence and servitude" are actually the "vanishing point" of the culture industry.

Adorno's critique of American media (see, in his first essay, and among other remarks in the same vein, his Life and Fortune magazines passage about the mixing of advertisement with "great" men to be emulated) has not abated, as he delights in telling of an "American interviewee who was of the opinion that the dilemmas of the contemporary epoch would end if people would simply follow the lead of prominent personalities." We are far indeed from the ethos of "self-reliance" enthusiastically proclaimed by the Fathers of American Transcendentalism!

The second essay's greatest importance, however, lies in Adorno's response to four major defenses of popular culture, namely, that it is harmless, that it is democratic, that it disseminates information, and that it orders our interpretation of the world:

Popular culture is, after all, harmless, as there is nothing intrinsically evil in entertaining people and in providing them with cultural outlets from which they can choose and of the quality of which they are aware; it is democratic because it is the people themselves who ask for this type of information, away from any elitism as it is the first time in history that culture is provided, cheaply, for all, regardless of class, gender, age, and race; it provides people with countless bits of practical information about health, education, politics, religion, and even sex, and is as such a superb disseminator of a better overall standard of living; finally and most importantly, it orders an otherwise chaotic life and gives it purpose, meaning, depth and, as Adorno ironically says, "standards of orientation."

These are indeed seemingly unsurmountable obstacles, but Adorno's second essay is specifically aimed at answering them. To see how he dealt with the four points above, and how he refined his understanding of "industry" as it applies to popular culture, I invite you to read the full essay (quite short) in either of the following online pages:

Google Books has the full essay as it appears in Classical and Contemporary Sociological Theory by Scott Appelrouth and Laura Desfor Edles for online browsing here.

Soundscapes.info has a good copy here as well.

The passages above are excerpted from “Culture Industry Reconsidered,” chapter 3 in Theodor W. Adorno, The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, edited by J. M. Bernstein, London: Routledge, 2001 (98-106).

The original is found in Theodor W. Adorno, Gesammelte Schriften, edited by Rolf Tiedmann, volumes 8 & 10, Frankfurt: Surhkamp Verlag, 1972, 1976, and also appeared in translation in New German Critique, 6, Fall 1975, 12-19.

(The photo above is that of Adorno on a manuscript background on a German stamp issued in September 2003 by Deutsche Post AG. Public domain).