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Protected: Afterthought on Adorno’s Culture Industry: Text References

Posted by fifthdimension on March 31, 2007

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Afterthought on Adorno’s Culture Industry: Conclusion

Posted by fifthdimension on March 31, 2007

Many of Adorno’s critics maintain that the products of mass culture cannot be popular unless people enjoy them, and that culture determines its own administration. This would be tantamount to denying Adorno any contemporary political significance, considering that in prosperous societies politics is not concerned with thought but with action. It is seen that many young generation of media theorists ignore Adorno’s work which, to some extent, is the result of Adorno’s inability to draw practical conclusions from his theories. Some even accuse him of inconsistency in his claims of implementing Marxism. This is mainly because he accepted the classical Marxist analysis of society while explaining how one class dominates the weaker, but he digressed from Marx in his failure to use dialectic as a method to propose ways to change. Instead, Adorno and Horkheimer developed the concept that the culture industry has rendered the masses incapable of revolutionary movement.

In spite of these shortfalls, Adorno’s critique has inspired new research and influenced subsequent intellectual discourses on culture studies. The critique is essentially a theory of the characteristics attributed to the cultural product and its evaluation at a befitting level of discourse. The importance of Adorno’s theory, in today’s context, is quite apparent given that the analysis of “mass culture”, “mass society”, and things like that has proven inadequate, and that there is a significant rise in the manipulative power of cultural industry. Indeed, all theories are subject to varied interpretations. For instance, there may be diverse views to the concepts like whether culture mirrors society or it shapes society. Proponents of each view will forward their own arguments with a plethora of examples and evidences. Hence, the dichotomy prevails, and so is the case with Adorno. However, the fact remains that Adorno’s critique has given a valid point of departure for further studies and research on the ‘culture industry’.

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Protected: Afterthought on Adorno’s Culture Industry: Chapter 4

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Afterthought on Adorno’s Culture Industry: Chapter 3

Posted by fifthdimension on March 31, 2007

Developments in the Culture Industry in Relation to Adorno

3.1 Developing Trends in Music

Ever since the rise of youth-based industry in the 1960s, mass mediated popular music has been linked to youthful idealism and political concern, to supposed degeneration and hedonism, to drug-taking, violence and antisocial attitudes. Music has also played part in various nationalist independence movements (e.g. Ireland and Estonia). While the content of music has never been easy to regulate, its distribution has predominantly been in the hands of established institutions, and its perceived deviant tendencies subject to some sanctions.[12]

In today’s context, one might appreciate some of the music, which Adorno would accept as authentic, but it’s not necessary that any music other than Adorno’s authentic stuff would make one feel like a dupe of the culture industries. For instance, one cannot consider the ‘Yardbird’ Charlie Parker as a lesser musician than the classical masters like Bach or Beethoven. Parker composed music for his subsistence, but so did Bach, Beethoven or Mozart. As regards ‘mass production’, its not the likes of Parker but the classical masters who produced music primarily for, commissioned by, and listened to exclusively by, the bourgeoisie. The bottom line remains that where music utilizes standardized musical forms and types it can still rebel against standardization and commodification. But this treatment is absent in the critique of the ‘culture industries’.

Adorno emphasizes that the standardization of the cultural product is not an outcome of mass production. “The production of popular music can be called ‘industrial’ only in its promotion and distribution, whereas the act of producing a song-hit still remains in a handicraft stage. It is still ‘individualistic’ in its social mode of production.”[13] Thus, he saw standardization as a necessity of mass consumption.

Of course, it is true that the music industry, with all such genres as disco, R&B, hip-hop, heavy metal etc, stands highly standardized today. Except for the one who has a well-trained ear for music, to everyone, music belonging to each of these genres sounds more or less the same. For instance, in heavy metal music even the equipment used has been standardized—Fender Stratocasters, Gibson, and Ibanez guitars, Tama drums, Marshall amps etc. are only a few examples. For an ordinary listener, almost all the bands use the same gear and follow the same formula when it comes to the chord progressions, guitar techniques, vocal range etc.

However, it must be considered that all these bands have their unique sound and tonalities, which distinguish them from the other. For example, rock/metal bands like Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, Black Sabbath, and Metallica, to name only a few, have their distinct signatures even though they are clubbed together in almost the same genre/sub-genre. Also, lyrically, bands like Pink Floyd, Sex PistolsSex PistoldSe, and Blue Oyster Cult etc. are by no means inferior to Adorno’s keepers of the ‘high culture’. Times are such that, today, all forms of music are perceived as a form of entertainment and thus packaged, distributed, sold, and consumed in very similar ways. As for example, there is no notable difference in the way a Beethoven CD and a Jennifer Lopez CD is produced and distributed. Hence, Adorno’s critique, though not altogether, seems somewhat inadequate in this respect.

3.2 Trends in Print Media

Ever since the successful implementation of the printing press, the transformation of printers to publishers, and the emergence of the professional author, there emerged a market and the book was essentially transformed into a commodity. This is still the norm, though the book continues to occupy its place as a powerful mass medium. There are many authors who cater merely to public taste, while others go on to develop their own concepts and perceptions, thereby stirring the masses. However, in conservative states, books are still liable to censorship. Hence, the authors fail to convey their message to their intended audience. A typical example is Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988), which is banned in most Islamic countries.

Regarding the newspaper, it’s the commercial newspaper, which is much in vogue today. It is operated mainly for profit and relies heavily on product advertising revenue. It has a lighter and more entertaining side, exploiting human interest and has a tendency towards sensationalization of crime and violence. It enjoys a very large readership represented mostly by lower-education and lower-income groups. In short, news has been commercialized, and the power of the newspaper as a harbinger of change has been diverted to appealing the baser instincts of people and thereby transforming it into a profit-driven industry. Also, news and reality is not always the same thing. “The news is a highly refracted version of reality. The press magnifies certain aspects of politics and downplays others, which are often more central to the issues of governing.”[14]

However, this is not always the case, as genuine news reporting still creates public awareness and helps engendering social consciousness, but this seems subservient to profit motives of the owners— a phenomenon, which validates Adorno’s primary concerns. Also, there has been a proliferation of global news agencies— news agencies like Reuters, AFP, WTN, Itar-Tass etc. control the global flow of news.

3.3 Trends in Film as a Mass Medium

Almost all early films were made for everyone, with attention only to age differences. As a mass medium, its development was mainly a response to the invention of ‘leisure’, thus providing the working class a respectable way of enjoying their free time. Many of the films were used for propaganda, especially on national and societal interests, owing to its mass appeal, wide reach, realism, and emotional impact. Even today, there continues to be cleverly concealed elements of propaganda in many of the popular entertainment films.

The popularity of the television took away a large chunk of the film viewing public, however the art film and the social documentaries continue to enjoy its niche audience. The popular commercial film, today, is mostly restricted to a young audience. With the massive ‘Americanization’ of the film industry, the rise of the movie celebrity, and immense technological advancements in the field of movie production, most of the films have been reduced to mere commodities, as are the movie actors. With globalization, the film industry essentially fulfils the business interests of such media houses as Walt Disney, Time Warner, and the likes.

Hollywood movies are exported to almost every part of the world. From the U.S. point of view, “as of February of 2000, the most important foreign territories are: Japan, Germany (including Austria), Italy, the United Kingdom (including Ireland), Spain, France (including French Belgium), Korea, Australia/New Zealand, Brazil, Mexico.” [15] Thus, the film has grown into prominence as a global commodity.

3.4 Trends in Broadcasting

Unlike all previous communications technologies, radio and television were systems primarily designed for transmission and reception as abstract processes, with little or no definition of preceding content. Radio and television, since their very inception, have been the largest of the media in terms of reach, time spent and popularity. Although these two have consistently denied an overtly political role and acts primarily as a means of entertainment, they are found to play an important role in modern politics. Broadcasting has undoubtedly emerged as the primary means for the dissemination of news and information, and the main channel of communication between politicians and citizens at times of elections and emergencies. For children at school and adults at home, television acts as an efficient educator.

Its true that most of the times television and radio gives to its audience commodities of entertainment. Also, it is the single largest channel of advertising in almost all countries, and this has greater business interests inherent in it. Hence, Adorno’s predictions seem justified. However, it must be noted that television has played significant roles in rallying world opinion on strategic moments. For example, channels like BBC and CNN have played significant roles during the Tiananmen Square massacre (China) in 1989, Gulf War in 1990, Balkan wars, and the invasion of Iraq by the U.S. and Britain (2003).

3.5 Rise of the New Media (Internet Technology)

A revolutionary development that has taken place after Adorno is the development of computer technologies and the proliferation of the Internet. The internet has significant deviations from the tradional organs of the culture industry. Most importantly, it is not only or even concerned with the production and distribution of messages, but is at least equally concerned with processing, exchange and storage…the new media are as much an instution of private as well as public communication and are regulated (or not) accordingly… their operation is not typically professional or bureaucratically organized in the same degree as mass media.[17]

Thus, it doesn’t fall into the framework as perceived by Adorno. There are large possiblities for change in the role of the audience—greater autonomy and equality in relation to the sources and suppliers. An audience unit is no longer a part of a mass, but is either a member of a self-chosen group, or an individual. Also, “the balance of audience activity shifts from reception to searching, consulting and interacting”. Horkheimer and Adorno argue that, “modern communications media have an isolating effect.” It’s true that the capitalist society, with its effective means of communication, keeps people from socializing. However, with the advent of computer technology and the Internet, communications have an integrating effect, with news, views, opinions, information, music, and movies being shared and traded in a jiffy. As the Internet undergoes expansion and younger generations substitute their consumption of television with internet-mediated interactive information, and programming. This way, individualization takes a new meaning.

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Afterthought on Adorno’s Culture Industry: Chapter 2

Posted by fifthdimension on March 31, 2007

The Culture Industry as Perceived by Adorno2.1 Culture as a Commodity

The Frankfurt School aimed at the perfection of the culture industry as much as Adorno speaks of continued rebellion against it. Adorno was quick in perceiving the tremendous power that mass media wields as an organizing force–not during work hours–but during one’s leisure hours. Adorno first discovered the structural changes in late capitalism primarily through his work with sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld on Princeton University’s Radio Research Project. He enunciated his discovery in the famous essay “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening”[4] (1938) and in “The Culture Industry,” a chapter in Dialectic of Enlightenment. The crux of Adorno’s argument is that the culture industry involves a change in the commodity character of art, in a way that there is a premediated acknowledgment of the commodity character of art, and that art “abjures its autonomy”.[5]

With its stress mainly on marketability, the culture industry shells out entirely with the “purposelessness” that was fundamental to the autonomy of art. The internal economic structure of cultural commodities shifts, once marketability becomes an absolute demand. Instead of assuring freedom from uses determined by society, and thus having an authentic use value that people can relish, products liased by the culture industry have their use value replaced by exchange value— Everything has value only in so far as it can be exchanged, not in so far as it is something in itself. For consumers the use value of art, its essence, is a fetish, and the fetish–the social valuation which they mistake for the merit of works of art–becomes its only use value, the only quality they enjoy.[6] As such, the culture industry dissolves the “genuine commodity character” that artworks once possessed when exchange value presupposed use value. Adorno’s main point in his critic is that the culture-industrial replacement of use value by exchange value gives vent to a decisive shift in the structure of all commodities and therefore in the structure of capitalism itself. Today, all works— both literary work of authors, and labors—are essentially mediated by the mechanism of production-market, and the worker. The contemporary work has nothing to do with the worker’s specific character—the worker does not decide the value of the work. Thus, it is the user, arranger, and mediator of the work who decides its value.

2.2 Culture Industry as a Mechanism of Totalitarian Administration

Adorno and Horkheimer have rightfully said that “The development toward total integration” produced a culture industry as a mechanism of totalitarian administration. Today, cultural control and administration serve a more strategic purpose than economic operations—economic operations cannot function effectively if they are not preceded by cultural efforts. It must be remembered that Adorno and Horkheimer were writing in the terminal period of the Nazi terror. Hence, their argument that rationality begets fascism is quite natural. However, their premise that Enlightenment leads to the ‘totally administered society’ gives food for critical thought. The totally administered society spawns the ‘end of the individual’ and promotes conformity; where genuine culture once fostered the growth of the individual, the mass production of the ‘culture industries’ now wipes out the individual and breeds a mass society which endures only ‘pseudo-individuality’:From the standardized jazz improvisation to the original film personality, who has to hang a curl over her eye so that she can be recognized as such, pseudo-individulaity is everywhere. Individuality is reduced to the generality’s power to stamp the accidental detail so firmly that it is accepted as such. Precisely the defiant reserve or the sophisticated appearance of the individual on show is mass-produced like Yale locks.

2.3 Adorno’s Views on the Rise of a New Collectivity

Walter Benjamin argues that the cultural condition can be noticeably changed only if a different social context surfaces –if the mass-oriented capitalist collectivity is altered to the collectivity of a class-conscious proletariat. However, Adorno is not found to be sharing this optimism of Benjamin. To him, the new technological means rarely provide the possibility of new and active collective reception of culture. Instead, the capitalist culture industry destroys not merely the traditional community but the whole basis of almost all authentic collectivity—collective memory or unconscious collectivity.

In a reply, apparently to Benjamin’s thesis, Adorno in his essay “On the Fetish Character in Music and Regression in Listening,” while referring to the attitude of the music listening audience insisted that the new phase of the musical consciousness of the masses is defined by displeasure in pleasure; it resembles the reaction to sport or advertising. Further, Adorno argues, “in spite of all the progress in reproduction techniques, in controls and the specialities, and in spite of all the restless industry, the bread that the culture industry offers man is the stone of the stereotype.”[10] Thus, Adorno’s statement regarding culture as garbage is not a philosophical definition of culture but a strategic assumption within the framework of the culture industry.

It is often argued that Adorno’s critical theory does not address any social group, nor can it provide a socialization model translatable into practice. But before considering this assumption, it should be noted that his strategy is essentially rooted in the socio-cultural situation in his period, which was characterised by the subversion of traditional concepts: “theory,” “practice,” “individuality,” “collectivity,” “language,” and even “concept,” all of which called for new interpretations, and newer methods of interpretation itself. Also, it must be considered that Adorno does not put his stakes on bourgeois individualism, rather uses it in order to surpass both conventional individualism and collectivism. Thus, he can be viewed as upholding the arrival of both a new individuality and collectivity. Moreover, his predilection for intellectual literature and music is quite preferable given the fact that readership here is both too indivdualistic for bourgeois individuation and too impulsive for the existing collectivity.

2.4 Adorno on Media Entertainment

Another significant opinion of Adorno regarding media products goes thus— “I consider … that the average television entertainment is fundamentally far more dangerous politically than any political broadcast has ever been.”[11]. Here, he seems to be asserting that TV entertainment gives rise to false consciousness and ‘disguising of reality’ into viewers, ‘injecting’ them with ideology.

From The Dialectics onwards, Adorno and Horkheimer seemed to be gradually deviating from Marxist conceptions. But eventhough they shift the attention away from production, labour and political economy, in The Dialectic of Enlightenment society is still perceived in terms of class, and reification of culture as an instrument of the social control of the masses. However, they hardly count on the revolutionary potential of the proletariat, more because capitalist modernity has succeeded in prevailing over the individual and mesmerizing them by means of advertising, mass communications media and new forms of social control. However, their viewpoint is a bit problematic for present day media and cultural studies, for they essentially distinguished between their conceptions of ‘authentic art’ on the one hand and the products of a ‘debased’ mass culture on the other.

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Afterthought on Adorno’s Culture Industry: Chapter 1

Posted by fifthdimension on March 31, 2007

1.1 History of the Critique

One of the first and most mordacious critics of mass culture, Theodor Adorno, in his early essays on popular music in the 1930s formulated a critical methodology to study the production, texts, and reception of the artifacts of what came to be known as “popular culture,” thus prognosticating the arrival of later forms of “cultural studies.” In his The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), co-authored by Max Horkheimer, in the chapter called “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception”[1], Adorno set forth the first critical theory, which identified the determinative roles of mass culture and communication in contemporary capitalist societies. Before this, his essay “On Popular Music” (1941) had already set the stage for the arrival of his theories on ‘culture industry’. He furthered enumerated his ideas in the essay “Culture Industry onsidered”.[2]

A group of emigrants from Nazi Germany, Adorno and his colleagues were stupefied to observe how, like in German fascism, mass culture is used in the United States, which procreate the existing social relations and served as propaganda for the established socio-economic and political order. Together with Max Horkheimer, Leo Lowenthal, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, and others, Adorno helped develop a critique of mass culture in light of the trends prevalent in contemporary capitalism. They were undoubtedly the pioneers in the systematic analysis and criticism of mass-mediated culture and communications within critical social theory. They represent the first generation of social theorists to analyze the indispensability of the “culture industry”, as they termed it, in the procreation of contemporary societies where the so-called mass culture and communications took the center stage of leisure activity, and act as veritable agents of socialization.
1.2 Adorno’s Critique in Relation to Marxism

It is essential to study Adorno in context of his Marxist background. This is mainly because the Frankfurt School aimed primarily at examining the apparent failure of revolutionary social change as predicted by Marx—instead, the ideologies of the dominant class, capitalism in this case, had come to condition the economic base, especially by promoting a ‘false consciousness’ among the proletariat and helping them to assimilate them to capitalist society. “ The universal and commercialized mass culture was seen as one important means by which this success for monopoly capital had been achieved. The whole process of mass production of goods, services and ideas had more or less completely sold the system of capitalism, along with its devotion to technological rationality, consumerism, short term gratification and myth of the ‘classless’ society.”[3]

Adorno was born to Jewish parents in Frankfurt, Germany, and his academic career started off while engaged with the Frankfurt School–an extension of COMINTERN, the Communist International. At the Frankfurt School, in the years between 1928- 1932, Adorno came into contact with Walter Benjamin, the man who is credited to have developed the theory of modern opinion polling as well as theories in brainwashing and the effects of social isolation. Benjamin’s hypothesis that the mechanical reproduction of art is fundamental to Marxist theory was almost instantaneously accepted in international circles. After his banishment to America in 1934, Adorno became a towering figure in the neo-Marxist movement, engaged by the American Jewish Committee and the U.S. War Department to fight “Fascism” and other threats detrimental to Jewish interests.

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Afterthought on Adorno’s Culture Industry: Introduction

Posted by fifthdimension on March 5, 2007


The concept of culture industry is a critique developed by Theodor Adorno along with Max Horkheimer, the two most important leaders of the Frankfurt school. It maintains that the culture industries exist to protect and enforce the spirit of a capitalist world order. However, the ‘culture industry ’ has undergone tremendous changes since Adorno developed his critique, yet many of Adorno’s key concerns still remain valid while others do not hold that much currency. This paper shall discuss the developments that have taken place in the culture industry and how these developments validate the critique developed by Adorno.

To begin with, let us first define what Adorno meant by “culture industry”. Although many critics and scholars are not unanimous with it, Adorno and Horkheimer coined the term “culture industry” term apparently as a replacement to the concept of “mass culture”, which they felt was semantically in disharmony with the truth. It should be noted that “industry”, here, does not necessarily imply the means of industrial production, although many works of culture commodification do reach us in this way. Instead, it denotes the standardization and psuedo-singularity of cultural items, and the regulation of their promotion and distribution. Adorno’s “culture industry” essentially stands on the aggregation of television, radio, film, and advertising concerns. Cultural products, which made up popular culture, also included jazz, magazines, and soap operas etc.

However, today, the terms “culture industry”, “mass culture” (and also “popular culture”) can be used interchangeably in as much as they are concerned with the present day mass media. The two essays by Adorno, first published in the late 1940’s, are perhaps the most precognitive works ever produced on the topic of mass culture. What he predicted on the merger of all forms of art into one, the sameness of advertising and entertainment still holds currency, considering the developments that have taken place in the “culture industry”—MTV’s music videos, and the planned catharsis of talk shows of the likes of Oprah and Jerry Springer.

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