Fifth Dimension

I’m Serious!!

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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