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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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One Response to “Afterthought on Adorno’s Culture Industry: Chapter 2”

  1. Yakama Sua Kings | 2005 – 2006 Season

    Useful, thank you!

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