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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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