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Given the negative orientation to the future of many of the most recent diaries here, I thought it appropriate to revisit the "culture industry" thesis, more specifically the thesis given by the essay on "the culture industry" in Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment.  This diary will look at how the "culture industry" has placed culture under the control of industrial power and in the discipline of mass production, and examine the argument in "The Culture Industry" for its social lessons and its relevance to the present political situation.

Theodor Adorno, who according to Jurgen Habermas was the main author of the "Culture Industry" essay.

(crossposted on European Tribune and Progressive Historians)

One of the most prominent triumphalist statements following the collapse of the USSR was Francis Fukuyama’s long essay "The End of History and the Last Man," in which Fukuyama argued that "liberal democracy" would be the ultimate end of all government around the world.  In the essay itself, however, rather little was said in defense of the idea that the world as a whole would become more democratic.  In fact, one of the main criticisms of this essay was that it gave no serious argument as to why dictatorship wouldn't have a better chance of becoming universal.  Moreover, the authoritarianism of the present moment was spelled out decades earlier by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in an essay published in 1944 (in a collection now titled Dialectic of Enlightenment) titled "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception" which suggested an authoritarian demeanor behind consumer society.  A somewhat truncated translation of this essay can be found here -- your best bet, however, is to find a copy of Dialectic of Enlightenment.

Now, I first read this essay when I was studying with Scott Warren at the Claremont Graduate University.  For his courses, we read a wide variety of marxist and utopian books – and this one seemed to have the most devastating critique of society as it was and is.  Later, my understanding of this and a number of other books helped me get into graduate school at The Ohio State University.

More recently, in this (very important, and under-read) diary written late last year I outlined a four-part history of capitalism.  What makes this history important is that it is a history of capitalist discipline. Today, of course, we are in the world of neoliberal capitalism – but the contours of our society (and indeed of global society) were set some time ago by the earlier creation of the consumer society, which imposed upon global society a distinctive form of capitalist discipline.  In "The Culture Industry," Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno outline this form of capitalist discipline.

Now, the "culture industry" itself, as we are told in the essay, is just the entertainment business.  But there is really more to it than that.  Horkheimer and Adorno wish to draw connections between the entertainment business, the capitalist system, and mass production (considered aesthetically as a metaphor for the whole of culture).  The authors wrote this essay in the early 1940s while living as alienated German exiles from Hitler, conveniently close to the center of the world’s culture industries: Hollywood.

The "culture industry," then, is more than just the entertainment business: rather, it is the key to culture in the era of mass consumerism.  If the objects of culture are almost entirely mass-produced items bought and sold as commodities, then the culture itself is going to be caught up in this mass production and commodification:

The ruthless unity in the culture industry is evidence of what will happen in politics.  Marked differentiations such as those of A and B films, or of stories in magazines in different price ranges, depend not so much on subject matter as on classifying, organizing, and labeling consumers.  Something is provided for all so that none may escape; the distinctions are emphasized and extended.  The public is catered for with a hierarchical range of mass-produced products of varying quality, thus advancing the rule of complete quantification.  Everybody must behave (as if spontaneously) in accordance with his previously determined and indexed level, and choose the category of mass product turned out for his type.  (123)

Or, more specifically, we are told:

The culture industry as a whole has molded men as a type unfailingly reproduced in every product.  (127)

Now, Horkheimer and Adorno are often accused of being elitists.  This accusation draws its strength from the sort of nose-turning you read (in the above paragraph) at the whole "mass production" of culture.  Its weakness is that there really aren’t any exceptions to this disdain.  Everyone is implicated in the culture industry.  There are no exceptions for aesthetic elites, or any other sort of elites for that matter.

Now, today, the critique of capitalism has a different focus.  Capitalism appears to have hit limits: we can easily guess, for instance, that the climate isn’t going to get any better, that housing prices can only go so high, that the national debt can only get so big, or that only so much of a finite planet Earth can be harvested for sale.  We can hope, perhaps, for a silver lining of hope beyond the catastrophe that appears to lie ahead.  

But this reaching of limits is the product of a society in which the "culture industry" has attained the dominant role it has.  The "culture industry," moreover, provides a social binding force that maintains capitalist society’s trajectory even when the people themselves realize the fix they’re in.  Horkheimer and Adorno thus spelled out society’s doom even before the heyday of the consumer society.

"The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception"

Max Horkheimer (left), Theodor Adorno (right), Jurgen Habermas (in back, rubbing hair)

Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno were two of the founders of what is today called the Frankfurt School of Social Research.  The Frankfurt School was an entity created in Weimar Germany just before Hitler's takeover, and dedicated to the study of society in terms of what Karl Marx called "historical materialism," without any of the Soviet apologetics that had colored marxist analysis at that time.  With the rise of Hitler, however, the Frankfurt School’s social analysis took a considerably more depressing turn.  Horkheimer and Adorno began to investigate why the philosophic trend of the Enlightenment (and especially of the German Enlightenment of Hegel and Kant and Schopenhauer and Marx) culminated in Hitler and (after Hitler’s crimes were revealed to the world) Auschwitz.

"The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception" offers an inverted Marxism: as the capitalist system develops, the revolution moves further away and elite domination becomes stronger.  For what lies beyond enlightenment, for them, is merely The System:

THE sociological theory that the loss of the support of objectively established religion, the dissolution of the last remnants of pre-capitalism, together with technological and social differentiation or specialisation, have led to cultural chaos is disproved every day; for culture now impresses the same stamp on everything.
Films, radio and magazines make up a system which is uniform as a whole and in every part. Even the aesthetic activities of political opposites are one in their enthusiastic obedience to the rhythm of the iron system. (120)

We can see this phenomenon of "enthusiastic obedience" in practice, we might imagine, in Presidential elections, especially in the disaster of 2004.  The opposites of the "two-party system" nevertheless stood for many of the same things when it counted the most, the candidates themselves came from the same school and fraternity (Yale, Skull and Bones), and the election itself was a charade marked by vote-tampering.

Hailing from Europe, the sociologist Kees van der Pijl tells us, moreover, that our American election results are by no means unique.  The uniformity of electoral opposites, their common allegiance to neoliberalism, is by no means disturbed by any particular nation’s having a multi-party system.  The Socialists or Greens or whomever wins elections claiming an alternative to the status quo merely sell out once they attain power over the state.  This is true because, as van der Pijl points out, there are material requirements to the operation of the neoliberal state.

The "culture industry" thesis, moreover, suggests an all-encompassing failure of the power of reason.  The Enlightenment, that cultural force of the 18th and 19th centuries that was once imagined to make society rational, instead merely amplifies the power of myth by marketing it as emotional manipulation:

No medieval theologian could have determined the degree of the torment to be suffered by the damned in accordance with the order of divine love more meticulously than the producers of shoddy epics calculate the torture to be undergone by the hero or the exact point to which the leading lady’s hemline shall be raised. (128)

Once the people may have been deluded by their faith in religion; today, suggest the authors, the same power is served up to them as entertainment, and they still prefer it to reason.

Human development in the regime of the culture industry, then, is stunted, and so instead of becoming genuine individuals, people just fit into the system:

Individuation has never been achieved.  Self-preservation in the shape of class has kept everyone at the stage of a mere species being.  Every bourgeois characteristic, in spite of its deviation and indeed because of it, expressed the same thing: the harshness of the competitive society.  The individual who supported society bore its disfiguring mark; seemingly free, he was actually the product of its economic and social apparatus... Against the will of its leaders, technology has changed human beings from children into persons.  However, every advance in individuation took place at the expense of the individuality in whose name it occurred, so that nothing was left but the resolve to pursue one’s own particular purpose. (155)

Perhaps once, imagine the authors, society was held together by elites using coercive force against rebellious masses.  Today, however, the masses insist more firmly upon their state of bondage than do the elites themselves:

Whereas today in material production the mechanism of supply and demand is disintegrating, in the superstructure it still operates as a check in the rulers’ favour. The consumers are the workers and employees, the farmers and lower middle class. Capitalist production so confines them, body and soul, that they fall helpless victims to what is offered them. As naturally as the ruled always took the morality imposed upon them more seriously than did the rulers themselves, the deceived masses are today captivated by the myth of success even more than the successful are. Immovably, they insist on the very ideology which enslaves them. The misplaced love of the common people for the wrong which is done them is a greater force than the cunning of the authorities. (133-134)

The popular cure for oppression, then, is spending, and the myth of success promises that the Disneyland of spending can continue forever.  Horkheimer and Adorno, however, remind us that it is the drab world of work that makes entertainment entertaining by comparison, and that the spectacles with which it attracts us are empty:

The culture industry perpetually cheats its consumers of what it perpetually promises. The promissory note which, with its plots and staging, it draws on pleasure is endlessly prolonged; the promise, which is actually all the spectacle consists of, is illusory: all it actually confirms is that the real point will never be reached, that the diner must be satisfied with the menu. In front of the appetite stimulated by all those brilliant names and images there is finally set no more than a commendation of the depressing everyday world it sought to escape.  (139)

It is mainly by stimulating the imagination that the culture industry distinguishes itself from the reality it creates.  America, the heartland of the culture industry, has over the past half-century been transformed into a suburb, with endless rows of standardized homes growing identical plots of lawn grass, inside which the world of fantasy thrives, on video, through computers, on television, in mass-produced paperback books.  Our authors, typically, viewed this as a cheat.  They seem to have come to the conclusion that communication has itself been ruined by the capitalist ethic which pervades the culture industry:

We have even learned how to identify abstract concepts as sales propaganda.  Language based entirely on truth simply arouses impatience to get on with the business deal it is probably advancing.  (147)

Want to escape the world of the culture industry?  No problem.  But here are the consequences:

The analysis Tocqueville offered a century ago has in the meantime proved wholly accurate. Under the private culture monopoly it is a fact that "tyranny leaves the body free and directs its attack at the soul. The ruler no longer says: You must think as I do or die. He says: You are free not to think as I do; your life, your property, everything shall remain yours, but from this day on you are a stranger among us." Not to conform means to be rendered powerless, economically and therefore spiritually – to be "self-employed." (133)

Conclusion: Lessons I drew from the "Culture Industry" Essay

In reading philosophical, critical material of this sort, I try to avoid the "thumbs up/ thumbs down" type of evaluation in favor of a "critical thinking" analysis: the important thing is to arrive at one’s own opinion about the world, using the work itself as a vehicle for critical thinking.

First off, I think that Horkheimer and Adorno were unduly pessimistic about consumer society.  There are ways of becoming empowered and changing society "through the cracks" in the existing order.  Most importantly, we can work to strengthen our institutions of education, our media, and our legal and political institutions, so as to increase the space in which critical thinking is valued.

Secondly, I think that the dynamism of global capitalism offers a sort of counterweight to its crisis tendencies, speeding up the possibility of its own transcendence even as it screws up the world.  Global capitalism brings together the world in a global marketplace that can offer protest as well as consumer conformity, intercultural exchange as well as cultural homogenization.

Thirdly, I think it’s important to promote individuality, while giving up individualism.  The whole idea of becoming an individual, of understanding one’s relationship to the world and of becoming self-creating, of (centrally) deliberately exercising one’s freedom for the good of the world, seems permanently detached from the narcissistic obsession with self that drives those addicted to fame, money, power, property, food, drugs, or whatever else the mass-production machines can put out in quantity.  The ideology of individualism, which places "the self" above its relation to the world, seems more aligned with that narcissism than with the healthy development of individuality per se.

Lastly, I understand that as long as the culture industry is in charge of society, we face the future alone.  The main barb the authors throw at the "culture industry" and the society under its spell is that society, somehow, is on "cruise control" – it operates as a sort of mass-production machine cranking out movies, computers, appliances, political candidates, Presidents, military equipment, wars, and so on, without much critical thought given to why any particular production item is being produced or what it’s all leading to.  Nothing is believable if our whole society is lacking direction, if our disposition toward the future is limited to (at best) saving a buck or two for retirement.  We as a people really do need to gain control over our own social mode of being, regardless of how far off Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno thought this notion of democratic, social self-control happened to be.

Originally posted to Cassiodorus on Tue Jul 31, 2007 at 06:55 PM PDT.

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