on March 5, 2012
More a collection of related essays and less a book with a coherent, unified message, this is a set of nine essays on a variety of topics. I'll list them here just to give the reader some idea of the vast area these essays cover. They are "On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening," "The Schema of Mass Culture," "Culture Industry Reconsidered," "Culture and Administration," "Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda," "How to Look at Television," "Transparencies on Film," "Free Time," and "Resignation."
Like much of the writing that comes out of the Frankfurt School, this is heavily influenced by Marxism, especially their idea (Horkheimer collaborated with Adorno in writing some of the more important essays in this collection) that mass consumer culture has become commodified, reified, and fetishized. The "culture industry" refers to the processes of standardization, marketing, and distribution which become a part of objects themselves, and therefore indistinguishable from them. Everything has been subsumed under the logic of the mass market, which creates what Adorno and Horkheimer term "false needs" - those needs that capitalism invents, and that capitalism can uniquely satisfy.
What I found of particular interest with the idea of the culture industry was the resonance that it has with so many other critical thinkers like Baudrillard, Debord, Lyotard, and Marcuse, yet being written several years before the most important work of these thinkers (Baudrillard's "Simulacra and Simulation" didn't come out until 1981, Debord's "The Society of the Spectacle" until 1967, and Lyotard's "The Postmodern Condition" until 1979). Some of the essays in the second half of the book - "How to Look at Television" and "Transparencies on Film," especially - reminded me explicitly of the best writing on media of Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan, and Raymond Williams.
While I credit Adorno for being an innovative, insightful social critic, the orthodox Marxism can become a little laborious and grating after a few essays. The best of his thought isn't a result of his Marxism at all, but rather his sociological and psychological observations, as is the case with most of the media criticism here. Whether it is the translation or the original writing, the style is at its worst overly turgid and obfuscating, which makes it only digestible in small doses, but Adorno seems like he is always worth the effort. I will probably come back to this again and again in an attempt to inform my readings of later Frankfurt School members, especially Fromm, Lowenthal, and Habermas.
on August 25, 2007
In our banal age when sanctimonious platitude is often mistaken for wisdom or even ethical character, Adorno's mercilessly uncompromising analyses of the controlling nature of mass culture may initially strike some of us as exaggerated or hysterical initially. After all most of us now bear the consequence of lengthy habituation to our socio-economic situation: a chronic semi-conscious, autopilot behavioral and perceptive mode that can comprehend only the pre-digested, repetitive ideas or ways of thinking. However, once we start reading Adorno more attentively and thoughtfully we realize how prescient and perspicacious Adorno was as a critic of our modern society and culture. Many of his thoughts articulated in this volume anticipate the thoughts and writings of our leading contemporary thinkers, such as Jean Baudrillard, Frederic Jameson, and even Noam Chomsky (although he probably disagrees with Adorno's attitude toward culture, which may be construed as elitist).
I highly recommend this book to anybody who wants to escape the mass-culture induced stupor to become a more conscious human and citizen.
on May 16, 2015
Theodore Adorno's book The Culture Industry is wide-ranging, predictably difficult, and of uneven interest and quality across the nine thematically related essays that constitute its chapters. As with Horkheimer and Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment, those who have read Horkehimer's Eclipse of Reason will be better able than others to come close to taking the full measure of The Culture Industry. The gains in accessibility and concentration will not be as substantial with The Culture Industry, but though Adorno does not explicitly invoke Horkheimer's concepts of subjective reason (means-ends relationships) and objective reason (the intrinsic merit of things in themselves), they are implicit and of critical importance throughout much of the book. They correspond closely to the well-known distinction between exchange value and use value. Thus their pertinence in work written by scholars heavily influenced by Marx is no surprise.
One of the difficulties with The Culture Industry is that Adorno uses the concept culture in a variety of different ways. This variability is not uncommon among philosophers and social scientists who write about culture, but even though the inconsistency does not provoke confusion to the point of making The Culture Industry unintepretable, it is sometimes annoying, generating needless uncertainty in an already difficult book. I understand, however, that when gathering together material written at different times concerning a variety of loosely related topics concerning the same broadly over-arching theme, errors of this kind may be difficult to completely avoid.
In addition, however, Adorno, without explicit acknowledgement, takes the word culture to mean different things depending on the analytical context in which he is engaged. High culture and autonomous culture refer to works of art and architecture whose production is not dependent on a broad-based audience for justification and financing. The concept autonomous culture, however, may be misleading if we take it to mean reliant only on the artist or architect who conceives it and follows through with execution. Architecture, especially, may be autonomous of mass interest but heavily dependent on wealthy individuals and organizations eager to exert aesthetic and practical influence. Mass culture, on the other hand, is produced only if it is manifest in what is sometimes characterized as low-brow art, things such as paperback-rack literature and formulaic films that require a large consumer base.
Given the foregoing distinction, I think one of the limitations of The Culture Industry is that judgments as to the ostensible quality of cultural phenomena are in danger of being based on distinctions between their likely audiences and supporters. This seems clearly to discount objective reason in the evaluation of cultural material and practices.
Of greatest interest, given the nature of his book, is Adorno's use of the concept culture to refer to what today is often termed material practice, ways of engaging the world so that, for better or worse, it is understandable and navigable. The Culture Industry, as understood by Adorno, consists largely of a collection countless taken-for-granted preconceptions, suppositions, psychological defense mechanisms, and unwittingly routinized ways of doing things that assure that culture will prevent those imbued with it from surpassing limits set by the status quo. Culture in this stultifying form, with rare departures from things as they are, subsumes the other uses of the concept, providing a reactionary and creatively deadening set of circumstances that works to the advantage of Big Capital. The rest of us are bound by ideas, emotions, activities, and performances that reproduce what already exists.
For the most part, The Culture Industry is written at a very high level of abstraction, often leaving the reader to contrive his or her own instructive examples. For this reason, I found Paul Willis' 1977 book Learning to Labor an invaluable resource. As an ethnographic account of an anti-authoritarian peer group in a British comprehensive school, the primary virtue of Willis' brilliant book is in showing us that, though the peer group and its members take pride in their artful distinctiveness and opositional nature, they are just as thoroughly entrapped in the social and political status quo as their more compliant age-mates. In fact, the seemingly distinctive nature of their material practice assures that they will fit the same occupational roles as their fathers, buttressing the capital-intensive industrial status quo. One wonders what they are doing now that globalization has moved their shop floor to a low-wage third world country. After all, the forms of rebelliousness they manifested were quite conventional and only obliquely political. Anyone who expects people socialized in this way to make a revolution or strike a spark of creativity that dramatically improves their diminished circumstances is in for a long wait.
The Culture Industry, whether referring to art, mass communications, education, the organization of the workplace, or any other setting or activity stifles the sort of innovations that would engender freedom and unfetter creative departures from existing ways of doing things. Though Adorno doesn't put it in this way, when subjective reason in pursuit of dollar-valued production through use of proletarianized labor came to determine the character of the social forces that provide the context for our lives, The Culture Industry became inevitable. It is an essential, inescapable, even if unnoticed and consciously unplanned determinant of banal everyday reality in a capitalist social system.
The Culture Industry is a very insightful and informative book, but I don't think that anyone would characterize Adorno's prose, translated from German, as elegant, streamlined, or particularly accessible. In addition, "On the Fetish Character of Music and the Regression of Listening" was a poorly chosen essay to serve as the first chapter. By presupposing substantial technical knowledge of music, it hardly serves as a suitable invitation to continue with a difficult text.
I'm glad I took the time to read The Culture Industry, and if Adorno were still alive I'd be very interested his take on the internet. As far as I can tell, it further solidifies the penetration and hold of Big Capital and dramatically facilitates this process on a world scale. Social media are readily absorbed into The Culture Industry, leaving Big Capital in control, giving pride of place to subjective reason and exchange value, and mystifying us all with the appearance of liberating change, chimerical though it is. Marx's base/superstructure model is often used in a grossly over-simplified way, but it remains powerfully suggestive, as is evident from reading The Culture Industry.
on November 19, 2014
You will be hard pressed to find a more scathing, uncompromising indictment of popular culture than The Culture Industry, Essays on Mass Culture by Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969). An accomplished classical pianist, composer and musicologist (he was a friend of composer Arnold Schoenberg) as well as a philosopher and sociologist with a razor-sharp mind, Adorno loathed how commercial interests standardize artistic and aesthetic enjoyment by pressing low-level conformity on an entire population for the purpose of maximizing sales and profits.
There are 9 essays in this collection, covering such topics as music, film and television. Adorno's writing style can be a bit dense; if you decide to tackle these essays be prepared to spend some time reading and rereading many sentence carefully. Additionally, a friend told me reading Adorno is like drinking vinegar. I completely agree: the majority of the ideas presented have a taste most bitter. This being said, in order to share some Adorno vinegar, below are my modest comments coupled with several quotes from an essay on a subject I'm sure is near and dear to all of us: Free Time.
"Free time depends on the totality of social conditions which continues to hold people under its spell. Neither in their work nor in their consciousness do people dispose of genuine freedom over themselves. . . . even where the hold of the spell (of social conditions, especially work) is relaxed, and people are at least subjectively convinced that they are acting of their own free will, this will itself is shaped by the very same forces which they are seeking to escape in their hours without work." ---------- After years of training in Jersy Grotowski-style physical theater, an extreme and demanding method to free one's body, I took an improvisational acting class where a number of students were office workers. I could instantly see how, although these students were engaged in theater exercises, their movements were so restricted and mechanical, it was as if they were still at work in their office.
Adorno speaks of his own life: "I have no hobby. As far as my activities beyond the bounds of my recognized profession are concerned, I take them all, without exception, very seriously. So much so, that I should be horrified by the very idea that they had anything to do with hobbies - preoccupations with which I had become mindlessly infatuated merely in order to kill the time . . . Making music, listening to music, reading with all my attention, these activities are part and parcel of my life; to call them hobbies would make a mockery of them. ---------- Adorno's words here can be taken as a direct challenge: Do you `kill time' when you are away from work? Do you need a hobby to occupy your attention?
"For the most part the very development of the imagination is crippled by the experience of early childhood. The lack of imagination which is cultivated and inculcated by society renders people helpless in their free time." ---------- Again, are you easily bored and seek out mindless distractions? How frequently do you turn on the TV?
"People have been refused freedom, and its value belittled for such a long time that now people no longer like it. . . . This is one good reason why people have remained chained to their work, and to the system which trains them for work, long after that system has ceased to require their labor. ---------- For the life of me I will never understand how many people spend most of their `free time' thinking and talking about their work. Even if their work is interesting, I fail to see how work can be so interesting and mesmerizing that they can't let it go. Tis true: all work and no play makes Johnny and Suzy very, very dull people.
"The accepted reason for playing team sports is that it makes believe that fitness itself is the sole, independent end of sport: whereas fitness for work is certainly one of the covert ends of sport. Frequently it is in team sport that people first inflict upon themselves (and celebrate as a triumph of their own freedom) precisely what society inflicts upon them and what they must learn to enjoy." ---------- Ha! In a word, team sports acculturates individuals to forfeit their health, creativity and freedom as a first step in forfeiting their health, creativity and freedom when they step into the workplace.
Interestingly, Adordo concludes his essay by relating a study done by his Frankfurt Institute in Germany where members of the public where interviewed after watching the wedding of a Princess and a German diplomat broadcast by all the mass media. The findings were a surprise. Turns out, people were glued to their television sets but there was an element of skepticism about the importance of the event and a reluctance to take the whole thing too seriously. In Adorno's words: . ." . . . it is indeed consumed and accepted but with a kind of reservation." In other words, Adorno and the Frankfurt School recognized people are not as dumb and gullible as intellectuals and philosophers might think. And thus, they concluded, it is this very capacity to stand back and critically evaluate the commercialized garbage offered up by the culture industry wherein people can realize their freedom.