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On Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer's "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception" from Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), plus Adorno's essay "Culture Industry Reconsidered" (1963).
How does the entertainment industry affect us? Adorno and Horkheimer (who co-authored the book, but it looks like Adorno mainly wrote the essay we read) are founding figures of the Frankfurt school, which means using Marxism and the insights of psychoanalysis to diagnose the ills of society. According to Adorno, our "mass culture" is not from the masses at all. Not created by them certainly, but also not responding in capitalist fashion to their demands. Rather, it's imposed on us and brainwashes us into conformity. With stereotyped characters, by-the-numbers plotting, and an emphasis on style over substance, films entice and lull us into submission. Ditto for popular music and other media, each in their own insidious way. And it's not just a matter of high-brow art snobs worrying about low-brow material: The culture industry mixes the base and etherial together (to the detriment of both) to catch everyone in its net; capitalism is happy to appropriate it all, so long as real thinking is discouraged!
The full foursome tangle with this quotable, laughable, overwrought text, finding many interesting observations about art even while finding the overall critique much too harsh and finicky.
End song: "All Too Familiar," from around 1992 with all instruments by Mark Linsenmayer, released on The MayTricks. Get the whole album free.
Have you checked out Mark's new podcast Nakedly Examined Music yet?
Adorno picture by Corey Mohler.
s. wallerstein says
You guys have an extraordinary ability to see the world from the standpoint of the most varied thinkers, which very few people, even people as good as at philosophy as you are, have.
Most people are stuck in a philosophical rut, especially when the philosophy in question has political implications, as does that of Adorno, but you guys are not in a rut and on the other hand, you’re not pure pedants who read texts with so-called dry impartiality. At times what you have to say irritates me, but it’s probably because I’m in a deeper rut than you are.
Christopher Frederick says
This may be tangential to the discussion, but listening to all the movie talk, it dawned on me. What are the societal consequences of the fixed pricing so common in mass media art? Neither the production costs nor the content of a movie/film seemingly has any impact on the box office ticket price of, more or less, $10. Same with the cost of an “album” or “single” in the realm of music. Books and ebooks also fit into this. Yet as a “fine artist” if I endeavor to make a large bronze sculpture it would be expected to have more inherent “value” than a small watercolor and therefore be priced higher accordingly…
Just food for thought.
Jim Gallagher says
Dialectic of Enlightenment is #13 in Amazon’s ranking of Books > Crafts, Hobbies & Home > Gardening & Landscape Design > Ornamental Plants
Misfiled It seems. But as it is about the design of (cultural) landscapes, weirdly appropriate. Or perhaps just good fertilizer.
That’s what’s cool about Frank Zappa, his best works focus on form (e.g. Peaches in Regalia). That’s why Peaches in Regalia is so pleasureable.
Martin Zehr says
Cultural scripting of society is pervasive in American society. It manipulates the “entertainment industry”, the morality and the political opposition. It presents certain scenarios as “progressive” while disregarding the fundamental conflicts as they exist in society. Change becomes empty of political content and becomes a contemporary cue for cultural assimilation. There are no debates, it becomes simply what is given is accepted. The revolutionary impulse of the sixties becomes the social network of the twenty-teens. Not a social network at all. No collectivism allowed, individualism is commodified. Identity is an individual assignment not a social project. It is the essence of domination and the projection of the ruling class in its interest.
Martin Zehr says
Culture springs from the economic foundation of a society and reflects the characteristics of it. In a society based on commodity production, the fetishness of commodities is reflected in the cultural mores. Values, entertainment, the arts reflect the individualism of capitalism and its decline. The premises of progress needs to be based, not simply on the accumulation of capital, but on the substantive good of humanity. THE CRADLE WILL ROCK demonstrated how the ruling class is actively engaged in establishing the cultural values in the United State Diego Rivera mural is sledge hammered, while Broadway produces tripe. There is only profit in the United States. All else is kabuki theatre. full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The shock of a political candidate of Trump is not his language, but his substance that moves off script and finally says what everyone sees, “The system is rigged.”
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Have you checked out Mark’s new podcast Nakedly Examined Music yet?
Adorno picture by Corey Mohler.
This episode is sponsored by Zero Books: Check out their many titles in critical theory and related endeavors at zero-books.net.”
How in the world can I possibly take this podcast seriously after reading this? You guys really believe such comments on a discussion of what is essentially Marxist material is appropriate?
Mark Linsenmayer says
So only non-profit entities are allowed to talk about Marxism? Adorno’s book itself, was and is, I believe, a product bought and sold in stores, not a tract passed out in bus stations.
> So only non-profit entities are allowed to talk about Marxism?
That’s not what I’ve said, I was unaware it was a profit-making entity.
> Adorno’s book itself, was and is, I believe, a product bought and sold in stores, not a tract passed out in bus stations.
True but “digital goods” are a different matter.
I’ll try to explain but at this point if the irony was lost on you then I doubt anything I can say will change that. The very language that was used, which I quoted, is exactly the language (schema as adorno calls it?) that you often see parroted over and over again as some sort of symbol for what is or isn’t mass culture. It’s like the (R) symbol in that it denotes a certain conception of media.
PEL is like the independent book-store, which generally all of us on the left defend against Amazon and Barnes and Noble. I doubt that it exploits anyone in the Marxist sense of the term
“exploit” or in any other. If they make a few dollars (and I’m sure that they don’t make much), what’s the problem? Marxism is a criticism of capitalism (which involves buying labor power), not of the profit motive per se.
I agree with you. I even said I was unaware they were for-profit before the author stated so. I have no problem with any of what you said.
> This episode is sponsored by Zero Books: Check out their many titles in critical theory and related endeavors at zero-books.net.”
Are they the independent book store you were referring to? Who’s saying to check them out, this website or that book company? What does it say about Marxism when you’re able to get sponsors like that? Doesn’t it degrade it to the level of an inoffensive triviality?
Nietzsche says: “Ich bin keine Mensch, Ich bin Dynamit.” -> “I am no Man, I am Dynamite”. Dynamite is what you are not when you use the sort of language I quoted.
This reminds me of the irony presented in the Nier: Automata game regarding the “Satre” character that had to renamed to Jean-Paul and the related questline which was due to the enforcement of the author’s “rights” by the estate holders.
I guess if you’re in the club of those that enjoy Marx because of his literary style then you won’t get what I’m saying and that’s fine.
Mark Linsenmayer says
Re. “sponsors like that,”: Zero Books is run by Doug Lain, who’s run a very Marxist-intensive critical theory podcast (previously called Diet Soap) for like 10 years. The book company itself is designed to be egalitarian/fair in its compensation… it’s an imprint under a larger entity that Doug was able to get to fork over a small amount of advertising money.
Yes, it’s an irony of today that in digging around on the Internet about Marxism, you are inevitably paying (directly or indirectly) at least some mega-companies (Google, Apple) and probably some small fries like us or Zero Books. In our case, while we’re happy to have as many listeners get to hear us without HAVING to pay anything, we would prefer that you all recognize that people over college-age that don’t have an infinite amount of free time are producing this informative stuff for you, that we think is worth your paying for in some way, whether that means sitting through a commercial or (much better) through a direct donation. It sounds like you’re saying that a commitment to Marxism makes one immune to such real-world moral obligations.
I too would much rather there be a universal basic income or that society be otherwise de-monitized, but pretending that the Internet already is such a realm is a matter of willful irresponsibility. Rather, it’s a realm where, in some cases at least, you get to voluntarily support things you care about, crafted by individuals who care about producing them, instead of only having to choose between various mass-produced hunks of crap driven created purely out of profit motives.
Edward Fairhead says
Hey, I’m interested in this notion that it is now more common for the government to be the ‘enemy’ of the film (37mins in approx), and for the viewer to be guided to side with the anti-establishment/’rebel’ character. During the episode we were directed to the conversation with David Brin which I’ve since listened to, but does anyone have a source for a scholar who has written on this particular idea?
Charles Crawford says
Baffling to listen to PEL’s cooing at these Adorno so-called critiques about film and culture under ‘capitalism’ and ‘fascism’ without as far as I can recall any serious analysis of what he thought about how the arts were doing under ‘socialism’ just up the road in Soviet-occupied Europe.
Plus you slipped elegantly past his typical Soviet-Marxist anti-semitic swipe at ‘Jewish influence’.
Yes! If you start ‘mass production’ it’s a necessary result that differences to some degree get smoothed out and products standardised. There’s some loss of ‘individuality’. That applies to films and anything else.
But so what?
In return for that industrial and intellectual progress aka ‘capitalism’, most people don’t sit in shacks listening to the water drip on their heads and having no medicine to heal festering sores.
What if anything did Adorno think would actually substantively be different if he ran the world? There would still be a small number of movie cameras and directors. The masses would still sit there absorbing a small number of productions.
Soviet and Chinese films of the period heavily influenced by Marxism were orders of magnitude more awful than Western films (have you watched those communist propaganda movies of lyrical workers gathering the non-existent harvests?), as innovation was stifled for specious ideological reasons – down to the utter derangement of rejecting certain categories of chess study as ‘bourgeois’.
You also underestimated the astounding fact that capitalism brought the voices of stars and politicians and leaders straight to the mass of people for the first time in history. Movies in that sense were something new and ‘realistic’ (as compared to the obvious contrivance of the theatre and opera).
That opened the way to political manipulation and ‘shallowness’ (of course), as continues apace today in #fakenews and everything else. But it is also profoundly liberating and democratic. In any case, what’s the precise alternative?
Mark Linsenmayer says
It’s perfectly coherent to criticize the faults of a particular form of capitalism without automatically cheering for a specific alternative.
I think we put in our time cheerleading for the obvious goods capitalism has provided via the Adam Smith/Russ Roberts outings,
Far from “cooing” over Adorno’s critiques here, we’ve been accused of not taking him seriously. I think the consensus was clearly that his hysteria here was overblown (and likely applies less now than when he wrote it), while yes, we should be on the watch for what ideologies our media are touting.