Sunday, January 27, 2013

Enlightenment as Mass Deception

In their work Enlightenment as Mass Deception Adorno and Horkheimer claim that since Enlightenment popular culture has degenerated into a mechanical apparatus, a factory that manufactures standardized cultural goods, a factory they call the culture industry. In their work they raise questions about the growing influence of entertainment industries, the increasing commodification of art and a culture that has been infected by sameness and uniformity where repetition is invaluable and individuality redundant.

According to them the entire industry is a thin gossamer of illusion which extends a false sense of pleasure. It spawns a desire which is permanently repeated and suspended but never fulfilled capturing the consumers in an eternal cycle of unfulfilled desires and promises. All the products of this industry are made in a way that makes imagination, creativity and fantasy unnecessary. It lulls the consumers into passive states of consumption turning them into mere statistics on research organization charts. Films are fashioned to be seamless extensions of the real world so that consumers do not feel the need to distinguish between the real and the unreal. Escape, they say is an escape not
from reality but from the last thought of resisting that reality. This prevents the viewers to fashion their own fantasies and imaginations and only identify with the imagination that they’ve been fed with. Adorno and Horkheimer talk about the intractable detail that was an expression of opposition, the enemy of organization and structure and whether it was the harmonic effect in music, a particular detail in art or the psychological penetration in the novel it was an expression of individuality that is no longer found. Since the culture industry thrives on repetition and reproduction it lays special emphasis on totality which has leveled all idiosyncrasies where the whole and the detail look alike.

Everything is already a copy and even beauty is mechanically reproduced so that the film star that one is supposed to fall in love with is already copy of himself and the natural faces of the Texas girls resemble some established model. This mechanical reproduction and increasing sameness of mass culture where originality is impossible is seen by Adorno and Horkheimer as a threat to high art. The culture industry works within the limits of a catalog of schematic formulas which define the boundaries of imagination and creativity beyond which no one ventures. ‘To be entertained is to be in agreement’ with those rules and boundaries and entertainment is a way of escaping mechanized labour so that people can go back to it. Within the confines of the culture industry, whose reach is
infinite, totality has devoured the detail.
The authors state that everything is economically intertwined and there is high level of dependence on capital “the dependence of the most powerful broadcasting company on the electrical industry, or of film on the banks, characterizes the whole sphere, the individual sectors of which are themselves economically intertwined.” Horkheimer and Adorno believe that advertisements, media broadcasting, radio programmes, films and entertainment are essentially propaganda to disguise the domination of capitalism and its control of consumers is mediated by entertainment. The authors believe that the
consumers are aware of the exploitation of the culture industry but remain inactive or passive because of sheer powerlessness. Cultural tyranny like de Tocqueville suggests leaves the body and works directly on the soul. The consumers are so comprehensively surrounded by the pressure of capitalism that they willingly accept what is being offered. 
The industry has made works of art readily available at reduced prices. In the past people paid a price for a work of art, a piece of music or a performance. If nothing else the price made the consumer connect with the work of art and value it. The authors believe that that era has now come to an end. To consumers incessantly battered with crude resemblances and bad copies, even works of art are but more copies and mechanical reproductions. Even more alarming is the trend of pursuing prizes which have reduced art to a matter of chance. The symphony becomes the prize for listening to the radio or the film for watching television. Since culture has become a bonus everybody rushes in willingly or unwillingly to claim it because if they don’t they might miss the opportunity.

The authors do not believe that consumers can escape this cycle because the freedom that the industry allows lasts as long as one operates within the boundaries of the industry. Any deviancy or rebelliousness, any intention to introduce the detail against the totality is met with dire consequences. The consequence of non conformity is bankruptcy or expulsion where one suffers intellectual powerlessness. There is no escape from the all encompassing cycle of the culture industry unless it is the fake catharsis that one opts for.

Author: Vibhushan Subba

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