Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Culture Industry Reconsidered

Culture industry as a term was first used by Adorno and Horkheimer in the book Dialectic of Enlightenment in 1947. In their drafts, they talked about mass culture but later replaced that expression with ‘culture industry’. They did this so that they could exclude the interpretation of a set of intellectuals who advocated that mass culture arose spontaneously from the masses and is the contemporary form of popular art. He says that the culture industry instead merges the old and familiar into a new quality and all its products are tailored for consumption by the masses and manufactured according to a plan. Further, it forces together high and low art to the detriment of both. For Adorno, the masses are simply an “object of calculation” and the customer is never the king. The cultural commodities of this industry, as Brecht and Suhrkamp have expressed earlier are guided by their realization as ‘value’ and not by their own individual content, and the profit motive is primary for the entire practice of the culture industry. So, cultural entities in the culture industry are no longer also commodities, but they are commodities. While culture in the ‘true’ sense, not only adjusted itself to human beings but also honoured them by raising a protest against their living conditions. But what comes across in the culture industry as something new and progressive however remains disguised under an “eternal sameness”.

Adorno suggests to not take the word industry “too literally” but understand it with reference to a certain standardization of content and he takes the example of a Western that is familiar to every movie goer. With reference to cinema as a central sector of the culture industry, he says that although its production process may involve division of labour and there may be a conflict between artists and the industry that controls them, there still exists an individual form of production. But for Adorno, this individuality serves to reinforce ideology. Cinema’s ideology makes use of the star system that for him is borrowed from “individualistic art and its commercial exploitation.” The culture industry is industrial in a sociological sense in that it incorporates industrial forms of organization even when nothing is manufactured. For instance in the rationalization of office work rather that anything being really produced. There is no inner logic to the technique of the industry except for that of distribution and mechanical reproduction which always remains external. Walter Benjamin designated the traditional work of art with the concept of the ‘aura’ but for Adorno, the culture industry “conserves the decaying aura as a foggy mist”. Despite this, he feels that the industry is important as a “moment of the sprit that dominates today” and ignoring its influence would be naive. Yet, there is a “deceptive glitter” about the position to take it seriously. He thinks even though something touches a large number of lives, it is no guarantee of its quality and hence it would be required to take it seriously in a critical way. It is common for some intellectuals to simultaneously keep reservations against it and respect its power. For them products like pocket novels, family television shows or even horoscope columns are harmless and even democratic because it responds to a demand, even if it is a stimulated one. But any advice gained from it is empty and the emerging behaviour patterns “shamelessly conformist”.

This “two-faced irony” is not restricted to just the intellectuals but also the consumers. The consumers are split between the fun they get from the culture industry’s products and not a well concealed doubt about its blessings. Adorno thinks that the phrase, “the world wants to be deceived” has become truer than ever and consumers will fall for anything that will provide them a fleeting gratification even though its underlying structure lays transparent to them. The order that arises from the culture industry is never confronted with what it claims or whether it is in any real interest of human beings, and conformity gets replaced for consciousness behind which lie the most powerful interests. Adorno gives an example of how American producers are heard to say their films must appeal to the level of eleven year olds. The entire system of the culture industry surrounding the masses follows the same formulas and hardly deviates and the attitudes and stereotypes that the industry calls for are anything but harmless. Hence it is a “mass deception” that restricts the development of independent individuals.     

Author: Harmanpreet Kaur 

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