Notes on Adorno and The Culture Industry

Karl Marx said, ‘Religion is the Opium of the Masses’. Theodore Adorno, 20th century philosopher and film theorist, has arrived at an understanding, that ‘Mass Media is the Opium of the Masses’.

A student of Karl Marx and Hegel, Adorno and his colleagues waited for the prophecised revolution of the proletariat, a movement that did not come to pass. The young intellectuals questioned this – with utmost belief in Hegel’s dialectic system of cohesive global understanding and in the belief of the rightness of Marxist thought – they realised that the problem lay in the popular media culture – the main culprits of arrested development of society –‘Culture Industry’.

Culture Industry today is infecting everything with sameness… the living cells crystallize into homogenous, well organised complexes…The explicit and the implicit, exoteric and esoteric catalog of what is forbidden and what is tolerated is so extensive that it not only defines the area left free but wholly controls it. Even the most minor details are modeled according to this lexicon’. For Adorno, individuals were aware of social issues but the Culture Industry was a glue that was tying everybody up. He believed that if the shackles could be broken, the society would change. The Culture Industry created Burgiouse Art, which destoyed True Art. It produced Art that was packaged, stylised and designed to be escapist and easy to digest, slowly numbing society. ‘Film denies its audience any dimension in which they might roam feely in imagination… They are so constructed that their adequate comprehesion requires a quick, observant, knowledgeable cast of mind but positively debars the spectator from thinking, if he is not to miss the fleeting facts’ and so ‘The products of the culture industry are such that they can be alertly consumed in a state of distraction’.

Adorno goes on to describe, in great thoroughness and detail the problematics of the Culture Industry. He speaks about the dependence of culture monopolies on corporations and big industry, ‘the true wielders of power, to ensure that their sphere of mass society… is not subject to a series of purges’; He speaks about packaging and style of having no individuality – ‘the style of the culture industry, which has no resistant material to overcome, is at the same time the negation of style…up to Schonberg and Picasso, great artists have been mistrustful of style’. The systematic creation of ideals and beauty and the lack of a difference between ‘real or reel’. Film was the most important media that fabricated subjectivity and it was so strong that the viewer doesn’t even realise that he is imitating ‘the street outside as a continuation of the film he has just left’. Sameness and standardisation and mass production were killing the possibility of new Art.

During the 30’s, when a number of Jewish intellectual escaped to The United States, they found that even in places like Berkeley and California, the American culture system was designed to control the people. He believed that the system was in a state of decadence and decay, and that Art was providing a ‘false synthesis’. Apart from a few such as Kafka, Beckett and those in his own circles such as Schoenberg and Pierrot Lunaire, he considered everything else false. Adorno’s theories start bordering on paranoia, and he sees everybody as producers and reproducers of the Culture Industry manipulating a fractured society of para-Nazis ‘at once enthusiastic and fed up…in the synthetically manufactured physiognomies of today the fact that the concept of human life ever existed is already forgotten’.

The Culture Industry is converting us into ‘cultural’ products with programmed desire – The system brainwashes you to have needs that are driven by the Culture Industry. ‘The more strongly the culture industry entrenches itself, the more it can do as it chooses to with the needs of its consumers –  producing, controlling, disciplining them; even withdrawing amusement altogether’. The shamelessness of the rhetoric “What do people want?” lies in the fact that it appeals to the very people as thinking subjects whose subjectivity it specifically seeks to annul. ‘The powerlessness of everyone is reflected’.

At one point, he sounds almost hopeful, saying ‘Demand has not yet been replaced by simple obedience’ till you realise, that it is utter desperation that he is feeling, ‘This is the incurable sickness of all entertainment. Amusement congeals into boredom, since to be amusement, it must cost no effort…the product prescribed each reaction…through signals’. Adorno starts to think no change is possible. So he and his contemporaries, want to make things as dark as possible in order to wake people up from their complacence. They were not interested in banishing popular culture, but in changing the state of the system, which they saw as a collective machinery. They attacked, in their writing, many famous composers, like Wagner, whom they felt were producing music simply for entertainment. They wrote against Jazz, they wrote against the radio, and mostly they wrote against Film and Television.

It is all too easy to believe – to start seeing that patterns being unraveled – The formula films, with the fixed blend of action, drama, suspense; the calculated charm of the hero, the idealised beauty of the heroine are all calculated templates. That ‘hit songs, stars and soap operas conform to types recurring cyclically as rigid invariants…In film, any manuscript which is not reassuringly based on a best-seller is viewed with mistrust’. The soap operas and their ‘Obtusely ingenious surprises [that] disrupt the plot…the pure nonsense which, as buffoonery and clowning, was a legitimate part of popular culture’, One can even go as far as to see this similar pattern emerge out of the Contemporary Art scene –The Artist is a solitary figure in the sea of machinations of the Art Gallery/Auction house/dealer/curator combine – The ready supply to the demands of structurally designed ‘taste’ and the meaningless-ness of True Art in the face of Art as investment and determination of worth through auction/sales. In the fact that true departure form style has always been met with skepticism and mistrust. What Adorno calls ‘inferior work has relied on its similarity to others, the surrogate of identity…obedience to a social hierarchy’. How easy it would be to believe that yes, the fact of the matter is that Art in itself does not matter, but are merely objects, pieces in fact to be moved around like pawns to the maneuverings of the economic interests of markets and capital. ‘Freedom was the freedom of the stupid to starve, in art as elsewhere…You are free not to think as I do; your life, your property – all that you shall keep. But from this day on you will be a stranger among us’. A world where it is not about the Art, but the negotiations to survive/climb the ladder of success – ‘The more all-embracing the culture industry has become, the more pitilessly it has forced the outsider into either bankruptcy or a syndicate’.

One is drawn within this framework of thought till one realises that the text has a biased logic that is driven by the need to be true. Adorno’s view of Utopia is essentially fatalistic. Perhaps it is Hegel’s model of Thesis>Antithesis>Synthesis that is essentially linear – similar to Western music format of point:counterpoint, or the linearity of time in Western theology of Creation and Judgement. Synthesis is always doomed to become the Thesis of the next era.

Humanity has always had music and storytelling and dance – the basic forms that contribute and are the base materials for all other art forms, be it theater, radio, film or jazz. From the days of the primitive man, groups or tribes have huddled around bonfire, listening to stories that may have been instructive or merely escapist. Stories, weather myths or folktales are essentially operating on a personal, social or mythic (racial) scale of human understanding. We have learnt how to live, the qualities that we must posses as human beings and the narratives that we are a part of – through these stories. Are episodes of ‘I love Lucy’ Art? Perhaps they are – after all, they were funny, insightful explorations of American culture of the mid-1950. Perhaps WWE is a representation of contemporary American mythology, much as Superhero comics have been.

Structurally, they perform a catharsis – a purging of emotions. Also, if we consider the what Indian Aesthetics describes in the Rasā Theory – In it Rasā is described as the ‘essentialised experience’ of a re-presented event, that enriches rather than performing a purge of emotions. Accordingly, the storyteller’s circle around a tribal fire is as important an institution of education as is the highest exponent of Adorno’s True Art. If all Art form enriches, then even the most banal Mass media may have the potential for some kind of cultural value. Whether Mass Art is the same as Adorno’s idea of ‘True’ Art is another matter altogether.

If we look at the important tropes of stories that have remained with us, whether it is the Hero and his quest, Tragedy, Comedy, or even religion – they have evolved our worldview throughout time. In doing so, they have also simultaneously evolved and remained alive as signs, symbols and signifiers. Signs, symbols and signifiers have been translated as memes that display cultural-evolutionary properties. Like the DNA or the (mostly) detrimental virus, a meme needs a host – the complex mechanism of enzymes all the way up to a cell to republish itself. The transcendence meme “convinces” its host that it is imperative for its survival and the survival of its kin. Memes reflect the same laws that guide genes (an analogy drawn by Dawkins only to make the laws governing memes comprehensible. Whether memes and genes are perfectly analogous or not, is not relevant) – preservation, heritability (learnability, ease of communication, tendency to be transmitted), reproductive isolation for speciation (chinese whispers), mutation causing genetic diversity (adaptability) and self-propagation.

Memes have a bad habit of genes – they become vestigial. The keep reproducing themselves long after the relevance is lost, long after the answers to the riddles have been established, long after the theories guiding them have been dis-proven.

Let’s accept that in the absence of a teleological purpose, it might be wise to invent one – or rather evolve one with a near infinite foresight. If we have evolved to rely on crutches of delusions and fallacies, clarity of mind can be life threatening, and hence, met with an intuitive repulsion.

“To survive, to avert what we have termed future shock, the individual must become infinitely more adaptable and capable than ever before. We must search out totally new ways to anchor ourselves, for all the old roots – religion, nation, community, family, or profession – are now shaking under the hurricane impact of the accelerative thrust. It is no longer resources that limit decisions, it is the decision that makes the resources. (Alvin Toffler, Future Shock)”


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