Notes on: Adorno, T (1975) ‘Culture Industry Reconsidered’, New German Critique, vol.6: 12-19.
in the very useful collection Adorno T (1991) The
Industry. Selected essays on mass culture,
(edited and with an Introduction by
Bernstein J), London: Routledge. Now available
online too at Cultural
Studies and Critical Theory]
[NB Adorno's essay was actually written in 1967]
The term 'culture industry' does not
refer to that mass culture which spontaneously arises
from the masses (the
'contemporary form of popular art'). The culture
industry's products are deliberately tailored for
consumption and fused together (for
example, both old and familiar cultural objects are
combined). Culture is manufactured. The branches of
the culture industry are organised into an entire
system. Both high and low art are forced together, and
both lose seriousness as a result -- high art loses
its social effectiveness, and low art loses its
element of resistance.
The masses are indeed catered for by
the culture industry, but as objects of calculation.
The aim is to 'duplicate, reinforce and strengthen
their mentality, which it presumes is given and
unchangeable' (page 12).
Cultural commodities produced for the masses are done
so in order to realise value, regardless of their
content: a straightforward profit motive is the main
goal of the culture industry, and the reach for profit
opportunities is what drives it. There is no longer
any element of autonomy or protest against 'petrified [social] relations'-- the
culture industry is completely integrated into these
The culture industry also has a secondary objective. It produces culture aimed at public relations, the manufacture of ‘”good will” per se’. It helps construct a 'general uncritical consensus’ (page 13). It operates according to 'rigidly conservative basic categories' which have probably been around since the 17th century -- it has only an air of 'progress'.
'industry' should not be taken too literally, however.
It really refers to the process of widespread
standardisation and the rationalisation of
distribution techniques of cultural commodities, not
to the production of those commodities as such. Film,
for example, is produced in standard categories such
as the Western. Film production is highly technical,
but it is also still seen as produced by individuals [such as directors, with
individual stars giving unique performances]. This
helps reinforce ideology -- 'the illusion is conjured
up that the completely reified and mediated is a
sanctuary from immediacy and life'
(page 14). The star system as a good example --
it seems to preserve a role for individuals, who are
represented as great personalities, but this conceals
a thoroughly dehumanised reality.
The culture industry works in ways rather like
the rationalisation of office work. It does not affect
what is actual production.
Formerly, technique in art was a matter of the organisation of the object and its inner logic. The culture industry is about the distribution of objects and their mechanical reproduction: it remains external to the object itself. It is parasitic upon goods which have already been made ‘artistically’. Once these goods have been produced their aesthetic form is ignored. It becomes a matter of streamlining, 'photographic hardness', and precision, combined with sentimentality and a heavily adapted romanticism. It is not so much that the culture industry strips away the aura or replaces it, to use Benjamin's terms, more that it ‘conserves it as a foggy mist' (page 15).
Defenders of the culture industry
claim that it develops the consciousness of consumers. They urge us to
take it seriously, and avoid 'cultured snobbism' (page 15). Of course it is
important, but we should not repress important
questions about quality, truth and the ‘aesthetic
niveau', which is what the sociology of communications
tends to do. To say this is to risk being accused of
being arrogant or esoteric [precisely
what gramscians allege]. The
fact that the culture industry is widespread is no
guarantee of its quality. Taking it seriously should
really mean reflecting upon critically.
Some intellectuals are keen to reconcile
themselves with it [seems to fit some of the
more populist contemporary commentators pretty
well]. They want to bothexpress their reservations
and respect its power. They do so in a spirit of
ironic toleration. This is 'two-faced irony'.
Some of them even want to construct a ‘new mythos of
the 20th century' [step forward the later works of A
Giddens?] (page 15). The products of the
culture industry are seen as harmless. The industry
can even be seen as democratic, offering a response
to a genuine demand, or positive -- it disseminates
information, offers advice and reduces stress
[this section reminds me of the admiration Giddens
evidently feels for ‘lifestyle counsellors’ and
others in ‘risk societies’]. Of course the
information it purveys is limited and theadvice is
inevitably banal and conformist.
There is a similar split among the consumers, who celebrates the 'fun', but also have residual doubts [a perfect description of my teenage son's reaction to a Mediterranean package holiday with the lads]. Perhaps it is that 'the world wants to be deceived' (page 16). So urgent is the need for even fleeting gratification, the consumers accept the deception, even while seeing through it -- generating 'a kind of self-loathing' (page 16).
The claim that the culture industry provides standards [including a sense of history and tradition] ignores the fact that it destroys tradition. The past is processed, and it is all turned into 'an interchangeable sameness'. Formerly, culture aimed to depict the notion of the good life: the culture industries simply 'drapes' the idea over existing reality. It commonly defends itself by saying openly that it is not delivering 'art', but it remains silent as to what its responsibilities are as a result [try this one out on academic apologists as well].
Any appeal to order or to values or
standards is pointless unless these are made
concrete and linked to actual human beings and their
condition. The culture industry always offers the
status quo. This is never criticised or analysed.
The principle is that people must conform. No
concrete interests are discussed even so --it is
'order' in the abstract that must be upheld. Of
course, the culture industry presents 'false
conflicts' for people to identify with, and offers
to solve them, inappearance only. For example,
individuals who get into trouble are rescued, by
agents of some 'benevolent collective', and are
reconciled with the 'general interest' all [just
like the plots of many a 'coming of age' movie or
'road' movie, or lots of Westerns, for that matter].
[This bit also seems very familiar to any readers of
the somewhat later CCCS work on the 'magical
resolutions' offered by youth cultures or mass
media]. This pantomime of opposition and
reconciliation is even expressed in 'light musical
entertainment', where allegedly improvised rhythms
[say in a rock drum solo?] are soon brought back to
order by the 'triumph of the basic beat' (page
The culture industry does not offer
us guides to achieve the good life, but rather advice
to conform. Of course, this 'consensus' serves
powerful interests. Here lies its efficacy: it
promotes and exploits 'ego weakness to which powerless
members of contemporary society, with its
concentration of power, are condemned'
(page 18). People in the industry often urge
others to think of their viewers as 11 year-olds –
they would like them to be that way, and play more
than a small part in bringing this about.
Of course, research has not confirmed any of this yet, partly because 'powerful financial interests' would not be happy if it did. [Imagine trying to get a research grant that condemned mass media as thoroughly as this!]. The industry is likely to have long-term effects anyway [bit of a cop-out here I always think], especially as each of its branches operates in the same direction and offers the same formulae. Only 'deep unconsciousness mistrust' on the part of the masses explains why they do not totally conform to it.
such as films, openly reinforce stereotypes, such as
those of intellectuals (page
18) [another unresearched
issue!]. Others are less
open -- for example astrology merely stupefies its
audience. As a whole, the industry encourages
dependence and servitude, and prominent personalities
show us the lead here. It
can lead to an apparent satisfaction with our lot, but
in the end, it cheats everyone out of real happiness.
Its total effect is one of anti-enlightenment: it offers mass deception and a fettered consciousness. 'It impedes the development of autonomous, independent individuals who judge and decide consciously for themselves' (page 19). It has helped create 'the masses' as they are and now it despises them. It obstructs whatever emancipation is possible in our current society.