Notes on:  Adorno, T  (1975)  ‘Culture Industry Reconsidered’, New German Critique, vol.6: 12-19.

[also republished in the very useful collection Adorno T (1991) The Culture 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]

Dave Harris

 [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 relations. 

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'.

The  term '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 17). 

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.

Some  products, 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.


  1. Take a copy of this set of notes.

  2. Using the facility  'replace'  (or the equivalent if you're using a Mac), replace the words 'the culture industry' with 'higher education'.

  3. Do this thoroughly, with all the variants

  4. Read the notes again, and see what you think].

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