Horkheimer and Adorno

Assigned: Horkheimer, Max and Theodor Adorno. “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” from Dialectic of Enlightenment (1033-50). Also read the editors’ introduction (1030-32).

From Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947)

The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception

1. On 1033-34 (“The sociological view that…”), Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno address how the modern, post-WWII entertainment industry relates to the alienated Western societies it supposedly serves. Although many sociologists at the time saw disintegration and chaos coming from modern economics and technology, our two authors see things differently: how do they support their claim that “Culture today is infecting everything with sameness” (1033)? How do they undercut the claim that culture’s “standardized forms […] were originally derived from the needs of the consumers” (1033)? If the pre-existing needs of consumers are not the catalyst for artistic production, what forces do the authors see as serving in that capacity?

2. On 1034-35 (“If the objective social tendency…”), what is the upshot of the brute fact, according to Horkheimer and Adorno, that “the culture monopolies are weak and dependent” (1034)? What effect does this fact have on the artistic potential and freedom of cultural production (i.e., art)? In what sense are the supposed differences in quality and style between, say, one novel or film and another illusory, or at least valued only for something other than quality itself? How do these stylistic differences suit the economic imperative of producing “something for everyone” (1035)?

3. On 1036 (“The whole world is passed through…”), Horkheimer and Adorno bring up a twist on the “reality effect” inherent in modern cinema; namely, the way it pulls spectators directly into its world without any need for dramatic or critical distance. How, according to them, does a 1940s “sound film” (up to 1927, films were silent) end up seeming more real than reality itself, and why is that a problem? How, too, does film, in their estimation, “positively debar the spectator from thinking” (1036)? How is it the case that in the experience of watching cinema, “The power of industrial society is imprinted on people once and for all” (1036)?

4. On 1036-38 (“The complaints of art historians…”), Horkheimer and Adorno deal with the vital issue of style in the arts. What effect do they suggest “mechanical reproducibility” has on the style of music, fiction, and film? How do they differentiate the role of style in older, supposedly more genuine forms of art from its significance in modern mass entertainment productions? In what sense is it true, according to Horkheimer and Adorno, to say that “the style of the great work of art has always negated itself” (1038)? Why do they favor the approach to style that prevailed in the older forms—in what way was it more authentic, more original, than the approach taken in modern mass-produced art?

5. On 1038-39 (“Nevertheless, the culture industry remains…”), Horkheimer and Adorno admit that “[d]emand has not yet been replaced by simple obedience” (1038), but they go on to discuss how the experience of modern entertainment served up by the culture industry amounts to nothing more than “the prolongation of work” (1039 top). How can that be the case—how do they justify their claim that there is a deliberate continuity between the regimented world of work and the experiences of “leisure time” one has within a fully developed capitalist order? According to Horkheimer and Adorno, what are the basic features of an art form—say, cinema—that follows the logic of such a continuity? (1039)

6. On 1039-42 (“This makes it doubtful whether…”), Horkheimer and Adorno turn to the way the culture industry’s productions handle the representation of desire. How is it that “The culture industry endlessly cheats its consumers out of what it endlessly promises” (1040)? How do the authors distinguish contemporary entertainment in this regard from older art forms, in which, according to them, sublimation governed erotic desire? How, that is, can what the modern culture industry produces be simultaneously “pornographic and prudish” (1040)? Furthermore, how has the purpose of laughter changed in modern entertainment—what purpose did it formerly serve, and what is its purpose now? (1040-41) What broader point about “desire” and “needs” does this analysis of laughter’s role in modern art help Horkheimer and Adorno make: how has self-denial or renunciation become central to the very presentation of desire? (1041-42)

7. On 1042-44 (“The more strongly the culture…”), Horkheimer and Adorno declare that “the original affinity between business and entertainment reveals itself in the meaning of entertainment itself: as society’s apologia [i.e., defense]” (1042). In essence, a society that keeps people entertained has their tacit consent for whatever else it may do. Next, the authors ponder the role of the film star in the culture industry: how are stars discovered and promoted to reach the heights they occupy—what disturbing principle determines this process? (1043) How does the film-going audience relate to them, and how do the authors assess the value of that relationship? Finally, according to Horkheimer and Adorno, how does the culture industry judge the value of the ordinary people who pay their money to watch a film or be otherwise entertained? (1044)

8. On 1044-46 (“The emphasis on the heart of gold…”), Horkheimer and Adorno consider what happens to the concept of tragedy at the hands of the culture industry. Why is even the semblance of tragedy necessary under the aegis of that industry? (1044-45 top) In ancient times, the meaning of tragedy, say the authors, “lay in hopeless resistance to mythical threat” (1045). What profound transformation and diminution has that purpose undergone in modern times? What does the status of the modern individual have to do with this alteration, or, as Horkheimer and Adorno call it, “liquidation” (1046 bottom) of tragedy? In the regime of modern entertainment, how do “tragic heroes” take on masochistic traits, wanting only to “make themselves into that to which the system breaks them” (1046)?

9. On 1046-48 (“It is not only the standardized mode…”), Horkheimer and Adorno consider the bourgeois concept of the individual as it is inflected by the culture industry, writing that “Individuals are tolerated only as far as their wholehearted identity with the universal is beyond question” (1046). How is an illusory sense of eccentricity or “peculiarity of the self” (1047 top) then added to this universal human base? Why, according to Horkheimer and Adorno, is it such an easy matter for the culture industry to represent the self in the trivializing, universalizing manner that it does? (1047)

10. On 1048-50 (“The heroizing of the average forms…”), Horkheimer and Adorno transition smoothly from their discussion of the concept of the individual to the Marx-inspired concept of the commodity. As they say forthrightly, there has long been “a commodity character” (1048) to works of art; they are saleable items. What has changed, then, in the current post-World War II environment with regard to art as a commodity? How, too, is even the seemingly rarefied variety of “pure art” implicated in the market system that governs art generally? (1048) How has the revered Kantian aesthetic concept of “purposelessness” itself become entangled in the web of commodification? (1049) How do Horkheimer and Adorno bring on board Marx’s categories “use value” and “exchange value” to help explain the change they indicate and to articulate its most disturbing implications?

11. General question: Focus on Horkheimer and Adorno’s claims about the negative effects of “mechanical reproducibility” (1036) in our selection from Dialectic of Enlightenment and compare their attitude towards this feature of modern technology as applied to the arts with that of Walter Benjamin in his essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” (Leitch 973-96). Where Horkheimer and Adorno see soul-destroying monotonousness,  Benjamin sees something with revolutionary potential in a time of change. What accounts for the difference in perspective between these authors? Which perspective do you find more compelling, and why?

12. General question: To what extent do Horkheimer and Adorno’s insights in Dialectic of Enlightenment about the culture industry apply to today’s American entertainment scene? Are things worse, or better; is their critique “spot on,” or overblown? For example, consider how the popular music industry works today, with a few stars being marketed intensely and making most of the available money. How do such musicians get chosen and become mega-celebrities? Does this process benefit or hurt the listening public? Alternately, consider what kinds of films get produced—are great films still being made? Which would you put in that category, and why? Another alternative would be television: what about series like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, or Westworld, which are both popular and critically acclaimed? Some critics have called this a “golden age of television.” What might Horkheimer and Adorno say about our enjoyment of the deeds of Don Draper, or Walter White?

13. General question: In light of Horkheimer and Adorno’s comments in Dialectic of Enlightenment about how the culture industry treats erotic (and other) desire, what about the near ubiquity of internet-based pornography, stuff that mostly dispenses with artsy dimensions like plot and meaning? How has this particular industry developed over the past several decades to its current state, and what does that development say about public taste in our time? “Porn” is obviously a big-money concern—how is it related to what Horkheimer and Adorno call the culture industry?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

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