Thursday, December 19, 2013

Summary: Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception by Adorno and Horkheimer

"Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception" is a chapter in Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer's book "Dialectic of Enlightenment" which discusses their famous notion of the "culture industry". In this chapter Adorno and Horkheimer view capitalist society's culture industry as an aspect of the enlightenment has betrayed itself by allowing instrumental logic to take over human social life (a notion developed throughout "Dialectic of Enlightenment").

According to Adorno and Horkheimer culture industry is a main phenomenon of late capitalism, one which encompasses all products and form of light entertainment – from Hollywood films to elevator music. All these forms of popular culture are designed to satisfy the growing needs of mass capitalistic consumers for entertainment. Adorno specifically notes that the term "culture industry" was chosen over "mass culture" in order to make sure that it is not understood as something which spontaneously stems from the masses themselves.

Products of the culture economy take the appearance of artwork but are in fact dependant on industry and economy, meaning they are subjected to the interests of money and power. All products of the culture industry are designed for profit. According to Adorno and Horkheimer this means that every work of art is turned into a consumer product and is shaped by the logic of capitalist rationality (i.e. whatever sells best). Art is no longer autonomous, but is rather a commodified product of the economic relations of production.
The main argument of "Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception" is that the commodification of culture is the commodification of human conciseness. Adorno and Horkheimer assert that culture industry eradicates autonomous thinking and criticism, serving to preserve the reigning order. It provides easy entertainment which distracts massed from the wrongs and sickness of the ruling order. They argue that culture industry has taken over reality as the prism through which people experience reality, thus completely shaping and conditioning their experience of life. In addition culture industry serves to keep workers busy, as expressed by the famous quote from "Dialectic of Enlightenment": "Amusement has become an extension of labor under late capitalism". Popular culture appears to be offering a refuge and distraction for work, but in fact it causes the worker to further dwell into a world of products and consumerism. The only freedom culture industry has to really offer a freedom from thinking.

Adorno and Horkheimer claim that culture industry positions the masses ad objects of manipulation (instead of just satisfying their wants and needs). This turns people into passive and subordinated subjects, unable to fully take critical responsibility for their own action, a thing which is crucial for a functioning democracy. People therefore gladly give in a help maintain the system by taking part in it.

in "Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception" Adorno and Horkheimer stress the fact that culture industry uses a production-line mentality in producing cultural products. Seemingly all films and TV shows we watch are different, but in fact they follow the same recycled formulas as in other types of consumer goods. Like consumers goods, it feels like "there is something for everyone" here but in fact it's all variations of the same thing. This is a main feature of the culture industry, for the fact that all products are produced under the same scheme allows them to be "readable" and effortlessly digested. This is how culture industry imposes conformity – with things that only seem to be different but are in fact all (slight) variations of the same thing. The final argument posed by Adorno and Horkheimer is that people under capitalism suffer the same fate of art under the culture industry – they are reduced to the exchange value with no intrinsic or unique traits as the Enlightenment dreamed.      

Summary: Dialectic of Enlightenment / Adorno and Horkheimer

Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer – Dialectic of Enlightenment – Summary and Review

Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer wrote "Dialectic of Enlightenment" following the atrocities of World War Two. In the introduction to "Dialectic of Enlightenment" Adorno and Horkheimer set forth their goal as an attempt to figure out why "humanity has sunk into a new kind of barbarism instead of shifting into a new state of the human condition". Adorno and Horkheimer saw Nazism and Fascism as phenomena that stems from the destructive dialectic of enlightenment which caused the west to be taken over by instrumental rationality. According to them, fascist totalitarianism is the most extreme conclusion of western enlightenment.

The dialectic of enlightenment is perceived by Adorno and Horkheimer not just in its historical context of the 18th century, but rather in the broad sense of the human attempt to enforce order and meaning on reality, to try and understand the world for the purpose of taking over it, an attempt driven by western rationality for centuries. They argue that by the rational conquest of nature man has attempt to quell his fears from it, but this attempt has led the dangerous developments. The fear driven violence directed by man towards nature has also led it to be directed towards other humans. The rational program of the enlightenment was an attempt to establish man as a differentiated and independent subject from nature. However, the main thesis of "Dialectic of Enlightenment" is that this program involved man taking over its own nature and the repression of urges, feelings, desires and so forth (note here the application of Freudian thinking to culture).  Moving away from nature has thus led, according to Adorno and Horkheimer, to a state in which the principle of oppression has taken over all of human life. This oppression is manifested in the limits of human rationality which has become, as it were, "a one track mind" designed for the sole purpose of subduing and exploiting nature, humans included.

Adorno and Horkheimer establish much of their notions in "Dialectic of Enlightenment" on Max Weber's understanding of instrumental rationality. According to Weber instrumental rationality is the practice of matching means to ends which subjugates subjects to its own needs for the purpose of utilizing everything and anything. Instrumental rationally is opposed to objective and autonomous rationality, which is free and creative and is engaged with the examination of values and ascertaining goals. This type of rationality has been pushed aside by instrumental rationality which supposedly freed man from nature but in to process submerged him in growing violence.

In "Dialectic of Enlightenment" Adorno and Horkheimer argue that enlightenment motivations, already present in ancient societies trying to promote rational thought, have denounced any type of thinking which is not purposeful as primitive. This criterion of purposefulness has turned out to be destructive for it castes aside anything that didn't fall in line with this type of instrumental thinking. The rationality of the enlightenment regarded anything, people included, as an alienated objects to be used and controlled. This is true, according to Adorono and Horkheimer, for both the Nazi regime and capitalism. One of the main features of this violent rationality is the unifying principle which governs it, the one which sees all different things on the basis of a single principle. Rationally urges people to be the same and give up their own autonomous identity. The dialectic of enlightenment has led to growing conformity while erasing any heterogeneity in the name of a false identity which represses any contradiction and difference. This line of thought also makes men exchangeable, since they are all valued by the same instrumental logic, and this leads the for giving up "thou shall not kill" which is based on the singularity of each individual. The main argument posed by Adorno and Horkheimer in "Dialectic of Enlightenment" is that both Fascism and capitalism which see all human beings as numbers. One of the most notable concepts raised by Adorno and Horkheimer in "Dialectic of Enlightenment" is that of the "culture industry" and popular culture's role in subduing the masses.   

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Sunday, May 5, 2013

Walter Benjamin on the Aestheticization of Politics

One of Walter Benjamin's most notable ides in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" is that of the aestheticization of politics. This notion is discussed by Benjamin through the concept of "aura" and its loss (see: loss of the aura). The loss of the aure, the onetimness of the work of art which establishes a certain relation to it, is described by Benjamin is a part of a material process of technological and therefore cultural change which is not restricted to art alone. Art only heralds this change which degenerates the experience of authenticity and the shift into mass consumerism of aesthetics. The new forms of art, photography and cinema, bring about a new type of collective reception. In a sense, for Benjamin, you are how you see your art, and you are something completely different when you stand in front of original art than when you are sitting in front of the TV.

Fascism and capitalism exploit this function of art to their own needs by using its logic. Through the conditions of reception formed by the aura. Capitalism uses the force of the aura to position the individual as self contained, self dependant and able (as opposed to his true social condition) while fascism uses it to completely erase the individual. Both capitalism and fascism practice what Benjamin calls aestheticization of politics.

The Marxist counteraction to the aestheticization of politics according to Benjamin should be the politicization of the aesthetic. The politicization of the aesthetic is conducted in two manners: by identifying and resisting the ways art is exploited and by identifying its revolutionary potential. "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" is in itself such an attempt to politicize aesthetics. The structure of culture is, for Benjamin, the structure of society. While in fascism the art comes from the leader, Marxist art should originate from the people.

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Walter Benjamin on Aesthetics and Politics "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction"

The first four chapters of Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" relate to the changing social function of art and the loss of the aura in the age of changing reproduction technologies. As a Marxist, Benjamin view changes in art as indications of changes in the economical base of material power relations. This is why Benjamin employs the theory of dialectical materialism in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" for the sake of analyzing the changes that art goes through in the 20th century.

Walter Benjamin describes the uses of new forms of art as a dialectic struggle between new forms of cultural production. He contradicts fascist uses of art to revolutionary uses of art through two aphorisms: the fascist tactics are characterized by the aestheticization of politics while the communist counter-reaction is characterized by the politicization of the aesthetics. Benjamin himself is of course all for the politicization of art and "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" is essentially an attempt to point to art's revolutionary potential.

An interesting point raised by Benjamin in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" is the relations between capitalism and fascism. Capitalism and fascism meet at the point of alienation. Marx held that under capitalism the worker is alienated from his own products of work. In fascism this alienation is radicalized by the complete deletion of the individual function. The epitome of fascism according to Benjamin is the aestheticization of war which turns violence into an aesthetic product. This augments alienation since humanity can now joyfully witness its own destruction. People's alienation from their own products blinds them from seeing how these products bear their doom. The aestheticised war turns it away from the political realm into the realm of art where it can be consumed rather than discussed.

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Reproduction and the loss of the Aura in Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction"

In his famous "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" Walter Benjamin uses the concept of "aura" to designate the quality of originality and authenticity of the aesthetic experience of an original work of art (to learn more about Benjamin's concepts of aura and authenticity see separate post).

According to Benjamin and the thesis he promotes on "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" advanced reproduction and distribution techniques that have evolved in the early 20th century have had a significant impact on the art world. What Benjamin is arguing is that the social function of art has changed with the appearance of technology based art like the cinema. This historical process is explained by Benjamin as the loss of the aura and the degeneration of art which has its aesthetic value determined by its originality or one-timeness.

Photography and then cinema lead the way in the degeneration of the aura. These mediums are, according to Benjamin, the central agents in the process of the transformation of art's social function. Mechanical reproduction is faster: faster to produce, faster to distribute. Machinery such as the camera assumes the place of the artist of craftsman and denies any authorship of a unique original.

Mechanical reproduction bridges the space-time gap between the subject and object of the aesthetic experience. It makes the artwork the viewer's contemporary. The loss of the aura is accompanied and affected by the mass reproduction and the "flattening" of the work of art. Mass reproduction of art sets the stage for a new type of human perception: collective perception which according to Benjamin allows for the politicization of art later in "The Work of Art in the Age of MechanicalReproduction".

The medium for Walter Benjamin is not only the message but also an agent of social and political change. The new type of mechanically reproduced work of art is widely accessible for the masses and it thus positions people in a whole new relation to it. Benjamin, in chapter 12 of "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", gives the example of how cinema is consumed when situated in a group on the one hand and as anonymous on the other hand. The crowed regulated itself and in that the individual's position towards the film. This notion is obviously linked to the Frankfurt School notion about the culture industry.   

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Walter Benjamin's concept of "Aura" and Authenticity in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction"

 "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" wasn't the first place in which Walter Benjamin introduced his famous concept of "Aure" and his related discussion on authenticity in art, but it was however in which Benjamin fully developed his discussion of the aura.

"Aura" is a name offered by Benjamin in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" and elsewhere to designate the one-time experience of a certain object.  Benjamin discusses the different terms for the appearance of the unique and authentic aura. In essence, the aura is the "one-timeness" of the experience, the situation in which the subject meets the object that cannot be reproduced. A similar expression to that of Benjamin's aura is that of "aesthetic experience" albeit Benjamin stresses the unique one-time experience. For Benjamin, an aura can be possessed only the original work of art. The aura distinguished the viewer from the work and creates the necessary detachment for a true aesthetic experience.
This detachment is what allows, according to Benjamin in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", the authenticity of the artwork. The work of art according to Benjamin bears its terms and times of creation which make up its originality and authenticity. These contexts of creation that are born by the original work of art maintain the distance between it and the viewer and maintain the disposition required for a true appreciation of art. Replicas, according to Benjamin, lack the authentic aura of the original. In a sense, Benjamin is fetishistic in attributing the original work of art traits that duplications lack.

Benjamin's ideas about the aura and its relations to authenticity can account, for example, for why original works of art are valued in millions of dollars while anyone can purchase a reproduction for just a few dollars. The reproduction of works of art in modern times causes, according to Benjamin in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", the loss of the aura and the loss of authenticity in the aesthetic experience.

see also:

Reproduction and the loss of the Aura
aesthetic and the political

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Walter Benjamin – The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction – Summary and Review

"The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1936) is arguably Walter Benjamin's most notable essay. Benjamin's book attempts not only at analyzing the historical process that art goes through in the age of mechanical reproduction but also to see how art can formulate "revolutionary demands" towards political reality. "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" can therefore be understood as a programmatic study for understanding and realizing art's revolutionary potential.

Right from the onset of "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" Benjamin's Marxist approach and terminology are very much apparent. Benjamin uses the Marxist notion of dialectical materialism, which was very popular with the Frankfurt School, in discussing his thoughts about the ties between the aesthetic and the politicalDialectical materialism holds that social changes are the result of power struggles that are present in all forms of material existence. When taking this line of thought to the field of art, Benjamin attempts at explaining how technological changes influenced art and how these relations might have social significance.

"The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" is also loyal to the Marxist hope of proletariat revolution, and Benjamin wishes to see how changes in the world of art can allow for revolutionary art which promotes social and political change. It should be noted that although Marxism is usually preoccupied with overthrowing Capitalism, Benjamin is more concerned with the "enemy" of his times – Fascism. Walter Benjamin saw how Nazi and Italian Fascism used various art forms in order to strengthen and justify their totalitarian rule. Benjamin tries to understand what allows the Fascist ideology to use art to its own needs, and asks what could be a course of action to free art from Fascist (or Capitalist) exploitation.

Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" was and still is a huge influence not only on Marxist thought but also on art and culture studies which have turned to look at the ways technological advancements influence society through art. 

Additional topics:
Walter Benjamin's concept of "Aura" and Authenticity 
Reproduction and the loss of the Aura

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