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.      

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