Society today is in a paradox. Everything is infected with sameness and repetition. Every sensual experience of the individual is subjected to standardization. Acceptance is the key in success as the capitalist mode of production continually influences behaviour of the individual as well as society as a whole. The capitalist mode of production becomes a powerful tool in manipulating the masses as well as affecting the creative process of human consciousness. What matters for most cultural industries is not the creativity of products or mere understanding but rather a passive acceptance and monetary return.
Society is the subject of the industry as it continually addresses the consumer’s concerns rather than society dictating the flow of the industry. Because of the industry’s ‘customized’ goods, society has no room for imagination, creativity, and understanding since these products already fit the ideal description. The culture industry also delimits the aesthetic aspect of human nature as the arts are also subjected to production and return of profit. The essence of art and creativity is lost and also become mere products of the industry.
In Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectics of Enlightenment, the thinkers present a Social Critical Theory of the contemporary society and the adverse ideologies brought about by science, empiricism, and reason, all of which are products of the age of enlightenment. The Development of Critical Theory It is essential to mention the development of Social Critical Theory in lieu of the viewpoint that Adorno and Horkheimer used in their attempt to criticise the false notions brought about by the change in culture and the industry.
Social Critical Theory has its roots from the Marxist ideologies that openly criticises the capitalism ideology (Ray 1993: ix). Marxism suggests that there is an imbalance with the structural social class as it is marginally separated by two polar opposites in society: the abusive bourgeoisie, and the proletariat or the working class. Marxist doctrine states that man’s essence is himself, and labour, which is the power to create, is merely an extension. At the presence of labour and society, man becomes a necessity or a commodity.
If a poor man who has no material wealth, becomes a mere commodity at the presence of labour and exchanges the only thing he has – his essence. Man becomes for sale, while the rich get richer as they continue to capitalize on the plight of the poor man’s essence. From the Marxist doctrines, this social theory eventually separated into two – the revisionist and orthodox Marxist ideologies which retain the ideals of Marxism but differ in method. Marxist revisionist proposes a bloody revolution for the complete eradication of social classes (Ray 1992).
Critical theory attempts to dig deeper into other existing binaries of ideologies and subvert them in such a way that the meta-narratives becomes petite. The rise of the Frankfurt school slightly deviated from the idea of criticising social norms but instead focused on the idea of the Enlightenment which paved the way for the development of science and technology. Frankfurt school thinkers such as Adorno and Horkheimer tackled the idea of the Enlightenment as a false notion in the development of society.
The Frankfurt school of thought argues that essence and originality are lost as consumers are placidly fed with the same objects that satisfy them temporarily. The mass-produced products and ideas are transforming society into technocracy and docility – that society’s happiness is based on mass happiness rather than individual and subjective satisfaction. Science and technology ultimately enshrines efficiency and affectivity that dominate political governance so that we see a society ruled by technocrats.
The industry forms culture rather than culture forming the industry. Critical Theory plays a significant part on the idea of how society aims to live life everyday. Critical theory also provides an opportunity to criticise fallacious social norms and allows the chance for discourse (Ray 1992). Adorno and Horkheimer In view of Adorno and Horkheimer’s The Dialectics of Enlightenment, the authors offer a clear and definitive implication of the 18th century Enlightenment movement and how it suppressed society in terms of ideologies and production.
Enlightenment is understood as the advance of thought that aims to liberate human beings from “fear and installing them as Masters” (Adorno 1997: 1). This concept also shares similar ideas with Immanuel Kant’s summation of the Enlightenment during the 18th century. “Dare to Think! ” was the banner of reason during those time (Ray 1992: 5). Reason should be used in order to individuate man, to dispel myth, to rid of fear of intellectual docility, and to provide the ability to know.
Reason became the main weapon for this intellectual movement, as it attempted to break away from the mystical, dogmatic, and mythological foundations of knowledge. Adorno argues that the Enlightenment’s program was “to dispel myths, to overthrow fantasy with knowledge” (1997: 1). The formation of reason was a complete deviation from the rebirth of philosophical explorations of the Renaissance, which gave emphasis on the use of classical philosophy from Plato, Aristotle, and such. Enlightenment and reason were the foremost tenets of the movement and arguably countered the use of myth and mysticism as the basis of human knowledge.
Reason led to the development of empiricism and science, the systematized thought of acquiring knowledge through observation, experimentation and synthesis. Knowledge, acquired through such methods, establishes man as the master of nature. However, Adorno states that this knowledge is abused by man himself as “knowledge, which is power, knows no limits, either in its enslavement of creation or in its deference to worldly masters” (1997: 2). Technology is the essence of such knowledge as it aims to manipulate concept into method and exploitation.
To Adorno, technology does not provide concepts, ideas, or the simple joy of understanding, but rather suppresses the individual to docility. Further, Adorno explains the nature of Enlightenment as a movement dispelling the myths of old. As observed from the pre-Platonic and classical philosophers themselves, they were the ones who pioneered the use of reason or logos as the truthful method of acquiring knowledge rather than basing on mythological narration. As the development of reason became the foundation of science, man discarded meaning to be replaced by formula, causal rules, and probability.
The obsession on the use of empirical basis as a method of acquiring universal truths led to the false formation of an industry that not only caters to the need of its consumers but also subjects them into docile and content buyers that guarantee success through monetary return (Ray 1992). The Culture industry, in essence, is the product of the false notion of Enlightenment and reason. Everything has to be proven in order to be verifiable and accepted. Laws, beliefs, and thinking are systematized; they are now bound to the governing laws of reason and empirical knowledge.
Though the movement still has its positive effects on development, and the start of a radical change in thinking has definitely brought about breakthroughs in modern science and technology, it also has an adverse effect on society. Adorno suggests: “For culture now impresses the same stamp on everything” (1997: 120). This widespread movement also relates to the culture industry, where everything loses its individuality for the sake of standardization and acceptance in return for economic benefits of the industry. The whole world is passed through the filter of the culture industry. Everything is affected by such change.
The formation of the industry in our context has becoming the mould in which culture is formed and trimmed. Things that had once an aesthetic value lose their real sheen and become mere cliches. Today, our actions fall under what we know as popular and will serve the general purpose of the culture industry: mass producing in order for the economy to function properly (Adorno, 1992: 8). The standardization of things that are produced in order to serve the general interest of the public is quite ironic. The public, which is supposed to be the providers in the economy, become the subjects of the industry itself.
In turn, the industry is the big shot boss that makes use of every need of the employee in order to bloom. Society is then the false blood that gives life to the industry, which continues to exploit every aspect of our need, in order to grow and develop an unbreakable barrier in which our supposed-to-be powerful freedom may never break. By continuing to patronize what the industry keeps on producing, it then forms consciousness of popularity — the general idea that the mass accepts. “It is claimed that standards were based in the first place on consumer’s needs, and for that reason were accepted with so little resistance” (Adorno 1997: 100).
The cycle continuous; from fashion trends, food, lifestyle, music, and the arts, these modes of expressions has fallen to this false notion of culture. It loses its identity to become a standard among the people that once used to uphold its individual essence. “The familiar experience of the moviegoer, who perceives the street outside as a continuation of the film he has just left, because the film seeks strictly to reproduce the world of everyday perception has become the guideline for production” (Adorno 1997: 99).
What the people want to see is the continuation of the reality he lives in but only decreased to a lighter note as a means of escape from the hustle and bustle of the corporate world. Entertainment has become a means of escape. The only escape from the work process in the factory and office is through entertainment. Amusement then becomes boring, since to be amusing, it must cost no effort to think. The spectator must need no thoughts of his own. Amusement is then a mindless reel of farce that acts as a distraction from reality.
It has no real meaning because the spectator does not need meaning in order to be distracted from the pressure of everyday work (Adorno 1997: ). The same goes with films. “Film denies its audience any dimension in which the mind might roam freely in imagination” (Adorno 1997: 100). Movies present an alternate reality as a means of escape from the business of the industry. Man, tired from work, resorts to amusement and film to produce a necessitated concept of another reality. That it presents the ideal world inside the theatre and the moviegoer is presented with reality after the film is finished.
Thus, films in our context today serve as a basis of lifestyle. From the alternate reality presented by the movies, human behaviour is influenced through an unconscious effort of influence. The industry, apart from the standardized goods and ideologies, also feed the only retribution of man from the pressure of material capitalism. Ideas and concepts are also manipulated to standardization. Thus, placidity is not also applied in the individual’s actions but also to the natural system of consciousness and thought. The ultimate purpose then is for benefit and popularity rather than the art of making a movie.
That is why the formation of indie (independent) films attempts to break from such typical notions of Hollywood movies in order to preserve the real essence of movie-making. However, in comparison to major blockbuster films, indie films never achieved the same level of popularity and income even though the indie directors and producers never intended for their movie to be even recognized. That is because such actions are against what is generally accepted and popular. The Madness of Music As a student of music himself, Adorno characterizes the notions brought about the effect of the culture industry with regard the arts, especially on music.
He characterizes popular music from serious music. Music is defined as the arrangement and accordance to its form and arrangement. To Adorno, classical music is considered as serious music, for it strictly follows the laws from which they are based and made. The rigidity in the discipline makes the composition itself bound to the parameters of perfection; hence, music is a masterpiece. It follows time signature, tempo, harmony, tone construction, etc. that when such composition is first heard, it is appreciated as a whole and even more appreciated when the parts are examined specifically.
On the other hand, the distinction between serious music and popular music lies within its formative structure. Popular music, based on the culture industry’s precepts, capitalizes on standardization. Pop music is predictable upon close observation. Its predictability lies with its musical structure. At first, it may fool the listener of its catchy and creative theme, but, contrary to serious music when parts are examined specifically, its harmonics are built on simple and almost simplistic tone structure that it cannot be left alone without the other.
The essence of the music is lost as it lacks the qualities of a ‘serious’ music that may have otherwise refined its colour (Adorno 1997: 104). In our present context, the rise of the music industry has become the ambition for most music artists today. Songs are composed in order to gain widespread popularity, especially among the youth. If we are to look closely at each band’s composition and harmony of their songs, it has rather simple arrangement of chords and repetition of melody from the start up until the beginning.
The flimsy form of the music is compensated by the loud execution and performance of their songs and electrifying guitar solos in order to cover up the repetition. It lacks creativity and limits the music to only a few chords. Plus, such simplicity is also the key of some rock bands of not ‘making it’ or not enduring an imprint of legacy from their music. They only enjoy a brief period of popularity that does not leave a lasting impression on the target audience they wish to capture. Standardization extends from the most general features to the most specific ones. Pop music is refined to suit the untrained ear of the masses.
It is also mass-produced in order for the artist and the recording company to achieve its benefits. In order for people to like it, music is arranged which is appealing to the public, for music, the same with art, cannot be reproduced without any guarantee of economic remuneration. Novelty and creative are not emphasized since novelty cannot be applied to what is already standard and generally accepted by the people. It is also a form of entertainment and escape; simplified and catchy so as to serve a distraction rather than stimulating oneself in Symphonies or Sonatas (Adorno 1997: 101).
Ultimately, for Adorno, the main point of the critique is focused on the development of the individual’s creative tendencies – especially on the arts. According to Witkin, Adorno did not give a blatant connotation that to appreciate art means sophistication in the individual’s part but rather the use of the arts as perpetuated in the industry. “However, it was not skill or talent that mattered to him, here, but the interests it served and the use to which it was put” (Witkin 2003: 2).
As the age of Enlightenment ushered in the development of science, the process of acquiring knowledge developed from a mystical and contextual approach to an empirical and experiential process. Ironically, enlightenment meant that the individual is self-aware of his or her own actions and liberated of fear from the human consciousness. However, as science led the way to the development of newer systems of thought, it produced the development of media (film, music, print) that became ‘standard’ products of consumption.
To Adorno and Horkheimer, society becomes placid consumers to these forms; music becomes ‘popular’ and depends on record-breaking sales in order to sell. Films present an alternative to reality, distracting the individual from the bustle of the industry as a means of escape, and print/visual media becomes accessible to all. What the culture industry produces consequently influences behaviour. Standardization in the culture industry meant that the process of invention and innovation is in lieu with the needs of society. What society wants, the industry produces.
Freedom, according to the Dialectics of Enlightenment, is sacrificed, as consumers are ‘tamed’ into cooperation. Thus, the industry thrives on income and profit, without any thought or conscience. For the industry, it does not matter for the products to be morally or ethically acceptable as long as the consumer accepts it and benefits the industry in turn. Contemporary Critique The pioneering efforts of Adorno and Horkheimer in the critique of the culture industry gave rise to the formation of contemporary theories on the said subject.
On the subject of the culture industry’s critique, David Hesmondhalgh provides a technical explanation of the processes the culture industry undergoes. His arguments retain the critique presented by Adorno but focus more on the shift changes and patterns of continuity in the cultural industries. Hesmondhalgh presents a different viewpoint on Adorno’s subject, as he attempts to bridge the cultural industry as a main distributor of information as well as an unconscious influence over society.
Today, cultural industries have changed radically. “The largest companies no longer specialise in a particular cultural industry such as film, publishing, television, or recording; they now operate across a number of different cultural industries” (Hesmondhalgh 2002: 1). The scope of the cultural industry is not anymore specified into one criterion of the arts; rather, through the development of technology and information systems, the industry now focuses on print, media, and information through the internet, publications, etc.
However, contrary to Adorno’s viewpoint, the cultural industries and the goods that it produces, according Hesmondhalgh, are “complex, ambivalent, and contested” (2002: 3). He argues that the text and information disseminated by the industry do not adhere to the doctrine of capitalism or structured domination. In addition, Hesmondhalgh also differs from the arguments presented by Adorno that the culture industry subjects consumers into passivity, wherein there is no room for the imagination to play. Adorno gives importance to the deeper aesthetic appreciation of art, which he differentiated into ‘serious’ and ‘popular’.
For Hesmondhalgh however, there is still creativity in the cultural industry: “The invention and/or performances of stories, songs, images, poems, jokes, and so on, in no matter what technological form, involves a particular type of creativity – the manipulation of symbols for the purposes of entertainment, information and perhaps even, enlightenment” (2002: 4). Further, he separates art into symbolic creativity and artists into symbol creators and these different kinds of artists reflect the extremities of society in which they live in (2002: 4)
Paradoxical Ideology In the Dialectics of Enlightenment, society has this unanswered and unnoticed threat growing in the background. The industry and the generally ‘popular’ things are becoming the basis of everyday life. Adorno and Horkheimer suggest that popular culture is like a “factory producing standardized cultural goods to manipulate the masses into passivity; the easy pleasures available through consumption of popular culture make people docile and content, no matter how difficult their economic circumstances” (Adorno 1997: n. p. ).
The different viewpoints presented by contemporary thinkers support the arguments presented by Adorno, contradict them, or simply expound the different ideologies and applying it into a more modern perspective. Hesmondhalgh especially notes the cultural industry’s motivation in cultivating imagination and creativity for there is still creativity through innovation of new ideas and symbols even though they ultimately influence society in the end. However, the main idea still exists — that the culture industry is a by-product of the Enlightenment and the capitalist mode of production.
Hesmondhalgh’s arguments still present the ideas of capitalist multinational corporations that manipulate symbols in order to disseminate such into society. His use of the term ‘symbols’, instead of ‘art’, necessarily perpetuates his notion on manipulation of ideas. Art is essentially the expression of human nature, but in the culture industry, essence does not exist. Thus, Hesmondhalgh’s arguments necessarily imply that symbolism is still creativity, although on a much lower scale. Capitalist companies, especially in modern scenarios, not only manipulate art but also communication and the media.
For Hesmondhalgh, the control of the cultural industries over text and information are more pronounced than ever (2002: 7) Thus, the cultural industry’s shift change of scope has greatly differed from Adorno’s time, yet still maintains the capitalist coercive nature. What remains is that society’s needs are still catered by the culture industry. Furthermore, it is claimed that standards produced by the culture industry are based on consumers’ needs, and that is why accepted with little or no resistance at all. “The result is the circle of manipulation and retroactive need in which the unity of the system grows ever stronger.
No mention is made of the fact that the basis on which technology acquires power over society is the power of those whose economic holds over society is greatest. A technological rationale is the rationale of domination itself. It is the coercive nature of society alienated from itself” (Adorno 1997: 121). The capitalist structure still maintains its firm hold over society as it influences behaviour through catering specific needs of its consumers while transcending a different level of consumerism. The essence of human expression is lost through standardization of art, music, film, and such.
Society becomes docile, leaving no room for imagination, and the culture industry grows because of this ignorance. References Adorno, T. and Horkheimer, M. (1997) Dialectic of Enlightenment. London: Verso. Curran, J. (1979) Mass Communication and Society. Beverly Hills, California: Sage. Garnham, N. (1990) Capitalism and Communication: Global Culture and the Economics of Information. London: Sage Publications Garnham, N. (2000) Emancipation, the Media, and Modernity: Arguments About the Media and Social Theory Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hesmondhalgh, D. (2002) The Cultural Industries London: Sage. Martin-Barbero, J. (1993) Communication, Culture and Hegemony: From the Media to Mediations. London: SAGE Publications. McGuigan, J. (1996) Culture and the Public Sphere. London: Routledge. Miege, B. (1989) The Capitalization of Cultural Production. New York: International. Ray, L. (1993). Rethinking Critical Theory : Emancipation in the Age of Global Social Movements. London: Sage. Witkin, R. (2003) Adorno on Popular Culture. London: Routledge.
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