Summarising ‘The Culture Industry’

The Culture Industry describes the deliberate manufacturing of sameness. The term itself was coined by critical theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in their book Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947). It details the mass-production and distribution of cultural products (e.g. art, media, broadcasting) under capitalism, suggesting they are standardised to ensure profits as well as pacify and control society. Forms of popular culture, Adorno and Horkheimer argue, are not simply harmless forms of escapism, but are tools of oppression; 

Dialectic of Enlightenment by Horkheimer & Adorno

 

 

‘Amusement always means putting things out of mind, forgetting suffering, even when it is on display. At its root is powerlessness. It is indeed escape, but not, as it claims, escape from bad reality but from the last thought of resisting that reality’ (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2002).

 

 

 

Adorno had previously discussed the formulaic nature of popular culture under capitalism (specifically popular music)  in essays such as ‘On Jazz’ (1936) and ‘On Popular Music’ (1941). However, it was not until Dialectic of Enlightenment, and more specifically the chapter entitled ‘The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception’, that the concept was fully formed. 

While Adorno and Horkheimer’s work on the culture industry is no doubt influential and compelling, it has been criticised on numerous fronts, from lack of empirical evidence to accusations of cultural elitism. Though the latter criticism has been, by some critics, chalked up to misinterpretation, their work, arguably, fails in its generalisation of all cultural products, their purposes and their effects. In spite of these perceived shortcomings, there is a haunting resonance and pertinence behind their formulation of the culture industry, particularly in its application to the contemporary moment. We will detail and analyse these criticisms further in the article, but first we need to dive into the intricacies of their thinking.

 

Adorno, Horkheimer and the Frankfurt School 

Adorno and Horkheimer both belonged to Frankfurt School – a group of Marxist theorists founded in Germany by Carl Grünberg in 1923. Key thinkers belonging to this school include both Adorno and Horkheimer (the latter of which became the director of the institute in 1930), as well as Herbert Marcuse and Walter Benjamin. These theorists were connected through their development of what became known as ‘critical theory’. Put simply, their critical theory used a Marxist framework to examine capitalism in terms of social relationships within society. Due to their Marxist foundations, a great deal of the research produced by the Frankfurt School tends to focus on fascism and authoritarianism in relation to capitalism. 

 

‘The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception’ Summary

The most influential chapter of Dialectic of Enlightenment is ‘The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception’ in which Adorno and Horkheimer outline how the culture industry has created a passive consumer, whose uncritical thinking contributes to their own oppression. In the culture industry, conformity is enforced through culture as a tool to control the masses, creating a distraction from problems of class conflict and widespread inequality.

There are numerous ways, the chapter outlines, that the culture industry promotes the interests of the powerful elite and thus subjugates the masses.  

The first way the culture industry maintains order is by quelling attempts at critical and creative thinking through the reproduction of identical, or near-identical, commodities. Commodities refer to anything which can be consumed, ranging from more tangible objects to media. Adorno and Horkheimer argue that media and other entertainment commodities are produced using a formula. This formulaic method, used to stifle the imagination and transgressive or revolutionary thought, occurs at every level in the culture industry. They write that, 

As soon as the film begins, it is quite clear how it will end, and who will be rewarded, punished, or forgotten; in light music, once the trained ear has heard the first notes of the hit song, it can guess what is coming and feel flattered when it does come (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2002).

As a result, the viewer’s critical faculties are dulled. In creating products designed to entertain and pacify, the chapter suggests, the conditions for class oppression, and in some cases totalitarianism, are ripe. 

Moreover, in addition to placating the consumer, the formulaic nature of entertainment diminishes the consumer’s aspirations. Continuing with the example of film, Adorno and Horkheimer suggest that it is the predictability of such forms of entertainment that create a docile and apathetic consumer. They state that, 

 

Dialectic of Enlightenment by Horkheimer & Adorno

 

‘[consumers] are assured that they do not need to be in any way other than they are and that they can succeed just as well without having to perform tasks of which they know themselves incapable. But at the same time they are given the hint that effort would not help them in any case, because even bourgeois success no longer has any connection to the calculable effect of their own work. They take the hint’ (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2002).

 

 

The culture industry, therefore, uses entertainment and other cultural products to covertly remind the consumer of the futility of any attempt to rebel against class boundaries and inequality. 

All forms of art under the culture industry become subject to the mass-produced, industrialised process which strips them of their individuality. As Bruce Baugh explains in ‘Left-Wing Elitism: Adorno on Popular Culture’ (1990), 

 

‘not only is existing popular art not emancipatory in fact, being mere entertainment, but by its very nature as a product destined for mass consumption it has no possibility of being so, since the accessibility to the masses that makes it saleable is an indication that it does not produce the painful psychic dissonance through which the individual can be made aware of alienation. Mass art pleases, and what pleases, pacifies.’

 

Rather than art being counter-cultural or sparking resistance Adorno and Horkheimer suggest that, under late stage capitalism, it undergoes a process whereby it fails to inspire or outrage. This indicates that the culture industry is aware of the emancipatory potential of art and, in order to retain control, censors and sanitises it beyond recognition. 

Adorno’s work on popular music, specifically ‘On Jazz’, delineates how under capitalism, all art becomes commodified, devoid of meaning and, therefore, maintains the dominant ideology. Adorno wrote that ‘even yesterday’s music must first be rendered harmless by jazz, must be released from its historical element, before it is ready for the market’. In the culture industry, the origins of jazz music are stripped from it so that it can be sanitised and consistently reproduced. 

 

Mass Media, Conformity and Fascism 

The insistence on order and conformity required by the culture industry has been compared to, and used to explain, fascism. As Adorno and Horkheimer write, ‘fascism requires the public’s attention be diverted from real issues and problems, precisely what the culture industry does best’. 

Saladdin Said Ahmed argues in ‘Mass Mentality, Culture Industry, Fascism’ (2008) that the fascist agenda of the culture industry is enabled, in part, due to the mentality of large groups. He writes that, 

 

‘Culture is the screen which provides a pre-digested picture of the world to the members of the established group, and its dynamo is paranoia. It is the commodity through which the group perceives the world, so it minimises the chore of thinking for the submitted members of the group; it turns subjects to paranoiac reductionist people. In the era of mass production, this paranoiac reductionism, which is inherent in the mass culture, is the main characteristic of the mass mentality that seems to be normal only because it is the mentality of the majority. Therefore, a world dominated by mass culture is necessarily a fascist world.’ (2008)

 

Like authoritarian regimes, there is also no way to opt out of the culture industry. As Robert E. Babe puts it in his chapter ‘Theodor Adorno and Dallas Smythe’, ‘even more iniquitously, the culture industry constitutes a total environment – a milieu – from which there is little avenue of escape’ (2016). As such, the culture industry is arguably inescapable, as it permeates every area of day-to-day life. Indeed, its reach extends beyond products of leisurely consumption; Adorno and Horkheimer use the example of public radio to compare the American culture industry to Fascist Germany. They argue that, 

 

‘In America [the radio] levies no duty from the public. It thereby takes on the deceptive form of a disinterested, impartial authority, which fits fascism like a glove. In fascism radio becomes the universal mouthpiece of the Führer; in the loudspeakers on the street his voice merges with the howl of sirens proclaiming panic, from which modern propaganda is hard to distinguish in any case… No listener can apprehend the symphony’s true coherence, while the Führer’s address is in any case a lie. To posit the human word as absolute, the false commandment, is the immanent tendency of radio. Recommendation becomes command'(Adorno and Horkheimer, 2002).

 

Advertising, Ideology and The Culture Industry

They go on to state that the same is true of advertising in America which commands its listeners to consume identical commodities. A good illustration of this tie between the culture industry and advertising is present in John Carpenter’s They Live (Carpenter, 1988). In the film, the down-and-out construction worker protagonist Nada (Roddy Piper) discovers a pair of sunglasses, which when worn uncover the ideological messaging behind various forms of media. The below clip is from Slavoj Zizek’s The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (Fiennes, 2012), in which he discusses the film in relation to insidious ideological consumption.

 

The authoritarian nature of advertising, however, is not just present in the radio but is also apparent in magazines – as indicated by They Live. In these lifestyle magazines, adverts and editorial are indistinguishable. As such, ‘advertising becomes simply the art with which Goebbels presciently equated it, l’art pour l’art, advertising for advertising’s sake, the pure representation of social power’ (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2002). This social power manifests in the culture industry’s ability to direct consumption, to tell people what to buy and when, what entertainment to consume and what fads to follow. While the culture industry presents the public with choices, these choices are illusionary as each product under capitalism is rendered identical due to the formulaic nature of mass-produced products. While one may argue that one piece of art differs significantly from another, Adorno and Horkheimer suggest that due to the standardisation of products, we are only exposed to limited options. Every cultural commodity is mass-produced for a targeted demographic; every commodity within that demographic is identical. They explain that, 

 

The ruthless unity in the culture industry is evidence of what will happen in politics. Marked differentiations such as those of A and B films, or of stories in magazines in different price ranges, depend not so much on subject matter as on classifying, organising, and labelling consumers…Everybody must behave (as if spontaneously) in accordance with his previously determined and indexed level, and choose the category of mass product turned out for his type. Consumers appear as statistics on research organisation charts, and are divided by income groups into red, green, and blue areas; the technique is that used for any type of propaganda (Adorno and Horkheimer) 

 

Any attempt at individuality under the culture industry is an illusion. In fact, there is no freedom in consumption; this is how the culture industry ensures society remains placated: by controlling the leisure time of its oppressed majority. 

 

Problems with the Notion of the Culture Industry

In An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture (2004), Dominic Strinati argues that too much weight is placed on the culture industry for sustaining capitalism: 

An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture

‘The culture industry provides capitalism with the means by which it can effectively contain any threats posed to it by radical and alternative social forces. Indeed, it is increasingly capable of suppressing such social forces altogether. This degree of stability and consensus is hardly consistent with the sociology and history of capitalist societies. Admittedly, these societies have not had to face a proletarian revolution, but there is little evidence that this was ever on the cards in the first place. Capitalism is arguably less stable than the Frankfurt School theory recognises, but neither has it been continually confronted by the implicit or explicit threat of a revolutionary working-class movement. If this is the case, popular culture cannot be seen as playing a functional role in ensuring the continued stability of capitalism.’ (2004)

 

Strinati argues that a further limitation of the work on the culture industry is how limited it is to one specific time period, paying little regard to the past or future. Strinati writes that, in the early years of the Frankfurt School,

 

‘historical studies played no part in its work and no historian was closely associated with its activities. This disregard of history was intimately connected with the conception that the Frankfurt School, as it took shape under the influence of Adorno and Horkheimer, had of social theory, as being only, or primarily, a critique of the present time’ (2004). 

 

Analysing the trajectory of the culture industry throughout the years would further have combated accusations of lack of empirical evidence, something which the Frankfurt School more broadly have been criticised for. 

Another major criticism levied at Adorno and Horkheimer’s work on the culture industry is its elitism, specifically the portrayal of consumers of mass culture as being passive, uncritical and lacking in agency. As Bruce Baugh has pointed out, 

 

There is, in any case, the larger, empirical question of whether the consciousness of the masses is as hopelessly deformed as Adorno and Marcuse make out. There is at least some evidence that it is not. Popular art, in certain key epochs such as the 1960s in some advanced capitalist countries, has spoken to those integrated into the system, made them conscious of their dissatisfaction and encouraged them to revolt. It did so by speaking to their everyday reality, in their idiom. It did not affect a critique of mass culture from above that culture, from the vantage point of a “more advanced” form of consciousness, but from within mass culture itself (1990). 

 

There is, as Baugh highlights, value in popular culture. Adorno and Horkheimer’s presentation of popular culture as being identical and produced to maintain the status quo does not account for instances that Baugh refers to in which such cultural products have articulated issues of class oppression. Moreover, there is an empirical issue in that the individual consciousness of consumers is presumed by Adorno and Horkheimer. Put simply, their research does not account for the variation of responses a person may have to a cultural product. 

The assumptions made of the consumers of popular culture can also be transferred to the products of popular culture themselves. In his chapter, ‘The Frankfurt School and the Culture Industry’, Douglas Kellner argues: 

 

Adorno’s model of the culture industry does not allow for the heterogeneity of popular culture and contradictory effects, instead straitjacketing popular culture in the form of reification and commodification as signs of the total triumph of capital and the total reification of experience (2012). 

 

In other words, this theory of the culture industry ignores the multitude of different products an individual may consume and presumes any consumption of the product to be evidence of capitalism’s control over the consumer. 

This inability of Adorno to differentiate between different types of popular culture has been discussed by Bernard Gendron in ‘Theodor Adorno meets the Cadillacs’ (1986). Here, Gendron discusses Adorno’s oft-critiqued work ‘On Popular Music’; in this piece Adorno criticises popular music as being formulaic and mass-produced. Gendron explains, using the example of the band The Cadillacs and the type of car, the cadillac, how one of the major failings of this work is Adorno’s inability to distinguish between more abstract cultural commodities and physical, practical commodities. Gendron writes that, 

 

‘Whatever they are, the factors accounting for standardisation in the production of musical texts must be significantly different from those which account for standardisation in functional artefacts. Adorno’s analysis is undermined by his failure to attend to these discontinuities’ (1986). 

 

Despite this, Gendron finds that this work is one of the most ‘penetrating pieces on the subject’ and finds that critics have often referenced this to dismiss Adorno’s work, using it as ‘an example of how excessive left-wing criticism of popular music can be, and then drop it in favour of a more balanced discussion’ (1986).

 

The Culture Industry and the Digital World 

As C. Bolaño writes in The Culture Industry, Information and Capitalism (2015), the culture industry expanded following the Second World War due to the increasing accessibility of television and programming for a wider audience. Since then, the culture industry has only continued to expand with the shift from mainstream television to newer forms of media as identified by Benjamin Alan Wiggins in ‘The culture industry, new media, and the shift from creation to curation; or, enlightenment as a kick in the nuts’ (2014). Wiggins’ essay focuses on the reality television show Pranked which ran from 2009-2012 on MTV. He writes that, 

 

‘by distracting the public’s gaze away from the calculated genocides of the war, diverting attention from the birth of an atomic age that will not die until all die, and peddling the power of positive thinking, the culture industry veiled the sadistic fate that befell enlightenment. Now that social media has allowed the old culture industry to circumvent the insurance industry, the broadcasting of sadistic behavior has become profitable. Perhaps Pranked exemplifies the final victory of sadistic reason over the use of reason for shared happiness’ (2014).

 

Wiggins concludes by arguing that, ‘[b]y trying to profit from the true horror of the present rather than distract from it, the culture industry may come to find that its circumvention of the insurance industry was a gross miscalculation’.

It is not only through reality television that the culture industry’s role becomes apparent in the twenty-first century. Emma Keltie demonstrates in The Culture Industry and Participatory Audiences (2017) how the work of Adorno and Horkheimer is still relevant in the modern era. Keltie’s work on social media shows how participation in the culture industry has changed since the twentieth-century. Through the emergence of social media, Youtube and blog-sites, anyone can, and is encouraged, to create their own content. She writes that, 

The Culture Industry and Participatory Audiences by Emma Keltie

 

 

‘Participatory cultural practices occur within structures that continue to be developed within a capitalist system of cultural production. Participation in these practices and in the production of cultural products takes place during the leisure time of consumers, who, in a sense, labour to create cultural goods’ (2017).

 

 

 

Keltie further adds that participatory culture can also enable ‘audiences to challenge the power structure of the culture industry by participating not only in the consumption of cultural products, but also in their production’ (2017). In other words, the culture industry no longer simply produces the dominant forms of culture to be consumed passively by the masses, it requires the consumer to actively create and contribute to their own cultural products. We can see this even more recently with the rise of content creators and the birth of social-media sharing site TikTok. Lasha Kurdashvili’s Wrestling audience: Culture Industry vs. Fandom in the U.S. Media (2019) further shows how this participatory culture is present in wrestling with fans ‘creating their own cultural products, language and signs’ (10). 

The emergence of participation culture and new forms of digital media show the renewed relevance of Adorno and Horkheimer’s work on the culture industry.  Robert Hullot-Kentor’s article ‘In exactly what sense the culture industry no longer exists’ discusses the continued relevance of the culture industry: 

 

The culture industry is one of Adorno’s concepts whose ghost for certain is gone…While the idea of the culture industry shares in the evident exhaustion of Adorno’s central concepts; while there is no doubt that its ghost is gone; this concept all the same lives a vigorous afterlife, fully indifferent to the fact of its decease long ago. Unlike any other concept in the whole of Adorno’s oeuvre, the term culture industry is quoted omni presently in the full-throated convictions of our age (2007).  

 

Adorno and Horkheimer’s work on the culture industry contributes to the wider dialogue of popular culture and how it ultimately exists to promote the interests of the upper echelons. Whether this is still true in the twenty-first century with our relationship to media consumption constantly changing, remains to be seen. Regardless, The Dialectic of Enlightenment has been crucial in interrogating our relationship with cultural products and enabling us to assess the passivity with which we may consume them. 

 

Further Resources & Reading on Perlego

 

Culture Industry FAQs

  • What is The Culture Industry in simple terms?

    The Culture Industry describes the deliberate manufacturing of sameness. It describes the mass-production and distribution of cultural products (e.g. art, media, broadcasting) under capitalism, suggesting they are standardised to ensure profits as well as pacify and control society. Forms of popular culture, Adorno and Horkheimer argue, are not simply harmless forms of escapism, but are tools of oppression.

  • Who coined the term 'The Culture Industry'

    The term itself was coined by critical theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in their book Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947).

  • How does Marx connect to The Culture Industry?

    Adorno & Horkheimer’s notion of The Culture Industry emerges from a Marxist framework of thought. They propose that this manufacturing of sameness in popular culture is ultimately in place to prevent the socialist uprising Marx predicted. Due to their Marxist foundations, a great deal of the research produced by Adorno & Horkheimer, and the Frankfurt School at large, tends to focus on fascism and authoritarianism in relation to capitalism.

  • What is an example of The Culture Industry?

    One example of The Culture Industry is, arguably, the 21st century’s proliferation of superhero films. The similarity, and repetition, inherent to this “universe” of films neatly falls in line with Adorno & Horkheimer’s description of entertainment in the Culture Industry; ‘Amusement always means putting things out of mind, forgetting suffering, even when it is on display. At its root is powerlessness. It is indeed escape, but not, as it claims, escape from bad reality but from the last thought of resisting that reality’. The “escapism” of superhero cinema, in this light, could be read as a form of pacification.

  •  

    Bibliography

    Adorno, T. W. (1989). On Jazz. Discourse, 12(1), 45-69.

    https://www.jstor.org/stable/41389140#metadata_info_tab_contents

     

    Adorno, T. W., & Simpson, G. (1941). On popular music. Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, 9(1), 17-48.

    https://www.pdcnet.org/zfs/content/zfs_1941_0009_0001_0017_0048

     

    Adorno, T. (2020). The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture. Routledge. 

    https://www.perlego.com/book/1629142/the-culture-industry-selected-essays-on-mass-culture-pdf

     

    Ahmed, S. S. (2008). Mass mentality, culture industry, fascism. Kritike, 2(1). 

     

    Babe, R. E. (2016). ‘Theodor Adorno and Dallas Smythe’ in Revisiting the Frankfurt School: Essays on Culture, Media and Theory ed. David Berry. Routledge. 

    https://www.perlego.com/book/1635623/revisiting-the-frankfurt-school-essays-on-culture-media-and-theory-pdf

     

    Baugh, B. (1990). Left-wing elitism: Adorno on popular culture. Philosophy and Literature, 14(1), 65-78. 

    https://muse.jhu.edu/article/417192/summary

     

    Bolaño, C. (2015) The Culture Industry, Information and Capitalism. Palgrave. 

    https://www.perlego.com/book/3488551/the-culture-industry-information-and-capitalism-pdf

     

    Gendron, B. (1986) ‘Theodor Adorno meets the Cadillacs’ in Studies in Entertainment: Critical Approaches to Mass Culture. Indiana University Press. 

     

    Horkheimer, M and Adorno, T. (2002) Dialectic of Enlightenment. Stanford. 

    https://www.perlego.com/book/745055/dialectic-of-enlightenment-pdf

     

    Hullot-Kentor, R. (2007). In Exactly What Sense the Culture Industry No Longer Exists. RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, 51(1), 5-12. 

    https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/pdf/10.1086/RESv51n1ms20167712

     

    Kellner, D. (2012). 4 The Frankfurt School and the Culture Industry. Being Cultural, 51.

    https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Merja-Bauters/publication/273941517_Semiotics’_contribution_into_the_analysis_of_popular_culture/links/5c9e718645851506d73416db/Semiotics-contribution-into-the-analysis-of-popular-culture.pdf

     

    Keltie, E. (2017) The Culture Industry and Participatory Audiences. Palgrave. 

    https://www.perlego.com/book/3498120/the-culture-industry-and-participatory-audiences-pdf

     

    Kurdashvili, L. (2019) Wrestling audience: Culture Industry vs. Fandom in the US Media. Lambert Academic Publishing. 

    https://www.perlego.com/book/3416548/wrestling-audience-culture-industry-vs-fandom-in-the-us-media-pdf

     

    Strinati, D. (2004). An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture. Routledge. 

    https://www.perlego.com/book/1611788/an-introduction-to-theories-of-popular-culture-pdf

     

    Wiggins, B. A. (2014). The culture industry, new media, and the shift from creation to curation; or, enlightenment as a kick in the nuts. Television & New Media, 15(5), 395-412. 

    https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1527476412474696

     

    Written by: Sophie Raine

    Sophie Raine
    Sophie Raine is a final-year PhD student at Lancaster University studying Victorian penny dreadfuls. Her work focuses on working-class popular culture and urban spaces. Her previous publications have been featured in VPFA (2019) and the Palgrave Handbook for Steam Age Gothic (2021) and her co-edited collection Penny Dreadfuls and the Gothic is due for release in 2022 with University of Wales Press.