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Culture Industries, Media as - Alternative Perspectives

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In his essay “Culture Industry Reconsidered” (1975), Theodor Adorno recalls that Max Horkheimer and he first coined the term “culture industry” in their book Dialectic of Enlightenment (1972; first published in Amsterdam in 1947). The specific reference is to an essay entitled “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” Adorno points out that in early drafts of the essay they used the term “mass culture” but eventually replaced it with “culture industry” in order to “exclude from the outset the interpretation agreeable to its advocates: that it is a matter of something like a culture that arises from the masses themselves” (p. 12). Instead, Horkheimer and Adorno used the term to describe a commodified and industrialized culture, managed from above and essentially produced for the sake of making profits.

In “The Culture Industry,” Horkheimer and Adorno laid out the basic framework for the study of culture under capitalism associated with the Frankfurt School of critical theory. The essay was part of a larger theoretical project begun with the founding of the Institute of Social Research at Frankfurt University, Germany, in 1924. Other important associates of the school were Erich Fromm, Leo Lowenthal, Herbert Marcuse, and Walter Benjamin. The institute’s original mission was to serve as a sort of think tank for the German labor movement, but this soon changed with the rise of fascism.

Most of the members of the institute were Marxist and Jewish, and they managed to emigrate to the United States in the early 1930s. As they observed the continuing rise of European fascism, the Frankfurt School Èmigrés were compelled to compare these developments to their new environment. They found disconcerting tendencies toward totalitarianism in the United States similar to those they had left behind in Germany.

Although the U.S. culture industries—movies, music recording, radio broadcasting, newspapers, magazines, and books—were not directly controlled by a state ministry of information, their ownership structure and commercial nature made them function much like the state propaganda system of the Third Reich. They mobilized the working class to support causes against its own interests while at the same time demobilizing it through diversion. Rather than coming into consciousness and overthrowing the capitalist system, the working class had become more incorporated into it than ever, for which the culture industry was largely to blame.

The Frankfurt School shared some of the basic premises of mass society theory first laid out by European sociologists in the mid-nineteenth century. These theorists were trying to understand the nature of emerging industrialization and urbanization processes, including their effects on culture. With urban industrialization, people go from making their own living to working in factories where they must sell their labor to earn a living. This new way of making a living also involves the emergence of new forms of cultural life. Just as households began substituting mass-produced manufactured goods for homemade goods, the culture industry began substituting a manufactured and industrialized culture for the traditional cultural activities of rural society that revolved around family, community, and church.

The industrialization process results in a certain logic that governs the production and distribution of commodities. They are produced first and foremost for their exchange value (i.e., the profits they generate when sold to consumers). In consumer-goods markets, mass production has resulted in the output of increasingly homogeneous products that are artificially differentiated through advertising, providing the illusion of choice. The same has occurred with the industrialization of culture but the ramifications of homogenization seem more significant because of their fundamental role in helping shape the way reality is perceived. This is where the Frankfurt School becomes distinct from mass society theory. The culture industries are not ideological merely because they are controlled by economic and political authorities but rather primarily because their output is governed by the logic of capital. The result is formulaic and escapist entertainment that distracts and immobilizes agency for social change.

Alternative Perspectives

The Frankfurt School’s critique of the culture industry was not without internal dissent. In his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1969), Benjamin put the culture industry of the early twentieth century in a more positive light, arguing that it had helped to demolish the “aura” surrounding works of high art and so to democratize aesthetic pleasure. More people could now learn to appreciate a variety of artistic forms provided by new media technologies, making the culture industry a potentially progressive force for social change. For Benjamin, the mechanical reproduction of art transformed the reaction of the masses toward art: “The reactionary attitude toward a Picasso painting changes into the progressive reaction toward a Chaplin movie” (p. 234).

In his book One-Dimensional Man (1964), Marcuse acknowledged that the consumption of mass-produced goods, including culture, brought pleasure to the masses. He argued, however, that this pleasure was based on “false needs” created by the consumer-goods and culture industries. This system provided consumers and audiences only with short-term gratifications, leaving their genuine needs unsatisfied and unfulfilled. Nonetheless, due to their total integration into this “one-dimensional society,” the masses continued to pursue happiness in the form of consumption. In the essay “Art as Form of Reality” (1972), Marcuse concluded that artistic and intellectual creativity could only be truly free under socialism. Then it would no longer be a separate sphere of activity belonging to media capitalists and professionals, but one that was integrated into everyday life and in which everyone participated.

Another associate of the Frankfurt School, Jurgen Habermas, based his normative vision of a democratic communications system on the concept of the public sphere. In an essay titled “The Public Sphere” (1974), Habermas essentially reiterated the Frankfurt School position that the culture industry, including news and public-affairs programming, tended to promote the special interests of economic and political elites. The integration of big business, the media, and government undermined any possibility of democratic discourse about economic, social, and political issues because these institutions were not motivated by any general concern for the good of society and because they excluded genuine participation by the vast majority of the citizenry. Habermas concluded that establishing a new public sphere would require the dispersal of social and political power into the hands of a wide range of “rival organizations committed to the public sphere in their internal structure as well as their relations with the state and each other” (p. 55).

Hans Magnus Enzensberger, who had only a brief association with the Frankfurt School, criticized the culture industry approach for being too economically deterministic. In his book The Consciousness Industry (1974), Enzensberger argued that the ideological nature of the culture industry was determined more by the direct organization of consciousness by economic and political elites and not merely derivative of the commodification process. Indeed, he substituted the term “consciousness industry” for “culture industry” to underscore this point. The consciousness industry played an essential role in neutralizing the radical potential guaranteed to the citizenry of liberal democracies.

Enzensberger (1974) stressed that the ruling class had to work to gain the consent of the dominated classes, and that culture industry workers played a primary role in helping it to do so. However, he also saw them as the weak link in the system of domination. He believed that culture industry workers could play a vital role in undermining this consent from within the media system because media capitalists were ultimately dependent on human artistic and intellectual creativity for delivering the ideas and products from which they earned their profits. Media owners were aware of this and had developed a range of tactics to suppress this potential, from “physical threat, blacklisting, moral and economic pressure on the one hand, [to] overexposure, star-cult, co-optation into the power elite on the other” (p. 14). Nevertheless, Enzensberger concluded that the relative autonomy of artists and intellectuals held the greatest potential for inspiring social change through the media.

Among the contemporaries of the Frankfurt School were English scholars F. R. Leavis, Richard Hoggart, and Raymond Williams. They sought to reconsider the negative connotations associated with mass culture as an industrial product imposed from above, by shifting the focus to how audiences actually used the products of the culture industry. In his book The Uses of Literacy , (1957), Hoggart found that the British working classes of the mid-twentieth century were quite selective in their consumption of the products of the culture industry, and actually relied much more heavily upon oral and local forms of culture left over from the beginning of the century to adapt to their ever-changing urban industrial environment. However, Hoggart concluded that the growing influence of the culture industry, and the seduction of consumerism, was gradually undermining traditional working-class culture. Finally, like the Frankfurt School, he viewed the increasing commercialization of the culture industry as a threat to any potential for its “progressiveness” and “independence” because it was required by its very nature to “promote both conservatism and conformity” (p. 196).

In his book The Long Revolution (1958), Williams agreed that the development of mass media technology was progressive to the extent that the working class had managed to gain some control over media output, for example, the working-class press. Furthermore, the increasing democratization of education and the spread of literacy gave the working classes new means by which to organize and express their interests. Williams stripped the critique of the cultural industry of its mass society roots and its nostalgia for some pure age of artistic and intellectual freedom, and refused the escape into high art. His response to mass society theory was simply that “there are no masses, only ways of seeing people as masses” (p. 289). His response to cultural elitism was just as simple: “creation is the activity of every human mind” (p. 17) and every human being therefore possesses artistic abilities that can be cultivated. He agreed that the industrialization culture had generally stifled this potential, especially the professionalization of intellectual and artistic creativity, which had produced an increasing division between producers and consumers of culture. Like Marcuse, Williams insisted that the separation of artistic and intellectual creativity from daily life had to be resolved, and this could only occur with the extension of public ownership of the means and systems of communication, along with the means of production in general.

Cumulative Media Effects - Observational Learning of Behaviors and Scripts, Observational Learning of Attitudes and Beliefs, Emotional Desensitization [next] [back] Culture and Communication - The Relationship Between Communication and Culture, Characteristics of Culture, Glimpses of Culture

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