Friday, December 14, 2007

A brief thought on the culture industry

‘Those listening to light music are depoliticised’ (p55)

For Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer media technologies are regarded as part of the culture industry. The development of mass media, such as radio and television, has served the ideological purposes of capitalism. Rather than class antagonisms causing a dialectical conflict within society the masses are pacified through the culture industry. A master-slave dialectic is created where the culture industry (master) dominates the masses (slave) through the commodification of all cultural products. Crucially Adorno believes the culture industry is an attack on freedom through standardisation; ‘It [the culture industry] proclaims: you shall conform…The power of the culture’s industry’s ideology is such conformity has replaced consciousness.’ (p104). Individual freedom (consciousness) is lost as the masses conform to the purchasing of cultural products produce by the culture industry (e.g. going to the cinema). Adorno approach to media analysis would be to understand how the serve the ideological purpose of the culture industry.

Adorno’s concept of the culture industry ought to be admired for two reasons. The first is for the recognition that media should not be detached from the economic situation. Products, which are part of the culture industry, are ‘tailored for consumption.’ (p99). The second is his argument that the media can produce, or at least alter, (popular) culture. In other words, media companies and industries serve as an important aspect of understanding the production of culture.
However, Adorno’s concept of the culture industry fails on three accounts. The first is his argument that media, as part of the culture, creates a depolitical population. This negative and simplistic account removes any political potential media technologies may offer society. The second, and related to the first, is Adorno’s separation between the media and the masses. For him the media works through a broadcast model where there is a distinction between producers and consumers. This position seems untenable in the second media age (see Poster, 1995) where there are multiple producers and consumers. The consumers are no longer only consumers, but also producers. In this sense the distinction between the media and the masses is lost as it becomes entangled into an integrated relationship. The individual is now an active participant in the decentred technologies of new media. Another problem is Adorno and Horkheimer claim there is only one culture industry. My belief is this forms a top-down approach that fails to account for the specific types of cultural industries. Transformations within the culture industry, as emergent properties, are relatively unimportant for Adorno and Horkheimer as these only serve to further the dominance of the culture industry. For example, counter or sub-cultures are disregarded through failing to move beyond capitalism and being consumed by the culture industry. My belief is these alterations within the culture industry are important for transforming the coexistence and relations of the ‘masses’ with each other. While they may fail to transcend the limits of capital they can generate important transformations.
*All references are from T.W. Adorno 'The Culture Industry' (London: Routledge, 2001)

No comments: