I came across an old essay I wrote a few years ago and whilst re-reading it I realised it had relevance to some of the topics we discuss regularly on
ATS. Particularly in relation to how society has been potentially dumbed down and we have become robots - servants of consumerism.
I have edited it somewhat so that it makes for easier reading.
It is all centered around a book called 'The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception' by prominent sociologist/philosophers Max Horkheimer
and Theodor Adorno.
What is particularly interesting about it is that already in the 1940's people were speaking out against popular culture, or more specifically it's
potential negative effects on society, something that I always believed didn't happen until more recently.
The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception is a denunciation of popular culture by critical theorists Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer.
In it they argue that popular culture is nothing more than a factory producing meagre cultural goods in order to reduce the masses to a state of
emotionlessness and indifference. By means of film, television, music and magazines the people at large are brainwashed by their consumption of such
simple pleasures, resulting in a more lethargic and easy to shape, mould and manage, general public.
Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimers view of the pivotal role that the culture industry plays is made very clear when they state that “The whole
world is made to pass through the filter of the culture industry.”
By stating this they are highlighting just how important they see the topic
and thus, are reinforcing every point they go on to make because of it. But does the culture industry really have such a hold over the populace? One
of the advantages of writing a critical review today, sixty-five years after it was first published, is that I have the advantage of hindsight. I am
able to objectively look at all the points raised by the authors and analyse if they have indeed come to fruition.
Film is one of the aspects of the culture industry that comes under the Adorno and Horkheimer spotlight. Film was in its relative infancy when The
Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception was published, yet still Adorno and Horkheimer were able to see how films had already become
monotonous and unsatisfactory. I’m sure they would recoil in horror at the present state of the film industry, and that is just what it now is, an
industry. Film studios have become the manufacturers of goods, goods that on the surface look astounding and expensive (thanks to modern special
effects) but are in actual fact a reworking of old, previously done ideas. Cheap imitations. So why is the film industry so popular, why do the masses
still lap it up? As Adorno and Horkheimer state, “Real life is becoming indistinguishable from the movies. The sound film......leaves no room for
imagination or reflection on the part of the audience.”
It seems we have become consumers of culture, blindly gorging on what we are offered
without consideration for its content.
During a recent conversation I was a part of somebody stated, “I can’t remember the last time I saw a bad movie.” For me, this sums it up. Good
films are presented as great films and bad films are presented as good films. We have become unable to distinguish between good and bad, right and
wrong. We are given the illusion of choice, as Adorno and Horkheimer posit, “the culture industry not so much adapts to the reactions of its
consumers as it counterfeits them.”
“All the other films and products of the entertainment industry which they have seen have taught them what to expect; they react
Advertisement has become the culture industries propaganda. Today, movie goers already know what to expect from any given film
they see. After the barrage of trailers, behind the scenes exclusives, interviews and red carpet premieres, watching the actual movie can be a hollow
process. It’s like watching a football match once you already know the score or reading the last chapter of a book first.
Adorno and Horkheimer state, “The consumer becomes the ideology of the pleasure industry, whose institutions he cannot escape. One simply “has
to” have seen Mrs. Miniver, just as one “has to” subscribe to Life and Time. Everything is looked at from only one perspective: that it can be
used for something else, however vague the notion of this use may be.”
Films are advertised on television, television is advertised in magazines
and vice versa, we are guilt-tripped into buying their products and made to feel excluded with terminology such as, ‘You would be mad to miss it’
and ‘The film all your friends are talking about.’
Once you have waded through all the pre-movie hype and eventually manage to watch the film, you then have to put up with the inevitable merchandise
push. “It is no longer sufficient merely to turn out a hit movie, television show, magazine, or book, because in many cases these products cannot
be profitable on their own. A hit must become a franchise and, in so doing, become a hub from which a wide-reaching variety of products
(Wolf 1999:227) A single hit film can result in years of merchandise sales, and when sales begin to decrease, a sequel is
transparently brought out, with all new characters to boot. Children are shamelessly taken advantage of as easy targets, forcing parents to spend
money they don’t have on cheap toys and gadgets, just because of a weak connection with their favourite movie character. That is, until the next one
Yet advertisement doesn’t stop there. Now, within films we find guerrilla advertisement. Product placement has become big business with companies
paying huge sums of money for their product to be covertly advertised to an unsuspecting public. It seems we cannot go two minutes without being
bombarded with advertisements. Newspapers and magazines dedicate a considerable amount of their page space to adverts, television uses advertisements
in between programming and billboards are now commonplace on city streets. Adorno and Horkheimer sum up this process thus, “The triumph of
advertising in the culture industry is that consumers feel compelled to buy and use products even though they see through them.”
Horkheimer also touch on the idea that consumers are not seen as individuals but as a whole. The ‘faceless consumer’ is given the idea that he/she
is being specifically catered for by the culture industry because they are given what they believe they wanted. “In the culture industry the
individual is an illusion......tolerated only so long as his complete identification with the generality is unquestioned.”
So, as long as they
conform to the generalities, they will not be singled out, it seems that being an individual is undesirable.
They go on to emphasised there point by highlighting that “Consumers appear as statistics on research organization charts, and are divided by
income groups into red, green, and blue areas the technique is that used for any type of propaganda.”
This hypothesis couldn’t be better
summed up than by the character of Howard Beale in the 1976 satirical film Network when he pleads with the audience...
“But you people sit there, day after day, night after night, all ages, colours, creeds... We're all you know. You're beginning to believe the
illusions we're spinning here. You're beginning to think that the tube is reality, and that your own lives are unreal. You do whatever the tube
tells you! You dress like the tube, you eat like the tube, you raise your children like the tube, you even think like the tube! This is mass madness,
you maniacs! In God's name, you people are the real thing! We are the illusion!”
This posture seems to be borne out by society today, where clothes are mass produced and everybody is dressed the same, be it Topman or Primark,
brands must be worn or be mindful that you could come in for some criticism. Those who stand out or are deemed different are ostracised and forced
into a sub-group, a minority.
But once again we must remember the era that this book was released in. The authors were in exile from a crumbling Nazi Germany, which on reflection,
could well have been the inspiration for what could be considered one of the most searching critiques of modernity. Things most definitely have
changed and whether or not Adorno and Horkheimers assessments still ring true are up still up for debate. There is no doubt that Adornos pessimistic
outlook on modern culture becomes self evident, after all this is the man who stated that “normality is death”
, but that doesn’t make him
Many of the points that the authors raise are, in my opinion, completely valid. However, I believe that time has made some of them look dated and
obsolete, for now the culture industry has diversified to such an extent that to categorise the masses into a distinct group would be wrong. The world
may still be made to pass through the filter of the culture industry, but nowadays the filter seems to be a lot less meticulous. The authors’
statement that “Anyone who doubts the power of monotony is a fool”
seems incomprehensible when looking at society today, with its
multiculturalism and abundance of alternatives to the perceived norms of culture. It is clear that entertainment has become big business, but as the
saying goes, ‘there’s no business like show business.’
Adorno and Horkheimer referenced the importance of this as a transmitter to the masses when they wrote, “Nevertheless the culture industry
remains the entertainment business.”
But to quote Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe) in the blockbuster film Gladiator, “Are you not
entertained? Are you not entertained? Is this not why you are here?”
So, what are your opinions on the subject? Have we been entertained to death?