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The Culture Industry: Selected essays on…

The Culture Industry: Selected essays on mass culture (1991)

by Theodor Adorno

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Here is a short youtube video capturing the spirit of Adorno's The Culture Industry. Such a clear synopsis of his philosophy, I wanted to include as part of my update here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4YGnPgtWhsw

You will be hard pressed to find a more scathing, uncompromising indictment of popular culture than The Culture Industry, Essays on Mass Culture by Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969). An accomplished classical pianist, composer and musicologist (he was a friend of composer Arnold Schoenberg) as well as a philosopher and sociologist with a razor-sharp mind, Adorno loathed how commercial interests standardize artistic and aesthetic enjoyment by pressing low-level conformity on an entire population for the purpose of maximizing sales and profits.

There are 9 essays in this collection, covering such topics as music, film and television. Adorno's writing style can be a bit dense; if you decide to tackle these essays be prepared to spend some time reading and rereading many sentence carefully. Additionally, a Goodreads friend said reading Adorno is like drinking vinegar. I completely agree: the majority of the ideas presented have a taste most bitter. This being said, in order to share some Adorno vinegar, below are my modest comments coupled with several quotes from an essay on a subject I'm sure is near and dear to all of us: Free Time.

"Free time depends on the totality of social conditions which continues to hold people under its spell. Neither in their work nor in their consciousness do people dispose of genuine freedom over themselves. . . . even where the hold of the spell (of social conditions, especially work) is relaxed, and people are at least subjectively convinced that they are acting of their own free will, this will itself is shaped by the very same forces which they are seeking to escape in their hours without work." ----------- After years of training in Jersy Grotowski-style physical theater, an extreme and demanding method to free one's body, I took an improvisational acting class where a number of students were office workers. I could instantly see how, although these students were engaged in theater exercises, their movements were so restricted and mechanical, it was as if they were still at work in their office.

Adorno speaks of his own life: "I have no hobby. As far as my activities beyond the bounds of my recognized profession are concerned, I take them all, without exception, very seriously. So much so, that I should be horrified by the very idea that they had anything to do with hobbies - preoccupations with which I had become mindlessly infatuated merely in order to kill the time . . . Making music, listening to music, reading with all my attention, these activities are part and parcel of my life; to call them hobbies would make a mockery of them. ---------- Adorno's words here can be taken as a direct challenge: Do you `kill time' when you are away from work? Do you need a hobby to occupy your attention?

"For the most part the very development of the imagination is crippled by the experience of early childhood. The lack of imagination which is cultivated and inculcated by society renders people helpless in their free time." --------- Again, are you easily bored and seek out mindless distractions? How frequently do you turn on the TV?

"People have been refused freedom, and its value belittled for such a long time that now people no longer like it. . . . This is one good reason why people have remained chained to their work, and to the system which trains them for work, long after that system has ceased to require their labor. ---------- For the life of me I will never understand how many people spend most of their `free time' thinking and talking about their work. Even if their work is interesting, I fail to see how work can be so interesting and mesmerizing that they can't let it go. Tis true: all work and no play makes Johnny and Suzy very, very dull people.

"The accepted reason for playing team sports is that it makes believe that fitness itself is the sole, independent end of sport: whereas fitness for work is certainly one of the covert ends of sport. Frequently it is in team sport that people first inflict upon themselves (and celebrate as a triumph of their own freedom) precisely what society inflicts upon them and what they must learn to enjoy." ---------- Ha! In a word, team sports acculturate individuals to forfeit their health, creativity and freedom as a first step in forfeiting their health, creativity and freedom when they step into the workplace.

Interestingly, Adordo concludes his essay by relating a study done by his Frankfurt Institute in Germany where members of the public where interviewed after watching the wedding of a Princess and a German diplomat broadcast by all the mass media. The findings were a surprise. Turns out, people were glued to their television sets but there was an element of skepticism about the importance of the event and a reluctance to take the whole thing too seriously. In Adorno's words: " . . . it is indeed consumed and accepted but with a kind of reservation." In other words, Adorno and the Frankfurt School recognized people are not as dumb and gullible as intellectuals and philosophers might think. And thus, they concluded, it is this very capacity to stand back and critically evaluate the commercialized garbage offered up by the culture industry wherein people can realize their freedom. ( )
  GlennRussell | Feb 16, 2017 |
This book makes my head hurt. The introduction and first four essays are really hard to get through and to understand. Essays five through nine are better, though. Essay five on Freudian interpretation of Fascist propoganda in the U.S. was probably the best. Overall, he has some nteresting theories, but I'm not sure I buy everything Adorno says. This is probably not one I'll read again. ( )
  AmandaL. | Jan 16, 2016 |
This dude does not like jazz. ( )
  dan.ostermeier | Oct 2, 2013 |
This is a rather intense series of essays by Adorno on the modern media. His style is both dense with references to Marx and Hegel and pungent in its scorn for media conventions - it's like drinking vinegar.

His cantankerous view of culture begins with modern music, which is loud, repetitive, has a strong beat, and offers little or no technical views or ambiguity to cause serious discussion. He moves from there to television, film, the shaping of thoughts by the radio, and comparisons of films to fascist propaganda themes. The idea of a hero or leader, the primordial 'All-Father', a heroic-Wagnerian-Hitlerian man of action, in contrast to the packaged 'spineless intellectual', which is weak and ineffectual.

He holds up a distinction between high and low culture, and states that very few have been able to successfully bridge the gap between both. 'High' culture, of literature, music, art, etc., can be used as a means of continual awareness and freedom, ambiguity and discussion and dialectic, but with the caveat that even these exalted means can be used to shoehorn people into little roles - the 'upper class' with monocles, tophats, etc., versus the 'plebs', or something similar.

A particularly interesting point is one which affects our post-industrial society - what do we do when we have to manufacture jobs in order for people to work - work for work's sake - or what do we do when people have enough free time, and how may it be spent happily? In modern terminology, what do we do in a post-scarcity service economy?

Now considering these essays are some 50 years old, their propositions are frightening, and their conclusions necessary. For even post-modern 'ironies' and 'self-awareness' and 'references' can be packaged, bought and sold nowadays. Even the idea of rebellion is being bought and sold. One thinks of those V-for-Vendetta masks, which are the copyright of Warner Brothers.

A challenging book. ( )
2 vote HadriantheBlind | Mar 30, 2013 |
More a collection of related essays and less a book with a coherent, unified message, this is a set of nine essays on a variety of topics. I’ll list them here just to give the reader some idea of the vast area these essays cover. They are “On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening,” “The Schema of Mass Culture,” “Culture Industry Reconsidered,” “Culture and Administration,” “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda,” “How to Look at Television,” “Transparencies on Film,” “Free Time,” and “Resignation.”

Like much of the writing that comes out of the Frankfurt School, this is heavily influenced by Marxism, especially their idea (Horkheimer collaborated with Adorno in writing some of the more important essays in this collection) that mass consumer culture has become commodified, reified, and fetishized. The “culture industry” refers to the processes of standardization, marketing, and distribution which become a part of objects themselves, and therefore indistinguishable from them. Everything has been subsumed under the logic of the mass market, which creates what Adorno and Horkheimer term “false needs” – those needs that capitalism invents, and that capitalism can uniquely satisfy.

What I found of particular interest with the idea of the culture industry was the resonance that it has with so many other critical thinkers like Baudrillard, Debord, Lyotard, and Marcuse, yet being written several years before the most important work of these thinkers (Baudrillard’s “Simulacra and Simulation” didn’t come out until 1981, Debord’s “The Society of the Spectacle” until 1967, and Lyotard’s “The Postmodern Condition” until 1979). Some of the essays in the second half of the book – “How to Look at Television” and “Transparencies on Film,” especially – reminded me explicitly of the best writing on media of Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan, and Raymond Williams.

While I credit Adorno for being an innovative, insightful social critic, the orthodox Marxism can become a little laborious and grating after a few essays. The best of his thought isn’t a result of his Marxism at all, but rather his sociological and psychological observations, as is the case with most of the media criticism here. Whether it is the translation or the original writing, the style is at its worst overly turgid and obfuscating, which makes it only digestible in small doses, but Adorno seems like he is always worth the effort. I will probably come back to this again and again in an attempt to inform my readings of later Frankfurt School members, especially Fromm, Lowenthal, and Habermas. ( )
2 vote kant1066 | Mar 5, 2012 |
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The contentious arguments surrounding the idea of an affirmative postmodernist culture have brought with them a persistent theoretical depreciation of the claims of high modernist art as well as a positive re-evaluation of the character and potentialities of popular (mass) culture. (from Introduction)

Complaints about the decline of musical taste begin only a little later than mankind's twofold discovery, on the threshhold of historical time, that music represents at once the immediate manifestation of impulse and the locus of its taming. It stirs up the dance of the Maenads and sounds from Pan's bewitching flute, but it also rings out from the Orphic lyre, around which the visions of violence range themselves, pacified. (from first essay, called "On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening")
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0415253802, Paperback)

The creation of the Frankfurt School of critical theory in the 1920s saw the birth of some of the most exciting and challenging writings of the twentieth century. It is out of this background that the great critic Theodor Adorno emerged. His finest essays are collected here, offering the reader unparalleled insights into Adorno's thoughts on culture. He argued that the culture industry commodified and standardized all art. In turn this suffocated individuality and destroyed critical thinking. At the time, Adorno was accused of everything from overreaction to deranged hysteria by his many detractors. In today's world, where even the least cynical of consumers is aware of the influence of the media, Adorno's work takes on a more immediate significance. The Culture Industry is an unrivalled indictment of the banality of mass culture.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:51 -0400)

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"The creation of the Frankfurt School of critical theory in the 1920s saw the birth of some of the most exciting and challenging writings of the twentieth century. It is out of this background that the great critic Theodor Adorno emerged. His finest essays are collected here, offering the reader unparalled insights into Adorno's thoughts on culture. He argued that the culture industry commodified and standardised all art. In turn this suffocated individuality and destroyed critical thinking. At the time, Adorno was accused by his many detractors of everything from overreaction to deranged hysteria. In today's world, where even the least cynical of consumers is aware of the influence of the media, Adorno's work takes on a more immediate significance. The Culture Industry is an unrivalled indictment of the banality of mass culture."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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