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

by Theodor Adorno

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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 |
I had high hopes for this book by a leader of the so-called
Frankfurt School, but it is written so abstrusely as to be barely comprehensible. I gather from other sources that Adorno believed that our lives are so entangled in our social system (namely, capitalism) that we do not realize how much our lives are diminished by this system relative to a possible emancipation. Indeed, the system appears rosy to us but only in a limited, banal, way. Culture, for instance, is manufactured for us by way of mass entertainment corporations. Hence, Adorno's writing is apparently meant to somehow shock us into glimpsing the truth, despite our all-embracing oppression. But I really don't get it. It just seems like sloppy thinking and bad writing. I think that his point can be expressed with logical analysis; 'poetry' is not required to convey the truth about social structures. In particular, Adorno's viewpoint about social structures is similar to "systems thinking" in engineering - see Dana Meadows' book, Thinking in a systems: A Primer. This says that we respond to local forces/incentives but may not be aware of system feedbacks that drive the aggregate outcomes. So we make decisions that seem good but harm us in the longer run. There is nothing mysterious here. Systems thinking can be illustrated with simple mathematical models. I don't see the need to be made "self-aware" of my (supposed) oppression through dreadful writing - i.e. writing meant to elicit dread!? In passing, the documentary film on street art, "Exit Through the Gift Shop," is an awesome commentary on the culture industry. ( )
  Mandarinate | Jan 14, 2011 |
art is a commodity. artists are locked in a market. the world is full of fascists. there is no hope. movie goers suck even though they are doing some good by trying to become aware although they are stuck in the ideology of the culture that has them involved in entertainment with little or no intellectual activity. this was the 1940's. a German living in Los Angeles. and a tragedy in its cultural wherewithal. still, worth a read or two (the third time to actually understand it). ( )
1 vote TakeItOrLeaveIt | Sep 21, 2009 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Theodor Adornoprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bernstein, J. M.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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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 Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:42:05 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

"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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