Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Industry of Culture

(In response to Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno's excerpt from their 1944 book Dialectic of Enlightenment entitled "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception". Some classmates took issue to their assertions that mass society engages with media in order to not think, to strictly be entertained.)

I believe that one must keep in mind the social and political times in which Adorno and Horkheimer wrote this piece. I tend to agree that some of the material is dated (it only takes into account the radio, the telephone, magazines and film, since television and the internet were obviously not around in 1944. But many of their ideas can be interpreted directly onto television and the internet...but that's not the point of this post). Adorno and Horkheimer were both German-born sociologists and philosophers who were writing in response to what they were seeing take place throughout the world, but I do believe some of their comments relate strictly to Germany both during and after WWII. Both ex-pats living in Los Angeles, the two combined their hatred for the American culture industry that turned out "hit songs, stars, and soap operas [which] conform to types recurring cyclically...[where] the details become interchangeable" (44) and the sheep-like nature of cultural sameness among the masses and mass culture that was extremely prevalent in Nazi Germany to form the argument in their book. Here, I almost feel as though sameness should be in quotations; it is a concept and a word the two authors continue to go back to.

The media does have a social responsibility, but it has this responsibility and ethics (if it is indeed ethical and responsible) because it recognizes its power over the masses. This is why propaganda films in the Third Reich were so effective in stirring people to believe in Nazi sentiments and instilled in them a sense of nationalism and patriotism, thus justifying their actions throughout the early 1940s. These films and their messages were indeed unethical, relying on emotional, seemingly nation-minded rhetoric and images to stir their viewers in to action. These people were essentially being brainwashed by an industry of culture that was using different media in highly unethical, yet effective, ways.

As educated thinkers we are indeed constantly thinking and assessing, but the uneducated (or mildly educated) worker and the general masses are who Adorno and Horkheimer are addressing when they state that entertainment "is sought by those who want to escape the mechanized labor process so that they can cope with it again"(52). College graduates are among the top one or two percent in terms of education in this country, and are therefore not who Adorno and Horkheimer are judging. Some people actually believe the things they read in supermarket tabloids like "The National Inquirer" and those ridiculous celebrity gossip magazines because they are not using their brains and thinking about the messages that media is sending them. Some women will believe anything Opera tells them. Some American citizens still trust our President. These beliefs are stemmed from a disconnect between reality and fiction, truth and truthiness, a line that some obviously find blurred when they take the news stations, magazines, print publications, films, and radio at their word.

The educated elite, skeptics and deep thinkers are, I believe, not common in the culture industry, and are not those Adorno and Horkheimer are addressing. In stating that "the defrauded masses today cling to the myth of success still more ardently than the successful...They insist unwaveringly on the ideology by which they are enslaved" (50), the authors are not talking about the educated elite. They speak here of those who still aspire for greatness, whether it be in social status, wealth, education, or just sheer luck, and use the models presented to them in the media (mostly in film) as hope that they too can be "the one who draws the winning ticket" (57); the female star in the media not only allows the aspiring average female to believe she can be a star, but also makes the general public of women aware of their distance from the star's status.

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