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I mentioned in the first post in this series that I chose to take the themes of “Sociology, Capitalism and Modernity” as the central strands in an introductory social theory module as a way of focusing what could be a sprawling discussion. The figures who are the focus of this post neatly capture some of the most important themes we have addressed so far.
Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer are towering figures in the sociological landscape but might not be familiar to those new to the subject or who have only encountered it as an A-Level. Although they conducted a large amount of important work individually I will focus on a particular part of the work they conducted together as it neatly demonstrates the continuing significance of the central themes of the module and is probably their most famous work.
I will reflect on some of the key aspects of their work on the “culture industry” in their book The Dialectic of Enlightenment. In this (and much of their other work) they bring together influences from Karl Marx, Max Weber and Sigmund Freud.
From Marx they take his analysis of how the economic base of society determines the superstructure. In their focus in “The Culture Industry…” this means that economic forces and the needs of production dictate what kind of culture is produced. So, creative outputs such as novels, movies and TV shows become expressions of economic forces and largely just “products” or “commodities” like any others.
In an era when one of the first things anyone hears about a new film is whether it has been “No 1 at the box office”, how much money it made in it’s first weekend or how it fits into a “franchise” this almost seems like a banal point to make. But this is really important. If culture is just a commodity produced to maximize profit then surely something is lost from it.
The other key influence they take is from Weber (I won’t discuss Freud here as he isn’t part of my social theory module). In particular they draw on his warning that the increasing influence of rational thinking, planning and social organization could lead to a “disenchantment of the world”. That is, we could become completely taken over with cold, grey rationality that we can’t see the beauty or poetry in the world.
The way that Adorno and Horkheimer see it we are well on our way to that situation (and they were writing in the 1940s!). They think that mainstream, mass culture is mostly produced in an entirely rational way. So creative decisions are intertwined with commercial decisions. In movies: stories, characters and actors are all chosen because they are considered to be the most appealing to a particular audience.
But it is not just the way that culture is produced which is the problem but how it is presented, how we consume it and the ways in which it encourages us to think (or not). Adorno and Horkheimer think that real culture should challenge us, stimulate critical thought and (crucially) encourage our individuality. The culture which they think is valuable helps to cultivate a critical disposition in people.The products of the culture industry, however, only encourage us to conform and obey. In this sense it has more in common with propaganda than real culture.
When culture is produced through industrial methods; questioning and discerning readers, listeners and viewers are not very convenient. What is preferred are passive consumers who will be predictable and buy whatever is put in front of them. So, the corporations who produce cultural products like to segment us into groups with predictable tastes who they can sell the same products (with slight variations) to us over an over again.
This doesn’t mean that it is impossible to make good culture within this industrial system. Often some of the best works of art are made under difficult constraints. Also, because there is a lot of money in mainstream culture then this is often where some of the most skilled artists work. But the structures of the system encourage particular methods of engaging audiences and the types of culture that we are provided with are the ones which many of us come to like and demand.
The culture industry thus prioritises “easy” entertainment. There are plenty of “dumb” movies which are very successful because we have been convinced that something is entertaining if it doesn’t require too much thinking. We are also encouraged to find comfort in familiarity so we are fed lots of movies which are very similar to others which have previously been successful.
The skill of the culture industry is to keep producing songs or TV shows which are similar enough to what has gone before so it is easy for people to recognise them as something appealing but just different enough to seem exciting. A good example of this can be seen in the way in which individual musical phrases are seemingly dropped into many different pop songs because they have worked before. Here is a video which shows how the “millenial whoop” is used in Katy Perry songs, Kings of Leon songs and many others.
Culture can be life-changing, emotional, beautiful, disturbing or inspirational. It can help us to feel connected to other people and help us to express our individuality through incorporating it into our own consciousness, finding our own meaning in it and producing something new ourselves. But when culture is turned into simply a product and sold to us then this depressing not just for the consumer but the producer as well.
In an interview on BBC Radio David Bowie (if you have access to “Learning on Screen” through an educational account you can listen to this section from about 2:30:00) talked about a time when he got carried away with commercial success and started to simply produce music he knew would sell. Here he reflects on having produced two of his albums which he considers to be amongst his worst (Tonight and Loving the Alien):
Do you know what was really wrong more than anything else. I don’t think the choice of songs was that bad. Some of them were good songs actually. I would fudge around with more experimental things and then opt for what I presumed was the more obvious, commercial choice […]And it was by the time that we got to Never Let Me Down that half way through making that album that I realised I’ve no interest in making this album whatsover. I’m just providing that dreadful word; product. I’m just providing product for the record company