Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Culture Industry

As I look closely at Adorno and Horkheimer's view in "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment and Mass Deception" I can't help but wonder if we are still living in the homogenous mass culture that the author recognize as acting through capitalism to infiltrate all aspects of the human experience. The "modern world" Horkheimer and Adorno capture in Dialectic of Enlightenment is clearly a midcentury America/western Europe where every aspect of life has been standardized to supply the needs of all citizens in the same way. I'm thinking of the post-war suburbanization. The 1950s kitchenette and nuclear family. Every person will need shoes, so tennis shoes are mass produced. Every person needs a private home with a pool and a washing machine; and the suburb is born, changing the way Americans lived, communicated with their neighbors, grocery shopped, and even how they saw themselves. Bubblegum pop captures the "cyclically rigid invarients" of culture (98). The argument that the prism of the culture industry that colors all things is ultimately bound to the author's time and place, and, obviously, they cannot be wrong. Even over 50 years later we're still walking around in a web of mass produced objects made endlessly available by capital.
Further, I am inclined to sympathize with their distinction between amusement and culture and how the modern world has conflated, packaged, and sold them as one entity. Indeed, our culture (the material essence of who we are as a people) is tied to business. The culture of business and the business of culture run through us, only allowing moments of "pseudo-individuality" where "individuals are none but mere intersections of universal tendencies" and they can be "reabsorb(ed) . . . smoothly into the universal" (125). We are the apparatus by which this machine runs.
... But is that all that we do? Horkheimer and Adorno admit at the close of this chapter that we can see past the system of culture even though we engage with it. They attribute our seeming complacency to "the triumph of advertising in the culture industry: the compulsive imitation by consumers of cultural commodities which, at the same time, they recognize as false"(36).  Even now, the device I am using to write this response on seems to argue something similar. I bought this device in light of the promise it's advertising made. Of course I recognize the tactics of adds, of the culture industry, and mass production - and yet, I still engage in that system. However, does this mean that I cannot use my product to act outside of the culture industry? Does everything I write on this keyboard reflect Horkheimer and Adorno's dialectic which is both a product of capital and a recognition of capital's falsity? Is art and music and film still subversive if it's copied and sold by Target?
The problems that arise from this dialectic are, I think, playing themselves out in the self publicizing world the internet. As Chandler pointed out, we all can (even if we don't participate we technically have the means to) showcase our writing, art, and identity on the internet and therefore contribute to the mass culture instantaneously. Whether we commodifie that experience into a product to be bought and sold is case by case dependent upon the numerous ways we exchange ourselves (watching an advertisement allows the show to have a sponsor and you to "pay" by allowing the advertiser to enter your brain for a moment). This instantaneous display of identity seems more extreme, freer, than the "pseudo-individuality" in that we can react and respond to so many varied aspects of life that a singular culture is impossible. Instead, the universe is a mass of many subcultures, interacting, growing, and changing without the streamlining of a culture industry.

1 comment:

  1. Some interesting insights on the internet, and I agree with you.

    I've been thinking about how our identities create value for the "culture industry" on the Internet. Every time we share our experience with a product or service, we create value for the company that is soliciting it. When we post a book review on Amazon, we are creating value in the form of content for Amazon. I've had Zappos and Famous Footwear actually ask me to answer other customers' question about products I've purchased, in essence asking me to act as their agent. We create Facebook in our status updates, and create a target market for their advertisers.

    I now refuse to answer customer satisfaction surveys because they are a time-suck and they essentially put me to work *for* the company that solicits them. And then there are the businesses that foster a "community" of their customers online, playing into our desire for connection with other people of like interests. Again, it seems like we are put to work for them. Our desire to be seen (publish or showcase ourselves) is exploited to create value for entities that profit from our efforts.


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