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Theodor W. Adorno: Culture industry reconsidered. 1991

Fig.: Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno


Theodor Adorno:
Culture industry reconsidered

(from "The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture" London:
Routledge, 1991)

The term culture industry was perhaps used for the first time in the
book Dialectic of Enlightenment, which Horkheimer and I published
in Amsterdam in 1947. In our drafts we spoke of 'mass culture'. We
replaced that expression with 'culture industry' in order to exclude
from the outset the interpretation agreeable to its advocates: that it
is a matter of something like a culture that arises spontaneously from
the masses themselves, the contemporary form of popular art. From
the latter the culture industry must be distinguished in the extreme.
The culture industry fuses the old and familiar into a new quality. In
all its branches, products which are tailored for consumption by
masses, and which to a great extent determine the nature of that
consumption, are manufactured more or less according to plan. The
individual branches are similar in structure or at least fit into each
other, ordering themselves into a system almost without a gap. This
is made possible by contemporary technical capabilities as well as by
economic and administrative concentration. The culture industry
intentionally integrates its consumers from above. To the detriment of
both it forces together the spheres of high and low art, separated for
thousands of years. The seriousness of high art is destroyed in
speculation about its efficacy; the seriousness of the lower perishes with
the civilizational constraints imposed on the rebellious resistance
inherent within it as long as social control was not yet total. Thus,
although the culture industry undeniably speculates on the conscious
and unconscious state of the millions towards which it is directed, the
masses are not primary, but secondary, they are an object of
calculation; an appendage of the machinery. The customer is not king, as the
culture industry would have us believe, not its subject but its object.
The very word mass-media, specially honed for the culture industry,
already shifts the accent onto harmless terrain. Neither is it a
question of primary concern for the masses, nor of the techniques of
communication as such, but of the spirit which sufllates them, their
master's voice. The culture industry misuses its con
cern for the masses in order to duplicate, reinforce and strengthen
their mentality, which it presumes is given and unchangeable. How this
mentality might be changed is excluded throughout. The masses are not
the measure but the ideology of the culture industry, even though the
culture industry itself could scarcely exist without adapting to the masses.
The cultural commodities of the industry are governed, as Brecht
and Suhrkamp expressed it thirty years ago, by the principle of their
realization as value, and not by their own specific content and
harmonious formation. The entire practice of the culture industry
transfers the profit motive naked onto cultural forms. Ever since these
cultural forms first began to earn a living for their creators as
commodities in the market-place they had already possessed something
of this quality. But then they sought after profit only indirectly, over
and above their autonomous essence. New on the part of the culture
industry is the direct and undisguised primacy of a precisely and
thoroughly calculated efficacy in its most typical products. The autonomy
of works of art, which of course rarely ever predominated in an entirely
pure form, and was always permeated by a constellation of effects, is
tendentially eliminated by the culture industry, with or without the
conscious will of those in control. The latter include both those who
carry out directives as well as those who hold the power. In economic
terms they are or were in search of new opportunities for the
realization of capital in the most economically developed countries. The
old opportunities became increasingly more precarious as a result of
the same concentration process which alone makes the culture industry
possible as an omnipresent phenomenon. Culture, in the true
sense, did not simply accommodate itself to human beings; but it always
simultaneously raised a protest against the petrified relations
under which they lived, thereby honoring them. In so far as culture
becomes wholly assimilated to and integrated in those petrified
relations, human beings are once more debased. Cultural entities typical
of the culture industry are no longer also commodities, they are
commodities through and through. This quantitative shift is so great that
it calls forth entirely new phenomena. Ultimately, the culture industry
no longer even needs to directly pursue everywhere the profit interests
from which it originated. These interests have become
objectified in its ideology and have even made themselves independent of
the compulsion to sell the cultural commodities which
must be swallowed anyway. The culture industry turns into public
relations, the manufacturing of 'goodwill' per se, without regard for
particular firms or saleable objects. Brought to bear is a general
uncritical consensus, advertisements produced for the world, so that
each product of the culture industry becomes its own advertisement.

Nevertheless, those characteristics which originally stamped the
transformation of literature into a commodity are maintained in this
process. More than anything in the world, the culture industry has its
ontology, a scaffolding of rigidly conservative basic categories which
can be gleaned, for example, from the commercial English novels of
the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. What parades
as progress in the culture industry, as the incessantly new which it offers
up, remains the disguise for an eternal sameness; everywhere the
changes mask a skeleton which has changed just as little as the
profit motive itself since the time it first gained its predominance
over culture.
Thus, the expression 'industry' is not to be taken too literally. It
refers to the standardization of the thing itself - such as that of the
Western, familiar to every movie-goer - and to the rationalization of
distribution techniques, but not strictly to the production process.
Although in film, the central sector of the culture industry, the
production process resembles technical modes of operation in the
extensive division of labor, the employment of machines and
the separation of the laborers from the means of production -
expressed in the perennial conflict between artists active in the
culture industry and those who control it - individual forms of
production are nevertheless maintained. Each product affects an
individual air; individuality itself serves to reinforce ideology, in so far as
the illusion is conjured up that the completely reified and mediated
is a sanctuary from immediacy and life. Now, as ever, the culture
industry exists in the 'service' of third persons, maintaining its affinity
to the declining circulation process of capital, to the commerce from
which it came into being. Its ideology above all makes use of the star
system, borrowed from individualistic art and its commercial
exploitation. The more dehumanized its methods of operation and content,
the more diligently and successfully the culture industry propagates
supposedly great personalities and operates with heart-throbs. It is
industrial more in a sociological sense, in the incorporation of
industrial forms of organization even when nothing is manufactured - as
in the rationalization of office work - rather than in the sense of
anything really and actually produced by technological rationality.
Accordingly, the misinvestments of the culture industry are
considerable, throwing those branches rendered obsolete by new techniques
into crises, which seldom lead to changes for the better.
The concept of technique in the culture industry is only in name
identical with technique in works of art. In the latter, technique is
concerned with the internal organization of the object itself, with its
inner logic. In contrast, the technique of the culture industry is, from
the beginning, one of distribution and mechanical reproduction, and
therefore always remains external to its object. The culture industry
finds ideological support precisely in so far as it carefully shields it-
self from the full potential of the techniques contained in its pro-
ducts. It lives parasitically from the extra-artistic technique of the
material production of goods, without regard for the obligation to
the internal artistic whole implied by its functionality (Sachlichkeit),
but also without concern for the laws of form demanded by aesthetic
autonomy. The result for the physiognomy of the culture industry is
essentially a mixture of streamlining, photographic hardness and
precision on the one hand, and individualistic residues, sentimentality
and an already rationally disposed and adapted romanticism on
the other. Adopting Benjamin's designation of the traditional work
of art by the concept of aura, the presence of that which is not
present, the culture industry is defined by the fact that it does not strictly
counterpose another principle to that of aura, but rather by the fact
that it conserves the decaying aura as a foggy mist. By this means the
culture industry betrays its own ideological abuses.
It has recently become customary among cultural officials as well
as sociologists to warn against underestimating the culture industry
while pointing to its great importance for the development of the
consciousness of its consumers. It is to be taken seriously, without
cultured snobbism. In actuality the culture industry is important as a
moment of the spirit which dominates today. Whoever ignores its
influence out of skepticism for what it stuffs into people would be
naive. Yet there is a deceptive glitter about the admonition to take it
seriously. Because of its social role, disturbing questions about its
quality, about truth or untruth, and about the aesthetic niveau of the
culture industry's emissions are repressed, or at least excluded from
the so-called sociology of communications. The critic is accused of
taking refuge in arrogant esoterica. It would be advisable first to
indicate the double meaning of importance that slowly worms its way
in unnoticed. Even if it touches the lives of innumerable people, the
function of something is no guarantee of its particular quality. The
blending of aesthetics with its residual communicative aspects leads
art, as a social phenomenon, not to its rightful position in opposition
to alleged artistic snobbism, but rather in a variety of ways to the
defense of its baneful social consequences. The importance of the
culture industry in the spiritual constitution of the masses is no
dispensation for reflection on its objective legitimation, its essential
being, least of all by a science which thinks itself pragmatic. On the
contrary: such reflection becomes necessary precisely for this reason.
To take the culture industry as seriously as its unquestioned role
demands, means to take it seriously critically, and not to cower in the
face of its monopolistic character.

Among those intellectuals anxious to reconcile themselves with
the phenomenon and eager to find a common formula to express
both their reservations against it and their respect for its power, a
tone of ironic toleration prevails unless they have already created a
new mythos of the twentieth century from the imposed regression.
After all, those intellectuals maintain, everyone knows what pocket
novels, films off the rack, family television shows rolled out into
serials and hit parades, advice to the lovelorn and horoscope columns are
all about. All of this, however, is harmless and, according to them,
even democratic since it responds to a demand, albeit a stimulated
one. It also bestows all kinds of blessings, they point out, for example,
through the dissemination of information, advice and stress reducing
patterns of behavior. Of course, as every sociological study measuring
something as elementary as how politically informed the public is
has proven, the information is meager or indifferent. Moreover, the
advice to be gained from manifestations of the culture industry is
vacuous, banal or worse, and the behavior patterns are shamelessly
The two-faced irony in the relationship of servile intellectuals to
the culture industry is not restricted to them alone. It may also be
supposed that the consciousness of the consumers themselves is split
between the prescribed fun which is supplied to them by the culture
industry and a not particularly well-hidden doubt about its blessings.
The phrase, the world wants to be deceived, has become truer than
had ever been intended. People are not only, as the saying goes, falling
for the swindle; if it guarantees them even the most fleeting
gratification they desire a deception which is nonetheless transparent to
them. They force their eyes shut and voice approval, in a kind of self-
loathing, for what is meted out to them, knowing fully the purpose
for which it is manufactured. Without admitting it they sense that
their lives would be completely intolerable as soon as they no longer
clung to satisfactions which are none at all.
The most ambitious defense of the culture industry today celebrates
its spirit, which might be safely called ideology, as an ordering
factor. In a supposedly chaotic world it provides human beings with
something like standards for orientation, and that alone seems
worthy of approval. However, what its defenders imagine is
preserved by the culture industry is in fact all the more thoroughly
destroyed by it. The color film demolishes the genial old tavern to a
greater extent than bombs ever could: the film exterminates its
imago. No homeland can survive being processed by the films which
celebrate it, and which thereby turn the unique character on which it
thrives into an interchangeable sameness.
That which legitimately could be called culture attempted, as an
expression of suffering and contradiction, to maintain a grasp on the
idea of the good life. Culture cannot represent either that which
merely exists or the conventional and no longer binding categories of
order which the culture industry drapes over the idea of the good life
as if existing reality were the good life, and as if those categories were
its true measure. If the response of the culture industry's
representatives is that it does not deliver art at all, this is itself
the ideology with which they evade responsibility for that from which the
business lives. No misdeed is ever righted by explaining it as such.
The appeal to order alone, without concrete specificity, is futile;
the appeal to the dissemination of norms, without these ever proving
themselves in reality or before consciousness, is equally futile. The
idea of an objectively binding order, huckstered to people because it
is so lacking for them, has no claims if it does not prove itself
internally and in confrontation with human beings. But this is precisely
what no product of the culture industry would engage in. The concepts of
order which it hammers into human beings are always those of the status
quo. They remain unquestioned, unanalyzed and undialectically
presupposed, even if they no longer have any substance for those who
accept them. In contrast to the Kantian, the categorical
imperative of the culture industry no longer has anything in common
with freedom. It proclaims: you shall conform, without instruction as
to what; conform to that which exists anyway, and to that which
everyone thinks anyway as a reflex of its power and omnipresence.
The power of the culture industryÕs ideology is such that conformity
has replaced consciousness. The order that springs from it is never
confronted with what it claims to be or with the real interests of
human beings. Order, however, is not good in itself. It would be so
only as a good order. The fact that the culture industry is oblivious to
this and extols order in abstracto, bears witness to the impotence and
untruth of the messages it conveys. While it claims to lead the
perplexed, it deludes them with false conflicts which they are to
exchange for their own. It solves conflicts for them only in appearance,
in a way that they can hardly be solved in their real lives. In the
products of the culture industry human beings get into trouble only so
that they can be rescued unharmed, usually by representatives of a
benevolent collective; and then in empty harmony, they are reconciled
with the general, whose demands they had experienced at the
outset as irreconcilable with their interests. For this purpose the
culture industry has developed formulas which even reach into such
non-conceptual areas as light musical entertainment. Here too one
gets into a 'jam', into rhythmic problems, which can be instantly
disentangled by the triumph of the basic beat.
Even its defenders, however, would hardly contradict Plato openly
who maintained that what is objectively and intrinsically untrue cannot
also be subjectively good and true for human beings. The concoctions of
the culture industry are neither guides for a blissful life, nor
a new art of moral responsibility, but rather exhortations to toe the
line, behind which stand the most powerful interests. The consensus
which it propagates strengthens blind, opaque authority. If the
culture industry is measured not by its own substance and logic, but
by its efficacy, by its position in reality and its explicit pretensions; if
the focus of serious concern is with the efficacy to which it always
appeals, the potential of its effect becomes twice as weighty. This
potential, however, lies in the promotion and exploitation of the ego-
weakness to which the powerless members of contemporary society,
with its concentration of power, are condemned. Their consciousness
is further developed retrogressively. It is no coincidence that cynical
American film producers are heard to say that their pictures must
take into consideration the level of eleven-year-olds. In doing so they
would very much like to make adults into eleven-year-olds.
It is true that thorough research has not, for the time being,
produced an airtight case proving the regressive effects of particular
products of the culture industry. No doubt an imaginatively designed
experiment could achieve this more successfully than the powerful
financial interests concerned would find comfortable. In any case, it
can be assumed without hesitation that steady drops hollow the
stone, especially since the system of the culture industry that
surrounds the masses tolerates hardly any deviation and incessantly
drills the same formulas on behavior. Only their deep unconscious
mistrust, the last residue of the difference between art and empirical
reality in the spiritual make-up of the masses explains why they have
not, to a person, long since perceived and accepted the world as it is
constructed for them by the culture industry. Even if its messages
were as harmless as they are made out to be - on countless occasions
they are obviously not harmless, like the movies which chime in with
currently popular hate campaigns against intellectuals by portraying
them with the usual stereotypes - the attitudes which the culture
industry calls forth are anything but harmless. If an astrologer urges his
readers to drive carefully on a particular day, that certainly hurts no
one; they will, however, be harmed indeed by the stupefication which
lies in the claim that advice which is valid every day and which is
therefore idiotic, needs the approval of the stars.
Human dependence and servitude, the vanishing point of the
culture industry, could scarcely be more faithfully described than by
the American interviewee who was of the opinion that the dilemmas
of the contemporary epoch would end if people would simply follow
the lead of prominent personalities. In so far as the culture industry
arouses a feeling of well-being that the world is precisely in that order
suggested by the culture industry, the substitute gratification which it
prepares for human beings cheats them out of the same happiness
which it deceitfully projects. The total effect of the culture industry is
one of anti-enlightenment, in which, as Horkheimer and I have
noted, enlightenment, that is the progressive technical domination of
nature, becomes mass deception and is turned into a means for fettering
consciousness. It impedes the development of autonomous,
independent individuals who judge and decide consciously for themselves.
These, however, would be the precondition for a democratic society which
needs adults who have come of age in order to sustain itself and develop.
If the masses have been unjustly reviled from above as masses, the
culture industry is not among the least responsible for making them into
masses and then despising them, while obstructing the emancipation for
which human beings are as ripe as the productive forces of the epoch permit.