Horkheimer and Adorno’s Culture Industry:
University of Colorado at Boulder
The Culture Industry is one in and of itself that focuses on the media and mass marketing. However due to extensive publicity and advertising, all cultural products, including human beings, have become commodities that share little to no meaning. Communicatively, a problem arises in that any sense of genuine dialogue is also lost. This industry gives reason to believe the individual is an illusion that is manipulated by authority, those who reside in the dominant class.
Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno define the Culture Industry through its focus on the media and mass marketing. This industry is unique in that it does not reflect economic processes and essentially becomes homogenous; thus, variation is meaningless. This includes the media, art, ideas, meanings, and the individual consciousness. “Films, radio and magazines make up a system which is uniform as a whole and in every part” (Horkheimer & Adorno, 1976). What Horkheimer and Adorno are implying is that all reason has become instrumental rationality and that "we," as human beings, can only think in terms of means and ends. In other words, we are made into commodities we must retail. Once we sell our marketed product, a.k.a. our selves, we will have then become sellouts. In short, the rise of the individual turns into the downfall of the individual.
The Culture Industry is characterized by three specific ideas: Monopoly, Mass Production, and Technology. The notion of one firm controlling the market is referred to as a monopoly. “Under monopoly all mass culture is identical, and the lines of its artificial framework begin to show through. The people at the top are no longer so interested in concealing monopoly: as its violence becomes more open, so its power grows” (Horkheimer & Adorno, 1976). This industry is recognized as a “system of domination” in which the control is reduced into the authority of fewer and fewer beings, also representing a monopoly. Horkheimer and Adorno (1976) declare, “there is the agreement…of all executive authorities not to produce or sanction anything that in any way differs from their own rules, their own ideas about consumers, or above all themselves” (Horkheimer & Adorno, 1976). The cultural products are replicas and nonetheless creations that have lost any sense of meaning due to their constant “mass” production. Evidently, “Something is provided for all so that none will escape; the distinctions are emphasized and extended” (Horkheimer & Adorno, 1976). Still in the end, these ‘significantly different’ products are all alike and seemingly two peas in a pod. It thus comes as no surprise that technology becomes an underlying principle for maintaining the system or structure. This demonstrates what Horkheimer and Adorno (1976) were implying in that, “a technological rationale is the rationale of domination itself. It is the coercive nature of society alienated from itself” (Horkheimer & Adorno, 1976). As technology improves, individuals feel a need to improve themselves as well. In doing so, they turn to the next “best” product for sale and in popular demand.
If the cultural products lose their sense of meaning and authenticity due to their mass production, what happens to the individuals who buy into these commodities? Subconsciously, we may not realize that each time we step into the Apple store to purchase and bring ourselves up to date with the new version of the iPod or MacBook, we are merely buying the new trendy “thing” to add to our very own material product of a self. We may “think” we are expressing our sense of self and individuality by going into the Apple store and picking out an iPod nano in orange because in our mind, we find that typically everyone buys blue or silver and we want to be different; thus we conclude we are being unique. However, the fact of the matter is regardless of color, we are buying this product because it is frequently publicized through media only to illustrate this materialized commodity of “cool” that everyone must have. We are truthfully as much of a commodity as the product itself. Regardless, we have a situation where the consumers are being victimized by the producers in that they know what we like and give us what we want; therefore, we no longer have genuine experiences.
So where did this individuality or individual sense of meaning go? Is this concept lost for good? Horkheimer and Adorno (1976) give reason to believe that in our society, rules by the culture industry convey that the individual is an illusion. “Pseudo individuality is the prerequisite for comprehending tragedy and removing its poison: only because individuals have ceased to be themselves and are now merely centers where the general tendencies meet” (Horkheimer & Adorno, 1976). The individual, like a product, is mass-produced. Take for example pop stars like Britney Spears, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, and other female performers on the top 40 charts. These women share similar characteristics that our young population is attracted to. The music industry recognizes this and begins to mass produce more “Britneys” and more “Rihannas” and slap a different name to the new evolving pop star. They too are human beings treated as manufactured goods that can be purchased or replicated, just like a Barbie doll or an iPod. As long as the music industry advertises the new female artist as the next up and coming star, young children will immediately catch on and next thing you know, we have a new Miley Cyrus. This brings about the notion of advertising and how it plays a crucial role in our everyday lives. Advertising effectively grabs the public’s attention through the use of television commercials, billboards, magazines, etc. It is the advertisement that attracts the consumer to buy a product and ascribe the connotation of “coolness” to it. Inevitably, the product and the advertisement become two of a kind.
When the advertisement becomes one with the product, we no longer need to uncover its true function and no longer need to understand the point of the product because we understand what was advertised. On that note, if we are losing meaning to consumer goods, it is very likely our language in communication can, and very much will, be lost. Like products, language is designed and advertised by the marketers, portraying the dominant roll, and is losing its relation to authentic experiences in the world. Take for example the Budweiser beer commercial that aired a few years back in which four African American [guy] friends acknowledged each other with an exaggerated “Whazzup?!”. Although this commercial was rated as the Superbowl’s most popular advertisement and remains one of Budweiser’s “hottest ad campaigns ever” (Watts & Orbe, 2002), many [Caucasians] were confused by the advertisement and did not quite understand its significance. This demonstrates what Watts and Orbe (2002) are saying in that “the pop culture craze associated with the ‘Whassup?!’ guys leaves some observers dumbfounded and amazed. But others chalk up the frenzy to either the universality of male bonding or to white America’s continued fascination with black expression” (Watts & Orbe, 2002). Due to popular culture and marketing strategies, a typical scenario of four average ‘guys’ essentially saying “hi” to one another was turned into one of the greatest and most memorable commercials to air on television; it’s as if ‘Whassup?!’ now denotes Budweiser instead of hello or how’s it going. “By destabilizing the ways through which we ascribe meaning and value to our experiences, the spectacle mediates our understanding of the world through a distribution of commercialized signs” (Watts & Orbe, 2002). Language in communication simply becomes a means to trigger conditioned responses. With that said, there is a change in the way we think of others and a loss in any sense of authenticity, yet again referring to the communicative problem Horkheimer and Adorno address in that we no longer have genuine experiences.
Our relation to others in regards to the theory of Culture Industry entails that we, as products of a commodity culture, can truthfully only relate to one another as self-sufficient sets of pre-constructed interests. When interaction occurs, meaning is not present nor is the possibility for genuine conversation and the creation of something new. The sender and receiver communicate and relate to one another as means to ends, and “as being in social contact with others with…no inward contact” (Horkheimer & Adorno, 1976), thus never as real human beings. With that, this notion of ‘friendship’ is nonexistent, most certainly when there is no genuine conversation between the sender and receiver. Instead, the creation of a ‘social contact,’ an individual who may be beneficial or useful in the future, occurs and introduces the individual to the world of networking. Needless to say, if our identities are just another commodity that can be purchased at the mall or on the Internet, are we victims of manipulation and propaganda and have we already accepted this loss of real individuality? Horkheimer and Adorno (1976) address this issue recognizing that “the principle of individuality was always full of contradiction. Individuation has never been achieved” (Horkheimer & Adorno, 1976). Evidently so, we are mere replicas of the rest of the population.
After analyzing the Culture Theory, I have come to notice the strengths and weaknesses having applied this theory to a product that I, myself, have consumed. I find this theory subconsciously catches the reader [or critiquer] off guard in that I have been caught “red handed” buying into this “fad” or “trend” that encompasses Apple and their products. On that note, I find this theory very believable and applicable to a small part of our every day lives. Growing up along side technological advancements, I have recognized that computers are the new children’s books and iPods are the new Game Boys. “Against the will of its leaders, technology has changed human beings from children into persons” (Horkheimer & Adorno, 1976). In our society, we subconsciously buy into this market of consuming the new and improved product because we do not know any better. We are extremely influenced by those around us including our friends, family, politicians, teachers, marketers, etc. because over time, these individuals have an understanding of what we like and know how to give us we want; we have lost our sense of genuine experiences because we do not have to partake in any, or so it seems. The Culture Industry gives a clear representation of how we are heavily influenced by what others are doing, saying, or buying. Our way of life is dependent on our maintenance with the latest commodity or “fad.” Conveniently so, authority figures already know what its consumers want and manage to keep us happy.
Although the Culture Theory explains the nature of advertising and commodification, it fails to explain the notion of “sameness.” After analyzing the theory and applying it to a communicative problem, I found that there is absolutely no overall variation between mass-produced goods. Horkheimer & Adorno (1976) acknowlege, “What connoisseurs discuss as good or bad points serve only to perpetuate the semblance of competition and range of choice” (Horkheimer & Adorno, 1976). Take for example, the iPhone and the Blackberry. These are two cellular devices that are in popular demand and constantly "upgrading" their features to maintain their high-tech capabilities and are well marketed to consumers of all ages. Although costly, they offer features, or "applications," the average Samsung "flip phone" does not. These are all [useful] characteristics added to the cellular phone, however when broken down, you are investing in the cellular phone for one purpose: to stay in contact with others while away from [your] home, or landline. Ultimately, an iPhone, a Blackberry, and a "flip phone" are three identical commodities in different molds.
Our society represents one that is heavily induced by the media and mass marketing. The Culture Industry theory explains this concept of consumers "selling out" to the dominant culture. Although in some respects this is true, Horkheimer and Adorno give too much power to the ruling class and their ability to produce their "ideal" consumer(s). What they fail to acknowledge is the fact that with any statistical data, you will have outliers, those who do not follow the typical trend or “norm”. Our culture is filled with individuals who do not conform to this ideal “cookie-cutter” perfect consumer; this is inevitable. Keep in mind, if individuals like Rosa Parks and homosexuals go against the norm, these individuals are effectively weakening the power of the ruling class and creating a genuine experience, in this case a fight for equality. The Culture Industry cannot explain this. Conversely, Hans Wiklund (2005) explains Jurgen Habermas’s model of “deliberative democracy” and explains the idea behind ICT, the information and communication technology. Habermas focuses his model on “rational argumentation” and two contrasting political traditions – liberal and republican. Wiklund derives four conditions for deliberative democracy, yet we will focus on autonomy and how “participants in discourse shall be granted the right to take sides with or against raised validity claims. They shall be granted the right to effective participation, i.e. equal opportunities to express and challenge arguments and counter-arguments” (Wiklund, 2005). New technologies such as the Internet allow individuals of all cultures, ethnicities, genders, races, and classes from all over the world to share their thoughts and ideas through online blogs, Internet polls, email, and more. This brings a sense of equality and weakens the hierarchical structure. This critiques the Culture Theory and its lack of recognition for the outliers, or those who choose the path of nonconformity.
The Culture Industry in short can be represented as the “Enlightenment” or knowledge as mass trickery or fraud. In other words, we may be compelled to wonder if we live in a world of mass deception in which we are simply kept in the dark. The Culture Industry theory is in fact, a critique of the Enlightenment, which was an intellectual movement emphasizing reason and individualism, rather than tradition. The Culture Industry theory took the ideas behind the Enlightenment movement and instead, noted that all reason has become instrumental rationality; we can only think in terms of means/ends. Evidently, the only notion that seems rational [according the culture industry] is means/ends thinking. Thus, we must think of “strategies” in order to be “rational”; we must be goal oriented, meaning we must create a goal and then achieve the goal. This is seen as a product of the capitalist system in which the consumers are morphing themselves into commodities, something to sell on the market. Keep in mind that “no object has an inherent value; it is valuable only to the extent that it can be exchanged” (Horkheimer & Adorno, 1976). Like any other plastic Barbie and Ken doll or the new hit CD, consumers market themselves reaching their peak mass production, only to find themselves “sold out”; the rise of the individual leads to the fall of the individual. Meaning has now come to an end.
Horkheimer, M., & Adorno, T. W. (1976). The culture industry: Enlightenment as mass deception (J. Cumming, Trans.). In Dialectic of Enlightenment (pp. 120-167. Continuum International Publishing Group.
Watts, E. K., & Orbe, M. P. (2002). The spectacular consumption of “true” African American culture: “Whassup” with the budweiser guys? Critical Studies in Media Communication, 19, 1–20.
Wiklund, H. (2005). A Habermasian analysis of the deliberative democratic potential of ICT-enabled services in Swedish municipalities. New Media & Society, 7, 701–723.