Religion as a Culture Industry
University of Colorado at Boulder
This paper applies Horkheimer and Adorno's theory of the culture industry to analyze religion as a culture industry and concludes with a critique of the theory.
Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno’s essay, The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception examines the world through a societal perspective. The authors argue that after the Enlightenment people began to view the world in terms of manipulation in order to produce better results and this change in rationale led to undemocratic communication. Communication, in this theory, is implicitly defined as discursive reflection; genuine communication is the process of becoming aware and examining our social world through authentic conversation. In this theory, culture and communication are synonymous; culture is the way humans communicate in order to create meaning and this phenomenon has become an industry. When communication is undemocratic, a system of domination allows for the elite few to create meaning for the masses. The grave implications of this communication industry are the very reasons why the authors suggest the importance of examining the world and our interactions through a critical approach.
One of a culture industry’s defining characteristics is a mass reproduction system of cultural goods, services, ideas, meaning and needs. Horkheimer and Adorno (1976) suggest that due to this mass production, everything becomes less valuable and there is a loss in individuality; “In the culture industry the individual is an illusion… because of the standardization of the means of production.” In a society ruled by the culture industry, people are being mass-produced and are ultimately cultural products.
Another important characteristic of the culture industry is an existence of a power monopoly with control of production of goods as well as meaning, being held by a few powerful individuals. According to Horkheimer and Adorno (1976), “under monopoly all mass culture is identical.” The theory sees power relations and domination as a primary source of communicative problems. If culture is the way humans communicatively create a sense of the world, and that understanding is decided by a select few, then our sense of the world is also being managed by the monopoly.
The theory suggests that “technology of the culture industry [is] no more than the achievement of standardization and mass production” (Adorno & Horkheimer, 1976). The use of technology is empirically the method used to produce culture. Technology is what makes the culture industry possible because it allows for the elite few to produce large quantities for the individuals to consume.The idea of questioning the world originated in Kant’s critical philosophy. The German Ideology, written by Marx and Engels (1845), suggests that humans are being homogenized; “ men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking about the products of their thinking.” Horkheimer and Adorno’s theory of culture industry follows suit in suggesting the importance of thinking critically about society and presenting a theory that not only helps to understand the world but also attempts to change it. Application Consider religion as a culture industry. When examining the faithful through the theory of the culture industry, religious followers are seen as consumers of the products necessitated and produced by the religious leaders. The industry of religion creates cultural goods to be consumed by the faithful such as pocket size bibles, menorahs, and Christmas trees. The industry also gains from offering prayer sessions; at Temple Rodef Shalom in Virginia, congregation members must prepay for seats at High Holiday services and each seat is over a hundred dollars. A Jewish woman wearing a wig signifies she is married. A man adorned in a dark furry top hat, ringlet curls by his ears, and leather straps and boxes on his arms and forehead means he is a Hassidic Jew. The need for these articles of clothing, and the meaning associated with them has been created by the industry of Judaism. Further, when applying Horkheimer and Adorno’s theory, one can see the disappearance of individuality within the Jewish culture because culture has created a standardized way a person of the faith should look. Many people are members of a certain religion and once they adopt that religion’s culture, they become a mainstream follower and less of an individual. When applying the theory of culture industry to religion, one can see the use of technology to fill the needs of the consumers. If a consumer of faith can’t make it to church they have the ability to tune into a televised sermon or sing along to a CD with recorded chants. Judaism, as an industry, created the cultural need for a kosher lifestyle which has led to the production of specialized websites such as the Avi Glatt Kosher website, an “on-line kosher supermarket” which is “a one stop shop with all your kosher food needs” (http://www.aviglatt.com/, November 28, 2007). It is also possible to see a system of reproduction in the Religion industry. Since the invention of the printing press, churches have been printing and reproducing the bible for the masses in order to keep people believing in the faith, which ultimately maintains the significance and power of the church and its leaders. A power monopoly is evident in the Religion industry. Take the Jewish voting population in the United States for example. Rabbis’ endorse specific candidates based on their stance on matters important to the Jewish culture- such as the State of Israel. Also, the congregation goes to services to hear the priests’ interpretation of the bible and often individuals take their understanding as the absolute truth. This system of domination allows for few religious leaders to manipulate an entire population to vote for a particular candidate, eat a certain way, and live their lives according to establish rules.
Critical theories highlight the importance of critically analyzing the world and the ramifications of passive acceptance. This approach to theory must also be applied to Horkheimer and Adorno’s theory of the culture industry. A flaw in their theory can be pointed out when examining the application to religion; Horkheimer and Adorno suggest that a culture industry characteristic is mass production and that this ultimately leads to a loss of meaning. However, while countless bibles are reproduced annually the meaning of the bible has not diminished. It is even possible to suggest that the meaning of the bible is more empowered because people are reading it more and interpreting it themselves. Thus there is not always a negative correlation between mass production and meaning.
The theory of culture industry shares with the phenomenological theory an emphasis on the need for authentic communication. While Horkheimer and Adorno’s theory claims discursive reflection is ideal, they suggest that our culture has inhibited this form of communication and replaced it with inauthentic, automated responses. Buber (1955) agrees that genuine dialogue is lacking in our society and points to the unfortunate fact that technical dialogue and monologue disguised as dialogue are the primary forms of communication in our society. This “reproduction of the same” makes it impossible for genuine conversation and so it is necessary to examine and alter our communicative habits in order to create our own consciousness.
The constitutive model of communication proposes that meaning is constituted in the communication process. This idea is the essence of Horkheimer and Adorno’s theory- democratic communication is ideal because everyone in society has the equal ability to create meanings. Stanley Deetz’ systems model of communication also supports the idea that meaning is constituted in the communication process, the “systems perspective assumes that meaning arises between people as they communicate.” The German ideology also states that our perception of the world comes from interaction with others, “language is practical consciousness… language, like consciousness, only arises from the need, the necessity, of intercourse with other men. Consciousness is, therefore, from the very beginning a social product, and remains so as long as men exist at all” (Marx & Engels, 1845).
Even though you can see the characteristics of a culture industry in religion, the culture of religion is much more than merely a relationship of producer and consumer. Many people conceptualize faith on their own terms, creatively explaining the world and its spiritual realm, as he or she feels appropriate. However, applying Horkheimer and Adorno’s culture theory to religion serves as a reminder to take a more active role in one’s own faith and understanding of the world.
Horkheimer, M., & Adorno, T. W. (1976). The culture industry: Enlightenment as mass deception. [Exerpts] In Dialectic of enlightenment pp. 120- 124, 154-167: Continuum International Publishing Group.
Avi Glatt Kosher. http://www.aviglatt.com/. Copyright 2004-2007. November 28, 2007.
Deetz, S. (n.d.). Linear or systems models of communication. Communication 3210, University of Colorado at Boulder.Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1845-46). The German ideology [excerpts]. Marxists Internet Archive: http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/ch01a.htm.