"Theodor Adorno and the Culture Industry," presented to the Annual Meeting of the Popular Culture Association, Toronto

(March 30, 1984)
by Gordon Welty Wright State University Dayton, OH 45435 USA Theodor Adorno was one of the more important philosophers of the Institute for Social Research, the "Frankfurt School," which flourished in Weimar Germany. A friend and student of the Viennese composer Alban Berg, Adorno was a musicologist as well. Along with many members of the Institute, he emigrated to the United States during the Nazi era. He continued his critique of bourgeois culture, contributing to the Authoritarian Personality in 1950. He and his friend and collaborator, Max Horkheimer, returned to Frankfurt in 1953 and reestablished the Institute. His last major writing, Negative Dialektik, was published in 1966. He died in 1969. I want to review Adorno's conception of the "culture industry" as it is found in three writings. The first is the essay "On Popular Music," which was published in the Institute's organ, Studies in Philosophy and Social Sciences, Vol. IX, No. 1. This essay both summarized Adorno's studies of popular music and immediately prefigured the emergence of the theory of the culture industry. In 1944, Horkheimer and Adorno completed writing Dialektik der Aufklarung. This manuscript remained unpublished until 1947, when it came out under the imprint of Querido in Amsterdam. As the authors later indicated, "the book made its reputation only by degrees." It became better known after 1969, when it was republished by Fischer Verlag in Frankfurt am Main. A chapter in the book entitled "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception" is the second item of interest to us. The third is "Culture Industry Reconsidered." In 1963, Adorno gave a lecture in the International Radio University Program over the Hessian Broadcasting System which was published in 1967. This has been translated in New German Critique, No. 6. I. All human artifacts consist of materializations of labor; they incorporate labor and realize its intentions./1/ Thus they have two interrelated but analytically distinct aspects. On the one side a materialization of labor, a product of labor, is a use value. As such, an artifact has utility for someone, i.e. it can "serve" a need of individual or collective practical reason. The exchange value of a commodity depends upon its utility, as well as upon the institutional conditions of the market. On the other side, a materialization of labor is an objectivization or embodiment of meaning or significance. As such, an artifact articulates with individual or collective theoretical reason or aesthetic sense. The monopolistic rental value of an artifact depends upon its significance, as well as the institutional conditions which preserve the monopoly (e.g. copyright privileges). Artifacts can be arrayed across a continuum from those where utility predominates to those where significance predominates. A piece of firewood illustrates the former, a book of poetry, the latter. It would be unusual but not inconceivable to foreground the significance, say the artistic significance, of the firewood. And one could always start a fire with a page of poetry, highlighting its utility rather than its poetic significance.

horoscope. even where the attempt is made to circumvent standardization. The consumer is paying. Horkheimer and Adorno begin by considering. Now any person signifies only those attributes by which he can replace everybody else. Rather than assessments of value based on the qualities of the product." This is a dialectical relationship. television serials. As Horkheimer and Adorno have put it. In the case of serious music. As early as his 1936 essay "On Jazz. or in the office can only be escaped by approximating it in one's leisure time. etc. "all is lost. the substitutability of parts. By contrast. magazines. the essential characteristic of the culture industry is repetition. "the product prescribes every reaction." repeats this point. jazz. "Man as a member of a species has been made a reality by the culture industry. "cultural products."/8/ To this point. As Horkheimer and Adorno stressed./3/ Adorno illustrates this by contrasting "popular" and "serious" music. each one declines in significance."/5/ Other illustrations could be given. the value of the cultural object should decline as well. horror films with their formulas."/7/ Standardization. "On Popular Music. such as the soap operas with their substitutable episodes. its price. etc. As cultural objects become more interchangeable. and dismissing." Adorno had argued that an essential characteristic of popular music was its standardization. Under late capitalism. including film."/6/ The standardization of the cultural product leads to the standardization of the audience. to a subordinate degree.We will call all artifacts where significance predominates over utility." In particular. "divests the listener of his spontaneity and promotes conditioned reflexes." hence declines in monopolistic rent."/2/ Replaced by exchange value! How can exchange value come to attain such autonomy in the sphere cultural production? Only through a widespread process of fetishization. whereby the totality is constituted of the organic interrelation of the particulars. soap operas. III. not for the product but for the packaging. however. interchangeability is not possible."/4/ Standardization implies the interchangeability. in the factory. its top-ten rating. whereby "every detail derives its musical sense from the concrete totality of the piece. This repetition is due to the reflection in the sphere of cultural production of the standardized and repetitive processes of monopoly capitalist industry. judgments about the qualities of the product are based upon its exchange value. the claim that the . the same as an industrial product such as a can of green beans. what happens at work. he is interchangeable. on the object's utility. loses its "aura. "The whole structure of popular music is standardized. radio. It might be argued that the standardization of the cultural product under late capitalism is technologically determined. "serious music" is a "concrete totality" for Adorno. the argument suggests that both popular culture and its audience suffer a radical loss of significance under late capitalism. if a detail is omitted. Since the value of the cultural object is based on the monopolistic rent or. This doesn't occur under late capitalism. says Adorno. This is the height of commodity fetishism. II. "what might be called use value in the reception of cultural commodities is replaced by exchange value. This sets the terms for cultural products: "no independent thinking must be expected from the audiences" instead. we are concerned here with the cultural products which made up popular culture in Adorno's conception. Standardization extends from the most general features to the most specific ones." written in 1941 "with the assistance of George Simpson.

petroleum."/17/ Without pseudo-individualization. He states that "the expression 'industry' [in the concept 'culture industry'] is not to be taken literally."/20/ Let us consider how this uniformity is generated by popular music. Adorno invokes the Distraction Thesis. with its effective means of communication. for its part."/15/ "The necessary correlate of musical standardization is pseudo-individualization [i." the song could not be successfully marketed. and yet possess the complete conventionality and triviality of all others. banks.e. Without standardisation. As Stuart Ewen has pointed out. he had been even more specific. Popular music either promotes the thoughtlessness of the masses or else provides the content of their thought./11/ Adorno stresses that the standardization of the cultural product is not a consequence of mass production.] endowing cultural mass production with the halo of free choice or open market on the basis of standardization itself. that is. Technology attains its power. what the marketing industry calls "product differentiation. control the culture monopolies. Regarding the first of these. "a song-hit must have at least one feature by which it can be distinguished from any other."/21/ ."/13/ Rather. relaxation which does not involve the effort of concentration at all. The modern administration of capitalist society.. loss of income. keeps people from gregarious interaction. "Popular music must simultaneously meet two demands. which are "weak and dependent in comparison. It refers to the standardization of the thing itself . this mode of production.accounts for the dual character of standardization itself. war." It is "still 'individualistic' in its social mode of production. that it maintain the supremacy of the natural against such deviations. whereas the act of producing a song-hit still remains in a handicraft stage. In order to be mass marketed. As Horkheimer and Adorno point out. has its 'non-productive' correlate in entertainment." Pseudo-individualization. "modern communications media have an isolating effect. steel.. The other is for material to fall within the category of what the musically untrained listener would call 'natural' music ."/19/ This includes both social and physical isolation. prevents the listener from resisting the standardization which is reducing him to the animalistic level by making him forget that the music was standardized. the identity of mass culture. viz. Automobiles facilitate travel of people "in complete isolation from each other."/14/ Adorno continues that "the paradox in the desiderata -."/10/ The latter produce and market the mass culture. without requiring any effort on the part of the customer."/12/ Earlier. "which engenders fears and anxiety about unemployment.standardization./18/ IV." They continue that "communication establishes uniformity among men by isolating them. "The production of popular music can be called 'industrial' only in its promotion and distribution. but not strictly to the production process. Stylization of the ever identical framework is only one aspect of standardization. by deviating in some way from the established 'natural' [music].. mass society has two aspects. chemicals." it could not be mass-marketed at all.stimulatory and natural -. can be explained in technological terms./9/ The most powerful industries.such as the Western... mass production and mass consumption.and to the rationalization of distribution techniques. they argue. electricity. One is for stimuli that provoke the listener's attention . it could not be "sold automatically. standardization is a necessity of mass consumption. "Distraction" is a correlate of capitalism./16/ This dual characteristic of popular music also proves to be significant for purposes of marketing it.. familiar to every movie-goer -. only through the power of monopolies and great corporations.

2."/22/ Regarding the next of these. Cf./23/ Listeners of the rhythmically obedient type are particularly susceptible to "masochistic adjustment to authoritarian collectivism. The consequences for the audience in late capitalism are distraction on the one hand.Thus. Gordon Welty. and cultural practices of vast numbers of the populace.only stresses the need for a radical critique of the cultural apparatus that has created this age and props up the chief character of this age's tragic farce. The accession of a B-grade movie actor to the presidency. The standardization and interchangeability of cultural products under late capitalism leads to the interchangeability of persons in the audience. On the other hand. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Vol. 17-18. the pseudo-individualization of the culture product as well as the members of the audience.whether fascistic or sorrowful accommodation -. They are taken in by the musical expression of frustration rather than by that of happiness. Adorno has provided a theory of the nature of the cultural product and its valuation at an appropriate level of discourse." and the like has proven less than satisfactory. the advent of the "Age of the Great Communicator" -." "mass society. . and a means of ensuring the audience's "adjustment" -. pp. It is also a product of that music." Quarterly Journal of Ideology (1981). Theodor Adorno. "On Popular Music. Vol." Studies in Philosophy and Social Sciences (1941). 2. 158. "the tunes lull the listener to inattention. 4. that of the "rhythmically obedient" type and that of the "emotional" type. Both stylization and pseudo-individualization contribute to the possibilities of mass marketing. the manipulative power of that cultural industry grows day by day. No." There are two major types of mass response to popular music. No. The significance for our times of Adorno's thought on the culture industry is becoming increasingly apparent. the analysis of "mass culture.' to their social dependence.to dependency on the other. by means of this 'release. Notes 1. "The Materialist Science of Culture and the Critique of Ideology. distraction is a presupposition of popular music. 136."/24/ Listeners of the emotional type "consume music in order to be allowed to weep. V. It is necessary critically to delve into the material basis of the cultural apparatus which has ensnared the thinking. attitudes. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. Adorno suggests that popular music serves an ideological function for its listeners."/25/ * * * In sum. Stylization has its counterpart. IX. p." Adorno continues: "Music that permits its listeners the confession of their unhappiness reconciles them. ibid. 3.an age revolving about the personality of a man bordering on the dementia of Alzheimer's disease -. 1. Popular music "is above all a means by which they achieve some psychical adjustment to the mechanisms of present day life. New York: Herder and Herder (1972). On the one hand. p.

42. "On Popular Music. ibid. 137. 39. 8. Horkheimer and Adorno. p. 14. "On Popular Music. 24-26. Adorno. Horkheimer and Adorno. 22. p. Theodor Adorno. 14. p. p. p. ibid. p. 122. Dialectic of Enlightenment. p. Horkheimer and Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment. New York: McGraw-Hill (1976). p. 25. p. 24. Stuart Ewen. 7. ibid. 16." p. pp. 27. Adorno. Horkheimer and Adorno." New German Critique (1975) No. "On Popular Music. p. 18. p. ibid. ibid. Dialectic of Enlightenment.145. 10. 37-38. p. 23. "Culture Industry Reconsidered. 121. p. 17. ibid. 40. ibid. 22. Adorno. p. 12." p. Captains of Consciousness. . ibid. p. 9. 13. 21. 19 6. p. p. 11." p. 24. 24.5. 15. 20. 121. 23. Horkheimer and Adorno. 25. Dialectic of Enlightenment. ibid. 6. 28. 122. ibid. ibid. 19. 40. Dialectic of Enlightenment.

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