In today’s Fireside Chat, we explore the extent to which seemingly innocuous films and TV shows are actually trying to make us docile and passive workers, unable to rebel against capitalism.
The culture industry is a rich and fascinating theory – this short chat is only intended to be a very brief overview of the idea and is not intended to be a complete summary. If you are interested in delving more into this rich topic, I would strongly recommend looking at these sources:
- Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, ‘The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception’ https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/adorno/1944/culture-industry.htm
- Theodor Adorno, “Culture Industry Reconsidered”, New German Critique, no. 6 (1975): 12–19 https://doi.org/10.2307/487650
- Held, D. (1980). Introduction to Critical Theory: Horkheimer to Habermas.
The Culture Industry – Entertainment as Control
Hello and welcome to this episode of History Fireside Chats. In today’s episode, we’re going to be talking about one of the most influential theories of the mid-twentieth century – The Culture Industry.
In 1947, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer published their joint work: Dialectic of Enlightenment.
It was within this book that they outlined their views on the role of the modern media in capitalist societies. These ideas were largely based on Horkheimer and Adorno’s experiences of living in two very different countries: Nazi Germany and the United States of America.
Horkheimer and Adorno were two Jewish German philosophers both forced to flee persecution in Nazi Germany and they had both arrived in California. Having witnessed the rise of Fascism during the 1930s, Horkheimer and Adorno saw how the Nazi Party had tried to use the media to enforce ideas on society, to control a mass population through mass culture.
They had seen first hand how mass produced media, films in particular, had been used by the Nazi elite to increase the influence of the party and to disseminate their message to their audiences.
During their time in America, Horkheimer and Adorno were struck by how Hollywood and the American film industry were also seemingly mass-producing films to enforce American ideals on audiences.
To them, the film industry had become little more than a factory, pumping out the same cookie-cutter films, and propagating the same ideas. Popular culture (film, radio, cartoons and books) had become standardised. Whilst the elites in Nazi Germany and America were attempting to propagate very different messages, the two philosophers saw how mass-produced culture was being used to control the populations of Germany and America and impose ideas onto docile, accepting audiences. Fascism in Germany. Capitalism in America.
‘Movies and radio need no longer to pretend to be art’ they argue. In America, they are simply produced for the purpose of mass consumption and to impose a social and intellectual conformity upon society. One that suited capitalism. According to the two philosophers, the culture industry supposedly supports capitalism in several different ways
Firstly, the Culture Industry is designed to increase the productivity of workers. The two philosophers argue, that during leisure time, workers have little choice but to ‘accept what the culture manufacturers offer them.’ And the products they often offer them, requires no imagination or critical engagement. This encourages the prolongation of work – by giving workers a period of leisure, capitalism offers workers a chance to regain their strength in order to become more productive workers the following day.
Secondly, the culture industry also enforces passivity in society. The Culture Industry should not invoke any independent thinking from the audience. Consumers are simply passive receivers of the culture industry the products of which often teaches us to accept our own misery. Adorno and Horkheimer even saw elements of control in seemingly innocuous things like cartoons. Cartoons don’t just entertain, they break down an individual resistance to capitalist society: ‘Donald Duck in the cartoons and the unfortunate in real life get their thrashing so that the audience can learn to take their own punishment.’ The culture industry teaches us to accept our fate as workers within the system. And by sympathising with the downtrodden Donald Duck, or by sympathising with Charlie Chaplin’s tramp, the culture industry inculcates in us a tolerance to accept our own positions in society and resist the urge to rebel or resist capitalism.
The production of a homogenised society also standardises, they argue, resistance. Directors, producers, content creators are free to deviate from the mainstream but only slightly. And only if it is within set boundaries – in other words, if Hollywood rebels (such as Orson Welles) can be contained and controlled then they can tolerated as they help to reenforce what is seen as normal through what Adorno and Horkheimer describe as ‘calculated mutations which serve all the more strongly to confirm the validity of the system.’ We can see this contained, calculated and controlled tolerance of resistance even in society today – take, for example, Che Chic clothing. Clothing, made by capitalist companies that bear the famous image of Che Guevara, Cuban Revolutionary. This act of resistance is tolerated and permitted by capitalist companies because it goes against the actual resistance against capitalism that Che Guevara stood for.
The standardisation of culture, the factory-like production of films, documentaries, novels and songs, also lends itself to the dominance of advertising according to this theory. According to Adorno and Horkheimer, ‘The triumph of advertising in the culture industry is that consumers feel compelled to buy and use its products even though they see through them’. It is quite remarkable in some ways that as early as 1947 the two philosophers were concerned with subtle advertising methods in which one could not distinguish editorials from adverts in American magazines. Today, to a much greater extent, we still see that blurring of the lines – native advertisements, product placements in films, TV shows, music videos, all make it even easier for the culture industry to become increasingly commericalised. We are used to seeing popular songs feature in multiple adverts – or the same popular products featuring across multiple films. In essence, by increasing our productivity, the Culture Industry, Adorno and Horkhemier argue, forces us to produce stuff more efficiently that we don’t need, to buy stuff more efficiently that we don’t need – the Culture Industry is reinforcing capitalist values both at the point of production (when workers are working in factories) but also in leisure time as well.
The Culture Industry is a fascinating theory and one that can be a little daunting when you are reading through Adorno and Horkheimer work in itself. But to sum it up, the culture industry is the mass production of commodities in a capitalist society. This includes radio programmes, movies, TV shows, and video games. We, as a society, are constantly bombarded with products we don’t need but are forced to accept – culture has become standardised and as a result, cultural products are based on preconceived expectations. Audiences now are required to have no imagination or capacity to think to understand what is being produced for them. They simply have to enjoy them.
According to Horkheimer and Adorno the culture industry depresses our capacity to think for ourselves, and it kills our ability as a society to act in a critical way, destroying and diminishing our collective imaginations. The overall result is that that society becomes more docile, unable to rebel and revolt in a way that was possible before the Culture Industry emerged – the culture industry kills the revolutionary potential of the masses and provides us with temporary but meaningless satisfaction as a distraction from our bitter reality in a capitalist society.
But how relevant is the culture industry today? Considering these ideas were first put forward in 1947, they demonstrate in some ways a remarkable prescience. It is hard not to look at the rise of Reality TV and wonder if perhaps these are examples of a culture industry that requires little imagination to enjoy and engage with. Take for example, What Would You Do? It is a scripted reality, blurring fiction with truth – it is authentic but it is also manufactured. This is true for programmes like Keeping Up With The Kardashians or The Only Way Is Essex – they are scripted realities which, by showing us the lives of the elite, forces us to accept our lot much like Donald Duck did back in the 1940s.
Horkheimer and Adorno would probably argue that these sorts of reality programmes teach us to take our thrashing. Horkheimer and Adorno are occasionally accused of elitism because of the focus on mass culture, but it is worth noting that high art forms are not immune from the culture industry. They too can help to reinforce these capitalist values that Horkheimer and Adorno are focusing on
But what is also quite interesting about this theory is that it challenges the previous one we spoke about last time: The Medium is the Message by Marshall McLuhan. Marshall McLuhan probably would have argued that it doesn’t really matter what kind of programmes we were watching, the sort of TV shows we watched on Netflix, or the sort of TikTok videos we watched. What matters was the medium we watched them on. Horkheimer and Adorno would argue however that we need to take a more critical view about the sort of messages these cultural industries are trying to impose upon us.
Thanks for joining me in this chat about the culture industry. The Culture Industry is a very rich theory and I’ve only tried to scratch the surface here as an introduction to the concept. I hope you will join me next time as I invite a special guest on History Fireside Chats to talk about what Cold War Christmas films tell us about postwar American society.