Revisiting the Frankfurt School: Essays on Culture, Media and Theory

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He analyzed this process in an article on the reception of popular music:. Standardization of song hits keeps the customers in line doing their thinking for them, as it were. Pseudo-individuation, for its part, keeps them in line by making them forget that what they listen to is wholly intended for them or predigested. Pseudo-individuation was evident in the standardized jazz improvization, in the pseudo-individuality of the film star whose hair style expressed her uniqueness, and in the seemingly personal signature of a director on what was, in fact, a standardized product.


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Adorno's criticism of mass culture was simultaneously a critique of positivist methods in media research. A collaborator on the Princeton Radio Research Project in , Adorno came in conflict with his colleagues over his refusal to measure and classify the reaction pattern of listeners as if these patterns were empirical "facts.

Wrote Adorno:. They are expected to want that to which they have become accustomed and to become enraged whenever their expectations are disappointed and fulfillment, which they regard as the customer's inalienable right, is denied, and even if there were attempts to introduce anything really different into light music, they would be deceived from the start by virtue of economic concentration.

The Dialectical Methods of Marshall McLuhan, Marxism, and Critical Theory

Listening habits were standardized through song plugging, a practice which broke down all remnants of spontaneity and resistance to conformity. Standardization resulted in a regression in quality of hearing, such that the listener was docile and afraid of anything new, a sadomasochistic state of impotence that Erich Fromm had described as the basis of the authoritarian personality. Adorno's critique was not directed against popular culture per se, but the specific kind of mass culture produced under monopoly capitalism. His theory of the degradation of serious art through the rise of culture industry and mass production must be distinguished from conservative and elitist culture criticism.

Cottage Industry | Review 31

Unlike elitist critics, Adorno refused to defend high art for its own sake and to condemn popular art as inherently inferior. He wrote,. Anyone who complains that it is a betrayal of the ideal of free expression is under an illusion about society. Adorno condemned cultural critics like T.

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Eliot, Ortega y Gasset, and Aldous Huxley for fetishizing culture as a sphere autonomous from material production, and for claiming that the people threatened to destroy the values and sensibility of high art through their creation of mass culture. Horkheimer and Adorno explicitly coined the term "culture industry" to dispel the illusion that mass culture was in any sense produced by the masses. The term "popular culture" was, in fact, ideological they claimed, mass culture imposed from above rather than derived from the people. Horkheime and Adorno also departed from the puritanical belief of culture criticism that mass culture undermined morality by promoting hedonism and unrestricted sexuality.

Anticipating Marcuse's later critique of "repressive desublimation," they claimed that the culture industry was not bad because it promoted hedonism; rather it repressed pleasure and sensuality under the guise of being hedonistic. They write,. The promissory note which, with its plots and staging, it draws on pleasure is endlessly prolonged; the promise, which is actually all the spectacle consists of, is illusory; all it actually confirms is that the real point will never be reached, that the diner must be satisfied with the menu.

Through its conscious titillation of the senses the culture industry only promoted sexual renunciation; its affinity was not to joy and pleasure but masochism and resignation. According to Adorno, resignation and self-renunciation predominated in U. All they do today is to… hammer into every brain the old lesson that continuous friction, the breaking down of all individual resistance is the condition of life in this 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 beating" DE , p.

The culture industry promoted inertia by downgrading tragedy into fate, claimed Adorno. In traditional art, tragedy expressed a negative movement of protest because it exposed human suffering. Tragedy exposed the illusion of any harmony between form and content, individual and society, revealing the "necessary failure" of any striving for fulfillment in class society. This negative element was displaced in mass culture:. Adorno's concept of culture industry must be understood in relationship to the theories of mass culture developed by Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin.

Benjamin and Brecht believed that art could be revolutionized by technique and that this technical revolution, along with the solidarity of proletarians and intellectuals created by such changes, would bring about revolutionary collective modes of production and reception in art. Benjamin's essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" , described reproductive techniques, especially those used in film and photography, as destructive of the aura of ritual and cult once surrounding art works.

Horkheimer and Adorno conceived the chapter on the culture industry in Dialectic of Enlightenment as a reply to Benjamin's essay on mechanical reproduction.

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Both essays described the liquidation of traditional art with the rise of the mass media in different ways. Where Adorno believed that the new reproductive techniques perpetuated auratic and cult values, Benjamin believed them to be potentially progressive.


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  7. Benjamin compared the montage technique in film to the principle of interruption in Brecht's epic theater. In epic theater the interruption of the action results in what Brecht called the alienation effect. The social conditions which underlie human action are "laid bare" by making them seem strange or unfamiliar, causing the action to be viewed with astonishment rather than complacency.

    These interruptions disrupt the "illusion of reality" which the drama promotes, critically distancing the audience from the representations exposed.

    Frankfurt School / Critical Theory

    Benjamin believed that the montage principle in film also created distancing effects through a process of interruption. This constitutes the shock effect of the film, which like all shocks, should be cushioned by heightened presence of mind. In correspondence with Benjamin, Adorno argued that mechanical reproduction had resulted in neither collective reception nor a mass public inclined toward revolutionary change. His major criticism was that Benjamin tended to "underestimate the technicity of autonomous art and [to] overestimate that of dependent art.

    In his major aesthetic work, The Philosophy of Modern Music , Adorno argued that the liberation of music from tonality in Schoenberg's work, like the emancipation of painting from objecivity, undercut reification and illusionism by revealing their techniques to be artificially created rather than "natural" or intrinsic to the media, and therefore historically changeable.

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    On the other hand, ritualism in art was conserved rather than destroyed through mass production, claimed Adorno. In a retrospective article, "The Culture Industry Reconsidered" , Adorno wrote that the culture industry seized control of the decaying aura by conserving it as a "foggy mist" in the cult of stardom, which served advertising and ideological interests, and in the "individualistic residues, sentimentality, and… rationally disposed and adapted romanticism," which characterized mass-produced culture.

    Benjamin was the heir of the first phase of a new technological era, when techniques like montage seemed capable of producing direct political effects.


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    6. Thus he sometimes wrote as if technical forces were politically effective in themselves, thereby ignoring the fact that the politicization of technology includes the relations as well as the means of production. Although he was aware that mass production and reproduction did not automatically guarantee mass art an emancipatory function when it was subjected to the capitalist production and distribution apparatus, it was not until Adorno's study that a theory of mass art under the culture industry was fully developed.

      Their disagreement can be partly understood in terms of the different historical period which formed their experiences. Adorno was looking at the U. If Benjamin had lived, he might well have modified his theory: in correspondence he lamented the decline of film with the coming of sound.

      Adorno criticized Benjamin's theory by distinguishing between a technique externally grafted onto the art work through mass production and the technicity inherent in art itself:. In contrast, the technique of the culture industry is, from the beginning, one of distribution and mechanical reproduction and therefore always remains external to it.

      According to Adorno, mass art was merely a commodity to be sold, its technique designed solely to manipulate consumers through pre-digested formulas and calculated effects rather than any concern for artistic form or truth content. Mass culture was so determined by such effects that it lacked a coherent aesthetic structure; the formula had displaced the work. Consequently it was best analyzed in psycho-social rather than aesthetic terms. However, by foregoing an analysis of artistic technique in favor of psychosocial critique, Adorno produced an analysis of film and mass culture as one-sided as Benjamin's.

      Adorno's theory of jazz, which served as a model for all his subsequent work on mass culture, exemplifies this myopia. According to Adorno, jazz epitomized the transformation of culture into a commodity under the culture industry DE , pp. Jazz tended to spatialize rather than temporalize music, claimed Adorno, as it substituted mythic repetition for historical development. The sexual emancipation in jazz was equally illusory, wrote Adorno, consisting in effect of a form of castration in which the promise of sexual fulfillment only culminated in ascetic denial; its incorporation of all unruly elements into a static scheme betrayed a sadomasochistic tendency toward blind obedience.

      Adorno's theory of jazz betrayed a racist attitude toward black music that was initially fostered by the culture industry. The recording industry presented a highly diluted and commercialized form of jazz taken from the original but less popular type rooted in black culture and sold it as the real thing. White band leaders like Paul Whiteman, styled the "King of Jazz," were given the credit, the money, and the publicity for "advancing" and "refining" a form of music that they not only appropriated from blacks but had radically subverted.

      In his essays on jazz, Adorno perpetuated this prejudice by confining his analysis to the commercialistic white jazz of big name swing bands and flagrantly denying or belittling the black contribution to jazz. Although Adorno's theory was true enough for white swing, it was a travesty when applied to black jazz. As Leroi Jones points out, swing was a bastardization of jazz's original impulse in black culture:.

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