Tags: art/music, capitalism, commodification, consumption/consumerism, media, social mvmts/social change/resistance, theory, creativity, culture industry, frankfurt school, mass production, max horkheimer, theodor adorno, subtitles/CC, 00 to 05 mins
Summary: In their chapter entitled "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception" from their book Dialectic of Enlightenment, critical theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer conceptualize power as an absolute, all-encompassing force, driven at unrelenting speed by the engine of capitalism. They argue that culture is an important site where power in contemporary society is demonstrated; here, cultural productions have transformed from pure art forms to gimmicky imitations in which the aesthetic appeal is now simply a response to consumers' "tastes" and the goal is no longer to evoke truth but rather to merely “entertain.” Horkheimer and Adorno refer to this routinized and commodified feature of contemporary culture as the culture industry. This short montage of various scenes from different Disney movies is one illustration of how cultural products can be seen as an imitation of one another, recycled formulas sold to cultural consumers as entertainment. As an assignment or topic for class discussion, students can be encouraged to cite other examples of interchangeable formulas sold in popular culture through the mass media, which might include formulaic narratives, images, and characters sold through hip hop, action movies, soap operas, romance novels, among many others. Yet, students can also be encouraged to critique Horkheimer and Adorno's totalizing take on the culture industry, as they essentially argue that there is no escape; even when we believe we are freely making choices in the cultural marketplace or, worse yet, even if we recognize the culture industry’s suffocating strength and intentionally try to resist it, our actions and cultural creations have already “been noted by the industry” and become part of the system. Since present-day art is only a vehicle for entertainment and amusement, it is stripped of emotion, tragedy, and truth, and merely exists to appease and distract us. In this state, we are defenseless and unable to resist. As such, the cultural actor “creating” under capitalism’s oppressive rules is (often unknowingly) fated for unoriginal imitation. According to this theory, none of us are actually behaving as individuals and our creations, which are in essence predictable simulations of other commodities circulating in the culture industry, ultimately fuel the engine of capitalism’s absolute power and the monopoly of mass culture. Do students agree that they are cultural dupes and incapable of original artistic creation and innovation? And what does cultural creation and consumption have to do with "resistance" and "distraction"? Distraction from what? Finally, can students think of examples of popular cultural creations that serve to challenge capitalistic power and the status quo? How would Horkheimer and Adorno respond to these examples?
Submitted By: Valerie Chepp
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