Wednesday, 21 March 2007

Culture as Conspiracy

No, this is not a post about the reptilean-illuminati shadow government. This is about the culture industry, or rather what a clutch of Keele academics at a reading group had to say about Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer's influential piece, The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.

For those of you not familiar with these Frankfurt School theorists, their thesis on culture was simple but deeply pessimistic:
Culture now impresses the same stamp on everything. Films, radio and magazines make up a system which is uniform as a whole and in every part (Dialectic Of Enlightenment, p.120).
Popular culture in all its manifestations is qualitatively the same thing, there is an undifferentiated unity that sinks into the consciousness of the consuming masses and ties them to capitalist production.
The consumers are the workers and employees, the farmers and the lower middle class. Capitalist production so confines them, body and soul, that they fall helpless victims to what is offered them. As naturally as the ruled always took the morality imposed upon them more seriously than did the rulers themselves, the deceived masses are today captivated by the myth of success even more than the successful are. Immovably, they insist on the very ideology which enslaves them (p.133-4).
The cultural bonds of capitalism hold the working class firmly in place. There can be no opposition because the media brainwashes and seduces the class into believing there is nothing wrong. Instead of nurturing a desire for capitalism's violent overthrow, workers are far more likely to be worrying about Dot and Jim from EastEnders.

The discussion revolved around a number of themes. The most obvious of observations is how Adorno and Horkheimer believed mass culture left no room for liberatory potential. This begs the question of how seemingly everyone is deceived by the system, and yet they themselves are able to take a critical stance from the outside. What makes this doubly difficult is not just the question of their unique position vis a vis the rest of the population, but how they are able to use Marxism - that theoretical condensation of working class experience - to critique the culture industry, but apparently the working class itself cannot.

An answer is implied in their reflections on bourgeois art. In a number of passages they wax lyrical about the style of Beethoven, and how artists were able to take their suffering and give it form. This was not just an existential statement, it is a way of transgressing bourgeois society by manifesting its structural violence through paints and scores. Unlike the samey safe fare of mass culture, high art is the stuff of anti-capitalist critique.

How useful is this position today? The temptation is to dismiss it out of hand. People are not (and never were) simple dupes that capitalism can push around by filling our heads with on-message culture. For instance how can one explain the explosion of youth culture from the 60s onwards without any impulse from below. Was punk just a cynical marketing ploy by the culture industry? Adorno and Horkheimer massively underestimate the dialectical interplay that mediates and mutually constitutes audiences and industries.

Another problem is with their totalitarian view of the culture industry. They assume a perfect fit between capitalism's drive for profit and a mass culture with no room for critique or alternatives. But this is not how capitalism works. Just as capitalism is only capable of meeting market requirements, leaving vast swathes of our class condemned to poverty and privation; so it is true of culture. Because the culture industry produces commodities to be consumed on a market, capitalism can never fully meet its own ideological needs. For example, the works of Marx remain in print because of the market for them. Capital as such is indifferent to the weapons they contain as long as there is money to be made. I think it was Lenin who said a capitalist would be quite happy to sell you the rope you hang them with.

Is there anything of value left in this essay? Yes. Though they overegged the cultural industry pudding, popular culture is for the most part pre-packaged and standardised. Boy and girl bands roll off well established production lines, soaps regurgitate the same universal story lines over and over, Hollywood blockbusters tend to adhere to a standard set of formulas. Where they fall down is that despite standardisation, the content can and often is more complex than they ever supposed.

The second insight concerns commodification. Radical ideas, modes of dress, lifestyles can all be commodified regardless of how explicitly anti-capitalist they are, and with it comes the danger of decontextualisation by the market and being sold on as any other commodity. The iconic image of Che Guevara being the ultimate in empty revolutionary signifiers.

Ultimately what Adorno and Horkheimer have shown us is that despite their shortcomings, an effective challenge to commodity production cannot proceed solely from the domain of cultural production. They may have favoured the radical potential of high art, but they overlooked the grim realities of everyday life faced by our class. This is our most powerful resource for socialist change.


D.B. said...

Good post. I have to say I'm a big fan of your blog, one of my new favourite political blogs, which I check very frequently.

This is probably because a) I'm on the brink of joining the Socialist Party myself, the first party I've ever joined, so it's interesting to read the views of an SPer whose opinions don't necessarily toe the "party line"; and b) I'm a postgrad student myself in Media and Cultural Studies, a field which sprung out of Sociology, so I share an interest in a lot of the theoretical issues you post.

As regards the above, the big wigs of cultural theory have been trying to reconcile issues of power, ideology and popular working class resistance for decades with the shadow of the Frankfurt School hanging over them. Personally I think David Morley has best summed up the relationship between Us (consumers) and Them (the cultural industries):

“The meaning of the text will be constructed differently according to the discourses (knowledge, prejudices, resistances) brought to bear on the text by the reader: the crucial factor in the encounter of the audience/subject will be the range of discourses at the disposal of the audience … Whether or not [a text] succeeds in transmitting the preferred or dominant reading will depend on whether it encounters readers who inhabit codes and ideologies derived from other institutional areas which correspond to and work in parallel with those of [the text], or whether it encounters readers who inhabit codes drawn from other areas or institutions which conflict to a greater or lesser extent with those of the programme.”

Not sure what Peter Taaffe's position on all of this is, mind...

Phil said...

I'm glad you like the blog, comrade. I just wish I could write more stuff for it. I look back now on the "golden age" of AVPS's first two months and wonder how I managed to find the time ...

I hope you decide to join us in the SP. Contrary to popular belief a labotomy is not a requirement of membership, plus it would be great to have another cultural studies bod around. AND Socialism Today could always do with more correspondents able to comment on more theoretical matters/trends in academia. Fingers crossed a Baudrillard article should be appearing in there fairly soon ...

Korakious said...

I thought I posted a response here. If I did, and it's not on because it's pending approval, ignore this one.

I very much heart your comments on Adorno. I think that his pessimism is a symptom shared by many critical academics. Being completely confined to academia and the realm of ideas, they fail to see how practical action constantly creates new possibilities and blazes new trails in the fight against capitalism.

Anyhoo, I like your blog, and I'll keep watching it, even if I've been a bit at odds with your party since the summer.

anti-theo said...

What I found interesting about Adorno was that as someone who was a practising musician and who theorised about music he somehow completely failed to understand either why people wrote it or how they played it. Maybe that's why he never made it as a pianist!
What do academics like the Frankfurt School mean by "culture" though? Don't they implicitly separate "whatever" it is they theorise about from perhaps more "lowly" forms of human activity? Are arguments about different qualities of soap powder really that different from arguments like say Eastenders vs Pinter. Isn't "culture", as Trotsky and Marx seemed to recognise, simply the human race impinging its will on "nature"?
I always found the most interesting of the "Frankfurt" writers (although of course he dies too early to be included) to be Walter Benjamin - however Benjamin is, understandably, ultimately futile. It seems to me that that tragedy, coupled with a lack of understanding of what would now be called Trotskyism but what I would really call Marxism, the latter nurtured by the relative comforts of post-war academe, made the bankruptcy of the Frankfurt School well nigh inevitable.
Here's two suggestions for non-"Marxist" approaches to "culture" or the "high arts" that actually chime in more with a dialectical and materialist approach (perhaps even more revolutionary) - Wittgenstein and Webern.
ps enjoy the blog and apologies for the shy anonymity - cwi member outside england.

Phil said...

I'm not up on Wittgenstein unfortunately. Years ago a mate of mine let me the Tractatus over Christmas and I haven't yet recovered from the experience!

I do agree with you on Weber though. I recently read Bryan S Turner's For Weber, which attempts to do for Weber what Althusser tried to do with Marx. In the end Turner manages to extract what can broadly be identified as an historically materialist problematic, that cuts against and subverts Weber's on pronouncements on his brand of methodological individualism. It really is a fantastic book - I'll never approach Weber in the same way again.

anti-theo said...

Hi Phil
I attempted to reply before but my irrational fear of cookies probably fucked it up - so: I was actually referring to Webern i.e. Anton the composer, whose writings on music are as compact as his actual music but whose "Path To The New Music" is possibly more worthwhile than most degree courses. As regards L Wittgenstein - my advice is read him like you would (as you do!) (say) Finnegans Wake i.e. this is actually what it feels and works like sometimes when you think about it - after all isn't the world Marx presents in Capital a bizarre place? This is it though!