The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception, Horkheimer and Adorno

From the time Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer first coined the phrase “culture industry” in the 1940s to the way it can be prescribed to modern American culture, it has only become more apparent how the influences of the media pervade human consumerism and behavior. Emerging medias from the time of radio and television broadcast to today’s digitally-driven social structure only means the critical theory can be applied to more parts of daily life.

In their first mentions of the culture industry in Dialectic of the Enlightenment,  Horkheimer and Adorno critiqued the propaganda methods of emerging media that was all owned and operated under one system with the bourgeoisie ideology to promote. Adorno revisited the topic nearly three decades later in his 1975 article “Culture Industry Reconsidered.” In it, he and Anson Rabinbach expand on the theory of the culture industry and how its influence throughout the 30 year time period had become more apparent. They note the expansion of such media environments and formulas being reshaped to better interpellate the audience to conforming to ideologies to the point where even if they did realize what the culture industry was doing to them, they let it happen anyway.

The authors raise examples from “pocket novels, films off the rack, family television shows rolled out into serials and hit parades, advice to the lovelorn and horoscope columns” as platforms that enlist a certain cultural ideal that audiences generally understand to be manufactured. This by itself is harmless, but Adorno brings up that the attention placed on this kind of information shadows important media people should actually know about, like political news or current affairs.

‘The phrase, the world wants to be deceived, has become truer than had ever been intended,” Adorno says. “They force their eyes shut and voice approval, in a kind of self-loathing, for what is meted out to them, knowing fully the purpose for which it is manufactured. Without admitting it they sense that their lives would be completely intolerable as soon as they no longer clung to satisfactions which are none at all.”

Slavoj Zizek touches on this consumer passivity in his “Pervert’s Guide to Ideology” and calls for a better understanding of what the media industry communicates to its audiences. We talked in class about his examination of Jaws as a representation of American fears of the Other and the instinctual reaction to kill off our enemies of the unknown. In the film and TV industry, we can see that this kind of ideology has manifested itself in several visible “monster” movies, including the zombie craze of recent years.

Elizabeth McAlister writes about the origin of the zombie in her article “Slaves, Cannibals, and Infected Hyper-Whites; The Race and Religion of Zombies.” In her research, she found that the term zombie has evolved from sensationalized descriptions of a set of Afro-Caribbean mystical arts. The first Hollywood films depicted these zombies from a Eurocentric view of people from the Afro-Carribean region as black sorcerers “plotting for conquest and control over white women,” an unrestrained trope where “blackness was linked with primitive menace, superstition and the diabolical.”

Years and fads later, and the zombie affliction has returned to popular culture under a different guise. The difference now, however, is that people are beginning to attribute the return of the undead to the American feeling of disempowerment due to the economic climate and military affairs. Here, Zizek would say that the role of zombie films and TV is to reflect the American fear of something closer to home — something among us that we can’t explain or control.

In fact, the villains in most narratives is someone you could easily peg as the odd one out or the one seeking vengeance against a society he doesn’t belong to. As we’ve seen recently, when the enemy is humanized and portrayed as someone just like us, people aren’t as quick to accept them as they would an undead corpse as the enemy. Just under a year ago, the Boston Marathon bombings took over the headlines with bombing suspects  Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev at the center of the news.

After the capture of the suspects, much of the media attention turned toward who these brothers were and what might have driven them to commit the large act of domestic terrorism. This attention to how these brothers were “like the rest of us” but did something so destructive was a focus for many following news stories, but a Rolling Stone cover story about the same thing received criticism for taking it a step too far.

rs cover

Some audiences were unhappy with the cover, which features younger brother Dzhokhar’s self-taken photo, whereas sales of this issue of Rolling Stone jumped from the attention. Of the main concerns about the cover choice was that the image glamorized his role and made him look like a celebrity in the quasi-entertainment/news magazine, and others still said that the image made Tsarnaev look attractive. This photo, as Matt Taibbi points out, is nothing like other magazine covers we see about enemies or terrorists, which  tend to overtly depict the subjects as diabolical monsters. If we are to go outside the formula of the culture industry, humanize the enemy or even question other institutions in the matter such as mental health, we get rid of the ideological representation of the enemy as Zizek’s Other. And although this was writer Janet Reitman’s purpose of the story, it still takes an explanation to articulate why this was an important facet of the story to cover.


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