This article explores the understanding of the Culture Industry, the key theorists and how the culture industry works to conform to the capitalist system. Sitting within the capitalist system there are factors that maintain the survival of the Culture industry and its economic viability. I will also address the means of reproduction and how Popular Culture is used to commodify symbols of meaningful experience.

Before delving in too far in it is important to define what culture is, and how it is commodified by industry.

What is Culture?

Culture is the zeitgeist that when living within it, is all encompassing. Culture is “essentially made up of a general process of intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic development.” In it’s varying definitions culture is also seen as a particular way of life. We read of specific cultural groups. Essentially way of life that governs beliefs, the development of art, religious holidays, and ways that meaning given to different symbols in everyday life.

Living through culture ensures the production of meaning and ‘signifying practices’. Signifying practices are the way that culture can be experienced through a seperate ‘medium’; this includes the experience of cinema, radio, performance etc. Culture encapsulates the ideologies of why we live our life and prescribes meaningful experience to further reinforce these ideologies. (Storey, (2014.))

What is The Culture Industry?

Having an understanding of the concept of culture, Let’s consider the culture industry.

The culture industry is essentially the commodification of our beliefs, the way we live, artist style, ideologies and religion packaged and sold back to the masses through popular culture. Popular culture provides the vehicles for this content, to be packaged and consumed through varying mediums.

The culture industry is often seen with negative connotations due to the power that it has at its disposal. The culture industry sells you the idea that you are free but in actual fact we are actually the slaves of capitalism and even through art, our actions are statistics that further validate the capitalist strong hold.

The monk who sets himself alight in protest is a futile blip in the database of the culture industry. The photographs of this event are to be filed alongside the great acts of human rebellion to be re appropriated in a new context when needed by the culture industry.

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Image Via.

“The defiant reserve or elegant appearance of the individual on show is mass-produced like Yale locks, whose only difference can be measured in fractions of millimeters. The peculiarity of the self is a monopoly commodity determined by society; it is falsely represented as natural. It is no more than the mustache, the French accent, the deep voice of the woman of the world.” (Adorno, T. & Horkheimer, M., (1944))

They key theorists who deconstruct the futility of the power struggle within the culture industry are Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. They wrote their manifesto titled; “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as mass deception” published back in 1944.

The purpose of their writing was the let the masses know the system in which they are blindly participating;
“Under monopoly all mass culture is identical, and the lines of its artificial framework begin to show through. The people at the top are no longer so interested in concealing monopoly: as its violence becomes more open, so its power grows.”  (Adorno, T. & Horkheimer, M., (1944))

Working under capitalism, on an industry level the culture industry is working within its own power struggle. In comparison to the industries of Steel, petroleum, electricity and chemicals the Culture Industries are subservient due to their economic dependence. “They cannot afford to neglect their appeasement of the real holders of power if their sphere of activity in mass society (a sphere producing a specific type of commodity which anyhow is still too closely bound up with easygoing liberalism and Jewish intellectuals) is not to undergo a series of purges. The dependence of the most powerful broadcasting company on the electrical industry, or of the motion picture industry on the banks, is characteristic of the whole sphere, whose individual branches are themselves economically interwoven.”  (Adorno, T. & Horkheimer, M., (1944))

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“Never Again” via John Hearfield.

So when capitalism and generating revenue becomes the number one priority for the Culture Industry, the integrity of the work that is created within it is exploited to adhere to commercial interests.

“In the culture industry this imitation finally becomes absolute. Having ceased to be anything but style, it reveals the latter’s secret: obedience to the social hierarchy. Today aesthetic barbarity completes what has threatened the creations of the spirit since they were gathered together as culture and neutralized.” (Adorno, T. & Horkheimer, M., (1944))

Even in transgression, artists cannot escape the wrath of The Culture Industry. The Dada movement, Punk Rock, Political rebellion. It is all eventually packaged into consumables ready for mass reproduction and mass marketing. Movements that aim to fight back against capitalist tyranny, use style and aesthetics as their tools of production to communicate their Ideology, however radical it may appear, it seems resistance is futile.

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“Hey HO! Lets Go!” The Ramones via JUNKEE

“Anyone who resists can only survive by fitting in. Once his particular brand of deviation from the norm has been noted by the industry, he belongs to it as does the land-reformer to capitalism.” (Adorno, T. & Horkheimer, M., (1944))

“Nevertheless the culture industry remains the entertainment business. Its influence over the consumers is established by entertainment; that will ultimately be broken not by an outright decree, but by the hostility inherent in the principle of entertainment to what is greater than itself. Since all the trends of the culture industry are profoundly embedded in the public by the whole social process, they are encouraged by the survival of the market in this area.”  (Adorno, T. & Horkheimer, M., (1944))

Social process and the trends of the culture industry lead us to the concept of Popular Culture.

What is Popular Culture?

Popular Culture is the process that produces culture as industry. The relationship between the audience, media, institutions and corporations that results in the consumption of media. There is a negotiation in the engagement with media that illuminates Popular Culture. It is a commercial culture, mass produced for mass audiences, it is formulaic, manipulative, and is often consumed passively without a critical engagement of the motivations that support it. It is often seen as a dreamworld , where the audience can escape to our utopian selves. (Storey, (2014.))

The 6 ways to define Popular culture:

  • Achieved mass popularity;

The Current number 1 most viewed video on youtube with over 5 Billion views: Luis Fonsi – Despacito.

  • Is not high culture; TV, Radio, Comics easily consumable in comparison to latin poets for example.
  • Is postmodern culture; No longer recognizes the distinction between high culture and popular culture. Such works include the art of Andy Warhol that Ironically hang in high art museums.
      
  • Is mass commercial culture: Purely commercial. Driven by Economic ideologies.

Includes remakes of old narratives to increase profit margin rather then to explore new ideas and expand the potential of human consciousness.

  • Belongs to the people (folk culture) : Music made by the people rather than through institutional or corporate entities.
  • Is a site of hegemonic struggle: The use of culture for political reasoning. An example would include facebook bots, and advertising that affects voting in elections.

What is the effect of mass reproduction?

Within this sphere of popular culture is important to acknowledge the effect that mass reproduction has had on the aura of our creative pursuits. When we are bombarded with an overabundance of visual, and sensorial information, the desire to consume, slowly subsides. Great marketers understand that scarcity increases value.


Walter Benjamin wrote in his work “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936)”; “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.”

In the age of electronic data abundance, there is no decay. Works made on perishable materials, age like the earth, wash away with the elements, the wind will slowly eat away at a mountain. In the electronic age, our art sits in an timeless incubator, and it can be accessed at any time, you only need the correct address to find it. It’s value is symbolic of it’s traffic, analytic databases equate to capital.


The speed of electronic and mechanical reproduction is it’s commercial drawcard. Economic reasoning is of greater value than the aura that exists in the purity of improvisation. Cameras translate real life moments into data to be reprogrammed and sold as digital assets.

(The actor) “While facing the camera he knows that ultimately he will face the public, the consumers who constitute the market. This market, where he offers not only his labor but also his whole self, his heart and soul, is beyond his reach. During the shooting he has as little contact with it as any article made in a factory.” (Benjamin, W. 1936)

The Culture Industry is the system in which we all exist. At birth we are born into it, and unless through a radical shift in lifestyle choices, that is to opt out of contemporary western society we will live our entire lives within it.

References:

Storey, J. (2014). What is popular culture? In Cultural theory and popular culture: An introduction, (pp. 1-15). Harlow, England: Pearson Longman. Source: https://campusonline.gscm.sae.edu/pluginfile.php/48795/mod_page/content/36/What%20is%20Popular%20Culture.pdf

Adorno, T. & Horkheimer, M., 1944. The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception. In T. Adorno and M. Horkheimer. Dialectics of Enlightenment. Translated by John Cumming. New York: Herder and Herder, 1972 Source: https://campusonline.gscm.sae.edu/pluginfile.php/48795/mod_page/content/36/Adorno-Horkheimer-Culture-Industry.pdf

PBS Studio (2014, September 10). Does Pop Culture Need to be Popular?

. Retreived from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EoovlwC4N4A&t=10s

Benjamin, W. (1936). The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Shocken / Random House. Source:  UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television;

Robinson, A. (2013, June 14). An A to Z of Theory – Walter Benjamin: Art, Aura and Authenticity. Ceasefire magazine. Source: https://ceasefiremagazine.co.uk/walter-benjamin-art-aura-authenticity/

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