Jan 03

A User’s Guide To The Culture Industry

FT/9 comments • 6,148 views

Paul Morley’s Guardian article on the death of the single is both smart and dumb about all this. Smart, because the rhetoric of crisis is legitimated by association with something like a phenomenology of experience; dumb, because the experience of crisis is subsequently recuperated in purely theological terms.

Morley knows that preaching a sermon on the death of the single puts him on dangerous ground – even the Guardian production staff misrecognise his intentions and trail the piece as a work of ‘mourning’, a ‘lament’, evidently been blinded by their preconceptions; or perhaps they stopped reading after a couple of paragraphs. Morley explains that ‘I still don’t pretend that the seven-inch should come back … the world changes, it moves on’; and the conclusions of his article are almost evangelically turned to the future.

The bulk of the article expresses the antagonism between the expected elegiac mode and Morley’s more critical sense. What I earlier described as a phenomenological approach because it takes experience seriously for itself, rather than as the expression of any necessary or fundamental truth, serves a demystificatory purpose. In the passing of the intensely physical experience of handling seven-inch vinyl, in his daughter’s incomprehension of the value singles have had for him, Morley discerns the end of a certain set of possibilities. But buying a single was only ever ‘like buying a piece of magic’ [my emphasis]. This is a phenomenology of appearances and sensations only.

What also puts Morley miles ahead of the usual moaners and groaners is his insistence on tying his experience of ‘the single’ to specific material forms of consumption and production of music. The popular song as he knows it has been shaped by the formats available for it. And like all things, material forms pass away in time. But Morley marks this passing with a deliberate refusal to mourn: instead turning to a hazily utopian cyber-enabled future.

While he exposes very clearly that the sense of crisis is always driven by a personal sense of loss and awareness of change, Morley also over-reacts in the other direction. Debunking the elegiac horrorshow of conservative cultural criticism leads us directly to the oldest theological paradigm of all. The experience of the fall from grace is redeemed by a vision of a golden future: a utopian space of total immediacy, ‘a route to all the music that there ever was’.

In part this is a celebration of the freeing of popular song from commodity forms, and of the pop fan from slavery to vinyl fetishism. But incarnate in his iPod, Morley sees the anunciation of the coming transubstantiation of music into the ether. ‘All that is solid melts into air’: but if this is Morley’s own version of Marx, via Berman, it is also the point at which we can see that to give form to experience must mean drawing on other cultural products, in this case the myth of a future whose contours can already be delineated in the ruins of the present.

Another option, which I suspect Adorno inherits from Walter Benjamin, takes an alternative theological tradition as an analogy (not source) for its methodological imperative against thinking the future. Adorno’s recent readers have recognised the utopian dimension available in his account of the culture industry. But in identifying that potential with popular culture as such, they transgress what seems to me a cardinal rule of negative dialectics.

To grasp dialectics at a standstill is not to deny the possibility of change, or even of change for the better. But to identify the source of that change, or to try and describe its outlines, is to affirm some particular version of the present, and to obscure the necessary partiality of that viewpoint. It is after all, just as easy to tell another story about the iPod.

The seven inch single was once a popular form, before succumbing in time to the deadening hand of the collector and the institutionalised nostalgia of the independent label or the singles club. What Morley is really telling us in his article is the story of how his particular interests become alienated from those of other consumers of popular cultural forms. The iPod remains in the province of the super-consumer, the self-appointed intellectual class of popular culture; and the claim of the intellectual to speak for or on behalf of the people remains as suspect as ever, when in fact he or she mistakes his or her own class interests for those of a putative universal class.

Even Morley’s smart side betrays an idealism about popular culture: his sense of a ‘magic’ proper to his adolescent vinyl-fix is conceptually hardwired into his idea of popular song as ‘an alternative, an opposition to restrictive conservative politics and narrow-minded business interests.’ The claim that CD singles now feel like merchandise, prosaic, efficient, and lacklustre, comes straight from the same metaphysical school which dismisses them as ‘part of a world of sensation, not the world itself’. The implied distinction between truth and mere appearance is complicit with the idea that the intellectual not only represents the people, but can reconnect them with the truth behind their experiences, which is otherwise denied to them.

Adorno’s insistence that popular culture is nothing of the sort serves as a bulwark against these temptations. The choice of the phrase ‘culture industry’ rather than ‘mass culture’ was made, Adorno explains in a later essay, ‘in order to exclude from the outset the interpretation agreeable to its advocates: that it is a matter of something like a culture that arises spontaneously from the masses themselves, the contemporary form of popular art’. The idea of popular culture as something ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ which has risen up from the people is an ideological claim which may be experienced as their own by those who defend mass culture as somehow ‘theirs’, but is no less false for that.

For the iPod to be anything other than a portable mausoleum for the utopian dimension of popular song, we must oppose Morley’s vision of the future. The ‘chip inside us’ which would enable our immediate access to the music of both past and present can only come about as the result of the further extension of the administration of cultural products. If there is a real precursor to the kind of instant availability Morley dreams of for popular song, it is already coming over the airwaves. Radio through the computer or the TV, cable and satellite music channels: these are the first steps towards ‘paradise’, guided by the logic of market fragmentation. It’s not the autonomy of the self-creator, but the delusive power of the consumer that is the appropriate model: my ability to demand to hear this particular song now, and to do so as cheaply as possible.

What I’m really suggesting is that the idea of the culture industry is best understood not as a historical fact, although it is unthinkable outside of certain historical configurations, and part of the aim of A User’s Guide is to wonder about these limits. Rather, we should see the culture industry as a concept designed first and foremost to block off easy access to the blind alleys and false exits which accrue to the idea of culture.

Because the idea of ‘truth’ is inevitably and inextricably tangled up with that of culture itself, we cannot just ask for the truth about the culture industry. But when choosing what stories to tell about it, we should remember that most – perhaps all of them – will conspire with the industry itself.

The critical perception that crisis is only ever partial rather than total, perceived rather than actually existing out there, does not necessarily mean we should reject the idea of crisis as such. From a dialectical point of view, that everything changes is the basic principle from which thought and judgement begin. If the link between culture and crisis holds, this would imply a state of permanent crisis, and certainly much criticism not driven by crisis would seem to regress to being mere publicity and promotional work. But if that crisis is both phenomenal and constitutive, as something like the sense of transience in the stream of experience, then critical judgement must be turned against experience itself.

Some preliminary conclusions:

1. Culture and crisis are related on a conceptual level.

2. The redemptive idea of culture is alive and well amongst the intellectual class.

3. The phenomenology of experience can take on a critical dimension.

4. But to rely on experience can lead the critic astray.


  1. 1
    Admin on 30 Aug 2006 #

    what is the etiquette of copying and pasting the entire article elsewhere?

  2. 2
    CarsmileSteve on 30 Aug 2006 #

    may i suggest sending in the marines?

  3. 3
    alext on 30 Aug 2006 #

    Given I’ve been pondering the question of having what were sort of working notes for my now-published book still available online, I have to say I’m a bit unimpressed by this. If they’d linked I wouldn’t be so bothered. Although I can’t quite work out what the site is, or who it’s for.

  4. 4
    alext on 30 Aug 2006 #

    Can we just replace the essay with a giant ad for Adorno: A Guide For The Perplexed?

  5. 5
    pˆnk s lord sükråt cunctør on 30 Aug 2006 #

    can we not just retitle alex’s book “ADORNO & HOFMANN: STEAL THIS GUIDE FOR THE PERPLEXED”?

  6. 6
    Admin on 31 Aug 2006 #

    if you feel strongly go to the site and “Postar um comentário” – it’s a blogger site.

  7. 7
    polycarpo on 8 Dec 2006 #

    1. As You all have seen, I do not (or did not) know about “the etiquette of copying and pasting [an] entire article” in the web. But I should care about it. And I will. The the question about the webetiquette is a good and necessary one.
    2. As You all could not know, I really do not care about the marines. I really even do not care if they die on a war or – better said – on a invasion.
    3. it’s just a blog for myself, a kind of notebook on which I put some interesting links. This time: an interesting text, all the text and not just a part of it.
    4. I’m perplexed that it can cause perplexity. But I’m not so sure about the title. The book probably deserves a better one.
    5. I would recommend as subtitle: don’t steal this guide, read it! NO need for perplexity. By the way, the guide hasn’t been really stolen. It has been to be read by me, only by me. It’s here to be read by all. I think it’s good and generous to publish the text on the web, so that people can read it.
    6. A second good sugestion. But ‘if if the mountain doesn’t come to Mehemet, Mehemet will go to the mountain’. I’m neither a mountain nor a celestial fiction. But shall a female allah bless we all.
    7. I maybe should be sorry about a possible neglection of the webetiquette. The text is not in the blog anymore. There’s still just a link to it. If you want, Thomas, I’ll surely remove it from there. But I’d like to let it there just for the case that I make the blog public, so that other people can have access to your valuable text. In times when culture is converted into commodities, we should remember Adorno. Neither the nuisance nor the severeness. But the warning dystopian message he has sent to our times.

    Kind, freaky and Best regards.


  8. 9

    […] THOMSON, A – A User’s Guide To The Culture Industry [03] […]

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