Jan 03

A User’s Guide To The Culture Industry

FT/9 comments • 6,295 views

Part Three: Real Real Real, by Alex Thomson

Re-reading Adorno and Horkheimer’s original essay on the Culture Industry, I’m struck just as frequently by their prescience, as I am by the sense that they’re engaging in a polemic with something whose time has passed so completely that it feels hard to be sure what their precise point is. In particular, there’s a short section which I always come back to when I want to see the continuity between the culture industry now and how it was then. (pp.144-147 if you have the Verso edition: I would have liked to check this against the newer Jephcott translation but that edition is in my office, and I’m not today.)

As elsewhere in Adorno’s work, Teddy and Max are thinking in paragraphs: not sentences. Their method here – which Adorno characterises elsewhere with reference to Benjamin’s term ‘constellation’ – means working at an idea, rewriting it, and trying out different formulations. A whole bunch of individual sentences, all of which have a shot at making the central point, are put together to form a paragraph. So no sentence is completely adequate in itself, because the idea, inexpertly and incompletely expressed in each sentence, can only be grasped if the reader takes a step back, and tries to find a pattern within the paragraph as a whole. But this means suspending any expectation that the sense of the paragraph will move in any particular direction, and thus revising many of our normal expectations of how logical discourse works.

One consequence of this is that it is not immediately clear whether abstract theoretical claims are being supported with concrete examples chosen from the world, or whether hypotheses are being evolved to account for specific phenomena. Does the argument move backwards from the product of the culture industry towards an understanding of the logic it expresses and the interests it serves? Or should we read this as something like a thick description of cultural phenomena (not sure if I’m using that term how it was originally intended by the anthropologists): plastering possible explanations and angles of approach onto something which resists being presented from one stable perspective? I think to read in the manner intended, we’d have to hold off on deciding this either.

So what we get in this instance are a set of linked remarks concerning the propensity of the culture industry to regulate its relationship to its consumers on something like a principle of ‘it could be you’. Our co-operation in the workings of the culture industry (disturbingly, not a question of ‘them’ against ‘us’ so much as ‘us’ against ourselves) is perpetuated by a sense of the possibility of our own apotheosis. Adorno and Horkheimer put it this way:

‘Those discovered by talent scouts and then publicized on a vast scale by the studio are ideal types of the new dependent average. Of course, the starlet is meant to symbolize the typist in such a way that the splendid evening dress seems meant for the actress as distinct from the real girl. The girls in the audience not only feel that they could be on the screen, but realize the great gulf separating them from it’ [p.145]

As ever, it’s important to get a few things clear before overreacting to what could be taken as quite a provocative statement. The implication is not that the mass audience is somehow credulous or stupid. In fact, the rest of the paragraph makes clear that what is at stake is in fact the increasing intelligence of the consumer – i.e. in terms of getting used to and seeing through the tricks of the culture industry. This dynamic and dialectic relationship between the industry and the public (again, these must be abstractions since I don’t see the two as finally separable) drives the development of its products and ideologies. (Although presumably other forces, and particularly technology, are involved).


  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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