Jan 03

A User’s Guide To The Culture Industry

FT/9 comments • 6,295 views

I think the disturbing emphasis on women as the definitive type of the gullible consumer is perhaps more culpable, but the example’s force remains if you blank the gender attributes. The public has become too smart to be persuaded any longer to identify with the products of the culture industry, since what they are presented with is necessarily set against them, a representation of real life in which they do not participate. But by very publicly taking an ‘ordinary’ person up into its own realm, the culture industry manages to sustain a connection with the public without which it could not survive. (I like this reading because it plays up the complex dialectic between the two).

This is a process which has surely reached its ritual apogee in our Saturday prime-time television schedules in the lottery draw and the quiz show as much as in so-called ‘reality TV’. The ever-present invitation to participate in television by voting or voicing an opinion by email, phone or text message (and often to pay for the privilege) obscures rather than reverses the hierarchical relationship between the culture industry and its audience. This seems to me a relatively new manifestation of what Adorno and Horkheimer have already observed in the early 1940s. Unravelling some of the logics here may help us get a sense both of their prescience and of the subsequent becoming of the culture industry. As a working hypothesis let’s wonder if ‘reality’ should prefix not a mere genre but the entire medium. All TV is reality TV.

We need not be detained by the ‘real’ in ‘reality’: no Baudrillard / pomo moralising here. I’m not interested in the ‘truth’ or otherwise of televisual reality. It seems fairly clear that participation in reality TV means accepting that you will be written into certain kinds of story by the producers and directors, as well as by the viewers. I don’t think anyone finds this particularly shocking or surprising, and I don’t think people watching imagine that Big Brother contestants are presented to us in a neutral way, or that docudramas aren’t heavily edited. Our enjoyment of the form means receiving the stories we’re told in the familiar and reassuring shapes they generally take.

But the ‘reality’ in ‘reality TV’ does seem to mean something. I take it to suggest a kind of frisson, that something extra which we get from watching a story which we are told is happening or has happened. The popularity of history, and of the history of science, as contemporary genres stems from the same instinct, an illicit thrill of knowing that these stories are ‘real’. This is an old phenomenon: the seemingly unstoppable rise of the novel in the eighteenth and nineteenth century depends on its critical distinction from romances, in terms of its realism. Not that these are ‘true’ stories, although they might often have claimed to be, but that they might have happened. They’re imaginable. They could happen to people like you and me.

The junk TV we swallow whole, the fly-on-the-wallls, the docudramas, the makeover shows, the property and cookery shows which feed our greedy fixation on consumption and on the consumption of narratives, is stuffed with this sense of our own possible involvement. And the same goes for your Big Brother and your Millionaires, for the quiz shows and talent shows, and especially for your Pop Idols and your Fame Academies. Adorno and Horkheimer again: ‘Not everyone will be lucky one day – but the person who draws the winning ticket, or rather the one who is marked out to do so by a higher power – usually by the pleasure industry itself, which is represented as unceasingly in search of talent.’

The culture industry is a rigged lottery, in which we participate on the understanding that it could be us (if we chose to try). Meanwhile the industry makes little attempt to conceal its own attempts to fix the draw, which we just haven’t learnt to see yet. There is a subtle play on the phrase ‘higher power’ here as well. The culture industry is the real higher power, but the illusion of chance is maintained as a counterbalance to the planning and programming which the culture industry seeks to rely on. (How successfully it can or could manage to rationalise entertainment is a very different question.)

What I find compelling in this analysis is what it helps us to see about the specific contours of our celebrity fixation. In an anti-hierarchical society which now chooses not to see the real aristocracies of wealth and privilege behind the veneer of egalitarianism, celebrities provide us with a pseudo-upper class onto which to project our aspirations, desires, envy and anger. But the culture industry, by assuring us that the celebrity is just like us, but luckier, insists on the basic and fundamental equivalence between us and the stars above.

Which is why we feel perfectly entitled to co-operate in – if you’ll pardon the phrase – building them up and knocking them down. They’re like us, so they had better not get ideas above their station. But the endless circuit of gossip and tittle-tattle, the whole Heat magazine thing, really only expresses our tacit acceptance of celebrity culture in its entirety. Through them, we can imagine the possibility of a transformed life. Without them, we could not even experience the fantasy of escape from the dreary mundane.

It’s not so much that the real world has become a fable, as that our fables have become all too real. The proliferation of the reality effect through our televisual culture is an indicator of the all-pervasive but abstract equality of our society. Abstract, like citizenship, in that it ignores all the obstacles to a virtuous enactment of that same equality – differences in wealth, education, opportunity.

But remember that Adorno and Horkheimer are dialecticians. Could we imagine a sense in which the logic of equality, which the culture industry has had to institute to underpin its domination, might come to turn on its creators and propagators? For it is that same logic of equality against which we judge the culture industry when we reveal the extent to which the media, say, is largely the preserve of a self-perpetuating elite class. And it is the perpetuation of the image of that equality which drives the emancipatory project of TV shows like Pop Idol, which explain to us in such painstaking and impressive detail how little there is which could be described as natural about the hierarchy established between the performer and the audience, between the celebrity and the public, or between us and the culture industry.


  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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