The “culture industry”, then and now

Aeon recently published an essay about Theodor Adorno, in which the author (who has written a book about him too) claims that the “simple” reading of Adorno’s 1944 critique of the “culture industry” – the Marxist (or Marx-ish) proposition that popular culture is evil because it makes everyone “victims” of “the media” – is misguided. Instead of seeing Adorno as some “snob” who favours “high culture”, the author claims, we should understand his position as protective of the “bad art” that “stands in the way of true freedom”. He goes on to suggest some (to his mind) striking parallels between the culture Adorno despaired about and our own, more than half a century later.

I won’t disavow that as a student some twenty years ago I was taken with the ideas of the Frankfurt School, including the likes of Walter Benjamin, who penned the unfinished The Arcades Project as an homage to the charms of Paris before electric street lights destroyed the charms of being able to wander through the gas-lit arcades of the 19th century. Benjamin was (rightfully) beguiled by the idea of Baudelaire’s flâneur – the figure (generally a man, because those were the creatures who could do so in those days) who had the leisure to wander around a city with no agenda, and just let himself be guided by the whims of a city architecture not designed to compel anyone this way or that (unlike, for example, modern malls or high streets, which “drive” you towards the food court, or the cinema, or the fucken shoe shop by their wily walkways which basically force you to eat at Dros when all you’re trying to do is buy a bag of salad at Pick ‘n Pay on the way home from a delightful weekend in the country). Continue reading “The “culture industry”, then and now”