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).

The idea of insidious architecture was beautifully confirmed to me by the theories of situationism and psychogeography, spearheaded by  Guy Debord, who was cool to my ripe young mind in the way that only elusive French theorists can be, and famously known for his book The Society of the Spectacle , published in 1967. The image on the cover of his book is from the first screening of Bwana Devil, the very first full-colour and sound 3D (back in the day sold as “Natural Vision”) film.   

Debord’s thesis – presented as only an elusive French person would do, in a series of “poetic” phrases such as “The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images”, which is “at the very centre of society’s unreal reality” – was basically the idea that media makes us all passive, alienated consumers. Hence the image here of people who’ve dressed up for a night out and by virtue of the 3D glasses feel like they’re engaging with whatever’s happening on the screen, while it’s actually an illusion – and, most importantly, no one’s interacting with each other anymore because they’re all too immersed in the screen action.

At the time it made some sense: television wouldn’t become commonplace in domestic situations until a few decades later, and the myriad choices that we have in cinemas now, not until much later. In other words, because of its relative scarcity, choosing to consume any form of media was a commitment of attention that no one has to consider as the same kind of investment these days, because we can just change the channel (or ditch the pirated movie) if we get bored. Plus, Facebook.

To summarise: a few decades ago there were a bunch of critics of pretty much everything (architecture, the shape of cities, movies, television, etc), who could read “the man” in every structure. And even decades after they were articulated, their ideas were compelling to me, perhaps because I was young and impressionable, or perhaps because their ideas were still persuasive at a time when you could point fingers at “the media” for brainwashing its audience.

But there is no longer such a homogenous entity, and movies are no longer all about nuclear, hetero-normative families. There are still rubbish movies, to be sure – in 1951 Adorno wrote that ‘Every visit to the cinema leaves me, against all my vigilance, stupider and worse,’ a sentiment that Mark Kermode expresses from time to time when he has to sit through movies like Geostorm – but Kermode is thankfully not permanently damaged, and there are also talk-shows like The Late Show with Stephen Colbert  which no doubt provide many people – including myself – with plenty of education about what the hell is actually going on, and also plenty of comic relief to deal with all that shit.

Because all is certainly not well in the mediascape (Zuckerberg, you fool), but there’s just no way anyone writing about “the media” some some seventy years ago could have even imagined the shit-show we’re in now, and it astounds me that anyone’s even bothering to make comparisons. I’m all for historical awareness, but surely the greatest value in that would be in pointing out how completely different things were in the 1940s? We may have ended up with a joke of a carrot as the leader of the “free world” in the current era (Zuckerberg, you tool) – and which may indeed be even scarier – but Adorno certainly had no fucking idea about what’s going on, so looking to him for answers seems about as helpful as asking your granny to explain the new Instagram algorithm.

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