The idea that culture is mass produced came from two German academics named Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer. These two intellectuals, who would later begin a cultural enquiry, were members of The Frankfurt School. This institute was established in 1923 and consisted of many other German left-winged intellectuals. It was very much interested in the ideas of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud and therefore endeavoured to study the emergence of capitalist societies through the exploration of Marxism and psychoanalysis. This is what The Frankfurt School referred to as ‘critical theory’. The Frankfurt School, Adorno and Horkheimer in particular, were interested in studying popular culture and the mass production of cultural artefacts which they later referred to as ‘the culture industry’.
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In order to explore The Frankfurt School’s contribution to our understanding of popular culture, firstly we need to ask; what is culture? The word culture suggests “a particular way of life, whether of a people, a period or a group.” (Storey, 2006.1) It can also refer to “the works and practices of intellectual and especially artistic activities.” (Storey, 2006.1) The word cultivate was used to refer to the cultivation of land but now it can refer to the cultivation of the mind. Culture plays an important part in how human societies communicate with each other and how the new technological developments which contribute to this create a new type of culture known as ‘popular culture’.
“An obvious starting point in any attempt to define popular culture is to say that popular culture is simply culture which is widely favoured or well liked by many people.” (Storey, 2006.4)
Popular culture is centred on consumerism and is dominated by money; there is no part of popular culture that one doesn’t have to pay for. Popular culture produces products known as commodities which have a use value and an exchange value. A commodity is only a commodity if it can be replaced by something else. Commodity fetishism was an idea that came out of popular culture. Capitalist organisations fetishize commodities and invest them with power that they do not really have. They discourage us from asking where the things we consume actually come from. These companies do not want us to think about this process. The idea that capitalist companies are manipulating the thoughts of the masses about what they consume and the great power that they have leads us to the term ‘mass culture’.
In a mass culture, industrialised society there are no longer the same traditional values. The idea of an organic community no longer exists.
“The individual is left more and more to his or her own devices, has fewer and fewer communities or institutions in which to find identity or values by which to live, and has less and less idea of the morally appropriate ways to live.”(Strinati, 2004.6)
The Frankfurt School argue that the culture industry is killing the desire that might let us imagine a better world. They have an ideal notion of what human beings are capable of. The institute believes that we could never create a better world as long as we are part of this commodity culture. Adorno stated that the culture industry does not give the mass any responsibility for the culture that they are consuming, yet the masses are unaware of this which explains their passivity in accepting it.
“Although the culture industry undeniably speculates on the conscious and unconscious state of the millions towards which it is directed, the masses are not primary but secondary. . . The customer is not king, as the culture industry would have us believe, not its subject but its object.” (Strinati, 2004.55)
This point further emphasises the power that the culture industry has on the masses. With living in a culturally industrialised society comes conformity. Conformity replaces the consciousness of the masses according to The Frankfurt School. They believed that the masses are dependent on the culture industry and that the masses themselves are no longer producing culture.
Through researching the works of The Frankfurt School, we can understand that the masses are oblivious to the mass controlled culture in which they live due to the face that everything is pseudo-individualised. Products that were being produced by the culture industry were all standardised. This meant that they all had certain characteristics that made them significantly similar. The Frankfurt School, Theodore Adorno in particular, realised that the industry knew that standardised products would sell and therefore they needed to be given a supposed uniqueness to provoke the masses to continue buying them. This was referred to as pseudo-individualism.
The Frankfurt School stated that the culture industry created false needs in the pursuit of profit while ignoring the true needs of humans. According to The Frankfurt School the cultural industry and mass culture,
“. . . shapes the tastes and preferences of the masses, thereby moulding their consciousness by instilling the desire for false needs”. (Strinati, 2004.55)
They point out that the capitalist industries bring in a lot of profit through what they called waste production. They generated products that, in the opinion of The Frankfurt School, the masses did not need. Masses become so enthralled in the culture industry that their consciousness is overridden. The masses become too interested in the falsehoods that the industry has created and tend to forget about satisfying their true human needs. The school argues that it is due to all of this that the culture industry maintains its stability.
With regards to true and false needs, Theodore Adorno once wrote, “The indistinguishability of true and false needs is an essential part of the present phase… one day it will be readily apparent that men do not need the trash provided them by the culture industry”. (Adorno, Theodore W, “The Culture Industry” revisited at http://books.google.co.uk.p.156 accessed on 27/10/10)
Another point that The Frankfurt School has highlighted to us in order to contribute to our understanding of popular culture is that a lot of culture is very homogeneous. They believed that all aspects of popular culture were generic and predictable. They could not fathom the fact that the masses were accepting this constant reproduction of the same thing. They believed that people should want something more; something different and challenging. The culture industry followed a formula. The reason for the formulaic structure of the industry and the way in which its products were produces was because it was successful. This particular formula and method of mass producing standardised products generated profit.
When referring to this great power that the culture industry has, Adorno says,
“Today anyone who is incapable of talking in the prescribed fashion, that is of effortlessly reproducing the formulas, conventions and judgements of mass culture as if they were his own, is threatened in his very existence, suspected of being an idiot or an intellectual.” (Adorno, 1991. 79)
Critics of The Frankfurt School say that they do not appreciate just how diverse and hybrid popular culture is. They also say that The Frankfurt School invest too much power in the culture industry and that they consider capitalism as being more stable than it actually is. Critics believe that the culture industry has a lot more potential than The Frankfurt School gives it credit for.
The term culture has been described by Richard Williams as, “One of the two or three most complicated words in the English language.” (Storey, 2006.1)
Although some agree with this statement, The Frankfurt School has contributed greatly to our understanding of popular culture by highlighting how culture has become commercialised in the pursuit of profit. It points out to us that in a culturally industrialised society, no one thinks for themselves and that they consume this culture because it has been imposed onto them. The authenticity and traditional aspects of culture are no longer present and we can now come to the realisation that we will always live in a culture that is controlled by capitalism and consumerism. Everything that is presented to us, including the false needs that the industry provides is all in the interests of capital and profit. Our ability to understand how the culture industry works is aided greatly by the work of The Frankfurt School.
Storey, John (2006) Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction
Strinati, Dominic (2004) An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture (Second Edition)
Adorno, Theodore W (1991) The Culture Industry
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