Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, The culture industry: enlightenment as mass deception


This is a report on the Frankfurt School, namely on the article of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer “The culture industry: enlightenment as mass deception” (1944). In this report I’m going to talk about the major elements of the article. But, first, I would like to provide a general introductory passage about the Frankfurt School, and their wide influence in cultural theory.

The Frankfurt School is the name given to a group of German intellectuals associated with the Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt. The Institute was established in 1923. Following the coming power of Hitler in 1933, many thinkers from the group moved to New York. But, in 1949 they moved back to Germany. The Institute’s work on popular culture is mostly associated with the writings ofTheodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin,Max Horkheimer, Leo Lowenthal and Herbert Marcuse.

Broadly speaking, the Frankfurt School thinkers have done a critical and social analysis of the contemporary societies in the twentieth century. They have adopted an interdisciplinaryapproach that combines philosophy, cultural theory, economics, political science, legal theory, psychoanalysis, and the study of cultural phenomena such as music, film, and mass entertainment, and so on in order to assess the contemporary societal realities of the contemporary era.

The Frankfurt School theorists’ approach is intrinsically interdisciplinary in the sense that they draw upon a number of figures to build up their social theories. They made use of a number of concepts from a varied number of philosophers and thinkers of whom I will mention –in short— a few.

G.W. F. Hegel has been influential to the Frankfurt School theorists in the sense that they have borrowed from him the proposition of idealism and rationalism which place individual consciousness as primary to the objective world. Adorno for example has taken from Hegel, among other things, the idea that philosophy or thinking is to be practiced to provide interpretations of a socially constituted reality. The Frankfurt School thinkers also have eclectically made use of the Hegelian thought that freedom emancipates soul and mind (Geist[1]); this Freedom that “needs to be expressed and reflected in order to be really free”.[2]

On the other hand, the Frankfurt School thinkers have borrowed from Karl Marx ideas related to materialism like the importance of material forces and economicsin daily life. The Frankfurt School thinkers like Adorno shared Marx’s criticism of capitalism as being fundamentally a dehumanizing system. I should mention also that the Marxian concept of exchange value was central to Adorno’s analysis of culture and entertainment in capitalist societies.[3]

Chiefly amongst these influential thinkers was Friedrich Nietzsche. Of all the significant theories, the works of Nietzsche have put forth the most influence upon the Frankfurt School intellectuals namely Theodor Adorno. The Frankfurt School intellectuals have made use of ideas related to Nietzsche’s critique on religion and morality, his critique of mass society and his critique of the state. Nietzsche has placed immense importance on spontaneous, autonomous and creative human accomplishment as constituting the height of human personality. As a matter of fact, Nietzsche has rejected any form of domination and suppression. Other Nietzschean concepts like: reason is a means and a tool for domination seems to have influenced Adorno who calls it “the instrumentalization of reason”[4]

Last but not least, Sigmund Freud’s general theories on human behaviour have influenced the Frankfurt School scholars with matters related to human sexuality, the unconscious and family.In short, it seems that the Freudian concept that early childhood sexual and familial experiences have fundamental role in determining the adult personality of humans has triggered the critical proposition of Adorno and Horkheimer that not only family that shape ones personality, but also his/her social surrounding.

The Frankfurt School theorists were the first to notice the significant roles the state have played in using science and technology as instruments of administration and social domination. Science and technology have been proven to have been used in a harmful way by the state in almost all political systems. As a case in point, factories have been built to manufacture war machines and weapon of massive destruction to cause terror and make wars. Ideas like this have been circulated by modernist thinkers after the World War II claiming that the modern technological tools that are supposed to improve human life turn to do the opposite (the holocaust , atomic bombs in Japan and concentration camps etc). Even democracy itself turns to dictatorship (elections brought about tyrannies and dictators: Hitler, Mussolini, Lenin…)

The Frankfurt School critical theorists were among the first also to see the role of the mass media, of culture and communication in reproducing contemporary (modern societies). Their extensive analyses of social and political systems have lead them to make critical observations claiming that mass communication have been used to sell cultural ideologies and propagandas by different political powers. For example, German Fascism took over newspapers, radio, film industry and mass rallies to inculcate the Germans with fascist and Nazi ideologies of the master and expansion and so forth. In the USA, mass media, Hollywood films, advertisement industry, magazines were promoting the American capitalist ideology just like German Nazism. The same in the Soviet Union, films, broadcastings and other forms of culture promoted the ideology of Communism.

Frankfurt School was also the first to see consumerism as a new form of capitalism that has created new consumer needs, values and habits. During the era of competitive capitalism analyzed by Marx the working class merely had enough money to live let alone buying things like TVs, refrigerators, or cars. However, With Henry Ford, assembly lines and mass production appeared. This accordingly, has triggered off a new wave of economic and political policies (like the New Deal) that caused a financial loose; wages also went up and new forms of consumption emerged.

In the article of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer The culture industry: enlightenment as mass deception, all the aforementioned ideas of the Frankfurt School are interwoven in it. I will build on a few quotations from the article to shed lights broadly on the major ideas of the article.

This first quotation, “under monopoly all mass culture is identical, and the lines of its artificial framework begin to show through”, shows that all cultural forms were used to reinforce ideologies in the same way. They are identical also in the sense that they promoted one ‘spiritless’ thought. Adorno and Horkheimer argue that Hollywood films, radios, newspapers and advertisement industry have been publicizing the American ideology just like German Nazism have done in using mass media to brainwash the masses. In this article, they think that the culture industry is meant to assemble as many people as possible to participate in it. Mass communication forms are tools of domination and “organization from above”, they argue.

The second quotation says: “In culture industry the individual is an illusion not merely because of the standardization of the means of production. He is tolerated only so long as his complete identification with the generality is unquestioned”. This quotation talks about the tarnished identity of the individual. The individual has lost his identity due to the effects of culture industry as it aimed at standardizing and homogenizing the masses. The individual has no place other than consuming commercial products; he in other words exists only because he is in complete identification with the others. Adorno and Horkheimer give an extensive passage about the detrimental effects of this fact on the individual as they are treated in terms of labels and statistics (being categorized as high consumers or low consumers according to their level of consuming products). “Consumers appear as statistics on research organization charts, and are divided by income groups into red, green, and blue areas…” (P.2) In short, the individual, inheriting the characteristics of his ‘corrupt society’ although seemingly free, is “the product of its economic and social apparatus”. (p.9)

The third quotation from the article is as follows: “Works of art are ascetic andunashamed; the culture industry is pornographic and prudish. Love is downgraded to romance”. We see how Adorno and Horkheimer criticize contemporary art condemning it for demolishing the aesthetic values of ‘real’ art. The classical art for them was purely for aesthetic and intellectual intentions; seeing that it gives value to the individual appreciation and taste. In the same vein, other values such as love are reproduced by films and ads as pornography and eroticism.Happiness has been simplified and exemplified in laughter.They say, “in the false society laughter is a disease which has attacked happiness and is drawing it into its worthless totality”.(P.13)

Adorno and Horkheimer conclude with the hope that the systems would collapse because they’re “unbearable for mankind”(p.14). They hope that people would retain the natural meaning of human life, believing that this could only happen with destroying the industry culture.

[1] Geist is a German word which has all the meanings of the English words spirit, mind and soul
[2] http://wiki.hegel.net/index.php/Spirit/Mind[3] http://www.iep.utm.edu/adorno/#H2[4] Ibid.



Abderrazak Baddou


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