The Culture Industry is a bummer

I have to admit, I forgot how heavy this reading is–I think it’s a product of the time period and also a certain self-important tone that was taken up when doing Theory. What I mean by capital “T” theory is that in academic circles it was taken very seriously, especially by those who did it. I don’t think this could be published today without the use of headings, for example.

Many of the ideas in the CI feel out of date because the media landscape has changed dramatically since the mid-1940s. The biggest shift has been in the move from broadcast media (such as radio, TV, movies) to network media (the internet). Broadcast media refers to the one-to-many model. One active voice and a passive audience. Networked, obviously, is the many to many. We write blog posts and share them to whoever, any one can leave a comment etc.

Yet, many ideas feel very relevant today. Horkheimer and Adorno argue that mass media–the movies, radio–destroy our imaginations, stunt revolutionary impulses, and sync us up to the rhythms and logic of capital production. For example, on the last point, the formula for cartoons is that the cartoon figure gets repeatedly beaten down. Repeatedly misses the escape. Any resistance the cartoon character puts up, fails. H and A claim that this trope teaches us that there is not escape, that resistance is futile. Part of this ‘lesson’ is due to the fast paced nature of media (can you imagine what they’d say if they could see media today?)–in describing how imagination is shut off, they write that “sound films”:

..are so designed that quickness, powers of observation, and experience are undeniably needed to apprehend them at all; yet sustained thought is out of the question if the spectator is not to miss the relentless rush of facts. Even though the effort required for his response is semi-automatic, no scope is left for the imagination (35)

The formulaic and repetitious nature of film narratives lodges the structure in our minds and we barely have to pay attention. They go on to argue that this so-called leisure time, going to the movies, is an extenstion of work. At work we are beaten into submission just like the cartoon character. We cannot escape the plot of work in other words. Now, with the rise of the CI, our leisure time is taken up by capitalism too (38).

Another section that stood out to me (or a few sentences) is at the end when they claim that the individual is an illusion created by the CI. I want to tie this to the idea of the “cool girl.” This article is an excellent analysis and history of the cool girl.



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