Adorno on film and mass culture
The culture industry reconsidered

by Thomas Andrae

from Jump Cut, no. 20, 1979, pp. 34-37
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1979, 2005

"The whole is the untrue."
— Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia

Although concern over the effects of mess culture dates practically from its inception over one hundred and fifty years ago, only recently has it become the subject of widespread debate. Between the two world wars, cultural critics like Wyndham Lewis, F.R. Leavis, and Ortega Y. Gasset took up the century-old concern for the dangers of cultural democratization but were generally isolated figures. In the thirties, U.S. sociologists Robert Parks and Herbert Blumer of the Chicago School conducted the first empirical studies of mass culture. But it was not until the forties and fifties after a group of refugees, with the horrors of fascism fresh in mind, produced an analysis relating mass culture to mass society and ultimately totalitarianism, that the debate on popular culture became commonplace in U.S. academic circles. For the first time, the members of the Frankfurt School — Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse — produced a critique of mass culture from a radical rather than a conservative point of view, demonstrating the crucial significance of the media in forming social consciousness and defining the limits of social change under late capitalism.

The Frankfurt School takes its name from the Institute for Social Research established in Frankfurt, Germany in 1923. Called Critical Theory, the Institute's theoretical program was initiated largely as a response to failure of the vulgar Marxism of the Second International's theorists (Bernstein, Kautsky, Plekhanov) to provide a revolutionary alternative in post-WWI Germany. In vulgar Marxism, the superstructure (culture, the state, law, religion, the family, etc.) was assumed to be a reflex of changes occurring in the economic substructure of society. Following this formulation, the possibility of revolution was explained in terms of changes in the economic base (capitalism's tendency toward economic crisis) and the degree of political organization of the working class. The failure of these conditions to produce a successful revolutionary movement after World War I signaled the necessity of abandoning vulgar Marxism. The attempt to dismantle Marxist dogma began during the early 1920s and was the effort of two major philosophers — Georg Lukács and Karl Korsch, whose seminal works, History and Class Consciousness and Marxism and Philosophy respectively, in conjunction with the rediscovery of Marxism known variously as "Neo-Hegelian Marxism", "Western Marxism", or "Marxist Humanism." [1]

By returning to the Hegelian roots of Marxism, which had been obscured during the intervening century, these theorists attempted to recuperate the dialectical mode of thought which vulgar Marxism had displaced with its insistence upon economic determinism and inevitable historical laws. Critical Theory was part of this movement. Its central aim was to explicate the dialectical method and rescue it from its idealist and vulgar Marxist distortions. This meant first an attack on the scientistic pretensions of vulgar Marxism. In his programmatic essay of the early thirties, "Materialism and Metaphysics," Horkheimer argued that Marxism was not a monistic metaphysics based on the ontological primacy of matter. Horkheimer criticized the objectivist tendency in Marxism for eliding the role of consciousness and subjectivity in the dialectic. In contrast to the copy theory of perception of vulgar Marxism, Horkheimer stressed the active role of cognition which Hegelian idealism has affirmed. Horkheimer argued that perceptual objects were not merely passive copies of the material world but actively constituted by consciousness. Materialism was dialectical, claimed Horkheimer, only when it rested upon an ongoing interaction between subject and object, consciousness and being.

Horkheimer claimed that both Hegelian metaphysics and vulgar Marxism vitiated the dialectic by presuming an identity theory — the belief that "an ultimate oneness of subject and object, essence and appearance, particular and universal underlies the contradictions of the apparent world." [2] According to Horkheimer such an identity presupposed an illusory and quietistic notion of absolute truth. Instead Horkheimer stressed the necessity for non-identity and mediation between subject and object. This meant that no aspect of social reality could be taken as final, complete, or wholly determinant. Each element had to be interpreted in terms of its interaction within the changing social totality. Without such mediation, there would be an overemphasis on one of the elements of the totality, a fallacy that the Institute frequently attacked as a form of "fetishization."

Both the vulgar Marxist overemphasis of the economy and the positivist tendency to reify existing social conditions were examples of "fetishization." The assumption of non-identity also stood for the Institute's uncompromising stand against the reification of changing historical and social conditions. Until contradictions were reconciled in the socialist society of the future, any identity between subject and object, general and particular, individual and society, could only function, in the Institute's mind, to reconcile individuals to the status quo. Increasingly in the Institute's analyses, non-identity came to refer to those unreconciled elements of individuality, autonomy, and negativity that refused harmonization.

In its theory of culture, Critical Theory stressed mediation and reciprocity between base and superstructure, attempting to elicit a truly dialectical theory of culture. In contrast to vulgar Marxism, which saw culture as a mere reflection of the economic base, the Institute held that culture had never been merely ideology or false consciousness, but rather, in its complex mediations preserved an autonomy from the base level of production. The Institute's aesthetic theory is captured by Horkheimer's statement that "art, since it became autonomous, had preserved the utopia that evaporated from religion." [3] According to Horkheimer and Adorno, culture had been a negative critical force as long as it provided a "utopian" alternative to existing society. However, with the advent of mass culture in modern times, art threatened to degenerate into a mere reproduction of the economic base.

According to Adorno, the chief architect of the Institute's theory of mass culture, traditional art had failed to maintain its autonomy and claim to truth under the monopolization of culture by mass cultural institutions (which he called the culture industry). The culture industry was an aspect of that dialectic of enlightenment in which technical rationality had become "the rationality of domination." [4] In Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), coauthored by Max Horkheimer, Adorno argued that the unprecedented increase in the forces of production in modern times had an effect opposite from that anticipated by Marx. Rather than being an explosive force conductive to revolution, the expansion of technology had culminated in barbarism, mass deception, and instinctual repression.

This system of technocratic despotism was an outgrowth of the self-destruction of liberal society and the rise of monopoly capitalism. Adorno believed that the mediations which had previously permitted the individual a sphere of partial autonomy had been gradually liquidated. The rise of mass culture and the decline of traditional art were symptoms of a more thorough-going decline in the forces of negation in modern society, a process which Marcuse later characterized as "one-dimensionality." Symptomatic of this decline were totalitarian mass movements like fascism and the erosion of the patriarchal authority of the bourgeois family. The Frankfurt School's studies of the authoritarian personality, anti-Semitism, and culture industry all indicated a rise in the conformity and passivity of the individual in modern society and converged to a single diagnosis: "Mass culture was the seedbed of political totalitarianism" (DI p. 218).

According to Adorno, the spread of technology served the culture industry in U.S., just as it helped tighten the control of authoritarian governments in Europe. The result was a sweeping transformation in the conditions of the production and distribution of culture. This transformation spelled the erosion of the free circulation of cultural works in the bourgeois era and their monopolistic control by the culture industry. Adorno believed that this decline in the conditions of circulation and production permitted the wholesale standardization was apparent in the culture industry's promulgation of hit songs, creation of singing and movie stars, and reliance on a series of invariant types, slogans, and repetitive formulas. The content of mass culture tended to be interchangeable, art being subject to a positivist form of calculation and planning. Gags, formulas, and clichés were calculated for their effects by special teams of experts, the lengths of stories rigidly adhered to, and the endings of films wholly predictable from the outset. Standardization was a species of technical rationality, in which culture was purged of all spontaneity AND novelty. Intrinsic worth was calculated in advance for the sole purpose of achieving maximum profitability.

Adorno noted that standardization had as its complement the technique of endowing mass-produced commodities with an illusory aura of individuality, which he called pseudo-individuation. He analyzed this process in an article on the reception of popular music:

"By pseudo-individuation we mean endowing cultural mass production with the halo of free choice or open market [sic] on the basis of standardization itself. Standardization of song hits keeps the customers in line doing their thinking for them, as it were. Pseudo-individuation, for its part, keeps them in line by making them forget that what they listen to is wholly intended for them or predigested." [5]

Pseudo-individuation was evident in the standardized jazz improvization, in the pseudo-individuality of the film star whose hair style expressed her uniqueness, and in the seemingly personal signature of a director on what was, in fact, a standardized product.

Adorno's criticism of mass culture was simultaneously a critique of positivist methods in media research. A collaborator on the Princeton Radio Research Project in 1938, Adorno came in conflict with his colleagues over his refusal to measure and classify the reaction pattern of listeners as if these patterns were empirical "facts." Instead Adorno insisted that listeners' tastes could not be interpreted as spontaneously given, as in standard media research, but that they were artificially produced through consumer manipulation and product standardization. Wrote Adorno:

"Standardization, moreover, means the strengthening of the lasting domination of the listening public and of their conditioned reflexes. They are expected to want that to which they have become accustomed and to become enraged whenever their expectations are disappointed and fulfillment, which they regard as the customer's inalienable right, is denied, and even if there were attempts to introduce anything really different into light music, they would be deceived from the start by virtue of economic concentration." [6]

Listening habits were standardized through song plugging, a practice which broke down all remnants of spontaneity and resistance to conformity. Standardization resulted in a regression in quality of hearing, such that the listener was docile and afraid of anything new, a sadomasochistic state of impotence that Erich Fromm had described as the basis of the authoritarian personality.

Adorno's critique was not directed against popular culture per se, but the specific kind of mass culture produced under monopoly capitalism. His theory of the degradation of serious art through the rise of culture industry and mass production must be distinguished from conservative and elitist culture criticism. Unlike elitist critics, Adorno refused to defend high art for its own sake and to condemn popular art as inherently inferior. He wrote,

"'Light' art as such, distraction, is not a decadent form. Anyone who complains that it is a betrayal of the ideal of free expression is under an illusion about society." (DE, p. 135).

Adorno condemned cultural critics like T. S. Eliot, Ortega y Gasset, and Aldous Huxley for fetishizing culture as a sphere autonomous from material production, and for claiming that the people threatened to destroy the values and sensibility of high art through their creation of mass culture. Horkheimer and Adorno explicitly coined the term "culture industry" to dispel the illusion that mass culture was in any sense produced by the masses. The term "popular culture" was, in fact, ideological they claimed, mass culture imposed from above rather than derived from the people. [7]

Horkheime and Adorno also departed from the puritanical belief of culture criticism that mass culture undermined morality by promoting hedonism and unrestricted sexuality. Anticipating Marcuse's later critique of "repressive desublimation," they claimed that the culture industry was not bad because it promoted hedonism; rather it repressed pleasure and sensuality under the guise of being hedonistic. They write,

"The culture industry perpetually cheats its customers of what it perpetually promises. The promissory note which, with its plots and staging, it draws on pleasure is endlessly prolonged; the promise, which is actually all the spectacle consists of, is illusory; all it actually confirms is that the real point will never be reached, that the diner must be satisfied with the menu."(DE, p. 139).

Through its conscious titillation of the senses the culture industry only promoted sexual renunciation; its affinity was not to joy and pleasure but masochism and resignation.

According to Adorno, resignation and self-renunciation predominated in U.S. animated cartoons: "Once exponents of fantasy as opposed to rationalism," cartoons

"ensured that justice was done to the creatures and objects they electrified, by giving the maimed specimens a second life. All they do today is to… hammer into every brain the old lesson that continuous friction, the breaking down of all individual resistance is the condition of life in this society. Donald Duck in the cartoons and the unfortunate in real life get their thrashing so that the audience can learn to take their own beating" (DE, p. 138).

The culture industry promoted inertia by downgrading tragedy into fate, claimed Adorno. In traditional art, tragedy expressed a negative movement of protest because it exposed human suffering. Tragedy exposed the illusion of any harmony between form and content, individual and society, revealing the "necessary failure" of any striving for fulfillment in class society. This negative element was displaced in mass culture:

"Tragedy is reduced to the threat to destroy who does not cooperate… tragic fate becomes just punishment which is what bourgeois aesthetics always tried to turn it into" (DE, p. 152)

Adorno's concept of culture industry must be understood in relationship to the theories of mass culture developed by Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin. Benjamin and Brecht believed that art could be revolutionized by technique and that this technical revolution, along with the solidarity of proletarians and intellectuals created by such changes, would bring about revolutionary collective modes of production and reception in art. Benjamin's essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1936), described reproductive techniques, especially those used in film and photography, as destructive of the aura of ritual and cult once surrounding art works.

Horkheimer and Adorno conceived the chapter on the culture industry in Dialectic of Enlightenment as a reply to Benjamin's essay on mechanical reproduction. Both essays described the liquidation of traditional art with the rise of the mass media in different ways. Where Adorno believed that the new reproductive techniques perpetuated auratic and cult values, Benjamin believed them to be potentially progressive. Benjamin compared the montage technique in film to the principle of interruption in Brecht's epic theater. In epic theater the interruption of the action results in what Brecht called the alienation effect. The social conditions which underlie human action are "laid bare" by making them seem strange or unfamiliar, causing the action to be viewed with astonishment rather than complacency. These interruptions disrupt the "illusion of reality" which the drama promotes, critically distancing the audience from the representations exposed. Benjamin believed that the montage principle in film also created distancing effects through a process of interruption. He wrote,

"The spectator's process of association in view of these images is indeed interrupted by their constant sudden change. This constitutes the shock effect of the film, which like all shocks, should be cushioned by heightened presence of mind." [8]

In correspondence with Benjamin, Adorno argued that mechanical reproduction had resulted in neither collective reception nor a mass public inclined toward revolutionary change. His major criticism was that Benjamin tended to "underestimate the technicity of autonomous art and [to] overestimate that of dependent art." [9] Adorno claimed that the inner formal development of avant-garde art led to the anti-ritualistic execution technique, which Benjamin mistakenly regarded as the great merit of industrial cinema. In his major aesthetic work, The Philosophy of Modern Music (1949), Adorno argued that the liberation of music from tonality in Schoenberg's work, like the emancipation of painting from objecivity, undercut reification and illusionism by revealing their techniques to be artificially created rather than "natural" or intrinsic to the media, and therefore historically changeable. On the other hand, ritualism in art was conserved rather than destroyed through mass production, claimed Adorno. In a retrospective article, "The Culture Industry Reconsidered" (1967), Adorno wrote that the culture industry seized control of the decaying aura by conserving it as a "foggy mist" in the cult of stardom, which served advertising and ideological interests, and in the "individualistic residues, sentimentality, and… rationally disposed and adapted romanticism," which characterized mass-produced culture. [10]

Benjamin was the heir of the first phase of a new technological era, when techniques like montage seemed capable of producing direct political effects. Thus he sometimes wrote as if technical forces were politically effective in themselves, thereby ignoring the fact that the politicization of technology includes the relations as well as the means of production. Although he was aware that mass production and reproduction did not automatically guarantee mass art an emancipatory function when it was subjected to the capitalist production and distribution apparatus, it was not until Adorno's study that a theory of mass art under the culture industry was fully developed. Their disagreement can be partly understood in terms of the different historical period which formed their experiences. Adorno was looking at the U.S. of the 1940s, dominated by wartime sentimentality and propaganda, Benjamin to the revolutionary silent films of Eisenstein and Vertov in the l920s. If Benjamin had lived, he might well have modified his theory: in correspondence he lamented the decline of film with the coming of sound. [11]

Adorno criticized Benjamin's theory by distinguishing between a technique externally grafted onto the art work through mass production and the technicity inherent in art itself:

"In the latter, technique is concerned with the internal organization itself, with its inner logic. In contrast, the technique of the culture industry is, from the beginning, one of distribution and mechanical reproduction and therefore always remains external to it." [12]

According to Adorno, mass art was merely a commodity to be sold, its technique designed solely to manipulate consumers through pre-digested formulas and calculated effects rather than any concern for artistic form or truth content. Mass culture was so determined by such effects that it lacked a coherent aesthetic structure; the formula had displaced the work. Consequently it was best analyzed in psycho-social rather than aesthetic terms.

However, by foregoing an analysis of artistic technique in favor of psychosocial critique, Adorno produced an analysis of film and mass culture as one-sided as Benjamin's. Adorno's theory of jazz, which served as a model for all his subsequent work on mass culture, exemplifies this myopia. According to Adorno, jazz epitomized the transformation of culture into a commodity under the culture industry (DE, pp. 186-190). Its flaunted spontaneity was all show, its naturalness a form of reification, and its alleged emphasis upon improvization belied by a dependence upon the static repitition of formulas and clichés. Jazz tended to spatialize rather than temporalize music, claimed Adorno, as it substituted mythic repetition for historical development. The sexual emancipation in jazz was equally illusory, wrote Adorno, consisting in effect of a form of castration in which the promise of sexual fulfillment only culminated in ascetic denial; its incorporation of all unruly elements into a static scheme betrayed a sadomasochistic tendency toward blind obedience.

Adorno's theory of jazz betrayed a racist attitude toward black music that was initially fostered by the culture industry. The recording industry presented a highly diluted and commercialized form of jazz taken from the original but less popular type rooted in black culture and sold it as the real thing. White band leaders like Paul Whiteman, styled the "King of Jazz," were given the credit, the money, and the publicity for "advancing" and "refining" a form of music that they not only appropriated from blacks but had radically subverted. In his essays on jazz, Adorno perpetuated this prejudice by confining his analysis to the commercialistic white jazz of big name swing bands and flagrantly denying or belittling the black contribution to jazz. "The skin of the negro as well as the silver of the saxophone," wrote Adorno in his first article on jazz in 1936, "was only a coloristic effect" (DI, p. 186). Although Adorno's theory was true enough for white swing, it was a travesty when applied to black jazz. As Leroi Jones points out, swing was a bastardization of jazz's original impulse in black culture:

"Swing had no meaning for blues people, nor was it expressive of the emotional life of most young negroes after the war. Nevertheless, by the forties it had sumerged all the vast acquisitions from the Afro-American musical tradition beneath a mass of 'popular' commercialism." [13]

Adorno's neglect of black jazz exemplified the racism of a white society which refused to acknowledge the autonomy and individuality of black cultural forms. Adorno's racism also blinded him to the rebellious elements in jazz. If the black contributed anything to jazz, claimed Adorno, it was its origin in the blacks' half-resentful, half-complacent submission to slavery, expressed in spirituals and slave songs. However, contrary to Adorno, blacks self-consciously utilized jazz as a form of rebellion against the hegemony of white values and the assertion of their ethnic identity.

A prime example of this process was the resistance of black musicians to swing. Swing band leaders like Benny Goodman consistently strove for uniformity, control, and slickness of style, cultivating accuracy in performance and playing in tune by emphasizing written parts. Conversely, black musicians, even in the big band context, sought spontaneity and expressiveness based upon improvisations without written parts. Writes Ben Sidran:

"Count Basie's band had up to seven men playing harmonically and rhythmically improvised music without any written music. The player, even as he was becoming more inspired with harmonic exploration, relied on his ear rather than his ability to read music … In the midst of an increasingly complex environment, the Black musician turned to the free-flowing modes; hence he played 'off beat' to avoid the stagnant fell of Goodman's 'on the beat presentation', he used increased vocalization, or tone alterity', to help break through the passive ferment of big band work and to return to the tonal honesty of jazz idioms." [14]

Contrary to Adorno, jazz was never totally integrated into a commercialistic framework. Blacks responded the debasement of their music with new uses of older musical forms.

The one-dimensionality of Adorno's theory of is also evident in his discussion of film. Although Benjamin had been overly optimistic in his analysis of filmic technique, Adorno was unduly pessimistic in assuming that it was essentially mimetic and conservative. Like Benjamin, Adorno identified film with mechanical reproduction, but rather than seeing it as progressive, interpreted it as tending to produce a passive replication of the status quo. The movie-goer receives the world as an extension of the film he just left behind, wrote Adorno, because the film faithfully reproduces the world of everyday perceptions. The more flawlessly filmic techniques duplicate the world, the more the illusion prevails and the screen represents reality.

"The sound film, far surpassing the theater illusion, leaves no room for imagination or action on the part of the audience, who is to respond within the structure of the film yet deviate from its precise detail, without losing the thread of the story; hence the film forces its victims to equate it directly with reality … Sustained thought is out of the question, if the spectator is not to miss the relentless rush of the facts" (DE, pp. 126-127).

The spectator's response thus becomes semi-automatic, leaving no room for autonomous or critical reflection.

In her critique of Adorno's theory of film, Diane Waldman notes correctly that Adorno's belief that film was inherently conservative rests on an ahistorical ontology of the film medium, a belief that it is the essential nature of film to duplicate and reinforce reality. [15] As Waldman argues, films scale from the extremely abstract to the conventionally naturalistic. Although the dominant Hollywood aesthetic has been predominantly naturalistic, it is not inherent to the medium. The films of the Russian Montage School of the 1920s, led by Sergei Eisenetein and Dziga Vertov, as well as German Expressionist silent films and surrealist films like Buñuel's UN CHIEN ANDALOU are examples of a non-natualistic aesthetic. Since the advent of the French New Wave in the 1960s, avant-garde directors have attempted to disrupt filmic naturalism, by utilizing devices which could distance the spectator from filmic representations. The classic example is Godard's BREATHLESS, in which jump cuts, opening sequences with close-ups rather than establishing shots, and ellipses in narrative continuity were used to produce a sense of discontinuity and disorientation in the spectator. Recent analyses have claimed that distancing devices also operate even in some classic Hollywood films that seem wholly determined by the dominant ideology. According to some critics, the films of Ford, Sirk, Arzner, and others, exhibit an ambiguous relationship to ideology, subverting it by refusing to unify and resolve all contradictions, by exposing gaps in its surface, or by denaturalizing it by making it visible and axplicit. [16]

The limitations of Adorno's theory are manifested in his notion of art as a form of negation. As mentioned previously, the chief metaphysical assumption of critical theory was its rejection of identity theory — its refusal to seek facile or premature reconciliations to existing contradictions. According to Adorno, a successful work of art

"is not one which resolves objective contradictions in a spurious harmony, but one which expresses the idea of harmony negatively by embodying the contradictions pure and uncompromised, in its innermost structure." [17]

Adorno steadfastly refused to endorse substantive representations in art. Until social contradictions were resolved, positive meaning must be suspended. Art's promise of future fulfillment was confined to an imageless "other," typified for Adorno by polyphonic music, the least representational of aesthetic modes.

However, by attempting to avoid any form of ideological entrapment, Adorno's theory of negation degenerates into an idealist aesthetic. According to Adorno, art must reject all socially determined communication, which he equates with consumer manipulation and regression. Art can only resist the false consciousness imposed by the culture industry by declaring its autonomy from all discursive meaning and communication. It must

"insist upon its own ossification without concession to that would-be humanitarianism which it sees through, in all its attractive and alluring guises, as the work of inhumanity. Its truth appears guaranteed more by its denial of any meaning in organized society of which it will have no part — accompanied by its own organized vacuity — than by any capability of positive meaning within itself. Under the present circumstances it is restricted to definitive negation." [18]

Art is condemned to an abstract negativity, losing its function as a mode of ideological struggle. Severed from the function of promoting a critical awareness of social conditions, negation is confined to the vapid championing of the esoteric and meaningless, exemplified for Adorno in the work of Beckett and Kafka.

Instead of being an instrument for changing consciousness, Adorno conceives of the art work as a monad that is produced blindly foregoing any communication with an audience:

"Communication of the work of art with the external, with the world, to which blissfully or miserably it closes itself off, happens through non-communication. Here then it proves itself fragmented." [19]

The creation of an oppositional mass art thus must impotently await the negation of capitalist society, without playing an active role in hastening its demise. However, Adorno believes that the culture industry has so implicated the masses in false consciousness that any form of revolutionary praxis is utopian. His analysis thus ends in an insurmountable vicious circle.

Adorno's exaggeration of the media's power to manipulate is partly a result of this theory being too closely modeled after the Nazis' use of the media in mobilizing the masses. Throughout his discussion of culture industry, Adorno drew parallels between the monopolization of the mass media by the culture industry and Nazi totalitarianism without explicitly equating the two. This often led him to exaggerate the power of the former while forgetting the historical specificity of the latter. This is apparent in his erroneous belief that the rise of economic and administrative concentration, of which the culture industry was a part, spelled the end of ideology in modern society. In the past, ideologies could be confronted with the truth because they rested on attempts at universal justification, claimed Adorno. But with the advent of Nazism, naked power relations no longer needed universalist ideologies to justify them. Nazis did not have an ideology in the sense of classical liberalism; their propaganda was a "manipulative contrivance," a "mere instrument of power." The culture industry, likewise, destroyed the independent movement in ideologies:

"With the advent of bourgeois society the traditional concept of ideology loses its subject matter. Spirit is split into critical truth divesting itself of illusion, but esoteric and alienated from the direct social community of effective action, on the one hand, and the planned administrative world of that which was once ideology on the other." [20]

Although it expressed a valuable insight into the workings of late capitalism, Adorno's model of power relations so blatant that they needed no justification could not be maintained for long. Second generation Frankfurt School theorists like Jürgen Habermas have had to rely again on notions of ideology and false consciousness to describe the justifications of scientism, technocracy and instrumental action in creating spurious social harmonies. [21] Adorno also returned to the notion of ideology to describe the philosophical search for the first principles which postulated underlying identity which harmonized social contradictions. [22]

Shortly before his death, Adorno retracted his theory of the total commercialization and manipulation of culture. In a radio lecture about leisure time and mess culture, he expressed doubts about whether "the equation of culture industry and consumer consciousness can indeed be upheld" and spoke of systems of double consciousness. [23] An empirical study of public reaction to the wedding of Dutch Princess Beatrix and German diplomat Claus Von Amsberg — an event given widespread coverage in the German mass media — had shown that the public did not attribute as much importance to the event as theorists of total manipulation might have assumed. Adorno remarked,

"There was evidence that many people were surprisingly realistic and were able to evaluate critically the political and social importance of this 'unique' event which they had witnessed breathlessly on TV a short time before. … "It seems that the integration of consciousness and leisure time is not yet complete after all. The real interests of individuals are still strong enough to resist total manipulation up to a point. This analysis would be in line with the prognosis that consciousness cannot be totally integrated in a society in which the basic contradictions remain undiminished." [24]

The inadequacy of Adorno's concept of culture industry indicates the necessity for rethinking his theory of mass culture. We must begin by recognizing what Wilhelm Reich called the duality of conformist and emancipatory elements in the psyche of mass audiences and resist the one-dimensionality of the manipulation thesis. Much of Adorno's work reveals an implicit qualification of this thesis, which points to the dialectical nature of mass art. Adorno qualified his analysis of film, for example, by suggesting that negative elements were present in "the tendency to fall back on pure nonsense, which was a legitimate part of popular art, farce and clowning, right up to Chaplin and the Marx Brothers" (DE, p. 137). Negation was present in corporeal rather than intellectual art, wrote Adorno, in the actions of circus and vaudeville performers, acrobats and clowns. Their actions, by becoming fully reified and carrying objectification to the extreme, foreshadowed a new form of happiness and liberation from repression by exposing the commodity character of mass culture. Adorno also hinted at oppositional tendencies in film which were becoming eclipsed: tragic figures like Garbo and even Betty Boop were being displaced by the programmed cheerfulness of Mickey Rooney and the fatalistic masochism of Donald Duck (DE, p. 134).

Recent studies of the media by Marxists within (but critical of) the Frankfurt tradition have stressed the limits of consumer manipulation and demonstrated the existence of an inextinguishable substratum of potential negation in the forbidden zones of fantasy and imagination which is generated by repression in the labor process and inherent in advanced capitalist commodity production. [25] Adorno himself hinted at the existence of a critical substratum of rebelliousness noting that the culture industry destroyed not only the "seriousness" of high art but also "the rebellious resistance" inherent in popular art "as long as social control was not yet total." [26] Yet if rebelliousness is inherent in popular art, how can it ever be entirely extinguished? As Adorno admitted, the culture industry "shields itself from the full potential of the techniques contained in its products." [27] Adorno failed to examine systematically the rebellious elements in mass culture and the emancipatory potential of its techniques. What is needed is a new theory of mass culture, which combines Adorno's critique of culture industry with theories like those of Brecht and Benjamin, which stress the revolutionary transformation of artistic technique. Only from such a synthesis can we develop a comprehensive theory and political praxis leading to the ultimate goal of a Marxist aesthetic — the true integration of art into the processes of material life.


1. Martin Jay, "The Frankfurt School's Critique of Marxist Humanism," Social Research 39:2 (Sumner, 1972).

2. The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School of Social Research 1925-1950 (Boston: Little Brown, 1973), p. 119. All further references will be given in the text by DI.

3. Max Horkheimer, Critical Theory (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972), p. 275.

4. Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment (New York: Herder and Herder, 1969), p. 121. All further references will be given in the text by DE.

5. Studies in Philosophy and Social Science, 9 (1941), p. 25.

6. ibid. p. 125.

7. Theodor Adorno, "Culture Industry Reconsidered," New German Critique, #6 (Fall, 1975), p. 12.

8. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1973), p. 238.

9. Theodor Adorno, "Letters to Walter Benjamin," New Left Review, #81 (Sept.Oct., 1973), p. 67.

10. "Culture Industry Reconsidered," p. 15.

11. New Left Review, p. 79.

12. "Culture Industry Reconsidered," p. 4.

13. Leroi Jones, Blues People (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1963), p. 181.

14. Ben Sidran, Black Talk (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971), p. 90.

15. Diane Waldman, "Critical Theory and Film: 'the Culture Industry' Revisited," New German Critique, #12 (Fall, 1977), pp. 39-60.

16. CF. the collective texts by the editors of Cahiers du cinéma, "Cinema, Ideology, Criticism" and "John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln," Cahiers du cinéma, 216 (1969) and 223 (1970), respectively, reprinted and translated in Screen (Spring 1971, Summer 1971, Spring 1972, Autumn 1972).

Claire Johnston ed., Dorothy Arzner: Towards a Feminist Cinema (London: British Fills Institute, 1975).

17. Theodor Adorno, Prisms (London: Neville Spearman, 1967), p. 32.

18. Philosophy of Modern Music (New York: Seabury Press, 1973), p. 20.

19. Aesthetische Theorie, Gesammelte Schriften 7 (Frankfurt am Main, 1970), p. 15.

20. Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, Aspects of Sociology (Boston: Beacon Press, 1972), p. 199.

21. Jurgen Habermas, Knowledge and Human Interests (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971).

22. Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics (New York: Seabury Press, 1973), pp. 197-198.

23. _____ Freizeit, Stichworte: Kritische Modelle 2 (Frankfurt am Main, 1969), p. 65; translated by Andreas Huyssen in New German Critique, #6 (Fall, 1975), pp. 6-7.

24. New German Critique, p. 6.

25. Eberhard Knoedler-Bunte, "The Proletarian Public Sphere and Political Organization: an analysis of Oscar Negt and Alexander Kluge's "The Public Sphere and Experience," New German Critique, #4 (Winter, 1975), pp. 51-76.

26. "Culture Industry Reconsidered," p. 12.

27. Ibid., p. 14.