Reading Theodor Adorno and Max Horkneimer’s work on Culture Industry reminded me of watching the movie The Matrix (2009) when Thomas Anderson aka, Neo played by Keanu Reeves learns from Morpheus that he doesn’t live in reality but instead in a simulated world created by intelligent machines.
Adorno certainly reads with the same level of disgust and disillusion as Lawrence Fishburne’s Morpheus. Reading his work, I could not help but feel as if I swallowed the red pill and was suddenly awake to my surroundings.
He created a vision of the modern worker: a person who lives in the suburbs, an inhabitant who “produces and consumes, drawn to the center…the city in search of work and pleasure” (Adorno et al, pg. 1). But the demands of modern work as so exhausting and under stimulating that when we are done at the end of the work day, we have no desire to improve ourselves with high culture. Instead we wish to consume mindlessly. And what we choose to consume is the Culture Industry. Culture Industry feeds consumerism. The more we consume, the more we have the desire to meet our needs. Which we believe can only be met through the acquisition of more goods. So we work harder in our mindless, demanding jobs only to feel less inclined to pursue what we really are after: relationships, self improvement, fulfillment and a sense of community. So we come home and turn on the television, or internet or sink into another series on Netflix to numb ourselves from reality.
The problem with this, according to Adorno, is that we don’t meet satisfaction with this cycle. The culture industry doesn’t challenge us. It provides us with predictability, cliches and tidy endings that teach us nothing about what it’s like to live in reality. Instead of love, we get romance. Instead of hard work, we get two minute montages to sum up years of discipline and labor. This system gives us the feeling that we can relate to the characters who are all basically the same cookie cutter versions of what Culture Industry wants us to be.
Adorno tells us that, “real life has become indistinguishable from the movies.” (Adorno et. al, pg. 4) And what is the impact of this false reality? The deceived masses are captivated by the myth of success….they identify with the millionaire on the screen.” But we know that “not everyone will be lucky one day—but the person who draws the winning ticket, or rather the one is marked out to do so by the higher power…is then publicized on a vast scale.”
This has a crushing effect on individuals. Because we look at the screen and we feel, “[t]hat we could be that [girl on the screen] but realize the great gulf separating us from [her]. Only one girl can draw the lucky ticket, only one man can win the prize, yet this is so infinitesimal for each one that he or she will do best to write it off and rejoice in the other’s success, which might just as well have been his or hers but somehow never is.” (pg. 13)
The argument can be made that Adorno’s philosophies are outdated. We no longer live in a world where all media is selected and mindlessly consumed. We have become both the consumers and producers of pop culture. However, a case can be made for the impact nearly one hundred years of Culture Industry has had on our perceptions of what we should expect from life, love and success and how we choose to spend our leisure time when we find those expectations out of reach.
Doesn’t that sum up so many individuals in the modern world? Don’t we escape to “dark movie theaters” (bed rooms) with the latest season of our favorite show on Netflix and disappear? Don’t we savor the escapism of watching someone on the screen get everything they always wanted, see good prevail over evil, or watch the underdog finally win against unsurmountable odds. We watch men and women more beautiful than ourselves find love (according the Adorno the height of everything in this world) and then happiness? But love and happiness are abstract concepts not images you can place on a screen. So we settle for less with our entertainment. We savor the false imitation created by Culture Industry and that becomes the new ideal.
Happiness can no longer exist unless it comes in the form of a cliched “happily every after”. However, even if we are so lucky to create the perfect image and place it against reality, we see that it is left wanting. Because Culture Industry is not reality. It’s like the film The Matrix, a shared simulation, and we are left numb and unsatisfied. So we escape back into “dull” entertainment which keeps us in the oppressive cycle where anything real or meaningful resembles nothing more that “shining white teeth and freedom from body odor and emotions.” (Adorno et. all, pg. 24)
Perhaps there is a modern twist to the Frankfurt School's theory of Culture Industry. Could these scholars have predicted that the consumers would become the commodity?
1.) Do you feel that Culture Industry keeps the modern worker as dull as Adorno predicted?
2.) Do you feel Culture Industry is oppressive? Does it prevent us from realizing our full potential?