Friday, February 18, 2011

Making Culture

 From the Wikipedia entry Culture Industry:
Culture industry is a term coined by critical theorists Theodor Adorno (1903–1969) and Max Horkheimer (1895–1973), who argued in the final chapter of their book Dialectic of Enlightenment, 'The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception' ; that popular culture is akin to a factory producing standardized cultural goods – through film, radio and magazines – to manipulate the masses into passivity; the easy pleasures available through consumption of popular culture make people docile and content, no matter how difficult their economic circumstances.

Adorno and Horkheimer saw this mass-produced culture as a danger to the more difficult high arts. Culture industries may cultivate false needs; that is, needs created and satisfied by capitalism. True needs, in contrast, are freedom, creativity, or genuine happiness. This was reference to an earlier demarcation in needs by Herbert Marcuse (see Eros and Civilization (1955))

I'm not sure if I'm so skeptical of these lines of reasoning because I misunderstand them, or because they are very flawed. I certainly haven't them, so that's that. But it does strike me as part of a much older leftist story that is kind of right, but feels really ham-fisted and often plain wrong.

What first occurred to me that it is rather puritanical. I mean, replace "freedom, creativity, or genuine happiness" with something more religious and you've got a paraphrasing of Islamist cultural critique.

Yet there is an obvious truth to it. No matter why they are doing it, much of American behavior and attitudes are terrible. The question is kind of chicken/egg: do we buy it because we want it or because we've been told to want it? And how much of this is a feedback loop anyway? You've got those in power positions leveraging this stuff, and so their hand is at least partly behind the wheel. But they're also often "following the money".

And how much of this is really "false contentment"? I'm reminded of the old TV vs. non-TV watchers debate. Although, let's be honest, it's mainly the non-TV guys standing there with their noses in the air, trying to absorb as much of the erudition and sophisticate status as possible, almost as if applying salve to their wounds-of-penance, lying on their uncomfortable futons, drinking bitter wine and cursing reality television. But there are obviously incredibly redeeming qualities to mass culture, often ones that far surpass what careless observers might consider "higher art".

I'm entirely open to being disabused of my notions. But as it stands, this sort of thinking can get tendentious rather quick.

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