The Invisible Armada

The critique in the stomach of entertainment (1/2)

Alain Brossat


We can follow Adorno when he explains, in the Dialektik der Aufklärung (1947), the reasons why he and Horkheimer opted for the expression cultural industries rather than mass culture. It is in fact, he says, that the latter expression maintains the illusion that this culture is the very fact of the masses – it leaves open the possibility that it “springs from the masses themselves”, that it is the effect of a collective and anonymous creation. However, says Adorno, in the era of cultural industries, culture is produced with a view to its consumption by the masses, it is fully a commodity, mass-produced, uniformed, and standardized. Not only is the consumer not king, Adorno insists, but he is not the subject (of the culture he ingests), he is the object.
The cultural industries only care about effects, they are confined in the world of utility, rationality, calculations and techniques which govern their development and their circulation are placed under the sign of pure instrumental rationality. It is a turning point in the history of works of art whose status and condition are radically transformed: certainly, there has never been pure and simple autonomy of the work of art, but it is precisely in the tension (or the game) between the constraints exerted on its production and the irreducible part of creation, of invention, which took shape, in the traditional regime of the work of art, the critical function of it. From now on, in the age of cultural industries, says Adorno, works of culture find themselves integrated and assimilated to the “sclerotic condition” of humans. Having become commodities, under this general regime, they lose their critical function.
The culture industry prides itself on the fact that it responds, essentially, to public demand, that its function is above all to provide them with the expected satisfaction – but this, says Adorno, is an imposture: what it is about producing, with the standardized goods that are Hollywood films, pop music, Broadway revues, is order. Cultural entrepreneurs and businessmen “claim that this industry provides men in a supposedly chaotic world with something like benchmarks for their orientation, and that, through this trait, it would already be acceptable”. But that's just the ideology of the cultural industry, the alibi of a mass apparatus whose true end is the maintenance of the status quo, the presentation of it as the most desirable thing. The categorical imperative of the culture industry is, says Adorno: “you must submit, without specifying to whom you must submit.” And he adds: “What the cultural industry lucubrates are neither rules for a happy life, nor a new moral poem, but exhortations to conformity to that which has the greatest interests behind it (…) It is by no coincidence  that we can hear in America from the mouths of cynical producers that their films must take into account the intellectual level of an eleven-year-old child”  [ 1 ] .

The limits of the charge launched by Adorno against the cultural industries, fueled by his long exile in California, have been repeatedly underlined. Enzo Traverso, for example, returns to this in an article entitled “Adorno and the antinomies of the cultural industry”  [ 2 ], recalling the premises of the radical critique of the cultural industries carried out by Adorno and Horkheimer: at the heart of the advent of these identify the process of reification which, “since the beginning of the 20th century, has mercilessly swallowed up the planet”. The cultural industries are one dimension among others of this process. Culture, like social relations, tends to be transformed into a commodity. Under the conditions of the cultural industries, culture is doomed to become a caricature of “authentic culture” and, as such, a pure simulacrum – in the same way, add the authors of the Dialektik der Aufklärung, that the community (of blood ) Nazi is the caricature of the authentic community.

Adorno and Horkheimer insist on what radically distinguishes what the cultural industries produce from popular culture: the goal of the former, contrary to what their promoters often claim, is not to make important intellectual or aesthetic creations accessible to the public by practicing a sort of pedagogy of simplification and embellishment (formatting). Conversely, it is to format the mass in such a way as to transform them into consumers of the goods put into circulation by specialized companies in the manufacturing and distribution of cinema, literature, music, shows (etc.) that are produced in an industrial manner. According to this approach, mass is opposed to public. The public is supposed to be informed, equipped with critical judgment, able to distinguish between quality works and mediocre or uninspired works. The masses are dedicated to consumption, in predictable, supervised, regulated forms of what the cultural industries put on the market. In this very sense, industrialized mass culture finds its natural outlet in advertising – it becomes inseparable from it, in public places or through television or cinema.

The way of life in the metropolises of what we today call the Global North (North America, then, from the 1960s, Western Europe) has undergone, according to Adorno, an essential change: we are moved from a general regime whose horizon was the “satisfaction of needs” to another where “the satisfaction of desires” prevails. The working classes were gradually colonized by this new paradigm. The cultural industries play a driving role in this reorientation: they are entirely dedicated to producing the illusory miracle of such satisfaction. In this sense, to the very extent that they contribute to anchoring the masses to their alienated condition and encouraging them to be satisfied with it, the cultural industries are distinctly placed under the sign of the anti-Enlightenment . Adorno takes a further step by discerning a homology between the major forms that they promote, notably everything linked to the cult of the One, and those put forward by totalitarian regimes – cult of the star in the first case, cult of the leader in the other. In both cases, the total mobilization of the masses occurs in a vertical and magical mode – control over the imagination is the means.

What emerges here is, according to Adorno, a disturbing affinity between democratic societies whose cultural industries are the flagship and totalitarian societies, understood as two versions of the reified world. Both are arranged around the principle of identity and the allergy to everything that is different, to any form of marked otherness: in American society, it is stifling conformism as a structuring element, then, during the Cold War, the witch hunt. Under the Nazi or Stalinist regimes, it was hysteria in the face of the enemy, whether class or race. For Adorno, the cultural industries, being factories of conformism , standardization, normalization and therefore of the spirit of submission, are, in a way, showcases of the affinities between the democratic powers and totalitarian powers. In the United States, cultural power (with, the Hollywood majors in the forefront) and political power are closely intertwined and will always continue to be more so until, so to speak, merging, with the advent of Ronald Reagan to the presidency.

To the apocalyptic tone of Adorno's condemnation of the cultural industries, Traverso contrasts the, let's say, more dialectical approaches of Benjamin and Kracauer. Firstly, the decline of the aura of the work of art, as precipitated by the irruption of cultural industries, should not necessarily be interpreted in the sense of a pure loss: cinema can certainly be a means of mobilizing the masses in the worst sense of the term, but also a collective experience likely to positively modify one's perception of the present. Kracauer considers, for his part, that, even in an era where cultural industries impose their conditions, a new art like cinema retains “creative and emancipatory potential”.
Criticism of the cultural industries such as Adorno's formula remains locked in an "iconophobia" prejudice; the preponderance of the visual which imposes itself with cinema is, for him, necessarily synonymous with the decline of art; just like what he calls “listening regression”, a phenomenon that he closely associates with popular music. His rejection of jazz, in particular, is formulated in terms where simplism competes with peremptory. Adorno, says Traverso, “locked himself into an elitist and aristocratic conception of art”. The wholesale and unqualified rejection of everything produced under the conditions of the cultural industries goes hand in hand, in his perspective, with an increasingly proven political conservatism, based both on radical anti-communism and an allergy to any revolutionary utopia but also on the rejection, in all of its forms, of what he designates as “administered society”: “Nazism and democracy certainly diverge in their forms and their use of violence, but not in their profound nature, because they are only two different paths to achieve the same result: the triumph of the principle of identity,” summarizes Traverso.
Adorno's radical cultural pessimism, with its long shadow, a political neo-conservatism strangely drawn from the sources of Marx's critique of alienation and the Weberian theory of instrumental rationality, leads to an approach that is not only declinist, but openly catastrophist of the questions of art and culture in the age of “neo-capitalism”. What Adorno cannot conceive, says Traverso, is that cultural goods can retain a use value in the reified world itself – or, what we might as well call a quality of art (a creative, aesthetic and critical power) in these very conditions. Adorno rejects as a whole both cinema and "light music", popular song or jazz, musical comedy, operetta, shows which do not bear the distinct mark of the avant-garde and the research which attach to it; he cannot therefore be sensitive to the way in which artistic creation and the critical scope of it make their way, in a present that is  most rigorously subject to the conditions of the standardization of cultural production and the commodification of works, through the very interstices of this general device.
He wants to know nothing about the destiny of art as it continues in an age where it finds itself subject as never before to the conditions of “culture” understood as an apparatus of power and a mode of government of the living; in an age where “culture” itself has essentially become an industry subject to the general conditions of capitalist production. He sees Hollywood cinema as nothing more than a factory dedicated to the mass production of social conformism and political submission on a large scale. He does not see what he has before his eyes, the poetic and critical power of Chaplin's cinema, the hidden resources of film noir, the cracks of the western and the war film - all in his fulmination against the cultural industries and the supposedly uniform vulgarity of their productions, he sees nothing of the way in which the minor constantly infiltrates into the major – to put it in Deleuzian terms.
Examined retrospectively, his overall rejection of any form of industrial cinema, of all Hollywood production, therefore, of jazz and popular music ("variety") takes the form of a debacle, a failure of analysis and philosophical judgment. A textbook case of this figure which, in the second half of the 20th century, has become so familiar to us: the shift from the radical criticism of the present into the comforts and retrograde illusions of "it was better before", nostalgia for lost worlds – even though this posture does not appear as such.

Benjamin and Kracauer are sensitive, each in their own way, to the equivocal powers of cinema in that it is both an industry and an art and that it differentiates itself, as the latest of the arts, from all those who have preceded, in that it is immediately addressed to the masses (photography does not become art strictly speaking and recognized as such in a completely different mode, not particularly popular, long after its invention – family photography, in the studio , that's not art, it's craftsmanship and small business). These equivocal powers have the effect that cinema cannot be confined in a single category – ideological regimentation, stupefying entertainment, stupefied narcosis – as Adorno does: cinema, including in its most industrial and commercial forms, standardizes, homogenizes and reifies just as it contains critical powers – it makes us think critically about the present – ​​but also the past and the future. To think critically here simply means to nourish the suspicion that things as they are are not self-evident, that they could or should be otherwise; it also means producing shifts in the way we approach them, changing perspective, angle of view; see emerge images, ideas, patterns and figures from which time and the conditions in which we live can be subjected to a new examination – but also what stands “behind” these – the springs of social life, the past from which we (and the present with us) come, and so forth.

(to be continued...)

(English version of the text reviewed and proofread by Nguyen Thi Lan Hanh)


[ 1 ] Theoror W. Adorno: “The cultural industry”, Communications , 1964/3.

[ 2 ] Communications , 2012/2.