Theodor Ludwig Wiesengrund Adorno (September 11, 1903 – August 6, 1969) was a German sociologist, philosopher, musicologist and composer. He was a member of the Frankfurt School along with Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, Jürgen Habermas and many others. Theodor Adorno was no doubt one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century. Affected by Walter Benjamin’s application of Karl Marx’s thought, he argued that capitalism fed people with the products of a culture industry (the opposite of true art) to keep them passively satisfied and politically apathetic. Adorno thought that the capitalist system had not become close to collapse, as the famous German philosopher Karl Marx had predicted. Instead, he saw that capitalism had seemingly become more powerful and widespread. He was pretty negative about our chances of breaking out of this system. Adorno mostly dealt with the cultural aspects (superstructure) of capitalism.
Adorno thought that in modern capitalist societies there is an economy of cultural goods which has a specific logic. He believed that cultural needs are the product of education and social origin. Thus, social hierarchy among consumers reflects itself on the socially recognized hierarchy of arts. Thus, arts in a sense function as “markers of class” (Adorno, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception”, pg 2). Education and social class determines a person’s tastes and develops his/her competence for different kind of arts. That is why “a work of art has meaning and interest only for someone who possesses the cultural competence, that is, the code, into which is encoded (Adorno, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception”, pg 2). Adorno identified popular culture as the reason for people’s passive satisfaction and lack of interest in overthrowing the capitalist system. He claimed that the capitalist system brings problems such as taking away individual “true” needs like freedom, full expression of human potential and creativity, genuine creative happiness and replacing them with false ones like commodity fetishism, popular culture and standardization. Adorno also discussed “use value” and “exchange value”. “Use value” refers to the contingent qualities of a thing that are useful to human beings. Adorno also profits from Marx’s ideas. “Marx defines the fetish character of the commodity as the veneration of the thing made by one self which, as exchange-value, simultaneously alienates itself from producer to consumer human beings” (Adorno, “The Culture Industry: Selected Essays On Mass Culture”, pg 33). Exchange value refers to the popularity, scarcity and the price of a thing. For example, water’s use value is very high because it is a vital drink but its exchange value is very low because it is not scarce. In contrast, a diamond is very low in use value but its exchange value is enormous because it is very scarce.
Adorno asserted that capitalism forces us to be delighted by something because of how much it costs. In other words, people began to attach importance only to the exchange value of a commodity. “The more inexorably the principle of exchange value destroys use values for human beings, the more deeply does exchange value disguise itself as the object of enjoyment” (Adorno, “The Culture Industry: Selected Essays On Mass Culture”, pg 34). According to Theodor Adorno, in the capitalist system people are targets whereas firms are hunters. People mostly buy a commodity not because of their will and necessity; instead they are affected by popular culture that spreads through the mass media. “The customer is not the king, as the culture industry would have us believe, not its subject but its object” (Adorno, “The Culture Industry: Selected Essays On Mass Culture”, pg 85). This theory is called “commodity fetishism” and according to him it is the biggest gift capitalism gives us. He also makes an analogy between consumers and prisoners. “When the feelings seize on exchange value it is no mystical transubstantiation. It corresponds to the behavior of the prisoner who loves his cell because he has been left nothing else to love” (Adorno, “The Culture Industry: Selected Essays On Mass Culture”, pg 35).
As I mentioned before, Adorno identifies these as the reason for people’s passive satisfaction and lack of interest in overthrowing the capitalist system. The culture industry forces people to be delighted only by certain accepted values; there is no place for different ideas or behavior. This is called “standardization” and it is caused by culture industry and popular culture. “…The categorical imperative of the culture industry no longer has anything in common with freedom. It proclaims: you should conform, without instruction as to what; conform to that which exists anyway, and to that which everyone thinks anyway as a reflex of its power and omnipresence” (Adorno, “The Culture Industry: Selected Essays On Mass Culture”, pg 90). We all believe in the dominancy of money and try to be wealthy, in other words we do not listen to our instincts, we listen to popular values. An ideal life is portrayed to us via films, news, and books starting from our birth. Everyone tries to reach this ideal life instead of living his or her lives. When we adhere to popular values or reach an ideal life, we may feel happy but the question to be answered is: is this the truth or a virtual happiness? Standardization prevents us from being ourselves. The culture industry is cleverer than any other dictators in dictatorship because it does not exert any physical power over people but people might have serious “invisible” mental problems or they may unconsciously waste their qualities in order to behave according to popular values. They may sacrifice their individuality. “The sacrifice of individuality, which accommodates itself to the regularity of the successful, the doing of what everybody does, follows from the basic fact that in broad areas the same thing is offered to everybody by the standardized production of consumption goods” (Adorno, “The Culture Industry: Selected Essays On Mass Culture”, pg 35). In other words modern capitalist state “offers a vision of a society that has lost its capacity to nourish true freedom and individuality” (Adorno, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception”, pg 29).
Another problem with capitalism and popular culture is related to Adorno’s “false” needs ideology, which is caused again by popular culture and the culture industry. Adorno claims that the capitalist system brings problems like taking away “true” needs like freedom, full expression of human potential and creativity, genuine creative happiness, imagination and replacing them with false ones like commodity fetishism and popular culture. “Imagination is replaced by a mechanically relentless control mechanism which determines whether the latest imago to be distributed really represents an exact, accurate and reliable reflection of the relevant item of reality” (Adorno, “The Culture Industry: Selected Essays On Mass Culture”, pg 55). Popular culture is the reason for the proliferation of these false needs and popular culture spreads like a mortal disease with the help of television. “Here an objection may be raised: is such a sinister effect of the hidden message of television known to those who control, plan, write and direct shows?” (Adorno, “The Culture Industry: Selected Essays On Mass Culture”, pg 144). While criticizing these negative effects of modern society, we can find an aristocratic approach in Adorno’s views similar to all Frankfurt school members. Although Adorno is highly critical of popular culture, he does not question how class distinctions and domination is reproduced through a naturalization of existing hierarchies such as “high” and “low” culture. Pierre Bourdieu for instance can be considered as a critic of Adorno’s aristocratic views which deal with the high culture and theorization more than low culture and practical concerns.
Finally, in my opinion Adorno’s views are still very valid and important considering the progressive rise of commodity fetishism and dehumanization in capitalist societies. However, his theory should be revised since nearly all media channels and other popular culture elements are owned by bourgeoisie and the states.
- Adorno, T., 1991, “The Culture Industry: Selected Essays On Mass Culture”, London: Routledge
- T.W. Adorno & M. Horkheimer, 1992, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception”, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, The Seabury Press
- Wikipedia.org, http://www.wikipedia.org/