Enlightenment as “Mass Deception”? — “Culture Industry” in the Dialectic of Enlightenment

As a sequel to last week’s post on what Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment has to do with “the Enlightenment,” I thought it might make sense to consider what, if any, rationale there might be for a discussion of the “culture industry” in a book that purports to say something about the vicissitudes of enlightenment (admittedly, an “enlightenment” that is rather broadly defined).

The account of the culture industry has become both the most influential and – for many of those in the field of “cultural studies” it helped to spawn – the most disliked part of Dialectic of Enlightenment. But though the chapter tends to get hammered for what is seen as its high-handed dismissal of popular culture, it is perhaps the one part of the book where Horkheimer’s hope for an analysis that would be (as he put in his letter to Felix Weil of March 10, 1942) “filled to the brim with historical and economic material” came closest to fulfillment. As David Jenemann demonstrated in Adorno in America (a book that is obligatory reading for anyone remotely interested in Adorno) much of what critics see as evidence of Adorno’s alleged “Mandarin sensibilities” turns out to be testimony to his deep immersion in, and faithful reproduction of, the often bizarre language employed by those who labored in the service of the culture industry. Likewise, the portrait of Hollywood as a world dominated by rackets, patronage relations, and grotesque forms of self-assertion was hardly unique to Dialectic of Enlightenment. Much the same picture can be found in the memoirs of those émigrés who found refuge in Hollywood, accounts that Horkheimer and Adorno would likely have heard at first hand. It bears remembering that Horkheimer’s next door neighbor on D’Este Drive in Pacific Palisades was friends with William (née Wilhelm) Dieterle, the director of The Story of Louis Pasteur, The Life of Emile Zola, Juarez, and Doctor Erlich’s Magic Bullet. The Horkheimers, it turns out, spent quite a few Saturday evenings with the Dieterles. Finally, the idea that the Hollywood studio system was a vertically integrated monopoly that had succeeded in establishing an iron grip on the entire process of film-making, from production to distribution, was something more than a theory dreamed up by a couple of grumpy émigré intellectuals: it was abundantly confirmed in the extended legal struggle that would culminate (a year after the publication of Dialectic of Enlightenment) in United States v. Paramount Pictures Inc. Horkheimer and Adorno could have submitted the chapter as an amicus brief. The question that concerns me here, however, has less to do with what the chapter tells us about Hollywood than with what it’s doing in a book called Dialectic of Enlightenment.

The problem of making sense of what is going on starts with the term “culture industry” itself. As Robert Hullot-Kentor has noted, it is important to remember that what we are dealing with is a single German word — Kulturindustrie — that jambs together two words that come from different semantic universes. In doing so, it produces the very model of a dialectical concept. These two words don’t belong together. There’s a tension between them that is overcome only by whatever force is smashing them into each other. In other words, it is a word that ought to sound strange, but — unfortunately — no longer does. A minor, though likely inadequate remedy, would be to get rid of the space and try using cultureindustry (after all, that’s its hash tag).

Before Horkheimer and Adorno released Kulturindustrie onto an unsuspecting world, Horkheimer had written an article that, bowing to the convention of his day, spoke of “mass culture” (see “Art and Mass Culture,” Studies in Philosophy and Social Science IX:2 (1941) 290–304). If you run an nGram for “mass culture,” “culture industry,” and “popular culture,” the results are about what you’d expect (but let’s do it anyway, if only for the perverse pleasure of dropping an nGram into a discussion of Dialectic of Enlightenment):

MC, PD, CINo one should be surprised that “popular culture” — so inoffensive, so unthreatening, so affirmative, so unlikely to get anyone in any trouble or keep anyone from getting tenure, so warm and cuddly, so … so … so … popular — quickly established a commanding lead over “mass culture,” a word from the wrong side of the tracks. Predictably, Horkheimer and Adorno’s compound only begins to rise from obscurity at the moment when it turns into a sort of shibboleth by which those of us who fool ourselves into thinking that we understand Dialectic of Enlightenment recognize one another.

Horkheimer’s article was billed as having been “provoked” by Mortimer Adler’s Art and Prudence (Adler would go on to have a good run at provoking people during the decade that followed) but after a few paragraphs even Horkheimer became bored with the prospect of further engagement with Adler’s tedious tome and veered off into a series of reflections that served as a sort of dry run for the culture industry chapter. While Adorno was, as always, enthusiastic about Horkheimer’s article (boundless enthusiasm for Horkheimer’s productions was not a bad survival strategy at the cash-strapped Institute for Social Research), readers who come to the article after having wrestled with Dialectic of Enlightenment will likely be struck by the utter implausibility of what Horkheimer was arguing. If the chapter on the culture industry overwhelms the reader with an explosion of ideas that defy easy summary, “Art and Mass Culture” cobbles familiar arguments together to reach a conclusion that is all too transparent. Here’s the set up:

The omnipotence of technics, the increasing independence of production from its location, the transformation of the family, the socialization of existence, all these tendencies of modern society may enable men to create the conditions for eradicating the misery these processes have brought over the earth.

If the Marxian provenance of the argument isn’t clear enough, just keep repeating the mantra: capitalism unfetters the forces of production and lays the foundations for future human liberation. Dialectic of Enlightenment flirts with a similar argument (see the discussion on pp. 60-64 in Volume 5 of the Horkheimer Werke), though in a way that no one could possibly understand. What this means is that, when the proletariat finally wakes up to its world historical mission, it will find itself in the possession of the means to end human misery. So, the problem is to figure out why the proletariat is still slumbering.

Analyzing the “subjective” factors that had prevented the enlightenment of the proletariat had been a major concern of the Institute for Social Research ever since Horkheimer assumed the directorship. The sentence in which “Art and Mass Culture” explains what has gone awry follows on the heels of the passage just quoted:

Today, however, the substance of the individual remains locked up in himself. His intellectual acts are no longer intrinsically connected with his human essence. They take whatever course the situation may dictate. Popular judgment, whether true or false, is directed from above, like other social functions.

Stated this baldly, the argument looks just about as bad as Horkheimer and Adorno’s critics tend to think it is: the working class would appear to be cultural dopes who, instead of seizing control of the means of production, have been manipulated by their crafty masters into watching bad movies and listening to jazz (sadly, the one thing that everyone knows about Adorno is that he — or perhaps his rottweiler — wrote an article about “jazz”). Workers of the World Unite! You have nothing to lose but your Benny Goodman records!

Chapter One of Dialectic of Enlightenment closed with a similar gesture. On face value, it’s not a lot more convincing, but it is considerably more opaque:

Today, when Bacon’s utopia, in which “we should command nature in action,” has been fulfilled on a telluric scale, the essence of the compulsion which he ascribed to unmastered nature is becoming apparent. It was power itself. Knowledge, in which, for Bacon, “the sovereignty of man” unquestioningly lay hidden, can now devote itself to dissolving that power. But in the face of this possibility enlightenment, in the service of the present, is turning itself into a complete deception of the masses.

And with this, the first chapter of Dialectic of Enlightenment closes. The nod to Bacon recalls the opening of the chapter, while the invocation of an enlightenment that has become “a complete deception of the masses” points ahead to the subtitle of the chapter on the culture industry: “enlightenment as mass deception.” And having wrapped things up so nicely, the boys probably took a break and strolled down D’Este Drive to see what was up with Dieterle.

Horkheimer's Street

D”Este Drive, Pacific Pallisades

This, then, was the hand that Horkheimer dealt Adorno when he set him to work on the culture industry chapter (as I’ve discussed elsewhere, Horkheimer’s extensive correspondence with the New York branch of the Institute opens a window on how the writing of Dialectic of Enlightenment progressed): what the chapter Adorno was writing had to do was show how the promise of enlightenment (in brief, the creation of human beings who would finally be free from fear and from the insatiable desire to dominate that this fear incited) was frustrated by a collapse of enlightenment back into mythology.

Let’s indulge in a bit of scene setting: every day after completing his work with Horkheimer, Adorno gets in his car to drive back from Horkheimer’s spacious home on D’Este Drive to his own more modest quarters on Kentor Avenue (need a map?). The sun is shining, the sky is blue, there are palm trees everywhere, Hollywood is off in the distance (need help picturing this? there’s a useful resource here). And, in the evening, he and his faithful wife Gretel —who bore the burden of scribbling down and typing up the ideas that Max and Teddy were dictating — would go to movies that, as he would explain in Minima Moralia, always left him feeling stupider than when he entered.

Adorno's House

Adorno’s House

OK, reverie over: just what did Adorno do with the hand Horkheimer dealt him?

First, and most immediately, he had to fill out an account that had focused almost exclusively on developments in Nazi Germany with a discussion of the development of the culture industry in non-authoritarian societies (whatever difficulties Dieterle may have had with Jack Warner, even he would have conceded that it was better than working for Joseph Goebbels). Much of the material that Adorno needed was at his doorstep, which explains the chapter’s relentless name-dropping: tips of the hat to Greta Garbo, Bette Davis, Greer Garson, and Betty Boop, wags of the finger for Mickey Rooney and Victor Mature. The rest could be quarried from the pile of manuscripts that Adorno produced during his time working on Paul Lazarsfeld’s radio research project, which helps explain a chapter in which Toscanini and Guy Lombardo rub shoulders with the Budapest Quartet and Benny Goodman, with none of them coming off particularly well.

Second, Adorno introduced some new elements into the conceptual machinery that was driving the argument. While Horkheimer had long been convinced that the meditation between the individual and society was to be found in the family, Adorno tended to emphasize the role played by the commodity fetish. The working out of these two positions occupied a fair amount of the Institute’s attention during the late 1930s and early 1940s, as can be seen by the various discussion protocols collected in Volume XII of Horkheimer’s collected works (there’s fascinating stuff here — is anyone working on it?). With Adorno now in control of the chapter, “culture industry” began to play a role that went beyond the limited function assigned to “mass culture” in Horkheimer’s essay. Recall that, for Horkheimer, mass culture was a mechanism of deception that separated human beings from their “human essence.” In Adorno’s hands, “culture industry” became a mechanism for inclusion:it had something — and equally importantly — some place for everyone. In the circle in which Horkheimer and Adorno were moving, it may have seemed as if everyone was somehow employed in the culture industry — as Brecht sardonically put it — hopefully as a producer of lies, less happily as a consumer of them. That idea had, as they say, “legs.”

Which brings us to Adorno’s third innovation. The incorporation of individuals into this massive an enterprise implies something that goes well beyond the “mass deception” alluded to in the subtitle that the chapter continued to carry (and had to carry, lest the connection to the opening chapter vanish). Deception implies the possibility that those deceived might, one day, come to see that they had been deceived and, when sufficiently enlightened about their deception, seek remedies. Such hopes lie at the heart of the notion of ideology critique. But “ideology” implies, at a minimum, that there are “ideas” of some sort to criticize. What the culture industry was selling doesn’t rise to the level of “ideas” (perhaps it might be helpful to think of Harry Frankfurt’s distinction between lying and bullshitting?). The culture industry produces what conservative critics — who, at heart, tend to view ideas with suspicion — have always thought liberalism lacked: a unified style. It provides the members of a fractured society with a repertoire of gestures, a stock of catch-phrases, a set of cues about how to make it. The opening chapter of Dialectic of Enlightenment — the fruit of Horkheimer and Adorno’s most intense collaboration — argued that adaptation of this sort had been the task of mimesis, which means that what Adorno wound up writing was a chapter that might better have been subtitled “enlightenment as mass mimesis.”

The Kulturindustrie chapter ends with the sort of sentence that drives translators to despair. In German it reads:

Das ist der Triumph der Reklame in der Kulturindustrie, die zwangshafte Mimesis der Konsumenten an die zugleich durchschauten Kulturwaren.

John Cumming, the first to try his hand at untangling Horkheimer and Adorno’s riddles, offered this solution:

The triumph of advertising in the culture industry is that consumers feel compelled to buy and use its products even though they see through them.

With all respect to Cumming’s labors (without which, many of us would not have begun our struggles with this text) this doesn’t quite cut it. The phrase zwangshafte Mimesis [compulsive mimesis] — which is as essential to Adorno’s account of what enlightenment has become as selbstverschuldeten Unmündigkeit was to Kant’s account of what enlightenment is — drops from sight. Edmund Jephcott’s 2002 translation tries this:

That is the triumph of advertising in the culture industry: the compulsive imitation by consumers of cultural commodities which, at the same time, they recognize as false.

Jephcott gives us “compulsive imitation,” but we lose Cumming’s deft handling of durchschauten [to see through something]. To my ears, “recognizing as false” implies something different from “seeing through” something — I may be able to “see through” someone’s bullshit without ever recognizing it as false for the simple reason that the bullshitter and I inhabit a world that is situated well beyond the domain of truth and falsehood. I suppose there might be a compromise (and translation is always about compromises) that could somehow keep both phrases, but I’m not seeing it.

Adorno expanded the category of “cultural wares” far beyond movies and radio programs. The sentence that immediately precedes the closing one was concerned with the marketing of toothpaste. He was concerned with the vast domain of objects that appear before us as the constituent elements of our culture and was trying to tell us that, pace his later critics, it is not as if we are unaware that much of the stuff we consume does not do what we hope it will do for us, but rather that we see through the limitations of what we are given, but keep coming back for more. The problem may lie less with what we are consuming (e.g., Guy Lombardo) than with the way we tend to consume it: compulsively. The best of the stuff that the cultural industry serves up may — if only briefly — give us a sense of what it would be like not to want more. The closing measures of Das Lied von der Erde may lead us into imagining that the ewig is, indeed, going to go on forever, but the silence that follows does not — at least in my case — trigger a need for a consumption of more Mahler or, indeed, a desire to hear any more music at all. That final C-major chord, as Benjamin Britten wrote in a lovely letter to Henry Boys, seems to hang in the air forever — it has always been there, it will always be there. But a look at my iTunes library reminds me that I am hardly immune to the compulsive mimesis of cultural wares whose … falseness? … I have seen through. For what else explains the presence of twenty-seven different recordings of Das Lied von der Erde?

The problem is not with mimesis itself: what we have learned since 1947 about child development in general and mirror neurons in particular suggests that mimesis does indeed play a fundamental role in the process that makes us what we are. The rub lies with zwangshafte: a word that stands as a marker for whatever it is that, willy-nilly, makes sure that we keep coming back for more. The way I read it, the great, ugly, unreadable, and unfinished torso that is Dialectic of Enlightenment is a reminder that the peculiar burden of enlightenment is to find a way to lose the “nilly” and save the “willy.” This — of course — is no easy task.

In Philosophische Fragmente, the 1944 mimeograph version of Dialectic of Enlightenment, the chapter on the culture industry closed with a phrase that, in a desperate attempt to make this wreckage of a manuscript look like a finished product, was cut from the final published version:

(To be continued)

Indeed. With apologies to Andre Bretonenlightenment will be persistent or it will not be at all.

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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One Response to Enlightenment as “Mass Deception”? — “Culture Industry” in the Dialectic of Enlightenment

  1. Pingback: Socially Conscious Criticism Part I | Contemporary Literary Theory and Criticism

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