Thursday, May 18, 2017

A Little Bit of Marxist Theory: Adorno & Horkheimer on the Culture Industry

Horkheimer on left, Adorno on right
The consumers are the works and employees, the farmers and lower middle class. Capitalist production so confines them, body and soul, that they fall helpless victims to what is offered them. As naturally as the ruled always took the morality imposed upon them more seriously than did the rules themselves, the deceived masses are today captivated by the myth of success even more than the successful are. Immovably, they insist on the very ideology which enslaves them. The misplaced love of the common people for the wrong which is done them is a greater force than the cunning of the authorities.[1]
A more profound description of the objective reality of ideology could not be written. It is at once vividly evident, compelling, and yet also horrifying. How can this be? How is it that people choose their own oppression?

This question is taken up in the film The Congress. An entertainment production monopoly called Miramount produces a hallucinogenic drug that places one into a virtual reality called Abrahama in which all of one’s desires are spontaneously converted into reality. They have “cracked the chemical formula of free choice” and can now have everything they want. And yet, it is a fake, unreal life they are experiencing. Their material experience is neglected in favor of endless consumption of fetishized commodities.

The Congress
eerily portrays how the pursuit of pleasure and free choice are perfectly compatible with tyranny. If people understand themselves as free and can pursue pleasure as much as they want, they won’t be led to question authority or challenge the powers that be.[2]

A similar example is found in The Lego Movie, which tells the story of an ordinary worker, Emmet, whose life is completely determined by the mega-monopoly Octan Corporation. He follows the Octan-produced pamphlet Instructions to Fit in, Have Everybody Like You, and Always be Happy, which includes such instructions as “Drink over-priced coffee” and “Enjoy popular music”—i.e. a song called “Everything is awesome!” Emmet’s entire world is designed to reinforce the status quo, to reinforce Octan’s domination over all life.[3]

But these are just movies, right? Surely, they have no relation to reality. Not according to Horkheimer and Adorno. For these theorists, this is precisely the human condition under capitalism.

The worker is not just under the tyranny of capitalism during the workday, but is subjected to a capitalist culture. “Amusement under late capitalism is the prolongation of work,” they claim, “It is sought after as an escape from the mechanized work process, and to recruit strength in order to be able to cope with it again.”[4] The culture industry prolongs the worker’s subjection from the workday to her life beyond her occupation, providing her with the escapism she needs in order to come back to work the following morning.

However, entertainment is not merely escapism or distraction, but is itself exertion, service to the culture industry. Entertainment turns “distraction into exertion.”[5] This is made so by the endless desire for consumption that the culture industry creates:
The culture industry perpetually cheats its consumers of what it perpetually promises. The promissory note which, with its plots and staging, it draws on pleasure is endlessly prolonged; the promise, which is actually all the spectacle consists of, is illusory: all it actually confirms is that the real point will never be reached, that the diner must be satisfied with the menu.[6]
Specifically, they explain:
By repeatedly exposing the objects of desire, breasts in a clinging sweater or the naked torso of the athletic hero, it only stimulates the unsublimated forepleasure which habitual deprivation has long since reduce to masochistic semblance. There is not erotic situation which, while insinuating and exciting, does not fail to indicate unmistakably that things can never go that far.[7]
The culture industry dangles an endlessly prolonged promise of pleasure before the consumer. In this endless deferment, the consumer is placed before object after object, commodity after commodity, desire after desire, and never satisfied. “To offer and to deprive [consumers] of something is one and the same.”[8] We can go on having new desires fabricated for us because it is not the objects themselves that we desire; rather, we are consumed by the desiring activity.[9] As was stated in a New York Times article, “Profit and growth stem directly from the ability of salesmanship to create more desire.”[10]

This process ensures two things: 1) that the worker/consumer is always under capitalism, that “The customer is not king, as the culture industry would have us believe, not its subject but its object,”[11] and 2) the worker/consumer is involved in the choosing the choosing of her own subjection.
The principle dictates that he should be shown all his needs as capable of fulfillment, but that those needs should be so predetermined that he feels himself to be the eternal consumer, the object of the culture industry. Not only does it make him believe that the deception it practices is satisfaction, but it foes further and implies that, whatever the state of affairs, he must put up with what is offered.[12]
The consumer has desires and needs. The culture industry presents its commodities before her as accessible, as in her reach, but the nature of these commodities is such that they endlessly defer the consumer’s desire to something else. They promise and deny at the same time. Don’t just have one, have another. Here’s your iPhone 6; ah, but don’t forget about the iPhone 7. As ad man Don Draper says in the show Mad Men, “What is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness!”

The culture industry sucks you in with promises, but never comes through, because its fetishized commodities cannot satisfy the needs and desires they address. No one really “Opens happiness” when they open a bottle of Coca-Cola, but the slogan appeals to the consumer’s own, free (!) pursuit of happiness. The pursuit of pleasure spontaneously feels free, and yet is determined by the culture industry, by the prolonged exertion of pursuing pleasure through the culture industry’s means. This is how capitalism manages to inspire workers to choose their own subjection.
All are free to dance and enjoy themselves. … But freedom to choose an ideology—since ideology always reflects economic coercion—everywhere proves to be freedom to choose what is always the same. … 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.[13]

[1] Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (New York: Continuum, 1969), 133–134.
[2] Jack Holloway, “The Congress is a dystopia where all of our dreams come true,” Narrative Muse:
[3] John Daniel Holloway, III, “Everything is [Not] Awesome: Critique and Embrace of Ideology in The Lego Movie,” The International Journal of the Image, 7, no. 3 (2016): 55–63.
[4] Horkheimer and Adorno, 137.
[5] Ibid., 138–139.
[6] Ibid., 139.
[7] Ibid., 140.
[8] Ibid., 141.
[9] Similarly, Slavoj Žižek says, “Desire’s raison d’etre … is not to realize its goal, to find full satisfaction, but to reproduce itself as desire.” Slavoj Žižek, “Desire: Drive = Truth: Knowledge,” Umbr(a) 1 (1997), 151.
[10] New York Times, July 12, 1949, quoted in Ronald J. Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 23, emphasis added.
[11] Adorno, quoted in Jan Rehmann, Theories of Ideology: The Powers of Alienation and Subjection (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014), 86.
[12] Horkheimer and Adorno, 142.
[13] Ibid., 167.

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