The two faces of the cultural industry



The relevance of the concept created by Theodor Adorno & Max Horkheimer

A little over seventy years ago, the concept of “cultural industry” was published for the first time, in Dialectic of Enlightenment, a book that marked an entire area of ​​European thought at the time. Is it still worth using this concept in its original sense, according to the critical theory of society of the so-called Frankfurt School, and not in the purely descriptive and neutral, not to say insipid, versions that emerged later?

Considering the controversy that has always surrounded it and the great changes that have taken place in its area of ​​application, the question is opportune. In seeking an answer, I will proceed in three steps. First, I will briefly reconstruct the current of thought that gave rise to the concept. Afterwards, I will deal with it itself, by reconstructing its fundamental traits. Finally, I will address the question of its relevance in current conditions.

Already with these first words I make it clear that I am starting from the premise that the dimension of social reality to which the idea of ​​cultural industry refers has undergone such considerable changes since the XNUMXs that a concept like this, constructed at that time, is today exposed to the suspicion of obsolescence. This is not as trivial as it seems, even in an area of ​​study as marked by historicity as the social sciences.

After all, concepts as fundamental as those of power and authority resist for centuries or millennia of use; and few will contest the relevance of concepts such as Durkheim's anomie or Weber's rational action, constructed at the beginning of the last century. Clearly the concept of cultural industry has a more conjunctural character. It is there more to mark an inflection in the trends of development of a historical period than to characterize it as a whole. In reality, it is not intended to characterize this or that social object, but rather to base a critical exercise: exactly the one aimed at pointing out changes where they are not registered by the dominant thought, and to expose trends that this same thought is prone to ignore or hide.


The first references to the “cultural industry” appear in the book that Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno wrote between 1942 and 1944 in their American exile and published in 1947 in a small publisher in Amsterdam, on the “dialectic of enlightenment” (or “enlightenment”). ”, Aufklärung)). A disconcerting book, whose impact on the post-war cultural scene no one could have expected at the time of its modest appearance. In it, no rigorous plan, nor well-ordered and articulated chapters. It is explicitly about “fragments”, dispersed pieces that express, in what is unfinished and full of edges, a shattered world. A world that one seeks to characterize, always against the grain of what it exhibits as its basic traits, the unity behind the division and the division that is hidden in the unity. It is, from the outset, a fragment within an unfinished work. A sting to wound conventional thinking more than a magnifying glass to magnify what's in sight.

At stake, in the dialectic of enlightenment, is an immanent critique of reason. Without giving up the reason historically associated with enlightenment, quite the contrary. “For us it is undoubted that freedom in society is inseparable from enlightening thought”, say Horkheimer and Adorno, to complete: “but the concept of this same thought, as well as the concrete historical forms, the institutions in which it is inserted already contain in itself the germ of that regression that is taking place everywhere today. If enlightenment does not incorporate reflection on this regressive moment, then it seals its own fate”.

It is about taking this reason seriously, in its promises and in its limits. Therefore, it is worth remembering that the concept of cultural industry was not originally constructed as an analytical artifact to serve research in some specific aspect, but is part of an intellectual effort to discuss the vicissitudes of reason in the modern world. And this without falling into the pure and simple irrationalist abandonment or the arrogant rationalist arrogance that ignores its limits, not just the external ones, but those that it carries within itself.

Here resides what is perhaps the fundamental point of these authors' attempt, and of what is conventionally called the Frankfurt School (the members of the group preferred to identify themselves by their activity, as a critical theory of society). It was about formulating an immanent critique of reason; a rational critique of reason, therefore. This means introducing into critical rational thought what the left, to which they belong, tends to avoid: the dark face of history. That is, what opposes the unreflected optimism of the ideas of European Enlightenment rationalism from the XNUMXth century onwards, of what among us became known as Enlightenment, and casts a shadow, which it seeks to erase through the idea of ​​progress.

Involved in this is the idea that history is not just linear progress but intrinsically carries with it the possibility of regression. A basic theme among those that critical theory claimed to treat in its own way and that Adorno at another time would say was already present in Marx (perhaps he was thinking of analyzes such as that of 18 Brumaire, “the first time as a tragedy, the second as a farce”). Clearly, however, the idea of ​​regression bears Freud's stamp, a very different source from those invoked by the irrationalist field, which has in the figure of decadence (at the limit, the theme of degeneration, as seen in Nazism) the version proper to Freud's thought. right.

These rather high-sounding formulations are necessary to remember that the first exposition of the concept of cultural industry is part of a very ambitious and, at the same time, fragmentary effort to face a trait of the historical moment in which it was conceived. It is the regression of a reason conceived instrumentally, as a mere instance of effective control of the world, to its opposite, the myth, conceived (in a different register from that of Anthropology) as a narrative expression of unreflected subordination to the world.

And this to the extent that reason itself inadvertently carries the myth within itself, from the moment it thoughtlessly believed it could dominate it by its mere effectiveness. This regression, of course, takes on concrete historical forms: Nazism and Fascism, in this case. But not only these. The anti-fascist field itself was undermined by the vulnerability to regressive forms to which an Enlightenment reason in its liberal aspect was subject, marked by the inability to apply to itself the supposedly effective criticism that it aimed at explicit irrationality. Finally, the dialectic-inspired critique to which Adorno devoted himself in particular endeavors to turn thought against itself, lead it to question its foundations (ideal and material) and its limits, to exercise reflection in the most implacable way, to discover the reflexive lack in both myth and science (hence called “positivist”, merely affirmative).

In those circumstances, the main lines of political-ideological confrontation did not manage to capture with the finesse the mishaps of reason, which were expressed in the most open forms of barbarism, but not only in them. Marx's critique of political economy was presented as a fundamental reference for thinking about the issue in all its scope, as long as it is free of the economistic shell that adhered to it.

An issue that these critical theorists of society had to face right away was, therefore, that of exercising finer forms of perception of ideological dynamics than the classics of Marxism had managed to do. Decades before Hannah Arendt and through other paths and another register, Horkheimer and Adorno turned their gaze to what she would later call the “banality of evil”, to the need, as Adorno would say at another time, to “raise the stone under the which the monster hides”.

It is therefore to the apparently more harmless forms of conducting life in the contemporary world that attention should be directed, in search of what may be regressive in them – especially when they present themselves as progressive forms of satisfying the most spontaneous desires of free men and women. to choose. This meant, in practice, that the problems that these representatives of rational and critical thought had left behind in Europe, threatened by the expansion of Nazism and Fascism, reappeared, in less virulent forms, in their North American exile. And the immediate question was the same one that also preoccupied conservative thought in its most civilized form (Ortega, Huxley, even Mannheim in the XNUMXs) and from which, therefore, it had to be distinguished: how to face a historical situation in which society and culture no longer present themselves organized in recognizable groups, but are they diffused in the indistinctness of the great masses?

Where better could this be done than where the controlling impetus of instrumental reason appears concealed in what presents itself as its opposite: in symbolic production, in the form of culture, or as mere entertainment? In the first formulation of its authors, the cultural industry appears linked to the enlightenment process due to its condition of “decoy of the masses”. This call must be taken seriously. In a first approximation, the term industry refers, in this context, to its most archaic meaning, of cunning and deceit. This already allows us to see that the term cultural industry was not invented by these authors to describe, even if in a negative light, a state of affairs given to direct observation.

Rather, it serves to characterize the association of two forms of regression: that of culture (a central theme in Adorno) and also that of industry (an important theme in Horkheimer), and not just the former when subjected to the dictates of industrial production. Of course, this also happens, and it is important in the concept: forms of cultural expression are subjected to the logic of industrial production on a large scale, to the detriment of their own requirements. But it should be noted right away that, if the concept of cultural industry is of a critical nature, it is taken to the end, involving both its elements: in the cultural industry, not even the industry is entirely industry (it is not simply a matter of “industrialized culture”) nor is culture entirely culture (because what is autonomous in its production is compromised).

The most important analytical development of the cultural industry concept consists of the idea that, as well as the most finished component of the cultural process, the work of art, the organization on multiple levels is also found in the products of the cultural industry. With a decisive redefinition, however. What in the work of art would be levels of meaning becomes, in the products of the cultural industry, levels of effects, increasingly unambiguously planned and directed to so many levels of reception by consumers, reaching their unconscious dimensions.

The incorporation by analysis of a non-linear conception of meaningful configurations that both to its defenders and to its conservative critics seem simple and one-dimensional is a notable advance. It raises the question, within the scope of Adorno's conceptions, of the difficulties in thinking about the forms assumed by these configurations at these multiple levels. The problem involved is a difficult one, and remains a challenge in the analysis of cultural processes. This is because Adorno takes the primacy of the moment of production very seriously in the analysis of the cultural industry, while many of his critics insist on emphasizing reception (more precisely, consumption) to point out the different modalities of “decoding messages” ( to use jargon terms that made her shudder) released on the market.

The argument goes in the direction that differentiated forms of reception of the messages can neutralize in appreciable degree the power of imposition of models of conduct, of perception and formation of references by the cultural industry. Supporters of the orthodox use of the concept have at their disposal the argument that what is important is not so much the content, but the way in which those messages are systematically structured as a result of the very organization of production. In this process, patterns and thematic nuclei are formed, whose effectiveness is due to their reiteration.

This, in turn, gains primacy over the variation of contents. This argument can be taken further, in the sense that the discovery of variations in the reception of messages (which would be a function of specific, socially defined repertoires) does not take us far in explanatory terms, not least because they can be detected almost infinitely, if examined with sufficiently powerful lenses down to the individual level.

Of course, systematic variations corresponding to segments and social groups can be detected, and normally they are detected by the producers themselves, for the purpose of adjusting their own production (audience research, also qualitative, is not carried out for nothing). At the limit, this has to do with the intrinsic tendency of the development of the cultural industry (in line with the industrial logic), of no longer operating with a view to an undifferentiated mass market and, consequently, stratifying its production according to segments. of the market to be achieved.

The important issue, in this case, concerns the limits of planning the effects of what the holders of control of the cultural industry launch on the market. For this reason, the variation that really challenges knowledge is the one that occurs in depth, according to increasingly recondite levels of consumers' own psychic organization, and not just horizontally, according to superficial differences in consumption. Would there be, as Adorno himself suggested, mismatches between these levels of effects, which could mobilize unsuspected resistance in consumers? In terms of empirical research, this was, for Adorno, a fundamental theme with regard to the analysis of the cultural industry. Of course, one cannot eliminate, for fear of being “apocalyptic”, the hypothesis of a tendency towards in-depth planning of these effects, towards something like a flattening of the levels of reception and response to cultural products disseminated on a large scale.

But, whether or not this happens is an empirical question, it cannot be resolved in terms of theoretical reflection. The problem consists of unraveling, in his analyzes of the cultural industry, the sentences relating to broader processes that articulate various levels of depth of the object from those that address specific aspects of that same object. Many commentators' assertions about Adorno's supposed shifts of position actually apply to references to different levels of the object, especially when he is concerned with signaling points relevant to empirical research.

In general, the linear reading of Adorno has the most common effect of attributing to him a kind of positivism against the grain, in which he appears as affirming (in a “pessimistic”, “elitist” or similar way) the unacceptable character of this or that state. of things, when in reality there is denial. For him, it is important to expose the intrinsic negativity of the conditions he criticizes, by taking them to their limits. Thus, to say that something is impossible under the given conditions does not mean for Adorno simply to affirm the impossibility, but to point out the limits of the conditions that engender it.

Here we have a typical exercise in the critical theory of society. Criticism here means denial. Not in the sense of direct denial of the object, mere revulsion or distancing from something undesirable or unbearable (as would the conservative cultural critique). In the sense, however, of negation as a refusal to consider a state of affairs as objective data without further ado, to be seen as it presents itself to observation and to be reaffirmed therein. It means taking what it is about (which exactly is not a mere “object”, something put) as a process, with tendencies that point both to its possibilities and to its limits, always seeking to think these possibilities and limits to the end.

A zen Frankfurtian (a category I have just invented) would say that critical negation consists of stretching the bow to the limit but without effort, because the target aimed at is both very precise and unattainable. Denial focuses on the consequences that would result from the linear development of the object's possibilities (in the case of culture, its transformation into a mere instrument of profit in the economic sphere and control in the social and political sphere) and on the conditions that define its limits (in this case, the capitalist organization of production and consumption). Here, too, it is not a question of denial as mere revulsion, but rather as a refusal to reaffirm what is already given. And this is done in the name of concrete socio-historical potentialities, whose realization precisely the given conditions and trends block.

Of course, among those conditions, that basic dimension of bourgeois society, which is ideology, stands out. Ideology appears, at this point, as the most complete and socially most effective expression of the simple affirmation of the given, of the simple reiteration of what is present in social experience without questioning the nature and conditions of that experience itself. In ideology, what is a product, a result mediated by a process, is presented as given without further ado, immediate when not original. In Adorno's language, ideology takes for granted what it cannot fulfill, the full realization of its concept by the thing. Thus, culture is spoken of as if it were there, given, as an object (or, worse, as a mere attribute of objects).

But culture is not that; it is necessary to think of it in its intrinsic critical dimension. Culture does not translate directly into books, artifacts, songs; if it did, it would sanction its conversion into as many commodities. It is a socially determined modality of relationship between unique significant complexes and society as a whole, or, in this restricted sense, between creator and receiver (it would be better to say maker, as there is work involved). And the determination is negative, because the uniqueness of the work is not given, it requires specific effort. It is a relation before being an object; and, in terms of Adorno's thought, a relationship of mutual negation, creator and receiver, only takes place as mutual resistance, which each one is led to overcome in their own way.

In broad terms, it is a negation of a given state of affairs, in which the manifestation of the particular (and, by extension, of the singular work) is under the rule of the general. In this case, this means, as a first approximation, that the marks of difference, which distinguishes and specifies, are subordinated to the marks of what is common and is inscribed in a single great difference, that of the whole in relation to what is external to it. An external difference that hides the internal identity. It so happens that there is a precise social translation for identity, which is at the very heart of bourgeois society in historical capitalist conditions: equivalence, which reduces everything to the common denominator of interchangeability, finally of the commodity.

In the cultural industry this happens, what appears as culture circulates as a commodity. Here is the mark of the degradation of culture, stripped of its spiritual purity by the pressure of the most subordinate material contingencies, the conservative critic would say. That's not what it's about, the masters of critical theory will reply. There is no debasement, because the problem is located on another level. Because culture implies difference, protest of the particular against the general, individualization in place of the commensurable.

The products of the culture industry do not, therefore, represent a “mean” form of culture, but simply cannot fulfill their promise: precisely that of being culture. And this is not because they lack “spirit”, but because they are produced and distributed as if they were commodities (that is to say, commensurable with each other according to a general principle of equivalence), albeit with a very special label. As if they were commodities: because it would also be rash to say that, under the conditions of the cultural industry, cultural products are simply reduced to commodities, canceling cultural specificity in favor of industrial specificity.

There is, of course, a tendency in this direction at the limit. But, while it develops, there is a tension between the two poles that cannot be fully realized: that of pure mercantile commensurability, entangled in the very ideology that it spreads, of the ineffable character of culture; and that of the full individualization of the cultural product as a result of work that respects the logic of the particularized form, rather than the equivalence of the “goods” produced.

Let it be said in passing that considering this recommends looking with reservations at the current position, which attributes to this thought, especially Adorno, an “elitist” and “apocalyptic” position, in which they would merely be affirming, and lamenting, supposed horrors caused by the existence of the cultural industry. In fact, what is done in it is to project as a possible scenario the consequences that would result from the linear development of trends actually present in society. Not, however, to make catastrophic statements, but to pave the way for what really matters: the denial of the ineluctable character of the linearity of social and historical processes.


The concept of cultural industry was created as a direct response to that of mass culture. But it is significant that, while in the expression “mass culture” culture appears as a name, in its critical counterpart it is in the condition of a predicate (one could say, perhaps properly but with due caution, “culture industry”). ”). And the idea is precisely that. It is about contesting the assertion, implicit in the notion of mass culture, that there is culture there without more, and that it belongs to the masses. Instead of attributing a (fictional) subject to culture, the critical aim shifts attention to its condition as a product. And this to emphasize that it is not a product of the actions or wills of the masses, and therefore they are not subject to this process.

And who is this guy then? It would be easy to answer: those who control cultural production on a large scale, aimed at the masses in their condition as consumers and not producers. But perhaps that is rash. Adorno himself has more than once suggested that the cultural industry's controllers are just as subordinate to its intrinsic logic (the capitalist logic of profitable efficiency) as are the consumers themselves (of course in decisively different positions). Using a risky expression, it would be the case to say that it is a process without a defined subject, at least to warn that the supposed subjects (that is, those capable of initiating the process and managing its continuity) are halfway between the two poles, that of culture and that of industry, without being fully realized in either of them.

This is where the effective process takes place, which produces, in its own way, subjects in very specific polar positions, of production as communication and consumption as reception. It can always be argued that the potentates of the large conglomerates of the cultural industry act, yes, as subjects, and of great weight in the distribution and exercise of power in society. For this, however, they do not need to appeal to the cultural sphere, simply using their ability to control information and form opinion (so much so that the specifically “cultural” portion of the programming that they disseminate, and infuse, is for them secondary or mere facade) .

In these terms, the fundamental question is the mode of production of what is at issue. In this case, what the term industry alludes to, that is, capitalism. From this perspective, the issue of the subject of the process is open. This is something to be decided in ideological and political clashes within society itself. What is being denied, therefore, is that this subject can be identified without further ado, as objectively given data. But, I would say (and this is a reckless interpretation, since this is not clearly found in either Adorno or Horkheimer) the mere inversion of the perspective is not enough either, which attributes to another particular social instance than the “ masses” the ability to organize production and cultural diffusion according to their strict will.

The essential thing, in this case, does not consist so much in identifying who is who in the game of the cultural industry as in rejecting the perspective that reiterates the vision of the dominant, however they are named; precisely the view that attributes this culture to the masses. In doing so, Horkheimer and Adorno (in Dialectic of Enlightenment both, then only Adorno) assume, in an entirely paradoxical way for those who see in them the pure incarnation of an elitist conception of culture, the perspective of the masses, if by that expression one understands the dominated (albeit apparently sovereign) part of the process.

There is here a very specific conception of democracy in the field of culture. It consists in sustaining that the democratic position has nothing to do with flattering the masses with their tastes and preferences, but with unmasking the deception to which they are subjected when they are ideologically placed as subjects of a process that precisely only sustains itself as such because they have no way of contesting it and of disputing the condition of de facto subjects. There is, therefore, a democratic conception intrinsic to the concept of cultural industry. It consists in insisting that it is not the masses that are repudiated, but the conditions that make them such. It is not, however, a conception of democracy that reaches the strictly political level, in the sense that it explicitly contemplates the institutions (parties, representation, etc.) that can shape something that is also a blind spot in the critical theory of society. , specific cultural policies (except with regard to educational policies).

In reality, the dimension of the cultural industry that most closely associates the critical impetus to the descriptive perspective of the object is the one that translates into two decisive theses in the formulation of this concept: that the cultural industry forms a system (and that, therefore, none of its branches can be considered in isolation, outside the network of cross references that are built between them) and that the cultural process that takes place under its empire is multidimensional (especially in the sense that it operates on multiple levels of perception and consumers' awareness of their products). This, in addition to its descriptive dimension, which is not negligible when alluding to the concentration and complementarity of multiple modalities of cultural production and circulation in large business complexes.

Thus, there is a growing articulation between all the branches of an undertaking that produces and disseminates symbolic goods under the label of culture, in such a way that the consumer finds himself surrounded in an increasingly closed way by an ideological network with increasing consistency. internal. Essential to this is that the idea that it constitutes a system is critical in nature. One of the basic themes developed by Adorno appears in it: the revulsion against any closed totality and therefore against that historical form of rationality (bourgeois, Horkheimer would say in particular, using the term in a very broad sense) marked by the eagerness to link everything together according to an inexorable logic, of enclosing everything in internally consistent wholes. For Adorno, this refers to the deep affinities between mythical representations, obsessive behaviors and the compulsive search for exhaustive explanations by a science averse to reflection.

The idea of ​​the multidimensionality of the products of the cultural industry makes it possible to return from a critical angle to an important conception in the field of great art. According to this conception, the high quality artistic work contains multiple levels of meaning, which require a specific effort to capture it as a meaningful totality. The idea involved is that, contrary to mere entertainment, contact with the work of art is a productive activity in its own way, which requires a conscious and therefore potentially rational investment of effort in all dimensions of perception, including the cognitive.

In reality, what is at stake is the idea, only achievable at the limit, of an experience of active contact with the work of art, in contrast to the mere passive enjoyment that, also at the limit, characterizes entertainment and, by extension, all forms of art. cultural industry products. The basic critical component here consists, as we have seen, in the idea that in the products of the cultural industry, the multiple levels are not constituted by meanings intrinsic to the formal requirements of the construction of the work, but by levels of effects, that is, of calculable relations between certain emitted stimuli and the perceptions or behavior of the receptors. This is not a matter of mere “manipulation”. It is a specific modality of multidimensional symbolic entities, produced and disseminated according to criteria that are primarily (but not exclusively, although at the limit they are) administrative, related to control over the effects on the receiver and not according to primarily aesthetic criteria, related to formal requirements. intrinsic to the work.

In these terms, the problem of reception (in the case of great art, Adorno speaks of reproduction, to emphasize the active participation of the receiver) is not so much that it is intrinsically active in the art pole and invariably passive in the entertainment pole. In the case of the artistic work it is true that it entirely loses its character when passively received. The typical product of the cultural industry, on the other hand, sustains itself well, or even better, when consumed without further ado. This is without prejudice to also including forms of active participation in the reception, which are never reduced to zero, up to the limit case (in this similar to concert music, with all its ambiguities) of certain musical forms such as the most sophisticated jazz (not the commercial swing, which irritated Adorno so much.[1] Regarding an important aspect of that process, which is the relationship between technological innovation and patterns of organization and functioning of the cultural industry, a contemporary case that would certainly attract Adorno's attention is the transmitted music online, in all genres and in a very peculiar way in concert music.

Large symphony orchestras with a high international reputation announce broadcasts in very high definition, with “crystalline clarity” in every detail (in the words of one of them, the Berlin Philharmonic). This means that the spectator-listener can see something that not even the best concert hall allows, the faces of the musicians and their smallest gestures with extreme clarity. This changes the entire technique of execution, especially the work of orchestral direction, to the point of converting the interpreters (of course, this also applies to specialists, such as pianists) into experts in the scenic art of calculated expression and with its own brand, associated with the Strict mastery of impeccable execution technique above all else.

Changes like this are part of a variety of new forms of emission and reception of significant configurations in all domains within reach of the cultural industry and raise new questions for those interested in the relations between cultural life and the organization of society. Together, the themes of the system and the multiplicity of levels of effects lead to the point where the topicality of the cultural industry concept makes more sense, that of the importance that the notion of complexity assumes in it.


In fact, it is in the context of examining this central theme in the analysis of the contemporary world, that of complexity, that the question of the relevance of the concept of cultural industry is found. In the first place, it is necessary to consider that the changes that have occurred since the middle of the last century directly affect the scope of the phenomenon. If at the time the concept was formulated it referred to the broader field of production and dissemination of symbolic material in society, in more recent times the cultural industry has become a subsystem of the broader system of computer networks.

Of course, this mainly represents a relative decrease, although certainly important (it would be necessary to study to what extent) in its reach. In absolute terms, the institutional dimension of the cultural industry, in the form of large business complexes that process the most diverse modalities of symbolic production and dissemination (also what used to be distinguished under the rubric of “high culture” or “arts”), acquired dimensions that would astonish the old masters of Frankfurt. But this increase in scale itself involves an increase in complexity, the effects of which are not unambiguous.

It is entirely possible to argue that the major trends pointed out at the origin of the formulation of the concept (the very expansion of scale, the increase in complexity, the concentration of control over the cultural process within the scope of the demands of profitable production, even if in the name of the supposed sovereignty of the consumer, the prevalence of business and administrative criteria) have been amply confirmed by the facts.

However, one's own sensitivity to the complex and multidimensional nature of the phenomenon required by the concept recommends paying attention to the intricate game that is being established between the concentration of control over the global process and the possible multiplication of differentiated niches within it. There are, therefore, intrinsic limits, derived from the increase in complexity of the system, to the tendency, also intrinsic to this process, towards becoming fully closed and without gaps (a limit situation that, it is good to remember, was never invoked by the Frankfurtians in the affirmative record, but as a possible scenario, to substantiate not only the characterization but also, and mainly, its denial as a real tendency).

Does this mean that it is time to abandon the emphasis of critical theory, of clear Marxist inspiration, on the primacy of the moment of production over that of consumption, also, and very specifically, in the sphere of the circulation of symbolic artifacts on a large scale? Is it the case, perhaps maintaining a critical tone regarding some aspects of this, to shift the priority of attention to the scope of consumption, understood as a differentiated set of modalities of reception of symbolic material?

In this case, the basic argument would be that under contemporary conditions it would be wrong not to give due importance to a dimension of this process that, it is argued, has always been underestimated by critical theory. This is because the consumers that critical theory would see as merely subject to the empire of the large organizations of the cultural industry would actually be equipped, by differences in socialization and group insertions, not only to make selections within the mass of symbolic material offered in the cultural market. but also, and mainly, to subject the selected material to interpretations that may differ from those expected by those responsible for its production and distribution. Considering that the global reach of large-scale communication networks does not eliminate local varieties and under certain aspects reinforces them (such as differentiated market segments), the differentiation of consumption patterns would increasingly demand attention in terms of their weight in the market. inside the process.

Defenders of the cultural industry concept have at their disposal a very plausible immediate response to this demand for more care with this dimension of consumption patterns, and the heterogeneity they can introduce into a large-scale cultural market tending to be homogenized by a highly concentrated organization. in production. This is because the different ways of responding to cultural products that circulate on a large scale are incorporated by the cultural industry itself in the next round of the process, whenever they prove to be of some importance.

This reminds us of an essential aspect, that the essential dimension, in this case, does not consist in the ability to homogenize or de-differentiate the market. It consists of the ability to maintain the initiative in the process, planning each step based on what was observed in the previous one; something that certainly can only be done on the side of production and control over the circulation of products (mainly through the monitoring and segmentation of markets). Under these conditions, a certain level of deviation and discrepancy from standard responses may even be desirable and even encouraged.

But we cannot allow this first objection to make us insensitive to the problems raised by the evidence that not everyone receives the same messages in the same way. It is clear that this argument of differentiating reception modalities can be taken to extreme points and, in this way, become trivial or even absurd. For it is at least plausible to maintain that the reception of all symbolic material, however planned (or ritualized) its production and social circulation may be, passes through numerous filters, the finest of which are part of the individual psychic apparatus (which, like the unsuspected Durkheim well knew, is never susceptible to full socialization). Therefore, if we go deep enough, the differentiation of finer reception modalities will be of the same order as the number of recipient individuals. Let it be said in passing that saying this does not mean merely arguing for reduction to absurdity.

These findings are relevant, and by the way did not escape Adorno's attention. For example, when he proposed the use of images taken from cultural industry products (such as love stories in comics or soap operas) as if they were projective psychological tests, in which subjects would construct reports about what was presented to them; or when, in his important study of leisure, he discusses the way in which magazine reports dedicated to gossip about “personalities” are received.

In this second case, what caught his attention is precisely that, under a first level of pure and simple acceptance of the messages (in this case, related to the visit of the Shah of Persia, today Iran, then highly propagated emblem of the “free world” in the surroundings of the Soviet Union despite the authoritarian regime that supported it) it proved possible to find a second level. This would be marked by a certain degree of doubt as to what was received, which would signal possible mismatches in the functioning of the cultural industry.

A weak argument, moreover, that would hardly withstand a more serious examination, at least regarding the foundations of these doubts (starting with the fact that they were restricted to the field delimited by the messages received, from the private life of the royal couple). Adorno knew very well that, when he made this supposed concession to his critics, for him it was a matter of indicating that the issue, seen in due depth, deserves further research and reflection. None of this, however, cancels the main position, of the primacy of the production pole, since it is in it that the capacity of initiative and, by extension, of control in this process resides.

Essential in all this is not so much whether or not the internally differentiated character of this process is recognized (in fact, no one seriously maintains that it is purely and simply monolithic), but the way in which this is done. And in this step, the basic contribution of the critical concept of cultural industry consists of the emphasis on two (and not just one) dimensions of complexity: the horizontal (the cultural industry as a system) and the vertical (the products of the cultural industry as entities organized into multiple levels of meaning, in the dimension of effects).

This makes it possible to point out both the power (still very great, I maintain) of this concept and its limits. These have to do with the circumstance that it was explicitly constructed to account for those conditions in which the dominant mode of production and circulation of symbolic material is the subordination of the specific logic of the cultural dimension to the general logic of commodity production in capitalism. Outside these historical limits its reach is limited to irrelevance. Evidently, this raises again the great question that, in their own way, had already tormented the masters of the critical theory of society for more than half a century: if the dominant mode of production in the contemporary world is capitalist, how can this capitalism be accurately characterized (and captured)? what does the circulation of goods represent in it as expressions of the principle of generalized equivalence)?

For it is possible to argue that the concept of cultural industry is sufficiently differentiated to account for conditions of high complexity in all dimensions of social organization, and that this makes it attractive in a world marked on an increasing scale by the complexity of networks of relationships. But the question that is at the origin of the construction of the concept in its particular historical moment continues to be valid, perhaps more than ever: what is the precise nature of this complexity, when examined with an analytical instrument whose source is the critique of political economy with Marxist roots ?

In order to demonstrate the obsolescence of the critical theory of society, and therefore of the concept of cultural industry, it would be necessary to demonstrate the irrelevance of the questions that the theory and the concept belonging to it pose, in their own levels and scopes. For supporters of critical theory the challenge is greater. It is a matter of seeking new forms for its core issues without abandoning them along the way. In the case of the concept of cultural industry, this means applying to the contemporary conditions of production, circulation and consumption (reception) of symbolic material the basic proposals of the theory about the two dimensions of complexity present in this process: the systemic and the multiplicity of levels in depth, with all that is fruitful and thought-provoking, along with the major premise of the primacy of production, all of this referred to a concrete social configuration, capitalism in its contemporary form.

*Gabriel Cohn He is Professor Emeritus at FFLCH-USP. Author, among other books, of Weber, Frankfurt (Quicksilver)


[1] The original manuscripts of Adorno's works in the USA are presented, along with Adorno's article on popular music, in a book by Iray Carone about to be published by Editora Azougue.


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