Why still cultural industry?

Image: Cyrus Saurius


Cultural convergence processes are not limited to a simple technological transformation

Em convergence culture (Aleph), Henry Jenkins heralds the beginning of a new era in the production and consumption of communication and entertainment. Although deeply intertwined with the popularization of personal computers, televisions and cell phones with Internet access and the emergence of new digital platforms, processes of cultural convergence would not be limited to a simple technological transformation.

At the confluence between the relative lower prices of the technical devices involved in the production, circulation and consumption of audiovisual content and the concentration of ownership of large mass media – according to the author, a trend already seen in the United States in the early 1980s – , the phenomenon would unfold in a complex set of transformations, affecting large business conglomerates, alternative media collectives and even the public, in their consumption habits and activities.

If, in the early 1990s, Nicholas Negroponte foresaw in his the digital life the collapse of traditional media forms and structures and the total hegemony of new interactive communication technologies, the era of convergence is marked by the clash and coexistence of multiple platforms, processes and actors, opening space for each one to create their own images and mythologies from fragments of information from the inexhaustible media flow.

In addition to the concept of convergence, Jenkins also highlights two other categories to analyze a new, changing reality and, according to his assessment, worthy of being venerated. One of the forerunners of fan culture research, Jenkins puts the role of the audience or consumer of entertainment at the forefront. Contrary to the readings about the passivity of the audience before traditional media products, this new era would also be the time of active participation of subjects and interactions between them under rules that no one would fully dominate.

Although in competition with some of the largest conglomerates in the history of capitalism, individuals would form part of a kind of collective intelligence (Lévy, 1999), a possible alternative source of power – in the media, culture and society. This collective production of meanings in the cybernetic world would alter communication practices and mechanisms not only in the press or advertising, but also in politics, law, education, religions, armies, etc.

Media convergence is more than just a technological shift. Convergence changes the relationship between existing technologies, industries, markets, genres and audiences. Convergence changes the logic by which the media industry operates and by which consumers process news and entertainment. Remember this: convergence is about a process, not an end point. There will not be a black box controlling the media flow into our homes. Thanks to the proliferation of channels and the portability of new computer and telecommunications technologies, we are entering an era in which media will be everywhere. Convergence is not something that will happen one day, when we have enough bandwidth or when we figure out the right configuration for devices. Ready or not, we are already living in a convergence culture. (Jenkins, 2013: 43)

Very influential in contemporary studies of culture, communication and entertainment, Jenkins' analyzes revive recurrent themes in interpretations of cultural massification processes. Despite addressing diverse phenomena and their profound theoretical-conceptual differences, authors such as Mike Featherstone, Stuart Hall, Jesús Martín-Barbero, Néstor García Canclini, among many others, construct their critical perspectives from a common point of view, namely , the subject who resists the enchantment of cultural goods. Even without ignoring the mercantile nature of entertainment products and activities, this prism of analysis presupposes a split between the social-objective determinations of the production of sociocultural artifacts and the subjective sphere of their reception.

Perhaps the most provocative theoretical formulation, Hall emphasizes the relative autonomy between encoding and decoding in communication processes. Against a traditional view that would assume a certain linearity in the relationships between senders, messages and reception, Hall seeks to understand the articulation between production, circulation, consumption and reproduction, for example, of television discourses.

Unlike the fate of other types of products in capitalist societies, a discursive message when put into circulation requires that this vehicle of signs be built within the rules of language, that is, that it makes some sense. Although they start and are fundamental in the circuit of a television message, production routines, technical skills, institutional knowledge, professional ideologies, definitions and prejudices about the audience –ie, its entire productive structure – do not form a closed system (Hall: 2003, 392).

The production-distribution-production circuit is not mechanically reproduced, and interpreting the passage of forms from one moment to the next would be crucial. Although related, the production and reception of a television message are not identical. The discourse that is built according to the rules and intentions of the production routines is received by the different groups that make up the public according to the structure of different social practices. It is true that, in a situation of deep and complete identity between subjects from the most diverse social groups, there could be a perfect harmony between the emission of contents and its reception. However, in a complex and differentiated society, distortions and misunderstandings tend to occur much more frequently – and would be essential to analyze, among other things, the political or ideological meaning of any message.

Despite the contributions that these perspectives can still add to the interpretation of contemporary sociocultural phenomena, McGuigan in cultural populism (1992) draws attention to important biases in the so-called cultural studies of the Birmingham School, especially from the 1980s onwards. Inspired by Umberto Eco's principles of semiotics, the argument according to which the codification of texts and cultural artifacts does not dictate their decoding led to to a kind of cultural populism, which distances itself from the critical and radical intentions that animated, for example, the approaches of Raymond Williams – and, to a certain extent, of Hall himself – on popular culture.

While the original project proposed to value the culture of the working classes and the struggles for radical political transformations, Hall's iconic text triggered a new look that, by underlining a certain active behavior of the public, lost the ability to critically interpret hegemonic sociocultural productions. In line with the post-modern and multiculturalist ideology that, at the end of the 1980s, could still be able to confuse the most unwary with supposedly progressive airs, cultural populism would be anchored in the notion of consumer sovereignty, a legendary figure originally created by economists nineteenth-century neoclassicals, and which neoliberalism sweetens with a shimmering objective gray.

Currently, the most dynamic sectors of industrial entertainment exploitation put cultural goods into circulation that seem to be beyond the scope of this critical model. If, in the face of the birth of the great cultural monopolies, Adorno and Horkheimer underlined a first movement of expansion of reification with the organization of free time by capital, which took the heteronomy of industrial relations to the sphere of private and everyday life; nowadays, it can be said that this unfreedom spreads through the active participation of the public in the processes of capital valorization.

In addition to external factors such as the omnipresence of technological devices and the extremely high concentration of capital in a market dominated by an absolutely small number of transnational giants, the fetishistic enchantment of the cultural commodity seems to me to be the fundamental element for the interpretation of the internal conditions of ardent individual involvement. -subjective dedicated to these entertainment activities and products. Far from the plots of simple manipulation, the cultural industry's power over consumers remains mediated by the form of an ever-postponed desire. The certainty that “a dog in a movie can bark, but cannot bite” (Hall: 2003, 392) informs a model of criticism that sounds harmless in the face of a type of seduction that makes individuals content with reading the menu , deceiving consumers precisely with what it promises them (Adorno & Horkheimer: 1985, 114).

The public's sweet behavior is not passive, but castrated. As the main achievement of the Cultural Industry is to separate subjects from the thing itself, what remains implicit gains primacy over the content aired or projected on movie screens. Its most attentive sectors allow almost everything to be said and done in their productions, as long as the lines are full of meaning. The stimuli for the subjects to love the cogs of their chains do not cease for an instant. While their products are often priceless, nothing is free. What matters is that the roles remain the same and always leave audiences ready to rush to the theaters to enjoy the latest release of the old customary partnerships. To perfectly reproduce the mechanics that run the world, haste is your best friend and adviser. In addition to open violence, the suggested one fulfills its function by exhausting any possibility of weighting. Without the rush that prevents people from deviating from the usual paths, a society organized so that affluence is not produced to eliminate hunger, but to maintain it, would not last a second longer.

Pleasure with the violence inflicted on the character turns into violence against the spectator, fun in effort. To the weary eye of the spectator, nothing should escape what the specialists thought of as a stimulus; no one has the right to show themselves stupid in the face of the cleverness of the show; you have to follow everything and react with that promptness that the show exhibits and propagates. In this way, one can question whether the cultural industry still fulfills the function of distraction, of which it boasts so fondly. (Adorno & Horkheimer, 1985, p. 113)

Obviously, its mechanisms and resources have not remained untouched over the decades, but neither should the Cultural Industry be treated as a factory of new ideas and big news – there is, in fact, a complex dialectic between dynamic aspects and static elements that permeates both its productions in particular as their organization as a system. In this sense, it is interesting to note that, in “On the fetishistic character of music and the regression of hearing”, Adorno was already returning to interpreting the illusory nature of the activity carried out by the subjects in their processes of consumption of cultural goods.

This pseudo-activity is not a later development of the techniques of mechanical reproduction of works of art or the industrial production of culture, nor even the conquest of a space for participation – or some influence – by the public over the products and directions of the great monopolies of the culture. If it is true that, as soon as they appear on the scene as merchandise, the products of human labor are transmuted into supersensible sensory things, there is a corresponding individual behavior that fits the cycle of commercial exchanges. Equally false, objective seduction and subjective regression are the necessary assumptions in a society that naturalizes social domination and oppression.

Thus, by focusing on the production of music as a commodity, the Frankfurtian underlines the regression of listening and its fixation on a childlike scale. The cause of this regression is not the increase in the number of people who, at the time, could listen to music without knowing its traditions, aesthetic conventions and rules of composition – the elitism that Adorno so accuse does not figure in his criticism. Primitivism arises from those who have been deprived of any effective freedom of choice and are forced to adapt their desires and desires to what exists and is present on all sides.

Coerced by the omnipresence of what makes commercial success, the listener is forced to assume the role of a mere consumer, letting the possibility of dreaming of something better and true die within him/herself. Struggling to identify with the clichés and jargon that preside over the production of art and culture as a commodity, individuals see no other way out than to ridicule their own desires and hate what differentiates them from others. Such identification is never perfect, and the enjoyment of this false object of desire must be diverted from the concrete content and become attentive to the minutiae that lead away from the promises.

While it seems impossible to establish relationships with other things that are not mediated by a property title, individuals are unable to break the circle of seduction that keeps them captive. If the objective mechanism that produces fetishes is not dismantled, the desperate attempts to get out of this condition of helplessness deepen the abyss that keeps humanity away from true freedom. The enthusiasm that people feel compelled to represent takes over – a certain thoughtless activism has become an end in itself. The model of this love of merchandise is an obsessive practice, such as that performed by fans who write letters – complimentary or aggressive, but always compulsively – to radio programmers to simulate control over the hit parade.

Always attentive to the manifest behavior of the public, the specialists of the Cultural Industry have their work facilitated, and they only have to launch slogans that spread everywhere: Just do it ou Broadcast Yourself– and, from then on, things seem to walk by themselves as if they were tables that danced by themselves, as in a prehistory that has not yet been overcome.

“Radio thinks highly of this kind of craft hobbyist. It is he who, with infinite meticulousness, builds devices whose main components the stores supply ready-made, in order to scour the air in search of the most hidden secrets, which in fact do not exist. As a reader of travel books and indigenous adventures, he discovered lands never before navigated, which he conquered by opening trails through virgin forest; as an amateur, he becomes a discoverer of the inventions that industry wants him to discover. He doesn't bring home anything that couldn't be delivered to him at home. Pseudoactivity adventurers are already cataloged in gleaming piles. Radio amateurs, for example, receive certification cards for discovering shortwave stations and hold competitions in which whoever proves to have the most cards wins. All this is foreordained from above with the greatest zeal. Among the fetish listeners, the young amateur is perhaps the most well-rounded example. It is indifferent to him what he hears, and even how he hears it; it is enough for him to listen and insert himself with his private apparatus into the public mechanism, without having the slightest influence on it. With the same purpose, countless radio listeners manipulate the frequency selector and the volume of their device, without manufacturing one themselves” (Adorno: 2020, 90–91).

*Caio Vasconcellos is a postdoctoral researcher in the sociology department at Unicamp.



Adorno, Theodore. (2020), “On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening.” in Cultural Industry. São Paulo: Publisher of Unesp.

Adorno, Theodor & Horkheimer, Max. (1985),Dialectic of Enlightenment. Philosophical Fragments. Rio de Janeiro: Jorge Zahar Editor.

Hall, Stuart. (2003). “Encoding/Decoding.” In Liv Sovik (org.) from the diaspora. Belo Horizonte: Editora UFMG.

Jenkins, Henry. (2013),Convergence Culture. Sao Paulo: Aleph.

Levy, Pierre. (1999),Cyberculture. São Paulo: Editora 34.

McGuigan, Jim. (1992),cultural populismLondon and New York: Routledge.

Negroponte, Nicholas. (1995), the digital life. Sao Paulo: Company of Letters.


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