Adornos Culture Industry. Critique against the Mass Culture

Term Paper, 2020

11 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1 Introduction

2 Literature and Different Research Approaches on the Topic

3 The Culture Industry

4 Pop Culture

5 Jazz and the civil rights movement

6 Conclusion

Works Cited:

1 Introduction

There are as many exciting misunderstandings about a few critical theory concepts about the cultural industry. The essay “Culture Industry - Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” which Adorno wrote in exile in the United States in the 1940s, has long been a classic but is somewhat notorious than famous in the relevant seminars. That his theses about the cultural industry are either under-complex, exaggerated, and cultural conservative is one of the most common objections. At least Adorno gladly accepted the accusation of an exaggeration, who himself described it as one of his maxims to exaggerate the gloomy with the certainty that the only embellishment is the medium of truth today (Adorno 1959). One of his “exaggerated” theses criticizes the mass culture.

Adornos statement that mass culture prevents subversion is not valid because he oversaw the subversive potential of pop culture, especially Jazz, in his argumentation.

The paper's first step is to review the literature on the topic and check the current research. The aim is to see how other researchers approached the problem. Then, the crucial points of the culture industry will be described. The next step is to show the subversive potential that pop culture has. Afterward, an explicit example will be given with the impact that jazz culture had on the African American civil rights movement. The paper will be completed with a conclusion. That will pick up the thesis statement. The conclusion will also include the topic's political relevance and the lack of culture within political science.

2 Literature and Different Research Approaches on the Topic

The paper will be the “Cultural Industry - Enlightenment as Mass Deception," which is also one of the central points in the Dialectic of Enlightenment. The central source that provides evidence for pop culture's subversive potential is Gabriele Klein’s Electronic Vibration. Popkultur-Theorie. Other significant sources will be the work of representatives of cultural studies such as John Fiske. In addition to that, historical events will be consulted (e.g., pop culture in totalitarian systems) to show the subversive character pop culture has. The primary source for analyzing the impact Jazz had on the African American movement will be The Journal of African American History and Subversive Sounds: Race and the Birth of Jazz in New Orleans from Charles Hersch. Additionally, Jazz songs from the civil rights era will be given as examples.

One of the leading critics of Adorno’s term culture industry is Michel de Certeau. With his most known work, The Practice of Everyday Life, he makes a clear statement against the culture industry, and Adorno’s claims that mass culture prevents subversion. Certeau’s argumentation is built upon Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations and Michel Foucault's discourse analysis. He defends himself against the image of consumers playing a passive role in the culture theory. His focus is on the free spaces that any controlling system must leave, thus on the active, creative users of given (cultural) structures. For example, with their stubborn appropriation of shared everyday facilities, pop culture consumers, which in their everydayness and manifold inconspicuousness, is beyond the controllers and sociologists and cultural theorists' view. He directs attention away from the producers and the elites to the users, who do not passively accept the pre-determined framework (language, city, or society). Instead, actively use the arrangements and thus reinvent the organizations' meaning without necessarily changing the composition and without the elites or producers of the structures to control this use and appropriation (Certeau 1984). Certeau’s tries to enfeeble Adorno’s term of culture industry by proving that he chose the wrong approach by focusing only on the elites and producers.

3 The Culture Industry

A central point of the Dialectic of Enlightenment is "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception." The cultural industry describes the merger of culture with the economy. In contrast to this is authentic culture (Adorno/Horkheimer 1999). According to Horkheimer and Adorno, the mass culture, which is industrially produced, leads to mental stagnation. The culture industry is delivering the goods so that only the task of being the consumer is left to the people. Through mass production, everything is the same and differs only in small things. Everything is pressed into a scheme, and it is both desirable and possible to imitate the real world. The human drive is stirred up so far that sublimation is no longer possible. The goal of the cultural industry is, as in any other branch of endeavor, profit. All efforts are aimed at economic success (Adorno/Horkheimer 1999). Authentic culture, on the other hand, is not purposeful but an end in itself. It promotes people's imagination by inspiring. It leaves room for independent human thought. Authentic culture does not want to recreate reality but to go far beyond it. It is individual and cannot be pressed into a scheme (Adorno/Horkheimer 1999). For Adorno and Horkheimer, culture today beats everything with similarity (Adorno/Horkheimer 1999). Therefore, subversion is not possible for Adorno and Horkheimer.

4 Pop Culture

Pop culture is one of the central fields of analysis for culture studies. Pop culture finds itself in a dynamic relationship to a ruling bloc that seeks to establish domination. He does this by capturing resistive moments of pop culture that are ideologically and commercially appropriated. It is quite evident that in cultural studies, the concept of pop culture has a strong political dimension. In the further development of the theory on popular culture, the representatives of cultural studies take up a socially critical and contextualized approach; thus, underlining the connection between hegemonic struggles for power and pop culture construction. Therefore, it can also serve as subversion (Winter 2006).

John Fiske, who is regarded as a representative of cultural studies, sees pop culture as a subversion sphere against the ruling hegemony. In this context, Fiske emphasizes the resistive potential of everyday practices (Stäheli 2004). He explores the question of how these very practices can undermine hegemonic attributions of significance. It is assumed that popular cultural products are always ambiguous. The consequence of this is that they can be interpreted or decoded differently.

Furthermore, the culture studies representatives argue that ambiguity is a specific characteristic of the oppressed and that it can only be realized through them. Capitalist culture, on the other hand, tends towards homogenization. Thus, the subversive potential lies in this relationship between the ambiguity of the oppressed and the accommodation of hegemony. Popular culture acquires free spaces through the appropriation and reinterpretation of popular cultural goods that are not intended by hegemonic rule (Klein 2004). In this context, it is essential to emphasize that the investigation of popular culture is not concerned with the commodity itself but with the contextuality of the sense of use. It uses cultural resources subversively in its precisely ambiguous way by breaking with prefabricated meanings or ignoring it and becoming a culture of resistance (Stäheli 2004).

After gaining power in 1933, Adolf Hitler immediately installed the Reichsmusikkammer. The Reichsmusikkammer was a National Socialist institution that had the task of promoting music compatible with the system. On the other hand, it suppressed a piece that contradicted the time's desired attitude or cultural concept. Until 1938, the NS-functionaries followed the policy to exclude pop music, especially Jazz, from the public. After 1938, the regime prohibited music and dancing to Jazz, Swing, and other pop music in some areas of Germany. After Goebbels called out the total war on the 18th of February 1942, pop music was forbidden entirely (Fackler). The fact that pop culture was banned during the Nazi regime is an indicator that the Nazis recognized pop culture's subversive potential.

5 Jazz and the civil rights movement

Although there is no approximate date, it is estimated that Jazz was founded around the 1900s. It gained its popularity in the 1920s and 1930s. Around the same time, Jazz songs with critique against American society were composed and published. After two black men were lynched in 1930 in Indiana, a Jewish immigrant wrote a poem criticizing lynching. Inspired by the poem, Billie Holiday composed the song “Strange Fruits.” This song is amongst the first explicit criticism of racism against afro Americans and denounces lynching (Holiday). The most famous example is probably the song “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue?” The lyrics condemn the inequity of the segregation laws and racism in general. The song accurately points out that a Black person's crime in America was black (Armstong). Since the music was so successful, it effectively spread the message against racism throughout American society. Jazz also had another effect on the jazz musicians. For example, a black man earned much more money through Jazz than through labor. That put the black musicians in a position to fight the segregation laws.

Even though the resistance against segregation started in the 1920s/30s, the civil rights movement did not play a significant role until 1945. At that time, a new form of Jazz, Bebop, gave the civil rights movement its voice. The Bebop Jazz scene was utterly dominated by black musicians and transformed Bebop into the symbol of black identity (Macias 2010). Bebop had two significant impacts on the civil rights movement. First, unlike Swing, Bebop was not a piece of music to be danced to. It was art with a deeper meaning. Bebop was not a piece of background music like Swing. It required the full attention of the listener. Therefore, Bebop was more than eligible to vocalize the civil rights movement's demands and critiques (Mcclendon 2004). Secondly, after white people also began to play Bebop, a collaboration between black and white musicians started. After that cross-border cooperation, Jazz listeners and players slowly realized that the segregation laws and racism limit what could be achieved in terms of giving rise to new art and new music. The original form of Jazz indeed changed the view that white Americans had of black people.

In the 1960s, the involvement of Jazz in the civil rights movement was massive. After the incident in Arkansas in 1957, the Jazz musicians openly began to criticize the segregation system. In his song “Fables of Faubus," Charles Mingus calls the governor of Arkansas a ridiculous sick man who supports racial laws (Mingus). Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamn” was inspired by the Baptist church bombing in Birmingham in 1963. She condemns the suppression which the black community must face in the South. The song became one of the main symbols in the jazz-led battle against racism.

Jazz's impact should not be underestimated, for it was the voice of the civil rights movement. It vocalized the thoughts, emotions, and demands of the Afro-Americans throughout the US society and the world. During the civil rights era, Jazz shaped the movement and challenged the authority and the status quo. The Jazz musicians and the songs reinforced and encouraged the subversive character of the civil rights movement.


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Adornos Culture Industry. Critique against the Mass Culture
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ISBN (eBook)
adornos, culture, industry, critique, mass
Quote paper
Hüseyin Ugur Sagkal (Author), 2020, Adornos Culture Industry. Critique against the Mass Culture, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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