Theodor Adorno and “The Culture Industry”

I have just finished reading some of Adorno’s essays on mass culture.  The book The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture has an intro written by JM Bernstein who explains some of the more difficult concepts in Adorno’s essays.  He also mentions along the way that some people have found Adorno to be somewhat intellectually elitist in his thinking.  It is true that Adorno is extremely intellectual, and some might consider his writing unnecessarily obfuscated, but he makes a few points that defend a complex intellectualized approach to mass culture.

In his essay “Culture Industry Revisited”, he states that the culture industry plays a prominent, even dictatorial role in today’s society.  Therefore, it has the ability, because of its position, to ignore pertinent questions about its social responsibility–is it truthful, is it providing quality?  After “repressing” the questions posed, it accuses those who question it of being intellectual snobs.  Yet, the culture industry (movies, television, music, novels, etc) wishes to be taken seriously.  This is where Adorno suggests that intellectuality is required.  If the culture industry wishes to be taken as seriously as it claims, and as its role in the make-up of our society suggests it is, then it should make itself available to adversarial argument.  It should have to explain itself, and its critics should not feel intimidated to demand that it does so.  If the culture industry is not held accountable, then they become totalitarian, as Adorno warns in another essay “How to Look at Television”.

Popular culture isn’t just about television, it is also about movies, novels, music, fashion, fads, and common attitudes.  But television is generally in the homes of most people on a daily basis.  It has a more far-reaching influence than many other forms of media.  In essence, television programs tell society what is important and real.  A good example is the hit television show “CSI”.  In this show, the CSI’s solve crimes, arrest people, carry guns, and save the day.  Actually, in truth, CSI lab workers never leave the lab.  Field workers only collect evidence.  CSIs assess the evidence and report it to the investigators.  Some of these tests take weeks, even months to process.  And most of the tests shown on CSI don’t actually exist in real life.  However, this television show presents itself as realistic and trustworthy, even though the cases are fiction.

Television also tells society how to feel, and this is done very subtly.  Recently, I watched an American news program that investigated the case of Amanda Knox, who was arrested, tried, and convicted in the Italian courts–with her boyfriend and another man–of participating in the murder of her British room-mate while at university in Perugia, Italy.  From start to finish, the press around Amanda Knox has been tangled and thick with innuendo, popular opinion, and hearsay.  This girl lied, then falsely accused another man, then retracted, then lied some more, and basically acted like a guilty person.  The man she accused, however, told his story, stuck to it, and never wavered.  And he wasn’t afraid.  Later it was proved that he was exactly where he said he was at the time of the murder.  But American television produced a show that suggested the following: the lead investigator was incompetent, the crime scene investigators mishandled evidence, the court allowed hearsay into evidence, the Italian investigating team rushed to pronounce the case closed, and Amanda had to prove her innocence more than the courts had to prove her guilt.  By the end of the show, I felt like there had been a miscarriage of justice, until I realized that most of Western society had watched the trial. No doubt the Italian investigators were under extreme pressure to follow every lead carefully, yet the news program nearly convinced me that Amanda was wrongly accused.  As for Miss Knox’s guilt or innocence or appeal process, I have no opinion.  My point is that I found myself feeling precisely the way I was meant to feel.

Adorno claims that this persuasion happens consistently in television.  The public begins to believe, and before our eyes, stereotypes appear, like the wrongly accused innocent young girl stranded in a corrupt foreign country.  North American society begins to believe that justice is not possible anywhere else, or that no other country is as incorruptible as we are.  Another sad idea is that most of the people of North American society who are accused of a crime overseas are actually innocent.  When such a belief is prevalent, it is also automatic, and this affects society’s ability to recognize what is just.  This is only one example of the power of television to influence society.

From now on, after reading Adorno, I will watch television with different eyes.



Author: Linda

I am a writer, poet, blogger, calligrapher, chef, and morning shower songstress. I am wife, best buddy, and partner in crime to Peter. Together, Peter and I are enslaved to a small yet fierce Shih Tzu Overlord.

7 thoughts on “Theodor Adorno and “The Culture Industry””

    1. Thanks Amo. Adorno was a very thick read. Lol. I’m not even sure if I have a good handle on it. But, what you have there is what I figure to be the gist in general of a couple of his points.


  1. Some of the generalizations here are risky because they are not supported, and indeed would be hard to support: the claim that television is the most wide reaching of mass media, for instance; or the claim that “most of Western society” watched a particular trial.
    To elaborate on your summary of Adorno’s culture industry thesis, Adorno’s main point is that the culture industry is an industry – that is, it is a business. It exists to make profit for its shareholders, so as you say any considerations of its content come a distant second (at best) to that main priority. This is why sequels exist: the first film was successful enough to make a lot of money, so why not repeat the endeavor, no matter how questionable the content (Smurfs 2?).
    An important related part of the culture industry thesis is that because culture is a business, an important part of its business is normalizing and naturalizing business itself as, in effect, the sum total of reality. This is Adorno’s point in the first culture industry has a, where he discusses some of the particular aspects of Hollywood film content: its stereotypical romanticism, its industrial aesthetics, it’s preoccupation and content as well as form with business.
    In this way the culture industry produces a simulacrum style of realism: it trades in a kind of realist aesthetics that do not necessarily bother with verisimilitude, with mimicking the real world. We see this in details of film and TV shows, so let’s stick with the police procedural genre you discussed above: why do bombs placed by terrorists have conveniently legible bright LED displays counting down time to detonation? More insidiously for the viewing public, why do accused persons always so readily volunteer their confessions to police or forensic investigators, without any lawyers present? Why are the accused who do bring lawyers usually if not always found to be profoundly guilty? And how do investigators always manage to solve investigations so quickly?
    For that matter, why do people in film and TV shows always shop at some mysterious grocery store that still gives them paper bags? These are some examples of unreal realism, the aesthetics of the simulacrum, in which Hollywood trades. And one of the cultural functions of such simulacrum representations is the naturalization of business ideology as simply the same thing as everyday life.


    1. Academicalism, you bring a clarity to Adorno that I really needed! Thank you.

      It’s true. The unreal realism you mention, or “false realism” as Adorno puts it, is seen everywhere when we watch television. Every bomb has the bright LED light counter on it. Every single time. I think this is because the audience simply wouldn’t be able to feel what they are meant to feel–suspense, fear, thrill (in this example)–if there wasn’t a visible number counting down and leading the audience to join in the sense of the “race against time”. The other part of that bright LED counter is, of course, that it’s good business. If TV/movie producers cannot give the audience the thrill they are expecting–if they do not include the bright LED counter because it is not, say, realistic enough–then their program/movie will not be popular and they will lose money. This also relates to the stereotyping that Adorno mentioned. The bright LED counter has been seen so often with the correct effect that it has become normalized and reified to the extent that without it, the audience founders. “But there was no count-down!” Actually, the count-down in itself is a stereotype, don’t you think?

      I agree that I was far too general when I stated that “most of Western society” watched the Knox trial. That was a blanket statement to be sure. It actually sounds like an exaggeration–which is not what I meant to do at all. A more accurate statement would be that the Knox trial was followed by North American and Italian media and was sensationalised in the pattern of (but surely not to the extent of) the OJ Simpson trial.

      However, I disagree that it is difficult to support that television is the most wide reaching of media. A preliminary surface-scratch of the available research leads me to believe that it may be strongly supported that television is the premier influential media in the world today. In his research paper “Influence of Heavy and Low Television Watching on Study Habits of Secondary School Students-A Study”, Dr Mohammad Aqbal Mattoo and Syed Noor-Ul-Amin of the University of Kashmir state that television has become “a central dimension of our every day activity.” This is because televisions are globally ubiquitous. A December 2007 article in Softpedia estimates that there are 1.5 billion televisions watched around the world, and this means that the number of viewers is much higher. The article also claims that viewership in North America averages about 4.5 hours of television per day. So by 60 years old (and this is sad) the average North American has watched about 10 years of television. In May 2010, Medialife Magazine published the findings of the 2010 Media Comparisons Study that rated the most influential media. Among the media mentioned were Newspapers at 38.6%, Radio at 60.6%, Internet at 67.5%, and Television at 89.5%. In 2012, the Rochester Institute of Technology published the figures taken from the 2012 TVB Media Comparisons Study. These figures focused on the influence of media advertising. Some of the media mentioned regarding the ratings for adults 18-49 were: Internet 7.4%, Billboards 0.1%, Magazines 3.4%, Newspapers 3.2%, and Television 40.8%.

      Academicalism, you make an excellent point. Claims require back-up, otherwise they are indeed mere generalizations that are, as you say, “risky”. I will bear this in mind from now on.

      Thank you for your valuable feedback.


  2. Marshal McLuhan wrote that the advent of television created a global community. Not one in which intensified unity of thought but diversified it as more information became available to us. (Lots written of him online or check into your Soc100b notes.) Having not ever watched an episode, I am familiar with CSI and with other television series like it, I assume the blood is not real. The number one rule of thumb, know your source. Networks are sponsored by corporations therefore networks must abide by what better represents these corps. Many scripts don’t make it to television, why? Because they don’t adhere to network policies or are too controversial in scope although, you wouldn’t know that if you watched an episode of the UK version of ‘Being Human’…Yikes! Those fangs look real. But don’t get me wrong, there are some really bad scripts to be sure and I am just making a broad general statement here, some have indeed made it to television. Another rule of thumb, the audience is not bright. By complicating situations and getting into detail about authenticity can sometimes confuse people. Television series are meant to amuse not educate. They look for audience without skepticism. The range in choice is vast however. You could watch Disney or Scream, dependent on personality type. Marketing agencies have a huge role to play as well. It becomes increasingly evident watching actors tying up their Nike runners while drinking a can of coke where at one time these props used to be blurred or discreetly turned from audience view. Advertisements are even being plugged by popular recording artists. Check out Rihanna, in one of her songs where she chants at the end, “I’m the same, I’m the same in microsoft.” Shameless really. But this is nothing new. I recently saw my favorite organic food line shelved neatly in the kitchen of an independent film we had just watched. “Oh”, I mused, turning to my partner. “Look who is sponsoring some money to this film.” Business is business and as a thrill seeker, we want to see ordinary people like ourselves doing extraordinary things. We could just do some seed bombing…And I plan too. Shhh. But Vampires are cool and I don’t know any personally so I rely on my program to help me from being just another humanoid doing humanoid work at a data entry centre for a pharmaceutical company. Is that true? Do I really do data entry for a pharmaceutical company…No. I lied. Is CSI real…Who cares. Unless of course you are planning to do an emergency tracheotomy screaming, “Step back! I can do this. I saw it on CSI.”


    1. Hi kimberleyagla. Thank you for your excellent post!!

      I agree with you completely. The networks are the paid lackeys of their sponsoring corporations, and programming is a reflection of this influence–mostly. Giving credit where credit is due, television is not ALL bad. There are the amusing programs for those of us who wish to be amused, provocative documentaries for those of us who wish to be informed, and for someone who likes to rock, a rocking chair in the middle. Like you, I know the blood is not real. I know that the car crashes, explosions, romances, detective work, and magic are not real. Most people do. So what is Adorno talking about?

      I think what Adorno is saying is that television influences our understanding of the real in our every day lives–even though we accept that the blood on the program is fake. CSI is an excellent example–people who are avid watchers of this program coming away with a distorted grasp of the real. Researchers have dubbed it the “CSI Effect”. And this term, according to an article in “The Economist”, has now “entered the criminological lexicon.” In 2008, American Criminologist Monica Robbers described the CSI Effect as “the phenomenon in which jurors hold unrealistic expectations of forensic evidence and investigation techniques, and have an increased interest in the discipline of forensic science.” The jurors are average people who understand the unreal elements of CSI as part of the fiction of the show, yet they are still influenced by the show nonetheless. I think Adorno is pointing toward this distortion of the real in “Culture Industry Revisited” and he is saying that this type of distortion is widespread.

      In her article in “Psychology Today”, Dr Thalia R Goldstein discusses Claire Daine’s exceptional portrayal of a woman suffering from bipolar disorder on the television show “Homeland.” She says that the producers of the show started to get letters from worried fans “expressing concern for her safety and asking that she be allowed to take a break from portraying her character to receive treatment for her bipolar disorder—stating that her portrayal is too accurate to be fake.” She also mentions the actor Robert Young (Dr Welby) who got letters galore from people seeking medical advice. But these are extreme cases. Something more subtle? Look at “Star Trek”….yes, “Star Trek”.

      Martin Cooper, who invented the modern cell phone, got his idea from Captain Kirk’s communicator. I don’t need to explain any of that sentence, because as people within this culture, we understand it already. We understand “Beam me up, Scotty.” And we know Star Trek so well, it’s been ingrained in our cultural psyche so completely, that when Twizzler’s made its new commercial depicting a space ship made out of red licorice floating through a universe filled with strawberry stars, we didn’t just recognize the ship as being from Star Trek, but we knew it by name–USS Enterprise. This wasn’t mentioned by Twizzlers during their commercial however, who also made another commercial with a licorice King Kong atop a licorice Empire State Building. (Because we all know that image too.) They know that we know, and they use that familiarity of products already inhabiting a “life-of-their-own” within our culture to bring a comfortable, credible familiarity to their own product. I use the Star Trek Twizzler commercial as example because it is on TV at present. However, this is not the first time corporations have used normalized pop culture images to flog whatever crap they are flogging to the public. You used the word “shameless”. I quite agree. But, as Michael Corleone said, “It’s not personal. It’s just business.”


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