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.