by Will Partridge
In the Dialectic of Enlightenment, Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer outline their conception of the ‘culture industry’;[i] a cultural juggernaut which I take in this paper to represent the cultural wing of capitalism. This concept of the culture industry can be seen as giving rise to the phenomenon of ‘capitalist realism’—that is, Mark Fisher’s notion that the pervasive culture of capitalism perpetually reminds us that “there is no alternative”.[ii] This essay explores the potential for art to be produced and appreciated in the culture industry; that is, in a culture entirely obedient to market relations. In the first section, I consider Adorno’s proposal that high art constitutes a potential antidote to capitalist realism, as well as criticisms of Adorno’s critique which view it as neglecting anti-capitalist art. From this analysis, I decide that high art quickly encounters the problem of having its purposelessness co-opted by the culture industry and, in a similar vein, even anti-capitalist art is eventually forced to be integrated into the culture industry. In the second section, I discuss Robert Pfaller’s notion of ‘interpassivity’ in terms of the culture industry, which leads me to argue that our true goal in consuming entertainment is to avoid the painful confrontation with the reality of life under capitalism. Finally, I tie this to the Debordian concept of the ‘spectacle’, an omnipresent intermediary force between the self and reality. Ultimately, I conclude that the omnipresence of the culture industry renders Adorno’s pessimism warranted; art under capitalism is merely an instrument of market relations, and because any critique of capitalism is ultimately nullified by its subsumption into the culture industry, there is no potential for change.
J. M. Bernstein claims that capitalism is rooted in instrumental rationality; that is, a form of rationality which pursues ends by all means. As he writes:
Subsumptive or instrumental rationality disregards the intrinsic properties of things, those properties that give each thing its sensuous, social and historical particularity, for the sake of the goals and purposes of the subject – originally self-preservation itself. Thus, such a rationality must treat unlike (unequal) things as like (equal) and subsume objects under (the unreflective drives of) subjects… the economic organization of modern capitalist society provides for this final realization of instrumental reason and self-destruction of Enlightenment.[iii]
The capitalist economic model, Bernstein posits, is the perfect agent for the actualisation of this ultimate rationality.[iv]Capitalism has a single goal: profit. Human needs are discarded for the sake of capital accumulation, which is seen as the ultimate end. Thus capitalism is the ‘rational’ economic system, par excellence.
Adorno and Horkheimer conceive of capitalism as not only economic, but cultural; their notion of the ‘culture industry’ thus representing the cultural wing of capitalism. Accordingly, the culture industry must, like its economic counterpart, answer to the unrelenting demands of reason. This means that cultural commodities, such as films, radio, and magazines, must be produced in service of the market.[v] Adorno describes the effect this has on cultural consumption, writing that
Everything has value only in so far as it can be exchanged, not in so far as it is something in itself. For consumers the use of value of art, its essence, is a fetish, and the fetish – the social valuation which they mistake for the merit of works of art – become its only use value, the only quality they enjoy.[vi]
Echoes of Marx’s notion of commodity fetishism, which traces a shift from labour value to exchange value, can be heard loudly here. Adorno makes a similar claim: that capitalism precipitates a shift from use value to exchange value, from the qualitative to the quantitative, and from means to ends.[vii] Aesthetic activities are reduced to mere money-making propositions. The result of this, Adorno contends, is cultural homogenisation.[viii] The frenzied pursuit of capital “displace[s] the intrinsic properties of things for the sake of ends.”[ix] Cultural products are judged on their ability to achieve an end (namely, the reproduction of capital, as measured by their exchange value), rather than what they are in themselves.
This fetishistic devotion to exchange value robs cultural products of their particularity—all that matters to the culture industry is their efficacy as tools of capital production. In other words: the sole goal of the culture industry is the production of goods that are profitable and consumable. Therefore, the product, or formula for production, which most efficiently produces a return on capital becomes ubiquitous at the expense of products which derive their value from their particularity. Essentially, because exchange value no longer presupposes use value, “culture becomes a centrally conceived and controlled social form, an object of market-based instrumental relations that is devoid of emotional and sensuous life.”[x] It should be noted that some critics of Adorno argue that his position here neglects the reality of life under capitalism.[xi] Indeed, in our daily life we at least appear to be offered a wide—at times overwhelming—range of commodities. However, these many commodities are increasingly produced according to a standardised formula or mould.[xii] For example, a variety of companies may produce essentially the same product, giving the illusion of heterogeneity. Upon closer observation, however, these products are ultimately the same, created according to ‘‘incessantly repeated formulae.”[xiii] The omnipresence of the culture industry creates a sense of trappedness; that as capitalism permeates culture, it becomes increasingly inescapable.
The culture industry works not only by disguising reality, but also by presenting it as the only option. This amounts to what Fisher terms ‘capitalist realism’; the pervasive culture of capitalism which perpetually reminds us that ‘there is no alternative’.[xiv] Capitalism posits itself as the fundamental structure of reality; as (according to Fisher) Slavoj Žižek famously put it, “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”[xv] As an antidote to this capitalist realism, Adorno proposes high art. “When the detail won its freedom,” he writes, “it became rebellious and, in the period from Romanticism to Expressionism, asserted itself as free expression, as a vehicle of protest against the organization.”[xvi] Through its rejection of utility, high art presents a gleam of rebellion against the status quo, thereby aligning it with the interests of the working class. High art is purposeless; it is not, like mass culture, a mere instrument of the market. Perhaps the most common criticism of Adorno is that his avowal of high art translates to a sense of ‘elitism’.[xvii] His faith in high art, this line of criticism claims, is merely a masked attack on the masses. But while high art may appear to exclude the working class, in practice it is a closer ally to the working class than mass culture, which functions as an instrument of their oppression. Thus, I find the charges of ‘elitism’ often levied against Adorno to be largely unfounded.
Several feminist philosophers have also expressed concerns about Adorno’s views on high art. Their primary concern is that Adorno’s avowal of high art entails a concomitant disavowal of feminist art. As Lambert Zuidervaart argues: “[w]here [Adorno] goes wrong… is in making internal and societal autonomy a precondition for art’s social-critical capacities. In effect this rules out… many forms of art making that feminist historians have retrieved and feminist artists have promoted.”[xviii] Zuidervaart’s concern here is reasonable; women, who have historically been confined to the domestic sphere, seem to be excluded from more ‘academic’ forms of art (in other words, high art). Adorno’s stance that high art is the only antidote to capitalist realism therefore appears to entail that women are excluded from the production of anti-capitalist art. However, while Zuidervaart raises a good objection, I would argue that it misunderstands the argument Adorno wishes to make. The point of Adorno’s critique is that no art is safe from the grasp of capital, whether it be high art, feminist art, or popular art. For, under his view, even high art is doomed to have its purposelessness turned into a commodity, wherein “purpose has finally consumed the realm of the purposeless.”[xix] Fisher’s description of capitalism as “a monstrous, infinitely plastic entity, capable of metabolizing and absorbing anything with which it comes into contact” aptly reflects this.[xx] Hence Adorno’s position is not intended to preference any form of art over another, but rather to demonstrate that they are all equally susceptible to subsumption into the culture industry.
It is the culture industry’s ability to co-opt so many forms of art that contributes to a greater sense of capitalist realism and grants it even greater power. “The more strongly the culture industry entrenches itself,” write Horkheimer and Adorno, “the more it can do as it chooses with the needs of consumers – producing, controlling, disciplining them; even withdrawing amusement altogether.”[xxi] The culture industry manufactures our needs and subsequently occupies us by toying with them. This ‘keeping-busy’ grants us a simulacrum of pleasure; a negative pleasure—that is, freedom from resistance—which entails acceptance of the status quo, since “to be entertained means to be in agreement”.[xxii] As Horkheimer and Adorno put it: “[f]un is a medicinal bath. The pleasure industry never fails to prescribe it. It makes laughter the instrument of the fraud practiced on happiness.”[xxiii] While true art offers a promise of happiness and a change to the status quo, mere entertainment or ‘fun’ merely promotes reconciliation with the present through passive, mindless distraction from the drudgery of labour.
Some critics of Adorno have claimed that this stance of Adorno’s fails to consider anti-capitalist art and that he misrepresents the working class as complacent, passive dupes of the culture industry. However, I do not see this as being Adorno’s intent. Rather, Adorno arguably conceives of the culture industry as a juggernaut; an unstoppable force capable of co-opting anti-capitalism itself and thereby rendering resistance futile. Referring to the recent Disney film Wall-E, in which commentators have identified an anti-capitalist bent, Fisher observes: “the film performs our anti-capitalism for us, allowing us to continue to consume with impunity.”[xxiv] Fisher conceives of the film as a form of controlled burn, whereby our anti-capitalism is perversely sanctioned and facilitated by capitalism itself (in the form of the culture industry) in order to prevent the metaphorical blaze from getting out of hand.
Far from undermining capitalism, this ‘capitalist anti-capitalism’ actually suppresses any significant resistance.[xxv] It does this in two main ways. Firstly, the aspects of capitalism which engender rebellion (e.g., suffering) are subdued by their transformation into entertainment; as Maggie O’Neill puts it, “suffering can be consumed as enjoyment; and when suffering is consumed as enjoyment, part of its horror is removed.”[xxvi] Secondly, as Horkheimer and Adorno observe,
The culture industry endlessly cheats its consumers out of what it endlessly promises. The promissory note of pleasure issued by plot and packaging is indefinitely prolonged: the promise, which actually comprises the entire show, disdainfully intimates that there is nothing more to come, that the diner must be satisfied with reading the menu.[xxvii]
The culture industry traps the consumer in an endless cycle of offer and withdrawal, their preoccupation with which occludes their anti-capitalist goals. The promise of anti-capitalist art—never broken, but never fulfilled—becomes its entirety.[xxviii] Thus, I argue, Adorno does not seek to represent the working class as passive dupes. Rather, he wishes to demonstrate the all-encompassing, inescapable nature of the culture industry, and its ability to co-opt resistance itself and to force the working class into passivity. Anti-capitalist art, once subsumed by the culture industry, goes on to ensure the reproduction of the capitalist system it sought to challenge. As Adorno puts it, “anyone who resists can only survive by fitting in. Once [their] particular brand of deviation from the norm has been noted by the industry, [they] belong to it as does the land-reformer to capitalism.”[xxix]
Yet, there do exist other forms of anti-capitalism—for instance, Fisher claims that rising rates of depression can act as an indirect critique of capitalism. Despite this, he acknowledges that depression is becoming increasingly pathologised, and “this pathologization… forecloses any possibility of politicization.”[xxx] Fisher frames the depressive condition as an act of rebellion; an unspoken condemnation of the capitalist system; pathologisation, in response, turns the focus back on the subject and precludes attribution to the system.[xxxi] ‘Something has made me feel this way’ becomes ‘it’s just a chemical imbalance’. Capitalism benefits immeasurably from this pathologisation—not only does it divert the blame away from itself, but it also funnels consumers into the billion-dollar pharmaceutical industry. Fisher observes a widespread ‘depressive hedonia’ among higher-education students which results in the “inability to do anything else except pursue pleasure”,[xxxii] precipitated by the student’s transitory position between disciplinarian schooling and the free ‘consumption’ of commodified higher education.[xxxiii] While I find Fisher’s diagnosis to be valuable, I contend that this depressive hedonia is to a greater extent the product of the culture industry and is therefore experienced by the entire population. Here, our hedonistic reliance on mindless entertainment precludes us from looking beyond the pleasure principle, and we seem as a result to experience a chronic sense of ‘lack’,[xxxiv] an inner void precipitated by our separation from the active, thinking faculties of the mind at the hands of the culture industry.[xxxv]
Adorno describes the mindlessness of entertainment as activities during which “[t]he spectator must need no thoughts of [their] own: the product prescribes every reaction… through signals.”[xxxvi] In the same way that we don’t have to ‘think’ about our own lives, we don’t have to ‘think’ about entertainment; we don’t need to ‘think’ about laughing when someone tells a joke, and the culture industry attempts to replicate this through signals such as laugh tracks. Viewers “do not have to dwell on particular points of its mechanics during a screening. All the other films and products of the entertainment industry which they have seen have taught them what to expect; they react automatically.”[xxxvii]Essentially, the film watches itself in our place.[xxxviii] Pfaller terms this phenomenon ‘interpassivity’.[xxxix] We observe interpassivity in action in the aforementioned case of capitalist anti-capitalism, wherein the culture industry performs our anti-capitalism for us, and also in the case of television entertainment, where the laugh track enjoys the show on our behalf. Žižek considers the VCR another powerful example of interpassivity, in which case “the object itself [literally] enjoys the show instead of me.”[xl] He explains:
Although I do not actually watch the films, the very awareness that the films I love are stored in my video library gives me a profound satisfaction… as if the VCR is in a way watching them for me, in my place.[xli]
Like taping a film but never watching it, a visit to the cinema could be said to not to involve actually ‘watching’ the film, because the film prescribes our response to such an extent that it essentially watches itself. Given that viewing a film is so passive, demanding such little action from the viewer that one might as well tape it and then not watch it at all,[xlii] it could be argued that our true goal in viewing the film (or, for that matter, engaging in the culture industry at all) is not to enjoy it but to avoid the painful confrontation with life under capitalism.
This recalls the psychoanalytic concept of disavowal. This notion is defined by Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis as “a specific mode of defence which consists in the subject’s refusing to recognize the reality of a traumatic perception.”[xliii] Our frantic preoccupation with entertainment allows us to disavow our entire reality on account of its traumatising nature. Guy Debord makes the claim in Society of the Spectacle that our entire reality is now replaced by entertainment: “[i]n societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.”[xliv] This spectral, simulated reality—termed by Debord ‘the spectacle’—mediates between the self and reality,[xlv] running life under capitalism through the filter of entertainment to make it bearable. The omnipresent spectacle can therefore be considered the logical conclusion of the culture industry.[xlvi]
In conclusion, the omnipresence of the culture industry renders Adorno’s pessimism warranted. Under capitalism, art becomes an instrument of market relations, and because any critique of capitalism is nullified by its subsumption into the culture industry, there is no potential for change. I have argued that the culture industry creates ‘capitalist realism’, the pervasive culture of capitalism which perpetually reminds us that ‘there is no alternative’, and outlined two critical responses to Adorno’s proposal that high art constitutes a potential antidote to capitalist realism. I have argued that Adorno’s project was not about preferencing any form of art over the other, but rather demonstrating all art’s equal susceptibility to subsumption by the culture industry, since even high art is doomed to have its purposelessness co-opted. Here, I considered the claim that Adorno’s critique neglects anti-capitalist art, but decided that, like high art, feminist art, and popular art, even anti-capitalist art is forced to be integrated into the culture industry. After exploring Fisher’s conception of depression as anti-capitalism and reframing his notion of ‘depressive hedonia’ as a consequence of the culture industry, I discussed Pfaller’s notion of ‘interpassivity’ in terms of the culture industry, and argued that our true goal in consuming entertainment is to avoid the painful confrontation with the reality of life under capitalism. Finally, I tied this discussion to the Debordian concept of the ‘spectacle’, an omnipresent intermediary force between the self and reality, and proposed that, like Kevin Fox Gotham and Daniel A. Krier, the spectacle can be considered the logical conclusion of the culture industry.
Will is a second-year undergraduate taking an extended major in philosophy. He is particularly interested in Marxism, Kant, and accelerationism.
[i] Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002).
[ii] Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Winchester: Zero Books, 2009), 2.
[iii] J.M. Bernstein, introduction to The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, by Theodor W. Adorno (London: Taylor & Francis Group, 1991), 5.
[iv] Bernstein, The Culture Industry, 5.
[vi] Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 128.
[viii] Fagan, “Theodor Adorno (1903-1969),” online.
[ix] Bernstein, Introduction to The Culture Industry, 5.
[x] Kevin Fox Gotham and Daniel A. Krier, “From the culture industry to the society of the spectacle: Critical theory and the situationist international,” Current Perspectives in Social Theory 25, (2008), 164.
[xi] Fagan, “Theodor Adorno (1903-1969),” online.
[xii] Fagan, “Theodor Adorno (1903-1969),” online.
[xiii] Theodor W. Adorno, Prisms, trans. Samuel Weber and Shierry Weber (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1983), 122.
[xiv] Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, 2.
[xv] Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, 2.
[xvi] Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 99.
[xvii] Maggie O’Neill, “Adorno and Women: Negative Dialectics, Kulturkritik and Unintentional Truth,” in Adorno, Culture and Feminism, ed. by Maggie O’Neill (London: SAGE Publications, 1999), 21.
[xviii] Lambert Zuidervaart, “Feminist Politics and the Culture Industry: Adorno’s Critique Revisited,” in Feminist Interpretations of Theodor Adorno, ed. by Renee Herberle (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006), 262.
[xix] Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 128.
[xx] Fisher, Capitalist Realism, 6.
[xxi] Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 115.
[xxii] Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 115.
[xxiii] Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment,, 112.
[xxiv] Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, 15.
[xxv] Gotham and Krier, “From the culture industry to the society of the spectacle,” 165.
[xxvi] O’Neill, “Adorno and Women”, 29.
[xxvii] Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 111.
[xxviii] Gotham and Krier, “From the culture industry to the society of the spectacle,” 173.
[xxix] Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 104.
[xxx] Fisher, Capitalist Realism, 21.
[xxxi] Fisher, Capitalist Realism, 21.
[xxxii] Fisher, Capitalist Realism, 22.
[xxxiii] Fisher, Capitalist Realism, 22.
[xxxiv] Fisher, Capitalist Realism, 22.
[xxxv] Fisher, Capitalist Realism, 24.
[xxxvi] Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 109.
[xxxvii] Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 126-127.
[xxxviii] Slavoj Žižek, How to Read Lacan (London: Granta Books, 2006), 24.
[xxxix] Robert Pfaller, On the Pleasure Principle in Culture: Illusions Without Owners (London: Verso Books, 2014), 17.
[xl] Žižek, How to Read Lacan, 24.
[xli] Žižek, How to Read Lacan, 24.
[xlii] Fagan, “Theodor Adorno (1903-1969),” online.
[xliii] Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis, The Language of Psycho-Analysis, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis), 118.
[xliv] Guy Debord, Society of The Spectacle (Detroit: Black and Red, 1983), 1.
[xlv] Debord, Society of The Spectacle, 4.
[xlvi] Gotham and Krier, “From the culture industry to the society of the spectacle,” 177.
Adorno, Theodor W. Prisms. Translated by Samuel Weber and Shierry Weber. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1983.
Bernstein, J. M. “Introduction.” In The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, by Theodor W. Adorno, ed. J. M. Bernstein, 1-28. London: Taylor & Francis Group, 1991.
Debord, Guy. Society of The Spectacle. Detroit: Black and Red, 1983.
Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Winchester: Zero Books, 2009.
Gotham, Kevin Fox and Daniel A. Krier. “From the culture industry to the society of the spectacle: Critical theory and the situationist international.” Current Perspectives in Social Theory 25, (2008): 155-192.
Horkheimer, Max and Theodor Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Edited by Gunzelin Schmid Noerr. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002.
Fagan, Andrew. “Theodor Adorno (1903-1969).” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Online: https://www.iep.utm.edu/adorno/.
Laplanche, Jean and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis. The Language of Psycho-Analysis. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1973.
O’Neill, Maggie. “Adorno and Women: Negative Dialectics, Kulturkritik and Unintentional Truth.” In Adorno, Culture and Feminism, edited by Maggie O’Neill, 22-40. London: SAGE Publications, 1999.
Pfaller, Robert. On the Pleasure Principle in Culture: Illusions Without Owners. London: Verso Books, 2014.
—. Interpassivity: The Aesthetics of Delegated Enjoyment. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017.
Žižek, Slavoj. How to Read Lacan. London: Granta Books, 2006.
Zuidervaart, Lambert. “Feminist Politics and the Culture Industry: Adorno’s Critique Revisited.” In Feminist Interpretations of Theodor Adorno, edited by Renee Herberle, 257-277. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006.
—. “Theodor W. Adorno.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2015 Edition), edited by Edward N. Zalta. Online: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/adorno/.