This is a transcript of episode #110 on The Frankfurt School. Check out the episode page HERE.
So it’s been said about the workers in the United States post WW2… that they found themselves in a very unique situation in terms of what options are made available to them. Capitalism… massive improvements that come along with it in technology and efficiency…has made it possible for the average person, to do things only the super rich had been able to do throughout human history.
That for consumers in this post WW2 world…people no longer need to live together under one roof like it’s little house on the prairie, sharing a communal horse and doing shadow puppetry on the walls for entertainment…no we live in a new world now. We live in a world where, it is entirely feasible for the average consumer, to buy their own house (far better than a shack on a prairie) buy their own car (with the power 300 of those communal horses) and through the advent of mass media and entertainment broadcasting have instant access to MOUNTAINS of art and cultural artifacts to consume with the push of a button. (little bit better than trying to make your hand look like an alligator chomping on the wall)
Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, two members of the Frankfurt School who co-wrote the book The Dialectic of Enlightenment, would no doubt agree that Capitalism is responsible for these changes in what is possible for the average person. But they’d want to ask the question: Why is it… that there seems to be such a strong correlation between the trappings of Capitalism, and the alienation of society? In other words, when people get the house and they get the car and they have access to more art than they could ever consume…why is it that the worker in the 20th century seems to be the most alienated from other people around them, and the most alienated from the process of creating world they’re living in… in human history?
That another way to think of that house that everyone’s able to buy now…is that it’s a box. That instead of being a member of a local community and feeling like an integral part of a group of people…now, practically nobody knows their neighbors, they just go home and shut themselves away in this box, and here’s the important part: it’s a product that was sold to you… that house is a product…that if you aren’t mindful and take effort to prevent it from happening, it’s a product that aids in this process of alienation from other people. But that’s not the only box we live in…think about it, instead of sharing a communal horse where you might have to talk to some people…you might have to figure out who gets the horse when, you might have a conversation with a fellow traveler on the road…now, nobody talks to other drivers going down the freeway…again, they just get in their car and shut themselves away in this box, a product that was sold to them where if they’re not careful aids in this process of alienation. What Adorno and Horkheimer are going to go on to say here…is that this other box in your front room that delivers you all the TV shows and movies and music and all the other culture that you consume…that these things are ALSO products that are sold to you, that serve this process of alienation.
See where they’re coming from is an old Marxist critique of capitalist society…that in a more simple, non-capitalist structure people do work and there’s a very obvious connection between the specific task they’re doing and some benefit either to themselves or to the community they’re involved in. Let’s give two examples, one more simple one less simple. Let’s say your community needs water and you have to dig a well. Now, nobody out there is passionate about well digging. Digging that well may be horrible work, it may take you all day…you may be sweating and covered in dirt and want a back rub at the end of the day…but at least as you are digging that well…you feel a connection to the work that you’re doing. You know that you are digging that well so that you, your family and the families living around you that you care about will have drinking water. Not only do you feel connected to the work though, but there’s a sense in which you are creating the world that you’re living in, alright everybody we have a problem: we don’t have any water…the solution to this problem is we’re going to dig a well…grab a shovel and let’s do this. You’re not profiting in terms of green paper, you’re profiting in terms of social recognition…when you’re walking around town…you’re the person who dug the well so that everyone else could have drinking water.
Now new example…let’s say you were a part of a non-capitalistic trading based culture. Say you’re an artisan that specializes in making clocks. Well in that sort of world it is still likely you feel a sense of connection to the work that you’re doing. I mean, being able to tell the time is an absolutely crucial thing for society to function properly. Say I need a job to do…and it turns out I’m really good at making clocks… I’m Steve the clockmaker…now in that world my work may not be fun and games all the time I may dropkick a clock or two across my shop…But later on when I go out in public…when I see my clocks all over town helping people…keeping society in sync and on time…I feel like I’m a part of what makes this town work…I feel like I play a small role in the creation and maintenance of this town.
Now how does Marx think this dynamic changes in a Capitalist society? Well what do we love about Capitalism? Not only are people in competition to constantly build a better mousetrap…but they’re in competition to build that mousetrap more efficiently than the people they’re competing with. Hyper efficiency becomes an extremely important aspect of how goods and services are produced. Marx would say this is dangerous…that when an economic system stops looking at people as ends in themselves and starts looking at them in terms of being a means to some end of hyper technological progress and efficiency…there is no guarantee you’re going to be doing work that you feel connected to.
See because let’s say I’m clockmaker Steve and I’m really good at making clocks, I have a system and on a good day I can produce around 10 clocks start to finish. Well take 100 people and put them on an assembly line…make their job when the clock comes by you put this piece of metal into this groove and send it down the line…those people can make 10,000 clocks in a day. Now that’s super efficient. That satisfies the needs of capitalism perfectly. But Marx would ask at what cost? What that does is alienate the worker from feeling connected to the purpose of their work. They don’t feel like they’re part of the process of creating the world they’re living in…there’s just this product being given to them by designers on high that they’ve never met… and their job is to put a piece of metal in a groove and fuel this process of churning out products as efficiently as possible.
Sure many of you out there can relate to this with your job. So I used to work in a Grocery Warehouse. What you’d expect…long days…physical labor…stores order the food they need and the job was stacking cases of food onto pallets that then get shipped off to the store. Now doing that job, technically you are doing work that performs an important function for society, you’re delivering people their food, but I can tell you none of the people working there thought of the job like they were Farmer Brown and I’m bringing the people of the world the nutritious food they need nourish their bodies. No, it just becomes an 8-10 hour drone of stacking heavy boxes onto a pallet. The people working there would say things all the time like, yeah the job is boring and it’s hard and it is kind of grunt work…but it pays well, we have a really good union and great benefits.
And that’s the argument against Marx on the Capitalist side, right? Well, there are many arguments against Marx that we’ll get into but one of the primary ones is that yeah, the reality of the world is that some people have to do jobs that they don’t necessarily like that need to get done…but those people that do those jobs generally get paid more to do those jobs that nobody else wants to do! Which then in turn allows them to go home, yes run down from a days work, but able to experience a higher quality of life that most other people don’t get to experience. It all balances itself out!
What Adorno and Horkheimer would say to that is, cool so for eight hours a day, a third of their life these people get to go to a job that alienates them and sucks the life out of them…and their reward for doing that is more of this green paper that allows them to go home and consume stuff that makes them feel just good enough to get up and do it again the next day…in other words, perpetuating the cycle of working and consumption. That’s what you are when it all comes down to it. Work and consume. Work and consume. Work in an environment that alienates you…then go home and feel even MORE alienated as you try to spiritually lift yourself up by going into consumption mode.
See that’s the thing they’d want to underscore and it’s going to be an important point when it comes to their views on TV and movies and music so I wanna mention it briefly now…when you are a consumer…you don’t have an unbridled level of freedom when it comes to choosing what things you’re going to be consuming. I mean I guess in theory you could choose to just never buy anything for your entire life, but short of looking like Tom Hanks in castaway, actually even HE had Wilson. 99.9% of people buy stuff… and there’s this subtle, alienating dynamic of the fact… that the life you build for yourself in our modern culture is highly connected to the things you’re able to consume… and the choices you have for what you’re gonna consume are always given to you by somebody else, again by some designer on high that you’ve never met. Because of this in a strange way, the products that are available for you to consume, set up the parameters for what you can do with your life. That as a consumer it can start to feel alienating…almost like what building your life even is at a fundamental level…is just navigating a world that doesn’t feel like your own…you’re just this consumer in world full of products that were designed by a handful of people for the sake of mass appeal, your role is just to pick which of these products you’re going to consume each day.
Now we’ll expand on that in a sec, but the thing I really want to make clear here is how strongly Adorno and Horkheimer want to call into question the concept of “leisure time”. Remember, the ultimate goal of the Frankfurt School during this time is to get to the bottom of how workers in the west can be in the conditions they’re in but still not feel as though they’re a member of an exploited class of people…and one of the first places they look to try to find an answer to this is to look at how workers spend their time after they get off of work.
What they notice is that people tend to look at their lives in terms of this constant interplay between work time and leisure time. You’re either at work doing what you have to do to sustain life…or you’re enjoying some well deserved leisure time doing the things you actually want to be doing. They’d point out how in capitalist societies there’s often this attitude of…work…well that’s just something you gotta do, we ALL gotta earn a living…It’s not fun, but it’s gotta get done! I gotta wake up early…yeah it’s pretty much the same thing day after day at work nothing really new…I can act like a version of myself there but I can’t REALLY be myself I have to paint on a smile for Brenda in accounting…I have to use all the right politically correct terms that a professional decorum requires…certainly is a sacrifice, but look all that I have to sacrifice in terms of individuality and novelty in my work life…is more than made up for by the stuff I get to do in my leisure time…that’s when I TRULY get to be who I am! That’s the attitude people often have.
Well Adorno would ask: how are people in these modern, industrialized societies typically spending their leisure time? Well I’ll tell you what they’re NOT doing. They’re not learning a foreign language or doing a biblical exegesis or memorizing the encyclopedia…in other words they’re not doing things that are highly mentally taxing that make them into a better person more aware of the world around them…what do they usually do? They do stuff that requires little to no effort…they do stuff that’s relaxing…and who could possibly blame them…they just worked all day. What do you want them to do? Come home and work more? Is that what life is? Constant working until you die of a heart attack when you’re 33 years old? No, they want to relax. They want to be entertained…they don’t want to have to entertain themselves.
Now real quick just because I’m talking to THIS audience in particular…this is one of the few audiences where there might be a considerable number of people confused like what do you mean? I’m learning a language in my spare time…I’m actually doing a biblical exegsesis while listening to this episode…Adorno and Horkheimer would say you’re in the EXTREME minority and in my personal experience those people are usually people that love their work so they don’t feel drained after working all day…they come home and want to challenge themselves with other stuff. Consider the fact that those people are the EXTREME minority in our culture…the typical response when someone gets off of work is a sigh of relief. Finally, it’s over! Now I can go home and relax and be entertained.
Well Adorno and Horkheimer would say: here’s another great thing about Capitalist society: when there’s a serious demand for something…somebody out there is going to find a way to create a product that meets that demand. Just so happens in this particular society there’s a giant percentage of people that think of their lives in terms of work time vs leisure time…a giant percentage of people that the minute they clock out of their job have a strong desire go and do stuff that doesn’t require much effort so that they can relax and recharge their batteries having been alienated at work all day. What this dynamic creates is a HUGE DEMAND for some product I can consume that allows me to just relax and be entertained.
Now in the early 20th century… there was a brand new invention brought to market that turned out to be INCREDIBLE at solving this problem. Mass media. Widely disseminated. Convenient…you don’t even have to go to the store to consume this product…it’s in the front room of nearly everyone’s house. You can listen to the radio in your box as you drive back to your other box that has a third box filled with shows that you can just relax and be entertained by, take the edge off.
That’s the kind of TV show and movie and song that people are going to have a demand for in a capitalist society…think about it: if you’re somebody creating a TV show that is a media product designed to fulfill a demand of what the masses want to watch during their leisure time…what kind of show do you make? What’s gonna make you the most money? Do you do a public access show deconstructing quantum physics? Or do you do something like duck dynasty. Which product is going to be demanded more by the working class?
Here’s where they’re going with this. It’s not that there’s some evil dude named Edward J House that invented the house so that people would become more alienated from each other. It’s not that there’s some cabal of people at the top of the entertainment industry that are hand-selecting shows that are going to keep people working and consuming. No when you have a society where the masses are told from birth to think of themselves as workers and consumers…existing in a world that they are alienated from…evangelized to about how crucial their own personal financial success is…in that world, things like the house, a private box I can go to and watch these entertaining shows and wind down from work…thats the natural product that people have a demand for and want to consume. Movies about superheroes or science fiction that take you out of this world and insert you into another world where you can forget about the problems of this one. Video games that immerse you into a fictitious world an escape from the trials of life. Novels about a thumpin’ good wizard named Harry Potter and some bald dude without a nose. We want to focus on THESE worlds that don’t really exist so we can escape having to think about the one we’re actually living in. That’s the product workers of a Capitalist society have a huge demand for.
Now if that sounds a lot like Nietzsche’s concept of true world theories and the tactic used by mythology and religion to get people focused on a different world to distract them away from the problems of this one…that’s exactly what they’re saying mass media has become for people.
“In an age of spiritual disenchantment, the individual experiences the need for substitute images of the ‘divine’. It obtains these through pseudo-culture. Hollywood idols, soaps, novels, pop tunes, lyrics and film genres such as the Wild West or the Mafia movie, fashion substitute mythologies for the masses.”
Hollywood idols! We like to exalt these celebrities onto a pedestal and look at them as these messiah-like figures. Oh, its George Clooney! He’s practically GLOWING! Formerly you may have walked in the path of some anointed figure described in a Holy Book…but now I’m gonna walk in the path of Clooney…if I just wear that jacket that he’s wearing or I buy that special curling iron so I can do my hair like the girl from that other show or if I buy the same brand of soda they’re drinking in that movie maybe I can be more like my idol!
Note that there’s always some product that you have to consume that is what’s stopping you from walking in the path of Clooney. Imagine if to walk in the path of Christ you had to buy the sandals he was wearing. Consumption has been written in to the very moral fabric of this media age. That as fundamentally a worker and consumer…what your life IS within this culture is when you have a problem…you buy a product to solve that problem. After a while of that message being reinforced…people start to believe the fact that no matter what problem you have…there’s some product out there that’s going to be able to solve it. Advertisers realize this.
They realize that most people feel alienated from other people around them. They realize that what most people crave that they don’t have is close human interaction. So they use it to their benefit…they make ads that send you the message that if you buy this beverage product you’re all of a sudden going to have a close knit group of friends that sit in a circle laughing, drinking it together like on the commercial. That if you buy this car…some really attractive person is going to make constant eye contact with you and smile. That if you buy this BBQ…all of a sudden there’s going to be a close community of families in your back yard socializing and working together and your mom and dad haven’t been in a loveless marriage for over 20 years.
Now of course there’s no guarantee once you get these products that any of these things are going to happen. There’s not even a reasonable likelihood given how prone to alienation the average worker is. So what ends up happening is people get caught in this perpetual cycle of feeling empty inside, craving true close human interaction, seeing some advertisement for a product on TV that seems to have worked for the people on the commercial, buying that product, still feeling empty inside, and there’s always ANOTHER product that if only I work even harder at my job and make more money, THAT’S gonna put me over the edge.
So again, let’s consider: are these advertisers an evil group that want people to constantly feel empty and alienated looking to products to fill that void inside of them? No! They’re just trying to make as much money as possible…they’re just living within a capitalist system where profit is the ultimate goal. Fact is, no matter what you think about whether Capitalism is causing it, a need that a LOT of people have that isn’t being filled is feeling like a loved and important member of a community. Why NOT link products to people having that feeling, it’s an effective strategy!
Now these cultural products in particular…TV shows, Movies, Radio…these new products available to people during the 20th century changed everything. You know, it’s one thing to own a peanut butter business and to sit down with a team of designers and try to figure out how we can get this peanut butter to so line up with what consumers want…that whenever somebody goes to the grocery store they buy your peanut butter. There’s a sense in which… the linking of popular demand… to the process of making the best peanut butter in the world is beneficial to the vast, vast majority of people. But Adorno and Horkheimer would ask: what happens when ART becomes the product that’s being sold? What happens when the ultimate goal of producing cultural artifacts like movies, tv shows and radio…becomes how much money we can make?
What happens, they would say, is the birth of The Culture Industry. We are in the business of producing for the masses cultural artifacts that they already have a demand for, so that we can make as much money as possible.
See there’s this thing we do…we reference this thing called pop-culture all the time. We reference popular culture…and there’s this implication that the things that are popular are popular because they arose out of some demand from the masses. But if your favorite show is The Walking Dead…the people that wrote The Walking Dead didn’t write it because they got millions of calls from people clamoring We want a zombie apocalypse show that showcases the bonds that human beings from different cultures form in times of stress! No, whoever wrote The Walking Dead designed a product that they thought enough people would want to watch that they could make money from it. This is a subtle, but important distinction to make for Adorno and Horkheimer…because when it comes to the art you can consume…it always you choosing from the limited number of selections that the culture industry has produced for you, the first and foremost purpose behind the creation of the art being, to make money and correspond with mass appeal.
But this isn’t what art should BE to Theodor Adorno. The popularity of art shouldn’t be determined by how much it corresponds to social norms. True art should get you to think. It should get you to consider an alternative way of looking at the world. True art shouldn’t be easy to consume necessarily…you should have to concentrate hard to appreciate the depth of it…not veg out on the couch and get a thimble full of substance in a three hour movie.
There’s no stopping it in a Capitalist system though. When you link the market to culture, When you turn works of art into products the market is going to consume, cultural products… start to resemble all the ways OTHER products are. They undergo a process of standardization. The people making the products figure out a formula they can use to create a product they know the masses are going to buy…and then essentially just produce the same products over and over again with slight little details changed to create the illusion of novelty for the consumer.
For example…what really is the difference between the 2016 model of a car and the 2017 model? Not much. The car company knows there’s gonna be enough consumers that want a mid-sized sedan that has the features this car has. So what do they do? They essentially sell the exact same car next year…with some minor cosmetic changes to the outside maybe a better GPS system inside to make the consumer feel like this is a new and exciting thing, when in reality the form of the car overall is the same thing.
When you get a new phone…the screen may be a little bigger, it may be a little easier to do certain things on it and you may look at those details and see them as big improvements, but in reality the overall form of the phone you just bought and the function it serves hasn’t changed.
Now neither of those things may bother you. So what? I like my new phone better than my old one. Call me a Capitalist pig, but I like having a better GPS system than the 2016 model. But what happens when this same dynamic is applied to TV Shows, Movies and Music? What you get…is the same song written over and over again, following some formula they know is going to correspond with mass demand, with slight little details changed to create the illusion of novelty. The overall FORM of the song is the same thing…it’s still you bragging for three minutes about your most recent big financial purchase…but the beat is a little different and it’s a different person saying the words. Maybe in a different genre…the song is still about worshiping the Devil and how your step-dad doesn’t understand you…but you switch the order that you play the three chords in and add a different guitar riff at the beginning and it allows consumers to get the same product that they know they like without actually experiencing any sort of real novelty.
Theodor Adorno talks about how when judging a piece of art there’s this emphasis we put on the details of the piece of art…oh the cinematography was AMAZING…or the dialogue was so tense right there! But it’s the same movie that’s been released every year for the last ten years. We focus on those little details because it’s the only differentiation there IS between works of art in our time, that in general it’s the exact same product warmed over spoon fed to us time and time again.
Rom-coms. There may be little details switched around in an individual plot…but overall in form a Romantic comedy is the exact same movie performing the exact same function time and time again. Same thing with Westerns. Same thing with Sit-coms. Same thing with horror movies. These are formulaic templates… that we go into the theater KNOWING exactly what to expect and how it’s going to turn out before we even see it.
Now some of you out there may be saying…well, yeah that’s kind of part of the overall charm of these kinds of movies, right? Yeah I know it’s not Schindler’s list…and in the back of my mind I know where it’s going in the end…but look, somebody can love chocolate ice cream as a product because of how it makes them feel…can’t they like Rom-coms as a product because of how they make them feel?
Theodor Adorno would say, yeah…but understand that life imitates art. Don’t underestimate the level of impact the consumption of these products is having on the way you look at the world. That we watch these movies and TV shows and listen to these songs…and there’s a part of us that inserts ourselves into the story…and makes it real. Like have you ever watched a horror movie about some demon that’s possessing some object…and then later on that night or the next day you’re in a dark room and you feel just a little bit more creeped out than you would otherwise be because what if the demon’s haunting MY condo now. Yeah, you have to believe DEMONS are a possibility for that movie to affect how you see reality…let alone a Rom-com taking place in a world that greatly resembles yours.
That’s another thing Adorno points out…that in almost every movie, tv show, book, play and many songs…there is always a love interest. There are always two people romantically interested in each other, they work together to beat the bad guy, make out and live happily ever after together. What he says is that this sets people up to think of their life and the figurative movie that is playing out in terms of finding that one and only someone. That the arc of the story of my life is complete when I find that person that I love, they move all their IKEA furniture into my box that I live in and we live the rest of our lives out together isolated in a box. What he says is that this conditions people to think of this individual romantic involvement as the ultimate goal of life…all the while missing out on all the joy and satisfaction that could come by filling that void created by their alienation from other people…in other words, instead of being loved and appreciated by one person…being a loved and appreciated member of a community. People don’t even consider that.
See because again…it’s not that there’s an evil group of writers at the top of the culture industry that write what they do SO THAT people stay alienated living in a box happily ever after…it’s that when you’re writing a story…and you want to make the most money…the characters and plots of those stories naturally become characters and plots that the masses can relate to.
People want to be able to easily relate to the characters and immerse themselves in the story. Which then creates this cycle of life imitating art and art imitating life. And because the average worker in this country doesn’t get home from work and put on their Che Guevara beret…you know they’re not a revolutionary constantly looking to be critical of injustices and alternative ways of doing things…no they just wind down from work and passively go along with the life they have…because of that dynamic, the characters in the movies they relate to are going to be generally the same kind of person. The plots of these movies are going to resemble a sort of: stay in your own lane…dont become an antagonist in the movie of your life because the bad guy always loses…when life gives you lemons make lemonade and just enjoy your life as much as you can. This becomes the attitude portrayed by art that life begins to imitate. The culture industry is constantly working to turn everyone into the same person, so that they’ll buy the cultural products that it produces.
What’s even crazier Adorno and Horkheimer point out…is that all this stuff…is not a mystery to most people. Most people realize at some point in their life that this is going on, that people are just sort of doing their best impression of a conglomeration of different characters they’ve seen on all the movies and TV shows they’ve watched. Just like music and movies all become the same warmed over product with slight differences in detail…people follow the same pattern. They say that in 20th century America:
“personality scarcely signifies anything more than shining white teeth and freedom from body odour and emotions. The triumph of advertising in the culture industry is that consumers feel compelled to buy and use its products even though they see through them.”
Why would somebody do that? Why would people that see through what’s going on with the culture industry still choose to participate in the game? Horkheimer would say, because they consider the alternative…what can an average worker REALLY do when it comes to changing it? They’re not gonna run for president. They’re not going to incite revolution. The only change that would come for them if they chose to not participate…is that now they work eight hours a day…and they have NO escape from the exploitation and alienation they face.
This is why Adorno has such a vitriol for what The Culture Industry has become. He thinks that when you turn art into a commodity, you instantly hijack it and direct its creation towards mass appeal. But this isn’t what art should be. Works of art have the power to give people a different perspective on things without violence. Works of art have the power to change the world. Theodor Adorno wouldn’t agree with Simone De Beauvoir…that in order to overthrow an oppressive person you need to become an oppressor of that person yourself. What so a group of people oppress another group of people for 200 years…and then what…the oppressed group gets to oppress the other group now? And then this whole cycle just continues over again and again until the end of time? What if true art…not the garbage that the Culture Industry pumps out…but TRUE art. What if that’s the tool for change that is needed the most… in a world where there is not much of it? We’ll talk about that next time on the Philosophize This! podcast.
Thank you for listening. I’ll talk to you next time.