"Theodor Adorno and the Culture Industry," presented to the Annual Meeting of the Popular Culture Association, Toronto (March 30, 1984)

by Gordon Welty
Wright State University
Dayton, OH 45435 USA

Theodor Adorno was one of the more important philosophers of the Institute for Social Research, the "Frankfurt School," which flourished in Weimar Germany. A friend and student of the Viennese composer Alban Berg, Adorno was a musicologist as well. Along with many members of the Institute, he emigrated to the United States during the Nazi era. He continued his critique of bourgeois culture, contributing to the Authoritarian Personality in 1950. He and his friend and collaborator, Max Horkheimer, returned to Frankfurt in 1953 and reestablished the Institute. His last major writing, Negative Dialektik, was published in 1966. He died in 1969.

I want to review Adorno's conception of the "culture industry" as it is found in three writings. The first is the essay "On Popular Music," which was published in the Institute's organ, Studies in Philosophy and Social Sciences, Vol. IX, No. 1. This essay both summarized Adorno's studies of popular music and immediately prefigured the emergence of the theory of the culture industry.

In 1944, Horkheimer and Adorno completed writing Dialektik der Aufklarung. This manuscript remained unpublished until 1947, when it came out under the imprint of Querido in Amsterdam. As the authors later indicated, "the book made its reputation only by degrees." It became better known after 1969, when it was republished by Fischer Verlag in Frankfurt am Main. A chapter in the book entitled "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception" is the second item of interest to us.

The third is "Culture Industry Reconsidered." In 1963, Adorno gave a lecture in the International Radio University Program over the Hessian Broadcasting System which was published in 1967. This has been translated in New German Critique, No. 6.

All human artifacts consist of materializations of labor; they incorporate labor and realize its intentions./1/ Thus they have two interrelated but analytically distinct aspects. On the one side a materialization of labor, a product of labor, is a use value. As such, an artifact has utility for someone, i.e. it can "serve" a need of individual or collective practical reason. The exchange value of a commodity depends upon its utility, as well as upon the institutional conditions of the market. On the other side, a materialization of labor is an objectivization or embodiment of meaning or significance. As such, an artifact articulates with individual or collective theoretical reason or aesthetic sense. The monopolistic rental value of an artifact depends upon its significance, as well as the institutional conditions which preserve the monopoly (e.g. copyright privileges).

Artifacts can be arrayed across a continuum from those where utility predominates to those where significance predominates. A piece of firewood illustrates the former, a book of poetry, the latter. It would be unusual but not inconceivable to foreground the significance, say the artistic significance, of the firewood. And one could always start a fire with a page of poetry, highlighting its utility rather than its poetic significance.

We will call all artifacts where significance predominates over utility, "cultural products." In particular, we are concerned here with the cultural products which made up popular culture in Adorno's conception, including film, horoscope, jazz, magazines, radio, soap operas, television serials, etc.

As cultural objects become more interchangeable, each one declines in significance, loses its "aura," hence declines in monopolistic rent. Since the value of the cultural object is based on the monopolistic rent or, to a subordinate degree, on the object's utility, the value of the cultural object should decline as well. This doesn't occur under late capitalism, however. As Horkheimer and Adorno have put it, "what might be called use value in the reception of cultural commodities is replaced by exchange value."/2/ Replaced by exchange value! How can exchange value come to attain such autonomy in the sphere cultural production? Only through a widespread process of fetishization. The consumer is paying, not for the product but for the packaging. Rather than assessments of value based on the qualities of the product, judgments about the qualities of the product are based upon its exchange value, its price, its top-ten rating. This is the height of commodity fetishism.

As Horkheimer and Adorno stressed, the essential characteristic of the culture industry is repetition./3/ Adorno illustrates this by contrasting "popular" and "serious" music. As early as his 1936 essay "On Jazz," Adorno had argued that an essential characteristic of popular music was its standardization. "On Popular Music," written in 1941 "with the assistance of George Simpson," repeats this point. "The whole structure of popular music is standardized, even where the attempt is made to circumvent standardization. Standardization extends from the most general features to the most specific ones."/4/ Standardization implies the interchangeability, the substitutability of parts.

By contrast, "serious music" is a "concrete totality" for Adorno, whereby "every detail derives its musical sense from the concrete totality of the piece." This is a dialectical relationship, whereby the totality is constituted of the organic interrelation of the particulars. In the case of serious music, interchangeability is not possible; if a detail is omitted, "all is lost."/5/

Other illustrations could be given, such as the soap operas with their substitutable episodes, horror films with their formulas, etc. This repetition is due to the reflection in the sphere of cultural production of the standardized and repetitive processes of monopoly capitalist industry. Under late capitalism, what happens at work, in the factory, or in the office can only be escaped by approximating it in one's leisure time. This sets the terms for cultural products: "no independent thinking must be expected from the audiences" instead, "the product prescribes every reaction."/6/ The standardization of the cultural product leads to the standardization of the audience. "Man as a member of a species has been made a reality by the culture industry. Now any person signifies only those attributes by which he can replace everybody else; he is interchangeable."/7/ Standardization, says Adorno, "divests the listener of his spontaneity and promotes conditioned reflexes."/8/ To this point, the argument suggests that both popular culture and its audience suffer a radical loss of significance under late capitalism.

It might be argued that the standardization of the cultural product under late capitalism is technologically determined, the same as an industrial product such as a can of green beans. Horkheimer and Adorno begin by considering, and dismissing, the claim that the standardization, the identity of mass culture, can be explained in technological terms. Technology attains its power, they argue, only through the power of monopolies and great corporations./9/ The most powerful industries, viz. banks, chemicals, electricity, petroleum, steel, control the culture monopolies, which are "weak and dependent in comparison."/10/ The latter produce and market the mass culture.

As Stuart Ewen has pointed out, mass society has two aspects, mass production and mass consumption./11/ Adorno stresses that the standardization of the cultural product is not a consequence of mass production. He states that "the expression 'industry' [in the concept 'culture industry'] is not to be taken literally. It refers to the standardization of the thing itself -- such as the Western, familiar to every movie-goer -- and to the rationalization of distribution techniques, but not strictly to the production process."/12/ Earlier, he had been even more specific. "The production of popular music can be called 'industrial' only in its promotion and distribution, whereas the act of producing a song-hit still remains in a handicraft stage." It is "still 'individualistic' in its social mode of production."/13/ Rather, standardization is a necessity of mass consumption. "Popular music must simultaneously meet two demands. One is for stimuli that provoke the listener's attention ... by deviating in some way from the established 'natural' [music]... The other is for material to fall within the category of what the musically untrained listener would call 'natural' music ... that it maintain the supremacy of the natural against such deviations."/14/

Adorno continues that "the paradox in the desiderata -- stimulatory and natural -- accounts for the dual character of standardization itself. Stylization of the ever identical framework is only one aspect of standardization."/15/ "The necessary correlate of musical standardization is pseudo-individualization [i.e.] endowing cultural mass production with the halo of free choice or open market on the basis of standardization itself." Pseudo-individualization, for its part, prevents the listener from resisting the standardization which is reducing him to the animalistic level by making him forget that the music was standardized./16/

This dual characteristic of popular music also proves to be significant for purposes of marketing it. In order to be mass marketed, "a song-hit must have at least one feature by which it can be distinguished from any other, and yet possess the complete conventionality and triviality of all others."/17/ Without pseudo-individualization, what the marketing industry calls "product differentiation," the song could not be successfully marketed. Without standardisation, it could not be "sold automatically, without requiring any effort on the part of the customer;" it could not be mass-marketed at all./18/

As Horkheimer and Adorno point out, "modern communications media have an isolating effect."/19/ This includes both social and physical isolation. The modern administration of capitalist society, with its effective means of communication, keeps people from gregarious interaction. Automobiles facilitate travel of people "in complete isolation from each other." They continue that "communication establishes uniformity among men by isolating them."/20/ Let us consider how this uniformity is generated by popular music.

Popular music either promotes the thoughtlessness of the masses or else provides the content of their thought. Regarding the first of these, Adorno invokes the Distraction Thesis. "Distraction" is a correlate of capitalism; this mode of production, "which engenders fears and anxiety about unemployment, loss of income, war, has its 'non-productive' correlate in entertainment; that is, relaxation which does not involve the effort of concentration at all."/21/ Thus, distraction is a presupposition of popular music. It is also a product of that music; "the tunes lull the listener to inattention."/22/

Regarding the next of these, Adorno suggests that popular music serves an ideological function for its listeners. Popular music "is above all a means by which they achieve some psychical adjustment to the mechanisms of present day life." There are two major types of mass response to popular music, that of the "rhythmically obedient" type and that of the "emotional" type./23/ Listeners of the rhythmically obedient type are particularly susceptible to "masochistic adjustment to authoritarian collectivism."/24/

Listeners of the emotional type "consume music in order to be allowed to weep. They are taken in by the musical expression of frustration rather than by that of happiness." Adorno continues: "Music that permits its listeners the confession of their unhappiness reconciles them, by means of this 'release,' to their social dependence."/25/

*    *    *

In sum, Adorno has provided a theory of the nature of the cultural product and its valuation at an appropriate level of discourse. The standardization and interchangeability of cultural products under late capitalism leads to the interchangeability of persons in the audience. Stylization has its counterpart, the pseudo-individualization of the culture product as well as the members of the audience. Both stylization and pseudo-individualization contribute to the possibilities of mass marketing. The consequences for the audience in late capitalism are distraction on the one hand, and a means of ensuring the audience's "adjustment" -- whether fascistic or sorrowful accommodation -- to dependency on the other.

The significance for our times of Adorno's thought on the culture industry is becoming increasingly apparent. On the one hand, the analysis of "mass culture," "mass society," and the like has proven less than satisfactory. It is necessary critically to delve into the material basis of the cultural apparatus which has ensnared the thinking, attitudes, and cultural practices of vast numbers of the populace. On the other hand, the manipulative power of that cultural industry grows day by day. The accession of a B-grade movie actor to the presidency, the advent of the "Age of the Great Communicator" -- an age revolving about the personality of a man bordering on the dementia of Alzheimer's disease -- only stresses the need for a radical critique of the cultural apparatus that has created this age and props up the chief character of this age's tragic farce.


1. Cf. Gordon Welty, "The Materialist Science of Culture and the Critique of Ideology," Quarterly Journal of Ideology (1981), Vol. V, No. 2.

2. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, New York: Herder and Herder (1972), p. 158.

3. ibid, p. 136.

4. Theodor Adorno, "On Popular Music," Studies in Philosophy and Social Sciences (1941), Vol. IX, No. 1, pp. 17-18.

5. ibid, p. 19

6. Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, p. 137.

7. ibid, p.145.

8. Adorno, "On Popular Music," p. 22.

9. Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, p. 121.

10. Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, p. 122.

11. Stuart Ewen, Captains of Consciousness, New York: McGraw-Hill (1976), pp. 24-26.

12. Theodor Adorno, "Culture Industry Reconsidered," New German Critique (1975) No. 6, p. 14.

13. Adorno, "On Popular Music," p. 23.

14. ibid, p. 24.

15. ibid, p. 24.

16. ibid, p. 25.

17. ibid, p. 27.

18. ibid, p. 28.

19. Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, p. 121.

20. Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, p. 122.

21. Adorno, "On Popular Music," p. 37-38.

22. ibid, p. 39.

23. ibid, p. 40.

24. ibid, p. 40.

25. ibid, p. 42.