by Liam Hawkes
As a 20-year-old young man today, I find myself surrounded by a society and culture which seem to lack substance in a lot of ways. I have had a lot of enlightening conversations with friends about this, and one of the conclusions we reached is that we are the generation of nostalgia, imitation, and regurgitation. We think back to the golden filters of 60s or 70s music as the paradigm our experiences now should imitate. We idolise the past because of the lack of originality in the present.
I feel part of a reflective generation which instead of projecting creativity into the future, we simply project it into the past to achieve a nostalgic warmness to keep us comfortable. This doesn’t surprise me when I look at the advent of pop culture and what is considered ‘talent’, or the celebrities of today. This is all a downward slope from the crossing the threshold of the millennium and feeling more culturally empty than ever before.
You could put this down to a lack of originality, or a cultural and artist laziness within mainstream media and culture. This could contribute somewhat to the superficiality of so much of what we see on our computers and televisions. However, I would definitely argue that it runs deeper. This is why I want to turn the ideas first coined and expressed by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in their book Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) and more specifically in the chapter named “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception”.
we allowed for culture to be subsumed into the market
Adorno and Horkheimer argue that after the emergence of new forms of mass media and communication, alongside the rise of the entertainment industry, we allowed for culture to be subsumed into the market. Whereas before, culture was a relatively separate aspect of society, it now began to be governed and controlled by the logic and mentality of the growth of monopoly capitalism. Now, this all sounds quite theory-laden, but if we look at what we call ‘popular culture’ now, it is plain to see what Adorno and Horkheimer were both getting at. Culture has been commodified and monopolised by those who have the market share, meaning we ultimately have no control over it and have to opt into the system.
This is an incredibly bleak view of contemporary western culture and I’m not going to deny there are havens of original, exciting culturally relevant art, media, and views being espoused. However, this kind of stuff seems to be forcibly resigned to the niche, the unknown, or even mockingly labelled ‘counter-culture’. Adorno rightly notes that art – under certain social conditions – can provide us with alternate views of our social reality than what we are left with.
Art does play a huge role in defining and changing culture. But this is where the Culture Industry seems to gain its power from. Since it relies on making people desire it and accept it as culture, we are fooled into this consumption, which we now call consumerism. We truly believe we are ingesting genuine culture when we buy a Bieber album or wear a brand-labelled t-shirt. The clever aspect of the mass-produced replicated industry is that we are given the illusion of choice, the illusion of difference, when really there is none. No matter what album, food product, or t-shirt we buy, the money will most probably filter back to a handful of massive companies. Whether it’s Sony, Kraft or the Arcadia Group, there is a tiny proportion of people, controlling the culture which we so truly believe to be individual to each one of us. Furthermore, it appeals to us not by subjugating us, but by repressing us whilst simultaneously giving us the illusions of liberation. Just like the illusion of choice when there is none. Adorno writes:
“In the culture industry the individual is an illusion not merely because of the standardization of the means of production. He is tolerated only so long as his complete identification with the generality is unquestioned. Pseudo individuality is rife: from the standardized jazz improvisation to the exceptional film star whose hair curls over her eye to demonstrate her originality. What is individual is no more than the generality’s power to stamp the accidental detail so firmly that it is accepted as such. The defiant reserve or elegant appearance of the individual on show is mass-produced like Yale locks, whose only difference can be measured in fractions of millimeters.”
Adam Curtis makes an interesting point about this in his miniseries called Centuries of the Self. He tries to explain and how key part to the consumerist culture with live in is making people believe they are an individual, with individual tastes and preferences. When really we are just manipulated and influenced by the mass produced society and culture which surrounds us. Once you can have embedded this lie in the psyche of the masses then you have control. Individualism lays the foundations for consumerism and the culture industry.
Individualism lays the foundations for consumerism and the culture industry.
So what does this leave for any kind of ‘authentic’ culture? Is there even any chance of that left? Well I think that is open to a lot of debate, just like this article is too. If you deny the contention that mass culture is now mass produced, just like any consumer item which is sold within it, then you can topple this whole argument. However, I think that it is all too obvious that what we now see all around us is cheap reproductions of mass goods, force fed to us with the aim of keep us docile. Keeping us from thinking about the very possibility of progressive, radical change, not just in culture, but in wider socio-political discourses.
Featured image © Alive Films; Pedro Meyer