MARXISMS: Part 2 – The Frankfurt School

The Frankfurt School – 1923, group of German intellectuals at U of Frankfurt. Moved to Univeristy of Columbia in NY after Hitler came to power. Back to German in 1949. ‘Critical Theory’ is the name given to the group’s mix of Marxism and psychoanalysis. Main characters – Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, Leo Lowentahl, Herbert Marcuse.

Adorno and Horkheimer coin the term ‘culture industry’ in 1944 “to designate the products and processes of mass culture. And the culture industry’s products are homogenous and predictable.

The culture industry maintains social authority. That’s the view of the Frankfurt School, and stands in opposition to Arnold and Leavisism, who believed popular culture eroded social/cultural authority. A&L saw anarchy, but the Frankfurt School saw order: “a situation in which ‘the deceived masses’ are aught in a ‘circle of manipulation and retroactive need in which the unity of the system grows ever stronger.” OK with little pay because look how whimsical I am!! (In reference to play).

Lowenthal says the culture industry keeps the working class from realizing more of their potential by mitigating revolutionary thoughts through appeasement with wealth, power, “passionate love”… “In short, the culture industry discourages the masses from thinking beyond the confines of the present.” (See Marcuse quote on page 63 for clarification.) “By supplying the means to satisfaction of certain needs, capitalism is able to prevent the formation of more fundamental desires.” Culture industry stunts political imagination.

High culture/art is not part of the culture industry. It’s the alternative, the utopian, the answer to capitalism, but as it gets absorbed more and more into the mass culture, it looses its powers of resistance and revolution. To me, it seems this must present a kind of strangeness to someone trying to make a living by creating art. It can’t be high culture, transcending capitalism, if the masses love it, but the masses have to love it for the artist to make any money. Once art is commercialized, accepted, it ceases to be art at all. Instead, it becomes just another tool of the culture industry to keep the masses satisfied, but still controlled.

The absorption isn’t necessarily wrong, just premature in the eyes of Marcuse and the Frankfurt School. Sure, thought, high culture can be an aspect of mass culture, once cultures aren’t exploited under a capitalist system, but for it to be absorbed now, again, allows high culture to take on the worst qualities of the culture industry.

Popular music, or the circle that makes escape impossible. The relationship between work and leisure in a capitalist society with a culture industry (as though they’re separable). Adorno ‘On Popular Music’:

  1. Pop music is standardized
  2. Pop music promotes passive listening
  3. Pop music is social cement

“Popular music is the non productive correlate to life in the office or factory. To consume it demands inattention and distraction, whilst its consumption produces in the consumer inattention and distraction. Denied novelty in their work time, and too exhausted for it in their leisure time, they crave a stimulant. Popular music satisfied the craving and reinforces societal norms.”

But there are lots of problems with Adorno’s assertions. Subculture use of music, floundering sales “does not suggest the workings of an all powerful culture industry, easily able to manipulate its consumers. It sounds more like a culture industry trying desperately to see records to a critical and discriminating public.” And consumption certainly seems more active than Adorno states.

Benjamin actually has a rather sunny view of capitalism as it relates to culture, saying that capitalism could lead one day to the abolition of capitalism, as culture is reproduced in new and unpredictable ways. Thus, it loses it’s ‘normal’ aura. Benjamin would’ve love the internet it sounds like.

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