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Monday, February 07, 2011

The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception- Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer

the following write up on The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception is by Jaimon Antony


The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception is an excerpt from the final chapter of critical theorists Max Horkheimer (1895–1973) and Theodor Adorno (1903–1969) Dialectic of Enlightenment. The book is the cornerstone of critical theory and essentially claims that science is irrational and that the Enlightenment is a trick and nothing happened during that time period. Adorno claims that enlightenment was supposed to bring pluralism and demystification but instead society is said to have suffered a major fall as it is corrupted by capitalist industry with exploitative motives. Both Adorno and Hokeimer belong to the Frankfurt school which tried to theorize ‘cultural Industry’ as being controlled by the Capitalist Economy.


This essay remains a classical denunciation of ‘cultural Industry’. This is a socialist approach to the industrialization of cultural commodities. Adorno and Hokheimer are of the opinion that the transition of the cultural production from the artisanal stage to the industrial stage has made the society lose its capacity to nourish true freedom and Individuality – as well as the ability to represent the real conditions of existence. According to them the modern cultural industry produces standardized goods to satisfy the larger need of the capitalist economy.

Adorno and Horkheimer begin by defining the “culture industry” as an economic union of microcosm and macrocosm in a society of producers and consumers united by work and pleasure whose technology does not extend beyond standardization and mass production. They move through all aspects of popular culture (from their time period)-radio, movies and music- applying the Marxist idea of alienation of labor to the condition of consumers in a post-Enlightenment capitalist society. Horkheimer and Adorno argue that since the Enlightenment popular culture has become a sort of factory, producing standardized cultural goods to manipulate the masses into passivity, which they term the “culture industry”. Horkheimer and Adorno viewed the mass-produced culture as a threat to true or “high” arts. They argue that the “culture industry”, by trying to satisfy the demands of the capitalist economy, deceives the masses, homogenizes culture, and creates false needs.

The role of capitalism is key, “the dependence of the most powerful broadcasting company on the electrical industry, or of the motion picture industry on the banks, is characteristic of the whole sphere, whose individual branches are themselves economically interwoven.” Horkheimer and Adorno claim that the media--advertisements, movies, radio broadcasts--are essentially propaganda used to maintain society’s state of false consciousness; this propaganda hide the reality of domination and oppression of the masses under capitalism.

The essay stresses that culture industry has become so successful that ‘art’ and ‘life’ are no longer wholly separable. The whole world is made to pass through the filter of the culture Industry and flawless techniques used in the expressions of art duplicate empirical objects in such a way that the consumer can’t really make distinction between what is real and what is unreal. This Idea was later taken up by theorists of postmodernism to reinstate that real life has become indistinguishable from art. while emphasizing the fact that the ‘mass culture’ is a threat to the ‘high art’, Adorno and Horkheimer argue that there can be no more original culture – that there can be no art in modern capitalism.


Adorno and Hokheimer are too cynical about the ‘cultural Industry’ that they fail to see the opportunities and collective creativity which ‘cultural Industry’ provides for all kinds of Individuals. They become highly pessimistic that they even undermine the Marxist notion that the consumers will be able to overthrow or overcome the capitalist manipulation and deception of the society.


· Adorno, T., & Horkheimer, M. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Stanford University Press (2002)

· During, Simon. The Cultural Studies Reader. Routledge( 1999 )

· Jameson,Fredric. Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Duke University Press. (1991)

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