Lullaby for the Culture Industry

By: Vidha Saumya

The earliest memory that I have of a song is my mother singing something, as I would be put to bed. These songs could not be sourced down to films or any other medium of broadcasting. It was a song passed on from generations and learnt in the company of friends and family. I also vividly remember, that as a child, when visiting grandparents or any other relative that person was expected to tell us stories. We later learnt that most of these stories were made up as they were narrated due to the sheer number of occasions that these stories had to be told and repeats were not favoured by the children. Last couple of weeks while reading, discussing and thinking about Adorno and Horkheimer’s text on the culture industry, it has made me question almost everything in the context of culture industry and growing capitalism. In the inescapable world of capitalism it is exhausting to be either subsumed by it or fighting it. In this state of fatigue as I sit by my bed I think of the lullaby. I am convinced that if we can find anything at all that is out of pure circumstances, not as a deal but an intimate exchange of something tangible, quantifiable and qualitative between two individuals is the lullaby or the bedtime story. When the mother sings this to the child, she is involved in process through her voice, sense of touch, her consciousness, the intent to make the baby sleep. She does so despite the distractions that may be taking place in the immediate environment, being completely aware what exists beyond the immediate space of herself and the child. The song that she sings exists in the memory and is imparted for a specific reason. This kind of an exchange contrasts with the idea that in the huge range of modern capitalism we naturally suppose that everything we could possibly want is available, where the only problem, if there is one, is that we can’t afford it – thereby making us think that we live in a world of plenty but our real selves are carefully shielded from us so that we end up forgetting what is it that we truly need and settle instead for desires manufactured for us by corporations without any interest in our true welfare – and what we really require to thrive – tenderness, understanding, and community, all these things appear to be in short supply. Therefore when they’re trying to sell us something, advertisers show us the thing that we really ‘want’ and then connect it to something we don’t actually ‘need’. We see an advertisement intended to sell a car, showing a group of friends walking along a beach having a good time or a family at a picnic laughing warmly together. The adverts show aspirational visuals because they know we crave community and connection but the industrial economy prefers to keep us lonely and consuming so at the end of the adverts we are urged to buy a spacious car, thus compelling us to feel a need to buy products and a need to engage in consumerism even though we might not have to. This basic idea of captialism is the primary perpetuater of the concept of culture industry. The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception, presented as a chapter in the book Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) written by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer defining ‘culture industry’ as the industrial/political creation of the cultural products and mass marketing them in order to subordinate individuals to the will of the capitalist, profit driven system. It is a creation of mass culture but not from the masses themselves, and so there is a top down system of culture. The culture industry mass produces and distributes cultural goods to cultivate false psychological needs that can only be met with the products of capitalism.

The ealiest versions of the culture industry come from the writings of Karl Marx right in the 1800s where he talks about the alienation of labour when the powers of industry and industrial revolution made it possible that people aren’t making and consuming the same products. People are buying consumer goods that they haven’t made themselves. People are creating more and more things due to the advanced machinery but at the same time these objects are becoming devalued. In mid 1920s, Siegfried Kracauer made a note of this in connection to the idea of culture in his essay Mass Ornament (1927), where he notices ‘mass culture–to be simliar to–the assembly line production of cars–to be similar to–the coordinated choreography of the Tiller Girls’. He uses the idea of ‘mass ornament’ to describe how mass culture is becoming faceless and generic. He sees this as a reflection of the changing western capitalist society, equating the mass production of goods to the mass production of what we are viewing and watching. This is one of the first ideas of this combination of culture and industry.

Barred on racial grounds from teaching in Germany, Theodor Adorno moved to Oxford and later to New York and Los Angeles in late 1930s where he was both fascinated and repelled by the Californian consumer culture. He thought with unusual depth about its presence and bemoaned that society had fallen into the hands of an omnipresent and deeply malevolent entertainment machine, which he called the ‘culture industry’ – the glue that is preventing revolution to take place, making it impossible for the society to accomplish any real goals. Adorno and Horkheimer are closely connected with a pioneering institute of social research also known as the Frankfurt School, which had been founded to develop a psychological understanding of the problems thrown up by modern capitalism especially the culture, and mindset it generates. They considered that the focus for progressive philosophers should to analyze how the people in developed nations think and feel and in particular the manner in which they spend their leisure time. Adorno had a highly ambitious view of what leisure time should be, for him it was not to relax and take one’s mind off things but a time that is the prime opportunity to expand and develop ourselves to reach out to better nature and to acquire the tools with which to change society. However films, television, radio, magazines, seemed for Adorno to be almost designed to keep us distracted, unable to understand ourselves and without the will to alter political reality. The cinema shows us the adventures of an alien invasion while the real calamities of our world go unattended, pop music focuses relentlessly on the emotions around romantic love suggesting that happiness can only come from one very special person rather than awakening us to the pleasures of community and have a more broadly distributed human sympathy. We wander through museum galleries privately unsure what they really mean. He wants us to think critically why we should care that the culture industry likes to keep us like that – distracted, confused and a bit intimidated. There are no perfect solutions to a situation like this. We cannot argue out the overwhelming presence of a repetitious system with complete sincerity because it will always put us in contradictory positions unless we slowly lull it to sleep so that we may have the time to think and reflect. I think that Adorno too expects us to do something similar – to invest in our free time thoughts that will elevate our processes and bring us in touch with idea of self. This may possibly be the kind of meditation that will allow us to be simultaneously aware of the distractions and our own act of doing something. By being so involved like the mother singing the lullaby we too maybe able to focus on an individual culture, the culture of person making our experiences and intentions unique.