Last week, I wrote about how Hollywood has helped reopen the public debate on torture in the United States – for the first time since the end of the Middle Ages. Just like the news media, popular works like 24 and Zero Dark Thirty have a huge impact on how our society sees itself and its problems. In fact, we’re so used to this idea that it’s become something of a truism. Like all truisms, most people who use it to assign blame (whether they happen to be right or wrong) simply have no idea what they’re talking about.
So it’s worth taking the time to look at how it is that mass media can influence us at all. Art doesn’t just determine how we feel about this or that policy, although it can. What’s far more important is what it tells us about how the world works, and how it could be different.
To be of any use to anyone, a critique of mass media can’t view culture in isolation from politics, economics, and so on. It’s the relationships between all of these spheres that make up society at large. While it’s currently out of fashion, no basic theory of mass society is more relevant today than the one presented by Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer in their book Dialectic of Enlightenment. Published in 1947, the work was written during their exile in the US. Adorno is especially notorious for identifying the third horror of the 20th century, after fascism and Stalinism, as the “culture industry”.
The Western liberal democracies, Adorno and Horkheimer write, are not so liberal anymore. In the 19th century, competition between small businesses rewarded the individual capitalist with some measure of independence and financial security. The logic of the system was one of meritocracy among entrepreneurs, albeit at the expense of the working class. But as enterprises grew larger and larger, and the state began increasingly to intervene in the economy, there emerged an extreme concentration of power never before seen in industrial societies.
Markets are no more. There are only planned economies. In the liberal democracies, the planning is done by private monopolies we now call multinational corporations. The true class division is no longer between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, as it was in Marx’s time. “Just because society’s energies have developed so far on the side of rationality that anyone might become an engineer or a manager, the choice of who is to receive from society the investment and confidence to be trained for such functions becomes entirely irrational.” In other words, a tiny elite have complete control over both government and industry, and the mass of people are practically powerless. We believe in the cult of chance.
It’s becoming more and more clear that the all-pervasive influence of corporations isn’t just some leftist conspiracy theory. Most people know, for instance, that only 5 corporations own the commercial media (films, TV, newspapers, etc.) in the US. Despite talk of a “free press”, media that doesn’t depend on corporate sponsorship is the exception, not the rule. The question is more salient now than ever: How does this regime stay in power year after year, decade after decade?
Capitalism’s defenders preach that there’s simply no viable alternative. What stops mass movements from calling their bluff? The answer, Adorno and Horkheimer claim, is “entertainment”.
In our traditional notion of totalitarianism, the state tries to regulate its citizens by controlling them directly. Capitalism in the liberal democracies does something different. Already in 1831, while touring the US, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that,
Tyranny in democratic republics…ignores the body and goes straight for the soul. The master no longer says: You will think as I do or die. He says: You are free not to think as I do. You may keep your life, your property, and everything else. But from this day forth you shall be as a stranger among us.
The culture industry sews the ideology of chance, sameness, and obedience into the very fabric of our consciousness by convincing us that we choose it freely as consumers. Hence, there’s no need to conceal the absurdity of the gulf separating the elite and the mass of people: Entertainment commodities celebrate the arbitrary nature of “success” and “failure” as essential to the “magic” of the system. Everyone is the same, in that we will never be the lucky star onscreen. Just as stories and characters have to be interchangeable to satisfy the demands of the market, so people must be as well.
So it’s not just the economy that shifts from liberalism to monopoly capitalism: Artworks themselves change radically. As bourgeois art gives way to mass media, everything about the work is determined by formula. Under liberalism, there was a tension between the artwork and the market. As long as a work was marketable, the artist had some freedom to choose its form and content. The culture industry does away with that bit of autonomy by establishing “entertainment” as the alpha and omega of art.
The demand that art be entertainment is really the demand for total marketability. Successful business models are recycled and reused. Like Coke and Pepsi, Camel and Marlboro, Democrat and Republican, the various brands are (for the most part) only cosmetically different. They change only as much as necessary for consumers to know whether they’d prefer the repetitive revenge fantasy of Django or Jingo Unchained.
“In a film, the outcome can invariably be predicted at the start—who will be rewarded, punished, forgotten,” Adorno and Horkheimer observe. If the uniformity of the products in theaters on a given day isn’t proof enough, the phenomenon of test screenings surely is. The details of a film (plot points, editing style, how it ends, and so on) are set by industry demands for particular effects. This rules out the possibility that the film as a whole might develop its own unique voice and dynamic. For Adorno and Horkheimer, a work is as “autonomous” as it is free from the prescriptions of business models.
Here Adorno and Horkheimer add a provocative twist: What the different brands in the culture industry have in common is that they actually fail in their stated task. Cigarettes that supposedly relieve tension end up making you more tense. Soda doesn’t satisfy your thirst so much as it makes you crave more. Politicians who ran in opposition to certain policies turn around and implement them. And Hollywood cinema doesn’t really entertain. Instead, “[e]ntertainment is the prolongation of work under late capitalism.” Whether she’s aware of it or not, the consumer recognizes the flow of familiar tropes, stereotypes, and clichés for what they are: Fordism of the mind. The viewer follows along as the same basic premises arrive at the same basic conclusion using the same causal logic. “Entertainment” becomes just another aspect of a worker’s monotonous routine.
So it isn’t by distracting us from the reality of our poverty or financial insecurity that mass media serves the prevailing order. It does so by conditioning us to passively accept that reality, by asking nothing of us in the way of mental engagement and interpretation. While pretending to cater to our personal tastes, the culture industry serves us our meal pre-chewed.
But really, what’s wrong with that? Why should anyone go through the trouble of seeing a “difficult” or “challenging” film, one that has to be wrestled with and thought over for days afterward? For one thing, you can’t think critically if you can’t orient yourself in an ambiguous situation. We aren’t taught how in school. If we don’t learn how in our “free time”, we’re not as likely to call bullshit when we come across dominant ideology in politics or at work.
The biggest problem facing experimental art today is finding audiences. Most (if not all) of the so-called art cinema has been co-opted and integrated into the culture industry as serving a “niche market”. This fact helps to ensure that alternative filmmaking continues to be dismissed as irrelevant and snobbish by most people. But it also means that while it’s this way now, it could also be otherwise.
The regime seems to think autonomous art has to be defused. Does that mean it can’t explode? On the contrary, that its impact has to be stifled suggests that it’s foolish to judge what’s possible by what already exists. Experimental art remains threatening not because it breaks the rules, but because it can show us that there are rules. It shows us the power of images to manipulate: to shape the kind of world we want to live in, and what we choose to do about it.