Mass Culture, Authenticity, Ideology

(This is a paper I wrote for “Introduction to Media, Culture and Communication” seminar with Gabriella Coleman, at NYU. I’d appreciate any comments, suggestions, doubts, etc.  )            

The texts by Walter Benjamin, MacDonalds, Lowenthal and Horkheimer and Adorno read for this week are all critical approaches to the effects on society of the mass production of cultural products. In this sense, each of them seeks to prove that the capacity of disseminating standardized symbolic products is not only an event that is deeply tied to industrialization, but also one that necessarily entails the all-encompassing power to manipulate of the masses.

In the next pages I will focus primarily on Horkeimer and Adorno’s piece on the “Cultural Industries” and on Walter Benjamin’s  “Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”.  I will deal with Macdougal and Lowenthal tangentially, insofar as I believe that these authors’ main points are backed up by the formers’ overall arguments (in the case of Lowenthal, his piece is actually a summary of Horkeimer and Adorno’s work).

My goal is to show how all of these theories fail to account for more active forms of cultural consumption.  The authors (Benjamin to a lesser extent) conceive media’s relationship to the masses as one of top-down domination in which the only thing that consumers can do is subscribe to the industry’s interests. In this sense, they all agree with MacDougal’s statement that “…Mass Culture is imposed from above…its audiences are passive consumers, their participation limited to the choice between buying and not buying” (Macdougal, 60)

Before I start with the comparison of these authors, however, I want to point out that, out of the group, Macdonald seems to be the least concerned by the actual production conditions in which mass culture thrives. In general, one could say that he focuses more on belittling mass culture –which he conceives to be parasitic form of high art–than with exploring the conditions that give form to the manipulation of the consumer of culture

Horkheimer and Adorno’s main argument in “Cultural Industry” is that the cultural industry is capitalism’s tool for expansion and social control. However, it is also an industry, and, like any other industry, it is ” interested in human beings only as its customers and employees and has in fact reduced humanity as a whole, like each of its elements, to this exhaustive formula.” (Horkheimer and Adorno, 58)

In order to expand its markets, the cultural industry relies on a specific set of strategies that could allow it to understand the specificities of each new potential customer. However, coming up with relevant information about potential consumers is a particularly tricky thing to do, since the ability to understand new markets is necessarily dependant on the consumer being ignorant of his status as an object of study.

In order to solve this dilemma, the cultural industry takes advantage of the symbolic and cultural nature of its line of products and diversifies. This constantly growing ramification of genres (drama, comedy, etc.) and products (magazines, comic books, etc) allows the cultural industry’s unit to remain elusive while expanding its influence (and customer-research capacity) by branching out further into every part of society. Although each branch of the cultural industry might appear to be radically different from the next (magazine-industry to film industry) the social-critic sees them as part of universal tendency of capitalism to increase the number of consumers of products, as Horkheimer and Adorno state: “Sharp distinctions like those between A and B films, or between short stories published in magazines and different recipe segments, do not so much reflect real differences as assist in the classification, organization and identification of consumers. Something is provided for everyone so that no once can escape; differences are hammered home and propagated.” (43)

For Horkheimer and Adorno,  the constant innovation in the realm of cultural products doesn’t entail anything that’s radically “new”. For, behind this constant innovation, we find one self-perpetuating rhythm in which classification of the consumer becomes more detailed each time, giving way to new sub-branches of the same trunk.

The scope and complexity of the cultural industry’s ramification in society accounts for a social environment in which there is no longer space for radical critique of the capitalist lifestyle. For, as soon as an organized group of dissidents arises, the cultural industry comes up with a product that will serve the need of that specific group, thus incorporating them into its dynamic and neutralizing the threat. Thus, in order to remain critical, the social theorist must focus on the structural aspects that run through the mass production of symbolic products in general. He does this by focusing on how these products interplay with each other in order to get a sense of what is lurking behind.

Like Horkheimer and Adorno, Benjamin´s goal is to study the effects of the massification of cultural products. However, instead of studying how the cultural industry operates at a general level, Benjamin focuses on the particular production techniques behind various art forms. He then uses a comparative analysis and a relational-contextual methodology to draw larger historical and sociological conclusions from these seemingly unconnected observations.

Most of Benjamin’s arguments rest upon his premise that human perception is determined not only by natural conditions but also by historic ones. According to him, one could dig into the particular social conditions of a society by focusing on their aesthetic experience. This becomes part of his methodology.

Drawing from Marx, Benjamin states that the social sphere is likewise determined by the nature of the means of production. Thus, if a new forms of production arises, new forms of perception will arise that are particular to that point in time. Taking this in mind, Benjamin draws our attention to the fact that humanity has never been able to reproduce art in a truly massive scale till now. The industrialization of means of production has, according to him, its aesthetic counterpart in the mechanical reproduction of a work of art. This is why he says that, although “…a work of art has always been reproducible…mechanical reproduction of art, however, represents something new” (Benjamin 218).

This “new” capacity of the industrialized society introduces a whole new dynamicthat never before existed in the world of art: that of the search for “authenticity”.

Before industrialization, a work of art was a single, irreplaceable object that drew its life force out a specific social context and tradition. In this sense, art’s main function was that of being a ritual object in a cult.

With the development of new techniques of reproduction, however, the work of art was torn from its local context and produced massively in the form of a commodity. Art, therefore, no longer needed to be linked to a particular tradition: its ritualistic value receded, giving way to a purely commercial “exhibition” value that could be exchanged and monetized. Benjamin reinforces this view by stating that “for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art form its parasitical dependence on ritual..the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility” (224).

This turn from reproducing an original to making an art-piece in order for is repreduction is a complete paradigm shift in which comercial rationality infuses the development of the work of art. The main representatives of this new forms of art,  photography and film, both require technical mediation in order to exist,  thus, they are completely devoid of the ritualistic value created by tradition (there’s no “original” film). Instead, they are thought out as mass products, made explicitly for exhibition.

The ironic aspect of this movement is that, according to B, before this capacity for limitless reproduction came to being, the realm of “authenticity” in a work of art wasn’t problematic at all. Art was, at that time, too embedded in the local sphere for authenticity to be problematic. It is only after the emergence of the means of mechanical reproduction (and the ability of millions of copies to travel spatially) that authenticity becomes a problem. It becomes a rare –and, therefore– valuable trait, especially in the commercial sphere (the original Mona Lisa is worth thousands of times more than a copy in the street). This characteristic of art is what Benjamin calls the “aura” of a work of art, which, in a highly industrialized society, becomes a valuable asset as something “untouched” by the mechanical hand:  “the whole sphere of authenticity is outside technical- and of course, not only technical-reproductibility” (220).

It is this dynamic which accounts for the fetichization of the “original” work of art as if it was a rare material, its value being determined in opposition to how many copies of it are made. One could say that MacDougal falls into this trap of attaching value to the “authentic” art piece –as if it was something that was originally conceived apart from mass culture– when he states: “the only time Mass Culture is good is at the very beginning, before the “formula” has hardened…” (p73). McDougal values the original after for he sees the rest as copies, or “formulas”, that have been commodified.  He sees the original, therefore, as reminiscent of a “pure” past, without taking into account that this search for originality (a search for the beginning) is actually symptomatic of our mechanical society.

Following Benjamin, Horkheimer proves that this search for a pure style is an illusion created by mechanization itself. According to him, before the massification of culture, an artwork served as a testimony of the artists’ struggle to cope with the particular sufferings of his time. Style was not even a concept in itself, so embedded was the work in its local sphere that it didn’t “stand” out for a particular style. The cultural industry, however, with imitation as its norm, has made style the mold from which to create copies of the “original”. This is rational diversification at its fullest, in which every original individual piece is immediately inserted into the totalitarian mechanical process in order to control an ever-increasing mass of consumers:  “the culture industry has finally posited this imitation as absolute. Being nothing other than style, it divulges style’s secret: obedience to the social hierarchy” (48)

The framing of nature is also another resource for control that stems out of mechanization. By presenting nature as an opposition to society, the cultural industry provides a sort of anesthesia to the harshness of domination. However, according to Horkheimer and Adorno, the fact that this opposition exists (especially in film) is by itself is a proof that nature has already been subsumed to the culture industry’s realm:  “nature, in being presented by society’s control mechanism as the healing antithesis of society, is itslef absorbed into that incurable society and sold off.” (59)

Benjamin follows a similar train of thought when by focusing on the way in which film spectators approach nature on the screen. During the screening, the spectator might fall into the illusion that he is seeing a piece nature that remains wholly unaffected by machinery. In fact, it is quite the opposite: he is getting that mediated experience of nature precisely due to the existence of machinery (cameras, microphones, screens, projectors) that make this mediation possible in the first place. For the film viewer, however, the illusion of a direct relation to nature serves as a palliative, especially when his everyday environment is so completely industrialized that nature has become an alien experience to begin with.

In order to end the comparison of both texts we might say that even though Horkheimer, Adorno and Benjamin conceive the manipulation of the masses as a direct result of the standarization of cultural products, Horkheimer and Adorno’s view is much more grimmer than Benjamin, since it presupposes a totalitarian form of control with no room to breathe. Walter Benjamin only draws our attention, till the very end, towards how these new forms of standardization could be use to bring a whole society to war. However, his focus on the art form relieves him from a thesis of such a wide scope as Horkheimer and Adorno’s.

In both of these texts, however, the concept of the “alienated” consumer of culture remains a truism. This is, in a sense, understandable, for all these authors lived in an age where media technology had a passive consumer as a goal.  There is a passage where Horkheimer and Adorno express their concern for the invention of the radio, for, according to them,  it completely overrode the two-way interactivity of the phone. They were all sensing that that the tendency of the new media was towards an increasing verticality where who controls the means of production (who provides the content) is completely alienated from who consumes (in the other end).

With the dawning of the Internet, however, this distinction between consumer and producer seems somewhat hazzy. With the emergence of sites such as Youtube, one could in fact argue that the alienated consumer is no longer so, for,  in some sense, he is “empowered” to produce content and then watch the content that he wants to see, thus democratizing mass culture. However, is this actually the case? If we where to take Horkheimer and Adorno’s stance we could say that social networking platforms such as Facebook or user-based media platforms such as Youtube are actually allowing the cultural industry’s dynamic to thrive in ways that they would’ve never imagined. When we use these platforms we are segmented into rational categories that provide useful information to the companies without our consent for it. What’s even scarier is that we actually help these platforms produce the categories (by creating groups or expressing our tastes) that would help the “system” run even deeper into our lives. In this sense, we are not only passive consumers but active workers for the cultural industry, providing them with the knowledge that marketing specialist would’ve charged them for in the near past.

Following Benjamin’s train of though one could say that we are no longer experiencing a collective experience (like film).  The aesthetic experience of the computer screen is completely individualized, unlike that of film or radio. In our days , it is not only nature that is framed on the screen but also society itself. Our experience of society is mediated by the personal screen: we tie our emotions to technology in an even more personal way than before. Seen from the eyes of these critics, we are now much more vulnerable for social control.

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