The term ‘culture industry’ was coined by the Frankfurt School theorists Horkheimer and Adorno in The Dialectic of Enlightenment (2002), to refer to the production of mass culture. This deliberately contradictory term (setting the culture against its apparent antithesis in industry) attempts to grasp something of the fate of culture in the highly instrumentally rational and bureaucratic society of late capitalism. The account of the culture industry may be seen, at root, as economic, and as such an integral part of the reinterpretation of dialectical materialism that is a central theme of The Dialectic of Enlightenment. The culture industry, embracing advertising as much as radio and cinema, serves to transform use value (the utility that consumers derive from a commodity) into something that is produced by the capitalist system. It may be suggested that the combination of advertising and the mass media promotes less particular products, and more a capitalist lifestyle. This account of the absorption of use value into production goes
hand in hand with Adorno’s analysis of the fate of the relationship between the forces of production and the relations of production in twentieth-century capitalism. The independence of use value in nineteenth-century capitalism gave the human subject genuine autonomy and thus potential for resistance (thereby destabilising capitalism). This autonomy is now increasingly lost. Similarly, administrative techniques, that developed as part of the forces of production (to increase the efﬁciency of industry), now become
fundamental to the relations of production (so that market exchange and property ownership are subordinated to bureaucratic organisation, and the employed and the unemployed alike become claimants for welfare payments). The contradiction between the forces and relations of production, that for Marx would bring about the fall of capitalism, is removed in this totally administered society. The account of the culture industry has frequently been trivialised
by its critics (not least those within cultural studies). Horkheimer and Adorno do not, for example, obviously assume that human subjects are passive victims of the culture industry, and nor is the culture industry an instrument of class rule. The total administration of contemporary capitalism embraces and constrains everyone, so that although the property-owning bourgeoisie may continue to beneﬁt materially from the system, they are as powerless before it as the nonproperty-owning classes. Yet these powerless subjects continue to struggle with the system, and to survive within it. Horkheimer and Adorno hint that consumption of culture industry products is diverse. The radio ham, for example, attempts to retain some autonomy and individuality by building and operating his or her own radio, rather than accepting what is given, ready-made. Others use the cover of culture industry institutions, such as the cinema, to admit the unhappiness that would paralyse them in the real world. Even within the culture industry, not all of its products are homogeneous. Orson Welles (and later Michelangelo Antonioni) demonstrate that cinema has the critical and self-reﬂective potential that Adorno attributes to all autonomous art; Bette Davis keeps alive the tradition of great acting; and, if the nuances of the text are to be believed, Warner Brothers’ cartoons do not share the simple minded capitulation to authority that is the hallmark of Disney.