Culture Industries Essay

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Culture industries is a term which performs both a descriptive and conceptual function. Since the term was coined by Horkheimer and Adorno in their 1947 essay ”The culture industry: enlightenment as mass deception,” both what the term designates and its theoretical implications have undergone a number of shifts.

In its original Frankfurt School usage the term was a polemical intervention into the mass society/ mass culture debate and a development of the Marxist theory of ideology. On the one hand, the term culture referred to the superstructure -the social realm of meaning construction and circulation where symbolic forms of all types were produced and distributed – and to the German Idealist tradition of culture (or art) as a realm of freedom from material constraint and interests. Its linkage to the term industry (in the singular), on the other hand, was intended polemically to indicate the destruction of the relative autonomy of the superstructure and of the emancipatory possibilities of art by the economic dynamics of the base. The culture industry thus primarily referred to the industrialization and commodification of the process of symbolic production and circulation in toto. For Horkheimer and Adorno, the ideological domination of capitalism, and thus the suppression of revolutionary possibilities, was effected not by the overt content of cultural production, but by the deep structure of the cultural forms and the alienated relations between both producer (artist) and cultural work and between producers and audiences that the system of capitalist industrial cultural production produced.

The use of the term industry referred (drawing on Marx) to the domination of the cultural realm by competitive and increasingly monopolistic corporations driven by the search for profit through the exchange of cultural commodities, thus necessarily alienating. It also referred (drawing on Weber) to a process of organizational rationalization, whereby cultural production and consumption were increasingly planned, thus suppressing cultural and political alternatives. Importantly, this approach placed the analysis of advertising and marketing at the center of a general process the purpose and effect of which was to hold the audience in thrall (the new opiate of the people). This rationalization took place not just within the process of production, but within the cultural form. Cultural products were standardized and produced ”pseudo-individuality” in consumption.


  • Adorno, T. & Horkheimer, M. (1997) Dialectic of Enlightenment. Verso, London.

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