Monday, August 8, 2011

False Clarity: An Overview of Adorno and Horkheimer's Dialectic of Enlightenment

In The Dialectics of the Enlightenment (1947), Adorno and Horkheimer undertake to expose the disillusion of the Enlightenment, what they refer to as the “self destruction of the Enlightenment.” They argue that “myth is already Enlightenment; and Enlightenment reverts to mythology.” In other words, one finds the blurring of myth into Enlightenment and vice versa. In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer and Adorno revisit and revise the concept of Enlightenment noting a continuation between Enlightenment and modernity. In fact what the Enlightenment stood for, such as progress through reason, has turned into a nightmare. While technology exposes the falsity of myths in the past, it also becomes a way of being.
Adorno and Horkheimer take a pessimistic view of the cultural industry, or what we have come to consider popular culture. In a chapter entitled “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” Adorno and Horkheimer respond to Walter Benjamin’s essay, “In the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” (1936) in which he paints a democratic picture of mass reproduction. His main arguement was that reproductive techniques the aura of ritual that once marked high art and photography. This is to say, that one was no longer enraptured while standing before a great work of art and that art was now accessible to the masses. However, Adorno and Horkheimer who believed reproductive techniques to be regressive They underscore the dissolution of creativity in such an industry in which art, literature or classical music (they have all become commodities) is reduced to commercial rules. In effect, the cultural industry attempts to create products that meet the wants of different consumers under the guise of “individualisation” (this is evident in numerous commercials today) deluding the consumer of a feeling of democracy. This leaves passive and unreflective receivers in the face of the production of cultural clichés and a perpetual reproduction of cultural forms.

What one feels is only a false sense of pleasure, what they authors label as a “phoney catharsis.” In turn, we’re left with notion of boredom, and a need to seek refuge in products as to fulfill this sense of boredom that only leaves us with deflected promises. This, of course, is a hazardous for intellectualism as the consumer becomes desensitised.
Finally, a gap is created between the self and the image portrayed by the media that creates a narcisstic appeal. One is duped into thinking he/she can achieve stardom, that what one sees on TV reflects reality. The cultural industry also creates social control (think facebook) where users (including myself) submit to it, usually unreflectively. Culture, in turn, is transformed into “barbaric meaninglessness.” Culture is now disseminated to us through images, sound effects (think of digital manipulations. The consumer grows more passive relying on names or titles to invoke experience. However, the authors claims that consumers become aware of the manipulations of the culture industry and it’s attempt to control society, and yet submit to it out of sheer powerlessness.
While I agree with A and H’s pessimism especially as it’s relevant in today’s society, one is struck by one-sidedness of their argument. Film is not necessarily mimetic; it can be emancipatory. The totalitarianism of mass media and the culture industry is not impenetrable.

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