Horkheimer and Adorno Questions for English 492: Modern Critical Theory, CSU Fullerton Fall 2015

HORKHEIMER AND ADORNO QUESTIONS FOR ENGLISH 492 THEORY, CSU FULLERTON

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HORKHEIMER AND ADORNO, DIALECTIC OF ENLIGHTENMENT

Assigned: Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception," from Dialectic of Enlightenment (1110-27). Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 2nd edition.

"The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception"

1. On pages 1110-13 of "The Culture Industry . . .," Horkheimer and Adorno address how the modern, post-WWII entertainment industry relates to the alienated western societies it supposedly serves. How, according to the authors, does the technology involved in radio and film (their prime examples) replicate the passivity and uniformity of modern life under capitalism? Further, what happens to the old concern for quality and taste in that environment of production and consumption?

2. On pages 1113-14 of "The Culture Industry . . .," Horkheimer and Adorno bring up what we might call a twist on the "reality effect" inherent in modern cinema; namely, the way it pulls us directly into its world without any need for dramatic or critical distance. How, according to them, does a 1940s "sound film" (up to 1927, films were silent) end up seeming more real than reality itself, and why is that a problem?

3. On pages 1115-16 of "The Culture Industry . . .," Horkheimer and Adorno deal with the issue of style, which we know is important in the arts. How do they differentiate the role of style in older or more genuine forms of art from its significance in modern mass entertainment productions like film? They aren't suggesting that such art forms were free of ideology, but nonetheless they favor the approach to style that prevailed in those forms. Why so?

4. On pages 1116-17 of "The Culture Industry . . .," Horkheimer and Adorno admit that "Demand has not yet been replaced by simple obedience" (1116, line 12), but they go on to discuss how the experience of modern entertainment served up by the culture industry nevertheless amounts to nothing more than "the prolongation of work" (1116 middle). How can that be the case -- how do they justify their claim?

5. On pages 1117-19 of "The Culture Industry . . .," Horkheimer and Adorno turn to the way the culture industry's productions handles the representation of desire. How do they distinguish contemporary entertainment in this regard from more genuine art forms? How, for example, can what the culture industry produces be simultaneously "pornographic and prudish"? (1118, line 6). Further, how has the quality and purpose of laughter changed in modern entertainment -- what purpose did it formerly serve, and what is its purpose now? What broader point about "desire" and "needs" does this analysis of laughter's role in modern art help Horkheimer and Adorno to make?

6. On pages 1119-21 of "The Culture Industry . . .," Horkheimer and Adorno ponder the role of the film star under the aegis of the culture industry. According to them, how are stars discovered and promoted to the heights they occupy -- what disturbing principle determines who gets to be a movie star? How does the film-going audience relate to them, and what do the authors have to say about that kind of relationship or process of identification? Finally, how does the culture industry really construe the ordinary individuals who pay their money to watch a film or be entertained in some similar way?

7. On pages 1121-24 of "The Culture Industry . . .," Horkheimer and Adorno consider what happens to the concept of tragedy at the hands of the culture industry. How do they articulate the purpose of ancient tragedy, and what change has that purpose undergone in modern times? What does the status of the individual have to do with this alteration, or, as they call it, "liquidation" (1123 bottom) of tragedy?

8. On pages 1124-27 of "The Culture Industry . . .," Horkheimer and Adorno transition smoothly from their discussion of the concept of the individual to the Marx-inspired concept of the commodity. As they say forthrightly, art has always, at least to some extent, been a saleable item, even a commodity (something useful produced specifically to be sold). But what has changed in the current post-WWII environment with regard to art as a commodity? Further, how do the authors bring on board Marx's categories "use value" and "exchange value" to help explain the change they indicate and articulate its most disturbing implications?

9. General question, not for a presentation unless folded into a relevant question above. Do you think Horkheimer and Adorno's argument is somewhat overblown, even if it's often insightful about the way modern capitalism turns out cookie-cutter products in place of great art? What's your favorite television series or your favorite popular film or other artistic production that our two authors would undoubtedly call part of the onslaught of "the culture industry"? To what extent do you think your favorites evade the critique leveled by Horkheimer and Adorno, and why so?

10. General question, not for a presentation unless folded into a relevant question above. To what extent might we apply some of Horkheimer and Adorno's insights about the culture industry to today's arts and entertainment scene? Are things worse, or better? For example, consider how the pop/rock/rap music industry works today, with a very few stars being marketed intensely and making a huge percentage of the money generated by music as a whole. How do such musicians get chosen and become the mega-celebrities that they are? Does this process benefit or hurt the listening public? Alternately, consider what kinds of films generally end up getting produced, and what role considerations of quality play in this process -- are great films still being made? Which would be your picks for that exalted category, and why? Yet another alternative would be today's television scene: what about a series like the recently concluded Breaking Bad, which was both popular and critically acclaimed? What do you suppose Horkheimer and Adorno would say about our enjoyment of the deeds of our criminal pals Walter White, Jesse Pinkman, Gus Fring and others? Or what about some other series you happen to think is excellent?

11. General question, not for a presentation unless folded into a relevant question above. In light of the comments Horkheimer and Adorno make about how the culture industry treats erotic (and other) desire, what about the near ubiquity of free (or paid) internet-based pornography, stuff that mostly seems to dispense with "artsy" dimensions like plot and meaning? How has this particular industry developed over the past several decades to its current state, and what does that development say about public taste and the general state of culture in our time? "Porn" is obviously a big-money concern -- how is it related to what Horkheimer and Adorno call the culture industry?