The culture industry in the 21st century - Robert Kurz

The culture industry in the 21st century - Robert Kurz

In this revised and expanded version of a 2010 talk, Robert Kurz examines the continuing relevance, and the limitations, of the concept formulated by Adorno and Horkheimer in 1944—the “Culture Industry”—with discussions of “cultural pessimism”, the postmodern “cult of superficiality”, the role of technology in cultural change, the “abstract individual”, advertising, the Internet, “virtualization”, “interactive” media, exhibitionism and narcissistic self-promotion, the pseudo-“gift economy” of the Net, the impact of the current economic crisis on the culture industry, the “depletion of cultural reserves”, “estheticization”, and the impossibility of a separate “cultural revolution”.

The Culture Industry in the 21st Century – Robert Kurz

From the superficial critique of the bourgeois intellectual to the postmodern cult of superficiality◆An elitist cultural critique or an emancipatory one?◆Technological reductionism◆Advertising as cultural perception of the world and of oneself◆The prolongation of “abstract labor” and competition by other means◆The Internet as a new central means of the culture industry◆The virtualization of the world of life◆The interactive features of Web 2.0 and individualization◆The high price of a free culture◆The immanent limit of capital and the economic crisis of the culture industry◆The road to the depletion of cultural reserves◆The world is not just an accessory. Why a separate “cultural revolution” is impossible


Note: The following text is a transcribed and expanded version of a talk given on November 21, 2010 at the Alliance Française in Sao Paulo as one of a series of presentations devoted to the theme, “The Culture Industry in the 21st Century”.


There are texts that become old when they see the light of day. And there are texts that even after the passage of a hundred years are still fresh and alive. Dialectic of Enlightenment, by Adorno and Horkheimer, which contains the famous chapter on the Culture Industry, was first published in 1944. After the passage of so many years, is it still possible to speak of the relevance of the ideas set forth in that book?

For postmodern thought in the broadest sense of the term the answer is clear: no. This point of view, which has become predominant over the last few decades, generally claims that the concept of the culture industry is an expression of conservative “cultural pessimism”. What harm could there be in the industrialization of culture? Do we not find there the potentials for freedom and progress that could be utilized by all human beings? The cultural left and postmodern pop, in their media experience, not to say media snobbery, think they have advanced far beyond the “outmoded” ideas of critical theory. This attitude, however, merely demonstrates their own nature as mere phenomena of fashion. Indeed, the postmodern pop enterprise is already getting quite long in the tooth and its old protagonists are almost taking on a grandfatherly aura. Suddenly they, too, are in danger of becoming conservative in relation to their own métier as young cultural professionals. And it is in precisely this situation that it is of great interest to take a new look at the critical concept of the culture industry and the postmodern accusations levied against it.

From the superficial critique of the bourgeois intellectual to the postmodern cult of superficiality

First of all, it will be necessary to clarify what we mean by “cultural pessimism”. In the postmodern mode of expression, which prefers to proceed in every case by way of association, the mere catalog of denunciations already seems to speak for itself, without requiring any other foundation. Here, in a way, we see the insinuation of the pejorative reference to the position of the “cultural bourgeoisie” in derogatory argumentation, a kind of argumentation that is also associative and vague. In fact, the “cultural bourgeoisie”, which is distinguished with reference to a strict differentiation between the culture of entertainment and serious culture, is a very specifically German phenomenon. “Serious” or “culturally high-level” literature, music, etc., must not be tainted by an “entertainment” understood as fundamentally base, just as teaching and academic research must never be tainted by a “popular science” calibrated to the understanding of the common man.

If the classical cultural bourgeoisie, especially in Germany, turned up its nose at the superficiality of modern commercial culture, this never amounted to more than an empty gesture. Because this critique was itself superficial, once its concern was entirely restricted to external modes of appearance, while the social content and the political-economic nucleus of these productions had to be concealed and remained for the most part unexamined. This kind of “cultural pessimism” is a purely intra-capitalist type of reaction. The more insistent the abstract evocation of an indeterminate and mystified “inner essence” of the high culture of bourgeois enlightenment, the more the crusade of the cultural bourgeoisie against the culture industry demonstrates its irrelevance. Concealed behind this appearance is a grave state of affairs. Frivolous entertainment and popular simplifications are nothing but the other side of the character that is ideologically imbued with the proper knowledge of “serious” bourgeois science and art, and this is its characteristic trait. The fact that popular frivolities are not bought is only because they have already been bought by the State for the purpose of representation, which proves the common origin in which money is validated in the State and the State in money. It is truly a fortuitous revelation in this context that the industrialization of culture is not at all welcome to the culture critics of the cultural bourgeoisie, since with this development their own lives lie exposed to view. As for the rest of the miserable, and from the capitalist point of view, disposable, remnants of the bourgeois sycophants of high culture, the latter is completely shattered from one end to the other due to cultural superficiality, which is why their attitude can only be understood as true satire.

It is true that Adorno and Horkheimer cannot be summarily absolved of any patriotism of the milieu of the “cultural bourgeoisie”. This trait, however, is more often found in their mode of expression than in the critical content of their work. If the postmodern “critique of criticism” insists above all on the former, this once again says more about postmodern thought than it does about the object of criticism that it sidesteps. In fact, for postmodern culturalism the outward trappings, the accessories, the “styling” and the attitude are always more important than the point that is expressed through them. The dishonest and itself superficial critique of superficiality of the cultural bourgeoisie is transformed into the affirmative postmodern cult of superficiality. Immediate appearance must be emancipated from its essence. To which corresponds the positivist mode of thought that subjects the contents to an empty formal method and condemns them to indifference.

The explicit market of externality, which is merely an inversion of the conservative cultural critique and the nebulous invocation of “inner essence”, is naturally nothing new. It periodically returns, but has experienced its apotheosis, so to speak, in postmodernity, in late capitalism and in the capitalism of crisis. Heinrich Heine, in his critical essay on The Romantic School (1833), perceived a similar attitude and method in his characterization of the process of self-dissolution of Romanticism: “Among the imitators of Fouqué, as among the imitators of Walter Scott, this mannerism of portraying—not the inner nature of men and things, but merely the outward garb and appearance—was carried to still greater extremes. This shallow art and frivolous style is still in vogue in Germany, as well as in England and France. Even if the portrayal no longer attempts to glorify the age of chivalry, but is directed to our modern affairs, it is still the same mannerism, which grasps not the essential points of phenomena, but merely the superficial and the accidental. In lieu of a knowledge of mankind, our recent novelists evince a profound acquaintance with clothes; they perhaps justify themselves by the old saying: ‘The tailor makes the man’.”

It has already been said repeatedly, and not only by the conservative camp, that the reduction of objects to their phenomenology and finally to their outward appearance, as in a formalism that is both epistemic as well as esthetic, constitutes the indisputable sign of cultural and social exhaustion and of processes of dissolution; whether of a social formation, an era, a cultural pattern or a particular school of thought. With respect to our topic, we are not talking about merely the model at the end of the line of postmodernity, but rather the fact that this already constitutes, as such and in its entirety, the model at the end of the line of capitalist modernity from all points of view. The postmodern masquerade ball does not represent anything but a middle class festival in time of plague, one that is not even particularly frivolous, but rather boring. And, moreover, a metaphor with which Roswitha Scholz characterizes the historical carnival of the postmodernity of the 1990s as a futile flight to the crystal palace of casino capitalism is an apt portrayal. And even today not much has changed with respect to the ideological consciousness of the postmodern social character despite violent outbreaks of crisis. The more it invokes “creativity”, the more uninterrupted is the emergence of accidental and external appearances. It is not the creation of anything new, emotionally expressed against the determination of essence, but the flight from the negative and completely miserable essence of the reality of its own existence.

The hypostasis of the cultural and methodological external layer is what accounts for precisely the main cause of the lack of differentiation, that is, the general social form that is superimposed as substantial content, to which the culture industry is always bound as well. What is “bourgeois” in the sense properly applicable to the dominant cultural sphere, is not a conservative gesture of the “culture” of the fraternity of philologists, but rather the commodity character of its products, which integrates them into the realm of “abstract labor” and thus degrades culture itself into an abstract element in the metamorphosis of capital, like designer furniture or designer food. The protagonists can in such cases be equally unconcerned with whether it is entertainment or serious.

Ironically, the classical cultural bourgeoisie and its decadent contemporary representatives are no less susceptible to self-deception than the postmodernists who surf the media for the negative essence of capitalist culture. Both merely reflect different stages of capitalist development of the same affirmative mode. Cultural pessimism is conservative and the positive postmodern formation of the culture industry is only pseudo-“progressive” in the same capitalist continuum that is not transcended in any domain. This is why the difference is only a matter of packaging or the hairstyles, while their identical categorical determination remains concealed and is not the target of their common scorn. When they laugh at others, they are always only laughing at themselves.

An elitist cultural critique or an emancipatory one?

Conservative cultural pessimism is elitist right down to its very core and only from this point of view is it pseudo-critical of intellectual mass production. Culture is supposed to be dying in the West because it is no longer reserved for the upper, “cultured” classes, but has instead taken on the character of mass culture. The critique of the frivolity, superficiality and vulgarity of the culture industry thus leads us right back to the fact that it is produced for the great majority, including the lower social layers considered to be, “by their nature”, intellectually inferior. They have to be willingly conceded a kind of naïve entertainment, so they can have their inoffensive fun and avoid harmful thoughts, so that elitist high culture can preserve its exclusive character and will thus remain among us.

On the other hand, conservative cultural pessimism senses that the culture industry poses a threat to level claims, break down social borders and expose as nonsense the aura of cultural zeal of the old bourgeoisie, now that the latter has largely lost its historical basis, which now survives only as an ideology. It is not by chance that Adorno and Horkheimer make fun of the “guardians of culture” who “celebrate the organic pre-capitalist past”, a past that was overwhelmingly patriarchal. Thus, industrial commercialized mass culture is subjected to conservative condemnation not because it is “Enlightenment as Mass Deception” (which is the subtitle of the chapter on the Culture Industry), but because it reveals the reactionary falsehood of the bucolic and derivative self-anointing with the classics on the part of the consciousness of the acting professor who takes pleasure in refreshing his own social stupidity in the canonized “noble simplicity and silent grandeur” (Winckelmann) of unreal cultural legacies.

Conversely, the postmodern pop prophets rejoice precisely in this same industrial mass culture as if it were in and of itself of emancipatory value. Mass culture is therefore always good, regardless of its content or its form, and regardless of whether it is an autonomous culture of the masses themselves or a culture that obeys the heteronymous and perfectly independent imperatives directed at the damaged consciousness of the masses. An attitude that is more or less of the same kind is the one that causes the ideology of the left wing movements (which is in other respects, as well, completely characterized by postmodern terminology) to view any mass movement as already being in itself essentially “authentic” regardless of its aims. The culture industry, independently of its form as commodity and as capital, is considered to be universally accessible to and an affirmation of the masses, and as a moment of liberation in capitalism, although this is not closely examined. This attitude, however, merely expresses some people’s brutal self-interest in commercialization, specifically in their roles as secondary academic planners and publicists. That is the real reason why they like to claim that the defining quality of critical theory is elitist cultural pessimism.

However, the negative concept of the culture industry in Adorno and Horkheimer implies exactly the contrary: it is not universal accessibility that is the target of critique, but the fact that the culture industry, as they say, “constitute[s] the most sensitive instrument of social control”. It is therefore the structurally alienated and objectively authoritarian content of capitalist mass culture rather than its accessibility to those outside of elite groups that is at issue here. This content, according to Adorno and Horkheimer, is “aesthetic barbarity”, because “the morality of mass culture is the cheap form of yesterday’s children’s books” for the purpose of making increasingly more infantilized individuals available for social degradation.

The antithesis of the culture industry would be a culture for all that is opposed to the coercion of the mere repetition and internalization of the dominant principles; therefore, neither a culture for the few, which they would preserve as a mere ornament for those principles, nor a democratic culture of compensatory occupational therapy, which is nothing more than a hybrid mechanism of control. It is precisely this essential character of the culture industry in the form of the commodity that the postmodern pop ideologues do not want to acknowledge, and intoxicate themselves in its opposite. Critique, if it ever arises, is reduced to a mere internal differentiation that arbitrarily confers a pseudo-emancipatory cult status to certain mass tendencies of the culture industry, as if the purchase and consumption of certain products could counteract social control in a purely immanent way, while other products are rejected for equally superficial reasons.

Technological reductionism

Another aspect of the genuinely conservative critique consists in its technological reductionism, which corresponds to the elitist attitude of the cultural bourgeoisie. Culture is also condemned to decline supposedly because its mass production simultaneously requires technological mechanization. It is precisely against this interpretation that Adorno and Horkheimer protest at the beginning of the chapter on the Culture Industry. They say: “Interested parties explain the culture industry in technological terms. It is alleged that because millions participate in it, certain reproduction processes are necessary that inevitably require identical needs in innumerable places to be satisfied with identical goods…. This is the result not of a law of movement in technology as such but of its function in today’s economy.”

For these two authors, this function is two-pronged: social control is effective as a collateral effect precisely because culture was transformed into an immediate object of production purely for profit. Or, expressed in terms of social philosophy, in the words of Adorno and Horkheimer: “Everything has value only in so far as it can be exchanged, not in so far as it is something in itself.” Under the totalitarianism of the economy this is just as valid even for the most simple object of material use as it is for the capitalized goods of cultural production. Just as a coat is socially not a coat and milk is not milk, but both appear equally as the objectivization of “abstract labor” and therefore as an abstract quantity of price, so, too, the sensory and esthetic quality of musical or literary and theoretical cultural goods is degraded by its abstract and, in a certain way, dead form of value, because this only confers on the product the access to “validity” and to participation in the mass of the social substance of value, while it is indifferent to the specific content. In any case one may note the formulation of Adorno and Horkheimer that this process is not a mere “exchange”. For circulation only represents the sphere of “realization” of “abstract wealth” as an end-in-itself (Marx), that is, the return of the substance of value represented in the body of the commodities to the form of money that is “proper” for them.

It is first of all from this fetishistic economic objectivity, with its permanent change of internal form to which the real object remains external, that mechanical standardization and the leveling of contents is derived, rather than from a purely technological exigency. The conservative cultural critique insists on the technological process of mass production precisely because it wants to keep the negative essence of the social form of the commodity out of the line of fire. Postmodernism is an intensified version of this same ignorance, since it does not merely argue against the critique of the social determination of the form, but straightforwardly declares that this is epistemologically and logically impossible. The opposition to the conservatives’ rhetoric of decline therefore consists once again in a mere reversal of their technological reductionism. In this view it is precisely technology as such that is responsible for beneficial effects regardless of its capitalist form (or these benefits are even gently rendered possible by it alone). The inverted postmodern belief in cultural liberation by way of technology also succumbs to the same misunderstanding. Conservative cultural pessimism and postmodern cultural optimism constitute in their technological limitations the two sides of the same coin. Both equally conceal the domination of capitalist “abstract wealth” over the contents and the forms of expression of cultural goods.

In any event, the technology of the culture industry is immune to neither the fetishistic economic form of capital nor to the function of social control that is associated that form. Just like the technical means of production in the other capitalist industries, it is by no means neutral in its form of concrete manifestation. One must not confuse cause and effect, however. It is the form and the structure of technology that obey the imperatives of the social relation and not vice-versa. The tools are genetically infused with the social form. The development of the productive forces in capitalism is always simultaneously a development of destructive forces. This is valid not only in the superficial and particular sense, for example, to characterize the industrialization of war, with the atomic bomb as the culminating point of technology and the ultima ratio of democratic progress. For the assembly line itself does not just represent a pure and neutral increase of productivity, but to the contrary, one feature of its concrete determination is the misery of abstract labor to which the producers are subjected. The culture industry is no exception to this identity between abstract productivity and destruction.

The destructive moment of the economic fetishistic end-in-itself also affects, molds and distorts cultural contents in multiple ways, beyond the corresponding orientation of production technologies. As in the case of the commodities necessary for daily existence, here, too, it is not a matter of the content of the need, but of its adaptation to the content of valorization. The capitalist inversion of means and ends, of concrete and abstract, is presented in a specific way in the production of cultural goods. Indeed, the latter, too, can be understood as the inversion of production technology and content or of technical innovation and content: it is not a (new) content that procures for itself an adequate technology, but to the contrary, all contents are adapted to a profitable technology and “creativity” is reduced precisely to that. Nor does this relation derive from any independent relation between technology and content, but from the fact that both are forced onto the Procrustean Bed of the imperative of value. Adorno and Horkheimer write with respect to this question: “The development of the culture industry has led to the predominance of the effect…. and the technical detail over the work itself – which once expressed an idea, but was liquidated together with the idea.”

In this way the relation between content and mode of representation was inverted. In the culture industry the latter appears to have become autonomous, as we are soon told: “That its characteristic innovations are never anything more than improvements of mass reproduction is not external to the system. It is with good reason that the interest of innumerable consumers is directed to the technique, and not to the contents – which are stubbornly repeated, outworn, and by now half-discredited.” Just as in production, what matters is only the increase of sales, so, too, consequently, in consumption what matters is only the technical function of a trinket that is equally indifferent to its content. If the “technical details”, however, no longer express the idea of the content, and, to the contrary, these details rule over the content and “liquidate” the idea, this irresistible tendency is itself in turn due to the general form of the commodity both in the means of production as well as the products. This formulation correctly points to the fact that the technology of mere effects does not exist by accident, but is the expression of that economic totalitarianism that our postmodern times have only made much worse in comparison with the middle part of the past century.

Advertising as cultural perception of the world and of oneself

The technological effect has its model in the ubiquitous advertising, in the esthetic of the commodities of the world market. The idea of content cannot possess any existence of its own; it is placed at the service of a thing that is external to it and for that reason it is also accidental, having become unreal in a formalist way and reduced to a mere effect. It is precisely this dimension of the esthetic of commodities to which Adorno and Horkheimer already called attention in 1944, in the final stage of the totalization of advertising design in the world of life: “Culture is a paradoxical commodity. So completely is it subject to the law of exchange that it is no longer exchanged; it is so blindly consumed in use that it can no longer be used. Therefore it amalgamates with advertising…. Advertising is its elixir of life…. its product … eventually coincides with publicity, which it needs because it cannot be enjoyed.”

We should note here, as I have already mentioned, the notorious reduction that takes place in Adorno and Horkheimer with regard to the so-called “exchange” that represents a truncation in the economy, because in the system of “abstract labor” that turns back upon itself one cannot speak of “exchange” in the proper sense of the word. Only a superficial account of the money form would depict it as an external “relation of exchange”, since it is an essential part of the autonomized end-in-itself of “abstract wealth” as the immanent self-relation of capital. Abstracting from this aspect, it is only against this background that the secondary autonomization of advertising becomes possible and ends up becoming a need that makes its mark on all of cultural production, as we may read in the chapter on the Culture Industry: “Advertising becomes art and nothing else, just as Goebbels—with foresight—combines them: l’art pour l’art, advertising for its own sake….” Thus, “a quick glance can now scarcely distinguish advertising from editorial picture and text”.

Artistic activity is just as bereft of freedom now as it was in the Christian Middle Ages, because just as then all representations had to always repeat the same religious constitution, now they are always transformed into the same advertising, precisely in their apparent fortuitous “multiplicity” and contingency, advertising that is itself recommended and praised in the image of cars, energy drinks, cell phones or baseball caps. To represent the world in the autonomized form of advertising means only to make it perceptible in the form of the autonomized commodity. This also affects self-perception and the social relations of individuals. Even with intimacy, which no longer exists, there is a mediated distance that has as a presupposition a complete absence of distance in relation to social imperatives. There is no longer any space of social tranquility that is not supercharged with the demands of domination. The model of identity that currently prevails always has to be subjected everywhere to the verdict of the “opinion polls” in the eternal carnival of subjectivity like a brand of beer or perfume. The two-legged human capital needs the products of the culture industry in the broadest sense not so much for use, but more as a subject of the stubborn “self-representation” in which the bearers of the costume are secretly convinced of their lack of value. The actors themselves cannot abandon their roles even when they are alone. The secondary character mask of the culture industry of the self-marketing independent contractor is soaked into his skin.

One gets the almost tedious impression that in this aspect as well one can discern the polar complementarity of conservative cultural pessimism and the postmodern cultural optimism that believes in progress. Once again the spokespersons of bourgeois cultural reflection ridicule advertising only because they want to build an ideological wall against the infiltration of vulgar economics into the elitist sphere of art. They condemn the effect without a content only in order to hinder the commercialization of what are allegedly “our most sacred possessions” while at the same time renouncing any attempt to challenge capitalism. Thus, vulgar advertising must not be recognized as the sneering face in the mirror mocking refined bourgeois art. In this aspect as well as all the others the social form of the fetishist relation devours the content. And what still remains of official art for higher circles, which is now elitist only because of its money price, is the common self-marketing on the part of salon artists who are most “avant-garde” when they shamefully behold their paintings on the wall while texts are cast into the darkness.

And once again postmodernism only turns to an apparent critique of cultural pessimism and proclaims advertising to be the liberation of art from the schoolmaster-type classicism of the museum. The self-repressive character of the monads of self-representation nourished on the totalitarian complex of the culture industry is just as concealed here as it is in the case of its conservative counterpart. The distance so hypocritically assumed by the bourgeois cultural consciousness with regard to the literal community of universal advertising and self-promotion is in this case, however, transformed into the postmodern motto, “being here is everything”. Not only their formal similarity, but also the intimate link between populist propaganda and advertising must either not be mentioned at all or, if it is mentioned, it is considered to be something that is susceptible to positive use. Postmodernism is therefore in agreement with Goebbels without wanting to know this. Each person pleases himself with effects without content in order to thus renew his own character mask and this renders any kind of criticism pointless from the start. The postmodern lifestyle consciousness is now only a kind of ideal collective baseball cap that promotes itself.

The prolongation of “abstract labor” and competition by other means

The postmodern apologetics for the predominance of the effect and of the technical detail over the content frequently claim that these trends are associated with a cultural well-being that guarantees “guiltless pleasure”. What could be bad about that? Once all criteria of content and criticism are declared to be impossible, they still want to proceed as if the commodities of the culture industry fell from the sky like Manna from heaven, or flew right into everyone’s mouths like the roast squabs of the Land of Cockaigne. The bourgeois cultural conservative, on the other hand, to the extent that such a category still exists and is not classified as extinct, sees the culture industry as vulgar cultural trafficking and considers that the consumption of its products is only effortlessly achieved because it is trash, absolutely without any pretensions to being anything, that poisons the mind and the soul. Against this trash the cultural conservatives hail the “works of elevated intention” that have been produced, the only works that must be valid for the “real artists” as well as for the “real connoisseurs of art”, a small but refined community of a priceless “knowledge”.

In this aspect, as well, the postmodernist cultural optimists and the conservative cultural pessimists are quite similar to one another: both acknowledge the ease and the effortless pleasure of consumption of the culture industry; it is just that this allegedly convenient pleasure is evaluated in opposite ways. Adorno and Horkheimer approach the problem from a completely different angle. In fact, due to their origins, they are not immune to the self-congratulatory attitude that simply relies more on canonization and restriction in the sense of bourgeois high culture than in the primacy of the content. However, regardless of this socio-historical conditioning, they did not fail to see the context of inner mediation between the culture industry and the pressure to increase efficiency in capitalist labor, between “abstract labor” and the supposedly guilt-free “enjoyment of free time”. In their case it is not simply a matter of a critique of a simple compensatory effect, as if one thing was external to the other.

In reality, the dialectic of totally capitalized pop consumption consists precisely in the fact that social coercion and freedom of choice of object, the exhausting ordeal of the Protestant work ethic and complacent exhibitionism, are not only corresponding phenomena, but one transforms into the other and manifests itself in the other. The heavy labor of poverty is not only the indispensable assumption, which is preferably kept under wraps, but always the conscious assumption for buying power. Adorno and Horkheimer do not invoke the danger that an all-too-easy access to pleasure poses for labor power, which nonetheless must be demanded, but show that this convenient comfort is in itself illusory. What is given as such cannot be separated from its contrary in the process of making money, as they make clear: “Amusement under late capitalism is the prolongation of work. It is sought after as an escape from the mechanised work process, and to recruit strength in order to be able to cope with it again. But at the same time mechanisation has such power over a man’s leisure and happiness, and so profoundly determines the manufacture of amusement goods, that his experiences are inevitably after-images of the work process itself.”

Once more, however, it is not the requirements of the technology of reproduction in themselves that bring about this fatal inversion, but the fetishistic totalitarianism of the general form of the commodity that has a tendency to transform all expressions of life into “abstract labor” or at least something that is equivalent to it; even if it is not connected to any process of real valorization. There must not be any real relaxation in the false concentration and fixation in the labor of the subject. Even laissez-faire has to be organized instrumentally and professionalized so that it can be transformed into its exact opposite. This is what the following passage from the chapter, “The Culture Industry”, one of the most frequently quoted passages in the book, exposes: “Fun is a medicinal bath. The pleasure industry never fails to prescribe it.”

Not only are the compulsion to work and the psychosis of constant activity reproduced in the consumption of the commodities of the culture industry, but so is the objective monadology of the sphere of capitalist circulation, or, as Adorno and Horkheimer observe, “the harshness of competitive society”. Fun also becomes a medicinal bath because its “pleasure” is neither innocent nor comfortable, nor is it even intelligent, but, despite all the brotherhood of the festivals and parties, it becomes an inspection in the design of bodies, of clothing, and of personalities, in which each simulacrum can only have fun at the expense of all the others and has to permanently convince himself that he is taking pleasure in this. Even the obligatorily cheerful mask of free time, as we read in the summary of the chapter on the Culture Industry, “attests to the attempt to turn oneself into an efficient machine….” Nowhere is this more clearly displayed than in the postmodern high-tech and advertising micro-businesses. “Abstract labor” and competition only become a game and a party because both the game and the party have so often been transformed into “abstract labor” and competition.

This indicates that the culture industry is also an organization with a sexual connotation. Women and men occupy different places in this organization despite all cultural changes, precisely because the culture industry involves models, simulations and forms of reproduction of “abstract labor”. Because the subject form is thus determined so as to include universal competition, it has a structurally masculine connotation, as Roswitha Scholz shows in her theory of gender dissociation that, for the first time ever, analyzes gender relations at the conceptual level of the fundamental capitalist categories. Even though women are being increasingly more thoroughly integrated into the sphere of “abstract labor” and the capitalist public sphere, they are still less valued there because they are still burdened with the responsibilities for the oikos, in the broadest sense of the term, which are dissociated from the sphere of “abstract labor” insofar as they cannot be expressed in money terms (housework, raising children and taking care of the elderly, etc.). This capitalist relation between the sexes, which is profoundly anchored in the collective unconscious, affects all social domains. And it is thus all the more to be expected that reproduction should take place in the “medicinal bath” of the frantic enterprise of entertainment. Women, however, compete in that domain with other bodies that are different from the apparently self-determined sexual bodies that reveal them to be “women” in all individualized autonomies. In their “capacity for multi-tasking”, as well, in which they must be equally responsible for family and for career, they lose their specific sexual accentuation—even in a modified form—and their “existence as mother” and all the clutter that follows in its wake. This also has an impact on their self-image that is co-fabricated by the culture industry; so they are not really taken seriously as subjects of fun, either.

The Internet as new central means of the culture industry

And now it is time to address the Internet as a more advanced complex of the culture industry. The “Net” undoubtedly constitutes the perfect postmodern technology, and is not by chance compared with the invention of the printing press at the dawn of modernity, seeing as it has had equally revolutionary effects. However, just as the printing of books and its social consequences cannot be understood on the basis of these books themselves but only in the context of the proto-capitalist process of historical constitution, the Internet cannot be declared to be an independent technological establishment with the potential for social change, but only a socio-technological moment in the historic limits of capitalism.

The complementary opposition we outlined above, between bourgeois cultural pessimism and postmodern cultural optimism, has almost no reason to exist in this hyper-mediated complex; and in fact above all because the high conservative culture of the classical bourgeoisie, with its ancient philology, will soon surrender unconditionally. The corresponding cultural bourgeoisie in the specifically German context was on the one hand always a fantasy bourgeoisie, a diffuse and multifaceted social group, whose members claimed to consider themselves “better” precisely in the cultural aspect. This demarcation refers not only to their higher (academic) qualifications, but to a cultural canon rooted in the ancient languages, classical philosophy and German idealist poetry. The claim to this legacy associated with a “higher culture” is made far beyond the circles of the few specialists in these topics; it embraces the entire academic sphere and also certainly the secondary school teachers and those who have graduated from high school. This is why this demarcation was not just made with respect to the “ignorant masses”, but with respect to the elites of the other capitalist countries. And it was certainly a fantasy bourgeoisie, with regard to the mastery of the cultural content of this canon, which for the majority of this category never went beyond trivialities and coexisted perfectly well with the fumes of the beer hall and brutality in social relations.

This “cultured barbarism” of the German academic bourgeoisie was extinguished during the era of the world wars and there is no reason to shed tears over this loss. In the democracy of the world market after 1945 the classical cultural canon disappeared even more rapidly, increasingly giving way to the mere consciousness of being a functional elite. All that was left of it was a dim reflection of the claim to what remained, that was never really fulfilled, and a merely illusory residue of the false consciousness of being “better”. In the current ideology of the middle class this impulse has been reduced more and more to the attempt to compartmentalize this qualification at the secondary level of their own offspring as opposed to the new lower classes and the immigrants, that is, to sabotage any possibility of going beyond the extremely anachronistic three-level school system of the Federal Republic of Germany.

As for the contents, the illusory empire of the cultural bourgeoisie definitively disappeared with the third industrial revolution. The elitist presumption has long since ceased to be the ability to recite Homer in the original Greek, but is instead a mixture of political economy and “multi-media expertise” which constitutes the ideal profile for the postmodern individual of the pure type as a kind of “recipe for success”; even if only in the new fantasy of its respective milieus. This baseless elite consciousness has been, with a great deal of suffering, glued like a mask onto one’s face; it has become vulgarly part of the capitalist economy and ordinarily technological like the whole democratic organization. Even Latinists, science writers and professors of philosophy seem like greenhorns compared to the dynamic and wacky young entrepreneurs, and bow in admiration before thirteen-year-old screwballs who like to consider themselves to be virtuosos with the mouse. The new elite is notoriously lacking in any intellectual pretensions and is equipped for competition on the market in such a reductive a manner that the universities “of excellence” can be viewed with objective irony. The apotheosis of the complex of the culture industry consists in the fact that the elites of all sectors are transformed into mere comic book figures that take extraordinary delight in their condition because they no longer have any other standards against which they can be compared.

In 1945, Adorno and Horkheimer could not even have imagined the digital technological revolution, or its application to capitalist development. They were, however, perfectly situated to predict the general tendency for media integration with respect to the culture industry, just as Marx did for the application of science to capitalist industry. “Television”, they wrote, “aims at a synthesis of radio and film”, thus “derisively fulfilling the Wagnerian dream of the Gesamtkunstwerk—the fusion of all the arts in one work”. Because “the alliance of word, image, and music”, once no cultural laws remain, is only “the triumph of invested capital”.

It is easy to see that the Internet is on the verge of consummating the synthesis of the culture industry on an even higher scale. The various technologies of printing, telegraph, telephone, radio, cinema and television are based on a single global complex. This does not result, however, from another technological revolution as such, but it is the logic (which genetically penetrates the entire system) of “abstract labor”, of the autonomized form of value and the concomitant social control that rule them that constitutes the matrix and simultaneously the movens of this media integration. The synthetic force does not result from any conscious reflection and not even from the autonomous activities of individuals, but emanates to the contrary from the heteronymous determination of the social form. That is why all the contradictions and defects that Adorno and Horkheimer detected so precociously in the culture industry are condensed and exacerbated in the Internet as a new central means. The Internet is in fact only the envisioned derisive fulfillment “of the Wagnerian dream of the Gesamtkunstwerk—the fusion of all the arts in one work” in a profound sense. This can be confirmed in certain essential aspects.

The virtualization of the world of life

From its very beginnings, what was inherent to the culture industry was the tendency to invert the relation between object and representation, between sign and signified, or else to erase the difference between them. This was merely the rise of the generalized “upside-down world” of the capital relation in the specific dimension of the culture industry. Horkheimer and Adorno see this tendency of inversion in the recently introduced medium of color cinema: “The whole world is made to pass through the filter of the culture industry. The old experience of the movie-goer, who sees the world outside as an extension of the film he has just left (because the latter is intent upon reproducing the world of everyday perceptions), is now the producer’s guideline. The more intensely and flawlessly his techniques duplicate empirical objects, the easier it is today for the illusion to prevail that the outside world is the straightforward continuation of that presented on the screen.”

This is not the result of a deliberate ploy, in the sense of a deliberate “manipulation” of consciousness, for example (as seems to be occasionally suggested in later works by Adorno and Horkheimer), but, to the contrary, the manipulative moment resides in the objective logic of the relations and in their expression in the culture industry: “Real life is becoming indistinguishable from the movies.” This formulation in the chapter on the Culture Industry points to a “duty” in the sense of the “automatic subject” (Marx) of the valorization of capital. To a certain extent, individuals manipulate themselves precisely because they are “subjects” of the capitalist imperative. Just as the inversion is consummated because concrete production is only socially “valid” as a form of manifestation of “abstract labor”, and just as the commodity form is duplicated in the form of money and just as “concrete wealth” can only be the form of representation and manifestation of “abstract wealth”; so, too, is the cultural-symbolic representation of the world and of existence itself inverted and duplicated. The autonomization of the technical effect without a content outlined above goes even further and is crystallized in a pseudo-world, once the concrete objects as such as well as the individuals related with them become mere forms of manifestation of their own mode of representation and the latter develops a kind of apparent life.

That which Marx called “objective forms of existence”, that is, real life in capitalism that bears the stigmata of the imperatives of valorization and self-valorization, is superimposed upon by a second virtual reality: a staging and mediated self-staging. This concept is disseminated as semi-critical or directly affirmative. It is not by chance that terms that use the world of the theater as metaphors in all domains of life are gaining currency. Individuals increasingly view themselves as their own actors in their own theater. This virtual pseudo-life not only has a compensatory function with respect to the poverty of real social relations, but is also, in terms of imagination and ideology, promoted to the level of the “real” reality, compared to which real material and social existence appear to be mere annexes that are now almost unreal.

The words of Adorno and Horkheimer concerning the blurring of distinctions and even the media inversion of social existence and the semblance produced by the culture industry are prophetic because they already perceived in the cinema a tendency that goes far beyond this tendency. For most of the consumers of the culture industry of that time, color movies were only recognizable as the product of the dream factories and the movie theater was identified with a place that a person did not actually live in, but occasionally entered in order to leave the everyday world behind. The Internet, on the other hand, not in general but for a large and constantly increasing number of people, to different degrees, is becoming a kind of spiritual and cultural home that is, inversely, only occasionally abandoned for a visit to social and material reality. This inversion between media appearance and reality is attaining, with the enhancement of technological development and the synthesis of the electronic devices, at least a new dimension.

We must not, of course, fall into the error of taking this cliché too seriously. Even disregarding the fact that most of humanity does not have access, or has only very limited access, to the Internet, and that with expansion of the Internet the limits of saturation are being revealed due to a lack of purchasing power and/or infrastructures, so, too, for many habitual users the difference between the real world and the virtual world has by no means evaporated. Which, by the way, is not even possible, as abstract value can by no means make the need for material useful goods disappear in their manner of representation in the form of money. If one cannot eat money, downloads are even less edible.

Nor does the hypostasis of virtuality constitute a simple generation gap, as we are so often told. The alleged “Net generation” of “digital natives” is more of a legend created by interested opinion-makers. In reality, there is no age group that has been standardized in a specifically digital socialization. We must not confuse the perhaps more frequent consumption of electronic means of communication either with a greater competence in the field or with an unhindered movement of perception. Even among teenagers one may find more than a few individuals who have a problem getting along with a digitalized environment; these problems do not only affect older adults. And the superficial consumption of the toys of information technology produced by the culture industry cannot set in motion any kind of “sovereignty”, much less if it becomes addictive. In every generation there are a few people who possess an effective comprehensive digital competence; and it is not entirely certain what meaning this has in each case.

The supposedly easier adaptation of teens and tweens to the technological virtualization of the world of life is in part the mere illusion of professional specialists on youth, but it is also in part the self-illusion of this generation with regard to these interests, in its own false consciousness. Or it is also to some extent a self-illusion of their parents and grandparents with a residual bourgeois cultural socialization who would like to attribute to their own children special future opportunities, as human capital that knows how to use a mouse. The so often invoked “media Darwinism” can easily be disregarded. The youthful media specialists of today’s reduced process of socialization, who never read books, are the losers of tomorrow, even from the immanent point of view of capitalism.

The propagandists of the tendency to virtualization, which is in any event a real tendency, coincide neither with the teaching of technological skills, nor do they reflect on the insoluble contradictions that have arisen from this tendency or on the illusions with which they are associated. To the contrary, we are confronted by a certain part of the production of academic and media opinion that has achieved a hegemonic status because it confers an affirmative ideological expression on capitalist development at the turn of the 21st century. The pressure for virtualization, to the extent that it has become generalized in accordance with a tendency that is in every instance overwhelming, corresponds rather to a zealous adaptation to hegemonic ideology and thus to a condition in which needs themselves can no longer be distinguished from a routine conformism. In any case the flight towards a never-never land of digital simulation reflects the poverty of capitalist reality.

The disconnection of postmodern consciousness from the old bourgeois cultural canon by no means produces any new content, but transforms its own “empty form” into a content, thus consummating the objective illusion of capital that would like to emancipate “abstract wealth” from matter and from nature. It is part of the essence of the anti-essentialist postmodern ideology that the referential relation between representation and object, modus and content, or sign and signified, has to be erased. If culturalism propagates the autonomization of the system of signs and modi, it succumbs to the functional abstraction of buying and selling in the sphere of the bourgeois market that does not want to know anything about its fetishistic substance. The synthesis of the means of the culture industry by way of the Internet seems to furnish a technological basis for the illusory emancipation of signs. The gradual disappearance of the world under avalanches of data situates the real fetishistic appearance of the commodity on a different plane, as the universal field of mechanically produced games, in which not only objects but also people are duplicated and in their virtualization supply themselves with an apparent life that corresponds to their real nullity and lack of dignity. The virtual space is haunted by avatars in the form of the spirits of the living dead who in reality vegetate in the concentration camps of capital valorization and of the administration of labor.

The integrated virtualism of the culture industry penetrates every technology; but once again, the reason for this is not technology as such, but, to the contrary, it assumes this character by way of the character of the capitalist subject form, which is staggering about in a blind dynamic. For this reason as well, it is not by chance that the majority of the presences in the virtual playing field are male. In reality, men and women as individuals no longer fit into their socio-historical attributes, as has been demonstrated in the theory of gender dissociation, except to the extent that they, too, are unable to free themselves from the still intact, underlying social relation. The female-associated task of taking care of children, the elderly, the ill and the needy was already depicted in soap operas in the best cases in an idealized form; it is entirely impossible to stage it as “virtual reality” because in this arena no technical simulations are possible without immediately revealing their absurdity. The virtual space constitutes the secondary spiritual empire, duplicating “abstract labor” also in the sense of its historically unreal process of becoming; and the avatars that haunt us are above all the ghosts of modern patriarchal masculinity.

The interactive Web 2.0 and individualization

To the extent that the modern electronic mass media and the productions of the culture industry that are associated with them play a role in life they are also formally and technologically calibrated for the passivity of their public. Adorno and Horkheimer adamantly maintained that this as an essential structural hallmark of the culture industry: “The step from the telephone to the radio has clearly distinguished the roles. The former still allowed the subscriber to play the role of subject, and was liberal. The latter is democratic: it turns all participants into listeners and authoritatively subjects them to broadcast programs which are all exactly the same. No machinery of rejoinder has been devised, and private broadcasters are denied any freedom.”

The postmodern apology for the “spectacle” (Debord) of the culture industry judged that it could successfully intervene on this terrain to demonstrate the antiquated character of the cultural pessimism of critical theory. Because if there was a notorious absence of any “machinery of rejoinder” in the pre-digital media and even in the initial stages of the Internet, in the meantime—as the dilapidated postmodern pop movement hastens to conclude—the old authoritarian structure of “broadcaster and listener” has in fact been abolished. The key word is “interactive”. The endless transformations of the Internet were supposed to have led to a new quality of the interactive Web 2.0; this is endlessly repeated both in the cultural magazines as well as in the academic world. At this level any “user” would always and everywhere be connected and in the most personal way possible can intervene with words (or with images).

The steps towards this change are elaborated. They extend from pseudo-participation in radio programs with telephone calls from listeners, contests involving self-promotion and greetings to “all my friends”, etc., to the explosive growth of private websites, blogs, the directly interactive forms of “comments” in mailing lists or the electronic editions of print media, the networks of “friends” of the Web 2.0 and the informational services like “Twitter”. But all these forms of digital interaction are just as unlikely as all the previous forms of the culture industry to lead to a purely technologically mediated emancipation.

The concept of a mere “machinery of rejoinder” was perhaps an unfortunate choice on the part of Adorno and Horkheimer, because they were not capable of understanding this function in a way that was reduced to technology. But the problem actually lay elsewhere. The ability to reply is only organized at the level of the object and of the equipment, but not on the social level. The expression, digital “social networks”, which would seem to contradict this assessment, is nothing but a euphemism. In this case, the word, social, refers to an almost exclusively virtual, merely simulated, context; it usually involves unreal friendships between avatars. The real individuals often remain anonymous, or else wear their mask only in an exhibitionist manner in the distance mediated by the media which seemingly allows for a primitive secondary form of proximity. The corresponding unreality does not involve commitment; which furthermore reflects the essence of the postmodern attitude to private life that flees from any kind of commitment like the devil from a crucifix. This obvious phenomenology of Web 2.0 is widely recognized and often discussed; not least of all in the very same cultural magazines that so enthusiastically expressed their delight over digital interactivity. But they were not so enthusiastic about reflecting on its presuppositions or its consequences.

The background is immediately constituted not by pure technology but rather, as is inevitable, by the current social development logically associated with technological “interpretation”. This expedient itself only provides the term, which is indeed a slippery one, of “interactivity” or “interaction”, as if it were a matter of a reciprocal relation between planets, molecules, insects or machine parts. This dehumanization, already implied in the almost equally neutral term, “communication”, corresponds to the unreal status of the participating persons, who are literally transformed into simple masks. One could call it a negative ruse of capitalist reason: the fact that the technological “machinery of rejoinder” should arise precisely at the moment when the subjects who are socially reduced to the minimum and virtually dehumanized and only recognizable as mere actors now have nothing to say to each other, but, to the contrary, they can only appear to each other in the form of their masks. Thus, you do not hear any talk of “dialogue”, of “debate” or much less of “polemic”, which is not by chance prohibited, but rather of an empty mechanical “interactivity”, to which bourgeois individuals have reduced themselves.

Adorno and Horkheimer already depicted in 1944 the condition of the decline of capitalist subjectivity that Ulrich Beck characterized forty years later as “individualization”. Unlike Beck’s optimistic hypotheses, they already knew even then that the process has nothing to do with the liberation of individuals from objectivized social coercion, but rather with a new stage of its internalization, which is also expressed externally as a new quality of mere “liberation” in the sense of a universal situation of being outside the law [Vogelfreiheit]. The abstract individual, from the start the ideal logical type of functional capitalist subject, that is, the opposite of a concrete individual consciously experiencing his own social existence, after a long and painful process of development was refined to the pure postmodern form, in which he appears only as a point or as a “unit”. Capital, the “automatic subject” of valorization, is now the immediate, unfiltered, deranged and demonic self-reference of the subject: each person is his own capitalist, each person is his own employee. The isolated man now has no history at all, but, as an abstract unit, is now only a point amidst the tendencies of the market, a self-valorization machine, or, as it says with such prescience in the chapter on the Culture Industry: “Now any person signifies only those attributes by which he can replace everybody else: he is interchangeable, a copy. As an individual he is completely expendable and utterly insignificant….”

But this is not just a Dialectic of Enlightenment, as Adorno and Horkheimer still wanted to demonstrate, even if with doubts, but the fulfillment of its promise. Enlightenment never had any other promise than the “happiness” of each, the ability to transform oneself into “utter insignificance”. This context is perfectly clear and open to criticism. But postmodernism in all its variants does not want to engage in this critique; the respective copies take delight in their utter insignificance that they imagine to be liberation from materiality and from all relations in general. The abstracted individuals are not even capable of engaging in anything at all, with any content at all, because they have themselves become merely externalized and reified objects.

This applies in a certain way to the still-immature abstract individuality which had emerged with the first waves of the “communications” technologies of the 19th century; first of all, for example, with the telephone, which was then restricted to the higher classes that could afford it. When Adorno and Horkheimer spoke ironically about the old “machinery of rejoinder” entailed by the telephone, the participants were still “liberally” allowed to “play” the role of subjects, while the culture industry’s machinery for democratic control, on the other hand, would not allow this, their irony is not belied by the interactive “Web 2.0”. Just as both authors had perhaps expressed themselves only in the sense of a positive dialectic, possible but not developed, so, too, did their ironic formulation fail to foresee that the “liberal” character and mere availability of the telephone reduced subjectivity to “playing a role”, because behind that role lies the aprioristic power of the “automatic subject” that degrades the modern concept of “subjectivity” to the concept of a simple function. The essence of this precocious “interactive” subjectivity is expressed most effectively in those scenes in the movies where the visible participant holds the phone at arm’s length in order not to have to listen to the unbearable chatter of his partner in “interaction” and then says what he has to say without the other party having noticed any interruption in the course of the conversation.

Everything we need to know about “interactivity” has thus been summed up in the pantomime of the silent movies. The cell phone mania that has been raging now for more than a decade has brought this situation to its ultimate visibility, insofar as it now confers a technological mobility and simultaneously a public space for “communicative” exhibitionism. What used to be conscientiously secluded behind the closed door of the telephone booth now erupts as unbridled garrulousness in the streets, in the cafes and in the trains and buses. It would be preferable for the participants in this outburst to simply take off their clothes and expose their private parts, because then at least under the circumstances we would be spared the frequently even worse obscenity of their open mouths. For, what is the open zipper and sex organ of the old-fashioned exhibitionist compared to the open mouth of a postmodern pseudo-subject? In the “communications” one is unavoidably exposed to, it is no longer possible to recognize any human context; and even professional or commercial communications only show why the entrepreneurial economy must lead to a personal and social catastrophe. In the meantime, the cell phone, interbred with the Internet, shows us the corresponding system of “rejoinder” that goes far beyond the acoustically limited compulsive advertising of the alleged communications of everyday life.

Web 2.0 offers any café loudmouth or any teenage delinquent, at least formally, a platform for immediate worldwide self-promotion. But this technological possibility coincides with its social unreality. Individuals are becoming active in the media, and expressing themselves to the wider social world, precisely in the unreflective and a-critical form of acceptance to which they are consigned by capitalism: as atomized pseudo-individuals, as mere copies of the same transcendent principle. When one utter insignificance interacts with another utter insignificance, all that takes place is the old well known “mode of interaction” by other means, that is, one possessor of commodities encounters another. Only in appearance does this involve any “discussion” of real contents and problems; in fact, it is a prime example of narcissistic self-staging, which in the older means utilized by the culture industry at least had to be “interactively” initiated, but remained for the rest of the time in a situation of friendly “muteness”, as a device that was only occasionally turned on or like a one-way acoustic transmission. The reason why there has to be a better acoustic transmission in two directions, is still a secret of the apologists. Adorno and Horkheimer had already recognized that “well organized extravagance” constitutes the real goal of the media exercise, and in this case the same thing is true, whether or not the performance is now mediated “interactively”. Insofar as the participants restrict themselves to presenting themselves or connecting reciprocally, it is precisely by way of the “machinery of rejoinder” that they are still disconnected: “The number you have dialed has been disconnected or is no longer in service.”

“Interaction” limited to form and reduced to technology is even more difficult than the process involved in unilateral flow because it suggests a dialogic structure that has been rendered impossible in advance by the equipment of the postmodern subject, insofar as the latter continues to be a-critically affirmed. This also applies to the pseudo-antiauthoritarian self-satisfaction of the small-time bloggers who submit to the socio-economic imperatives of the “automatic subject” precisely by virtue of the fact that they transform themselves into brands. The authoritarian relation is not abolished by ceasing to be an external relation, and by being shifted to the interior of individuals as an authoritarian self-relation. Just as each person is his own capitalist and his own employee, so, too, is each person his own star, or his own hero and his own sole fan; and even his own fan club, as a multiple personality made possible by virtual multiplication. One can also say: each person is his own homemade culture industry, and most of his creations become correspondingly impoverished. But there is no harm because in the community of chatterboxes no one notices.

Just as the virtualization of the world of life is presented differently for men and for women, the same is true of virtualization and the “interactive” media. More precisely: reified patriarchy and gender dissociation are reproduced differently in individualized media “interactions”, just as has been the case in the culture industry in general from the very beginning. And since “abstract labor” is structurally connoted as masculine, although it is true that women have long been “employed” in this functional sphere, the same is true as well of the virtual space of the self-advertised stage scenes. Here, too, one can change one’s gender with a click of the mouse, and once again it is above all the men who want to assume the false form of virtual femininity in order to really be “everything” in their imagination. A significant number of the women among the role players of the Net are therefore presumably even less than they appear to be.

The “utter insignificance” identified by Adorno and Horkheimer is, as the reflection of “abstract labor”, also structured as masculine and, precisely in its insignificance, available for latent violence. For the utter insignificance of the stupefied and virtualized subjectivity can only transcend its condition as a monad by way of beatings and witch-hunts. It is of course true that girls also participate in the much deplored digital mobbing; but as a rule it is becoming above all a pastime of young men. This is made even more clear in the virtual chat-rooms. For the digital mob that periodically takes shape from male “interactivity”, the others, the despised women, constitute the favorite target. This latent fascist storm trooper attitude in virtual space is quite capable of erupting into social reality and becoming direct physical violence. This is perhaps above all the future path for the consensus and the technologically “interactive” “capacity for reality” of the self-made digital movie extras.

The high price of a free culture

The culture industry as a field for the valorization of capital naturally presupposes the commodity character of its products, whose reified expression of human relations, as everyone knows, was described by Marx in his concept of fetishism. The objectivity of value of cultural commodities in the space of a production for pure profit now truly demands the “realizing” retransformation and expression of these commodities in the form of “abstract wealth”, that is, in the form of money, by way of the act of sale. Here the postmodern apology for the complex of the culture industry raises its head once again, at least with respect to the Internet. Contents of every kind that are supplied there do not cost anything or else cost very little, even if there are constant attempts to restrict access and introduce digital payment methods. Does this not mean that, at least for the digital culture industry, it has to some extent involuntarily transcended the money and commodity forms? Should this not be considered to be a great emancipatory potential, and even the rise of a free communism beyond “goods that have to be paid for”?

To explain this we must point out that the problem is not that the chapter on the Culture Industry could not have foreseen this development because the Internet had not yet been invented in 1944. In fact, many commodities of the culture industry such as, for example, magazines, records and CDs, had to be bought in the traditional way; and movies are also a cultural service offered for sale, just like a ticket for a roller coaster ride or for entry into a cabaret. But radio and television can no longer enter into valorization and the domain of realization of the market as isolated commodities. For this purpose, even now taxes are levied by the State which in this case do not involve a regular metamorphosis in the capitalist production of commodities, but in every instance a determination of the form derived from the latter. The State subsidizes these socialized sectors of the Culture Industry as a “public right” like other infrastructures and recovers part of these outlays in the form of taxes. The commodity character of the whole organization is not in the least contradicted, even if the programs must be delivered at a low cost or almost for free. A fortiori, this applies to the private networks that have arisen in the neoliberal era, which are financed exclusively by advertising.

Adorno and Horkheimer do not concern themselves very much with a political-economic analysis of the formal context of the culture industry or with the metamorphoses of the social process of valorization, but reflect on the almost cost-free nature of radio and television more on the plane of cultural and psycho-social symbols: “Even today the culture industry dresses works of art like political slogans and forces them upon a resistant public at reduced prices; they are as accessible for public enjoyment as a park. But the disappearance of their genuine commodity character does not mean that they have been abolished in the life of a free society, but that the last defence against their reduction to culture goods has fallen.”

This means that the more or less free consumption of a growing part of the production of the culture industry by no means “transcends” the whole system of commodity production, but continues to be an integral part of it. Just as the means of political propaganda are inherent to the commodity form, even if they are freely distributed among the people, the same is true of the consumption of the cultural products of the mass media. They do not escape the money form of “goods that have to be paid for”, it is only that their mediation with the system as a whole is of a different kind; whether this mediation is based on financing from State taxation of capitalist profits, on the credit system or in connection with advertising, whose privileged support for the culture industry is obvious. To the extent that the tested preferences of the buyers (on Facebook, for example) has on more than one occasion given rise to new advertising campaigns, the users of this allegedly free operation involuntarily collaborate in its financing. It is therefore only on the plane of immediate appearances or of the particular experiences of each consumer that one can speak of the “dissolution of the genuine commodity character” of these products, in view of the fact that they are still commodities in accordance with their social character, commodities whose formal context collapses only in instances of mediation.

This commodity character affects not only the content but also the social and psychological aspect, and its impact is all the more powerful among individual consumers the less aware they are of its economic dimension as an act of purchase, as Adorno and Horkheimer observe critically with respect to the pseudo-emancipation connected with the mass production of cheap or almost free goods: “The abolition of educational privilege by the device of clearance sales does not open for the masses the spheres from which they were formerly excluded, but, given existing social conditions, contributes directly to the decay of education and the progress of barbaric meaninglessness.” Thus, Adorno and Horkheimer are involuntarily saying that the bourgeois “educational privilege” was only an illusion in which, as its true movens, there resides a tendency towards “clearance sales” and “decay” and “barbaric meaninglessness” that is only manifested in the culture industry. The bourgeois culture that still had a price tag was nothing but the luxury of a strong affirmative self-reflection that was not graven in stone, and which was still needed when capitalism was still in its process of constitution, but which lost its moments of excess as it was immersed in the everyday life of the masses as a deformity of the culture industry.

Here, too, we must note the functional economic logic that exists in Adorno and Horkheimer for the most part as a background without being explicitly referred to. The industrialization of education and of culture is subject to the same law of competition as the other sectors of capital. In this respect, however, the determinant factor is the economic, rather than the technological, imperative. The struggle for market share (even in a secondary sector, such as advertising when it is considered as its own economic sector, for which the products of the culture industry constitute its bread and butter) requires price reductions which can only be based on the reduction of the costs of production. But if the costs of cultural products are reduced to rock bottom prices then their quality suffers even more than in the case of the products of industries involved in material production. The product is then always a “lemon”, and even worse. For it is only possible to “rationalize” intellectual or artistic production in the same way that those who rationalize the production of fenders or crankshafts rationalize their products: at the cost of the complete hollowing-out of their contents. It loses its use value with its direct incorporation into the system of “abstract labor”, as Adorno and Horkheimer had already made clear in the case of the reversal of roles or even the elimination of the difference between editorial content and advertising. This is what one sees, for example, in the free advertising magazines whose editorial content, insofar as it is closely interspersed and even frankly combined with advertising, displays in a particularly crass way the “decay” of reflection as cultural expression and the “barbaric meaninglessness” of the capitalist culture that is transmitted for free.

The Internet displays this nature of a capitalist production of content and of culture that is now only paid for indirectly, and precisely for this reason it is losing its “use value”, as it is transformed into an organization of individualized masses. This is by no means indicative of any kind of emancipatory liberation of “creativity”, but rather of a kind of neoliberal “privatization” of the mass production of the culture industry, normalized on an unprecedented scale. Each person as his own culture industry must not be understood as only an ironic metaphor or as a cultural-symbolic definition, but it must be taken literally with all its implications. The technological form that corresponds to the equipment of the postmodern subject provokes a flood of completely talentless submissions that can no longer be either revised or rejected by any editorial office.

Thus, each person is his own resource, his own magazine, his own cinema and television program. Unlike professional productions, however, in this case no “rationalization” is needed to cheapen the object with capitalist processing even to the point of giving it away. The slapdash creations of every type are in any case determined by the situations of their actors, who never get involved with anything and are motivated by the pressure of competition, by the pressure of service in the abstract and for control over their fund of time, a situation that excludes any concentration on the contents. Anyone who “connects” “interactively” against this background with external instrumentalizations which do not and cannot require either material expenditures or intellectual effort, does not need to lower his costs, either. What resulted from the economic assembly line of the real culture industry is in the case of individual self-representations already presupposed, namely the indifference, the ephemerality, and the uselessness of the object. Each person is his own free advertising magazine.

The scorn for all standards of excellence and the disdain for all contents led bourgeois culture to show itself in its true light precisely where it became apparently “free”. Already at the dawning of this situation Adorno and Horkheimer formulated this “progress”, this decline of money value, as a cynical devaluation of all the contents and not as emancipation from the commodity form: “Those who spent their money in the nineteenth or the early twentieth century to see a play or to go to a concert respected the performance as much as the money they spent.” In the cost-free culture of the Internet nothing and no one is respected anymore. Nor can one speak of self-respect. Anyone who, in the environment of capitalism, extols the total worthlessness of its intellectual and artistic products also thereby admits the insignificance of his own contents. Because utter insignificance can only give rise to utter insignificance.

In a situation in which one is not only supported by advertising but is at the same time the thing that is advertised, it is natural that secondary financing is kept within very narrow bounds. As your own free advertising magazine you do not make a penny through third parties, because you do not have any contents that you did not already have, contents that are nowhere in sight. Thus the subjects of free exchange on the Internet mutually monitor each other’s worthlessness. Subjectivity is devalued but not transcended—Adorno and Horkheimer had also in a certain manner foreseen this condition of a de-culturalized culturalism: “Art exercised some restrain on the bourgeois as long as it cost money. Now that it has lost every restraint and there is no need to pay any money, the proximity of art to those who are exposed to it completes the alienation and assimilates one to the other under the banner of triumphant objectivity. Criticism and respect disappear in the culture industry…. Consumers now find nothing expensive. Nevertheless, they suspect that the less anything costs, the less it is being given them.”

A real gift costs effort and is therefore something in itself. The release of the expenditure of resources is not only for the individual personally, but fundamentally releases the gift from its fetishistic value form and nonetheless functions for all of society and for all goods and has nothing to do with the individual character of a gift, but, to the contrary, is itself a different manner of social reproduction. The pseudo-free culture of the Internet is neither the one nor the other. The postmodern subject of self-staging, armed with “communications” technology but socially, and with regard to contents in general, vacuous or indifferent, only produces crypto-commodities that are largely cost-free, precisely because nothing is being paid for them and in capitalism there cannot be any expenditures that are not paid for.

And it is precisely because there is no revolutionized modus of the utilization of resources at the level of society as a whole, which, if it were to exist, would also apply to cultural production, the actors of cost-free virtuality delude themselves with their exchanges of empty packages in a “gift economy”. Insofar as there were social structures of reciprocity in pre-modern formations, structures that are known as “gift economies”, and of which the Internet only represents an ideologically vulgarized version, they are in every case the expression of a real mobilization of resources and have nothing to do with their outward appearances. The fact that an intellectual or cultural content can be disclosed “for free” at the click of the mouse does not necessarily mean that it has also been produced without the application of intellectual and material resources; if such were the case, it would be never be anything but a null content.

The [modern-day] economists of the interactive gift engage in the mutual exchange of the utter insignificance that corresponds to their social and intellectual condition, and they actually even know this or at least have some presentiment of it, as Adorno and Horkheimer had already pointed out. What happens to the digital consumers-producers is no different from what happened to the simple consumers of previous epochs, whose attitude is described as follows in the chapter on the Culture Industry: “The double mistrust of traditional culture as ideology is combined with mistrust of industrialised culture as a swindle. When thrown in free, the now debased works of art, together with the rubbish to which the medium assimilates them, are secretly rejected by the fortunate recipients, who are supposed to be satisfied by the mere fact that there is so much to be seen and heard.” They participate in the externalization of undifferentiated masses, for free, mutually indifferent, in which no one takes himself or anyone else seriously. That is why anyone who has had the dismal fate of having mobilized real resources and conveyed an effective content has to be mercilessly leveled by the same media insignificance that is so jealously guarded by their owners. Any effort to create real content is “debased” and its result is made to resemble “rubbish”, and precisely for this very reason the “recipients” secretly know that everyone is deceiving everyone else and for that reason they always look at everything as a swindle.

We must also point out that Adorno and Horkheimer, even in their radical critique of the false gratis culture, still have in mind, as an equally false idealized image, the old heroes of the flowering of higher bourgeois culture who still really sold authentic contents and were at the same time capable of despising this relation of buying and selling. Thus, a few pages later in the chapter on the Culture Industry, they say: “When mortally sick, Beethoven hurled away a novel by Walter Scott novel with the cry: ‘Why, the fellow writes for money,’ and yet proved a most experienced and stubborn businessman in disposing of the last quartets, which were a most extreme renunciation of the market; he is the most outstanding example of the unity of those opposites, market and independence, in bourgeois art. Those who succumb to the ideology are precisely those who cover up the contradiction, instead of taking it into the consciousness of their own production….”

Nor can we fail to recognize—and this testimony on behalf of the preservation of the social character of the old cultural bourgeoisie is offered by both our authors—that they think that there once existed “the unity of those opposites, market and independence, in bourgeois art”, whose “most outstanding example[s]” are precisely those who are capable of revealing themselves to be the “most experienced and stubborn businessmen”. If in the capitalist conditions of reproduction one cannot renounce monetary payment for one’s efforts, to the extent that they are pursued in accordance with the time fund and with an eye to one’s material resources they go beyond simple hobby relations and involve the production of contents, nor can one inversely make the cleverness of the businessman and the shrewdness of valorization as the other side of artistic and theoretical “independence”. The latter must always be on a war footing with respect to the former; any aptitude for business is itself voracious with respect to the time fund and resources and thus inevitably constitutes a deviation of concentration towards its own domain. Such an aptitude does not constitute a support for the content which is, after all, “the most extreme renunciation of the market”, but rather in the final analysis for a heteronomy that must be inherent to any kind of valorization, even that of string quartets.

The ideological nostalgia of Adorno and Horkheimer belongs to the remnants of bourgeois Enlightenment reason in which the market and independence are identical in art, and not only in art. The critique of the negative historicization of this capitalist reason did not lead them to the declare the end of the Dialectic of the Enlightenment, where the authors in fact recognized the “opposition” of market and independence, to which they nonetheless seek to attribute a reconciled “unity”, or at least a unity that is basically reconcilable, in the past of the idealized cultural bourgeoisie. In the hesitant conservatism of bourgeois reason which had already been recognized as negative and destructive they sought to square the circle; the much-valued business acumen is the Hegelian logic in which the contradictions do not lead to a rupture or an explosion, but rather to the false, positively superseding reconciliation in the form of the eternal subject of circulation.

But the concept of Adorno and Horkheimer, despite this flawed excursus, only formulates a conscious critique of the problem against the cost-free culture of the communities of “users”, a culture that is a fortiori false and deceptive, when they note that it is precisely those who “cover up the contradiction, instead of taking it into the consciousness of their own production” that “succumb to the ideology”. Here it is obviously not a matter of an imaginary unity between contents that are close to the value form, on the one hand, and the aptitude for making money in the sphere of circulation, on the other, whose idealization itself “covers up the contradiction”, but rather and exclusively the fact that what quite clearly arises is the irreconcilability of the contradiction and the need for historical rupture (instead of a positive “supersession”) in “the consciousness of their own production”, whose commodity form or money form as a necessary evil under oppressive conditions invalidates this minimizing or even transfigurative interpretation.

The immanent limit of capital and the economic crisis of the culture industry

As relevant as the concept of the culture industry may also be for the turn of the 21st century, today we encounter an important difference as compared to 1944. At that time, the great prosperity of the postwar era lay just around the corner. In the transition from the era of world wars to the short historical period of mass production and mass consumption of Fordism, Adorno and Horkheimer were incapable of perceiving the culture industry that was in the process of being formed from the point of view of the objective crisis of the immanent historical limit of the valorization process. The complex of the culture industry that was then only nebulously revealing its future outlines seemed to them to be unavoidable, as a form of total control or self-control and of the submission of consciousness to the machine of the capitalist end-in-itself.

Today, however, the fully developed culture industry exists under the conditions of the mature objective limit of world capital. The Internet is itself, as a whole, an integral part of a crisis technology of the third industrial revolution, whose potentials for valorization lead to the evisceration of the substance of value. In this aspect as well it is not technology as such that has an autonomous effect on relations and is the real reason for their revolutionary transformation. Rationalization, which leads to extinguishing the fires of “abstract labor”, follows the same laws as the latter; the liberation from superfluous labor power is the other side of the coin of its subsumption under capital. In the sense of social fetishism, the only thing that is “autonomous” is the unfettered self-movement of the “automatic subject” which gives rise to the technology of crisis in general which expresses the system’s immanent self-contradiction. The limit that capitalism faces is not an independent technological limit, but its own immanent (economic) limit. In the complex of the culture industry this general limit of capital arises in a specific way that simultaneously indicates the mechanism of crisis and its forms of development.

The culturalist virtualization of the world of life corresponds to the economic virtualization of capital. These two moments do not represent any kind of new degree of development of the capitalist mode of production and way of life, but rather a process of its de-substantialization and therefore of its real self-destruction. The de-substantialization of capital by way of the disproportionate reduction of regular labor power, the only source of value production, leads to the notorious global economy of financial bubbles in which capital undergoes a transition from real accumulation to a merely simulated accumulation. This represents, in a manner of speaking, capital’s own economic avatar in the apparent world of the decoupled financial heavens. But the virtual space of the Internet is not limited to mirroring in a symbolic-cultural sense the fictitious capital that is now stripped of any real valorization, but also belongs directly to that spiritual economic empire.

The Internet, as a hybrid complex of the culture industry, does not produce real commodities, but only virtual ones. It does not even produce, in significant quantities, intellectual products or immaterial art, which in the commodity form could have participated in the mass of the social substance of value, but only electronically conveys contents that are electronically associated with objective expenditures, insofar as the genuine contents that arise directly on the Net, which are both objectively as well as economically largely devoid of value, do not contribute to the mass of the real substance of value nor do they participate in it, to the extent that they remain “gratis” in this false way.

If advertising is determinant for the culture industry not only as an esthetic form of expression of commodities, but also as the financial basis of the Net economy, then this fact clarifies the way it fits into capitalist reproduction. Advertising, as a secondary sector that is for its part capitalistically unproductive, which does not entail any contribution to the mass of the real social substance of value, representing to the contrary a deduction from it, can only expand on a scale that is unprecedented in the history of capitalism on the inflated basis of the economy of financial bubbles and of indebtedness that has emerged since the 1980s. Only against this background did the technological-cultural complex of the Internet arise, which could only thus attain its current scale. Services, opportunities for access or presentation and free contents made available to all can only be described in capitalist terms as props for advertising. The more the culture industry shifts to the virtual space, the more precarious this dependence becomes.

At the same time, this space also demands a powerful and very real infrastructural complex of energy consumption, cables, batteries of servers, etc., which in turn have an impact as factors of cost. To a large extent this technological apparatus must also be financed by advertising or must receive a share of its income. This also applies to the networks promoted or made available by the State, whose revenues are also a deduction from the social mass of value; just like its other functions, this one, too, is increasingly more reliant on financing based on credit. Regardless of the particular mediations, the complex of the virtualized culture industry is essentially a creature of fictitious capital and of its various forms, which as a whole represents an increasingly more unreal anticipation of future creation of real value that will always be postponed. The immanent limit of the whole operation will become manifest as the overextended credit system collapses, the chains of credit break and the social insolvency of the gratis virtual culture is revealed. The total shifting of the problem to State credit changes nothing in this regard.

Thus, when the hidden economic presuppositions crash, it will be revealed that the “user’s” gratis mentality by no means constitutes an anticipation of the abolition of the commodity and money forms. To the contrary, it is a form of consciousness that often only lives on credit and even only thinks on credit. Just as the allegedly “cost-free” non-monetary reproduction of even material and social expenditures assumes the form of an illusory “dematerialization”, so, too, does virtualized existence seem to be something that you do not have to pay for, something whose costs will have to be borne by others, especially when you do not need to know anything about it. The ecologically enlightened postmodernist is always for good and against evil, as long as there is electric current in the socket and as long as life’s artists can eat at an acceptable gourmet level, without the social conditions that would be implied by a qualitatively different and really widespread luxury becoming a serious problem. The future consumption of the substance of value, the shifting of bad debts somewhere else and the technical disappearance of real money in the world of life takes on the semblance of a kind of “world without money” that has somehow become a lot more affordable. It is not the revolution against “abstract wealth”, but rather a situation in which one becomes one’s own bad bank [in English in the original – American translator’s note]. And from the political-social point of view, instead of revolutionaries, there are digital bargain hunters. Nor is it good to ask how the consciousness of the culture industry will react to the collapse of its world of illusion and self-illusion.

The road to the depletion of cultural reserves

The economic limit and impasse corresponds with the cultural limit and impasse. In this context the question of innovation in the culture industry and in its sources must be set aside. Even as a secondary and even unproductive sector of capital, which must be economically nourished, however, by the mass of the social substance of value, the culture industry is just as abstract and in itself indifferent with regard to its contents as all of valorization taken as a whole. This complete indifference to any material content, because its proper object is abstract value, therefore compels the liquidation of those cultural resources that are not immediately conducive to the end-in-itself of “abstract wealth”; precisely in the same way that natural, material and human resources, by the way, have to be pressed into the service of abstract accumulation as levies whose concrete content is a matter of indifference.

During the ascendant movement of capital, in order to give determination to its all-embracing and planetary form, a genuine bourgeois art and culture arose which had originally formed above all as a precociously capitalist and proto-capitalist opposition on the terrain of relations that were only partially developed in the capitalist sense. Just like the Enlightenment philosophy and science of that period, it was a capitalist product in terms of its structure and its content, but only with respect to its ways of thought and representation, as the ideological mobilization and ideal anticipation of valorization, and not yet properly speaking as an immediate object of valorization; and for that reason it was also a luxury product for the patrons of the absolutist courts and private circles and was financed accordingly. Thus, the bourgeois public sphere was also a presupposition for the transformation of the culture industry, first of all as a prototype.

It is only in this intermediate “higher” status, which contradicts its own logic if even just formally, that bourgeois culture can acquire the appearance of being a context of reflection determined by contents and by the capacity for expression with its famous “moments of excess”, in which a background of real “cultural objectivity” is encountered that was a reflection of the objectivity of value, yet not the objectivity of value itself, which had at that time only conquered a few domains of material reproduction. The consciousness of the cultural bourgeoisie who always preserved this intermediate status is linked to the illusion of “elite” art, science, etc., which is not corrupted by vulgar economism, although its way of thinking, its forms of representation and its contents now also affirm that logic that makes a laughing stock of the pretense to independence of art and culture, and which would soon find its definitive symbolic expression in Malevich’s “Black Square”.

It is now obvious that the culture industry, which existed only in an incipient state in the 20th century and which amidst the limits of capitalism at the beginning of the 21st century expanded until it even virtualized the world of life, was never capable of nourishing itself on its own contents, but instead, not yet possessed of its own logic, battened like a vampire first of all on the bourgeois art and culture of the past. The adventure of the history of the imposition of capitalism, whose narratives and creations had not yet themselves properly entered into valorization (from bourgeois classicism and romanticism, to realism, and up to “classical modern”), created the appearance of an independent cultural content, but this appearance was to be exhausted within a few decades. The culture industry has not managed to create anything new from its own resources. Its creativity has always consisted only in its adaptation of pre-existing material.

There was, however, a second wave on which the vampire-like hunger of the culture industry could feast. This wave consisted of the countercultures and subcultures of the social movements and milieus, which were subjectively oriented against capitalism or against its forms of appearance and which gave intellectual and artistic expression to a marginalized existence, non-conformist lifestyles or social deviance. These cultures, or at least subcultures, of protest comprised the field of activity for an ostensibly “non-commercial” opposition to the culture industry. In fact, however, they were too weak with respect to their subversive potential to be capable of becoming a serious opposition; and this was the case, above all, because their critique, which was phenomenologically limited and socially particularized, remained non-critical of the form, and never attained social universality. Just as the capitalist state always succeeded in capturing, adapting, distorting, and transforming into political resources for its own purposes, the single issue emancipatory “political” movements (from the old workers movement to the “new left” of 1968), so, too, were the cultures of protest and “non-commercial” subcultures, sooner or later, transformed into so many resources for the culture industry.

It was proclaimed to be cultural subversion and counterculture but actually constituted, just as the old bourgeois high culture was in a certain sense an outsider, a kind of nature preserve for culture industry capital, a preserve that was periodically harvested or culled. After the Second World War both these resources lost their relative independence; high bourgeois culture simply died and can now only be used as firewood, and the subcultures have increasingly become capitalist nurseries. Just as in the sequence of technological revolution and globalization all horizons have contracted, so, too, has the process of change of the culture industry, of sub-commercial or proto-commercial creations, accelerated to the point where the object itself has disappeared.

Adorno and Horkheimer describe cultural vampirism only in the framework of the decline of bourgeois high culture, and also inaccurately; but the problem of subcultures lay outside of their horizon or else it was immediately subsumed under the concept of the culture industry. This defect with respect to their analysis also at least partially explains Adorno’s erroneous negative assessment of jazz, whose origin and individual quality were ignored. With regard to this point, Adorno, completely under the influence of the idiosyncrasies of “good taste” of classical bourgeois culture, did not want to perceive the specific quality of jazz that predated classical bourgeois culture, but only wanted to see it as the genuine product of the capitalist culture machine. He did not see that this machine needs a material that is not inherent to it because it can only spoil what has been brought to it. Its production requires previously existing raw material or semi-finished materials. These resources had not yet been completely depleted in the mid-20th century.

It may be conceded that Adorno was only familiar with, or only took into account, the jazz that had already been conditioned as a part of the culture industry, such as the show bands of the 1940s, for example. In this case, Adorno would have been right in a certain sense, above all with respect to his predictions, which nonetheless cannot be specifically identified with jazz or pop music. He was talking about cultural creations in general, regardless of the specialty and level of artificiality. Along with the third industrial revolution as the technology of universal crisis and as the global process of crisis that followed in its wake, the culture industry, too, has reached its historical limit. Its growth, which coincides with the totalization of the esthetic of the commodity, also coincides with the depletion of its external resources. In a certain way, one may draw an analogy with the depletion of energy reserves and with the destruction of the natural foundations of life, as well as with the crisis of gender relations. In this sense, as well, capitalism is destroying its own presuppositions. As the abstraction of value pursues its own immanent dynamic and really completes the program of its totalization, it dissolves not only its own substance of labor, but also its natural, sexual and cultural foundations, which are transformed from unspoken assumptions into glaring contradictions.

Postmodernism involuntarily acknowledges the limits of culture when it disconnects the intentions of the cultures and subcultures of protest from their ideological claims to be “non-commercial” or “anti-commercial” and transfers them directly to the culture industry, since its devotees like to engage in supposedly literally subversive moments by buying things at the supermarket or downloading things from a subsidized Internet. The kernel of truth of this interpretation lies in the fact that, at least with regard to their social effects, these allegedly subversive cultures usually no longer entail relatively independent creations, but only products that are created a priori by the culture industry as objects of “self-valorization” and of possible acquisition. “Subversion”, which of course no longer exists, must be transferred to the modus of the simple consumption of commodities (even if it is an obviously “free” commodity).

This ideology of a “creative” or even “critical” consumption goes hand in hand with the complete refusal to subject the commodity form as such to criticism (with regard to which postmodernism as a whole has regressed to a point even lower than that reached by the Marxism of the workers movement, instead of transcending it). The problem no longer resides in the fact that the idea of the commodity form as a necessary evil also affects the contents of its critique, in such a manner that the commodity form can be articulated in general and reproduced in its material assumptions, but rather that the commodity character is accepted or ignored and the content is positivized as the content of valorization, even if only symbolically.

If “creativity”, however, now consists only in the type and combination of consumption of commodities, then this leads to a crisis of use value, because there are no longer any new supplies of content. After the death of the old bourgeois high culture, the subculture suffered the same fate. Now there are only pseudo-subcultures, which are themselves conditioned by the culture industry. Even the least talented teenage band now aspires from the very start to commercial success or at least to acquire the cultural capital to “make it” on the “hit parade”, and basically grants more importance to “presentation” than to the innovative content that it does not possess. This applies to the entire cultural sector, aside from the rare exceptions. Just as the substance of value was only simulated, once the recycling of the money from the financial bubbles began, so, too, does the culture industry only live from the recycling of successively re-adapted old contents, until it chokes on the insipidity of eternally reheated leftovers. This situation has become ever more explicitly the esthetic barbarity referred to in the chapter on the Culture Industry.

The world is not just an accessory. Why a separate “cultural revolution” is impossible

The circle of critical reflection is closed if we return to the polar complementarity of the culturally pessimistic elitist pseudo-critique and the postmodernist affirmation of superficiality. The surface is the world of immediate phenomena; culture is the outfit, the design, the wardrobe. If the cultural bourgeoisie publicly denounces superficiality, it is only referring to the outfit that is immediately apparent, to strange or absurd forms of presentation and manifestation. The remaining stock of the higher cultural consciousness, even if it has a painting by Kandinsky on the wall, is in this respect no different than the nouveau-riche, beer-drinking, petty-bourgeois philistine who likes to freely express his distaste for “degenerate art”, “negro music” and “American” pop art. His hostility is not so much directed at superficiality in itself, but only at “erroneous” clothing and sounds, as metaphors for a rejected social design. Behind this attitude lies the fear of the stranger, of the underdogs, of deviants or the “dangerous classes”.

Even if postmodern culturalism cultivates and romanticizes precisely those phenomena and forms of expression that are abominated by the old cultural philistines, but only as accessories, arbitrary and devoid of contents, it belongs to the same structure of perception and itself constitutes a middle class consciousness, only from a different position. The conflict in this isolated field is always boring and the participants are too predictable. All you need to do to become chic is to hang a notorious “roaring stag” up on the wall in an “avant-garde” tour de force; soon the galleries will be full of them, from New York all the way to the province of Berlin. The recycling to which the culture industry subjects all forms of expression, as everyone knows, also erases the difference between art and kitsch. It all started with the Dadaist displays of kitsch junk as art objects; which was considered to be outrageous and was long treated with academic seriousness as a problem of art history.

I am not trying to deny that customary “expression” has to find a form in society, in the world of life and in everyday culture. Every historical formation expresses itself artistically, even where there is no isolated sphere of art; people decorate their living spaces and adopt certain clothing styles, etc. These multiple forms of expression at various levels are never purely individual, but are also determined by the respective societies, by their contradictions and by their development. With regard to the capitalist mode of production and way of life, however, we must recall that it is their emptiness and indifference concerning their contents that are the inherent properties of their mechanisms, as well as the cultural exhaustion and famine that are finally realized by their specific dynamics, which leads to the grotesque domination and autonomization of the external. Just as the abstract form of the commodity becomes autonomous from concrete content and debases the latter to its mere “form of manifestation”, there is an analogous process that takes place in the previously mentioned inversion between cultural and intellectual contents and their external “form of presentation”.

This also applies to so-called everyday culture, which had already developed to the point that Marx referred to as the “religion of everyday life”; far beyond, however, the ideological character referred to by Marx. It is no longer merely a matter of “opinions” and ideological interpretations of the world, but of modes of expression and of self-interpretation understood existentially. The “utter insignificance” has to present itself under a covering in its relations with its kind and has to permanently assemble its outfit in the broadest sense of the word. The much-invoked plurality of lifestyles is completely uniform with respect to its character as a means of getting attention, a situation in which plurality once again dissolves into a “mainstream”; even if it seems to run in various directions.

The decisive issue here is that even the simplest outward trappings, in themselves quite irrelevant, are attributed with arbitrary formalities and “questions of taste” with a disproportionate importance. The fact that no one can escape the social tendencies that operate on this plane, except at the price of pure comedy, is not itself essential. Thus we have for the last forty years worn not togas, but jeans; although they are no longer the same, because the material wear and tear forces us to waste time buying more pants. If the jeans and the long hair of the youth or rock music were once considered to be the sign of some kind of juvenile protest, they have long since proved the innocuousness and affirmative character of that pseudo-revolt. The latter became only a general fashion in pants, to which even old people had to yield. Naturally, such phenomena are repeated in every generation in one way or another in puberty. What is new, however, is the fact that they have assumed a generalized social relevance.

Do I have to buy pants that could fit an elephant, so that no one will see that I have a fat ass? Or some pants that are so tight that they constrict the flow of blood and everyone can see that I do not have a fat ass? In our postmodern times, such existential choices are no longer reserved for kids under the age of fifteen, but fall under the category of almost political ideologies. The fact that individuals should develop preferences in clothing, in food and drink, in sex, in what their bodies are like or how they decorate their homes, is no longer a natural and innocent question. If tattoos or piercings, vegetarian or vegan food and such things are transformed into a kind of worldview, by means of which people distinguish themselves from other people or recognize themselves as members of a particular circle the way people once did with party insignia, then this indicates the ideological character of the outfit as a procedure of substitution, with which one attempts to replace the ideal and social vacuum.

Such procedures of substitution with regard to symbols and everyday culture are becoming more important precisely for crisis management and its disciplinary ideologies. The campaigns against cigarette smokers, including punitive measures, or the prohibition or denunciation of “unhealthy” eating habits among the lower classes has nothing to do with a concern for their well-being. To the contrary, what is taking place is that attention is being diverted from social inequalities, from poverty, from social abuses and from stressful working environments to the symbolic, to personal “performance”, as if the problem only involves changes in people’s everyday habits or cultural attitudes that have nothing to do with a coercive social relation. Such an ideology of managing human beings can be safely aimed at the like-minded souls of personalities of empty self-staging who seek to realize themselves in the cult of superficiality and who become all the more susceptible to disciplinary mechanisms the more they are presented as being supplied by design.

Postmodern culturalism and its hyper-accentuation of appearance already had a historical antecedent in a dual aspect. Philosophically, this antecedent was composed of the irrationalist current of bourgeois thought, starting with the anti-Hegelian turn in the 19th century, passing through vitalism, and then to existentialism. This was the bourgeois counter-program formulated by Nietzsche and Heidegger against Marx and Adorno, from which the so-called postmodern left has taken its principal reference points. The attitude or mode of perception known by the name of “estheticization” was always connected with this counter-program. The horror of war and destruction, the terrorism of normality, suffering and misery were transformed into “beautiful images”; bellies bloated by famine and suppurating wounds were transformed into works of art. The “esthetic of terror”, designated by Walter Benjamin as subjective fascism, constitutes the antecedent and the secretly integral part of the postmodernist cultural turn against the content-based, social and categorical critique of capitalism.

The staging of “Hitler’s Arrival”, as depicted by Leni Riefenstahl in the cinematographic esthetic of the Reich Party Congress, with its display of the serried ranks of the masses, also belongs to this program. The postmodern individualization of this modus operandi changes nothing essential about it; and it can at any moment turn into mute collective riots, as is demonstrated by digital mobbing. Indifference to content in its exacerbated postmodern form is leading to an even more comprehensive program than at the beginning of the 20th century, which is not even perceived as such because it represents a generalized feeling of life.

This militant estheticization, which now makes the form of advertising design a totalitarian model, is a much more effective weapon against radical critique than the simple thought constructs of ideology. It is not actually a thing, but a style. Instead of critical analysis there are treatises with titles like, “Living Poor with Style”. Styling does not recognize any other criterion of truth beyond the number of “I Like This” comments on the Net. And what is advertised is what is appreciated as an outfit. Negative objectivity must be covered up by an “esthetic subjectivism”; instead of the social revolution, there is the painless pseudo-revolution of “the beautiful look”—the estheticization of the existence of each and all. Not only war and atrocities are estheticized, but also the crisis, the new poverty and the environmental catastrophe. It is simultaneously an estheticization of the truth, which corresponds to the paradoxical “absolute relativism” of postmodernism.

The ideology of estheticization, having become a form of real life, must not be confused with esthetics as such. The problem is not that each content finds its adequate form of expression or exposition, for which criteria can be developed. Instead, it is the esthetic form that becomes autonomous with respect to the content and debases the latter to its accidental, non-essential form of manifestation. It is this inversion, implanted and completed in the totalitarian form of the commodity in art and in culture, which constitutes the program of estheticization.

This is a historical process that culminates in the esthetic of commodities after the Second World War and which can only lead, as a quality of the world market of “barbaric meaninglessness”, to a new estheticization of a politics which has already been subject to so much de-realization. The terror is so much more frightening in new way, now that it also displays all the hallmarks of silliness. It was precisely the new green, social-democratic and social-ecological center that not only tightened the tourniquet of social crisis management and implemented Hartz IV, but also simultaneously conducted a frenzied campaign to democratically “sell” it as a pantomime of advertising design. It is not by chance that it was the cadres and self-proclaimed “cultural revolutionaries” of the old new left of 1968 who brought us this development. At that time they had already precociously assumed the postmodernism of the left, and today they show us our future, even if they do not obtain cabinet posts, but simply mandates from the “pirate party”. The current generation of children and grandchildren of the “new center” has already grown old without even needing any radical leftist past for the design of their stage debut.

The metamorphosis of the old stage sets that soon caused the representatives of communes and street fighters to grow up to be statesmen ineluctably shows that there can be no autonomous “cultural revolution” in the sense of a simple revolutionizing of attitudes, of outfits, of “modes of discourse”, “ways of thinking” and everyday life, or hairstyles, consumer culture or even food, etc. If the generation that came to political maturity in the wake of ’68 made possible a “culturally revolutionary” modernization and democratization of the FRG, while it failed as revolutionaries, this only proves that stage performance-oriented pseudo-radicalism only works in shallow and superficial cultures of protest, only to grow up and in the process “revolutionize” capitalism itself and its management style. A middle class Bohemia that presents itself as the art of everyday life, of sexual experimentation and permanent revolt has always played this role. The thereby limited “cultural revolution” of the new left was, however, the last of its kind because there is no longer anything to revolutionize in economic-cultural terms due to a lack of real substance of value, and the train of the pop, postmodern left derailed a long time ago.

There will only be a “cultural revolution” in the future if it is simultaneously the expression of a revolutionary social movement with an effective power of intervention, rather than a merely symbolic performance. Such a movement does not currently exist, so no esthetic of critique can develop, but only a critique of the ruling esthetic, as a critique of the culture industry. You cannot wear clothes without a body on which they can be worn. The postmodern cult of superficiality, in its attitude of apparent critique in which its protagonists themselves do not believe, is just as insubstantial as the valorization of the virtualized capital of our postmodern world. The precondition for a new integration of the social movement with the revolutionary cultural movement is that a new radical critique of the context of the fetish form must penetrate the consciousness of the masses, something that the postmodern left does not want to know anything about.

The service that ideological culturalism can still perform for capital is exclusively and solely the internal weakening of the categorical critique itself. Because the latter runs the risk of being transformed into a purely esthetic object by way of the partial and apparent welcome given precisely to the critique of “labor”, of value and of gender dissociation, that is, as an ephemeral accessory of self-staging, which is thus rendered utterly without any kind of commitment. The totalization of advertising design goes hand in hand with the general subsumption of all contents in the blind current of the spirit of the times or in fashion. It is not merely a matter of fashionable clothes, but also of fashionable crimes, fashionable diseases and fashionable ideologies, and even fashionable indecencies. The postmodern left is spreading its vulgar maxims everywhere precisely by means of its provincial, small-town intellect. This is why the postmodern social personalities are as a matter of principle very unreliable people; we cannot recall them holding to a fixed position with a consistent character, not even relative to the categorical critique, to the degree that they supposedly appropriated anything from it.

Just as the old green patriarch of 1968, Joschka Fischer, periodically expands the perimeter of his corpulence, and then shrinks again like an accordion, transforming himself from a potbellied tub of lard to a marathon runner and vice-versa, so, too, do the individualized strategies of outfits periodically transform their behavior, their attitudes and their convictions without any internal consistency. Everyone knows that any content that arises must once again be removed. Whole periods of life wither on the vine in one summer or possibly even in one evening; all relationships dissolve almost before they have begun. Here we can apply Berlusconi’s slogan, that says: “I was many times sincere.” Once one utter insignificance can no longer remain with another utter insignificance, he, too, does not learn anything, not even his own mother tongue. The citizen of the postmodern world does not speak German well, nor can he speak English; he does not know anything, but he has already tried everything at one time or another.

As an antidote to this regrettable situation we recommend, for purposes of emancipation, a comprehensive rejection of estheticization and fashion without commitment, which implies a radical critique of postmodern culturalism. Content must be reestablished in its rightful leading position. This applies to both the superficial critique of superficiality conducted by the remaining stock of bourgeois cultural consciousness as well as its postmodern opposite pole. The world is not an accessory; the cult of superficiality must be covered in shame and condemned. The culture industry cannot be abolished by left-wing postmodern hyper-affirmation, but only by way of the militant devalorization of mere design in every sense. The publications of radical critique should perhaps encourage the reading of heavy texts, and the outfit can encourage conscious simplicity.

We cannot conclude our discussion of the chapter on the Culture Industry of Dialectic of the Enlightenment without having expressed certain disagreements, but critical reflection on the concept articulated in that chapter is still indispensable. The postmodernism that imagined that it was beyond such things no longer has anything to say to the world in crisis of the 21st century. We can only hope that the next generation sympathetically tells the pop ideologues impassioned by their own youthful careers that they have themselves now become the unendurable bores of yesterday and that they will be undergoing a very long interruption of their transmission.

Robert Kurz

Originally published under the title, “Kulturindustrie im 21 Jarhhundert. Zur Aktualität des Konzepts von Adorno und Horkheimer” in EXIT! Krise und Kritik der Warengesellschaft, No. 9 (March 2012), ISBN 978-3-89502-333-0, 200 p., 13 Euros, Horlemann Verlag, Heynstr. 28, 13187 Berlin, Deutschland. Email:


Translated from German to Portuguese by Boaventura Antunes (March 2013).

Translated into English from the Portuguese translation in October-November 2014.