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Adorno and Horkheimer’s Culture Industry Thesis in Modern Day

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 2107 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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In a world of Internet, social media and global connectivity, is the original culture industry argument still relevant, or outdated.

By evaluating the presence of Adorno and Horkheimer’s culture industry thesis in the digital world, this essay will explore its implications in multimedia and the commodification of cultural forms. I believe that the culture industry argument is still relevant as it is more prominent than ever before through multimedia and cultural forms, even though audiences can now openly challenge the system through online media platforms. With the development of digital media technologies, it is harder than ever to escape the capitalism that distracts the public from what they need and manipulates them through desires. As capitalism evolves alongside the development of the Internet, consumers have been given the chance to challenge the dominant discourses, but this is limited as the control over online content is increasing due to large media corporations.

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The culture industry was described by Cook (1996) as an omnipresent, exploitative phenomenon that commercialises culture in the markets to guarantee that consumers will follow market interests to generate maximum profits. The culture industry argument was developed by two Jewish scholars, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, who were both a part of the Frankfurt school, which developed critical theory and established critiques of modern capitalism (Strinati, 2004). They began to recognise that through the convergence of media technologies, mass media was becoming more influential and there was more corporate control over media industries (Dahlberg, 2005). As soon as any cultural forms start to make a profit for its creator, they are commoditised in the market and are only used to gain a profit rather than for its “autonomous essence” (Adorno, 2001, p.99). But a distinctive feature of this type of commoditization is that the industry does not try to hide this in any way and publicly acknowledges that the main aim of these commodities is to generate profits (Cook, 1996).

There are a few, interrelated processes that Adorno and Horkheimer discovered that are still relevant in the new media age, which are the standardisation of cultural commodities, transformation from use to exchange value and reification. One of the points, which was first analysed by Marx, is that in modern capitalist societies, objects are governed more highly by their exchange value rather than their use value (Cook, 1996; Adorno, 2001). The exchange value of an item, which depreciates its physical features, was once secondary but Adorno argued that, because of the culture industry, it has now superseded the primary use value (Cook, 1996; Caslin, 2007). An example of this transformation of values is that someone might buy an Apple MacBook over other laptops just because everybody else around them has one even though they cost more and might not technologically perform as well. People tend to overlook an object’s use value because they might be buying it to achieve a social rating or as a way of fitting in (Cook, 1996). This part of the argument is still relevant to today as consumers buy products based on their exchange value rather than their use value as the culture industry has led them to believe that it reflects their economic, cultural and economic status (Cook, 1996). The rising importance of the cultural production role is reflected by the existence of this exchange principle, as a product is only valuable to the extent to which it can be exchanged (Adorno as cited in Cook, 1996). Another point that Cook (1996) mentions is reification, which is the commodification of human beings. This has significantly become normalised as most people unconsciously view different people based on their financial status or use people based primarily on their purpose (Cook, 1996). The commodification of humans still happens in the world of the Internet and an example of this is that companies like to pay social media influencers to promote and use their products as a way of advertising.

Adorno realised that culture is being standardised to become a commodity which contributes to the increasing monopoly in cultural capital (Cook, 1996). The culture industry originated from profit-making greed, which is deluging culture like a fungus and continues to fuel the industry to this day by producing standardised products to be sold on the market (Adorno as cited in Cook, 1996). Although cultural commodities are standardised, consumers will not buy copies of the same product, so they must also uphold a degree of originality, so that the market can keep up with the demands of cultural capitalism (Cook, 1996). That is why pseudo-individualism is used to create the misconception that the standardised products are different but not so different that it “leave[s] the beaten path”; they must be new but the same (Adorno as cited in Cook, 1996, p. 45). Adorno (as cited in Cook, 1996) highlighted that the reason that the industry promotes a products originality is to satisfy the consumers’ needs while also concealing the rise in standardisation of cultural forms. Pseudo-individualism is still present in new media technologies and this can be seen by the development of the iPhone by Apple, as they always release a new phone with the only slight changes from the previous model. When a new iPhone model is released, Apple only makes slight changes like increasing the size and battery or improving the camera quality and software but doesn’t make any massive changes as it is still a touchscreen smartphone with a camera. The standardisation of cultural commodities cannot be duplicated because the consumer wants something different, so pseudo-individualism functions to demonstrate originality.

With the development of media technologies, mass entertainment has diffused across various platforms, immersing the viewer into a franchise, making the culture industry the most pertinent than it’s ever been (Caslin, 2007). The audience is now constantly surrounded by mass deception and advertisements that sell false justifications, as capitalism traps the public into a society where they get cheated out of what they were originally promised (Adorno, 2007; Strinati, 2004). The culture industry attempts to satisfy the consumers’ demand for products by making them believe that they can make their own decisions and that they are the ‘king’, which is easily done across multi-media platforms (Adorno, 2001). Consumers are encouraged to conform to the aims and activities of the “existing socio-economic order” through developed techniques of production, reproduction, advertising and dispersion (Adorno, 2007; Cook, 1996, p. 13). These manipulative techniques have changed with the evolution of media technologies, but that does not change the fact that the culture industry is still present across media platforms through commodification and standardisation.

With the integration of Internet in our lives increasing, pseudo-realism is becoming more relevant as consumers struggle to distinguish between different media platforms and real life (Adorno, 2007; Caslin, 2007). This struggle is caused by the convergence and remediation of traditional mass media and digital media which then creates a fusion of the virtual and real world (Caslin, 2007). Some users of social media platforms, such as Instagram or FaceBook, struggle to compartmentalise their online world and real world as they become engrossed in this virtual world, they cannot distinguish their online and real-life identities. This illustrates the impact of the culture industry across social media platforms as consumers get so absorbed into their virtual world, they get confused and distracted from the real world.

Although the culture industry is still quite dominant across media platforms, the Internet and social media has enabled the previously marginalised voices to be heard to contest the culture industry argument (Dahlberg, 2005). The Internet can now be used as a tool for consumers to contest the culture industry in an attempt to escape individual conformity and commercial exploitation. With the use of mass media technologies, the culture industry previously corrupted consumers by making them forget about what they really need and showing them what they desire (Cook, 1996). But now consumers are a lot more aware of the existence and impacts of the culture industry and choose how far they want to participate in it (Caslin, 2007). Adorno and Horkheimer (as cited in Caslin, 2007) address this topic by suggesting that the audience are attracted to the product even though they see the manipulative process behind it. Consumers can use the Internet as a medium to organise groups to deliberate their positions and opinions to contest the dominant argument (Dahlberg, 2005). But this freedom is coming under threat as large corporations use their resources to publicise their online portals or websites, which increases the control of online content (Dahlberg, 2005). Domination over the Internet from these corporations leads to “a marginalization of critical communication”, as it advocates their views on political and social institutions (Dahlberg, 2005, p. 95).

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A point that Caslin (2007) suggested is that for some consumers the exchange and use value are intertwined so that they have personal attachments to the products which prevents them from defying the culture industry. An example of this would be that when FaceBook had their privacy incident with Cambridge Analytica, there was outcry from the users but most of them still continued to use the social networking platform. Consumers can see through the culture industry but the power that they have to speak up and criticise the market is lost amongst their desire to continue to use that product (Caslin, 2007). Adorno and Horkheimer (as cited in Caslin, 2007) believed that any consumer opposing the culture industry argument is a deed of the system itself as it portrays resistance within the system. Caslin (2007) questioned that since consumers are aware of the culture industry’s influence, are they really dominated by it or are they supporters of it? If consumers are aware they are being manipulated, yet still continue to be a part of the system, they must be in support of it otherwise they would challenge it and rebel against it.

The development of new media technologies, such as the Internet and social media, has caused the consumer’s role and capitalism within the culture industry to evolve (Caslin, 2007). To answer the question of this essay would mean to decide which side of the argument outweighs the other, to which I believe that the culture industry is still relevant in to today’s modern world and is in fact more prominent than ever before.

The development of individuals who can consciously choose and form opinions is disrupted by the industry, as consumers’ voices are marginalised to avoid contestation and dissent (Adorno, 2001). But Adorno and Horkheimer believes that this contestation is still a part of the industry as it is infused within it, proving that the culture industry argument is still relevant through the development of new media platforms, no matter how many consumers challenge the industry.


  • Adorno T. W. (2001) Culture industry reconsidered. The culture industry: Selected essays on mass culture (pp 98-106). London: Routledge
  • Adorno, T., & Horkheimer, M. (2007). The culture industry: Enlightenment as mass deception (pp. 34-43) Stardom and celebrity: A reader.
  • Caslin, S. (2007). Compliance Fiction: Adorno and Horkheimer’s’ Culture Industry’ Thesis in a Multimedia Age. Fast Capitalism, 2(2): 1-12
  • Cook D (1996) Toward a Political Economy of the Culture Industry. The culture Industry Revisited: Theodor W Adorno on Mass Culture (pp 33-51). Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield
  • Dahlberg, L. (2005). The Internet as public sphere or culture industry? From pessimism to hope and back. International Journal of Media & Cultural Politics, 1(1), 93-96.
  • Strinati, D. (2004). The Frankfurt School and the culture industry. An introduction to theories of popular culture (pp. 46-79) Routledge.


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