MASS CULTURE

Nuran Yıldırım

Middle East Technical University

 

The very notion of mass culture has always been the target of a comprehensive attack by various scholars. Nietzsche, for example, was one of the first to develop philosophical critique of mass culture. He saw mass culture as distinctive feature of modern society and central to modern social production process (Kellner, 1999). Believing that culture is central to human life, Nietzsche himself wanted to provide a new, life-affirming culture in order to create superior individuals. Further, he described modern mass culture as barbaric which creates herd societies and mediocrity. For him, only through rising above this barbarian mass culture, society would produce healthier and superior human beings. Just like Nietzsche, Jose Ortega y Gasset made a critique of mass culture in his book: The Revolt of the Masses (1929).  His message in general echoes that of Nietzsche and similarly held a pessimistic view upon culture and modern society. The threat, for Ortega, was overcrowded masses those recognize its own collective strength and enforce democracy. He basically believed that a state which is run by this overcrowded population, the mass, can be seen as a machine that would crush the individual as well as the value of intellect in the world.

Similarly, the Frankfurt School theorists analyzed the effects of mass culture, consumer society and the ‘culture industries’ in the twentieth century. They also developed a critique of expanding roles of mass media and communication upon culture, politics, social life as well as the socialization of the subjects. One of the most significant early intellectual work of the Frankfurt School was marked by Horkheimer with the publication of ‘Studies on Authority and Family: Research Reports from the Institute for Social Research’ (1936).  In the twentieth century modern societies, for Horkheimer, the family as the most basic institution of socialization has started to disintegrate since the development of capitalism. Horkheimer observed the very effects of father-authority in family. Drawing on example given by Frederic Le Play on the declining influence of paternal authority, Horkheimer pointed out authoritarian tendency of patriarchal-oriented families and decline in the authority of father as a result of ‘disintegration of family life’ (Miller, 2011). Actually it was quite common to make analysis on the disintegration of family on the 1930s so Marx also analyzed the role of family. But, unlike Frankfurt School, Marx saw the family as a tool of the ruling class, the best mechanism for getting people to think and behave in a way the ruling class want them in order to capitalism to survive. For Marxists, family is a place of unequal relations of power between father, mother and the children, and a place of conflict just like the societies where inequalities exist. But as a result of development of capitalism these relations between members of the family disintegrated, more exactly father has lost its power over the mother and the children. So this is actually seen as something positive for Marxists. Frankfurt School, otherwise, saw this disintegration of patriarchal authority through disintegration of families negatively. Indeed the development of capitalism has caused to disintegration the function of families that of teaching its members to submit to authority of ruling class but now this function of family has given to someone else: the culture industry. While the experts of the mass communications run the function of socialization instead of the family, the false consciousness of the modern human has been created. Thus passive human beings who have believed there is nothing they can do against the problems of the world have been created by the culture industry. In holidays, for example, we read the bestseller novels and in the weekends we go to a concert in order to escape from the null relations of our daily life in our contemporary environment. But the problem is that all these activities we do with our very own ‘taste of choice’ actually provide more connection to the culture industry since they are under the control of culture industry. Hence people do all these leisure and entertainment activities in order to escape because they do not have the control of their very own life so the only thing they do is that of escaping from responsibilities. And this escape has created more and more antagonism and control by the capitalism.

Lastly, in their work of 1944, ‘The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception’ from the book of Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer pointed out the concept of standardization by arguing ‘Under monopoly all mass culture is identical, and the lines of its artificial framework begin to show through.’ Since the culture industry aims to reach as many people as possible, it creates no more than standardization and mass production. Even the works of art has been forced into a sort of standardization and uniformity and they became a commodity which is precisely industrialized with the notion of culture. The songs of Nick Cave, for example, are mostly written with the average length of three minutes. Indeed, this does not basically means that Nick Cave is an untalented song writer and he can merely write three minutes short songs but rather this is only because production of the art works are made under the same fixed formula and the creativity of the artist is no more important. As Adorno stated, art appeared as commodities just like other mass-produced items and it lost its emancipatory power as a transcendent object (Kellner, 1989). Therefore, just like Kant’s concept of ‘purposefulness without purpose’, the culture industry has no purpose while serving a purpose, art became an art without a purpose which is connected into the purposes of the market.

 

Bibliography

Adorno, T. & Horkheimer, M. (1979), “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception”, in Dialectic of Enlightenment, London: Verso.

Kellner, D. (1989) Critical Theory, Marxism and Modernity (Baltimore: JHU Press). Retrieved from: https://pages.gseis.ucla.edu/faculty/kellner/essays/criticaltheory.pdf

Kellner, D. (1999). Nietzsche’s Critique of Mass Culture. International Studies in Philosophy, 31(3), 77-89. Retrieved from: https://pages.gseis.ucla.edu/faculty/kellner/Illumina%20Folder/kell22.htm

Miller, B. (2011). Frankfurt School, 1936, studies on authority (1): Max Horkheimer on authority and family. Retrieved from: http://oldhickorysweblog.blogspot.com.tr/2011/02/frankfurt-school-1936-studies-on_22.html

Ortega y Gasset, J. (1929). The Revolt of the Masses. W. Norton & Company.

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