Adorno and Horkheimer dedicated particular attention to culture throughout their analysis of contemporary capitalism. The fore-fathers of the Frankfurt School saw in the rise of what they termed “KutlurIndustrie” an evolution which announced a concomitant shift in the nature of capitalism.
The mutations which they described are still relevant today. To what extent are they epitomized in the rise of so-called “Viral Media”?
The fourth chapter of Adorno & Horkheimer’s The Dialectic of Enlightenment, “KulturIndustrie”, exposes the Frankfurt School theory of culture under contemporary capitalism. It is argued that modernity, for all its unsettling impact on tradition, has not wrought chaos in the realm of culture. On the contrary: modernity has disciplined culture, taming it to the demands of modern capitalism.
As a result, art is no longer valued for its “purposelessness” – defined as lack of a socially determined purpose and instead by a meaning that is ascribed to the object by the individual himself – it is valued by its exchange value – a social order of valuation. Exchange value thus substitutes itself for use value in a movement which Adorno calls the fetishization of culture.
The field of art – for all its diversity from high art to street entertainment – is replaced by the droning KulturIndustrie, weaving together technology and capitalism.
The account provided by Adorno and Horkheimer in 1947 paints a bleak but enduring picture of the state of culture in modern society. And one that is perhaps unsurpassed in its prescience of phenomena like the rise of “Viral Media”.
Applying the argument to the new cultural industry, the outline of the present-day “Buzz Industrie” reveals itself oddly close and, in many ways, an exacerbated duplicata of that of the KulturIndustrie which Adorno and Horheimer had analysed.
The general interchangeability of the various parts of the wider whole is one important aspect of Adorno’s critique of modern culture. Be it in the titles, as parodied by this Upworthy title generator, or in the component parts of viral listicles – Gifs being endlessly reused and reassembled in a different sequence from one story to the next – viral media embodies the interchangeability, and ensuing predictability, discerned in Adorno’s analysis. Furthermore the overstatement of the difference in the output of these processes is as pronounced as the distinction between the products is minute.
This interchangeability occurs in a similar fashion between the realm of lived experience and culture. Products of the cultural industry aim to mirror the real life experience of the audience: one of being subject to a work ethos either as an employee or as a consumer. The end result is that work and leisure amalgamate in the cultural industry; just as in the Buzz Industrie the “listicle” is molded on the “to do list”whether a list of tasks or a shopping list.
One unsurprising consequence of the general spilling of work into leisure is the central role claimed by advertising – propaganda’s twin sister in Adorno’s account. Both economically-speaking and from a technical point of view, advertising and the cultural industry blend seamlessly into one another.
Buzzfeed takes this one step further. In the era of native advertising, editorial and ad are one and the same. Adverts are commissioned by brands to mimic the rest of the content, but the content itself exists to generate the income brought in by the advertorial section. The complete equivalence of advertising and culture in the buzz industrie is the highest degree of accomplishment of a trend identified as early as 1947 by Adorno and Horkheimer.
Following Adorno and Horkheimer’s account of cultural modernity, the fusion of high art and entertainment also holds drastic consequences. Meaningless entertainment – which represents by its very humanity an opposition to social mechanisms – is ruthlessly tracked down and colonized by socially constructed orders of value. High art’s aspiration to meaning beyond the order of exchange value is suddenly dragged down into it.
What remains is a loss of the tragic – one of the strongest pillars of individuation – embodied in the surge of so-called “positive wave” media. Behind the proposed amusement lies a large scale attempt to discipline and conform the most remote corners of human experience. Amusement – or a “like” – has become synonymous with endorsement of the model of behavior endlessly instilled one Gif after another.
The return of the occult
The continuous output of the KulturIndustrie is a constant reminder of the complete subjection of the individual to the capitalist order of value – the reign of exchange value – and the corresponding violence done to the individual through the obliteration of the very concept of individuality.
Buzzfeed’s signature tone emphasizes the persona of the reader through sentences like “when your friends do this…” “when your mom texts you and…” and “when you just don’t want to…” However, beneath its claim to address a wide and diverse audience also lies the recognition that the concept of individuality has long ceased to exist.
All that remains beyond this “miracle of integration” by which authority encircles the individual, leaving him no outlet for rebellion, is the specter of total control. “In the era of advanced capitalism, life is a permanent rite of initiation. Everyone must demonstrate that they unreservedly identify with the system.” With viral media, this process is taken one step further: a “like” encapsulates the approbation and subjection to the system. A “share” however, is the sign of this renewed pact by the individual to the authority spread to other individuals in his network and demanding reciprocation on their part.