Why does Adorno insist that contemporary culture is an industry?


Theodor Adorno was a leading 20th Century philosopher and theorist. His writing was mainly centred on human suffering with his notable influencers being Marx, Hegel, and Nietzsche. His is linked to the Institute for Social Research, of which the Frankfurt School was part of. The school acted as a cultural and intellectual hub and hence promoted socialism. Among his most refereed works is on his critic of the culture industry. Adorno viewed the entertainment industry as a formulaic and mechanic in nature in the same way that the workplace was. Adorno argued that humans endeavour to free from the monotony of the workplace by going for leisure in the entertainment industry but sadly, such people never get the freedom that they so much yearn for (Adorno, 1991). The essay provides strong arguments in regards to Adorno’s view of contemporary culture as an industry. The contemporary culture has become more comodified and routinized through the capitalism oppressive rules, which makes it the culture industry. Adorno's views on the culture industry and enlightenment, TV, and music will be examined. Influences of Marx on Ardono's works swill also be evaluated, along with the criticism of his work. The Frankfurt School vs. Chicago School on contemporary culture as an industry will also be sought.

Adono and Marx's influence

Like Marx, Adorno viewed capitalism as nothing more than an essentially dehumanising system. Just like Marx, Adorno remained sceptical about account of liberalism that hinged upon conception ideas of formal equality, along with the prioritization of property and economic rights (Held 1980). Most of Adorno's larger works and articles echo Marx's peculiar comprehensions of ascendancy of exchange value and capitalism as the fundamental decisive element of worth in an otherwise capitalist society (Held 1980). Indeed, the idea of exchange value would play a decisive role in Adorno's abstract thought on entertainment and culture in capitalist societies.

Culture industry and enlightenment, TV, and music

Adorno views the culture industry in capitalist societies as an element of enlightenment. He views the culture industry as nothing more than mass deception (Adorno, 1991). Adorno argues that this industry is in a state of self-deception because it has allowed human social life to be replaced by instrumental logic. Adorno further contends that the culture industry signifies late capitalism. This late capitalism consists of all types of light entertainment industry, ranging from elevator music to Hollywood films. Adorno contends that although artwork symbolises the various products of a cultural economy, in the real sense, these products rely on economy and industry (Cook1996). As such, they are dependent on power and money.

Adorno further argues that all products of the cultural industry are profit oriented. What this means is that every piece of artwork turns into a consumer product and takes the shape of the logic behind capitalist rationality (Horkheimer & Adorno 2002). This in itself has led to the comodification of culture and its related products and by extension, that of the human consciousness.

Adorno contends that we have subjected the cultural industry to the same commodification that has dominated our working lives (Andrae 1979). There has been an unquestionable exponential rise in the scope and volume of commodities that the modern cultural industry produces. As a result, even when we purport to escape from the all too common capitalism that our workplaces espouse by seeking leisure in the cultural industry, the same underlying conditions still govern this industry (Hesmondhalgh 2007). This has prompted Adorno and Horkheimer (1979) to state that “amusement under late capitalism is the prolongation of work. It is sought after as an escape from the mechanised work process.....mechanisation has such a power over man's leisure and happiness... his experience are inevitably after-images of the work process itself.” (p. 137).

Frankfurt School vs. Chicago School on contemporary culture as an industry

The Frankfurt School refers to a group of scholars who identified with the Marxist ideology, and who were forced into exile in New York in 193 by the Nazi-led government in Germany (Wiggershaus 1994). They only returned to Frankfurt in 1950. Theodor Adorno, along with Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse were the three prominent members of the Frankfurt School. The members were especially concerned with the link between the working classes and the notion of the “mass media as a culture industry” (Lewis, 2002). Particularly, the Chicago School was interested in popular media and popular culture texts. On the other hand, the Chicago School differed from the Frankfurt School in the sense that its members assumed a comparatively less rigorous method in as far as the exposition of the mass media in American was concerned (Horkheimer & Adorno 2002). Whereas the Frankfurt School paid more attention to mass culture along with its inclination towards social control, in contrast, the Chicago School was engulfed in the orderly and significantly postulated critique of the culture in which the group operated and in the modern culture as well.

Criticism of Adorno's works

Adorno's work has been revered and criticised in the academic and scholarly fields in equal measure. Although his philosophical works have had a lasting and significant impact on philosophers and critical theorists, it continues to attract significant criticism. For example, Adorno has been accused of deliberately writing in a difficult to comprehend style in his bid to influence his readers to also view the world and the various concepts that defines it in a radical manner (Cook1996).

Another area of Adorno's work that has elicited criticism from other scholars is his understanding of reason. One such critic is Habermas (1987) who contends that Adorno over praises the magnitude of instrumental reasons with the complex, modern societies. He accuses Adorno of adopting an extensive and encompassing instrumental reasoning to the point of eliminating the prospect of rationality surmounting such condition, and hence attaining the objectives of the critical theory (Habermas 1974).

Other forms of criticism levelled against Adorno include his inability to acknowledge the moral advantages attained through the rationalisation of reasons and the resultant ending of the dominance of tradition (Lewis 2008).

Harbemas public sphere to Adorno’s thinking

Jurgen Habermas though closely worked with Adorno, his views were different. He described the public sphere as a "realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed" (Habermas 1974, p. 50). In other words, Habermas saw the public sphere as the major driver of cultural institutions transformation driven via political system change (Hohendahl 2001). He considered cultural emancipation and the literary enlightenment of the masses as a total failure. Although the philosophy of Habermas differs from that of Adornos, his presentation of bourgeois culture disintegration does not fall short from Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s critique (Hohendahl 2001). There is a central agreement that in advanced capitalism, mass culture is a creation of bourgeois, which makes it a manipulated culture. This means that the masses in advanced capitalism have been converted into objects. Even though Habermas tries to reformulate the older Frankfurt School, he has accepted Adorno’s results uncritically on the aspect of cultural elitism (Hohendahl 2001).


It is conclusive that contemporary culture is an industry as earlier perceived by Adorno. Majority of the critical theorists’ believe that standardization accompanied by the commodification of the culture has resulted to culture industry. The mass culture is a reflection of the late capitalism. Adorno argue that although artwork represents the various products of a cultural economy, the economy and industry are the major drivers. His work has been criticized for failing to acknowledge the moral advantages attained through the rationalisation of reasons.


Adorno, T.W 1991, The Culture Industry, London, Routledge.

Adorno T W & Horkheimer, M 1979, Dialectic of Enlightenment, London: Verso.

Andrae, T 1979, ‘Adorno on film and mass culture: The culture industry reconsidered’, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, no. 20, pp. 34-37.

Cook, D 1996, The culture industry revisited: Theodor W. Adorno on mass culture, Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham.

Habermas, J 1987, Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, MIT Press, Cambridge.

Habermas, J 1974, ‘The public sphere: An encyclopedia article’, New German Critique, vol. 3, pp. 49-55.

Held, D 1980, Introduction to critical theory: Horkheimer to Habermas, Berkeley.

Hesmondhalgh, 2007, The cultural industries, Sage, Los Angeles.

Hohendahl, P U 2001, Critical theory, public sphere and culture. Jurgen Herbermas and his critics, University of Alberta, pp. 91-118.

Horkheimer, M & Adorno, T W 2002, Dialectic of enlightenment: Philosophical fragments, Stanford, Calif: Stanford Univ. Press.

Lewis, J 2008, Cultural studies: The basics, Los Angeles, Sage Publications

Wiggershaus, R 1994, The Frankfurt School: its history, theories, and political significance, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass

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