Cultural studies takes very seriously the Marxist claim that the ruling ideas of an era reflect the interests of the ruling class. To look critically at structures of capitalism means to critically examine the ideologies that sustain them. ("Theodor w.") "Culture" refers not to an organic, arbitrary social variable, but to a deliberate, functional instrument. In modernity, culture is mass produced, perpetuated by an industry "infecting everything with sameness". (Adorno & Horkheimer, 94) The field of cultural studies (also called critical theory) is purposefully varied in scope, focus, and perspective (although fundamentally critical), but its elemental ideas are described by Adorno and Horkheimer in their 1944-47 critique of modernity, "Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments" written while in exile during the Second World War. The work called into question the Western ideals of progress and reason, confronting them with the grim facts of WWII. The chapter entitled "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception" addresses the emergence of mass media and the advertising industry in the Modern Era.
“The Culture Industry” refers to those involved in the mass production of art, media, entertainment, ideas that aid the oppression of the status quo by upholding the ideological foundations for capitalism. The industry is effective in embedding its influence into subjectivity. Indifference is acculturated, it’s motives reveal themselves to an apathetic public. The culture industry sustains a narrative of progress, “Something is provided for everyone so that no one can escape; differences are hammered home and propagated. The hierarchy of serial qualities purveyed to the public serves only to quantify it more completely.” (Adorno & Horkheimer, 97) Options in the free market are superficial myth, Adorno & Horkheimer claim, because all consumption supports capitalism. Consumption better aids the ruling class when it entangles an individuals identity, when identity is affirmed through the purchasing of products that are fundamentally the same. Mass culture aims to “infect everything with sameness” because it serves the interests of an elite few, “All mass culture under monopoly is identical…those in charge no longer take much trouble to conceal the structure, the power of which increases the more bluntly its existence is admitted.” (Adorno & Horkheimer, 95) Those invested in the culture industry, its supporters, appeal to public preference, facts of supply and demand. Popular culture is popular because it is regarded with a favorable public eye. However, “The mentality of the public, which allegedly and actually favors the system of the culture industry, is a part of the system, not an excuse for it.” (Adorno & Horkheimer, 96) This is because culture permeates consciousness, and replicates in it the patterns of alienation implicit under capitalism:
“To speak about culture always went against the grain of culture. The general designation “culture” already contains, virtually, the process of identifying, cataloging, and classifying which imports culture into the realm of administration. Only what has been industrialized, rigorously subsumed, is fully adequate to this concept of culture. Only by subordinating all branches of intellectual production equally to the single purpose of imposing on the sense of human beings, from the time they leave the factory in the evening to the time they clock on in the morning, the imprint of the work routine which they must sustain throughout the day, does this culture mockingly fulfill the notion of a unified culture which the philosophers of the individual personality held out against mass culture.” (Adorno & Horkheimer104)
Man's estrangement from his labor deprives him from a fulfilling productivity. Leisure is the space in which our productive essence is actualized. Our modern concept of leisure reflects a fundamental distraction perpetuated by the culture industry. The emerging middle class, in principle free from the toils of the proleteriat, is rendered a falsely leisured class:
…the culture industry remains the entertainment business. Its control of consumers is mediated by entertainment, and its hold will not be broken by outright dictate but by the hostility inherent in the principle of entertainment to anything which is more than itself…Their [captains of the film industry] ideology is business….Entertainment is the prolongation of work under late capitalism. It is sought by those who want to escape the mechanized labor process so that they can cope with it again. At the same time, however, mechanization has such power over leisure and its happiness…that the off-duty worker can experience nothing but after-images of the work process itself. The only escape from the work process in factory and office is through adaptation to it in leisure time. This is the incurable sickness of all entertainment. Amusement congeals into boredom, since, to be amusement, it must cost no effort and move strictly along the well-worn grooves of association.” (Adorno & Horkheimer, 109)
In our flaccid amusement we lose sight of not only our own alienation, but our privileges. It is easier to be passively entertained than to confront at whose expense we gain our false leisure.
The culture industry does not merely passify, it socializes. You adopt its ideologies as your own, as do the institutions most closely linked to your selfhood: your family, etc. “[Ideology] knows how to identify its true supporters. Formal freedom is guaranteed for everyone. No one has to answer officially for what he or she thinks. However, all find themselves enclosed from early on within a system of churches, clubs, professional associations, and other relationships which amount to the most sensitive instrument of social control.” (Adorno & Horkheimer, 120) It infiltrates your most basic faculty: language, shapes your communication, and through it, your most personal relationships. “The whole world is passed through the filter of the culture industry….the film seeks to reproduce the world of everyday perception.” (Adorno & Horkheimer, 99) The culture industry, by ingraining its ideologies, rooted in business, in your every day life, renders it inescapable, “Anyone who does not conform is condemned to an economic impotence which is prolonged in the intellectual powerlessness of the eccentric loner. Disconnected from the mainstream, he is easily convicted of inadequacy.” (Adorno & Horkheimer, 106) This is its triumph: the full realization of late capitalism sustained in the lives and practices of a disenchanted and depoliticized class.
These concepts are also conspicuously depicted in 1988 film THEY LIVE:
Zuidervaart, Lambert, “Theodor W. Adorno”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) Web. 17 Oct 2010. <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/adorno/>.