Adorno and Horkheimer’s view of mass culture



The work of Adorno and Horkheimer was inspired by the socio-political setting of the Nazi Germany and the rise of the America consumer system and also by a number of theorists in the Frankfurt school. The writings of the work took place in the year 1944. The writers of the book were of the Jewish ethnicity, who had migrated from Germany to escape the atrocities that were directed to the Jewish. The culture industry in the US was under the influence of European politics and the war which had consumed the continent (Bronner and Kellner, 1989). At the same time, the world was witnessing the development of new forms of communication and emergence of big entertainment industry that focused on creation of profits through production and distribution of cultural products (O’connor, 2010). These new cultural conditions were for the first time studied and analysed by Adorno & Bernstein, (2001). They argued that the increasing commodification of culture in the modern capitalist society had transformed culture itself into a significant medium for ideological domination, and an important means by which the maintenance of capitalist order was insured. However, in order to comprehend why Adorno and Horkheimer put emphasis on the need to analyse the nature of mass culture in the contemporary society, the assignment shall begin by looking at some of the influences in which the writers were under and the context upon which the book was written.

When the Dialectics of Enlightenment is viewed critically, the discomforts of the nature of the contemporary modern capitalistic society are evident. Horkheimer, et al (2002) majorly used the analysis of the Marxists to develop a framework for their theory. Adorno was a major figure in the Frankfurt school.  However, how the Frankfurt school influenced the writings of Adorno and Horkheimer will be analysed substantively in the latter part of this introduction. Nevertheless, the writers viewed capitalism as being exploitative, and that for humanity to achieve its full potential, capitalism must be overthrown. Adorn and Horkheimer came to witness the rise of the fascism ideology, the dominance of capitalistic monopoly and the failure of socialism. This made them to argue that a critical theory should surpass a traditional emphasis that was put forward by the Marxists concerning the mode of production. They felt that the mode of production was unable to account, in a satisfied manner, the developments that were being witnesses at the time.

The Horkheimer, et al (2002) argued that what mankind had achieved in doing was to increase a technical mastery over nature, and that humanity had found itself being caught up in this domination process. Furthermore, the aim of negating what is provided to humanity, which is the genuine reason of enlightenment had been eradicated. Its position was taken by the use of entirely objective methods. These methods had been allowed by humanity to achieve the most irrational goals such as engaging in war and spearheading genocide. Adorno and Horkheimer believed that there was a need to comprehend the process of rationalization and as such they began the journey to expand the idea of critical theory beyond the scope of political economy where the theory was common (Adorno & Bernstein, 2001). They saw the necessity of uncovering the methodologies which were responsible for the creation of the atmosphere or a social totality that resulted in rationalizing and dominating the market logic. In the social totality, the concepts which were previously distinct such as culture spheres, politics, and markets were now rapidly merging and as they merged, each of them was playing a central role in maintaining the whole. The writers claimed that in such a society it was inadequate to view culture as a mere phenomenon determined by the base. They posited that culture itself in such a society played a role in creating a base. In the years later, the political economy significantly declined and this pressed for the need for a critical analysis on culture.

In the period of writing the book, the world was witnessing an emergence of the new forms of communication through the industries of mass media and entertainment (Kellner, 1987). The developments were significantly profound. To Adorno, this represented a subsumption of a relatively sovereign realm of culture that previously existed in the market. The subsumption was under the look of instrumental logic. Adorno and Horkheimer adopted the use of the concept of culture industry to give an explanation of the commodification of different forms of culture that had come into existence due to the growth of monopolistic nature of capitalism. The duo argues that the culture industry played a role in cementing its audience to the ideology of capitalism which was the status quo at the time. Culture industry had also occasioned the transformation of the culture itself to a mode of ideological domination. However, according to Adorno & Bernstein (2001), this did not serve its role since the meaning of arts and the function of arts changes with the type of history.

It can however be said that the major influence of the works of Adorno and Horkheimer was from the Frankfurt school. The school was a social theory school and also a school of philosophy (Ritzer, 1996). The school comprised of dissidents who felt welcomed in none of the existing systems of capitalism, fascism, and socialism that existed in those times. The majority of the theorists in this school held a belief that traditional theory was inadequate to explain the unexpected and the turbulent societal development of the societies which had embraced the ideology of capitalism in the twentieth century. The theorists in this school had their works pointing to the feasibility of having an alternative government as they were critical to both capitalism and soviet socialism (Durham and Kellner, 2001). The theorists in the Frankfurt school spoke with a similar paradigm, although at times the paradigms were being loosely affiliated. They were preoccupied with similar questions and shared the premises of Marxist Hegelian. The theorists yearned to get answers from other schools of thought to fill what they perceived as omissions of classical Marxism. They, then as a result used insights of other philosophies such as psychoanalysis, antipositivist sociology, and other disciplines. The main figures of the Frankfurt school sought to interact with and analyse the works of thinkers like Hegel, Lukacs, Kant, Weber, and Freud. From the 1960s, critical theory of Frankfurt school was being guided by the works of Jürgen Habermas on communicative reason. Additionally, through the influences of Frankfurt, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno made the writing of Dialectic of Enlightenment possible. By then, Horkheimer was widely known as a philosopher and as a sociologist who was famous for his critical theory work while part of Frankfurt school of social research. Noteworthy, it was the fleeing of Adorno and Horkheimer from Hitler’s Nazi that inspired them to write the Dialectics of Enlightenment.  Adorno and Horkheimer thought that critical thinking was the only way they could prevent horrors such as Nazism. However, at that time there was a rise in the consumer society in America, and people were unable to think critically. The Americans could spend their time caught in narcotic haze of products and commodities. The consumer society characterized their environment.

Dialectic of the Enlightenment

This book explores the socio-psychological status quo which was accountable for what was termed as the failure of the enlightenment age by the Frankfurt school. The book is divided into two sections. The first section concentrates on two theories; that myth is already enlightenment and that enlightenment reverts to mythology (Horkheimer & Theodor, 2002). The final section of the book looks at anti-Semitism as an example of how barbarism can be reverted by civilization. In this section, Horkheimer, et al (2002). try to give a suggestion that some irrational outbursts, examples which he has provided, are intrinsic in the dominant form of rationality itself.

The concept of enlightenment

In the first chapter, the Horkheimer, et al (2002) talks about the concept of enlightenment. Enlightenment began as a project that was aimed to disenchant and free people’s thoughts from relying on mysterious powers and rumours. It featured the growth of cognitive techniques, and was designed to understand and as a consequence master nature. This led to things like pursuit of utility and computation. Consequently, these techniques were extended and made universal to come up with an outlook that could be applied all over the world. Horkheimer, et al (2002) also adds that power relations, specifically power of nature, are the key to understanding. The section states that the things which used to characterize God had begun to characterize man. What was of myth could now be featured as a thematic area in science. It is impossible to oppose this mode of thought. Horkheimer, et al (2002) notes that all values have been banished, and nature has turned to be a matter of mere rationality and object of control. Horkheimer, et al (2002) notes further that nature has been disqualified for having lost its distinctive characteristics and uniqueness and given it up to limitless control. Ultimately the objects which are found in nature are portrayed as mere specimens or examples that gain importance if the subjects of human bestow importance upon them.

Adorno and Horkheimer primarily wrote this book to contest the writings of Kant and the positivity of enlightenment. They held that within the concept of enlightenment and modernity in general, there is continuity in in the age of myth. They posit that modernity has acted to fulfil what myth always wanted to achieve. The writer proceeds to elicit reason. He asks if individuals still maintain the idea of seeing the world through the light of their reason and if that has been brought about by enlightenment. He continues to give a challenge by asking if people, after the shift of modernity, can be taken back into a position where they are able to reflect on issues. They conclude by asking if there is anything concerning modernity itself that acts to sustain a purpose as the world witnessed violence during the second half of the twentieth century. For Horkheimer, et al (2002) the promise that is given to people in the age of enlightenment was not an honest promise. According to them, it has become a nightmare.

Adorno and Horkheimer in the book, the Dialectic of Enlightenment, inquire about the meaning of modernity as progress in the post-enlightenment era. They are concerned why anyone would still like enlightenment when enlightenment played a crucial role in leading people down to the violent and barbaric path. He is also concerned if that is the price people must pay for progress, or if it is a simple bitter pill that should be swallowed in order to keep going forward. Moreover, the Horkheimer, et al (2002) try to explain to the readers that being rational creatures, they are authorities unto themselves because reason itself is an authority. The writers at this point attempt to give logic of why the universe is in the way which it is. The irrational behaviour that lies within an irrational observation leaves people without a question of truth but with a question of effect which constitutes a new construction of truth on itself. That in modernity, animism has been lost leaving people knowing that there is absence of soul and spirit in every object. As such the writers conclude this part by asking where the humanity is left if man is no longer living in truth.

Moreover, the Horkheimer, et al (2002) progresses to state that after enlightenment, man becomes a master of nature; that matter cannot be conquered by the mind. Instead, the two coexist in what is called a happy match. When man becomes a master of nature and also becomes himself, anything goes on in the mind perfectly matches with nature. The concept of the mastery of nature comes when the said happy match is confirmed; making mastery a thing which people are completely fine with. It is therefore not a matter of coincidence that enlightenment becomes connected to the scientific method; where a place is available for anything that has not yet been thought of nor conquered. Additionally, people are bound to themselves in the happy match between mind and matter. At this stage, two roles are given to sovereignty; the first role is that of unlimited knowledge where human beings are not given limits to what they can know and that it is a nucleus of power in and of itself. The second role is that there is freedom and people are not bound by tradition. As such, the concept of reasoning scientifically is a realization of these two roles. That science is the scientific reasoning model which is the plausible explanation of how power is given to people over tradition by things by making them feel free of it. This knowledge without limits leaves science with the mandate to arbitrate on what remains to be legitimate.

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Nonetheless, the people’s sovereignty becomes one of technology and bureaucracy, and at the same time rational management of life is perfected. Mystery is also removed in nature and the curiosity that lies with need to discover what is yet to be known is removed. For Horkheimer, et al (2002) this lies between fear and mystery. As human beings, we are begged to question where our security rests by a fearing the unknown. The writer proceeds to posit that in this new age of rational sovereignty of man, people stand in an emergence of complacency and alleviation of fear. Moreover, as much as enlightenment is progress, it is also technology. In this moment, progress is taken to be something other than progress; and there is no opposition between progress and barbarism. Technology reveals to us that there is falsehood in the myths which are said to have existed in the past. This break in myths transforms the concept of myths in total. Enlightenment works to overturn myth as animism and it leads to the disenchantment of the world. Adorno and Horkheimer alludes that technology is a mind-set, a way of viewing the world and a way of being. They further continue to argue that the instruments in the world become symptoms enlightenment and modernity. Technology is also a way of being and for everything that happens there is an explanation and a reason for it. This way of being which manages our human reason rationally is portrayed by bureaucratic reason. A promise exists in enlightenment for people to return back to their rationality; that each person has the same similar reasoning sense.

Horkheimer, et al (2002) also proclaims that modernity still harbours mythical residues as a mechanism of saving off the fear of the unknown from the outside of its frameworks. An example of the mythical issue is an irrational belief in science and positivism.  Moreover, the subject and the law of equivalence has been deem fetishized. The world has been demythologized by formal logic and more so in its idea of insisting that an object is only allowed to be a simple component, and identical with the world itself (Adorno & Bernstein, 2001). The writer establishes that as a result of that, the ability to think is converted to an instrumental activity that is mechanical in nature. Additionally, the book dismisses any discussion of ultimate processes as meaningless prattle.  Furthermore, thought is not in the confinement of immediate purposes even though some irrational residues remain. The book progresses to state about the restriction of cognition to what is given and performing calculations upon what is given. As such, the mandate of reason which is supposed to negate in a critical way what is given immediately to the experience of humanity is made redundant. Later on, the book states that cognition becomes restricted to repetition as factuality wins the day, and finally thought become a mere tautology. The writers proceed to inquire if it is possible for the world to re-enchant the people. The challenge of the possibility of people reflecting on their sovereign rationality is also posed.

Critique of Adorno and Horkheimer’s work

Adorno’s approach of classical critical theory concerns itself with an attack towards the ideology and the retrogressive effects of the popular music and other cultural things in their purest form. As a result, the mode of interpreting culture and the method of critique nearly resembles the Marxist ideological critique. One of the problems with the criticism of Ardono and Horkheimer is that the culture industry artefacts which have been presented in their work are beyond being contemptuous. Adorno argues that popular music may showcase reification and commodification features which may as a result pose retrogressive effects on consciousness. However, such theoretical optics of Adorno and Horkheimer cannot account substantially for how genres of music such as jazz, blues, rocks, reggae and other forms of music that are connected with oppositional subcultures began and gained popularity. In the history of some genres of popular music, it is evident that their production was always carried out by groups which faced oppression; such as blacks and Hispanics.  Others were produced by the whites who belonged to the working class category and marginalized youths. Thus, much of popular music carries the message of rebellion against features which Adorno criticized; for instance, conformity, standardization, and submission among other features.

The book, in the first chapter has dropped the ideology of historical materialism out of the picture. The ideology has been presented as a sui generis concept. The underlying motives of historical materialism have been postulated as if in a vacuum. Additionally, the writer reduces everything to reason by using analogy. Another problem with Adorno’s work is that he rigidly juxtaposes his concept of authentic art in the form of Avant garde masters such as Beckett. This is against the mass culture which the writer denounces for having failed to possess the qualities that he found in the aesthetic models that he preferred. For instance, in what is often cited as the letter of Adorno to Walter Benjamin, the citation proves that Ardono is in recognition of the fact that mass culture and high art are all of them socially meditated by capitalism. Instead of rejecting the popular tout court, the writer criticizes a form of mass culture that has been standardized and is part of the mass production and consumption industrial processes that are within the contemporary capitalism. He posits that these forms of standardized mass culture in turn contribute greatly to the homogenization and massification processes of both culture and the audience.

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Adorno and Horkheimer have also provided a rigid distinction between mass culture and high culture. The two concepts have been subjected to critical attack and are also undermined by the postmodern culture tendencies to implode cultural boundaries and lead to the collapsing of hierarchies  (Redmond, 2007). Adorno would represent this as a type of cultural barbarism. However, it sounds perverted for the writer to try to expect products of cultural industries to possess the qualities of avant-garde or the previous high culture.

To some extent, the aesthetics of Adorno are undialectical. The writer operates with a binary distinction between mass culture and authentic art. Talking of mass culture and authentic art, the mass culture is debased completely and the effects of the emancipation are limited to the authentic art. As a result, the German religion of high art is reproduced together with its inevitable concept of elitism and it leads to the exclusion of popular from the authentic domain (Wagner, 2012). Thus, it regresses behind the Brecth’s and Benjamin’s critique and Adorno’s own critique in his book the Jargon of Authenticity (Marcuse, 1991). As a result, the esoteric aesthetic theory of Ardon becomes itself a jargon under the motivation of the fear of co-optation and regression. Callinicos & Justin, (2008), criticizes the Dialectic of Enlightenment by claiming that the book gives no systematic explanation of the concept of rationality, but that to an extent it acknowledges an objective reason intransigently. Another theorist, Lemert, (2016) posited that Adorno and Horkheimer lack sufficient sympathy for the average working people’s cultural plight. He says that it is unfair to criticize what ordinary people fancy and that popular culture, as much as Frankfurt school thinks, does not strengthen sociality conformity and stabilize capitalism (Brubaker, 1984)


As states in the critique, there are so many limitations in the work of Adorno and Horkheimer. However, Adorno’s analyses of the culture industry give a significant contribution to the study of media culture (Held, 1980). In conceptualizing culture and communication, Adorno and Horkheimer see culture and communication as part of the society. They further focus on how the nature, function, and effects of culture and communication was assisted by socio-economic imperatives in their formation. By concluding that the social forces are part of the socio-economic process, the critical theory of Adorno and Horkheimer integrates the study of economy and society together with that of culture and communication (Zuidervaart, 2007). Moreover, by adopting a critical approach in the studying social phenomena, the writer and the critical theory which he propounds are able to conceptualize how social control instruments are served by culture industries and how they in turn serve the interests of social domination.

Adorno and Horkheimer are among the intial social theorists to recognize the significance of communication and mass culture in the contemporary society’s reproduction  (Marcuse, 2013).  This made them to develop a critical approach. Moreover, the writers posit that the concept of the enlightened reason had disenchanted the world through throwing off the myths and the gods. But now the myths and the gods are coming back. The reason for their coming back is because man subjectively needs the myths and the gods to set the ends and values which instrumental reason cannot define objectively. For Adorno and Horkheimer, the enlightened reason itself can overcome the re-enchantment of the world.

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