In his 1975 essay entitled, “Culture Industry Reconsidered,” the sociologist and philosopher Theodor W Adorno states:
The power of the culture industry’s ideology is such that conformity has replaced consciousness. The order that springs from it is never confronted with what it claims to be or with the real interest of human beings. Order, however, is not good in itself. It would be so only as a good order. The fact that the culture industry is oblivious to this and extols order in abstraction bears witness to the impotence and untruth of the messages its conveys. While it claims to lead the perplexed, it deludes them with false conflicts which they exchange for their own. It solves conflicts for them only in appearance, in a way that they can hardly be solved in their real lives. In the products of the culture industry human beings get into trouble only so that they can be rescued unharmed, usually be representatives of a benign collective; and then in empty harmony, they are reconciled with the general, whose demands they had experienced at the outset as irreconcilable with their own interests.
As this excerpt indicates, Adorno proposes a hegemonic model of cultural production in which the function of the cultural industry (Adorno here means so-called “low art”) is to standardize experience, foster uniformity and reconcile individuals to the dominant system of values and beliefs held by a particular society. This reconciliation is carried out in order to insure the orderliness of this very society.
To achieve this goal, cultural products present disorder or beliefs which counter the dominant ideology in order to resolve this disorder and discount these beliefs, thereby establishing harmony, sameness and conformity.
Thus, within representation or “appearance” as Adorno says, the culture industry presents fictive conflicts for resolution or imaginary rescue situations, images which serve to mask real problems of people’s lives and to inscribe them with a false sense of harmony and catharsis. In actuality, these products only foster the continual production of the same- the same images, narratives and ideologies. In the end, Adorno presents a view of (mass) culture which denies any notion of agency on the part of the consumer of these products. The consumer blindly ingests these cultural goods and willingly participates in their own suturing to the dominant ideology.
While I agree with Adorno that individuals are in a sense constructed by discourses, cultural and otherwise, in which they are enmeshed or subject to by their very behaviors, needs and desires, I am unwilling to conceptualize the “masses” as somehow blindly ignorant and co-opted by the products of the culture industry. Cultural products do, in general propose conflicts or beliefs which are are dangerous to the dominant social order in order to more successfully gut these beliefs and render them harmless, impotent, so that the adherence to the dominant ideology can be carried out with greater efficiency and firmness. For example, an early mainstream film about AIDS, Philadelphia, presents the cultural conflict of the disease in order to reassert the dominant ideology of AIDS in terms of promiscuity, homosexuality and the family.
However, the culture also produces texts that have ruptures and breaks which can function as critical sites of resistance to the dominant ideology. In this sense, one must consider the nature of viewers and producers. In contrast to Philadelphia, the film Postcards from America made by a gay director radically disrupts the ideology of AIDS through both its formal and narrative structure.
To this end, I want to discuss my own relationship to the TV show Wonder Woman which I watched growing up in suburban New Jersey. I loved when Diana Prince (the superhero’s alter-ego) transformed into Wonder Woman by spinning around in the midst of a big explosion and then emerging in her sexy red, white and blue patriotic outfit.
I would spin around in the backyard of my parent’s house and become dizzy. Such a program seems to be a prime example of the cultural products which Adorno is speaking of in his 1975 essay. While Wonder Woman can be considered an ideological tool which presents a construction of woman that is fantastical and magical and thereby perhaps oppressive. And here I am thinking about Dara Birnbaum’s 1976 video Technology / Transformation: Wonder Woman. http://www.mediaartnet.org/works/technology-transformation/
Yet, my relationship to Wonder Woman as a young queer boy was entirely different. On one level, one might say the Adorno level, my obsession with Wonder Woman could be understood as adhering me to the dominant model of homosexuality current at the time in terms of gender inversion.
It also resonates with other social and cultural definitions of homosexuality, particularly the ideology of the closet. Wonder Woman had an alter-ego, Diana Prince, who is normal in terms of physical strength and power and who conforms to prescribed norms of gender. Her true identity of Wonder Woman is her most closely guarded secret just as my desire (my true identity) to have sex with men was the secret of my childhood and adolescence. In a sense, Wonder Woman and I were both in the closet.
However, this closet was not occupied by guilt and shame. My fascination with Wonder Woman did not suture me to the prevailing ideology of the closet. In choosing Wonder Woman as a role model, I picked a figure who disrupted traditional notions of gender and proudly, powerfully and spectacularly displayed her difference.
For me, the figure of Wonder Woman allowed me to participate in dominant definitions of homosexuality, yet simultaneously she provided a figure for the conceptualization of my own desire and identity which was indeed positive and disrupted the negative discourse of same-sex desire operating at the time. It became in the words of Foucault a “reverse discourse”.
Adorno discounts the potentiality radical use of the products of the culture industry such as my use of Wonder Woman. In part this view emerges out of a belief that the products of popular culture are a real threat to the existence of high art. Indeed, this perspective was formed within a particular historical context in which modernist art was labeled degenerate and so-called mass culture forms were employed by totalitarian regimes. Nevertheless, the functioning of cultural objects cannot only be seen as hegemonic, but must be situated in terms of spectators, producers and the historical context of making.