Adorno and the Culture Industry

Sunday, September 10, 2023
First Aired: 
Sunday, March 25, 2018

What Is It

What's your favorite movie? Did you watch that season finale last night? No spoilers! Popular cultures pervades modern life. But what if pop culture was actually more pernicious than we ordinarily think? Could it be systematically deceiving us—eroding our ability to think for ourselves and fight for change? That's what the 20th century German philosopher Theodor Adorno thought. The Philosophers get cultured on Adorno's life and thought with Adrian Daub from Stanford University, co-author of The James Bond Songs: Pop Anthems of Late Capitalism.

Listening Notes

Josh and Ken start off debating whether culture can really be described as an industry. Does capitalism’s cultural products ineluctably end up reinforcing the status quo? Josh isn’t convinced. Aren’t there some movies and some art that resist capitalism and injustice? Ken pushes back — he argues that we cannot produce art that is genuinely free.

Professor Adrian Daub from Stanford University joins the show, prefacing that he is an avid consumer of popular culture. Adrian talks about how the commodification of capitalism debases the artistic quality of pop culture. Is there a difference between high culture and pop culture? Can any art escape this commodification? Josh remains unpersuaded; he thinks that passion projects and other artistic pursuits can resist capitalism and be quality art. Adrian draws a distinction between the model for avant grande and the model for capitalist commodification.

A listener pushes back on how capitalism intrinsically commodifies. Ken tries to meet Adrian and Josh in the middle—while not all capitalist products are the same, they are made constrained by the same capitalist logic. Adrian caveats that Adorno thought that art has always been constrained by power relations; capitalism just has a unique set of power relations. Ken and Adrian discuss how technology changes capitalism but not in a deep way. The show ends on some excellent tips for how you can resist the culture industry yourself!

  • Roving Philosophical Report (seek to 7:03): Liza Veale files a report that explores the historical context in which Adorno lived and wrote. The background of Nazi Germany figures prominently. Eventually, Veale moves on to discuss our current American context.
  • Sixty Second Philosopher (seek to 45:38): Ian Shoales uses Toys “R” Us as an example of how art and cultural products are disseminated via capitalism. For comparison, Shoales discusses V for Vendetta and other “radical” products forged under capitalism.




Josh Landy  
Is popular culture just a way for capitalism to breed conformity?

Ken Taylor  
Or does the market give us exactly the art we desire?

Josh Landy  
When money does the talking, does original art even stand a chance?

Comments (8)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, March 12, 2018 -- 11:01 AM

I have thought, for some time

I have thought, for some time now, that POPular Culture IS pernicious. I have even written some accounts of just how and why I hold this belief. None of those have been published yet---there would be, I am certain, push-back from several domains, especially those whose livelihood rests upon the popularity of pop culture (think: social media; dating web-sites and those communications(?) formats which permit everyone to have his/her voice). Let's face it: there is a lot of money involved in these enterprises and lots more for those whose real job is to scam any unsuspecting schlep who can be easily taken in. That said, I hope to see some other comments here after March 25.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, May 2, 2021 -- 7:39 AM

Recently, I had made

Recently, I had made suggestions to PT, regarding treatment of mass/popular culture, and was advised to review some posts/shows including this one. After so doing,I retracted my comments, bowing to the approach and format of the blog, as designed. When revisiting this post, I noticed only one comment, mine, in 2018. Repeating a concern expressed in my last response to PT's general comments mail address, I 'll recap here. I mentioned awareness of one's surroundings. That faculty has suffered, IMHO, with the popularization of smart phones. Users of these wonderful devices are distracted. Selfies, for one example: people have fallen to their death because of absorption with picture-taking. Tragic and unnecessary. Traffic is also hazardous to the self-absorbed. The engrossed phone user may suddenly appear in the street already occupied by oncoming vehicles. If they did not see that coming, the outcome will not be favorable to the pedestrian. The same is true for other hazards such as obstructions and holes. So, my worry about these 'accidents' seems well-placed.

Along with my concerns about other dangerous distractions which diminish survivability. Or maybe I am exagerating?

Michelle's picture


Sunday, September 10, 2023 -- 11:36 AM

I really enjoy your show.

I really enjoy your show. And I understand that you are exaggerating the complications of Adorno’s theories to engage an audience. However, I am an artist and a painting professor. and my teeth are grinding while you discuss the commodification of creativity. Yes it's out there. Yes some artist allow themselves to be commodified but this is the minority of artists. I REALLY WISH UOU HAD AN ARTIST ON YOUR SHOW.

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Daniel's picture


Monday, September 11, 2023 -- 5:15 PM

With regards to the

With regards to the commodification-allowance referred to in the second to last sentence, --does this apply solely to the product of the artist's labor or can its reference-extension include the labor-activity of producing it as well? Do you agree that these constitute two very different kinds of commodification? Because commodities are tradable materials for the production of material goods, to commodify something already made generally implies its being bundled with things of a similar sort for retail purposes in market contexts, but does not necessarily entail that the artist's labor be commodified along with it. Only under some external compulsion to create the commodified product, such as compensation constituting necessary resources to avoid starvation, do the instances of commodification in the labor and market sectors coincide.

Is it not the case, then, that the allowance to which you refer extends beyond a minority of examples, if the activity of production is taken into account?

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Parthi's picture


Friday, September 15, 2023 -- 1:00 PM

Can we circumnavigate the

Can we circumnavigate the negative impact of capitalism on art by funding our own creative expression in the form of art? Knowing that this is indeed possible, then does this dilute the quality of our work...if we aren't independently wealthy? If we are independently wealthy, then does this have moral and ethical implications for the sort of art we are capable of creating?

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Daniel's picture


Saturday, September 16, 2023 -- 5:53 PM

Who's doing the creating, -

Who's doing the creating, --those who make it or those who pay for it to be made? As introduced by the uncontroversial assumptions both that exploitation of creative work regularly occurs and that getting around it is by no means precluded to those who wish to do so, you've asked two questions above:
1) Does the laborer's knowledge of self funding-possibility reduce product quality, and
2) ought the buyer of the product submit to a constraint on purchase by a special product-type or standard of quality?

Do I have that right? The first has two answers depending on interpretation. If the self-funded laborer (SFL) is unable to devote sufficient time and materials to the work on account of a low economic status, then the answer appears in the affirmative. If on the other hand a potential SFL (PSFL) decides to be funded by a patron even though the PSFL doesn't need one in order for sufficient time and materials to be committed to the work, then the answer seems to be "no". At some threshold of sufficient funding, who pays for it has no direct relation to the judgement of a work's meeting or failing to meet a given standard of quality.

If the ambiguity in the second question with respect to the plethora of relations between wealth and creative work be forgone so that its interpretation can be limited to the context of art markets alone, I interpret you to be asking whether or not wealthy buyers have a moral obligation to limit their range of acceptable purchases by means of an ethical standard. While the answer to this question is clearly a matter of taste, it certainly should concede to a claim of independence from instrumental use if issued in the affirmative. For this would preclude both kitsch and state propaganda from ethical art purchase.

Is this satisfactory or have I missed something more fundamental? What about your use of the first person plural pronoun in final sentence above? Does this indicate a collective association between voluntary labor and its respective compensation?

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Sean Frank's picture

Sean Frank

Saturday, September 16, 2023 -- 6:42 PM

I suppose my fundamental

I suppose my fundamental question is, does form follow function? I mean, Marx had an ideal for society and, via Lenin and Stalin, it ended up becoming a totalitarian, centralized model of economics and government. Via imperialist capitalism (think France in southeast Asia in the early 20th century or Britain in Indonesia at that time), the mass of laboring humanity was essentially subservient to the contraptions of the ruling class and the forces of capitalism.

If capitalism has its own baked-in biases within a systemic loop, could it also not be said that other economic systems have their own biases and self-affirming feedbacks? And if so, where does the capitalist model fit into this spectrum?

A question--Does the theater of 16th or 17th century England, for example, differ much in terms of 'entertainment value' for the 'masses' than a modern day blockbuster? Sure, today we have technology that allows for mass production of popular entertainment, but what's the difference? A theater producer in the 16th century wanted to make profits as much as a movie producer does in the 20th.

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Daniel's picture


Sunday, September 17, 2023 -- 4:07 PM

Do you thereby imply that

Do you thereby imply that entertainment-products made for purposes other than profit lack value?

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