A lot of the popular culture we consume these days is produced and distributed by large studios and record companies. Should that worry us? Are doomed to mediocre music, television, and film? Or even worse: are we doomed to songs, shows, and movies that secretly serve a hegemonic propaganda machine?
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.
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.