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Unravelling the Dark Face of the Enlightenment: Theodor Adorno

1 Introduction

Here is a little story. There once was a pre-enlightened man. He lived in an era where one could hear everywhere “the cry: Don’t argue! The officer says: Don’t argue, get on parade! The tax-official: Don’t argue, pay! The clergyman: Don’t argue, believe!” (Kant, 1784: 1). So, he got on parade, paid the taxes and followed the teachings of the church as told. He neither questioned nor opposed the orders of the established authorities. For one thing, it was too convenient to live under the guidance of others. After all, he would not need to think on his own if there was already one thinking instead for him. For another, man was too cowardly to think for himself. He lived like “a domesticated animal” kept in leading strings for years. He was thus afraid to throw off his intellectual bondage and sail in uncharted waters because of the dangers and risks awaiting him. Upon meeting the man of reason Immanuel Kant, the pre-enlightened man saw a way out of his intellectual bondage. The key to his liberation lied in Kant’s dictum “Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own understanding!” (1784: 1). Since then, this dictum was accepted as the motto of the enlightenment. The use of reason not only liberated the man from his chains but also endowed him with knowledge and sparked advancements in science, technology, engineering and health. Yet, over time, the enlightenment started to turn into what it sought to overthrow. It began as an uprising against oppression or the established authority of monarchs, yet it only ended up transforming the identity of the “subject” imposing oppression and authority. The so-called new subject and the tool of oppression was reason. So, the enlightenment backfired, causing man to live under the yoke of reason instead of liberating him. And so ends the story.

As the story depicts, the enlightenment has a dual face. On the one hand, it promotes liberation and progress. On the other hand, it fosters oppression and manipulation. The Kantian sapere aude stands out as the representative of the positivity of the enlightenment. In the positive view, reason is regarded as the saviour of men. This view is contested by the leading figures of the Frankfurt School. The target of their critique is neither reason itself nor its value, but rather the instrumentalization of reason. Because of its instrumental or calculative character, reason turns into its opposite and something destructive. Reason, ←131 | 132→originally the principal means of liberation and progress, becomes a tool of divisiveness and domination in modern times. More particularly, it serves as a tool for dominating others, nature as well as culture. The instrumentalized reason gets more destructive with the advance of capitalism and technology. What impact does this demolition have on our cultural world? What is the extent of the demolition? Is it possible to remedy and overcome it? This chapter will tackle these questions. In doing so, we will heavily draw upon one of the Frankfurt School’s key thinkers, Theodor Adorno (1903–1969) and what he calls “the culture industry”. In order to fully grasp Adorno’s discussion of the instrumental reason and the so-called culture industry, it will be useful to present briefly the Frankfurt School’s take on the issue of enlightenment rationality. This will be the task of the first section. The second section will explain Adorno’s conception of culture industry. The third section will take up the issue of whether art is possible in the culture industry.

2 Frankfurt School (critical theory) and enlightenment rationality

Having its roots in Marxism, the School’s mission was neither to criticize reason itself nor to advocate irrationalism, but to critically appraise modernity and the capitalist society. Its principal theorists have argued that the enlightenment and capitalism transforms rationality into a new one called instrumental rationality, a tool of domination. So, their critique aims at capitalism and instrumental rationality. Among the most prominent members of the School are Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979), Max Horkheimer (1895–1973), Theodor Adorno (1903–1969), Erich Fromm (1900–1980), Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) and Jürgen Habermas (born 1929). For the sake of brevity, we will concentrate on Marcuse, Horkheimer and Adorno.

The School’s thought is built upon the views of Max Weber, Korsch, Lukacs, Karl Marx and Hegel. So, it is a synthesis of different views, which thereby casts doubt on its originality. Its main concern is capitalist rationalization (Therborn, 1994: 68). As said above, its attack on the so-called capitalist rationality does not amount to an attack on rationality itself. In the Frankfurt account, reason is not conceived, in a Hegelian sense, as speculative or abstract reason. Nonetheless, its conception of reason is not fully devoid of Hegelian elements. Hegel equates reason with what he refers to as “Universal Reason (Geist)” and history is the process in which Geist achieves its self-realization. Geist’s absolute self-realization involves different phases, one of which is culture. It should be added, though, that the realm of culture is not where Geist ←132 | 133→completes its self-realization. This is what the Frankfurt School incorporates into their conception of reason. To be more precise, the School deploys the Hegelian idea that culture is a typical expression of Geist. Accordingly, the School treats reason not as a purely theoretical one, but as a product of a particular history and society. Its theorists contend that any abstraction related to reason should be left aside. So, the School is mainly concerned with practical reason. At this point, it can be said that the School was influenced by Marx’s dialectical materialism.

Max Weber (1864–1920), especially his analysis of modernity, profoundly influenced the School’s thought, as did Marx. Modernity, in its general usage, refers to the epoch of rationalization beginning in the 17th century and reaching its peak in the 19th century. For Weber, modernity and rationalization are inextricably tied to each other. According to him, rationalization has permeated virtually every sphere of life in the modern world. Its destructive and dominating character has first manifested itself in men’s instrumental relationship to nature. Reason served men’s interest in solving the mystery of nature and dominating it. This, in turn, led to the disenchantment of nature (Küçük, 1993: 28–30). The enlightenment’s programme was also to expel the mythic elements of nature. In doing so, it aimed to expand men’s understanding of nature and help them to discover its laws. However, men’s increased knowledge not only comes at the cost of the disenchantment of nature, but also deludes men into thinking that they secured control over nature. Indeed, men distance themselves from nature by objectifying it (Adorno & Horkheimer, 2002: 31). To put it differently, men use nature to exert control over both nature and other men, and “men pay for the increase of their power with alienation from that over which they exercise their power” (West, 2010: 67). So, nature stripped off its myths brings nothing but destruction. The price to be paid for the demythologization of the nature is men’s alienation from it. What is more, the demythologization of nature means objectification of nature. The so-praised reason incites men to adopt an instrumentalist attitude towards nature. As a result, nature is reduced to a mere object or a thing. Nature is not the only thing degraded and treated as a mere means rather than an end in itself. Reason treats everything as nothing but objects. So, as Weber points out, rationality of modernity is actually a purposive or calculative rationality, whose central concern is to satisfy men’s interests and dominate everything. This purposive rationality inexorably leads to a demythologized, disenchanted and dehumanized world.

Owing a great deal to Weber’s seminal diagnosis of modernity, Horkheimer sets forth a critique of enlightenment rationality. Echoing Weber’s pessimism, Horkheimer contends that enlightenment reason is at bottom a tool of ←133 | 134→domination. That is, for Horkheimer, the sort of reason exalted by Kant and other enlightenment thinkers is nothing but instrumental reason in the service of men’s interests. What Weber calls “purposive rationality” is called “instrumental rationality” by Horkheimer.

Horkheimer does not, as Kant does, posit a universal reason holding everywhere and for everyone. Indeed, he is critical of such a reason. According to Horkheimer, reason should be both historically and socially contextualized (McCarthy, 1994: 9–10). It should be noted, though, that Horkheimer’s critique of reason does not aim to exalt irrationality/relativity or to denounce rationality (McCarthy, 1994: 10–12). He rather purports to show how enlightenment rationality turns into a one-sided, instrumental rationality, which is capable of destroying nature and humanity. The enlightenment rationality is one-sided, because it is limited only to a purely means-end calculation. One-sidedness of rationality is intensified with capitalism. Reason, originally involving different modes of thinking, has become merely a means of contributing to the growth of capitalist capital and a tool or device operating with numerical values. Seyla Benhabib, representing the current generation of the Frankfurt School, nicely summarizes the view of her predecessors Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse on rationalization and its instrumentalization as follows:

By rationalization, Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse mean the following phenomena: Administrative and political domination extends into all spheres of social life by means of ever more efficient and predictable organizational techniques developed by institutions like the factory, the army, the bureaucracy, schools, and the culture industry. This is made possible by the application of science and technology not only to the domination of external nature, but to the control of interpersonal relations and the manipulation of internal nature. (Benhabib, 1981: 42)

As Benhabib states, instrumental reasoning led the ruling class to manipulate the masses as they want, and this is what the theorists of the School fiercely criticize. They are not entirely against the rationalization process. Their criticism targets abstract reasoning and the one-sidedness of rationalization.

The Frankfurt School, with its neo-Marxist outlook, provides a dialectical and materialist critique of reason and conceives of men as producers of their own history. They conceive of reason as a product of the materialist (socio-historical) process and assign a revolutionary task to it in line with the Marxist tradition (Slater, 1998: 68). Here we can recall Marx’s famous saying, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it” (Marx, 1969: 15). The dictum calls for a shift from theory to practice. That is, it urges us to engage with practice instead of continuing theorizing. However, the theorists of the School were not as optimistic as Marx regarding this shift, for ←134 | 135→they lived in an era in which the expected transition to socialism was not realized due to the rise of fascism and capitalism.

In Horkheimer-Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, the reversal of the enlightenment project of emancipation and the instrumentalization of reason are stated as follows: “[…] By sacrificing thought, which in its reified form as mathematics, machinery, organization, avenges itself on a humanity forgetful of it, enlightenment forfeited its own realization… As the instrument of this adaptation, as a mere assemblage of means, enlightenment is as destructive as its Romantic enemies claim” (Adorno & Horkheimer, 2002: 33). The Frankfurt School criticizes the tendency of instrumentalized reason to destroy men’s relation to nature and others, for the sole aim of such rationality is the mastery of the world. Capitalism and technological progress pave the way for it.

Enlightenment reason, for all its devotion to freedom and equality, reverts into a tool of oppression, dominating both men and itself through media, technology and economy (Therborn, 1994: 72–83). The paradoxical character of the enlightenment was not only uttered by the Frankfurt School theorists but also by the Marxists theorists, who awaited the realization of Marx’s narrative at that time, but witnessed the rise of capitalism, fascism instead (Cassierer, 2000: 85–86; Harvey, 2012: 23–27, our own emphasis). These reflections on the instrumentality of the reason make it clear that the enlightenment narrative of freedom is nothing but a mere illusion. The enlightened man is condemned to live in a cage of his own making, deluding himself into believing that he is free. Marcuse, one of the prominent members of the Frankfurt School, expresses this illusory freedom in the following way:

The range of choice open to the individual is not the decisive factor in determining the degree of human freedom, but what can be chosen and what is chosen by the individual. The criterion for free choice can never be an absolute one, but neither is it entirely relative. Free election of masters does not abolish the masters or the slaves. Free choice among a wide variety of goods and services does not signify freedom if these goods and services sustain social controls over a life of toil and fear – that is, if they sustain alienation. And the spontaneous reproduction of superimposed needs by the individual does not establish autonomy; it only testifies to the efficacy of the controls (1964: 9–10).

As Marcuse puts it, it is a grave mistake to identify freedom with the range of options available to one. Choice might yield contentment but not freedom in a real sense. Though the advanced industrial society is marked by its slogan of freedom, it is not a genuine freedom. According to Marcuse, one of the defining features of the advanced industrial society is its creation of “false needs”. It represses and obscures men’s true (vital) needs, and imposes false needs on them by means of TV, radio, advertisements and technology (1964: 7). The satisfaction ←135 | 136→of the false needs may produce immediate gratification, but they also precipitate “toil, aggressiveness, misery and injustice”. Men have been indoctrinated by the mass culture to the extent that they identify themselves with their commodities like houses, cars, etc. This means that “the very mechanism which ties the individual to the society has changed and social control is anchored in the new needs which it has produced” (Marcuse, 1964: 11). It is thus commodity fetishism that drives men towards a capitalist lifestyle which reinforces conformity and “one-dimensionality”.

3 Theodor Adorno: “culture industry” and instrumental reason

Art, the only remaining site of human autonomy and individualism, falls prey to the standardizing logic of enlightenment rationality. That is, art is also contaminated with instrumentality just as every other sphere of life. As the capitalist mode of production became central to modern life, everything was mass-produced and thereby standardized. Like any other mass-produced items, modern works of art became expressive of standardization and conformity rather than originality and individual creativity, and aesthetic values have been reduced to material values. Thus, pure or authentic art was replaced by mechanical, mass-produced art. Adorno criticizes the instrumentalization of art and contends that mass art should not be equated with authentic art. In his view, authentic art should be distinguished from mass art or what he and his counterpart Horkheimer refer to as the work of “culture industry” (Slater, 1998: 233–234, our own emphasis). The so-called culture industry signifies the triumph of the industrial over the cultural. Culture industry, in a sense, corresponds to “mass culture”. However, Adorno and Horkheimer prefer to use the former instead of the latter. For the latter falsely implies that the products of culture stem from the people themselves. But, they are, in effect, imposed upon people. The true nature of the capitalist mode of culture is best captured by the term “culture industry”. For Adorno, culture is “the manifestation of pure humanity without regard for its functional relationships within society” (Adorno, 1991: 108). As for the term “industry”, Adorno writes, “the expression ‘industry’ is not to be taken too literally. It refers to the standardization of the thing itself – such as that of the Western, familiar to every movie-goer – and to the rationalization of distribution techniques, but not strictly to the production process” (Adorno, 1991: 100). In other words, Adorno uses the term “industry” in the sense of the rationalization of mass production and distribution techniques. So, it may seem paradoxical to use the terms “culture” and “industry” together. After all, culture, as generally conceived, stands in opposition to industry and expressive of “pure humanity”. Adorno, however, ←136 | 137→uses the term “culture industry” to draw attention to the intrusion of the capitalist rationalization into culture. Capitalist rationality does not only transform culture, but also destroys it. Being trapped inside the instrumental world or the world of reifications, culture becomes an object of market rationality. Hence, men get surrounded by a capitalist cultural system whose central concern is that of maximizing the monetary profit. Art also gets its share from rationalization and its reifying aspects, and it gets replaced by mass-produced art or pseudo-art. Adorno deems the so-called pseudo-art or inauthentic, mass-produced art as “culture industry”.

As art conforms to the capitalist market logic and is transmuted into another product, its value has shifted from intrinsic to extrinsic. Art works are no longer valuable in themselves. They have now a different sort of value, which is created through the mass media – the tool of manipulation and social control found within the culture industry. Art works thereby become more or less valuable depending on how successfully they are marketed and promoted. The value of same art works then might differ markedly based upon the effectiveness of their advertisements, the variety of advertising venues, the comments of the art critics on them and so on. That is, “the universal criterion of merit is the amount of ‘conspicuous production’, of blatant cash investment. The varying budgets in the culture industry do not bear the slightest relation to factual values, to the meaning of the products themselves” (Adorno & Horkheimer, 2002: 97). Just as capitalist rationality dictates the consumption choices of individuals and their work schedule, it also dictates how they should socialize in their leisure time. Thus, it would be misleading to think that individuals get to enjoy their leisure as they want. Leisure-time activities are arranged and organized by what Adorno calls “culture manufacturers”. These culture manufacturers bombard individuals with the lists of the most popular movies, songs or books, the latest art exhibitions or concerts. In this way, they indoctrinate individuals with what to watch, listen or read, or where to go.

In fact, capitalist rationality divides society into economic classes and a choice list is generated for each class. Thus, there remains nothing “for the consumer to classify. Producers have done it for him” (Adorno & Horkheimer, 2002: 97). In advanced industrial societies, people tend to conceive themselves as having more freedom because they have more options to choose from. Nonetheless, this is the irony of capitalism. For the freedom of choice and opportunity does not signify genuine freedom, they rather serve the interests of the capitalism and help it to keep society under its control. The culture industry impels individuals to adopt what it offers. What determines what cultural goods they need to consume and how much is neither the aesthetic value of the goods nor their fulfilment of ←137 | 138→certain needs. “[…] The stronger the positions of the culture industry become, the more summarily it can deal with consumers’ needs, producing them, controlling them, disciplining them, and even withdrawing amusement: no limits are set to cultural progress of this kind” (Adorno & Horkheimer, 2002: 115).

Standardization and mass production have also permeated the sphere of art. In the sphere of pseudo-culture, culture has become industrialized. The very purpose of the culture industry is to offer a venue for entertainment, which will provide an escape from the stresses of work (Adorno & Horkheimer, 2002: 112–115). According to Adorno, it is no coincidence that the instrumentalization and commodification of art or the culture industry emerge in liberal industrial nations. Their media such as cinema, radio, jazz, magazines owes its progress to the general laws of capital (Ibid., 105). Thus, there is a clear link between the cultural industry and liberal industrial nations. The entertainment products of the culture industry serve as a means of adapting individuals to work life:

Amusement under late capitalism is the prolongation of work. It is sought after as an escape from the mechanized work process, and to recruit strength in order to be able to cope with it again. But at the same time mechanization has such power over a man’s leisure and happiness, and so profoundly determines the manufacture of amusement goods, that his experiences are inevitably after-images of the work process itself. (Adorno & Horkheimer, 1972: 137)

The culture industry, which has been made attractive by advertisements, casts out those who do not follow its dictums or norms. So those who resist the reifying aspects of the culture industry and try to preserve the authentic art are socially isolated. According to Adorno, it seems very difficult for the individual to escape from the culture industry formed by the capitalist system. For once he leaves it, he gets excluded from the society and becomes an outsider. As stated in the Dialectic of Enlightenment, “under the private culture monopoly it is a fact that ‘tyranny leaves the body free and directs its attack at the soul. The ruler no longer says: You must think as I do or die. He says: You are free not to think as I do; your life, your property, everything shall remain yours, but from this day on you are a stranger among us.’ Not to conform means to be rendered powerless, economically and therefore spiritually – to be self-employed” (Adorno & Horkheimer, 2002: 105–106).

According to Adorno, the pseudo-freedom inherent in capitalist culture does not cause people to die, but causes even worse things to occur: It excludes and alienates people, and this alienation is against the world of culture that man has established. The freedom to choose makes individuals submissive to the dictums of the capitalist culture. So freedom in this sense is not a genuine freedom, and ←138 | 139→any resistance to conform to the status quo would result in social isolation. Nevertheless, confirming to the status quo leads to alienation from culture.

As is well known, Marx radically criticizes the alienation of the working class from its products (Marx, 2008: 79–85). Echoing Marx, it can be argued that the alienation of labour nowadays continues in the artistic/cultural world. Thus, capitalism seems to lead to the degeneration of culture just like every other thing influenced by it. To put it differently, culture could not survive the onslaught of instrumental rationality just like nature. Art and values become a tool of manipulation serving the interests of capitalism. The distinguishing features of culture like uniqueness and autonomy have been eroded.

Marcuse, one of the Frankfurt School theorists, describes how a capitalist system creates “one-dimensional” individuals as follows: Advanced industrial society reinforces conformity by means of the mass media, the commodities of food and clothing, the entertainment industry. This is called good life. “… Thus emerges a pattern of one-dimensional thought and behaviour in which ideas, aspirations, and objectives that, by their content, transcend the established universe of discourse and action are either repelled or reduced to terms of this universe” (Marcuse, 1964: 14). Adorno and his contemporaries aim to reunite people with culture, the sphere of their own production. They seek to prevent the alienation of men from their products (Slater, 1998: 39–40). For in the cultural industry, alienation “… has become entirely objective; the subject which is alienated is swallowed up by its alienated existence. There is only one dimension, and it is everywhere and in all forms… the ‘false consciousness’ of their rationality becomes the true consciousness” (Marcuse, 1964: 13). It is this false consciousness that the entertainment industry in the culture industry offers to people. For the art products of the culture industry prevent individuals from any critical analysis or thinking or action. The entertainment sector only fills people’s leisure time, so it does not promote real consciousness.

With the culture industry, the aesthetic value in an artwork or the pleasure derived from it, does not originate from the artwork itself. Its aesthetic value has been replaced by its price while the pleasure derived from it has been replaced by the prestige of being there and being informed. What makes the culture industry so attractive is advertising, its “elixir of life” or its art (Adorno & Horkheimer, 2002: 131). “[…] The triumph of advertising in the culture industry is that consumers feel compelled to buy and use its products even though they see through them” (Adorno & Horkheimer, 2002: 136). Thus, culture has become a tool designed for a certain purpose by administration in advance (Adorno, 1991: 109–110). Adorno identifies this situation, but opposes its acceptance as it is.←139 | 140→

4 The possibility of art within the culture industry

Owing to the growth of capitalism, culture and art have been both governed by instrumental or market logic and turned into industry. The so-called culture industry and the commodified art served as an instrument of “mass deception”. Nevertheless, we are still faced with the question whether art is really possible within the “culture industry” despite its market ideology. Walter Benjamin’s landmark essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” offers invaluable insight into this issue. His insights will serve as a useful tool, especially for understanding the relation of technological development and art in a capitalist culture. Drawing upon the so-called arts of reproduction, namely, photography and film, Benjamin questions whether these mass-produced objects can be labelled as “art” or whether the techniques of mass reproduction change the character or nature of art and thereby lead to devaluation of art.

The concept of “technique” is crucial to understanding the distinction between the culture industry and art. Both the culture industry and art use a technique. Nonetheless, the technique of culture industry and artistic technique have only a name in common. The technique in the culture industry only means distribution and mechanical reproduction, whereas the technique in art refers to “the internal organization of the object”, “its inner logic” (Adorno, 1991: 101).

As arts of mechanical reproduction, photography and film significantly differ from the traditional art forms which are marked by their uniqueness and authenticity. Although both photography and film exhibit artistic characteristics, they are more like products of mechanical reproduction. They are standardized and mass-produced objects. For this reason, it is still a matter of debate whether photography and film can be regarded as art forms (Benjamin, 2008: 13). Although Benjamin’s essay is primarily concerned with photography and film, he first analyses the character and role of art in order to determine whether photography and film belong to the realm of art.

Benjamin lists two fundamental properties required to be classified as an art form. They are authenticity and aura. The former signifies the originality of the work and makes a reference to the era to which it belongs. “The authenticity of a thing is the quintessence of all that is transmissible in it from its origin on, ranging from its physical duration to the historical testimony relating to it” (Benjamin, 2008: 22). Reproduction detaches the object from its historical context and thereby negatively influences the authority of the object. It also erodes the work’s aura. Aura refers to the historical testimony of an art work, its uniqueness, and the perception caused by them (Benjamin, 2008: 23). However, due to mass production and standardization, works of art lose their authenticity and aura.←140 | 141→

Photography and film have also lost their authenticity and aura just like other art products of the culture industry. These two owe their existence to the techniques of copying and reproduction as opposed to traditional art forms. For example, you can make a million copies of a photo you take, and it is completely absurd to ask which of these is the authentic one and which of these are mere copies, for the authenticity or the uniqueness of a work disappears with photography. As for films, their authenticity is undermined by their reproducibility as well. In films, the reality conveyed and captured by the camera is beyond what can be experienced through the senses, and some effects are achieved through slow or accelerated motion and various montage techniques. This contrasts sharply with theatre. In theatres, there is an authenticity of the plays staged, an interaction between the stage actor and the audience, an actor who adjusts himself/herself in accordance with the reaction of the audience, the audience’s active involvement. But there is an unnatural and technical distance between the film audience and the film actor. Unlike the theatre audience, the film audience cannot think of anything that the film conveys due to fast flow of scenes. His only goal is to fill in his free time. Thus, films obstruct human thought, not foster it (Benjamin, 2008: 30–34). This shows that films are the products of the culture industry.

There is an important reason why Benjamin concentrates on the authenticity and aura of art. As he puts it, “as soon as the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applied to artistic production, the whole social function of art is revolutionized. Instead of being founded on ritual, it is based on a different practice: politics” (Benjamin, 2008: 25). In other words, if art has lost its authenticity and aura, it means that it becomes a means to a different end. That is, its loss of authenticity and aura is a sign of its transformation into a tool of the capitalist (or fascist) system.

Despite all these considerations, it can be said that the culture industry is not only deceptive but also has a positive side to it. The culture industry can be seen as a sphere of freedom, for it makes the arts accessible to everyone through mass production and various techniques. But Adorno contests such a characterization of the culture industry:

[…] works of art, suitably packaged like political slogans, are pressed on a reluctant public at reduced prices by the culture industry; they are opened up for popular enjoyment like parks. However, the erosion of their genuine commodity character does not mean that they would be abolished in the life of a free society but that the last barrier to their debasement as cultural assets has now been removed. (Adorno & Horkheimer, 2002: 129–130)

According to Adorno, as pointed out in the passage, it was necessary to devote a particular amount of money and time to art. But once art exists everywhere ←141 | 142→with the growth of capitalist culture, it is no longer required to spend so much money and time on art. It has become accessible to the public more than ever. Nonetheless, this adds nothing positive to art. On the contrary, art becomes meaningless. For example, consider one listening to the Fifth Symphony (1804–1808) of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827) on radio by chance. Once it is over, the radio continues with a different piece. But he does not particularly choose to listen to Beethoven’s piece. As he turned on the radio, Beethoven’s piece was playing. Thus, he does not feel any need to think about it or say anything after the piece is over. Maybe he did not even notice which song was playing. Alternatively, consider that Shakespeare’s (1564–1616) “Hamlet” (1601) is shown on television. The TV audience can choose to watch it until it ends. But it is hard to conceive of his choice as a genuine one. For the audience chooses to watch the play only to spend his leisure time. Thus, it cannot be said that he has a special interest in the play or he has specifically devoted his time to watching it.

The cultural industry uses some of the artistic features as a “tool” to show people what is tragic and which class or area they should take part in. Also, the tragedy has been presented as a threat in the face of which individuals are helpless. Thus, there remains nothing for individuals to do except conforming to the dictums of the culture industry. In this context, the fundamental element of the culture industry, “Amusement always means putting things out of mind, forgetting suffering, even when it is on display. At its root is powerlessness. It is indeed escape, but not, as it claims, escape from bad reality but from the last thought of resisting that reality. The liberation which amusement promises is from thinking as negation” (Adorno & Horkheimer, 2002: 116). The culture industry does not create this “powerlessness” directly. Instead, it administers this state through the characters in films, theatres, advertisements which are often based upon real people (Adorno & Horkheimer, 2002: 116–118). Thus, the individual is detached from the revolutionary power of art. It is no longer desirable for the individual to think in the face of what they see and come across; that is, he is not allowed to think or act as he wishes. Capitalist rationalization and the culture industry have taken over art that fosters freedom and critical thinking. What the culture industry promises is exactly the opposite. It offers freedom, but freedom from thought or critical reflection. It, in effect, promises submission, conformity and standardization. Adorno’s reflections may have been found somewhat exaggerated and may be subject to criticism at some points. However, given the above examples, it will be seen that his insights are indeed very valuable.

Generally speaking, while capitalism (right-wing) uses art to passivate people, Marxism (left-wing) seeks to activate people through art. Thus, Adorno views art as a remedy for the capitalist rationality. However, the art Adorno posits can ←142 | 143→be criticized for being elitist and restricted only to the bourgeois class. This criticism is quite striking especially given Adorno’s commitment to Marxism and its tenets. For any praise of bourgeois art would be tantamount to denying the Marxist ideology. Leaving aside the instrumental logic of the culture industry of which Adorno is critical, its making art accessible to everyone through TV or radio for free better captures the Marxist spirit (Bernstein, 2009: 28–32, our own emphasis). Without any doubt, Adorno is fully aware of all these. He notices the tension and opposition between the free, superficial art created by the culture industry and the elitist art with a certain depth. Actually, he thinks that this tension can bring out the art’s promise of freedom. Adorno is aware of the equality generated by the culture industry, but this is a hollow equality. For the art within the culture industry is completely devoid of any content and signifies an art that has no contribution to one’s life and is alien to itself. This is the point that Adorno has opposed.

5 Conclusion

This chapter aimed to unmask the true face of the enlightenment. The enlightenment, as understood in the Kantian sense, initially promised a world of freedom and equality through reason. However, as the leading figures of the Frankfurt School pointed out, it has completely gone astray. Reason – the liberating faculty of the enlightenment, has turned into an instrument for domination and manipulation, creating merely an illusion of freedom and equality. It first dominated nature and thereby led to men’s alienation from nature. It later conquered the realm of culture. Being contaminated with instrumentality, culture reverted to an industry in which everything became mass-produced and standardized. Art has also been subjected to these norms, losing its authenticity and individuality. Nonetheless, according to Adorno, the only area where we can reverse this transformation and acquire our freedom is still art. As he puts it, “culture has always contributed to the subduing of revolutionary as well as of barbaric instincts” (Adorno & Horkheimer, 2002: 123). As seen, culture is equally valuable for both the revolutionary and the capitalist wing, and has been influential in both fronts. However, their conceptualization of art is completely different from each other. While the right-wing (fascism and capitalism) uses art as a tool for their own politics, the left-wing’s aim is to mobilize the revolutionary side of art, that is, to politicize art.

Thus, for Adorno, art is the only way of overcoming or remedying the instrumentality of the enlightenment rationality. The only thing that can dispel the standardization of the enlightenment (its one-sidedness) and the desire of ←143 | 144→mastery over everything is the liberating force of art. Art involves both rationality and irrationality. It does not seek an integrative and universalizable truth. Art acquires truth not by setting limits to it, but rather by seeing it in its reality. Art does not rely on a one-sided perspective. Art is also marked by its uniqueness. This is why, men’s liberation from the culture industry can be achieved only through authentic art. It can even be said that the tension between the culture industry and the authentic art can serve as a useful means to this end.


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