Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Commodification of Culture: Arendt and Adorno [Part 3]

In discussing these three paradigms of culture within an increasingly globalized world, the utilized concepts of culture emerge as all-inclusive descriptions as to what is included under the umbrella of “culture”. Nederveen Pieterse, in Globalization and Culture, relies on a common anthropological definition articulated as follows, “culture refers to behavior and beliefs that are learned and shared: learned so it is not ‘instinctual’ and shared so it is not individual.”[1] Likewise, Holton employs Clifford Geertz’s description of culture as a catalyst to commence his article. Geertz describes the concept of culture as “an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbolic forms by means of which men [sic] communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life.”[2] Within this definition, writes Holton, “[t]here is room here for Coca-Cola as much as Chopin, for practical knowledge as much as religious symbolism.”[3] Granted, culture, when described in the ways above, does indeed envelope Coca-Cola and Chopin, McDonald’s and Michelangelo, ATM’s and Ambrose Bierce. However, does culture lose its meaning when described in such an all-inclusive way? Can descriptions of culture have any meaning if both the Big Mac and the sculpture of Bacchus are considered cultural artifacts? In what follows, the thought of Hannah Arendt and Theodor Adorno will be employed both to critique the contemporary “mass culture” (Arendt) or “culture industry (Adorno) and lead toward a more specific and nuanced description of culture within an increasingly globalized world.
Hannah Arendt, in her essay “The Crisis in Culture”[4], refers to the anxiety concerning the relationship between (mass) society and (mass) culture, and to the strange situation of the modern individual characterized by loneliness, excitability, and lack of judgment. She questions whether it is still possible to rediscover the past without continuing standards of interpretation, in an increasingly secularized world of utilitarian culture. This survey will focus on Arendt’s analysis of what she identifies as the contemporary “mass culture” and, later in the essay, rearticulates as “mass entertainment”.
In her essay, Arendt begins with an etymological account of culture.
Culture, word and concept is Roman in origin. The word ‘culture’ derives from colere – to cultivate, to dwell, to take care, to tend and preserve – and it relates primarily to the intercourse of man [sic] with nature in the sense of cultivating and tending nature until it becomes fit for human habitation. As such, it indicates an attitude of loving care and stands in sharp contrast to all efforts to subject nature to the domination of man [sic].[5]

However, this is only one side of Arendt’s concept of culture. She continues by revealing the cultural characteristic of durability. “An object is cultural to the extent that it can endure; its durability is the very opposite of functionality, which is the quality which makes it disappear again from the phenomenal world by being used and used up.”[6] Therefore, for Arendt, “developing nature into a dwelling place for a people as well as in the sense of taking care of the monuments of the past, determine even today the content and the meaning we have in mind when we speak of culture.”[7]
In her essay, Arendt describes the concept of “philistinism” as a notion which “designated a mentality which judged everything in terms of immediate usefulness and ‘material values’ and hence had no regard for such useless objects and occupations as are implied in culture and art.”[8] At the turn of the 18th century, society could be described in terms of “philistinism”, as lacking interest in culture and art due to culture and arts lack of a relevant, utilitarian aspect. However, the philistine was displaced by the cultural philistine who “seized upon [cultural artifacts] as a currency by which he [sic] bought a higher position in society or acquired a higher degree of self-esteem.”[9] The cultural philistine ascribed value to cultural objects. These ascribed values, according to Arendt, “were what values always have been, exchange values”.[10] Society, then for Arendt, “wanted culture, evaluated and devaluated cultural things into social commodities, used and abused them for its own selfish purposes, but did not ‘consume’ them.”[11] Society is distinguished from mass society in the sense that mass society “wants not culture but entertainment, and the wares offered by the entertainment industry are indeed consumed by society just like any other consumer goods.”[12] Culture objects have become commodities of the entertainment industry and are, therefore, no longer “cultural objects whose excellence is measured by their ability to withstand the life process and become permanent appurtenances of the world”.[13] For Arendt, they should not be judged according to these standards. Furthermore, they are not “values which exist to be used and exchanged”.[14] According to Arendt, the commodities of the entertainment industry “are consumer goods, destined to be used up, just like any other consumer goods.”[15] Cultural objects are preyed upon my mass society, and mass society “will literally consume the cultural objects, eat them up and destroy them”.[16] No longer considered cultural objects, these consumer goods
serve…to while away time, and the vacant time which is whiled away is not leisure time, strictly speaking – time, that is, in which we are free from all cares and activities necessitated by the life process and therefore free for the world and its culture – it is rather left-over time which still is biological in nature, left over after labor and sleep have received their due. [17]

Therefore, for Arendt, “culture is being destroyed in order to yield entertainment”[18] and this consumer’s society, in search for entertainment is “feeding on the cultural objects of the world.”[19]
Theodor Adorno, in “Culture Industry Reconsidered”[20], explains that “mass culture” is not an adequate descriptor and instead propones the term “culture industry”. Adorno believes the culture industry is a system by which society is controlled though a top-down creation of standardized culture that intensifies the commodification of artistic expression. Like Arendt, Adorno writes of the commodification of cultural objects. “The cultural commodities of the industry are governed…by the principle of their realization as value, and not by their own specific content and harmonious formation.” Adorno continues, “[t]he entire practice of the culture industry transfers the profit motive naked onto cultural forms.”[21] He qualifies this statement by writing, “[e]ver since these cultural forms first began to earn a living for their creators as commodities in the market-place they had already possessed something of this quality.”[22] However, the economic aspect has been privileged and this commodification has intensified in our contemporary context, so much so that the “[c]ultural entities typical of the culture industry are no longer also commodities, they are commodities through and through.”[23] Culture has become an industry that submits to the rules of any other producer of commodities. Culture has been forced into a pastiche dominated by the capitalist economy.
In works such as Dialectic of Enlightenment (with Max Horkheimer) and Negative Dialectics, Adorno theorizes that the phenomenon of mass culture has a political implication, namely that all the many forms of popular culture have become a single culture industry whose purpose is to ensure the continued obedience of the masses to market interests. Although Western culture was previously divided first into national markets and then into highbrow, middlebrow and lowbrow, the contemporary view of the culture industry is that there is a single marketplace in which the best or most popular works succeed. This recognizes that the consolidation of media companies has centralized power in the hands of the few remaining multinational corporations now controlling production and distribution. The theory proposes that culture not only mirrors society, but also takes an important role in shaping society through the processes of standardization and commodification, creating objects rather than subjects. The culture industry claims to serve the consumers’ needs for entertainment, but conceals the way that it standardizes these needs, manipulating the consumers to desire what it produces. The outcome is that mass production feeds a mass market where the identity and tastes of the individual consumers is increasingly less important and the consumers themselves are as interchangeable as the products they consume.
Arendt’s critique of mass culture, or mass entertainment, and Adorno’s critique of the culture industry both problematize the descriptions of culture posited by Holton and Nederveen Pieterse. If “culture” is characterized by its durability, and mass culture or the culture industry refers to the commodification of cultural objects that leads to the consumption of these cultural objects, then these cultural objects can no longer endure and outlast. Therefore, if these cultural objects are consumed, they are no longer “culture” according to Arendt’s description.
[1] Nederveen Pieterse, Globalization and Culture, 46.
[2] Clifford Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System”, The Interpretation of Cultures, Basic Books, 1973, 89, quoted in Holton’s “Globalization’s Cultural Consequences”, 142.
[3] Holton, “Globalization’s Cultural Consequences”, 142.
[4] Hannah Arendt, “The Crisis in Culture: Its Social and Its Political Significance”, Between Past and Future, Penguin Books, 1993, 197-226.
[5] Arendt, “The Crisis of Culture”, 211-212.
[6] Arendt, “The Crisis of Culture”, 209.
[7] Arendt, “The Crisis of Culture”, 213.
[8] Arendt, “The Crisis in Culture”, 201.
[9] Arendt, “The Crisis in Culture”, 204.
[10] Arendt, “The Crisis in Culture”, 204.
[11] Arendt, “The Crisis of Culture”, 205.
[12] Arendt, “The Crisis of Culture”, 205.
[13] Arendt, “The Crisis of Culture”, 205.
[14] Arendt, “The Crisis of Culture”, 205.
[15] Arendt, “The Crisis of Culture”, 205-206.
[16] Arendt, “The Crisis of Culture”, 207.
[17] Arendt, “The Crisis of Culture”, 205. Arendt’s emphasis.
[18] Arendt, “The Crisis of Culture”, 207.
[19] Arendt, “The Crisis of Culture”, 211.
[20] Theodor Adorno, “Culture Industry Reconsidered”, The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, J.M. Bernstein, ed., Routledge, 1991, 85-92.
[21] Adorno, “Culture Industry Reconsidered”, 86.
[22] Adorno, “Culture Industry Reconsidered”, 86.
[23] Adorno, “Culture Industry Reconsidered”, 86. Adorno’s emphasis.


Anonymous said...

That was extremely interesting. I am just study at a University in Australia on the Commodification of Culture in Asian nations and your blog greatly helped my understanding. We have discussed tourism, advertising and globalisation within Asia and the effects of commdifying culture.

Robin said...

My name is Robin Hood, I just graduated from The Evergreen State College where I created my own degree in helping people and animals and which was heavily concentrated in political philosophy in my attempt to answer my own curiosity as to why American culture is so indifferent and uncaring concerning the suffering of people and animals. I appreciate your clear synopsis of cultural theory. However, I feel you don't deal with globalization as your blog indicates will be included. Possible angles could include: globalization's effect on real culture or mass culture; how
traditional paradigms of culture or Arendt's or Adorno's non-traditional paradigms of culture are impacted by globalization; how these two conceptions of culture might be more or less vulnerable under different theories of the origin and development of
globalization, such as Globalization as a politically determined phenomenon or globalization as being a natural response to forces in an evolution of the world, and how
either view could re-impact either genuine culture or our artificial mass culture. My blog is at blogs.evergreen.edu/hoorob24

Anonymous said...

Culture is the product of the private ownership of the means of production (under capitalism). Hence the horrors we see today on television: non-stop crime shows, fix-up-your-home programs, buy-buy-buy-and-cook shows, etc.