Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Capitalism, Consumerism and Patriarchy

"The cultural commodities of the industry are governed... by the principle of their realization as exchange value, and not by their own specific content and harmonious formation. The entire practice of the culture industry transfers the profit motive naked onto cultural forms" - T.W. Adorno
Apropos of Arvilla's recent post on consumerism, capitalism and sexism, I thought I would add a few remarks drawn from T.W. Adorno's critique of the "Culture Industry", which I've been thinking a lot about lately.

Adorno argues that a central feature of mass culture in late capitalist societies is that it is manipulative. As Espen Hammer (see his excellent Adorno and the Political) puts it "the culture industry tells people what to think of themselves, what they should aspire to, and what a good or successful life would look like". In a moment that anticipates Althusser's 'interpellation', Adorno argues that individuals are made or partially produced by the mass culture they are aswim in in late capitalist societies. In other words, we form our identities by internalizing "imperatives arising from the surrounding culture -from film, radio, magazines, and television, but also from institutionally embodied structures of symbolic production such as corporate offices, schools, organized tourism, politics and so forth." (Incidentally, unlike Althusser and Foucault, Adorno does not make the jump to completely rejecting the notion of the individual or "the Subject" as itself inherently ideological, or reducible to relations of power, etc.)

The way that sexism of various forms functions in contemporary culture, it seems to me, bears out Adorno's point quite well. Think of the ways in which magazines, TV, music, etc. are all hugely implicated in producing gendered individuals who think of themselves in certain ways, hold themselves to certain norms, behave in certain ways, evaluate themselves along certain received axes of value, etc. Women, for example, are not born being obsessed with their weight, having the newest 'beauty accessories', etc. Yet these preoccupations are both ubiquitous among characters and figures in mass culture, as well as themselves created and nurtured via this ubquity in advertising and culture (to the extent that there is a difference in some cases).

As Hammer describes Adorno's thoughts on the logic of consumerism, "the idea is that the organized phase of late capitalism is characterized by a system whereby the conscious and unconscious inculcating of dispositions to spend and invest has become the central driving force of the economy". I think this is basically right. The logic of consumerism is a central driving force in the sort of societies we live in.

As Arvilla points out, a lot of this inculcating is accomplished via marketing. I sometimes encounter people (libertarians, for instance) who express skepticism that marketing or advertising has manipulative efficacy or actually influences the way people think (e.g. "people are rational-egoistic actors and ads only provide them with neutral evidence from which to render rational judgments..."). But all of the above not withstanding (not to mention countless examples, some listed by Arvilla, of which there are far too many to list) , the first thing skeptics must explain is why an allegedly powerless or inefficacious industry (i.e. marketing/advertising) is so spectacularly profitable; in other words, if ads don't actually influence people, why do virtually all large manufacturers spend trillions of dollars a year on innovative marketing and advertising?

To recall a post I wrote a couple of weeks ago on Marxism and the criticism that it's a "conspiracy theory of society", this analysis of the political/economic conditions of cultural production does not commit us to the thesis that culture is being actively, intentionally distorted by a clique of elites who act only for the sake of the domination of others. To build on Arvilla's argument about marketing boards and the manufacturing of consumer needs: the point isn't that the marketers are bent on world domination. Rather, the point is that they are part of larger institutions, which occupy a particular place in the economic structure of the social field, which functions in our current society in a way that yields oppressive results for everyone.

As Arvilla remarks, much advertising deploys tropes (little boys like edgy, green/black color schemes with raucus rock music) that marketing itself actually begot -yet people often take it for granted that these tropes are contingent and relatively new to our culture. Nonetheless, it is also the case that many of the cultural tropes, social norms and raw formal material that the Culture Industry redeploys, manipulates and instrumentalizes are not things that it created itself out of whole cloth. Contemporary capitalism tends to preserve certain norms and shield them from critique, while tearing others asunder. Sometimes it incorporates or co-opts potentially subversive tendencies in order to mitigate their critical potential. The point is that the bottom line is often just profit, and having autonomous and critical people is no boon to industries who thrive on creating false needs. For instance, what would industry X do if people suddenly realized that they didn't need X's product at all, but were merely consuming it because it largely appears as compulsory or necessary? (e.g. certain 'beauty products', makeup and razors and exfoliants, etc.)

The point is that contemporary capitalist societies did not themselves create sexual oppression or patriarchy, but they play a crucial role in sustaining these repressive social ills and producing new permutations. Hence they stave off emancipation. This seems to me to be one of the most interesting links between patriarchy and capitalism: its not that capitalism is necessarily committed to patriarchy through and through (in a more egalitarian society it would still seek to exploit people by other means). Instead, contemporary capitalist culture plays a damaging conservative role by dulling the critical means by which we might inquire into why we are surrounded by injunctions to buy certain things, dress in certain ways, subject ourselves to endless anxiety/stress over bogus norms purporting to track 'beauty', etc.


Arvilla said...

Fabulous post. What should I read to learn more about this Culture Industry theory in depth?

t said...

That Espen Hammer book I mentioned is quite good.

Also, reading Adorno is good -the essay the "Culture Industry" from Dialectic of Enlightenment is worth reading, as is essay "On the Fetish Character in Music", both of which are available free at

J.M. Bernstein has written some interesting things on this topic in Adorno, and he sees a lack in Adorno's account of social psychology that would explain in more detail why individuals identify with "the imperatives that structure their own domination". Bernstein thinks Judith Butler's elaboration of power might be a possible candidate for filling out this theory.

To the extent that I know what I think here, it seems to me that Hammer's skepticism about the ability of Bulter's theory to apply to situations outside of authoritarian societies is correct -and I'm talking here about the Foucault-influenced aspects of her approach that reduces subjectivity as such to operations of power. I'm not sure what emancipation could mean if we have a social theory in which Subjects are liquidated as none other than ideology all the way down. But I'm trying to be open-minded here, despite my prima facie sense that a subject-less socail theory is no social theory at all.