The term "Frankfurt School" refers to the work of members of the Institut für Sozialforschung (Institute for Social Research), which was established in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1923 as the first Marxist-oriented research center affiliated with a major German university (Kellner, 1989). The Frankfurt School coined the term "culture industry" in the 1930s to signify the industrialization of mass-produced culture and the commercial imperatives that constructs it (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1972). Its critical theorists analyzed mass-mediated cultural artifacts as products of industrial production, demonstrating that commodities of the culture industry exhibit the same features as other mass-produced objects: commodification, standardization, and massification. The culture industry has the specific function, however, of providing ideological legitimation of existing capitalist societies and of integrating individuals into its way of life.

The critiques of the culture industry developed in T. W. Adorno (1903–1969) and Max Horkheimer's (1895–1973) famous Dialectic of Enlightenment (1972) contain many, albeit unsystematic, references to Hollywood film. Film in the culture industries has been organized like industrial production and uses standardized formulas and conventional production techniques to mass-produce films for purely commercial, rather than cultural, purposes. Films reproduce reality as it is and thus encourages individuals to adjust and conform to the new conditions of industrial and mass society:

They hammer into every brain the old lesson that continuous friction, the breaking down of all individual resistance, is the condition of life in this society. Donald Duck in the cartoons and the unfortunate in real life get their thrashing so that the audience can learn to take their own punishment.
(Adorno and Horkheimer, 1972, p. 138)

The positions of Adorno, Horkheimer, and other members of the inner circle of the Institute for Social Research were contested by Walter Benjamin (1892–1940), an idiosyncratic theorist loosely affiliated with the Institute. Benjamin, writing in Paris during the 1930s, discerned progressive aspects in new technologies of cultural production such as photography, film, and radio. In "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1934), Benjamin noted how new mass media were supplanting older forms of culture; mass reproduction of photography, film, recordings, and publications was replacing older emphasis on originality and "aura" in works of art. Benjamin believed that freed from the mystification of high culture, mass culture could create more critical individuals capable of judging and analyzing their culture, just as sports fans can dissect and evaluate athletic activities. In addition, Benjamin asserted that processing the rush of images of cinema helps viewers create subjectivities better able to parry the flux and turbulence of experience in industrialized, urbanized societies.

For Benjamin, the proliferation of mass art, especially through film, would bring images of the contemporary world to the masses and would help raise political consciousness by encouraging scrutiny of the world. Benjamin claimed that the mode of viewing film breaks with the reverential mode of aesthetic perception and awe encouraged by the bourgeois cultural elite, who promoted the religion of art. Montage and "shock effects" in film, mass spectatorship, discussion of issues that film viewing encourages, and other factors in the cinematic experience produce, in Benjamin's view, new social and political experiences of art that erode the private, solitary, and contemplative aesthetic experiences encouraged by high culture and its priests. Against the contemplation of high art, the "shock effects" of film produce a mode of "distraction" that Benjamin believed makes possible a "heightened presence of mind" and cultivation of "expert" audiences able to examine and criticize film and society (pp. 237–241).

Benjamin wished to promote a radical cultural and media politics able to create alternative oppositional cultures. Yet he recognized that media such as film could have conservative effects. While he believed that the loss of "aura," of magical force in mass-produced works is progressive and opens out cultural artifacts to increased critical and political discussion, Benjamin recognized that film could also create a new kind of ideological magic through the cult of celebrity and techniques like the close-up, which used film technologies to fetishize certain stars or images. Benjamin was thus one of the first radical cultural critics to look carefully at the form and technology of media culture while appraising its complex nature and effects.

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