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Adorno popularized the idea of negative dialectics

Theodor Adorno was an influential voice in the German Frankfurt School of similarly minded Marxists, who promoted the values of socialism while condemning capitalism through their work. His ideas are in alignment with the pessimistic side of Marxist thought, and his writings on the current state of the world, especially what he termed "The Culture Industry" painted humanity as cogs of a dominating machine from which we are unable to escape.


Theodor Adorno was an influential voice in the German Frankfurt School of similarly minded Marxists, who promoted the values of socialism while condemning capitalism through their work. His ideas are in alignment with the pessimistic side of Marxist thought, and his writings on the current state of the world, especially what he termed "The Culture Industry" painted humanity as cogs of a dominating machine from which we are unable to escape -- even if we believed we had, we simply adapt to a different role in the machine. His main belief regarding this area was that the culture industry, much like all other aspects of life, have already accounted for these deviations and devised ways to continue its incorporation of the general public.

Adorno was born on September 11, 1903 in Germany to a family which was relatively wealthy, due to the professions of both his parents. His father, of Jewish heritage, was an enterprising wine merchant, however, the parent which would have a larger influence on his eventual path in life was his mother -- a successful Italian singer. Much of Adorno's early life was geared towards music and it was believed that he would follow this career path due to his exceptional talent which was widely recognized by accomplished musicians at the time. He initially studied music composition in Vienna before deciding to attend the University of Frankfurt to devote his equal talent for academics towards the study of philosophy. His passion for music eventually made its way into his work concerning the culture industry

Due to Adorno's Jewish heritage, he was persecuted by Nazi Germany and in 1934 relocated to the UK, where he continued his studies at Oxford, and finally the United States. It is here that his most influential books were published, such as Dialectic of Enlightenment. In 1949, he returned to Germany to take up a position as a professor of philosophy at his alma mater the University of Frankfurt, and his teachings here provided the basis for what came to be known as the Frankfurt School of Marxist thought. He remained a professor until his death in 1969.

Key Terms

  • Aesthetic Theory: Refers to Adorno's thought regarding the nature of art and how its beauty can be perceived and interpreted. While popular theories at the time prioritized the appreciation of the subject over the object when appreciating art, Adorno prioritized the object and sought a balance between the two aspects, bringing out the true meaning.
  • Culture Industry: The overarching system of new ways which culture is delivered to the public due to the rise of capitalist thought, stifling their revolutionary potential. Adorno argues that the culture industry has transformed these forms of culture into an ideological method of exerting dominance over the public -- even if they believe that they have escaped the system, because the culture industry has accounted for this already. Adorno calls for the return to prevalence of autonomous art to contrast the growing culture industry.
  • Autonomous Art: Art which is produced without the overhanging demands or intentions which cause it to become commodified. Art which is produced in order to be functionless is the only art which can escape the culture industry.
  • Cultural Lag: A justification for the rampant successes of the culture industry in causing people to conform to its ideology which is rejected by Adorno. Cultural lag represents the "backwardness of American consciousness in relation to the state of technology" (423)
  • Light Art: The antithesis to autonomous, "serious" art. Art which is produced by the culture industry for the sole purpose of brief entertainment. The laughter which it gives us for a moment is a replacement for true happiness.
  • False Consciousness: A Marxist term signifying the belief that one is doing the right thing due to their following of the dominant ideology, when in reality their actions will end up affecting them negatively. This term was adapted to define the actions of the culture industry in Adorno's work by stating that the culture industry is a manipulative force, and the working class conforms to the ideologies provided by the dominant force of capitalism without the knowledge they are doing so.
  • Commodification: the alteration of items which would not normally be regarded as goods for the benefit of the capitalist system, altered for the sole purpose of providing monetary value.


  • Something is provided for everyone so that no one can escape; differences are hammered home and propagated. 417
  • The unified standard of value consists in the level of conspicuous production, the amount of investment put on show. The budgeted differences of value in the culture industry have nothing to do with actual difference, with the meaning of the product itself. 418
  • Not only do hit songs, stars, and soap operas conform to types recurring cyclically as rigid invariants, but the specific content of productions, the seemingly variable element, is itself derived from those types. The details become interchangeable. 419
  • The whole world is passed through the filter of the culture industry. The familiar experience of the moviegoer, who perceives the street outside as a continuation of the film he has just left, because the film seeks strictly to reproduce the world of everyday perception, has become the guideline of production. 419
  • The explicit and implicit, exoteric and esoteric catalog of what is forbidden and what is tolerated is so extensive that it not only defines the area left free but wholly controls it. Even the most minor details are modeled according to this lexicon. 420
  • Anyone who does not conform is condemned to an economic impotence which is prolonged in the intellectual powerlessness of the eccentric loner. Disconnected from the mainstream, he is easily convicted of inadequacy. 424


The characteristics of art which Adorno critiqued in his attacks on the culture industry are still very visible and relevant in today’s popular culture. He states in his essay “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” that all elements of the culture he observes has been affected with “sameness” and had thus been transformed into a “system” (416). If the Hollywood movies or the most popular music of today were to be observed under the same lens, it could easily be argued that it is commodified in a similar fashion. The general public is under the spell of false consciousness, simply falling in line behind the familiar allure of capitalist ideology rather than diverging from such ideas in order to appreciate the more revolutionary, autonomous art. Parker writes that this sentiment of submission to the culture industry encourages “political complacency instead of revolutionary or critical thinking” (229).

From observing modern box office figures it is clear to see that original ideas are not rewarded with success due to the lack of familiarity surrounding the project upon its opening to the public. For this reason, the sequel to an original idea which was fortunate enough to generate enough success to warrant one often greatly outperforms its original – the audience now understands what they will be getting from the product. Adorno argues that familiarity drawing people in to these commodified products is a negative aspect of society and only diminishes the possibility of more revolutionary ideas being produced in the future – a pattern which persists today due to the success of sequels and remakes. In fact, 16 of the top 20 highest grossing films of all time belong to this category – the exceptions being Avatar, Titanic, Frozen and Jurassic Park, all of which have an affiliation with a very well-known director (or studio, in Disney’s case).

This pattern continues when we observe the state of popular music. The vast majority of songs which attract a large audience today draw similarities to each other, in song structure, musical composition and lyrical content. Almost every song heard when a typical “hit music” station is turned on today consists of the same verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus pattern. It has become so popular that when this formula is diverted from, the initial reaction is confusion. In addition, the contributions of producers such as Max Martin and Ryan Tedder similarly infuse the landscape of music with sameness – seeing as it brings them so much success, due to the public’s need for familiarity. Max Martin, unknown to many, trails only Paul McCartney for the most #1 songs in history, seeing as he is behind the vast majority of the most popular songs on the radio. Many of his songs consist of the same chord progression, for a uniform sound which becomes universally popular without fail. Ryan Tedder, on the other hand, has been observed as producing twin songs, or two songs eerily similar in both melody and chord progression – Beyonce’s “Halo” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Already Gone”, for instance.

Works Cited

“Adorno, Theodor.” Postcolonial Studies. Web. 12 Apr. 2016.

"A Summary of Adorno and Horkheimer’s Quite Interesting and Staggeringly Pretentious Views on Art." Max. 2012. Web. 12 Apr. 2016.

"Horkheimer on the Culture Industry & False Consciousness | EU." Before It's News. Web. 12 Apr. 2016.

"Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy." Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web. 12 Apr. 2016.

Parker, Robert Dale. Critical Theory: A Reader for Literary and Cultural Studies. New York: Oxford UP, 2012. Print

Parker, Robert Dale. How To Interpret Literature: Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies. New York: Oxford UP, 2008. Print

Zuidervaart, Lambert. "Theodor W. Adorno." Stanford University. Stanford University, 2003. Web. 12 Apr. 2016.