Dialectic of Entertainment


Reject the Idols

“Studying popular culture means that you are always thinking about fraudulence. Not because you seek to unveil the lie. No, the intellectual work is to explore misdirection as the commodity we cannot stop consuming. It has always been unclear whether we admire the maker of smoke or the destroyer of mirrors. Reality television is a genre that exhibits this ambivalence, since few viewers watch it without doubting everything it contains. They watch, again and again, because skepticism is the commodity this reality produces.

When Theodor Adorno (1903-1969) and Max Horkheimer (1895-1973) wrote Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), they were hardly neutral about popular culture and its consequences. “Entertainment is the prolongation of work under late capitalism,” they wrote. “It is sought by those who want to escape the mechanized labor process so that they can cope with it again.”

We imagine that blockbuster films or pop songs offer relief from our working lives, but Adorno and Horkheimer argued that popular culture is the handmaiden of labor. “This is the incurable sickness of all entertainment,” they explained, pointing to our need to keep consuming (binge viewing, video gaming, and online shopping) in order to cope with working. We don’t work to earn leisure; our leisure is the drug that keeps us working. “The culture industry presents that same everyday world as paradise,” they wrote. “Entertainment fosters the resignation which seeks to forget itself in entertainment.”

Critics of religion speak similarly, arguing that religion distracts us from confronting reality [perhaps religion confronts us with ultimate reality?], and religious leadership suppresses resistance in part through the declaration of our salvation. “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions,” Karl Marx (1818-1883) famously wrote. The critique of religion resonates with Adorno and Horkheimer’s assault on consumer culture: A demoralized public uses spectacle to believe life could be other than demoralizing. And yet these very spectacles seem to do nothing but deliver us back to our dispiriting labor.”

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