GAME NIGHT IN THE WASTELAND
OR, CULTURE INDUSTRY REDUX
Careful followers of this substack will have noticed, not only have I been gravitating toward a theoretical foundation for thinking through the contemporary condition of the central conflict between the managerial class and the new populism, but I also have long been working out a shorthand vocabulary for a judicious facilitating and enabling of such theorizing. Toward that end, I’ve been stumbling a bit around the fact that it certainly is not exclusively the administrative state, with its social engineering and bureaucratic paternalism, which is responsible for the corruption and erosion of organic communities, which it is the objective objective of the new populism to revive. (“Objective objective” of course being one such shorthand. Long time, regular readers will recognize among some of the others I’ve borrowed or coined: the psychorium, managerial liberalism, bureaucratic paternalism, managerial class ventriloquism, biopolitics, revolution within the form, super-legality, artificial negativity, concrete order, analog class, etc.)
I’ve grappled toward similar coinages to express this other dimension of organic community erosion, generated from corporate commercialization of both private and public life. “Corporate commercialization” has been one such term, as has been commodification, or commodity reification, or media oligarchy, or reality-curating media. These all, and others I could invoke, capture some aspect of the phenomenon. And I doubt any one term could do full justice to what I’m trying to capture here. However, it may be that all considered the best one on offer could be one drawn from our old friends at the Frankfurt School. This is the term “the culture industry,” famously popularized by Horkheimer and Adorno in their classic critical theory work, The Dialectic of Enlightenment.
Now, to start, a few qualifications are in order. First off, I’m not as cynical as they were. While I see the extent of the problem as extremely serious, I do not hold to their view that it is a fait accompli; the forces of the culture industry have not successfully colonized all forms of organic culture. We wouldn’t be seeing the pushback of the new populist insurgency if that were true. Secondly, as my next post will make clear, I certainly won’t want to tie the phenomenon to any original sin rooted in the Enlightenment. Nor, thirdly, as I’ve discussed elsewhere on this substack, do I find valid Adorno’s propensity to draw tortured, simplistic connections between mid-20th century America and Nazi Germany (see, here).
But, still, despite all those qualifications, there is I think some considerable value in the culture industry analysis. At its core is the idea that the industrialization of culture production, through the grow of mass media – from the mass circulation newspapers, through radio, Hollywood, television, and pop music, and including mass marketing of standardized consumer goods (e.g., McDonald’s, Disney, Lululemon) – has contributed to a homogenization of culture across what had been previously heterogeneous, culturally distinctive communities. A fascination with, first, the novelty, then the psychological compulsion and urge for narrative, originally expressed through the coded mysteries of the printed page, then by way of the spectacular simulation of life on the lit and apparently living screen, gradually displaced the organic culture of those communities.
This is not just a knee-jerk lament over too many kids sitting at home on their computers rather than getting fresh air and exercise. Though there is that too. And certainly, in some cases – think of teenagers using the darkened movie theatre as an escape for romantic escapades – the products of the culture industry have been subverted for non-commercial or commodifying traditional purposes. Over the long haul, though, the gradually eroding traditions of shared song (at least outside of church), the loss of church fellowship, TV watching displacing family or group game nights, weekend matinees displacing sandlot baseball, heartthrob magazines/websites displacing skipping games, the atrophying of local theatre and neighborhood pubs, and so many similar developments, have all taken their toll. (Where these traditions and rituals haven’t been eliminated, they’ve often been largely reduced to micro-replicas of culture industry commodities.)
And that toll taken has not only been manifest in the fraying of the shared experiences that had previously woven the personal relations that bound community life together. It was also a toll upon the unique ways of life that organically emerged from any specific community. The result has been a bland generalized homogeneity, which reduces each place to a common simulacrum of a mediated landscape, so that each individual could become a moveable part, increasingly able to be plugged in anywhere, because deracinated from the deep roots of any concrete order.
It's in this way that the corporate, commercial, commodifying, mediatized operations of managerial class intervention, i.e., the culture industry – as much as the managerial liberalism, social engineering, and bureaucratic paternalism of the administrative state – have contributed to the erosion of the organic communities which the new populism now must somehow revive. That is the challenge if such community is to avoid dissolving into an emotionally crippled cluster of monadic, deracinated individuals, serving as the worker drones, tax cattle, and consumer automatons of the ruling globalist faction of the managerial class.
Horkheimer and (especially) Adorno were of the considered opinion that people liberated from the stultifying forces of the culture industry would appreciate what they considered to be truly great art: e.g., Iambic pentameter verse, atonal music, Dada poetry, cubist painting. There of course, they were just resorting to their own managerial class snobbery, with its fetish for the deciphering of challenging, abstruse symbols. And certainly, it has become common practice today for most leading edge, avant-garde artists (often supported by taxpayer funded grants) to hold non-managerial class types – what I’ve called the analog class, with their local social norms, values, and faith – in utter contempt. Submerging an image of Christ into a vat of urine is the sort of thing we’ve come to expect. (One wonders how the managerial class cultural snobs would have responded to an imagine of Nelson Mandela or Barack Obama subjected to the same treatment.)
So, by no means do I suggest that overcoming the culture industry does or would entail some widespread adoration of “serious” or avant-garde art. In fact, obviously, that would solve nothing, merely displacing one form of universalized cultural template with another. The key for recovering organic communities from the culture industry probably lies in a willingness to turn off the screens, at least a bunch of the time, and recreating some of their own entertainment and culture. Those who, these days, decry their recent discovery that Disney has been inculcating their children with managerial liberalism (e.g., racializing, queering, trans-grooming content) might better ask the more radical question: was it ever a good idea, putting the enculturation and entertainment of their children on autopilot in the service of any corporate conglomerate?
The recreation of organic culture likely will have to involve a renaissance of tradition, custom and ritual. To those of us steeped in managerial liberal assumptions and values, I know that all sounds like some kind of retrograde Norman Rockwell nostalgia. Nor do I have any better notion of what it may look like. And that is not so much a failure of my imagination as a function of the fact that an organic culture has to be grown by people living in a concrete order, not pre-imagined by some smug managerial class smarty-pants. What I do know is that in the absence of such a renaissance of organic community culture we’re faced with the endless wasteland of commodified and engineered life, lived in service of the whims of the ruling globalist faction of the managerial class.