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    Frankfurt school on popular culture Essay

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    When people watched this film, little did they realise they were watching a modern day twist on a classic. More recently Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was repackaged and adapted for the big screen. Classical music has been taken and remixed into modern day dance tracks. The dilution and mass production have even been extended to the realms of classical art. Painters such as Munch, Monet and even Van Gogh have been mass produced at all levels from expensive prints to i?? 3. 50 posters for a child’s bedroom wall. All are available for the masses to enjoy at their leisure.

    Benjamin goes on to argue what whilst mass production can lead to consumerism, it can also be liberating for the lower classes to have access to specific items, previously only available to the ruling classes. According to Shills (1961) the growing volume of popular culture is more about ensuring that the cultural needs of the masses are adequately serviced; that there is something available for everyone in popular culture. It is not simply about providing more opportunities for exploitation of the masses as the thinkers of the Frankfurt School viewed it.

    Who is to say that the products or commodities being bought are not useful? The Frankfurt School frequently refer to false needs that are increasingly met through the participation in popular, mass produced culture, whereas the true needs of society are those that signify freedom from the oppression. There is a lack of clarity on two points here. Firstly, what is the difference between a “true” need and a “false” one’secondly, how do we recognise what the true needs of society are’strinati (2003) uses the analogy of a washing machine as an example. Since it is mass produced it must, by definition, be considered a false need.

    Washing machines, however, provide a very useful, time saving function. It can be said to be meeting a real or “true” need. Further, who is to say how we define or even recognise these needs? The Frankfurt School appear to be able to define society’s needs based purely on their own ideological preferences (Strinati, op cit, pp 71). Further, cultural meanings are produced and managed at the point of consumption by people who are actively able to identify with and construct their own ideas and values associated with the product rather than being the passive, unthinking masses that Adorno and his cohorts suggest.

    People take from culture what they need through a level of participation of their own choosing. Fiske goes on to argue that whilst popular culture is produced by capitalist organisations, they have to work real hard at getting the masses to consume. Massive advertising campaigns do not automatically guarantee the success of a product. Ultimately it is the choice of the individual whether they participate or resist the advertising, they are far from being “passive dopes” (Fiske, cited in Barker, 2003).

    The Frankfurt School, whilst focusing on culture as a form of social control through which the working classes are blindly seduced into participating, by what Marx would call “commodity fetishism”; miss some very valid differences between the social groups they look down on. Differences between age, gender, and ethnicity add another important dimension to the culture debate. These differences will affect the extent of participation in a particular cultural product, the depth of meaning and value taken from it, and also the level of enjoyment gained.

    Society is diverse and the blinkered view of the Frankfurt School is somewhat limiting as an analysis of popular culture, as the internal meanings of cultural products are clearly not the same for everyone (Strinati op cit, pp 71). Antonio Gramsci, an Italian writer, politician and political theorist was the founding member of the Communist Party of Italy. His writings from a jail cell in Italy, having been imprisoned under Mussolini’s fascist regime, were concerned with the analysis of culture within the Marxist tradition.

    Gramsci is renowned for his theory of cultural hegemony as a means of maintaining control of the state in a capitalist society. Hegemony, as Gramsci argued, was the intellectual and economic domination in society of a specific group or historical bloc, which stays in power by taking care of and, at the same time, repressing other subordinate groups (Strinati, 2004, pp 146 – 147). The power of the group is a reflection of their position in the economy. Gramsci argued that the ruling classes had to constantly maintain their dominant status by indoctrinating the lowers classes with their ideologies (Strinati, op cit, pp 148).

    Control was not guaranteed and had to be fought and continually re-won in a constant process of negotiation. This allows for a potential challenge to be made or a counter-hegemonic bloc to form from the subordinate classes or groups. Culture was seen to be at the forefront of ideological struggle and was therefore a battlefield. According to Gramsci cultural commodities were not only physical products to be bought and sold but were also seen as new ways of looking at the world. Advertising had to create an identity for a product and be able to sell it by associating it with desirable human values.

    Thus society was not only buying a product but also a lifestyle. Gramsci’s concept of hegemony was an analysis of why the socialist revolution that Marx deemed inevitable had not occurred. Capitalism was firmly entrenched and maintained control in all spheres of society through, not only political and economic coercion, but the ideologies of the ruling classes in which their values and meanings became the “common sense” values of all society. A consensus culture developed and the working classes identified with the bourgeoisie, which helped to maintain the status quo.

    For a revolution to occur the working classes had to develop a culture of their own that would recognise the ruling class values as something other than “normal”. Frenchman Louis Althusser contributed greatly to the popular culture debate with his concept of ideology. Heavily influenced by the works of Gramsci’s hegemony, he believed that social customs had been hijacked and re-packaged as ideological practices. Althusser maintained that ideology was both inevitable and impossible to escape.

    Christmas, for example, provides a well-earned holiday but people seem oblivious to the exploitation and consumer capitalism that surrounds it. Thus an endless circle begins to develop which traps the masses leaving them with no option but to participate (Storey, 2006, pp 6). For Althusser, the state was the main instrument of control for the ruling classes and consisted of two elements; the Repressive State Apparatuses (RSA) utilises force and coercion and employs the police, the courts, the prison system and the armed forces, where necessary, to legitimise their position.

    The RSA represses dissent by using legitimate force. The Ideological State Apparatuses (ISA) consisted of the family, the education system and the church and their role was to develop and reproduce values, attitudes and culture to ensure the stability of the state. Althusser argued that the more successful the ISAs were in promoting ideology, the less work the RSA needed to do and the ruling class domination remains stable. Here, culture is part of a bigger ideological framework but is still exercising control over the masses.

    The Frankfurt School can be seen to have a somewhat elitist attitude towards popular culture. Not only do they define what is good and bad culture, they claim that low or mass culture is in fact inferior to its higher counterpart. It is standarised and conformist and the masses only consume because they are brainwashed into doing so. Despite originating from a Marxist standpoint, the Frankfurt School appear to look down on the masses and treat them with disdain rather than fighting for their cause of liberation from oppression.

    They maintain that the revolutionary time that Marx so long hoped for has passed and that the only hope the lower classes have is to better themselves by tapping into the products and ideologies of their oppressors. Something that even Marx himself would have trouble digesting. Furthermore, the main thinkers of the School feel the need to define exactly what the needs of society are. The lower classes cannot think critically for themselves so must rely on the ruling elite to show them how to live their lives.

    Benjamin provides some light relief with his view that high culture is being mass produced for everyone, but this is still from an overly elitist position. Whilst Gramsci and, to a lesser extent, Althusser provide a slightly less elitist perspective, they still maintain through their concepts of hegemony and ideology respectively, that popular culture is a form of social control and a way for the dominant groups to maintain their status in a capitalist society. Both theorists wanted to eradicate economic determinism from Marxist theory that was still so apparent within the Frankfurt School of thought.

    Gramsci developed his theory of hegemony to stress the importance of struggle throughout human history and the role that popular culture played in the conflict. Hegemony describes the various modes of social control available to the ruling classes of which culture is but one strand (Ransome, 1992, cited in Strinati, 2003). Popular culture, as seen through the eyes of left-wing intellectuals, is inferior, negative and standardised. The people who consume it are uncritical, conformist and “passive dopes”.

    From such a narrow standpoint one can assume the Frankfurt School cannot see the other side of the culture debate. Perhaps if they had lowered their heads a little they would have seen the enjoyment, real satisfaction and usefulness that mass produced culture can bring to society. 2,394 words.

    REFERENCES Barker, C. (2003), Cultural Studies: Theory & Practice. Second Edition. SAGE Publications Ltd. London. Storey, J (2006) Cultural Theory and Popular Culture. Third Rev Edition. Prentice Hall, London. Strinati, D. (2004), An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture. Second Edition. Routledge. Oxon.

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