Last week in my discussion sections for Contemporary Sociological Theory we covered Horkheimer and Adorno’s concept of the ‘culture industry.’ In a nutshell, as far back as 1944 these two had serious concerns about the growth of mass communications. They were particularly worried about our shift away from recreational activities that involved active participation (like playing music or talking on the telephone) to things that required only a passive absorption of programming created by an increasingly centralized industry (such as film and radio).
Here’s how we worked through the concept…
First, we tackled the big questions:
- What is the historical context in which Horkheimer and Adorno wrote?
- Why were Horkheimer and Adorno surprised by the events of their times?
- What is the question driving their work?
- How do Horkheimer and Adorno answer this question?
To help the students answer these questions, I showed this video of Disneyland’s “Carousel of Progress” Act as it was shown from 1967-1973 (thanks for the suggestion Bernie Zaleha!). This exhibit took place well after Horkheimer and Adorno published their critique, but I still found it helpful in visualizing an approximation of the historical moment in which Horkheimer and Adorno wrote.
After we answered the four questions above to our satisfaction, I showed this clip from the movie Wall-E. Each week a handful of my students are responsible for submitting media items for use in class, and I thought this one was particularly effective at illustrating a futuristic take on the culture industry.
Next, students divided into small groups to find quotes from the reading that illustrated content from both videos. They spent 10 or 15 minutes on this task, and then we discussed their quotes together as a larger group. Finally, we discussed whether or not Horkheimer and Adorno’s critique of the culture industry is still relevant today.
All in all, I had a lot of fun. And usually if I’m having a good time, there’s a decent chance my students are too. : )