PRINT September 2012


Rabih Mroué, Double Shooting, 2012, film stills, waterproof paper, wood. Installation view, Tempelhofer Feld, Berlin. From “The World Is Not Fair.” Photo: Valentin Fasta.

IT WAS A BRILLIANTLY SUNNY afternoon as I walked onto the Tempelhofer Feld in Berlin. In the 1920s, this massive field in the south of the city hosted Germany’s first commercial airport, but it had been used since the eighteenth century as a military parade ground and (now again) for public recreation. The airport closed in 2008, and the space is today a gigantic park. Being there, one feels as if some salt lake or tideland had been transposed to the middle of the city. This sensation is not only due to the scale of the place but because, in contrast to most European parks, there is no landscape design: There are no trees and barely any buildings. Between the runway and the landing strips, pedestrians, cyclists, picnickers, and operators of homemade bricolaged vehicles offer a view of the confusing and bizarre uses to which people put their leisure time, all taking place simultaneously in a nearly unbroken field of vision.

This unbounded field has also recently become a site for performance, art, and architecture. This past June, Matthias Lilienthal—the outgoing director of Hebbel am Ufer, Berlin’s leading venue for experimental theater, performance, and adjacent areas of the visual arts and music—collaborated with the music and theater curator Christoph Gurk and the architectural team Raumlaborberlin to curate a contemporary echo of the world’s fairs of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Amid the skaters, the hippie camps, and the colorful splendor of rising and falling kites, visitors to the former airfield were confronted with pavilions in the style of eco-psychedelic outsider architecture. Entering these Burning Man–meets–Buckminster Fuller castles, they might have run into artworks by Harun Farocki, Willem de Rooij, or Rabih Mroué, among others. After two hours in this utopian-apocalyptic landscape of endless free time surrounded by endless crisis, I began to wonder where I actually was. What was this place in which I found myself?

The answer came intuitively, almost of its own accord: This was the Internet. Wherever you looked, you saw cultural signifiers being processed in various ways. As when one is online, it was impossible to distinguish between what was being done professionally or as a leisure activity, whether sporting certain clothes, listening to music, reciting literature, performing a live version of a TV soap opera, or playing educational games with children. Subjects, designs, objects, and intentions fluttered over one another until they faded from visibility at the horizon. Everything was there, nothing was hidden, everyone was implicated, and there was no outside. We don’t have an image of the Web aside from that suggested by the word itself or the idea of a network—like a subway map or a Mark Lombardi drawing—but here I was in the Internet, not in front of it. This is how we live.

Still: Wasn’t Martin Heidegger already living this way in the 1950s, when he wrote, with the radio in mind, about “the appearance everywhere, and in the most varied forms and disguises, of the gigantic”? He continued: “At the same time, the huge announces itself in the direction of the ever smaller. We have only to think of the numbers of atomic physics. The gigantic presses forward in a form which seems to make it disappear: in destruction of great distances by the airplane, in the representations of foreign and remote worlds in their everydayness produced at will by the flick of a switch.”¹ Voilà, the Internet avant la lettre.

Lilienthal’s staging of “The World Is Not Fair” impressively toyed with the ambivalence of such a condition. But my question at this point, fifty years after the inception of this magazine, forty-eight years after the simultaneous shrieking of thousands of individuals drowned out the Beatles at Shea Stadium, forty-five years after the first performance of “All You Need Is Love” was broadcast live to the whole world, is this: Is the “gigantic” in which we now live the fabled happy ending of Franz Kafka’s Amerika, the Nature Theater of Oklahoma—an image that (in Kippenberger as in Kafka) oscillates between mass salvation, mass stupefaction, and mass annihilation?

Or is this question itself just what you’d expect from a long-outdated Kulturkritik that sees the final catastrophe in every new step of civilization? Does it make sense, alternatively, to think of this situation as an updating of the culture industry—as our own historically specific stage in the colonization by capital that Adorno and Horkheimer called “enlightenment as mass deception”? But does the culture industry really have stages? Hasn’t it long imposed an ahistorical consciousness, an eternal now, in which “culture . . . infect[s] everything with sameness,” as it was put in Dialectic of Enlightenment in 1944? Has the culture industry changed, or is it always the same?

Harun Farocki, Parallele (Parallel), 2012, two-channel digital video projection, color, 17 minutes 11 seconds.

THE IDEA of the culture industry has itself existed in several versions. In the 1950s and ’60s it bolstered the critical theories of the New Left and was widely admired as an explanation of the decline of the public sphere and for the connections it posited between capitalism and culture, entertainment and ideology. It thus also became a buzzword for simplistic, culturally pessimistic conspiracy theories and gave rise to popular discussions of manipulation through mass media. In the ’70s, the term was sometimes replaced by a psychedelic, paranoid variation: the “consciousness industry”—a phrase that sounds as if it were inspired by William S. Burroughs by way of Francis Ford Coppola but actually was coined by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, who claimed that this industry directly “produces” consciousness rather than cultural commodities whose consumption transmits an ideology.

Visual art criticism, meanwhile, was introduced to the notion of the culture industry largely through the writings of art historian Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, who brought the central ideas of critical theory to the US from Germany in 1977 and unpacked them carefully over the course of the ’80s and afterward. Introduc­ing 1970s Frankfurt School thinking into English-language art theory, he also successfully launched the thesis that the visual arts are themselves part of the culture industry. Often this idea is waved through by audiences because they understand it only as the basic assertion—uncontested by critical theory—that art objects are commodities, too. Adorno made a distinction, however: Whereas the products of the culture industry are only commodities, with a necessarily ideological relation to their content, works of art are something else as well. This is important, because if artworks can still be considered singularities or specific objects that on some level resist integration into the gigantic, then the culture industry would not be total. To preserve this possibility Adorno insists, especially in his later writings on music and literature, on differentiating between the double nature of art—as at once autonomous and fait social—and the sameness of cultural-industrial products.

I would argue that the visual arts today offer different grounds for challenging the idea of the gigantic. Contemporary art is undergoing a split, on the one hand into participatory activism with stridently political demands, on the other into overblown feel-good design for the oligarchs and 1 percenters of the world. This logic of disintegration (and the reappearance of a class divide) could itself be taken as evidence of an alternative to the culture industry’s pervasive sameness, its fatal logic of unification, by which every cultural act is poisoned by the commodity form. But dividing art into underpaid project culture and postbourgeois pomp is not a particularly good solution to the contradictory place of art under the conditions of capitalism.

IN ORDER TO ADDRESS the relationship between art and the culture industry head-on, one has to deal with one of the most important criticisms that has been leveled against Dialectic of Enlightenment: that in conceptualizing the culture industry, Adorno and Horkheimer failed to develop a coherent theory of the role played by media technology. Friedrich Kittler and his school, for instance, accuse Adorno of complete technical ignorance of even the media of his own time. The fact that Hollywood films and commercial radio were Adorno and Horkheimer’s prime examples of the culture industry is understandable, given that they were writing in 1940s Los Angeles (even if their theory was somehow meant to be applicable to Nazi Germany as well), but in consequence, they falsely understood the contingencies of ’40s America to be media’s absolute characteristics, not least by ontologizing the technological state of radio in the late ’30s and early ’40s as intrinsic to the medium in general. Adorno and Horkheimer’s failure to address the technical idiosyncrasies of film and radio means, according to this view, that their theory cannot be held to apply to subsequent incarnations of a culture industry built on quite different technologies and media.

Kittler’s hatred of Horkheimer and in particular of Adorno is legendary: In his savaging of Dialectic of Enlightenment, he refers to the pair only as “the sons of factory owners.”² What Adorno’s interpretation of radio crucially lacks, Kittler argues, is precisely what the later Heidegger understands about technology. Cuttingly (mis)appropriating one of Adorno’s coinages, Kittler refers to Heidegger’s wish to “establish the primacy of the object.” In this, Kittler writes, Heidegger “opened himself to criticism that was both clever and bourgeois” (and then he singles out Adorno as “the stupidest and most bourgeois” of Heidegger’s critics). Referring to the passage from Holzwege quoted above, Kittler continues, “Radio is no longer an existential entity that can be attributed to Being itself, as in Being and Time. On the contrary, it is something both gigantic and tiny that has assaulted people without their comprehension.”³

Audience at a Saturday matinee in a Northgate, Seattle, movie theater, 1954. Photo: Josef Scaylea/Corbis.

Kittler based his materialism of media and media technology on Heidegger’s anthropological understanding of human uses of technology, and he inherited from Heidegger a deep disagreement with historical materialism, its privileging of class relations, and its elevation of the commodity form and dedication to dialectical critique. But lest his Heidegger-backed aggression toward Adorno and Horkheimer seem to come only from the right wing, Kittler also tries to call out these cultural Marxists for being embarrassingly bourgeois. By supporting proletarian tinkerers and bricoleurs (one might call them nerds or geeks today) against a specifically upper-middle-class camp of technological ignorance, Kittler turns “Marxist” arguments against Marxists themselves, portraying them as blinded by their own privileged existence. Even if Kittler’s position here is partly a reactionary thrust against what seemed to him a leftist hegemony in academia in the ’60s and ’70s, he has a point. And in general, the media materialism of Kittler and others aims to outdo and surpass Adorno’s economic materialism—which, according to Kittler, blames on the commodity what should be attributed to the code.

But in all such criticisms, one strength of Adorno and Horkheimer’s argument is often overlooked: its recognition of the remarkably fungible character of the culture industry across media. In several places Adorno and Horkheimer point out that the sameness that infects everything goes far beyond the standardization of artistic forms (e.g., the thirty-two bars of the so-called Great American Songbook) and now manifests itself in the way the boundaries between media are constantly being crossed. Any little module of meaning can interconnect with or be replaced by any other module; the ideological atoms and molecules jump from advertisements on the radio to jokes in the newspaper and follow us through certain melodies that we whistle on the street on the way to a movie in which we are sold another standardized form of being. Advertising, which proliferates its brand messages in the most varied contexts and media environments, is here paradigmatic. Rather than “medium unspecificity”—a term that would be too predictably antagonistic in relation to the high-modernist demand for medium specificity—one way to describe this is as the transgression of media in the service of a unified ideology, one that operates regardless of the codes and laws of individual channels of communication. This insight, if never fully developed, constitutes one core of Dialectic of Enlightenment, and it is an insight that the work’s critics from the field of media theory have failed to give its due.

Unlike other aspects of Adorno and Horkheimer’s argument, in this case, their diagnosis is not just culturally pessimistic impressionism but rather a prescient observation of the mixed-media strategies that became central to advertising in the 1950s and have been with us ever since. It was the now-beloved “Mad Men” who, as the TV show depicts, were constantly engaged in leveling the differences between media and their specific technologies through the homogenization of content. And if the artistic avant-gardes at that time were mostly still occupied with investigating the properties of specific media, Warhol was already concentrating on the consequences of this leveling.

If the social effect travels from the media technology on which Heidegger and Kittler were focused to the content itself, this has serious consequences for their arguments against critical theory and the leftist critique of ideology. The idea that there is no such thing as content—that content is only an effect of technology—loses its grip precisely when media technology is instrumentalized in giving priority to content. If the ideology of this content is always the same, it makes irrelevant the differences between media and even, so to speak, makes ideological content into a quasi-technological reality.

When one takes this aspect of the theory of the culture industry as seriously as the many objections to it, the story of the development of the old gigantic into the new gigantic—from the heyday of radio to the age of the Internet—needs to be told in a different way. The critiques of the media materialists should be taken seriously, but the current sources of the infection of everything with sameness can only be located if one goes beyond their fixation on the technological aspects to examine the various ways in which media are now structurally linked to one another.

ONE CAN DISTINGUISH three stages of the culture industry, in each of which the leveling of differences between media and the channels of communication—and the kinds of connections they build with and among the public—occur in distinct ways. The fact that digitization will eventually complete this leveling process on a technical level won’t do away with the problem if it is acknowledged that standardization does not actually take place on the level of technology, but rather on the level of meaning. And if the identity of this meaning has no bearing on the differences between one medium and another, the way that the digital interconnects all media would merely be the technical consummation of what has long since been achieved.

American family watching television, ca. 1958. Photo: Evert F. Baumgardner.

The first stage of the culture industry operated via two constellations of technology. One of them, the radio, provided communication at home via a small box (first in the parlor, then in the kitchen) that offered everything from the world outside—injunctions and distractions, announcements of the time, propaganda, advertisements, and also music that permitted fantasies of the distant places whence it came. Alternatively, there was the cinema, which meant leaving the home: One had to enter the public sphere, to set foot in the real world; only then could one go into a space where one could dream alone in the dark, but in sync with many others who were invisible yet close enough to smell, hear, or touch. Sergei Eisenstein was not the only figure to note that one purpose of the cinema is to create synchronized emotions, so that its attractions unfold their effect collectively.

These two sites produced contradictory kinds of relationships: the former, a private connection with messages from the outside, along with a dreamlike visualization of where these might originate; the latter, a solitude rich with specific, well-defined images that was experienced in the presence of others in a public space. Both experiences disturbed the existing differentiating structures of the bourgeois public sphere in order to exploit the gaps between the spaces constituted by the media themselves—vague dream/specific image, inside/outside, familiar/public, contact/isolation—which were turned into atmospheric commodities. Naturally, the bourgeois citizen initially bemoaned the fact that the traditional structures of order were coming under attack, and the opponents of the bourgeoisie rejoiced over the possible social effects of the cinema and the radio. This was true of those on the left as well as those on the right, who particularly valued how audiences were synchronized and disciplined. Not only Hitler and Hearst but also Benjamin and Eisenstein had high political hopes for cinema.

Yet although radio and cinema disrupted the spatial hierarchies of the bourgeois public sphere, they replaced them with an architecture that was rigid in its own way. It was, after all, only traditional sites (the home, the theater) that had been connected and synchronized, and the new relationships and shared experiences that these media enabled were themselves relatively fixed, tending toward their consolidation into a single channel. This changed, however, in the next stage of the culture industry, which was dominated by pop music and television. Rather than media technologies, however, it increasingly became people who forged connections between sites.

It was around this time that television came to fulfill Adorno and Horkheimer’s observation that the medium “aims at a synthesis of radio and film.” Even more than radio, television controls time management, as the schedule of shows brings the synchronizing power of the cinema into the home. And the programs themselves make escapist dreaming an integral part of everyday life. The negative synthesis of these two functions can be easily recognized as depoliticizing and ideologizing, much in the manner of the original culture industry. It is, however, connected to a third factor: the role of the viewers, who are trained to embody this depoliticized ideology in their own behavior. This is perhaps most evident in the effects of pop music—which, of course, straddled radio and television. Pop music essentially involves the conveyance of a nameable source of a specific, recognizable voice into a private setting (e.g., a teenager’s bedroom), but this interaction remains incomplete if the recipient, dreaming of the voice in solitude, does not go out into public places (bars, discos, concert venues) where the voice—or even the singer—is present. The same record may be playing at home and in a nightclub, and the two places are linked by the fans’ own movements. Fans thus bring together disparate media outputs on a structural level. Pop music is not determined by the semantic and ideological sameness that characterized the first phase of the culture industry. Rather, the “medium” of pop music is created by people who take ownership of various products of music culture (live music, records, radio broadcasts of records, jukeboxes, but also frequently repeated television images, magazine photos, etc.) in different ways and in different places and then openly show their affiliation through their own identification with a particular subculture or fan base in their haircuts, outfits, etc., as well as in where they spend their time.

The pop fan is, then, a critic of the old culture industry, insofar as he has escaped its sedative effects and its infection of everything with sameness. But the fan senses—and this is the birth of the dissident subcultures that we have known since the ’60s—that the gestures of rebellion that put distance between him and his parents, childhood, background, and tradition are simultaneously part of a huge movement toward integration. The desire to create new communities or Woodstock Nations—where one is among one’s own kind, with other people who are themselves also functioning as media—is the productive backlash against the totalizing threat of this integration. When you have played a part in creating the picture of the gigantic in which you live, it can seem as if this world is under your control.

Dellbrügge & de Moll, Camp der Renegaten (Renegade Camp), 2012, mixed media. Installation view, Tempelhofer Feld, Berlin. From “The World Is Not Fair.” Photo: Valentin Fasta.

This shift was one that would lead to the third stage in the culture industry: that of the post-Fordist period, which has reached its high point today. In this phase, it no longer seems necessary to connect media, whether through the equivalence of what is transmitted on the level of meaning or through fans making their own bodies a medium as they seek to identify with a scene or a subculture. The cultures of connection and engagement in pop music, which were in their early forms reflected in the ecstasies of synchrony and harmony (from doo-wop to the guitar strumming of punk rock), are a precursor of today’s routinized informality. Within a landscape of decentralized and increasingly mobile output devices, digitization has already instituted these connections across and between media through technological convergence. The gigantic is no longer a potential reality, but a fully realized one: No longer is anything simultaneously far away and within reach, as in the days of the radio. Instead, everything is already everywhere. Its natural home is the virtual space of the data cloud. People create diverse niches and subsystems that are often small and remote, but they no longer strive to break away or secede from the gigantic. In fact, they are dependent on the greater tendency toward integration in order to function.

If the first phase of the culture industry depended on a high degree of homogeneity, which was easily achieved because its model of consumption was based on Fordist industrial production, the contemporary incarnation has its own style of exploitation. What has become apparent is that the counterculture turned into a kind of bio-exploitation as soon as it took on the character of a new culture industry—a now normative model that exploits vitality, belonging, and enthusiasm. The current culture industry, that of the new gigantic, exploits life itself instead of cultural labor—as in gastronomy, porn, tourism, reality TV, and other genres in which people themselves function as media. But it also exploits the observation and quantification of life as a data set of friendships and taste preferences. This has brought daily life into the realm of data processing and traded the coincidental encounter, that basic condition of urban adventure, for scheduled ubiquity and the existence of suitable nearby bars whose characteristics are detailed on smartphone screens. Kittler’s geeks have not only seized power through economic success but also established a cultural hegemony on their own terms. Unlike bourgeois Marxists who have abandoned the utopia of self-fulfillment but continue to believe in the idea of art, the apostles of the new paradigm are content with what can be calculated and implemented, often under the guise of full transparency.

This new world easily appears as a totality—and not only if one goes through it, as Adorno and Horkheimer did, with the imaginary vision of a former, better one in mind, unconscious of its origin in the bourgeois paradise of one’s own childhood. When we ask the question of how culture oppresses and exploits, cultural pessimism is not far behind, but it imposes its own distorted view. It should be acknowledged that culture does other things besides oppress and exploit. Nevertheless, every concept of art as well as of progressive culture more generally can be measured by its ability to resist totality—which is not necessarily the same as political resistance, even if the two are often confused. This is true whether the resistance to the gigantic takes place on the level of media or their technological composition at any given moment or whether it is premised on a negation of the commodity form in the specificity of, for example, an artistic object.

Both conclusions have to be held against the very structure of the current stage of the gigantic, and this is why we need a historicization of the culture industry. It is only when we understand the historical context of the seemingly total and gigantic that what is resistant, specific, and singular can be described—in terms of its relationship both to technological media and to the social conditions of its time. The dialectic of any cultural industry is that its totality is always historical and hence subject to change. Unfortunately, contemporary attempts at the creation of resistance, especially in the hysterical versions of activist political art that desires direct and unmediated action, seem insufficiently to recognize the central, relevant, ever more dominant characteristics of the current form of the culture industry, of exploitation, of the new gigantic. Nor is the solution yet more inclusion, participation, and integration: That would only be a superfluous celebration of what has already happened on the level of technology and is anyway already normative in the workplace. The opposite course—of active isolation, separation, and the drawing of distinctions—is too undialectically antagonistic to be truly possible. It is, however, in this direction that we must go.

Diedrich Diederichsen is a Berlin-based critic and a professor of theory, practice, and communication of contemporary art at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna.

Translated from German by Anne Posten.


1. Martin Heidegger, Holzwege, 6th ed. (Frankfurt: Vittorio Klostermann, 1980), 92–93. English text from Martin Heidegger, Off the Beaten Track, trans. and ed. Julian Young and Kenneth Haynes (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 71.

2. Friedrich Kittler, “Copyright 1944 by Social Studies Association, Inc.” in Flaschenpost und Postkarte—Korrespondenzen zwischen Kritischer Theorie und Poststrukturalismus, ed. Sigrid Weigel (Cologne: Böhlau, 1995), 185–93.

3. Friedrich Kittler, Eine Kulturgeschichte der Kulturwissenschaft (Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 2001), 237.