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Theodor Adorno
Theodor Adorno
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Theodor Adorno

Down With the Culture Industry!

A man of constant criticism, Theodor Adorno despised anything that caused or perpetuated human suffering. You're thinking, "So do I. What made him special? Why don't I get a Shmoop profile?"

Well, first, Adorno had a scowl you wouldn't believe. You totally don't have as much cred as he does in the lemon-sucking-face category.

Second, and more important, he considered harmful what most people find harmless or benign. He disapproved of most music, most television, most cinema, most everything. You couldn't satisfy the guy. He was even down (more or less) on the Enlightenment. It's a mercy he didn't live to see reality TV. He might have just given up.

Thankfully, he didn't. He kept on trucking. And, despite his pessimism, it's a good thing he did. Adorno, a leading member of the Frankfurt School of social critics, has proved to be one of the most influential and important 20th century philosophers. He wrote on critical theory, literary criticism, aesthetics, music, political theory, and sociology. His books include Dialectic of Enlightenment, Notes to Literature, Negative Dialectics, The Authoritarian Personality, and Aesthetic Theory.

Adorno wasn't just an old curmudgeon, yelling "Get off my lawn!" to the new kids on the block. His disdain for most of popular culture was philosophical—even ethical. Along with his critical theory friends, Adorno believed that human suffering continues in modern, capitalist society because this society isn't really interested in alleviating it. Instead, capitalist society cherishes exchange value as its supreme good.

Translation: all anybody cares about is moolah.

Sure, we've got our technological and scientific advancements, but in a capitalist society, these developments are sought for their exchange value, not for their contribution to human flourishing. Same goes for art, music, and literature.

That means that culture in a capitalist society isn't about culture; it's about profit. Adorno disapproved of so much of art because so much of it perpetuated the reign of exchange value (translation: $$$); therefore, it actually contributed to the continuation of human suffering.

Now, there's something to think about next time you switch on The Bachelor or play Miley Cyrus on repeat for an hour.

Next Page: Biography

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