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Adorno’s Response to Benjamin – The Impossibility of Reproducible Art in the Culture Industry

Text: Jussi Suortti

In Minima Moralia (1951), Theodor Adorno rejects the idea of cinema as art, criticising films for being merely well-planned products of the industrial machine. [1] Further, he argues that the culture industry’s totality entails a serious threat to human subjectivity: social delusion consists of thinking that individual producers actually have a say in the outcome of films, or imagining that the culture industry ever fulfils the genuine wishes of the people. On the contrary, cultural products succeed in “transforming subjects so indistinguishably into social functions, that those wholly encompassed […] enjoy their own dehumanization as something human.”[2] In this essay, I will read Adorno as responding to Walter Benjamin’s theory of reproducible art and its relation to political progress. Adorno thinks that films cannot be art because of the social conditions in which they are always created. Thus, his critique is not fundamentally intended as a rejection of cinema itself – there is no cinema as such. Rather, it is a necessary element of his consistently negative position taken in relation to ‘false’ society, in which culture is calculated and standardised, stripped of autonomy. The theory initially formulated by Adorno and Max Horkheimer, in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), seems at first extreme and exaggerated. However, its inherent idea is precisely that only such an unconditional view can truly combat the equally unconditional totality of production.

For Benjamin, cinema provides a novel relation of art to the political.[3] The more traditional work of art is characterised by its ‘aura’ – it is unique, perhaps fills a religious or ritual function, and most importantly has, along with the artist themselves, a distinctly authoritative status.[4] Most people cannot simply go and look at the work, nor can it be reproduced in any meaningful way. What happens with the emergence of cinema as well as photography is that the status of art becomes ‘democratised’ in society: suddenly works of art get industrially produced and distributed, and become much more available – in other words, art ‘moves closer’ to the consumer. This idea fits with the initial premise of Benjamin’s essay, the affirmation of Marx’s theory of the end of capitalism.[5] Mass production of art reflects in the ‘superstructure’, and actively plays a part in the revolution developing within capitalist society itself. As for Adorno, he is suspicious of precisely this kind of apparent increase in freedom – he seems to consistently count any seemingly democratic development as actually hiding an increase of administrative control.

But what is it then about reproducible art that supposedly affects the masses of people, potentially facilitating political revolution? And why exactly does Adorno reject the proposal? The issue extends as far as epistemological speculation about sense perception. Benjamin compares the historical effect of cinema with the consequences of Freud’s theory of the unconscious, which exposed the drives hidden in phenomena like slips of the tongue.[6] Cinema similarly allows one to notice certain aspects of reality for the first time, thanks to features such as zooming and slow motion. For Benjamin, this effect is further reinforced by the collective nature of the cinematic experience, where the whole audience functions as a kind of unified critic, reacting together and thus abolishing the social hierarchy associated before with experiencing works of art. Diane Waldman notes that while Benjamin is clearly worried about the true ‘emancipatory’ potential of cinema within the capitalist framework, he remains enthusiastic. She also points out that Benjamin’s views are largely based on experimental films made in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, which goes some way to explain his optimism about the art form.[7]

What Adorno’s theory does not allow is precisely the distinction inherent in Benjamin’s thought, between cinema as such, and cinema as hampered by social conditions. For Adorno, cinema is equal to a set of products manufactured by the culture industry. Correspondingly, he argues its relation to sense experience to be the opposite of what Benjamin thinks: “Kant’s formalism still expected a contribution from the individual, who was thought to relate the varied experiences of the senses to fundamental concepts; but industry robs the individual of this function.[8]” In Kant’s theory, the subject creates understandable cognitions by having certain a priori concepts through which sense experience is organised. Adorno’s claim, that the culture industry undermines this subjectivity by conducting all meaningful categorisations by itself, can be read as a rather melancholic rejection of Benjamin’s optimism about the impact of cinema on subjective, as well as collective, perception: “[e]ven gags, effects, and jokes are calculated like the setting in which they are placed.”[9] The point is not just that all products of the culture industry are alike, but also that they are alike precisely because powerful social administration is already in place: there is no room for cinema as a proper form of art. Kant looks for the limits of human rationality – Adorno’s fear is that the place of rationality itself has already been taken by so-called ‘instrumental reason’, which in the context of capitalism begins to stand for blind pursuit of profit. As Irmeli Hautamäki notes, it plays the part of guaranteeing the calculated influence of cultural products on the audience, a purely standardising function.[10]

One should however look at Benjamin’s assessment of cinema still more closely. It is not simply the experience of viewing, but in fact also the way a film originates, which he deems revolutionary. Benjamin conceives of the development of mechanically reproducible art as a kind of disenchantment of the very relation of people to art, and crucially as paving the way for a materialist position. He makes two comparisons: between the painter and the magician, as well as the cameraman and the surgeon.[11] The former pair are defined by their traditional, ritualistic roles: there is a distinct gap which separates the painter and the person who gets to see their unique piece, in the same way as the pre-modern magician-healer is defined by their social authority, perhaps a ‘divine mandate’ pointing to a similar gap from the common patient. The surgeon, then, does not claim to heal by mere authority, but by grabbing their tools and making actual changes in the patient’s body, both agents being conceived of as material beings. This image undermines authority for Benjamin, and so does the work of the cameraman, who, by using technology, is capable of bridging the gap: what is being shown on the screen is reality itself, caught by material means. The distance between the person filming and the person watching the resulting film is diminished.

Adorno is again highly sceptical. His diagnosis is the opposite of Benjamin’s: “[t]he more intensely and flawlessly his [the producer’s] techniques duplicate empirical objects, the easier it is today for the illusion to prevail that the outside world is the straightforward continuation of that presented on the screen.”[12] Far from allowing the viewer to better understand reality, cinema actually transforms the very idea of reality itself according to what the culture industry decides: “[o]f course, the starlet is meant to symbolize the typist in such a way that the splendid evening dress seems meant for the actress as distinct from the real girl.”[13] The image of the beautiful lady on the screen is distinct from reality, a fantasy, but as such manipulates the filmgoer’s own dreams. Thus, it becomes part of what one expects could really happen to them too: for Adorno, the culture industry plays a crucial role in keeping up the ideological framework of capitalist society.

In short, Adorno’s basic idea seems to be that one can conduct a negation of Benjamin’s ideas simply by applying them to the context of the culture industry and capitalism in general. But what is most crucial to note is that this move is not really intended as one against Benjamin: rather, it is done by Adorno as an attempt at a more fundamental negation of the very social conditions themselves, which prevent Benjamin’s views from gaining full strength. Slavoj Zizek makes this point nicely in a remark on Dialectic of Enlightenment. He claims the whole book to be an attempt at creating an image of the ‘administered’ society as inevitably catastrophic, since only such a radical view can provide grounds for its profound critique.[14] The idea is not to invent a fiction to cause panic, but to sketch a theoretical model according to certain social and ideological trends. In the context of The Culture Industry, this means that it is only through the denial of any artistic liberation within the scope of production, as a thoroughly capitalist domain, that the hope for truly liberated art can be maintained. This can well be read together with the last aphorism of Minima Moralia, in which Adorno claims that the only responsible way to do philosophy is from the standpoint of “redemption.”[15] Philosophical thought must position itself negatively, against all that there is, to provide a true alternative.

Adorno’s concept of ‘autonomous art’ refers to art independent of the wishes or needs of society, the church, or any individual customer[16]: thus, it is also a theoretical idea of precisely art redeemed from the control of the culture industry. But since any art can exist only within the social totality, an individual piece of autonomous art, too, is dependent on the existence of the market, or certain sectors where art might be valued for its own sake. Thus, the notion is dialectical, and crucial for understanding Adorno’s negativity: an autonomous artwork must not be obviously political, never clearly articulated protest, since that would make it useful, part of the functioning of the society which it attempts to negate. Rather, its very existence ought to constitute a critique of administered culture, where nothing is cared about for its own sake.

Adorno’s method can be demonstrated by an examination of the relation he postulates between the culture industry and pleasure. He claims that the former decreases the possibility of true pleasure, precisely by creating a mass product out of it: “[t]here is no erotic situation which, while insinuating and exciting, does not fail to indicate unmistakably that things can never go that far.”[17] The paradox here is that while the culture industry seemingly professes the liberation of sexuality and other practices of pleasure-seeking, it really sets up new kinds of limitations. Cultural products acquire a fetish-character, never fully satisfying the consumer. The pleasure created through capitalist commodification can never be real pleasure: one finds that it is difficult to enjoy if one is constantly told to do so. This argument is in line with negativity: if pleasure exists within a ‘false’ society, then its perceived ‘goodness’ does not matter, nor can it be taken seriously, if one wants to maintain a philosophically critical perspective.

Further, whereas for Benjamin the audience’s reaction while watching a film is a collectively pleasurable experience, for Adorno “[s]uch a laughing audience is a parody of humanity.”[18] Again, a reaction as intuitively positive as laughter, an emotional empathising with what is visible on the screen, is turned into a sign of survival under the totality of social control. Nothing can exist authentically within the scope of the culture industry, not even spontaneous laughter. For Adorno, the unity of the audience is indeed a “caricature of solidarity.”[19] Where Benjamin posits the idea of a revolutionary collective, the former sees a mere illusion of democracy, which further mystifies where true power resides.

A good critique of Adorno should argue that there is no need for the rejection of capitalist society itself, that we are actually much freer than he claims, and that it would be sufficient to make people’s lives better within its existing framework. This is why the common complaint that Adorno is elitist is clearly not sufficient – it is difficult to see how a theory which denies the very possibility of subjective taste and desire for art could really be interpreted as implying contempt of individuals who go to the cinema. The point is that, within a ‘false’ society, things could not be otherwise; it is not a snobbish denunciation of the people who act according to its customs. Is it not the opposite perspective, the one that accepts that people are basically free within the status quo, which opens the door for snobbery? In fact, Adorno sees value in mass culture: “[s]erious art has been withheld from those for whom the hardship and oppression of life make a mockery of seriousness, and who must be glad if they can use time not spent at the production line just to keep going. Light art has been the shadow of autonomous art. It is the social bad conscience of serious art.”[20] There is a distinction to be made between mass culture and the culture industry: the circus, for instance, is a necessary place because it allows the common people, who cannot afford to be serious, to laugh their troubles away. However, to the extent that anything is a product per se, there is no defending it as an artwork.

A more serious concern is that the theory does not seem to properly account for the historical development of capitalism. Waldman argues for instance that it wrongly assumes the universal dependence of media corporations on funding from banks: apparently companies were financially increasingly independent already in Adorno’s time.[21] Thus, she doubts whether cultural products are always as standardised as he claims: indeed, it seems impossible to argue today that they have no real content, or that their analysis is not useful in any way. But even though a cultural critic ought to be much more precise in their task than Adorno was, there seems to be no reason to abandon the project itself, nor its philosophical method. It is one thing to say that this particular philosopher was empirically wrong about some aspects of our society, and another completely to reject his approach. Indeed, it seems much more convincing to argue that the new Star Wars film could not have been made without standardised special effects, rather than to naively criticise it for using them, just as it is clearly not any individual’s fault if one cannot find their favourite music on Spotify, but a necessary result of a set of record deals. Thus, the weakness of Adorno’s theoretical model is also its main strength: it allows one to go beyond a simply critical perspective, towards a properly negative position – in fact, its inherent idea is that only such a negative position can be critical in the first place.

In the end of his essay, Benjamin claims that Communism answers Fascism by politicising art.[22] In contrast, truly autonomous art dialectically becomes independent of social conditions: it does not take part in commonplace political debates. If the analysis presented in Dialectic of Enlightenment still describes our predicament accurately, if our society really is ‘false’, then the thought of redemption might never even arise, should anything within its sphere go uncriticised.

[1] Theodor Adorno: Minima Moralia (2005). London: Verso, pp. 203-6.
[2] Ibid., p. 206.
[3] Diane Waldman: Critical Theory and Film: Adorno and "The Culture Industry" Revisited (1977).
[4] Walter Benjamin: The Artwork in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936).
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Waldman, op. cit.
[8] Theodor Adorno & Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment (1997). London/New York: Verso, p. 124.
[9] Ibid., p. 125.
[10] Irmeli Hautamäki, Kulttuuriteollisuus ja sen kritiikki Adornon mukaan (1999).
[11] Benjamin, op. cit.
[12] Adorno & Horkheimer, op. cit., p. 126.
[13] Ibid., p. 145.
[14] Eric Dean Rasmussen: An Interview with Slavoj Zizek (2003). Granted, Zizek has been critical of Dialectic of Enlightenment and the Frankfurt School’s Marxism in general. In an article named “From History and Class Consciousness to the Dialectic of Enlightenment” (2000), he argues that Adorno and Horkheimer avoid concrete socio-political problems by relying on the concept of ‘instrumental reason’, a generalized principle, which the latter see as underlying the whole development of civilization towards an ‘administered’ world. Zizek claims that this results in an insufficient understanding of specific political developments, for instance the rise of Stalinism. He emphasises that what ought to be criticised is capitalist totality, not social totality as such: the concern is that Adorno and Horkheimer’s negation does not aim at solving the real problem.
[15] Adorno, op. cit., p. 247.
[16] Hautamäki, op. cit.
[17] Adorno & Horkheimer, op. cit., p. 140.
[18] Ibid., p. 141.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Ibid., p. 135.
[21] Waldman, op. cit.
[22] Benjamin, op. cit.


Theodor Adorno: Minima Moralia (2005), aphorisms 131, 153. London: Verso.

Diane Waldman: Critical Theory and Film: Adorno and "The Culture Industry" Revisited (1977). Available (Last visited: 14/04/2016):

Walter Benjamin: The Artwork in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936). Shocken/Random House, ed. Hannah Arendt. Transcribed by: Andy Blunden (1998). Available (Last visited 14/04/2016):

Theodor Adorno & Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment (1997), ‘The Culture Industry’, pp. 120-67. London/New York: Verso.

Irmeli Hautamäki, Kulttuuriteollisuus ja sen kritiikki Adornon mukaan (1999). Available (Last visited 14/04/2016):

Eric Dean Rasmussen: An Interview with Slavoj Zizek (2003). University of Illinois. Available (Last visited 14/04/2016):

Slavoj Zizek: “From History and Class Consciousness to the Dialectic of Enlightenment…And Back” (2000). New German Critique, Duke University Press. Available (Last visited 16/04/2016):

Adorno's critique is not fundamentally intended as a rejection of cinema itself – there is no cinema as such.