Communication Theory/The Frankfurt School

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The Frankfurt School and Communication Theory[edit]

“I thought Adorno, on our first meeting, the most arrogant, self-indulgent (intellectually and culturally) man I have ever met. Some 20 years later, I can think of additional claimants for that position, but I doubt if they are serious rivals” (Donald MacRae, cited in Morrison, 1978, pp. 331-332).

The Frankfurt School was a group of critical theorists associated with the Institut für Sozialforschung (Institute of Social Research) which was located first at the University of Frankfurt (1923-1933), then in Geneva, Switzerland (1933-35), Columbia University in New York (1935-1949), and finally back at the University of Frankfurt, from 1949 to present. Some of the theorists associated with what became known as the Frankfurt School included Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno (née Wiesengrund), [w:Herbert Marcuse], Walter Benjamin, Erich Fromm, Leo Lowenthal, and Friedrich Pollock.

Felix Weil began the Institute of Social Research in 1923. The theoretical basis of the Institute was Marxist, to no small degree because of Carl Grünberg, who served as director from 1923-1930. Max Horkheimer succeeded Grünberg as director and served in that capacity until 1960, when Theodor Adorno became director, until his death in 1969. These theorists were all associated with the Institute in the 1920s, except for Marcuse, who began working with the Institute in 1932. From the late 1950s Jürgen Habermas would be involved with the Institute, but for a number of reasons his work is often considered separate from that of the Frankfurt School. The Institute for Social Research continues to operate at the University of Frankfurt, but what is known as the Frankfurt School did not extend beyond the theorists associated with it.

The interests of the Frankfurt School theorists in the 1920s and 1930s lay predominantly in a Marxist analysis of social and economic processes, and the role of the individual and the group in relation to these processes. Their particular relevance to communication theory lies primarily in Adorno's idea of the culture industry, and Marcuse's concept of the "one dimensional" man.

The Culture Industry[edit]

In 1947 Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno published Dialektik der Aufklärung: Philosophische Fragmente, whose title was translated into English (in 1972) as Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. One of the sections of this book was concerned with what Horkheimer and Adorno called the culture industry. It was their contention that the culture industry was the result of an historical process that with an increase in technology (including mass communication technology) there was an increase in the ability to produce commodities, which enabled increased consumption of goods. The consumption of mechanically reproduced cultural products—predominantly radio and film—led to formulas of producing them for entertainment purposes, and it did not occur to consumers to question the idea that the entertainment presented to them had an ideological purpose or purposes. Consumers adapted their needs around these cultural products, and in doing so no longer knew of anything else that they might desire, or that there might be anything else they could desire. The entertainment that they enjoyed did not reflect their real social, political, or economic interests, but instead blinded them from questioning the prevailing system. Entertainment also had the function of allowing the dominant system to replicate itself, which allowed for further expansion in production and consumption. Thus, for Adorno and Horkheimer the culture industry worked in such a way that those who were under its influence would not even notice that they were being manipulated.

Subsequent to the book’s publication in 1947, theorists of the Frankfurt School knew of Adorno's concept of the culture industry, but the impact of his analysis of the culture industry was limited well into the sixties. Dialectic of Enlightenment did not receive a wider distribution until 1969, and although Herbert Marcuse continued the general idea of the culture industry in his One-Dimensional Man of 1964, he did not refer to it as such. In spite of Marcuse’s incisive criticism of dominant ideological structures, there is not a cultural component in his thought that can be separated out from ideology as a whole, as appears in the work of Adorno and Horkheimer. Thus, as a concept relating to communication theory in the United States, the culture industry can more properly be said to have come to existence due to the English translation of Adorno and Horkheimer’s book in 1972.

Genesis of “The Culture Industry”[edit]

In order to understand the creation of the idea of the culture industry as well as its reception the concept can be examined chronologically, from its pre-conditions, through its generation, to its subsequent impact. The idea of the culture industry grows out of a concern with culture, is developed through insights into the mechanical reproduction of culture, and is ultimately generated in opposition not only to popular music, but also to Hollywood movies. That this is so grows out of a number of historical contingencies.

Theordor Wiesengrund enrolled at the University of Frankfurt in 1921 not only to study philosophy, but music. Wiesengrund published in the 1920s and early 1930s under the name Theodor Wiesengrund-Adorno, and later took the name Adorno, which had been his mother’s maiden name. According to Thomas Mann, Adorno refused to choose between music and philosophy throughout his entire life, believing that he was pursuing the same objective in two disparate fields (Jäger, 2004, p. 31). Although he wrote his doctoral thesis on Husserl, and a postdoctoral thesis on Kierkegaard, Adorno moved to Vienna to study music composition with Alban Berg. Most of Adorno's music was written between 1925 and 1930, though he continued to compose music for the rest of his life. In addition to composing, Adorno was a music critic and editor of Musikblatter des Anbruch from 1928 to 1932. As a composer and music critic Adorno was aware of conditions relating to the production and dissemination of music in the 1920s and 1930s. This aspect of Adorno’s career is important in understanding his subsequent approach to culture. Because he had a profound knowledge of art, which is great part of culture, his belief what the real art should be like influenced on his criticism against culture industry. To Adorno, the gist of real art is autonomy. Both of the production and the consumption of cultural product should be originated by autonomy which arouses uniqueness of real art. According to Adorno, culture industry which products and consumes the mass cultural product is not based on autonomy but passivity so that it never seeks for uniqueness of real art or culture.

Adorno was introduced to Walter Benjamin in 1923, and the two theorists became friends. Since Benjamin never received a degree that would allow him to teach at a university, according to Hannah Arendt, Adorno became in effect Benjamin's only pupil. After Benjamin’s death “it was Adorno who then introduced a rationalized version of his ideas into academic philosophy.” (Jäger, 2004, p. 65-6). The relationship with Benjamin had an impact on the development of Adorno's thought during this period.

Returning to Frankfurt, Adorno began teaching at the Institute, and published articles in the Zeitschrift fur Socialforschung (Journal for Social Research) that had been set up by the Institute in 1932. Adorno lost his right to teach in September 1933 due to the rise to power of the Nazi party. Horkheimer had already set up a branch of the Institute in Geneva, Switzerland, and the Institute began operating there. The Nazis' rise to power not only meant that Adorno lost his job and would eventually force his departure from Germany, but also affected his philosophical thought. As Jürgen Habermas would later note, the fact that labor movements were co-opted in the development of fascist regimes was one of the historical experiences influencing the development of critical theory, the others being Stalinist repression and the production of mass culture in the United States (Morris, 2001, p. 48).

Adorno was at Oxford from 1934 to 1938, where he worked on a manuscript on Husserl. He was considered an outsider, never integrating into the British academic mainstream, and he looked forward to joining his Frankfurt School colleagues, many of whom had in the meantime moved to the United States.

Already in the late 1930s Adorno evidenced little hope for mass culture. As propaganda and entertainment increased during the 1930s, Benjamin and Adorno debated mass culture, since film and radio became the two most popular means to disseminate propaganda under the fascist and Stalinist dictatorships. The essay translated as “On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression in Listening” is in effect a pessimistic reply to Walter Benjamin’s more optimistic essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (Brunkhorst, 1999, p. 62). A primary problem for Adorno lay in the fact that instead of being enjoyed in a concert hall, symphonic works could now be heard over the radio, and could be reproduced on phonograph records. The result was inferior to the original, and Adorno was emphatic in his condemnation of the mechanical reproduction of music: “Together with sport and film, mass music and the new listening help to make escape from the whole infantile milieu impossible” (Adorno, 2001b, p. 47). While Benjamin regarded the destruction of aura by photograph or film as the emancipation from hierarchical tastes tied to class, to Adorno, the aura of the original artwork was the essential of the artistic authenticity. To Benjamin, the mechanical reproduction was the challenge against the authority of Platonic order from the top-the original or Idea- to down of layers of imitations; to Adorno, mass production was nothing but the destruction of the authenticity. The general attitude of the Frankfurt school was that of Adorno.

In 1938 Max Horkheimer, who had succeeding in establishing a relationship for the Institute of Social Research with Columbia University that enabled the Institute to continue working in New York, obtained a position for Adorno at the Princeton Radio Research Project, run by Paul Lazarsfeld. Adorno, anxious to leave Britain in the hopes of being with other members of the Institute, accepted the position, although he later claimed that he did not know what a “radio project” was. For his part, Lazarsfeld looked forward to working with Adorno, whom he knew to be an expert on music. Adorno wrote for the Project’s journal Radio Research in 1941, reiterating his position that radio was only an image of a live performance. In addition, he questioned the claim by the radio industry that the medium was bringing serious music to the masses (Wiggershaus, 1994, p. 243). While working at the Princeton Radio Research Project Adorno became shocked at the degree to which culture had become commercialized in the United States. Commercialization of culture in the United States had gone far beyond anything he had seen in Europe. Further, the prevalence of advertising in the United States was something with no correlative in Europe. The closest thing in Adorno’s experience to the advertising industry in the United States was fascist propaganda (Jäger, 2004, p. 122).

Adorno was later to allude to his experience with the Princeton Radio Research Project in the essay on the culture industry by noting the statistical division of consumers, and stating that he saw this research as being “indistinguishable from political propaganda” (Horkheimer and Adorno, 2002, p. 97). It became obvious that Lazarsfeld and Adorno did not agree on the value of empirical studies, and Adorno left the project. Adorno’s dissatisfaction with the work of the Princeton Radio Research Project would eventually motivate him to further develop the idea of the culture industry.

Because of the relationship between the Institute for Social Research and Columbia University, Horkheimer, who had already moved to California, could not bring Adorno to the West Coast until November 1941. When Adorno was finally able to relocate, he joined an expatriate community that included Fritz Lang, Arnold Schoenberg, Hans Eisler, Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Alfred Döblin, and Bertolt Brecht, several of which found work in the Hollywood movie industry. The fact that Adorno was part of this intellectual community whose members were involved in the production of Hollywood movies must have had some influence in developing his thoughts on culture, since the Hollywood system inhibited the creative freedom that many of the expatriates had enjoyed in Weimar Germany.

According to Douglas Kellner, Max Horkheimer wanted to write a “great book on dialectics,” and Herbert Marcuse, who had been admitted to the Institute in 1932, was eager to work on the project. While Horkheimer (and later Adorno) moved to California, Marcuse went to work for the Office of Strategic Services (the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency), and later the State Department. Thus it was Adorno and not Marcuse who became Horkheimer’s co-author on the project on dialectics (Kellner, 1991, p. xviii). The work that resulted was The Dialectic of Enlightenment, with its section titled “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” drafted by Adorno.

These preconditions—Adorno’s interest in music, his friendship with Benjamin, and his work on the Princeton Radio Project, as well as involvement with the expatriate community in California and the relationship of several of these to the Hollywood film industry—are all important to an understanding of his concern for the idea of the culture industry.

“The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception”[edit]

For Adorno, popular culture on film and radio did not bother to present itself as art. They were instead a business, and this in turn became an ideology “to legitimize the trash they intentionally produce” (Horkheimer and Adorno, 2002, p. 95). This business was based on what Adorno referred to as “Fordist capitalism,” in which mass production based on the techniques used by Henry Ford were implemented in the cultural sphere, insofar as these tendencies were based on centralization and hierarchy (Hohendahl, 1995, p. 142). Examples of this—not specified by Adorno—were the Hollywood production system, or the CBS radio network that had been associated with the Princeton Radio Research Project. Movies and hit songs were based on formulas, and “the formula supplants the work” (Horkheimer and Adorno, 2002, p. 99). Mechanical reproduction ensured that there would not be any real change to the system, and that nothing truly adversarial to the system would emerge (Horkheimer and Adorno, 2002, p. 106-7). Paradoxically, any innovation would only reaffirm the system, and Adorno cited Orson Welles as an example of someone who was allowed to break the rules. The elasticity in the system would allow it to assume the stance of any opposition and make it its own, ultimately rendering it ineffectual (Friedman, 1981, p. 165). Like religion and other institutions, the culture industry was an instrument of social control (Horkheimer and Adorno, 2002, p. 120), but freedom to choose in a system of economic coercion ultimately meant the “freedom to be the same” (Horkheimer and Adorno, 2002, p. 136).

Since Adorno had been, in his essays on music and radio, an apparent defender of high art, “The Culture Industry” has been criticized as being a defense of high art, as opposed to popular culture. Adorno specifically defines avant-garde art as the adversary of the culture industry (Horkheimer and Adorno, 2002, p. 101). It was not high art that Adorno was presenting as an alternative to the culture industry, but modernism. Although he provides the idea of an opposing force to the culture industry, Adorno provides no overt Marxist analysis. Instead, he notes in passing that the dominant system utilized capacities for mass consumption for entertainment or amusement, but refused to do so when it was a question of abolishing hunger (Horkheimer and Adorno, 2002, p. 111).

Dialectic of Enlightenment was issued in mimeograph form in 1944, in German, and thus would have limited impact outside of the expatriate community. In the meantime Adorno began working, along with Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel Levinson, and R. Nevitt Sanford, on an empirical investigation into prejudice titled The Authoritarian Personality. He wrote Minima Moralia: Reflections on Damaged Life in 1945, and this work, upon its publication in Germany in 1951, would mark the beginning of his impact in Germany (Jäger, 2004, p. 167). Adorno would also co-author Composing for the Films with Hans Eisler, and in this text Adorno made it clear that the culture industry is not identical with high or low art (Hohendahl, 1995, p. 134). This is perhaps the first of several of Adorno’s attempts at redefining the culture industry to an audience that in all probability had no exposure to the concept as it was detailed in the original essay.

Return to Germany[edit]

Dialectic of Enlightenment was published in Amsterdam in German in 1947 with a number of variants, excluding words and phrases in the published edition that could be construed as being Marxist (Morris, 2001, p. 48). Their apparent intent was to not attract the attention of the American occupation authorities in Germany. One of the main reasons for this is that Horkheimer wanted to return the Institute for Social Research to Germany, not only because of the desire to return to Frankfurt but also because a committee at Columbia University had evaluated the work of the Institute and recommended that the Institute become a department of Paul Lazarsfeld’s Bureau of Applied Social Research at Columbia (Jäger, 2004, p. 149). Marcuse, who had been producing propaganda for the OSS during the war based on his expert knowledge of Germany, published revolutionary theses in a journal in 1947, and these theses could not be reconciled with the direction of the Institute due to an apparent change in Horkheimer’s attitude towards Marxism. Thus, when excerpts from Dialectic of Enlightenment were published without their permission in 1949, Horkheimer and Adorno protested, distancing themselves from their own work, in order not to jeopardize their return to Germany. In the late 1940s the Institute relocated to Frankfurt, and opened in its new premises in 1951. Horkheimer became the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Frankfurt.

In 1954 Adorno published an essay entitled “How to Look at Television” that was the result of a study that had been done for the Hacker Foundation, with the involvement of George Gerbner and others. In this essay Adorno warned, “rigid institutionalization transforms modern mass culture into a medium of undreamed of psychological control” (Adorno, 2001a, p. 160). It was one of the few occasions in the 1950s that Adorno would discuss the implications of mass culture. At least one observer found it strange that “the leading cultural theorist of his day” did not take part in cultural developments of the fifties (Jäger, 2004, p. 191). Adorno would nonetheless on occasion attempt to reshape his thought on the culture industry. For example, in 1959 he wrote of a “universal pseudo-culture” in the United States (Adorno, 1993, p. 21), and gave a radio talk in Germany in 1963 on “The Culture Industry Reconsidered.” In 1966, when writing the essay “Transparencies on Film,” Adorno conceded that film-making might be an acceptable cultural practice in opposition to the culture industry, within the context of modernism (Hohendahl, 1995, p. 131).

One-Dimensional Man, and Suppression of “The Culture Industry”[edit]

Adorno took over running the Institute in 1960, and his primary philosophical concern in the 1960s was his critical engagement with Martin Heidegger, especially Heidegger’s language, as detailed in the book The Jargon of Authenticity. In the meantime, Marcuse had developed a critique of Stalinism, and was developing a critique of social conditions in Western democracies, in part based on his familiarity with Adorno's work. He was, for example, connecting “the analysis and critique of false needs to a critical theory of mass media and popular culture” (Agger, 1995, p. 34). Marcuse did not oppose popular culture as completely as Adorno, however, recognizing “fissures in the edifice of mainstream mass culture which could be pried open still further” (Agger, 1995, p. 34). In One-Dimensional Man Marcuse put an analysis “of late capitalist society into a systematic context,” as opposed to other writers in the Frankfurt School (Wiggershaus, 1994, p. 609). Instead of culture serving ideological ends, for Marcuse “social control mechanisms in advanced industrial society ensure the wholesale integration of the individual into mass society” (Reitz, 2000, p. 144). Capitalist production and the tremendous wealth that resulted from it formed a “system of repressive affluence” that kept elements of society satisfied and quiescent (Alway, 1995, p. 83). The entirety of society had become organized around an ideology whose main objectives were to maintain social control and continue to perpetuate the ideology that maintained that control.

Echoing Adorno, Marcuse wondered whether the information and entertainment aspects of mass media could be differentiated from their manipulation and indoctrination functions (Marcuse, 1991, p. 8). However, it is difficult in Marcuse's argument to separate culture or mass media from society as a whole because Marcuse did not distinguish culture or mass media as entities separate from the totality of dominant ideology in the same way that Adorno had done. In the end Marcuse’s analysis of society allowed for no opposition to the dominant ideology. Marcuse wrote, "how can the administered individuals—who have made their mutilation into their own liberties and satisfactions, and thus reproduce it on an enlarged scale—liberate themselves from themselves as well as from their masters? How is it even thinkable that the vicious circle be broken?” (Marcuse, 1991, p. 251). Given the pessimistic tone of the book, it is somewhat ironic that largely because of it he would be perceived as an icon for leftist movements of the 1960s in the U.S. and Germany that developed an oppositional stance. In spite of this, Marcuse maintained that he was a philosopher, and not an activist. Like others associated with the Frankfurt School, he was wary of the idea that theory could be translated into practice (Chambers, 2004, p. 226).

While Marcuse was writing a work that would become essential to student movements in the 1960s, in 1961 Adorno and Horkheimer resisted the reissue of Dialectic of Enlightenment that had been proposed to them by the publishing house of Fischer. The publisher felt that the book could be read as a description of prevailing conditions in Germany. Marcuse enthusiastically supported the reissue of the book in 1962, but Adorno and Horkheimer withheld their consent (Jäger, 2004, p. 194). The reasons that Horkheimer and Adorno tried to keep Dialectic of Enlightenment from reaching a wider audience are not entirely clear. In reviewing the text in 1961, Friedrich Pollack reported to Adorno and Horkheimer that the work required too much revision to receive mass dissemination. The two authors continued to negotiate with the Fischer publishing house until 1969, and may have only agreed to republish the work since pirate copies had already been disseminated by individuals in the German student movement. Students also began posting snippets of the text as handbills.

While student movements in the United States and Germany looked to Herbert Marcuse as their idol, the situation in Frankfurt degenerated to the point at which Adorno could no longer effectively conduct classes. He complained to the dean about the radical students in his classes who were making teaching impossible. In the winter term of 1968-69 students occupied a number of buildings at the University at Frankfurt, including the Institute for Social Research. After the strike ended, Adorno returned to teaching, but his lectures continued to be disrupted, including one “tasteless demonstration” in which three females bared their breasts. Adorno died a few months later (Jäger, 2004, p. 201-08).

Critical Response to “The Culture Industry”[edit]

The 1972 English-language translation marked the first real appearance of the idea of the culture industry outside of a German context. In the years since there have been numerous criticisms of the text, not least since Adorno made sweeping generalizations about “the commodified and fetishized character of all cultural goods” (Cook, 1996, p. 113). For the generally sympathetic Deborah Cook, Adorno erred in not discussing the processes of cultural production, and failed to examine the culture industry’s economic dependence on other business sectors, including marketing and advertising (Cook, 1996, p. 48).

For Terry Eagleton, both Adorno and Marcuse overestimated the dominant ideology, believing that “capitalist society languishes in the grip of an all-pervasive reification” (Eagleton, 1991, p. 46). Still, Eagleton conceded that “the diffusion of dominant values and beliefs among oppressed peoples in society has some part to play in the reproduction of the system as a whole” (Eagleton, 1991, p. 36). Fredric Jameson pointed out that Adorno’s idea of a culture industry was historically limited, since the society that developed in the 1960s and 1970s with new media went beyond the cultural possibilities available during the 1940s. While the idea of the culture industry can be defended as a useful theory for industrial societies between 1920 and 1970, trying to use it today weakens its effectiveness (Hohendahl, 1995, p. 146-48). Thus, for a some critics, the value of the idea of the culture industry would appear to be merely historical, if they in fact conceded that it had any value at all.

According to Hohendahl, for many postmodern critics the essay on the culture industry is problematic because they confuse the defense of modernist art with a defense of high culture, against popular culture. In the context of Dialectic of Enlightenment it is the destruction of traditional culture that is in question, along with its replacement with new forms depending on commodity exchange (Hohendahl, 1995, p. 137). In relation to this Deborah Cook cites such artists as Schoenberg, Beckett, and Kafka as cultural producers who are not entirely subject to commodification, and notes that Jameson is in agreement that modernism is the “dialectical opposite of mass culture” (Cook, 1996, p. 107). Thus for some critics modernist works would be counteracting forces against the dominant ideology. As noted in the example of Orson Welles, however, it may be the case that the dominant ideology can co-opt modernist works for its own ends.

The idea of the culture industry has had an importance in critical theory since its appearance in the 1940s, in that it has led to thought about the role of mass communications in relation to ideology, and hence, society. Since Adorno made sweeping generalizations about the impact of the culture industry, and since he did not systematically explore how the culture industry operated, it has been generally easy for some to dismiss the idea of a culture industry. It is nonetheless the case that motion pictures are still made by large companies and that their movies largely rely on formulaic plots. It is also the case that radio is increasingly controlled by a small number of companies, which tend to impose restrictions on how stations operate. As a broadcast medium, television is very much related to both radio and film, and shares with them qualities that situation it in the culture industry. While there is a democratizing aspect to the Internet (in that anyone can create a web site), it happens that the commercial companies operating on the Internet continue to maintain an ideological function. For example, one seldom sees new stories on MSNBC or Yahoo that would question the prerogatives of corporate America. A reexamination of the idea of the culture industry may be necessary in order to theorize on how mass communication media propagate dominant ideologies.


Adorno, T. W. (1993). Theory of pseudo-culture. Telos, 95, 15-27.

Adorno, T. W. (2001a). How to look at television. In J. M. Bernstein (Ed.), The culture industry (pp. 158-177). New York: Routledge.

Adorno, T. W. (2001b). On the fetish character in music and the regression of listening. In J. M. Bernstein (Ed.), The culture industry (pp. 29-60). New York: Routledge.

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Eagleton, T. (1991). Ideology: An introduction. London: Verso.

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Jäger, L. (2004). Adorno: A political biography. New Haven, CT: London.

Kellner, D. (1991). Introduction. In H. Marcuse(Ed.), One-dimensional man: Studies in the ideology of advanced industrial society. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

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Morris, M. (2001). Rethinking the communicative turn: Adorno, Habermas, and the problem of communicative freedom. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Morrison, D. E. (1978). Kultur and culture: The case of Theodor W. Adorno and Paul F. Lazarsfeld. Social Research (44), 331-355.

Reitz, C. (2000). Art, alienation, and the humanities: A critical engagement with Herbert Marcuse. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

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