“What Do the Frankfurt School Contribute to Our Understanding of Popular Culture?”

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The independent institute Frankfurt School was founded by Jewish intellectuals, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Herbert Macuse within a Nazi empowered Germany in 1923. After relocating to various parts of America, gaining exposure from Los Angeles and Hollywood lifestyle, the school returned. They took a great concern in the analysis of popular culture and the Culture Industry that had affected Germany in the 1940s. Although these changes reshaped a nation over 70 years ago, Frankfurt School’s interpretation of popular culture still relates to our own understanding today. The question is why, Adorno in particular, criticised this new behaviour in Germany’s society. The Enlightenment was introduced, which expressed individualism instead of tradition but ultimately led the way to modern capitalism and the culture industry. “Frankfurt School perspective is an obvious variant of Marxism.” (Strinati, 2004) Despite disagreeing with the Enlightenment, Adorno and Frankfurt School agreed on the Marxist theory. According to Dominic Strinati, to understand Frankfurt’s views “the school can be seen as trying to fill in a part of the picture of capitalism Marx did not deal with.” (2004, 48) This provides a reappraisal of popular culture which Marx did not comment on, which we will acknowledge and see how far that it is understood by society today. Interestingly, the school focuses on the culture, not the economy or political aspects of society. However Adorno has also been criticised for his unclear and inaccurate analysis of the topic, which will also be discussed and questioned upon.

To begin, we will establish how Capitalism is the foundations of the development of popular culture. Capitalism is the political and economic system which is controlled by the individual, and not by state. Frankfurt School considered Capitalism as their opposition due to their left-wing beliefs.

Though it is noticeable that the Frankfurt School believed Capitalism was more stable than what it really is. Adorno fails to mention that capitalism also has it’s faults and popular culture was not formed on this system alone.

Despite this, it certainly aided it effectively. Adorno declares that the working class accept this system unforced is because businesses, advertisers and other consumers make the product that is being retailed more appealing. It doesn’t take much effort from the consumer to submit to these influences and purchase the product. This makes them feel better about themselves because they now own said product and are part of the majority that does. He introduces the term “commodity fetishism” which

“is the basis...of how cultural forms such as popular music can secure the continuing economic, political and ideological domination of capitalism.” (Strinati, 2004) He shows us that consumers in the capitalist society value money more than appreciating what was purchased. This “defines and dominates social relations” (Strinati, 2004, 50) The same is true today - many of us would much prefer to spend a colossal amount of money on an well-known brand commodity, say a new car or handbag, than an affordable and sensible priced one. This presents ourselves to others as a much wealthier individual, which essentially makes us feel better about ourselves. Adorno quotes this well

“the real secret of success...is the mere reflection of what one pays in the market for the product.” (Strinati, 2004, 49) This superficial attitude expressed most of us can relate to today because we all live in a capitalist society and have experienced this need for a certain commodity. Therefore Frankfurt School has successfully helped us be aware of the root of popular culture.

According to the Frankfurt school, “the culture industry reflects the consolidation of commodity fetishism.” (Strinati, 2004, 54) When the public are satisfied, capitalism will continue to work and therefore other political systems will be unsuccessful. It’s only when a system does not...
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