Monday, December 06, 2010

Free Citizens or Cultural Dupes (Essay)

Karl Marx (1818 – 1883)Image via Wikipedia
Many people don't believe that they're susceptible to being influenced, let alone manipulated, by advertising. Are consumers compelled to buy and use products even though they can see through what is regarded as the triumph of advertising in the culture industry? ‘The social studies approach tends to see the consumer a ‘cultural dupe’ manipulated by advertising and the social world’ (Slater, 1997, pp. 33-34). ‘The contemporary dominant approach in social studies sees the consumer as self-reflective, active agent who is able to create new meanings and take critical distance to mass media and advertising’ (Lash & Urry, 1994, p. 4). The Introducing Cultural Studies module looks specifically at the critique of a key group of critical theorists (Max Horkheimer, Theodore Adorno, Walter Benjamin) who employed a neo-Marxist approach to interrogate culture after the second World War. The Orson Welles film, F For Fake (1974), a documentary, which could also be described as an “essay” or “essay film”, was shown and provided validity for the system.

As a case study I associate with the movie Fight Club (1999), I’m not a person that displays multiple distinct identities or personalities, instead I relate to how the movie has helped define a generation. The director David Fincher intended Fight Club’s violence to serve as a metaphor for the conflict between a generation of young people and the value system of advertising. Fincher puts forward a cynical view of the world in which people are at the mercy of big corporations and have no individual power. The narrator “Jack”, struggling with insomnia, on a meaningless pursuit of purpose and fulfilment has reached a point in his life that is devoid of meaning. He begins to reject the consumerism that has enslaved him and subconsciously creates an alter ego, Tyler Durden. Fight Club has various meanings, primarily about masculinity, constructing the male identity, specifically the working class or ‘slaves with white collars’ (Redd, 2004 [Internet]).

Man, I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who've ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need. We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. (imdb, 1999, [Internet])

Fight Club has Marxist elements that present a cynical view of capitalism; the film champions the working man, follows a group intent on destroying the financial institutions and who are invited to share their point of view and in the end the ‘terrorists’ succeed. The film criticises the capitalist world in which we live, but the alternative it offers is not seen to succeed (Healey, n/a, [Internet]). Marxism, encompasses the economic and political theories of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Mediation in Marxist theory refers to the reconciliation of two opposing forces within a given society, for Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, this mediating factor is capital or alternately labour, depending on how one views capitalist society (Wikipedia, 2010, [Internet]). ‘These theories assert that all of human action is predicated on economics and that class struggle will inevitably lead to the triumph of communism over capitalism. ‘Marx believed that the lack of meaningful labour in society would inevitably lead to the proletariat revolution. There is no question that Marx would also look on in disgust at “an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables…” (Goodman, 2005, p. 1).’ Durden’s view of religion is also influenced by Marxism, evident in the scene in which he inflicts ‘Jack’ with a chemical burn. Establishing the conclusion that Durden was in full agreement with Marxist Theory.

You have to consider the possibility that God does not like you. He never wanted you. In all probability, he hates you. This is not the worst thing that can happen. (imdb, 1999, [Internet])

Marx believed that people used religion as an escape, summed up in a passage from the preface to Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right (1843), he described it as ‘the opium of the people’ (Marx, 1843, [Internet]). ‘Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again.’ Religion could be described as an ‘imagined community.’ John Lennon famously stated that The Beatles were “more popular than Jesus” (Cleave, 1966, [Internet]), although this was later taken out of context, celebrities have become a major part of contemporary popular culture and arguably have become more popular than religion. Marxism views celebrities as commodities, ‘products’ that are used to sell an ideology. As semiotics, celebrities are constructed through images, texts (such as magazines and newspapers) and the meanings that are associated with them change over time and can be interpreted differently. Adorno states that it is idle to hope that this self-contradictory, disintegrating ‘person’ will not last for generations, that the system must collapse because of such a psychological split, or that the deceitful substitution of the stereotype for the individual will of itself become unbearable for mankind. He also states that the popularity of the hero models comes partly from a secret satisfaction that the effort to achieve individuation has at last been replaced by the effort to imitate, which is admittedly more breathless. The idolization of the cheap involves making the average the heroic. This message was portrayed in the film screening of the Orson Welles film, F For Fake (1974) which brought into question validity and authenticity. It's pretty but is it art? How is it valued? Who’s the expert? Who’s the faker? Adorno argues that ‘whenever Orson Welles offends against the tricks of the trade, he is forgiven because his departures from the norm are regarded as calculated mutations which serve all the more strongly to confirm the validity of the system.’ The referenced quotation is taken from the most celebrated segment of the film, treating the power of art and the nature of authorship. Welles narrates a montage sequence of the medieval French landmark, Chartres Cathedral –

Our works in stone, in paint, in print, are spared, some of them, for a few decades or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war, or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash - the triumphs, the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life: we're going to die. "Be of good heart," cry the dead artists out of the living past. "Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing." Maybe a man's name doesn't matter all that much. (imdb, 1973, [Internet])

In the Enlightenment of Mass Deception, Adorno states that there is nothing left for the consumer to classify. Producers have done it for him. Producing them, controlling them, disciplining them, and even withdrawing amusement. The whole world is made to pass through the filter of the culture industry. Not to conform means to be rendered powerless, economically and therefore spiritually – to be “self employed”. ‘Everybody must behave (as if spontaneously) in accordance with his previously determined and indexed level, and choose the category of mass product turned out for his type’ (Adorno, 1979, p. 120-167). According to Adorno; in this age of statistics the masses are too sharp to identify themselves with millionaires on the screen, and too slow-witted to ignore the law of the largest number. ‘Demand though has not yet been replaced by simple obedience’. Throughout the module, we discussed the relationships between people, objects and how consumer goods mask the social inequalities which are connected to its production. Historical context continues to change, work revised in ways that weren’t anticipated, structures have no deterministic impact and identities are constantly made and remade with reference to the media/consumer culture. Hip Hop as an example has even lost its authenticity. It used to be about having a voice, coming from the ghetto but now it’s about making money and social recognition (Bennett, 1999, pp. 77-91).

"They rewrite history I don't believe in yesterday" from "Gorgeous" by Kanye West

To conclude, I could argue that the culture industry wants me to construct the perception that I’m self-reflective, able to create new meanings and take critical distance to mass media and advertising. Although standardization and mass production will ensure that I can be duped and manipulated when a need is identified. I have a choice, I accept the decisions that I make and learn from the various experiences and circumstances. Production creates false needs, problems that require solutions, that’s the triumph of advertising in the culture industry. I see through this, but as a consumer I feel compelled to buy and use products even if they are just an evolution of an existing model or lifestyle aspiration.


Adorno, Theodor. and Horkheimer, Max. (1979) Dialectic of Enlightenment. London: Verso. pp.120 – 167.

Bennett, Andy. (1999) Hip Hop am Main: The Localization of Rap Music and Hip Hop Culture. Media, Culture & Society. (21) pp. 77–91.

Cleave, Maureen. (1966) How Does a Beatle Live? John Lennon Lives Like This. London Evening Standard. [Internet] < > [Accessed 05 December 2010]

Goodman, Adam. (2005) Is Tyler Durden A Marxist? [Internet] < > [Accessed 05 December 2010]

Healey, G. (n/a) FIGHT CLUB: A Marxist Analysis. [Internet] < > [Accessed 05 December 2010]

Internet Movie Database. (1973) F For Fake. [Internet] < > [Accessed 06 December 2010]

Internet Movie Database. (1999) Fight Club. [Internet] < > [Accessed 06 December 2010]

Lash, Scott. & Urry, John. (1994) Economies of Signs and Space. London: Sage. p. 4.

Marx, Karl. (1843) Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right. [Internet] < > [Accessed 05 December 2010]

Puustinen, Liina. (2006) THE AGE OF CONSUMER-AUDIENCE. Conceptualising reception in media studies, marketing, and mediaorganisations. (5), p.4.

Redd, Adrienne. (2004) Masculine Identity in the Service Class: An Analysis of Fight Club. [Internet] < > [Accessed 05 December 2010]

Wikipedia. (2010) Marxist. [Internet] < > [Accessed 05 December 2010]
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