The darker side of remediation

I found this week’s supplemental reading from Dialectic of Enlightenment to be an excellent complement to Bolter and Grusin’s Remediation. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s opening observations on modern life immediately addressed one of my chief reservations about some of the so-called “progress” achieved by remediation:

Even now the older houses just outside the concrete city centers look like slums, and the new bungalows on the outskirts are at one with the flimsy structures of world fairs in their praise of technical progress and their built-in demand to be discarded after a short while like empty food cans.

–Horkheimer and Adorno, 1111

Some of remediation’s collateral damage.

The term for this sort of “built-in demand to be discarded” is planned obsolescence, and while it no doubt maximizes short-term corporate profits, it has devastating ecological consequences. While this idea of planned obsolescence wasn’t the focus of the authors’ critique of our so-called “culture industry,” it nonetheless made me feel like a little less of a Luddite for my intuitive suspicion of our culture’s incessant drive to remediate.

Since the authors of Remediation clearly stated that the aim of their text was not to “pass judgment on” but to “explain our current cultural movement” (Bolter and Grusin 78), I was grateful to have the opportunity to read Horkheimer and Adorno’s more critical analysis of the “culture industry,” specifically their critique of the way popular culture works to manipulate us into passive, compliant workers and consumers. In an endless progression of remediation, the culture industry has insufficiently replaced previous forms of entertainment, leaving the masses culturally bankrupt and effectively “stunting” our “powers of imagination and spontaneity” (Horkheimer and Adorno 1113).

The culture industry works to thwart any efforts at resistance by offering endless pleasure and amusement and enforcing a top-down, supply-side economics in which each individual is reduced to “the eternal consumer” (1119). In this way, the culture industry has carefully structured its forms of pleasure, amusement, and entertainment to promote helplessness and flight from “the last remaining thought of resistance” (1119).

I can’t help but wonder what Horkheimer and Adorno might write today, nearly 70 years after Dialectic of Enlightenment was first published. In any case, their biting critique of the culture industry stands in sharp contrast to Bolter and Grusin’s ostensibly neutral “exploration” of new media. The authors of Remediation baldly state, “To condemn new media is to condemn contemporary culture itself—in a kind of jeremiad that has made a few humanists wealthy but has not helped to explain our current cultural movement” (Bolter and Grusin 78).

I am not sure if Horkheimer or Adorno or any other members of the Frankfurt School became wealthy because of their ideas, but they do seem to anticipate this sort of reticence toward “value judgments” in contemporary culture: “The words that are not means appear senseless; the others seem to be fiction, untrue. Value judgments are taken either as advertising or as empty talk” (Horkheimer and Adorno 1121). The result appears to be a radical and pervasive cynicism and paralysis in which any sort of ideology “becomes a vigorous and prearranged promulgation of the status quo” (1121).

Horkheimer and Adorno’s “jeremiad” against the culture industry exposes the narrative of remediation as tragedy. Humanity has somehow figured out how to split an atom, travel to the moon, and develop pocket-sized computers, yet 925 million people on this planet still do not have enough to eat. This is one of the many tragedies of the culture industry. Its insatiable drive toward “‘fully exploiting’ available technical resources and the facilities for aesthetic mass consumption,” is ultimately “part of the economic system which refuses to exploit resources to abolish hunger” (1117).

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