Adorno’s Culture Industry: An Anthropological Critique

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David Wilmington


This paper is an attempt to examine and to assess Adorno’s theory of the “culture industry†as it pertains to his underlying anthropology or account of human life. Ultimately, I believe this is of critical importance to any evaluation of Adorno’s relevance and helpfulness for contemporary Christian theological ethics. The expository concern of this essay, contained in Part I, is to summarize Adorno’s claims about the culture industry and to show its role within his project. Part II contains the twofold critical concern of this essay: 1) to describe the anthropological assumptions necessary for Adorno to assert that the culture industry can accomplish its vicious task and 2) to survey Adorno’s analysis of jazz as a representative example of how his anthropology distorts his ability to hear one of the “most characteristic forms of mass culture.†The concluding, constructive section, will present, as a counter-analysis, a theologically-informed “Jazz Anthropology†that both refutes Adorno’s reading of jazz and offers a better model for understanding key aspects of human life.

My ultimate goal in this paper is to argue that, as we see in his analysis of jazz, the anthropological assumptions and commitments underlying Adorno’s sweeping theory of the culture industry cause him to mis-hear, misunderstand, and mis-diagnose critical aspects of the society he hopes to free.

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