On Capitalism, Culture, and the Individual

In the 1940s, neo-Marxist cultural critic Theodor Adorno proposed a model for interpreting signifiers of culture and described it as the culture industry. The culture industry is used to mean the facets of culture that arise directly through capitalist means of production: television shows, fashion, niche food tastes, etc. (I’m participating in it right now as I am eating at a Qdoba restaurant in Miamisburg, Ohio). Adorno and other members of the Frankfurt School saw the arising of the culture industry in a greater media age in which information could be more readily distributed through radio, movie theaters, television later, etc. as a technology of passivity and a threat to “high art.” This is not exactly an appeal to obscure or unavailable history as most of this is summed up in the first paragraph of the article on culture industry on Wikipedia. Now, in my view, this is not so incredibly unique from other cultural production as they might make it out to be as all culture is in some way patently artificial because it comes down to decisions from people in the mix of response to exploitation, desire, friendship, hatred, etc that exists without capitalism, late capitalism, or postindustrial capitalism, but there is some insight: the individuality that late and postindustrial capitalism supposedly offers is ultimately mediated and buffeted by the market.

For those that have the means, capitalism does in fact confer the freedom of motion that capitalism claims to offer. You can go to the mall and select from a dissolving assortment of products. You can mark out your taste for different brands of cars by driving the one you like; in fact, in our culture, this supposedly says something about you: whether you drive a foreign make or a US make, a truck, a minivan, or a sedan, and so on and so forth, serious debates about “values” in some circles. You can wear Levi’s if you’re the rugged American man; you can wear American Eagle if you’re youthful and up-to-date but not flashy; you can wear Guess if you’re stylish. However, what does this really mean?

This is one of those issues where the Left unavoidably sounds like moralistic older people chastising the younger generations for “materialistic vanity” and “a culture of things”, but it’s important to note there is a very different ideological basis for this and it is with an incredibly different goal in mind. It is not about unifying a society. It is not about chastising people who are inundated in marketing for wanting certain things. It is about asking: “How meaningful is individuality if it’s only signified through what I buy?” It is about offering agency towards greater individuality, not collectivizing the celebration of a “more moral country” or any other vain subsuming of the participants in culture for culture reified and, in my view, driving a few aspects of “societal  fracturing” deeper down the rabbit-hole.

Now a point to start with is this, to harken back to radical feminism: the personal is political. For this reason some of our market participation can be somewhat subversive, but it has to be conscious in a kind of way that is intentional and not limited to mere taste. (A beautiful example of this is the monokini for breast cancer survivors who wish to show their mastectomy scars, in spite of being judged as “crass”, or girls unashamedly wearing fishnets despite that being perceived as “slutty” fashion. What makes these subversive is that there is a price to pay socially that most consumption does not. In other words, resistance is part of the decision related to market participation.) However, ultimately, most of our choices in the market are depoliticized (but not made unpolitical) and limited to mere taste. The depoliticized nature of taste indicates collective similarity, not individuality. Even when consumption is not depoliticized, if our political and/or individual expression is only marked through market consumption, then ultimately individual difference is only limited to how one spends her or his money rather than any further difference. The commodification of identity, political efficacy aside, means that the only meaning signified by consumption is the consumption itself. Ultimately, people who think of themselves as different from “those others” ultimately is not that different in effect beyond what they wear, what they drive, what they eat, what they watch. (Hipsters are a prime example as they only seek that which signifies them being different: what they consume. The group that thinks it’s different ultimately just hasn’t learned the truth of “Whatever” unlike most other people, meaning they don’t realize they’re just annoying, not different.) Now does this mean that a great harm on the individual is occurring? Probably not. But what it does mean is that, independent of other forces towards social collectivization that cooperate with consumption behaviors such as economic coercion and imposition of demand, the market just doesn’t do that good of a job of providing the individuality it celebrates.In the market “being you” just doesn’t matter except when it comes to what you buy.


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