The Power of the Culture Industry: influence through symbols

What is the culture industry?

When we talk about the culture industry, we refer to the mass-production of cultural goods. In other words: those who are part of the culture industry, are the people who ‘create’ popular culture. This can come in many forms, such as films, magazines, radio programmes, and so on. Horkheimer and Adorno, the inventors of the term culture industry, had a very pessimistic view on this. They believed that the culture industry leads to the deception of the masses, by turning them into passive consumers-, as opposed to creators of culture.

Those producers of culture create a ‘common sense’ among the population

Human communication of course depends on the use of language. We create symbols, that represent the feelings, ideas, beliefs, and plans that we have. We all know that the words for ‘dog’ in English and in Chinese are completely different. Dog only means dog, because we commonly agreed that it means dog.

And that’s where the culture industry comes in. They create symbols which then become disseminated among the public, until they are widely understood by everyone. At the heart of this is the idea that all knowledge has an effect on reality, and thus in some ways becomes ‘true’.

So, if a newspaper publishes something, even if it is simply not true, it will, in some ways, change the way the public thinks about the issue at hand. In that way, if it frames immigration as a problem, by using terms such as ‘invasion, ‘crisis’, or ‘time-bomb’, it will have an effect on the way the public perceives immigration. The symbol of ‘immigration as an invasion’ will stick in the public eye.

Immigration is a flood

One such symbol I would like to look at today is the metaphor ‘immigration is a flood’. A flood is large-scale, it has dramatic consequences on the people affected by it, and it is unstoppable. And so, when newspapers publish images which convey the idea of ‘immigration is a flood’, we automatically associate immigration with these characteristics. Because we are highly visual creatures, the picture of ‘immigration is a flood’ sticks in our head.

political-cartoon_on_immigration-tsunami-statue-of-liberty (1)


Sure, this does not mean that we immediately think immigration is bad, it has to be stopped. But the image will stick in our unconsciousness. And, like I said, all knowledge has an effect on reality.

The melting pot

An opposing image is that of the ‘melting pot’, which we are all familiar with. In a melting pot, metals are mixed together and thus become one. The idea here is that the same thing happens with culture, it mixes together and becomes one. Now, have a quick look at the cover of Time magazine. The lady you see there isn’t a real person, she was created through the computer. The creators looked at the percentages of ethnic communities of which the United States comprise, and then created the image based on these percentages. She is thus 15 percent Anglo-Saxon, 17.5 percent Middle Eastern, 17.5 percent African, 7.5 percent Asian, 3.5 percent southern European, and 7.5 percent Hispanic.



She is the embodiment of the idea that diversity, taken together, becomes one bigger, more beautiful thing. The idea of her existence is therefore opposing to the idea of ‘immigration is a flood’. When you look at her, immigration becomes something beautiful. And this is where I will bring in one more term: cultural politics. When we talk about cultural politics, we refer to the use of cultural products to influence public opinion.

With that, popular culture becomes a tool for power.



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