Sunday, April 12, 2009


1944 was the year in which the world we inhabit today was born.1

I arrived at this hypothesis in the course of the conversations I've had with the bright group of graduate students enrolled in the seminar I'm teaching this term, "The Social Matrix of Mass Culture." The class is about many things, but lately its focus has been the "countercultural" response to mass culture in the United States during the second half of the 20th century. (For more on this theme, check out this post from a few months back.)

So why 1944? It was the year in which two path-breaking books were published--one from the left, the other (ostensibly) from the right. The first was Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment. The second was Friedrick von Hayek's The Road to Serfdom. Though operating at different ends of the ideological spectrum, and though arriving at rather different conclusions, both share a surprising amount of common ground. Of particular concern for this odd group of authors are the social, economic, and political problems stemming from centralized mass production. It's no surprise that the horrors of Nazi Germany loom large in both works.

What's fascinating about Dialectic of Enlightenment and The Road to Serfdom is that they are also touchstone works in the "revolt" against mass culture. Put differently, in rejecting centralized mass production, Horkheimer/Adorno and Hayek collectively helped set the stage for the highly individuated mass culture that has emerged today--a culture supposedly populated no longer by estranged "cultural dopes" but by "active" and "empowered" consuming subjects.

Clearly there's much more to say about the consonance of Dialectic and Road. More to come anon as I continue gathering my thoughts.

1 Clearly it's hyperbole to say "the world"; really I mean, the United States.


Anonymous said...

Looking forward to seeing your thoughts on this. I'm wrangling with Rand right now; I suppose Hayek is next.

Ted Striphas said...

Hi LC,

Thanks for your note. I checked out your blog, which looks really interesting. Liberals (as in, left-leaning people, I assume) reading Ayn Rand--very intriguing stuff, and precisely the disposition with which I approach Hayek.

s said...

I presume you're keen to the Adam Curtis documentary that makes this argument, though in a different form: Century of the Self. For him, it's Marcuse that is the Frankfurt School foil. David Harvey's work on neoliberalism occasionally makes similar points, but I'd have to look at my copy to find the refs.

I have to say, though, that you'd do well to make it less of a dichotomy. The real triptych would include Polanyi's "The Great Transformation" which, IIRC, was published the same year. The latter has been quite influential for people trying to sort out what is going on in the *whole* world today. And, of course, all three are influenced by the absent center of Marx.

Ted Striphas said...

Hi S.,

I'm a big fan of Adam Curtis's work. In fact, I've blogged about it a couple of times on D&R. You can find the posts here and here.

I'm somewhat less persuaded by Curtis's arguments about Marcuse, only because I believe Curtis's dating is a bit off historically. By the time Marcuse was being read widely in the United States, the critique of mass culture was entering its second decade (at least).

Curtis' The Trap discusses Hayek (and R. D. Laing, too), and I'm inclined to believe that trajectory ultimately is the more useful one to follow--which is to take nothing away from The Century of the Self, which I continue to believe is a brilliant documentary.

Your mention of Polanyi is a good one. I've been meaning to read The Great Transformation for some time, and now I'll have to put it nearer to the top of my list.

Thanks for the comment and for the recommendation.

s said...

I agree with your assessment of The Trap. Here are my thoughts c. 2 years ago when it came out:

But I would say that the problem I would encounter in teaching that film (as a Cultural Studies prof--in the fall anyway) is that it doesn't appear as applicable to the discipline as Century of the Self since it takes what seem to be wonky public policy issues as the drivers of culture.

The objects and concerns of contemporary CS (with some exceptions) would be more interested in the kinds of arguments made in _Century_ because they overlap so much with the work of people like Ewen. I think, possibly with you (since you start with Hayek), that the work covered in The Trap is even more important to CS, but that means constituting fields like law and economics as cultural. As you said in your intro to the IPR issue of CS, there isn't a lot of interpenetration between CS and law, much less economics. Moreover, building that bridge is inevitably a one way affair since, in my opinion, the best reason to build it is to understand better how to burn it--or burn the bridge by which it crosses into the larger culture.

Sorry, I'm wrapped up in writing a dissertation chapter dealing directly with this issue so I'm a little heated. Anyway, the class looks interesting and I'll be interested to know more about how it turns out.

PS: in my reading, there is an important distinction between the way that Hayek and FS envision culture. Hayek ultimately thinks we've got the best of all possible worlds in the "extended moral order" of free market capitalism whereas FS doesn't really know what the best is, but somehow believes there is something better than anything we've seen so far. There's also a huge difference in how they each understand the individual that they are liberating, but I guess I'll save that for later...