Introduction by Lorraina Pinnell
Dije’s essay is an outcome of the Literature, Culture, and Media course, ENGL210. In this essay Dije provides an analytical interface of the course’s three major components. Using Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye as a mid-20th century literary-cultural phenomenon, and avoiding a generic interpretation of the novel as merely adolescent angst, Dije instead turns to two of Europe’s leading social philosophers from the Frankfurt School, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. The result is this well-written, insightful and adventurous essay.
It’s all around us, all the time. By “it” I do not mean air, habit, or sound; I mean mass culture, transmitted through television, books, internet, radio, and so on. “The Culture Industry” critiqued by Theordor Adorno and Max Horkheimer—post-World War II émigré European intellectuals in New York—is a scathing analysis of one significant aspect of society. Their analysis still resonates today suggesting that the culture industry has not undergone any radical changes. If anything, it has intensified. With this in mind, in certain crucial scenarios from The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, the culture industry is exposed to a similar critique but not always successfully. This can be demonstrated through the central character Holden Caulfield.
Before beginning the analysis, I will briefly summarize J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Holden Caulfield is a peculiar young man who is both the story’s narrator and the protagonist. Holden comes from a middle class family, the brother of D.B., Phoebe, and the deceased Allie. He has been expelled from three schools with Pencey Prep being his fourth. He begins his story by implying that he is in an institution somewhere in California as a result of his past which is also the reason behind his decision to recount each crucial event of his life so far. These important events, over the course of only three days have profoundly affected him. They include, amongst others, his encounters with his roommate, Stradlater; Sunny, the prostitute, at the Edmont Hotel; his old friend Sally Hayes; Whooton School’s Carl Luce; little Phoebe (a conversation with whom reveals Holden’s goal in life: to become a catcher in the rye), and his former English teacher, Mr. Antolini. Interestingly, each encounter gives the reader many more hints about Holden than it does about all of those that have influenced him in any way either emotionally or intellectually. Holden ends his story by deliberately failing to mention the precise reasons that brought him to this institution; however, he does let the reader know that he will go to another school in September, a fact I perceive to be highly ironical.
I will now consider Adorno and Horkheimer’s stance on mass media and standardized cultural products, collectively called the culture industry. The culture industry has different meanings when analyzed by different parties; however, they mostly agree that certain values are being promoted and certain ideologies are being reproduced. It is a repetitive system where the different is not considered to be good; it is an anomaly. The notion of good in such an environment depends on economic profit. Ultimately, as Adorno and Horkheimer claim, the culture industry becomes a capitalist environment where producers and consumers are merged into “well-organized complexes” that no longer try to hide the real aim of such a monopoly--profit (1). Fortunately, the culture industry cannot survive without the consumer. Unfortunately, “no independent thinking must be expected from the audience: the product prescribes every reaction.” That is, we have already become those apathetic consumers that never fail to be intrigued by new, yet similar and never-questioned products (11). How does the reflection of reality through media control the masses? for if the former ceased to exist, the latter would most probably remain indifferent. This mirrored reality is used to tell the consumer that he/she is incapable of resistance. According to Adorno and Horkheimer, no matter what the consumer’s social, physical, emotional, or financial condition is, one “must put up with what is offered.” And whenever facing resistance, the culture industries will merely sell their products at cheaper prices (14). The culture industry offers numerous products therefore giving the consumer the impression of freedom of choice. But it only makes us choose between different products with the same ideological meaning. The products change form but not their ideological content. However, one cannot consider the culture industry as an ideological state apparatus. As stated above, this industry is a part of a capitalist system where the state is not important as long as private owners are around (Adorno and Horkheimer 18). In other words, private enterprise takes over the state’s function. Adorno and Horkheimer’s points are much more relevant now than when their essay was initially published in 1944. Global mass media products, for example, Hollywood, social media, MTV, have shaped the way we think about ourselves. One must wear certain clothes, listen to certain songs, read certain books. They have made us incapable of thinking independently.
I will now refer to The Catcher in the Rye to explore the culture industry as a way to survive through Holden’s points of view. As I have previously mentioned, in a world of highly industrialized culture, an individual is taken into social consideration only if that person does not oppose the system that mass media has produced. This system even tells teenagers what to think and how to feel in this stage of their lives to such an extent that its “suggestions” become their societal norms and values. Anyone not acting accordingly is, more often than not, alienated. This is the case with Holden Caulfield and his hard-to-pinpoint thoughts. He shows great dislike for movies and even considers D.B. to be “a prostitute” for writing Hollywood film scripts (Salinger 1). Additionally, he blames the movies for making him admire illogical occurrences (69). Later on, he comments on the actors of the play he was watching with Sally. Holden says, “The trouble was, it was too much like people talking and interrupting each other” exemplifying what Adorno and Horkheimer were scrutinizing: whether the culture industry changes people’s minds by producing films, shows, and plays of reality or instead make them passive consumers (Salinger 81; Adorno and Horkheimer 12). Holden is a contradictory boy. He hates movies, yet watches them; hates people who attend plays, yet is one of them himself. He even remarks on a magazine he himself reads—people believe almost everything they read, watch, and hear. According to the symptoms described in the magazine he was reading, Holden almost convinced himself that he would die of cancer (Salinger 122). Most of the consumers are more or less the same: satisfied with the products being served: “the diner must be satisfied with the menu,” as Adorno and Horkheimer note (13).
Another position relevant to the discussion is that of influential political groups who use mass media to control a great number of people. Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci has undoubtedly given one of the most important assessments of the way power is attained. At the core of his thought lies the idea of cultural hegemony, the idea that cultural domination is a key factor in seizing or maintaining the state of things. The ruling classes impose certain values which are in compliance with their economic interests. For instance, Gramsci’s critique first focuses on theatre as a tool of the ruling class to impose their values and undermine any of the lower class values. Accordingly, a certain political status quo is maintained (Holub 80). The same principles are applied in other mediums transmitting mass ideas.
Can one conclude that The Catcher in the Rye is a product of “the culture industry” itself? It is a very famous book, and probably most teenagers are able to identify themselves with the protagonist of the story, Holden. Moreover, it is a portrayal of reality that actually shows the reader the way he/she should behave in order to get through life’s hardships. I believe that principles no longer serve as means to self-knowledge, and dying for some even seems irrational in a world where the individual is not as important as the mass or community. However, it is difficult to ignore mass culture, especially in our technologically advanced times. It is actually impossible; media is everywhere. Sadly, this industry is profitable and as long as key figures or elite groups benefit from it, its development and the values it imposes on people cannot be withstood.
Adorno, Theodor, and Max Horkheimer. “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass
Deception.” The Dialect of Enlightenment. 1944. Web. 5 Mar. 2016.
Holub, Renate. "The Industrialization of Culture: Gramsci with Benjamin, Brecht and the Frankfurt School." Antonio Gramsci. Florence, US: Routledge, 2005. 69-92. ProQuest Ebrary. Web. 6 Mar. 2016.
Salinger, Jerome David. The Catcher in the Rye. Little, Brown, and Company. 1951. Print.