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Reality as Mass Deception
“re·al·i·ty – (definition)
Reality is a word that although still has a dictionary definition, has slowly lost all of its original meaning. As daily life becomes more fast-paced and efficiency becomes more vital, we turn to the news, movies, internet, and other form of mass communication to relay to us what we believe to be the reality in which we are living. And as we watch the images that are depicted, we begin to see the improvements being made in the world, and the new technology that is created each day to make our lives a little easier. Film and art show us that there are vast improvements being made in the creative fields that can serve as outlets for us during our daily lives. As each of these fields continues to progress and we seem to get drawn in more and more to each of these forms of entertainment, the question that remains is, at what cost are we enjoying the benefits that come from these new advances? In Horkheimer and Adorno’s “Dialectic of Enlightenment,” there is an entire chapter dedicated to “the culture industry”. This term refers to the industry of mass manufactured goods, but more specifically to the industry of mass manufactured people. It deals with the problems that arise when people become drawn so deeply into a system that they hardly know they are in it. And it seems that the inevitable problem that arises is, as the world and market changes, the people who fall into this industry are being made more alike in the process.
Before even reading this chapter in the “Dialectic of Enlightment,” the title seems to give a preconceived notion of what it focuses on. After all, the word “culture” and the word “industry” are both familiar terms that can easily be defined when placed separately. However, when these two words are placed next to one another and take on a joint meaning, the term becomes much vaguer and interpretations begin much more broad. In “The Culture Industry,” Adorno begins by stating that, “culture today is infecting everything with sameness”. His idea that sameness is acting as a disease and infecting a community reveals this need to be individual. And sameness seems to sneak up on people in their efforts to be efficient. As the need for goods increases, people begin to have an appreciation for mass production; however, as families are buying state-of-the-art computers, tv’s, and other such items, they are falling into similar patterns that make them indistinguishable from one another. Adorno states that, “The mentality of the public, which allegedly and actually favors the system of the culture industry, is a part of the system, not an excuse for it.” In stating this, he is saying that it becomes futile to point fingers to try to accuse someone else for the mess we find ourselves in. People, no matter how much they ideally would like to consider themselves separate from this typical and mass produced image, can’t help but be weak to the advantages that it seems to offer them. For people being confronted with such a subtle but ever present force, it seems that it becomes easier to go along with the system than to try and resist it. And in the end although it is the culture industry that creates the mold, it is the people who fall perfectly in place and actually give validity to the term “mass culture”.
Adorno’s discussion of ‘reality’ as a whole comes down to his reasoning why it does not actually exist and why the dictionary definition given above can never actually apply to the reality that surrounds us. Reality is no longer a concrete matter but rather what is portrayed to people. In the society in which we live, everything is portrayed to us in a manner which is supposed to elicit a specific and pre-determined response. Therefore, nothing is real because it is manufactured, which applies to emotion just as much as to actual products. Adorno goes to such an extreme that he even begins comparing the culture industry to Fascism, in which people are forced to conform to the views of the few in power. As people begin to lose power to stand up against the system, reality is no longer defined in their own terms, but rather the terms of those in power. The fact that this last statement applies to the culture industry just as much as it applies to Fascism is the frightening indication that something is very wrong.
Within the film industry, Adorno accuses each director of being responsible for a sort of manipulation of the audience. Even in the most sincere film, when an audience has a reaction, it is the reaction that was intended by the director. As people turn to movies, they turn to a manufactured and predetermined image of the world that is constructed for them by an outside force. It is difficult to understand the enormous impact that industry has upon people, especially when most of us fall into that very same mold. We are no longer crying because we are touched by the movie, but because the film is surrounding us with elements that force us into this state of fabricated emotion.
With this in mind, we turn to a film that seems to be directly highlighting what Adorno is saying in his book. The film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the story of two people struggling to be in love but eternally suffering as a result. As they begin to feel the inevitable pain that comes with such an intense relationship, they make the decision to physically remove each other from their memory. But the film inevitably ends with the two coming right back to each other once more and naively promising not to make the same mistakes again. Through the character of the doctor who is responsible for removing memory, it seems that the director is attempting to show this sort of “master” who can make people into what they want to be. Similar to Adorno’s work, this film is pointing directly at Fascism and the negative effects that can come from someone having control over a large group of people. In this film, if people don’t want to feel pain, the doctor simply removes it. If they have a bad experience, he can make it as if it never happened. In this way, the doctor is creating the new definition of ‘reality’ that Adorno discusses—the one that is manufactured. The short-lived happiness that the characters experience after having each other erased from their memory, cannot be true happiness because it is not their own and they have not created it themselves. By tampering with peoples minds, all personal experience and growth is removed from them and in the end they find themselves unable to avoid falling back into the same painful situations because they have no prior knowledge of any sort of lesson learned.
Although Adorno is not discussing actual mind alteration through any sort of procedure, it seems that the effects are equally as drastic. And ultimately, both Adorno and Eternal Sunshine are relaying the message that if someone tampers with your mind, whether it be physically or verbally, you no longer possess the ability to perceive things as they truly are. Everything becomes an altered and fabricated form of reality that has been created by someone else. The scene in which our two main characters must revert back to their childhoods reveals that the only way to seek that truth that has been lost is to return to an age before that truth was ever tampered with.
The loss of control in this film is further portrayed through the unique editing style that is found in this film. Although once viewed as detrimental to a film’s content, this modern style of non-linear editing is vital to a film such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. By constructing the film in such a manner, the director is providing the audience with the same sense of confusion that the characters are feeling during the film. As they feel confused, the characters are allowing someone else to take control when they feel as though they have lost it. However, the second that they begin to fall back into the same familiar and painful patterns, their minds seem to struggle for the information that they once possessed. By showing this change that people undergo in order to prevent unhappiness, this film seems to further reflect the notion of “sameness” that Adorno discusses, and once again it seems that people are more willing to go along with the system than to struggle to resist it. Towards the end of this film, when our characters finally seem to understand the manipulation that is occurring, they must struggle to get out of the cycle that they are trapped in. And in the end, it seems that the editing makes it unable to put the pieces together until the characters themselves can put the lost pieces of their mind together.
The hard contradiction that occurs when attempting to compare this film with Adorno’s work is that everything can be twisted to further prove his point. As much as this film represents the chaos in the world, and the control that people willingly lose in their lives, the fact that this film has an opinion at all is manipulation in itself. By showing us images and using techniques such as the non-linear editing, the director is attempting to get a response out of the audience. And the second we discover what the film is about, we also realize that in that understanding comes the fact that we have been manipulated to feel what we are feeling. And so we are left wondering, with no answer, can it ever be possible to make a film or a piece of art work that is free of manipulation? Perhaps what he is truly getting at deals with that initial discomfort that one may get when first seeing the word “culture” and “industry” placed next to each other. Ideally, these two ideas should not be so directly connected. After all, “culture” represents who we are, as a whole, but also individually. It is what unites us, but also gives us each so many unique differences. The word “Industry” represents fabrication, and the molding of one thing into another. It represents a system of production that does not leave time for anything unique. Therefore, ultimately, as we find our differences becoming less and less, we must ask ourselves if our culture, the thing which we are most proud of, is becoming nothing more than another industry of mass production.