What would Adorno and Horkheimer say about modern pornography?


In the "Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception", Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer write that pop culture and mass media are tools of deception, used to manipulate the masses into passivity. Pop culture deceives people, or as Adorno said is a "defrauding of the masses", by giving them the illusion of meaning and participation, and by pretending to be authentic art when all it really is, is a factory produced commodity.

Adorno and Horkheimer also write:

The culture industry perpetually cheats its consumers of what it perpetually promises. The promissory note which, with its plots and staging, it draws on pleasure is endlessly prolonged; the promise, which is actually all the spectacle consists of, is illusory: all it actually confirms is that the real point will never be reached, that the diner must be satisfied with the menu. [...] By repeatedly exposing the objects of desire, breasts in a clinging sweater or the naked torso of the athletic hero, it only stimulates the unsublimated forepleasure which habitual deprivation has long since reduced to a masochistic semblance. There is no erotic situation which, while insinuating and exciting, does not fail to indicate unmistakably that things can never go that far.

On one hand, modern pornography doesn't seem to fit these descriptions:

  • It does not pretend to be anything other than what it really is. In fact most modern porn films don't even bother with plot or anything and just go straight to the sex scenes.
  • Viewers are not perpetually cheated of the promise made by the film, and the wait is not "endlessly prolonged". Porn does "go that far" and sometimes further, and fulfills whatever promises were implied at the beginning of the film.
  • One can even argue that hard core and extreme varieties of porn challenge and transgresse in ways that mainstream media never does.

On the other hand:

  • Pornography seems like a perfect tool for manipulating the (mostly male) masses, by satisfying base and false psychological needs, while distracting them from the real need for freedom, happiness, connection, etc...
  • It is definitely factory produced and commodified, even more so than pop culture.

So, based on these considerations, my question is:

  1. Would Adorno and Horkheimer indeed consider modern porn to be authentic in a way that pop culture isn't?
  2. Or would they have labeled as just being an extreme case of pop culture, what happens when the culture industry is pushed to its logical conclusion?

Alexander S King

Posted 2017-02-07T20:53:46.217

Reputation: 25 810



I think the argument remains valid, it is just staged in a way that assumes we would never get to this degree of mutual manipulation as a social process. I would go with your second option, and then go farther.

Pornography is still a tease. It pretends to portray something realistic, but it has carefully chosen to present individuals who are not accessible to most people. It does not deliver sex, so it still only goes as far as presenting the possibility. Clearly, you can masturbate without it, so it is adding something to your experience only in allowing you to imagine what you cannot attain.

If it did not create a need without satisfying it, since it lacks meaningful physical content it, it could not maintain its status as a commodity.

One could say that even of prostitution and recreational pharmaceuticals. If the prostitute honestly satisfied the need for which they are sought, sex addiction would not be a real thing. One can only to a certain bizarre degree want an endless supply of food or even human company, but one can easily want an endless supply of sex or drugs. Examples like "rat-vanna" and the reasonable prevalence of successful marriage show that this is not an aspect of form, but of delivery.

To a certain degree, these theories originate in a theoretical psychological correction to explain the failure of the labor theory of value. From this trans-Marxist point of view, only by being a partial satisfaction that ultimately fails, can any commodity have a value uncorrelated with its cost of production. Unlike things like food or housing or other real services, media and services of socially reconstructed needs lack a correlation between their perceived value and production cost or real measures of quality.


Posted 2017-02-07T20:53:46.217


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory_of_value_(economics) – John Am – 2017-02-16T22:12:51.677

Please, not baselessly, If you prefer we may chat some time, i' m interested about a discussion for an example about the supposed "failure of the labor theory of value" which you insert in your answer – John Am – 2017-02-16T22:18:25.437

@JohnAm It fails to predict actual measures of value, even in socialist environments. Even in Shaker communes and other places that do not meet the conditions Marx would presume, where there is no ownership except in common. Psychological value intrudes and warps things. That is where Adorno starts from. He sees the social manipulation as something that needs to be gotten rid of before the labor theory would be a good predictor. – None – 2017-02-16T23:13:03.633


The question is interesting although it is difficult to answer from the position of the two mentioned philosophers and perhaps too complicated for this site and format.

Modern mass/popular culture is a multidimensional phenomenon, and I doubt that Adorno and Horkheimer would have faced it uni-dimensionally. Their critique of the bourgeois / capitalist idea of mass culture as a product often is not wrong and there are plenty of cases where the analysis is essential. On the other hand, it is easy to criticize their position as bourgeoisie as they described the world watching it from their own middle-class position. The characteristics mentioned in the question, and the position of pornography through pop culture is a phenomenon with many ramifications often reactionary and sometimes progressive. Let us mention as commonly intended reactionary: the exploitation of the actors, display of participants as mere sex tools, often no artistic value at all, the devaluation of the women / men as objects, the mechanistic function solely on visual framing for masturbation or sex services etc., but there are progressive aspects such as empowerment of prohibited / taboo depictions, freedom of subjects not engaged in production but private enjoyment / sexuality, hedonism, separated from their conservative reproductive roles etc.

To answer your questions:

  1. I think that pornography could be analyzed (hypothesizing according to Adorno - Horkheimer) that contains "original" features but something that is shared with other parts of the mass culture.
  2. It is part of mass culture like everything else. I'm not sure we are forward the boundaries of the logical consequences of mass culture. I suppose in 30-40 years. Culture always correspond to the historical context and the form of society and relations within it that produces it.

John Am

Posted 2017-02-07T20:53:46.217

Reputation: 1 278

1I didn't think bout the exploitation and objectification aspects of it. Thanks – Alexander S King – 2017-02-07T23:20:57.297