The Culture Industry Has You
How the Frankfurt School might be the key 
to unlock the postmodern mysteries of The Matrix

by Thomas Dodson /

The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, whose latest book, Welcome to the Desert of the Real (Verso, 2002), references The Matrix in its title, compares the first installment of the Wachowski brothers’ three-part sci-fi spectacle to one of those spooky paintings of God that always seems to be staring back at you, no matter where you stand in the room. In a similar play of perspective, The Matrix and its sequel, The Matrix: Reloaded, also seem capable of reflecting almost any critical gaze back at the viewer. Just ask any philosophically minded group of people who haven’t been living in Plato’s cave for the last four years what they see in the films, and they will offer you readings that reference everything from postmodern simulation to Christian Gnosticism, Zen Buddhism, and French psychoanalysis.

The films’ directors aren’t about to give anything away, and even the movie’s stars seem in the dark about what the duo had in mind when they first cooked up their post-apocalyptic epic. Discussing the films with Entertainment Weekly in May, Hugo Weaving, who plays the rogue program, Agent Smith, relates that the cast was never able to get the brothers to answer the question, “Which German philosophers do we need to read in order to comprehend this?” Although often overlooked in discussions of the film’s references, the Marxist-inspired social critique of the Frankfurt School wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

An association of mostly Jewish intellectuals who devoted their efforts to diagnosing the contradictions of modern capitalism, the founders of the Frankfurt School for Social Research fled Germany with the rise of the Nazi party in the 1930s. They spent most of this and the next decade in New York and Los Angeles, where they reflected not only on the horrors of Nazi Germany, but also on the horrors of capitalist America. Seen through the lens of these German exiles set adrift in American culture, the Wachowski brothers’ nightmarish vision of pod-bound human batteries dominated by technologies of mass deception begins to look like a cautionary tale about the power of the culture industry, the misuse of reason, and the excesses of capitalism. 

The Frankfurt School is best known for its characterization of the diverse forms of popular culture (from Hollywood cinema to jazz) as a single “culture industry” that ensures the continued obedience of “the masses” to market interests. In The Dialectic of Enlightenment (originally published in 1947  under the title Philosophiche Fragmente), Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer describe the culture industry as an “iron system” that occupies consumers’ leisure time with amusements designed to enable them to bear the exhaustion and boredom of their increasingly “rationalized” and mechanized work. The consumer is never left alone long enough to consider resisting the economic and social system. The standardized, repetitious forms of entertainment prescribed by the culture industry take up any free time she might have to consider the reality of her exploitation. The authors suggest that amusement, in this form at least, serves to protect the existing social order: “To be pleased means to say Yes.”

Today, Adorno and Horkheimer might sound like just another pair of culture snobs, cranky curmudgeons, or conspiracy theorists. Their project, however, is much deeper (and stranger) than that characterization allows. In a world in which human beings are progressively subjected to the rationalized control of their work and leisure, the Frankfurt School sought to reclaim for reason the capacity to liberate human beings from domination.

During the era of the Enlightenment, reason held the potential to enlighten and empower human beings; it enabled them to question mythico-religious dogma and to critique political legitimacy-- to free their minds and to resist the authority of popes and potentates. Yet, in modern industrialized societies, the drive to make everything rational and calculable severs reason from the project of human emancipation and reduces it to the status of a tool. Detached from critique, reasoning becomes little more than adjusting formulas and plugging variables into the equations. The result is that thinking becomes so mechanical that it is best done by managers and machines; reason devolves into a technology of control wielded by the wealthy and powerful.

In the spectacular stupidity of the latest Star Wars movies or the boobilicious banality of the Anna Nicole Smith Show, Adorno and Horkheimer might ask us to see the final failure of the Enlightenment project (or, rather, its totalitarian success). The technological management of popular culture centralizes power in the hands of those few corporations that control its production and distribution. The culture industry claims to serve the consumers' needs for entertainment, but conceals the way that it standardizes these needs, manipulating them to conform to what it produces -- the summer blockbuster, the situation comedy, "reality" TV. Variations in consumer income and taste are rationally organized and modifications to the standard form are carefully calculated to ensure that each consumer "choose the category of mass product turned out for his type." Although it provides pleasures for consumers, the culture industry ultimately serves to distract people from the excesses and inequalities of the market. For the Frankfurt School, the culture industry is just as much a system of mass deception and control as the virtual world of the matrix.

Intentionally or not, The Matrix realizes the Frankfurt School’s pessimistic view of market capitalism and the culture industry. The matrix itself is the apogee of rationality as a system of repression and social control; in order to deny the reality that their bodily energy is being siphoned away while they float helplessly in amniotic sacs, human beings agree to accept the pleasures offered by a manufactured fantasy world. This acceptance is not simply the result of fascist coercion, however. As a program called The Architect (who looks equal parts Freud and Santa Claus) explains at the conclusion of Reloaded, the vast majority of humanity agrees to “accept the program” when given a choice. Adorno and Horkheimer would, no doubt, see a parallel between the fetal human jacked into the matrix and the Starbucks barristo who immerses himself in a film (perhaps The Matrix: Reloaded) in order to anaesthetize himself against the routinization of his work by central managers and the hyper-administration of his time by the company’s Star Labor software.

The improbability of the film’s comic book science also draws conspicuous attention to the themes of exploitation and labor. On a scorched earth, the mechanical overlords decide to pass on geothermal energy and, despite their mastery of nuclear fusion, somehow find it necessary to construct an elaborate dream world in order to harvest human bio-power. Although this theme is played down in The Matrix: Reloaded, it returns with a vengeance in a series of spots for one of the film’s product tie-ins. In a commercial for PowerAde, (the sports-goo, dyed matrix green for the occasion) a virtual G-man ruminates on the nature of his human audience: “It’s like you’re all a bunch of walking, talking, living, breathing, disease-ridden batteries.” To the machines and their agents in the matrix, human beings are nothing more than so many kilowatt-hours.

From the point of view of the Frankfurt School, modern capitalism does not differ significantly from this machine logic. The reduction of reasoning to mechanical calculation that Adorno and Horkheimer identified is no clearer than in the inhuman logic of capitalist exchange. Through the logic of the market, the particular products of human labor become exchangeable commodities, made universally equivalent through money. Even the unique human capacity to produce is sold as a commodity, as an hour of work becomes equivalent to a double-shot grande latte. In the cold calculus of cost and loss, humans only figure in as abstract energy, measured in units of time and money.

As the process accelerates, the hour of work itself becomes subjected to rational control. At its end, work becomes so managed and administered, and workers so de-skilled, that laborers only mechanically repeat a sequence of operations. The culture industry serves the necessary function of recharging workers’ mental and spiritual batteries so that they don’t jam their shoes into the machinery or otherwise try to overthrow the system that dehumanizes and controls them.

There is no denying that the Frankfurt School theorists were a gloomy bunch, so much so that the blind spots in their approach are almost impossible to ignore. Most of us recognize that there are meaningful pleasures to be had through participation in popular culture and that, sometimes at least, it can have a critical edge. We also know that consumers aren’t always hapless dupes; they have some capacity to resist manipulation and to fashion new and unexpected meanings from standardized cultural products.

Still, we can hardly fault the school for its pessimism. Fleeing the rationalized mass slaughter and political control of fascism for the Taylorist production and mass consumption of modern capitalism, Adorno and others despaired at the absence of anything like a global, revolutionary resistance to what they saw as the insomniac rationality of capitalist exploitation. Jacking out of the culture industry, members of the school recognized that the prospect of human emancipation through Enlightenment rationality might have been a mirage after all. Like Neo at the close of the latest episode in the matrix saga, they faced the possibility that “the prophecy was a lie. It was just another system of control.”