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Capitalizing on Culture

Capitalizing on Culture: Critical Theory for Cultural Studies

Shane Gunster
Series: Cultural Spaces
Copyright Date: 2004
Pages: 380
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  • Book Info
    Capitalizing on Culture
    Book Description:

    Building on the work of Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin,Capitalizing on Culturepresents an innovative, accessible, and timely exploration of critical theory in a cultural landscape dominated by capital. Despite the increasing prevalence of commodification as a dominant factor in the production, promotion, and consumption of most forms of mass culture, many in the cultural studies field have failed to engage systematically either with culture as commodity or with critical theory. Shane Gunster corrects that oversight, providing attentive readings of Adorno and Benjamin's work in order to generate a complex, non-reductive theory of human experience that attends to the opportunities and dangers arising from the confluence of culture and economics.

    Gunster juxtaposes Benjamin's thoughts on memory, experience, and capitalism with Adorno's critique of mass culture and modern aesthetics to illuminate the key position that the commodity form plays in each thinker's work and to invigorate the dialectical complexity their writings acquire when considered together. This blending of perspectives is subsequently used to ground a theoretical interrogation of the comparative failure of cultural studies to engage substantively with the effect of commodification upon cultural practices. As a result,Capitalizing on Cultureoffers a fresh examination of critical theory that will be valuable to scholars studying the intersection of culture and capitalism.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-7272-7
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-2)
  4. Introduction: Culture as Commodity
    (pp. 3-22)

    In the not too distant past, juxtaposing the terms ′culture′ and ′commodity′ inevitably summoned two very different constellations of meaning and value: the latter denoted the economic, commercial, and industrial logic and activities associated with the capitalist marketplace, while the former signified – in one sense or another – just about any human thought or action that kept its distance from, or even deliberately opposed, the instrumental rationality associated with the commodity form. From the sublime heights of great art to the everyday rituals of folklore and custom, culture traced a set of practices and experiences that were insulated against...

  5. 1 Mass Culture and the Commodity Form: Revisiting the Culture Industry Thesis
    (pp. 23-68)

    Adorno once observed that what distinguished Freud′s analysis of mass behaviour from earlier efforts was ′the absence of the traditional contempt for the masses′ and that ′instead of inferring from the usual descriptive findings that the masses are inferior per se and likely to remain so, he asks in the spirit of true enlightenment: what makes masses into masses?′¹ One might argue that Adorno was similarly inspired in his examination of the structure, characteristics, and effects of the culture industry. As ′mass deception,′ the culture industry has long played an architectonic role in the transformation of human and natural potential...

  6. 2 Capitalism, Mimesis, Experience: Legacies of the Commodity Fetish
    (pp. 69-102)

    Simultaneously terrified and offended by the seeming finality of Adorno′s verdict on mass culture and its consumers, many seek intellectual refuge in the more forgiving theoretical fragments of Walter Benjamin. Without question, the modesty and ambiguity of Benjamin′s later work offer more comfort to contemporary cultural and academic sensibilities than do Adorno′s bitter, totalizing polemic. Where Adorno offers only despair, Benjamin gives us hope; for example, in his often read The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility′ he offers an account of photography and film that concentrates on the emancipatory possibilities that attend their displacement of...

  7. 3 Dreams of Redemption? Adorno, Benjamin, and the Dialectics of Culture
    (pp. 103-170)

    Adorno, despite the fiercely guarded negativity of his analysis, shares with Benjamin the belief that human experience is never fully colonized by the culture industry. It is impossible to read his work on mass culture without encountering occasional fragments of hope scattered throughout the otherwise unbroken polemic. True to form, Adorno argues that such fragments never show themselves directly; instead, we must decipher their inverted reflection out of mass cultural practices that at first glance leave us with little hope. Witness the spin he puts on the inexorable repetition of the culture industry: ′Since as subjects men themselves still represent...

  8. 4 From Mass to Popular Culture: From Frankfurt to Birmingham
    (pp. 171-215)

    The radical thrust of the British empirical tradition lies coiled within the above words of Raymond Williams – namely, the refusal to allow moribund concepts and categories to seal off theoretical inquiry from the heterogeneity of human experience. As far as cultural studies has perhaps travelled from the assumptions, methods, and goals of its ′founding fathers,′¹ it continues to proclaim allegiance to this basic desire and analytic project. In 1958, whenCulture and Societywas published, this declaration was directed mainly against a conservative cultural criticism that, allied with reactionary political ideology, transformed the masses into ′something to be hated...

  9. 5 Articulation and the Commodity Form: Rethinking Contemporary Cultural Studies
    (pp. 216-263)

    In the past two decades, cultural studies has exploded out of Birmingham and taken up residence in a wide variety of disciplines and theoretical perspectives; each of these draws selectively from aspects of the CCCS legacy to invigorate its own intellectual practices. Simply ′defining′ cultural studies has become a veritable industry unto itself; this labour has produced countless books and articles, each of which offers slightly different sets of principles for the study of culture. However, it is fair to say that at the core of this exercise in self-definition one finds most often the Birmingham School, in particular the...

  10. Concluding Thoughts
    (pp. 264-278)

    My attempt to restore the culture industry thesis to a position of contemporary relevance in the burgeoning field of cultural studies is not entirely without precedent. While their numbers are comparatively few, others have also noted how the systematic refusal by cultural studies to engage with critical theory has impoverished the conceptual tools with which it can study and theorize cultural processes. InCultural Studies as Critical Theory, for instance, Ben Agger describes the culture industry thesis as the ′single most important theoretical development′ to innoculate cultural studies against its ′cult-like′ tendency to engage in ′an endlessly self-reproducing series of...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 279-322)
  12. Works Cited
    (pp. 323-338)
  13. Index
    (pp. 339-346)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 347-347)