The influence of Karl Marx on critical thought cannot be underestimated and if Jean Baudrillard denies the Marxian thesis of finding fulfillment through work, two of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century made a career out of criticizing the effects of the pursuit of leisure on contemporary society. The criticism of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer relocates the Marxist critique of capitalism to the rest of society, but specifically the culture and entertainment industry. Their theoretical construct puts forth the challenge that cultural industries exist to reinforce the prevailing capitalist superstructure. The members of the Frankfurt School posit the notion that the modern world is one where humans are increasingly finding not just their work, but even their leisure time spent away from work controlled by alienating forces. Adorno and Horkheimer set out to show that liberation is possible.
Unfortunately, there seems to be growing pessimism that the system could ever be overthrown and that liberation may actually be an impossible dream when even toddlers are being cynically targeted by advertisers. Directing manipulative advertising to such young and impressionable viewers is clearly unethical and it is made even more so by the fact that these kids are at a stage of development vital to forming their identity. Any endeavor to make sense of cultural connotation is going to be affected to great degree by the sense that anything they see on television is normalized and naturalized. Theoretical speculation has determined that social groupings are robustly shaped by media portrayals as the accepted norm. Marketing often depicts images that are not genuinely obtainable while at the same time placing significance on distinctions deemed less than desirable. One corollary of this is the placement upon viewers to conform to these unrealistic norms.
According to the culture industry concept, however, the changes that are shaped by the media are not specific, but are instead a commonality of principles. Television is a readily accessible means of proliferating information. The assortment of programs and the sheer overwhelming quantity of information that is available should theoretically secure diversity of output. The reality, of course, is that the bulk of television channels share a bland, homogenized sameness populated by shows that are critically aimed to appeal to a passive audience that is almost stubborn in its refusal to be intellectually engaged. Those characteristics of the culture of modern society are nightly reified through achingly familiar elucidations of contemporary issues and concerns. Theodor Adorno considers fashionable art forms as being a thing that is forced on the masses; a tool used by the power structure for the purposes of manipulation that actually serves to disengage the possibility of everything that it perpetually promises.
Walter Benjamin hailed cinema as the destruction of the aura of authenticity and in the process took it from the sphere of the elite and handed it over to the working class to use to give them a voice. “Contemporary industrial workers and city dwellers, whose perception of the world was so fragmented and accelerated by their conditions of life, could find in film the formal resolution and organisation of their experience. Film was the medium such transformed modes of perception required to act as a guide in the modern world” (Lapsley & Westlake 1988). Walter Benjamin and Siegfrizd Kracauer both typify film as a distraction, but each arrives at a different definition for distraction, though they also share a few similarities. Their essays “The Mass Ornament, Hotel Lobby, Cult of Distraction” and “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” primarily are concerned with elucidating their views.
In Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, he considers the multiple meanings of distraction and how they relate to confusion and manipulation of the masses. Benjamin’s idea is that distraction is directly related to the effects of capitalism on the growing leisure class. Film especially is a medium that succeeds in distracting enormous populations at the same time, while the theater also serves as a warehouse for coping with the overwhelming and overburdening stimuli faced by the industrial civilization. Cinema was quickly embraced by the world and its distracting component was manipulated by masterful editing that allows for a steady change of the image that creates what Benjamin terms a shock effect that ideally should be viewed in a heightened state of consciousness. The shock effect employed by film increased in popularity as its ability to be controlled and manipulated grew. The mind is only capable of grasping and holding onto a single image for so long; masterful editing can be used to propagandize for subliminal effect like no other medium in history to that the point of its invention.
Benjamin asserts that art demands absorption from the viewer, but too often the viewer is too easily distracted to fully engage intellectually with the content and the mechanics of film. When one is distracted, it is much easer to fall into the trap of relying upon habits; for instance, Dadaists successfully engaged in distraction by creating works of art with the implicit goal of causing social outrage. They intended to contravene conventional aesthetic and cultural values by producing works marked by nonsense and incongruity with the hope of raising the awareness of the utter futility of making sense in the modern world.
Kracauer and Benjamin both view film as an expansive intensification of sensational leisure. Distraction can be seen as a manifestation of the inherent anarchy of nature, and Walter Benjamin shares some of Kracauer’s perspectives on distraction. Kracauer, however, places more emphasis on the elements of distraction. Kracauer desired for cinema to distract the masses while urging that the distraction not be done with effects that hinder the message of the film, but rather should aspire toward a radically different form of distraction that depicts disintegration rather than the pretense it really is. Distractions from film offered a transitory release from the mind-numbing dehumanisation at the factory where the masses worked. Benjamin considered that modernity is a multifaceted phenomenon that most often consists of a number of individual components all working together to lead to the state becoming more powerful. The working class become more dependent on leisure, which makes consumer goods a more vital part of the economy; this mass consumerism, Benjamin fears, potentially leads to fascism. Cinema infiltrate reality and a film mislay its aura the more often is viewed.
Kracauer’s views on capitalism are analogous to Benjamin’s in that he senses that beneath the capitalist ideology, film production emulates society while also serving to reproduce its hierarchy of domination. Kracauer judged capitalism to be a stop along the route to eventual disenchantment and this is fundamental to modernity, which is it itself utterly fragmented and devoid of true meaning. It is up to film technique to expose characteristics of modern life that could be best understood frame by frame, and in those images that are just as fragmented as contemporary society. Benjamin and Kracauer both perceive cinema as a distraction from the real world. It is Walter Benjamin who foresaw most clearly the ideological need to feeds the masses a distraction to keep them from seeing through the consciousness of domination. And today that distraction has resulted in that mass of people being not just the spectator of the distraction, but the participant. Those who are not yet participants are interpellated to assume that it is a natural desire to subscribe to the mentality of selling oneself as a commodity.