In this article I do not aim to offend Liam Riordan, nor any other person. Rather, I write this piece to express my feelings towards the debate around the ‘quality of Hollywood cinema’, as I feel many have been bogged down in the question ‘is Hollywood cinema good?’ rather than the far more important question ‘why does Hollywood cinema exist, and what does it do?’.
Liam Riordan’s article In Defence of Hollywood is not ill-conceived, as I too feel shame and despair when confronted by the plethora of cultural critics who construct monoliths – such as ‘the category of Hollywood cinema’ – merely to tear them down with rhetoric. Such ‘intellectuals’, often disciples of Jordan Peterson or of a thoughtless ‘popular’ feminism, invariably decry ‘mainstream media’ simply as bad. On this point I agree with Riordan, these uncomplicated critics have nothing to offer in terms of nuanced critique.
But such arguments, loosely described within Riordan’s article, must not be engaged with uncritically. At the risk of betraying myself as a reader of Foucault – a charge I may indeed be guilty of – the very notion of a Hollywood cannot remain unchallenged if it is to be honestly and critically discussed. Rather unfortunately, Riordan met his opponent on their own terms: he defended ‘Hollywood’. He defended, as I shall argue, the indefensible. He defended a system of production that is designed to subjugate the worker and prolong work itself, all in order to expand and enforce capitalism.
The ‘Hollywood’ that Riordan engages with does not exist. There is no unified force, no table of executives, no board of directors that creates films. But to say there is no ‘Hollywood’ is not to say there is no ‘culture industry’. Rather, the term Hollywood does not adequately or accurately describe the late capitalist emergence of manufactured culture; manufactured by and for those under capitalism in order to remedy the cultural chaos caused by, among other factors: the death of God, the dissolution of any precapitalistic restraints, and social and technological differentiation and specialisation. Such a system, as described by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, differentiates itself from the liberal notion of ‘Hollywood’, as the ‘culture industry’ is not a collection of production studios, but rather, production of culture itself. It is not conscious, nor reducible to the individual. ‘Hollywood’ is controlled by men, the ‘culture industry’ is controlled by the leviathan of late Capitalism: reducing all in its attempt to expand production.
The product of this system is the production of films for the purpose of ‘mass deception’ and uniform indoctrination, according to Adorno. Riordan describes a similar system himself:
“Hollywood is an industry, just like any other. It works on supply and demand: the smaller “sub-studios” like Focus Features cater to an audience that wants smaller, more emotional, perhaps more specific experiences, where the bigger studios cater to a wider audience, as well as to those who want to see something that necessitates a huge budget.”
All tastes are catered for within the ‘culture industry’, but not because of supply and demand. To quote Adorno, “Something is provided for all so none may escape” (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2016, p.123). Riordan is correct in claiming that the totality of Hollywood is due to its capitalist structure, but wrong in assuming there is ‘demand’. The ‘culture industry’ is not driven by demand, there is no demand for the specific entertainment offered by the ‘culture industry’. No worker needs Toy Story, John Wick, or Love, Actually like they need food, medicine, shelter, etc. The worker seeks amusement, a distraction from the hell of late capitalism, and the culture industry provides it. “Amusement under late capitalism is the prolongation of work” (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2016, p.137). The worker seeks distraction from his existence and turns to amusement rather than confronting his radical freedom and thus ability to change. He seeks a tranquiliser and the culture industry provides.
In doing so, the ‘culture industry’ no longer pretends to make art: “the people at the top are no longer concerned with concealing their monopoly … They call themselves industries; and when their directors’ incomes are published, any doubt of the social utility of their product is removed” (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2016, p.121). The ‘culture industry’ is merely an extension of the mechanics of late capitalism, which perpetuates its workforce and sustains it, as painkillers sustain a crippled man.
This claim may appear to be a wild Marxist conspiracy, written by a wild Marxist. Such an accusation is deeply offensive to me, as I am not a wrenched Marxist but an Anti-capitalist.
I couldn’t possibly hope to achieve a total description and deconstruction of the ‘culture industry’ within this piece, so instead I shall turn the reader’s attention to Chapter 5 of Dialectic of Enlightenment, The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.
Riordan’s piece came to the wrong conclusions, due to its being a response to the most pathetic and thoughtless cultural criticism imaginable. To say ‘the culture industry is incapable of producing art due to the profit motive eclipsing all intentions of meaningful expression and artistic creation’ is a fairly compelling argument (expanded on by Adorno) but to reduce this to the level of ‘Hollywood = Bad!’, well, on that I do sympathise with Riordan. It is a distraction from real analysis and inquiry.
This piece did not fully address whether Hollywood can produce good films or ‘art’, simply because such nebulous questions are almost impossible to answer and doing so would be tedious. Any definition of art is likely inadequate, as is any category of ‘good’. Rather, I expressed my feelings towards the ‘culture industry’ as an answer to the unspoken question, “what does ‘Hollywood’ do?”, hopefully correcting the otherwise pointless course of the dialogues surrounding ‘art and Hollywood’. The quality of the cinema the ‘culture industry’ produces should be as irrelevant to the consumer as it is to the producer, for ‘quality’ is merely a method of differentiation within a totalising system, which attempts to momentarily unify the schizophrenia of late capitalist signs within a product.