So after my last post, Linda recommended I take a look at Theodor Adorno’s “Culture Industry Reconsidered”. And she was right, it’s quite relevant to what I’m thinking about right now. But as I was chewing my way through Adorno, I found myself, in the back of my mind, hearing the voice of Lüthi – and I was thinking to myself, “I’m sorry, Theo, Max makes more sense.” Now, I know it’s a piece of infernal cheek of me to presume to disagree with Herr Professor Adorno, and it’s quite likely that I don’t really know what I’m talking about. But, for what it’s worth, here’s the thoughts I thunk.
First, here’s Adorno:
“In our drafts we spoke of ‘mass culture’. We replaced that expression with ‘culture industry’ in order to exclude from the outset the interpretation agreeable to its advocates: that it is a matter of something like a culture that arises spontaneously from the masses themselves, the contemporary form of popular art [the German says “Volkskunst“, “folk art, folklore”].”
“In so far as the culture industry arouses a feeling of well-being that the world is precisely in that order suggested by the culture industry, the substitute gratification which it prepares for human beings cheats them out of the same happiness which it deceitfully projects.”
Adorno, “Culture Industry Reconsidered” (from The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture. London: Routledge, 1991) retrieved from here.
So, two points: according to him, “mass culture” is not the same as “folk culture” (Massenkultur vs. Volkskultur); to oversimplify, the former is bad, the latter is good. He and Horkheimer renamed “mass culture” to “culture industry” for the sake of making their points, but I’m going to keep to “mass culture” here (because it allows me to make my point better). Secondly, mass culture “arouses a feeling of well-being that the world is … in … order” (in this case the particular order suggested by the culture industry), which is only a “substitute gratification”.
Now, that’s what triggered the thoughts of Lüthi. Listen to this:
“The folktale is normative [Seinsollensdichtung, literature of what ought to be], but not in the sense that it presents us with a merely possible world that, unlike the real world, represents the way things should be, so that the real world can be contrasted to it. The folktale does not show us a world that is in order; it shows us the world that is in order. It shows us that the world is the way it should be. At one and the same time, the folktale depicts the world as it is [Seinsdichtung, literature of being] and as it ought to be [Seinsollensdichtung].” (89, bold-face mine)
“As a narrative type, the folktale simultaneously entertains and illuminates the nature of existence.” (92)
“It is as though the folktale wishes to give us assurance: even if you yourself do not know whence you come and whither you are going, even if you do not know what forces are influencing you and how they are doing so, even if you do not know what kind of [connections] you are embedded in, you may rest assured that you do stand in the midst of meaningful [connections].” (92)
Lüthi, The European Folktale: Form and Nature (Philadelphia: ISHI, 1982)
The folktale, Lüthi says, gives meaning, deep, existential meaning, by letting us experience a world that is in order, or rather, “the world that is in order”. And the way it draws us into that experience is by being entertaining. It entertains, and thereby presents a model of the nature of existence, of order, which is deeply fulfilling, existentially meaning-making.
Now, if it wasn’t for Adorno’s emphatic declaration that mass culture IS NOT folk culture, you’d almost think they were talking about the same thing, wouldn’t you? The entertainment that “arouses a feeling of well-being that the world is in order…” Mass culture – folk culture… To be quite honest, I’m not sure where the line is between “the mass” (as in, the common people, the crowds, the great unwashed and uneducated conglomerations of humanity) and “the folk”, “das Volk” (as in, the common people, the crowds, the – you get the picture, hygiene and education level aside). See, when the Grimms and their friends started to collect folktales, part of the big idea behind it was that they were folk tales, Volksmärchen – stories of the common people that the educated intelligentsia used to look down their noses at because they were so low-class, so low-culture. The Grimms, and many other folktale collectors following in their shoes, tried to collect tales “directly from the mouth of the people”, down to sometimes phonetically transcribing the dialect of the speaker (or so they claimed – but that’s another topic which I won’t go into now). They saw value in the art of the common folk, just like their contemporaries, the Romantic poets and painters, discovered the value of dirty, messy, uncivilised nature. The key point here is “common“, “plebeian”.
There are some folklore theorists who hold to the (quite controversial) idea that fairy tales are actually not originally “folk” tales which were “literacized” by collectors, i.e. came from the bottom of society and penetrated to the top, but that they are literary tales, written as “high culture” by specific authors, which have been assimilated and “popularized” by the people – top to bottom, as it were. Now, the validity of that theory, or lack thereof, is another topic for another day. But there are documented cases of that top-to-bottom movement happening – “Beauty and the Beast” being one, or “The Little Mermaid” another (Andersen wrote it as an original story, but the story that’s known today is not “his” any more, it’s been assimilated and altered by common culture). And when that kind of adaptation happens, the style of the piece can change. The people accept it as “theirs”, and adapt it. Lüthi says: “Therefore one may indeed say that in the oral tradition of the folk, the folktale style passes through a process of self-correction […] The fate of the tales of Grimm and Musäus [or de Villeneuve or Andersen] when returned to oral tradition shows in what sense the folktale may be called a collective composition” (112). And he concludes: “The tale-telling folk takes part in the creation of the work.” (102, German edition).
So why, may I ask, is today’s mass culture not the contemporary form of folk art? If the answer is because it didn’t “arise spontaneously from the masses themselves”, well then, much of our cherished folklore doesn’t qualify either. But if “Beauty and the Beast”, which was written by a seventeenth-century French noblewoman (people-suppressing ancien régime much?), is allowed into the hallowed halls of “culture”, then, perhaps, much as I dislike the thought – and now I am, quite consciously, moving onto very thin ice – even Disney might lay some claim to entry? Professor Adorno would be horrified.