It is common in public primary education to hear your English teacher say, “Infer from context.” We students have been taught to learn from predicting what we do not know based on what we do know. In “The Culture Industry Reconsidered”, Adorno uses the term “industry” to address our society, which relates to the consumer-producer relationship he believes defines society. The industry is also described as a “standardization of the thing itself- such as that of the Western, familiar to every movie-goer...” In other words, we come to expect a piece of culture to adhere to its categorically-assigned characteristics. Because we as members of our society work under one societal structure that has exposed us to common archetypes and plot lines, we can usually figure out the course a story or other piece of media will take based on stratification of similar concepts. When we attend the theater, for example, we expect familiar story plots: boy meets girl, the main character stains self-actualization, etc. One of the phenomena we discussed in class, the generic pop song release by the generic pop artist (this raises another question regarding what is defined as generic or common), is a prime example of this concept. We, as willing or accidental consumers of pop culture, take pleasure in thinking that we are masters of prediction and can foresee the next line of lyrics in a new pop song. Adorno’s argument is that we accept this judgement in lieu of what he calls actual critical judgement. However, what if this expectation of a Western, another story plot, or a song lyric is actually beneficial to critical judgement? What of situational irony? When what we come to expect doesn’t happen, might that make what actually happens all the more shocking and impressive? Then we can further our thinking to consider why that event did not follow the structure we expected, which might lead to a questioning or a reaffirmation of that expected structure. I am proposing that inference, a sort of assumption of the expected, can actually deepen our understanding of a text- especially when we find the argument of the text to differ from our predictions.
Humans are infinitely inferring throughout their daily lives. Be it racial stereotypes, judging a book by its cover, picking the best-looking fruit to buy, or watching a movie, we use inference and expectation as fuel to live on- whether we like it or not. Many times, as in the case of the first two examples, inference is prematurely judgmental and can lead to catastrophically negative results. Other times, however, inference can be right- as in the case of the last two examples. When assumption is detrimental because, in the words of Adorno and Horkheimer, “culture now impresses the same stamp on everything” (The Culture Industry), we are often ultimately shocked into truth by reality. As an example, I take the common phenomenon of a young girl’s first heartbreak. Throughout this girl’s upbringing, she has been fed media images that her “Prince Charming” will come... and although, as she gets older, she understands that her fairy tale fantasy is unlikely, she still holds a tiny hope for that kind of romance. When she has her first boyfriend, her small embers of hope are gradually fed into a good-sized fire. Then, the relationship does not work out, as some relationships don’t, and the girl is left in sorrow. However, she has learned: we cannot expect life to follow that of a fairy tale. This lesson is ingrained in her in a way that is deep and personally resounding.
I am not proposing that we should intentionally repeat our mistakes over and over in order to learn lessons in a personal way. In fact, Fontenelle’s “Digression on the Ancients and the Moderns” teaches us that “being enlightened by the ideas of the Ancients, and by their errors, we might be expected to surpass them. If we only equalled them, we would have to be far inferior to them by nature; we would barely be men in comparison.” Hence, we should always try to advance progressively. The point is, “industry” may help us learn about ourselves and how we think, and sometimes living while putting our preconceived ideas into action can help us understand the truth of how life works and molds us.