A brief exploration
The American Dream is an idealism that everything you aim to achieve in life can come true if you work hard and the results will come. Apparently. It’s clear from the country’s declaration of independence, openly promoting equality between all men. It is a phrase, a mantra, and a code that people have adhered to since the early days of America but it was popularised when the phrase was first coined in James Truslow Adams’ book ‘The Epic of America’ (1931).
“The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, also too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it.
It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.” - J.T. Adams
When people came to live in America, The American Dream is something they were all trying to achieve at any cost. Unfortunately - and quite obviously - the dream ended up fading, with reality setting in quite quickly after that. This ‘dream’ is exactly that; it cannot be realised by everyone; the economy would simply collapse - and not everyone can be President. The mass media of the USA has always portrayed the pursuit of the American Dream, making sure that society would always attempt to achieve it - keeping the perpetual dream alive.
An awakening: Adorno and The Culture Industry
When the idea of The American Dream started to gather pace around the United States, the aim of the creative industries was to produce television shows, radio shows, adverts and films to promote the idea. Propaganda, some might say. Although the idea would be rammed down citizens’ throats to try to realise the opportunity, if you keep showing the same message to people then surely at some point there has to be a change in view no matter how big or small.
“Children when teasing each other in their squabbles, follow the rule: no fair copycat.”
- T. Adorno
The 1920’s saw the birth of one of the most challenging and enthralling writings ever known when the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory was created. Theodor Adorno came from this school, arguing that the culture industry turned everything into itself, making everything the same bland thing and standardised Art - choking creativity, individualism and critical thinking.
The pursuit of The American Dream as nothing more than a distraction to more important and realistic issues. Americans (like people everywhere) should be focusing on domestic issues: how to raise children correctly, the basic laws and rights of mankind, equal rights and showing compassion for your fellow man. We should focus on that and then improve. The American Dream is a myth to most, it’s a game. Nobody can win but everybody can play.
Much like how I view the chasing of The American Dream as a comparison to life, Adorno argues the difference between what is Art and what is just mass produced nonsense.
“In order to capture the consumers and provide them with substitute satisfaction, the unofficial, if you will, heterodox ideology must be depicted in a much broader and juicier fashion than suits the moral of the story: the tabloid newspapers furnish weekly examples of such excess. One would expect the public’s libido, repressed by a variety of taboos, to respond all the more promptly since these behavioural patterns, by the very fact that they are allowed to pass, reflect an element of collective approval.” - T. Adorno
Much like today when we see sensationalised tabloid headlines and countless ridiculous pieces in newspapers, the same thing was happening around the time when The American Dream was born.
“The power of the culture industry’s ideology is such that conformity has replaced consciousness. The order that springs from it is never confronted with what it claims to be or with the real interests of human beings. Order, however, is not good in itself. It would be so only as a good order. The fact that the culture industry is oblivious to this and extols order in abstracto, bears witness to the impotence and untruth of the messages it conveys. While it claims to lead the perplexed, it eludes them with false conflicts which they are to exchange for their own. It solves conflicts for them only in appearance, in a way that they can hardly be solved in their real lives.” - T. Adorno
Here, he is stating that the culture industry provides the masses with false hope. How many films are there where ‘the guy gets the girl’ at the end of the film? How many self-help adverts have you seen that claim to cure baldness? How many celebrities have you known to lend their name and appearance to a brand for a new sensational dieting pill? The list goes on. These are the sorts of images and things we see every day. It is all around us on buses, trains, billboards etc. and our vision constantly sees this. We are around such imagery from an early age and are oblivious to what is actually realistic and achievable. Art is about many things, to me, although not specifically. Art/Film is about creativity and having a story to tell. In this modern era, there is nothing wrong with films such as Finding Nemo or any rom-com - but there needs to be more realism to counter such efforts. It isn’t healthy for the world to see such fiction on a constant basis. Adorno was aware of this issue and back then, mass media was pulping about such fakery and promoting the phrase ‘The American Dream’.
“Human dependence and servitude, the vanishing point of the culture industry, could scarcely be more faithfully described than by the American interviewee who was of the opinion that the dilemmas of the contemporary epoch would end if people would simply follow the lead of prominent personalities. 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.” - T. Adorno
This culture projects nothing but fakery. Assimilate with the rest because….well, everyone else it doing it. If you do it, you’ll be like the important people thus making you important and you will create or maintain your connection. One example of this would be product placement. When celebrities are hired to endorse a product to the masses, and the reviewers in the media pump out a message that the product is good; “if you don’t take our word for it, take the words of this celebrity as gospel”. There is no actual guarantee that it will improve your life in particular, but you’ll still feel a connection to that celebrity - and a connection to the brand.
Consumers are the ones in control. If we ignored the adverts, the brands, the media outlets, we would be able to make things change. The trouble is, too many people through history and on the planet today have bought into this idea that we need The Culture Industry. The people do need it but they don’t need to depend on it.
“In its attempts to manipulate the masses the ideology of the culture industry contains the antidote to its own lie. No other plea could be made for its defence.” - T. Adorno
The Culture Industry can only survive if it is powered by us, the consumer.