All film is political. All media is ideological. The texts that we read, watch, and otherwise consume all affect us in specific ways. These are general platitudes that seem to permeate all aspects of media theory. And this is no exception for scholars who were working in the mid-twentieth century, trying to make sense of the rapidly growing film and media industries as well as the effects that they can have. Two prominent scholars working in this area were Jean-Louis Baudry and Theodor Adorno. For the two of them, mass media–and more specifically, film–were forms of ideological manipulation. Media products were significant beyond just the specific content of their texts, but because of their ability to promote and strengthen various ideologies. However, the two scholars take vastly different approaches in understanding and describing how these ideological effects play out. While Baudry’s “The Apparatus” highlights the importance of the individual human for understanding the cinematic process, Adorno suggests that the human is largely unimportant, because the industrial and mechanical effects are more significant. They represent two greatly opposing arguments, and the full ideological effects of media likely exist somewhere among the middle.
To highlight the fundamentally human qualities of cinema, Baudry draws comparisons between what he calls the cinematic apparatus–the process of recording and reproducing images–and Freud’s theories of dreams and Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. His position is that the cinematic apparatus is the logical progression in using technology to fulfill the underlying human desire; this desire is what Freud would describe as the unconscious’ need to regress to an earlier stage of development. Baudry contends that this desire was an underlying motivation for Plato’s cave, and suggest that “[i]t is very possible that there was never any first invention of cinema” (156). In other words, even though the technology of film may be a new development, the effects that it creates have always been sought after. For Baudry, cinema is “an apparatus capable precisely of fabricating an impression of reality” (155). The impression of reality that is fabricated, is closely connected to unconscious desires, which underscores the critical role of the human in the ideological effects that Baudry outlines.
Baudry’s very human-connected concept of media ideology differs greatly from the industrial and mechanized argument developed by the Frankfurt School. Specifically, Adorno and Horkheimer’s concept of the culture industry offers a mechanical counterpoint to Baudry’s placement of the human as central to film’s ideological effects. This argument is generally summarized in Adorno’s “Culture Industry Reconsidered,” which was written about twenty year after he and Max Horkheimer published “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” In this later text, Adorno describes many of his previous arguments, and summarizes the position of the earlier text. Namely, that the development of mass media has had significant negative outcomes for society at large. Though the general argument remains unchanged between the two texts, in “Culture Industry Reconsidered,” he generally takes a measured tone which stands in stark contrast to the aggressive and confrontational approach of the original. For instance, the statement that “to the detriment of both [the culture industry] forces together the sphere of high and low art” (Adorno 13) is much less blunt than “The truth that [film and radio] are nothing but business is used as an ideology to legitimize the trash they intentionally produce” (Adorno and Horkheimer 53). Regardless of the tone of the language used, in both of his texts, Adorno makes essentially an identical argument—mass media are primarily a means of promoting specific ideologies, and diminishing the independent role of the audience members who are exposed to those ideologies.
In other words, Adono considers media in a very mechanical sense. Though he uses the term culture industry to refer to mass media, it is not a literal reference to industry or a process of production. Instead, his discussion of media effects is mechanical in the sense that it lacks a human element. Individuals are not privy to the inner workings of media products, and have very little opportunity to manipulate the manner in which the function. Instead, individuals exist merely at the end of the media production process, as a receptacle for the ideologies that are developed and promoted through media. The mechanization of media is an important aspect of much of the Frankfurt School and its scholars. Virtually all media products have become standardized, not in the sense that the texts themselves are identical, but in that all achieve the same ideological effects. This is a significant departure from Baudry’s writings, in which inner human desires are a critical component of the cinematic apparatus.
Although these two scholars were working in the mid-twentieth century, the ideas and concepts that they propose still have significance to our modern understanding of media products and their potential ideological effects. Especially when considering the rapid development and continuing improvement of virtual reality (VR) technology, it seems clear that our individual connections to media have become both closer and stronger. Contemporary media products, such as VR, offer immersive experiences that place the viewer directly within the media text. Unlike Noël Carroll’s dismissive treatment of technologies like Cinerama as “certain tricks” (175), VR is a development in technology that significantly changes the individual’s relationship to the media itself. VR’s ability to immerse the viewer directly within the media text brings us much closer to Baudry’s comparison of cinema to the “dream state,” and might give credence to the human-centered arguments of media’s ideological effects. However, it is important to not lose sight of Adorno’s industrial considerations. He might look upon VR technology as the natural extension of the culture industry’s attempt to fully homogenize all aspects of the world, and deliver this notion of sameness to the audience. While VR may currently be a novel and exciting medium, it will ultimately end up serving the same ideological means as the rest of the culture industry, which “endlessly cheats its consumers out of what it endlessly promises” (Adorno and Horkheimer 62).
Baudry and Adorno offer two radically opposing interpretations of the specific methods by which is occurs, but both arguments center around the significant ideological effects that media and media products create. Baudry, through his continual analogies to dreaming, underscores the fundamental human-ness of media and ideology. Adorno, on the other hand, rejects the autonomy and impmortance of the human, and relegates the individual to the mere vessel that the industrial and mechanically produced ideologies are delivered to. Realistically, there are aspects of both arguments that apply broadly to media texts, and the ideologies they carry. Ultimately, it is relatively insignificant if one of these scholars is more valid than the other; the end result is still the same. No media text stands alone, and no media text is without ideological and political outcomes.