Research arms of the culture industry

by Yule Heibel on December 10, 2003

I googled “adorno research arm of the culture industry,” hoping to find a reference to what was the Frankfurt School’s assertion that the avant-garde in the mid-20th century acts as a kind of research arm for culture industry. It’s sort of similar to what “cool hunters” do today, snooping out underdog trends, “ethnic” values, ghetto fashions, etc., which can then be mass-produced (in non-union, cheap labour factories) and sold for inflated profits in chain stores. (I tell you, Adorno & Horkheimer had it all figured out decades ago; they were good readers of Hegel & Marx, too.) I didn’t find an exact reference, but I stopped looking when I found this terrific article, Virtual Vaginas and Pentium Penises; A Critical Study of Teledildonics and Digital S(t)imulation by Meredith Balderston and Timothy Mitchell instead. [Note: it’s on a site called, but I can’t seem to access it, hence my link to the google search result.]

I had never heard anyone use the word teledildonics (or cyberdildonics) until just now, but then I googled it and found (silly me) that it’s …a thriving research arm for culture industry. We live in interesting times. There is a lot to learn.

Some excerpts from Virtual Vaginas and Pentium Penises; A Critical Study of Teledildonics and Digital S(t)imulation, but read the whole thing. It’s worth it:

Interestingly enough, pornography and science in the U.S. have a long-standing relationship. The porn industry is often first in adopting new technologies and occasionally is the impetus behind technological developments. This phenomenon is particularly noticeable on the Internet, where the revolutionary ease of production and distribution has led to an explosion of porn sites. As Sun Mircosystems spokeswoman Susan Struble states: “The way you know if your technology is doing good [sic! lol] is if it’s doing well in the porn world.”
Linda Williams in her book Hard Core (1989) hypothesizes that the undertaking of pornographic cinema is an ongoing attempt to uncover and display the mystery of female sexuality. Pornography is obsessed with visibility and assertion of presence, displaying and demystifying bodies, an example of what Jean-Louis Comolli calls a “frenzy of the visible” in which visibility is tied to mechanics, and progress in one leads to a dominance of the other. When a camera ‘captures’ an event, the mechanics of the activity in the event become known, able to be broken down into discrete moments each second. In porn, female pleasure and orgasm, having no reliable visible counterpart to the male “money shot,” usually remain in the realm of the repressed invisible – demonstrable only as a lack in the scopic field. In this instance, the technological apparatus that allows the recording and portability of the visual wonders of the world fails to explain the invisible. Furthermore, by visualizing the body and sexuality in film, a medium that can manipulate visual sequence and speed in ways that do not have to adhere to the real world, sex and body in this medium likewise become mechanical apparatuses and processes that can be modified through science and technology. Pornography then, can be seen as an attempt to contain and control (female) sexuality and pleasure by absorbing them into the rationalizing and systematic realms of science and technology, commodifying them and controlling the means of the commodity’s production.

I wish I had said that. I completely agree with this analysis. Point one, the invisible is not explained — or made manifest or experienced or “grokked” — by the technologically made-visible. Point two, sex and body become like mechanical apparatuses (instead of more human) precisely because they are mediated through the technology: that is, you end more alienated from the matters at hand than before. And point three, it’s a question of control, finally. I would go further and say it’s more than a question of controlling female sexuality, it’s a question of bringing all revolutionary impulses under control, regardless of whether they belong to male or female. The unbridled impulse must be made to serve the interests of commodity capitalism. Doesn’t matter a rat’s ass if it’s your unbridled impulse or mine.

Balderston & Mitchell go on to quote from N. Katherine Hayles’s critique of “posthumanism” (or “transhumanism”), How We Became Posthuman:

First, the posthuman view privileges informational pattern over material instantiation, so that embodiment in a biological substrate is seen as an accident of history rather than an inevitability of life. Second, the posthuman view considers consciousness . . . as an epiphenomenon, as an evolutionary upstart trying to claim that it is the whole show when in actuality it is only a minor sideshow. Third, the posthuman view thinks of the body as the original prosthesis we all learn to manipulate, so that extending or replacing the body with other prosthesis becomes a continuation of a process that began before we were born. Fourth, and most important . . . the posthuman view configures human being that it can be seamlessly articulated with intelligent machines. In the posthuman, there are no essential differences or absolute demarcations between bodily existence and computer simulation, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism, robot teleology and human goals.

Hayles consider posthumanism a modification of liberal humanism, a logical extension, in other words, of the trajectory we’ve been on for some time now. She uses the phenomenon of anorexia as illustration: “In taking the self-possession implied by liberal humanism to the extreme, the anoretic creates a physical image that, in its skeletal emaciation, serves as a
material testimony that the locus of the liberal humanist subject lies in the mind, not the body. Although in many ways the posthuman deconstructs the liberal humanist subject, it thus shares with its predecessor an emphasis on cognition rather than embodiment.”
To this observation, Balderston & Mitchell add that “Teledildonics follows posthumanist ideology in its disconnection of the mind from the body through how it provides sexual stimulation. Not only is a teledildonic experience separate from other people, but the tools it employs resemble disembodied vaginas, rectums, penises and mouths – body parts that have no unified body.” From here, the argument goes back to Adorno & Horkheimer’s critique of Englightenment ideology, and this paper notes that teledildonics “simply extends this search for hyper-rationality and perfection [expressed in the reduction of the experienced world to mathematics and data] into the irrational world of sexual desire and fulfillment through the usage of technology itself.”

The whole article is really interesting. Go read it: Virtual Vaginas and Pentium Penises; A Critical Study of Teledildonics and Digital S(t)imulation . (And let me know if there are glitches accessing it. As I said, my link points to the html version brought up through the google search string “adorno research arm of the culture industry,” not the direct link to

I’ve used up at least two days blogging time now. So long till later.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: