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Visual Literacy 101: Cultural Industry and What It Implies


Visual Literacy 101 articles serve as one of the academic courses in this precise field. The main aim of this research is to focus attention on the analysis of the topic of “mass culture”, its visual representations and the ways it takes action through imagery and its components. The theoretical framework will be covered from a “counter hegemonic” stance and, essentially, the project involves the attempt to create a diagonal discourse that promotes visual literacy through the idea of art as a pedagogical and revolutionary act, since it moves collective subjectivities.

Visual Literacy 101 will be mainly divided into the following chapters of content:

  1. Where the necessity begins: examples and contextualisation of control.

  2. A background to mass culture.

  3. Cultural Industry and what it implies.

  4. Manipulation through images.

  5. How is this manoeuvre orchestrated?

  6. Learning to identify manipulation: conditioning factors.

  7. A critical eye to the situation: Visual Literacy.

Cultural Industry and what it implies

So far, we have seen how the term mass culture and what it represents was born, as a result of collective cultural indoctrination, with Michel Foucault's "disciplinary society" or Gilles Deleuze's "societies of control". The present study is therefore positioned from the perspective of manipulation and control by the hegemonic powers, studied by authors such as María Bretones and Umberto Eco, and which had previously taken shape in the critical theory of modernity. It is thus understood that these practices of conditioning culture make up what some authors call: the cultural industry.

Figure 1: Marilyn Monroe, Andy Warhol (1967)

For his part, Eco groups together the different criticisms that have been stated against the cultural industry, that the disciples of the Frankfurt School speak of, which he also calls "mass culture" and which he relates directly to the CMMs (Eco, 1995: 37-9):

1. CMMs target a heterogeneous audience and avoid original solutions, offering content to the taste of the majority.

2. Thus, a homogeneous culture is disseminated globally, which destroys the cultural characteristics of ethnic groups.

3. They address an audience that does not identify with any characteristic group, and therefore does not demand specific content. Therefore, they experience the CMM's demands without even knowing it.

4. They do not promote renewals of sensibility. They adapt themselves to the styles and forms spread before. They perform functions of pure conservation.

5. Instead of suggesting emotions, the CMMs give them ready-made.

6. CMMs are subjected to the law of supply and demand. They follow the laws of an economy based on consumption and sustained by the persuasive action of advertising; they suggest to the public what it should desire.


10. They encourage an immense amount of information about the present and thus hinder any historical consciousness.


12. CMMs tend to impose symbols and myths of easy universality, thus minimising the individuality and concreteness of our life’s experiences.

13. They work on opinions, on commonality; they work with a continuous reaffirmation of what we already think. They develop a socially conservative action.

14. They develop under conformism in the sphere of customs, cultural values, social and religious principles, political tendencies.

15. The CMMs are presented as the typical educational instrument of a paternalistic, superficially individualistic and democratic society, substantially tending to produce heterodirected human models. It is a superstructure of a capitalist regime, used for the purpose of control and coercive planning of consciences.

Figure 2: Umberto Eco

He concludes by pointing out "they apparently offer the fruits of higher culture, but emptied of the ideology and critique that animated them. [...] As mass control, they perform the same function that in certain historical circumstances religious ideologies performed' (Eco, 1995: 39). In this sense, Eco agrees with Adorno and Horkheimer in positing the spectators as "the deceived mass [...] passive, heterodetermined and enslaved victim" (Kancler, 2013: 108). In fact, in his Apocalyptic and Integrated, Eco claims not to deal with Theodor Adorno's approaches because he considers them already established theories (Eco, 1995). Thus, the authors converge in the idea that the commercialisation of culture leads to the promotion of the elitist imagery and of hegemonic supremacy, relegating the cultural products of the social base to the background, thus making competition between these two spheres impossible and, therefore, industrialising popular culture, inevitably subjected to government policy. To which Philip Armstrong, philosopher and professor at the University of Canterbury, argues:

What matters is how what is imposed on us are thoughts of affirmation, not reaction, the limits of thought, not the (in)adequacy of thought to its object, and a world of creative possibilities and virtualities, not the constraints of epistemological guarantees and desires. (as cited in Brea, 2005: 129-30)

It is worth introducing here the assessments carried out by María Acaso, Spanish professor and researcher specialising in the area of Art Education, and Silvia Nuere, lecturer at the Polytechnic University of Madrid; regarding the hidden curriculum of the visual. They define it as the "set of contents that are transmitted implicitly in an educational context" (Acaso and Nuere, 2005: 208) through the image, a reflection that should be transferred to all possible forms and reproductions of the visual, such as the CMMs. Thus, the authors argue that this type of information and knowledge "lay the foundations of the patriarchal and capitalist system and perpetuate the current asymmetrical distribution of power" (Acaso and Nuere, 2005: 208). In this way, CMMs do not have to explicitly show manipulative or indoctrinating content, but can legitimise certain hegemonic values and interests implicitly through their audiovisual compositions, which end up naturalising them. Another thinker, the Italian philosopher Gianni Vatimmo, went so far as to say that "the reality of the world is nothing more than something that is constituted as a context of multiple fictions" (Vattimo, 1990: 108). Regarding this issue, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek argues that in this system -ruled by dictators in democracy and who establish an invisible order through the various MCMs that sustains the apparent freedom of the population- the ideology that is systematically implanted in us through the implicit, is already so naturalised that it takes something disruptive for the masses to open their eyes (Fiennes and Zizek, 2012).

Figure 3: The pervert’s guide to ideology, film poster

Then, we are faced with the situation that the CMMs not only offer us products, information and knowledge, but ways of life. They orient us as to what we should be and what we should constitute within the society to which we belong, "they contribute to the construction of the socio-cultural identity of the people in our societies [...] we are faced with a highly effective ideological tool of social alienation" (Lomas, 2001: 32). Noam Chomsky, American linguist and philosopher, concludes that the CMMs are strategic instruments subordinated to the large economic corporations that dominate the state and civil society (Chomsky and Ramonet, 2015). And Martín Prada further suggests that today's informational mechanisms not only subjugate the spectator, but also imbue them with the loss of their freedoms, which are now understood more "as the possibility and exercise of spontaneity, moving away from the idea of freedom, increasingly, that old and rich sense that linked it with autonomy" (Martín Prada, 2018: 25). To which the activist and associate professor in the Department of Visual Arts and Design at the University of Barcelona, Tjaša Kancler, adds:

When we talk about the relationship between globalisation, capitalism and culture/art, we have to establish, as Gržinić points out, the critique of the formation of "universal culture and art", which takes place on three decisive and co-dependent levels (economic, political, institutional), and which establishes culture/art as hegemonic and ideological apparatuses. (Kancler, 2013: 131)

Umberto Eco, however, proposes a solution to this manipulation of stratospheric qualities. He proposes the possibility of change through small events, originated in a particular way and due to personal initiatives of a revolutionary nature and which as a whole can modify the system, which should be carried out by what he calls "men of culture". He defends that these will be the ones who should supply information through the CMMs in order to move away from the standardisation and stratification of the content received by the population, and finally, mass culture can be constituted as a "culture exercised at the level of all citizens" (Eco, 1995: 46) and not only from the higher hegemonic orders.

On the other hand, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, a French psychoanalyst and philosopher, have approached the definition and analysis of the "concept" with which they also intend to put forward a practical proposal for its application in the face of the manipulative regimes of information. To this end, they refer to a tripartite structure, made up of several stages that shape and compose the concept as an epistemological conception.

  1. The first of them deals with the aspiration for total and absolute knowledge, the yearning for knowledge.

  2. The second, for its part, is the "pedagogy of the concept".

  3. And the third would become the conquest of the concept by informational apparatuses such as design, advertising or the rest of the CMMs.

Faced with the possibilities of inhabiting one or more of the stages they establish, they encourage the reader to maintain the "pedagogy of the concept”. They consider this to be the only path that "can prevent us from falling from the summits of the first into the absolute disaster of the third, an absolute disaster for thought, independently, of course, of its possible social benefits from the point of view of universal capitalism" (Deleuze and Guattari, 1993: 18).

Figure 4: Deleuze and Guattari

On a personal view (and perhaps considering Eco's proposal on the introduction of infiltrated revolutionaries into the large mass communication apparatuses to be too idealistic), a less ambitious proposal is presented, framed within the "pedagogy of the concept" proposed by Deleuze and Guattari. However, this statement follows the premise presented by Eco on small events of a revolutionary nature too, which seeks to promote the critical interpretation of information experienced through the visual, encouraging visual literacy as a modus operandi to be adopted by every individual autonomously, seeking the independence and liberation from the hegemonic information instruments.

Image references

Bibliographic references

  • Acaso, María and Nuere, Silvia (2005). El currículo oculto visual: aprender a obedecer a través de la imagen. Arte, Individuo y Sociedad, vo. 17, pp. 205—218. Madrid, Spain: Polytechnic University of Madrid.

  • Chomsky, Noam and Ramonet, Ignacio (2015). Foro Internacional “Emancipación e Igualdad”. Interview to Noam Chomsky by Ignacio Ramonet at the Public Argentinian Television. Buenos Aires, Argentina: TPA. Available on:

  • Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix (1993). What is Philosophy? Barcelona, Spain: Anagrama. [1st ed. 1991]

  • Eco, Umberto (1995). Apocalyptics and Integrated. Barcelona, Spain: Tusquets editores. [1st ed. 1964]

  • Fiennes, Sophie (directoress) and Zizek, Slavoj (scriptwriter) (2012). The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology [documentary film]. Available on:

  • Kancler, Tjasa; López, María (directoress) and Ameller, Carles (tutoress) (2013). Arte, política y resistencia en la era posmoderna (PhD thesis). Barcelona, Spain: Barcelona University.

  • Lomas, Carlos (2001). La estética de los objetos y la ética de los sujetos. Comunicar, Revista Científica de Comunicación y Educación, vo. 17, pp. 31—39.

  • Martín Prada, Juan (2018). El ver y las imágenes en el tiempo de Internet (Estudios visuales). Madrid, Spain: AKAL.

  • Vattimo, Gianni (1990). La sociedad transparente. Barcelona, Spain: Paidós.


Author Photo

Alicia Macías Recio

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