[E]nlightenment is totalitarian as only a system can be. Its untruth does not lie in the analytical method, the reduction to elements, the decomposition through which reflection, as its Romantic enemies had maintained from the first, but in its assumption that the trial is prejudged. When in mathematics the unknown becomes the unknown quantity in an equation, it is mad into something long familiar before any value has been assigned. Nature, before and after quantum theory, is what can be registered mathematically: even what cannot be assimilated, the insoluble and irrational, is fenced in the mathematical theorems. In the preemptive identification of he thoroughly mathematized world with truth, enlightenment believes itself safe from the return of the mythical. It equates thought with mathematics. The latter is thereby cut loose, as it were, turned into an absolute authority. – Adorno & Horkheimer, “The Concept Of Enlightenment”, Dialectic of Enlightenment, p.18
In 1922, Karl Barth published the (massively) revised Second Edition of his Epistle To The Romans. Even more clear and to the point than the original, 1919 first edition, Barth took aim at those targets he believed had been part and parcel of Protestant Europe’s complicity in the destruction of the First World War. In this book, often cited without actually being read, Barth did the very thing his Seminary teachers had insisted was impossible – he presented St. Paul’s letter to the Roman Church as a contemporaneous document, the audience being European Protestants struggling to understand what has happened to a civilization both sacred and secular thought had declared above the barbarisms of the past. He didn’t engage in the kind of historical criticism that had been the norm for nearly a century in German-influenced Scripture study. He did not treat the epistle with the proper respect due an historical document; rather, by doing, he through down a gauntlet to the liberal theological establishment in the German-speaking and -influenced world, declaring both their too-clever-by-half assumption of supremacy and their much-vaunted intellectualism as having utterly failed to control Europe’s decent into mass death.
The explosion this book set off, making of Barth – at the time a parish minister in Switzerland, known mostly as a supporter both of Christian Socialism as well as active in his support for local unions – something of both a theological celebrity and pariah. His great teacher, the single most learned church historian ever, Adolf von Harnack, was scathing in his dismissal of his former student’s work. In response, Barth noted that von Harnack had written the infamous “apologia” speech Kaiser Wilhelm II had given, defending Germany’s declaration of war, and thus was a main target of Barth’s polemics.
Love him or hate him, Karl Barth was among the first to understand that, as a cultural force in western life, the Enlightenment had created its very own end precisely by its inability to protect the west from its own worst inclinations. Barth knew well, while never articulating very clearly, that the Enlightenment was like Goya’s painting of Saturn devouring his own children. Rather than something liberating, it was a horror that led to its own inevitable destruction.
A generation later, living in exile in the United States, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno surveyed the barbarism that, at the moment they began working (1943) held the continent of Europe in its grip, and understood the Enlightenment, the cultural reflection of the age of bourgeois dominance in the economy, as having become precisely what its forerunners (they focus on Francis Bacon) had declared it was a liberation from: an age of myth and repression. To the rising bourgeoisie, Enlightenment thought was the cultural reflection of the emerging capitalist economy – an opportunity to free oneself from the shackles of slavery to nature and its cultural reflections in the magical thinking of religion. Now, in the middle of the 20th century, it was clear that the Enlightenment cultural project had come full circle, creating both the final expression of capitalist domination (fascism) with the tools of Enlightenment thought brought in as bulwarks against the new barbarians who would both destroy the west as well as the possibility of thought as an escape from the terror.
In the years since it was first published in 1943, Dialectic of Enlightenment has become one of those touchstones of 20th century thought. Like many such works, it is often mentioned without having been read. Because it is neither easy nor light reading (contemporaries made fun of Martin Heidegger’s odd, often impenetrable, writing style without noting that Adorno and Horkheimer had produced a book almost as unreadable), it is often misrepresented as both more and less than it was. I don’t believe the authors envisioned it as much more than a timely bit of philosophical reflection; the subtitle of the whole work is Philosophical Fragments, after all. Trying to make the essays within as something programmatic, I think, misses the simple point that the authors were answering for themselves the fairly simple question many had been asking since the rise of the Nazi’s: How did this happen? How did the most intellectually and culturally gifted people in western Europe sink into a kind of demonic barbarism from which there would be no escape except utter destruction?
Adorno and Horkheimer are associated with the so-called “Frankfurt School”, but I think even as a name with meaning anything more than the physical location of radical post-World War II thought it really doesn’t hold much weight. Both Adorno and Horkheimer were Marxists, although as Georg Lukacs noted, they were very strange Marxists. Far more interested in culture and its products than class conflict, Adorno in particular took aim less as capitalist society and more at the culture it produced, a culture as violent and barbaric as was the society it reflected.
For Horkheimer and Adorno, it was Bacon’s equation of knowledge as the power of domination and control over nature that is key to understanding how the end result of the Enlightenment project, much like the capitalist society of which it was both a product and defender, had resulted in the kinds of violence and a descent into barbaric primitivism it promised to rescue us. As the authors note several times through the essay, for Bacon the kind of deductive thought Bacon envisaged was a liberation from the control over knowledge that resided at the time as the purview of kings and priests. Because he naively expressed the hope that such knowledge would be available to all, there certainly seemed to be a liberating quality to Bacon’s project.
It was the introduction of power, however, as part of the larger project that subsumed the Enlightenment under the control of the rising capitalist class. Precisely because the bourgeoisie sought to control the growing proletariat, the kind of power Bacon presented as freeing became just another instrument in a long age of increasing instrumental control, both of humanity over nature as well as human control over other human beings. In so doing, they argue, the Enlightenment project had replaced the alleged arbitrariness of ancient power and control through the reification of nature with a priestly class who alone possessed the means for its control and propitiation with the very non-arbitrary power of the machine, of instrumental reason, with the bourgeoisie the possessors of the secrets of control and propitiation. Except what the bourgeoisie sought to control, the industrial workers. Such control was complete and absolute, rendering even thought subservient to the instrumentality of the factory.
Like Plato, contemporary rulers were distrustful of poets and artists, those who sought to express knowledge outside the limits imposed by capitalist means of production. As long as art laid no claim to knowledge, but only isolated aesthetic enjoyment, it was acceptable. Nevertheless, art in all its forms, with poetry at the top of the list precisely because of the danger inherent in poetry undermining the totalitarian logic of the factory and marketplace, were always suspect.
As was true in much of Adorno’s work, the dialectic presented creates a barrier both to clarity of expression as well as precision of understanding. Until one understands that this dialectic, which Adorno was always pushing to the extremes in order to demonstrate the extremity of culture under industrial capitalism, is part and parcel of the larger cultural critique underway, much of the work can seem nearly impossible to understand.
Humans believe themselves free of fear when there is no longer anything unknown. This has determined the path of demythologization, of enlightenment, which equates the living with the nonliving as myth had equated the nonliving with the living. Enlightenment is mythical fear radicalized. The pure immanence of positivism, its ultimate product, is nothing other than a form of universal taboo. Nothing is allowed to remain outside, since the mere idea of the “outside” is the real source of fear. (p.11)
Power confers increased cohesion and strength on the social whole in which it is established. The division of labor, through which power manifests itself socially, serves the self-preservation of the dominated whole. But this necessarily turns the whole, as a whole, and the operation of its immanent reason, into a means of enforcing the particular interest. Power confronts the individual as the universal, as the reason which informs reality. The power of all the members of society, to whom as individuals no other way is open, is constantly summated, through the division of labor imposed on them, in the realization of the whole, whose rationality is thereby multiplied over again. What is done to all by the few always takes the form of the subduing of individuals by the many: the oppression of society always bears the features of oppression by a collective. It is this unity of collectivity and power, and not the immediate social universal, solidarity, which is precipitated in intellectual forms. (p.17)
Precisely because Horkheimer and Adorno understood the processes of history as dialectical rather than linear, it was necessary to present that reality in all its confounding complexity. Once grasped, this method opens up their work, qua literary product, both as a substantive instantiation of the very reality under criticism as well as a kind of poetic protest to the blandness (and falseness) of capitalist Enlightenment and its emphasis upon logic and its rules, a logic that (the authors note in the first quote above) allows nothing outside itself any claim to truth or reality.
A major criticism of much the work of the Frankfurt School has beyond positing a totalitarian intellectual structure that accompanies the totalitarian industrial capitalist structure of which it is both reflection and defender. By refusing to exempt even their own work from the limitations late industrialism imposes upon both culture and thought, some argue, isn’t the very critique offered self-negating? Adorno in particular was prone to argue it wasn’t self-negating so much as limited in scope and of little use programmatically (thus did Lukacs deride their work as a kind of armchair Marxism, a faux-radicalism that sits in its comfortable chair overlooking the abyss around them and commenting with neither experience nor an offer for release upon the chaos around them). Theirs was descriptive rather than proscriptive in part because capitalism and the Enlightenment project offered little in the way of substantive alternatives to their increasingly violent and anti-intellectual demands for rigid conformity.
It has always fascinated me that European Protestant radicals understood the moral vacuum that the Enlightenment had become a generation before secular radicals presented it as the source of its own destruction. In part it was the very division of labor, expressed in the University in the division of the pursuit of knowledge that led to this gap. Barth took a look at the reality of European society destroying itself in the trenches on the one hand, and the grandiose promises of liberal Protestantism as a source of universal brotherhood and peace and knew that one or the other had to be wrong. Barth was, however, focused (at least at that time) on the ways the Enlightenment project in Protestantism had failed in the practice of the actual churches who had, like the socialists in the warring nations, foregone their solidarity for a fervent and suicidal nationalism.
Adorno and Horkheimer, exiles in the United States from the horrors of Nazi Germany, saw the triumph of German arms across Europe as the final expression both of industrial capitalism and Enlightenment. Because they were Marxists (unlike Barth who, while sympathetic to socialism was hardly a secular political radical), they missed the dissolution of the Enlightenment in the horrors of the First World War because they understood that war as capitalism by other means rather some self-destructive impulse embedded within capitalism itself. It took the nightmares of fascism and totalitarianism to make clear that capitalism was nothing more than a degenerate shadow of its former self, the Enlightenment nothing more than an apologia for mass death.
Because of the division of labor, and the disdain with which theology was held (and is still held) by the secular University, the self-destructiveness of the Enlightenment either was missed or dismissed (as it was by von Harnack and others) as a return to an anti-intellectualism that reveled in myth and mystery. Thus is post-modernism still derided by those last, desperate believers in the Enlightenment project as a going concern in western society. Even as industrial capitalism is replaced by the service economy (which includes as its highest embodiment a group once understood as leeches upon the body politic, the investment banker), there are those who insist the Enlightenment is our only hope of escape, with post-modernism being little more than the old myth and religion gussied up in fancy words and phrases.
We live in an age in which the critiques of capitalism, its religious expression in western Europe in liberal Protestantism and cultural expression in the Enlightenment, have borne themselves out. We continue to scramble in the dust, understanding that ours should not be the creation of any edifice that upholds a society continuing its bent toward self-destruction. I believe that, while a creation and creature of its historical moment, “The Concept of Enlightenment” can at the very least offer us the possibility of escaping the traps that still exist in a capitalist society gone senile.