Dialectic Of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments – Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno

A happy life in a world of horror is ignominiously refuted by the mere existence of that world – Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, p. 93

Adolf Hitler glowing in Speer’s “Cathedral of Light”, Nuremberg, 1936. Far from some atavistic howl from our ancestral past, National Socialism is the logical result of the whole modernist enterprise.

I tried reading and writing about Dialectic of Enlightenment last spring. Unfortunately, I wasn’t up to the task, at the time, of finishing the work, so I set it aside. Now, months later, energized to read as much as possible, I decided to sit down and read the work before Christmas. For me the result is far more satisfying. Living with an illness like depression saps one’s enthusiasm, to say nothing of a person’s ability to really comprehend the world. When the depression is in abeyance, that’s the time to jump at the chance not only to do things you enjoy, but to enjoy them while you do them!

It’s impossible to write simply or clearly about this best-known work to come from the very public face of the Frankfurt School. I say “best known” because, well, it’s the title bandied about when people start talking about “critical theory”, as if knowing the title was entree enough into some self-important group of thinkers. This is hardly the most important, and certainly not the most complete, work either gentlemen wrote, either as coauthors or separately. Dialectic of Enlightenment gets its authority and power from the particular historical circumstances that underwrote the work. Few that I’ve encountered who have written or spoken about Dialectic pay much attention to the subtitle: Philosophical Fragments. For all both men were dedicated to the idea of systemic thought, there is nothing at all systematic about Dialectic. It is precisely as it is billed (something the authors themselves emphasize in their “Preface”): Fragments, scattershot observations on a matter far too large, for too important, to be treated as a whole in a short period of time. The best Horkheimer and Adorno can do is offer a brief, inadequate description of their understanding of the term “Enlightenment”, and how it is precisely in this philosophical and cultural movement dedicated to the liberation of human beings from either human or natural authority resulted in the subjugation of humanity to the most horrific terrors of the 20th century. From there, there are discussions of The Odyssey, the works of The Marquis de Sade, the operations of “the culture industry”, the place of anti-Semitism within the authors’ larger understanding of Enlightenment. Finally, some brief observations, reminiscent of Adorno’s Minima Moralia, appear at the end.

In many ways, Dialectic serves as a philosophical indictment – much akin to the legal one that would later be brought in Nuremberg – against the Third Reich. In the process, however, it is a far broader statement, carrying chilling implications for us more than half a century later.

The essence of enlightenment is the choice between alternatives, and the inescapability of this choice is that of power. Human beings have always had to choose between their subjugation to nature and its subjugation to the self. With the spread of the bourgeois commodity economy the dark horizon of myth is illuminated by the sun of calculating reason, beneath whose icy rays the seeds of the barbarism are germinating. Under the compulsion of power, human labor has always led away from myth and, under power, has always fallen back under its spell. (p.25)

Precisely because the Enlightenment is the philosophy of the bourgeoisie in their effort to overcome the aristocracy; precisely because it succeeded beyond expectations; and precisely because “freedom” and “power” – terms without any solid definition or historical or material referent – are malleable, it is easy enough to offer to the oppressed the “freedom” to choose which chains they would prefer. This is honoring both the spirit and the letter of the inexorable law of the class struggle as well as the terms set forth by the Enlightenment’s originators.

This is a point the authors drive home in their excurses on The Odyssey and the works of de Sade. Most clearly in Odysseus’ passage past the Sirens, we have the Enlightened man honoring the spirit of the challenge the Sirens pose and by passing through destroying their power. The men who’s ears are stopped continue rowing, ignoring Odysseus’ pleas for them to untie him. Lashed to the mast, Odysseus passes the Sirens, having succumbed to their call yet unable to move toward them. As such, Odysseus is the very model of the successful bourgeoisie, toppling the then-decrepit system by adhering to its rules. Through such clever defiance-through-obedience, Odysseus arrives at his home in Ithaca, the successful property owner now sure of his position, watching the watch fires around his land.

de Sade, in the authors’ view, offers the dark side of Enlightenment thinking. Stripped of the pretenses of faith, unable to successfully argue against any crime, such thinking easily becomes a tool in the hands of the violent to justify everything from incest to murder. Indeed, de Sade’s characters do so with as much rigor as an Encyclopedist but without any care that they are defending violence against other human beings.

The dark writers of the bourgeoisie, unlike its apologists, did not seek to avert the consequences of the Enlightenment with harmonistic doctrines. They did not pretend that formalistic reason had a closer affinity to morality than to immorality. While the light-bringing writers protected the indissoluble alliance of reason and atrocity, bourgeois society and power, by denying that alliance, the bearers of darker messages pitilessly expressed the shocking truth. (p. 92)

In the workings of “the Culture Industry”, with its commodification of that which cannot be bought or sold; its relentless drive toward a mediocrity that drains any truth from the products it produces; to the endless advertisements that give away the game by making clear the goal of the whole enterprise; in all this the authors see and hear, perhaps in the distance, the baying of the Teutonic Hound unleashed by Hitler and Goebbels. By offering up nonsense as art, and conversely insisting that art is nothing but nonsense, consumers are hedged about on all sides by billboards impossible to see over or around. Whether it’s yet another studio movie, a jazz record, or an article in a magazine that is indistinguishable from the many pages of ads in that same magazine, the American worker is trained as to consume what is offered, being told that is all that is offered, that anything else is nonsense. In The Culture Industry we encounter the workings of late capitalism reducing everything not only to something to be bought and sold, but a kind of Pedagogy, How To Consume Crap And Be Grateful.

The discussion of anti-Semitism is perhaps the weakest section of the book. Falling back on a social psychopathology in which the anger of the proletariat is directed against an Other who is presented as an alien deriving its sustenance from their work, there is far less of the negative dialectic on display here than elsewhere. While it certainly rings true in many ways, overall it is inconsistent with much the rest of the work.

For me, the power of Dialectic comes precisely in it being more historical artifact than a living text for us. For all we here in the United States stand poised on the brink of sliding into our own fascist nightmare, beyond the general observation that such is the fate of any decrepit capitalist society, the work offers little more than a description of masses of people, trapped within systems of production and historical forces beyond anyone’s ability to control. For Horkheimer and Adorno, the “system” is now a perpetual motion machine, grinding all beneath its movement into the future. Yet again, we are in the presence of great diagnosticians, or perhaps social and cultural pathologists at the end of an autopsy. We have a cause of death.

We lack, alas, any offer of a way to avoid such a fate. Perhaps there is none. To consign Western civilization to the horrors of our own worst tendencies, however, doesn’t do justice to the millions who see as clearly as Adorno and Horkheimer did, yet fight on nevertheless. It is to them we will owe whatever future lies beyond our particular predicament.


Minima Moralia: Reflections On A Damaged Life – Theodor Adorno

The only philosophy which can be responsibly practised in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption – Thodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections On A Damaged Life, No. 153, p.247

Theodor Adorno

Writing about Theodor Adorno’s works presents challenges to even the best reviewer. Seeing as I’m hardly one such, I think it best to break things up just a bit, if for no other reason than clarity. And clarity about this little work is necessary, because for all its datedness, its rootedness in the historical moment of its creation, it is still a very important work of a very important person. I wouldn’t go as far as one reviewer from The Observer, quoted on the back cover, that it contains Adorno’s “best thoughts”. For all it is short, it covers an enormous range of the human experience.


Why Minima Moralia? In what way was Adorno’s life “damaged”? Adorno speaks to the first in his dedication to his friend and colleague, Max Horkheimer:

[T]he relation between life and production, which in reality debases the former to an ephemeral appearance of the latter, is totally absurd. Means and end are inverted. A dim awareness of this perverse quid pro quo has still not been quite eradicated from life. Reduced and degraded essence tenaciously resists the magic that transforms it into a facade. The change in the relations of production themselves depends largely on what takes place in the ‘sphere of consumption’, the mere reflection of production and caricature of true life: in the consciousness and unconsciousness of individuals. Only by virtue of opposition to production, as still not wholly encompassed by this order, can men bring about another more worthy of human beings. (p.15)

In other words, the best we can hope for in late capitalist society is a view of the moral life at its bare minimum.

As to the damage, he writes in No. 13, p.33:

Every intellectual in emigration is, without exception, mutilated, and does well to acknowledge it to himself, if he wishes to avoid being cruelly apprised of it behind the tightly-closed doors of his self-esteem. He lives in an environment that must remain incomprehensible to him, however flawless his knowledge of trade-union organsiations or the automobile industry may be; he is always astray. . . . The isolation is made worse by the formation of closed and politically-controlled groups, mistrustful of their members, hostile to those branded different.

On Style And Method

Minima Moralia is described as “aphoristic”. The problem with such a description is that it really isn’t. The masters of the aphoristic reflection rooted in philosophical commitments, Nietzsche and the French/Romanian pessimist E. M. Cioran, wouldn’t recognize Adorno’s work as the same as theirs at all. The latter two gentlemen are “masters” precisely because they are able to reduce their most important insights to the shortest, pithiest of sayings. Many are only a sentence or two in length. At his shortest and clearest, Adorno cannot reduce what he wants to say to such things. His insistence on dialectic as the only method worthy of pushing through the crudity and totalitarian tendencies of late capitalist thought leaves him with the necessity of offering his thoughts less as aphorisms and more as incomplete reflections that nevertheless offer the reader a chance to see a prodigious intellect at work.

Thus it is that, in his attempt to offer short observations, Adorno has little choice but to leave the understanding of “short” to those who know this word can have many meanings.

And yet . . .

No. 144, pp. 224-225, speaks of the political power of art in an age where art  is degraded:

In the magic of what reveals itself in absolute powerlessness, of beauty, at once perfection and nothingness, the illusion of omnipotence is mirrored negatively as hope. It has escaped every trial of strength. Total purposelessness give the lie to the totality of purposefulness in the world of domination, and  by drawing the conclusion from its own principle of reason, has existing society up to now become aware o another that is possible.

Adorno could have simply written: In its transcendence art offers an alternative that is better than the present.  Precisely because he cannot write such a thing due to the demands both of method and style, however, we are left with this far more engaging, and I might add beautiful, paean to the power of art.

Minima Moralia

As I worked my way through Part I, my first thoughts were that Adorno was doing little more than using his platform as a philosopher of some repute to bitch about the conditions in which he found himself in wartime America. I even thought of including the picture below to best capture the tenor and tone of what I was reading:

A somewhat fair description of some of Adorno’s Minima Moralia

For example, here is No. 21, p. 42:

We are forgetting how to give presents. Violation of the exchange principle has something nonsensical and implausible about it: here and there even children eye the giver suspiciously, as if the gift were merely a trick to sell them brushes or soap.

No. 25, pp. 46-47:

The past life of emigres is, as we know, annulled. Earlier it was the warrant of arrest, today it is intellectual experience, that is declared non-transferable and unnaturalizable. Anything that is not reified, cannot be counted and measured, ceases to exist.

No. 28, on p 48, is really quite amusing.

The shortcomings of the American landscape is not so much, as romantic illusion would have it, the absence of historical memories, as that it bears no traces of the human hand. This applies not only to the lack of arable land, the uncultivated woods often no higher than scrub, but above all to the roads. These are always inserted directly in the landscape, and the more impressively smooth and broad they are, the more unrelated and violent their gleaming track appears against its wild, overgrown surroundings.

Some of this has the air of an Old World petty aristocrat arriving in “vulgar” America and seeing and experiencing all that confirms his bias. Adorno merely dresses up his complaints in the dialectic of critical theory, trying to make them sound less bitchy and more authoritative. This reaches a kind of absurd, quaint, and comical peak with No. 75, pp. 116-117:

Probably the decline of the hotel dates back to the dissolution of the ancient unity of inn and brothel, nostalgia for which lives on in every glance directed at the displayed waitress and the the tell-tail gestures of the chamber-maids. But now that the innkeeper’s trade, the most honourable of the professions in the sphere of circulation, has been purged of its last ambiguities, such as still cling to the word ‘intercourse’, things have become very bad.

Were these the only things about which Adorno wrote, I would have set the work aside. There is so much more. Reflections on patriarchy and feminism. Thoughts on how society has distorted sex and the pursuit of love. And always, always the constant refrain that the culture industry dictates both the limits and terms of what is and is not permissible, not because of bourgeois morality so much as it serves as a functionary of the larger forces of production.

On patriarchy and sex, he reaches a kind of stylistic and insightful peak in No. 112, p. 174:

The bourgeois needs the [harlot], not merely for pleasure, which he grudges her, but to feel himself a god. The nearer he gets to the edge of his domain and the more her forgets his dignity, the more blatant becomes the ritual of power. The night has its joy, but the whore is burned notwithstanding.

In No. 124, p. 194, Adorno writes the following on the insidiousness of the culture industry’s distortion of small ‘d’ democracy through the medium of film, in this case 1946’s The Best Years Of Their Lives:

When, in the most successful film of a year, the heroic squadron leader returns to be harassed by petty-bourgeois caricatures as a drug-store jerk, [the elite] not only gives the spectator an occasion for unconscious gloating but in addition strengthens them in their conviction that all men are really brothers. Extreme injustice becomes a deceptive facsimile of justice, disqualification of equality. Sociologists, however, ponder the grimly comic riddle: where is the [American] proletariat?

In the midst of it all, however, comes my favorite, No. 114, pp. 177-178. It is nothing more or less than a quaint, charming recollection of the power of real human encounters upon children. Reading it, I thought more of Adorno’s friend Ernst Bloch. In both tone and style, it sounds far more like the more-than-occasionally whimsical Utopian than the hard-boiled critical theorist:

When a guest comes to stay with his parents, a child’s heart beats with more fervent expectation than it ever did before Christmas. . . .Among all those nearest him, as their friend, appears the figure of all that is different. The soothsaying gypsy, let in by the front door, is absolved in the lady visitor and transfigured into a rescuing angel. From the joy of greatest proximity she removes the curse by wedding it to utmost distance. For this the child’s whole being is waiting, and so too, later, must he be able to wait who does not forget what is best in childhood. Love counts the hours until the one when the guest steps over the threshold and imperceptibly restores life’s washed-out colours.

I was reminded of a Christmas when my older sister’s housemates came up with her. Older, attractive (this was important, I won’t kid you), seemingly exotic as both were from the deep south (my sister attended The University of Southern Mississippi), these women brought with them something more, something that cannot be defined but only described. Adorno captured it precisely in this beautiful reflection on those moments from our lives that imprint upon us something of the “more” that lies outside our usual run of experience.

Adorno’s Minima Moralia offers something for anyone seeking something akin to understanding. It is particularly timely as it deals forthrightly with the horrible reality of Fascism at a moment in our collective lives when we hover on the brink of sinking into its barbaric depths. While I do think there’s at least some justice in Georg Lukacs observation regarding Adorno having taken up residence in “The Grand Hotel Abyss”, it should never be forgotten that what drove Adorno, as it did Lukacs, Bloch, Horkheimer, and the rest of the early-20th century Marxist and critical theorist, was a deep passion for real human justice, a society in which human beings could truly be free human beings, rid once for all of the threat of totalitarianism. In this little work, even at its moments of grousing, we encounter a powerful thinker reflecting on his particular experiences and how they might serve as a guide through the morass.