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.