Adorno and Horkheimer – “The Concept of Enlightenment” (1944)

The first chapter from Dialectic of Enlightenment. Page numbers refer to Stanford UP, trans. Jephcott.

A&H want to try to explain why, after Enlightenment (E), instead of becoming truly human, we have regressed to a barbarous state. They will argue that this regression is immanent to E’s progressive dialectic. They accept that no social freedom is possible without E, but urge that reflection on this regressive side must take place. Otherwise, E slips into positivism, the economic productivity necessary for a more just world becomes the means by which the dominant apparatus asserts control over the weak, etc. E, in other words, becomes “blind domination.”

The first essay will argue, in short, that myth (that which E was supposed to replace) is always already E, and that E always regresses to myth. In the next chapter, on the Odyssey, they will work out the dialectic between myth and E in terms of sacrifice and renunciation. These chapters relate to my argument: by articulating the the thin line between active, subjective freedom and the domination of the objective, natural world (and others), Adorno, as his later reading of Kant will make clear, sees the freedom entailed in the Kantian reason as always-already participating in domination. This is reductive, and will need to worked out in relation to Aesthetic Theory, but Adorno can, for now, be said to be very suspicious of my thesis–that taste (as sensuous and embodied) opens up a space for life that threads between “freedom” and “domination.”

“In their mastery of nature, the creative God and the ordering mind are one” (6). Adorno describes how E becomes positivism by reducing Nature to the stuff of mere classification, and then reconstructs according to “subjective” meanings. “Enlightenment stands in relationship to things as the dictator to human beings” (6). Whereas ritual sacrifice (associated with myth), substantiated a non-exchangeable kernel of nature (this one and and only this one), E imposes the arbitrariness of signs on the event. “Representation gives way to universal fungibility” (7). Whereas the sacrificial animal once bore real significance as the god [relate this to Hegelian “sensuous presentation” of the divine], now it becomes mere substitution, and “the manifold affinities existing between living things” is supplanted by a subject that imposes signification on “accidental bearers” (7). Here we see the move from local practices to global industrial technology (which needs universal units of exchange). It’s crucial to understand the validity of these “primitive experiences”: they didn’t see “a supernatural substance in contradistinction to a material world, but the complex concatenation of nature in contrast to its individual link” (10).

Adorno sees this separation of sign and image (the persistent abstraction of signification into the universal) as inevitable, but also that against which thought has and must struggle. He calls the bridging of “intuition and concept” the task of all philosophy. This has been done (among other ways) through magic, art, and faith. The latter, for which the bourgeois makes room (à la Kant), embattles itself against knowledge, and therefore continues the split it is supposed to seal. Determinate negation is precisely that mode of thought that does not reject imperfect representations of the absolute (like positivism), but it “discloses each image as a script” (18). It teaches us to see in it the “admission of falseness” which subverts the “mere system of signs.” This reflective capacity practiced by Hegel distinguishes E from positivism (and points forward to M-P’s hyper-reflection).

Kant articulates the outer boundary of Enlightenment’s paradox: “There is no being that knowledge can not penetrate, but what can be penetrated by knowledge is not being” (19). This is because pure reason can only happen within the circle marked out by the mastery of nature, which has extirpated being from its realm. For Adorno, this is a failure of knowledge as such, which is meant to “grasp existing things as such…to think of them as surface, as mediated conceptual moments which are only fulfilled by revealing their social, historical, and human meaning” (20). This is determinate negation. I wonder, can one determinately negate steak au poivre?

On page 21, the word “self-preservation” emerges as something of a master-concept. Submitting to the narrative of positivism, objectification of the mind, etc. the criterion of success becomes “self-preservation,” a term that indicates merely functional existence, subordinated to the dictates of a nature that has been reduced to quantification, etc (21-2). In E, self-preservation combines with reason, and the latter becomes instrumental. The very technological advnaces that were supposed to liberate the human from the demands of self-preservation become the means by which “true self-preservation of nature is unleashed,” leading, one assumes, to the “enslavement” Adorno talks about earlier (23). Subordinating life to the requirements of preservation levels off the difference between promiscuity and asceticism, superfluity and hunger: all threaten to disintegrate the “whole” of “naturalness,” taken on by the bourgeois in ways criticized by Nietzsche (24). But pleasure is tolerated in the same way that purely a-conceptual art is tolerated: both most excise themselves from praxis. The question Adorno does not ask: can pleasure BE praxis?

The regression of Enlightenment is marked by the inability of “the masses” to “hear with their own ears what has not already been heard, to touch with their hands what has not been previously grasped” (28). Mediated through total society, they revert to mere instance of the species, which is what the principle of the self was meant to overcome. The absolute chasm between subject and object (which Enlightenment refuses to bridge, consigning it blithely to utopia) becomes the index of its untruth. Thus E becomes “nature made audible in its estrangement” (31). [Connect with mute eloquence.] The concept, which distances humans from nature, also “enables the distance which perpetuates injustice to be measured” (32).

So long as one confuses freedom with self-preservation, we remain enslaved to nature as the whole projected by E. This is the new form of myth. The rejection of the power of things ironically turns into enslavement to those very things (as reified objects needing administration). Thus E abolishes itself:

E consummates and abolishes itself when the closest practical objectives reveal themselves to be the most distant goal already attained, and the lands of which “their spials and intelligencers can give no news”–that is, nature misunderstood by masterful science–are remembered as those of origin. (33)

This is the new mode of deception: convincing the masses that freedom consists in the fulfillment of the immediate practical needs, which is based on a reformulation of nature as offering nothing than brute matter for our consumption. These two movements are dialectical and self-destructive. 

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