Horkheimer left, Adorno right, Habermas background right, running hand through hair. Max Weber-Soziologentag, Heidelberg,April,1964. Wikicommons/Jeremy J.Shapiro. Some rights reserved.How do you make an argument against social domination when the very terms, concepts and languages at your disposal are shaped by, and in turn serve that same social domination? Probably in the way you would light a fire in a wooden stove. How would you write a book about the impossibility of writing just that book? Like a poem about the pointlessness of poems. What if your enemies’ enemies are your own worst enemies? Can you defend liberal society from its fascist enemies when you know it is the wrong state of things? You must, but dialectics may well ‘make cowards of us all’ and spoil our ‘native hue of resolution’.
Dialectic of Enlightenment is a very strange book, and although it was published, in 1947, by the leading publishing house for exiled, German-language anti-fascist literature, the Querido Verlag in Amsterdam, alongside many of the biggest literary names of the time, no-one will have expected that it gradually became one of the classics of modern social philosophy.
It is a book that commits all the sins editors tend to warn against: its chapters are about wildly differing subject matters; the writing is repetitive, circular and fragmented; no argument ever seems exhausted or final and there are no explicitly stated conclusions, and certainly no trace of a policy impact trajectory. Arguments start somewhere, suddenly come to a halt and then move on to something else. If this sounds like the script for a Soviet film from the revolutionary period, then that is not totally coincidental: it is an avant-garde montage film, transcribed into philosophy. It is an avant-garde montage film, transcribed into philosophy.
Unsurprisingly, given that it was written during WW2 in American exile and published at the beginning of the Cold War, it does not carry its Marxism on its sleeves, but it gives clear enough hints: in the preface, Horkheimer and Adorno state that the aim of the book is ‘to explain why humanity, instead of entering a truly human state, is sinking into a new kind of barbarism’. This addresses the dialectic referenced in the title of the book. The important bit here is the ‘instead of’: the reality of barbarism was undeniable and clearly visible, but the originality of the formulation lies in its implication that humanity could have been expected to enter ‘a truly human state’ sometime earlier in the twentieth century, leaving behind its not so human state.
The promise of progress towards humanity, held by socialists (and some liberals), blew up in their faces. It would have been easy and straightforward then to write a book arguing against the holding of such hope, but this would not have been a dialectical book; Dialectic of Enlightenment undertakes to rescue this hope by looking at why progress tipped over into its opposite.
Sergei Eisenstein, the “Father of Montage” in his silent films Strike (1924), Battleship Potemkin (1925) and October (1927), and historical epics Alexander Nevsky (1938), Ivan the Terrible (1944, 1958). St.Petersburg 1910, Wikicommons/Source unknown. Some rights reserved.
A number of propositions have been made, at the time and later, as to who or what is to be blamed for the barbarism. Capitalism was an obvious answer, but then, capitalism does not typically and all the time produce Holocausts (and capitalists could be found among the victims). Others pointed at ‘the Germans’ and their peculiar intellectual and social history; this, too, is neither an entirely wrong nor a quite satisfying answer. Again others pointed at ‘the bureaucracy’ and modern statecraft. These surely played a role but there are plenty of state bureaucracies that do not engage in genocides and world wars, most of the time. Horkheimer and Adorno made a much stranger, more abstract and strangely radical proposition: the barbarism that destroyed civilization was a product of civilization as such. It is civilization’s self-destruction.
The attempt to formulate a theory of barbarism as the product of civilization creates a very thorny problem, though: theorizing, the attempt to bring about enlightenment, is very much the stuff of civilization, as it involves thinking, language, perceptions, concepts, images, ideas, judgements, ‘spirit’ (which in the philosophical tradition Horkheimer and Adorno came from means as much as ‘culture’). Dialectic of Enlightenment blames the destruction of enlightenment on enlightenment, i.e. on itself. The philosopher Jürgen Habermas some decades later cleverly pointed out that this is a bit of a contradiction. That was exactly the point, though: the hint is in the title, in the word ‘Dialectic’.
Title-page of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, 1807. Wikicommons. Some rights reserved.The book’s painful starting point is described in the preface: Horkheimer and Adorno looked for a position from which to confront fascism and found that ‘in reflecting on its own guilt’, thought finds that it lacks a language.
In the name of what exactly is it possible to challenge fascism effectively? In the languages of sociology, psychology, history, philosophy? The discourses of truth, freedom, human rights? Barbarism… is civilization’s self-destruction.
Here is the rub: in the period in which fascism took power these sounded hollow as they had been stripped of their authority. If this sounds familiar, it is because, almost a century later, we are in a not so different situation. Horkheimer and Adorno state – still in the preface – that fascist demagogues and liberal intellectuals feed off the same (positivist) zeitgeist, marked by the ‘self-destruction of the enlightenment’. Science and scholarship are not potent weapons against fascism anymore, and this even affects tendencies that are opposed to ‘official’, positivistic science.
The basic point here is that scientific, materialist, technological rationality is a force for good only when it is linked to the idealistic notion of general human emancipation, the goal of full rich lives for all, without suffering, exploitation and oppression. (Using a word they had good reasons to avoid, this is what Marx would have called ‘communism’). Only this link gives empirical and rationalist science its truth and significance: enlightenment needs to be ‘transcendental’, i.e. something that points beyond the actually existing reality, not unlike metaphysics in traditional philosophy. It needs to be critical, that is, in opposition to reality as it is.
The principal thesis of the book is that enlightenment purged itself of this connection to society-transcending, non-empirical, critical truth, and as early as on the second page of the preface Horkheimer and Adorno are happy to name the thinker who exemplifies for them this fatal development: Auguste Comte, the founder of positivist philosophy. They assert that in the hostile and brutal conditions of the eighteenth century – the period often described as that of ‘the Enlightenment’ – philosophy had dared to challenge the ‘infamy’ (as Voltaire called it) of the church and the society it helped maintain, while in the aftermath of the French Revolution philosophy switched sides and put itself at the service of the state. This was of course, by now, the modernising state, but still the same state. They write that the Comtean school of positivism – ‘apologists’ of the modern, capitalist society that emerged in the nineteenth century – ‘usurped’ the succession to the genuine Enlighteners, and reconciled philosophy with the forces it previously had opposed, such as the Catholic church.
Leaders of the Action Française at their national Festival de Jeanne d'Arc, May 8, 1927. Charles Maurras second from left. Wikicommons/Bibliotheque nationale de France. Some rights reserved.Horkheimer and Adorno mention in this context the ultra-nationalist organisation Action Française, whose chief ideologist Charles Maurras had been an ardent admirer of Comte. This hint helps understand what kind of historical developments they had on their minds: while Comte himself surely saw himself in good faith as a protagonist of social reform meant to overcome-but-preserve the achievements of the Revolution, and his translation of enlightenment empiricism into the system of ‘positivist philosophy’ as a contribution to the process of modernization, his followers in many ways contributed to the development of the modern authoritarian state and, as in the case of Maurras, proto-fascism.
R. Fuzier cartoon depicting Daudet and Maurras on the nationalist demonstrations of 1934, among the league members of Action Francaise. Wikicommons/ Le Populaire, organe du Parti socialiste. Some rights reserved.The elements of these subsequent developments can be found in Comte’s own writings, which makes his ambiguities a suitable illustration of the dialectic of enlightenment. (The Action Française is mentioned only in a version of the text published in 1944 that was mostly circulated informally; it was not included in the definitive publication of 1947. The authors might have assumed few people would understand the connection to Comte without further explanation.)
Reason, data, and the rejection of metaphysics
The two potentials of reason...As elsewhere in Horkheimer and Adorno’s writings, there is a lot of polemic against ‘positivism’ in Dialectic of Enlightenment. Mostly the target of their critique is the ‘logical positivism’ of their own time, but they seem to see the latter as a logical extension or modification of the older Comtean positivism that was a much more ambitious and comprehensive proposition.
There is no detailed engagement with Comte but it is clear that the principal point of attack is Comte’s rejection of metaphysics: when the eighteenth-century enlightenment was a combination, or perhaps more often an assemblage, of empiricism and rationalism, Comte aimed to boil it down to strictly positivist empiricism that observes the ‘positively’ givens (in Latin: data) and derives ‘laws’ from them that can be used to predict and adapt to, perchance slightly tweak, whatever reality has in store for us. And that is that.
The metaphysical ideas that had been useful in bringing down feudalism and the old regime – the likes of freedom, individualism, emancipation – need to be abandoned as they are the playthings of troublemakers, irritants that could endanger the consolidation of the post-revolutionary new order. Positivism in Comte’s sense is essentially the scientific basis of governance by experts, while twentieth-century ‘logical positivism’ is its epistemological complement. When Horkheimer and Adorno attack the latter, they see it as continuous with the former. They wanted to be the troublemakers…
The attack on metaphysics was a central theme of German philosophy in the 1920s, and helped weaken the defences against fascism across the political spectrum. Horkheimer and Adorno argue that the cult of facts and probabilities has flushed out conceptual thinking, and as humans generally have a need to explain to themselves conceptually why they should be bothered to do anything, or resist doing something that society expects them to do, the denunciation and elimination of concepts as ‘metaphysical’ promotes a passive and fatalistic going-with-the-flow. The ‘blocking of the theoretical imagination has paved the way for political delusion’, which in the context meant fascism.
Again, many contemporaries were happy back then to argue for the reconstruction of some kind of metaphysical system – theological, neo-Platonic, neo-Aristotelian or whatever else. They had a relatively easy task of this in the context of WWII as such philosophical or theological systems are something one can hold on to: they can help one to weather the brute modernizing nihilism of the fascist barbarians, and after their defeat provide a handy identity narrative.
The easy option of a return to traditional metaphysics was not open, though, to the Frankfurt School theorists who saw themselves within the tradition of the radical strand of the Enlightenment. Their main thrust was to attack its domesticated version, the ‘positivism’ that puts itself and its expertise at the service of domination. Far from writing against the Enlightenment, they wanted to restore it to its complex form that contained traces of the transcendental that Comte – quite correctly – saw as trouble. They wanted to be the troublemakers whom Comte thought he had exorcised from the Enlightenment.
Nursing unacted desires
As Horkheimer and Adorno state, the ‘self-destruction of enlightenment’ that frustrated the writing of the book they initially had in mind – probably a fine scholarly tome on the role of dialectical logic in a variety of academic disciplines – came to provide the principal subject matter of the book they did write. The second line of the title, ‘Philosophical Fragments’, indicated that they were then still thinking of it as a halfway house on the way towards writing the real thing. This never happened, so it is what it is: an assertion that ‘thinking that aims at enlightenment’ is inseparably linked to freedom in society, but the admission that enlightenment also ‘already contains the germ of the regression which is taking place everywhere today’. This is the project of an enlightenment mindful of the antagonisms that drive it, as opposed to a smug and arrogant one that feels good about itself lecturing the unenlightened.
If this sounds a bit hippy-ish, then this is because there is in fact a sort of romantic aspect to all this. It is most evident on the very last pages of the book, in the last of the twenty-four short pieces that make up the sixth chapter (‘Notes and Sketches’), titled ‘On the genesis of stupidity’. This, the final statement, begins with a very striking image: ‘The emblem of intelligence is the antenna of the snail’. ‘The emblem of intelligence is the antenna of the snail’.
Horkheimer and Adorno do not provide any reference in support of this claim, but one could think for example of a famous letter by Keats that mentions the ‘trembling and delicate snail-horn perception of beauty’. The antenna, or horn, of the snail represents the good kind of enlightenment we should aspire to: trembling and delicate, as in Keats. (See also here.)
Horkheimer and Adorno use the image, though, to make an anthropological argument about the emergence of intelligence: ‘Meeting an obstacle, the antenna is immediately withdrawn into the protection of the body, it becomes one with the whole until it ventures forth again only timidly as an independent organ. If the danger is still present, it disappears once more, and the intervals between the attempts grow longer’.
They argue here that the development of human mental life is precariously physical and depends on the freedom to exercise the organs of perception. Evolution only takes place when ‘antennae were once stretched out in new directions and not repulsed’. Stupidity, by contrast, ‘is a scar’: ‘Every partial stupidity in a human being marks a spot where the awakening play of muscles has been inhibited instead of fostered’.
Screenshot of detail from William Blake's engraving for Gay's Fable 24,'The Butterfly and the Snail.' British Museum.Switching to a psychoanalytical argument, Horkheimer and Adorno write that the inhibition leads to automatized repetitions of the aborted attempt, such as in neurotic repetitions of a ‘defence reaction which has already proved futile’, and ultimately produces a numb spot where the scar is, a deformation. All the deformations we accumulate during individual and species evolution translate into well-adapted, functioning ‘characters’, stupidity, impotence or spiteful fanaticism, or any combination thereof. They are so many monuments to arrested hope.
This is how the book ends: it is implied that the answer to stupidity, including those of fascism and antisemitism, but also their contemporary second cousins such as ‘post-truth’, resentment-driven politics from Hindutva to Brexit, those myriads of irrational particularisms that gang up on particulars and individuals, ultimately can be defeated only by more freedom of movement for our antennas and other muscles, and the production of fewer scars on our various tissues.
Marxism and anthropology
One of the stupidest things is antisemitism. The fifth chapter of Dialectic of Enlightenment, ‘Elements of antisemitism. Limits of Enlightenment’, is easily the most complex, ambitious and challenging text ever written on this particular subject.
The same peculiarity that characterises the entire book is what makes reading ‘Elements’ rather hard work: the intermeshing of the critique of the present – capitalist modernity – with the much grander theme of the critique of human civilization.
Most of what Horkheimer and Adorno have to say on antisemitism in the perspective of the capitalist present is contained in the first few pages of the chapter and must have felt like a slap in the face by unsuspecting liberal readers: the argument emphasizes the continuity between liberal and fascist governance and the responsibility of the bourgeoisie. First of all, liberals and the representatives of the ‘democratic-popular movements’ had always been lukewarm at best about the equality of Jews who seemed less than totally assimilated. Fascism is then described as the modern bourgeoisie’s move towards ‘regression to naked domination’, whereby the liberal notion of the ‘harmony of society’ (the harmonious give-and-take of a market-based society) has morphed into a Volksgemeinschaft, i.e. the nation that declares itself to be ‘race’.
Arbeit Macht Frei gate, KZ Sachsenhausen, Berlin. Wikicommons/Sachsenhausen Archive. Some rights reserved. Fascism openly reveals and celebrates what had been the essence of society anyway: a violence that distorts human beings. Those who had embraced the more idealistic aspects of liberalism only made themselves more helpless when they had to face up to its unvarnished reality: nice ideals to have, but potentially self-defeating in practice.
This analysis was seriously out of step with the emergent intellectual life of a post-fascist Germany that hoped simply to return to its previous liberal and democratic better self, as if the latter’s total collapse had just been an unfortunate accident.
The critique of liberalism and the bourgeoisie is only a minor point here, though: for Marxists it is hardly shocking news that liberalism can morph into fascism, usually fails to put up much of a defence against it, and that the ruling class will encourage the subalterns to embrace any kind of vicious and violent ideology if they deem it useful to maintain their grip on power. The necessary but not sufficient preconditions for the emergence of the exterminatory antisemitism of the Nazis.
These were part of the necessary but not sufficient preconditions for the emergence of the exterminatory antisemitism of the Nazis; they are not enough to explain a pogrom, and certainly not the Holocaust. This is the point at which Horkheimer and Adorno shift from ‘modern bourgeois society’ to ‘human civilization’ as the framework of explanation: the antisemitic pogrom is described as ‘a luxury’ (given that the material gain for the immediate perpetrators usually was slim) and ‘a ritual of civilization’. With ‘ritual’ and ‘civilization’ we enter the territory of anthropology.
The point here is that the dynamic of contemporary capitalist society mobilizes forces that can be described and understood only with the help of categories of more historical depth than those of capitalist society itself. This does not, though, mean a turning away from the language of Marxism: ‘civilization’ and ‘society’ are not alternative objects of study – the point is that either dimension can be understood only through the other. Human civilization exists in the present only in the form of capitalist society; capitalist society is nothing other than human civilization in its current form. (The relationship between these two concepts is similar to that between capitalism and patriarchy in some forms of feminist theory: they are not different ‘things’ but the former is the contemporary form of appearance of the latter, and the latter is undergirding the former. Here, too, the strategic hope of progressives is that capitalist modernity impacts and transforms its substratum, patriarchal civilization, so thoroughly that it allows for the emergence of the post-capitalist non-patriarchy we would like to see.)
The best known part of the argument, though, relates to modern society and is derived straight from Marx’s critique of political economy: capitalist society maintains the ‘socially necessary illusion’ that the wage-relationship is (in principle, or potentially) ‘fair’, i.e. an exchange of equivalent values: this much labour-power for this much money.
Nevertheless, social inequality is an only too obvious reality. To the untrained eye inequality seems to be brought about in the sphere of circulation (as opposed to the sphere of production), say, at the supermarket till where it becomes manifest how much produce one’s wages will buy.
Marx argues that the apparent fairness of the wage relationship itself presupposes exploitation that is expressed as the difference between the ‘exchange value’ of labour power (represented by the wage) and its ‘use-value’ (represented by the product that it produced): the product produced by X amount of labour power must be higher than the wage paid for it because this is where the profit for the capitalist comes from.
Admittedly this explanation – one of the centrepieces of Marxist theory – flies in the face of ‘common sense’ everyday consciousness where the notion of ‘a fair wage’ reigns supreme – not least because we tend to invoke the ideology of ‘fairness’ when we engage in a wage struggle. (When we ask for more than what is deemed ‘fair’ we are called ‘greedy’ and forfeit the sympathy of ‘the public’.) (When we ask for more than what is deemed ‘fair’ we are called ‘greedy’ and forfeit the sympathy of ‘the public’.)
Capitalist common sense, including the ideology of ‘fairness’, thus produces the need for another explanation for inequality and exploitation; and helpfully the capitalist exploiters, ‘masquerading as producers’, shout ‘thief!’ and point at ‘the merchants’ and other representatives of the sphere of circulation. This line of argument, up to this point, has of course nothing in itself to do with antisemitism: in developed capitalism, the exploitative character of the mode of production tends to be deflected onto (real or imagined) agents of circulation, and many forms of (supposed) ‘anti-capitalism’ reflect this.
As Horkheimer and Adorno put it, ‘the merchant is the bailiff of the whole system and takes the hatred for the other [exploiters] upon himself’. Which category of people is cast as this particular type of scapegoat is entirely dependent on historical context; in Christian Europe, this mechanism of capitalist-anticapitalist ideology found in ‘the Jews’ an ideal object and thus revived and reinvented, as modern antisemitism, pre-existing traditions of Jew-hatred. (Modern antisemitism was exported elsewhere, then, in the hand luggage of imperialism and on arrival sometimes became an element of the ‘anti-imperialism of fools’, but that is another story.)
Antisemitism and self-hatred
This, the Marxist theory of antisemitism, is contained in very condensed form on some of the first pages of ‘Elements of antisemitism’. Taken on its own, this theory only explains antisemitism as a set of ideas, a particular misguided way of thinking about capitalism. Insofar as these ideas are quite fixed, they form an attitude, a mental pattern or a ‘habitus’. Ideas and attitudes alone do not make anyone act, though, and the monstrous antisemitic acts of the Holocaust need several more layers of explanation.
Nazi antisemitism mobilized a deep-seated force that turned this antisemitism into an irrational obsession, even though often executed with a rational deliberation that far surpassed the misguided social protest as which it may have started in most individuals: the delusion of a moral duty to save the world by identifying, chasing and killing Jews wherever they are, at whatever price.
One of the ideas with which Horkheimer and Adorno respond to this theoretical need is that of the pogrom as a ‘ritual of civilization’. It is as if antisemitism as described above gave form and direction to the murderous obsession – it pointed to who the victims should be and why they deserved what they got – but it did not in fact cause it. Ideas can trigger, guide and justify, but do not cause actions. Correspondingly, even the smartest rational explanations do not usually help much with antisemites ‘because rationality as entangled with domination is itself at the root of the malady’. If antisemitism and other maladies are in fact phobias against rationality, rationality will not wash. Only reflection on the entanglement itself would help: is there perhaps good reason to be suspicious of reason? This is how ‘Elements of antisemitism’ feeds back into the general theme of Dialectic of Enlightenment.
In the philosophical tradition that Horkheimer and Adorno come from and that includes Hegel and Marx, ‘reason’ is not a value-neutral concept. What is reasonable is not simply ‘whatever works’ (efficiently, instrumentally) but whatever serves human emancipation and autonomy. Rationality understood in this way has an element of transcendence – some kind of going-beyond the bad reality as it exists – that is not entirely different from that found in religion.
Indeed they write that before it was reduced to being a cultural artefact – an aspect of a society’s way of life, something that is considered useful for holding society together – religion contained both truth and deception. The truth of religion was the longing for redemption, and this truth lived on in philosophical idealism. Positivism, in turn, exorcized the longing from philosophy and reduced truth one-dimensionally to the depiction of the world as it actually is. (Clever positivists noticed of course that this is never quite possible and concluded that there is no such thing as truth, then, which is consistent with their own definition of it.) Spirit, enlightenment, civilization became dispirited. Enlightenment minus the spirit of longing – utopia, the ability to imagine something better – is a self-hating enlightenment. Spirit, enlightenment, civilization became dispirited.
Whereas civilization and enlightenment are defined as the continuous effort of humanity to escape the dull circularity of reproduction and self-preservation, in reality its efforts increasingly went into perfecting humanity’s means of reproduction and self-preservation (in other words: labour; the economy). In order to free ourselves from having to work a lot, humanity had to work a lot in order to develop the means of production (knowledge, experience, science, technology, social organisation) which are indeed an important part of what we commonly call ‘civilization’.
Horkheimer and Adorno’s basic point is quite simple: far from rejecting civilization, we have to rebalance it as it has become an end in itself. We have developed civilization, productivity, technology, society in order to spend more time lazing about on the beach, and after all we went through, humanity is more than entitled now to cash in the chips. The reality of the dialectic of enlightenment is, though, that the closer we actually come to leading the life of Riley the further it seems out of our reach, and chances are that by the time we sort this out beaches may be no more.
In ‘Elements of antisemitism’, Horkheimer and Adorno focus on one particular aspect of this dialectic: the idea that modern civilization develops a destructive fury against the ‘anachronistic’ remnants of its own initial stages, including mimesis and magic. Mimesis is the effort of a living creature to mimic its natural environment as a survival strategy and is discussed by anthropologists as one of the oldest aspects of human civilization: humans try to pacify a dangerous animal by ‘being’ that animal in a ritual dance, for example. Horkheimer and Adorno discuss this as the beginning of the process of enlightenment: we mimic nature to escape its domination. Similarly, sacrificing an animal in order to make the gods grant rainfall or success in warfare is a form of barter, i.e. an early form of rationality, especially as the clever humans hope the deal will have them receive something much more valuable than what they sacrifice.
It is not difficult to recognize some of our own supposedly ‘modern’ behaviour in those supposedly ‘primitive’ practices. One of the key arguments in ‘Elements of antisemitism’ is that every time civilization progresses from one stage to the next, it comes to hate everything that reminds it of the previous stage: in a very general sense, the ‘civilized’ hate (and exterminate) the ‘savages’ because they remind us that we are just one step ahead of them (in our own judgment, that is), and it would not take very much to regress into the more ‘primitive’ state (witness Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now).
Poster for Apocalypse Now. Wikicommons. Fair use.Perhaps we even have a secret desire to go back to being ‘savages’: after all, the life of a hunter-gatherer might well be preferable to your average office job. Because the civilized paid a high price to get this far, they fortify themselves against the threat of regression. Many aspects of racism can be related to this.
Antisemites like to shudder in fear of supposed Jewish superiority and secret world domination, but at the same time antisemitism shares with other forms of racism the projection of aspects of ‘savagery’ onto ‘the Jews’. The most obvious case is their accusation of ritual murder, but there are other things that antisemites assert they find unpleasant or disgusting about ‘the Jews’, and many of these are, in a sense, ‘primitive’: energetic gesticulating, which is often seen as somehow ‘typically Jewish’, is a form of mimetic behaviour as the physical movement paints a picture of an emotional state. The big noses ‘the Jews’ supposedly have point to a more primitive stage of development where the sense of smell was still more important than the other senses (whereas in modernity smell, as well as being smelly, is tabooed; those backward garlic-eaters still have to learn this). Horkheimer and Adorno point to a bitter irony here: not only was the religion of Judaism in fact very much driven by the overcoming of magic and mimesis (such as in the ban on images), it is the antisemites who indulge in bringing back echoes of magic and mimesis in their love of rituals, sacrifices, formulas and uniforms. The prosecution and destruction of those accused of mimetic, primitive behaviour provides the supposedly civilized with a splendid opportunity to indulge in lots of mimetic and primitive behaviour.
The principal argument, though, is that the latest stage of the process of civilization is marked by the destruction of the capability of thinking itself: highly advanced stupidity. In prehistory, people’s encounters with animals not noted for spending much time pondering the pros and cons of eating humans required equally unhesitating decisions: shoot the poisoned arrow or run fast. No time for dialectics here. Civilization decimated inconvenient animals and other immediate threats and was thus free to create institutions of mediation that slowed things down and made space for the new activities of judging and reasoning. Late-industrial society, though, has brought about ‘a regression to judgment without judging’: legal process is made short work of in kangaroo courts, cognition is emptied of active reflection and likes to jump to conclusions, and thinking as a specialized profession becomes a luxury that ‘must not be tempted … to draw any awkward conclusions’.
Nevertheless, the very last sentence of ‘Elements of antisemitism’ is guardedly optimistic: ‘Enlightenment itself, having come into its own and thereby turning into a force, could break through the limits of Enlightenment.’
Adorno Memorial in Frankfurt. Wikicommons/ Der Nähe der Goethe-Universität. Some rights reserved.
Late-industrial society has brought about ‘a regression to judgment without judging’.
The grounds for this surprisingly hopeful turn are laid out in the concluding sections of the first chapter, ‘The concept of enlightenment’. Here, Horkheimer and Adorno assert in the purest spirit of the Enlightenment that thinking is ‘the servant whom the master cannot control at will’. Even though enlightenment serves domination, it is bound to turn against domination sooner or later. The bringer of hope is here, rather unexpectedly, the very thing that tends to figure as the devil incarnate in most forms of ‘critique of civilization’ on the left as on the right: reification.
Domination has ‘reified’ itself (which means, made itself into a thing) by taking on the forms of law and organisation, and in the process limited itself. These instruments ‘mediate’ domination, that is, they moderate the immediacy of exploitation: ‘The moment of rationality in domination also asserts itself as something different from [domination].’ The object-like quality of the means of domination – language, weapons, machines, thought – makes these means universally available for everyone, including those resisting or fighting domination.
Also this is, in Horkheimer and Adorno’s argument, part of the dialectic of enlightenment: although in the capitalist present, thought may become mechanical, and today’s machines mutilate their operators, ‘in the form of machines … alienated reason moves toward a society which reconciles thought … with the liberated living beings’. Dialectic of Enlightenment appears here, on closer reading, to have anticipated some of the revolutionary optimism that decades later accompanied the discussions of the internet as somehow intrinsically communistic – think of shareware and all that – and current discussions that the latest ongoing round of technological innovation will abolish most capitalist labour and force humanity either to advance to a truly human society or regress to some kind of neo-feudal or neo-caste system.
In the last paragraph of ‘The concept of Enlightenment’ Horkheimer and Adorno are quite explicit about the source of their optimism: they state that ‘the bourgeois economy’ has multiplied Gewalt (a German word that means violence, power, force and/or domination) ‘through the mediation of the market’, but in the same process has also ‘multiplied its things and forces to such an extent that their administration no longer requires kings, nor even the bourgeois themselves: it only needs all. They learn from the power of things finally to forgo domination.’
This sentence, written in the midst of WWII and the Holocaust, is nothing less than astonishing, and has been largely overlooked in the reception of Dialectic of Enlightenment: in spite of their seemingly overwhelming darkness, we can learn from the reified forms of enlightenment – the stuff of civilization: knowledge, science, technology, social-organisational forms – that we can abolish the domination to which the enlightenment has been wedded for several tens of thousands of years. This optimism does not come with any guarantees, obviously: the learning remains for us to do, and the obstacles are enormous.
Gedenktafel für Max Horkheimer an seinem Wohnhaus im Stadtteil Westend-Süd in Frankfurt am Main. February 1990. Wikicommons/ Bronzetafel mit Portrait, Edwin Hüller. Some rights reserved.
 Horkheimer, Max; Theodor W. Adorno, 2002, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Philosophical Fragments, edited by Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, translated by Edmund Jephcott, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Get our weekly email