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 Theodor Adorno's Dialectic of Mass Enlightenment

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Join date : 2009-10-19

PostSubject: Theodor Adorno's Dialectic of Mass Enlightenment   Wed 27 Jan 2010, 3:59 pm

The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception

Dialectic of Enlightenment
Enlightenment as thought liberating man from his natural shackles, and creating man as master of the earth

Probably the most famous essay deals with the culture industry and how, in post-war capitalism, movies, books, television all become tools of subjegation through which a falsified sense of individuality is produced and commodified to the ends of keeping the consumers of this industry distracted enough to ignore the insideousness of that which we allow to control us.

I think that under his often scathing view of modern culture is a message that through exacting self-reflection change of the "total system" can occur.

What Horkheimer and Adorno endorsed then (and would continue to endorse, were they still alive) is not a brutal application of a particular theory, but a sustained, thoughtful and well informed engagement of theory with the whole of the modern world.

In short, they believed in wisdom: and this is what philosophy is ultimately all about.

"Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. How can the progress of modern science and medicine and industry promise to liberate people from ignorance, disease, and brutal, mind-numbing work, yet help create a world where people willingly swallow fascist ideology, knowingly practice deliberate genocide, and energetically develop lethal weapons of mass destruction? Reason, they answer, has become irrational.


Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, of the Frankfurt Institute, wrote Dialectic of Enlightenment in 1944. I thought of their work after reading your Bubble 2.0 article, as they saw how the culture industry (i.e. movies, books, television) in post-war capitalism employs its tools as subjugation, producing and commodifying a falsified sense of individuality with the ends of keeping individuals distracted enough to ignore the insidiousness used to control them.

Book at Amazon

Excerpt from Book
The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception


Horkheimer and Adorno believe that society and culture form a historical totality, such that the pursuit of freedom in society is inseparable from the pursuit of enlightenment in culture (DE xvi). There is a flip side to this: a lack or loss of freedom in society—in the political, economic, and legal structures within which we live—signals a concomitant failure in cultural enlightenment—in philosophy, the arts, religion, and the like. The Nazi death camps are not an aberration, nor are mindless studio movies innocent entertainment. Both indicate that something fundamental has gone wrong in the modern West

According to Horkheimer and Adorno, the source of today's disaster is a pattern of blind domination, domination in a triple sense: the domination of nature by human beings, the domination of nature within human beings, and, in both of these forms of domination, the domination of some human beings by others. What motivates such triple domination is an irrational fear of the unknown: "Humans believe themselves free of fear when there is no longer anything unknown. This has determined the path of demythologization … . Enlightenment is mythical fear radicalized" [I think this is vectoring here]

In an unfree society whose culture pursues so-called progress no matter what the cost, that which is "other," whether human or nonhuman, gets shoved aside, exploited, or destroyed. The means of destruction may be more sophisticated in the modern West, and the exploitation may be less direct than outright slavery, but blind, fear-driven domination continues, with ever greater global consequences. The all-consuming engine driving this process is an ever-expanding capitalist economy, fed by scientific research and the latest technologies.

Double perspective in two interlinked theses: "Myth is already enlightenment, and enlightenment reverts to mythology".The first thesis allows them to suggest that, despite being declared mythical and outmoded by the forces of secularization, older rituals, religions, and philosophies may have contributed to the process of enlightenment and may still have something worthwhile to contribute. The second thesis allows them to expose ideological and destructive tendencies within modern forces of secularization, but without denying either that these forces are progressive and enlightening or that the older conceptions they displace were themselves ideological and destructive.

The authors are not saying that myth is "by nature" a force of enlightenment. Nor are they claiming that enlightenment "inevitably" reverts to mythology. In fact, what they find really mythical in both myth and enlightenment is the thought that fundamental change is impossible. Such resistance to change characterizes both ancient myths of fate and modern devotion to the facts.

Conceptual self-reflection reveals that thought arises from the very corporeal needs and desires that get forgotten when thought becomes a mere instrument of human self-preservation.

The central argument of this wonderful book is that myth is already enlightenment because it tries to explain the world and gain utility from it; and enlightenment is already myth for it tries to exclude anything that is different or contradicts Enlightened Reason. As Adorno & Horkheimer put it: "Enlightenment has a mythical horror to myth." Enlightenment obsessively tries to free itself from myth, but in doing so it becomes also mythical. This obsession takes the form of a saturating, technical rationality that ends in the horror of ethnic genocide. This is, as Habermas said, "the black book of Western philosophy."
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