June 13, 2024

The Dialectic Of Enlightenment From A Postsecular Lens – Part 1 (Roger Green)

I am often perplexed, sometimes disturbed, and generally intrigued by the use of Literature in philosophical arguments.  While there is a robust tradition of Marxian-influenced material critique within Cultural Studies, the conception of “the Literary” within literary studies also went through its own kind of “secularization” during the latter half of the twentieth-century.  In the twenty-first century, the concept of ‘postsecularism’ has emerged alongside critiques of Max Weber’s famous description of modernity as “disenchanted.”

In the next few posts, I want to think through the critique ‘postsecularism’ implies with respect to the tradition in Critical Theory and Cultural Theory, largely by returning to Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. I do this as part of a larger project to employ political theology as an analytic tool for teaching and doing literary theory.

The “secularization” I mention with respect to the Literary had to do with an interrogation of class-based assumptions concerning Art and of of course the democratization of higher education among the western portion of the former Allied forces during the Cold War.  In other words, within liberal democratic culture the late twentieth-century saw an expansion of the university with an expansion or social privileges, and familiar rhetorics of inclusivity on universities develops within that lineage.

Yesterday, The Atlantic published Alia Wong’s “The Surreal End of an American College,” detailing the end of a 57-year life of Newbury College, a private undergraduate school in Massachusetts.  As Wong writes, “And Newbury welcomed many of its students when few other schools would: Compared with nearby private, liberal-arts institutions, Newbury’s students were more likely to be poor, identify as people of color, and/or have parents who did not attend college themselves. (Seventy percent of Newbury’s undergraduates were, according to Chillo, first-generation college students.).”

The project of an aesthetic secularization of the Literary had accompanied a humanistic trend in the postwar years, one meant to bring a civic and moral critique to liberal citizens in the supposed wake of totalitarianism.  With more inclusion, liberal democracy would attempt strength in numbers, and in the U.S., a large part of that meant winning the “hearts and minds” of African Americans, many of whom had been drawn toward communism during the pre-WWII years.

As Vincent Harding, et al. explain in their Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader, many African Americans compelled by communism’s less racist conception of humanity felt betrayed when their freedom struggle was put on the back burner during the war years. Negritude, inspired in part by the Harlem Renaissance, with an international perspective, had developed within francophone intellectuals developing postcolonial theories.  Historicizing the development of post-colonialism, David Scott in Conscripts of Modernity articulates what he calls “problem spaces.”

A “problem-space,” in my usage, is meant first of all to demarcate a discursive context, a context of language.  But it is more than a cognitively intelligible arrangement of concepts, ideas, images, meaning, and so on — though it certainly is this.  It is a constant argument and, therefore, one of intervention.  A problem-space, in other words, is an ensemble of questions and answers around which a horizon of identifiable stakes (conceptual as well as ideological-political stakes) hang. (4)

In my return to lineages of Critical and Cultural Theory, I want to keep Scott’s description of the “problem-space” in mind, though my main focus, Dialectic of Enlightenment, was published during the mid-to late 1940s in German and not translated into English until 1972.  That said, it had initially been published through Social Studies Association, Inc., New York, in collaboration with the New School for Social Research.

Any historical materialist in literary studies would want to note the possible editorial motivations for an English edition in 1972, as well as the Stanford University Press edition I am using — though mere historical importance of the text was well-established by the 2002 edition.  Before jumping into it, let me point to an early book by the recently deceased literary critic, Tzvetan Todorov.

In Tzvetan Todorov’s 1968 (in English 1981) Introduction to Poetics, he writes:

there is not one science of literature, since, apprehended from different points of view, literature becomes the object of every other human science […] on the other hand, there is not a science of literature exclusively, for the features characterizing literature are to be found outside it, even if they form different combinations.  The first impossibility relates to the laws of the discourse of knowledge; the second, to the particularities of the object studied. (71)

Todorov then goes on to say, “today there is no longer any reason to confine to literature alone the type of studies crystallized in poetics: we must know ‘as such’ not only literary texts but all texts, not only verbal production but all symbolism.”  Poetics unattached to the study of “literary works” alone thus takes on a “transitional role” which then requires “the investigation of the reasons that caused us to consider certain texts, at certain periods, as ‘literature’” (72).

Poetics is called upon “to sacrifice itself on the altar of general knowledge.”  Todorov’s book gives an account of a widening, “secularization” of professional conceptions of literature since the 1960s.  Read within the impulse to democratize the Literary, especially in the humanist-oriented “golden age” of higher education in the U.S., spurred on by the creation of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), we can see an emergent “problem-space.”  Like the impulse of then-emergent Postcolonial and African American Studies programs, a liberation promise embedded within the curriculum design still owed / owes (?) too much of its articulation as a reaction-formation to colonialism itself.

As Scott argues for postcolonial theory,

We need, in other words, to give up constructing an image of colonialism that demands from us an attitude of anti colonial longing, a longing for anti colonial revolution.  It seems to me that a more fruitful approach to the historical appreciation of prior understandings of the relation between pasts, presents, and futures is to think of different historical conjunctures as constituting different conceptual-ideological problem-spaces, and to think of these problem-spaces less as generators of new propositions than as generators of new questions and demands.  Consequently, what is important is to read historically not just for the answers that this or that theorist has produced but for the questions that are more or less the epistemological conditions for those answers. (7)

While Scott’s book focuses largely on the work of C.L.R. James, my attempt here will be to examine the use of the Literary in Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment within the problem space of the postsecular.  I begin with a summary of their first chapter, “The Concept of Enlightenment.”

Referencing Weber, Horkheimer and Adorno characterize enlightenment as a project of disenchantment of the world.  It is supposed to liberate humans from fear and install them as masters.  Following Sir Francis Bacon, knowledge replaces fantasy and dispels belief.  Knowledge is power itself and exceeds master-slave relationships, knowing no limits.  It “serves the purpose of a bourgeois economy both in factories and on the battlefield, it is at the disposal of entrepreneurs regardless of their origins” (2).

Knowledge, synonymous with power, is “as democratic as the economic system with which it evolved.”  Technology is the “essence” of this power. It produces capital, which they characterize as “ the exploitation of the labor of others. Humans seek to learn from nature to dominate both it and other humans.  “Power and knowledge are synonymous” Pleasure and satisfaction are sidestepped for effective procedure. “There shall be neither mystery nor any desire to reveal mystery.”

This requires the “extirpation of animism.”  We see the roots on the Greeks with Xenophanes claims that gods are projections of human desire. The totemic animal, the “spirit seer” and the absolute Idea are the same.  We see with the transition to Socratic rationality a transfer from myth to knowledge.  With enlightenment, philosophical concepts give way to calculability and utility: “Once the movement is able to develop unhampered by external oppression, there is no holding it back. Its own ideas of human rights the fare no better than the older universals” (3).

For Horkheimer and Adorno, Enlightenment “recognizes itself in the old myths,” and “Enlightenment is totalitarian” (4).  Enlightenment reads myth as anthropomorphic, reducing everything to the identification of the subject.  This is recognizable in Oedipus answering the Sphynx’s riddle, “that being is man” which becomes reiterated over and over throughout western history.

Despite claims to the recognition of pluralism, “The multiplicity of forms is reduced to the position and arrangement, history to fact, things to matter” (4). This kind of thinking comes to unite “bourgeois justice and commodity exchange” […] ”Bourgeois society is ruled by equivalence. It makes dissimilar things comparable by reducing them to abstract quantities.”

But the Enlightenment (here the historical period and not the general process which they have been describing as itself ancient) produced the very myths that it sought to destroy.  Myths begin as etiological narratives of origins that are collected and ritualized: “Each ritual contains a representation of how things happen and the specific process which is to be influenced by magic” (5).  Early epics record this process and push toward symbolization, where deities are no longer identical to elements but come to “signify them.”

Thus, the development of narrative techniques of Homer for the early epic already work toward the secularizing tendencies of enlightenment.  “From now on, being is split between logos – which, with the advance of philosophy, contracts to a monad, a mere reference point – and the mass of things and creatures in the external world.”

They go on to write that, “The awakening of the subject is bought with the recognition of power as the principle of all relationships. In face of the unity of such reason the distinction between God and man is reduced to an irrelevance, as reason has steadfastly indicated since the earliest critique of Homer” (5-6). Out of this, the world comes to exist for the subject: “Their ‘in itself’ become ‘for him.’”

They contrast this transfer of myth into knowledge against what now recognize as an already colonizing concept of the “shaman,” which has been employed as a static and transcendent catch-all instead applied to various indigenous peoples, though derived from Evenki and Tungus culture.  In any case, Adorno and Horkheimer are saying that their is something animistic and magical.  They write,

This identity constitutes the unity of nature. Neither it nor the unity of the subject was presupposed by magical incantation.  The rites of the shaman were directed at the wind, the rain, the snake outside or the demon inside the sick person, not at materials or specimens.  The spirit which practiced magic was not single or identical; it changed with the cult masks which represented the multiplicity of spirits.  Magic is bloody untruth, but in it domination is not yet disclaimed by transforming itself into a pure truth underlying the world which it enslaves. (6)

Note how Horkheimer and Adorno have been retelling history while characterizing enlightenments emergence and emphasizing its own narcissistic tendencies.  The figure of the shaman here becomes an irrational counterpoint but also a non-totalitarian one that is “pre-historic.” Although the shaman is mimetic, Adorno and Horkheimer emphasize that “he” does not see himself as made in the image of god. “His” mimesis knows itself to be mimicry or to shape shift into something other.

According to Horkheimer and Adorno, this tendency “was” still at work in sacrifice: “Even though the hind which was offered up for the daughter, the lamb for the first born, necessarily still had qualities of its own, it already represented the genus. It manifested the arbitrariness of the specimen.”  They are also emphasizing a gendered balance among specimens.

But, with enlightenment, Science does away with all representation.  They are critical of Freud for being anachronistic in positing that magic seeks to control the world.  They see rather the development of the “reality-adequacy of the Ego” as prerequisite for understanding such a will to dominate.

In the Enlightenment, “Mythology itself set in motion the endless process of enlightenment by which, with ineluctable necessity, every definite theoretical view is subjected to the annihilating criticism that it is only belief, until the concepts of mind, truth, and, indeed, enlightenment itself have been reduced to animistic magic” (7).

Peripeteia, Aristotle’s term for a reversal in circumstances, “predominates” every rationalistic system of Western philosophy but also presides over the succession of systems which begins with the hierarchy of the gods and, in a particular twilight of the idols, hands down a single identical content: wrath against those of insufficient righteousness” (8).  Just as myths explain the fated atonement for wrongdoing, enlightenment cancels out the facts that it itself has made.

Everyone is endowed with a self, “But because that self never quite fitted the mold, enlightenment throughout the liberalistic period has always sympathized with social coercion” (9).  Rather than preserving the rights-bearing subject “liberated” by early liberalism, a pseudo-individual subject comes to be normed and shaped through the social coercion of a totalitarian impulse inherent to enlightenment itself.

The fake myth of fascism reveals itself as the genuine myth of prehistory, in that the genuine myth beheld retribution but the false one wreaks it blindly on its victims.  Any attempt to break the compulsion of nature only succumbs more deeply to that compulsion.  That has been the trajectory of European civilization.  Abstraction, the instrument of enlightenment, stands in the same relationship to its objects as fate, whose concept it eradicates: as liquidation. (9)

They point out that Hegel recognized this as the development of the “herd” which was the outcome of the Enlightenment.  They associate the Rig Veda and Homer with the end of nomadism and the birth of “property” and the eventual submission of all gods to one “true” god. With property, “power and labor diverge” (9).  Odysseus is a property owner controlling from a distance.

They argue that with enlightenment, Chthonic gods are relegated to hell.  Following Mauss, they then use mana – a Polynesian idea – to describe Greek religion: “What the primitive experiences as supernatural is not a spiritual substance in contradistinction to the material world but the complex concatenation of nature in contrast to its individual link” (10).  Thus, “Enlightenment is mythical fear radicalized” (11).

Following the inherent peripeteia of enlightenment, a reversal occurs. “Earlier, fetishes had been subjected to the law of equivalence. Now equivalence itself becomes a fetish. The blindfold over the eyes of Justitia means not only that justice brooks from no interference but that it does not originate in freedom” (12).

At this point in their chapter, Adorno and Horkheimer shift from  the subject of anthropology to language linguistics.  Pictures turn to letters and myths with the development of priests in what Marcel Gauchet will later call the axial age in his Disenchantment of the World.

Horkheimer and Adorno contrast Greek myths and symbolic (endless renewal) with Genesis, writing that “Philosophy has perceived the chasm opened by this separation [between sign and image] as the relationship between intuition and concept and repeatedly but vainly has attempted to close it; indeed, philosophy is defined by that attempt” (13).  Art, on the other hand, is like magic even if it is conflated with religion in bourgeois secularism.

In contrast, faith is a privative concept (14), which “repeatedly shows itself of the same stamp as the world history it would like to command; indeed, in its modern period it has become that history’s preferred means, its special ruse” (15).  When faith “degenerates finally into fraud,” as in Rosenberg’s attempt to create a Nazi “myth of the twentieth century,” we see a collusion between irrational faith and rationalized society that brings about the inhuman (“barbaric”) acts of the contemporary world.

They then turn again towards an account of “primitive” life.  While nomadism could hold out magical views of the world, the process of ritualization and developments of a priestly elite habituated ritualized processes to be taken as nature itself.  Adorno and Horkheimer call this a process of fetishization.  In priestly / philosophical societies the symbol becomes the fetish (16).  The systems built out of this process create social compulsion:

It is this unity of collectivity and power, and not the immediate social universal, solidarity, which is precipitated in intellectual forms.  Through their claim to universal validity, the philosophical concepts with which Plato and Aristotle represented the world elevated the conditions which those concepts justified to the status of true reality. (16)

Enlightenment’s neutralization of all concepts destroyed (or totalized) all symbolization into its own process, thereby establishing a new and self-reflective metaphysics (the “end of metaphysics” discussed at the turn of the 20thcentury).

Horkheimer and Adorno then move on to discuss proper names.  They cite the Jewish religion saying, “The disenchanted world of Judaism propitiates magic by negating it into the idea of God” (17).  The prohibition of the representation of God is necessary to salvation. But generally, religions do not escape the reduction of the proper name to a nominative concept, even though we do not know how exactly this came about.

Again, they note that Hegel saw the totalitarian elements of the scientific age in his formulation of determinate negation in sublation within the dialectical process, which was itself a critique of the Enlightenment, but Hegel also made a mistake:

With the concept of determinate negation Hegel gave prominence to an element which distinguishes enlightenment from the positivist decay to which he consigned it. However, by finally postulating the known result of the whole process of negation, totality in the system and in history, as in the absolute, he violatated the prohibition and himself succumbed to mythology. (18)

Others followed with the same mistake. They write, “For enlightenment is totalitarian as only a system can be.  Its untruth does not lie in the analytical method, the reduction to elements, the decomposition through reflection, as its Romantic enemies had maintained from the first, but in its assumption that the trial is prejudged” (18).

And in my own view, the problem is certainly not corrected by anti-intellectualism among conservative Christian American writers who blame Critical Theory for the introduction of nihilistic European pessimism after WWII infusing universities with Marxian thought and destroying “warm-blooded” American optimism.  Nor is it solved by anti-intellectual haters of the very mention of “theory” as discourse within our supposedly “infected” universities.

Returning to Horkheimer and Adorno, we can really see Kafka at work.  If we think of The Castle or “The Penal Colony,” etc. we see an entirely non-Romantic aesthetics emerging in the twentieth century. They also turn to mathematics, writing, “Thought is reified as an autonomous, automatic process, aping the machine it has itself produced, so that it can finally be replaced by the machine” (19).  Nature itself becomes idealized through mathematical modeling in enlightenment thought.  Moreover,

Positivism – fortunately for it – does not need to be atheistic, since objectified thought cannot even pose the question of the existence of God.  The positivist sensor turns a blind eye to official worship, as a special, knowledge-free zone of social activity, just as willingly as art – but never to denial, even when it has a claim to knowledge.  For the scientific temper, any deviation of thought from the business of manipulating the actual, any stepping outside of the jurisdiction of existence, is no less senseless and self-destructive than it would be for the magician to step outside of the magic circle drawn for his incantation; and in both cases violation of the taboo carries a heavy price for the offender. The mastery of nature draws the circle in which the critique of pure reason holds thought spellbound. (19)

Then they move on to a critique of Kant in which attempted articulations of morality in enlightenment thought council themselves out by being unable to sound on the deaf ears of positivism. Again, enlightenment “regresses to the mythology it has never been able to escape” (20).

They use the Persephone myth as an example. The new, like the newness of spring is predetermined through ritual: “It is not existence that is without hope, but knowledge which appropriates and perpetuates existence as a schema in the pictorial or mathematical symbol” (21).  Mythology “permeates the sphere of the profane.”

Not only is domination paid for with the estrangement of human beings from the dominated objects, but the relationships of human beings, including the relationship of individuals to themselves, have themselves been bewitched by the objectification of mind.  Individuals shrink to the nodal points of conventional reactions and the modes of operation objectively expected of them.  Animism had endowed things with souls; industrialism makes souls into things.

With this narrative, Horkheimer and Adorno shift to their analysis of mass culture, where “individuals define themselves now only as things, statistical elements, successes or failures” (21).  And from a twenty-first century perspective, we hear a reverberation of all recent critiques of neoliberalism, governmentality, etc.

Moreover, within discussions of the postsecular we can see from the problem-space that Horkheimer and Adorno both describe and in the midst of which they write, there is an inherent critique of those who would facilely announce the postsecular as either “re-emergence” of  religion in the public sphere as well as the optimistic forms of Christianity that seek to rehabilitate a Christian morality and penitence in the wake of European Christianity’s collusion with totalitarian regimes in WWII.

What emerged as political theology in Johann Baptist Metz and Jürgen Moltmann, as well as the overly optimistic situation ethics of Joseph Fletcher and the flawed sense of liberation in liberation theology (see Michelle Gonzales’s recent account in A Critical Inquiry Into Religion in the Americas), all exist in the problem-space of a liberalism that was no longer capable of liberation.  Although Horkheimer and Adorno point to “pre-historic” and “magical” relations in contrast to enlightenment, they certainly would be suspicious of attempts at “re-enchantment” or “archaic revivals.”  Such formations would act the same way pseudo-individualism happens within bourgeois liberalism itself.

Often merely a reiteration of Romantic critiques, such impulses toward affective logics would signal to the founder of Critical Theory to be indicative of the accomplishments of fascism within Germany between 1933 and 1955.  At times attributed to Heidegger’s return to ontology and later return to German Romantic poetry, the influx of emotion tapped into the mass culture of Germans in need of a nationalistic self-help plan during Hitler’s popularity.

That is certainly not to conflate all sorts of recent and excellent inquiries into affect theory with the “letting in” of emotions characteristic of fascist and populist politics.  Indeed, such inquires are necessary for seeing those movements for what they are during a time when the words of Horkheimer and Adorno resound as if one were yelling into an empty metal oil barrel — “human beings expect the world, which is without issue, to be set ablaze by a universal power which they themselves are and over which they are powerless” (22).

Rather, what they seem to be suggesting at the end of chapter one of Dialectic of Enlightenment against enlightenment’s transference of myth into the echo chamber of enlightenment rationality and scientific positivism is not the purging of emotion but an acknowledgment of the horror of myth.

What compels me about such a reading is just how seriously a concept of Literature is taken in their analysis.  This however is not a version of the Literary as a linear development into a civilizing principle as it was taught to me as an undergraduate in a course aptly titled, “Myth, Symbol, and Allusion.”  As the title implies, the work of enlightenment domesticates and alienates myth by moving it toward the symbolic and then allusion becomes the intertextual referencing from within to totalizing echo chamber of enlightenment.

That is not to say that the narrative analysis of enlightenment as moving in the trajectory from myth, to symbol, to allusion is untrue.  On the contrary, that analysis is described nicely by Horkheimer and Adorn in calling out the problem-space of enlightenment.

The self which, after the methodical extirpation of all natural traces as mythological, was no longer supposed to be either a body or blood or a soul or even a natural ego but was sublimated into a transcendental or logical subject, formed the reference point of reason, the legislating authority of action.  In the judgment of enlightenment as of Protestantism, those who entrust themselves directly to life, without any rational reference to self-preservation, revert to the real of prehistory. (22)

While their analysis has little to do with indigenous peoples, Horkheimer and Adorno are able to imply the enlightenment impulse toward their genocide beyond any sort of historicizing of the formal phenomenon of colonialism itself.  No, colonialism is an expression of that prior and persistent impulse.

As they write, “From Homer to modernity the ruling spirit has sought to steer between the Scylla of relapse into simple reproduction and the Charybdis of unfettered fulfillment; from the first it has mistrusted any other guiding star than the lesser evil.  The German neopagans and administrators of war fever want to reinstate pleasure,” but that very pleasure embodies its own self-contempt (22).

Thus, for Horkheimer and Adorno, “The essence of enlightenment is the choice between alternatives, and the inescapability of this choice is that of power” (25).  Interestingly, they read “narcotic intoxication” into enlightenment’s agenda as “one of the oldest social transactions mediating between self-preservation and self-annihilation, an attempt by the self to survive itself” (26).   For them, “The epic already contains the correct theory” (27).

Odysseus presents “prescient allegory of the dialectic of enlightenment.  Just as the capacity to be represented is the measure of power, the mightiest person being the one who can be represented in the most functions, so it is the vehicle of both progress and regression” (27).  At the recent Queering Psychedelics Conference in San Francisco, I heard excellent critiques of euro-masculinity and “heroic doses” of psychedelics.

At the same time, the contained festival spaces such as Burning Man which advertise themselves as alternative lifestyle festivals do little, with Horkheimer and Adorno’s descriptions in mind, to liberate us from the totalitarian tendencies within enlightenment.  Returning to their critique, they write, “The regression of the masses today lies in their inability to hear with their own ears what has not already been heard, to touch with their hands what has not previously been grasped; it is the new form of blindness which supersedes that of vanquished myth” (29).

In their bleak account, we are being turned into “mere examples of species.”  It’s not just that we’ve become blind.  We actually consciously work toward our own destruction (30).  The balancing act that socialism attempts is not enough for them (32).  Instead, “a true praxis capable of overturning the status quo depends on theory’s refusal to yield to the oblivion in which society allows thought to ossify” (33).

The blind power of technology needs to be dissolved but it has come to deceive the masses.  Here we could contrast the “heroic doses” of psychedelics to the science of microdosing with which many are learning to maximize their creative potential.  We all become the administrators, the producers.  We are, always already, enchanted citizens who may mock our privileges while we struggle to include more and more into the infinite virtuality of (neo)liberalism, even while our finite world trembles.

Critiques of Horkheimer and Adorno’s elitism or of claims to “overturn the status quo” miss the descriptive richness of their analysis.  We are aware of overly facile readings of such theories as inspiring revolutionary moments during the 1960s, and of the ambivalence that the older generation of the Frankfurt School had toward the mass movements during that period.  Rather than retreating to a position of praise or blame, David Scott’s idea of a problem space seems more helpful with regard to their work.

With respect to the Literary, Horkheimer and Adorno’s analysis supports a way of thinking about Literature that I am fond of, where literary analysis is how we track social desire over time.  In this case, following Todorov, I am reading Horkheimer and Adorno more as Literature than as philosophy or sociology.  But rather than sliding into merely psychoanalytic approaches to Desire, I think that a political theological inquiry helps balance an interior-exterior divide that hovers over mid-twentieth century Critical Theory.

One could see the same tension in Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization with respect to ontogenetic and phylogenetic metaphors. The pseudo-individuality that enlightenment productions of subjectivity produce remain the problem.  Recent inquiries into human-animal distinction take up this critical task, as does affect theory.  Those discourses have often, as Lauren Berlant argues in Cruel Optimism, arisen as a critique of discourse too fixed on notions of sovereignty.

Indeed, within the discussion of political theology, sovereignty and decision-making has perhaps been too dominant.  Aesthetics has received less attention, and in particular the ways philosophers and theorists turn toward Literature to make their arguments.  Again, I am compelled by the seriousness with which Horkheimer and Adorno employ Literature.

By looking at Homer and the development of epic narrative as embodying enlightenment impulses, Horkheimer and Adorno shifted the idea of modern alienation found in Marx and Weber not just to the early modern development from feudalistic to emergent capitalistic economies.  In doing so, they are countering Hegel’s telling of world history in Phenomenology of Spirit, in which he announces the scientific age and tries to reconcile it with a German mystical Christian tradition to retain cultural identity in Germany against the French and English Enlightenments.

The strategy is what Foucault would later call counter-narrative, and what anyone reading Dialectic of Enlightenment today ought to be struck by is just how well the Critical Theorists lay out the themes that continental thinkers in the second half of the twentieth-century will take up — power-knowledge-technology, sovereignty, disenchantment, magic, proper names, etc.

We will continue to see this in later chapters of Dialectic of Enlightenment and in my next post.  But before concluding I want to mention one theme in particular, tragedy.  For those who read my last piece with respect to analyses of laughter and amorous agonism, I wrote there that tragedy would be part of a future post. Lurking in the background of Horkheimer and Adorno’s analysis of myth is Aristotle’s poetics, in which he famously uses Oedipus as the supreme example.

We know of course that Freud also did much with that story. We know also that Hegel drew on Antigone as the most perfect display of tragedy.  Judith Butler’s Antigone’s Claim ponders what psychoanalysis would be like had Freud used Antigone as the model text for psychoanalysis. Hegel makes an appearance in Anne Carson’s translation, Antigonick, and more recently Slavoj Žižek translated Antigone into three scenarios with he same outcome every time.

David Scott’s Conscripts of Modernity also argues for a tragic disposition in assessing the problem-spaces of postcolonial theory.  While I will return to Horkheimer and Adorno’s use of tragedy as I cover their later chapters, I want to end this post with Scott’s description.

In short, tragedy sets before us the image of a man or of a woman obliged to act in a world in which values are unstable and ambiguous.  And consequently, for tragedy the relations between past, present, and future is never a Romantic one in which history rides a triumphant and seamlessly progressive rhythm, but a broken series of paradoxes and reversals in which human action is ever open to unaccountable contingencies — and luck. (13)

The dice throw, which would come to occupy a good deal of Deleuze’s use of the goddess, Tyche, after his early work on Nietzsche is also prefigured in Horkheimer and Adorno’s subtle use of tragedy.  This is certainly not to say they agree with Nietzsche, but that the theme of tragedy, an aspect of what I call the Literary, plays a persistent role across philosophers and theorists.  But the role of literature as such, within discussions of political theology is underemphasized, even when we know Carl Schmitt carried on an old argument Walter Benjamin in Hamlet or Hecuba concerning the role of tragedy.

The role of tragedy may help us think more nuanced than caving into pessimism or persisting in the enlightenment choice of a lesser evil, which seems to be a dangerous status quo in politics today.


Roger Green is general editor of The New Polis and a Senior Lecturer in the English Department at Metropolitan State University of Denver.  His work brings political theology into conversation with psychedelics and aesthetics.  He is the author of A Transatlantic Political Theology of Psychedelic Aesthetics: Enchanted Citizens.




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