July 19, 2024

The Dialectic Of Enlightenment From A Postsecular Lens, Part 3 (Roger Green)

In my previous post, I took a turn from direct analysis of Dialectic of Enlightenment to engage with David Scott’s writing on tragic disposition in Conscripts of Modernity.  I then focused on Emmanuel Levinas’s early essay, “Reality and Its Shadow.”  I merged Levinas’s pessimism concerning art and his call for a distinctive kind of criticism with a view of tragedy.

In crass terms, I was combining Levinas and Horkheimer’s skeptical considerations about art and the Enlightenment as a counternarrative to rightwing philosophers who also turned toward literary and mythological studies in the wake of World War Two. Within Jewish thought, this is occasionally referred to as “endarkenment,” due to an Anti-Semitic and altogether incorrect historical view that Jews did not make art.

As a quick example, for a historically oppressed community, having the “light” of the public gaze on you is not necessarily a good thing because it potentially advertises your vulnerabilities and makes you susceptible to harm.  Horkheimer and Adorno point out in Dialectic of Enlightenment that the anti-intellectualism unable or unwilling to engage with Jewish skepticism concerning “civilization,” “art,” and the Enlightenment is really a mask for Anti-Semitism itself in its refusal to acknowledge the annihilating aspects of Enlightenment.

Of course, this same Anti-Semitism lurks behind frequent rightwing American claims that Christians here are being persecuted by various others supporting liberal agendas. This impulse is part of the desiring machine so many refer to as neoliberalism, which in its annihilating move toward sublation initiates historical amnesia.  Thus, Christianity becomes one identity category among others, though individuated through a rights-based perspective.  But neoliberalism does not only manifest in rightwing persecution complexes.

The same amnesia was largely the impulse behind the emergence of debates regarding free speech on campuses in recent years.  By typing all academics as left-leaning haters of “freedom” and “civilization,” far-right activists could appeal to whitely notions of neutral spaces in order to defend and continue to access the institutions built within the longer tradition of colonialism and white supremacy. Similarly for those opposed, who were equally infected with neoliberalism’s ability to manifest identity-based reaction-reformations, a type of psychic rage and outrage poured into social and social media spaces.

Although I situated the previous paragraph in the past-tense, I am well aware that the situation persists today, and coming to see the desiring machine that neoliberalism is and how it functions does not mean that one escapes the machine itself.  But I will say that the work of thinking and discourses on theory attempt to find a better way, and I am heartened by sophisticated articulations of theory in its own historical trajectory, as in Jonathan Fardy’s article on The New Polis last week.

Since I have invoked neoliberalism and rage / outrage culture, as well as inherent Anti-Semitism lurking behind some anti-intellectual claims both by populists and those who work within academic institutions, I want to return once again to my reading of Dialectic of Enlightenment an its most famous chapter, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.”  The early chapters of the book, as I covered in previous posts, took us into mythological reading and then into Enlightenment literature and philosophy.

Drawing on Sade, Kant, and Nietzsche, Adorno and Horkheimer criticize the shallowness of nineteenth-century discussions of sentiment and morality against the irruptive and undiscerning character of enlightenment science and sublation. At the end of “Excurses II” they acknowledge a brutal truth about totalitarian society recognized by Sade and Nietzsche — “In proclaiming the identity of power and reason, their pitiless doctrines are more compassionate than those moral lackeys of the bourgeoisie” (93).

In the postsecular context in which I am rereading this work, these words appear to me as a better critique of what happens in much university discourse than the merely populist claim that academics are all elitists.  At the same time, the proletarianization of university teaching leads many lecturers, adjunct, and out-of-work scholars to resent the image of “the university” as it is portrayed in media and popular culture.

As the economic squeeze tightens, the neoliberal reaction-formations are exacerbated, and spaces become toxic with academic competitiveness.  Claims of “virtue signaling” abound from all sides, almost as a device to preemptively remove any discourse on justice or ethics.  Instead — and this goes for kitchen-table discussions as well as academic politics — people often confuse moral sensibility with something intrinsic to one’s nature.  If we increasingly believe that people are unteachable, that they are merely expressive of  their media bubbles, then education becomes merely the installing of governmentality’s structures within demographics, statistics, and intellectual categories such as “learning types.”

Academic elitism, it is well known, is also a charge frequently pointed at Adorno in particular in this chapter with his mischaracterization of jazz music, but in my postsecular reading I am especially interested in the ways Adorno and Horkheimer deal with notions of enchantment and their uses of the literary.  They open “The Culture Industry” by returning to a sociological view with which they began the book.

The sociological view that the loss of support from objective religion and the disintegration of the last precapitalist residues, in conjunction with technical and social differentiation and specialization, have given rise to cultural chaos is refuted by daily experience.  Culture today is infecting everything with sameness. (94)

When we only focus on a disdain for pop culture in their words, we miss a critical aspect to their argument — “Films and radio no longer need to present themselves as art.  The truth is that they are nothing but business is used as an ideology to legitimize the trash they intentionally produce” (95).  I am less concerned with the snobbery than I am with how strikingly similar this kind of claim is to what we read about neoliberalism.

To take a rather simple example, let’s look at David Harvey’s definition in A Brief History of Neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory political economic practices that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and fair trade. The role of the state is to create and preserve an institutional framework appropriate to such practices.  The state has to guarantee, for example, the quality and integrity of money.  It must also set up those military, defense, police, and legal structures and functions required to secure property rights and to guarantee, by force if need be, the proper functioning of markets. (2)

Our identity categories, when politicized through neoliberalism, are a form of mimesis with respect to a machine of total war.  But as many critics have recently written, such as Jordan Camp in Incarcerating the Crisis  and Alexander Weheliye in Habeas Viscus, for example, the longer history of mass incarceration is imbricated in colonizing and white supremacist efforts that structurally persist and coyly arise when far-right actors and their puppeting conservative allies play Pollyanna (a great defender and archetype for the liberal child) to “neutrality” and “objectivity.”

Horkheimer and Adorno presciently quip, “Automobiles, bombs, and films hold the totality together until their leveling element demonstrates its power against the very system of injustice it served” (95).  And outside of culture critique, it is “steel, petroleum, electricity, chemicals” industries that have more power than the culture industry.  And “The relentless unity of the culture industry bears witness to the emergent unity of politics” (96).  Again, compare the following claim to charges of “neoliberalism.”

According to Kantian schematism, a secret mechanism within the psyche performed immediate data to fish them into the system of pure reason.  The secret has now been revealed.  Although the operations of the mechanism appear to be planned by those who supply the data, the culture industry, the planning is in fact imposed on the industry by the inertia of a society irrational despite all its rationalization, and this calamitous tendency, in passing through the agencies of business, takes on the shrewd intentionality peculiar to them. (98)

Some academic colleagues of mine have remained suspicious of the excitement over the terminological promiscuity of ‘neoliberalism’.  They are rightly suspicious that ‘neoliberalism’ as a term itself enacts the procedure of erasure inherent to liberalism itself by tacking on a “neo.”  Other thinkers, such as Noam Chomsky and Maurizio Lazzarato, have maintained a distinction between classical liberalism and neoliberalism, largely expressed by a shift from the gold standard to finance capital in the 1970s.

The compelling aspect to me about Horkheimer and Adorno’s thinking arises in the increasingly totalitarian outcomes of the insights, an outcome in which the language of “freedom” is inverted into forms of oppression that appear as self-willed.  There’s nothing radically new in saying this, but it perhaps makes us hear the insights in a different frequency by looking back at this text from the 1940s.

Horkheimer and Adorno figure the transition through elitist and Eurocentric-sounding language.  They lament the “jazzing” up of Beethoven through a kind of “naturalness” of a style of non-culture.  While I have no intention of defending their snobbery, their larger point isn’t a lamentation for the loss of a particular culture so much as it laments a technical rationality that makes no distinctions whatsoever.  They lament the implicit rigidity of emergent idioms.

Up to Schönberg and Picasso, great artists have been mistrustful of style, which at decisive points has guided them less than the logic of subject matter.  What Expressionists and Dadaists attacked in their polemics, the untruth of style as such, triumphs today in the vocal jargon of the crooner, in the adept grace of the film star, and even in the mastery of the photographic shot of a farm laborer’s hovel.  In every work of art, style is a promise.  In being absorbed through style into the dominant form of universality, into the current musical, pictorial, or verbal idiom, what is expressed seeks to be reconciled with the idea of the true universal. (103)

Echoing Kandinsky’s ideas of “castrated art” from “Concerning the Spiritual in Art,” Horkheimer and Adorno point to the loss of a conflicted engagement with tradition and the arrival of “surrogate identity” in works of art.  And it is political because “The culture industry, the most inflexible style of all, thus proves to be the goal of the very liberalism which is criticized for its lack of style” (104).  Yet the lack of style only points to idioms based on mimicry that become controlled by the few, and therefore the culture industry merely expresses the capitalist elitism inherent in liberalism (105).

For Adorno and Horkheimer, the tyranny of style over content in U.S. popular culture enacts a depoliticization of aesthetics that sets up the population for totalitarian rule and market-oriented categorizations.  If, in psychoanalytic terms, the unconscious is where freedom resides, neoliberalism attempts to manifest all of the unconscious.  And the longer it does this, the better its artificial intelligence gets.  Yet part of what is indeed manifested is the darkness of the psyche, the contradictions that drive neuroses and psychoses emerge violently.

Horkheimer and Adorno point back to de Tocqueville and preceding Foucault’s Discipline and Punish.

The analysis of de Tocqueville a hundred years ago has been fully borne out in the meantime.  Under the private monopoly of culture tyranny does indeed “leave the body free and sets to work directly on the soul.  The ruler no longer says: ‘Either you think as I do or you die.’  He says, ‘You are free not to think as I do; your life, your property — all that you shall keep.  But from this day on you will be a stranger among us.'” (105-6)

They then turn their attention to the film industry and the Hay’s code.  What appears as a democratization of art becomes a conflation of art and entertainment in an effort to remove all ennui, and despite its cutting across classes it does not allow for anything like a proletarian revolution but instead enables totalitarian control.

At the same time, however, and less accessible to Horkheimer and Adorno in their own Eurocentrism, is the fact that emergent mass incarceration, largely of people of color in the U.S. was irrupting just as the nation entered the civil rights era.  In 2019, the U.S. incarcerates more people than Stalin’s gulag archipelago did at its height.  The design of the culture industry is an economic compliment to this emergent complex within so-called liberal “free” society.

While much of this critique may seem dated, we ought to hear its resonance in an era of not only social media violence — whether as mass suicides or incitement to mass shootings — but when parents let their real children die while raising virtual ones.  Less dramatically, anyone exhausted from a recent Netflix binge ought to recognize that “the enjoyment of the violence done to the film character turns into violence against the spectator,” and thus, “distraction becomes exertion” (110).  And so, “The idea of ‘exploiting’ the given technical possibilities, of fully utilizing the capacities for aesthetic mass consumption, is a part of an economic system which refuses to utilize capacities when it is a question of abolishing hunger” (111).

Amusement becomes work, and our amusement — as our social media accounts attest — works for capitalism as free labor.

The fusion of culture and entertainment is brought about today not only by the debasement of culture but by the compulsory intellectualization of amusement.  This is already evident in the fact that amusement is now experienced only in facsimile, in the form of cinema photography or the radio recording.  In the age of liberal expansion amusement was sustained by an unbroken belief in the future: things would stay the same yet get better. (114-115)

Interestingly, Horkheimer and Adorno briefly return to their mythological analysis here by rooting the mechanism of the culture industry’s equalization of “high” and “low” art within Aristotle’s notion of catharsis (115).  In my view, it is not a dissipation of condensed psychic pressure, however, that is being released.  It is the making-manifest of the unconscious, a project paralleling the deciphering of DNA and mapping of genomes that will inform what Foucault called biopolitics.

In Horkheimer and Adorno, the culture industry ritualizes a repetition-compulsion.  We should be critical here of the surface-level sentiments of many dogmatic liberals with respect to social justice concerns so discussed among Democratic Party candidates.  As they write,

On one matter, however, this hollow ideology is utterly serious: everyone is provided for. “No one must be hungry or cold.  Anyone failing to comply goest to a concentration camp.”  The joke from Hitler’s Germany might well shine out as a maxim above all the portals of the culture industry.  With naïve shrewdness it anticipates the situation characteristic of the latest society: that it knows how to identify its true supporters. Formal freedom is guaranteed for everyone. (120)

In this week’s news, we read of white supremacist Proud Boys vs Antifa clashes in Portland, the blatant language of reversal used by the president to call an anti-fascist group a “terrorist organization.”  Simultaneously, the transparency of white supremacist strategies of achieving national media coverage in no way diminishes the effectiveness of its disseminated messages, which in McLuhan’s fashion “massage” the wounded and contradictory psychic impulses of white males who, like their evangelical counterparts, feel persecuted.  Horkheimer and Adorno presciently see this as the coming of the camp to broader a liberal society that hypocritically imagines itself as liberating.

In the past few months, we saw this play out with activists in the U.S., especially Jewish ones, protesting the growth of concentration camps established for “border security.”  Reacting against Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s condemnation of the camps, the director of the U.S. Holocaust museum, Sarah Bloomfield, called such comparisons exaggerations, prompting over 400 scholars to write an open letter to the director explaining why these places are indeed concentration camps.  The letter notes that attributing exceptionalist views to the Shoah invites ahistorical tendencies.

Like the condemnation of “virtue signaling,” the charge that naming concentration camps what they are is an exaggeration while anti-fascist groups are named enemies of freedom speaks to the contradictions present in the process of sublation to the flattening aspects of enlightenment that Horkheimer and Adorno sought to describe.

Under liberalism, the poor were regarded as lazy; today they are automatically suspect.  Anyone who is not provided for outside the concentration camp belongs inside it, or at any rate in the hell of the most demeaning labor and the slums.  The culture industry, however, reflects society’s positive and negative provision for those it administers as direct human solidarity in the world of honest folk. (121)

Again, they return to the literary notion of tragedy.

Tragedy is leveled down to the threat to destroy anyone who does not conform, whereas its paradoxical meaning once lay in the hopeless resistance to mythical threat.  Tragic fate becomes the just punishment into which bourgeois aesthetics has always longed to transform it.  The morality of mass culture has come down to it from yesterday’s children’s books. (122)

Pollyanna indeed.  And here we see once again the central place that a form of literary interpretation plays in Horkheimer and Adorno’s critique.  As I explored in my previous post, David Scott calls for a return to a tragic disposition, and we can see that Adorno and Horkheimer are lamenting the dehumanizing aspects of enlightenment.  At the same time, I have mentioned with scholars such as Alexander Weheliye and his focus on habeas viscus, a counter narrative to the becoming-post-human of alienated modern “man.”

I believe it is important to understand the “endarkened” historical context that Jewish critics, even “secularized” ones, often write from.  In other words, I think we should resist a tendency to conflate Horkheimer and Adorno’s sense of humanity with the humanism of enlightenment.  At the same time, we should take seriously their critique of Odysseus as proto-bourgeois-enlightened-capitalism, especially against defenders of “western civilization.”

I have not quite finished with the most famous chapter of Dialectic of Enlightenment, but I hope my readers can see what is at stake in the role that literary interpretation plays within these thinkers’ analyses and why, outside of even the conclusions put forth by the analyses, its worth examining the role of the literary aesthetic in political and philosophical deliberations on states of exception.  As I mentioned previously, a perspective from Indigenous Studies will help us to sort some of this but I am wanting to maintain my reading of Dialectic of Enlightenment throughout these posts. I will continue my analysis in a later post.


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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