June 13, 2024

The Dialectic Of Enlightenment From A Postsecular Lens, Part 7 (Roger Green)

I ended my previous post with the following sentiment. It is certainly worth rejecting Horkheimer and Adorno where they are wrong and not refusing to put them on a pedestal. It is also worth seeing the ways we might formulate our arguments in the twenty-first century within a larger critique of totalitarian impulses that they articulate. 

I am uninterested in complex apologetics for whatever homophobic impulses Horkheimer and Adorno exhibit, nor am I interested reducing them to impulses with which I simply disagree. In volume two of Adorno et al.’s The Authoritarian Personality, the authors identify “authoritarian morality” as “a moral indignation about manifestations of what is considered improper behavior especially when it occurs in persons considered socially inferior” (458). They also identify from their study that the difference between ethnocentrism and non-ethnocentrism hinges more on the presence of homosexuality, aggression, passivity, or anality than other character traits (442).

Horkheimer and Adorno had already made a connection between homosexuality and fascism in Dialectic of Enlightenment through a Freudian reading of pathic projection where pressure from the super ego’s repression causes the id to project desires considered socially taboo onto those considered weaker. Once identified as the site of the projected desire, the person becomes a target for violence. As they write, “The proscribed material converted into aggression is usually homosexual in nature. Through fear of castration, obedience toward the father preempts castration by adapting the conscious emotional life to that of a little girl, and hatred of the father is repressed as endless rancor” (159).

Here they identify the site of desire and repulsion for the phallic power of “the father” as transferred through a binary concept of sexuality to the “castrated little girl.” The rancor endlessly internalized becomes the source of aggression and projection.

Pathic projection is a desperate exertion by an ego which, according to Freud has a far weaker resistance to internal than external stimuli: under pressure of the pent-up homosexual aggression the psychic mechanism forgets its most recent phylogenetic attainment, the perception of self, and experiences that aggression as an enemy in the world, the better to master it. (159)

Working within the Freudian matrix, Horkheimer and Adorno are not intentionally vilifying homosexuals. Rather, they are acknowledging that within the Oedipal structure’s attachment to enlightenment, which makes a taboo out of homosexuality, homosexual acts are entangled within a socialized morality produced by the super ego. Even so, from a twenty-first century perspective that has increasingly questioned heteronormative binary thought, there are clear limitations to this kind of thought.

More importantly, if we are going to build from Horkheimer and Adorno’s analysis of totalitarianism and tendencies toward it in our society, we need to be careful to address such limitations. While many would likely reject their use of the Freudian matrix to begin with, we should also note that Freud was very clear that there is nothing wrong with being homosexual. In a famous letter to the mother of a homosexual, Freud writes,

I gather from your letter that your son is a homosexual. I am most impressed by the fact that you do not mention this term yourself in your information about him. May I question you, why do you avoid it? Homosexuality is assuredly no advantage, but it is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation, it cannot be classified as an illness; we consider it to be a variation of the sexual function produced by certain arrest of sexual development. Many highly respectable individuals of ancient and modern times have been homosexuals, several of the greatest among them (Plato, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, etc.). It is a great injustice to persecute homosexuality as a crime, and cruelty too. If you do not believe me, read the books of Havelock Ellis.

By asking me if I a help, you mean, I suppose, if I can abolish homosexuality and make normal heterosexuality take its place. The answer is, in a general way, we cannot promise to achieve it. In a certain number of cases we succeed in developing the blighted germs of heterosexual tendencies which are present in every homosexual, in the majority of cases it is no more possible. It is a question of the quality and the age of the individual. The result of the treatment cannot be predicted.

What analysis can do for your son runs in a different line. If he is unhappy, neurotic, torn by conflicts, inhibited in his social life, analysis may bring him harmony, peace of mind, full efficiency, whether he remains a homosexual or gets changed. If you make up your mind that he should have analysis with me (I don’t expect you will!!) he has to come over to Vienna. I have no intention of leaving here. However, don’t neglect to give me your answer. 

I cite the majority of the letter to highlight why we should not completely write off historically important thinkers, even when we have problems with their thought. In a post last year titled “Panoptical Time and Colonial Framing,” I covered Anne McClintock’s excellent critique of Freud. But whatever gender binary problems we may see in his Oedipal structuralism, it seems clear that his descriptive terms meant to analyze Austrian society do not necessarily support the taboos set up by that society. It is obvious that while psychologists in the United States wrongfully made a pathology of homosexuality throughout the twentieth-century, this was a misapplication of Freud.

Returning to Horkheimer and Adorno, the mechanism of repression at the cultural level, through civilization’s focus on enlightenment, creates the conditions for fascism. “The unconditional realism of civilized humanity, which culminates in fascism, is a special case of paranoid delusion which depopulates nature and finally nations themselves” (159). The paranoid impulse maintains itself within enlightenment as the “shadow of cognition” which closes down thought and enables the expression of violent erasure of the identified enemy. Violence is thoughtlessness itself, and that thoughtlessness is itself nourished by technical civilization (161).

As Horkheimer and Adorno move on to discuss false projections, nourished by paranoid self-preservation and enabling violence against those narcissistically deemed “other,” they importantly argue that culture becomes the enemy. Culture is the enemy of the fascist desire precisely because it represents a kind of flourishing that transcends the narcissistic and self-preserving paranoia embedded within enlightenment. This is a crucial point against conservative American readers of critical theory who see it as a “nihilistic” force brought by European pessimists during the Second World War.

Such thinking is preserved today in nationalistic impulses which draw on American exceptionalism. They precisely adhere to “civilization” and “enlightenment values” while detesting culture and avant-garde art of all kinds — a kind of Disney-esque aesthetics that ghettoizes darkness by “cleaning everything.” “Christian rock” and “new folk” work the same way, though new-folk complexly rearranges once leftwing impulses evidenced by Harry Belafonte and Pete Seeger through a seemingly depoliticized “Americana” that supports faux proletarian “craft bear” and generic populism.

Such depoliticization does not end politics but instead makes politics a matter of the kinds of algorhithmic manipulation of large bodies of people, as evidenced especially by the details of Robert Mueller’s report on interference with the 2016 election in the U.S. and Brexit. “Culture” on the one hand signals the conservative aesthetics regularly reiterated through (super)hero worship and action-packed blockbusters, as well as pretensions to bourgeois “sophistication” among those aspiring to power through narrowly defined parameters of increasingly outmoded “class mobility.” On the other hand, “culture” in the sense that Horkheimer and Adorno use it persists outside of imbrication within “civilization” narratives.

While I admire the knowledge of my colleagues and former professors who teach classics and myth, a certain conservatism has long been entrenched within the humanist tradition of Latin and Greek scholarship that signals a kind of cultural elitism and conservatism. Projected onto masses through attempts to use “culture” as social control by the likes of Matthew Arnold in the 19th century and Great Books and Everyman’s Library projects in the 20th century, we have what Kandinsky referred to as “castrated art” in “On the Spiritual in Art.

We know that impulses toward “endarkenment” produced within Nazification a correlation between racialized jewishness and “degenerate art,” particularly with respect to abstract and avant-garde works. Surrealism’s open alignment with both communist politics and aesthetic primitivism countered the fascist and futurist tendencies toward modernism. But National Socialism’s “return” to a mythically “pure” sense of German people drew specifically on a territorialized connection with its own past, even while it simultaneously annihilated “culture” in the sense that Horkheimer and Adorno describe.

Horkheimer and Adorno (and critical theory more broadly) have been criticized for their intellectual elitism. Within the context of a depoliticized and decultured totalitarian impulse, however, the critique of the “uneducated” is attending to something altogether different than class elite education, especially as it exists in the U.S. Those of us in the States need to keep in mind that higher education costs in Europe even today remain far below the price we pay to mimic still romanticized concepts of European “civilization.”

Horkheimer and Adorno criticize occultism from the same impulse that they criticize anti-intellectualism.

The obscurantist systems of today bring about what the devil myth of the official religion enabled people to do in the Middle Ages: to imbue the outside world with an arbitrary meaning, which the lone paranoiac now constructs according to a private schema shared by no one, and which only for that reason appears intellectually mad. Relief is provided by the dire conventicles and panaceas which put on scientific airs while cutting off thought: theosophy, numerology, naturopathy, eurhythmy, teetotalism, Yoga, and countless other sects, competing and interchangeable, all with academies, hierarchies and specialist jargon, the fetishized officialese of science and religion. (162)

From a postsecular perspective, we should put Horkheimer and Adorno into discussions of what sociologist Colin Campbell called the “cultic milieu” and Christopher Partridge’s recent formulation in The Lyre of Orpheus that today, “occulture is ordinary.” Horkheimer and Adorno connect the “re-enchantment of the world” with a decline in education and a foregrounding of casuistic “asocial formations,” for which they turn once again to Freud’s Totem and Taboo.

Their point is that far from being “folk-like” in a social sense, what we have is a technologized totalitarianism that through enlightenment increasingly separates us into individual subjects as it depoliticizes, de-educates, and decultures. The turn toward “re-enchantment” then becomes “asocial” because it merely produces so much casuistic fracturing that there is no longer possibility for collectivity. It is here that we need to situate the famous madman, Antonin Artaud, and Lacan’s claim that he was “incurable.”

Here we also need to situate the later emergent projects by thinkers like Michel Foucault and the the entire French fascination with the Marquis de Sade’s madness. Horkheimer and Adorno note that fascism destroys the conscience by internalizing it within its own narcissism. This impulse then projected outward to those in control of the state apparatus who can arbitrarily decide who the necessary “enemy of the state” is and justify annihilation. As they write,

The Jews are the predestined target of this guided chance. The circulation sphere, in which they once held positions of economic power, is vanishing. The liberal form of commercial enterprise once endowed fragmented with political influence. Now, no sooner emancipated, its owners are merged with the state apparatus and placed at the mercy of of capital powers which have outgrown competition. No matter what the makeup of the Jews may be in reality, their image, that of the defeated, has characteristics which must make totalitarian rule their mortal enemy: happiness without power, reward without work, a homeland without frontiers, religion without myth. These features are outlawed by the ruling powers because they are secretly coveted by the ruled. The former can survive only as long as the latter what they yearn for into an object of hate. (164-65)

A process of depoliticization, a dismantling of education and culture (not in the sense of “civilization,”), combined with a territorialized mythology of destiny and progress, enables the arbitrary naming of the enemies and calls for their extinction as infectious vermin. Totalitarian society has mastered the the technology of enlightenment wherein a narrative of Aufhebung aligns itself with totalitarian exploitation of impulses to annihilate for self-preservation.

At the same time — and that last paragraph is not meant to align Hegel with National Socialism but only with a narrative frame of enlightenment that enables and capitalizes on false projection. Noting these “limits of enlightenment,” as this section of their text is named, Horkheimer and Adorno advance a possible solution.

By conquering the sickness of mind which flourishes on the rich soil of self-assertion unhampered by reflection, humanity would cease to be the universal antirace and become the species which, as nature, is more than mere nature, in that it is aware of its own image. The individual and social emancipation from domination is the countermovement to false projection, and no longer would the Jews seek, by resembling it, to appease the evil senselessly visited on them as on all persecuted, whether animals or human beings. (165)

Realizing this would not be a return to humanism inspired by enlightenment and influencing The Enlightenment. In the next section of the text, Horkheimer and Adorno connect the “beer hall politics” of the anti-Semites to the manipulation of liberals who, by adopting anti-Semitism, could be “bourgeois and rebellious at the same time” (166). On a more localized level, the confrontation to such conditions involves a kind of thinking that has been deemed an “old fashioned” and “armchair thinking” by technocratic society.

This idea of thinking is what critical theory attempts to do. Far from “armchair thinking,” it is an engaged praxis in the face of erasure, but it also requires that one attend to the mechanisms of erasure, to the history and the peoples at risk of being erased or already erased by official narratives. Horkheimer and Adorno are clear that within the totalitarian schema, anyone deemed an “enemy” becomes a “Jew” and thus fit for extermination.

This arbitrary process of identification finds its neoliberal reverberation in identity politics, but Horkheimer and Adorno have seen this coming. They write, ” If, in liberalism, the individuation of a section of the population was necessary for the adaptation of society as a whole to the state of technology, today the functioning of the economic apparatus demands that the masses be directed without the hindrance of individuation” (168-69).

Identity recognition becomes a cypher under the mystified logic of “equality.” The very liberal idea of the rights-bearing subject, the dignified “individual,” is erased by the fulfillment of the enlightenment technology itself, and for that reason, “The dialectic of enlightenment is culminating objectively in madness” (169).

As I have alluded, “madness” will be increasingly the subject of critical inquiry in the generation after Horkheimer and Adorno. The rise of the counterculture would mimic madness through ludic psychedelic aesthetics built within a leftist tradition that had, through European Romanticism and surrealist primitivism, a recapitulation of totalitarian impulses within liberal society that sought an “archaic revival.” That very attempt at re-enchantment, which arguably had political force in its very ambiguity during the 1960s, has been domesticated today in the very way that Karl Marx, in his “Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” notes that history repeats itself in parodic repetition of the tragic.

To be continued…

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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