Horkheimer and Adorno | Dialectic of Enlightenment

The first book of my Cultural Studies seminar with Thomas Rickert this semester is Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, first published in German in 1944 near the end of WWII. The book was translated into English first in 1972 and again in 2002 (the edition I cite below). Here, I thought I’d share some class discussion notes, as well as my own reflections of their ideas, which surprisingly, shockingly and sadly, are still very relevant today.

History of Frankfurt School

The Frankfurt School emerged from Marxism, with which they weren’t completely satisfied. They questioned Marx’s theory of the dialectic—the rise of the communist state—(if that doesn’t work, why not?), feeling that Marxist theory relied too much on objectivity.

Their major influences:

  • Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents | Civilization automatically makes us repressed
  • Nietzsche | Enlightenment will turn on itself and produce barbarism; 1800s
  • Empirical Work
  • Social Theory

Their major concerns:

  • Economic Industry | Deregulated capital; slight shift with economic distribution; new technology that disseminate economic info differently, though we can’t get away from it. Domination is not just economic, but also cultural.
  • Culture Industry | keeps us narcotized; digital soma for the masses. Culture is ideological; it teaches you that the way things are are the ways things ought to be. Theory itself is cultural.
  • Historical Domination| The domination we see in our everyday lives are not contemporary alone, but go very far back. Pre-literate people (magic and animism—the idea that animals and things have souls; indicates that they read archaeology and anthropology).
  • Reject Positivism | the idea that empirical, objective studies of reality simply render what reality is. i.e. a truck is a truck. In response, the Frankfurters say a truck is a concept/symbol/object within a system.
  • Theory Itself is Cultural | This is why they attend to how their own theory can be commoditized or not commoditized; how can our theory disrupt an ideology of naturalism that says, “This is just the way the world works. Here are some rich people and everyone else suffers, and that’s just the way it is.”

Dialectic between myth and enlightenment | Most evident moment of the refusal of exteriority; myth is something that used to be true before people considered themselves “Enlightened”; myth is produced as a concept emerging out of Enlightenment (reminds me of Heidegger’s caution toward the concept and Toulmin’s view of concepts made possible because of Enlightenment). Where the ratinoal disenchantment of the world reverts to myth. Enlightenment emerges from our ability to experience the world through our work within it (24-5).

*How does myth become Enlightenment? What’s the relationship between the two? Myth becomes Enlightenment because of repeated referencing/touching-back of human understanding. Myth today is only understood as myth (in the fantasmic sense) because we have rejected it for new “Enlightened” reasoning, which of course also gets rejected with new “findings”: “But the myths which fell victim to the Enlightenment were themselves its products” (5). The problem of Enlightenment for H&A is that is rests too strongly on the ideal of clear and “natural” truth. Whatever is outside of this “magic circle” drawn by enlightenment is simply ignored:

“For enlightenment, anything which does not conform to the standard of calculability and utility must be viewed with suspicion. Once the movement is able to develop unhampered by external oppression, there is no holding it back. Its own ideas of human rights then fare no better than the older universals. Any intellectual resistance it encounters merely increases its strength” (3).

Adorno and Horkheimer | Style Their long paragraph styles play against commonly-accepted, sound-bited styles; they are working against commodified style as a performance of reaction and ; ideology is not simply a narrative; styles often project and forward commodities and A&H here attempt to encourage readers to question sound-bites and consumptive reading: “Intellect’s true concern is a negation of reification. It must perish when it is solidified into a cultural asset and handed out for consumption purposes” (xvii). Clarity is ideological; A&H want to develop a negative relationship to clarity. Conditions of production influence this as well: “We dictated long stretches together” (Preface to 1969 Edition). Adorno spoke into a dictophone (tape-recorder).

Mass Culture | is commoditized into everyday life and therefore, it is limited in its emancipator abilities. Later, Hebdige and other cultural theorists will reject this as too cynical. H&A though see all things as part of massive systems (i.e. mass culture), and hope that dialectical thinking (what they call Critical Theory—yes, a precursory to the “thing” CT is today) can help us emerge from the system… later, Hawkhee and Bay will suggest that this occurs in “temporary autonomous zones.”

  • I believe this gives a lot of support to the study of rhetoric, where we seek to understand how systems of representation influence or affect. I wonder also how this will relate to new materialisms?
  • Later, Jameson will ask: Is critique really possible, or does it just perpetuate the larger system?
  • Even in online communities, we can’t escape a forced division of labor; it simply repeats itself. Our classrooms too. Could relate also to subculture as a tech tool.

About taylo206

I am an Assistant Professor of Composition, Rhetoric and Professional Writing at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
This entry was posted in Embodiment, Public Rhetorics, Theories of Composition and Rhetoric. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Horkheimer and Adorno | Dialectic of Enlightenment

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