Tomba on Dialectic of Enlightenment

Massimiliano Tomba’s excellent “Adorno’s Account of the Anthropological Crisis and the New Type of Human” has the following discussion of Dialectic of Enlightenment which I think provides of very cogent statement of how it should be read in contrast to the pervasive post-Habermasian reading:

In the Dialectic of Enlightenment, Max Horkheimer and Adorno sketched out the genealogical pathway of the Western civilisation in which the modern individual had emerged. Far from merely projecting the contours of the modern individual onto Homer’s Odysseus, they problematised a specific pathway of Western civilisation. In the famous chapter on Odysseus, which was written by Adorno and cut by Horkheimer (see Adorno, 1998, pp. 37–88), Odysseus’s resistance to Circe’s magic becomes an image of a specific path of civilisation that corresponds to the ‘history of renunciation’ and ‘suppression of instinct’ (Horkheimer and Adorno, 2002, pp. 56, 43, 55). In this chapter, Adorno substantially relied on the arguments of the conservative philologist Rudolf Borchardt, whose name, however, appears only once in the published version and simply as one of ‘the esoteric apologists of German heavy industry’ (Horkheimer and Adorno, 2002, p. 37). However, in his manuscript, Adorno inverted the conservative orientation of Borchardt’s analysis: while Borchardt’s denunciation of Homer’s enlightenment and of the mercantile character of the epic tried to exalt the original power of the chthonic mythology, Adorno rejected idealisations of the origin as mere projections of the discontent with the present onto the past. Here, critical thinking and reactionary considerations find at once their maximum of proximity and of distance: both are dissatisfied with the present, but while the latter looks to history in order to restore the origin, the former indicates possibilities that are contained in the present and can open new histories. Inverting the romantic perspective, Adorno considers the concept of myth in its historical and dynamic dimension. He analyses a myth in the core of enlightenment that enlightenment tries to remove. The history of the suppression of instincts, which began with the myth, turns reason itself into myth, bringing in the end its complete self-destruction and overturning into barbarism. Hence, romanticism and technocracy are in effect allies of barbarism, not opponents. The dialectic of enlightenment can be investigated in Odysseus’s myth because the myth reappears in the core of enlightenment. The liberation from the myth through the dominion of rationality over nature turned this rationality into myth: ‘Myth is already enlightenment, and enlightenment reverts to mythology’ (Horkheimer and Adorno, 2002, p. xviii).

One may argue, with Habermas, that modern reason is not yet disenchanted enough to be really consistent with its claim of emancipation (Habermas, 1987, pp. 106–30; see also 1997, pp. 38–55). This perspective, which enables the idea of the unfinished project of modernity, makes no sense if one brings the entire course of Western civilisation into question. The dialectic of enlightenment shows us that the history of Western civilisation is definitively compromised and that the so-called unfinished project of modernity is to be broken rather than carried on. Romantic criticisms and the idea of the unfinished project of modernity share the idea of a unilinear history. Against this idea, the task of critical thinking is to maintain that other histories and modernities were (and are) possible. The issue concerns not the scale of the achievement of the project of modernity but a certain pathway of modernity. This capitalist project, far from freeing individuals, puts them at the mercy of blind forces. The mythical moment that put the individual fate at the mercy of ancient gods survives in the laws of capitalist production for which individuals are reduced to ‘roles’ (Marx, 1976, p. 170) or, more precisely, ‘character masks [Charaktermasken]’. Habermas’s idea of a discursive rationality that guarantees symmetrical relations between participants in communication is de facto a form of academic self-deception that hides the moment of the unfreedom of individuals and thus remains enchanted in it. 35-6


About HR

Deep in the adjunct crackhole.
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