Critique of Dialectic of Enlightenment

By Ralph Dumain

Rationalism is the philosophy of bourgeois political economy. It is materialist and not idealist in so far as it combats superstition, seeks to expand the productive forces and increase the sum total of goods. But there is no such thing as a classless materialism. Rationalism conceives this expansion as a division of labor between the passive masses and the active elite. Thereby it reinstates idealism. Because it does not and cannot doubt that harmonious progress is inevitable by this path, the essence of rationalism is uncritical or vulgar materialism, and uncritical or vulgar idealism.

In the springtime of capitalism this rationalistic division of labor was the basis of a common attempt of individual men associated in a natural environment to achieve control over nature. Today this division of labor is the control in social production of the administrative elite over the masses. Rationalism has reached its end in the complete divorce and absolute disharmony between manual and intellectual labor, between the socialized proletariat and the monster of centralized capital.

State Capitalism and World Revolution, by C.L.R. James in collaboration with Raya Dunayevskaya & Grace Lee, 1950.

Now, in his heart, Ahab had some glimpse of this, namely: all my means are sane, my motive and my object mad.

ó Herman Melville, Moby Dick, chapter 41

The Concept of Enlightenment

The first thing that bothers me about this book, based on the first chapter, is that historical materialism has completely dropped out of the picture.† Ideology appears sui generis.† Underlying motives are postulated as if in a vacuum.† General references to agrarian or industrial societies are not particularly helpful.† Hence the motives and mechanisms behind the growth of certain ideological configurations of knowledge are inadequately explained if at all.† The second troubling dimension is that everything is reduced to reasoning by analogy.† Decades later Adorno was to write that sociology of knowledge was inadequate because ideas could not be explained by motive alone independently of a consideration of truth content.† But the truth content of the natural sciences remained a closed book to Horkheimer and Adorno their entire lives.† All they ever tasted was the pauper's broth of philosophy: hence all they could do was to equate science with positivism.†

Hence we are treated with nonsense such as the notion that myth is already enlightenment because it is already an attempt at explaining and controlling the natural environment thereby being a tool for overcoming our fear of the dangerous unknown. [1]† I don't accept this at all.† Note that the differentiation between the objective content of myth and science is elided by assuming an identical social function.† But this only proves how deeply entrapped Horkheimer and Adorno are in the alienated state of being of the frightened humanistic intellectual who knows nothing of science and only contemplates the world several times removed.† These people know nothing of science.† They know nothing of the 'man of science', only an ideological image of him.† Bereft of the necessary concreteness and appropriate distinctions, they can only naively reproduce positivist ideology as an image of science.

The man of science and the technocrat are not necessarily the same animal either, any more than the artisanal ideal equals that of the factory manager.† The assimilation of the scientist to bureaucratic structures was not only not a foregone conclusion at the beginning, but is not even a guaranteed phenomenon today.† Institutions take a lot of trouble to create the type of professionals they need, disciplining the motivational structure and innocent scientific curiosity of future professionals to the needs of the marketplace and the military-industrial complex. [5]

The equation of logic, mathematics and science to myth and magic not only obliterates all differentia specifica, but exhibits all the worst qualities of the right-wing attack on the scientific age as the "reign of quantity", as does all this talk about the reduction of reality to abstract, quantifiable, identical, interchangeable units.† Indeed, such a technocratic ideology is as recognizable as its right-wing counter-ideology, but Horkheimer and Adorno have the chutzpah to equate the two and to purport to explain a myth in a mythical way.† As the Second World War was the nadir of western civilization, so was Dialectic of Enlightenment the nadir of Horkheimer's and Adorno's despair.

Even the general images of Enlightenment, without specific mention of natural science, are mystified demystifications.† One of my interlocuters argued with me thusly:

However, Adorno also aligns enlightenment with myths and he tries to make this plausible by appealing to the fact that enlightenment is dogmatic because it relegates everything outside itself to be mere myth (which should be understood as the 'projection of subjective properties onto nature'). This is problematic even for enlightenment itself because being nothing more than critique it depends on myths (if there were no myths then there was nothing to enlighten us about) and being unable to recognise this dependence it becomes sceptical with the result that it devalues itself in the end because we cannot be sure if enlightenment itself could not be a myth—a mere 'projection of subjective properties onto nature'.

To make proper sense out of this metaphorical characterization demands a lot of reading in between the lines.† I can read between the lines, but I can't be sure if Horkheimer and Adorno bothered to do so themselves at this stage.† All these sour grapes do not move me, as depressing as the Second World War must have been.† To decode these statements, I would make two moves: (1) what explains the inability of Enlightenment to explain the irrational?† (2) How does the suspension of pure reason in a vacuum cut it off from its roots and thus enable self-mystification or radical skepticism?

I am aware of Adorno as a master of irony, indirection, and metaphor, but this is just where the problem lies, if that is what A & H are doing in this book and I have missed out on the stylistic factor completely.† There are many people, many completely independently of Horkheimer and Adorno, who have utilized a concept akin to that of instrumental reason.† For example, Joseph Weizenbaum, a scandalized pioneer of artificial intelligence, used a comparable notion in his 1967 book Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation.† The general phenomenon is a well-known ideological phenomenon of our time, regardless of the disparate intellectual trajectories involved.† My problem with this notion in many of its guises is that the original mystification of the technocratic ideology is compounded by taking it at face value.† I don't believe an ideology can be explained in its own terms, or a metaphor explained by a metaphor, or a myth by a myth.† Instrumental reason is not self-explanatory but is a manifestation of something deeper.

What was the problem of modern rationalism after all, and the scientific revolution?† It was hardly that Enlightenment went too far, but that, upsetting religion and the legitimation of existing class rule, it had to be contained.† Empiricism was the containment of materialism.† The emergent bourgeois order tailored a rationalism dividing society into the rational administration of people and things (first things, then people), and the irrational idealism of everyday life and traditional social arrangements and belief systems.† From this dualism one could spring in either direction: either assimilating the fruits of science to fideism, or absorbing the whole of human life into technocracy.† Empiricism itself went both ways: Berkeley and Hume already represent the poles.† [2] Adorno himself later explained the contradictions of bourgeois society in the moral philosophy of Kant with far greater acumen than what Horkheimer and Adorno give us here.

I have analyzed some other texts of Horkheimer and Adorno with attention to their characterization of science.† I have found them all far superior to Dialectic of Enlightenment, which, up to this point, is almost insufferable.† [3] I found the first chapter such a distasteful experience I'm wondering if I will do better with the new translation.†[7] It will probably end up the case that my distaste comes from the philosophy, not the allegedly bad translation, and that my suspicion will be confirmed, that this, the most celebrated book of Horkheimer and Adorno and the Frankfurt School, will prove to be the worst thing either of them ever wrote. [4]

The one thing that prevents this work from being a product of reactionary lebensphilosophie—judging from the first chapter—is that somewhere down the line Horkheimer and Adorno criticize that, too. The virtue of this school is that they are alert to the positivism-lebensphilosophie dichotomy and attempt to mediate it.† However, they have done a bad job of it so far, drowning in their own anti-scientific idealist heritage, losing even historical materialism in the process.† How low western civilization had sunk in the Second World War to produce such a depressing result!† What a spiritual desert.† It is much easier to criticize this pair retrospectively; they had only their social environment to draw upon and they were driven to desperation.† They did not go off the deep end as did Wilhelm Reich, but they wrote as if on the edge of despair.† Can you blame them?† Tired old genocidal Europe.† No wonder C.L. R. James wrote in 1953 that western civilization was doomed—the Old World, not the New.† James's 1950 State Capitalism and World Revolution could only have come from America.† Just wait till I write my comparative study of these two books.

(Written 16 July 2003)

From Sade to Nietzsche

While I could barely keep from nodding off while reading the chapter on Odysseus, I perked up with the following chapter on the Marquis de Sade's Juliette.† There are some interesting preliminaries regarding Kant, logic, science, and morality, with a severance between the relation of the general and particular that occludes the latter.† (See esp. pp. 84-85, Cumming translation.)† Soon afterward, Horkheimer and Adorno make a bolder move:

Since reason posits no substantial goals, all affects are equally removed from its governance, and are purely natural. The principle by which reason is merely set over against all that is unreasonable, is the basis of the true antithesis of enlightenment and mythology. Mythology recognizes spirit only as immersed in nature, as natural power. Like the powers without, inward impulses appear as living powers of divine or demonic origin. Enlightenment, on the other hand, puts back coherence, meaning and life into subjectivity, which is properly constituted only in this process. For subjectivity, reason is the chemical agent which absorbs the individual substance of things and volatilizes them in the mere autonomy of reason. In order to escape the superstitious fear of nature, it wholly transformed objective effective entities and forms into the mere veils of a chaotic matter, and anathematized their influence on humanity as slavery, until the ideal form of the subject was no more than unique, unrestricted, though vacuous authority.

All the power of nature was reduced to mere indiscriminate resistance to the abstract power of the subject. The particular mythology which the Western Enlightenment, even in the form of Calvinism, had to get rid of was the Catholic doctrine of the ordo and the popular pagan religion which still flourished under it. The goal of bourgeois philosophy was the liberate men from all this. But the liberation went further than its humane progenitors had conceived. The unleashed market economy was both the actual form of reason and the power which destroyed reason. The Romantic reactionaries only expressed what the bourgeois themselves experienced: that in their world freedom tended toward organized anarchy. . . . . . [pp. 89-90]

Here the differentiation between Enlightenment and pre-modern myth is brought into relief, and its characteristic innovation highlighted: dualism. However Horkheimer and Adorno intended this, I see this as the linchpin of the argument.† (It is, what the Johnson-Forest Tendency, following the young Marx, would name in 1950 as uncritical vulgar materialism and vulgar idealism.)

We soon come to the heart and soul (what an irony) of the chapter: a comparative analysis of Sade and Nietzsche (the bulk of which can be found on pp. 96-102).† The proto-fascist character of both could not be more obvious.† Sade is unmistakably a creature of the Enlightenment.† I believe that somewhere Horkheimer and Adorno want to argue that Nietzsche flows from this tradition as well, but here I see only the proto-fascist reaction against it.† Now if the linkage is Enlightenment-Sade-Nietzsche-fascism, one could argue that fascism is contained in the seeds of the Enlightenment, but I am not satisfied with the conceptual structure that seems to underlie this system of linkages.† The case of Sade, however, surely reveals the underside of Enlightenment, though just why, remains to be adequately clarified.† To be sure, Horkheimer and Adorno go some distance.† Sade's Juliette is revealed to be a Cartesian dualist (p. 108)!† The nature of sexual pleasure enunciated by Juliette and that of pleasure in Sade and Nietzsche generally reveal a dualism between physicality and spirituality, intellect and affect.† "Nietzsche recognizes the still mythic quality of all pleasure." [p. 106]† This dualism justifies the ideology of cruelty argued by Sade and Nietzsche.† It is also seen to be a patriarchal male logic that takes revenge on the weakness of "minorities" (women and Jews are named here) for having the nerve to circumvent their weakness by surviving (pp. 110-1).†

(Written 19 July 2003)

The Culture Industry

Paradoxically, the greatness of this chapter, whose subject is generality, is in its own generality.† The general principles, whether or not they accurately encompass all the particulars of the 1940s, can easily be abstracted out of their original social context to be applied to the here and now, without anyone skipping a beat.† This chapter could just as well have been written the night before last while I was watching Bernie Mac.† What matters most about the culture industry is its systematic method of mass production and relentless pursuit of total control.† An important nuance should not be lost: the manner in which individuality is absorbed into the cultural apparatus whose very design is to smooth out all individual characteristics that would jar the system.† Talent scouts and competitions feed prospective entertainers into the system whose individual characteristics meld with the what the system demands of them (Cumming, p. 122).† But to elaborate:

In the culture industry the individual is an illusion not merely because of the standardization of the means of production. He is tolerated only so long as his complete identification with the generality is unquestioned. Pseudo individuality is rife: from the standardized jazz improvization to the exceptional film star whose hair curls over her eye to demonstrate her originality. What is individual is no more than the generality's power to stamp the accidental detail so firmly that it is accepted as such. The defiant reserve or elegant appearance of the individual on show is mass-produced like Yale locks, whose only difference can be measured in fractions of millimeters. The peculiarity of the self is a monopoly commodity determined by society; it is falsely represented as natural. It is no more than the moustache, the French accent, the deep voice of the woman of the world, the Lubitsch touch: finger prints on identity cards which are otherwise exactly the same, and into which the lives and faces of every single person are transformed by the power of the generality. Pseudo individuality is the prerequisite for comprehending tragedy and removing its poison: only because individuals have ceased to be themselves and are now merely centers where the general tendencies meet, is it possible to receive them again, whole and entire, into the generality. In this way mass culture discloses the fictitious character of the "individual" in the bourgeois era, and is merely unjust in boasting on account of this dreary harmony of general and particular.[p. 154-5]

We can see this operating on a number of levels.† The requisite for stardom is something distinctive about the individual—looks, personality, gesture, etc.† This becomes highlighted in the film industry, where distinctive individuals—Cary Grant, Bette Davis, etc.—parade across the screen, where their star quality is really the message, but not because of any distinct thoughts or values of their own but by their virtue of their seamless incorporation into an overall ideology and cultural system.† Hence generality stamping the accidental detail.† Secondly, as I have just mentioned, there is the incorporation of the individual into the totalitarian industrial system of culture manufacture stamped by the ideology that drives it.† To backtrack to talent scouts, etc., the very aspiration to stardom is to submit one's distinctive individual characteristics to whatever packaging it takes to sell oneself, disregarding anything autonomous about one's objective talent and distinctiveness.† This was bad back in the 1940s, but it is worse now, in popular music especially: just think of American Idol and shudder.

Thirdly, no individual viewpoint or critical thought must be permitted to be invoked in the audience.† With one or two exceptions, the modern sitcom is the exemplar of this.† Even with the contemporary cynical twist and loss of former taboos and sanitizations of reality, the sitcom almost invariably reinforces conventional morality and perception, neutralizing all the idiosyncrasy, mockery, anarchy, and parody of conventions it otherwise unleashes.† (The most significant partial exceptions were also the most successful, though: The Simpsons and Seinfeld.)† Comedy remains the one genre where imagination and critique sometimes enter, but subversive perceptions are usually smoothed back into conventional morality.†† It is now just as bad for the movies, ruled by the blockbuster.† Even movies which unleash critique undermine it with the conventional ending: Good Will Hunting, Groundhog Day.† (The Truman Show skirts the very edge of the ambiguity of the performative contradiction that all establishment anti-establishment entertainment embodies. See my analysis of Groundhog Day. My review of What Dreams May Come is also pertinent.)

(Intermission: while I was out today reading close to the end of the chapter on anti-semitism, I somehow lost my entire week's worth of written notes on this book.† As I lack time to read it again, I will have to reconstruct the rest of my argument from memory.)

Another ideological feature of the culture industry named by Horkheimer and Adorno—which (I think) since the 1980s is even more extreme than 60 years ago—is the obsession with style, with maintaining the supremacy of a style above all individuated content.

Another passing observation they make which is even more true to today: that stupidity is stepped up to keep pace with the increase in intelligence.

Horkheimer and Adorno argue that in the culture industry work is organized along the lines of an industrial system, leaving no detail out of account or to chance, calculating all effects down to the minutest degree.† (Note: A fascinating article appeared in The New York Times as Jay Leno was about to assume permanent custodianship of The Tonight Show. The article described how each joke in each of Jay's monologues was tested and organized down to the smallest detail on an assembly line basis, with alternative comebacks planned in advance of each possible audience reaction.† While individual stand-up comics have to do this sort of thing on their own, the fact that Leno's jokes are processed by a highly organized team in this manner is not only the result of the talk show format and the ratings game, but registers also the hegemonic ideological location that this middle-of-the-road consensus brand of comedy as well as its social location in the political and economic organization of Hollywood.)† No nook and cranny of stylistic organization or audience response is left to itself.

This I think is a central aspect of the analysis of the cultural industry, as it operates from the top down in its endeavor to appropriate all the concrete details of experience.† As a tendency, this is described quite effectively by Horkheimer and Adorno.† However, their argument that this tendency is not merely a partially or even mostly instantiated tendency but is completely realized in each and every product of popular culture, is an implausible, untenable,† and even preposterous claim.† It reflects I think their frightened response as European intellectuals to the alien atmosphere of American gigantism.† To be fair, Horkheimer and Adorno are hardly complacent about the tradition of European high culture they inherited: they subject it to social criticism as well and even suggest, contrary to the accepted wisdom that America lags behind Europe, that Europe's cultural institutions in modern capitalist society are archaic compared to the United States.

So while the general mechanisms described in this book are important to understand, the book totally fails to convince me once it enters into the particulars of its time.† The authors' specific judgments are preemptory and off-base: I am unconvinced by a single remark of theirs on Donald Duck, Benny Goodman, or a host of other specific examples.† Ultimately, there is no accountability for assertions about specific cultural products or the general assertion that the general mechanisms of cooptation and control are 100% efficacious.† This deficiency of their argument is enabled by a lack of empirical specificity on their part.

This is not to reject their negative view of the products of the culture industry with the opportunistic celebration of popular culture now in vogue.† (This opportunism shows itself, for example, in the simultaneous snobbish embrace of European cultural theory and the gullible and racially mystified acceptance of the demonstrably degenerate culture of hiphop.)† Rather, their methods are useful as a guide to the pernicious mechanisms at work now as then, with the twist that the culture industry no longer presents its conformist world view by means of the laundering of brutal social realities as it did in the 1940s but has successfully sublated all the countercultural and protest impulses of the 1960s and '70s and has made them part and parcel of the system, to a degree unimaginable a quarter century ago.† [6] The repression of individuality, even with the breaking of old taboos and the untrammeled display of freakish behavior that once was never tolerated, is more extreme now than it ever was, the more so because of its cynical premises.


Now back to a general problem with this book, especially the chapters on the culture industry and anti-semitism: the attempts to tie all these otherwise valuable analyses to the Enlightenment do not work, except under the strained analogy with positivism that surfaces here and there.† And as usual, the stray remarks on science and mathematics are all wrong.

The most general inadequacy of the book is indicated in its title.† The title is incomplete, for the dialectic as I see it is the dialectic of enlightenment and something else.† Or perhaps the dialectic of the hidden contradictions in Enlightenment thinkers.† But I don't see a true dialectical understanding of Enlightenment here.† As I've said, in other works Horkheimer and Adorno show great perspicacity in their grasp of the positivism-lebensphilosophie dichotomy.† As I understand Dialectic of Enlightenment so far, I believe they got it wrong.† Irrationalism is blamed on the dark side of the Enlightenment, but I see it differently: rationalism and irrationalism coexist in a contradictory ideological and social totality. Enlightenment is only one half of the equation, not an appropriate label for the ideological dynamic as a whole.

(Written 20 July 2003)

(Note: I usually received enthusiastic responses from my friend Jim Murray to essays in progress such as these, although the subject matter was often outside his purview.† I didnít hear from him in response to this review in progress.† I thought he would be excited by the C.L.R. James angle.† Jim died the day after this last segment was written.)


[1] I don't believe in this preoccupation with the domination of nature, even in our time preoccupied by ecology.† If primitive man wanted to control nature, so much the better for him.† If something links modern with premodern man in his alienated thinking, I think it should be characterized differently. (Written 18 July 2003) [—> main text]

[2] A purely abstract utilitarianism cum rational calculation is a product of capitalism.† In my view it is this logic that is responsible for the degeneration of materialism into empiricism and positivism, already in the late 18th century.† But in the late 19th century, in the so-called age of materialism, materialism itself would have disappeared had it not been for Engels and the Marxists. (Written 18 July 2003) [—> main text]

[3] Adorno does much better in his lectures in Critical Models, as does Horkheimer in some of his earlier essays. (Written 18 July 2003) [—> main text]

[4] Everyone celebrates Dialectic of Enlightenment, while I detest it, whereas everyone disdains Lukacs' The Destruction of Reason while I take it seriously. I guess it's either one or the other. (Written 17 July 2003) [—> main text]

[5] My point is that an ideology of science is not identical with science.† Is science limited or is it the scientist that is limited?† Is the scientist inherently devoid of self-consciousness and needs the philosopher/social critic to help him out, or does the scientist's self-consciousness and sense of totality differ with respect to social conditions including the socialization of the scientist?† We should not be too presumptuous here.† The stereotypical technocratic mentality is certainly pervasive enough, but it is not universal.† And I think it often applies more to social scientists trying to ape the natural sciences rather than to natural scientists or mathematicians, who do not always need or adhere to the mythos of number-crunching.† Mathematicians in fact are a special case.† Practically speaking, a large contingent are employed by the military-industrial complex, and so like other scientists their socialization as professionals may well be skewed in a particular direction.† But as a pure science, mathematics is akin to the arts in its social function: if it is not utilizable for the practical aims of business, industry, and the military, nobody wants to be bothered by it.† Many mathematicians are like artists in their frustration with a pure utilitarian orientation, and can be found on the left.† They are also not so impressed with the shallow scientism of number-crunching empiricist sociology.† Finally, there is the question of an over-arching philosophical perspective within which science is conceived, hence its claims and limitations are open for debate, and of course these claims are the claims of living people and institutions, not just ascribable to the intrinsic nature of the subject matter. (Written 18 July 2003) [—> main text]

[6] But 1931—and European civilization at least since World War I—was certainly marked by a sense of severe crisis.† And living in a mechanistic society certainly has a dampening effect on one's spirits and drives one inward into instinctive rebellion—hence the familiar obsessions.† Even in my own lifetime I've seen this at work.† Growing up watching television in the early days was to look at a different generation and a set of stereotypes reflecting a mechanistic view of existence.† I was watching, found it wanting.† I could feel it around me.† The natural consequence was the cultural revolution of the '60s and '70s.† Its very innocence was predicated on what it was rebelling against.† But in spite of all the hype, commercialization, consumerism, and self-indulgence there too, there was something in it beyond commodification, and that had to be destroyed, had to be mechanized and sublated into the system, which took place towards the end of the '70s and embodied in the disco era.† But since then, a much sexier mainstream consumerism has been established, very different from that of the 1950s but much more insidious and just as totalitarian, because it has incorporated all the impulses of rebellion.† The mechanistic character of society is much better disguised now that our robots can shake they booty.† However, looking back, at Europe even more than America, I can see the desperation that drove people like Sartre, Camus, Beckett, etc. into a spiritual desert and their desperate fightback. (Written 18 July 2003) [—> main text]

[7] This review is based on the first English translation by John Cumming (1972) of Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) by Max Horkheimer & Theodore W. Adorno (New York: Continuum, 1997). [—> main text]

Compiled & edited 18 November 2003
© 2003 Ralph Dumain. All rights reserved.

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