Commentary on the Concept of Enlightenment

Spenser Rapone | Social Movement Studies | Theory | December 21st, 2017

Despite years of supposed progress, both technological and social, we remain slaves to capital, subjected to a dull, daily routine within a prescribed division of labor. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenmentoutlines how the desire to "enlighten" human beings merely reproduced domination and oppression, leading to our current alienated state. Contextualizing their work specifically, its dour tone of course reflects that of its publication in 1947; nonetheless, I insist that it remains relevant, given the political precipice we currently find ourselves. Regarding the first chapter, of which I examine in this piece, the authors aspire to turn enlightenment on its head, conceptualizing a critical enlightenment that rejects absolute power and domination. [1] Of course, enlightenment remains a rather nebulous concept. To be enlightened, at face value, seems to conjure up an image of self-actualized thought. The Enlightenment, as we know it from the eighteenth through nineteenth centuries, sought the progress of our collective human existence. Yet, at what cost do we seek progress? Herein lies Horkheimer's and Adorno's focus. While enlightenment sought to assert the human race as masters of our domain, by the 1940s, "the wholly enlightened earth [was] radiant with triumphant calamity." [2] Specifically, the 20th century had brought about two devastating world wars, the rise of fascism, and widespread destitution and alienation. How did the desire for an enlightened human race produce such barbarism?

Adorno and Horkheimer's work demonstrates how the likes of Hitler, Mussolini, et al. were in many ways the logical conclusion of enlightenment thought. They did not exist as an aberration, but were in the spirit of other oppressive enlightenment figures and regimes (when one takes into account the genocidal impulses of the British Empire in India, or the same of the United States with regards to indigenous peoples, this picture becomes much more clear). Francis Bacon's edict of "knowledge is power" is far more than a pithy musing; Horkheimer and Adorno insist that when it comes to knowledge and power, the two are synonymous, within the Baconian framework. [3] Thus, enlightenment did not seek out knowledge for the sake of knowledge; knowledge was only useful insofar as its utility in the pursuit of power. In other words, knowledge became the object of instrumental reason; that is, knowledge was used to achieve a certain end, in this case, power. [4] Resultantly, knowledge itself existed as a crude, empirical framework to arrange, observe, and dominate objects; inevitably, this process further entrenched the capitalist mode of production. [5] Yet, the enlightenment's regressive tendencies under the guise of human progress, did not appear out of thin air; it traces its lineage to and draws from the various mythologies of the western canon.

More than anything else, I seek to emphasize that both Horkheimer and Adorno wrote Dialectic of Enlightenment as a warning against the cult of "progress." In other words, we ought to see to it that in the process of liberating ourselves from the shackles of our miserable existence, we do not lose sight of what it means to truly carry out an emancipatory movement. Enlightenment merely perpetuated myth under a veneer of scientism and technocratic impulses, existing as manipulator of things as dictator exists as manipulator of human beings. [6] Enlightenment was not a movement in the spirit of liberty, but in the spirit of control, domination, and sovereignty. I claim that the most critical line of this opening chapter lies in the assertion that "a true praxis capable of overturning the status quo depends on theory's refusal to yield to the oblivion in which society allows thought to ossify." [7] An authentic emancipatory movement must not fall prey to instrumental reason; revolutionary thought must both liberate but also recognize the inherent value of thought itself.

Although Dialectic of Enlightenment was published nearly 70 years ago, many of its concepts, particularly the fetishization of technological advancement, can be examined in the current day. Let us take a brief foray into Silicon Valley, where progress narratives and TED Talk "solutions" serve as an idol to which lanyard dicks such as Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, and many others, bow down. Horkheimer and Adorno contend that the maxim of western civilization lies with Spinoza's claim that virtue is ultimately motivated by self-preservation. [8] While self-preservation itself is not irrational, it becomes profoundly alienating when the capitalist mode of production and bourgeois division of labor organizes society. [9] Peter Thiel believes that he can achieve permanent self-preservation, essentially immortality, through the use of blood transfusions from the youth. [10] A terrifying prospect, his absurd proposal has its origin in the advancement of technology and empiricist, "scientific" thought.

The "massive rejuvenating effect" that Thiel desires at the expense of human beings also contains another implication: that the lives of the ruling class, especially those of the so-called "innovator" class, hold more value than those of the poor. [11] Is this not the ultimate "reification of human beings in factory and office?" [12] Thiel's dystopic, obscene vision carries with it the legacy of eugenicist, fascistic thought. Yet, in a world where Thiel vehemently endorsed the likes of Donald Trump, [13] further confirming the Republican Party's status as a white ethno-nationalist cabal, the Democratic Party, through propping up Hillary Clinton, doubled-down on neoliberalism in the face of neofascism. Thus, in keeping with the enlightenment traditions of the guiding star of trusting a lesser evil, [14] the American political system failed, and continues to fail, to produce an alternative. Progressivism, positivism, and technocracy rule the day in late stage capitalist society. Much like how the United States recruited Nazi scientists in the postwar period, valuing scientific "progress" over any sort of authentic political commitment to antifascism, so too do current establishment political figures and parties value technological efficiency over human empowerment.

The concept of intellectual thought, in capitalist society, exists as a mythological construct. Horkheimer and Adorno contend that we are subjected to an "autocratic intellect," one which has standardized what it means to be an intellectual itself. [15] Here, Gramsci's analysis of the intellectual subject must be consulted. Horkheimer and Adorno speak of how the aforementioned standardization produces a supposed cleavage between sensuous, lived experience, vis-à-vis more conceptual, abstract thought. [16] Yet, as Gramsci notes, "[a]ll men are intellectuals, one could therefore say; but not all men have in society the function of intellectuals." [17] Thus, capitalist society establishes tenured professors, technological innovators, and various other positions of authority of having sole access to the intellectual function. This, of course, is elitism at its finest.

A factory worker's labor requires just as much intellectual thought as physical exertion. Gramsci insists that "homo faber cannot be separated from homo sapiens," [18] meaning man-the-maker and man-the-thinker exists as one complete being. We can see then the ruling class's domination persists in large part due to the manufactured separation of intellectual thought from the wretched of the earth. The "new form of blindness" exhibited by the working class [19] manifests itself through widespread anti-intellectualism, racism driven by economic insecurity, et al. Of course, while many of the conservative punditry takes pride in such behavior, the liberal solution amounts to sanctimonious moralizing that only further entrenches widespread anxiety wrought by social immobility. Gramsci's proposition of the organic intellectual who arises through lived experience, organization, and critical pedagogy offers a compelling solution to the stagnation of mass movements which desire social change. [20] Indeed, as the existing society asserts its dominance further, workers resultantly become even more so powerless to overcome its regressive function. [21] However, there always remains even the slightest glimmer of hope to reverse the cycle of oppression, and one of the first steps can be found in redefining what constitutes an intellectual, through both thought and action, joined together as one.

Enlightenment, that notion of the progressive advancement of human thought, to this day bends to the whim of the ruling class. Yet, despite the underlying pessimism to their work, both Horkheimer and Adorno admit that all is not lost, even with the concept of enlightenment itself; its ideal of human emancipation can still be realized, only if we completely and unabashedly reject the principle of blind power. [22] In doing so, not only would we abolish enlightenment's empiricist cruelty and technocratic impulses, but we would then break away with its mythological tendencies, unlike the past 300 years, which has only served to replace one mythology with another. I believe that there is a meta-narrative present in this text, most readily accessible in one of the closing statements of the first chapter. Horkheimer and Adorno observe that the bourgeois economy has grown so powerful that ruling elites alone cannot maintain its function; in fact, "all human beings are needed" to ensure its continuation. [23] Indeed, the blindness wrought by late stage capitalism leads to some of the most downtrodden elements of our current society complicit in their own exploitation and oppression, sometimes enthusiastically so. Yet, herein lies the revolutionary subtext, exemplified by that simple line of thought, "all people are needed." The moment that the masses of people stir from their false consciousness and channel their desires towards a mass movement, the cycle of oppression can be broken. Yes, enlightenment has produced an "outright deception of the masses." [24] But, in requiring all people for its continuation, we once again affirm the quintessential adage of all emancipatory movements: power lies with the people. Horkheimer and Adorno provide us with hope, for while the attempt to enlighten human beings produced some of the darkest moments of our history, the people, collectively, still have within them the power to bring about a liberated world.


[1] Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, xviii.

[2] Ibid., 1.

[3] Ibid., 2.

[4] Curtis Bowman, Odysseus and the Siren Call of Reason: The Frankfurt School Critique of Enlightenment . .

[5] Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic, 3.

[6] Ibid., 6.

[7] Ibid., 33.

[8] Ibid., 22.

[9] Ibid., 23.

[10] J.K. Trotter, "What Does Peter Thiel Want?" Gawker. .

[11] Ibid.

[12] Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic, 23.

[13] Dan Primack, "Peter Thiel Gives Full-Throated Endorsement of Donald Trump," Fortune. .

[14] Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic, 24.

[15] Ibid., 28.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, 9.

[18] Ibid., 9.

[19] Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic, 28.

[20] Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, 10.

[21] Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic, 29.

[22] Ibid., 33.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., 34.