Dialectic of Enlightenment is undoubtedly the most influential publication of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory. Written during the Second World War and circulated privately, it appeared in a printed edition in Amsterdam in 1947. “What we had set out to do,” the authors write in the Preface, “was nothing less than to explain why humanity, instead of entering a truly human state, is sinking into a new kind of barbarism.”
From the 2007 Edition.
As a collection of philosophical and social musings, reflections and ideas planted firmly in the spirit and events and flux of the 1930s and 40s, Dialectic of Enlightenment, with its broad range of sketches, provides an accessible route to some of the thought of the times, and in a form that is easy to comprehend, think about and delve deeper into. I think that the problems associated with the reading of Dialectic of Enlightenment tend to be related to the fact that it is either treated as a coherent and cohesive master work, which it is not, that it is treated as highly accessible and therefore highly trivial, which it is not, and that frequently the subtle nuances of the works of thoughts and fragmentary ideas of the continental authors, especially when not originally written in English, tend to get lost in the translation.
What I also like about Dialectic of Enlightenment is that it is a subtle guide for the baffled by the perplexed, a handbook of philosophical survival, of political, social and mental health, a compendium of reassurance, and a book of ‘yes, we also think that our present paths will lead us to nowhere good’.
But the book is not without its detractors. There are some who have trouble with Dialectic of Enlightenment, for what it is, for what they want it to represent – but doesn’t, for what it tells us, for what it leaves for us to contemplate. That is, what it represents, what it represented and the uncomfortable messages it still sends no longer pleases so many.
The comfortably content have no such problems; they can just hate it, despise it and rubbish it, without actually understanding it or reading it. Even shallow thinkers are subject to dilemmas, but the ‘no thought zone’ of the ‘wilfully ignorant’ apart from perhaps being the most comfortable place on earth, is also one of its more sinister aspects.
Today, everyone’s opinion is treated equally, with the same validity, with the same value, with the same level of indifference or respectful disrespect, but at the end of the day, it is not the powerful, reasonable, logical and humane argument that wins, but the arguments that most closely flow with the system, for the benefit of the system and without upsetting the system to any large degree.
In this way we are suckered into accepting the status quo.
Just look at how we cannot think ourselves out of a paper bag. This is problem brought about in part by having no alternative to the current parties and their policies and leaders and interests, and that the only alternative would be for violent revolt, which most of us are strongly against. So we just accept what there is, without seeing the elephant in the room is saying “get off your arse and use the system to deinstall itself, and to install a more humane and reasonable system in its place”… too much like hard thinking and hard work I suppose, and no one is going to ‘provide’ that service over the internet or at the hyper-hyper store or mall.
The POMO nonsense of ‘everything goes’, ‘do your own thing, baby’ and ‘everything can mean anything’ is just that, self-entrapping crap that will ensure that quite a few people will rage against the effects of the central problems and causes of those problems by first exaggerating peripheral, marginal and frequently superfluous issues.
As Isaac Asimov so succinctly put it “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”
In summary, these are some of the things I get from reading Horkheimer and Adorno’s sketches, a sense of ‘we are not alone’ when we think this way, but nonetheless, aspirations aside, this is what we have.
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