The Dialectic of the Enlightenment was the first in a series of post-war books that variously attacked the Cold War consensus on both sides. I’d include, in that list, Galbraith’s Affluent Society and New Industrial State, Djilas’s New Class, Medvedev’s Let History Judge, and Foucault’s The Words and the Things (translated as The Order of Things) and Discipline and Punish. Not to speak of feminism (Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics) and the anti-colonial struggle (Franz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks). Intellectual history went into the streets for a historical moment in 1968, a moment that is preserved with marmoreal heaviness by many a museum hearted lefty prof. However, beyond the nostalgia of the ex hippies, there was a real core to that moment – which extended, actually, to the end of the Bretton Woods agreement and the first oil embargo. It created a cultural prototype that has gradually immersed in its presuppositions, for good and ill, a capitalist system that has ground the bones of proletarian culture into the service economy and removed all trace of the protest of labor from its 24 hour cultural industry.
These books are still with us. Interestingly, the best-selling intellectual books of the neo-liberal era have shunted aside criticism and critique, a la Alan Bloom, and have reverted to full court whiggism – an account of history in which the “West” is the best, and in which the author, and the happy billions in our globalized world, are sitting on top of the mountain, healthier, happier, and smarter than all the rest. Reaction has lost its ‘decline and fall’ vibe, and has arrayed itself in the raiments of progress. The Steven Pinkers and Yuval Hararis are definitely signs of the time, like a greek chorus in the dumb and dumber apocalypse.
Now, the protest of labor has become simply the representation of labor itself – a thing so devotedly to be avoided, so obscene, that its very appearance has the air of accusation. The labor theory of value has fallen into disrepute not only among the economists, but among the workers themselves. At the same time, our culture has so maniacally and singlemindedly developed the libido of purchase that it has created something new and daring: the fetish has replaced the norm. Demand, now, is oriented to a great variable x – to the inconnu, the great white whale, the diabetic ghost of all the sugarplum fairies you ever cannibalistically devoured, to chewing anything and everything all day long (Black milk of daybreak/we drink it at evening/ we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night/ we drink and we drink), to filling the houses we can’t afford on the mortgages we can’t turn down with the finest high resolution tv screens ever to watch actors who portray people who never watch television – the dream being that life goes on somewhere, and that somebody will be arrested for it.
The genre of books we have listed in our first paragraph differs, in tone and purpose, from the pamphlets and bagatelles of the pre-war period – one has only to compare Wyndham Lewis’ The Art of Being Ruled, or Bataille’s writing for Acephale, with any of those books to mark the difference. The obvious difference is in the irony and distance that distinguish the authorial presence in the latter – even in Medvedev’s book, that carries a load of furious indignation from page to page. What made The Gulag Archipelago so interesting in purely literary terms was that it was a throwback to the pre-war style – Solzhenitsyn hated the cool affluent ironies with which the critics of the consensus dissolved, with experimental despair, the monster-system inside books, only to achieve status within the system outside the books, as much as any Stalinist. Adorno and Horkheimer understood before anybody that the conditions that had once made it possible to regard sincerity as a virtue had utterly vanished, up the chimneys of the crematoria: which is one way of interpreting Adorno’s famous remark that after Auschwitz, poetry was impossible. What holds all of the critics of the consensus together was a curious loathing of paradise — and an instinctive sense that the unmediated conjunction of paradise and hell in the twentieth century was a systems, thing, not a bug but a byproduct, or maybe even… the product itself?
The Dialectic of the Enlightenment is a notoriously knotty text. The way its difficulties were developed is nicely analyzed in this article in Social Research (1996): Language, Mythology, and Enlightenment: Historical Notes on Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment by James Schmidt. Schmidt does a nice philological fileting of the text. There’s nothing like seeing how something to give one a hermeneutic boost.
We like the fact that, in spite of Adorno’s contemptuous and semi-racist view of jazz, not to speak of pop music,the book started out in garage rock style:
“What eventually would become the Dialectic of Enlightenment first entered the world in December 1944 as a mimeographed typescript of over three hundred pages distributed to friends and associates of the Institute for Social Research. Printed on the brown pasteboard cover was the original rifle: Philosophische Fragmente. Theodor Adorno provided an explanation of sorts for the work’s peculiar mode of dissemination in one of the aphorisms he presented to his coauthor Max Horkheimer the next February on the occasion of Horkheimer’s fiftieth birthday: In a world where books have long lost all likeness to books, the real book can no longer be one. If the invention of the printing press inaugurated the bourgeois era, the time is at hand for its repeal by the mimeograph, the only fitting, the unobtrusive means of dissemination.”
Even their colleagues were not quite sure what to make of it. After struggling with the manuscript for a few months, a bewildered Herbert Marcuse wrote to Horkheimer,
“I have gone through the Fragmente twice, and I have reread many sections more than twice. However my reading was not continuous and concentrated enough …. The result: there are too many passages which I don’t understand, and too many ideas which I cannot follow up beyond the condensed and abbreviated form in which you give them.”
Condensation was, however, with Adorno and Horkheimer, as with the Ramones, the whole point. And as with any garage rock band, there was always the tension between the Work and Work – as in finding work. And staying out of prison. The two authors had not fled to America merely to end up as canned soup before the House Unamerican Committee. So before the book was published, Adorno did a little re-dubbing:
Martin Jay once characterized the Dialectic of Enlightenment as the “last leg” in the Frankfurt School’s “long march away from orthodox Marxism” (Jay, 1973, p. 256). But a comparison of the changes made between the 1944 Philosophische Fragmente and 1947 Dialektik der Aufklarung makes this “last leg” look more like a quick step. The overwhelming majority of the revisions Adorno made in the work involved a purging of Marxian terminology. Thus, to take a few examples from the first chapter, “exploitation” becomes “enslavement” (5,p. 26), “capitalism” becomes “the economic system” (p. 26), “disposition over alien labor” becomes “utilization of the work of another” (p. 26), “monopoly technique” becomes “industrial technique” (p. 33), “object of exploitation” becomes “subject” (p. 36), “class domination” becomes “consolidated domination by the privileged” (p. 44), “exchange value” becomes simply “value” (p. 51)… Etc., etc.
So why did the duo decide to push upon the world a book that was, at least to their closest associates, incomprehensible? Schmidt does a nice job of tracking through H.’s correspondence for the genesis of the moments of uncanniness in which H. heard the prose of the world – in all its 30s incarnations, capitalist, communist and fascist. But LI likes this quote from Adorno’s correspondence most of all:
“The prohibitive difficulty of theory is today manifested in language. It permits nothing more to be said as it is experienced. Either it is reified, commodity-speech, banal and halfway to falsifying thought. Or it is in flight from the banal, ceremonial without ceremony, empowered without power, confirmed by its own fist of everyday discourse.”
Adorno definitely experienced “fascinating fascism” – to borrow Susan Sontag’s phrase. Adorno and Horkheimer were well aware of the fascist politics of shock – in the Dialectic of the Enlightenment, they go back to Sade to find its roots – but they were not immune to its allure. This is confusing for those who believe that distance and distinction is the hallmark of the relationship between criticism and its object. Adorno and Horkheimer, however question the cost of maintaining that distance – a cost that is paid in granting to the object the seriousness of the untouchable. For A and H, the satyr play is part of the whole cycle – parody, mockery, quotation, and other forms of secret sharing can not only not be excluded from the philosopher’s repertoire, but gauge the philosopher’s willingness to confront the history of his categories. Hence, the curious inflection we find in the course of leftist thought after The Dialectic of the Enlightenment: the melancholy, the pessimism, the apprehension of catastrophe. If, as I said above, reaction now clothes itself in the patchy ideology of progress, the leftist critique of capitalist culture often mobilizes the style and angular attack of the old reactionaries, as if all our mojo was exhausted.
Myself, I think we have to learn to love paradise again. How to get there is the question.