In their controversial analysis of the contemporary western society, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer developed a wider, and more pessimistic concept of enlightenment. In their analysis, enlightenment had its dark side. While trying to abolish superstition and myths by foundationalist philosophy, it ignored its own mythical basis. Its strivings towards totality and certainty led to an increasing instrumentalization of reason. In their view, the enlightenment itself should be enlightened and not posed as a myth free view of the world.
“Myth turns into enlightenment, and nature into mere objectivity. Men pay for the increase in their power with alienation from that over which they exercise their power. Enlightenment behaves towards things as a dictator toward men. He knows them in so far as he can manipulate them. The man of science knows things in so far as he can make them. In this way their “in itself” becomes a “for him”. In this transformation the essence of things is revealed as always the same, a substratum of domination. This identity constitutes the unity of nature.”
Adorno and Horkheimer see the self destruction of Western reason as grounded in a historical and fateful dialectic between the domination of external nature and society. They trace enlightenment, which split these spheres apart, back to its mythical roots. Enlightenment and myth, therefore, are not irreconcilable opposites, but dialectically mediated qualities of both real and intellectual life. Myth is already enlightenment, and enlightenment reverts to mythology. This paradox is their fundamental thesis.
The attempt to ascertain why humanity, instead of entering a truly human state, is sinking into a new kind of barbarism animates the work. This regression ultimately has to do with the very nature of myth, which is said to be obscure and luminous at once. It is with positivism that science believes it can banish all mystery from the world such that humans become masters of it. Art itself has fallen prey to this myth. Perhaps surprisingly, this does not begin in the 18th century European Enlightenment, but with one of our most ancient of founding myths, Odysseus.
The deceptive nature of the sacrifice in Odysseus is the beginning of our journey towards enlightenment, for it places us on a similar footing with the gods. The attempt of persons such as Sade to advocate a world without superstition not only turns us into beasts with “the innocence of wild animals”, but means that we still must hold onto the one myth that we can actually live in a world where all is entirely as it seems. Transgression of the previous Catholic morality is the necessary mythical supplement to this view. It brings no pleasure but only violence. Both the Culture Industry and Anti Semitism ultimately have the same totalitarian goal, to make everyone the same, as economic cogs in the machine, devoid of their individuality. Thus enlightenment is necessarily violence against the Other, who doesn’t fit in.
The concept of enlightenment posits it as thought liberating man from his natural shackles, and creating man as master of the earth. This process of liberation entails at the same time the possibility of man to protect himself from, and understand the workings of, nature, and also mankind’s loss of being one with nature. In this process, the self is created as a subjectivity divorced from direct experience of the outside world. Man’s memory of this is very vague and distant, but is present in everyone as a certain inchoate feeling of loss.
In essence, Adorno and Horkheimer argue that the enlightenment turned magical culture, which looked for associations, analogies, and relationships, into a scientific culture, which sought to reduce everything to the irreducible, to base units of measurement, to the smallest particles, and as often as possible to numbers. This results in an inability to address problems of relationships, and often of anything to do with the irrational, such sexuality or emotio. The ideological structure has the tendency, common to most political ideologies, of arguing for its own accuracy. This kind of enlightenment thinking always implicitly claims that anything that is not reducible or quantifiable is simply not worth paying attention to. It is immaterial in the metaphorical sense, and it might as well not exist.
Thus, concepts as divergent as subjectivity, which cannot be measured or objectified, and collective action which is always understood as merely the action of many individuals, cannot be understood because precisely what needs to be understood is relational and subjective. This magical versus scientific thinking is easily recognizable in the two solitudes of contemporary Humanities and Sciences research in universities.