Adorno and Horkheimer's Dialectic of Enlightenment
'Myth is already enlightenment; and enlightenment reverts to mythology'
(Dialectic of Enlightenment XVI)
Adorno and Horkheimer's obscure and nihilistic text Dialectic of Enlightenment (DoE) is an attempt to answer the question 'why mankind, instead of entering a truly human condition, is sinking into a new kind of barbarism' (DoE, p.xi). The result is a totalising critique of modernity; a diagnosis of why the Enlightenment project failed with no attempt to prescribe a cure. This is achieved by a historical-philosophical study of the mythic world-view of animism and anthropomorphism and the Enlightenment attempt to dissolve myth through objectification and instrumental reason. DoE also uses Homer's Odyssey as a metaphorical interpretation of this historical change, where Odysseus is the prototype of the bourgeois man.
This study reveals for Adorno and Horkheimer the failure of the Enlightenment project. Enlightenment has no claim to being less a myth than the mythology it failed to escape. This new myth is defined for them by the drive to dominate nature at the expense of alienation of man from nature and from his own inner nature. They follow the appearance of the subject as it is objectified alongside nature, and is dominated with it. The subject becomes an object and his intellect becomes instrumental, and all instinct and sensory experience that fails to be productive in the pursuit of domination is repressed, man becomes mechanized. They also assert that class domination is a direct and inevitable consequence of the attempt to dominate nature, and is therefore inescapable.
Background to the text.
Adorno and Horkheimer, members of the Frankfurt school in Germany, wrote DoE (which was completed in 1944) while Fascism, a kind of barbarism never seen before, was threatening Europe. They viewed this as the epitome of the self-destructive nature of enlightenment, the final evidence that it would never result in 'a truly human condition'. They wrote in the introduction to DoE that 'the indefatigable self-destructiveness of enlightenment…requires philosophy to discard even the last vestiges of innocence in regard to the habits and tendencies of the spirit of the age' (p.xi), hence the intensity of their critique.
Being part of the Frankfurt school, Adorno and Horkheimer were influenced by Marxist theory. Their critique can be seen as a generalization of the Marxist critique of capitalism to the whole of civilization#. Stalinist Russia, the Fascist threat in Europe and American capitalism are equal indications of the regressive process of Enlightenment, and all fall under the jurisdiction of their critique. We will see the extent of this influence when class domination is considered, but what is already clear is that Adorno and Horkheimer find the Marxist ideology untenable.
From myth to enlightenment: the substitution of domination for mimesis.
The motivation for...