Friday, June 5, 2009

DIALECTIC OF ENLIGHTENMENT by Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno

Horkheimer and Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment--yet another book I've put off reading for far too long--is a fine, important and still challenging work. Written in LA in the mid-1940s by two refugees from Nazi Germany, it stands alongside Erich Auerbach's Mimesis, Hermann Broch's The Death of Vergil and Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus as a testament to the fact that while the Nazis persecuted and scattered the German intelligentsia, they failed to destroy it. The Dialectic is in many ways a preliminary, exploratory work. There is a sense throughout that despite their authoritative tone, the authors are 'trying out' ideas that will be elaborated in subsequent works. (Adorno's late Negative Dialectics, for example, a book W.G. Sebald called " boring as Hegel." As a young scholar in the late 1960s, Sebald admired Adorno's earlier work and corresponded with him in the last years of his life.) But the Dialectic is still valuable, both for its surprisingly compelling critique of enlightenment, showing how the concept has been inextricably bound up with domination, and for the brief glimpses--barely intimations--the authors give us of another way, a true enlightenment that has left domination behind and which can be achieved by a rigorous process of "negative" dialectical criticism, or "determinate negation." Yes, even these harsh critics of enlightenment find it potentially self-correcting--or rather, capable of correction. (Leftist critics of Adorno have cited this idea as evidence of a sentimental attachment to the Enlightenment. I am drawn to Adorno's side of the debate, questioning the wisdom of throwing out the enlightened baby with the bloody, imperialist bathwater.) The Dialectic, though, is an uneven book overall, with much that remains compelling alongside much that's questionable and dated (although the authors' prophecy that TV will be an interpellation machine beyond the wildest dreams of radio-bound 1930s fascists does appear to be on the money). The first two chapters, containing a general critique of enlightenment and a reading of the Odyssey that shows domination entangled with enlightenment at the beginnings of Western thought, are markedly superior to the chapters on Sade and the "culture industry." The latter, for all its renown and influence, seems to me the weakest of the book's four proper chapters. For an argument against the effects of the mass entertainment industry written in that industry's hometown, the chapter is far too abstractly and generally argued. And when the authors do stoop to concretize, they often stumble. A good example of this is the well-known passage on Chaplin's The Great Dictator. In their haste to equate the entirety of 1930s sentimental kitsch to European fascism, they compare the "amber waves" at the end of Chaplin's film to the tousled blonde locks of Hitler-approved 'Aryan' children in Nazi propaganda films. The comparison is superficial and demagogic, the sort of thing one would expect to read in the works of the overrated Allan Bloom or other intellectual disinformation artists. (On the other hand, the passage's larger point, on the alienation of human beings from nature via ideological popular 'nature' imagery, is probably valid.) That said, there's still much in the chapter that remains provocative and useful. Even a few hours spent vegetating before a TV in 2009 is enough to make Max and Teddy look like true prophets.

Thinking of the Dialectic's concept of enlightenment in conjunction with a viewing of Bernardo Bertolucci's disappointing 2004 film The Dreamers, I see the young American in the film as a nascent Adornoan, trying desperately in the final scene to express a vision of enlightenment without domination, resistance without the 'fascism' he finds even in the students' Molotov cocktails. This thought and the film's strong ending make me wish Bertolucci had gone all the way and made a truly extreme erotic film instead of the rather vanilla Playboy piece the final edit created. I wish he had explored the gay male side of the triangle, spent more time on the psychology of the hermetic, incestuous, movie-mediated world that the French brother and sister have created for themselves, explored the girl's relationship with her father, gone deeper into the collisions of politics, aesthetics and sexuality--in short, I wish Bernardo had given us a 1900-like three-hour erotic epic. That would have been the masterpiece The Dreamers isn't.

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