Dialectic of Enlightenment (German: Dialektik der Aufklärung) is a work of philosophy and social criticism written by Frankfurt School philosophers Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno and first published in 1944. A revised version appeared in 1947.
One of the core texts of Critical Theory, Dialectic of Enlightenment explores the socio-psychological status quo that had been responsible for what the Frankfurt School considered the failure of the Age of Enlightenment. Together with The Authoritarian Personality (1950; also co-authored by Adorno) and Frankfurt School member Herbert Marcuse‘s One-Dimensional Man (1964), it has had a major effect on 20th century philosophy, sociology, culture, and politics, inspiring especially the New Left of the 1960s and 1970s.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of the new Critical Theory, as Adorno and Horkheimer set out to elaborate it in Dialectic of Enlightenment, is a certain ambivalence concerning the ultimate source or foundation of social domination. This ambivalence gave rise to the “pessimism” of the new Critical Theory over the possibility of human emancipation and freedom.
This ambivalence was rooted in the historical circumstances in which Dialectic of Enlightenment was originally produced: the authors saw National Socialism, Stalinism,state capitalism, and mass culture as entirely new forms of social domination that could not be adequately explained within the terms of traditional Critical Theory.
For Adorno and Horkheimer (relying on the economist Friedrich Pollock’s thesis on National Socialism), state intervention in the economy had effectively abolished the tension in capitalism between the “relations of production” and the “material productive forces of society,” a tension which, according to traditional Critical Theory, constituted the primary contradiction within capitalism. The market (as an “unconscious” mechanism for the distribution of goods) and private property had been replaced bycentralized planning and socialized ownership of the means of production.
Yet, contrary to Marx’s famous prediction in the Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, this shift did not lead to “an era of social revolution,” but rather tofascism and totalitarianism. As such, traditional Critical Theory was left, in Jürgen Habermas’ words, without “anything in reserve to which it might appeal; and when the forces of production enter into a baneful symbiosis with the relations of production that they were supposed to blow wide open, there is no longer any dynamism upon which critique could base its hope.” For Adorno and Horkheimer, this posed the problem of how to account for the apparent persistence of domination in the absence of the very contradiction that, according to traditional Critical Theory, was the source of domination itself.
Topics and themes
The problems posed by the rise of fascism with the demise of the liberal state and the market (together with the failure of a social revolution to materialize in its wake), constitute the theoretical and historical perspective that frames the overall argument of the book – the two theses that “Myth is already enlightenment, and enlightenment reverts to mythology.” The history of human societies, as well as that of the formation of individual ego or self, is re-evaluated from the standpoint of what Horkheimer and Adorno perceived at the time as the ultimate outcome of this history: the collapse or “regression” of reason, with the rise of National Socialism, into something (referred to as merely “enlightenment” for the majority of the text) resembling the very forms of superstition and myth out of which reason had supposedly emerged as a result of historical progress or development.
To characterize this history, Horkheimer and Adorno draw on a wide variety of material, including the philosophical anthropology contained in Marx’s early writings, centered on the notion of “labor;” Nietzsche’s genealogy of morals (and the emergence of consciencethrough the renunciation of the will to power); Freud’s account in Totem and Taboo of the emergence of civilization and law in murder of the primordial father; ethnological research on magic and rituals in primitive societies; as well as myth criticism,philology and literary analysis.
The authors coined the term culture industry, arguing that in a capitalist society mass culture is akin to a factory producing standardized cultural goods — films, radio programmes, magazines, etc. These homogenized cultural products are used to manipulate mass society into docility and passivity. The introduction of the radio, a mass medium, no longer permits its listener any mechanism of reply, as was the case with the telephone. Instead, listeners are not subjects anymore but passive receptacles exposed “in authoritarian fashion to the same programs put out by different stations.”
|Part of a series on the|
|Reason and Revolution|
|Herbert Marcuse · Theodor Adorno
Max Horkheimer · Walter Benjamin
Erich Fromm · Friedrich Pollock
Leo Löwenthal · Jürgen Habermas
Alfred Schmidt · Axel HonnethSiegfried Kracauer
|Critical theory · Dialectic · Praxis
Psychoanalysis · Antipositivism
Popular culture · Culture industry
Privatism · Non-identity