This article proposes a novel reading of Max Horkheimer and Theodor W.
Adorno’s emblematic book Dialectic of Enlightenment(1947). Horkheimer and
Adorno took as their starting point the observation that modern liberal, human
and social progress has tipped over into a new form of barbarism but explicitly
refused to develop it into a rejection of the enlightenment and its values as such.
Instead, the dialectical view seeks even in the darkest moment of the failure of
civilization, which is here epitomized in the Holocaust, reasons to defend a
self-reflective, more enlightened form of human civilization. The dialectical
theory does not reject but rearticulates the idea of progress that remains central
to most forms of liberal and socialist theory. One of the central questions is,
under what conditions do the instruments of enlightenment and civilization,
including scientific and technological rationality, social organisation and general
productivity, serve either emancipation or barbarism. Warding off the positivistic
attack on any form of metaphysics and utopian thinking, Horkheimer and Adorno emphasised the need for enlightenment to be based on non-empiricist,
reality-transcending, critical thinking in order to be in the service of emancipation rather than domination. The human mind atrophies when deprived of its freedom of movement. The more abstract, philosophical argument of Dialectic of
Enlightenment is developed through several more historically specific materials,
one of which is the interpretation of modern antisemitism. Horkheimer and
Adorno combine in this context a Marxist analysis of aspects of continuity
between liberal and fascist governance, based on the concepts of the
commodity-form and the wage-form of modern social relations, with an anthropological interpretation of pogroms and genocide as ‘rituals of
civilization’. Civilization aims at the liberation of human life from labour but
does so by way of organizing and intensifying labour, discipline and identity,
generating resentment as well as streamlining and destroying thought.
Civilization thus produces furious anger both at those deemed to represent more
‘primitive’ levels of civilization and at those perceived as driving it.
Nevertheless, Horkheimer and Adorno argue that enlightenment itself produces
the means to overcome its own entrapment. The ‘forces and things’ it produces
serve domination but also encourage humans to overcome domination: the
reification of the means of domination – knowledge, in particular – mediates,
moderates and potentially democratizes power.