Sunday, February 3, 2013

James Schmidt on Max Horkheimer & Dialectic of Enlightenment

Originally having read the first two articles in January 2007, I blogged about them on my Studies in a Dying Culture blog a couple months later, but only briefly. Since then, the URLs changed, and I now offer some additional observations. I subsequently address the third and to me the most exciting of the articles on the context in which Dialectic of Enlightenment and Eclipse of Reason were generated.

Schmidt, James. "Language, Mythology, and Enlightenment: Historical Notes on Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment," Social Research, Vol. 65, Issue 4, Winter 1998. Preprint.

James Schmidt reviews the genesis of Dialectic of Enlightenment as Philosophical Fragments, Marcuse’s incomprehension, the authors’ views of the debasement of language (exemplified in Hitler's radio addresses), the parallels with Hegel’s phenomenology, and the logic of what became the title essay. Schmidt finds D of E unique in comparison with Counter-Enlightenment literature.

50 years on one cannot properly assess D of E without reconstructing the process and context in which it was composed, including how the initial collection of fragments became more of a real book, and the excision of explicit references to Marxism by Adorno. In this and other essays Schmidt takes pains to distinguish Horkheimer's view from other attacks on the Enlightenment and reversion to Counter-Enlightenment ideologies in the 1940s. Horkheimer opposed the reinstitution of banckward-looking philosophies such as Neo-Thomism which were gaining momentum in the USA. A key point of D of E is a complementarity often overlooked: not only does Enlightenment become myth, but myth, already from ancient times, becomes Enlightenment. First, there is magic, then myth, then Enlightenment, and with the ultimate stripping of all intrinsic meaning, we are back to myth and magic. (Horkheimer attempted to keep in touch with one academic discipline in this period -- anthropology -- in line with his interest in magic and myth.) However, the goal of Dialectic of Enlightenment was to rescue the Enlightenment from the dead end to which it had allegedly attained. The planned sequel to this work, a positive theory of dialectics, was never written.

Schmidt, James. "The Eclipse of Reason and the End of the Frankfurt School in America," New German Critique, no. 100, Winter 2007, pp. 47-76.

The Eclipse of Reason is often treated as a footnote to Dialectic of Enlightenment. It was initially greeted with enthusiasm by Leo Lowenthal, but Horkheimer grew to harbor serious doubts about it. The troubled relationship between the Institute for Social Research and Columbia University's Sociology Dept. and a concern over the popularity of Franz Neumann also figure in. The Eclipse of Reason has its origin in a lecture series Horkheimer delivered at Columbia in 1944, after Lowenthal sifted through the proposed topics. The differences between the book and the lectures are detailed. Horkheimer also had difficulties grappling with the philosophy of Dewey, not to mention processing his ideas in English for an American audience. Horkheimer's anxiety about the book's reception proved to be founded. It received an enthusiastic review from then-prominent American philosopher Arthur E. Murphy. On the other hand, Glenn Negley gave the book a blistering review. John R. Everett was not so nasty, but still gave a thumbs down to the book, particularly criticizing Horkheimer's take on American naturalism. The book ended up in a Gimbel's sale in 1952 for 59 cents, having failed to make an impact.

Schmidt, James. The “New Failure of Nerve,” The Eclipse of Reason, and the Critique of Enlightenment in New York and Los Angeles, 1940-1947. Munich, Center for Advanced Studies, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, May 2011.

Here we find an instance in which intellectual traditions usually examined separately come together.  One aspect of the relevant intellectual history is the surge of irrationalism and the revolt against modernity and Enlightenment reason that became fashionable in the USA in the 1940s. (The popularity of Kierkegaard is part of this story, though not treated here. See George Cotkin's Existential America.  I also need to write a screed about how Richard Wright's use of Kierkegaard was entirely opposite to the trend.) Other intellectual histories focus on the conservative project of Mortimer Adler and Robert Hutchins at the University of Chicago, which involved also the creation of the Great Books enterprise, a grandiose and successful marketing phenomenon though maybe not so successful in the goal of turning the clock back. It is also well documented that a coalition of left and liberal intellectuals were united in opposing this Counter-Enlightenment trend. Sidney Hook, known to historians of American philosophy and secular humanists, dubbed this disturbing retreat "the new failure of nerve".

There are also histories of the Partisan Review cohort and the "New York intellectuals".  Dwight Mcdonald was part of this history, as one of these intellectuals, a prominent anti-Stalinist of the left, and a critic of mass culture.

And then there is the Frankfurt School, in this period in exile in the USA.  All of these histories come together in this essay.

Adorno reported to Horkheimer of a meeting with Macdonald, who waxed enthusiastic about the Frankfurters' work, at the moment in which he was embroiled in a struggle with the editors of Partisan Review. Horkheimer followed the 1943 "New Failure of Nerve" dispute and even planned an intervention that was never completed, but this fed into his work on the Enlightenment. Adler scapegoated contemporary positivists and secular liberals as the intellectuals responsible for Nazism, opposed to the American way of life. Jacques Maritain and Carlton J. H. Hayes echoed this line. And this was part of a whole trend linking Enlightenment rationalism to nihilism and Germany's fascist fate.

Given the extreme statements made in Dialectic of Enlightenment, it is easy to marshal this work into the service of reactionary thought, however the book work is transhistorical in scope and not much about the actual historical period known as the Enlightenment.

What tends to be most memorable about Dialectic of Enlightenment are those pithy formulations (most infamously, the three words: “Enlightenment is totalitarian”) that would appear to confirm what readers are ready to assume: that the foundations of the Nazi terror were laid by the Enlightenment. It is all too easy to miss the fact that Horkheimer and Adorno never draw the conclusion to which the perversity thesis typically leads: the admonition that, since efforts at enlightenment yield produce perverse results, the project should be abandoned. In intent, if not always in execution, Dialectic of Enlightenment pursues an argument of a rather different sort.  As Adorno argued in Minima Moralia, “Not least among the tasks now confronting thought is that of placing all the reactionary arguments against Western culture in the service of progressive enlightenment.” Such a strategy is not without its risks and, in their attempt to thwart the perverse effects of an enlightenment gone awry, Horkheimer and Adorno produced a book that yielded a perverse effect of its own: a legion of readers who assume that the book constitutes a rejection of “the Enlightenment project” root and branch, rather than an attempt to understand how enlightenment might be rescued from what it threatened to become.
In Horkheimer's correspondence with Hutchins, one sees a bemoaning of a decline since the Renaissance, which sounds familiar to those familiar with the argument that Enlightenment breeds nihilism. But:
On the one hand, their point was that enlightenment falls back into myth:  all of the substantive principles that generations of enlighteners had sought to oppose to mythology turn out to be no less mythical than the traditional prejudices that they sought to dismantle.  Yet, on the other hand, myth is already enlightenment: it already represents an effort to understand nature, rather than simply mimic it and, hence, already represents a contribution to the process of enlightenment.
Horkheimer had earlier published his essay “The End of Reason,” according to which the decline of individuality is mirrored in the history of philosophy, wherein its anti-metaphysical thrust ultimately vaporizes reason itself. Horkheimer and Adorno were also engaged with Freud and the study of myth.  But if myth is the genesis of enlightenment, then what did myth replace?  The answer is: magic. Hence Horkheimer and Adorno engaged the concept of mimesis, which was treated in Walter Benjamin's work. Horkheimer also studied sociologist Marcel Mauss’ work on magic, and absorbed a swath of sociological and anthropological literature.
Some of the difficulties of this maddeningly dense [first] chapter begin to dissipate once it is recognized that the fulcrum around which it turns has less to do with the opposition between myth and enlightenment — an opposition that had been a standard trope among conservative cultural critics in the 1920s — than with a wildly speculative philosophical anthropology that sketches an account of the development of human relationships with nature in which magical/mimetic interactions are replaced by those efforts at conceptualization and categorization that are fundamental both to mythological forms of thought and to modern, scientific approaches to nature. Drawing on Benjamin’s discussion of the weakening of the “mimetic faculty,” Mauss’ account of magical practices, and Caillois’ discussion of mimetic forms of adaptation in the insect world, Dialectic of Enlightenment repeatedly invokes what Horkheimer characterized in one of the notes appended to the book as a “hidden history” in which mute, bodily reactions to the overwhelming force of nature were gradually channeled into magical practices that controlled and ritualized these spontaneous forms mimetic adaptation.
The process of enlightenment from mimesis to myth to demythologization is driven by fear, so the argument goes. Note that this argument precludes any return to a premodern past.

Meanwhile, Sidney Hook, John Dewey, and Ernest Nagel were busy defending naturalism from the accusations of the philosophical right wing. Hook led the charge, with a mighty powerful argument. Norbert Guterman, a Polish emigre, defended Kierkegaard. He 'suggested that those “modern ‘existentialist’ philosophers” who claimed to be Kierkegaard’s heirs had, in fact, far more in common with the “rationalists” they claimed to denounce'. The arguments of other debaters are summarized.

Macdonald was already antagonistic to Hook and company, accusing Hook of failing to understand the why of the “rising tide of obscurantism”.  Macdonald saw the draining of meaning as a result of historical and social forces, contrasting the ideological struggle of World War II with that of the Napoleonic wars. As Schmidt puts it: 'While the armies of revolutionary France sought to “politicize the struggle,” the forces engaged in the battle against Hitler’s armies made every effort to play down the ideological stakes'. I think this aspect of war propaganda is worth looking into. Macdonald drew a distinction between the affirmative values of the rising bourgeoisie and the draining of meaning and value by the contemporary bourgeoisie, intent on preserving capitalism sans the assertive progressive values of the early bourgeoisie. And here one finds Macdonald's sour view of mass culture. Not surprising that Adorno, author of the landmark essay on the culture industry, would enthuse over Macdonald.

We see from citations from Horkheimer's letters in 1943 and 1944 that Horkheimer intended to enter the "new failure of nerve" debate, while immersed in the Dialectic of Enlightenment project, which nevertheness did not expand in scope from 1944 to its formal publication in 1947. Some of what Horkheimer was writing found its way into Eclipse of Reason.  Horkheimer labeled Hook, Dewey, and Nagel as positivists, and seems to have been more sympathetic to their opponents, though he did recognize that they were fighting a rearguard action. Horkheimer argued that the neopositivists could be hoisted by the same petard as the neo-Thomists. Horkheimer's schema, which you will find in Eclipse of Reason, involves the question of "objective reason", which has disappeared by the exclusive modern focus on "subjective reason". Schmidt continues:

If science is to serve as a bulwark against obscurantism — a stance that Horkheimer sees as fundamental to “the great tradition of humanism and the Enlightenment” — it is incumbent on it to provide a principle that can serve as “the criterion for the true nature of science.”  But instead, all that is offered is a set of “empirical procedures” whose claim to truth rests on nothing more than the “dogmatic criteria of scientific success.” In its “preference for uncomplicated words and sentences that can be grouped at a glance,” positivism falls prey to the “anti-intellectual, anti-humanistic tendencies apparent in the development of modern language, as well as cultural life in general.”  Its failure to offer any resistance to these tendencies suggests that it, too, suffers from a “failure of nerve.”
As Horkheimer himself admitted, his own project was incomplete and subject to similar criticism, and he was projecting a follow-up “positive theory of dialectics,” which never came to fruition.

Ruth Nanda Anshen's praise for Eclipse of Reason drew a rejoinder from Horkheimer, emphasizing that he does not advocate a pseudo-religion or a return to myth. ("Objective reason" in this argument is equated with a return to outmoded metaphysical views.) Here is a quote directly from Horkheimer:
She leans heavily on pseudo-religious prestige values and boldly proclaims her belief in some of the most commonplace, universally accepted ideas.  My intentions are precisely the opposite. In spite of my critique of “subjective reason” and its relapse into a second mythology – a critique bearing only a superficial resemblance to certain antipathies nourished by Dr. Anshen – I have never advocated a return to an even more mythological “objective reason” borrowed from history.  … I have attacked enlightenment in the spirit of enlightenment, not of obscurantism.
But Horkheimer's protest was in vain. For the intent of Dialectic of Enlightenment is too often and too easily misunderstood.

Schmidt's essays are invaluable in interpreting the full meaning of this landmark work of Horkheimer and Adorno, which was quite novel in its time. All things considered, though, I still maintain that the thesis of this work is false, and that only the seminal chapter on the culture industry is worth salvaging.

See also:

Jeffrey Herf on Reactionary Modernism & Dialectic of Enlightenment

R. Dumain's Critique of Dialectic of Enlightenment

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