Tuesday, 10 January 2017

The Dialects of Having A Big Fight about Ideas

It's the battle of the millennium! 

In the Red Corner, that Terrific Tag Team of Cultural Marxism: Adorno and Horkheimer! These guys just don't know when to quit, and their Dialectic of Enlightenment has been blamed for everything from Hilary Clinton through to post-modernism! 

And in the Blue Corner, it's the entirety of Western Philosophy! When Addy and Horky hit out at the consequences of the Enlightenment, it wasn't enough for them to have a crack at the philosophes of the eighteenth century: they squared up against Martin Luther, Bacon, Plato - anyone who had done anything to undermine the animistic vision of the university and replace it with cold, hard facts (as long as they could be used for a profit!)! 

Round One

In The Concept of Enlightenment, the red boys have set out their stall early. 'The program of the Enlightenment was the disenchantment of the world; the dissolution of myths... Enlightenment is totalitarian' (pages 3-6). Pulling in references to Plato's preoccupation with Ideas as Numbers (page 7), Martin Luther's belief that knowledge without purpose is a bit of a slut (page 5) and the reduction of nature to the service of mankind (page 8), they point out that both the Jewish Genesis and the Greek philosophers were already staking out nature as the property of... the humans.

It's a beautiful, rhetorical and polemical attack: a blizzard of concepts that sketches out an entire history of oppression, but somewhere, the Enlightenment gets lost in the mix. It's a strange start, not to actually mention any of the big names of the eighteenth century in an essay intending to take down the underpinning of the Age of Reason. Rather, Adorno and Horkheimer have a right go at the evolution of a particular way of thinking which results, frankly, in capitalism. I'm not sure, in retrospect, that communists moaning about the exclusion of magic and metaphysics makes much sense, nor the dismissive attitude towards humanism. 

I'm an anti-humanist myself, but what would socialism be without the human dimension. Oh - that's right... a totalitarian state that subsumes personal freedom for the 'progress of history'. Any kulaks fancying commenting on how that works out? 

Result: bit of a below the belt reply there: the Stalinist purges weren't common knowledge when Dialect was first published in the 1940s, and it's not like they were advising Stalin. It's a all a bit - my system. love it or leave it, really. 

Still, Adorno and Horkheimer have got it all to do now. Fair play placing The Age of Reason within a broader context, but instead of being able to, say, have a crack at Voltaire and Diderot, they have some big additional players to consider. 

Round Two

Adorno and Horkheimer are standing in the centre of the ring and screaming. There's something about the difference between magic and science, representation and specifics... atoms, rabbits, ritual and plunder. 

The other philosophers are looking at their shoes. the words 'magic is utterly untrue' get a nod of recognition, but the whole of pages 9, 10 and 11 are incoherent, thanks to the density of the thought. They might be saying that magical rituals recognised individual objects as being representatives of a category. Maybe they are trying to expose the mythology that sustains the privilege of rational thought. 

In the meantime, Plato has wandered off to do some sums and Martin Luther is nailing his own foot to the canvas. 'It distracts me from the pain in the hoop this pair are giving me.'

Result: Derrida would have a field day with this. Unfortunately for me, the mentions of mimesis and representation means that this is probably part of the essay I am going to need to understand. They are probably trying to postulate two modes of thinking - magical and rational - and suggesting that magical thinking is less alienated than the rational, in so far as it offers the subject (some bloke dressed up) an identification with the object (the universe): the human is part of the cosmos. The Enlightenment, on the other hand, presents a power relationship between subject and object (the subject having replaced his funky shaman outfit with a white lab coat). 

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