The Dialectic of Enlightenment
Horkheimer, Adorno and the Frankfurt School
18 minutes read - 3720 words
The Dialectic of Enlightenment is one of the main texts of what has come to be called the Frankfurt School, a lose collection of thinkers who first congregated around the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. The authors, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, analyse modern culture from a number of perspectives, addressing mythology, enlightenment, sexuality and liberation, sickness and psychoanalysis.
The Dialectic of Enlightenment is one of the main texts of what has come to be called the Frankfurt School, although it was neither a school nor located anywhere near Frankfurt for much of the time it was active.
The Frankfurt School is generally taken to mean a lose collection of thinkers who first congregated around the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. The Institute was founded in 1923 with the money of a wealthy student, Felix Weil, but from the beginning the founders sought to integrate the Institute into the formal university system, so that it could offer lectures, attract academics, get research funding and confer academic degrees.
The most prominent of the founding members were Max Horkheimer, who became the Director of the Institute in 1930, musicologist and philosopher Theodor Adorno, psychoanalyst and social psychologist Erich Fromm, whom we already know quite well, and philosopher Herbert Marcuse. Later, many others became loosely associated with the Frankfurt School, for instance Jurgen Habermas, who started out as a doctoral student of Horkheimer but later went his own way and created his own theoretical framework, distancing himself from the Frankfurt School. Erich Fromm, too, was only loosely associated with the School, having his own research program that emphasised psychoanalysis rather than Hegelian and Marxist philosophy and Critical Theory.
Erich Fromm (1900-1980) was a German social psychologist and philosopher who had enormous popular success from the 1950s all the way to the end of his life in 1980. We discuss his work and his relation to Marxism and Freud.
The main topics of the Frankfurt School
The Frankfurt School was, as we said, never a “school” in the narrow sense of having one set of teachings that it promoted through its members.
Instead, it was a loose association of very different thinkers who, for a time, had common research interests and found inspiration and support from working together, despite always also having differences and sometimes fundamental disagreements among them. It was more like a flock of birds who, for a while, find themselves sitting on the same branch of a tree, rather than a pack of wolves that will hunt and live together as closely knit family unit.
What united the Frankfurt School was, first, an interest in Marxism and the question why Marxist teachings had not succeeded in creating the ideal society.
What united the Frankfurt School was, first, an interest in Marxism and the question why Marxist teachings had not succeeded in creating the ideal society. As the 20th century progressed, first towards the dictatorship of the Nazi party in Germany and later to the absolutism of our technological consumer societies, the members of the Frankfurt School were asking what the social and psychological mechanisms behind these developments were. What made perfectly normal people into Nazis? What made workers who suffered from overwork and poverty in a capitalist state accept their fate rather than revolt? And how could perhaps the trend towards more and more centralisation of power in the hands of a few industrialists be reversed and a better, more just society created?
Dialectic of Enlightenment
The book by Horkheimer and Adorno, published in 1947, became the early poster work of the Frankfurt School and its criticism of capitalist society, later to be followed by Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man. Both books agree on many of their basic views.
The Dialectic of Enlightenment is a complex book, addressing many topics: mythology, enlightenment, sexuality and liberation, sickness and psychoanalysis. We will only talk here about the fourth part of the book, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” which seems to me to be the most practical, easy to understand and immediately applicable to our own lives today. It is amazing how well their criticism of culture has held up over the past 75 years and how real and fresh it reads today, perfectly describing our own problems with our culture industries. Horkheimer and Adorno could not have dreamt of the Internet, of Twitter, Facebook and Netflix, but their criticism of culture applies perfectly to all these modern phenomena, underlining just how correctly they diagnosed what was happening and how much we need this book and its conclusions, even (and particularly) today.
The Happier Society. Erich Fromm and the Frankfurt School. In this book, philosophy professor, popular author and editor of the Daily Philosophy web magazine, Dr Andreas Matthias takes the reader on a tour, looking at how society influences our happiness. Following Erich Fromm, the Frankfurt School, Aldous Huxley and other thinkers, we go in search of wisdom and guidance on how we can live better, happier and more satisfying lives today. This is an edited and expanded version of the articles published on tis site. Get it now! Click here!
Horkheimer and Adorno begin with a criticism of mass culture, which they diagnose as having lost any significance or meaning and having become just commercial entertainment:
All mass culture under monopoly is identical, and the contours of its skeleton, the conceptual armature fabricated by monopoly, are beginning to stand out. Those in charge no longer take much trouble to conceal the structure, the power of which increases the more bluntly its existence is admitted. Films and radio no longer need to present themselves as art. The truth that they are nothing but business is used as an ideology to legitimize the trash they intentionally produce. (p.95)
How did we come to that? Those who make culture, the authors say, tend to explain the uniformity of radio and TV programs (and today, we would add, of Internet content, self-published books, and Youtube channels) by the needs of the millions who consume this content. Standard products just happen to best meet the needs of all these different people who live in different cultures and different locations.
All mass culture under monopoly is identical, and the contours of its skeleton, the conceptual armature fabricated by monopoly, are beginning to stand out.
But now comes an interesting paragraph. At the end of the same page, Horkheimer and Adorno talk about the difference between telephone and radio:
The step from telephone to radio has clearly distinguished the roles. The former liberally permitted the participant to play the role of subject. The latter democratically makes everyone equally into listeners, in order to expose them in authoritarian fashion to the same programs put out by different stations. (p.95)
Has the Internet changed the media landscape?
We might feel like questioning this today. Isn’t the Internet proof enough that the authors are wrong here? Yes, when we went from telephone to radio we temporarily lost something, but when we went from radio and TV to blogs and YouTube, didn’t we get the ability back to be subjects, real participants, initiators of the social media discourse, rather than just passive listeners?
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I’m not sure. The list of the 20 most subscribed YouTube channels (end of 2021) includes seven music channels (most non-English, interestingly, with Hindi channels in the first two places), one channel for children, 11 channels about entertainment and sports, and one channel about 5-minute crafts. Many of these channels are owned by the same big names that dominate culture outside of the Internet: Sony Entertainment, Bollywood production companies, World Wrestling Entertainment and Justin Bieber. The most watched video on YouTube is the Baby Shark Dance with 8.8 billion views (one for every human on Earth) and the most viewed video categories are comedy and music. At the same time, there are more than 37 million YouTube channels out there, most of which, essentially, nobody watches.
So has the Internet replaced the telephone in the way that Horkheimer and Adorno hoped? Or has it become just another reincarnation of TV, of a way of pushing prefabricated cultural content down the viewers’ throats? With over 75% of watch time going to comedy, it certainly doesn’t seem like YouTube is primarily used to educate or to facilitate serious communication between individuals. Other social media do allow people to connect in person, but these also tend, over the long run, to be appropriated, controlled and censored by a system that has the primary purpose of generating income for the companies that own the Internet’s real estate: Facebook, Twitter, TikTok.
It is irrelevant whether I’m watching a channel with 20 or 20,000 subscribers if all I’m seeing is the same stuff on both.
But Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s criticism of the modern media landscape goes beyond that: It is not only that modern media exclude many from participating as creators in them (which may be disputed today) — the real problem is that modern culture is all the same:
That the difference between the models of Chrysler and General Motors is fundamentally illusory is known by any child, who is fascinated by that very difference. (p.97)
This certainly is true of our media landscape, both on- and offline. It is irrelevant whether I’m watching a channel with 20 or 20,000 subscribers if all I’m seeing is the same stuff on both; and this again is the same I’ve been seeing over the past days and weeks, thanks to a recommendation algorithm that presents the ever same content to me, trying to shield me from anything that I might dislike, anything that I might find boring or upsetting. YouTube maximises view time (and, consequently, ad income) by presenting me with ever more of exactly what it knows me to like, and by carefully filtering out anything that I might find objectionable, everything I might disagree with or feel offended by. But in this way, the recommendation algorithm takes away that most basic of public functions of truly social media: to be a platform for democratic exchange, for the dissemination of ideas, for dialogue, dissent and dialectic.
According to philosopher Erich Fromm, the dream of endless technological development has led to a depletion of natural resources and the destruction of nature.
Dialectic and cultural uniformity
“Dialectic” is a word that has had many different meanings over its long history. But generally it can be understood as a process of improving one’s understanding by contrasting different, opposite approaches or theses and trying to integrate them into a “higher” version of the truth. A dialectic process is inherently pluralistic, because it requires the opposites that it can then synthesise into a new insight. The “media-bubbles” that recommendation algorithms create are by default “one-dimensional” (as Marcuse would put it): they exclude dissent and opposition and create an illusion of harmony and unanimity by cutting off every dissenting voice.
The “media-bubbles” that recommendation algorithms create are by default “one-dimensional” (as Marcuse would put it).
Culture, which in the past has always contained the seeds of dissent, dissatisfaction with the status quo and artistic suffering, today has become something that is administered and rendered harmless inside an officially sanctioned machinery that administrates it:
To speak about culture always went against the grain of culture. The general designation “culture” already contains, virtually, the process of identifying, cataloging, and classifying which imports culture into the realm of administration. Only what has been industrialized, rigorously subsumed, is fully adequate to this concept of culture. (p.104)
This concept of culture has a built-in way of dealing with dissenters, with those who might be tempted to criticise the sameness and meaninglessness of cultural products:
By artfully sanctioning the demand for trash, the system inaugurates total harmony. Connoisseurship and expertise are proscribed as the arrogance of those who think themselves' superior, whereas culture distributes its privileges democratically to all. Under the ideological truce between them, the conformism of the consumers, like the shamelessness of the producers they sustain, can have a good conscience. Both content themselves with the reproduction of sameness. (p.106)
This is seen, according to Horkheimer and Adorno, most clearly in the movie industry. It is amazing, how well their diagnoses describe today’s movies, over 70 years later.
One characteristic of a movie industry that tries to cater to bland sameness is, they say, that it will only create movies from material that is sure to appeal to the masses. And indeed, this is what we clearly see as a development in the movie industry from the 1970s and 80s to today.
In film, any manuscript that is not reassuringly based on a best-seller is viewed with mistrust,
they write. This is even more true today. Not even bestsellers are sufficient any more to get a movie project greenlighted in Hollywood. It’s best if the movie project is a sequel of another, already proven blockbuster. James Bond 20, Star Wars 13, the Marvel Cinematic Universe: these productions suck up nearly all movie production resources and funding, leaving almost nothing for the creation of original or art movies, cultural products that might be even the slightest bit challenging or different. The consequence of this way of creating movies is that they all resemble each other — not necessarily in the details of the plot, but certainly in their architecture.
Movies must be predictable, with scripts being rejected if they miss the essential beats and plot-points.
Look up “rules of screenwriting” or “screenplay plot structure” on the Internet and you will find endless discussions among movie professionals that all, essentially, boil down to one piece of advice: structure your movie just like any other movie or forget writing for Hollywood. Movies must be predictable, with scripts being rejected if they miss the essential beats and plot-points. The first act must end on page 25, the first half of the second on page 50 and so on. If a screenplay does not hit the right page numbers with its structure, then it is a loser and will be rejected by any Hollywood script reader. This guarantees that all movies turn out to be exactly the same, having the same emotional ups and downs at exactly the same places, with only the names of the characters and the details of their occupations changing. Horkheimer and Adorno:
This is the incurable sickness of all entertainment. Amusement congeals into boredom, since, to be amusement, it must cost no effort and therefore moves strictly along the well-worn grooves of association. The spectator must need no thoughts of his own: the product prescribes each reaction, not through any actual coherence — which collapses once exposed to thought — but through signals. Any logical connection presupposing mental capacity is scrupulously avoided. Developments are to emerge from the directly preceding situation, not from the idea of the whole. There is no plot which could withstand the screenwriters' eagerness to extract the maximum effect from the individual scene. Finally, even the schematic formula seems dangerous, since it provides some coherence of meaning, however meager, when only meaninglessness is acceptable. (p.109)
In this way, Horkheimer and Adorno propose, the whole of the culture industry becomes quite the opposite of what “art” used to be. Instead of a critical commentary on life and an imaginative evaluation of alternatives, modern culture becomes one of the pillars of the repressive system. Amusement, they say, always meant to put painful things out of one’s mind, to forget suffering:
At its root is powerlessness. It is indeed escape, but not, as it claims, escape from bad reality but from the last thought of resisting that reality. (p.116)
This cultural uniformity, along with the power of advertisements to prescribe to us the properties that are considered desirable and those to avoid, leads to an every growing equalisation of people. Instead of individuals, we are now members of a tribe. The initiation ritual may be painful, but in the end it binds us together and provides our lives with meaning. We see here echoes of Erich Fromm, who also emphasised how becoming part of a tribe, of a group of people, can free us from the anxiety and the existential terror of alone-ness.
Instead of individuals, we are now members of a tribe. The initiation ritual may be painful, but in the end it binds us together and provides our lives with meaning.
The society provides materially for all its members, as long as they accept the society’s hegemony over their lives and choices. Officially, it all looks like freedom and democracy. The real control is hidden beneath the surface:
Formal freedom is guaranteed for everyone. No one has to answer officially for what he or she thinks. However, all find themselves enclosed from early on within a system of churches, clubs, professional associations, and other relationships which amount to the most sensitive instrument of social control. Anyone who wants to avoid ruin must take care not to weigh too little in the scales of this apparatus. Otherwise he will fall behind in life and finally go under. … Specialist knowledge as a rule goes hand in hand with a prescribed set of attitudes … (p.120)
That last point is crucial. The system filters its specialists through churches, clubs, professional associations and other institutions so that, when finally people arrive at positions of power, society can be sure that they have the correct, desired attitudes. Those who don’t conform are not forcibly silenced, which would generate discontent and opposition; instead, they are silently left to fall behind in the race for social advancement and “finally go under,” leaving no trace.
Let’s try it out!
The Dialectic of Enlightenment provides an all-encompassing criticism of society and culture. It is difficult to see how one could do anything about a society that insists to feed us with uniform cultural products, that takes away even our imagination of any different world and style of life, that aims to make us into clones, robots, virtually identical copies of each other, endlessly obedient, endlessly patient, with no strength or will left to revolt.
If this was so, what could we possibly do?
Well, there are a number of possibilities. Assuming Horkheimer and Adorno are right (which, like everything in philosophy, can be disputed), we still have at least some chance of trying to escape the total cultural domination of the system. If the system creates all the eternally-same cultural content in order to dull our senses and our opposition, then at least we can recognise its cultural products by just that sameness, that absence of anything interesting, of real depth, of real difference, of real suffering (as they themselves say). And if can recognise these products as dangerous to our individuality, we can avoid them and instead try to find those pockets of culture that are still genuine, still not taken over by the cultural “machine” (to use an expression from Pink Floyd). And we can recognise these specifically through their being different.
How can we apply this to our lives?
For a week, you could make a point of avoiding every bit of mainstream culture and instead try to find those pockets of genuine culture, the forgotten, neglected, anarchic, imaginative and authentic expressions of human imagination. Don’t even try TV or Netflix, but you might find something on the forgotten backwaters of YouTube. The movie industry has been trading in sameness ever since the times of Horkheimer and Adorno, so there is little hope to find anything of value there. But YouTube does have Marxist channels, for instance. It does have channels showcasing non-European, non-Westernised, indigenous cultures. Listen to some indigenous music from different parts of the world, for example.
Also, you could read books that were part of human history long before our advanced technological societies flattened out our culture. The Bible, the Illiad and the Odyssey, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Mahabharata, the works of Virgil and Ovid, the works of Dante and Shakespeare, and try to derive inspiration from those. Or the classic philosophers: Aristotle, Plato, Confucius, Mencius, Lao Tzu. Or those who were always considered rebels and whom polite society always sought to discredit and silence: from some of the ancient Roman poets through Marquis de Sade to Hermann Hesse, Henry Miller and Anais Nin. One could also read the philosophers of revolt and anarchism: Marx, Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin and many others.
Among spiritual writers, choose those who advocate a life away from society: the hermits, the monks, the Buddhist and Daoist sages, the Desert Fathers and their modern counterparts, the proponents of alternative lifestyles, those who go for foraging instead of shopping in the luxury mall, those living in the wilderness or in their own smallholdings rather than those spending their lives in office towers.
I recently read a fascinating book by Michael Pollan, This Is Your Mind on Plants, where he discusses the mind-altering (and society-altering) effects of plants, from opium to coffee. I am not advocating using recreational drugs – if anything, our society could do with a lot less alcohol, nicotine and caffeine. But, if we believe the Frankfurt School, then true happiness and satisfaction in life might only be found outside the narrow confines of what is socially accepted behaviour. And, surely, keeping an open mind towards alternative experiences and lifestyles can only give us more options and more ideas on how to enrich our own lives.
Try it out and see how varied and interesting life really is – if we just escape the narrow cage that society is constantly trying to erect all around us.
Michael Pollan: This Is Your Mind On Plants. A fascinating tour through the world of consciousness-altering plants.
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