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Adorno and Horkheimer: The Dialectic of Enlightenment

Posted on August 26, 2009 in Reading Project

The Dialectic of Enlightenment is a collaboration between Adorno and Max Horkheimer. Horkheimer didn’t attain the fame of Frankfurt School peers like Adorno and Marcuse, but this was at least in part because he took on more responsibilities than they did, chairing the Institute for Social Research in its various locations and editing its publications. At any rate, the book is basically about how the project of The Enlightenment seemed pretty great for about 160 years or so, but that now (and by “now” I mean 1944, the year of the book’s release) are the direct result of those things that seemed good at the time.

Easily (and understandably) the best-known section of The Dialectic of Enlightenment is the essay “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” One of the earliest work of proto-cultural studies (no Robotech jokes, please), it considers the dangers inherent in the power of mass media to form consensus. While it is clearly haunted by the specter of Walter Benjamin, it focuses more on the fusion of the sub and super structures, rather than the inversion of the traditional Marxist understanding of their relative importance.

This is also plagued by the cranky and dismissive tone that makes Adorno’s jazz essay so funny, but much of what is here is interesting in prescient. In fact, there are a lot of points at which the reader is inclined to think, “wow, you dudes have no idea how good you had it.” The most obvious cause here is their inclination to think that mass media creates its own ideal consumer. Now, I’m sure that back in 1944 it seemed like the one-way street of radio communication seemed pretty dictatorial, but compared to the ostensibly user-sensitive pigeonholing technology of the internet that stuff comes off as a bit amateurish.

In true modern style, then, it’s the form of the warnings in “The Culture Industry” that make it interesting. The corollary to the outdated feel of their particular instances is the rather stark fact that this now quite venerable understanding of the risks involved in the compliance-creating power of media technologies has done nothing of any kind to disturb that power.

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