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Commentary :: War and Militarism
Dialectic of Enlightenment
10 Jan 2007
"War is the greatest evil requiring taxes and police so the few can control the many." (James Madison) In imperialism, sacrifices are made for corporations and the egos of the powerful, not the for the country.

By Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

[This article is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,]

“Dialectic of Enlightenment” is a philosophical essay volume by Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno subtitled Philosophical Fragments. It was written in American exile when the end of National Socialist rule in Germany was looming on the horizon. Its first publication occurred in 1944 under the title Philosophical Fragments by the Social Studies Association Inc. New York. In 1947, the work was published in its final version by Querido-Verlag in Amsterdam. In the 1960s, the text circulated in a pirate edition in circles of German students where it was enthusiastically received. A new official edition appeared again in Germany in 1969.

The “Dialectic of Enlightenment” is a main work of critical theory.

The work’s thesis is that the failure of the Enlightenment was already laid out in the “instrumental reason” of its thinking. The once mythical access to the world is rationally explained with the attempt to dominate nature. As “domination,” enlightenment itself is entangled in myth, in the “positivism” of an affirmation of the status quo that completely dissolves “individuals” in a managed world “over against the economic powers.” In their treatise, Horkheimer and Adorno reacted to the “puzzling willingness of the technologically-educated masses” to hand themselves over to the despotism of totalitarian ideologies and forms of rule and judged this conduct as a “collapse of middle class civilization” and sinking into a “new kind of barbarism.”


The book is divided in a foreword and five essay treatises:

1. Chapter: The Term Enlightenment – Here the theoretical foundations of the term “enlightenment” are discussed. The dialectic of nature and dominating nature, myth and enlightenment, is connected with social reality like enlightened rationality.
2. Chapter: Excursus I Odysseus or Myth and Enlightenment. – With the help of “Odysseus” as an early witness of western civilization, the dialectic of myth and enlightenment is illustrated as a pre-modern confrontation with a mythically understood nature and an enlightened dominance of nature.
3. Chapter: Excursus II Juliette or Enlightenment and Morality – In a comparison of Kant’s critical writings of “practical” and “theoretical” reason with the writings of de Sades and Nietzsche, the philosophers of the counter-enlightenment ultimately appear as consistent perfecters of the nihilist self-destruction of enlightened reason and lead to the blind rule of objective indifference toward all meaning and all humanity as in the “subjugation of everything natural under the high-handed subject.
4. Chapter: Culture Industry as Mass Deception – The rise of economic productivity to an economization of all areas of life ultimately ended in a “selling off of culture” where meaning is replaced by the calculated stupidities of anti-Semitism. Economic happenings are glorified without reflection as the product of the objectivized power of logical rationalization processes.
5. Chapter: Elements of Anti-Semitism. Limits of Enlightenment – With the help of the history of ideas of anti-Semitism, an irrationalism inheres in the dominant reason that manifests in anti-civilization orientations in fascist thinking. This is explained in theses. The return to barbarism is understood as an integral part of the modern age that cannot be simply excised.
6. Chapter: Notes and Drafts – In the last chapter, incomplete ideas refer to a “dialectical anthropology.”
This division shows that Horkheimer and Adorno did not present a logically structured and complete work


In the first half of the 20th century, Horkheimer/Adorno recapitulated that humanity in the sign of the enlightenment has not reached “a truly human state.”

“Since time immemorial, enlightenment in the most comprehensive sense of progressive thinking seems to take fear from people and make them masters. However the completely enlightened earth shines in the sign of triumphal disaster. The program of the enlightenment was the demystification of the world. The myths should be dissolved and education through knowledge emphasized.”

The authors discussed the question how belief in rationality in the form of an “instrumental reason” could cause blindness or delusion to the subjects of thinking.


According to Horkheimer/Adorno, abstraction is the tool with which logic is separated from the measure of things. The diverse is set under an abstract quantitative reality and standardized to make it manageable. The diverse is made calculable and subject to a utility-aspect so it can be controlled and manipulated. The schema of calculability becomes the system of world explanation. Everything that evades instrumental thinking is suspected of superstition. Modern positivism banishes it to the sphere of the non-objective or appearance.

This logic is a logic of the subject who affects things under the sign of rule and dominance of nature. This rule now faces individuals as reason that organizes the objective worldview.

Through the standardization of human thought, social subjects become a manipulated collective. Scientific world domination turns against thinking subjects and objectivizes persons into objects in industry, planning, division of labor and the economy. Under the rule of the general, subjects become things and people are de-personalized. The general faces them as a totalitarian form of rule dismembering individuals. Progress becomes destructive. Instead of liberation from the pressures of overwhelming nature, adjustment to technology and market events is demanded. The economic and political interest in manipulating human consciousness replaces liberating enlightenment from underage existence. Enlightenment becomes mass deception.


One core point of the dialectic of enlightenment is “enlightenment as mass deceit.” Culture industry means the commercial marketing of culture, the branch of industry occupied with manufacturing culture. Authentic culture opposes this.

According to Horkheimer and Adorno’s interpretation, industrially produced culture robs people of imagination and takes over reflection for them. Culture industry furnishes the “commodity” so that only the task of consuming is left to them. Through mass production, everything is similar and at most different in minor details. Everything is forced into a schema imitating the real world as much as possible. Drives are promoted so that sublimation is no longer possible.

The movie can be mentioned as an example. In principle, all films are similar. They are designed to reproduce reality as much as possible. Even fantasy films that do not claim to be realistic do not do justice to the demands. Regardless of how extraordinary they want to be, the end is usually very foreseeable since many films are now produced according to the same pattern. Through erotic presentations, for example, certain drives are strengthened so others are repressed.

As in every branch of industry, the goal of the culture industry is economic. All effort is oriented at economic success.

On the other hand, authentic culture is not goal-oriented but an end-in-itself. Authentic culture promotes human imagination by giving stimulation different than the culture industry and creating possibilities for independent human thinking. Authentic culture does not readjust reality but goes far beyond it. It is individual and cannot be forced into a pattern.

As causes for the origin of culture industry, Horkheimer and Adorno stress that firms market culture and pursue the economic goal of profit maximization. Through this circumstance, culture becomes a commodity like every other and does not remain what it is or should be.


Another part of the work is occupied with anti-Semitism and fascist propaganda. The focus of attention is on fascist propaganda in the US.

Winning people is always crucial. Alongside the content, the main emphasis is on simulating the mechanisms of the subconscious. The speaker speaks as “one of them” and doesn’t take an elevated position toward hearers. In this situation, he tells of natural situations and does not speak of abstract things. Whether he experienced them himself or whether they only originated from his imagination doesn’t matter. The speaker presents himself as a bearer of news to strengthen the connection between himself and the audience. According to Horkheimer and Adorno, speakers arouse curiosity by making intimations about which hearers want to know more. Whether the “scandals” are true or false does not make a difference. Hearers are given the feeling they belong to an insider circle that has this information.

The goal that propaganda wants to pursue and attain is not clearly identified. Rather the “great” or “powerful” are extolled but not scrutinized to impress hearers.

One essential element of fascist propaganda is not publicizing any texts that could be open to attack.

Fascist speech is strongly oriented to visual presentation. The speaker tries to create and transport to the hearer a clear standardized picture of the “enemy.” Whether this picture corresponds to reality or not is quite secondary. In this way, the speech remains “exciting” and the attention of the audience is not lost. Certain slogans are used in a targeted way that remind people again and again of what is central and what must be resisted. These slogans remain in the subconscious and have a great power in memories.

Fascist propaganda is always planned and thought through very exactly. Psychological methods and tricks are used consciously and systematically.

The situation of fascist speech is comparable to a show. The speaker offers something to the public; he breaks rules and taboos. Convincing the audience of the plans of the speaker with words alone is not enough. The public must be offered something. The speaker does not act as a speaker usually does. Instead he presents himself. With the public, feelings of joy and pranks are aroused that lead to adoption of the ideology of the speaker. The person is well entertained and offered a good show. Therefore he is thankful and internalizes the ideology. However this also results in the individual losing his self-control and falling into dependence. The personality of every individual hearer is whittled down to an extreme extent.

The situation is ritualized through the sequence of the show. The situation is celebrated. Fascist rituals have special qualities and characteristics. Its speeches are geared to black-white dichotomies. For example, the enemy is evil and atrocious; the rest is good and pure. No intermediate stages exist. The speaker uses clichés. Through slogans, these clichés are repeated again and again.

In this connection, ritualization has a negative religious connotation. When the speaker tries to sell his ideology as something “divine,” the impression arises with the hearer that what is said is good. Rituals reinforce interpersonal bonds and encourage people to move closer together.

Another important point is that things can only be revealed with hints or spin, not completely. For example, the speaker speaks of “dark forces” without really identifying these dark forces. One assumes that the hearer knows (or suspects) what is meant. On the side of the audience, the feeling arises that they belong to an insider group since they understand the vague statements of the speaker and know what is meant. The feeling of common identity is imparted since everyone knows what is meant and the facts don’t need to be addressed.

The most essential and significant point cited on the theme of fascist ritual by Horkheimer and Adorno in their Dialectic of Enlightenment is that this ritual is hardly geared to substance. The staging or the show is much more important. This must be analyzed psychoanalytically because a ritual as described can provide sexual satisfaction. The delight in revealing can serve as a substitute for sexual satisfaction. The ritual situation can stand symbolically for a sacrifice. The presentation of “reality” (or what the speaker wants to convey as reality) amounts to the killing of a victim. The enemy is symbolically killed. The desire arises to make a sacrifice of the enemy in a real and sacral way, not only symbolically.

Culture industry
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The term culture industry was coined by Theodor Adorno (1903-1969) and Max Horkheimer (1895-1973). They argued that popular culture is like a factory producing standardized cultural goods to manipulate the masses into passivity; the easy pleasures available through consumption of popular culture make people docile and content, no matter how difficult their economic circumstances. Adorno and Horkheimer saw this mass-produced culture as a danger to the more difficult high arts. Culture industries cultivate false needs; that is, needs created and satisfied by capitalism. True needs, in contrast, are freedom, creativity, or genuine happiness.Marcuse was the first to demarcate true needs from false needs.

Contents[hide]· 1 The Frankfurt School · 2 The theory · 3 Elements · 4 Observations · 5 References
[edit] The Frankfurt School
Adorno and Horkheimer were key members of the Frankfurt School. They were much influenced by the dialectical materialism and historical materialism of Karl Marx, as well the revisitation of the dialectical idealism of Hegel, in both of which where events are studied not in isolation but as part of the process of change. As a group later joined by Jurgen Habermas, they were responsible for the formulation of Critical Theory. In works such as Dialectic of Enlightenment and Negative Dialectics, Adorno and Horkheimer theorised that the phenomenon of mass culture has a political implication, namely that all the many forms of popular culture were a single culture industry whose purpose was to ensure the continued obedience of the masses to market interests. In The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), they postulated a modern form of bread and circuses — the method used by the rulers of Ancient Rome to maintain their power and control over the people. This new “iron system” filled leisure time with amusements to distract the consumers from the boredom of their increasingly automated work; they were never left alone long enough to recognise the reality of their exploitation and to consider resisting the economic and social system. This is a very pessimistic view of prevailing culture as an anti-enlightenment opiate for the masses and one which draws strongly on Marxism for its condemnation of what is characterised as being continuing capitalist oppression.
[edit] The theory
Although Western culture used to be divided into national markets and then into highbrow, middlebrow and lowbrow, the modern view of mass culture is that there is a single marketplace in which the best or most popular works succeed. This recognises that the consolidation of media companies has centralised power in the hands of the few remaining multinational corporations now controlling production and distribution. The theory proposes that culture not only mirrors society, but also takes an important role in shaping society through the processes of standardisation and commodification, creating objects rather than subjects. The culture industry claims to serve the consumers' needs for entertainment, but conceals the way that it standardises these needs, manipulating the consumers to desire what it produces. The outcome is that mass production feeds a mass market that minimizes the identity and tastes of the individual consumers who are as interchangeable as the products they consume. The rationale of the theory is to promote the emancipation of the consumer from the tyranny of the producers by inducing the consumer to question beliefs and ideologies. Adorno claimed that enlightenment would bring pluralism and demystification. Unfortunately, society is said to have suffered another fall, corrupted by capitalist industry with exploitative motives.
[edit] Elements
Anything made by a person is a materialisation of their labour and an expression of their intentions. There will also be a use value: the benefit to the consumer will be derived from its utility. The exchange value will reflect its utility and the conditions of the market: the prices paid by the television broadcaster or at the box office. Yet, the modern soap operas with their interchangeable plots and formulaic narrative conventions reflect standardised production techniques and the falling value of a mass produced cultural product. Only rarely is a film released that makes a more positive impression on the general discourse and achieves a higher exchange value, e.g. Patton (1970) starring George C. Scott as the eponymous American general, was released at a time of considerable anti-war sentiment. The opening shot is of Patton in front of an American flag making an impassioned speech. This was a form of dialectic in which the audience could identify with the patriotism either sincerely (the thesis) or ironically (the antithesis) and so set the tone of the interpretation for the remainder of the film. However, the film is manipulating specific historical events, not only as entertainment, but also as a form of propaganda by demonstrating a link between success in strategic resource management situations and specified leadership qualities. Given that the subtext was instrumental and not "value free", ethical and philosophical considerations arise.
Normally, only high art criticises the world outside its boundaries, but access to this form of communication is limited to the elite classes where the risks of introducing social instability are slight. A film like Patton is popular art which intends controversy in a world of social order and unity which, according to Adorno, is regressing into a cultural blandness. To Hegel, order is good a priori, i.e. it does not have to answer to those living under it. But, if order is disturbed? In Negative Dialectics, Adorno believed this tended towards progress by stimulating the possibility of class conflict. Marx's theory of Historical Materialism was teleological, i.e. society follows through a dialectic of unfolding stages from ancient modes of production to feudalism to capitalism to a future communism. But Adorno felt that the culture industry would never permit a sufficient core of challenging material to emerge on to the market that might disturb the status quo and stimulate the final communist state to emerge.
[edit] Observations
Critics of the theory say that the products of mass culture would not be popular if people did not enjoy them, and that culture is self-determining in its administration. This would deny Adorno contemporary political significance, arguing that politics in a prosperous society is more concernced with action than with thought. Wiggershaus (1994) notes that the young generation of critical theorists largely ignore Adorno's work which, in part, stems from Adorno’s inability to draw practical conclusions from his theories. Adorno is also accused of a lack of consistency in his claims to be implementing Marxism. Whereas he accepted the classical Marxist analysis of society showing how one class exercises domination over another, he deviated from Marx in his failure to use dialectic as a method to propose ways to change. Marx's dialectical method depended on the willingness of the working class to overthrow the ruling class, but Adorno and Horkheimer postulated that the culture industry has undermined the revolutionary movement. However, despite these problems, the concept has influenced intellectual discourse on popular culture and scholarly popular culture studies.
[edit] References
· Adorno, T. W. Negative Dialectics. New York: The Seabury Press. (1973)
· Adorno, T.W. A Sample of Adorno's ideas on the culture industry and popular music
· Adorno, T., & Horkheimer, M. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Stanford University Press (2002)
· Cook, D. The Culture Industry Revisited. Rowman & Littlefield. (1996)
· Hesmondhalgh, D. The Cultural Industries. Sage. (2002)
· Steinert, H. Culture Industry. Cambridge: Polity (2003)
· Wiggershaus, R. The Frankfurt School: its History, Theories, and Political Significance. MIT Press. (1994)
· Witkin, R.W. Adorno on Popular Culture. Routledge. (2003)
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