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Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

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Thursday, January 27, 2005


The Dialectic of the Enlightenment is a notoriously knotty text. LI would recommend this article: Language, Mythology, and Enlightenment: Historical Notes on Horkheimer and Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment by James Schmidt, in the 1996 Social Research. Schmidt isn’t a particularly nimble thinker or writer, but he does present a nice reconstruction of the writing of the text.

We like the fact that, in spite of Adorno’s contemptuous and semi-racist view of jazz, not to speak of pop music, A and H’s book started out in garage rock style:
“What eventually would become the Dialectic of Enlightenment first entered the world in December 1944 as a mimeographed typescript of over three hundred pages distributed to friends and associates of the Institute for Social Research. Printed on the brown pasteboard cover was the original rifle: Philosophische Fragmente. Theodor Adorno provided an explanation of sorts for the work's peculiar mode of dissemination in one of the aphorisms he presented to his coauthor Max Horkheimer the next February on the occasion of Horkheimer's fiftieth birthday:
In a world where books have long lost all likeness to books, the real book can no longer be one. If the invention of the printing press inaugurated the bourgeois era, the rime is at hand for its repeal by the mimeograph, the only fitting, the unobtrusive means of dissemination.”

As a blogger (that hideous word, seemingly composed of blotch, bugger and booger – all the grossness in the child’s garden of verse to which LI seems condemned, a lifer, to wander ), I can’t but clutch that aphorism to my measly little heart.

A & H passed the manuscript around to friends, who turned their thumbs down. Marcuse, the sweetest, but let’s face it, the least swift of the Frankfurt School crew, wrote:

Even their colleagues were not quite sure what to make of it. After struggling with the manuscript for a few months, a bewildered Herbert Marcuse wrote to Horkheimer,
“I have gone through the Fragmente twice, and I have reread many sections more than twice. However my reading was not continuous and concentrated enough .... The result: there are too many passages which I don't understand, and too many ideas which I cannot follow up beyond the condensed and abbreviated form in which you give them.”
Condensation was, however, with A & H., as with the Ramones, the whole point. And as with any garage rock band, there was always the tension between the Work and Work – as in finding work. And staying out of prison. A & H had not fled to America merely to end up as canned soup before the House Unamerican Committee. So before the book was published, Adorno did a little re-dubbing:
Martin Jay once characterized the Dialectic of Enlightenment as the "last leg" in the Frankfurt School's "long march away from orthodox Marxism" (Jay, 1973, p. 256). But a comparison of the changes made between the 1944 Philosophische Fragmente and 1947 Dialektik der Aufklarung makes this "last leg" look more like a quick step. The overwhelming majority of the revisions Adorno made in the work involved a purging of Marxian terminology. Thus, to take a few examples from the first chapter, "exploitation" becomes "enslavement" (5,p. 26), "capitalism" becomes "the economic system" (p. 26), "disposition over alien labor" becomes "utilization of the work of another" (p. 26), "monopoly technique" becomes "industrial technique" (p. 33), "object of exploitation" becomes "subject" (p. 36), "class domination" becomes "consolidated domination by the privileged" (p. 44), "exchange value" becomes simply "value" (p. 51)… Etc., etc.
So why did the duo decide to push upon the world a book that was, at least to their closest associates, incomprehensible? Schmidt does a nice job of tracking through H.’s correspondence for the genesis of the moments of uncanniness in which H. heard the prose of the world – in all its 30s incarnations, capitalist, communist and fascist. But LI likes this quote from Adorno’s correspondence most of all:
“The prohibitive difficulty of theory is today manifested in language. It permits nothing more to be said as it is experienced. Either it is reified, commodity-speech, banal and halfway to falsifying thought. Or it is in flight from the banal, ceremonial without ceremony, empowered without power, confirmed by its own fist of everyday discourse.”

In our next post, or one soon, we will discuss the chapter on Sade. And that is it, since we don’t want to sink Limited Inc utterly into the swamps of obscurity.. Looking around the ‘sphere, we noticed that the philosophy.com blog has been intermittently reflecting on the Dialectic of the Enlightenment. We contributed a long, outraged message to one of their posts. It’s a good blog. /

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