The Enlightenment: FOR or AGAINST? (Part 1)

Dave’s comment reminded me that I’ve been meaning to put this up for a while: 


Please join the University of Maryland English Department Eighteenth-Century Reading group for a discussion of:

The Enlightenment: FOR or AGAINST? (Part 1)

Did the Enlightenment free humanity from the tyranny of superstition or did it create more powerful forms of social control through new technologies of power?  Did it lay the groundwork for fascism or for human rights?  Should we build more yahoo-skin canoes and paddle back to Houyhnhnmland, or have we been voted off that island forever?  Unless you’re too busy extracting sunbeams from cucumbers, please weigh in on the Enlightenment on Monday, June 18th, 1-3 pm in Susquehanna 3105, University of Maryland. 

Readings for Part 1:

Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment

Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels



Nothing like a little Frankfurt School to get everyone out of the grading slough of despond!  If you can’t put down your two cents on the Enlightenment in person, please jump in with a post or comment.




11 responses to “The Enlightenment: FOR or AGAINST? (Part 1)

  1. Dave Mazella

    Your topic, Laura, made me wonder: what are the most famous attacks and/or celebrations of Enlightenment?

    I’m reading After Virtue, which has a real interesting cultural history of the Enlightenment as the destruction of Aristotelian teleology, but there’s also Hegel in the Phenomenology, and the Frankfurt school, as you point out, and the Foucault of the Order of Things, who can of course be opposed to the Foucault of What is Enlightenment? Those are the ones that come to my mind.

    But I remember a lot of gruff dismissals of post-structuralism for its supposed obscurantist rejections of Enlightenment, which was the kind of accusation that was never made against Adorno. I wonder why not . . .

  2. Laura Rosenthal

    I wonder if this is because the Dialectic of Enlightenment is more *dialectical*. Here they quote Nietzsche:
    “‘The Enlightenment should be taken into the people, so that the priests all become priests with a bad conscience–and the same must be done with regard to the State. That is the task of the Enlightenment: to make princes and statement unmistably aware that everything they do is sheer falsehood.’ On the other hand, Enlightenment had always been a tool for ‘great manipulators of government . . . The way in which the masses are fooled in this respect, for instance in all democracies, is very useful: the reduction and malleability of men are worked for as ‘progress.'”

    My advice to any of you working your way through this for the first time: don’t give up after the first chapter. It gets a little less abstract.

  3. Dave Mazella

    I don’t have a worked-out argument about this, but one of the terms that I’d want to insert into the debate over Enlightenment would be the state, specifically “reason of state.”

    Do either Swift or Adorno/Horkheimer have to think seriously about the forms of rationality required to manage a modern state? Obviously, they choose to treat the state’s reason as nothing more than a masked imposition of will (I’m channeling MacIntyre’s reading of Weber). This is what they all share. (I think Swift’s reading of the state is a consequence of the dynastic situation he found himself in, if B. Anderson is correct)

    But what about places, say these here United States, in whichthe barest notions of reason and rationality seem to have little place in political decision-making? Would the Adorno/Swift reading of political reason be more useful than say, Weber?

    In other words, as much as I appreciate A/H’s dialectic, I think that their dialectic is always in tension with a powerfully reductive, “anthropological” or unmasking impulse that favors their anti-modernism.

    But as I said, I don’t have a worked-out argument about this.


  4. Laura Rosenthal

    Doesn’t the first part of the Nietzsche quotation make a case for the need for rationality in organizing (and demystifying) the state? (I use this quotation because it seem to summarize their position, but I haven’t finished rereading it yet.) The same seems be the case with Swift. In book 1 he satirizes the Lilliputian reliance on favoritism in its choice of ministers, implicitly over a more rational choice.

    It seems like you’re thinking of the Al Gore essay, which I found compelling but am not sure I am entirely convinced. Why did the dawning of the internet age give us George Bush? Twice? To paraphrase Swift, the internet is potentially *capable* of hosting rational discourse but it seems like there’s an awful lot of Yahoo-speak out there as well.

  5. Dave Mazella

    I’m trying to keep my thoughts on rationality and the Enlightenment from getting too topical, but this is getting more and more difficult in this political climate . . . .

    I’m not particularly interested in propounding a narrative of the recent history of political rationality, but I am really and truly astounded at the degree to which reasons, evidence, and expertise can be discounted nowadays, with really disastrous consequences. But enough . . . .

    Your points about the Nietzsche quote and GT’s bk 1 view of rationality are correct. I suppose that the Brob king’s rational view of governance would make similar distinctions betw. rational and arbitrary behavior in bk. 2. Nonetheless, I think that bk 4, works up more absolute critiques of human pretensions to reason (Yahoos) and the congruence of reason to morality (Houhynyms). The trick, as always, is to square the critique of bks 1 and 2 with bk 4.


  6. Laura Rosenthal

    Maybe they are not actually square-able and Swift is being dialectical as well.

    My only point about political rationality and the astonishing lack thereof was that I’m not positve I would agree with Gore that TV has been the problem and the internet the solution as some of the worst excesses seem to have happened in the internet age. But I’m out of my depth on this one.

  7. David Mazella

    As for Swift, this is how it boils down for me.

    Is it a problem that Swift,

    (a) in bks 1 and 2, seems to uphold a normative reason in order to criticize the irrationality, arbitrariness and corruption of English political and legal systems, while he also seems to suggest
    in bk 4

    (b) that the normative reason upheld in Western thought (as well as in bks 1 and 2) is a kind of cloak used to disguise nasty brutish impulses (Yahoos=humans uncloaked)


    (c) normative reason is (instead?) an impossible and alien, meaning inhuman (Houhynym) standard anyway, and irrelevant to fallible humans.

    The double- or triple-bind of the satire here seems very important, because it is deliberately constructed to prevent any easy or logical resolution. But we don’t abandon these contradictions, either. Why not?

    And I suppose that I think that A/H leave us in a similar impasse regarding the normative status of the reason they critique and historicize.

    I guess I should reread the Dialectic of Enlightenment, to see if I still feel this way this time around.


  8. Laura Rosenthal

    I think what Swift and Horkheimer/Adorno have in common is a critique of total instrumental reason. In the Enlightenment, instrumental reason replaces “enfeebled religion” (85). So I think the problem with H/A is not reason itself but the confinement of reason to instrumentality. So perhaps a Fr. School reading of Swift would distinguish between the kind of (maybe humanistic? moral?) reason needed to select a good minister and/or govern well is separate from the total instrumentality that the H’s represent.

    This reminds me of another thread that has come up on this blog: Learning Outcomes Assessment. I recommend looking at the MLA reponse to the Spellings report, if you haven’t done so already. The Spellings report leaves little or no room for much outside of instrumentality in higher education, which makes it very difficult for humanists to respond to. Do you claim instrumentality (we teach students to use topic sentences and good grammar) or do you reject instrumentality and thus appear to reject “learning” or “accountability”? The non-instrumental reason is much hard to articulate, but maybe I’ll make some progress on it after reading more H/A.

  9. I suppose that we could say that H/A distinguish between an instrumental reason, inextricably caught up in domination and violence, and a non-instrumental reason, that seems indispensable for critique. I don’t have my text with me, but that seems where your reading is headed.

    The problem that I would have is how to connect this non-instrumental reason with any sort of agency, activity, the exercise of political will, etc. In other words, whether these definitions of reason can affect collective actions or deliberation. I don’t deny the ‘reduction and malleability’ of men [sic] in democracy, but it’s unclear to me where this goes, except toward some kind of exquisitely alienated quietism.

    I understand these are standard questions about the Frankfurt School, but I’m curious where you think it might lead.


  10. Laura Rosenthal

    Hi Dave,

    Sorry to take so long to respond. I should really do another post as the event draws near.

    Having (re)read most of *Dialectic*, I think maybe the answer is that the emphasis is much more on instrumentality itself than on reason. There is indeed, so far as I can see, no development of an alternative, although perhaps the alternative of revolution or other forms of resistance is implicit. The overall force and connection to the Enlightment seems to be that the Enlightenment bequeathed us the intellectual tools for capitalism:
    “The system the Enlightenment has in mind is the form of knowledge which copes most proficiently with the facts and supports the individual most effectively in the mastery of nature” (83) and
    “Being is apprehended under the aspect of manufacture and administration” (84)
    “Enlightenment . . .is the philosphy which equates the truth with scientific systematization” (85).

    Thus, implicitly, there are other kinds of truths, but the focus of the essays in this volume is on critique (something the Frankfurt school bequeathed to literary studies?) The quotations above come from the chapter on Sade, who in their view most fully expresses Enlightenment instrumentality, “the law of universal alienation.”

    Surely, though, there were thinkers in the Enlightenment period itself who recognized this, and the blurring of the distinction between a person and a thing (“it” narratives, prostitute narratives, pornography, slave narratives) becomes greatly fascinating to readers at the time. This seems to be part of what Swift is up to as well in Gulliver’s Travels. (I am not saying they deny this, but it doesn’t come up here.)

    But to go back to your question, I don’t think there is any exercising of political will in a positive sense in H/A as capitalism produces a totalizing system with only the illusion of choice. This point is made in “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.”

    It was interesting to reread this chapter and think about how much British cultural studies emphasized alternative (for example, how consumers do not necessarily take products in the replicating spirit in which they are sold).

  11. I think that much of the British, cultural materialist side of CS was reacting very strongly to H/A’s pessimism regarding popular culture. Nowadays, I think we’d talk about the possibilities of democracy or civil society that H/A, for whatever reason, didn’t see. But it is an immensely unsettling critique.