Jurgen Habermas tries to explain and criticize Walter Benjamin’s philosophy and communicate new ways of using this philosophy in “Walter Benjamin: Consciousness-Raising or Rescuing Critique.”
In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin argues that art is no longer profanely illuminating–life no longer seems inexplicably magical– because the aura (the unconsciously mirroring symbolic structure) is removed from material processes (aura is not possible with reproduction).
Myth is the product of a human race that is denied access to a good and just life because they are trapped in a system of material reproduction. The “mythic fate,” synonymous with modernity’s concept of progress, can only be halted in a moment where time has stopped (which only happens theoretically but not really). It is in this moment that Benjamin attempts to reconcile, or rescue, the past from all that barbarism. Historical materialism uses an interpretation of history at a moment of danger and then it is gone.
Benjamin was ambivalent about the loss of aura seen in art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Aura held in it, to him, the ability to “transpose the beautiful into the medium of the true” (106). Aura is the beautiful veil draped over complex experience. Aura is what makes beauty accessible to us. In this aura, Benjamin sees the potential for happiness, but at the same time he views the loss of aura as a good thing. With the loss of aura, solitary enjoyment of art disappears. However, the loss of aura opens up the possibility of a new, more universal experience of beauty. Habermas goes on to say that Benjamin’s break from esotericism, in the face of fascism, is indisputable. He quotes Benjamin, describing the break as the “overcoming of religious illumination…a profane illumination, a materialist, anthropological inspiration” (109). Benjamin uses the word “profane” to characterize happiness because he conceived of mystical illumination as both spiritual and sensual, and an experience for the masses. By looking at this quote, we see how Benjamin’s theory of art is more a theory of experience than one of the critique of ideology.
Benjamin’s mimetic theory of language focuses on the gestural connection that links human language to all animal languages–the expression of the continuous connection between the organism and the environment. It is this mimetic capacity that produces meaning in the form of human needs, which change throughout history. Thus, semantic potential can be changed but not increased. The mimetic capacity is the imprint of a dependence on nature, which is preserved in myth. The profane content of the messianic promise is that humanity will become independent of the environment without losing the mimetic/artistic power to project human needs/meaning onto the world, thus humanizing it. Benjamin conceived of the history of art as the attempt to do the above. “Benjamin called these attempts divine, because they break myth while preserving and setting free its richness” (112). Thus, to Benjamin, the source of such perfect dialecticism (to be at once liberated from the environment while preserving its splendor) must be God (the relation with Whom is “profane” because it is a rejection of His dominion- the power of the environment to force adaptation). However, his political feeling of knowing the materialist enemy opposed his nonsecular mimetic theory as a theory of experience. Thus, in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Benjamin tries to unite his messianic conception of history with historical materialism. Habermas argues that he fails to do this because, when conceiving of the philosophy of history as a theory of experience, “a materialist explanation for the history of art–which, Benjamin, for political reasons, does not want to give up–is not possible in any direct way” (113). Recall that, in the Theses on the Philosophy of History, the puppet of historical materialism is in the service of the hunchbacked dwarf theology. Habermas’ “thesis is that Benjamin did not succeed in his intention of uniting enlightenment and mysticism because the theologian in him could not bring himself to make the messianic theory of experience serviceable for historical materialism” (114).
Adorno, who wanted to explicate the dialectical relationship between culture and social process, was wrong to assume that Benjamin had the same intentions behind his ideological critique. Benjamin, on the other hand, wanted to understand nearly forgotten ways of making meaning to gain insight into the collective unconscious through the interpretation of dialectical images. Through modern collective images, he wanted to link old ways of making meaning to capitalist conditions of life.
Benjamin assented to the instrumental politicization of art in the name of Communism and its utility in the class struggle. With this endorsement, Benjamin “mutely admitted” that his theory of experience is not translatable into political practice (“profane illumination is not a revolutionary deed” (120)). Benjamin failed in using historical materialism for his theory of experience because he proved to be uncomfortable in uniting ecstasy (liberation of meaning from tradition) and politics (liberation from domination)–the messianic promise is separate from the class struggle. Instead, Habermas feels it is useful to use Benjamin’s theory of experience for historical materialism.
Habermas notes (as Marcuse notes in One-Dimensional Man) that capitalism has come to “differentiate between hunger and oppression” while “uniting repression with prosperity.” Thus, Benjamin has been useful in offering something beyond prosperity and liberty: namely, happiness, which he named profane illumination, and which he saw as “bound up with the rescuing of tradition” from the barbarism of the ruling elites who triumphantly parade around with it. Thus, we can only be happy if we can exercise our artistic/mimetic powers while disentangling the tradition that formed our needs from myth.
In response to pessimistic counter-enlightenment’s claim that utopian images are fictions that drive us on, Benjamin’s theory of experience as a core of historical materialism offers “a grounded hope”- a promise that the ideal is always worth striving for. In response the dialectical theory’s claim that emancipation and fulfillment are inevitable, Benjamin’s theory offers “a prophylactic doubt”- a promise that we will never reach the ideal. A theory of linguistic communication that wanted to reconcile with a materialist theory of social evolution would need to combine two of Benjamin’s ideas: language is non-violent, mutual understanding, and mistrust any reciprocal understanding except those in fascism


Theodor Adorno: Progress

The basic goal of Theodor Adorno’s “Progress” is made apparent in the very first sentence: to provide a clear, theoretical and philosophical understanding of the concept of progress. Though he does not clarify until later, the author is referring to the progress of humanity in the widest possible sense. Simply contemplating this task immediately sparks a number of questions. How does one define progress? What are its positive and negative effects, if any? Which things progress and which things do not? Has there ever been progress? Is there progress now? Can there ever even be progress?
For answers, Adorno draws primarily upon Kant, but also utilizes writings by St. Augustine and (to a lesser extent) Benjamin, Hegel, Marx, and others. Using these sources, he establishes first the inseparable bond between progress and humanity. “As little as humanity tel quell progresses by the advertising slogan of the ever new and improved, so little can there be an idea of progress without the idea of humanity,” Adorno says. Subsequently, (according to Adorno’s interpretation of “Theses on the Philosophy of History”) progress is thus inextricably linked to the human desire for redemption, particularly in the eyes of future generations. This feeds directly into the idea (which Adorno links rather elaborately to Kafka) that humanity’s only purpose—both in the past and today–is the propagation of the species. According to this logic true progress is nonexistent. Not much attention is given to this definition, though, nor is it given to almost all totalitarian or limiting arguments brought up in the essay. In fact, the author problematizes almost every key term he uses and avoids oversimplifications and assumptions at all costs. The result is painfully dense, but dialectically bullet-proof.
After musing on the nature of humanity, Adorno smoothly transitions into establishing the dual societal and philosophical nature of progress. He posits society as the window through which we see progress, and philosophy he equates to a vital tool of society. As he progresses in his argument, summarizing the varying opinions of progress as both good and bad (but mostly bad), Adorno forms a complete, if paradoxical, new understanding of progress.

“Progress means: to step out of the magic spell, even out of the spell of progress, which is itself nature, in that humanity becomes aware of its own inbred nature and brings to a halt the domination it exacts upon nature and through which domination by nature continues. In this way it could be said that progress occurs where it ends” (130).

As hinted at in that quotation, the essay concludes that every conceptualization of progress is ultimately cyclical. This allows connection to another circular concept. Progress is established as stemming from the bourgeois principal of exchange, of purporting to trade one thing for another thing of equal value. However, if exchange actually worked like this, there would be no shift of power. Nothing would change and there would be no real trade. This system is maintained, then, by “the truth of the expansion [which] feeds on the lie of the equality” (140). Thus is the bleak truth (in Adorno’s eyes) of progress today—a steady building of philosophical thought now stuck in a rhetorical loop, like an album forever skipping on its final track.
All is not lost, though. Adorno suggests that should the exchange be made even, should there be a shift away from the dominant capitalist bourgeois mode of thought, progress would then be freed to defend society from relapse. This harkens back to Adorno’s collaboration with Max Horkheimer on Dialectic of Enlightenment, specifically, “Odysseus or Myth and Enlightenment,” in which they equate sacrifice to the principal of bourgeois exchange. They also use Odysseus’ cunning manipulation of that system as evidence of his status as a prototypical bourgeoisie—and also suggest that an even exchange would cause the very same system Adorno is so concerned with, that of our current “progress,” to crumble. It would dissolve like an angler fish pulled from the briny crags of the deepest seas and baptized in our liquefying air.

Adorno, Theodor. “Progress.” Can One Live After Auschwitz? Trans. Henry W. Pickford. New York: Stanford University Press, 2003.

This secondary source begins by introducing the Frankfurt School and Marcuse’s differentiation from earlier thinkers. It continues as an analysis of Marcuse’s thought, especially as outlined in On Dimensional Man, with comparison to the works of Adorno and Horkheimer in particular. It is broken down into the following subsections:

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In Max Pensky’s “The Trash of History,” taken from the larger Melancholy Dialectics: Walter Benjamin and the Play of Mourning, Walter Benjamin’s use of the objective dialectical image is viewed in juxtaposition–and unwanted collaboration -with subjective allegorical imagery. The dialectical image, where past and present interact with one another, is Benjamin’s method and subject of critical analysis. The allegorical image that has arbitrary meaning is melancholic: the passing of time is marked by sadness. The dialectic image “cannot be” (Pensky, 211), and yet it is as our history is a “catastrophic history” (Pensky, 211). This issue of imagery is one aspect of the larger subject/object problem and is how Benjamin incorporated Kabalistic elements into his criticism. Continue Reading »

By Ben Daly and Rose Mackey

In his essay On Science and Phenomenology Herbert Marcuse attempts to lay out the ways in which a split has occurred between the scientific and philosophical views on the world, and how this split has been detrimental to the development of human society in the west. For Marcuse this split is located in the relationship between human subjects and the concept of reason, which has been present in the discourses on science and philosophy since the ancient Greeks. Continue Reading »

The Long Friendship: Theoretical Differences Between Horkheimer and Adorno originally appeared in the book On Max Horkheimer: New Perspectives. In this essay Stefan Breuer successfully highlights the contrasting viewpoints that arise when juxtaposing the works of Horkheimer and Adorno.

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Ziarek’s Beyond Critique? Art and Power details the complicated relationship of art and power after modernity’s realization of the limits of critique. This essay would be ideal for anyone interested in the power of art to open up the critical conversation while freeing critique in some sense from the oppressive structures of rhetoric. Ziarek works through Adorno and Heidegger ultimately finding Heidegger’s treatment of instrumentality useful in freeing art from problematic dynamics of power. Continue Reading »