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Archive for the ‘Horkheimer’ Category

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.

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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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In Mass Culture and Aesthetic Redemption: The Debate between Max Horkheimer and Siegfried Kracuer, Martin Jay explores the potential of art to redeem mass culture by dialoguing the contradictory thoughts of Horkheimer and Kracuer. In so doing, he offers an outline of their implicit debate and ultimately suggests with reservation the impossibility of a redemptive art.

The heart of the essay begins when Jay employs Peter Bürger’s controversial distinction between modernism and the avant-garde. Jay uses dichotomy as linchpin throughout his piece to help contrast the views of Horkheimer and Kracuer. That is, Horkheimer sides with modernism because in its most esoteric forms it supposedly works outside of the marketplace, thus offering a sort of utopian oasis from mass culture. Conversely, Kracuer sides with exoteric avant-gardism because it works within mass culture hopefully galvanizing revolution. After establishing this dichotomy, Jay unpacks and clarifies these two views focusing first on Horkheimer and then Kracuer.

Jay associates Horkheimer with esoteric modernism in large part because of his remarks on the writing of Joyce and paintings like Picasso’s Guernica: “[They] abandon the idea that real community exists; they are monuments of a solitary and despairing life that finds no bridge to any other or even to its own consciousness” (372). Or, put another way, Horkheimer wants art to negate culture and communication and in this negation escape mass culture. With this in mind, we can understand why Horkheimer rejected film as an art form –– it was too real, too easy, and consequently always under the tent of mass culture (372 – 373).

The analysis of Kracuer offered by Jay associates him with the exoterically avant-garde because for Kracuer –– and the following is something very quirky for a member of the Frankfurt of School –– mass culture was not bad, but rather a necessary stage in a larger process of rationalization (i.e., the end of class struggle). So where Horkheimer wanted to break bridges of communication in art Kracuer wanted to create them to invoke revolution. Kracuer, then, like Benjamin, celebrates the avant-garde filmmakers Pudovkin and Eisenstein for their collective calling of the body politic to organize and revolutionize. Kracuer did not care if such films were superficial for in he thought in a certain regard his era was one were “we cannot gain access to the elusive essentials of life we see assimilate the seemingly non-essential…” (374). This is all evidenced his discussion of the Tiller Girls were he argued that they were a “mass ornament” whose “aesthetic reflex” was inspired by the rationality of capitalism, like Taylor modes of organization. This rationality, of course, was obscured but it was less obscured than myth and thus marked a movement in the right direction. It was, in one of Jay’s more memorable phrases, “a way station towards a rational future” (380).

The difference between Horkheimer and Kracueris’s views on the potential of art, then, is the difference between solitary and solidarity, isolation and community. But as different as their views might be, they in the end both realized neither esotericism nor exotericism could redeem mass culture. Horkheimer realized that even the most esoteric art would be absorbed into the market (387). And Kracuer later lost his radical leanings deeming any revolution in art or elsewhere impossible (379). For this reason, Jay concludes with an ambiguous cynicism: “the sobering lessons provided by their very different attempts to harness art for radical purposes make it difficult not wonder if its end may be near” (381).

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For Kant, Enlightenment liberates us from authority. Those who hold authority—have mystery. The priest has special access to the mystery of religion; it is through him where God comes towards us. The Enlightenment says that human reason is capable of answering all the questions that the previous authority had answers to. When you have a rational claim, you’ve laid a path that someone else can easily follow to the same conclusion. The light of the Enlightenment leads to knowledge in this respect. For Kant, this frees us from authoritarianism; we now understand the light of the world from our own reason.

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“Critical Theory has a narrow and a broad meaning in philosophy and in the history of the social sciences. “Critical Theory” in the narrow sense designates several generations of German philosophers and social theorists in the Western European Marxist tradition known as the Frankfurt School. According to these theorists, a “critical” theory may be distinguished from a “traditional” theory according to a specific practical purpose: a theory is critical to the extent that it seeks human emancipation, “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them” (Horkheimer 1982, 244). Because such theories aim to explain and transform all the circumstances that enslave human beings, many “critical theories” in the broader sense have been developed. They have emerged in connection with the many social movements that identify varied dimensions of the domination of human beings in modern societies. In both the broad and the narrow senses, however, a critical theory provides the descriptive and normative bases for social inquiry aimed at decreasing domination and increasing freedom in all their forms.” Continue reading…

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Introducing Horkheimer

“Horkheimer was born in Stuttgart to an assimilated Jewish family; due to parental pressure, he did not initially pursue an academic career, leaving secondary school at the age of sixteen to work in his father’s factory. After World War I, however, he enrolled at Munich University, where he studied philosophy and psychology. He subsequently moved to Frankfurt am Main, where he studied under Hans Cornelius. There he met Theodor Adorno, many years his junior, with whom he would strike a lasting friendship and a fruitful collaborative relationship.” Continue reading…

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