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6. Conclusion

The Tragedy of Critical Theory

There is no document of civilization which is not at the
same time a document of barbarism.

The unexamined life is not worth living.

A book that takes the tale of Oedipus’s tragic fate as a paradigmatic expression of the ambiguous relationship between human intelligence and power that characterizes ages of enlightenment appropriately concludes by looking at Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. Yet the images of light and darkness, sight and blindness that pervade the two texts, Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos and Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic, only partially justify my pairing of a Greek tragedy with a near-contemporary work of critical theory. Since Greek tragedy (and theory) seems otherwise helplessly unrelated to critical social theory, I should say something more about the reasons, internal both to Dialectic and to my own project, that invite, if not compel, such a favorable comparison. I have already mentioned Dialectic’s tragic sensibility, the tragic history of its authors, and the way in which it establishes a dialogue between Greek tragedy and the modern enlightenment. But there are other strategic, structural, and thematic reasons for pairing a work of critical theory with Greek tragedy.[1]

This book ends with a chapter on Horkheimer and Adorno in order to redeem a promise made at its start. Chapter 1 framed the subsequent readings of Greek tragedy and philosophy in the context of a recent and ongoing contest over the meaning and legacy of the Enlightenment. It deliberately juxtaposed classical and contemporary texts in an effort to initiate a dialogue between the two that would chart an alternative route through the shifting terrain of (post)modernity and so encourage reflection on submerged or neglected theoretical and practical possibilities of the moment. That juxtaposition sought to reappropriate the way in which Greek tragedy brought its past on stage in order to illuminate and redefine the contours of its present. Yet that juxtaposition has been as much a prolegomenon to a dialogue between classical and contemporary theory as the conducting of one. Because Dialectic embodies direct similarities—both substantive and structural—with Greek drama and theory, it makes explicit what has thus far remained implicit in my argument and thereby achieves the dialogue between tragedy and enlightenment that I seek.

Another reason for ending this book with a chapter on Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic has to do with my claim that contemporary theory ought to become more like Greek tragedy and classical political theory. The collaborative work of the critical theorists is paradigmatic in its distinctive ability to hold the contradictions of modernity in productive tension—to think with those contradictions in order to think through them. That ability derives, of course, from Dialectic’s appropriation of the style, structure, and textual strategies of Greek tragedy and political theory. Like the best works of Athenian literature and philosophy, Horkheimer and Adorno’s book negotiates the dilemmas, perplexities, and ambiguities present within enlightened thought, the construction of theoretical discourses, and the search for ultimate foundations in a way that deepens, rather than dissolves, the riddles it seeks to comprehend. For these reasons (further elaborated below) I find this early work by Horkheimer and Adorno—if read in terms supplied by Greek tragedy and classical political theory—to be superior to Habermas’s reconstructed critical theory and Foucault’s genealogical critique, models of criticism that tend to polarize, dissolve, then dismiss the very contradictions Horkheimer and Adorno regard as fundamental to thinking through (in both senses) modernity. This concluding chapter thus takes Horkheimer and Adorno’s collaborative work as exemplary, a paradigm for contemporary critical theorists to emulate and imitate.[2]

Although I treat Dialectic as exemplary for thinking a (post)modernity in tension with itself, the book is not without its own limitations, blindnesses, and evasions. Notorious for their rigidly dismissive criticisms of popular culture (culture as industry), Horkheimer and Adorno countenance only a high modernist culture and art that in its form and content resists and destabilizes the commodification and homogenization that pervades late capitalist culture. Yet critical theory’s rejection of the popular surely forecloses one of the more promising avenues of political practice opened up by the politics of cultural difference and popular resistance currently available today. One way to reestablish closer relations between theory and practice might be through just such a politics of everyday life, at the level of the production and consumption of cultural commodities. Through an appeal to the ambivalent boundaries apparent in Greek tragedy between high and low culture, cultural production and cultural consumption (a tension that Horkheimer and Adorno fail to exploit), I turn their rejection of popular culture against the critical theorists themselves. That exclusion then becomes instructive for a democratic politics of resistance that seeks to confront and contest an all-too-pervasive system of commodified culture. In spite of Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s insistence on the seamless functioning of the culture industry—and their wholesale dismissal of the popular—Dialectic contains within itself the resources to retheorize the political possibilities of popular culture, in which the commodities that constitute it are, not merely the congealed residues of domination, but sites of contest and fields for struggle over cultural meanings. Horkheimer and Adorno would no doubt resist such an illicit appropriation of their work, but I am convinced that as an attempt to seek out locations and practices of resistance to, and disruption of, the system of administered pleasures, it remains true to the radical impulse of the critical theorists. Although I shall have some critical things to say about Horkheimer and Adorno’s book, its sense of the tragic, its ability to encompass the contradictions, dilemmas, and perplexities of enlightenment, its uncompromising commitment to critical thought, and its openness to critical revision all lend it paradigmatic status as a book that is particularly good to think with, and through, while negotiating the unstable terrain of postmodernity.

As an indication of Dialectic’s ability to think the dilemmas of postmodernity in tension, let me return to a few of the themes raised by Habermas and Foucault and subsequently elaborated in the plays and dialogues, and so bring the book back to its beginnings. Horkheimer and Adorno share Habermas’s concern with communication and the community it makes possible. They are in search of a language adequate to a world indelibly marked by the advent of concentration camps, a language that has not been thoroughly devalued, debased, or replaced by the methodistic logic of a wholly instrumentalized reason fit only to serve blind domination. Exiles themselves, the authors of Dialectic experienced both the literal and metaphysical homelessness of modern society their book describes. Horkheimer and Adorno thus remind us of the tremendous and irreparable damage wrought by modernity, which Habermas recognizes but too often forgets. Dialectic continually invokes the lives that have been damaged, lost, or destroyed, the experiences that have been repressed, subjugated, or smoothed over by the functionalist coherence of a system that must either expand or perish. Like watching Greek tragedy, reading Dialectic is an experience in re-membering.[3]

Yet in spite of their radically critical stance and heroic intransigence in the face of “damaged life,” Horkheimer and Adorno do not so much offer solutions to cure our ills as they raise new problems and pose new questions. Where Habermas would solve the paradox of enlightenment, Horkheimer and Adorno deepen it; where Habermas seeks a method that would clarify all that is mysterious, ambiguous, and opaque about our lives and the world, Horkheimer and Adorno search out mystery, discontinuity, and the irruption of the unexpected as so many examples and acts of resistance against increasing systematization. Nor is this merely a matter of substance: it involves rhetorical style as well. Although wary of instrumentalization, Habermas nonetheless favors a technically streamlined language that reflects his preference for transparent analysis and discursive knowledge. Horkheimer and Adorno, on the other hand, embody and honor the poetic image as well as the theoretical concept. In this regard, Dialectic echoes the philosophical poetics of Aeschylus and Sophocles and the poetical philosophy of Plato as much as it anticipates the critical theory of Habermas. Horkheimer and Adorno understand all too well that surface clarity is often purchased at the expense of the richness, diversity, and depth of human experience. The ironic inversions, tragic reversals, and playful juxtapositions that mark Dialectic contrast all too sharply with the prose of a reconstructed critical theory that threatens to bring about the overly administered world the theorist seems to fear.[4]

Horkheimer and Adorno also share Foucault’s concern with the disciplinary effects of “total” or “global” theory. They equally suspect the rhetoric of “enlightenment” and “liberation” as masks that conceal the workings of power. The authors of Dialectic of Enlightenment fear the advance of systemic thinking, a will to know the whole that contravenes thought’s humane impulse and leads to an administered world. Motivated by fear of the unknown, enlightened thought marginalizes and suppresses all experience that falls outside the charmed circle of its discourse. What it cannot quantify, it writes off as mere literature.[5] Totalitarian as any system, enlightened thought imagines itself to have mastered nature and men. Yet the concepts of total theory issue in so many “false idols and defective ideas of the absolute” that they help bring about the slavery they intended to abolish. In ascribing truth to the whole, enlightened thought affirms the present, abandons its critical capacity, and seals its fate ever more surely. Horkheimer and Adorno thus suspect theoretical concepts that promise enlightenment, liberation, and progress. Yet they are also convinced that “social freedom is inseparable from enlightened thought.” Dialectic thus pursues a relentless critique of reason that nonetheless refuses to give up the ideas of justice and freedom to further functionalization by the general systems analysts and their managers. Enlightenment may well be fatal, or it may have in it the resources necessary to divert its seemingly inexorable course. Dialectic is in either case an attempt to alter the course of a progressive flood now rushing out of control.

Dialectic’s ability to hold in tension the contradictions of modernity (prose and poetry, system and individual, reason and revelation, and so on) lies, in part, in the distinctive form of immanent criticism it shares with Greek tragedy and political theory. In the case of tragedy, this meant first that the playwright expressed a positive debt to the largely effaced mythic tradition that nourished him, even as he distanced himself from that tradition. Second, it meant that tragedy celebrated the city’s cultural, religious, and political accomplishments with a dramatic performance that radically questioned those accomplishments. For Socratic philosophy, it meant adopting much of the structure and many of the themes of tragedy to philosophy, although Socratic elenchus, unlike its tragic counterpart, repudiated the political institutions that occasioned it and brought the practice of critical inquiry to each individual Athenian citizen. In the Republic, Plato expressed a philosophical debt to Socrates while distancing himself from Socratic philosophy. Dialectic stands in a similar relation to enlightenment: it forwards a radical and uncompromising critique of enlightenment, yet acknowledges a positive debt to enlightened thought. As they formulate it, Horkheimer and Adorno’s critique of enlightenment “is intended to prepare the way for a positive notion of enlightenment which will release it from entanglement in blind domination.”[6] As a critique of philosophy, critical theory refuses to abandon philosophy. It pursues this task by seeking out the reflective components in the Western philosophical tradition and encouraging that tradition to consider itself. Dialectic thus locates itself squarely within an intellectual tradition and uses its resources to recall that tradition to its forgotten, suppressed, or ignored principles in a way that seeks to go beyond them.

There are also good thematic reasons for concluding a book about ancient tragedy and philosophical dialogue with a chapter on this seminal work of critical theory. Dialectic resumes key themes developed in the discussions on Sophocles, Socrates, Plato, and Aeschylus and transposes them to a modern register in which the powers of an administrative state, global capitalism, and an increasingly commodified culture replace (and replicate) the archaic powers of fate, nature, and the gods. For instance, the discussion in chapter 2 of Sophocles’ Ode to Man introduced a basic antinomy between knowledge and power, between the seemingly unlimited capacity of our shaping intelligence and our inability fully to control nature, other men and women, and ourselves. The Ode describes man as deinos: as both wonderful, mighty, clever, and skillful and awful, terrible, dangerous, and savage. Horkheimer and Adorno recognize the similarly ambiguous nature of human skill and intelligence and the inherent connection between civilization and savagery. Dialectic dramatizes the tragic fate of enlightened thought, from its genesis in archaic myth through the successive stages of philosophy and science to its final reversion to barbarism. Although enlightenment had always aimed at liberating men from fear and establishing their sovereignty, Horkheimer and Adorno find that “the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant.” The authors of Dialectic had set themselves no less a task than the “discovery of why mankind, instead of entering into a truly human condition, is sinking into a new kind of barbarism.”[7] An Athenian audience, watching Sophocles’ Oedipus for the first time, might similarly have asked, “How could such an intelligent and noble man commit such blind acts of bestiality?”

Dialectic shares even more striking parallels with Sophocles’ Oedipus. In its choice of themes, its sensibility, and its aims, Dialectic invites a sustained comparison with Sophocles’ play. The dialectic between identity and difference, Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s analysis of systems thinking, and the reversion of civilization into savagery all recall themes familiar from Oedipus: the metaphor of incest that dominates the play; Oedipus’s peculiar ability to solve riddles, save for those that pertain to himself; and the reversal of his status from highest to lowest in the city, from king to scapegoat. Since I discuss these themes at length in the present chapter, I do not want to say any more than necessary here, save to observe that Horkheimer and Adorno are appropriately compared to Sophocles because their work complexly embodies a heroic steadfastness, coupled with respect and honor for an infinitely complex world.

Insofar as Dialectic urges enlightened thought to reflect on its own contradictions and consider its recidivist element, Horkheimer and Adorno emulate Socrates’ philosophical practice. Socrates persistently admonished his fellow citizens to think about what they were doing both in and to Athens. Dialectic shares this commitment to thought and aims to nourish the “theoretical faculty,” a faculty threatened with extinction. The problem with enlightenment is that it gives itself over to a method that is inimical to thought as such. If, as the authors say, in the correct application of method, the answer is already decided from the start, then there is no mystery and no desire to reveal mystery. Enlightenment ruthlessly extinguishes the awe and wonder that accompanies multifaceted experience and prompts a Socrates to become philosophical in the first place. Dialectic is thus Socratic, not only in its admonishment to self-reflection, but also in its surprise at, and interest in, the multiplicity and multivocity of the world.

Since Horkheimer and Adorno warn against reason’s imperialism—its desire both to know all and command all—they implicitly adopt the Delphic injunctions “Know thyself” and “Nothing in excess.” Like the poets, politicians, and craftsmen examined by Socrates, enlightened thought deceives itself into thinking it possesses a knowledge of the whole that in fact it does not. Horkheimer and Adorno warn against mistaking partial for complete knowledge and thus excluding from view what falls outside of a “system.” They encourage their readers to reflect on the course of enlightenment as both intellectual operation and historical actuality. They are convinced that salvation lies only in our ability to reflect on the implicit patterns, structures, and assumptions that inform what we are doing to ourselves and to the world. Yet even as Horkheimer and Adorno ask enlightened thought to “enlighten” itself about its own identity, methods, motives, and intentions, they remain aware that “enlightenment” can be as dangerous as the mythic forces it seeks to dispel. When they insist that “false clarity is only another name for myth; and myth has always been obscure and enlightening at the same time,”[8] the authors of the Dialectic share the Socratic insight that all communication necessarily involves deception and self-deception as the condition of its possibility and the motivation for its activity. Nor do Horkheimer and Adorno confuse thought with enlightenment; rather, they try to redefine the meaning of enlightenment and rescue it from self-destruction, much as Socrates attempted to redefine the meanings of citizenship, piety, and wisdom throughout his life.

Lastly, a tone of deep political and theoretical pessimism pervades Dialectic, recalling Socrates’ own heroic, yet pessimistic, allegiance to, and defiance of, Athens. World events had forced Horkheimer and Adorno to abandon hope in revolutionary theory and praxis.[9] In response to a contemporary crisis, Dialectic rejected the proletariat’s transformative mission and the theory that elaborated it. Henceforth, Horkheimer and Adorno would address themselves to “an imaginary witness.” Moreover, recent developments had revealed, not the revolutionizing potential of scientific and technological advances, but the integrative and repressive power of a reason that too readily became the obverse side of domination. Horkheimer and Adorno concluded that “in the present collapse of bourgeois civilization not only the pursuit but the meaning of science has become problematical.”[10] In the face of totalitarianism on the left as well as the right, the authors of Dialectic nonetheless remained steadfastly committed to the tradition of enlightened thought by means of their critique of enlightenment. Dialectic heroically attempts to incite thinking and preserve those qualities in things and people that make distinctions, and hence judgments, possible in an era that would liquidate all thought and thinking individuals alike. Like the condemned Socrates before his judges, the authors of Dialectic stood before the tribunal of history, condemned as anachronisms that could only impede “progress.” Later, Adorno would reflect on just such a “failure” of philosophy: “Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed.”[11] The heroic steadfastness of Horkheimer and Adorno in the face of defeat by the seemingly anonymous administration of men and things made their philosophy tragic philosophy.

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates holds out the hope of a reconciliation between knowledge and power, an epistemological and practical unity in which either philosophers become kings or kings philosophize (473d). Horkheimer and Adorno project a similar desire for a utopian moment of reconciliation between reason and reality. That moment they found present as unfulfilled longing in the fundamental document of Western civilization, Homer’s Odyssey, and symbolized in the lure of the Sirens’ song. The need for freedom and home, however, proved stronger than the desire for eternal happiness, a desire Odysseus fulfilled by renouncing it. Nevertheless, the authors suggest that freedom from domination requires universal reconciliation with nature: “By virtue of the remembrance of nature in the subject, in whose fulfillment the unacknowledged truth of all culture lies hidden, enlightenment is universally opposed to domination.” The reconciliation of reason and nature that eradicates domination is no less fleeting and offers no more of a final resting point, respite, or closure than the momentary reconciliation between politics and philosophy projected in the Republic. Moreover, a final reconciliation would signify a unity no less totalitarian than the social and cultural uniformity enlightenment itself aims to bring about. Suspecting its own desire for a reconciled totality, Dialectic “issued no reassuring proclamation that Ithaca had been sighted,” Christian Lenhardt observes. In a time when thought can dissolve domination, Horkheimer and Adorno say, “enlightenment becomes wholesale deception of the masses.”[12]

To the extent that Horkheimer and Adorno occupy themselves with the suffering of the individual in what they call the “system” (understood both conceptually and socially), Dialectic of Enlightenment reintroduces Aeschylus’s concern with the fate of the other in a putatively democratic society. Rooted in a radical fear of the unknown, systems thinking turns difference into hierarchy, while simultaneously excluding whatever does not conform to its own ideal.[13] Horkheimer and Adorno thus wrestle with the problem of the individual as social other, who, in the midst of the uniform collectivity, suffers from the false identity of society and individual. It is the task of critical theory (at least as that is understood in the Dialectic) to permit this “other” to speak, to lend a voice to suffering, and so to truth. To be sure, ancient playwright and critical theorists place their accents differently: where Aeschylus’s legendary heroes and heroines challenge the norms of the democratic order from the center of the city and during its most important religious festival, Horkheimer and Adorno give voice to the other from a place of “permanent exile,”[14] disrupting the hegemonic system from its boundaries and margins. And where the heroine of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon remains a liminal figure, paradoxically defining the norms of her society even as she defies them, modern mass democracy attempts to banish the other (and tragedy) by integrating it into the architecture of its own uniformity (although Horkheimer and Adorno themselves stand apart from, even as they are a part of, the tradition they criticize). Finally, where Greek tragedy had ultimate and assuring recourse to the bounded world of stage, orchestra, and theater, the critical theorists pursue a dialectical high-wire act in their attempt to maintain the tension between an increasingly uniform collectivity and “the development of autonomous, independent individuals who judge and decide consciously for themselves,” these being the “precondition for a democratic society.”[15]

Horkheimer and Adorno never tire of insisting that social freedom is inseparable from enlightened thought, but they consistently resist the “temptation to transparency” that characterizes all enlightenment, especially in its modern, positivistic incarnation. We must render modern relations of domination visible and legible, for the workings of power must not, and—given the available technologies of surveillance, discipline, and control—cannot, remain impenetrably obscure. Yet the zealous quest for complete transparency as a response to fear of the unknown other becomes a further means for reducing the complexity of the world and the irony of action in it, elements that democratic politics cannot do without. That is one reason why, in the Eumenides, although Apollo’s arguments apparently “win” the case for Orestes, the Olympians, and the male, Aeschylus leaves no doubt that the “solution” is achieved arbitrarily and not without a measure of violence, and that the newly won order is a fragile and precarious achievement, susceptible to pressures that will irreparably fracture it. This temptation to transparency is also why Horkheimer and Adorno refused to theorize (and so objectify) a concept of rationality. In their refusal, however, they succeed quite well in articulating the ambiguity, irony, and complexity of language that lends a civic discourse its life in the first place. If there is such a thing as a poetics for a democratic politics, Dialectic, despite its almost willful obscurity, approaches that goal somewhat like Aeschylus’s Oresteia.

Finally, Horkheimer and Adorno’s deployment of “effective history,” their “untimely” use of the past, recapitulates the way in which Greek tragedy used its own archaic past to illuminate and redefine the contours of the present. Critical theory can teach us how we might similarly “use” the classical texts of tragedy and philosophy to do the same. The authors of Dialectic appropriate the style and sensibility of classical literature and philosophy in order to make the unprecedented aspects of modernity intelligible, yet in so doing they retain their distinctively modern concerns and purposes. By juxtaposing the mythical past with the enlightened present, archaic barbarism with the most recent phenomena, Dialectic embodies and imitates all the tensions and ambiguities that characterize a tragic performance, a philosophical dialogue, and a modernity at odds with itself. When Horkheimer and Adorno insist upon the necessity of moral language and responsible action in the face of linguistic devaluation and the anonymous administration of men and women as things, they appeal to a fundamental teaching of the tragic theater that still informs political thinking today:[16] we are forced to speak and act in a world we never made, and to bear responsibility for our words and deeds.

All this suggests that Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic exemplifies how the themes, style, and language of Greek tragedy can provide a point of reference and a source of inspiration for theorizing in and about the present. As I have indicated, this means reading a work of contemporary theory in terms provided by Greek tragedy, and as a modern tragedy, a tragedy of enlightenment. To do so, I shall elaborate a number of affinities, first in structure, then in content, and finally in aim, between Greek tragedy (as represented by Sophocles’ Oedipus) and Dialectic, seeking to give substance to my claim that the thought of the classical polis can nourish the contemporary theoretical imagination in a way that will help us think with and through the perplexities and contradictions of postmodernity.

By structure I mean not only the obvious characteristics of a work’s form—whether it be a play, a dialogue, a novel, or a treatise—but also its style, sensibility, and tone; the kinds of images it uses and evokes; the texture of its language and the architecture of its composition; the rhetorical strategies it employs to persuade its readers (or audience) and the way in which these form-al elements work with or against a text’s explicit or surface argument.

Dialectic of Enlightenment recalls the structure, style, and sensibility of Greek tragedy in a number of different ways.[17] First, unlike a philosophical or theoretical treatise, but like tragedy, it embodies the form of a drama or dramatic dialogue. Dialectic’s vital principle, Horkheimer and Adorno assert, is “the tension between the two intellectual temperaments conjoined in it.”[18] The two different voices united in the book achieve the plurality of positions, viewpoints, and arguments that define tragedy’s concern with moral communication and debate. Multiple voices lend Dialectic a certain multidimensionality, which contributes to an open-ended and ongoing, rather than a declamatory, authoritative, or monologic, model of communication. By presenting multiple positions, and so multiple points of engagement, Horkheimer and Adorno encourage the reader to “enter critically and actively into the give and take of debate much as a spectator of a tragedy is invited to reflect about the meaning of events on stage.”[19]Dialectic thus asks the reader to take sides and make judgments, just as tragedy encouraged its spectators to judge the action of the characters in a drama. Horkheimer and Adorno, of course, ask us to reflect on the meaning and consequences of enlightenment and judge them for ourselves.

In tragedy, great and heroic deeds or terrible suffering are called forth as responses to real life events and crises.[20] Theoretical reflection in Dialectic is likewise a response to a lived crisis of fundamental importance. As a response to the rise of fascism in Europe, the Stalinization of the revolution in Russia, and the commodification of everyday life in the United States, Dialectic attains an immediacy and urgency usually lacking in “objective” theoretical texts, yet present in Greek tragedy. Tragedy also makes plain the stakes involved in human action and debate, providing a set of motivations for entering into debate or pursuing a course of action by revealing how and why characters undertake a discussion and what sorts of problems call forth reflection.[21]Dialectic similarly shows us the stakes involved in theoretical reflection.

Third, like tragedy, Horkheimer and Adorno suspect any attempt to construct a single, unitary, or comprehensive account of the world.[22]Dialectic is concerned to “display to us the irreducible richness of human value”[23] against social forces that would reduce both humans and their values to problems of economic exchange and bureaucratic administration. Tragedy sought to present the “complexity and indeterminacy of the lived practical situation,”[24] and Dialectic likewise honors the particular, the individual, and the concrete in all its complexity and suspects overly general, abstract, determinate, and reductionist accounts that simplify the world. The ancient playwrights and the authors of Dialectic share Michel Foucault’s suspicion of total or global theory.

The architecture of the book further reflects this concern with concrete particulars and the suspicion of unitary, hierarchical, and functionalizing knowledge. Comprised of a number of mutually referential essays and subtitled “Philosophical Fragments,” Dialectic breaks off inconclusively in a series of notes and drafts. The aphoristic structure of the work thus reiterates its concern with the particular fragment and individual detail and further reinforces its warning against succumbing to the tyranny of the kind of knowledge that would unify all experience. But a fragmentary style is not necessarily fragmented, and neither does it signify a lack of theoretical coherence. Like the best Greek tragedy, which simultaneously denies and presents the world as possessing an intelligible meaning, the philosophical fragments of Dialectic are mediated by a thematic unity that make it an excellent example of the very order it supposedly rejects.[25] Horkheimer and Adorno have managed to create a theoretical form that achieves the diversity within unity that has always eluded enlightenment itself.

Fourthly, Dialectic shares with Greek tragedy the form of an elenchus, or cross-examination.[26] As in a play that charts the course of a character’s most confidently asserted claims about himself and the world around him, claims that further developments subsequently prove wrong, Horkheimer and Adorno show us how enlightened thinking blinds itself to the meanings and consequences of its own achievements and how its grasp of, and control over, practical problems is irreversibly deflated. In their narrative, enlightenment follows the course of a tragic reversal: its unreflected assumptions about its own truth and value are undermined. Reason may once have promised the subject control and mastery, but now it ruthlessly controls and masters the subject itself.

Lastly, and perhaps most important, Horkheimer and Adorno work as much through theoretical argument as through poetic images, associations, tones, textures, and sensibilities that evoke the “passional knowledge” of Greek tragedy. Like tragedy, Dialectic engages not only our wits but our passions, appealing as much to the power of our emotions as to the power of our reason. To read Dialectic as a tragedy means to read it as lament at the tremendous destruction wrought by modernity. If, as Aeschylus realized, the passional knowledge of tragedy is the kind that comes through suffering, then the wisdom contained in Dialectic is truly tragic.

Not only do the ubiquitous images of light and darkness, sight and blindness that pervade Sophocles’ Oedipus invite sustained comparison with Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s Dialectic, there are other, more systematic and substantive reasons as well why no classical text better illuminates a contemporary one. Both Dialectic and Oedipus focus on the ambiguity of man’s power to control his world and manage his life by intelligence, and both consider that issue through the themes of civilization and savagery and identity and difference.

As we saw in chapter 2, one dominant theme in Sophocles’ Oedipus is the fine line that separates civilization from savagery, the city from the wild, enlightenment from myth. Oedipus is the paradigmatic civilizing hero, a man who uses the powers of intellect and reason to vanquish the threat of undifferentiated chaos. By solving the riddle of the Sphinx, Oedipus triumphs over untamed nature; with his solution, he enthrones “man” as the measure of all things, and himself as master of Thebes. When Oedipus boasts that he destroyed the death-dealing Sphinx alone and with unaided intellect, he asserts that rational mastery of the world upon which all the greatest achievements of Greek civilization were thought to rest. Yet Oedipus transgresses the very boundaries he seeks to establish. For all his civilizing power, Oedipus remains a creature of the wild, unable to banish the “nature” within himself. Rescued from the mountain fastness of Cithaeron, he becomes a beast himself, killing his father in the wild, committing incest at the very hearth of the city, finally banished from the human community that nurtured him. Oedipus is himself a savage, a destroyer of civilized values and the city that embodies them, his will and intellect mortal threats to the hard-won human order of the polis.

By dramatizing the dialectic of civilization and savagery, Sophocles suggests that civilization is a precarious achievement and its reversion to savagery a persistent and imminent possibility, if not an inescapable reality. Human intellect and reason possess the power to lift us out of nature and return us to barbarity. In the case of Oedipus, the assiduous and unwavering application of reason reveals not only human progress but bestial regression as well. Every step Oedipus takes in his search for the murderer proves the power of his intellectual progress to be the progress of a tyrannical power. Reason and the mastery it brings constitute the obverse side of a savage tyranny. All the achievements of human civilization centered on Oedipus “come to reflect the ambiguity of man’s power to control his world and manage his life by intelligence.”[27] Oscillating between intellectual mastery and ignorance, between godlike omniscience and fateful resignation, Oedipus lacks an appropriately political kind of knowledge. In terms of the play as a whole, this means a collective and deliberative, rather than a singular and analytic, knowledge; one that is simultaneously active and shaping and passive and receptive, a knowledge that reflects on the conditions of its own possibility and heeds its mortal limits. Oedipus and Thebes, however, lack the kind of knowledge tragedy itself inculcates in its citizen audience.[28] As long as they do, they are bound to repeat an endless pattern of incest, trapped within the inexorable dialectic of civilization and savagery.[29]

Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s book also concerns the dialectic between civilization and savagery, reason and tyranny, enlightenment and myth. The authors of Dialectic of Enlightenment sought “nothing less than the discovery of why mankind, instead of entering into a truly human condition, is sinking into a new kind of barbarism.”[30] They confronted the simultaneity of material progress and social regression: what the authors characterized as the indefatigable self-destructiveness of enlightenment. Kant had laid the philosophical foundations of a purely formalistic reason; Sade and Nietzsche, the “black writers of the bourgeoisie,”[31] mercilessly elicited the implications of enlightenment by insisting that formalistic reason is no more closely allied to morality than immorality and by denying the possibility of deriving from reason any fundamental argument against murder; but it was Hitler and the fascists who brought enlightenment to its logical conclusion in a return to outright barbarism.

Consistent with the central thesis of their book, Horkheimer and Adorno interpret the Holocaust as a deadly combination of myth (anti-Semitism) and enlightenment (bureaucratically and rationally organized mass murder), the savage reversion of civilization into barbarism. That rationalism should culminate in collectively legitimated mass murder was not an isolated anachronistic irruption of savagery into modern civilization but the crystallization of its organizing principle. The “irrationalism” of anti-Semitism proceeds from the “nature of the dominant ratio itself, and the world which corresponds to its image.”[32] The thesis that civilization and savagery are inextricably linked finds tragic testimony in the methodically administered destruction of whole nations.[33]

Unlike György Lukács, on the left, and Karl Popper and Friedrich von Hayek, on the right, Horkheimer and Adorno sought the cause for the destruction of all civilized values—for barbarism on a hitherto unprecedented scale—in the triumph of scientific method and its extension into, and domination over, all spheres of life.[34]

Where Lukács argued that the commodity form and the reification it necessarily brings are specific to capitalist economic organization, both Popper and Hayek blamed socialism and the labor movement: Popper because Marxism had replaced the “piecemeal social engineering” of liberalism with historicism and utopianism; Hayek because socialism had introduced the ideas of planning and state intervention into the successful functioning of competitive capitalism. But fascism does not only become possible as a result of the wholesale reification of society, through either the market or centralized planning. Nor is it merely the truth of a liberalism stripped bare to reveal the naked inequalities and oppression inherent in the apparently free exchange of the market. Rather, fascism paradoxically embodies elements of both myth and enlightenment. In its attempt to free men from the imperatives of nature, it enslaves them to a second nature. The fault lies as much with the methods of the natural sciences (the practice of systematization) and their counterpart in epistemology (logical positivism) as with the market and capitalist relations of production (although domination certainly intensifies under these latter historical conditions). Horkheimer and Adorno radically question the pursuit of both unreflective science and systematic logic and attempt to expose the structure of formal reason as a structure of domination and so understand the entwinement of enlightenment and myth, of reason and madness, that accompanied German fascism.

They pursue one aspect of this dialectic between enlightenment and myth by suggesting a connection between the intellectual mastery of nature and tyranny over men and women. Reason, which once worked by concepts and images, now refers to method alone. Indifferent to the qualitatively and individually unique, insensitive to multiplicity and particularity,[35] impatient with tradition and history, as well as with religion, metaphysics, and philosophy, the domination of discursive logic in the conceptual sphere tends to domination in actuality. The aim of enlightenment is the subsumption of all particulars under the general, “the substitution of formula for concept, rule and probability for cause and motive.”[36] But all systems of knowledge obscure as much as they reveal, exclude as they include, foreclose human possibilities as they disclose the secrets of nature and enslave the subjects they originally intended to liberate. Blind to the course of its own progress, enlightenment pays for each and every advance in material production with the increased impotence and pliability of the masses. The unprecedented increase in economic productivity of all kinds promises greater social justice, yet the technical apparatus and the groups that administer it “assume a superiority disproportionate to the rest of the population. Even though the individual disappears before the apparatus which serves him, that apparatus provides for him as never before.”[37] Promising the subject control and mastery, enlightenment ruthlessly controls and masters the subject. If enlightenment aimed originally at freeing man from fear of mythic powers, it has replaced those archaic forces with a new myth of things as they actually are in order to justify a correspondingly new kind of terror. Fear of departing from the charmed circle of facts—terror of the unknown and hatred of the unknowable—identifies the modern self with its archaic counterpart. Enlightenment behaves like Sophocles’ Oedipus: it liberates the species from the aweful power of nature, but it also brings with it a new plague. Both remedy and poison, savior and destroyer, civilized and savage, farsighted in its commanding vision yet blind to the ambiguity of its own identity, actions, and consequences, enlightenment is not only deinon (awesome, terrifying), but pharmakon (remedy, poison) as well.

To the extent that Dialectic is concerned with the self-destruction of enlightenment’s emancipatory intent and with the precarious divisions that separate civilization from savagery, it recalls the moral judgment of Sophocles’ Oedipus. In their attempt to make Auschwitz intelligible, Horkheimer and Adorno evoke the moral sensibility of tragedy, where the poverty of current linguistic expression proves inadequate to the unprecedented nature of the new barbarism. Adorno used to speak of a “universal context of guilt,” a phrase that alludes to the impossibility of completing anything in the spirit in which it was conceived. No matter how generous or radical the intent, our best plans go wrong. We act in order to extricate ourselves from the ravages of enlightenment in its capitalist and fascist phases, only to entangle ourselves in them ever more deeply. Like Oedipus, we continually reinforce the power of a fate whose hold we seek to break. Even when the traditional theories of virtue have collapsed under the weight of rationalist skepticism, when we ought to, but cannot, do anything right, we still must act and be judged for our actions. Dialectic refuses to abandon the moral language of guilt and responsibility at a time when the force of fate, congealed in the logic and power of immense economic and bureaucratic systems, seems unassailable. Horkheimer and Adorno anticipate another German émigré, Hannah Arendt, who looked to the moral language of Greek tragedy in order to understand the unprecedented nature of the Holocaust. Insisting that Eichmann be tried for his specific deeds and not his motives, Arendt reiterates the tragic self-judgment of Oedipus: we are responsible for our particular deeds, no matter how generously, nobly, or—as in the case of Eichmann—how indifferently they are conceived.[38] The authors of Dialectic and Arendt agree with Greek tragedy that we must decide and act in a world we never made, and that such decisions and actions are tragic.

Chapter 2 also considered in detail Oedipus’s problem-solving mentality. His answer to the Sphinx’s riddle, “It is man,” reveals a unique ability to apprehend unity amid the multiplicity of forms, to organize the data of experience rationally. Oedipus reduces all “problems” of difference to their lowest common denominators, the better to solve them. Impatient with multiple meanings, diverse or contradictory voices and plural points of view, he imposes his unitary vision on the world to the exclusion of varied and variegated possibilities. The unity he achieves is, however, attained at the expense of the plurality that makes a polis possible in the first place. By insisting that words and the world have only one meaning; by reducing the complexity and flexibility of language; by diluting the richness and harmonizing the differences within Thebes itself, Oedipus threatens to liquidate the distinctions that constitute the city he sets out to save.

Horkheimer and Adorno’s book also wrestles with the dialectic between identity and difference, uniformity and individuality, the one and the many. They explore that dialectic through a consideration of enlightenment’s will to unity, the production of a uniform and characterless “mass” culture, and through the problem of “system” in both theory and practice.

The Enlightenment’s tendency to reduce the many-faceted and contradictory nature of experience to a singular unity apprehensible under the laws of formal reason already finds its expression in the ancient enlightenment. Just as Xenophanes derided the multiplicity of deities as so many false projections of man himself, Horkheimer and Adorno said, the most recent school of logic denounced the words of language as false coin better replaced by neutral counters.[39] “On the road to modern science men renounce any claim to meaning”: there is no difference between the totemic animal, the dreams of the ghost-seer, and the absolute Idea. The rich multiplicity of forms is reduced to position and arrangement, history to fact, things to matter. Science, guided by method, “makes the dissimilar comparable by reducing it to abstract quantities. To the enlightenment, that which does not reduce to numbers, and ultimately to the one, becomes illusion; modern positivism writes it off as literature.”[40] From Parmenides to Bertrand Russell, unity is the slogan: “The destruction of gods and qualities alike is insisted upon.”[41] The modern Enlightenment, replete with experimental science, formal logic and advanced method—all of which provided a schema for the calculability of the world—brought to fruition the extirpation of distinctions that the disenchantment of nature had always sought.

Enlightenment, however, is as democratic as the logic it employs. Not only are qualities dissolved in thought, but “men are brought to actual conformity as well.”[42] Those who are not find their way into “total” institutions that increasingly resemble society itself.[43] Whether through the market or the state apparatus that protects its clients from the dislocations caused by the former, our society is ruled by equivalence. “We were given our individuality as unique in each case, different to all others, so that it might all the more surely be made the same as any other.”[44] Equivalence, exchange, abstraction—all tools of enlightenment—treat individuals as did fate, the notion of which they reject: they liquidate them. The false unity of the individual and the collectivity nevertheless shows through. The more homogeneous society becomes, the more its members are subjected to the repetition, standarization, and uniformity of productive and administrative processes at all levels and in all spheres of existence, the more that society disintegrates. “Men are once again made to be mere species beings, exactly like one another through isolation in the forcibly united collectivity.”[45] Paradoxically, Horkheimer and Adorno might argue, we are a community of isolates.

The regression of enlightenment to ideology (myth) evident in the products of mass culture gives Horkheimer and Adorno occasion for reflecting on the demise of autonomous art (tragedy included) and on the corresponding abolition of the individual.[46] The late modern counterpart to the tragic world of the Greek theater is the “culture industry.”[47] Unlike Greek tragedy, however, that industry aims, not to encourage moral reflection, invigorate substantive debate, or elucidate the distinctions that make judgment possible, but rather to stultify, stupefy, and create a “culture” of unthinking, pliable masses. The products of the culture industry have lost any power to contradict the audiences’ expectations, question their norms of thought, or challenge their standards of intelligibility. Culture industry commodities have little or no critical function. Television, music, and film all encourage an attentive, but essentially passive, passionless, and uncritical reception, which they induce through patterned and predigested products: programs watch for their audiences as popular music hears for those who listen.[48] Mass-mediated cultural products thus reproduce and strengthen, rather than question, existing social and cultural boundaries. The result is not an image of society rent by contradiction, but the false identity of society and individual that urges the smooth integration of the latter into the former. If any passion is evinced, it is a passion for identification. In the context of culture as industry, tragedy, which once meant protest, now means consolation.

Where Greek tragedy valued and displayed the irreducible richness and complexity of human life, enlightenment treats culture as the ancient tyrant treated Thebes: science disproves the old oracles of religion, metaphysics, and philosophy daily; increasing social differentiation and technological specialization produce chaos, while the culture industry “now impresses the same stamp on everything…Films, radio and magazines make up a system which is uniform as a whole and in every part.”[49] The culture industry obliterates distinctions and refuses to produce or sanction anything that in any way differs from its own rules, its own ideas about consumers, and above all itself. It makes everyone the same, collapsing plurality and individuality into unity, uniformity, and anonymity, thereby destroying rather than sustaining the distinctions and differences that Greek tragedy (and a democratic politics) necessarily presuppose. The culture industry promotes that reduction in thought and society against which Sophocles warned: the incestuous repetition of the same that forever turns back and in upon itself, a repetition and standardization devoid of the exogamous relations and energy necessary to revitalize a people or a culture.

Yet the authors of Dialectic are quick to point out that mass culture does not shrink from suffering: “Tragedy made into a carefully calculated and accepted aspect of the world is a blessing.”[50] If “tragic” suffering is to be shown, it must be integrated in such a way that the system can profitably use it. Tragedy thus becomes an institution for moral improvement, just as suffering justifies the world that made it necessary. Tragedy has to resemble fate and is reduced to the threat to destroy anyone who does not cooperate with the higher powers: “Tragic fate becomes just punishment for those who resist becoming whatever the system wants.”[51] The culture industry discards tragedy by integrating both it and the individual. The substance of Greek tragedy is the opposition of its heroes to society. The need to identify, to fit in, to find refuge in the collectivity remain unfulfilled in ancient tragedy, and the tension between hero and society is unresolved. Oedipus and Antigone both defy the conventional codes of their communities and suffer for it. Today, the “miracle of integration” has brought such would-be heroes into line: the individual must find refuge in society by identifying with it and renouncing his or her individuality. The tension in tragedy dissipates into the false identity of society and individual. Where Greek tragedy refuses final narrative closure and keeps the “individual” alive, the productions of the pleasure industry affirm reconciliation and refuge and thereby defeat tragedy. For Horkheimer and Adorno, such a “liquidation of tragedy confirms the abolition of the individual.”[52]

While I certainly do not want to deny the integrative power of administered enjoyment in late capitalism, I do want to suggest that Dialectic only tells half the story of the culture industry, that this evasion flows from currents deep within the book (if not within the authors themselves), and that the resources for theorizing forms of popular resistance to commodified culture reside within the spaces between tragedy and enlightenment marked out by Dialectic itself.

Irredeemable elitists, cultural mandarins, bourgeois intellectuals, insufferable high modernists—these are a few of the more and less pejorative epithets deployed by students of popular, democratic culture and practice against Horkheimer and Adorno. These critics rightly sense the critical theorists’ hostility to virtually all forms of the popular, but mistakenly interpret that sentiment as simply antidemocratic or elitist. Reflecting on the eclipse of the critical, thinking public, which was unable to resist the advances of mass culture, Adorno summed up the effects of the culture industry as, in fact, antidemocratic: “It impedes the development of autonomous, independent individuals who judge and decide consciously for themselves. These, however, would be the precondition for a democratic society which needs adults who have come of age in order to sustain itself and develop.”[53] Ever fearful of fascism, Horkheimer and Adorno criticized the culture industry precisely for its undemocratic aspects. In Dialectic, they looked to Greek tragedy as an example of the kind of cultural production able to provide the thoughtful, critical citizens that contemporary democracy requires. Yet the forms, sites, and subjects of popular resistance to the commodity system that produces those subjects have proliferated in recent years (no doubt in ignorance of the accomplishments of Greek tragedy), opening the Dialectic’s antidemocratic interpretation of the pleasure industry to radical, populist revision.

But how are we to explain Horkheimer and Adorno’s hostility to the popular forms of enjoyment of the time (Hollywood movies, musicals, jazz, radio, magazines), and their barely concealed contempt for those who enjoy them? I want to suggest that the prejudices of (especially) Adorno’s social and cultural milieu—European bourgeois intellectual and high modernist aesthetic sensibility—fail to explain the central position cultural criticism occupies in Dialectic and other works of critical theory. Enforced exile in a city as apparently barbaric as Los Angeles (whither Adorno had followed Horkheimer, who had left New York for health reasons) might account for much of Adorno’s personal hostility to popular culture, but his criticisms are rooted more deeply, and more systematically, in the theory’s conceptual apparatus. The concept of reification is Adorno’s central interpretive category for decoding the presence of congealed power in cultural productions and so in society. Adorno deploys that concept in order to expose those structures of a cultural product as homologous to structures of social domination. Hence the following contemptuous denunciation of jazz: “Rebelling feebly, they are always ready to duck, following the lead of jazz, which integrates stumbling and coming-too-soon into the collective march lock-step.”[54]

In this example, Adorno’s decoding of culture as commodity unproblematically maps the meaning of the reified product (song, movie, advertisement) onto the social structure itself: identical, indistinguishable mass-produced and fetishized products must also signify identical, indistinguishable, mass-produced “individuals” subject to the power of the fetish they themselves have created. Commodities stamp their falsely individualized imprint on their consumers, who nonetheless see through the deception. This critique of the culture industry, a critique that proceeds from the concept of reification, focuses exclusively on the meaning of cultural production, ignoring the equally important meaning of cultural consumption. While this productivist bias in the analysis of cultural commodities does lead to a supple disclosure of the integrative power of late capitalist commodity production, it simultaneously occludes from view the proliferation of possible sites and spaces where the cultural meanings of these commodities might be (re)appropriated in order to resist, contest, or subvert the imperatives of the commodity system. While it is certainly true that culture as commodity possesses integrative force, like any artifact of culture, the products of the culture industry are objects whose meaning exceeds—surpasses—the intention of the producer. The products of the pleasure industry take on meanings of their own once they reach the street. That surplus meaning—the meaning produced by the subcultures who appropriate it—only becomes visible with a shift of focus (which Adorno refused) away from production and toward the many and varied uses to which cultural commodities are subjected by those who purchase them.

From this perspective, the commodities of the culture industry lose some of their integrative, repressive power, and the unexpected uses to which subcultural or countercultural groups put them appear as sites and examples of resistant and rebellious subjectivity. Without romanticizing this form of cultural power, we must be alert to the ways in which the commodities of the culture industry constitute a site of struggle over meanings, out of which new selves, new subjectivities, and sometimes new political possibilities are (re)fashioned. Shopping malls, video arcades, bebop, hip-hop, MTV, and Madonna all have their subversive, countercultural uses, which often resist the seemingly irreversible transition to fully administered enjoyment. Pleasures, bodies, and desires are the central elements in this struggle over meanings, elements not so different from those already found in the Sirens episode analyzed by Horkheimer and Adorno. In that scene from Homer, the pleasure-consuming Odysseus (allegory for the later bourgeois enjoyment of art) must tie himself to the mast, renounce his freedom, his enjoyment, and himself as he impotently listens to the Sirens’ song. Contemporary consumers of culture are infinitely more imaginative than their archaic and bourgeois counterparts in contesting the predetermined meanings of the culture system: they give up the rational strategy of an Odysseus for the tactical raids of the (sub)urban guerrilla in order to bend received cultural meanings, contest structures of domination, and resist the inertia of cultural commodification from deep within enemy territory.

But how can Dialectic be made more responsive (and more responsible) to the possibilities of cultural resistance that reside in the surplus meanings generated by the users of cultural commodities? That possibility lies in loosening its dependence on a theory of cultural production by teasing out the strands of Greek tragedy that undermine the critical theorists’ valorization of “high” culture. The ambivalent cultural dynamics of Greek tragedy—tragic drama as popular entertainment as well as autonomous art form—provide an instructive and ironic parallel to the popular culture Horkheimer and Adorno reject. Such a reappropriation of Greek tragedy by the forces of the popular constitutes a subversive undertaking that is no less an abandonment of a rational strategy for a tactical raid than that performed by a host of today’s resistant and (re)fashioned selves. It amounts to reading Dialectic against itself and against its conclusions, to searching out meaning and possibilities in the text that eluded the authors.

Greek tragedy, as we have seen, provides the authors of Dialectic with a model of critical political education: by portraying heroes and heroines who refuse assimilation into the system or the system’s categories, by representing a society rent and fissured by contradictions, Greek tragedy constitutes for the critical theorists an exemplary form of cultural resistance to the integrative powers of a mass democratic society that is one step away from fascism. What Horkheimer and Adorno’s account of tragedy elides, however, is the radically popular nature of ancient dramatic festivals and performances and the ambivalent position of the playwrights in regard to cultural transmission.

First, the plays were subject to audience approval in the form of a competition and so were required to negotiate the distance between providing cultural critique and popular entertainment. Plays were successful largely to the extent that they combined both these elements. The performances, themselves, then, were sites of popular struggle over cultural meanings. The playwrights engaged, not only in an agon among themselves for first prize, but in a contest whose parameters were bounded by the requirements of the art form and popular tastes—an agon constituted by their relationship to the popular audience.

Second, the productivist paradigm of cultural commodification describes Greek tragedy no better than it describes contemporary popular culture. The tragedians stood in a decidedly ambivalent structural relation to their culture: they were never merely producers of a critical discourse that could be directly mapped onto an Athenian society that did not measure up to its standards. The playwrights were also cultural “consumers” of a sort, of the ancient myths and legends that constituted (and reconstituted) the popular cultural traditions of the city. Like the consumers of contemporary popular culture, the tragedians purposefully remade and refashioned the cultural products available to them. Those reappropriations of the myths and their reworking in tragedy must be seen as acts that contest and transform received cultural accommodations and meanings, that resist and destabilize potentially homogenizing cultural constructions. Aeschylus, for example, not only problematized such binary categories as male/female, Greek/barbarian, reason/passion, and new/old, but also rewrote the ancient myths to bring previously elided questions of gender and public power on stage. From this perspective, a Greek tragedy like the Oresteia appears as a site of struggle over social and cultural meanings, as a product of culture that, in the hands of the playwright, exemplifies the ongoing process of making and remaking cultural meanings, much as the products of the culture industry are refashioned by the rebellious and resistant selves who appropriate them in a myriad of ways never intended by the producer.

In turning Dialectic against itself, in forcing it against its intent to yield a (grudging) valorization of (some aspects of) popular culture, my reading nonetheless remains true to its vocation of resistance. What makes the book such a powerful work is its tenacious subversion of all theoretical, political, and narrative closures, its resistance to integrative systems and concepts that attempt to order reality without remainder. Horkheimer and Adorno would no doubt resist my own tactical raids on the boundaries they draw between high and low culture, on the distinction they make between the productions of the pleasure industry and the pleasure experienced in consuming those products in ways that surely were never meant. Even so, the political possibilities that emerge from the newfound sites and practices of resistance, contest, and renegotiation that accompany the contemporary refashioning of the postmodern popular and democratic subject are true to the deepest impulses of a critical theory dedicated to empowering forms of difference and resisting the power of conceptual and social conformity.[55]

Horkheimer and Adorno further elaborate the dialectic between identity and difference, uniformity and individuality, with reference to what they call the system. In the tradition of the Western Enlightenment, from Descartes and Leibniz to Kant, reason refers to the unified organization of data: rationality requires the consistent and coherent construction of concepts. This unity, consistency, and coherence is the system. Unity resides in agreement: “The resolution of contradiction is the system in nuce.[56] Since there is to be complete harmony, uniformity, and homogeneity among the elements of the system, thought as such is reduced to the creation of unified, scientific order and the derivation of factual knowledge from principles. Thinking must make system and perception accord by reconciling the antagonism between the general and the particular, the concept and the facts. Just as the facts are predicted from the system, so must they also confirm it. All systems are closed and exclusionary.

Horkheimer and Adorno regard Hegel’s philosophy as an example of a closed system, despite his dialectical critique of Kant. In the anticipatory identification of history and philosophy—totality in system and society—Hegel contravenes his own prohibition against making the conscious result of the whole process of negation into an absolute.[57] Nonetheless, systems interpret the world and in that regard are necessary components of our lives. They call for an orderly organization and presentation of experience, without which we could not survive. But more often than not, systems claim their concepts to be adequate to their object. They claim to have identified it fully. In systems thinking, there is a kind of paranoia to embrace the whole: a system tolerates nothing outside of itself. Fear of the unknown, of departing from the rigid organization of facts, proves to be the psychological principle behind the Enlightenment penchant for system.[58] But reality does not go into its concept without remainder. Systems inevitably enter into conflict with the “objects” they purport to grasp. The multiplicity of qualities disappears in the system, only to return later to contradict it. History defies systems, as the fate of Hegel’s philosophy demonstrates and the dialectic of enlightenment attests. If history does have any unity, it is not given by any systematic construction but by suffering.[59]

Conceptual systems find their homologue in society. The tendency in contemporary social institutions toward total organization is the historical counterpart to systemic thinking; the particular is subsumed under the general concept as the individual is subsumed under the “plan.” “Being is apprehended under the aspect of manufacture and administration. Everything—even the human individual, not to speak of the animal—is converted into the repeatable, replaceable process, into a mere example for the conceptual models of the system.”[60] Individuals are interchangeable parts in an economic and bureaucratic apparatus bent solely on self-preservation. The difficulty is to make sense of the world of people and things while doing it the least violence, a task Sophocles’ Oedipus dramatized in all its tragic dimensions. Horkheimer and Adorno similarly both construe and deny the kind of thinking that allowed Oedipus initially to save Thebes and subsequently to threaten it with ruin. Their alternative to systems thinking resembles what Arendt called representative thinking, the capacity to think from the standpoint of somebody else.[61] This capacity is precisely what conceptual (and social) systems deny, since they treat their constituent elements as objects rather than as subjects: “To be an object also is part of the meaning of subjectivity; but it is not equally part of the meaning of objectivity to be a subject.”[62]

Systems are thus theoretical and political problems, which helps explain why Dialectic is so difficult to read, and why it has been so ruthlessly criticized as both a theoretical and political “failure.” If the point is somehow to avoid the chaos that the complete absence of system induces and the collapse into unity and uniformity that a total system requires, then Dialectic pursues a number of strategies to this end. I have already mentioned how Dialectic consciously avoids a language that would too easily accommodate itself to current linguistic and conceptual conventions as an act of resistance against the system; how the two voices conjoined in the text practice the dialogue it recommends; how the emphasis it places on specific qualities, individual characteristics, and unique distinctions rejects the tendencies toward systematic unity in theory and society; how the structure of the book, a whole composed of fragments, reiterates and performs the authors’ concern to achieve a plurality within unity; and, finally, how, by looking to the archaic sensibility and language of tragedy, Dialectic finds there a source of energy to reinvigorate our theoretical and political language. In these various ways, Horkheimer and Adorno attempt to mediate the distance between two poles of an irreconcilable dialectic, between too much unity and too much diversity.

There is another way, however, in which Dialectic mediates between the poles of identity and difference. Earlier, I argued that the disintegrating structure of Dialectic reiterated its theoretical claim concerning the transition to the world of the administered life. On another level of articulation, the structural armature of the work deliberately checks its theoretical direction. Dialectic seems to offer a systematic or “total” critique of rationalization. Yet if rationalization, as actuality and ideology, is total, how can the authors know it? Have they not effectively conceded defeat by relinquishing the ground on which to base their claims? What critics see as a contradiction or impassable aporia in theory construction,[63] I see as a deliberate textual strategy to undermine the book’s own impulse toward total critique and so avoid precisely the premature closure its critics fear. Dialectic offers a comprehensive critique of reason and at the same time deliberately dismantles the very theoretical totality it forwards. It is precisely the structure of the book, its disintegration into fragments, that questions its own substantive claims and opposes the impulse toward totalized critique.[64] The structure of Dialectic reverses the direction of its theoretical intentions by joining in opposition two ways of pursuing social critique. The disintegrating structure of the book thus reverses its theoretical claims in order to reverse the reversal of enlightenment itself.

My final reason for reading the Dialectic in terms of Greek tragedy has to do with a set of intentions and strategies they share. I am referring here to the way in which both use the past in an “untimely” fashion in order to raise timely questions about the cultural and political regimes they respectively inhabit. Greek tragedy performed this critical task in at least two ways. First, it juxtaposed dramatic content to ritual context. As part of a religious festival, a tragic performance was an occasion for the city as a whole to “reconsecrate, remember and rededicate itself to sustaining its traditions of collective life.”[65] Yet the content of the dramatic performances radically challenged the accepted traditions in which the ritual was embedded. Tragedy presented a world torn by conflict and contradiction. In the language of structural anthropology, all the codes—ritual, religious, sexual, familial, and political—are either inverted or violated. The acceptable relationships between parents and children, men and women, rulers and ruled, public and private, citizen and foreigner are all strained to the breaking point. Tragedy suspends the normal intelligibility of the world and so calls forth reflective questioning concerning the order that is given us and that we create.

Secondly, tragedy expressed an ambivalent and critical attitude to the city’s presently constituted order through the formal structure of the performance itself, through the tension between the two elements that occupied the tragic stage. On one hand, there was the chorus, representing the collectivity of democratic citizens; on the other, opposite it, there was a legendary warrior king like Oedipus, representing the heroic and mythical past.[66] The juxtaposition of present democratic citizenship, represented by the chorus of trained citizens, and past heroic kingship, embodied in the aristocratic Oedipus, questioned present democratic achievements and past dynastic beginnings alike. A second set of oppositions also cut across the first. Where the citizen chorus chanted its songs in the archaic lyric of a past heroic age, a legendary warrior king like Oedipus spoke his lines in the contemporary idiom of Athens. Projected into the mythic past, Oedipus embodied the character and performed the deeds of a legendary king, while seeming to speak and act in the immediate present. Through such juxtaposition in the formal structure of the play, Sophocles refused to glorify the past, even as the play turned the present into a problem that the past could illuminate from within the tradition of a public festival.

Dialectic likewise suspends its readers between past and present in a way that neither glorifies the former nor reifies the latter, even as it positions itself within the tradition it criticizes. Horkheimer and Adorno juxtapose past and present, myth and enlightenment, by reading Homer’s Odyssey as a disposition of modernity and the most recent historical developments as a return to archaic barbarism. The authors of Dialectic thus parallel the way in which Greek tragedy brought mythic past and enlightened present together in an uneasy unity of opposites on stage.

Horkheimer and Adorno’s reading of the Odyssey sets out to assess the social and psychic costs of modern rationalism against the background of reason’s prehistory in archaic myth: “No literary work testifies more eloquently to the interconnectedness of enlightenment and myth than Homer’s which is the fundamental text of European civilization.”[67] It reveals that, contrary to enlightened thinking, the opposition between myth and enlightenment is not absolute. On one hand, the epic poem is already rationalized: it bears Francis Bacon’s “right mark.” On the other hand, when enlightenment posits itself as the absolute other of myth, it enthrones itself as a new myth. By juxtaposing the archaic past of Homer’s epic with our own modern present, Dialectic undermines the opposition between reason and myth and so questions our confidence in the progress of reason and the superiority of modern cultural accomplishments it brings.

In doing so, it recalls Sophocles’ play and Oedipus, that other civilizing hero: on one level, the Odyssey is about the triumph of human skill and intellect over the dark, powerful, mythic forces that populate a hostile world. Odysseus, alone and unaided, relies solely on his native intelligence and cunning to overcome the dreadful obstacles that bar his way home, while his less enlightened companions perish. On another level, Horkheimer and Adorno read the Odyssey as a reflection on the highly ambivalent nature of human intellect and power. In Homer, the authors of Dialectic already find the entwinement of reason and myth that marks the modern structures of economic and political domination. Odysseus rules the ship on the return voyage not solely because of his superior skill but also because of his aristocratic standing. In Odysseus, the man of reason and the king, two strands of a theory of legitimacy emerge. He grounds his rule in both unaided intellectual achievement and hereditary entitlement, in both enlightenment and myth.[68] Under pressure of circumstance, Odysseus abdicates as king in order to take the helm as a bureaucratic expert exerting political domination in the name of a rationality whose goal is self-preservation. By reason of this victory over myth, both Odysseus and modern political systems enthrone the myth of reason.[69]

The dialectic of the Homeric enlightenment reveals more than the entanglement of myth and reason. Horkheimer and Adorno read the Odyssey as a prehistoric portrait of modernity: the epic appears as the “historico-philosophic counterpart to the novel,” and Odysseus as the “prototype of the bourgeois individual.”[70] Individuation of the autonomous self and regression to undifferentiated chaos form the poles of an unreconciled dialectic. In his encounter with the Cyclopes, Odysseus must deny his identity in order to preserve it. He tricks Polyphemus by giving his name as Oudeis (Nobody), which sounds enough like Odysseus to delight the listener with a pun and simultaneously conceal and reveal the identity of the hero, who barely escapes the rocks hurled at his boat. Risk-taking, renunciation, and the sublimation of the instincts into art are further elements of bourgeois life prefigured in Odysseus’s encounter with the mythic forces of nature. The principle of risk in the encounter with the Sirens allows Odysseus to listen to their deadly sweet song while his crew members close their ears. Had he not hazarded to listen, the voyage would have been safe and uneventful. But the risk Odysseus takes is a calculated one, in which he may be sure of a favorable return (in both senses of that word). The ropes that bind him to the mast also save him from the danger of mortal pleasure. The counterpart to bourgeois risk-taking is either renunciation or sublimation: renunciation because Odysseus may listen to the Sirens’ song, yet as soon as pleasure appears within his grasp, the crew members secure his fetters ever more tightly, “just as later the bourgeois foregoes happiness the more tenaciously the more he realizes that his increasing power has put it within his reach”;[71] sublimation because Odysseus mediates the bodily felt tension between his desire for emancipation from the forces of nature and the urge to regress to prerational pleasure in the same way that the modern bourgeois will reconcile the antagonism between work and pleasure; that is, through the contemplation of art.[72] The episode with the Sirens gives mute testimony to the dialectic of power and impotence.

Thus far Horkheimer and Adorno have exposed self-denial, repression, and sublimation as the archaic elements in modern ego formation and individuation. They have been concerned, up to this point in the text, to analyze similarities between modern bourgeois and premodern aristocratic structures of ideology and consciousness. But that analysis makes only half their argument and tells only half their story. Despite the purging of Marxist language and categories from the final edition of Dialectic, the book does not wholly abandon the key categories of Marx’s critical political economy. The authors understood well enough the importance of economic domination in a society organized by capitalism (whether in its liberal, monopoly, or statist phases). In fact, most of Adorno’s cultural criticism (his musicology, for instance) aimed at decoding structures of social and economic domination congealed in various aesthetic productions. His analyses, however, did not seek to establish a causal mechanism between economy and culture. Rather, his process of decoding sought to illuminate both the content and the form of a cultural work as homologous to a structure of domination in society. The key concept of reification—no less operative in the present context—was Adorno’s central interpretive category for understanding modern society in both its capitalist and fascist stages. It is to reification, exchange, and the commodity form to which Dialectic now turns in order to complete the critical juxtaposition of archaic to modern society.

At the midpoint of the excursus on Homer, therefore, lie the concepts of equivalence and commodity exchange nascent in the archaic practice of sacrifice: “While economic exchange may be viewed as a secularization of sacrifice, it is equally true that sacrifice is the magical prototype of rational exchange.”[73]Dialectic here juxtaposes the commodity system of present-day capitalism to the archaic practice of sacrifice in order to reveal the irrationality of the former. Odysseus proves himself capable not only of deceiving the gods about what he owes but also of intelligent bargaining to reduce his liability. “The benevolence of the deities is expected to have something to do with the specific magnitude of hecatombs”: sacrificial offerings are not wholly exchangeable. Odysseus cunningly explores the elasticity of that magnitude, thereby releasing the price system of mythical sacrifice from its rigid structure and subjecting the mythical contract to the “forces of the market.” The bourgeois principles of exploitation through substitution (equivalence) are thus already well entrenched in the mythical world of the epic. Odysseus merely enlarges the scope of those principles through deceit and enlightened bargaining, thereby “exposing the relativism inherent in the notion of equivalence” and demystifying the “natural” mechanism of exchange.[74]

The Homeric epic also enacts the transformation of sacrifice into self-sacrifice and so provides a presentient allegory of bourgeois renunciation. The sacrifice to which Odysseus subjects himself in the Sirens episode, “the denial of nature in man for the sake of domination over non-human nature and over other men,”[75] already points to the loss of freedom men and women will experience in an excessively technicized and rationalized world. Odysseus’s encounter presents the paradox of triumphant reason familiar from Oedipus: “Man’s domination over himself, which grounds his selfhood, is almost always the destruction of the subject in whose service it is undertaken; for the substance which is dominated, suppressed and dissolved by virtue of self-preservation is none other than that very life as functions of which the achievements of self-preservation find their sole definition and determination: it is, in fact, what is to be preserved.”[76] Enlightenment, whether archaic or modern, turns back and in on itself in a paradoxical process of loss: the practice of self-renunciation gives away more of life than it gives back. The mastery of nature is paid for in self-repression and the repression of others: just as Oedipus virtually destroys the city he set out to liberate, and Odysseus both saves and wastes his life and the lives of his crew, so too does enlightenment threaten with destruction that which it set out to preserve.

Throughout the first “Excursus” on the Odyssey, Horkheimer and Adorno juxtapose archaic elements to modern phenomena. The discovery of self-denial, repression, the sublimation of instincts, and renunciation through self-sacrifice in Homer evoke in us a highly ambivalent attitude. We cannot denounce them without denouncing ourselves, yet we surely want to disassociate ourselves from the cruelty and barbarism of the archaic past. But that is precisely what Horkheimer and Adorno will not allow. When we consider our own present, it appears as wholly barbaric and irrational as the remote past of the epic. Dialectic juxtaposes the archaic past to the most recent historical developments in order to show that “the social situation of modern man is strikingly dissimilar yet reminiscent of the first attempt to survive by establishing an order based on reason.”[77] Their strategy thus works in two directions at once: it aims to free us from a reified present in which political and economic structures appear natural and it works against any nostalgic return to a falsely idealized past. Horkheimer and Adorno criticized contemporary reason as myth while they simultaneously presented historical progress as the return of the “ever-identical,” as a new disposition of myth. They pointed to the most recent history (anti-Semitism, fascism, monopoly capitalism) as a regression to archaic barbarism, and interpreted the epic of the Odyssey as an expression of the most modern, with Odysseus as the “prototype of the bourgeois individual.”

The juxtaposition of the archaic past to the events of the present is no undialectical attempt “to follow the (largely effaced) path that leads back to the origins of instrumental reason, so as to outdo the concept of objective reason.”[78] Nor is it an attempt to construe the process of rationalization as a negative philosophy of history. Rather, Horkheimer and Adorno seek to “read an archaic image as a configuration of modernity”[79] in a way that would open up the present to critical assessment. They make the archaic appear meaningful in the light of the present, while the very newness and modernity of the present they reveal as significant in light of the archaic. Like Greek tragedy, Dialectic juxtaposes the moments of a seemingly overcome past to the most barbaric, most irrational phenomena of the present in order to demythologize the present and the past’s hold over it. Their juxtaposition of the archaic to the modern thus worked not to establish a historical origin for a noninstrumentalized reason, but to criticize the present through the deployment of a critical history and so undermine belief in the myth of history as progress.

If my presentation has been persuasive, Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment exemplifies what a dialogue between Greek tragedy (and by extension the thought of the classical polis) and contemporary theory can accomplish. The authors of Dialectic sought “a form of linguistic expression”[80] that would resist assimilation to the systems of bureaucratic domination and economic production of late capitalism. The themes, style, and language of Greek tragedy provide the necessary point of reference for revitalizing a theoretical and political language all but completely degraded and devalued by the proliferation of method, technique, and calculative reason. Dialectic looks to the archaic sensibility of the tragic consciousness in its relation to myth, fate, and morality in order to locate an outside point of leverage from which to comprehend and resist the ever more tightly sealed “systems” of mass deception (the culture industry) and outright barbarism (the Holocaust). Dialectic thus stands to the present as Greek tragedy stood to the ancient city. It “uses” the past, Greek tragedy included, to provide us with a critical view of ourselves, much as Greek tragedy used its own past to provide the polis with a critical consideration of its own public and private life. Since Horkheimer and Adorno learn how to “use” the past from Greek tragedy, they reject the easy nostalgia of conservative cultural criticism together with its wholesale assimilation of the past to the present as a negation of the past’s critical potential. Greek tragedy (and theory) can surely help to loosen the hold modern forms of life exert on us, but a return to the past is neither possible nor desirable. Like tragedy, Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s narrative account of atrocity offers no consolation for the entanglement of history, savagery, and civilization save the hard-won wisdom that comes through suffering. Dialectic heeds its own admonition that it is the duty of thinking men and women to cultivate such wisdom.


1. I largely pass over the Marxist background of Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (trans. John Cumming [New York: Continuum Books, 1972]), first, because I assume it to be unproblematic; second, because I have little to add to the voluminous scholarship on the critical theorists’ place in the tradition of Western Marxism; and third, because I am deliberately reading Dialectic out of its traditional context in order to generate new insights. Putting it in the context of Foucault, Nietzsche, and tragedy is meant, not only to revitalize a book fallen into disuse, but also to demonstrate the ability of classical thought to address the important issues of postmodernity. [BACK]

2. My reading of Dialectic is a sympathetic one. I am not overly concerned to defend some of its more contentious claims, for instance, that German fascism is to be deduced from the logic of the dominant ratio itself, or that capitalism, fascism, and totalitarianism share the same fundamental logic. I am highly critical of Horkheimer and Adorno’s views on the culture industry and the abolition of the individual, although I also believe their position has merit. After all, in the face of the integrative powers of the administrative state and the capitalist economy, the forces of popular culture have not yet brought the revolution. I am most concerned here that the collaborative work of Horkheimer and Adorno be taken seriously again; that it be read in the context of Greek tragedy, and that Greek tragedy and classical thought in general be recognized as valuable sources for thinking about contemporary political and theoretical problems. The value of Dialectic of Enlightenment lies in its ability to teach us how tothink about the world of people and things, which, like Greek tragedy, it does by both precept and example. [BACK]

3. Karen Hermassi, Polity and Theatre in Historical Perspective (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977), pp. 3–24, offers a fine discussion of the tragic theater as an act of collective recollection. [BACK]

4. “As much as Habermas places communication and language in the center of his theory, they almost always remain objects of theory, as though theory were a language beyond speech,” Rainer Nägele observes in “Freud, Habermas and the Dialectic of Enlightenment: On Real and Ideal Discourse,” New German Critique 22 (1981): 42–43. [BACK]

5. Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic, p. 7. [BACK]

6. Ibid., xvi. [BACK]

7. Ibid., 3, xi. [BACK]

8. Ibid., xiv. [BACK]

9. This is truer of Horkheimer than of Adorno, who as early as 1931 had criticized the Marxian concept of totality, as well as the assumptions implicit in Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach,” in his lecture “The Actuality of Philosophy” (reprinted in Telos 31 (Spring 1977): 120–33. For the influence of contemporary historical events on the theoretical development of Horkheimer and Adorno, see Helmut Dubiel, Theory and Practice (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1985). [BACK]

10. Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic, p. xi. [BACK]

11. Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics (New York: Continuum Books, 1973), p. 3. [BACK]

12. Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic, p. 40; Christian Lenhardt, “The Wanderings of Enlightenment,” in On Critical Theory, ed. John O’Neill, pp. 52–53 (New York: Seabury Press, 1976); Dialectic, p. 42. Joel Whitebrook’s attempt in “The Politics of Redemption,” Telos 63 (Spring 1985), to distance himself from the so-called “politics of redemption” that he claims flows from Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s totalizing critique of reason is misguided in my view. [BACK]

13. Horkheimer and Adorno see this logic at work in the structure of scientific thinking, in the development of philosophical systems, and in the phenomenon of culture as industry. Since I develop these themes at length below, I shall restrict my comments here to the dialectic between democracy and normalization. [BACK]

14. To borrow the title of Martin Jay’s collection of essays on the Frankfurt School, Permanent Exiles: Essays on the Intellectual Migration from Germany to America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986). [BACK]

15. Theodor W. Adorno, “The Culture Industry Reconsidered” (1964), New German Critique 6 (Fall 1975). [BACK]

16. I am thinking of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Viking Press, 1964; repr., Penguin Books, 1977); see esp. pp. 286–87. [BACK]

17. Martha C. Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp. 122 ff., argues a relationship between Greek tragedy and Plato’s dialogues. [BACK]

18. Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic, ix. [BACK]

19. Nussbaum, Fragility of Goodness, p. 126. [BACK]

20. Ibid., p. 130. [BACK]

21. Ibid., p. 127. [BACK]

22. Ibid., p. 130. [BACK]

23. Ibid., p. 134. [BACK]

24. Ibid. [BACK]

25. Timothy J. Reiss reads Greek tragedy this way in Tragedy and Truth: Studies in the Development of a Renaissance and Neoclassical Discourse (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press 1980), p. 21. [BACK]

26. Nussbaum, Fragility of Goodness, p. 129. [BACK]

27. Charles P. Segal, Tragedy and Civilization: An Interpretation of Sophocles (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981), p. 232. [BACK]

28. On the educative function of tragedy, see J. Peter Euben, ed., Greek Tragedy and Political Theory (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), esp. introduction and Stephen Salkever, “Tragedy and the Education of the Demos.” [BACK]

29. On the eternal return of the same in the Oedipus plays, see Froma I. Zeitlin, “Thebes: Theater of Self and Society in Athenian Drama,” in Euben, ed., Greek Tragedy and Political Theory, pp. 101–41. [BACK]

30. Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic, xi. [BACK]

31. Ibid., 17. [BACK]

32. Ibid., xvii. [BACK]

33. Cf. Walter Benjamin’s “Every document of civilization is also a document of barbarism” (Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt [New York: Schocken Books, 1969; repr., 1986], p. 256). Adorno elsewhere characterizes modernity’s psychological principle as “frigidity”—that is, as the capacity to see one’s fellows devoured without experiencing guilt or physical pain. Arendt comes to a similar conclusion, but calls it thoughtlessness: the inability to think from the standpoint of somebody else made it possible for Eichmann to efficiently organize mass murder (Eichmann in Jerusalem [1977], p. 49). [BACK]

34. Although Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic interprets the reversal of enlightenment by means of Lukács’s concept of rationalization as reification, Lukács does not deal with fascism directly; see György Lukács, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1971), esp. “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” pp. 83–222. And see Friedrich August von Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1944), and Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies (1949; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966). [BACK]

35. Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic, p. 7. [BACK]

36. Ibid., p. 5. [BACK]

37. Ibid., p. xiv. [BACK]

38. Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem (1977), p. 278. [BACK]

39. Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic, p. 5. [BACK]

40. Ibid., p. 7. [BACK]

41. Ibid., p. 8. [BACK]

42. Ibid., p. 12. [BACK]

43. Here Horkheimer and Adorno anticipate, e.g., Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Pantheon Books, 1965); Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Pantheon Books, 1977); and The Birth of the Clinic: An Archeology of Medical Perception, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Pantheon Books, 1973). [BACK]

44. Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic, p. 13. [BACK]

45. Ibid., p. 36. [BACK]

46. Ibid., p. 154. [BACK]

47. The phrase “culture industry” was first used by Horkheimer and Adorno, who preferred it to “mass culture” because of the latter phrase’s populist connotations. They oppose “mass culture” not because it is democratic but precisely because it is not. [BACK]

48. Theodor W. Adorno and George Simpson, “On Popular Music,” Studies in Philosophy and Social Science 9, 1 (special issue, 1941): 48. [BACK]

49. Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic, p. 120. [BACK]

50. Ibid., p. 151. [BACK]

51. Ibid., p. 153. [BACK]

52. Ibid., p. 154. [BACK]

53. Adorno, “Culture Industry Reconsidered,” p. 135. [BACK]

54. Theodor W. Adorno, Prisms, trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber (Boston: MIT Press, 1981), p. 128. [BACK]

55. This account and appropriation of popular democratic culture and practice draws on Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993), esp. ch. 3, “Jewels Brought from Bondage: Black Music and the Politics of Authenticity,” and Small Acts: Thoughts on the Politics of Black Cultures (London: Serpent’s Tail Press, 1993); Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984); John Fiske, Reading the Popular (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989); Jean Baudrillard, Fatal Strategies (New York: Semiotext(e), 1990); Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style (London: Methuen, 1979); Roland Barthes, Mythologies (London: Paladin, 1973); Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984); and Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyperreality: Essays, trans. William Weaver (London: Picador; New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1986). [BACK]

56. Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic, p. 82. [BACK]

57. Ibid., p. 24. [BACK]

58. Ibid., p. xiv. [BACK]

59. David Held, Introduction to Critical Theory (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), p. 216. [BACK]

60. Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic, p. 84. [BACK]

61. Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem (1977), p. 49. [BACK]

62. Adorno, Negative Dialectics p. 183. [BACK]

63. Jürgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action: Reason and the Rationalization of Society, trans. Thomas McCarthy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984); Seyla Ben habib, “Modernity and the Aporias of Critical Theory,” New German Critique 49 (Fall 1981), and Critique, Norm and Utopia: A Study of the Foundations of Critical Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), pp. 147–85. [BACK]

64. It is also this structure that the critics ignore when interpreting Dialectic. [BACK]

65. Euben, ed., Greek Tragedy and Political Theory, introduction. [BACK]

66. Jean-Pierre Vernant, “Tensions and Ambiguities in Greek Tragedy,” in id. and Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece, trans. Janet Loyd (New York: Zone Books, 1980), pp. 32–33. [BACK]

67. Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic, pp. 45–46. [BACK]

68. Here is another instance in which a theme from Oedipus Tyrannos resonates with Horkheimer and Adorno’s reading of Homer: we find the same confusing juxtaposition of hereditary entitlement (myth) and superior intellect (enlightenment) as grounds for political rule in Sophocles’ play. [BACK]

69. Lenhardt, “Wanderings of Enlightenment,” p. 41. [BACK]

70. Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic, p. 43. [BACK]

71. Ibid., p. 34. [BACK]

72. Lenhardt, “Wanderings of Enlightenment,” p. 44. [BACK]

73. Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic, p. 49. [BACK]

74. Lenhardt, “Wanderings of Enlightenment,” p. 47. [BACK]

75. Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic, p. 54. [BACK]

76. Ibid., pp. 54–55. [BACK]

77. Lenhardt, “Wanderings of Enlightenment,” p. 48. [BACK]

78. Habermas, Theory of Communicative Action, 1: 382. [BACK]

79. Susan Buck-Morss, The Origins of Negative Dialectics: Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin and the Frankfurt Institute (New York: Free Press, 1977), p. 59. [BACK]

80. Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic, p. xii. [BACK]

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