Saturday, February 6, 2010

1947: "Dialectic of Enlightenment" by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer

The Authors:
Max Horkheimer

Born in Stuttgart, Germany in 1895, the son of upwardly mobile Jewish textile merchant,
Horkheimer (on the left in the image at right) rejected plans to run the family business because he believed it exploited workers. In 1923, he completed his doctorate in philosophy at the University of Frankfurt, and in 1930 he became director of the Institute for Social Research, a. k.a. “The Frankfurt School,” which, under his leadership, became famous for its ideological analysis of modern culture (what Horkheimer called “Critical Theory”). He died in 1973.

Theodor W. Adorno
The son of a wealthy Jewish wine merchant,
Adorno was born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1903. After getting a doctorate in philosophy at University of Frankfurt in 1924, he moved to Vienna where he studied musical composition with Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg. In 1933, the Nazis revoked his teaching credentials and he moved to Oxford, England. Five years later, he joined Horkheimer in the United States at the relocated Institute for Social Research (a.k.a. the “Frankfurt School”). After World War II, Adorno and Horkheimer returned to Germany and reestablished the Institute in Frankfurt. Adorno died in 1969.

The Text:
Dialectic of Enlightenment

This jointly authored text attacks “the notion that the Western world has been progressing since the Enlightenment” and asserts that the leading broadcast firms, publishing companies and motion picture studios serve the totalitarian impulses of modern capitalist societies by transforming “art into commodities and people into complacent consumers.” (1221-1222)
The image at left is the original poster for
Frank Capra’s 1947 film classic.

“The sound film . . . leaves no room for imagination or reflection on the part of the audience, who is unable to respond within the structure of the film . . . without losing the thread of the story; hence the film forces its victims to equate it directly with reality.” (1226)

The movies are designed so that “sustained thought is out of the question if the spectator is not to miss the relentless rush of facts.” (1226)

“Pleasure always means not to think about anything, to forget suffering even where it is shown. Basically it is helplessness. It is flight; not, as is asserted, flight from wretched reality, but from the last remaining thought of resistance. The liberation which amusement promises is freedom from thought . . .” (1232)

“. . . the popularity of the [movie hero] . . . comes partly from a secret satisfaction that the effort to achieve individuation has at last been replaced by the effort to imitate . . .” (1237)

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