If it wasn’t for that pesky Enlightenment… Academy and Engagement… June 25, 2007Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, The Left.
I was at a conference recently and found it quite fascinating. The broad area was that of visual and material culture.
But then I heard a number of eye-watering phrases used by some of the participants. These ran along the lines of the “Enlightenment being the patriarchal hierarchical endarkening which resulted in the barbarism of Nazism’. Later there was reference to societies ‘in thrall to the enlightenment that resulted in progressive politics that resulted in disaster’. And who was trotted out to justify this contention? Why none other than one T. Adorno, late of the Frankfurt School.
Now, round here we value progressive politics. Indeed we value it highly, so it is always intriguing to hear the term thrown into any debate or discussion.
But in this context it appeared to be be so unformed, so lacking in connection to any serious engagement with either history, ideology or philosophy that it made me wonder just what sort of misreading of Adorno (“Dialectic of Enlightenment” wasn’t namechecked but one presumes that was the source), or indeed of the meaning of the Enlightenment, is being transmitted through academia at the moment. Or more importantly, since when has it been thought that Adorno, surely as much of his time as any other person constitutes the first and last word on the subject?
And this – coincidentally – feeds into Donaghs post on Dublin Opinion about post-modernism. The critique quoted by Donagh makes a point which links directly to the approach quoted above:
The warm, desiring, palpable body [of post-modernism] is a living rebuke to all those bloodless abstractions about the Asiatic mode of production.
Keep this in mind for later in this post. But I think Bakhtin (from whom this quote is taken) overstates the significance of postmodernist thought in the general scheme of things, and more pointedly, I don’t see any way back to a pre-postmodernist position intellectually, no grand narratives that will suffice in the mid to long term other than a general and rather diffuse humanism. Which if one thinks about it is pretty much where we have been (in the self-defined West) for quite some time and arguably for considerably longer than the term postmodernism has been bandied about.
In any case I lack a reflexive suspicion of post-modernist thought. I find it interesting in what it attempts to do, although I suspect that the goal is unattainable and can lead to obfuscation as much as…well…er…enlightenment.
But what on earth was the participant at the conference trying to say?
Was it that this straw man Enlightenment – that she posed – was somehow responsible for … say, Nazism and Communism? That appears to me to be a highly dubious contention. Surely any serious historical reading would see the former in direct opposition to the Enlightenment, in other words a response to it. The latter, for all its myriad flaws was by contrast – and particularly in terms of its humanist core – very much of the Enlightenment. But can one trace a direct line from the Enlightenment to the Politburo and say one is the inevitable and natural outgrowth of the other. This I find difficult to sustain except in the broadest sense that any political or social or philosophical movement however democratic and egalitarian contains within it the seeds of totalitarianism. Indeed to talk about the ‘failure’ of the Enlightenment – as with regards the events of the 20th century – is to take an almost essentialist view of social, cultural and political movements.
But so what, is arguably the proper response to that argument, since more importantly, even if true in the particular does that then invalidate the Enlightenment in general? Would the essential principles that it articulated…rationality, humanism, liberty… be somehow nullified because it had been misread, misinterpreted, misapplied? And that is before we engage with the question of whether we can read the Enlightenment as a single mythic entity, self-contained unto itself, which of course it wasn’t.
This is – unfortunately – a mode of expression which is familiar in the present political era. The idea that ‘democracy’ is a sham, whatever about its flaws…because of Iraq, Afghanistan, US policy, hypocrisy (as if any complex human society is, or could be, anything other than hypocritical) has a certain currency in certain places.
Consider too the very deliberate use of the term ‘progressive politics’ in the discourse outlined above. In what sense have ‘progressive’ politics led to disaster, unless again we take the line that those who raise issues are responsible for the response to the raising of those issues. In the context of the US or Europe where this speaker originated the statement was nonsensical. I can think of few instances in either location where progressive politics resulted in any such disasters. Actually I can’t think of any. What I can see is an anti-rationalist, anti-humanist anti-Enlightenment movement that in perhaps three places in Europe took root for a relatively brief historical period.
And the fact that the views expressed above are almost indistinguishable from a conservative analysis of the Enlightenment is perhaps no surprise. Because they are in themselves a very conservative, and rather self-serving reading of the issues.
So, is this simply a modish lash, the faintest echoes in contemporary academia of debates which shaped in part the discourse of the 1960s and 1970s and in other areas have moved on, or is it indicative of something more fundamental? I’d suggest it is both. And the more fundamental aspect is – unfortunately – in the visual sphere an ahistoricism which ignores political, economic and historical methodologies in favour of purely metaphorical approaches to decoding information [incidentally, last year I was at a conference on material culture and what struck me was the dearth of knowledge on the part of those there, including myself, as regards economic theory. Yet here was a hall full of people who had made as their primary research focus material produced by changing economic processes largely driven by industrialisation].
There is something lulling about a sort of poetic discourse leavened only by unformed chunks of Frankfurt School jargon. There has been and remains a fluffy sort of aversion to “Reason” (capital R) in some areas of artistic discourse, eschewing it in favour of a discourse that centres on the senses, the body and artistic individuality albeit laden with jargon which leans upon sociological and sub-Marxist terminology – and actually the more I think about it the more I am reminded of the stereotypical 1930s and 40s cinema depictions of the artist as flighty emotional individualist albeit lent a post-modernist sheen in this theoretical updating. And for examples of this I’d suggest considering some articles in contemporary arts magazines.
I have no particular problem with this.
Indeed the Enlightenment has to be seen and critiqued within the historical context it developed and for both positive and negative attributes. But the sort of manichean approach to arts discourse which presents us with Enlightenment (bad, proto-totalitarian, patriarchal, etc) and antagonism to Reason (good, human, emotional, etc) is undercut by work such as that produced by Lisa Jardine in “Ingenious Pursuits” which explicitly links together the development of arts and science in tandem during the period of the Enlightenment.
Where I do have a problem is with a sort of ‘tick the boxes’ approach to this discourse which applies the Frankfurt School in a recieved and entirely uncritical fashion. Because that sort of approach is at root no more than an attempt to justify individual artistic engagement which may or may not be appropriate.
There is simply no point in railing against the Enlightenment – in the academy of all places – unless one understands it, and what it sought to achieve.