Thursday, July 12, 2007

Bird of Prey Factotum

In his inaugural February 16th 2006 post, Carl Sachs asked,
“Why did the Left abandon its traditional defense of Enlightenment principles and ideals?”

I think that’s a great question, an important question, and I want to begin work on it now…

I believe the answer has to do with the way that Enlightenment “principles and ideals” surreptitiously embody conceptions of power which set the “principles and ideals” working against themselves—grinding against themselves-- so that such Enlightenment ideals as autonomy and bold individuality change over time into something much different than intended.

Conceptions of power, inextricably embedded in Enlightenment principles and ideals, cause a contradiction within these very Enlightenment principles and ideals. Power somehow comes to contradict power – something which seems impossible. Power becomes problematical for the Left and forces the Left to abandon its traditional defense of Enlightenment principles and ideals. Abandoning power, the Left abandons the political. Abandoning its traditional defense of Enlightenment principles and ideals, the Left abandons itself.

Adorno and Horkheimer say this,

“The ‘happy match’[citing Francis Bacon, “the father of experimental philosophy”] between human understanding and the nature of things that he envisaged is a patriarchal one: the mind, conquering superstition, is to rule over disenchanted nature. Knowledge, which is power, knows no limits, either in its enslavement of creation or in its deference to worldly masters. Just as it serves all the purposes of the bourgeois economy both in factories and on the battlefield, it is at the disposal of entrepreneurs regardless of their origins. Kings control technology no more directly than do merchants: it is as democratic as the economic system with which it evolved. Technology is the essence of this knowledge. It aims to produce neither concepts nor images, nor the joy of understanding, but method, exploitation of the labor of others, capital. The ‘many things’ which, according to Bacon, knowledge still held in store are themselves mere instruments: the radio as a sublimated printing press, the dive bomber as a more effective form of artillery, remote control as a more reliable compass. What human beings seek to learn from nature is how to use it to dominate wholly both it and human beings. Nothing else counts.” – Adorno and Horkheimer,
The Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, from the first two pages of the first chapter, “The Concept of Enlightenment.”

The Left cannot defend this patriarchal vision of an enslaved creation or deference to worldly masters, this singular aim of a domination of human beings and nature, when the conscious objective of the Left since the Enlightenment had been an overthrow of worldly masters and a liberation and emancipation of human beings from all domination.

Nor can the Left abandon this patriarchal vision.

Adorno and Horkheimer also say this,

“The absurdity of a state of affairs in which the power of the system over human beings increases with every step they take away from the power of nature denounces the reason of the reasonable society as obsolete. That reason’s necessity is illusion, no less than the freedom of the industrialists, which reveals its ultimately compulsive nature in their inescapable struggles and pacts. This illusion, in which utterly enlightened humanity is losing itself, cannot be dispelled by a thinking which, as an instrument of power, has to choose between command and obedience. Although unable to escape the entanglement in which it was trapped in prehistory, that thinking is nevertheless capable of recognizing the logic of either/or, of consequence and antinomy, by means of which it emancipated itself radically from nature, as that same nature, unreconciled and self-estranged. Precisely by virtue of its irresistible logic, thought, in whose compulsive mechanism nature is reflected and perpetuated, also reflects itself as a nature oblivious of itself, as a mechanism of compulsion. Of course, mental representation is only an instrument. In thought, human beings distance themselves from nature in order to arrange it in such a way that it can be mastered. Like the material tool which, as a thing, is held fast as that
thing in different situations and thereby separates the world, as something chaotic, multiple, and disparate, from that which is known, single, and identical, so the concept is the idea-tool which fits into things at the very point from which one can take hold of them. Thought thus becomes illusory whenever it seeks to deny its function of separating, distancing, and objectifying. All mystical union remains a deception, the impotently inward trace of the forfeited revolution. But while enlightenment is right in opposing any hypostatization of utopia and in dispassionately denouncing power as division, the split between subject and object, which it will not allow to be bridged, becomes the index of the untruth both of itself and of truth. The proscribing of superstition has always signified not only the progress of domination but its exposure. Enlightenment is more than enlightenment, it is nature made audible in its estrangement.”- IBID, p. 31.

Abandonment of Enlightenment principles and ideals by the Left has included abandonment to adherence of these as functions of thinking: separating, distancing, and objectifying.

Separating, distancing, and objectifying – the horrible coldness of these powerful functions rings out in their very naming. Is it true that these are essential features of thinking and that thought becomes “illusory” without them? Can the Left return to an affirmation of such functions of thinking without, however, returning to the power structures of domination of which they seem such an integral part?

The image at the top of this post is from Flashvera.


Blogger Carl Sachs said...

I think the questions and problems posed here are the right ones. I'm hesitant to sign off on the easy equivocation between "enlightenment" and "modernity" that Adorno and Horkheimer present us with. I'd be more comfortable if one could show that the urge to dominate and objectify can be found even in Locke or Hume, and not just in their clerical opponents.

I was amazed to find that Alastair MacIntyre is also sensitive to this "duality" in modernity:

"Contemporary moral experience as a consequence has a paradoxical character. For each of us is taught to see himself or herself as an autonomous moral agent; but each of us also becomes engaged by modes of practice, aesthetic or bureaucratic, which involve us in manipulative relationships with others. Seeing to protect the autonomy that we have learned to prize, we aspire ourselves not to be manipulated by others; seeking to incarnate our own principles and stand-point in the world of practice, we find no other way to do so expect by directing towards others those very manipulative modes of relationship which each of us aspires to resist in our own case" (After Virtue, p68).

1:10 PM  

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