Saturday, April 19, 2008

“Myth is Totality” as Desire, Part III

I want to aggravate and transmute Carl’s theory of the Enlightenment, “Enlightenment is the overcoming of myth through critique,” into a form which is more general than Carl's, but somehow implicit in his,

“Enlightenment is the overcoming of bad nastiness (the bad) through good wonderfulness (the good.)”

This is a far more atrocious formulation of the theory than the one I came up with before, “Enlightenment is the smuglumpkikohk of pebersmacknik through spmikregoog,” which is mere nonsense and as such is limited in its pathological consequences.

“Enlightenment is the overcoming of bad nastiness (the bad) through good wonderfulness (the good,)” has nearly unlimited pathological consequences for all who have swallowed it or something like it, and I believe we have all swallowed it or diluted forms of it – unfortunately, Carl’s originally-stated theory is a diluted form.

“Enlightenment is the overcoming of myth through critique,” was intended as a general framework for explaining the historical Enlightenment (1648-1789), the tensions and difficulties that animate the work of the great Enlightenment thinkers (especially Spinoza, Hume, and Kant,) the appeal of the Counter-Enlightenment, and the temptations of fascism.

“Enlightenment is the overcoming of bad through the good,” is an even more general framework for explaining the historical Enlightenment, with the advantage that it helps to open up features of the historical Enlightenment which Carl’s more narrow version precludes us from considering. Whatever the immense positive contributions of the historical Enlightenment (if such they be,) the historical Enlightenment, which in many ways was a reaction against religion and clergy, also contributed to strengthening authoritarian social forms exceeding in harmfulness what religion and clergy had already accomplished. Interestingly, Carl’s narrow and innocent version makes the nature of these further encroachments difficult to conceptualize.

In Carl’s theory, we must assume myth to be bad (whether myth is understood as totality, error,religious thinking, murkiness, or whatever,) and we must assume critique to be good (whatever critique may be); we must assume the Enlightenment and the processes of historical Enlightenment to be good; we must assume whatever gets overcome by Enlightenment to have been worthy for overcoming.

I don’t object to the use of assumptions, even a lot of assumptions, in the construction of a theory like this, but these are a particular kind of assumption—these are evaluative assumptions—and with evaluative assumptions I become wary. Is it productive to give evaluative assumptions the primacy they have here? Do these evaluative assumptions facilitate questioning and thinking, or shunt away what was worthy to be thought? By stating the theory as, “Enlightenment is the overcoming of the bad by the good,” I think it becomes obvious there is nothing more to be thought, and to make that explicit is why I think this form of the theory is worthwhile. Later I want to look at how the optical metaphors at the center of the Enlightenment’s project are a key to what keeps us from looking at what the Enlightenment wanted kept in the dark—the Enlightenment’s own evaluative assumptions.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Yusef,

Thanks a lot for your post. You are right: it's time we look at the MYTH of The Enlightenment and critique it as such. (After all this is the Enlightenment UNDERGROUND = the deterritorialization of the concept. And in the Underground there is no light, only threatening darkness).

I suspect the reason why The Enlightenment is so praised and revered by the intellectual elite to this very day is because - for a couple of decades in the late 1700's - the philosophes seemed to have agreed on a few worthy themes, and also had the power to change history - a wet dream philosophers and thinkers have had ever since.

Adorno and Horkheimer tried their best to debunk the myth but ended in ressentiment.

When you write, Yusef,

I want to look at how the optical metaphors at the center of the Enlightenment’s project are a key to what keeps us from looking at what the Enlightenment wanted kept in the dark—the Enlightenment’s own evaluative assumptions.

I think you are spot on. This is what we should be doing now. And I have a great desire to perform a Derridasque (is that an adjective?) deconstruction of The Enlightenment.

All the best,

Orla

PS: But I'm still in love with the myth that philosophers changed the world - several centuries ago!

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