Monthly Archives: September 2013

Horkheimer on Irrationality and 20th Century Ontology

In his essay “The Concept of Man” (1957)—found in his Critique of Instrumental Reason—Max Horkheimer writes about the implications of an irrational society:

The continuing irrationality of society is increasingly incompatible with the state of our knowledge. The helplessness of men before the opaque whole which they keep in existence is even more alarming. The “existential” anxiety of which so much is said springs from the same source as our inner emptiness: the fact that life, which at one time was regarded as a flight from hell and a journey beyond the stars to heaven, now seeps away into the apparatus of modern society, an apparatus concerning which, for all the surplus it produces, no one knows whether it serves the promotion of mankind or its downfall. Nowhere does the union of progress and irrationality show up so clearly as in the continued existence of poverty and care and the fear of distress and dismal old age, and in the condition of brutal prisons and asylums in countries with highly developed industry (29-30).

Georg Lukács finds a similar development in the history of major novelists coinciding with the growth of capitalism. I briefly mentioned this point in a previous post on Adorno’s essay “Commitment.” As the capitalist mode of production subverts subjects into slots, the world seems to dissolve into a mere backdrop to the problems of the subject. No longer does history seems graspable.

Dealing with Illusions

In Gunzelin Schmid Noerr’s afterword to Horkheimer & Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, Noerr gives us some insight into the influence psychoanalysis had on the development of Critical Theory: “On the other hand, however, the psychoanalytic concepts spring from an Enlightenment tradition of asserting truth against illusions and taboos, on which the authors wished to draw” (230). We could call ideology the amalgamation of these illusions and taboos. Horkheimer & Adorno, among others including Marx, saw that social structures run deep down to the very core of human subjectivity. The changing political economic sphere of their time revealed that theory had to adapt to a world that so obfuscated itself.

The Past Dismissed from the Present

While reading Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, I was struck by their thoughts about the lack of a sense of the past we have in the U.S. In a short note entitled, “The Theory of Ghosts,” the authors write about the relationship to the dead, and thus to the past:

What someone was and experienced earlier is annulled in face of what he is now, or of the purpose for which he can be used. The threateningly well-meaning advice frequently given to emigrants that they should forget the past because it cannot be transplanted, that they should write off their prehistory and start an entirely new life, merely inflicts verbally on the spectral intruders the violence they have long learned to do to themselves. They repress history in themselves and others, out of fear that it might remind them of the disintegration of their own lives, a disintegration which itself consists largely in the repression of history (179).

Still from Pulp Fiction

Still from Pulp Fiction

Somehow I was reminded of a scene in Quentin Tarantino’s film Pulp Fiction (1994), in which Butch, an American, rides in the taxi cab of an immigrant from Columbia:

Butch: “So, Esmerelda Villalobos, is that Mexican?”

Esmerelda: “The name is Spanish, but I’m Columbian.”

Butch: “That’s some handle you got there, Honey.”

Esmerelda: “Thank you. And what is your name?”

Butch: “Butch.”

Esmerelda: “Butch—what does it mean?”

Butch: “I’m an American, Honey. Our names don’t mean shit.”