Tag Archives: Max Horkheimer

Terror and Fear

Neolithic ancestor masks found in the Judean Hills (ca. 9,000 BC)

Neolithic ancestor masks found in the Judean Hills (ca. 9,000 BC)

Could an image be made that mimics terror? Or is the mimetic act itself a function of the transformation of terror into fear? The movement from myth in the process of enlightenment runs parallel to the movement from terror to fear. Fairy tales are an index of the subjective development out of the world of myth that has not truly faded for all time. This movement is not guaranteed to be that of constant progress: that is why it the dialectic of myth and enlightenment.1

With the development of subjectivity in society, man’s Imaginative abilities are historically formed. Consequently, so is the ability to recognize the Sublime. This is all related to the movement of enlightenment—what Kant called “man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.”2 For Kant, the Sublime has a particular dialectic of form and content, in which the form is adequate to the content, but the content goes beyond the form. Kant writes, “But the other [the feeling of the Sublime] is a pleasure that arises only indirectly; viz. it is produced by the feeling of a momentary checking of the vital powers and a consequent stronger outflow of them, so that it seems to be regarded as emotion,—not play, but earnest in the exercise of the Imagination.”3 The force of the object is felt through the subject’s Imagination in this way. The subject is not overcome by the object, but is, rather, affirmed through its ability to not be overcome.

The danger of the regression of historical consciousness into myth constantly rears itself, and it reigns now. Inspecting regression at the register of the Sublime, Adorno writes, “In the repetitive rhythms of primitive music the menacing aspect originates in the principle of order itself. In this principle the antithesis to the archaic is implicit as the play of forces of the beautiful single whole; the qualitative leap of art is the smallest transition. By virtue of this dialectic the image of the beautiful is metamorphosed into the movement of enlightenment as a whole.”4 It necessarily appears that with self-domination under capital, the phenomena of capitalist society such as the individual, are the carriers of embedded myth. Adorno notes this especially with regard to the category of the ugly:

Archaic ugliness, the cannibalistically threatening cult masks and grimaces, was the substantive imitation of fear, which it disseminated around itself in expiation. As mythical fear diminished with the awakening of subjectivity, the traits of this fear fell subject to the taboo whose organon they were; they first became ugly vis-à-vis the idea of reconciliation, which comes into the world with the subject and his nascent freedom. But the old images of terror persist in history, which has yet to redeem the promise of freedom, and in which the subject—as the agent of unfreedom—perpetuates the mythical spell, against which he rebels and to which he is subordinate.5

1 See Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. An aside: the New Left has almost ruined the reception of this book through its misreading of it. Adorno and Horkheimer are noting how through the lens of regression in the 20th century, the entirety of history appears as the apology for domination. The New Left instead thinks the authors are rejecting Marxism in favor of a transhistorical anti-authoritarianism. No.
2 Immanuel Kant, “An Answer to the Question: ‘What is Enlightenment?,'” in Political Writings, ed. H. S. Reiss, trans. H. B. Nisbet (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 54.
3 Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgment, trans. J. H. Bernard (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2000), 102.
4 Theodor Adorno, “On the Categories of the Ugly, the Beautiful, and Technique,” in Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 52.
5 Ibid., 47.


Contentment with life cannot be reduced or found only in the practice of having the right thought.

Adorno and Horkheimer noted that today’s anti-intellectualism can in part stem from resentment of perceived happiness that the intellectual appears to have achieved mentally. This appearance of happiness, which isn’t true, raises such ire because it is a reminder of the question of the crisis of society, a reminder of an unfree society, which one even unknowlingly participates in its reproduction.

And speaking of that reproduction, even thought participates in labor that is the total mediation of society. There are those who can trace the movement of Spirit to trace its trajectory, to see how the crumbling totality is sick, but—as Nietzsche points out—its sickness is pregnancy, and it is pregnant with a classless society. The problem is that such an outcome requires the overcoming of this sickness. Either that or barbarism. Perhaps the intellectual is discontent because of a more acute sense of the latter.

Horkheimer and Sandburg on the Family

In his essay “The Future of Marriage” (1966), Max Horkheimer considers the institution under the weight of contemporary society:

However long the bourgeois forms of marriage may last, the awareness of a union that is unique in each case, the high significance of the family name, and the will of the partners to create a life peculiarly their own and, if possible, to give that life a permanence through their children, are now passing away. The older, individualistic categories of thought are losing their meaning because of the new awareness of dependence on society and the realization that the service of social goals is more important than the achievement of personal goals; in short, because of the adaptation to society as it is now (97).

The sadness of confronting the social pressures put on the family reminded me of a poem I read a few years ago. Carl Sandburg’s “Mag” (1916) is both a love story and a tragedy under the weight of capitalism. Given how short it is, I’ll quote it in its entirety:

I wish to God I never saw you, Mag.
I wish you never quit your job and came along with me.
I wish we never bought a license and a white dress
For you to get married in the day we ran off to a minister
And told him we would love each other and take care of each other
Always and always long as the sun and the rain lasts anywhere.
Yes, I'm wishing you now lived somewhere away from here
And I was a bum on the bumpers a thousand miles away dead broke.
    I wish the kids had never come
    And rent and coal and clothes to pay for
    And a grocery man calling for cash,
    Every day cash for beans and prunes.
    I wish to God I never saw you, Mag.
    I wish to God the kids had never come.

The speaker’s implication is that I wish we hadn’t created this family in this society. A couple that was once imagining their future born out of love, youth, and hope are crushed under the conditions of the proletariat. The speaker wrongly feels guilt for being a part of a situation in which they experience such hardships, but as we know, it is not the speaker’s fault, which makes it all the more tragic. Here a worker has defined his life and the lives of his family members by the worth of his own labor in the market.

Anger towards Art

One need only search out a layman’s internet forum discussing art made after the nineteenth century to find the vitriol of contemporary society for anything that does not make itself known through agreed-upon terms and functions. Just as those works of art may be considered useless, their strangeness still offers glimpses into something unknown or undocumented by meticulous categorization. Concerning this receding shelters of imaginative thought, Horkheimer & Adorno explain in Dialectic of Enlightenment the ideological causes for this philosophical witchhunt within the culture industry: “But the hiding places of mindless artistry, which represents what is human against the social mechanism, are being relentlessly ferreted out by organizational reason, which forces everything to justify itself in terms of meaning and effect. It is causing meaninglessness to disappear at the lowest level of art just as radically as meaning is disappearing at the highest” (114).

When art presents a reflection of reality that upsets the masses due to its seeming irrationality, does this not point to the irrationality of reality itself as it exists now? This is not an apology for bad art, but an apology for imagination in a world where the first thing said to an artist during an introduction is, “What kind of job can you do with art?”

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 Guardian on Horkheimer’s Critique of Instrumental Reason

Here is a short video with Esther Leslie of Birkbeck College, London—where I visited for a conference earlier this year—in which Leslie briefly describes some of Max Horkheimer’s thoughts in his book Critique of Instrumental Reason, such as the titular concept, in which Horkheimer sees the slow twisting of reason into just another tool of domination, stripped of its emancipatory capabilities in the realm of ideology.

Although differing in much of their philosophical thought, Horkheimer shares this concern for the future of reason with Friedrich Nietzsche. This concern may be the origin of Nietzsche’s book Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie für das Leben [On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life] (1874). It is not that Horkheimer and Nietzsche reject the idea of truth, but rather the way in which abstractions gain traction as a pseudo-religion. With regard to this development in the study of history, Nietzsche begins his book with the following:

“I hate everything that merely instructs me without increasing or directly quickening my activity.” These words of Goethe like a sincere ceterum censeo, may well stand at the head of my thoughts on the worth and the worthlessness of history. I will show why instruction that does not “quicken,” knowledge that slackens the rein of activity, why in fact history, in Goethe’s phrase, must be seriously “hated,” as a costly and superfluous luxury of the understanding: for we are still in want of the necessaries of life, and the superfluous is an enemy to the necessary. We do need history, but quite differently from the jaded idlers in the garden of knowledge, however grandly they may look down on our rude and unpicturesque requirements. In other words, we need it for life and action, not as a convenient way to avoid life and action, or to excuse a selfish life and a cowardly or base action. We would serve history only so far as it serves life; but to value its study beyond a certain point mutilates and degrades life: and this is a fact that certain marked symptoms of our time make it as necessary as it may be painful to bring to the test of experience.

This reminds me of the steady, almost naïve gaze I appreciate and think can be required in human activity, and which I wrote about earlier with regard to narratives and music.