Adorno versus the Enlightenment
Adorno looks at the Enlightenment’s promise to dispel myth and concludes that far from being a strong sun that burns away primeval myth, the Enlightenment has created its own mythology; ergo, to truly complete the Enlightenment we must critique the Enlightenment so that it lives up to its potential. A myth is characterised by its circular nature: Helios drives his chariot across the sky again and again, the ouroboros swallows its tail. Mythology is memetic; the poet creates myth, he mimics nature—as does his predecessor, the shaman—and embodies the myth. The process is perpetual: it goes on and on with no escape, only eternity is outside the myth. The Enlightenment was meant to do away with the perpetual chain through quantification—reason, Cartesian rationalism, and mathematisation—which would replace poetry, superstition, and myth; yet, strange to relate, if you study nature in a quantified way you create a new cyclical regularity, the carbon cycle is one example.
More salient for politics, cybernetics—characterised by feedback loops—creates machines that are organic; it does with silicon what the shamans used to do through their mirror work. Who was the first cybernetician? Hobbes. Think about the frontispiece to Leviathan, the giant king made from millions upon millions of subjects: the circular sub-processes that make up the giant organism. The myth, as it turns out, is reality.
This disturbs Adorno, and it disturbs because, although he is a secular Marxist, upset about the inegalitarian irruption into Enlightenment thought, he is still loyal to his Jewish faith, albeit in a secular way. Judaism, he says, quite approvingly, was meant to destroy myth: it bound magic with magic, it killed memesis—it also killed the image, the reflected image that creates myth, through iconoclasm. The Abrahamic religions derive from Judaism and they pull down the pagan images: Islam takes the iconoclasm to its furtherest potential, along with Puritanism. Adorno even thinks that Christianity is not a real monotheism; only Judaism managed to bind magic with magic, the Christians failed in their attempt; perhaps he should have returned to the faith of his fathers, for his views seem very positive towards Judaism—his atheism notwithstanding.
Adorno notes that in Judaism a man is only measured for his coffin and hence measurement and death are synonymous: the cybernetic state—its bodybuilders, athletes, stock exchanges, and IQ tests—measures man all the time, hence these states are always, as with the primordial hunters, close to death and cruelty. Adorno dislikes cinema especially among all the quantitative culture industry’s products because he retains an iconoclastic Jewish sensibility; the cinema is, as Paglia noted, pagan and mythical: it has glamour and glamour is magical enchantment—and so Stanley Kubrick is a true renegade Jew, a Jew who decided to make beautiful images for a living. For Adorno, the mass-marketed and researched cinema products—such as today’s Marvel comic book films—are horrifying because they are new myths; the reactionary, by contrast, dislikes these films because they are perverted myths in which a woman apes the man’s role as hero.
So Adorno opposes the Enlightenment’s quantification to save Enlightenment from Enlightenment; and that is why it is ironic that people who oppose Critical Theory claim to defend the Enlightenment from irrationality; for Adorno, they are irrational: they subscribe to the myth of number, the myth of number has led to the mythological computer, mass market research, and the culture industry; and this is a new barbaric oppression, a new king and aristocracy—a new superstition. So when some hick from Ohio’s second-best college, with a PhD in Ayn Rand Studies, tells you that Adorno was against the Enlightenment, reason, and muh science, kindly ignore him—even if that huckster James Lindsay retweets him twenty times.
For Adorno, all that is left is power, by which he means scientific power: the ability to achieve an effect in an efficient manner. Bacon’s dream that man would grow in abundance through ever-greater technical contrivances has been realised. Everything we do—from childcare to war—is strained through quantitative statistical mechanisms, and these mechanism are, for this recondite Germanic thought, actually “thoughtless” in the technical sense.
In this world, all “success” means is how much money you make—very true, I used to think some people residually valued virtue or spirituality; but when someone says another person is a “success” he only refers to money. For Adorno, the new barbarism wears the stereotyped mask of California: before, there was the medieval knight; today, there is a guy in a muscle car. There will never be another great symphony, market research would never pass Bach or Beethoven. “I’ve checked the figures, this guy is not hitting with Latinos aged 25-36. It’s a no-go, Bob.” “Bach, you need a side hustle if you’re gonna make it in California! Recording industry is tough since Spotify, ya need gorilla mindset, son!” When Adorno says we are in thrall to power, this is what he means; he does not mean, as some have misinterpreted him, that people say mean things to achieve results—or that hierarchies are simply arbitrary and unfair. He means that everything today is driven by utility and efficiency.
Adorno is a somewhat contradictory figure: he adores the master musicians, Beethoven and Bach, but his leftist egalitarianism means that he must deny the “reactionary fantasy” that such beauty can only be produced in a hierarchical society soaked in religion, aristocracy, and duty—a society orientated towards death. Adorno thinks that high culture and beauty can be produced without tragedy or pain, despite there being no evidence this is so. He disdains popular culture’s crudity on the grounds that it is based on a new type of pain and suffering; whereas the reactionary attacks its democratic and degenerate nature. For Adorno, popular culture does not even have the redemptive aspect found in the societies that produced Bach and Beethoven—it does not produce high culture.
Consider trees, there was a time when man would talk to a tree; actually, there was a time when man talked to everything—everything was alive. This is the pagan world Nietzsche wants us to go back to. Today, when a man sees a tree, he understands it as a chemical composition, a product of evolution, and a potential lumber product. He would not talk to the tree—that would be childish and superstitious. He knows that he could break the tree down into statistical charts, chemical proportions, and genealogical relations. Above all, he treats the tree as subject-object relation: the tree is a thing outside him; it is a thing to be subject to scientific-technical examination, or to be manipulated for economic ends.
The shaman talked to the tree; in his schizo state, he did not recognise the subject-object boundary. He became the tree. The modern scientific man is separate from the tree: he rapes nature, rends it limb from limb and is alienated from it. Now, Adorno does not want to go back to the shaman; his fear is that in modernity the old shaman sensibility has been recreated artificially; he fears the cheerful weekend hunter and conservationist—the proto-Nazi—who experiences a mediated modern myth in a national park, and comes to cheerfully enjoy death.
Adorno’s thought here is echoed on the right: Heidegger and Arendt also said that we now live in a “thoughtless” world; since thought, in this technical sense, is characterised by the ability to hold two contradictory ideas in your head at the same time. The statistics package on my computer is linear, so to speak, it is not engaged in a dialectic: it cuts through, it cuts through traditions, landscapes, and people—it is not interested in two contradictory thoughts at the same time. Efficient technical societies become a new barbarism: mankind, in Heidegger’s critique, becomes a standing reserve—a “human resource”—to be utilised by the quantitative machine world.
As with Adorno, Arendt associates this with totalitarianism. Arendt famously described Eichmann as “thoughtless”; she did not mean that the SS bureaucrat only bought his wife flowers from the petrol station for her birthday on the way back from work. She meant that he could not hold two contradictory thoughts in his head at the same time and was thus “stereotyped” in his thought. Arendt’s feminine tilt at totalitarianism has contributed to the contemporary craze for “empathy” as the remedy to reactionary tendencies: the idea being, roughly, that a repeat of the German holocaust against the Jews can be avoided if people are encouraged to hold two feelings in their head at once, theirs and that of another person (i.e. empathy)—a psychological analogue to Arendt’s thoughtful world.
For Heidegger, real poetry and thought are impossible under current conditions: there is only a banal mass that brags about their latest iPhone or technical gizmo. Hence, for example, the American government recently authorised companies to melt down human bodies to be used as fertiliser: the body—once sacred—is fully utilised in accordance with quantity; and this is “good” (= technically efficient, augments power) because now we can increase the planet’s population to 9 billion people—not souls, people or units—who efficiently consume their recycled ancestors while they watch interracial threesomes on their iPhones and toke cannabis vapes. This is technology’s power; it is perfectly efficient: success is money, more quantity—all other considerations must be liquidated by power.
In a more religious mode than Heidegger, Guénon similarly critiqued what he called the “reign of quantity”; in the Golden Age, number had a qualitative element and the world was ruled by poetry—hence the holy numbers: “777”, “666”, and so—and this has been lost in our degraded Kali Yuga. Well, almost lost: the Greek author and poet Kazantzakis wrote in this mode to some magical effect—please read his enchantment.
Adorno could not endorse all the above, even if the ideas parallel his quite closely—he loathes Heidegger and he would see Guénon as a nutcase, just like those crazy broads he met in California who were into astrology and numerology. Heidegger and Guénon represent the old brutality and oppression: the old world of poetic mythology that the Enlightenment destroyed. In fact, they have only come back thanks to Enlightenment’s new barbarity; they are not the “real thing” at all, although in their own neo-mythology they think they are after the Holy Grail. Adorno does not want to go back; his concern is that the world Heidegger and Guénon love has come back in a new form. Instead, Adorno thinks Enlightenment’s kernel can be saved by mass egalitarianism that is qualitative: his followers would express this as the lived experience of black women, and similar explorations in the subjective realm.
Adorno is an atheist Orthodox Jew and not an atheist Marxist. Judaism conceptualises itself as the antidote to paganism; the pagan world Nietzsche longed for is circular and mythical: it goes on and on, it ends in a final death or dwelling in a dark place—this pleases Nietzsche, it means no judgement; everyone could eat, drink, and be merry because they did not have the Judeo-Christian spectre, moralised judgement, to hang over them. This is what he means when he asserts that Christianity poisoned everything. For Nietzsche, complete extinction is liberation: liberation from moralisation, and a victory for art over morality.
The Jews, by contrast, bind magic by magic; they exit the eternal return. Accordingly, they are iconoclastic: the Bible is devoted to iconoclasm; and through iconoclasm they destroy myth, poetry, and art—the deal is that they receive eternal life in exchange. All the other tribes will die through their dark and bloody eternal return, being pagan: the Jews will go on and on and on, being the Chosen People and so granted life eternal; and the pathway to eternal life is to destroy myth through morality—the myth is “evil”, only liberation from the circle is “good”. I say Adorno is effectively a secular Orthodox Jew because he does not even think that Christianity achieved the same trick as Judaism: Christians also thought they bound magic by magic and so became the “new Jews”, granted an eternal life—the most “Jewish” Christians, the Puritans, are also firm iconoclasts.
Adorno is like an Orthodox rabbi in Hebron who just laughs at the goyim: “Look at the Catholics and their statues: they’re idolators! Jesus was the son of a whore! We are the only Chosen People.” For Adorno, the Enlightenment fulfilled, in a secular way, the iconoclastic promise inherent in Judaism and—to an extent—Christianity. Reason’s victory is meant to destroy myth and usher in eternal life; the progress upwards to what some Christians characterise as “the Rapture” is linear, not circular. Reason should, in this mode, lead to a gentler and less brutal world, a moralised world; it should not have led to more barbarism, more paganism—and yet it did. Rather than abandon reason, Adorno uses reason to critique to Enlightenment’s fruits as a new barbarism; the Enlightenment, as a secular progression from Christianity, should have debarbarised—it is not truly rational, for reason and morality must lead, in Jewish and Christian eschatology, to the end of pagan cruelty.
Adorno’s view can usefully be contrasted against David Goldman (aka the columnist “Spengler’). Goldman takes a slightly different tack, in that he accepts that the Christians also bound magic by magic and so are on the same footing as the Jews and on course for life eternal; unlike Adorno, he practices Judaism and wants to see a pact established between Christians—particularly evangelical Christians in America—and Jews. He argues that Islam, European nationalism, socialism, and liberalism are all “pagan”; they want to go back to magic, art, myth, and image: they hate the Jews (by extension the Christians) because the Jews will live forever, while they will die. In Goldman’s view, largely driven by the requirements of propaganda and realpolitik, the evangelical Christians will share this eternal life; and their support for Israel is bound up in this project.
Hence, in this view, quite a mainstream conservative view in the West, the West is a coalition between Jews and Christians who are united in their shared rejection of myth. The eternal return of myth is the sorrow: the Good News is that this circle can be cut. Hence the West is at war with its internal mythologisers—basically nationalists—and Islam, conceptualised, somewhat tendentiously, as another pagan movement. This is why the contemporary conservative movement is ambivalent about the West’s classical legacy: it wants to conceptualise the West as an anti-mythological force, partly out of realpolitik related to the Middle East and the influential Jewish population in America—and partly out of genuine Protestant iconoclasm. The classical legacy—Greece and Rome—is highly mythological; hence it must be extirpated from the West, classics departments must be closed down or ideologically controlled. Intellectuals only talk about Judeo-Christianity, but in the past intellectuals, particularly Catholics, talked about the West as a Christian-Hellenic civilisation—a view that has been suppressed.
Goldman and the neoconservatives share with Adorno the view that the Enlightenment was conceived as a continuation of demythologisation—except they think it has succeeded in this project. It rooted out the myths within Christianity and Judaism, and it replaces eternal life with the Singularity—a technical resurrection, the reward for adherence to the one truth; once the Logos, now quantitative scientific analysis. Hence contemporary conservatives defend the Judeo-Christian legacy—few actually believe in it literally—and the Enlightenment as being “the West” in total. They disdain all myth as irrational and totalitarian; they think life is about making money, quantitative scientific work, the fulfilment of basic animal pleasures, and, perhaps, materialist resurrection through the Singularity—anything else is “immoral”, since they have carried on the Judeo-Christian idea that people are rewarded or punished for “good” or “bad” behaviour.
In fact, mainstream conservatives who “defend the Enlightenment” against Critical Theory have already been remoulded by Adorno’s ideas. The actual Enlightenment birthed race science; but conservatives today disavow this almost entirely—and in this respect, though they complain about Critical Theory and Adorno, they have already integrated his critique into their thought and backed away from a topic that remythologised through quantitative investigation; only a very few consistent nihilists hold them to account.
The neoreactionaries, for example, speak of a “Dark Enlightenment”; they accept Adorno’s contention that Enlightenment leads to inegalitarian conclusions: Kant’s view that the capacity to be an autonomous self-governing Enlightened subject could be extended to all has been refuted by race and sex science—and this is what is dark about the Enlightenment. Adorno would say that this reveals what is irrational about the Enlightenment; it turns out science confirms reactionary ideas about heredity and blood, when the partisans of Enlightenment expected it to refute all that. To deal with the inegalitarian implications inherent in science, the neoconservatives and mainstream conservatives have half-integrated Adorno’s critique and never speak about race—they barely hang on to sex differences.
The alternative view to these approaches, the view that defends myth, is found in Evola, Jung, Nietzsche, Guénon, and Serrano. For these thinkers—artists, really—magic is real and so is poetry; and religion is not about submission to one God and one truth: it is about gnosis, knowledge of the hidden godhead—and there are, naturally, multiple gods knocking around as emanations from the godhead. In this view, Judaism and Christianity sever people from myth and constitute degenerate religions; and the destruction of myth leads to a quantified and materialistic world, a world without art or poetry—or meaning, since meaning depends on continuity; it depends on the circle, the circle that Judaism and Christianity cut.
The soulless materialism that horrified Adorno is a logical outcome of the very demythologisation process that he thinks has not gone far enough; the world of rhythm, poetry, image, and qualitative number (“777”, “666”, and so on) is replaced by quantitative number; and this is because Judeo-Christianity only accepts one truth: it is itself totalitarian in essence, it persecuted the pagan sects and gods and then—through a persistent attack on myth—eventually ate itself; it destroyed the spiritual and turned into free-market liberalism and scientism, which in turn atomises the world and leads to communism. We live in a world where spirituality and nobility are considered to be unreal; only money and quantitative analysis are real—almost nobody can access the spiritual anymore, and those that can are considered to be mad and treated with anti-psychotics. The degeneration has been ongoing for centuries, as part of the Yuga cycles identified by the Hindoos, and the collapse of Christianity into scientism, moralism, and materialism is simply the natural progression downward into a world without the spiritual—a world of matter, the lowest and most degraded existence.
In this analysis, the Jews are tied up with this process since the idea of one truth and universalism originates with them; this, in turn, when combined with iconoclasm, eventually leads to scientism and utility-orientated thought: the rule of quantitative number. The Jews are the tribe that destroys other tribes—tells other tribes that their gods are not real—while, at the same time, they maintain their tribal identity. Thus Christianity debunks Roman paganism, Freud debunks European Christianity and civilisation, Marx debunks the European middle class and economics, and Adorno debunks what is mythological in European science.
The Jews have a mission to universalise—to debunk other tribal gods and myths—in the name of morality, to destroy the idols; and, in the secular world, they carry this on in projects such as Marxism and Freudianism—projects that expose “the truth” that myths are merely ways for one class to exploit another or expressions of sexual desire; everything must be reduced to base motives and demystified—even natural science is used to universalise, to tell people the same natural laws pertain everywhere and there are no particularities; just as economics since Smith has emphasised that people interchangeable through the division of labour. As the world degrades downwards, it becomes more meaningless and instrumental; everything is about material survival: the world is summed up in terms of money and Darwinism—the Jews have a special relationship with money, and a special relationship with this new material world.
In the esoteric pagan tradition, nature’s perpetual circle is not the enemy: it is a gateway to the divine. Thus Dante enters Heaven by a descent into the circles of Hell; he goes down into the pagan myth and returns to eternity. In conventional Christian and Jewish thought, the circle is cut: in this thought, the circle is the gateway to the divine. You have to go down, as Jung suggested, into Hell to recover the boon: so to destroy the myth is to destroy the gateway to the divine. Although an exoteric Christian, Dante expressed a more ancient esoteric knowledge.
When a mainstream conservative wants to hit back at gender theory—at transsexualism—they will point out that they can show on a scatter graph two distinct agglomerations of blobs; each blob corresponds to a gender, male and female. “We can use an algorithm that, 85% of the time, can identify a person as male or female based on these markers, and so there are only two genders,” says the conservative. Adorno and the mythologiser would say that the mainstream conservative only thinks quantitatively; the mythologiser would say that there are two sacred metaphysical categories, masculine and feminine—the quantitative analysis makes no contribution here, actually it degrades the sacred.
The problem mainstream conservatives face is that, following Adorno, their opponents point to all the places on the scatter graph where there are overlaps in characteristics; the boundaries, unlike metaphysics, are blurry. “There is no pure ‘male’ or ‘female’,” they say, and, in a sense, they are right; further, they point out that liberalism exists to protect minorities from majority tyranny—the at-risk minority is clearly those people whose characteristics are “blurry” on the scatter graph, perhaps blurry in only one dimension; yet if that dimension is important to them, in a world where quantification and efficiency are primary considerations, why not go ahead and utilise power to transform your body into a simulated man or woman? In a time without metaphysical priors, this is hard to argue against; and so the Enlightenment conservatives—the mainstream conservatives—will be beaten back as unscientific and prejudiced people who wish to smuggle metaphysical concepts, “masculine” and “feminine”, into scientific scatter graphs in order to oppress a minority. They do it because, as with all reactionaries, they are attached to a sentimental myth—the myth of “men” and “women”.
Mainstream conservatives occasionally notice similarities between the Traditionalist or pagan critique and Adorno’s demand for people to investigate what amounts to the subjective (“lived experience”) as a corrective to Enlightenment’s myth. They then identify “relativism” with neo-fascism, and so characterise Marxists like Adorno as neo-fascists—they say it is all the same totalitarian deviation. The two approaches are distinct: one demands that the world be poeticised and the image resurrected, the other thinks that even liberalism and science are too poetic and image-based. What unites the two approaches is the contention that quantitative processes dominate the world—that these are not the only ways of knowing—and that the new quantitative world has degraded human existence.