Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Oppressive Exodus of Enlightenment

      The environment we're born into began as a great mystery, and as a terrible threat. Similar to our fear of shadows when we're children, early humans were fearful of what they didn't know. Who knew what lurked in caves, and in the bosom of thick forests? Questions concerning an unknown environment led the imagination to conjure up many threats towards human vitality. The earliest humans created stories in order to appease their tender minds, stories that contributed to their understanding of the elements around them as well as for its reasons for certain movements and events. However, simple stories could not allow us to rest comfortably forever, and something more had to be done in order for us to be able to silence our fears: the environment and its inhabitants had to be subdued. The term “conquer” may come with a certain malevolent tone for some, but there are those who feature it not only as a positive aspect of the human parade, but also a necessary one. In the event of conquering conditions, a certain set of relations is established, the most primary being a class of rulers, established by conquering, to have control over the remaining population, those who have been conquered. This paper will explore Kant's notion of Enlightenment as the most positive, beautified state of conquering conditions, and offer a critique through the work of Adorno and Horkheimer as to why even the most beautiful state of rule is less removed of fear, and more infused with violence.
      Kant's proposition for a state of enlightenment is man's overcoming of a self-imposed nonage.1 The term “nonage” is defined as one's inability to exhibit understanding without the guidance of another. In addition to this, enlightenment is also to establish a stage of relations between authority figures in a society, and the working masses. Certain authorities rule by imposing nonage onto the people, and as such, are not enlightened thinkers. Enlightenment is attained by both authorities and the masses (consisting of individuals) when each acknowledges a certain level of freedom that an individual has to think for oneself. The dilemma for Kant is to establish what an enlightened society ought to look like, or what it is for authorities and the masses to address each other in an enlightened manner.
      Focusing first on the individual in the grip of nonage, this can come as either self-imposed, or imposed by an exterior force, the latter being an instance of the abusive guardians (though I'm sure there are more localized instances of abuse, such as peer pressure). In the case of self-imposition, Kant states that this occurs due to one permitting fear and indecision to take hold over oneself. In this case, one is more unwilling, rather than unable, to think for oneself, and would much rather have someone else take care of matters for them. On the other side of the nonage coin, there are those who are unable to think for themselves due to the abusive disposition of authorities. Kant cites dogmas and formulas as types of tools that can bear reasonable utility, but in the hands of the given authorities they are dependence-inducing instruments that cause the masses to feel that authorities are meant to decide matters for them. The reason these tools have such a function in the hands of despots is that criticism against these foundations is forbidden, and one must simply obey. There is no freedom to criticize the rules of authorities, and as such, the possibility of enlightenment is smothered in both the unable, and the unwilling. Authorities have also smothered it in themselves seeing as enlightenment is the overcoming of nonage, not the imposition of it.
      For Kant, it's clear that a level of freedom must be given to the masses, by authorities, in order for enlightenment to flourish. A few examples are given of the discourse of those authorities that rule by nonage, one is the pastor who exclaims [do not argue—believe], and this is contrasted with the statement of, what Kant phrases as, the only one ruler: “Argue as much as you please, but obey!” Only those who are willing to recognize the need of the masses to express criticism towards rules and laws are fit to rule. This type of ruler who orchestrates order by means of enlightenment due to recognition of the need for both citizens and authorities to establish relations with each other by both being able to surpass nonage.
      The freedom that an enlightened ruler makes available to citizens, and enables the development of enlightenment, is not absolute freedom. Kant recognizes that some parameters of restriction are necessary in order for a society to sustain itself. Within the scope of enlightenment, there are two kinds of reason that must be employed by the citizen that aid in sustaining an orderly society. The first is the public use of reason that involves using reason as a means of criticism before the public. The second is private use, and this concerns the use of reason in accomplishing one's civic duties. Private use can be viewed as reason employed by a professor, for example, that aids in performing the requirements of the job. This style of reasoning does not question or criticize the job, seeing as this may hinder it, but does its best to fulfill the specific tasks at hand. Public use is where criticism comes in, where a professor expresses discontent with particular aspects of the job, and makes such notions available to the public for them to form opinions of their own on the matter. Thus for a society to surpass nonage, and achieve enlightenment, its ruler must be willing to have the courage to rule in a manner that does not restrict freedom of thought, and is simultaneously able to administer command. For the individual, one realizes the importance to follow command and exercise private reason to best carry out one's civic duty, while also appreciating the need to express free thought if one feels criticism of command to be imperative.
      Adorno and Horkheimer believe there to be very little difference between enlightenment and myth: we have not left story behind us and we are still very much afraid of anything foreign to the self. Their definition for enlightenment is quite general stating it as an advancement of thought, a liberating endeavor for humans from the fear that a mysterious environment arouses.2 The aim of enlightenment is to disenchant the world, to repel its sense of mystery by means of discovering how it works. In this regard enlightenment sounds very similar to science, and the two authors often equate the two. However, it is the thought that "discovery" is the means by which we as humans advance ourselves that is under scrutiny. Discovery is the means by which practitioners of myth thought themselves to understand the world. This term, much like how it was for myth, is a disguise by which enlightenment attempts to distinguish itself from myth. What we take to be discovery, Adorno and Horkheimer consider more of a fanciful projection by which we mean to achieve control over that which provokes fear in us, both the environment, and each other.
      Despite Adorno and Horkheimer's general definition of enlightenment being somewhat different from Kant's social schematic definition, it's not difficult to see Kant's in light of the two authors'. Kant proposes is a liberation from nonage, a state that gives itself over to fear seeing as one is relying on persons and factors that are not in one's own control. In this sense, one is enchanted by figures of authority and lends oneself over to whatever story the ruling class decides to concoct. The public use is meant to get at the root of how our social environment works, to disenchant. The mysterious environment begins to lose its threatening facade once we take to examining it. Language developed as a useful tool of examination, symbol as an aspect of language that is meant to serve as representation for the discoveries of our examinations. Adorno and Horkheimer note of how shaman, priests, and sorcerers were key figures in organizing symbols to best construct a unified picture of reality. Not everyone had access to picture construction and a reliance on the expertise of special practitioners set a social hierarchy in place: a large portion of a group's population is reliant on the word of a minority.
      Knowledge, which is what a state of enlightenment believes to attain, is power, or a type of control. By devising explanations for certain events, we give way to a course of manipulation. Examination once gave way to explain why plants grow from the ground: there is an item we will call a “seed” that has a force to produce an object that protrudes from the ground we will call a “plant”. Having such symbols for objects in the world strips them of their mystery, and we can attach a story to each of the items to explain a certain event. Now we need not feel afraid of plants because not only do we know how they come about, but we also know how to make use of them. It may seem that the manipulating takes place at the functional level of the objects at hand, but really the manipulation is the initial naming of the objects. In producing symbols to shrink back the mysterious tone of the world, an expression of power was made, and whoever controls the symbols has the power. To name the objects and then produce a story to indicate function is to organize the manner in which others will act, that is, if one can get them to take the story seriously. For a priest to state that a particular act, place, or event is taboo is to paint a picture by which the priest is able to invoke punishments on those who violate the taboo. Fearful of punishment, the masses are given a picture of what their rational options are, which entails obedience to the priest.
      What's crucial to keep in mind is that the authorities that Kant feels comfortable with are those that hear the people, and due to which, have their ability to command justified. What Adorno and Horkheimer seek to undermine is that the current means of enlightenment to establish rule is not founded by objective logical calculation, but by a monopolization of symbol and story by a select few. Objective calculation is just one story amongst many to organize the people, and it's not that this story is the most true, but that its advocates did the most violence to competing stories so as to make salient that all the rest are just stories. The obedience that the public use cannot trespass against is a barricade that separates the masses from shaman and sorcerers. The public may criticize the magic that organizes society, but they are in no position to wield it. One may object and think this a false analogy, but one must ask oneself if the temperament of the shaman are any different than that of kings, or current politicians: we cannot make direct alterations to the constitution, but must go through the politician to do so, who has more direct access to constitutional construction and alteration. We have the option of putting in a name on the presidential ballot other than those of the major political parties (of which there are only two really), but for the most part who would take those names seriously? Society has operated so well against the threat of mystery due to the current story(s) that keeps rulers and the masses in their respective places, and that it seems practical we trust those few in office to be the best of all possibilities; no one could have run California like Schwarzenegger did. In this way enlightenment succeeds by an estrangement, not only of people from the environment, but also from each other.
      In the fight against mystery, all elements outside the grip of manipulation have to be eradicated. Like other logic driven systems, this aspect is key to Kant's enlightenment as well. Making fact the symbols of “seeds” and “plants” is one instance of manipulative control in which we give ourselves over to calculation and prediction. “Each ritual contains a representation of how things happen and of the specific process which is to be influenced by magic.”3 We consider ourselves creatures of reason and science, but so did our ancestors. Their science was magic, and both do the trick to dispel mystery. Both practices think themselves as being involved in discovery. A good part of what goes into making an aspect of our experience that of discovery is to make the elements of our environment calculable. Calculation gives way to prediction, and even the most supernatural of myths, such as the abduction of Persephone, allows audiences the comfort of prediction of the seasons.
      Calculation is not restricted to the environment, but is also applied towards people. Designating public and private reason as two aspects of rational citizenship that allows for calculation on an individual level. These two faculties give the appearance of freedom for the citizen, and they are also the means by which the masses remain calculable to each other, and more importantly, to rulers. Conquering conditions depend on manipulation entailing calculation. Kant's enlightenment is not utterly ruthless, especially in comparison to other totalitarian states in history, Nazi Germany being a primary example, but what both states share is an emphasis on obedience. This obedience is supported by the notion that those in office are owed it, and it serves in the interest of the masses to give it so as to strengthen the practice of calculation—our liberation from a shadowy landscape of mystery. In the interest of self-preservation, obedience is our best means of survival.
      Public and private reason are two conditions by which obedience is best maintained. Giving emphasis to these two conditions allows for a calculation of the masses: what counts as admissible behavior. “Each human being has been endowed with a self of his or her own, different from all others, so that it could all the more surely be made the same. But because that self never quite fitted the mold, enlightenment throughout the liberalistic period has always sympathized with social coercion.”4 Part of what constitutes a successful battle against mystery is unification, an important product of calculation. Conquering conditions are weakened by differentiation, and what Adorno and Horkheimer believe helps to suspend the state is to concoct the notion of the self so as to administer what fulfills a socially proper self. Institutionalizing proper conduct creates a means to punish differentiation and prevent any instances of mystery from popping up from within society's walls.
      Both nonage and public/private reason, are supportive of a state of enlightenment, but what Adorno and Horkheimer propose is that enlightenment, as it has developed, is a great violence against the masses. Freedom from nonage seems to have benevolent consequences, but it's simply because we think in terms of consequences, or ends, that we reify the practice of calculation, that when placed in the hands of rulers results in the manipulation of the masses. Much like how we symbolize seeds and plants for functionality, rulers symbolize certain states of self as being acceptable and civil, and others as disorderly and unacceptable. Kant's tale may appear to instigate liberation, but like our ancestors, it is the attempt at liberation from mystery, which comes at the cost of estrangement from both the environment and each other. It is to the advantage of rulers that conquering conditions hold to maintain a distance from the proletariat, and the best means to do so is to reify the story that they are unique enough for authoritative positions.
      Fear feeds trust as nonage liberates us away from a threatening environment, and into the hands of authorities. Benjamin notes how we have done well to mark with disgust those arts that feature inadequate rulers, and that [in the baroque the tyrant and the martyr are but the two faces of the monarch.]5 Most interpretations of Odysseus’s clash with the Sirens involve a heroic twist of inventive craft, to tie himself up and deafen the workers to avoid death by their call. The acceptance of the tale rides off its opposition to the baroque tyrant, and how it assists appraisal of enlightenment. However, Adorno and Horkheimer consider Odysseus to be the perpetrator of social violence. The restriction imposed by Odysseus was to prevent the workers from hearing the call of self-annihilation. Only Odysseus allowed himself to hear the splendor of the call because even he desires to be free from the practices of fear, but not so much that he wouldn't hear without physical restriction. Conquering conditions require that their be a subject of subordination, and the self was concocted to be that subject.
If there is any solution to be had in Adorno and Horkheimer, it is quite ambiguous, though I interpret this as their intention. The strength of the ambiguity is that its not to be taken as a truth claim, and as such does not mean to pertain to discovery or calculation. What is proposed is a style of thought that looks to get out from under such manipulative faculties. This thinking involves admitting to oneself the desire to rule as a response to one's fears. [Only thought that does violence to itself is hard enough to shatter myths]6, a style of thought that answers the Sirens and allows for a type of self-abandonment, and loss of self-preservation seeing as the latter causes one to be inclined toward calculation, both in its use and acceptance.
1Kant, “What Is Enlightenment?”
2Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno. "The Concept Of Enlightenment." Dialectic of Enlightenment. [New York]: Herder and Herder, 1972. 1. Print.
3"The Concept Of Enlightenment." 5.
4"The Concept Of Enlightenment." 9.
5Benjamin, Walter. The Origin of German Tragic Drama. London: Verso, 1987. Print.
6"The Concept Of Enlightenment." 2.