Friday, 24 February 2012

40BFL: 3. The Dialectic of Enlightenment

Men [sic] have always had to choose between their subjection to nature or the subjection of nature to the Self. With the extension of the bourgeois commodity economy, the dark horizon of myth is illumined by the sun of calculating reason, beneath whose cold rays the seed of the new barbarism grows to fruition.

This is a book that everyone ought to read at around the age of twenty. The quality of the writing is such that - for those who persist and read the whole - the result is almost certainly going to be conversion. It is the philosophical equivalent of the Christian Union for the lonely undergraduate. Its literary equivalent is nothing short of the Harry Potter series.
And this is a good analogy because its goal is to make you believe the story it is telling - a very convincing story. The story is that the entirety of human history can be read as a escalating series of attempts to gain mastery over the natural world. This begins with myth and primitive religion - attempts at basic natural science and magical appeals to trees, spirits, the weather &c. - before extending through more and more transcendent religions to the joy of science. The ultimate goal presumably is the atomic bomb where we can blow the whole thing to shit if we want. Along the way anything that harks back to our nature has to be suppressed and purged. So today religion harks back to superstition, just as witches used to; women generally with all their ickiness and bodily fluids need to be kept out of the way, anything that we’ve stomped on on our way to the top of the tree (preferably a metal tree house), the mad, the sick, less developed cultures, needs squishing and keeping out of the way.
Essentially it’s the story of someone who’s really insecure doing everything they can repress their primal fears.
These sorts of metanarratives are always charming. People like Freud and Marx of course wrote convincingly and had loads of people follow along behind - the principle of declaring that all history is really just about one thing is bound to make for good reading because it simplifies the world for a minute isolating what’s really important. This sort of thing still happens today, usually with more qualifications, but Charles Taylor and John Milbank attempt the same sort of genealogical historiographies.
You need to read this book when you’re twenty then because you need to see that ideas can change the world - to gain that passion for believing that thinking and writing matter. And this is a great book because it’s a powerful invective against the will to domination. It propels the reader to seek out the underdog, the unwritten history, to question authority and self-certainty: ‘In the general sense of progressive thought, the Enlightenment has always aimed at liberating men [sic] from fear and establishing their sovereignty. Yet the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant’.
The truth is history is more complicated. There is plenty of evidence of how various religions, including present day religions, actually draw people back into their natural embodiment, return people to the mythical ille tempore. Equally science is not purely about the control and subjugation of nature. The Enlightenment itself moved humanity on in leaps and bounds to unmasking the domination humans practice on one another. History is not about one thing, and while sometimes being reductive brings to the foreground something worth fighting - or investigating - it can also mask a whole lot of other stuff.
Like Harry Potter this book is worth falling in love with, but then you have to move on. Otherwise you’ll be left fighting shadows in the dark, paralysed with insecurity, or going on and on about the same old thing, denouncing everybody and everything as ‘right wing’ or ‘imperialist’, bitching that Anne of Green Gables is "like so bourgeois", like a broken record.

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