Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment

In 1947, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer produced, in collaboration, a piercing criticism of Modernity in their Dialectic of Enlightenment. Due to a low initial print run as well as not being translated into any language from its native German, Dialectic coursed through the literary underground – primarily in Germany – and promptly faded into obscurity. Much of its initial reception owed itself, in part, to the unrepentant Marxist rhetoric espoused by Adorno and Horkheimer.

Another factor (growing, admittedly, out of the authors' Marxist leanings) springs from the sentiment that the West and – specifically – America had descended into barbarism. In other words, Modernity, which grew out of the tenets of the Enlightenment, had, instead of furthering those ideals, reverted to a stage not unlike that preceding the Enlightenment, an intellectual dark ages.

In particular, their skewering of Hollywood, a place that, at the time of the original publication of Dialectic, was in the beginning stages of the Red Scare, serves only to alienate Dialectic from a widespread Western readership. Finally, in the 1970's, Dialectic was translated into English, and while not released to any greater fanfare, it did reach a larger readership. When discussing the reception history and, inescapably, the controversy surrounding this piece of literary criticism, the focus lies mostly on the years following its English release.

Though released in the 70's in English, Dialectic remained at its previous level of relative obscurity for almost twenty years until it enjoyed an explosion of study. While studied primarily in Marxist and philosophical circles, its focus on art and on the perceived failings of Modernity ensure that it is an indispensable read for anyone in the fields of both English and Art. While American readership following its initial publication was virtually zero, Dialectic was still a volatile piece of work in its skewering of Western culture.

Specifically referencing such disparate examples as Orson Welles and Donald Duck, Adorno, who "was inclined to treat laughter with suspicion, in particular the kind of laughter generated by popular film comedies and other products of the 'culture industry. '" (MacKay, 58), insinuates that Western popular culture not only churned out meaningless drivel disguised as entertainment, but also that popular culture had assimilated art and, because of this digestion, effectively neutered art, the artist, and artistic endeavour as a whole.

To assume that this would be a controversial statement would not be a dangerous intuitive leap. Studying, however, the history of reception for Dialectic of Enlightenment reveals both an interesting and atypical map of criticism. Typically, a work is released and criticism is generated. Often, opponents of a given view – particularly of a work of scholasticism such as this one – generate whatever arguments, criticism, and evidence first followed by a rebuttal from the proponents of that particular paradigm.

Owing to its limited print run and the hindrance of only being printed in its native tongue, Dialectic was read primarily in circles to which its principles would be agreeable. In other words, as it circulated primarily in an underground manner, it only reached those who would likely already agree with much of what Adorno and Horkheimer espoused, particularly about the industry of culture in the West and especially in Hollywood.

As such, virtually no scholarly work concerning Dialectic was done prior to its English translation. A source of even greater fascination lies in the years following its release in the West. Though now approachable by a vastly larger readership, Dialectic remained a work primarily addressed in Marxists texts until finally, in the mid-90's, studies of the work and of the Frankfurt school (to which Horkheimer and Adorno belonged) began to appear.

Adorno's studies were focused upon in such journals as Utopian Studies, a journal concerning itself with the study of the theories of utopianism; Philosophy, a self-explanatory title for a journal in the field that has studied Adorno the most; and, in New German Critique, a publication dealing with issues of German Studies, from social and political theory to "discussing philosophy, literature, and films in the light of current theoretical debates. " (New German Critique, 12).

Finally, nearly half a century after its release Adorno, Horkheimer, and Dialectic were beginning to receive true attention. After almost fifty years, a more typical map of criticism appears. Proponents applaud Dialectic's skewering of the West and, in particular, the culture industry mentality that, like a shark trolling its entire life, never stops its forward momentum in looking for the next easily packaged, palatable artistic expression. Opponents, on the other hand, claim that Adorno and Horkheimer's work was, "stiff . . .

a monumentally dim worldview obviously a byproduct of [their] exile during the Second World War. . . a Marxist document steeped in its own dogma," (Sherratt, 523-24). Again, the main point of contention lies in the unrepentant political leanings of the text and the writers. And, admittedly, Dialectic makes some bold statements. In particular, Adorno and Horkheimer's claim that Homer's Odysseus was the prototypical bourgeois individual is a vast logical bound that requires the majority of the following essay to support, more conclusively for some than for others:

"All the pieces in the meaningless game have been played . . . Odysseus presents himself as the prototype of the bourgeois individual. In his encounters he is always physically weaker than the oppositional nature which he confronts; it is clear that he cannot defeat the natural/mythic on the latter's own terms. The principle weapon of Odysseus in his struggle against the mythic world is the bourgeois contract . . . The contract assumes that each member involved is to benefit to the precise degree in which each sides' gains outweigh their losses," (Roberts, 21-22).

This support of a theory first put forth in Dialectic is just as bold as the theory itself, but gives an idea of the nature of support for Adorno and Horkheimer, and, given the earlier quote by Sherratt, a concept of the type of negative criticism the work has received. In other words, the overwhelming majority of disparity in opinion regarding the two authors grows out of their political views and – surprisingly – rarely attacks the strength of theory itself.

To the proponent, the Marxist overtones of the work serve as a lens through which to better observe the workings of art and, in particular, Modernity. On the other hand, to the challenger the heavily political writing hobbles any theory placed presented, thus rendering the theory itself ineffectual. Finally, it seems that Dialectic of Enlightenment's reception history is ongoing. Because of the large gap in its original publication and its translation into English, the work is effectively, not even thirty years old.

To this end, the academic community remains largely focused on the overbearing Marxism present in this work. While a legitimate concern (does the political overtone truly hinder any theory presented? ), most academic works addressing Dialectic remain preoccupied with its politics rather than its claims. Again, it is a worthy question to ask whether or not the reader can separate the theoretical from the political, but this being a question does not excuse the scholar from approaching the work at an entirely politically secular perspective.

Because of this difficulty in separating the wheat from chaff, Adorno – more so than Horkheimer – remains unapproachable, and so, too, does Dialectic of Enlightenment. Any work must be read to a greater degree to be truly debated, and, if this task of separation remains so daunting, a fascinating study of Modernity will remain an untapped source. In closing, and in answer to this concept of the difficulty in reading this work, I leave you with a quote by Evelyn Wilcock, "It is said that Adorno did not intend access to his books to be easy. But neither surely would he have preferred to remain unread," (187).