Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno see progress as a kind of trap in which we ensnare ourselves. Discuss these thinkers with others who also see progress as a trap.
If an alien landed on Earth today it would observe that the most dominant life form on the planet has appendages growing out of its ears and that one hand has morphed into a non-organic shiny oblong.
The majority of people who spend much of their waking hours using smart-phones do not consider that they may have been enmeshed in a technological trap all in the name of progress. On the contrary, they believe they are exercising considerable freedom and that they are engaging in quality communication, even if that communication is with a computer algorithm.
This paradoxical nature of modernity – that global, technological progress also results in a form of oppression; a kind of cultural own goal – can be witnessed in many areas of life. Recently, to take one example, Facebook has been indicted for allowing personal information to be available to third parties. Another example is the phenomenon of ‘fake news.’ We live in an information overload era when it is extremely difficult to sort the truth from half-truths and lies. Donald Trump is, of course, the expert manipulator of facts to fit his own agenda. In his world facts are no longer what can be verified by intellectual investigation; they are whatever he wants them to be- he’s just like Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland. We may smile at his crassness but lots of people seem to believe what he says. The globalisation of mass media not only allows this but promotes such aberrations.
None of this is really new, however; George Orwell had his Newspeak, Ivan Illich had his Deschooling Society and Paulo Freire had his Pedagogy of the Oppressed. They, along with Horkheimer and Adorno, critiqued modernity in terms of how we all participate in our own oppression.
In 1947 Adorno and Horkheimer published Dialectic of Enlightenment which opens with an indictment of the West:
“Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth radiates under the sign of triumphant disaster.”
They wonder how Kant’s ‘dare to find out’ – with its call to defeat ignorance – can also produce a world where we become cogs in a ‘megamachine’ and where genocide and exploitation are rampant.
It is foolhardy to select a single cause for cultural tendencies but it is undeniable that since the Enlightenment science and rationalism have been the engines for progress and imagination, ethics, intuition and subjectivity have been sidelined. The destructive forces of technology were devastatingly demonstrated in two world wars. Would it be possible to develop nuclear bombs, for instance, if empathy for fellow human beings and ethical considerations were paramount? The scientific project has resulted in more and more specialisation; a by-product of this tendency has been a kind of existential emptiness; a fragmentation of the psyche. Some commentators have referred to this as the ‘disenchantment of the world.’
When Adorno went to live in the USA he was appalled by the materialism and consumerism he witnessed. He called Walt Disney ‘the most dangerous man in America.’ This comment reveals more than mere cultural snobbery. He was rebelling against the postmodernist agenda of moral relativism and the commodification of everything including human beings. The proliferation of multinationals in the entertainment industry as well as in manufacturing and retail are part of that mega-structure of domination.
“Everything has a value only in so far as it can be exchanged, not in so far as it is something in itself.”
This would seem to echo Marx’s critique but Adorno wasn’t interested in class struggle as such. He foresaw how, for example, the media world would become such a force of domination; he criticised the art world in terms of the art object becoming a fetish and market forces destroying the genuine aesthetic experience of the art object.
Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007) was another key figure who described media-culture as consumed, “by an effect of self referentiality.”
He goes as far as to say much of the media world no longer refers to any reality outside itself. ‘Simulations’ have replaced ‘normal’ reality, rather like in the film, The Matrix. In The Evil Demon of Images he writes:
“It is the reference principle of images which must be doubted, this strategy by means of which they always appear to refer to a real world, to real objects, and to reproduce something which is logically, and chronologically, anterior to themselves. None of this is true. . . images precede the real to the extent that they invert the causal and logical order of the real and its reproduction.”
Frederic Jameson (Born 1934) goes further in that he does not hide his disgust with the superficiality of mass media/culture. As an example, he contrast the painting of Peasant Shoes by Vincent Van Gogh with Diamond Dust Shoes by Andy Warhol. While Van Gogh’s painting is embedded in a real, social context, Warhol’s, in contrast, is of shoes not derived from an actual context; they are merely decorative like a glossy advertising image. The method of screen printing is impersonal and in Jameson’s view reflects the anonymity of cosmopolitan life. What Warhol sees as a celebratory reflection of pop culture Jameson sees as a debasement of art. His critique should not be seen only in terms of art criticism; his point is much broader; that we are in danger of being swamped by flashy images and hyperreality. He thinks it important to have a historical perspective, and that our image-obsessed culture ignores historical context and is overtly ephemeral.
Like Adorno, he sees the Americanisation of the world as problematic:
“For when we talk about the spreading power and influence of globalization, aren’t we really referring to the spreading economic and military might of the US? […] Looming behind the anxieties expressed here is a new version of what used to be called imperialism.”[From Globalisation and Political Strategy, New Left Review (2000)]
What we see, with these thinkers, is a common denominator: impersonal forces are at work which result in our oppression in some form or other.
It is difficult to see how we can resist all of these forces of insidious control. Perhaps the recent examples of ‘people-power’ (for example in Catalonia or the protests in the UK against Trump) show that not all people are content to remain passive. On the other hand, climate change, populist movements of exclusion worldwide, genocide, human trafficking, population displacement and fake news suggest that perhaps we have reached a critical point in a downward spiral. Perhaps things need to reach a nadir before they can rise up in a new form which pays responsible heed to a fragile Earth and our fragile lives.
References: Postmodernism, Glen Ward, Teach Yourself Books, 1997.