The Foreclosure of Revolutionary Imagination

On the Concept of History is in many ways a prelude to Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. Indeed, after receiving a manuscript of the work, Adorno wrote that it manifests “the idea of history as permanent catastrophe, the criticism of progress, the domination of nature and the attitude to culture” – all of which are themes that Adorno and Horkheimer later explore. These works are undoubtedly born of the same intellectual tradition. Each is undergirded by a deep skepticism: apparently neutral concepts are exposed as instruments which obstruct revolution and endorse the status quo. However, an examination of the theoretical implications reveals a radicalism in Dialectic of Enlightenment that separate the two. Benjamin’s treatment of history salvages its revolutionary aspects, while Adorno and Horkheimer raze the concept of enlightenment entirely. History can be appropriated and redeemed, but the use of reason forecloses the possibility of emancipation.

The opening essay of the Dialectic of Enlightenment is designated “The Concept of Enlightenment,” which evokes the title of Benjamin’s work. With this allusion Horkheimer and Adorno signal that their intention is to self-consciously mirror Benjamin’s analysis. Thus, we are presented with a broad parallel between history and enlightenment: both concepts are to be viewed suspiciously and brushed against the grain. In On the Concept of History, Benjamin dispels the traditional notion of history as “recognizing [the past] ‘the way it really was'” (OCH 391). This methodology,  the uncritical “establishment of a casual nexus,” is denigrated as historicism (OCH 397).  Again with enlightenment, Horkheimer and Adorno turn conventional understanding on its head. Enlightenment is popularly conceived of as an affirmative project, as an emergence from man’s self-imposed ignorance. This fantasy withers, giving way a vision of the “wholly enlightened earth … radiant with triumphant calamity” (DE 1).

These two works share an animating impulse to expose the intellectual instruments that perpetuates domination. Historicism is one such tool, as it promotes history as “a sequence of events like beads on a rosary” (OCH 397). Through its solidarity with the “heirs of prior conquerors,” it produces a vision of progress as continuous, inevitable victory (OCH 391).  The process is additive, without any “theoretical armature” (OCH 396). Historical happenings are strung together to fill the vast undifferentiated time that constitutes history. The narratives of those crushed beneath this triumphal procession have no audience. There is no possible catalyst for change; this notion of history abrades each moment until all are equally empty. No order exists beyond simple chronology, which ossifies into an “‘eternal’ image of the past” (OCH 396).  History becomes objective, and in doing so can only offers an inherited and backwards-facing justification for the present. It’s benefit to those who rule is the result of an entirely uncritical disposition, which seeks only to transmit the “document[s] of of barbarism” from one generation to the next (OCH 392).

Similar to historicism, which sycophantically sympathizes with “with the victor” and justifies his rule, enlightenment, according to Horkheimer and Adorno, also renders critical thought inert (OCH 391). The process of enlightenment has always “sought to report, to name, to tell of origins” (DE 5). This nominalistic tendency is a salve for man’s primordial fear of the unknown. It allows man to understand the world and control it. The terror of an ‘outside’ is confined first within myth, then metaphysics, and finally a positivistic schema. But by supplying a name, enlightenment also exerts a social power. In the universal symbol, man sees “the permanence of social compulsion” reflected back at him (DE 16). He intuits that “the entire logical order” is grounded in the current reality (DE 16). The coin of reason, which claims impartiality and objectivity, bears the indelible stamp of society.

Both historicism and enlightenment perform a similar intellectual function: a fortification of what exists, “a subsumption of the actual” and a rejection of revolutionary possibility (DE 21). Each concept feigns neutrality in the struggle between oppressed and oppressor. Indeed, it is in this false objectivity that their true allegiance manifests itself. By casting a given reality as natural and absolute, while asserting a lack of bias, the sympathy of enlightenment, like historicism, is clarified. Any confirmation of “the eternity of the actual,” whether “in the clarity of the scientific formula” or in stable, linear historical narratives, secretly aligns with the status quo (DE 20). The unfolding process of enlightenment where “every definite theoretic view is subject to the annihilating criticism that it is only a belief,” culminates in an intellectual tradition where only the extant is legitimate (DE 7). There is no place for criticism as critique presupposes a world different from the present: “revolutionary imagination feels shamed as utopianism” (DE 33). Thus, “[t]he actual is validated, knowledge confines itself to repeating it, thought makes itself mere tautology” (DE 16). In an entirely enlightened world where history is written exclusively by the victors, all that can be thought is the repetition of the actual: “the regression of the masses today lies in their inability to hear with their own ears what has not already been heard” (DE 28).

Notably, however, Benjamin takes a crucial step that distinguishes his theoretical approach from those inspired by him. Benjamin splits historical practice in two. He amputates historical materialism, allowing him to ‘disassociate’ it from the practice of historicism. This partition is fruitful, as it carves out a space for history to be used to further revolutionary action. Conversely enlightenment, for Adorno and Horkheimer, is monolithic and totalizing. They are far more radical in their denunciation: “enlightenment, in the service of the present, is turning itself into an outright deception” (DE 34). Nothing in enlightenment can be redeemed, which means that the critique leveled against it is similarly absolute: no scrap of reason is left as a foundation for critical thought.

Benjamin views historical materialism as the proper mode of historical study. His denouncement of historicism allows him to maintain a historical impetus for revolution. Historical materialism offers this critical counterpoint: a deep empathy with the ruled. Benjamin’s project is no less than the declaration that history must be reinterpreted. His theses on history are littered with cryptic references to the necessary insights of a historical materialist. His inquiry demands a dramatic reconceptualization of the use of history.

Benjamin examines the source of revolutionary imagination: the messianic power of the past. Here, he breaks from traditional Marxist doctrine, which conceived class struggle as the locus of human emancipation in history. Benjamin, via his allegory of the automaton, suggests that a hidden agency powers the outward operation of historical materialism. This secret, vitalizing “theology” requires some explication, for it is not an evocation of organized religion. Instead, Benjamin is referencing the “weak messianic power, on which the past has a claim” (OCH 390). Proper contemplation of the past forces a peculiar awareness in the present. It brings a realization that society has not always existed in its current mode. One cannot be envious of an unimaginable future, but the past permeates into each subsequent moment: “In the voices we hear, isn’t there an echo of now silent ones?” (OCH 390). The historical materialist understands that history is library — a “secret index” — of unfulfilled prophesies (OCH 390). These muffled voices call out for their messiah to come at last. The call to completion, the redemption of this inheritance, is what Benjamin labels theological. These “cited” moments sustain the revolutionary impulse (OCH 395). Thus, history edifies the revolutionary just as the vision of ancient Rome galvanized Robespierre.

Benjamin, in a mere twenty theses, offers something that is not present in the Adorno and Horkheimer’s work: he affirms the theoretical possibility of a revolutionary impulse, which is all but denied in Dialectic of Enlightenment. Through the distinction between historicism and material historiography, Benjamin suggests that a discontinuous break from the present is attainable; that the past can still be redeemed. Benjamin is capable of an unflinching articulation of the challenge, without lapsing into the same fatalism that resigned Adorno and Horkheimer to the Grand Hotel Abyss.

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