The Mixed Fruits of Enlightenment

Updated: March 31, 2016 08:47:37 PM

By John Schoneboom

As venerable, familiar, and well-debated as it is, the argument that Enlightenment rationality led straight to fascist totalitarianism remains counterintuitive and unsettling, at least to those of us not fully immersed in Critical Theory and some of its postmodernist extensions. In brief it goes something like this: the rise of instrumental reason and political economy has created powerful new forms of domination against which a debased culture's remaining sense of ethics can mount only the most pathetic defense.

The counter-argument: bollocks to that, there's nothing rational about the Nazis with their eugenics and their occultism.

To me, notwithstanding the pernicious within rationalism per se, it seems like what it really always comes down to is something more like rationalization. Prevailing elites will use whatever standards of legitimation are au currant to justify the age-old impulses of greed, power, violence, and fear, whether that means invoking divine rights or social contracts. So what also seems true to me is that:

  1. the same historical processes that gave us science gave us pseudo-science;
  2. the same historical processes that gave us rationality gave us disinformation;
  3. the same historical processes that promoted civil liberties engendered security-consciousness; and
  4. the same historical processes that elevated public opinion empowered propaganda.

In short, if you change the rules of the game, like all good hustlers the elites will adapt. The positive faces of reason and democracy remain the official rules, while their negative counter-faces, however decisive in the flow of events, play the role of aberrations. To the extent that the strength of its ideals masks the ubiquity of its aberrations, this system provides great advantages to the hustler class. Once American Exceptionalism, for example, is firmly entrenched as a truth in people's minds, there is seemingly no limit to the number of aberrations in the form of Vietnams, Watergates, and Iran-Contras that can be absorbed and essentially dismissed without delegitimizing the model. In a similar way a firm faith in science, rational debate, and checks and balances can permit (particularly with a sufficiently docile media) a startling amount of pseudo-science and disinformation to enter cultural discourse. Thus we have the perfect preconditions for the emergence of gaslighting on a cultural scale -- the cultivation of a deliberately falsified sense of reality among the general population (as, I would argue, with American Exceptionalism). The last thing we would ever suspect of our myths is that they might be myths, as Georges Bataille has argued with some eloquence. The task of the gaslighter is only made easier by the influence of postmodern relativism, in which the authority of facts is inherently suspect, as is the job of distinguishing the real from the purported, since facts and counterfacts annihilate each other like matter and antimatter, and all this despite the persistence of our faith in the rational.

"[T]he well-known existence of simulacra," notes Alain Badiou, "is a powerful stimulus to the crystallization of crises." And constant crisis, as is also well known, is a strong stimulus to the crystallization of power.

While we're at it, it is important to note that none of this implies a simple binary of truth and untruth. Rather it implicates a complex web of misdirections and hidden motivations. Harry Frankfurt's valuable work on bullshit is pertinent here:

"The realms of advertising and of public relations, and the nowadays closely related realm of politics, are replete with instances of bullshit so unmitigated that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept...The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to...He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are."

So anyway. These are some of the considerations that, it seems to me, put the surreal in surrealpolitik. What do you think? How much of the real is a dream -- and whose dream is it?


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Mr Puddle
March 31, 2016 05:45:50 PM
A fascinating analysis that warrants more unpacking -- can you develop it in relation to e.g., Bronner's take on the Nazism/rationality/superstition angle? Do not Marcuse, Adorno & Horkheimer capture the notion that scientific rationality lets myth and superstition in by the back door by flattening our critical consciousness and making us the type of suckers that fall for cheap tricks and fake wars (hence rendering the point about Nazis and superstition less of a counter-argument and more of an unfolding of the argument)? Let's hear more!
I'm a writer with an interest in all aspects of how we construct, filter, protect, and subject ourselves to reality. My first novel Fontoon was published...

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John Schoneboom
March 31, 2016 06:23:52 PM
Thanks for the excellent points, Mr Puddle. I do think the Frankfurt School does cover these contingencies, and that the Nazism/rationality objection seems a bit hasty and unfair. One of my objects in writing these sorts of things is simply to take the things I've been reading, fit them together as (hopefully) appropriate, and lay them out in terms that I myself can understand -- so that I can put them out there and elicit comments like yours that help me see what I've gotten a bit right and what I've gotten a bit wrong. So here we get my rather-too-dense composite of Adorno & Horkheimer, Bronner, Bataille, Badiou, Baudrillard, (that's a lot of B's!) and Frankfurt (so I've got the philosopher and the School covered).

If I've added anything of my own it's probably the element of paranoia (which also isn't uniquely mine -- it characterizes a whole literary sub-genre). My own research is mostly focused on the slice of this pie that represents intentional misdirection -- cultural gaslighting as I like to call it -- e.g., the role of intelligence agencies in stimulating crises and influencing policy, instances of which are well documented, but the extent of which is not publicly known. Whereas Baudrillard's simulacra or (as far as I understand it) the Frankfurt School's analysis strike me as focusing more on the inevitable effects of late capitalist culture, so to speak, driven in a more impersonal way by, I don't know, the forces of history. So I might exist in a sort of peculiar Frankfurt School eddy or backwater, or possibly a little tributary or something.

So I'm going to go back to my Bronner and my Dialectic of Enlightenment and in the meantime I'll soak up any critiques that might appear right here!

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