Saturday, August 22, 2020

3412. Critique of Instrumental Reason

In 1941, arguably one of the bleakest years in all of modem history, the Frankfurt School reluctandy acknowledged for the first time the crisis of the emphatic concept of reason that had been a mainstay of its work for much of the previous decade. 1 The disillusionment was abrupt. Although in his earliest days Max Horkheimer had in good historical materialist fashion denounced the dualism and idealism he saw in Cartesian rationalist metaphysics, he had come staunchly to defend a dialecdcal notion of reason against the irrationalist alternative he identified with the threat of fascism. 2 While acknowledging that rationality in its liberal, bourgeois form was tied to egoistic self-preservation ratiier than the general good, he had resisted the conclusion that reason tout court inevitably led in this direction. As a result, one commentator has gone so far as to posit a “rationalist turn” in Critical Theory around 1937 in which concrete political hopes were replaced by more philosophical concerns. 3 In an essay of that year, “The Latest Attack on Metaphysics,” Horkheimer could still insist, as noted at the end of die previous chapter, that “rationalism uses existing objects as well as the active inner strivings and ideas of man to construct standards for the future. In this regard it is not so closely associated with the present order as is empiricism.” 4 In the same year, Herbert Marcuse could add in the pages of the ^eitschriftJur Sozialforschung:
Reason is the fundamental category of philosophical thought, the only one by means of which it has bound itself to human destiny. Philosophy wanted to discover the ultimate and most general grounds of Being. Under the name of reason it conceived the idea of authentic Being in which all significant antitheses (of subject and object, essence and appearance, thought and being) were reconciled.10 
Four years later, Marcuse’s spirited defense of Hegel against his alleged support for statist authoritarianism, Reason and Revolution, could even more vigorously celebrate the critical energy of universal reason. In its dialectical guise, which emphasized the power of negation, reason had resisted the affirmative implications of positivism in all of its forms. Going beyond the limits of the analytic understanding ( Verstand ) that Kant had posited for cognition, reason ( Vemunft) was a synthetic faculty able to incorporate the moral norms Kant had relegated to practical reason alone. According to Marcuse, Hegel’s idea of reason, with which he clearly identified, “has retained, though in an idealistic form, the material strivings for a free and rational order of life. . . . The core of Hegel’s philosophy is a structure the concepts of which—freedom, subject, mind, notion—are derived from the idea of reason.”' 5 Capitalist rationalization, tied to commodity fetishism, the domination of exchange value, and what Lukacs had called reification, was a pathological distortion of this ideal. As Marx had famously said in 1843, “reason has always existed, but not always in rational form.”' Despite sub rosa tensions between Marcuse and some of his colleagues at the time, the book was proudly dedicated to “Max Horkheimer and the Institute of Social Research,” 8 whose theoretical stance he thought he shared. 

But in a new essay of 1941 by Horkheimer, “Reason and Self-Preservation,” which first appeared in a private volume to mourn the recently perished Walter Benjamin, a very different note was struck. When it appeared in the final issue of the Institute’s journal, which coincided with Horkheimer’s move from New York to California and the growing importance of his partnership with Adorno, it was retitled in more apocalyptic fashion “The End of Reason.” 9 “The fundamental concepts of civilization are in a process of rapid decay,” Horkheimer began ominously. “The decisive concept among them was that of reason, and philosophy knew no higher principle.” 10 The decay of reason, Horkheimer then suggested, was due not only to the failure to realize itself in the world but also to a fatal characteristic of the concept itself. Ironically, the inherent connection between reason and critique could ultimately be carried to the point that reason might undermine its own legitimacy. “Rationalism itself had established the criteria of rigidity, clarity and distinctness as the criteria of rational cognition. Skeptical and empirical doctrines opposed rationalism with these selfsame standards. . . . Skepticism purged the idea of reason of so much of its content that scarcely anything is left of it. Reason, in destroying conceptual fetishes, ultimately destroyed itself.... None of the categories of rationalism has survived.” 11 

There is a withered residue of reason still left in human behavior, Hork-heimer conceded, but only in its instrumental guise: “its features can be summarized as the optimum adaptation of means to ends, thinking as an energy-saving operation. It is a pragmatic instrument oriented to expediency, cold and sober.” 12 Was this an aberration or the working out of a sinister potential always lurking in reason? Marcuse had been inclined to blame it on the increased power of technological rationality in the modern world. 13 But Horkheimer, at his most pessimistic, asserted that “as close as the bond between reason and efficiency is here revealed to be, in reality so has it always been.” 14 To the extent that reason claimed universal, ahistorical validity, it was based, moreover, on a he, because all previous societies were divided along class lines. As the universality of reason became more frankly formalistic, it resigned itself to the separation of thought and object, the ideal of universality betrayed by the reality of class division. The increasing influence of nominalism, which meant the loss of any hope for a substantive concept of reason as inhering in the actual world, also ratified the separation of facts from values and the hegemony of calculation.
 “The triumph of nominalism goes hand in hand with the triumph of formalism. In limiting itself to seeing objects as a strange multiplicity, as a chaos, reason becomes a kind of adding machine that manipulates analytical judgments.” 15 

Along with this decline of reason into the instrumentality that was always lurking under the surface of the substantive concept went a concomitant erosion of the individual subject who was supposed to be its bearer. Although in the past a dialectic of self-preservation and self-sacrifice meant that there was some rough balance between individual and community, now the former was in total disarray:
The destruction of rationalistic dogmatism through the self-critique of reason, carried out by die ever renewed nominalistic tendencies in philosophy, has now been ratified by historical reality. The substance of individuality itself, to which the idea of autonomy was bound, did not survive the process of industrialization. Reason has degenerated because it was the ideological projection of a false universality which now shows die autonomy of the subject to have been an illusion. The collapse of reason and the collapse of individuality are one and the same . 1 * 1 
The result is the political horror that was now sweeping over Europe, which must be understood as more than an expression of atavistic irrationalism: “the new order of fascism is reason revealing itself as unreason.” 1/ Holding on to a faint hope that fascism might not have the last word, Horkheimer concluded his jeremiad with a modified evocation of the famous alternative Rosa Luxemburg had posed in her World War I Junius Pamphlet: “the progress of reason that leads to its self-destruction has come to an end; there is nothing left but barbarism or freedom.” 18 

Throughout the 1940s, Horkheimer still desperately attempted to salvage something from the wreckage of reason. But even the end of the war and defeat of fascism did not lessen his dire conclusion in 1946 that reason itself “today seems to suffer from a kind of disease,” the cure of which is uncertain. 19 Only digging deep into its past might provide some potential relief: “reason must reconstruct the history of its vicissitudes—try, as it were to recollect its origins and understand its own inherent self-destructive trends and mechanisms. . . . Reason’s ability to render an account of its transformation from the power by which all things are perceived, to a mere instrumentality of self-preservation, is a condition of its recovery.” 20 Only by facing the sources of the “self-liquidation of reason” can the process of enlightenment continue, a process, despite its paradoxical implications, needing to be encouraged: “the hope of Reason lies in the emancipation from its own fear of despair.” 21 
Struggling against that fear while at the same time not flinching from the despair were the motivations behind Horkheimer’s two subsequent works, Eclipse of Reason (1947) and Dialectic of Enlightenment , the latter of which he wrote jointly with Adorno (1947). 

Together, they represented the summa of the Frankfurt School’s thesis of the self-liquidation of reason. This is not the place to hazard yet another detailed summary of their complicated arguments, especially those in the more familiar Dialectic of Enlightenment , which also contained extensive discussions of other issues such as the culture industry and the sources of anti-Semitism. 22 Because Eclipse of Reason was more specifically devoted to the theme I am examining in this book, it will be the focus of what follows. 

The subtle shift from a title proclaiming reason had ended to one suggesting it was merely in eclipse signaled the stubborn refusal of the Frankfurt School’s first generation to believe all was lost. 23  Eclipse of Reason, while no longer strongly defending an explicitly Hegelian notion of totalizing reason, nonetheless was careful to distance itself from the alternative presented by Max Weber’s frank dismissal of any substantive, goal-setting rationality that went beyond mere instrumental or functionalist alternatives. Weber, Horkheimer charged, “adhered so definitely to the subjectivistic trend that he did not conceive of any rationality—not even a ‘substantial’ one by which man can discriminate one end from another. If our drives, intentions, and finally our ultimate decisions must a priori be irrational, substantial reason becomes an agency merely of correlation and is therefore essentially ‘functional.’” 25 

Against the functionalist and subjectivist reduction of reason, Horkheimer pitted what he termed an “objective” alternative, which meant “reason as a force not only in the individual mind but also in the objective world—in relations among human beings and between social classes, in social institutions, and in nature and its manifestations.” 21 It had first appeared in ancient Greek philosophy and was revived in post-Kantian German Idealism. This emphatic concept of reason, however, had been undermined not only by subjedification and functionalization but also by formalization. “In the end, no particular reality can seem reasonable per se\ all the basic concepts, emptied of their content, have come to be only formal shells. As reason is subjectivized, it also becomes formalized.” 26 

How do we get access to objective reason, an inherent reason that is not projected onto the world by a subject bent on self-preservation or control of nature? How can we restore what Socrates had called a reflection of “the true nature of things”? How do we restore meaning to a world in which ends are arbitrary and only means considered rational? In Eclipse of Reason, Horkheimer could only offer a vague and unsatisfactory remedy: “This structure is accessible to him who takes upon himself the effort of dialectical thinking, or, identically, who is capable of eros. On the other hand, the term objective reason may also designate this very effort and ability to reflect such an objective order.” 27 Marcuse in Reason and Revolution could still defiantly identify reason in a left-Hegelian manner with the radical negation of the status quo, implying that there was a force in history that might become its carrier. But Horkheimer now only mentioned negation sparingly, while conceding that it would be wrong to equate truth, goodness, and reason with reality as it was now experienced. It was moreover impossible, he stressed, to restore an outmoded notion of metaphysical reason, as advocated, for example, by contemporary neo-Thomists, for “such undisturbed confidence in the realism of the rational scholastic apparatus was shattered by the Enlightenment.” 28 But the Enlightenment’s own alternative was deeply problematic, including the reduction of reason to mere reasonableness, which implied adjustment and “conformity with reality as it is.” 29 

As he had argued in his earlier essays, the shattering that climaxed in the Enlightenment was an outcome of the self-liquidation of reason, not something brought to it from the outside. “If one were to speak of a disease affecting reason, this disease should be understood not as having stricken reason at some historical moment, but as being inseparable from the nature of reason in civilization as we know it. The disease of reason is that reason was born from man’s urge to dominate nature,” 30 a charge that was also extensively developed in Dialectic of Enlightenment. It was as if the mortal illness of reason was already latent in its genes. Born of the self-sacrificial cunning needed to survive in a hostile environment, it never lost its original taint, what one observer has called its “mark of Cam.” 31 Indeed, “the transition from objective to subjective reason was not an accident, and the process of development of ideas cannot arbitrarily at any given moment be reversed. If subjective reason in the form of enlightenment has dissolved the philosophical basis of beliefs that have been an essential part of Western culture, it has been able to do so because this basis proved to be too weak.” 32 Not even Kant, whose formalism earned him a comparison with the Marquis de Sade in Dialectic of Enlightenment , had found a way to reverse the downward slide of reason. 33 Once the primordial mimetic relationship between man and nature — still preserved in the sympathetic magic of the world of myth—was replaced by a more rationalist one, the road to domination of nature and conformity to the status quo was already paved. Rebelling against reason in the name of an injured nature was also insufficient, as the Nazi example clearly demonstrated. Fascism, in fact, revealed itself as “a satanic synthesis of reason and nature—the very opposite of that reconciliation of the two poles that philosophy had always dreamed of.” 34 

Eclipse of Reason, for all of its lamenting of the withering away of objective reason and insistence on anamnestically preserving what had been lost, sought to resist the temptations of nostalgia. “The transition from objective to subjective reason,” Horkheimer concluded, “was a necessary historical process.” 35 Attempts to return to earlier expressions of objective reason may be well inten-tioned, but they run the risk of “lagging behind the industrial and scientific developments, of asserdng meaning that proves to be an illusion, and of creating reactionary ideologies. Just as subjective reason tends to vulgar materialism, so objective reason displays an inclination to romanticism, and the greatest philosophical attempt to construe objective reason, Hegel’s, owes its incomparable force to its critical insight regarding this danger.” 311 Rather than pitting one version of reason against another, one should work to “foster a mutual critique and thus, if possible, to prepare in the intellectual realm the reconciliation of the two in reality.” 3 ' But at present, and these are the final words of Eclipse, “denunciation of what is currently called reason is the greatest service reason can render.” 38 

In retrospect, it is clear that Eclipse of Reason, along with Dialectic ofEnlightenment, left Critical Theory with a genuine dilemma. Not only had the triumphalist historical narrative derived from Hegel and adopted by Marx proved wrong, but reactionary attempts to restore a metaphysical notion of reason that had existed before the fall into instrumentalism, subjectivism, and formalism were also discredited. Or more precisely, Horkheimer scorned such attempts, while himself still tacitly drawing on an emphatic ideal of reason that was scarcely less metaphysical than those defended by neo-Thomists. 39 As a result, to quote one later commentator, his critique is “burdened from the outset with an uncertainty regarding the validity of its standard.” 40 

There was another equally problematic issue. Horkheimer had disparaged the functionalization of reason he saw in Weber, and which could be traced even earlier to nineteenth-century figures like Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche. 41 For them reason was litde more than a tool in the service of power or the will or the hubris of the subject. While rejecting their sweeping claims, Horkheimer came, however, perilously close to the same conclusion. From Schopenhauer in particular, he had learned that a rational theodicy, such as that defended by Leibniz in terms of the “principle of sufficient reason” or Hegel in terms of the “cunning of reason,” meant that suffering could be complacently turned into an affirmative function of totalizing reason. The historical materialist in him also balked at the idealist sublation of creaturely misery into a necessary moment in this best of all possible worlds or a historical narrative of redemption. 

indeed, not only should reason in this strongly affirmative sense be prevented from justifying partial evil as part of a general good, but it also should be understood itself as complicit in causing the very suffering that it cannot redeem. Thus when he argued that “reason was born from man’s urge to dominate nature,” Horkheimer was implying that the ur-function of reason—the genetic origin that had caused the “disease” from which it now suffered—was the preservation of the self and mastery of the natural world that ultimately led to the hegemony of subjective over objecUve reason in modernity. Rather than an act of anamnestic totalization, “the self-reflection of reason upon the conditions of its own possibility now means,” as Seyla Benhabib was to put it, “uncovering the genealogy of reason, disclosing the subterranean history of the relationship between reason and self-preservation, autonomy and the domination of nature.” 42 Many years later, Adorno would continue to express a similar point in Negative Dialectics, arguing that “ratio is no more to be hypostatized than any other category. The transfer of the self-preserving interest from individuals to the species is spiritually coagulated with the form of the ratio, a form that is general and antagonistic at the same time.” 43 Because the universality inherent in reason from the very beginning produces an abstraction that dominates particulars, “all-governing reason, in installing itself above something else, necessarily constricts itself.” 44 

To resist that constriction paradoxically requires that the dialectic remain negative, renouncing the claim to totality that allowed Hegel in his more trium-phalist moods to reconcile what was in fact antagonistic. The antidote to the functionalization of reason was not functionalization of suffering by reason. Adorno never fully renounced the critical reading of Hegel’s notion of reason that had animated earlier Frankfurt School texts like Marcuse’s Reason and Revolution. But he did so by trying to locate in Hegel a way beyond the potential domination in a totalizing rationality of self-reflective reconciliation. Invoking the concept of mimesis, derived in large measure from Benjamin’s earlier thoughts on the mimetic faculty, 4 ’ Adorno developed it in the 1940s as a beleaguered redoubt of benign nurturance outside the functionalization of reason as a tool of self-preservadon: “the speculative Hegelian concept rescues mimesis through spirit’s self-reflection: truth is not adaequatio but affinity, and in the decline of idealism reason’s mindfulness of its mimetic nature is revealed by Hegel to be its human right.” 46 

Whether or not this generous reading of Hegel was persuasive, Adorno was pointing to one of the ways that after the “eclipse” of reason, Critical Theory sought to locate a more viable alternative that might resist the full triumph of instrumental, formal, and subjective rationality. Before we try to spell out their attempts, it is worth pausing with the implications of the eclipse metaphor itself. At its root is a loose historical narrative, in which at a certain point the light of reason progressively illuminating the world—reason defined emphatically as an organon of universal human freedom, a beacon of emancipatory enlightenment—was occluded. Although some sort of historical rationalization did occur, a process that Weber had masterfully described, it was a dimmer version of reason, subjective rather than objective, formal rather than substantive, and concerned only with means rather than ends. Why the shadow had fallen was not, however, explicitly spelled out. The mathematicization of nature, the triumph of the exchange principle, capitalist reification, the fetish of technology, bureaucratization, positivist thought—all were plausible candidates for the celestial body that had passed before the rational sun. Or to return to another of Horkheimer’s metaphors, all were plausible pathogens for the “disease” of reason.

But at times, it bears repeating, Horkheimer seemed to assume the eclipse or degeneration was inevitable—“the transition from objective to subjective reason was not an accident” — as the germ of reason’s self-liquidation was present at the origin. Its disease was thus a form of autoimmunity run amok. For all its self-congratulatory leaving behind of the world of myth, rationality had revealed itself to be entangled with it from the beginning and was still entangled at the end. Although lurking behind the larger narrative was a tacit acknowledgment of the failure of the working class to be the engine of an emancipation that Marxist theory had assumed it would be, it almost seemed as if reason would have self-destructed even with a successful revolution (as was, in fact, the case in the Soviet Union). For the domination of nature was by no means a goal that Marxism itself had eschewed. It was thus hard to avoid the conclusion that the functionalization of reason as a tool in the primal struggle for self-preservation lamented in Eclipse of Reason was not all that far removed from Michel Foucault’s later debunking of the Enlightenment project as no less a ruse of power than a vehicle of emancipation. 47 Although both the astronomical and biological metaphors did hint at the possibility of a better future — eclipses, after all, pass and one can recover from a disease—the first generation of the Frankfurt School, deeply traumatized by the lessons of the Holocaust and the misfiring of the Soviet experiment, were anything but optimistic in their reading of the enlightenment’s dialectic. 

With such a bleak view of the prospects for a benign version of the rationalization of the world, it is no surprise that Critical Theory in its classical form grew increasingly unable to generate a plausible immanent point d’appui from which to launch its critique. One possible resource was a reading of psychoanalysis against the grain, which tried to rescue it from the pessimistic conclusions reached by Freud himself. 48 As Axel Honneth has pointed out, it could be understood as positing the “frankly anthropological thesis that human subjects cannot be indifferent about the restriction of their rational capacities. Because their self-actualization is tied to the presupposition of a cooperative rational activity, they cannot avoid suffering psychologically under its deformation. This insight—that there must be an internal connection between psychological intactness and undistorted rationality—is perhaps the strongest impetus that Freud provides for Critical Theory.” 49 

Of all the original members of the Frankfurt School, it was Marcuse who most doggedly maintained a faith in Hegelian dialectics and infused it with that power of eros that Horkheimer had fleetingly invoked in Eclipse of Reason ? 0 As he put it in his 1955 Eros and Civilization'. “Eros redefines reason in his own terms. Reasonable is what sustains the order of gratification. . . . Repressive reason gives way to a new rationality of gratification in which reason and happiness converge.” 51 Imaginatively reconceptualizing Freud’s instinct theory, finding a virtue in the narcissism Freud had seen as regressive, and valorizing the perversions as a protest against the tyranny of genital sexuality, Marcuse pushed the utopian impulse in Critical Theory to its extreme. The compromises of ego psychology and neo-Freudian revisionism, exemplified by the Institute’s former colleague Erich Fromm, need not be tolerated. 

In addition, Marcuse also tacitly echoed his teacher Heidegger’s yearning for a version of logos that antedated its transformation into an organon of conceptual domination: “whatever the implications of the original Greek conception of Logos as the essence of being, since the canonization of the Aristotelian logic, the term merges with the idea of ordering, classifying, mastering reason.” 52 Under capitalism, it had degenerated further into what he called “the performance principle,” in which instrumental rationality and capitalist self-interest rule. Only with a new “logos of gratification” could the promise of another reason at its most liberating be revived.

But could such a sunny redescription of Hegelian rationality, infused with Heideggerian nostalgia for being and vitalized by libidinal energy, really suffice to provide a viable positive notion of reason after its eclipse? Although Freudian theory might still be mobilized for critical purposes, as Jurgen Habermas later demonstrated, it could not be as easily combined as Marcuse had hoped with a Hegelian notion of reason, which extended beyond individual human pleasure to the historical world and its institutions. Celebrating the instincts as an archaic source of rebellious subjectivity did not, alas, easily fit with the cultural work done by reason in dealing with the less laudable effects of unleashed desire. As Joel Whitebook noted, Marcuse lacked an appreciation of the need to tame infantile demands for omnipotence and the fantasy of overcoming separation from the mother: “any scheme for radical transformation that does not include a mechanism for decentering infantile omnipotence stands condemned of utopianism in the pejorative sense.” 53 There might even be unintended consequences in a utopianism that undervalued the imperfect achievements of more modest notions of rationalization. As the American philosopher Richard Bernstein put it in his critique of Marcuse’s legacy, “what concretely does this mean? ... We must not only comprehend what we are talking about, but ask ourselves what type of social institutions in a ‘post-industrial’ world can embody such a ‘rationality of gratification.’ We are confronted here not only with the anger of vacuity, but the more ominous danger where the demand for absolute liberation and freedom turns into its opposite—absolute terror.” 34 

Broadly speaking, the two most plausible alternatives were developed by Adorno, who turned to aesthetic theory, and Habermas, who favored a more general theory of communicative interaction. Both reworked rather than repudiated the Enlightenment tradition, although with a different understanding of its implications. 03 Both still found in Hegel some inspiration for a reason that would go beyond the limits of Enlightenment rationality, while also conceding the value of Kant’s more modest acknowledgement of reason’s limits. 56 Both came to appreciate the potential of religion or at least theology as a resource for a more capacious notion of reason than the instrumental variant that Critical Theory feared was crowding out all alternatives. 35 

Although Habermas came to feel Adorno’s solution was inadequate, he could nonetheless acknowledge that in comparison to Horkheimer,
Adorno, faced with the aporia of die self-referential critique of reason, was better able to keep his composure because he could bring another motif into play. He did not need to depend solely upon the enlightening power of philosophical criticism but could let his thinking circulate within the paradoxes of an identity logic that denies itself and yet illuminates from within. That is, for him the genuine aesthetic experience of modern art had opened up an independent source of insight. 36

Habermas would, in fact, continue to characterize Horkheimer’s position as more consistendy hostile to reason than Adorno’s, chastising him, for example, in an essay from 1991, for his “profound skepticism concerning reason. What for him is the essential substance of religion—morality—is no longer tied to reason. Horkheimer praises the dark writers of the bourgeoisie for having ‘trumpeted far and wide the impossibility of deriving from reason any fundamental argument against murder.’ I have to admit that this remark irritates me now no less than it did almost four decades ago when I first read it.” 59

hi contrast, Adorno distanced himself from the more despairing pronouncements of the 1940s and returned to a more robust defense of reason. Indeed at certain moments, such as his 1958 critique of religious attempts to re-enchant the world, “Reason and Revelation,” he could fall back on what sounded suspiciously like the traditional Marxist project of rationalizing the world, claiming that “the excess of rationality, about which the educated class complains and which it registers in concepts like mechanization, atomization, indeed even de-individualization, is a lack of rationality, namely the increase of all the apparatuses and means of quantifiable domination at the cost of the goal, the rational organization of mankind, which is left abandoned to the unreason of mere constellations of power.” 60

While Habermas may no longer himself have had much faith in such a grandiose project, he did admire Adorno’s effort to overcome the simplistic distinction between philosophy and art, finding in the latter, supplemented by a theoretical appreciation of its implications, a place for a kind of reason irreducible to its instrumental variant. Perhaps the most succinct expression of Adorno’s mature theory of the relationship between art and reason came in the paralipomena to his posthumously published Aesthetic Theory. Here Adorno repeated his general warning against the potential of abstract universal reason to overwhelm particulars: “rationality would become rational only once it no longer repressed the individuated in whose unfolding rationality has its right to exist.” 01 An emancipated particular would not, however, be in simple opposition to the universal, a kind of Kierkegaardian absolute of its own, but somehow able to embody it while not extirpating its individuality. Against Hegel and with Marx (and Marcuse), he insisted on the need to reconcile—or rather, place in a mutually beneficial constellation—happiness with reason:

Hegel hypostasizes rationality and falls into the trap of thinking of rationality as the logic of things independently of their terminus ad quern in human beings, the very thing he had expressly called for with his realist interpretation of the concept of reason. The rationality of the universal, then, if it is to be rational at all, cannot be an abstractly self-standing concept, but must consist in the relation of the universal to the particular. 62 
It was to stress the importance of actual gratification that he, like other members of the Frankfurt School, so often invoked the phrase of Stendhal adopted by Nietzsche against the cold Kantian ideal of aesthetic disinterestedness: “art is unepromesse de bonheur [a promise of happiness].” 63 

For Adorno, the dialectic of enlightenment had led, as J. M. Bernstein puts it, to “the rationalization of reason itself. The rationalization of reason is the process through which the sensory—the contingent, contextual and particular—is first dominated, and then repudiated as a component of reason, and the remnant, the sensory rump, dispatched into the harmless precinct of art and the aesthetic.” 64 But rather than abandoning this sensory rump as inherently outside of reason narrowly construed and thus an external threat to be dominated or merely reversing the hierarchy and celebrating the “other” of reason, Adorno argued that art can overcome without fully collapsing the distinction. It finds a way to juxtapose in a benign constellation universal and particular, spirit and matter, form and substance, while resisting the full autonomy of the creative or dominating subject. Both a memory of a time before the separation and a foretaste of what might be a future reconciliation, art is therefore not the betrayer of reason but rather its salvation. 

Complementing its prefiguration of a happiness to come, art could also implicitly protest against suffering, both human and natural. Modern art in particular, with its refusal of organic wholeness and harmonious form, voiced this protest. Horkheimer had always resisted a theodicy that would justify or redeem past suffering, preferring Schopenhauer’s pessimism to Hegel’s too easy optimism about the alleged cunning of reason. Past suffering could not be made into an instrument of future happiness. Adorno also avoided any hint of a sublation of misery in a narrative of redemption. But he stressed that suffering— or better put, the surplus suffering that extended beyond the mortality and vulnerability of the human condition—was itself not a permanent quality of all societies. And although reason in some of its guises may have abetted that suffering it was also a necessary weapon in the struggle to create an alternative future. Aesthetic rationality was a prefigurative placeholder for that possible outcome.

Significantly, the promise of happiness was expressed not only in the sensual gratification provided by artworks and their implicit protest against suffering but also in the type of rationality they embodied, a rationality that resists the dominating implications of the homogenizing concept. “Reason in artworks,” Adorno explained
is reason as gesture: They synthesize like reason, but not with concepts, propositions, and syllogisms —where these forms occur in art they do so only as subordinated means rather, they do so by way of what transpires in the artworks. Their synthetic function is immanent: it is the unity of their self, without immediate relation to anything external given or determined in some way or other; it is directed to the dispersed, the aconceptual, quasi-fragmentary material with which in their interior space artworks are occupied . 65 
It is because of this gestural synthesis that art “reminds us of an objectivity freed from the categorical structure. This is the source of art’s rationality, its character as knowledge.” 66 In Terry Eagleton’s concise gloss on Adorno, it is art in which “the hidden irrationality of a rationalized society is brought to light; for art is a ‘rational’ end in itself, whereas capitalism is irrationally so. Art has a kind of paratactic logicality about it, akin to those dream images which blend cogency and contingency; and it might thus be said to represent an arational refutation of instrumentalized rationality.” 67 

However, rather than turning art into a sacred enclave actually embodying the healthy rationality that overcomes the “disease” spelled out hi the work he and Horkheimer composed in the 1940s, Adorno conceded that “artworks participate in the dialectic of enlightenment. . . . Windowless, artworks participate in civilization. That by which artworks distinguish themselves from the diffuse coincides with the achievements of reason qua reality principle.” 68 As a result, art cannot entirely escape the oppressive potential of reason: “in themselves, artworks ineluctably pursue nature-dominating reason by virtue of their element of unity, which organizes the whole.” 69 Art therefore can never occupy a utopian space unto itself, with no echo of what happens outside. Even the most seemingly autonomous of modern artworks registers, if indirecdy, what is beyond its apparent borders. 

But if art were not a realized, full-throated embodiment of a benign rationality smoothly reconcilable with the principle of happiness, a truth that prevented it, pace certain aesthetes, from serving as a genuine escape from the depredations of real life, at least it opened up the possibility of the ultimate attainability of that reconciliation. It was this hope, after all, that allowed art to be called “a promise” of happiness, if not its actual realization. Despite art’s inevitable registering of the dark side of the dialectic of enlightenment, it also evinces a subde resistance to the external reality principle: “Whereas the unity of artworks derives from the violence that reason does to things, this unity is at the same time the source of the reconciliation of the elements of artworks.”' 0 An important shift occurs when that violence is rendered symbolic rather than literal and turned immanendy toward the work rather than directed to the actual world: “the rational shaping of artworks effectively means their rigorous elaboration in themselves. As a result they come into contrast with the world of the nature-dominating ratio , in which aesthetic ratio originates, and become a work for themselves.” 71 

The key to the shift is the expression in works of art of the mimetic impulse in our interaction with the world and other people, an impulse that is very different from the domination of nature engendered by the drive for self-preservation. Rather than a subject actively mastering a threatening other, it enacts a more passive and benign assimilation of otherness itself. The rational moment in works of art follows from the need to give mimetic comportment an objective embodiment. But their relationship is more of a constellation of juxtaposed elements—here the influence of Benjamin on Adorno was palpable—than that full Hegelian Aufhebung (positive dialectical sublation) for which Marcuse still seems to have yearned. The distinction was expressed in Adorno’s willingness, pace Marcuse, to call the demand for happiness frankly “irrational.” As he acknowledged in one of the most important sentences in Aesthetic Theory , “if the telos of reason is a fulfillment that is in-itself necessarily not rational—happiness is the enemy of rationality and purpose, of which it nevertheless stands in need—art makes this irrational telos its own concern.”72 

In other words, however necessary reason in its most benign, gestural form might be, it is never sufficient. Even when liberated from its identification with instrumentalization, formalization, and subjectivization, reason cannot alone be the standard of utopian redemption. Even when it no longer functions to serve self-preservation and the exchange principle or is disentangled from its bureaucratic institutionalization, reason needs to make room for something else to atone for its original sins of dominating nature and universalizing nonidentical particularity. In short, even a revived substantive notion of reason would have to concede that the ultimate values it affirms come from elsewhere. Art, for all its service as a placeholder of a possible future utopia, does not really function as a model of that benign rationalization of the world envisioned by Hegelian dialectics. A negative dialectics knows, among other things, the limits of reason, even in its most benevolent form. As such it reveals itself as indebted more to Kant—who also denied the ability of reason to account for individual happiness—than Hegel, for whom all of its limits were to be overcome.

Despite his skepticism about a positive dialectical overcoming of oppositions, Adorno thus never simply pitted reason against its “irrational” others, whether understood as happiness, bodily pleasure, material reality, imagination, emotion, the id, violence, mimesis, perhaps even madness/ ’ Indeed, Axel Honneth goes so far as to claim that mimesis was itself necessary in the origin of rationality, which was not solely derived from the need for self-preservation: “Only through imitative behavior, which for Adorno originally goes back to an affect of loving care, do we achieve a capacity for reason because we learn by gradually envisioning others’ intentions to relate to their perspectives on the world.”' 4 There is thus no inherent tension between rationality and mimesis, despite Adorno’s having called the happiness derived from the latter “irrational.” Adorno, he writes, “sees our special, imitation-based capacity for reason precisely in experiencing the adaptive goals of speechless beings, even things, as intentions demanding rational consideration. He is therefore convinced that any true knowledge has to retain the original impulse of loving imitation sublimated within itself in order to do justice to the rational structure of the world from our perspective.”' ’ 

Against the privileging of the intersubjective variant of mimesis—the child, say, imitating its nurturing parent—the inclusion of “speechless beings, even things” in Honneth’s formulation comports with Adorno’s call in Negative Dialectics for “the object’s preponderance.” 76 Another way to make the same point, but now with reference to value questions, is to acknowledge that pure reason can never be the sole source of norms, for reality outside the rational subject can also be normative. As J. M. Bernstein puts it, “it is this which the disenchantment of nature denies and what Adorno thinks is necessary in order to contest the hegemony of rationalized reason. It is equally just this which artworks exemplify through their nondiscursive meanings.” 77 

Mentioning the importance of meanings that are nondiscursively expressed in works of art, meanings that also register the normative claims of objects against human domination, raises the question of the proportion of noetic and diano-etic moments in Adorno’s noninstrumental variant of reason hi the aesthetic sphere. At the end of Negative Dialectics, he had expressed a certain “solidarity . .. with metaphysics at the time of its fall,” 78 which may indicate his nostalgia for a time when reason depended less on inferential argument and more on deductive intuition. We have already cited the contention of Herbert Schnadelbach that Adorno was a “noetic of the non-identical.”' 9 In Minima Moralia, in fact, Adorno explicitly defended a way of thinking that goes beyond argumentation where the goal is always to be right: “the very wish to be right, down to its subtlest form oflogical reflection, is an expression of that spirit of self-preservation which philosophy is precisely concerned to break down. ... To say this is not, however, to advocate irrationalism, the postulation of arbitrary theses justified by an intuitive faith in revelation, but the abolition of the distinction between thesis and argument.” 80 Performatively, the very aphorisms of Minima Moralia reinforced this claim, as did the paratactic quality of Adorno’s prose in some of his longer works, where assertion follows asserdon with little inferential reasoning tying them together. 81 

The comparative virtues of noetic and dianoetic versions of reason continued to occupy Horkheimer and Adorno in a conversation they had in 1956, the notes of which were taken by Gretel Adorno. 82 While chastising Heidegger for being too one-sidedly against discursive argumentation, Adorno nonetheless conceded that “there is really something bad about advocacy.. .. Arguing means applying the rules of thinking to the matters under discussion. You really mean to say that if you find yourself in the situation of having to explain why something is bad, you are already lost.” Horkheimer added with a touch of scorn, “The USA is the country of argument,” which Adorno then trumped by pronouncing— without providing a justification—that “argument is consistently bourgeois.” 83 

But was a concept of reason that remained more noetic than dianoetic a sufficiently compelling placeholder for that emphatic notion of rationality on which the early Frankfurt School had placed its hopes before the eclipse? Not all observers were convinced. Thus, for example, Christoph Menke, a leading member of what is sometimes called Critical Theory’s third generation, would charge that “Adorno’s efforts to conceive of an experience that encounters, beyond reason, the infinite claims of reason as satisfied, are either metaphysical (utopian cognition), empty (atopian cognition), or theological or heteronomous (projections onto aesthetic experience). The teleological variant of the grounding of the negative dialectic of reason from without is thus unconvincing.” 84 Habermas himself would come to worry about the problematic implications of the aphoristic form in Minima Moralia, which privileged noetic over dianoetic reasoning. 80 

Other pressing questions also emerged. Did focusing excessively on art cede too much ground to the “diseased” versions of reason—instrumental, formal, subjective—that Critical Theory had feared were now almost totally hegemonic in the modern world, and as a consequence betoken a retreat into a beleaguered aesthetic sanctuary that had little chance of ever expanding its territory? Had Adorno identified any concrete, institutional embodiments outside that enclave that might allow a reading of history as suggesting a more benign rationalization that could challenge the one decried in Dialectic of Enlightenment ? Was mimesis too “fuzzy” a concept to provide a “real alternative o relations of domination?” 86 Did Adorno’s version of aesthetic rationality, based on a constellation of nontotalized forces, depend too much on the model of the modern artwork, which was itself as much in danger of passing into history as the bourgeois subject that had been its precondition? Did it fully escape the aporias of a subject-centered philosophy, which tacitly posited a notion of reason as a transcendental faculty, in a world in which competing communities of historically variable subjects resisted being subsumed under a single, universal model? Was there, in short, another, more promising way to reestablish reason’s power after its eclipse? It is to the attempt to do so by the Frankfurt School’s most eminent second generation theorist, Jurgen Habermas, that we now must turn. 

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