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Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Theory from the ruins

Stuart Walton
Aeon
Originally posted May 31, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

When reason enabled human beings to interpret the natural world around them in ways that ceased to frighten them, it was a liberating faculty of the mind. However, in the Frankfurt account, its fatal flaw was that it depended on domination, on subjecting the external world to the processes of abstract thought. Eventually, by a gradual process of trial and error, everything in the phenomenal world would be explained by scientific investigation, which would lay bare the previously hidden rules and principles by which it operated, and which could be demonstrated anew any number of times. The rationalising faculty had thereby become, according to the Frankfurt philosophers, a tyrannical process, through which all human experience of the world would be subjected to infinitely repeatable rational explanation; a process in which reason had turned from being liberating to being the instrumental means of categorising and classifying an infinitely various reality.

Culture itself was subject to a kind of factory production in the cinema and recording industries. The Frankfurt theorists maintained a deep distrust of what passed as ‘popular culture’, which neither enlightened nor truly entertained the mass of society, but only kept people in a state of permanently unsatiated demand for the dross with which they were going to be fed anyway. And driving the whole coruscating analysis was a visceral commitment to the Marxist theme of the presentness of the past. History was not just something that happened yesterday, but a dynamic force that remained active in the world of today, which was its material product and its consequence. By contrast, the attitude of instrumental reason produced only a version of the past that ascended towards the triumph of the enlightened and democratic societies of the present day.

Since these ideas were first elaborated, they have been widely rejected or misunderstood. Postmodernism, which refuses all historical grand narratives, has done its best to overlook what are some of the grandest narratives that Western philosophy ever produced. Despite this, these polemical theories remain indispensable in the present globalised age, when the dilemmas and malaises that were once specific to Western societies have expanded to encompass almost the whole globe. As a new era of irrationalism dawns on humankind, with corruption and mendacity becoming a more or less openly avowed modus operandi of all shades of government, the Frankfurt analysis urges itself upon us once more.

The article is here.

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