The Myth Of Enlightenment Cultural Studies Essay

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Myth is already enlightenment; and Enlightenment reverts back to mythology Adorno Horkheimer, 1979: p.xvi. This statement is used to suggest the overlapping and shared characteristics of both enlightenment and myth that make them similar; although they are often thought of as opposites. To fully grasp the implications and meaning of the 'Myth of Enlightenment', we must first explore key factors around this phrase. Therefore, in my essay, I will discuss the meaning of myth, enlightenment, the Frankfurt School, and their main concepts regarding myth and enlightenment and their similarities.

According to Schrempp and Hansen (2002), myths are vivid stories that reference the origins of the world or the creation. They are associated with pre-modern and ancient times, with the purpose of providing an explanation for everyday occurrences. Moreover, it uses the divine to help explicate natural phenomena and, unlike science, which has mastery over nature, myth is subservient to it. Furthermore, whilst science or 'enlightenment' actively seeks to understand unusual occurrences, myth passively passes it off as an aberration. Strauss et al (1998), suggest that the strength of myths are deeply rooted in culture and upheld by the faith of those in a community. Since myths are naturally subjective, sociologist believe that they are fundamentally wrong and are easily used to manipulate and constrain society by those who formulate them. Moreover, Adorno and Horkheimer (1979), assert that this manipulation and domination partially facilitates violence and that religion exemplifies this. Around the pre-modern era of 1079, the Roman Catholics church ordered an army to conquer the Muslim land of Levant, which led to violent conflict and mass fatality (Hindley, 2004). The reasons behind this were political, but the instigators of the Crusade used the guise of religion to hide their ulterior motives. Such violence, Adorno and Horkheimer (1979) suggest, is not an anomaly in Enlightenment. Ironically, this same feature is present in myth; as eight more crusades followed over the course of the following 200 years.

Immanuel Kant's work on enlightenment was influential to the Frankfurt School. Enlightenment, according to Kant (1784:p.1), is 'man's emergence from his self-incurred immaturity" It was the shift towards an era of critical thinking, around the turn of the 18th century, when superstition and dogmatic views were confronted with social and political thought. However, Adorno and Horkheimer (1979) argue that it was present long before the 18th century and can be seen in Homer's Odyssey. Kant (1798) describes the individual at that time as being constrained by institutions, such as religion, that imposed their ideas upon the individual with the help of 'guardians', those who attempt to direct thought, i.e. priests. Furthermore, that the passivity of the individual in judging everyday life was also hindering the world from development. He stresses the need to gain knowledge through reasoning and critically analysing stimuli. By thinking rationally, we could arrive at an objective viewpoint, which would clear our misconceptions about society and our place within it. Kant (1798) also recognized that a critical factor for this was freedom, which must be public and present at every stage of society. However, this does not happen because the individual is either deprived of education from the ruling intellectuals as a means of social control, afraid of the consequences resulting from controversial thought, or prefers to be fed opinions due to laziness. Furthermore, if enlightenment was spread to every person, it would lead to a challenge of authority; creating a more equal society but one that is more difficult to manage. The consequence of enlightenment was a progression towards positivistic reasoning leading to the emergence of science with Francis Bacon in the 17th century (Kirby et al, 2000), and advances in medicine and academia, reigning in the period of modernity. Enlightenment, presented by Kant in a positive light, promised a detachment from the barbarism of myth and an era of liberalisation and scientific prominence; one which, Frankfurt theorists claim fell short of its expectations.

Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Leo Lowenthal are notable sociologists to emerge from the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research (also known as Frankfurt School), founded by Carl Grünberg in 1923 in Germany. It was a collective of left-wing Marxist sociologists who came together to examine why the Germany hadn't experienced a revolution in the wake of the 1918 armistice (The Frankfurt School, 2010). Given that the Russian Revolution had just taken place near Germany, there was a Marxian expectation that the proletarian class would rise up and overthrow the bourgeoisie. In light of the absence of social change, the Frankfurt sociologists were left to wonder the reasons for the false consciousness that had kept the working class in line and inhibited rebellion. Distinct from other schools of academic thought, they focused on culture as a way to explain their current social situation, instead of the economy. However, they had to flee to California for safety in the 1940s as the World War 1 began. It was here that they first encountered overly commercialized and mass culture in the American form which, when they returned to the post-World War II Germany, became a main theme in their work. Adorno and Horkheimer emphasised it their 1979 publication, The Dialectic of Enlightenment; in this they attributed the link of myth to enlightenment and the contemporary regression to barbarism to several themes, namely the 'Culture Industry' (Durão, 2010). Although, their theory has been criticised for being too cynical, one must acknowledge that they were accustomed to a reserved culture in a despaired Germany; therefore, they were bound to find the American light-hearted culture undesirable.

Being left-wing Marxists, it is unsurprising that they blamed capitalism, in part, as a reason for the failure of enlightenment. They claimed capitalism saw the rising influence of media and technology, and sought to dominate it through mass production of culture, and by doing so, control the way people think to keep them docile and manageable. The success of this can be seen in Nazi Germany, and Hitler's televised speeches and art posters that urged citizens to join the army. This propaganda enabled by mass media, resulted in the Holocaust. The use of mass culture as a tool for domination and the need for rationalization is why Adorno maintained that the Holocaust was not just an aberration; he wanted to imply that barbarism is a feature of enlightenment. Lowenthal (1987) emphasised the need for stimulating critical thinking through highly cultured art, e.g. the work of Beethoven and other classical composers. Classical music provokes emotion and thought in viewers, which is detrimental to capitalism. Hence, capitalism commercializes this; e.g., by using Beethoven's symphonies as background music in coffee shops. It can be argued that this is beneficial as it brings high culture to those who would otherwise not experience it. However, Lowenthal (1987) argues that by providing it in this mass form, it is given to those who are not knowledgeable, and, therefore, cannot appreciate it. Moreover, by presenting it in the same way as more shallow genres of music, the average person treats this classical piece with the same passivity as they might for pop, defeating the purpose of the symphony. In this way, mass culture has undermined the free thinking of high culture art by promoting it. This type of desensitization is what Adorno (1991) warned could lead to barbarism. Additionally, the ability to appreciate art has been further dampened by commodity fetishism, as society views art in terms of how its cost, instead of appreciating the aesthetic mastery.

More specifically, Adorno and Horkheimer (1979) criticised the Hollywood film industry for facilitating false consciousness through their films. Previously, movies would evoke emotion and satisfaction through the narrative. But currently, films are being overloaded with special effects and crude humour to evoke cheap satisfaction from the audience resulting in a passive watcher. Likewise, presenting movies with suffering evokes shallow sympathy (Adorno & Horkheimer, 1979) which makes people feel better about their lives, when they shouldn't. This is a tool to distract them from the real problems facing them, i.e. false consciousness, lack of freedom. Hansen (1993) claims this has turned the modern viewer into a masochist; even children now get pleasure from seeing the suffering of others. Donald Duck and Itchy and Scratchy cartoons, which include scenes of a violent nature, are examples of this. Furthermore, the industry has regulations to limit any thought-provoking material, but instead, mass produce the same plots filled with artificial ideals. Ideals which lead the ordinary person to think they are capable of stardom, a thought which reassures people falsely, to the point where they feel content with their lives. Moreover, these artificial and sponsored films aggressively promote products that are not necessary, hence undermining one's 'true' need - freedom to express one self. Adorno and Horkheimer, (1979) warns that this false consciousness produced from the standardization of culture can lead to fascist barbarism. A false perception of man's self in the world, Kant (1798) claims, is an underlying cause for the same barbarism seen in myth. However, Adorno and Horkheimer, (1979) argue it is worse than myth; at least myth allowed emotion through lending animism to nature. Enlightenment has stripped sentimentality from culture through rationalization; Commercialization of holidays for example. Christmas began as a sacred religious festival characterized by goodwill, charity and family worship, symbolised by Christ. With the emergence of capitalism, the sentimental value of Christmas has been overshadowed by expensive gifts, overconsumption of food, and a mythical Santa Claus to symbolise it. Its efforts towards supporting rationalization have made the reasoning of people irrational.

Furthermore, Frankfurt theorists disagree on why the manipulation of pop (mass) culture is even allowed to take place. Adorno and Horkheimer (1979), blame the system of capitalism and those who control it, similar to Kant's (1798) suggestion that the rulers deprive their subordinates of key knowledge. They also point to laziness and cowardice of individuals, who would rather not deal with the consequences of criticizing the ideals that social institutions have placed on them. However, more contemporary Frankfurt sociologists, such as Lowenthal (1987), disagree and blame it on a lack of education on how to critique and question the 'given'. Ironically, Kant (1798) condemns myth for these exact reasons, claiming the educated/enlightened rule, depriving their subordinates of this skill to keep them docile.

Additionally, the issue of docility and domination of the individual is exactly what links myth to enlightenment. As mentioned earlier, enlightenment was to 'free' people from the social constraints imposed by myth and institutions. This led to the industrial revolution and advances in science like Taylorism and Fordism. They exemplify the flaws in rationalisation and the reductionist reasoning that enlightenment was promoted through creating routinized tasks that increase efficiency but dehumanized workers. Bureaucratic organizations became the predominant trend. Fact, the direct opposite of myth, became so significant, people would accept 'given' information without questioning the epistemology of it. Society became obsessed with objectivity and the quantification of phenomena to a point that even labourers could be organized to achieve maximum output. A contemporary example of this is "McDonaldisation". Such spurred a passive culture in society where academic institutions would provide the 'facts', and cognition would be minimalised. This is exactly what was present in the era of myth; people were given information through institutions and absorbed it without criticism. Further, by accepting facts as 'reason' without critiquing it, the way the individual reasoned was actually irrational. Enlightenment promised autonomous individuals, but exactly like myth, created an era of passive people. As people became increasingly submissive, the bourgeois and capital owners were able to manipulate and control them through culture and industry, the same domination that was present in the myth era. Furthermore, the desensitization of the individual through mass media makes it easier to manipulate people, and hence allows for violence to become acceptable, i.e. Becoming so used to reading about war in Iraq that it no longer brings sadness to the reader. Ironically, this was the very barbarism that Kant (1798) promised enlightenment would liberate us from. Looking at myth and enlightenment, the only distinction is that the Mythical era was more sentimental through the animism it lent to nature and this facilitated creativity ― a creativity which was sedated in the modern era of enlightenment.

Finally, at face value what one would think the Frankfurt theorists meant by the 'Myth of Enlightenment' was that enlightenment itself was a myth; in that the liberation that it had pledged to instil was fabled. Upon closer examination of the Dialectic of Enlightenment and other notable works, what Adorno, Horkheimer and other Frankfurt sociologists meant pertained to the mythical nature of enlightenment. How the very key aspects of myth ― savagery, domination and irrationality ― are what characterized the evolution of enlightenment. And how, to an extent, enlightenment was already present in myth; it allowed some free thinkers through the sentimentality it gave to nature. Through the juxtaposition of two seemingly opposing forces (Myth and Enlightenment), the Frankfurt theorists meant to dispel the layman view that they were opposites, and illustrate that both phenomena were equal in their detriment to society, if not Enlightenment even more so.