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History of the Human Sciences
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DOI: 10.1177/09526959922120333
1999 12: 35 History of the Human Sciences
Yvonne Sherratt
The Dialectic of Enlightenment: a contemporary reading

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The Dialectic of
a contemporary reading
The importance of the concept of subjectivity has been underestimated
in the work of Theodor Adorno. In order to address this lacuna we
make an interpretation of Adornos text Dialectic of Enlightenment, in
the form of an idealized narrative of enlightenments historical decline
into its self-conceived opposite, namely myth. Within this narrative
we unravel the Freudian assumptions underlying Adornos work. We
depict the form of subjectivity that Adorno regards as inextricably con-
nected to enlightenment reason. We then analyse his argument for the
inevitable regression of this kind of subjectivity, and the resultant col-
lapse of reason and enlightenment themselves. In so doing we demon-
strate that, in Adornos view, the enlightenment concept of subjectivity
is seriously awed and entails an inevitable regression which, in the end,
encompasses the very death of the Subject.
Key words Adorno, enlightenment, Freud, myth, subjectivity
It is known that Adorno criticizes the Enlightenment believing that its epis-
temological traits underlie its failure:
Habermas writes that the Dialectic of
1999 SAGE Publications (London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi) pp. 3554
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the Enlightenment offers hardly any prospect of escape from the constraints
of instrumental rationality (Habermas, 1982: 18).
However, the question, in
turn, as to what underlies its epistemological failure has not been sufciently
To do this we need to give a systematic account of the Freudian
basis to Adornos epistemological theory. Hereby we can reveal a narrative
of the Enlightenments decline wherein Adorno demonstrates that myth is its
nal and most degenerate stage.
It is important to note at the outset that there has been a certain amount of
criticism of Adornos use of the term Enlightenment. Enlightenment is often
used by historians to refer to a specic period (circa 16601800 from the
foundation of the Royal Society to Kant) which emphasized a certain set of
values let us refer to this as the historical concept of the Enlightenment.
Adornos concept of enlightenment relates to the historical one in the sense
that he conceptualizes it primarily on the basis of the ideas of those writing
during the historians era: Adorno mainly uses the ideas of Kant.
he also uses the notion of enlightenment in a way that extends it well beyond
that which any historians would accept. In fact, for Adorno, enlightenment
has been present in some sense ever since the dawn of Western culture. It is
thus, in historical terms, a very broad concept indeed. Adornos concept of
enlightenment gains its worth as a philosophical construct. For him, it
denotes a very particular kind of culture one that is characterized by a
certain set of aims.
That is to say, enlightenment, for Adorno, is dened
according to its aims. The principal aim of the enlightenment is the acqui-
sition of knowledge which is coupled to the attainment of maturity and to a
set of further aims, namely, freedom, security and peace all of which con-
stitute, for the enlightenment, progress.
The enlightenments self-conception is formed in contrast with what
Adorno believes the enlightenment regards as another kind of culture, that
of myth. Adorno writes: the program of the enlightenment was the disen-
chantment of the world; the dissolution of myths and the substitution of
knowledge for fancy (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1979: 3). Mythic culture is
permeated by a certain set of attitudes which differ from the enlightenment
in that they are not derived from a set of aims. Myth does not, according to
Adorno, set out with any aims at all. As a culture it simply is what it is. And
it is centred around a way of relating to the world which is animistic. This
involves a particular system of knowledge acquisition for which Adorno
deploys the term animism.
According to Adorno this is a false system of
knowledge acquisition for it is coupled to immaturity and the further features
of domination, an expression of fear, barbarism, all of which constitute
regression (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1979: 4380).
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According to Adorno the enlightenment sees itself as having transcended
myth; as having overcome myths negative features of domination, fear, bar-
barism and regression. The enlightenments entire self-conception is formed
in opposition to myth. However, for Adorno, the enlightenment fails and
regresses into myth. This regression is what the enlightenment itself would
conceive of as a regression into its absolute opposite and thus a sign of com-
plete failure. Adornos critique is that the enlightenment becomes myth and
the basis of this is, he argues, an epistemological failure.
Adorno begins his critique by criticizing the enlightenments own view of
its aims. It mistakes its view of its principal aim, leading to repercussions for
the whole project of enlightenment. According to the enlightenments own
self-conception, its principal aim is the acquisition of knowledge. This is
where the enlightenment makes its rst mistake. Knowledge acquisition
turns out, in fact, not to be an aim of the enlightenment at all but to be a mere
means that the enlightenment uses in order to attain its other aims.
enlightenment is thus mistaken about the role of its purported foremost aim.
Because knowledge acquisition turns out not to be an end but a means,
Adorno refers to it as instrumental knowledge acquisition.
For Adorno, instrumental knowledge acquisition is inherently inadequate,
which is to say that not only does it fail to have the quality of being an end-
in-itself but, relatedly, it fails also as a means. That instrumental knowledge
acquisition is inadequate as an instrument, results in the enlightenment
declining into myth.
A large factor as to why instrumental knowledge acquisition fails as a
means is because of a distinctive kind of subjectivity that, according to
Adorno, underlies it. We can analyse the enlightenment subject by turning to
the work of Sigmund Freud. Freud, for Adorno, most clearly represents the
ideas of the enlightenment. That is to say, Freud is an instance of the general
phenomenon of enlightenment which means that Adorno regards him as
both inherently positive, in the sense of being in league with the enlighten-
ments aims, and inherently negative: he is part and parcel of the failure of the
enlightenment. Furthermore, Freud straddles this ambivalence with a further
peculiarity. Not only is he intrinsically part of enlightenment culture but he
further provides a conceptual framework through which to view the
enlightenment subject.
Freud provided an account of human psychological development.
At its
initial most primitive stage, he conceptualized the self as a mere pleasure-
seeking entity which merely consists of various (uncontrolled) impulses for
pleasure and for the avoidance of unpleasure.
Later, as the self develops, it
attains the faculty of control. However, an aspect of the uncontrolled
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pleasure-seeking part of the self remains and is referred to by Freud as the id.
The other part develops into the mature adults ego.
The ego and the id thus
correspond to two very different aspects of the adult self (Freud, 1923: 364).
The ego refers to the part of the self that is responsible for self-preservation,
capable of control and gaining a sense of reality. The id is the more primitive
aspect that is uncontrolled and concerned with pleasure.
In his later work Freud moved from talking about parts of the self and
conceived of the self as something driven by drives. Drives, according to
Freud, form the basis of the individuals action. They emerge out of the ego,
when they are referred to as the reality principle, and out of the id, when
they are referred to as the libido (Freud, 1915b: 10538).
An important characteristic of drives is that they have an aimand their aim
is an object. Freud writes: the object of a drive is the thing in regard to which
or through which the drive is able to achieve its aim (Freud, 1915b: 119). The
id seeks out an object in order to satisfy its aim of pleasure, whereas the ego
seeks out an object in order to satisfy its aim of self-preservation. The object
of the drives is predominantly external reality although it can (sometimes
abnormally) be the self or even illusions.
The satisfaction of these drives upon their object leads to different conse-
quences and thus to a different kind of experience of the object. For the id it
leads to pleasure and a kind of meaning (Freud, 1930: 26170). For instance,
Freud argues that a vocation gains its meaning to the person employed in it
through the pleasure that person derives from it (Freud, 1930: 272). Art gains
its meaning, Freud argues, through the pleasure derived from the experience
of beauty, and another person becomes deeply meaningful because of the
pleasure of sexual love (Freud, 1930: 270). This kind of meaning is distinct
from that associated with knowledge. For example, the kind of meaning that
being in love with a person imbues upon them is quite distinct from the kind
of meaning contained in the knowledge of how the human organism func-
tions (Freud, 1930: 261). Let us refer to these two distinct kinds of meaning
as meaning (A), for that relating to knowledge (derived from the ego-
drives), and meaning (B), for that related to pleasure, derived from the id.
An object can be experienced as meaningful (B) only through the satisfaction
of the id-drive.
The ego, meanwhile, provides self-preservation in relation to the object
which it achieves by its capacity for control. It both controls the self (as its
object) internally and also relates to external objects in the world with the
aim of avoiding danger and satisfying internal needs.
The ego also achieves self-preservation through the acquisition of know-
ledge. Freud writes:
Consciousness now learned to comprehend sensory qualities in addition
to the qualities of pleasure and unpleasure which hitherto had alone been
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of interest to it. A special function was instituted which had periodically
to search the external world, in order that its data might already be famil-
iar if an urgent internal need should arise. (Freud, 1911: 378)
This view of knowledge acquisition as stemming from the ego leads to certain
features. First, it means knowledge acquisition is bound up with the feature
of control. It also includes the notion of a kind of meaning, which we have
termed meaning (A). This is a categorizing kind of meaning. It occurs
within propositional statements insofar as these statements refer to objects in
the external world. It is also related to the use or function of an item. So, for
example, knowing that the earth orbits the sun is an instance of meaning
(A). Furthermore, knowing how a radio works such that one can repair it
is also an instance of meaning (A). For Freud, knowledge acquisition is
derived from the ego and consists of the feature of control and meaning (A).
For Adorno, Freuds ideas portray two points: rst, many of the central
features of the enlightenments kind of knowledge acquisition Adornos
concept of instrumental knowledge acquisition is bound up with control and
meaning (A); second, for Adorno Freud provides an image of the enlighten-
ment Subject.
Adornos central use of Freud is the following. Enlightenment is dened
by its aims which depend upon the acquisition of knowledge. The denitive
experience of enlightenment therefore becomes the acquisition of knowledge.
This entails, for Adorno following Freud, that the subject satises itself upon
the object through the ego-drive. Thus, for Adorno, the ego-drive is pre-
dominant in enlightenment.
The consequences of a kind of subjectivity dominated by the ego-drive are,
Adorno believes, that enlightenment fails. He depicts this failure as a narra-
tive. Although this has been criticized as historically inaccurate, it is im-
portant to note that it is not intended as historical. The narrative is an
interpretative or heuristic device. More specically, it is a critical theory,
intended, in his words, to enlighten the enlightenment about itself (Adorno
and Horkheimer, 1979: xixvii). I divide this narrative into four clear stages,
which I entitle impoverishment, fantasy, totalization and fragmentation.
This division is my own and these categories themselves should not be read
as historical or temporally successive. They are intended to help us unravel
the detail of Adornos critique.
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1 Impoverishment
The rst stage of Adornos critique of the enlightenment is impoverishment.
Adorno illustrates this through an interpretation of the myth of Odysseus.
Although Odysseus is a central character of myth, Adorno regards him as the
prototype of the enlightenment subject embodying many of the latters
key characteristics, such as the search for security and peace, for which he
requires control, achieved through the acquisition of knowledge. Odysseus
wishes to procure safety, to steer his ship safely home, and to achieve this he
needs to control himself, his crew and his ship and also to predict his external
world in order to avoid its dangers. This entails gleaning knowledge about
potential dangers in the world and about how to control circumstances in
order to avoid them. Both Odysseus and the enlightenment subject display
the traits of being driven towards the acquisition of knowledge in order to
attain control and self-control: Odysseus is the self who always restrains
himself (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1979: 55). Odysseus is controlled, instru-
mental or functional, organized, administered and administering. There is a
cost. Adorno reveals this through an analysis of his encounter with the Sirens.
Odysseus, in order to keep his ship on course, must avoid being drawn in
by the Sirens singing (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1979: 324, 589). To
achieve this he plugs the ears of the rowers so that they should not be exposed
to the temptation of the song. He has himself tied to the mast, from where
he can hear the song but is secure from the danger of responding to it. Adorno
explains how Odysseus oppresses the impulse for pleasure of his fellow
humans the rowers whose ears are plugged cannot even hear the song.
Odysseus also suppresses his own pleasure in rendering himself unable to
jump overboard and submerge himself in the music. In being unable to
respond to the Sirens, Odysseus receives only a diluted experience of their
song. Both he and the rowers therefore (virtually) know only the songs
danger and nothing of its beauty (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1979: 34). The
price of Odysseus control, quite simply, is an impoverishment of pleasure.
Impoverishment encompasses a loss of sensual pleasure: Odysseus cannot
submerge himself completely in the sensuality of the Sirens song. It also
entails a restriction of the imagination.
With the technical easing of life the
persistence of domination brings about a xation of the drives by means of
heavier repression. Imagination atrophies (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1979:
Furthermore, the capacity for self-abandonment is lost. Whereas
primitive man experienced the natural thing merely as the evasive object of
desire . . . Odysseus . . . cannot yield to the temptation to self-abandonment
(Adorno and Horkheimer, 1979: 35). Finally, as the faculties of response to
beauty decline, so too does the actual existence of beauty. The lack of appreci-
ation of the Sirens song results in a depreciation of the song itself:
The Sirens have their own quality, but in primitive bourgeois history it
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is neutralised to become merely the wistful longing of the passer-by.
The epic says nothing of what happened to the Sirens once the ship had
disappeared. In tragedy, however, it would have been their last hour.
(Adorno and Horkheimer, 1979: 59)
Like Odysseus, the enlightenment subject forfeits much of the potential
pleasure of the world. His imagination becomes impoverished, his capacity
for self-abandonment decreases and the actual existence of beauty within his
world plummets. As a consequence the quality of art declines.
Pleasure, in all its aspects, is derived from the id-drives. Thus to say that
the subject loses the experience of pleasure due to control which as we
know is derived from the exertion of the ego-drives is to say that he suffers
a depreciation of the id-drives. The enlightenment subject, like Odysseus,
loses not simply pleasure but pleasure in relation to reality. Thus he loses
the engagement of the id-drives upon their object of reality. The stage of
impoverishment consists of the withdrawal of the subjects id-drives from
In criticizing the enlightenment for consisting of a depleted quality in
pleasurable experience, Adornos critique is external: the enlightenment did
not aim for pleasure. However, he claimed that his was to be an internal cri-
tique of the enlightenment. In fact, Adorno pursues this external criticism in
order to show how the loss of pleasure (an external aim, let us say) leads to
a failure of the enlightenment to attain its own, self-declared aims.
2 Fantasy
The next stage of decline involves the onset of the enlightenments failure to
achieve its own internal aims. In the enlightenment, as we have seen, only
half the drives of the subject are engaged upon reality. What therefore does
the id-drive now take as its aim?
As a consequence of the increasing loss of reality as an object, Freud
explains a likely outcome: [when] the connection with reality is . . . loosened;
satisfaction is obtained from illusions (Freud, 1930: 268). The id thus seeks
an alternative object. It turns, in fact, to illusion.
Freud argues that the earliest stage of human development is that of infan-
tile narcissism. In this condition the self, not properly formed, is unable to
discriminate between the internal and the external. One aspect of this lack of
discrimination encompasses an inability to discern between sensations
derived from objects in the external world and the selfs own impulses or
wishes. The self in such a primitive condition simply wishes and then satises
its drives upon these wishes. In the adult self this process can also occur. The
adult self projects its wishes outward. It either projects them onto an external
object converting it into what the id would wish it to be, or its wishes reside
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within the imagination without forming an attachment to any external object.
The objects of these wishes are illusions. Hence illusions are generated from
the ids own impulses. They are projections masquerading as in the external
world. Illusion is thus a feature of a primitive stage of the selfs development
and any reversion to it in adult life is a regression.
In the stage of enlightenment that is impoverishment, the id can no longer
satisfy itself upon the external world. As a result it turns to generate illusions
in order to satisfy itself. We can term this condition of the id satisfying itself
by illusion a state of fantasy. In the stage of the enlightenment that I have
termed fantasy, the ego satises itself upon reality whilst the id generates its
own illusions. Half of the self is thus engaged upon the world, half not. The
self is split.
This encompasses a regress. Half of the self is turning away from reality
towards itself as its object. It is reverting to a more primitive state of human
development. Freud terms this condition narcissism as it is a reversion to a
condition akin to infantile narcissism.
An instance of this regress of the id-drives to fantasy is given by Adorno
through his account of Odysseus experience of the lotus-eaters. The lotus is
a source of obvious pleasure. Homer describes it as sweeter than honey.
However (unlike the song of the Sirens) the lotus, according to Adorno, does
not embody any reality-content. Whereas the Sirens knew everything that
has happened on this so fruitful earth, including the events in which
Odysseus himself took part (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1979: 33), eating
lotus is a pleasure that is wholly disconnected from reality. It is a kind of
idyll, which recalls the happiness of narcotic drug addicts reduced to the
lowest level (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1979: 62). Because of this lack of
reality-content in the lotus-eaters experience, the pleasure itself, according
to Adorno, is actually the mere illusion of happiness (Adorno and
Horkheimer, 1979: 63). The pleasure is the mere production of infantile wish-
impulses and the satisfaction of the id upon these. This condemns [the lotus-
eaters] to no more than to a primitive state (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1979:
62). This regression encompasses a loss of interest in reality. Whoever
browses on the lotus . . . succumbs . . . [to] oblivion and surrender of the will
(Adorno and Horkheimer, 1979: 62). Adorno continues to quote Homers
narration: All who ate the lotus . . . thought no more of reporting to us, or
of returning. Instead they wished to stay there . . . forgetting their homeland
(Adorno and Horkheimer, 1979: 62).
The lotus-eaters appear in modern society in the guise of the culture indus-
try. Its products, such as lm, lull the audience into a state of [empty] pas-
sivity and provide a kind of pleasure of which the only thing that can be said
is that all [it] actually conrms is that the real . . . will never be reached
(Adorno and Horkheimer, 1979: 139). This pleasure fails to connect the
subject in any way to reality.
The consumers of the culture industrys
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products are thus condemned, like the lotus-eaters, to a primitive state
(Adorno and Horkheimer, 1979: 12065).
In the experience of illusory pleasure, the enlightenment fails to attain its
goal of maturity. The consumers of the culture industry regress to become
like Homers mythic lotus-eaters. Mythic culture is regarded by the en-
lightenment as regressive. In regressing to this infantile state and failing to
attain maturity, the enlightenment therefore declines into myth. Half of the
enlightenment declines to encompass one of the central features of myth.
For Adorno, an even more problematic consequence emerges from illus-
ory pleasure. Adorno follows Freuds claim that there is an interconnection
between pleasure and meaning; for Freud, as we know, the pleasure that
emerges out of the satisfaction of the id-drives upon their object is ac-
companied by a sense of the object as meaningful. Freud, however, provides
very little analytical detail of this particular kind of meaning and merely states
its distinction from the meaning accompanied by the process of knowledge
acquisition that is derived from the ego. Further to this, Freud claims that
religious experience is accompanied by a sense of meaningfulness which is
pleasurable and without propositional knowledge-content. Freud gives us
little more to go on. Adorno, however, takes up and elaborates Freuds
notion. Adorno implies that the kind of meaning present in the experience of
pleasure, or what Freud refers to as religious experience, is a sense that the
object is imbued with a value or signicance which is beyond our need,
desire, or usage of it. This notion of meaning refers to the objects own inher-
ent signicance. What the exact content of this meaning is we cannot necess-
arily depict. However, through the experience of pleasure (be it religious or
otherwise) we experience the fact of the existence of this kind of meaning.
This kind of meaning which we referred to in our discussion of Freud as
meaning (B), is important for Adorno. Here, however, our interest lies in
seeing how this concept reveals to us a further detail in the decline of the
According to Adornos analysis, when illusion becomes the new source of
pleasure, because pleasure is inherently linked to meaning (B), then illusion
also of course becomes the new source of meaning (B). Illusions therefore
come to replace reality not merely as a source of pleasure but as a source of
this kind of meaning. This marks a further regress. Illusions, for Adorno
following Freud, are infantile fantasies which are intrinsically meaningless.
Therefore when they become experienced as meaningful that which is
intrinsically meaningless comes to be taken as meaningful. This is a state of
Delusion is even more regressive than illusion. It occurs in the instance of
the lotus-eaters when their experience is like yet unlike the realisation of
utopia (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1979: 63). That is, their experience begins
to imitate utopia but lacks the meaning (B) that such experience would hold.
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In modern society the same phenomenon occurs. The culture industry also
emulates meaning (B), thus generating delusion.
What we have depicted here as fantasy represents, however, only half of
the enlightenment. The ego-drives are still expressed upon reality so that the
enlightenment experiences an ever-spiralling increase in control, according to
Adorno. This is apparent, he argues, in the increase in the technological
power of enlightenment culture.
The enlightenment at this stage, as we have seen, consists of a split, which
entails that only half the selfs drives relate to reality. The other half are
deployed on mere illusion. The cultural correspondence to this psychological
split is a society made up on the one hand of enormous technical power and
efciency, and on the other of depleted, illusory pleasures and meanings.
Enlightenment is comprised of split halves, only one of which is Enlight-
ened. The other has declined to myth. Enlightenment has began its decline
to myth in half its sphere.
This situation, however, further deteriorates. We have so far depicted the
feature of delusion as remaining within the realm of fantasy, thus being a per-
version of the satisfaction of the id-drives. As such it represents the decay of
merely half of the enlightenment. However, delusion spreads into the realm
of the ego-drives and so into enlightenment proper. (One aspect of this is
the appearance of what Adorno would see as childish science, the ludicrous
theories and practices of so-called administrative sciences.) A further aspect
would be that which Adorno despises as the real absurdity of occultists
who are drawn towards childish monstrous scientic fantasies (Adorno,
1974: 241) such as astrological hocus-pocus, which adduces the impenetrable
connections of alienated elements nothing more alien than the stars as
knowledge about the subject. Here there is an increase in delusion for a
monstrous scientic fantasy does not merely replace real meaning (B) with
a false meaning (B) but actually imbues itself with meaning (A). Thus there
occurs false meaning (A). The astrological hocus pocus posits itself as
instrumental knowledge.
Fantasy is thus doubly responsible for delusion in that rst it is inadequate
in terms of meaning (B) although it believes itself to be imbued with this.
Second, it then becomes imbued with the status of meaning (A) so that it is
responsible for knowledge itself becoming deluded. In this way delusion
crosses over from the realm of pleasure to that of knowledge or enlighten-
ment proper.
For Adorno, the stage of fantasy marks two aspects of decline. First, the
pleasure-driven part of culture regresses through neglect. The subject
regresses from maturity to immaturity and pleasure becomes composed of
delusional meanings. This is a decline towards myth. Therefore half the
enlightenment degenerates to myth.
There is a second and deeper regression because the delusion within fantasy
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feeds back to affect the realm of enlightenment proper so that delusions start
to occupy the realm of knowledge. Delusion is a feature of myth. The
enlightenment thus regresses to myth not only in the sphere of pleasure
(which in a sense is its external sphere, that is, not a part of its aims) but in
the sphere of knowledge itself (that is, its internal sphere its self-declared
3 Totalization
With further progress the enlightenment worsens and enters the third stage
of decline. This can be characterized as the stage of totalization and repre-
sents the total decline of enlightenment to myth. It occurs in the following
In the stage of fantasy the only set of drives engaged upon reality were
those of the ego. According to Adorno, in the stage of totalization these grow
more and more powerful and exert more and more control over the id. As a
result the id-drives become more restricted such that eventually they become
unable to generate wish-objects or fantasies. That is, the enlightenment
subject becomes increasingly unable to generate illusions. Adorno writes:
. . . with the technical easing of life the persistence of domination brings
about a xation of the drives by means of heavier repression. Imagina-
tion atrophies. (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1979: 35)
However, the drive of the id, if weakened, persists. What therefore can it
turn to in order to attain satisfaction? In fact, there is a readily available object
for the id to satisfy itself upon. In its predominance, the ego has generated a
complex web of instrumental knowledge, a world of science, logic, technical
designs and processes. This complex technical system is a readily available
object. The id in fact turn to this for satisfaction. Thus, in the third stage of
the enlightenment the ego that is, in fact, the technological system of know-
ledge produced by the ego becomes the new object for the id.
What are the results of this? We know that the id has the characteristic of
experiencing objects in terms of pleasure; therefore when the egos products
become the object of the id, instrumentality becomes a source of pleasure.
Adorno sees this phenomenon as ubiquitous in the culture industry, which
encompasses a shift away from escapist fantasy towards an appreciation of
instrumental systems.
In his analysis of the stage of totalization Adorno sees
a shift in the object of pleasure, examples of which permeate, for instance, the
realm of music. On the one hand, in the sphere of popular music sounds
begin to emulate machinery in the literal sense so that the instrumental
working of technology begins to become taken as pleasurable (Adorno and
Horkheimer, 1979: 148). Within high culture on the other hand, abstract
patterns within sound and within visual art constructivism, for instance
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reect the causal, systematic relations internal to the instrumental mode of
relating to the world that is characteristic of the ego. Adorno explains that
. . . this abstractness has nothing in common with the formal character
of older aesthetic norms such as Kants. On the contrary, he writes that
from the outset, aesthetic abstraction . . . [is a] reaction to a world that
has become abstract. (Adorno, 1997: 22)
The instrumental abstraction of the world becomes a source of pleasure as
the id shifts to satisfy itself upon the ego as its new object.
This stage I have characterized as that of totalization for the following
reason. Previously, when the enlightenment was split into two halves (en-
lightenment proper and mythic fantasy) there still remained two separate
spheres of experience. However, once instrumental abstraction replaces
fantasy as the object for the id, then experience loses distinctions. The ego-
drives are the only way of relating to reality itself and, although the id-drives
remain, they neither relate to reality nor do they even any longer generate
their own object. They can experience the ego only as object. Thus, on the
one hand, the ego provides the only way of experiencing reality and, on the
other, it has come to replace reality as the experiential realm for any other
aspect of the self. Instrumental abstraction becomes the only kind of poss-
ible experience in both spheres. In this sense, the enlightenment is totalized.
Enlightenment has become, say Adorno and Horkheimer, one of the [e]xpla-
nations of the world as all or nothing . . . mythologies (Adorno and Hork-
heimer, 1979: 24).
Totalization marks a regress to myth. All the aims of the enlightenment
regress to myth. The rst feature to decline is instrumental knowledge itself.
This occurs in the following way.
The id experiences objects as pleasurable and as meaningful. Hence the
products of the ego instrumental abstraction become experienced not only
as pleasurable but also as meaningful; which is to say, meaningful in the ids
sense, what we have termed meaning (B). This raises a question. Does instru-
mental abstraction contain this rst kind of meaning? We know that it con-
tains meaning (A), that of enlightenment knowledge, but this is entirely
distinct from meaning (B). Adorno writes, with respect to art, of appearance
becom[ing] abstract after the catastrophe of meaning (Adorno, 1997: 22). For
Adorno the catastrophe of meaning refers to meaning (B) so that abstract
appearance certainly does not contain meaning (B). When we experience this
abstraction as meaningful (B) then we are experiencing a kind of meaning
within something which it does not inherently possess. This is delusion. This
delusion occurs in thought as in art, so that Adorno writes: thought appears
meaningful only when meaning has been discarded (Adorno and Horkheimer,
1979: 93). An instance of this delusion in the realm of thought would be the
sense that an explanation of the subject along biological lines, which contains
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meaning (A), conveys a sense of the inherent signicance of the subject
meaning (B). Mathematics, according to Adorno, is the purest form of instru-
mental abstraction. It too comes to be taken as meaningful (B). For Adorno,
the enlightenment equates all possible kinds of meaning with meaning (A).
Adorno writes: enlightenment . . . is the philosophy which equates the truth
with scientic systematization (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1979: 85). (Truth
for Adorno in this context refers to all possible kinds of meaning.)
Instrumental knowledge thus becomes deluded about its own nature. The
feature of delusion that begins with the narcissistic satisfaction of the id-
drives spreads further into the sphere of the ego-drives.
The second feature to decline is that of maturity. In totalization, now that
the id has turned to worship the products of the ego, the relationship between
the self and the external world alters. The id-drives that previously had satis-
ed themselves upon reality now satisfy themselves upon the ego:
. . . [t]he libido that has been withdrawn from the external world has
been directed to the ego and thus gives rise to an attitude which may be
called narcissism. (Freud, 1914: 67)
From reality, to fantasy, to the ego, the self has turned increasingly away from
the external world as its source of pleasure and meaning, and towards its own
ego. The self is thus becoming increasingly preoccupied with itself. This
Freud describes as a return to a primitive objectless condition (Freud, 1915a:
202), and as such it marks a regression in subjectivity.
The feature of
maturity is thus undermined. This is a regression of the enlightenment subject
into the mythic counterpart.
The third feature to decline is that of freedom. In totalization the only
relationship with reality is through the ego. Thus the subject relates to
reality only through forms of control. This becomes a relationship of domi-
nation. Domination is the contrary of freedom. Freedom in the enlighten-
ment consists of two aspects according to Adorno. First, there is the
freedom of the subject in terms of his drives, referring in this case to the id-
drives. Total control disallows this kind of freedom. An instance of this is
given when Adorno writes of the self-dominant intellect, which separates
from sensuous experience in order to subjugate it (Adorno and Hork-
heimer, 1979: 36).
This, however, is of course a notion of freedom that is
external to the enlightenment. Domination also, however, prevents a
second kind of freedom freedom conceived of as the subjects free will.
The subject in dominating the external world (including other subjects)
becomes itself an object of such domination in terms not merely of the
faculty of pleasure but also of its own independent will. Domination as a
characteristic of myth means that yet another of the enlightenments fea-
tures degenerates to myth. The third goal of the enlightenment therefore
becomes undermined.
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Let us now look at the remaining relationship with reality. Access to reality
is solely through the ego and its products. The ego relates to its object in
terms of survival and when the world is related to solely in terms of survival
it is treated as something that is exclusively a potential threat to survival. Of
course, in part the world had always been experienced as dangerous but this
had been offset by the pleasure it afforded. Now that pleasure has gone and
the world is experienced solely as dangerous, reality becomes only a source
of fear. This marks the emergence of another feature of myth. Whereas
enlightenment (Adorno and Horkheimer claim) aimed for security it results
in a culture driven by fear: enlightenment is mythic fear turned radical
(Adorno and Horkheimer, 1979: 16).
For Adorno, fear leads to the loss of peace and the onset of barbarism. It
entails that self-preservation becomes the omnipresent concern of the
enlightened self (Freud, 1930: 26472). Here self-preservation should be
understood as psychological survival, that is, the preservation of a sense of
self or identity, rather than merely biological survival. For this kind of self-
preservation the self is threatened by that which is different for it fears that
this may contaminate the selfs identity. We can term that which is different
from the self the Other.
Now ordinarily, the self relates to the Other through both its drives so that
the Other is potentially pleasurable and meaningful (B) as well as potentially
harmful. At the stage of totalization, however, now that the egos products
are the only source of pleasure and meaning (B) and external reality is devoid
of these qualities, then the world is no longer a source of signicant and
pleasurable experience but is only threatening. Adorno argues that this sense
of threat reaches paranoid proportions so that the enlightened self fears
obsessively everything that is not self.
This fear is at root a fear of difference: a sense that the different will annihil-
ate the selfs identity. It expresses itself in several ways. One is an attempt to
remove the threat. Adorno argues that this can manifest itself in a drive for
the destruction of difference. It can be a drive for the destruction of external
reality or of any perceived Other.
Epistemologically, this manifests itself, Adorno claims, in the rigid closed
systems of logic which are concerned with their own internal rules and reject
all that lies without. These, Adorno argues, are a kind of megalomaniac domi-
nance: the system is the belly turned mind . . . It eliminates all heterogeneous
being (Adorno, 1973: 23, 26). It is a philosophical devouring, which leaves
nothing outside of its own system: it equates reality with itself, thereby
exterminating any potential external (different) reality.
A brutal manifestation of this becomes inevitable, Adorno argues. He sees
this in anti-Semitism. The fascists do not view the Jews as a minority but as
an opposing race, the embodiment of the negative principle (Adorno and
Horkheimer, 1979: 168). This fear of the difference of the Jews is, on the one
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hand, a narcissistic worship of the self: The nationalist brand of anti-Semi-
tism . . . asserts that the purity of the race and the nation is at stake (Adorno
and Horkheimer, 1979: 176). On the other hand, it is a drive to exterminate
difference. The I am, which tolerates no opposition (Adorno and Hork-
heimer, 1979: 177) was of such paranoid proportions that it resulted in the
brutality of the Nazi extermination camps.
The attempt to remove the threat of difference which emanates from the
paranoid, narcissistic self, results in brutality, in barbarism. The nal aim of
the enlightenment, peace, has thus regressed to mythic barbarism.
Enlightenment has declined in total to myth.
4 Fragmentation
One would think that the total decline of enlightenment would inevitably be
that which Adorno would characterize as the nal stage of the enlightenment.
What possible further stage of decline could there be? Adorno pushes his
argument further.
The relationship that the subject has with the external world at the end of
the stage of totalization and the onset of the stage of fragmentation is solely
through the ego-drives. This is a relationship where fear has led to the attempt
to exterminate all that is external to the self. If successful this leads, of
course, to the loss of all that is external including the external world as the
object for the ego. The only remaining object therefore becomes the ego
What of the drives? The id-drives have become progressively dominated
by the ego such that the self has lost, rst, the ability to relate to reality as its
object of pleasure, and, second, the ability to generate fantasy objects: now,
nally, according to Adorno, the ego dominates the self such that the id-
drives decline altogether. For Adorno, the id-drives through their lack of
deployment on reality grow increasingly weak and eventually fade away
The result? The only drives that remain for the possibility of any
experience are those of the ego. At the stage of fragmentation therefore we
have the peculiar situation that the only drive that remains is that of the ego
plus that the only object for experience is the ego. The stage of fragmentation
therefore consists of the ego relating to the ego.
The consequences that emerge from this fact are as follows. The ego-drives
lack a capacity for the experience of pleasure and meaning B. Thus, when the
self relates to itself solely through the ego it loses a sense of itself as pleasur-
able or meaningful (B).
However, the ego-drives do not simply lack certain features, they also
consist of a certain feature: the drive for self-preservation. This drive relates
to the object as something against which the ego wishes to protect itself. Pre-
viously the ego-drives protected themselves against the external world. When
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the ego becomes the only object of experience these drives turn to protect
themselves against the ego. The combination of a loss of pleasure and
meaning in experience coupled to the existence of a drive for protection,
results in the object becoming a source of fear. The ego becomes threatened
by itself as an entity. The result of this is that the enlightened self begins to
attack itself. It starts to attempt to destroy its own sense of existence. The
coherent I, psychological identity, comes under threat of extinction.
Adorno illustrates an instance of this through the story of Odysseus.
Odysseus has an encounter with the mythic monster, the Cyclops, Poly-
phemus. Cyclopses eat human esh and this one intends to eat Odysseus,
thereby destroying Odysseus physically but also, and most importantly for
Adorno, devaluing Odysseus existence as a self by regarding him as merely
Therefore the Cyclops is an external threat not only to Odysseus
physical survival but, importantly, to his psychological survival, or identity.
In order to defend himself physically Odysseus tries to trick the Cyclops by
telling the Cyclops that his name is Nobody. When the Cyclops tries to
identify Odysseus in order to eat him he thus suffers confusion and in this
confusion Odysseus takes the opportunity to ee. Odysseus has thus appar-
ently triumphed and saved his physical life. But, Adorno argues, there is a
concealed cost. In order to trick the Cyclops and protect his own life,
Odysseus has had to deny his own identity. In terms of psychological sur-
vival, therefore, Adorno explains, Odysseus has ironically completed what
the Cyclops intended. Odysseus has destroyed his identity his self: the
subject Odysseus denies his own identity, which makes him a subject.
Odysseus employed an artice that breaks the ordinance by fullling it and
thereby saves his life by losing himself (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1979: 60,
In destroying his identity, Adorno explains, Odysseus may survive physi-
cally but degenerates psychologically to the same level of unselfconscious-
ness as the monster. Adorno even accuses Odysseus of being lower than the
Cyclops because Odysseus has the capacity to be better: The stupidity of the
giant, an element of his barbaric crudity . . . represents something better as
soon as it is subverted by the one who ought to know better (Adorno and
Horkheimer, 1979: 67).
Adorno argues that Odysseus degenerates to a stage
even beneath that of the mythic monster to the amorphous, that is, to unself-
conscious nature itself: Odysseus keeps himself alive by imitating the amor-
phous (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1979: 67).
This marks the stage that I have termed fragmentation, a stage where the
coherent entity of the self comes under threat of fragmentation and even-
tual collapse.
The modern enlightenment self, like Odysseus, defends itself against a
threatening world. It turns away seeking refuge in the ego and then, in turn,
attacks this. The self (as subject) feels threatened by itself (as object). In an
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attempt to exterminate this threatening object, it attacks its own existence.
This becomes an attack, according to Adornos argument, upon self-
conscious subjectivity. The result is a marked regression and there then
emerges the (so-called) death of the subject.
Like Odysseus, the dying
Subject cries I am nobody, celebrating the purported cunning of its own
death. In the stage of fragmentation, the enlightenment subject degenerates
to the nal stage of myth, and even beyond myth, to the amorphous, to the
collapse of any kind of subjectivity at all.
The psychological disintegration of the self has a physical counterpart. This
occurs due to the collapse of the subjects ability to control its external
environment. This collapse of control can be most readily observed through
the disintegration of instrumental knowledge acquisition.
The ego-drives contain no capacity for the experience of pleasure and
meaning (B). Thus, when the ego solely relates to itself it loses a sense of itself
as pleasurable or meaningful and, furthermore, it loses a sense of its products,
including instrumental knowledge, in the same way. Enlightenment know-
ledge eventually becomes experienced as meaningless.
In certain circumstances, as we have seen, the ego attacks itself. In fact it
does not merely attack itself but also its products including instrumental
knowledge. This results in a destruction of the latter. An example of this
occurs again in the myth of Odysseus. Homer depicts the mind of the mythic
monster Cyclops as lawless, a mind that cannot relate to the world in any
kind of systematic way it lacks all capacity for controlled thought.
Stupidity and lawlessness are diagnosed as one: when Homer calls
Cyclops a lawless-minded monster, this does not mean merely that in
his mind he does not respect the laws of civilisation, but also that his
mind itself, his thinking, is lawless, unsystematic and rhapsodical.
(Adorno and Horkheimer, 1979: 65)
The self has no systematic instrumental capability. This undermines the
possibility of procuring self-preservation in the sense of survival. The physi-
cal death of the biological self then becomes inevitable.
We can see Adornos image of the nal stage of the destruction of instru-
mental knowledge reected in contemporary debates about knowledge.
According to certain views, texts, theories, systems, concepts are decon-
structed into disconnected fragments which are then themselves dissolved.
The notion of what counts as the structure of knowledge namely, the sys-
tematic (unitary and linear) nature of thought is undermined. Empirical
experience, facts, ideas, can no longer be related to each other in any sys-
tematic way. Moreover, the notion of what counts as the content of know-
ledge itself is revealed to have no actual reality or validity. Thus the ability
of the ego to have any rational capacity is itself undermined. Just as Odysseus
called himself Nobody, the modern subject dismantles his or her knowledge
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as ction or nothing. Derrida claims that In a certain sense, thought
means nothing.
Adorno calls this the linguistic adaptation to death
(Adorno and Horkheimer, 1979: 60). It represents, for Adorno, the end of
any capacity for an instrumental knowledge of the world and so of control
and therefore survival.
1 I would like to thank Susan James, Michael Rosen, Bernard Berofsky, Irving
Velody and the anonymous readers advising on behalf of History of the Human
Sciences for their valuable comments.
2 In this paper I discuss Adornos thought although the Dialectic of Enlightenment
is, of course, written by Adorno and Horkheimer. For an excellent depiction of
some of the distinctions between these two authors see Mitchell and Rosen (1983:
3 Many secondary sources tend to view the Dialectic of Enlightenment as a critical
theory, within which they acknowledge, but do not explore, the psychoanalytic
and epistemological aspects of the text see, for instance, Benhabib, 1986;
Habermas, 1982; Jay, 1973. One exception to this is Alford (1988), who explores
the relationship between the Frankfurt School in general and psychoanalysis.
4 Henceforth denoted by the use of the lower case.
5 Culture in Adorno refers to certain realms in human society, those of knowledge,
subjectivity, aesthetics and certain social phenomena.
6 I am not, of course, implying that Adorno invented this term himself.
7 Adorno uses the terms enlightenment culture, the enlightenment and en-
lightenment interchangeably.
8 Adornos epistemological critique of enlightenment encompasses ideas about
knowledge, reason, thought and cognition. I use the term knowledge acqui-
sition to encompass this broad grouping.
9 Adorno often discusses the notion of identity interchangeably with the notion
of sense of self. It should be noted that in general the notion of identity envelops
many further concepts than sense of self.
10 Unpleasure is Freuds own term for the opposite of pleasure (Freud, 1911: 37).
11 Freud rst mentions these categories in Formulations on the Two Principles of
Mental Functioning (1911: 345) although his full exposition is given in The Ego
and the Id (1923: 357408).
12 External reality refers to objects in the world including other people, etc. The
term illusion will be dened on pp. 412.
13 I do illustrate these through examples from periods of the 20th century; for
instance, Nazism and Adornos contemporary American culture.
14 Imagination is used here in the ordinary sense of the word.
15 Also cited on page 45.
16 My emphasis.
17 The subject, for Adorno, is always the historically situated self.
18 In this way, Adorno argues, illusions become actual delusions. Note that the
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concept delusion will be used throughout the text to refer to the notion that an
idea, a belief, or a statement is mistaken about its own nature or validity.
19 In the lm industry, for instance, we have a growth in the technological systems
of communication, administration, production and distribution. See Adorno and
Horkheimer, 1979: 12068.
20 Adorno and Horkheimer claim industrial societies consist of impoverished enter-
tainment on the one hand and sophisticated technology on the other (1979:
21 Adorno does not always regard this kind of pleasure as intrinsically regressive.
22 By reaction Adorno means a critical reaction.
23 The subject although declining in his sense of self is, however, a subject in the
sense that he typies the subjectivity of his time.
24 See also Adorno and Horkheimer, 1979: 325.
25 See Adorno and Horkheimer, 1979: 868, 89.
26 My emphasis.
27 This is, of course, a serious departure from Freud. A Freudian analysis would see
the id-drives as repressed and as a result becoming increasingly perverted. This
would then be an explanation of violence. Adorno straddles this more conventional
view and a view where he regards the id-drives as dying out such that the ego-drives
become responsible for the violence.
28 The incident actually illustrates features from the third, as well as the fourth, stage.
29 And thus as an object for anothers physical self-gratication.
30 My emphasis.
31 See, for instance, Cadava et al., 1991, or Lacan, 1966.
32 Derrida expresses it: thought becomes mere tautology (1974); see also Lyotard,
33 See Note 32.
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Cadava, E. et al., (1991) Who Comes after the Subject? London: Routledge.
Derrida, J. (1974) Of Grammatology, trans. G. C. Spivak. Baltimore, MD: Johns
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Freud, S. (1911) Formulations on the Two Principles of Mental Functioning, in
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Freud, S. (1914) On Narcissism: an Introduction, in Freud, 197386: Vol. 11.
Freud, S. (1915a) The Unconscious, in Freud, 197386: Vol. 11.
Freud, S. (1915b) Drives and Their Vicissitudes, in Freud, 197386: Vol. 11.
Freud, S. (1923) The Ego and the Id, in Freud, 197386: Vol. 11.
Freud, S. (1930) Civilisation and Its Discontents, in Freud, 197386: Vol. 12.
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Habermas, J. (1982) The Entwinement of Myth and Enlightenment: Re-reading the
Dialectic of Enlightenment, New German Critique, 26 (Spring/Summer).
Jay, M. (1973) The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the
Institute of Social Research, 19231950. Boston, MA: Little, Brown.
Lacan, J. (1966) Ecrits. Paris: Editions du Seuil.
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Conceptions of the Philosophers Task. London: Athlone Press.
YVONNE SHERRATT has a doctorate in Philosophy from Kings College, Cam-
bridge. She is currently Research Fellow in Philosophy (and Intellectual
History) at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Previous research has been
published in Philosophy and Social Criticism, International Philosophical
Quarterly and the Times Literary Supplement. A book on Adornos Positive
Dialectic is being prepared for publication.
Address: Corpus Christi College, University of Cambridge, Cambridge CB2
1RH, UK.
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