How do survivors react to an earthquake? Fortunately, I do not have first-hand phenomenological experience of such events, so I can only guess. The readings from this past week gave me a good opportunity to do just that, for they mercilessly shook and squeezed out the trust that I so routinely assign to the concepts under discussion. This is how, all of a sudden, “reason,” “culture,” “progress,” and “enlightenment” ceased to be “safe space(s).” In reading Adorno and Horkheimer’s reflections on “the concept of enlightenment” while pondering whether there is any grain of truth in the idea that Sade’s orgies are indeed the “logical” outcome of pushing “the scientific principle to annihilating extremes,” I could not help but feel metaphorically de-centered. And the feeling was only worsened by the fact that Adorno and Horkheimer spaced their disturbing critiques with sound observations: “Reason is the organ of calculation, of planning; it is neutral with regard to ends; its element is coordination”. Such statements seem so obvious that they should go without saying, but in the context of the conversation that these Frankfurt School philosophers are proposing, their utterance serves a calculated purpose: to show us that reason, by itself, cannot warrant moral infallibility, as reason is not the end of the road. In fact, it is not even a point on the road! Rather, it is simply an accessory, a kind of compass one could use to move around.
And while we are discussing the possibility of “moving around,” what about progress? Is progress — understood as a synonym of development or social evolution — possible? According to Amy Allen’s piece, “Critical Theory and the Idea of Progress,” it all depends on whether we think of progress as an under-construction (and “contextualist”) looking-forward enterprise, or whether we ground our future expectations concerning what would count as progress in the assumption that progress is a historical fact. Adopting the latter attitude toward progress is problematic because it entails condoning all the forms of injustice that underpinned the realization of “progress” as we know it. In doing this, we tacitly assent to the platitude that “the end justifies the means.” To be honest, Allen’s insights did not have the same quivering effect on me than the critique of enlightenment had, for this idea of problematizing progress in order to unpack and expose its “blind spots” was not itself unfamiliar to me.
Finally, on taking some distance from the readings while enjoying the peace that followed the storm brought about by this week’s assigned texts, the contour of future questions started to manifest themselves: can we reconcile the idea of progress and myth? If, as Adorno and Horkheimer claim, “Myth is already enlightenment, and enlightenment reverts to mythology,” should we not infer that all accounts of progress always convey a certain mythical component? And, if one were to accept this possibility, is one to assume that engaging genealogy — as proposed by Allen — in opening a constructive space for un-learning all the givens that were surreptitiously injected into the version of history fed to us over time, will reveal itself to be the ultimate antidote against the dangerous liaisons of reason and myth that we have experienced so far?
We can only hope. But if there is one thing that I am certain of, it is that the conversation pertaining to the perception of the self in relation to “others” is in urgent need of a tectonic shift, one that allows for a new intimacy of consciousness that does not simply accept the topography of readings that have been bequeathed to us. I guess one could argue that such a shift in itself entails a new type of enlightenment, a new tracing of ethically-grounded-and-rationally-oriented trajectories that could assist us in our journey toward what lies ahead. The advantage is that now we know that the demystification of moving forward always entails a certain thinking against oneself, while opposing the infinite traces of history that form our self as we know it. In a way that is what a real enlightenment may be about.