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Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer's Dialectic of Enlightenment.

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Introduction

In 1947, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer produced, in collaboration, a piercing criticism of Modernity in their Dialectic of Enlightenment. Due to a low initial print run as well as not being translated into any language from its native German, Dialectic coursed through the literary underground - primarily in Germany - and promptly faded into obscurity. Much of its initial reception owed itself, in part, to the unrepentant Marxist rhetoric espoused by Adorno and Horkheimer. Another factor (growing, admittedly, out of the authors' Marxist leanings) springs from the sentiment that the West and - specifically - America had descended into barbarism. In other words, Modernity, which grew out of the tenets of the Enlightenment, had, instead of furthering those ideals, reverted to a stage not unlike that preceding the Enlightenment, an intellectual dark ages. In particular, their skewering of Hollywood, a place that, at the time of the original publication of Dialectic, was in the beginning stages of the Red Scare, serves only to alienate Dialectic from a widespread Western readership. Finally, in the 1970's, Dialectic was translated into English, and while not released to any greater fanfare, it did reach a larger readership. When discussing the reception history and, inescapably, the controversy surrounding this piece of literary criticism, the focus lies mostly on the years following its English release. ...read more.

Middle

As such, virtually no scholarly work concerning Dialectic was done prior to its English translation. A source of even greater fascination lies in the years following its release in the West. Though now approachable by a vastly larger readership, Dialectic remained a work primarily addressed in Marxists texts until finally, in the mid-90's, studies of the work and of the Frankfurt school (to which Horkheimer and Adorno belonged) began to appear. Adorno's studies were focused upon in such journals as Utopian Studies, a journal concerning itself with the study of the theories of utopianism; Philosophy, a self-explanatory title for a journal in the field that has studied Adorno the most; and, in New German Critique, a publication dealing with issues of German Studies, from social and political theory to "discussing philosophy, literature, and films in the light of current theoretical debates." (New German Critique, 12). Finally, nearly half a century after its release Adorno, Horkheimer, and Dialectic were beginning to receive true attention. After almost fifty years, a more typical map of criticism appears. Proponents applaud Dialectic's skewering of the West and, in particular, the culture industry mentality that, like a shark trolling its entire life, never stops its forward momentum in looking for the next easily packaged, palatable artistic expression. ...read more.

Conclusion

Finally, it seems that Dialectic of Enlightenment's reception history is ongoing. Because of the large gap in its original publication and its translation into English, the work is effectively, not even thirty years old. To this end, the academic community remains largely focused on the overbearing Marxism present in this work. While a legitimate concern (does the political overtone truly hinder any theory presented?), most academic works addressing Dialectic remain preoccupied with its politics rather than its claims. Again, it is a worthy question to ask whether or not the reader can separate the theoretical from the political, but this being a question does not excuse the scholar from approaching the work at an entirely politically secular perspective. Because of this difficulty in separating the wheat from chaff, Adorno - more so than Horkheimer - remains unapproachable, and so, too, does Dialectic of Enlightenment. Any work must be read to a greater degree to be truly debated, and, if this task of separation remains so daunting, a fascinating study of Modernity will remain an untapped source. In closing, and in answer to this concept of the difficulty in reading this work, I leave you with a quote by Evelyn Wilcock, "It is said that Adorno did not intend access to his books to be easy. But neither surely would he have preferred to remain unread," (187). Phillip Underwood Adorno and Horkheimer's Dialectic of Enlightenment Literary Criticism Dr. Watson 9/16/04 ...read more.

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