Dialectic of Enlightenment by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer is a foundational text of Critical Theory, the use of the social sciences to critique the oppressive structures and systems of contemporary society. It's also a tough read, despite its relatively short length (258 pages in my Verso edition), but, in my view, one that is ultimately worthwhile.
In nuce, Adorno and Horkheimer sought to critique Enlightenment thought, a rationalising and quantifying outlook that seeks to dominate the earth through the use of science and technology. Far from escaping the superstitions of pre-modern myth, enlightenment thought, as an outlook that includes, but goes beyond, the historical movement of the 18th century, is a continuation of myth insofar as myth also sought to dominate the world and societies, although by prescribing unquestionable values and hierarchies rooted in a supposedly natural or divine order. Fascism, then, is the logical product of Enlightenment, and not its negation.
It's a pretty sweeping project that leaves little of modern civilization uncriticised. Adorno and Horkheimer give no indication about what can or should be done, perhaps because Leftist projects, too, are themselves products of Enlightenment thought and method. Some would echo the sentiments of the late ex-Marxist Leszek Kolakowski, who, after generally lambasting the text for equating enlightenment with anything the authors didn't like, opined that the book's 'final response to the human condition can only be an inarticulate cry' (Main Currents of Marxism 3. The Breakdown, OUP, p.380).
To many Christians today Critical Theory in general is an object of immense suspicion, as that which apparently seeks to overthrow the Christian family and societal order. But even apart from the fact that Adorno's own views on the family were not as negative as some are led to believe, I think there is something of value to be found in his broader project, as bracing as it is. For the Bible itself presents a thoroughly pessimistic verdict on the wisdom of the world.
18 Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” 20 and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” (1 Cor 3:18-20)In fact, the entire sweep of 1 Cor 1-3 gives us a masterclass in the critical demolition of worldly wisdom, identifying such a radical project as a key reason for the crucified form that God's salvation has taken in order to shame and bring to nothing the worldly-wise and strong.
What has been interesting reading Adorno over the last five or six years and comparing his writing on aesthetics and culture to Francis Schaeffer is I find it's as if the Frankfurt school forerunners of what evangelicals call "cultural Marxism" had a parallel and ostensibly opposed development in the post-Van Til/Francis Schaeffer "worldview" approach to arts and cultural criticism. To keep things simple for the sake of a weekend post, whatever cultural Marxism is, it is a kind of pejoratively defined secular-left variation on a project that evangelical/conservative Protestants (and ... some Catholics, to be sure) have attempted to formulate in the last fifty years. The antagonism toward the perceived triumph of "cultural Marxism" in the academy may be as simple as the sourest of sour grapes on the part of Christian scholars often in the Reformed or neo-Reformed traditions who, hoping to have "gotten there first" can only discover that the Marxist-Leninists got there generations ago, did a better job at it, and have even, particularly in the work of Adorno, formulated arguments regarding form and aesthetics in music that have been, at best, merely echoed or mirrored sans Marxism by philosophers such as Roger Scruton.
Of course I've compared Francis Schaeffer's criticism and Maoist criticisms of John Cage in the past to show how basically congruent they are. It may have been that in the midst of the Cold War Marxist and anti-Marxist polemicists were not going to quickly realize how much they had in common against John Cage. That Scruton's arguments against Stockhausen and Cage were basically the same as, and not even as vitriolic as, those made by Adorno is also something I've written about in the past. Scruton's final innovation in contrast to Adorno was to say we should take popular song seriously as an art form, even if Scruton never got around to exploring ways in which the materials of popular song could be transformed into larger-scale approaches to form. Critical Theory scholars have understandably been squeamish about Adorno's vitriolic rants against jazz and while Eric Oberle's new book Theodor Adorno and the Century of Negative Identity is a fascinating read, all of the discussion of negative identity compared to positive identity and stereotypology will not, at least not right away, provide musicians a practical approach to establishing a musical path that demonstrates why Adorno was so obviously wrong in his overall take on jazz as musical art.
But ... Adorno did something from his Marxist-Leninist perspective that conservatives and reactionaries were basically not doing. What he did was formulate a formal and aesthetic reason why popular songs failed to qualify as art and formulated an argument that included what he regarded as light classical music, too. Conservative arguments against jazz as art tended to reflexively fall back on assertions about cultural barbarism that were not even really concealed racist dog whistles. Yet because Adorno infamously claimed that there was no evidence there was anything legitimately African or African American in the jazz he heard in "On Jazz", his earliest and most vitriolic rant against jazz, Scruton could pass off Adorno's rejection of jazz as predicated on a rejection of popular styles without necessarily connecting the dots of Adorno's condemnation of the fascist tendencies he perceived in Stravinsky's music in connection to Stravinsky's publicly avowed sympathy for fascism. But Adorno was probably right to insist that a generic liberalism would be insufficient to address the arguments against new music (a la Stockhausen or Cage) on the basis of aesthetic and formal objections. For that matter even a composer as radical as Iannis Xenakis could more or less make a comparable argument to Adorno that aleatory and integral serialism removed decision-making power from the composer to such a degree that the idea of a composer getting any credit for the finished result seemed dubious.
To compare all of this to Francis Schaeffer being filmed listening to Mahler and more or less signalling with his face "yuck!" is to highlight that there are a whole lot of reasons conservative Protestants and Catholics more or less completely failed to develop their would be counter to what some of them now regard as "cultural Marxism". Perhaps we could consider the possibility that by the time evangelicals began to take seriously that some kind of Christian critical theory equivalent should be developed Critical Theory was already born and here we are generations later and the game of catch up does not seem to have produced much of anything by way of a philosophy of aesthetics beyond, well, Roger Scruton ... and his avid Wagnerian take on the arts probably would not pass muster with any of the Reformed or neo-Reformed who couldn't realistically take on board Scruton's quasi-sacramentalist view of the arts.