Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Practice of Disenchantment

Adorno and Nietzsche have in common their defense of the idea of "progress," and they even have in common that by "progress" they mean "the establishment of humanity" (Adorno, History and Freedom 146; see also Negative Dialectics)--although they intend different things in turn by that. Whatever it means to you, however, you can be encouraged by their insistence that the existence of progress is an empirical question that isn't decided until existence has stopped existing. The primary basis for hope, in their analyses, is the evidence history presents that relatively few human beings, up to this point, have ever gone so far toward progress as actually to try to bring it about, whether as extension of justice or as attempt to think clearly. Their evidence of that, in turn, is modern philosophy's stress on the futility of such efforts, the anxiousness of supposedly progressive scholars to repeat, as if it were itself one of the skeptical principles of enlightenment, that the world can't be disenchanted, that it's impossible for thinkers to "live" their thought consistently. "The greatest believers may finally avail themselves of the logic of the greatest unbelievers to create for themselves a right to affirm certain things as irrefutable--namely, as beyond the means of all refutation" (Will to Power §251). In response, Nietzsche likes to turn at key moments to the directive plural: let us try, let us start, let us undertake, let us see whether, "Let us guard against thinking out and prescribing the mode of thought necessary to lesser men" (WP §595), "Let us get rid of a few superstitions" (WP §406):

These are the demands I make upon you--however ill they may sound to you: that you should undertake a critique of the moral evaluations themselves. That you should call a halt to the moral impulse, which here demands submission and not a critique, with the question: "why submission?" That you should regard this demand for a "wherefore?," for a critique of morality, as precisely your form of morality, as the sublimest form of morality, which does honor to you and to your age. That our honesty, that our will not to deceive ourselves, must prove itself: why not? (WP §399)

It can take a long time for self-deceptions to wear away, but it's possible for them to wear away (there are examples), and it's also possible to help them along. Adorno understands ideology differently than Nietzsche since he takes more seriously that social institutions and practices condition perceptions. Yet the question of self-deception still has a role to play in Adorno's or anyone's thinking about dialectics. It remains relevant whether one believes, partly self-deceptively, in the reality of institutions and practices in the first place, so that the question comes back of how many people have tried seriously to look at those things differently--in other words, tried to have different experiences of those things than the ones they are told they can have. For "tried" we can even substitute "noticed": how many people notice the significance of it when their experience of a "reality" fails to correspond to the one that they know everyone must have?

I've been trying for years to find again a brief article in the New York Times science pages that I read several years ago, and no key word searches of the New York Times archive turn it up. But it was one of those little reflections on a natural phenomenon offered by their staff science writers such as Henry Fountain. Complementary to noticing the unaccounted nature of an experience after the fact, the article illustrated a "top-down" approach. The author reflected on the complaint often registered that contemporary scientific theory doesn't have any impact on experience anymore, since the principles are too refined to correspond to any everyday level. (We might even think about whether it makes a difference to us to know that the earth goes around the sun; we still use words like "sunrise.") He took the example of an astronomical principle I don't remember--suppose that it was about knowing that something that appears a certain way in the sky to the naked eye isn't really as it appears. The author suggested that this knowledge could register on experience, only it took some practice to make it register. You'd have to go out at a certain time of night, and look at the constellation in a certain way; you'd have to know how to locate first one star and then another, and how to go through a procedure for using available pieces of empirical evidence to demonstrate the principle to oneself, hence connecting the two functionally and seeing--literally--the concrete correlatives of the principle as the concrete correlatives of the principle. And best of all, the author reflected that, after knowing how to do this, the stars themselves were different intuitively; his qualitative experience of the sky was changed. This example isn't just a matter of seeing things however you want. It resembles a kind of gestalt, but it isn't merely that; it relies on guidelines that have a hardcore lawful truth, and uses those to cause a phenomenological shift. By doing that, the experience reveals the previous phenomenology's dependence on other circumstances. There is no science of psychology yet, no information about how ideological effects are connected to our perception through a common reality on which they must rely. But that they are so connected, we do know, and that's why Adorno and Nietzsche continue to insist that terms like "reality" and "truth" are relevant--relevant as instruments of "progress"-- even as they remain critical of everything that has been achieved in their name up to the moment. Anyone who wants to say that progress isn't possible should have to show evidence of any prevalent history of the practice of disenchantment, that is, the attempt to live it.

Image: ZwCl0024+1652; Davide De Martin (ESA/Hubble), the ESA/ESO/NASA Photoshop FITS Liberator & Digitized Sky Survey 2

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