Enlightenment Ideology

Note 2: Adorno and Horkheimer: Dialectic of Enlightenment. 5/3/99

A fundamental distinction can, and should, be drawn between the science of paleontology and the social science of anthropology. The distinction rests on the fact that the science has developed a perception of the archeo-history of human reality, based on the study of fossilized bones and the artifacts associated with them (stone tools for instance), that is often times radically opposed to the more clouded view of human origins and development that is favored by the anthro(a)pologists. To say that the two opposing views of (wo)man have nothing whatsoever in common, while in some ways an exaggeration of obvious fact, nevertheless makes a necessary and useful point that it is sometimes difficult to see how the two methods of study are actually concerned with the same set of circumstances in describing the early life and times of our human ancestors. Comprehending why these two branches of academic inquiry into human nature have taken on this curious split in the way (wo)man is perceived, when one would expect a consensus instead, since both claim essentially the same ground of study, is a pursuit that rightly and inevitably falls into, if not under, the purview of issues related to the evaluation of types and forms of ideological discourse. Before those issues are raised, however, it might be best to illustrate as clearly as possible what the difference between these two branches of study seems to be.

Adorno and Horkheimer, in their study of Enlightenment philosophy (Dialectic of Enlightenment), a period of Eurocentric philosophical discourse in which science was advanced over religion as a preferred method of inquiry into the natural world, on the one hand, and in which the sciences of paleontology and anthro(a)pology emerged, on the other, make the following assertion about the existence of human cannibalism among "primitive," and therefore, tribal people:

"When the systematized hunt began to provide the tribe with enough animals to make the consumption of one's fellow tribesmen superfluous, the enlightened hunters and trappers must have been confused by the medicine man's command to surrender themselves as food." (52)

The most obvious flaw in this assertion concerns the notion that tribal people existed historically, in actual time as it were, in a state wherein they had not yet managed to create "systematized" methods of hunting and were, as a consequence, forced to eat their "fellow tribesmen" to sustain their lives. Paleontology teaches us that proto-human communities, whether actually tribal or not at such early stages of (wo)man's development, had already mastered the art of hunting, if only as scavengers, to sustain themselves as well as any other kind of animal could and did on the savannahs of East Africa. What Adorno and Horkheimer suggest here is that early man, unlike every other kind of animal in existence, had to endure a long period of his/her own real and "historical" development without benefit of knowing how to feed him/herself, an idea in itself which means that the species could not possibly have survived at all, before he/she reached a stage in evolution where he/she became intelligent enough(?) to provide food for his/her own community without recourse to cannibalism. Furthermore, why would anyone assume, at the same time, that hunting other people for food is somehow easier and less complicated than hunting other kinds of animals would be?

Adorno and Horkheimer seem to anticipate this objection by claiming that tribal people are more willing to become dinner than they are to become hunters, apparently, because after they become "enlightened hunters and trappers" they are surprised by the "medicine man's command to surrender themselves as food." After tribal and native American laughter dies (generated by the pure absurdity of this ridiculous claim), one is left with the necessity of confronting the inescapable realization that Adorno and Horkheimer are actually serious about putting this idea forward as a way of justifying and authenticating the distinction Marx and Engels made between stages in human development, from the lowest stage of barbarism and savagery in tribal and communally oriented societies to the highest stage in ego-centric, capitalist monotheism, which must be made and sustained if there is to be any hope of validating the concepts of social Darwinism and historical determinism upon which so much of Marxian theory depends. One can see why Adorno and Horkheimer have chosen to pursue concepts that are clearly unsupportable from any lesson taught by paleontological data, since preserving the idea that tribal people were cannibals sustains the ground of the lowest stage of human development; but doing that does not explain where such ideas came from originally or why such obvious absurdities pass for valid in the first place.

The issue at stake here is essentially religious in nature, an assertion that seems to run counter to the spirit of the Enlightenment, in as much as it tends to contradict the effort made by Enlightenment philosophers to advance science over religion, but the fact that the origins of anthro(a)pology are so closely bound up with the activities of Christian missionaries, who were often the first white people to encounter members of tribal society, clearly anticipates the primary reason for the split that has come to exist in the way that scientists (practicing paleontologists) perceive a different reality about the nature of tribal people than the one that is embraced by social scientists who are drawn to the study of human reality through the discipline of the anthro(a)pologist. In the statement cited above, from Adorno and Horkheimer, for instance, one way that the scenario described there can be justified is to introduce the notion of (wo)man's expulsion from the Garden of Eden by God after Adam and Eve committed the original sin. In that version of creationism, of course, (wo)man did not know how to hunt because every need human beings experienced while safely enclosed in the perfect realm of the Garden was satisfied without toil, labor, or knowledge of how to acquire anything for oneself. When (wo)man was expelled from the Garden, she/he had to learn how to fend for her/himself without the direct assistance of God. In other words, the anthro(a)pologists' version of human origins and development always already privileges the religious myth over the facts that contradict it which paleontology has consistently uncovered in the fossil record.

Adorno and Horkheimer do not explicitly refer to the Myth of Eden in their discourse in this context but it seems obvious enough that only such a myth could stand on the ground of the idea that (wo)man was forced to learn how to hunt "systematically" in order to produce enough food to escape from the necessity of cannibalizing her/his own offspring ("fellow tribesmen"). The real point that can be made here is that (wo)man "learned" how to hunt many thousands of years, even well before the species had reached the physical level characterized by homo sapiens attributes, well before the proto-human can be called human at all, and certainly well before any signs of actual tribal behavior had appeared in the structure of associations that characterize human community. The idea that homo habilus had diversified its forms of labor and modes of production to the point where there were "medicine men" among them who could command one of their kind to give him/herself up for food is purely ridiculous. Since this is the case, one is left in the uncomfortable position of arguing that (wo)man somehow lost the ability to hunt systematically even as she/he made the significant leap forward from proto-human to homo sapiens, a idea that simply does not have any sensible ground at all, or only has one if you are willing to accept the notion that (wo)man was diverted through a perfect Garden where she/he was briefly immortal and did not have to work for a living. A magical intervention by God in the otherwise natural progression from proto-human to modern (wo)man is the only way this complex of ideas can be made to work.

From a purely native American point of view, put simply, the role of the medicine man in tribal society was to find means and methods of insuring the health of the people in his/her tribe, where the shaman was likely to be involved in helping the hunters find suitable sources of food. In my experience, and to my knowledge, neither of these individuals ever told a "fellow tribesmen" that his/her day to be dinner had arrived. In fact, if anyone had suggested an idea like that in a tribal council, he/she would have been driven to the ends of the earth and left to dwell in a perfect state of total and absolute solitude which such an attitude toward the other deserves.

Put in another context, only a European could come up with an idea like that and the purpose it has always already served is to maintain the radical ideological distinction between the same and the other that Eurocentric discourse has always employed to justify its own superiority over the people it systematically hunts down and annihilates in order to appropriate whatever value it perceives as being lodged in the control of the other. In Eurocentric terms it is always easier to murder a cannibal than it is to do without what you perceive as a desirable commodity in the hands of the ones you hunt. Adorno and Horkheimer seem only too willing to accept a ludicrous argument perpetuated by Christian missionary anthro(a)pologists, even as they claim to be scientific, since the paleontological view tends to undermine the notion that tribal people are inferior savages and cannibalistic monsters in the mix when compared to their superior whiteman masters. To say that their position here supports an ideological agenda is to say nothing new or unexpected at all.

To return to Index click X in the Upper right-hand corner of the page.

To view the Myth of Eden Index click here.