Enlightenment Ideology

Note 6: Fear and Loathing on the Sacred Mountain. 6/14/99

Marxism prides itself on being able to see through the false consciousness of capitalist ideology, the ideology of a Christian bourgeois society, for instance, even as it was (dis)mantled, (under)mined, and (re)invented by the discourse of eighteenth century Enlightenment philosophy. Adorno and Horkheimer, in Dialectic of Enlightenment, argue that the demystification of nature by scientific methodology and analysis had only a single aim: "What men want to learn from nature is how to use it in order wholly to dominate it and other men" (4). They attribute this impulse to Enlightenment philosophy and go on to explain that "[t]he disenchantment of the world is the extirpation of animism" (5), an idea they trace back as far as Xenophanes, who, they claim

"derides the multitude of deities because they are but replicas of the men who produced them, together with all that is contingent and evil in mankind; and the most recent school of logic denounces--for the impressions they bear--the words of language, holding them to be false coins better replaced by neutral counters. The world becomes chaos, and synthesis salvation. There is said to be no difference between the totemic animal, the dreams of the ghost-seer, and the absolute Idea." (5)

Whether this is a fair and reasonable assessment of the direction taken by scientism and Enlightenment philosophy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and into the modern and postmodern era, is a question that holds little interest for me in the context of the current inquiry into the nature of the relationship that has always existed between Eurocentric and animistic belief systems in general. If one later or recent Eurocentric position (mis)characterizes the nature of another, earlier conceptualization of reality, then I have no particular interest in correcting whatever error someone else might see or find in the critique offered up by the second position of the first. The point to be made here is not whether science in the hands of Enlightenment thinkers was directed at the absolute domination of nature for the sake of one class over another, but rather to determine whether Adorno's and Horkheimer's perception of animism, as the Enlightenment's target, bears any resemblance to what animism actually is or says about the nature of reality and (wo)man's essential place in it. It is one thing, after all, to target animistic theory as a cause for Eurocentric cultural backwardness in the face of its development and realization in bourgeois society when it might be more, or just as, appropriate to single out Christian theology for the object of that critique. What Adorno and Horkheimer seem to do most consistently is to combine those two distinct ideologies under a single banner and (dis)mantle the one under the name of the other.

This becomes obvious, of course, in the very first words out of their collective mouth when they assert that Xenophanes was engaged in "the disenchantment of the world" by his act of deriding "the multitude of deities" that comprised the animistic world view. Put simply, one can hardly extirpate animism by deriding a "multitude of deities" because animism has nothing whatsoever to do with any notion or conceptualization of God or gods at all. Animism is about spirit not about god. Adorno and Horkheimer continue their assault on "animistic" elements in Eurocentric culture by asserting that Enlightenment philosophers tended to reject "Platonic and Aristotelian aspects of metaphysics" that were tied to the idea that "truth is predictable of universals," because they saw in that idea the "old powers" of an "authority" clinging to the

"still discernible fear of the demonic spirits which men sought to portray in magic rituals, hoping thus to influence nature. From now on, matter would at least be mastered without any illusion of ruling or inherent powers, of hidden qualities." (6)

They go on to argue that

"Enlightenment has always taken the basic principle of myth to be anthropo- morphism, the projection onto nature of the subjective. In this view, the supernatural, spirits and demons, are mirror images of men who allow themselves to be frightened by natural phenomena." (6)

The problem with these characterizations is not that they (mis)represent what most Greek philosophers and Christian theologians believed about the nature of reality but that they have nothing to say about concepts common to animistic thought or belief. Two things are wrong with claiming these ideas have anything to do with animism. In the first place, native Americans (and other animistic people) do not generalize about the nature of spirit by turning them into anthropomorphic projections of their own subjectivity. Even in the case of ancestral spirits, who do reflect a basic human reality, the spirit is profoundly not the same as self but "represents" the other, one's grandfather or grandmother say, or someone known to have lived his/her life in the past. There is never any confusion about this because the ancestor, by definition, is someone other than the self who seeks him/her out. With respect to other kinds of spirits, animal or plant or other kinds of natural power, no animist ever confuses them for or with human beings or with qualities that human beings possess. Take as example the mask and costume some shamans wear during ritual performances: the purpose of those props is to make it absolutely clear to the audience that the spirit being portrayed is not-human but is as profoundly other than human as anything in the world can be. One sees, not the human performer underneath the mask, but the buffalo spirit that is revealed by and in it.

Europeans always fail to get this distinction because they assume that god(s) and spirit are one and the same thing, which brings me to the second point of the distinction between Greek and Christian perceptions of reality and purely native American or animistic ones. In short, one cannot anthropomorphize spirit but cannot do anything else with or to deity. Because the supernatural does not exist in and of itself in any manifestation that can be seen or apprehended by human beings, God is not only invisible but also supremely unknowable after all, it must be invented and filled, like any other empty signifier, with qualities that are derived from something and from somewhere. Animistic people do not invent the qualities of spirit because buffalo exists and provides the qualities which constitute its spirit. Animistic people know spirit from observation. Europeans know God by virtue of the qualities they have projected on to Him from their own lack of being what is supernatural to them. This is precisely the way Descartes proves the existence of God in the Method: by arguing that he cannot know perfection, because he is humanly flawed, and therefore must have gotten the idea of it from a Perfect Being who is not flawed. Hence, God must exist because poor little pitiful Rene could not give himself credit for his own delusional thinking.

The possibility that Descartes' argument about the existence of God, if it is to be taken as part of an essentialistic Enlightenment ideology, originated, not from traditionalist Christian theology, but rather from some throwback to an animistic philosophy that had little or no ground in his contemporary Eurocentric milieu, makes almost no sense at all unless Adorno and Horkheimer are attacking Christian ideology under the false identity of animism in order to reject some aspects of the Christian myth, like (wo)man's persistent and overwhelming fear of the gods they call spirits, for instance, as being aspects of false ideological consciousness and useless as well because they are concepts Marx and Engels identified as belonging to "primitive communism," while retaining other aspects of the ideology, like a persistent belief in hierarchical structures as a way of ordering human society in some inevitable and necessary context of cause and effect, because that idea is both useful and indispensable to Marxian ideological goals and aspirations. Animism, especially when it is completely (mis)construed, is an easier target to hit and kill than orthodox Christianity is. Arguing against the absurdity of so-called animistic beliefs, especially the false notion that animists are afraid of spirits and approach them with the intent of using magic formulas, chants, and incantations in order to subdue and control them, and hence to subdue and control the natural forces that are "caused" by spirits, draws considerably less opposition from Eurocentric thinkers than would the same kind of argument turned toward the way Christians perceive and worship God as a supreme architect and controlling force behind those same natural forces.

The point here is that good Christians and true can always be found praying to God to preserve themselves from this or that natural disaster: flood, fire, famine, pestilence; but, no one will ever find an animistic person, unless he/she has been taught or coerced by Christians to do so, asking a spirit to stop being what it is. This is true and inescapable for the simple reason that Christians are the ones who claim that God, as supreme Creator of universal reality, gave them the right and the duty to exercise control and domination over nature and all natural forces. This aspect of the Myth of Eden, unless it is explicitly renounced by a theorist, can almost be assumed to exist in his/her thought whenever he/she turns to the subject of (wo)man's power to control and dominate nature. Adorno and Horkheimer do exactly this when they make the claim that animistic people attempt to use magic to influence nature when, in fact, only Eurocentric Christians and Marxists believe that such control is possible; Christians through prayer or the intervention of God's benevolent will, and Marxists through the proper application of scientific principles to the means and modes of industrial production. Animistic people, on the other hand, have never expressed the notion that they have been destined to exercise any kind of control or dominion over nature at all.

Arguing that animistic people are afraid of spirit, especially when the person doing so uses the word "God" interchangeably with the word "spirit," always already indicates that the person is confusing animism with a Eurocentric belief in God. Being fearful of the Supernatural is probably a perfectly logical response to an entity that can uncreate as easily as It can create, and Who promises repeatedly in various scriptural contexts to do precisely that if (wo)man does not amend her/his sinful ways. For animistic people, however, since spirit does not create or uncreate anything at all, and has no capacity of judgment, there is little or no probable ground for being afraid of it. Furthermore, since control over nature and natural force is an idea strictly confined and limited to Eurocentric ideologies, and one that has never appeared in native American philosophy in any form whatsoever, the claim that animistic people are prone to efforts or attempts to control nature is purely a fabrication of individuals who have no clear perception of animistic belief apart from the projections that Western culture has always served up as definitions of it.

In terms of whether the notion of human dominion over nature was an Enlightenment ideology or not; I have always liked John Milton's assessment of it in Book 4 of Paradise Lost, when Adam is found explaining to Eve what God has told them about the nature of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. He notes that

"God hath pronounc't it death to taste that Tree,

The only sign of our obedience left

Among so many signes of power and rule

Conferrd upon us, and Dominion giv'n

Over all other Creatures that possesse

Earth, Aire, and Sea."

Precisely how Milton came up with this notion of (wo)man's duty to exercise her/his dominion over nature, if that idea only came into play during the Enlightenment, is a question neither Adorno nor Horkheimer can answer. Given Milton's knowledge of early scientific ideology, perhaps one can simply backdate the emergence of the ideology of the Enlightenment to include Milton as well. One must recognize, however, that Milton was a Christian ideologue, chief spokesman for the Puritan revolution in England that saw a king beheaded (Charles I) and then restored (Charles II) when the hero of the revolution died (Cromwell), and nothing like a philosopher of any kind of enlightenment theory at all. What is most striking to me in Adorno and Horkheimer is the tendency they exhibit to look the other way when issues dear to the hearts of good Christians and true, like (wo)man's God-ordained right to dominate nature, surface in Eurocentric discourse. Blaming animism, and its "dreams of the ghost-seer," for an ideology that is so clearly Christian in its origin, and not animistic at all, where the concept of seeing ghosts is supposed to represent what animistic people practice in vision quest, in the act of listening to ancestral spirits, is such a cheap shot of linguistic denigration and racism that one wonders how anyone can tell Adorno and Horkheimer apart from any other Nazi or Fascist ideologue. Were they to say the same thing about Christian claims of talking to God, of seeing God, no one in the Western world would know their names because nothing they ever wrote would have seen the light of day.

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