Monday, September 19, 2011

Dare to Know: What is Enlightenment?

In 1784, Kant responded to the question ‘what is enlightenment?’ by asserting that it is ‘human being’s emergence from his self-incurred minority’. [1] Minority, which also translates as ‘immaturity’ or ‘tutelage’ is a kind of mental cravenness, an abject identification with authority as the possessor of truth. In the face of persistent ignorance and profound immaturity in our own time, the relevance of this question should be clear to us. For Kant the project of enlightenment is above all concerned with an inquiry into freedom, something that will emerge in effect from thinking freely. However there is a catch, to emerge from ‘minority’ requires character, and specifically the character of courage. To consider our contemporary situation against this challenge we must first look again at what it is we mean by enlightenment. Here the focus will be on defining enlightenment as aesthetic education, considering the importance of the relationship with critique and identifying with the ‘courage’ called for by Kant.

There is a long tradition of aesthetic education that moves through Kant and arrives in the present day.[2] We can take ‘aesthetic’ in this context as the embodiment of self-consciousness in the immanent realm of sensory engagement. In the simplest sense, enlightenment literally means to emerge from blindness. The world prior to enlightenment is given in representation, like the shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave. However, enlightenment has always been about the connection between nature and consciousness and whether we stand in or against it we cannot hope to perceive or indeed understand anything through the reductive focus of a singular sense. We exist in the world, our senses are the interface with it, and consciousness as it relates to being is a fluid transcription of our aesthetic experience through these senses. It is not enough to just ‘see’, we must emerge holistically in order to understand.

The significance of ‘blindness’ is also clear in Theodor Adorno’s work on cultural criticism. Adorno marks his engagement against the fetishised form of ‘cultural criticism that ‘shares the blindness of its object’. [3] More recently, Alberto Toscano echoes this sentiment when he highlights a contemporary ideological desire to present the Enlightenment as ‘something to be preserved rather than enacted, furthered or repeated’.[4] Liken this objectified idea of enlightenment, if you will, to a narrow aperture presenting a picture in monochrome, a field of view rounded of at the periphery, nothing but a nostalgic image. Not only is it fixed in time as an artefact, but also it merely exists to be looked upon.

Adorno gives us a tidy contraction of the speculative reasoning required for overcoming this problem by connecting to critique through dialectics. He notes that ‘dialectics also includes the relation between action and contemplation’.[5] A kind of sensory deprivation bears out with Adorno, and he projects a sonorous quality into the antagonism of consciousness when he notes with the ‘principle’ of harmony, that conflict eventually finds itself ‘stumbling on discord’.[6] The implication is that ‘blindness’ is not simply a problem of seeing but rather a numbing of our sensory experience in general, and the possibility of a rupture can be opened up through cultural dissonance. We know very well from Marx the significance of our relation to the ‘sensuous world’, consciousness takes on the reified form only after it is abstracted and estranged from its origins, and the same is true of enlightenment.[7] Here the aesthetic qualities of resistance are placed in the midst of the critique.

It is important to note the procession, the sense of continuous emergence that distinguishes the mode of enlightenment from the ossified ‘project’ at once frozen in time, historicised and discarded as something that has already been. Enlightenment in the radical sense has ontological roots that coruscate against the status quo. It is a configuration of thought, action and courage that enables intervention through ‘determinate negation’ in the process of becoming. [8] The point is that enlightenment cannot be essentialised as an achievement. It involves what Foucault calls ‘the critical ontology of ourselves’. [9]

Foucault also draws a direct connection between enlightenment and critique; one is in fact an enactment of the other.[10] Critique involves an assault on your own beliefs, a simultaneous interrogation of ideas embedded in their context. The critical intuition is an aesthetic reconfiguration and self-consciousness is a constant interruption of the mundane. This imposition of engagement involves a necessary trauma, what emerges in overcoming is paramount to the painful blinding of the eyes through the flooding of new light. It is necessary to consider the pain of feeling when measuring the demands for courage; an aesthetic education increases the surface area on to which the uncomfortable and inconvenient levers of distress can be tweaked. To dare to know, to force oneself through travails of uncomfortable knowing, to demand the kind of truth that has yet to be uttered, is to confront the fear of others and through the discord in their recognition endure the discomfort of what it is to look at ourselves. This requires nothing short of courage.

Marx is explicit in his own calls for courage, hinting at what may come from being face to face with uncomfortable conclusions, he says ‘criticism must not be afraid of its own conclusions, nor of conflict with the powers that be’. [11] We would do well to draw a line from Kant in this regard that acknowledges our fear of ourselves, for that is the crux of his answer to the question of enlightenment. Again from Marx, ‘we only show the world what it is fighting for, and consciousness is something that the world must acquire, like it or not.’ [12]

If we are to conceive of an intervention here, then it must be one of stupefying force, one that can continue to achieve a ‘reform of consciousness’.[13] We are not merely attempting to enter a conversation about something that has long since past, the static form of the historicised enlightenment ‘project’ must be shaken back into a mode of being. We have as our object the radical form, the transcendent demand to sift through a totalised fantasy of mystical disavowal and emerge with a kernel of truth. Radical enlightenment through this aesthetic education allows us to be the conduit between ideas and action, but we must be prepared for the pain of seeing. If we truly want change, then we must think once again of Kant’s motto for the enlightenment ‘Sapere aude!’, dare to know. [14]

- Jai Bentley-Payne

Bibliography

Adorno, T. (1983). Cultural criticism and society (S. Weber & S. Weber, Trans.) Prisms (pp. 19-34). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Adorno, T., & Horkheimer, M. (1976). The Concept of Enlightenment Dialectic of Enlightenment (pp. 3-42). London: Continuum.

Foucault, M. (1984/1997). What is enlightenment. In S. Lotringer (Ed.), The Politics of Truth (pp. 97-119). New York: Semiotext(e).

Kant, I. (1784/1996). An answer to the question: What is enlightenment? (M. J. Gregor, Trans.) Practical Philosophy (pp. 17-22). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Marx, K. (1843/1978). For a Ruthless criticism of everything existing. In R. C. Tucker (Ed.), The Marx and Engels Reader (pp. 12-15). New York: Norton.

Marx, K. (1959). Estranged Labour. Marx. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, from http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/labour.htm

Schiller, F. (1954). On the aesthetic education of man : in a series of letters. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Toscano, A. (2010). Raving with reason: Fanaticism and enlightenment Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea (pp. 3-42). London: Continuum.



1. Kant, I. (1784/1996). An answer to the question: What is enlightenment? (M. J. Gregor, Trans.) Practical Philosophy (pp. 17-22). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

2. Schiller, F. (1954). On the aesthetic education of man : in a series of letters. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

3. Adorno, T. (1983). Cultural criticism and society (S. Weber & S. Weber, Trans.) Prisms (pp. 19-34). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

4. Toscano, A. (2010). Raving with reason: Fanaticism and enlightenment Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea (pp. 3-42). London: Continuum.

5. Adorno, T. (1983). Cultural criticism and society (S. Weber & S. Weber, Trans.) Prisms (pp. 19-34). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

6. Ibid.

7. Marx, K. (1959). Estranged Labour. Marx. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, from http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/labour.htm

8. Adorno, T., & Horkheimer, M. (1976). The Concept of Enlightenment Dialectic of Enlightenment (pp. 3-42). London: Continuum.

9. Foucault, M. (1984/1997). What is enlightenment. In S. Lotringer (Ed.), The Politics of Truth (pp. 97-119). New York: Semiotext(e).

10. Ibid.

11. Marx, K. (1843/1978). For a Ruthless criticism of everything existing. In R. C. Tucker (Ed.), The Marx and Engels Reader (pp. 12-15). New York: Norton.

12. Ibid., 15.

13. Ibid., 15.

14. Kant, I. (1784/1996). An answer to the question: What is enlightenment? (M. J. Gregor, Trans.) Practical Philosophy (pp. 17-22). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press., 17

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