EducationO.O.P.S.Sex & Gender

Which Enlightenment for Which Primitives?

This post is in relation to the Gender and Domination course in OOPS.

In the transition from primitive to enlightened society, “[j]ustice gives way to law,” the subsumption of primitive man’s just equilibrium under the capitalist production of surplus as legislated by the law of profit (Horkheimer, 12). In primitive society the “shaman” with his “mana” makes sure that “[a]ll birth is paid for by death,” and that all comes full circle in “nature as self-repetition” (Ibid., 11-12). It is truly curious that a primitive society such as this could become an enlightened one based on contradiction; alas, if only this were true! Adorno and Horkheimer subscribe to a peculiar imaginary of primitive man in their Concept of Enlightenment — this imaginary fulfills its function of rendering their theses on enlightenment, capitalism and science consistent yet shrouds the role that philosophy has played in the genesis of the enlightenment. What happens to the concept of enlightenment when a different imaginary of primitive man is used to foil enlightenment? What happens to the origin story of capitalism when primitive man is no longer exotified by European philosophers? “The men tracked prey while women performed tasks which did not require rigid commands,” Adorno and Horkheimer inquire, “[h]ow much violence preceded the habituation to even so simple an order cannot be known” (Ibid., 15). In this anticipation of Deleuze and Guattari’s exotification of the “nomadic savage” (Ibid., 15), these European intellectuals imagine primitive labour as already divided — conveniently pre-fab for the beck of capitalism. Truly bizarre how Adorno and Horkheimer’s imaginary can’t picture the matrilineal and matriarchal societies of the “primitive” Anishinaabe — to their point however, if primitives weren’t already sexist then capitalism wouldn’t have had anything to intensify! Patriarchy, ac­cording to this imaginary of primitive man, pre-dates enlightenment; this imaginary in turn preserves the phantasy of an enlightenment that could exist without patriarchy. A regime of “neutral” signs and language of “impartiality” defines the fact that “[e]nlightenment is totalitarian,” as if enlightenment were not essentially patriarchal, sexuated for eternity (Ibid., 4). This imaginary of primitive man preserves the phantasy of a neutral discourse, one which is not castrated (typical of male philosophers). For Adorno and Horkheimer’s imaginary Indian “[a]nimism endowed things with souls,” and for Francis Bacon “industrialism makes souls into things” (Ibid., 21). Animism and industrialism are reflections: as if what we find today in capitalism is reflective of a (more) primitive world. Was primitive man an animist? Perhaps, but the case would be hard to make for the Cree who conjugate their pronouns by whether or not their subjects are dead or alive; and the “earth” is considered a dead subject… If the Cree believe the Earth not alive, whence the primitive animists Adorno and Horkheimer require in order to sustain their theory? The imaginary deceives again. “Primitive man experienced the natural thing only as the fugitive object of desire,” — the Europeans then quote Hegel’s master-slave dialectic and place primitive man in the place of the slave. This is where Adorno and Horkheimer’s imaginary culminates: primitive man was the slave and Francis Bacon the master. But was the domination particular to enlightened capitalism prepared in primitive society? From what I recall, it was Socrates (not Tonto) who was the master interrogating Meno’s slave. The slave revealed that he had knowledge of which he was previously unaware (Plato, 85d). The philosopher, not the primitive, extracts knowledge –knowledge, which is mechanized into a mode of production. Were Adorno and Horkheimer aware of the philosopher’s role in the prehistory of enlightenment? Or did they prefer to leave that for primitive man? The imaginary of primitive society they project into the past in order to provide their Concept of Enlightenment consistently deceives them, belying the fact that science is never, nor ever could be, sexually neutral; there is no such thing as one that is un-castrated; the image they get off on of primitive man distracts them from recognizing the complacency with which philosophy conspired in the creation of capitalism; this imaginary instead seduces them into thinking that some primordial division of labor and crude animism of primitive man is the progenitor of enlightenment.

Horkheimer, Max and Theodor Adorno. 2002. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Stanford: Stanford Univesity Press.

Plato. Meno.

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Wayne Wapeemukwa

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