A distinguished scholar recently asked me if I believed, as Benjamin claimed, that civilization and barbarism were inseparable. My flip response was: you got a better theory? But I gave what was an equivocating answer, riddled with some vague hopeful dream of progress. Yes, modernity is bad, but we have made great strides forward and will continue to do so. Hegel’s dream of progress as the continually expanding freedom of consciousness still holds.
If had to answer it again I would forcefully declaim the dream of telos and universal history. The more enlightened we become, the more there is to atone for. As Adorno, glossing Pascal, puts it: “The abundance of real suffering permits no forgetting.” This is the core of dialectical thinking and there really is no getting around it, I’m afraid.
Witness the outpouring of anguish for the victims of the Haitian earthquake. The West mobilizes to send relief and all the palliatives of care are speedily deployed. George Clooney has spoken. George Clooney cares. And who can doubt it? But the larger point is missed: Haiti today is the entire Northern Hemisphere 60 years from now. And who will organize the telethons then?
At the same time, it has to be acknowledged that Benjamin and Adorno’s gloomy pronouncements on culture should never be taken as Absolutes, as tempting as it may be to do so, but as specifically charged statements arising out of a particular historical moment – the 30s and later, for Adorno, the late 50s -- and a particular social situation – being Jewish.
But – have things really gotten better?
Or has the amnesia become more pronounced, the drugs even better?