Setting the record straight on “Technological Rationality”
Perhaps the most radical and complex development the United States was faced with in the 1920s was embodied by the culture industry: the emergence of ‘electric technology,’ material-energetically shaped in all sorts of technological innovations like radio, records, film and technical gadgets. The far reaching, even global consequences of this development were thoroughly investigated by German philosophers Adorno and Horkheimer, who wrote in Dialectic of Enlightenment that “the ruthless unity in the culture industry is evidence of what will happen in politics.”1
What today continues to be difficult to analyse, is that the culture industry also embodied an economic and political power, a white American elite who apparently controlled these developments, as Adorno and Horkheimer stated.2 It’s beyond the scope of this paper to examine this power, but it is nevertheless important to mention it here, because the absence of transparency, the fact that a true insight in their power is not overtly known, has also influenced the philosophy of Adorno and Horkheimer; and in their wake many others. Moreover, as a result their philosophy has also distorted the perspective on jazz music. This short paper therefore reconsiders the concept “technological rationality”, which Adorno and Horkheimer used in association with this white elite power.
While writing their Dialectic of Enlightenment on American soil in the 1940s, studying the emerging culture industry, Adorno and Horkheimer were aware of what they labelled the “interested parties” controlling almost everything behind the scenes, as already all the individual branches of the industry were economically interwoven. The culture monopolies, which in comparison were weak and dependent on the most powerful sectors of industry – steel, petroleum, electricity, and chemicals – could not afford to neglect “their appeasement to the real holders of power.”3 And so everybody had to “behave in accordance with [the] previously determined and indexed level” of complete quantification, “and choose the category of mass product turned out for his type.”4 The common people had no knowledge of this power, of what was happening, listening instead to the elites explaining “the culture industry in technological terms,” alleging “that because millions participate in it, certain reproduction processes are necessary that inevitably require identical needs in innumerable places with identical goods.”5 Because the widely dispersed consumption was said to demand organisation and planning, and that the developed standards were in the first place based on the consumers’ needs, the public accepted it without resistance.
Yet, apparently the elites knew otherwise, making sure that “No mention was made of the fact that the basis on which technology acquires power over society is the power of those whose economic hold over society is greatest. A technological rationale is the rationale of domination itself.”6 The inevitable result was that “the circle of manipulation and retroactive need” made the unity of the system grow ever stronger. Whereas the public was made to believe that the growing power of the system, which was in fact the power of the elites, was a natural consequence of these developments. What I want to point out here, is that Adorno and Horkheimer never identified this power, these individuals, but instead used the concept “rationale of domination,” a “technological rationale.” A concept which cannot hide its ambiguous character, as it remains unclear what they truly believed, or perhaps even knew. For on the one hand they repeatedly mention a human intelligence organizing and planning behind the scenes, displaying a knowledge of the human soul,7 while on the other they state that “the mechanism [which] is to all appearances planned by those who serve up the data of experience, that is, by the culture industry, it is in fact forced upon the latter by the power of society, which remains irrational…”8 My concern here is that there are at least three far reaching socio-political and philosophical consequences of this negligence that are still overlooked.
(1) By introducing the concept of ‘technological rationality’ Adorno and Horkheimer distracted attention from this human intelligence and gave way to an abstract theoretical, that is, totalitarian understanding of societal developments. Up to this day this approach still influences many philosophers who, partially in reaction to this totalitarian configuration, explain historic societal developments as an indifferent, coincidental, purposeless and nihilistic process. Because of that they fail to see that the concept ‘technological rationality’ covers up and leaves unquestioned the possibility that human intelligence deliberately used, and maybe still uses technological developments to shape society in a certain direction. Anyone today who draws attention to these matters is believed to be a conspiracy theorist and is thus not taken seriously. Even though in everyday life it is a frequently asked and generally acknowledged legitimate question as to whether mankind has to take responsibility for his actions which unmistakably lead to certain results. One could argue therefore that a truly open-minded researcher should at least pay attention to the phenomenon which today is associated with the concept of a new world order.9
(2) Ignoring the power of certain human intelligence while instead using the concept ‘technological rationality’ creates a dichotomist relationship toward irrational inexplicable dimensions of the emerging culture industry. According to Adorno and Horkheimer these inexplicable dimensions, which ‘technological rationality’ invokes, include jazz music. As a result of their dialectic approach to culture, jazz music has therefore to be identified as “a system of non-culture.”10 Jazz music, which originates in black culture and had become popular among white Americans in the 1920s, had to be the manifestation of western man’s “drive to seek refuge in the phantasm of nature, which…reveals itself as the herald of absolute suppression.”11 What is meant by that, is that the utter consequence of totalitarian politics embodied in the culture industry, of which jazz music would be the herald, will eventually, as Adorno and Horkheimer predicted, lead to total suppression. “The liberation which [the culture industry] promises is freedom from thought and from negation…to those people who are deliberately to be deprived of (…) individuality.”12 There is no mistake here that “In the culture industry the individual is an illusion…The peculiarity of the self is a monopoly commodity determined by society; it is falsely represented as natural.”13 So rather than seeing jazz music as the herald of freedom and individuality, which apparently many people did and still do, Adorno and Horkheimer were compelled to portray jazz as the incarnation of barbarism.
(3) The concept ‘technological rationality’, which is associated with an unidentifiable abstract power, does not make a clear distinction between the ideological and the material, how thinking is related to the material-energetic phenomenon ‘electric technology’. This unexplained complex entanglement manifests itself therefore as an ambiguous binary logic where ‘electric technology’ is subjected under the overall power of ‘technological rationality’. At the same time, however, and that makes up its ambiguous character, it uncovers the true political-ideological power of ‘technological rationality’, which is totalitarian. A totalitarianism that seemed to be stretching its power not only using electric technology as it covers the globe, but also by controlling the other natural energy resources. The likelihood of a manifestation of such a global power, although for many people unthinkable and incomprehensible, is all the more realistic if one reconsiders the battle for global economic and military control that took shape after large resources of petroleum were discovered in the Middle East at the beginning of the twentieth century. A battle for global control which continues up to this day.14 It probably explains Adorno and Horkheimer’s remark that “In our age [the twentieth century] the objective social tendency is incarnate in the hidden subjective purposes of company directors, the foremost among whom are in the most powerful sectors of industry.”15
It raises the question how we are to interpret these hidden subjective purposes, as they, in the eyes of Adorno and Horkheimer, appear to dictate the objective social tendency. Dictating the course of history, could that even be possible? Or is it totally unimaginable, even ridiculous and paranoid to suggest the possibility for an elite group to (1) control not only electricity, but also the other powerful sectors of industry – steel, petroleum and chemicals -, which then (2) consequently leads to a global totalitarian power? If it is possible, then this power is bound to be the world’s first and one and only true sovereign power. A power that, because of its binary logic, withdraws its self from the control of the irrational nature of all technologies. And so the irrational dimensions, which occur in society as a result of the deliberate use of technology, appear to be a “natural” consequence that nobody can be held accountable for. Such as the irrational socio-psychological consequences people experience as a result of the expanding power of the new technological reality, which ultimately nobody seems to be able to explain.16 But as was mentioned above, the question that should be asked, taking the remarks of Adorno and Horkheimer into account, is what were, and maybe still are, these elites truly capable of? A question, in my opinion, that should be addressed by philosophers as well as other scholars, if they really intend to come to grips with what is going on in the world.