We are living in the new Platonic cave. It is called the cinema, and we are living in it. The old ostensibly indissoluble lines delimiting and demarcating the boundaries between the cinematic domain and the domain of domestic life–supposing they ever even existed–have now vanished into thin air, and the fluid interface which maintains the seamless continuity of filmic simulacra flow indissolubly into the our own simulated lives. Adorno and Horkheimer write, “the illusion [prevails] that the outside world is the straightforward continuation of that presented on the screen … Real life is becoming indistinguishable from the movies” (Adorno and Horkheimer 126). It is not in the least uncommon for philosophical readers of Plato to observe that the Platonic cave today is the movie theater, but they err in supposing analogous and metaphoric what is, in the first instance and very simply, a factual observation. The cinema is not like the Platonic cave, it is not some updated representational model; in and of itself, it is the new Platonic cave. If the task of theology is to constantly relate Christianity to the world within which it finds itself, then our question as such is clear: what does Christianity mean in this new Platonic cave? What can it mean in the movie theater where self-alienated individuals, whose mental faculties have lost nearly all traces of capacity for critical thought, go to see filmic mediocrity which “no longer pretend[s] to be art” (Adorno and Horkheimer 121)? What can Christianity mean for machine man?
Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s analysis of the ‘culture industry’ gives us a starting point. The very term suggests the commodification of culture, the reification, to use Lukacsian terminology, of the superstructure itself, where culture, like toasters, cars, and bombs, is something assembled, packaged, produced. Moreover, the institutional structure within which this factory of culture operates suggests–with quite remarkable consistency–the character this cultural product will take. In comparison to large industry–steel, petroleum, electricity, and chemicals–culture “monopolies are weak and dependent in comparison.” They must appease “the real holders of power” lest they “undergo a series of purges,” write Adorno and Horkheimer (122-123). Therefore, it is only natural to assume that cultural products will reflect the values of the “real holders of power”: conformity, mediocrity, the appearance of freedom, predictability. The culture industry produces man as much as it produces culture: it produces man in the process of producing culture. It programs human beings to respond mechanically to the cues and stimuli it also creates: “The culture industry as a whole has molded men as a type unfailingly reproduced in every product” (Adorno and Horkheimer 127). The rule is conformity; “Anyone who resists can only survive by fitting in” (132). There is a very subtle way in which this conformity is achieved: the consumer–and that is all he is–his attention, Adorno and Horkheimer write, “is directed to the technique, and not to the contents–which are repeated, outworn, and by now half-discredited” (136). Beneath the epiphenomenal and superficial nuances of technique, ideological content is repeated perpetually, continually, until, like the ticking of a clock or the din of the refrigerator, it camouflages itself in the invisible substance of daily life, in our non-thetic consciousness. Beneath the technical spectacles lurks content, paralleling in this sense the basic form of the base-superstructure. This pattern recapitulates itself in politics, which has dissolved by now into complete spectacle. In politics, style and symbol have consummated their divorce from substance: the U.S. president wins awards from PR industries, and beneath the apparent change of style, beneath the symbolism of the head of state, the content of policy is perfectly contiguous with the past.
Is this not how ideology works today, that is, non-thetically? Gramsci suggested that ideology functions at the level of pre-reflective common sense. Very similarly, Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s models suggests ideology functions here at the level of pre-reflective experience: the ideological is hidden, so to speak, in plain sight. It resides thus in what a phenomenologist like Sartre might call our non-thetic consciousness, the background horizon of the object of our attention (in this case, the technique); it is there, but hazy, out of focus. This implies the possibility of emancipation from ideology: if we are non-thetically conscious of an object, then it means that reflection can bring it to thetic consciousness, brought, as it were, into focus. Sartre gives the example of a man counting cards: as he is counting cards, he is non-thetically conscious of counting cards; he isn’t fully conscious of it; it doesn’t occupy his thought; he doesn’t say to himself, “I am counting cards.” But if he is asked what he is doing, very simply will he be able to reply, “I am counting cards.” So reflection, if provoked, is a possibility for emancipation. Therefore, it is assured reflection is never provoked. The masses are molded into mindless subjects, distracted by every manner of administered titillation. The “culture industry remains the entertainment industry … No independent thinking must be expected from the audience: the product prescribes every reaction: not by its natural structure (which collapses under reflection), but by signals. Any logical calling for mental effort is painstakingly avoided” (136-137). In modern culture, such cues, for example include pre-programmed laughter, since audiences are too dumb, ignorant, and numb to know by themselves when to laugh: they must be given the cue. Adorno and Horkheimer write, “There is laughter because there is nothing to laugh at … To laugh at something is always to deride it … such a laughing audience is a parody of humanity” (140-141).
Thus U.S. politics has become a spectacle–the east coast merely the contorted negative, the inverted mirror image, of the west coast–a fact which we recognize. But we distance ourselves from it with laughter. We make into a spectacle that which we avoid believing. Once the fact of the spectacle becomes known, we make a spectacle of this (the fact itself) too. It is a perpetual deferral of reflection. We are in bad faith. The laughter we hear from the audiences of Colbert and Stewart is a nervous laughter, one which is too afraid to recognize the abhorrence its own laughter hides from itself–reality–the glitch in the sound of its own robotic texture. Robots laughing–this is the sound of life, liberty, and happiness in the modern world, where ideology “is split into the photograph of stubborn life and the naked lie about its meaning” (147). Robotic laughter, the dignity of man in the modern world.
One is here reminded not a little of the regrettable movement in modern art known as futurism, the champion and high priest of which was an equally regrettable–though admittedly quite fascinating–figure of Filippo Marinetti. In his futurist manifesto, he writes, “We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed.” It was speed, the machine, which greatly interested Marinetti. In his Technical Manifesto of Futurist Literature, he describes the purpose of futurist poets, to “capture the breath, the sensibility, and the instincts of metals, stones, wood, and so on, through the medium of free objects and whimsical motors. To substitute for human psychology, now exhausted, the lyric obsession with matter.” At times he is elegiac: “Be careful not to force human feelings onto matter,” he writes, “Instead, divine its different governing impulses, its forces of compression, dilation, cohesion, and disaggregation, its crowds of massed molecules and whirling electrons. We are not interested in offering dramas of humanized matter … The warmth of a piece of iron or wood is in our opinion more impassioned than the smile or tears of a woman.” For Marinetti and the futurists, this beautiful new creation, the machine, had replaced the old rotten disease of the world, this execrable sickness known as man. Not one to hide his contempt for humanity, much less his contempt for human beings, Marianetti declares rather frankly the goals of the futurists: “We want to glorify war — the only cure for the world — militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman … We want to demolish museums and libraries, fight morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice.” Marinetti was quite fond of Mussolini. From Marinetti’s point of view, WWI was good: inanimate universe of metal unleashed from its cage.
Of course, Marinetti and the futurists are caricatures, yet caricatures all disclose some element of truth, and there is something profoundly true about what the futurists here represent for modern man–speed, war, destruction. Thus in a certain sense, if we can think of modernity as a machine which, like Kafka’s torture chamber in the Penal Colony, cuts into the flesh, grafts itself onto, and saturates the logic of the homo sapien, then Marinetti and the futurists represent merely the logical consummation of this process, what Habermas calls homo fabricatus, the machine-man, but even this hyphen is relegated to desuetude since modernity has “conquer[ed] the seemingly unconquerable hostility that separates out human flesh from the metal of motors.” Ecce homo fabricatus. Behold, the new creation of modernity, machineman. The futurists were neither the first nor only ones to sense this development. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and D.H. Lawrence’s Clifford Chatterly are other indications that this machinization of man had been well underway.
If modern man–should he be said to exist–is just a cog in the big machine of capital, then we must ask ourselves what led to this development. For Adorno and Horkheimer it is instrumental reason which is responsible for the machinization of both man and the world he inhabits. Instrumental reason thus forms the center of their analysis. The critical theorists present a radical critique of the Enlightenment for what they believe consists in its instrumentalization of reason. Their inquiry begins in what they see as an as yet unresolved tension in Marx’s thought itself: “there is a basic unresolved tension in Marx between the reductivism and scientism of his theoretical self-understanding and the dialectical character of his concrete social inquiry” (McCarthy 18). McCarthy continues, adding that by the time of the Second International, this ambiguity was “resolved” by an almost exclusive focus on the scientistic side of Marx’s work (18). Later theorists, however, had come to see this form of dialectical materialism as merely another instance of what Max Weber characterised as “rationalization,” which had important consequences for socialist theory, as it suggested that a revolution could only lead to greater bureaucratic control–as indeed it did in the case of Lenin, for example. Lukacs challenged this interpretation, articulating the view that this rationalization was merely symptomatic of reification, a characteristic indigenous to capitalism, and thus reversed the implications of Weber’s view, since now it was the case that the dismantling of capitalism could lay the objective foundations for overcoming reification (McCarthy 19). The later theorists of the Frankfurt school picked up where Lukacs left off, criticizing the instrumental reason which had resulted from reification. They theorized that “in creating the objective possibility of a truly human society, the progressive mastery of nature through science and technology simultaneously transformed the potential subjects of emancipation. The reification of consciousness was the price paid for the progressive liberation from material necessity” (McCarthy 20). If for Freud the necessary condition of civilization is instinctual repression, then for the later Marxists, it is the reification of consciousness, it is instrumental reason. Marcuse added to this view that technical reason, which is requisite of civilization as such, is inherently dominative in character.
It is instrumental reason itself which is dominative. Hegel claimed that there is “an internal relationship between Enlightenment, an ethic of utility and terror (especially the terror of the French Revolution),” the reason being that the Enlightenment, in metaphysically bifurcating man and nature, made nature into pure matter. This follows from the belief that if nature is not valuable in itself, then it is only valuable in relation to man–this is utility (Held 151-152). “Matter” David Held writes, “is defined as a possible object of manipulation” (154). McCarthy writes, “A particular form of reason, the scientific, is ascribed exclusive rights in the domain of theory. Understood as value-neutral, its only legitimate relation to practice is technical” (McCarthy 7). The world in this case becomes something only to be technically manipulated, and humans merely parts to be managerially administered in the huge machine of modern society.
However, it is not to be understood that this modality of thought (instrumental reason) arose spontaneously within the history of ideas by a sort of autonomous causality within thought. To assert this would be a reversion to Hegel and Feuerbach. Marx’s critique of Feuerbach, of course, was that he was grasping only the ideational and epiphenomenal substratum of the real problem: that consciousness arises from historically situated forms of life, as Marx puts it in The German Ideology. Thus we must direct our analysis to the historical forms which engender the ideational forms, and look at the historical conditions within which this conception of instrumental reason arises.
It is in capitalism that reason becomes instrumental. “In general,” Held writes, “capitalist competition favours the most efficient: it conditions mechanization and rationalization. The firms with the lowest costs of production, ceteris paribus, can force a less effective firm out of business” (56). There is, it seems, a sort of institutional reason to be given. Thus Held continues, “For the Frankfurt school theorists, the rise of instrumental reason, the rationalization of the world, is not per se to be blame for the ‘chaotic, frightening and evil aspects of technological civilization’. Rather it is the mode in which the process of rationalization is itself organized that accounts for the ‘irrationality of this rationalization’ … It is the organization of production as capitalist production which, as the members of the Institute write in 1956, ‘threatens the spirits and today even the material survival of mankind, and not technological progress itself’” (Held 66). An account along these lines is also the account one will find in independent leftists like Bertrand Russell, who otherwise fit under the negative appellation, ‘positivist.’ For example, in an essay on architecture, Russell, much like Adorno and Horkheimer, criticizes modern architecture for its bleakness and unhumanlike quality, but attributes this to the profit motive: “Hideousness … is part of the price we pay for our slavery to the motive of private profit” (Russell 48).
Indeed, to ascribe the rise of instrumental reason to some mystical notion of causality within the history of consciousness is precisely to be ideological, to overlook the spectral logic of the profit-motive which suffuses itself silently, covertly, non-thetically, in every action, to be more precisely, every transaction, we make within the system. The profit-motive, implied in our hyper-rationalization, hyper-utilitization of the world, discloses itself upon reflection, but it otherwise inhaled as the very logic by which human activity is carried out within the world. In The Matrix, Morpheus asks Neo, “Do you think that’s air you’re breathing now?”–at which point Neo is able to reflect thetically. Otherwise, the ideology of the profit-motive is suffused through the matrix within which human beings experience the world subjectively. This perhaps is why Morpheus notes, “The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work… when you go to church… when you pay your taxes.” The profit-motive endemic to and constitutive of capitalism, is the invisible logic of the system; it is not instrumental reason itself.
Lukacs’s concept of reification all but advertises itself here. Inasmuch as reification means not only a commodification of thought, but also a rendering-invisible-and-substanceless the very notion of interested thought itself, then we might be able to understand the invisibility of the telic profit-motive as a mode of reification itself. Profit, in this case, is not an identifiable logic, or one mode of being among others, but rather the assumed, unchallenged medium of the system itself. By implication this suggests that in any mode of rational purposive activity, the end toward which this activity is oriented is never called into question; one is in fact barely able to apprehend the existence of this end, as its invisibility camouflage it into the system itself. Perhaps this is why instrumental reason “is not seen explicitly as a value because it seems simply to coincide with rationality as such” (McCarthy 7).
The problem is not instrumental reason or (as Marcuse calls it) rational-purposive action as such, but rather, the ultimate telos to which these modes of thought and action, what, as a autotelic telos, in effect becomes metaphysically the God of capitalism, Profit. Thus much in the same way in which Heidegger demystifies the concept of being-as-such, characterizing dasein as being-toward-the-world or being-toward-death, perhaps it is necessary that we characterize instrumental reason and rational purposive action as instrumental-reason-toward-profit. Here is the rational kernel hiding in the mystical shell, the invisible logic and silently-worshipped God of capitalist society: profit. We may now unravel the story outward from the rational kernel: in order to achieve profits in competitive enterprise, the corporations which constitute its basic form must become more and more efficient; in order to do this, workers must be made more efficient, their labor must be divided so that they perform mindless and monotonous tasks, making them more and more just another interchangeable part of the great machine of capital. If workers are incorporated and assimilated into this huge machine, the electrical current which runs through it, the fire which fuels it and keeps every cog–metal and flesh alike, since now there is no difference–turning, every piston firing, every crank swinging, the logic which permeates it, is Profit, the reigning divinity of capitalist society. He sometimes goes by the alias Mammon, a rather more familiar name. He is a rival God to Yahweh. The only problem is that Yahweh does not compromise with rival deities.
As for the question of what God means in the great machine of capital and the culture it manufactures, must first consider the relation between the machine and the culture it produces. It is quite simple: the machine produces culture which contributes to its own perpetuation. If it were otherwise, the machine as such would not exist. If the machine produced critical thought rather than unreflective conformity, then it would self-implode in the blink of an eye. In relation to the conformist culture produced by the machine, we must consider Paul’s word: “And be not conformed to the ways of this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). The renewal of mind Paul instructs reiterates Jesus’s symbolic exorcisms. As for the machine itself, the case is even clearer: God will not compromise with Mammon. Moreover, insofar as the machine is a reification of consciousness, we must rebuke it as a form of idolatry.
What does God mean in the machine? What does Christianity mean in the new Platonic Cave? The new Platonic Cave, the cinema in which modern man now experiences reality, is a part of the great machine: it is an endless production of images: women, cars, guns, bombs, happiness. The seamless sequence of images which flash upon the eye of modern man forms thus a certain continuum. It is this manufactured reality which modern man experiences as real: it is all he sees.
Since the ideological structures remain invisible, these structures must be brought to sight; the subjects must be able to see anew their own subjugation. This is a conversion; conversion is nothing other than seeing the world anew. Paul’s case is most archetypical: in his conversion, scales fall from his eyes–he is able to see anew.
What the converted sees is nothing other than the fateful operation of the machine itself. For Jurgen Moltmann, it is “the goad of the promised future” which “stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present” (Moltmann 21), but for modern man, it is the machine itself which stabs inexorably into his own flesh, grafting its sublime apparatus onto him, and extending itself through him like an electrical root system. This is the modern crucifixion. In ancient colonial society, God was nailed to a cross. In the modern capitalist society, God is screwed onto the mechanical apparatus of the culture machine. This explains in part why he is no longer able to offend us: God himself fastened into the culture machine is assimilated by it, replicated and manufactured by it. It is this machine which tears into God’s flesh. Jesus, Albert Schweitzer writes, “lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving … He throws Himself upon it. Then it does turn; and crushes Him … The wheel rolls onward, and the mangled body … is hanging upon it still.’ (Schweitzer qtd. in Moltmann 39). Schweitzer meant the wheel of history, but today, God is crucified on the gears of the great machine of capital. It is this vision which one beholds in conversion. Thus to believe in the crucifixion is to be converted. The crucifixion is a rupture, a disturbance, for the television age a glitch, in the seamless continuum of the new Platonic Cave. At Golgotha, the crucifixion was the cross puncturing the fabric of the flag: the ugly truth of roman imperialism ripping through its own grand illusions. While this too is still true, today the cross and the crucifixion take on additional significance. The crucifixion is the hideous truth of the machine puncturing through the superficial harmonies taken for reality manufactured by the machine itself.
Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment
David Held, An Introduction to Critical Theory
D.H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterly’s Lover
Filippo Marinetti, A Futurist Manifesto
Filippo Marinetti, Technical Manifesto of Futurist Literature
Thomas McCarthy, The Critical Theory of Jurgen Habermas
Jurgen Moltmann, A Theology of Hope
Bertrand Russell, In Praise of Idleness