In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer and Adorno make an interesting and somewhat unexpected connection between the structure of Kantian philosophy and culture industry. According to Kant, the transcendental subject constitutes objects of experience. This means that we provide the laws structuring reality. In other words, given that we bring a priori the forms of intuition and the categories of the understanding to the chaos “out there”and thus constitute the objects of possible experience, it turns out that the experience of the transcendental subject is in a sense circular. Here Horkheimer and Adorno see a parallel with culture industry. For example, Hollywood film producers present us with images bestowing meaning. That is, the producer endows the images with certain structures, thus constituting them as does the Kantian subject. Prior to the film being made, the producer and his colleagues get together and decide what precisely people want to see. Thus, in our movie experience, we encounter objects of experience pre-constituted by the director and his/her team based on perceived cultural values (in this case, cultural values and interests that sell). So the system of the Enlightenment (a system of theoretical thought) and the “system” of culture come to be self-contained. Consider how this cultural constitution or, in more poststructuralist language, construction of social reality and subjectivities impacts our daily life. From the construction of the “terrorist-other” whom we instructed to fear and hate to what it is to be “feminine” or “masculine,” we are constantly bombarded with competing discourses, social customs, and practices, all of which shape our perceptions of ourselves, our relation to the other, our roles, the “place” of others, and so forth.
Revisiting the theme of enlightenment rationality as “purely functional,” Horkheimer and Adorno explain that such is its logical end. Why? Because with the de(con)struction, dismissal and death of a telos connected to rationality, reason becomes functional or instrumental. As a result, enlightenment does away with difference or alterity. Interestingly, Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s analyses and conclusions are very much in harmony with insights foregrounded by postmodern thinkers like Foucault and Heidegger. Because reason no longer has any goals outside itself, pure reason moves increasingly toward unreason as there is nothing regulating this “emptied out” rationality. (Of course, Foucault would not claim that this is a necessary movement). This is part of the dialectic of enlightenment; it drives its self-critique such that the basis of its own rationality is destroyed. Only after enlightenment has eliminated all, then (according to enlightenment theory), we have acceptable meaning. This is reminiscent of certain—not all of course—expressions of analytic philosophy, wherein philosophy becomes completely irrelevant to human existence. Here thought is meaningful only after the sacrifice of meaning. The result of this formalization of reason means that since there are no external criteria (but only internal criteria), this hollowed-out rationality can then be used positively or negatively. According to Horkheimer and Adorno, this is the kind of rationality employed for example, in fascism, as well as Marquis de Sade. De Sade, as Horkheimer and Adorno would be quick to emphasize, is not illogical, but rather thinks with amazing clarity and has understood that enlightenment thinking accepts no tradition or external values; thus, it can come up with its own rationality and can eliminate pity, compassion, and the like. So de Sade can set up narratives of dissoluteness, engage in violence against women and others, and at the same time can present a “coherent” system. Examples such as these support the authors’ thesis that with the ushering in of instrumental, hollow enlightened rationality, “pure reason becomes unreason.”