Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Photo by David Shankbone.

One does not go looking for Eve Sedgwick in the old boys’ club. But upon rereading Adorno and Horkheimer’s “The Concept of Enlightenment,” I was startled to find traces of her everywhere. I encountered the first only three pages in, where Adorno and Horkheimer, discussing the legacy of Francis Bacon, lament that “There is to be no mystery—which means, too, no wish to reveal mystery.”[1] I returned to “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” and observed that Sedgwick elects to describe the ailing critical landscape with the language of mystery as well,[2] diagnosing the “current near professionwide agreement” to read with a “hermeneutics of suspicion” as a “hyperdemystified, paranoid scene.”[3]

Adorno and Horkheimer do not use the word “paranoid,” and indeed it seems to me that they do not find the masses paranoid enough. More on that below. But it is striking how, after the roughly sixty years that divide Eve Sedgwick from the Frankfurt School, Critical Theory’s strongest voices appear to have maintained a common enemy, called by a common name. There is a shared nostalgia for an un-abstracted look at things, and the accompanying fear that such a look will not be taken seriously by the intelligentsia. In “The Concept of Enlightenment,” this is the “presupposition of abstraction … grounded in the distance from the thing itself,” constructed as a reaction to fear of the “totemic animal…the idola teatri of the old metaphysics.”[4]

For Sedgwick, this is theory which “is capable of accounting for a wide spectrum of phenomena which appear to be very remote … and from a common source,” practiced indiscriminately, at the risk of being considered “less acute,” “less realistic,” “less attached to a project of survival” than its paranoid neighbors.[5] And despite their chronological distance, each text appears to regard Kantian-damage-control as the pivotal philosophical task of its historical moment. “According to Kant,” Adorno and Horkheimer complain, “philosophic judgment aims at the new; and yet it recognizes nothing new, since it always merely recalls what reason has always deposited in the object.”[6] Sedgwick clarifies that the performance of paranoid reading “represents a strategic and local decision” which has come to be regarded as a “categorical imperative.”[7] The redistribution of attention to localized and contingent relationships that Sedgwick endorses appears to be the shared aspiration of Adorno and Horkheimer, who write that as a consequence of the Enlightenment, “The identity of everything with everything else is paid for in that nothing may at the same time be identical with itself,” producing “universal mediation in the relation of any one existent to any other.”[8]

The similarities between the stated objects and obstacles of each project are so uncanny that our first impulse (mine included) may be to draw a line backwards from Sedgwick to identify her remarkable predecessors. These parallels are legitimate and continue to amaze me, but the texts are not mirror images, and it is their conflict that concerns me here. The summary of their discord is that the argument of Dialectic of Enlightenment is a strong theory, and to Sedgwick, strong theory is paranoia —or at least a characteristic of it. This is ironic, of course, because the definition of strong theory that Sedgwick utilizes seems to align precisely with the qualities of Enlightenment thought that Adorno and Horkheimer castigate as the most damaging. The concept is lifted from Volume 2 of Silvan Tomkins’ Affect, Imagery, Consciousness, and is defined in its relationship to weak theory, which derives its weakness from “the extent to which the theory can account only for ‘near’ phenomena … As it orders more and more remote phenomena to a single formulation, its power grows.”[9]

We must recall the conditions under which Dialectic of Enlightenment was written: Adorno and Horkheimer are caught in the middle of World War II as American émigrés,

confronting historically unprecedented fascism in a future-society for whom Marx had predicted emancipation. “In view of what is now threatening to engulf Europe,” wrote Horkheimer in a letter to Salka Viertel, “our present work is essentially destined to pass things down through the night that is approaching: a kind of message in a bottle.”[10] In 1944, they published Dialectic of Enlightenment, diagnosing the arrest of Marx’s dialectic,[11] and arguing that its impact had extended to thought itself, restricting mental function to “organization and administration,” so that the machine it impersonates can at last replace it.[12] The project of “The Concept of the Enlightenment” is—utilizing Sedgwick’s term—to “expose” Enlightenment thought as “the wholesale deception of the masses.”[13]

Positioned within this framework, it is quite clear that Dialectic of Enlightenment was born from a “hermeneutics of suspicion” — as, we are reminded, was the entire Frankfurt School. Realizing that something was amiss in the philosophies of their forefathers (Marx, Nietzsche, Freud) that did not predict the gruesome fate of twentieth-century capitalist societies, Dialectic of Enlightenment was composed in an act of theoretical misprision not unlike Harold Bloom’s kenosis, “a breaking device similar to the defense mechanisms our psyches employ against repetition compulsions … a movement toward discontinuity with the precursor.”[14] The Dialectic’s challenge to these theorists, that any “self-satisfaction of knowing in advance” is a “mystic unification [that] remains deception,” echoes Sedgwick eerily.[15] But the paradox is self-evident: myth created in the denunciation of an illusion is myth all the same. In the process of denouncing “the achievement of great thinkers … as a kind of stock of superannuated clichés,”[16]

Adorno and Horkheimer mimic Ricoeur’s distinguishing characteristic of Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche that Sedgwick quotes in “Paranoid Reading”: “the general hypothesis concerning both the process of false consciousness and the method of deciphering.”[17] Though I am open to being wrong about this, Adorno and Horkheimer’s simultaneous denunciation and utilization of the “holy trinity’s” philosophical legacy appears to have been performed unselfconsciously. Neither Marx nor Nietzsche is mentioned by name, despite the blatant and overwhelming influence of their work on the theory Adorno and Horkheimer ultimately present, while Freud is mentioned only once, in order to be called “anachronistic.”[18] While “The Concept of Enlightenment” opens, like “Paranoid Reading,” bemoaning the absence of mystery at the endpoint of intellectual inquiry, Adorno and Horkheimer do not seem to acknowledge that their own theories are written with the identical aim of reducing the possibility of mystery. Like their forefathers, their writing is intended to “[order] more and more remote phenomena to a single formulation.”

What are we to make of this? We seem to find ourselves in a situation that Sedgwick anticipates in “Paranoid Reading,” cautioning that the force and reach of strong theory can be so great that “both writers and readers can damagingly misrecognize whether and where real conceptual work is getting done, and precisely what that work might be.”[19] Indeed, the “exposure” accomplished by “The Concept of Enlightenment” is the objectification of the function of humankind, so that “He defines himself only as a thing, as a static element … [whose] yardstick is self-preservation,” thereby alienating the subject from labor that is not directed towards self-preservation —including and especially emancipatory possibility.[20]

With this in mind, I return to Horkheimer’s description of their project in his own words. Upon doing so, I am struck by the sense of emergency, as if the war and its accompanying ideology were approaching Europe like a typhoon, to be spat out in a form that is undignified and unrecognizable. I also note his sense of secrecy, which is elitism in disguise. In the night, hidden from the masses and the powers that be, a textual beacon will be handed down to its destined recipient, who alone will possess the power to rescue the world from darkness. The association of darkness with evil and illumination with the minds of the elect is, of course, the language of Enlightenment.

Having revisited Adorno and Horkheimer’s “statement of purpose,” so to speak, we return with a fairly clear answer to the questions that prompt Sedgwick’s “Paranoid Reading.” She asks, “What does knowledge do—the pursuit of it, the having and exposing of it, the receiving again of knowledge of what one already knows?”[21] It appears that, to founding members of the Frankfurt School, knowledge was thought to have been capable of retarding violence, predicting social upheaval, and arming the vulnerable. The composition of a warring Dialectic laced with aggression towards their predecessors is, among many things, Adorno and Horkheimer’s expression of betrayal, frustration with their own blindness, despair over their political impotence, and, in spite of themselves, testament to their continued faith in the redemptive capacity of knowledge —if not for them, for future subjects. I consider it a weakness of “The Concept of Enlightenment” that it is not clear what distinguishes the “masses,” who have regressed to an “inability to hear the unheard-of within their own ears,” from those like Adorno and Horkheimer, who are not altogether part of this category because they are engaged in the act of diagnosis.[22] Regardless, it is evident from both the Dialectic and Horkheimer’s letter that the “masses” are deaf to the truth of their present condition, from which they cannot escape without knowledge —however unattainable that enlightenment may be. If I can be so bold, Adorno and Horkheimer seem to be arguing that neither they nor the “masses” have been paranoid enough, and had they been, perhaps efforts could have been made to preempt this impending darkness.

On the other hand, Sedgwick envisions her subject, the late twentieth and early twenty-first century scholar, as living in a world “where one daily encounter[s] graduate students who are dab hands at unveiling the hidden historical violences that underlie a secular, universalist liberal humanism,” a humanism which has mistakenly been established as the terminus ad quem of historical narrative.[23] She proceeds to argue that not all violence is created equal; in addition to a kind of “Foucaultian violence” which has been deprecated, made invisible, and requires exposure, there are also “forms of violence that are hypervisible from the start [and] may be offered as an exemplary spectacle rather than remain to be unveiled as a scandalous secret.”[24] She offers examples of chain gangs in the Southern United States, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, and torture and disappearances in Argentina. In Adorno and Horkheimer’s case, we cannot help but think of the Holocaust.

While Sedgwick faces New Historicism’s general tenor of “things are bad and getting worse,” Adorno and Horkheimer confront their own overreliance on Marxist-Hegelian optimism which promised that “things are bad and getting better,” as well as the unity of the manipulated collective, “which so assuredly appears in the organization of the Hitler Youth.”[25] The Holocaust is a spectacular example of a formation in which visibility itself constitutes much of its violence. Reading “The Concept of Enlightenment” with as much integrity as I can muster, I cannot say that I find anything in Adorno and Horkheimer’s work that upsets the pessimism that they are so often criticized for. It seems, in fact, that the darkness Horkheimer speaks of both threatens to engulf Europe and has already engulfed it. Sedgwick argues that conditions of hypervisible violence are not overcome by redundant exposure of systemic origins, but by “efforts to displace and redirect (as well as simply expand) its aperture of visibility.”[26] Recalling that, in “Paranoid Reading,” reparation and paranoia are constructed as temporary positions rather than permanent theoretical ideologies, we can determine that it is not damning to adopt a paranoid stance. At times, paranoid reading may be necessary. Though I am not well-placed to adjudicate whether the paranoid stance of Dialectic of Enlightenment was the best possible mode of combat against European fascism, I do think that the work it performs is precisely that which Sedgwick advocates: the displacement of Enlightenment thought from its lethally monolithic position, and the redirection of faith in mythology towards less totalizing forms of resistance against deception. Recalling Sedgwick’s belief that “to read from a reparative position is to surrender the knowing, anxious, paranoid determination that no horror, however apparently unthinkable, shall ever come to the reader as new,” it is easy to sympathize with Adorno and Horkheimer’s horrified gaze into the abyss of genocide in the post-industrial West and the desire to instill a paranoia so powerful that such a surprise will never materialize again.[27]

Habermas wrote, of Dialectic of Enlightenment, “since [the Enlightenment] remains unreflected, [it] cannot attain the level of rationality that it claims for itself; rather, this process stays on the level of self-affirmation gone wild (verwilderte Selbstbehauptung).”[28] This recalls, with incredible precision, Sedgwick’s construction of paranoia as a form of love: “the love that demands least from its object,” the proffer of the paranoid subject’s “cognitive talent, ready for anything it can present in the way of blandishment or violence, to an order-of-things morcelé that had until then lacked only narratibility, a body, cognition.”[29] In my interpretation, a love that does not desire to be transformed by or incorporated with its object, and may not believe such a relationship to be possible. Put in this light, Adorno, Horkheimer, and Sedgwick again see eye-to-eye. This domination of the love object is exactly what Adorno and Horkheimer criticize when they proclaim that “Men have always had to choose between their subjection to nature or the subjection of nature to the Self.”[30] It is a Hegelian formulation, although they do not present it as such. The cost of domination is alienation from the object, rendering all subsequent object-relations as Habermas’ “self-affirmation gone wild.” Despite their vast differences in methodology and visions of the future, Sedgwick, Adorno, and Horkheimer seem to maintain nearly identical perspectives on the constitutive model of more-ideal object-relations. Adorno and Horkheimer’s wish to dissolve “universal mediation in the relation of any one existent to any other” and its accompanying “self-satisfaction of knowing in advance”[31] is also the reparative desire to assemble Klein’s world of objects “into something like a whole—though … not necessarily like any preexisting whole.”[32]


Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor W., and Max Horkheimer. “The Concept of Enlightenment.” In Dialectic of Enlightenment, translated by John Cumming, 3-42. London: Verso, 1997.

Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Habermas, Jürgen. Philosophical-Political Profiles. London: Heinemann, 1981.

Müller-Doohm, Stefan (2004). Adorno: A Biography. Translated by Rodney Livingstone. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2015.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid You Probably Think This Essay Is About You.” In Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, 123-51. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

Tomkins, Silvan. Affect Imagery Consciousness. 1st ed. Vol. 2. New York: Springer, 1963.


[1] Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, “The Concept of Enlightenment,” in Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (London: Verso, 1997), 5.

[2] Sedgwick uses some iteration of the word “mystery” eleven times in the essay, nearly once every two pages.

[3] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid You Probably Think This Essay Is About You,” in Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 144, 143.

[4] Adorno and Horkheimer, 13, 5.

[5] Sedgwick, 134, 150.

[6] Adorno and Horkheimer, 26.

[7] Sedgwick, 124.

[8] Adorno and Horkheimer, 12.

[9] Silvan Tomkins, Affect Imagery Consciousness, 1st ed., vol. 2 (New York: Springer, 1963), 434.

[10] Stefan Müller-Doohm (2004), Adorno: A Biography, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2015), 262.

[11] That is, state intervention in the economy dissolved the fundamental tension between capitalism’s relations of production and material productive forces

[12] Adorno and Horkheimer, 36, 25.

[13] Ibid, 42.

[14] Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 14.

[15] Adorno and Horkheimer, 24, 39.

[16] Ibid, 40.

[17] Sedgwick, 125.

[18] Adorno and Horkheimer, 11.

[19] Sedgwick, 136.

[20] Adorno and Horkheimer, 28.

[21] Sedgwick, 124.

[22] Adorno and Horkheimer, 36.

[23] Sedgwick, 139.

[24] Ibid, 140.

[25] Adorno and Horkheimer, 13.

[26] Sedgwick, 140.

[27] Ibid, 146.

[28] Jürgen Habermas, Philosophical-Political Profiles, (London: Heinemann, 1981), 101.

[29] Sedgwick, 132.

[30] Adorno and Horkheimer, 32.

[31] Ibid, 12, 24.

[32] Sedgwick, 128.