In response to a post responding to my post on Enlightenment (apologies for the convoluted phrasing!), Jason Hills, of Immanent Transcendence, writes:

The denial of the mythic modality of consciousness really frightens me about Enlightenment-promoters, because their disregard for how myth channels their science, etc., blinds them to hubris. That was much of the lesson of WWI and WWII–that science is not a cure-all.

This is the sort of thesis that really frustrates me in discussions about religion, myth, science, and reason, because the suggestion seems to be that science and technology are the cause of the horrors of the Holocaust and World War I. Yet they were not the cause, but rather the occasion for these horrors. The cause was mythological thought in the form of nationalist, religious, and racial myths that animated these two wars. In this regard, there was little difference between 14th century pogroms directed at Jews during the Black Plague or the wholesale slaughter of Muslims by Catholics during the Crusades, than what took place in these wars. The difference was that the hatred generated by these mythological forms of thought during the 20th century was able to exercise itself on a greater scale than ever before due to the new technologies. Nonetheless, the problem wasn’t Enlightenment, but the absence of Enlightenment.

read on!

Jason, to his credit seems to suggest this, but then he goes on to claim that Enlightenment-promoters disregard this dimension of science and technology. Yet I have difficulty making sense of this. The Enlightenment project of critique consists precisely in tracking down these residues of myth. That’s much of what critique is all about, whether we wish to call it the critique of myth or the critique of ideology (ideology is a secularized version of myth). In this regard, it is not Enlightenment thinkers that disregard myth in science– everywhere they strive to sniff out exactly these things –but rather the users of this technology that disregard myth or cynically use it to advance their own aims.

Here it’s important that I am not misunderstood. I am not making the claim that science and technology are some picnic that can never do wrong. Practitioners of science are often animated by myth. This is precisely why we need Enlightenment styles of science critique such as we find in Latour, Stephen J. Gould in The Mismeasure of Man, Foucault, etc. Good examples of this sort of myth would be the myths that animated eugenics, the myths today that animate sociobiology where, for baffling reasons, researchers again and again choose chimpanzees that are highly warlike, patriarchal, and hierarchical as their model of human nature, all the while ignoring bonobo monkeys that are very bit as genetically similar to humans, and so on. This is what the Enlightenment project of critique is all about.

Moreover, following Adorno in Negative Dialectics, the “identity thinking” upon which scientific and technological instrumental and calculative reason engenders attitudes that, to use Adorno’s memorable expression, “generate rage against difference”– here we need only think of Plotinus’s and Augustine’s remarks about oneness, identity, and sameness to see where this logic of identity leads –that strives either to normalize beings under a single identity (what Nancy refers to as the idea of community possessing a transcendent shared essence), reducing self to an identity (i.e., rejecting those differences that don’t fit), and eradicating the difference. Yet note, in pointing out these noxious dimensions of identity thinking within Enlightenment, Adorno is engaging in the Enlightenment project of critique. He is not championing a return to myth, but is carrying a critique of myth.