In Dialectic of Enlightenment, a founding document of critical theory, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno chart the liquidation of pre-modern belief in myth and magic, where “dream and image were not mere signs for the thing in question” but contiguously bound to nature as “specific representation” (10-11). “In science,” by contrast, “[r]epresentation is exchanged for the fungible—universal interchangeability” (10). The conversion of the specific into “species,” and finally to “specimens,” they contend, suppresses the multitudinous “affinities between existents” by a single relation between “the subject who bestows meaning and the meaningless object, between rational significance and the chance vehicle of significance” (10-11). The implications of Adorno and Horkheimer’s reading of universal rationality are well known–to “the Enlightenment, that which does not reduce to numbers, and ultimately to the one, becomes illusion; modern positivism writes it off as literature” (7).
Dialectic of Enlightenment, however, only begs a more fundamental question: does critique write literature off as literature? The phenomena, artifacts, and forms of experience with which humanistic study concerns itself do not meaningfully reduce to numbers, nor in their excess of potential significance reduce to any unified, explanatory formula. To gather explanatory power and coherence, critique and theory require the same fungibility—and rational significance–characteristic of the Enlightenment project generally. By what criterion, after all, do Adorno and Horkheimer claim that “magic is utterly untrue” (9)? In a note on “The Theory of Ghosts,” they also propose that “Freud’s theory that belief in ghosts stems from the evil thoughts of living people about the dead,” is too limited, arguing that “[h]atred of the dead is made up of envy no less than a feeling of guilt” (215). Perhaps. But what of the ghost itself and the person who experiences it? What would “specific representation” of belief and anomalous experience look like? What if sometimes a ghost is just a ghost?