Odysseus and Dialectics of Environment

Near the beginning of their Dialectic of Enlightenment, Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno “allegorize” on an episode in the Odyssey, in which Odysseus takes his ship past the Sirens who entice mariners toward the dangerous shoals of their island with their sweet singing. Odysseus wants to hear the Sirens but doesn’t want to wreck his ship. So he straps himself to the mast, puts wax in the ears of his men, and sails past the Sirens. Odysseus is confined but in ecstasy; the men continue rowing but cannot enjoy the song of the Sirens. In this, they see a symbol of the dialectic of free aesthetic pleasure and capitalist labor, the leisurely owner class and the working class.

They write: “Measures like those taken on Odysseus’s ship in face of the Sirens are a prescient allegory of the dialectic of enlightenment. Just as the capacity to be represented is the measure of power, the mightiest person being the one who can be represented in the most functions, so it is also the vehicle of both progress and regression. Under the given conditions, exclusion from work means mutilation, not only for the unemployed but also for people at the opposite social pole. Those at the top experience the existence with which they no longer need to concern themselves as a mere substrate, and are wholly ossified as the self which issues commands. Primitive man experienced the natural thing only as the fugitive object of desire, ‘but the lord, who has interposed the bondsman between it and himself, takes to himself only the dependent aspect of the thing and has the pure enjoyment of it. The aspect of its independence he leaves to the bondsman, who works on it.’ Odysseus is represented in the sphere of work. Just as he cannot give way to the lure of self-abandonment, as owner he also forfeits participation in work and finally even control over it, while his companions, despite their closeness to things, cannot enjoy their work because it is performed under compulsion, in despair, with their senses forcibly stopped. The servant is subjugated in body and soul, the master regresses.”

This has proven an inescapable dilemma: “No system of domination has so far been able to escape this price, and the circularity of history in its progress is explained in part by this debilitation, which is the concomitant of power. Humanity, whose skills and knowledge become differentiated with the division of labor, is thereby forced back to more primitive anthropological stages, since, with the technical facilitation of existence, the continuance of domination demands the fixation of instincts by greater repression. Fantasy withers. The calamity is not that individuals have fallen behind society or its material production. Where the development of the machine has become that of the machinery of control, so that technical and social tendencies, always intertwined, converge in the total encompassing of human beings, those who have lagged behind represent not only untruth. Adaptation to the power of progress furthers the progress of power, constantly renewing the degenerations which prove successful progress, not failed progress, to be its own antithesis. The curse of irresistible progress is irresistible regression” (27-28).

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