Acephalopædia

July 22, 2017

Adorno and Horkheimer on "myth, power, and labor"

From Dialectic of Enlightenment:

The intertwinement of myth, power, and labor is preserved in one of the tales of Homer. Book XII of the Odyssey tells how Odysseus sailed past the Sirens. Their allurement is that of losing onself in the past. But the hero exposed to it has come of age in suffering. In the multitude of mortal dangers which he has had to endure, the unity of his own life, the identity of the person, have been hardened. The realms of time have been separated for him like water, earth, and air. The tide of what has been has receded from the rock of the present, and the future lies veiled in cloud on the horizon. What Odysseus has left behind him has passed into the world of shades: so close is the self to the primeval myth from whose embrace it has wrested itself that its own lived past becomes a mythical prehistory. It seeks to combat this by a fixed order of time. The tripartite division is intended to liberate the present moment from the power of the past by banishing the latter beyond the absolute boundary of the irrerecoverable and placing it, as usable knowledge, in the service of the present. The urge to rescue the past as something living, instead of using it as the material of progress, has been satisfied only in art, in which even history, as a representation of past life, is included. A long as art does not insist on being treated as knowledge, and thus exclude itself from praxis, it is tolerated by social praxis in the same way as pleasure. But the Sirens’ song has not yet been deprived of power as art. They have knowledge “of all that has ever happened on this fruitful earth” and especially of what has befallen Odysseus himself: “For we know all that the Argives and the Trojans suffered on the broad plain of Troy by the will of the gods.” By directly invoking the recent past, and with the irresistible promise of pleasure which their song contains, the Sirens threaten the patriarchal order, which gives each person back their life only in exchange for their full measure of time. When only unfailing presence of mind wrests survival from nature, anyone who follows the Sirens’ phantasmagoria is lost. If the Sirens know everything that has happened, they demand the future as its price, and their promise of a happy homecoming is the deception by which the past entraps a humanity filled with longing. Odysseus has been warned by Circe, the divinity of regression to animal form, whom he has withstood and who therefore gives him the strength to withstand other powers of dissolution. But the lure of the Sirens remains overpowering. No one who hears their song can escape. Humanity had to inflict terrible injuries on itself before the self—the identical, purpose-directed, masculine character of human beings—was created, and something of this process is repeated in every childhood. The effort to hold itself together attends the ego at all its stages, and the temptation to be rid of the ego has always gone hand-in-hand with the blind determination to preserve it. Narcotic intoxication, in which the euphoric suspension of the self is expiated by deathlike sleep, is one of the oldest social transactions mediating between self-preservation and self-annihilation, an attempt by the self to survive itself. The fear of losing the self, and suspending with it the boundary between oneself and other life, the aversion to death and destruction, is twinned with a promise of joy which has threatened civilization at every moment. The way of civilization has been that of obedience and work, over which fulfillment shines everlastingly as mere illusion, as beauty deprived of power. Odysseus’s idea, equally inimical to his death and to his happiness, shows awareness of this. He knows only two possibilities of escape. One he prescribes to his comrades. He plugs their ears with wax and orders them to row with all their might. Anyone who wishes to survive must not listen to the temptation of the irrecoverable, and is unable to listen only if he is unable to hear. Society has always made sure that this was the case. Workers must look ahead with alert concentration and ignore anything which lies to one side. The urge toward distraction must be grimly sublimated in redoubled exertions. Thus workers are made practical. The other possibility Odysseus chooses for himself, the landowner, who has others to work for him. He listens, but does so while bound helplessly to the mast, and the stronger the allurement grows the more tightly he has himself bound, just as the later bourgeois denied themselves happiness the closer it drew to them with the increase of their own power. What he hears has no consequences for him; he can signal to his men to untie him only by movements of his head, but it is too late. His comrades, who themselves cannot hear, know only of the danger of the song, not of its beauty, and leave him tied to the mast to save both him and themselves. They reproduce the life of the oppressor as part of their own, while he cannot step outside his social role. The bonds by which he has irrevocably fettered himself to praxis at the same time keep the Sirens at a distance from praxis: their lure is neutralized as a mere object of contemplation, as art. The fettered man listens to a concert, as immobilized as audiences later, and his enthusiastic call for liberation goes unheard as applause. In this way the enjoyment of art and manual work diverge as the primeval world is left behind. The epic already contains the correct theory. Between the cultural heritage and enforced work there is a precise correlation, and both are founded on the inescapable compulsion toward the social control of nature. 1

Many readers, even many academics, tend to get discouraged when tackling Frankfurt School writing, especially Adorno. In particular, I think musicologists tend to get set up for kind of a shit deal in our exposure to Adorno, whose musicological writings generally have not aged well. His assessment of jazz as a product of the culture industry is notorious for its wholesale obliviousness to the actual situation of Black music-making in the United States.

Even in the quoted passage, it’s important to note where language dates this writing. While it would be a mistake to read the “masculine character” of the historical creation of the individual as any kind of reactionary gender essentialism, it does seem to ascribe an “always already” status to masculinity’s monopolization of self-creation that feminist and queer histories have done much to disassemble in more recent decades.

With that said, I think there’s so much here that remains powerfully relevant for those of us who make “the arts” an object of academic study (and especially for those who have the opportunity to teach).

The appreciation of serious art, we tend to learn as a matter of general indoctrination, offers a form of transcendence that avoids the pitfalls of other, potentially ecstatic activities such as intoxication, violence, or ascetic self-denial. Indeed, the transcendence experienced through aesthetic phenomena is thought to be “ennobling.” It elevates people in a way that, according to the theology of liberalism, inclines us to be enlightened citizens who believe in peace, tolerance, and Modern Science.

This passage utilizes myth to concretely illustrate one of critical theory’s major objections to such an understanding of art: Transcendence and toil are two sides of the same coin, and the coin is domination. Domination is the primordial cleaving of human activity into toil and transcendence. At least among the theorists of the Frankfurt School, this case is argued most accessibly by Herbert Marcuse in Eros and Civilization.

At all strata of society, the fragmentation of human life through domination and hierarchy makes itself known as an impulse towards escape, towards ecstasy and dissolution. It’s important to realize that the “orthodox” Marxian theory of class alone is not enough to describe what is encompassed within the notion of toil. Toil, in a sense, is the experience of having to surrender fragments of ourselves in order to exist. It is the degree to which we feel at odds with the world in both body and mind. Toil is a function of class, but it is also a function of all social hierarchies. Concepts such as affective labor and invisible labor explicate how the experience of having to struggle to hold on to some measure of comfort and ease in one’s own body (not to mention the more basic need of safety) is also distributed hierarchically along axes of race, gender, and disability.

The history of art as an object of passive, refined contemplation is to a great extent the history of the ruling-class value of restraint. There is a complex duality whereby one’s capacity to experience the specter of transcendence through “aesthetic emotions,” through melancholy and longing, is a marker of both privilege and fortitude. At least in the era since the advent of capitalism, this duality can certainly be related to the mythologies that attend social mobility. The restraint of aesthetic sublimation is simultaneously an index of one’s relative comfort in one’s own station, and of one’s ability to look towards transcendence without falling in. But in the view presented by Adorno and Horkheimer, this ability is really no ability at all. Rather, it is a situation of social remoteness that abstracts the longing for freedom away from its concrete conditions, leaving a “phantasmagoria” of alterity and impossibility.

Of course, there have been significant changes in the general situation of the arts since the essays comprising Dialectic of Enlightenment were written, but I think the use of myth in this passage offers a compelling model for how someone might go about trying to concretize a critical, materialist view of the arts, particularly with a skeptical audience in mind.


  1. Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002, 25-27.

I'm a graduate student in historical musicology based in NYC. This blog is a journal of my mostly "esoteric" experiments with theory. Please feel free to contact me by email.