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The Thanatosis of Enlightenment

  • Brassier R
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Myth is already enlightenment, and enlightenment's destruction of superstition merely reinstates myth: this is the speculative thesis proposed by Adorno and Horkheimer's Dialectic of Enlightenment 1 . My contention here is that this dialectic of myth and enlightenment is structured by an entwinement of mimicry, mimesis, and sacrifice which not only underlies the book's 'excursus' on Odysseus and its celebrated chapter on anti-semitism, but arguably furnishes it with its fundamental conceptual core. Though each of these concepts are undoubtedly complex, mobilized to distinct purposes in different parts of Adorno's oeuvre in particular, their deployment in Dialectic of Enlightenment seems to harbour the key to Adorno and Horkheimer's speculative thesis. If, as Andreas Huyssen suggests, the concept of mimesis functions in five 'distinct but nevertheless overlapping' registers in Adorno's work 2 , three of these are fully operative in Dialectic of Enlightenment: the anthropological register; the biological-somatic register; and the psychoanalytic register. The argument of Dialectic of Enlightenment weaves these three registers together while distinguishing between mimicry, which ostensibly has a negative connotation in the book, and mimesis, whose speculatively positive sense may be glossed as similitude without conceptual subsumption. At the same time, the concept of sacrifice assumes its decisive import for the book's speculative thesis as the paradigm of non-conceptual exchange. The entwinement of similitude without identity and exchange without subsumption provides the pulse of the dialectic of myth and enlightenment. Thus the book's thesis can be paraphrased as follows: the sacrificial logic of myth is repeated in reason's own compulsive attempt to overcome myth by sacrificing it. Enlightenment reiterates mythic sacrifice by striving to sacrifice it. But as a result it unwittingly mimes the fatal compulsion which it intended to overcome. Only by 'working through' the sacrificial trauma that drives rationality, a working through which Adorno and Horkheimer characterize 1 Adorno, T. and Horkheimer, M. (2002) Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. E. Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford University Press).




Brassier, R. (2007). The Thanatosis of Enlightenment. In Nihil Unbound (pp. 32–48). Palgrave Macmillan UK.

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