The Thanatosis of Enlightenment



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 Our contention in this chapter will be 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 also furnishes it with its fundamental conceptual core. Though each of these concepts is undoubtedly complex, and mobilized for 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’.


Instrumental Rationality Absolute Knowledge Sequential Ordination Qualitative Particularity Conceptual Subsumption 
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  1. 7.
    Jay Bernstein, Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics, Cambridge: CUP, 2001, 191.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 8.
    Roger Caillois, L’Homme et le sacré, Gallimard, Folio/Éssais 1988, 86–122.Google Scholar

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© Ray Brassier 2007

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