I have heard the mermaids singing each to each

One of the fun things about reading theory about manga and japanese fan cultures – including Genshiken, Yaoi, Dojinshi culture, Cosplay and the like is seeing how many other underemployed academic otaku types have stumbled into the same territory. And because the culture grew during a certain time, alongside certain academic fads, a great deal of the literature uses post-structuralist jargon (the so-called postmodern or critical theory).

Sometimes the result is pure reading pleasure (well, you need a bit of culture studies background to get into it, but not much) Other times, the language is trying to get or keep a job as visiting professor at some damn university, and the good stuff has been beaten clean out of it.

This can be a real dry hump!

When used well, the language moves very large concepts around with ease and grace – a philosophical/ anthropological theory forklift doing ballet on the factory floor. But under the influence of too many academic advisors, journal editors and self censorship, the language dies, and so does the reason to keep reading.

So, In the name of poetics, and because I want to slip in some of the themes later, here is a little classic of early critical theory – an excerpt from Adorno and Horkeimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment ,from the OLD TRANSLATION (as the new translation serves as a painful demonstration of how to kill prose)

Note the stark divisions of labor in the story: The girls wield the raw magic of memory and absolute knowledge, but extract a fearsome price for it – death by shipwreck on the rocks. The boys seek to avoid this fate through hard work or through a rather kinky bit of voyeurism (A&H will later go on and on and on about Sade’s Juliette, but avoid any naughty bits in favor of watching a Sade’s sock puppet dance on Rousseau and exclaiming “told you so!”) and all number of worlds are divided in order to bring forth the modern, purposeful and rather hysteric male hero. Sounds like most graduate seminars I have suffered through.. . .

First: A bit of the NEW translation.. it is more “accurate” hmmmmph!

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 oneself 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.

Blah blah blah, then Oddy went to a combini and bought a cheese dog, Blah blah blah

Try this instead:

“”The entanglement of myth, domination and labor is preserved in one the Homeric narratives. Book XII of the Odyssey tells of the encounter with the Sirens. Their allurement is that of losing oneself in the past. But the hero to whom the temptation is offered has reached maturity through suffering. Through the many mortal perils he has had to endure, the unity of his own life, the identity of the individual has been confirmed for him.”

“The regions of time part for him as do water, earth and air.”

“For him, the flood of that-which-was has retreated from the rock of the present, and the future lies cloudy on the horizon. What Odysseus left behind him entered into the nether world; for the self is still so close to prehistoric myth, from whose womb it tore itself, that its very own experienced past becomes mythic prehistory. And it seeks to encounter that myth through the fixed order of time.””

(Whew! MYTH… got it yet???? It is still a bit of a slog, but the operatic prose –  cue the Wagner music – makes it tolerable. Lookee-out though, here comes some psychologizing:)

“The threefold schema is intended to free the present moment from the power of the past by referring that power behind the absolute barrier of the unrepeatable, and placing it at the disposal of the present as practical knowledge.”

“The compulsion to rescue what is gone as what is living, instead of using it as the material of progress was appeased only in art, to which history itself appertains as a presentation of past life.”

“So long as art declines to pass as cognition, social practice tolerates it as it tolerates pleasure.”

(Love that ” flood of that-which-was” – probably one word in German – And, if you care, this part is a tribute to their “lost” colleague Walter Benjamin and his “Angel of the New”.)

Cue the Wimmens….

“But the Sirens’s song has not yet been rendered powerless by reduction to the condition of art. They know “everything that ever happened on this so fruitful earth”, including those events in which Odysseus himself took part “all those things that Argos’s sons suffered by the will of the gods on the plains of Troy”

“While they directly evoke the past, with the irresistible promise of pleasure as which their song is heard, they threaten the patriarchal order which renders to each man his life only in return for his full measure of time.”

“Whoever falls for their trickery must perish, whereas only perpetual presence of mind forces an existence from nature,”

“Even though the Sirens know all that has happened, they demand the future as the price of that knowledge, and the promise of the happy return is the deception which ensnares the one who longs for it.”

“Odysseus is warned by Circe, that divinity of reversion to animal, whom he resisted and who therefore gives him strength to resist other powers of disintegration. But the allurement of the Sirens remains superior; no one who hears their song can escape.”

“Men have had to do fearful things to themselves before the self, the identical, purposive, and virile nature of man was formed and something of that recurs in every childhood. The strain of holding the I together adheres to the I, in all stages; and the temptation to lose it has always been there (along) with the blind determination to maintain it.””

(Holy Freud Batman – Seems like our hero is getting a bit tense! He needs to slow down, take it easy, have a relax! Hmmmph! sneer the Sirens; “Male hysteria, how precious, how rare. . .” )

“The narcotic intoxication which permits the atonement of deathlike sleep for the euphoria in which the self is suspended, is one of the oldest social arrangements which mediate between self-preservation and self-destruction – an attempt of the self to survive itself. The dread of losing the self and of abrogating together with the self, the barrier between oneself and other life – the fear of death and destruction, is intimately associated with a promise of happiness which threatened civilization at every moment.”

“Its road was that of obedience and labor, over which fulfillment shines forth perpetually – but only as illusive appearance, as devitalized beauty.”

(Yikes! nasty one! “Arbeit Mach Frei” …)

“The mind of Odysseus, inimical both to his own death and to his own happiness, is aware of this. He knows only two possible ways to escape.”

“One of them he prescribes for his men. He plugs their ears with wax, and they must row with all their strength. Whoever would survive must not hear the temptation of that which is unrepeatable, and he is able to survive only by being unable to hear it. Society has always made provision for that. The laborers must be fresh and concentrate as they look ahead, and must ignore what lays to one side.”

“They doggedly sublimate in additional effort the drive that impels to diversion. And so they become practical.”

“The other possibility Odysseus, the seigneur who allows the others to labor for themselves, reserves to himself: he listens, but while bound impotently to the mast: the greater the temptation the more he has his bonds tightened – just as later the burghers would deny themselves happiness all the more doggedly as it grew closer to them with the growth of their own power.”

(Nice Weber riff, Kristeva will later play it with gusto in “Holbein’s Dead Christ“)

“What Odysseus hears is without consequence for him; he is only able to nod his head as a sign to be set free from his bonds, but it is too late; his men who do not listen, know only of the song’s danger but nothing of its beauty, and leave him at the mast to save themselves. They reproduce the oppressor’s life together with their own, and the oppressor is no longer able to escape his social role. The bonds with which he has irremediably tied himself to practice also keep the Sirens away from practice: their temptation is neutralized and becomes a mere object of contemplation – becomes art.”

“The prisoner is present at a concert, an inactive eavesdropper like later concertgoers, and his spirited call for liberation fades like applause.”

Thus the enjoyment of art and manual labor break apart, as the world of prehistory is left behind . . .”

DOE pps 32-34 Adorno & Horkeimer

More fun on this at: http://www.othervoices.org/1.1/cubowman/siren.php

Also: http://homepage.newschool.edu/~quigleyt/vcs/salecl-sirens.html 

Of course, the longing for a time before the original sin of instrumental reason, for a time when “art” and “labor” can be reconciled, dogs the heels the Frankfurt school like furies howling for blood. This usually takes the path of calling for the overthrow of this or that alienating societal structure, and soon descends into fetishism. M. Sartre, meet M. Genet.


Consider instead the position of the Sirens:

Do they get a bit bored, knowing so much, sitting there day by day on the rocks, luring bumpkins and burghers?

What do you do with so many bumpkins and burghers once you get them?

How useless! How irritating!

Best to let them all to “be swept away, to drown in a sea of their own confusion.”

Why must the sirens sing only for our hero?

Do they not also call to their sisters?

What do the women hear when the mermaids sing?

Does it sound like 10am on the first day of comiket?

Much later: found and added the classic Rachel Matt Thorn 2004 article “Girls and Women Getting Out of Hand” to the link above.  

Even later: Professor Thorn has revamped her blog after a domain name-squatter filched it for a brief while and has yet to make the article available again. In the meantime, please see the Archived version here:

Updated version here:

Also of note:  Albrecht Wellmer’s  The Death of the Sirens and the Origin of the Work of Art, pdf available here or here