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  • Dialectic of Deception
  • Ackbar Abbas (bio)

In Book XII of Homer’s Odyssey, one of the founding texts of Western culture, we find Ulysses’ successful encounter with the Sirens. In Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, one of the founding texts (however reluctantly) of cultural studies, we find the Sirens episode again, this time read more ambiguously as an “allegory of the dialectic of enlightenment”—that is, an allegory of how Western culture has gone wrong. 1 My theme in this essay is that central to contemporary culture and to cultural studies is what the Sirens’ song emblematizes so powerfully and enigmatically, namely the problematic of fascination.

What is fascination? Is it merely a state of illusion and passivity characterised by the loss or suspension of the critical faculties? Such a view sees fascination as essentially an instrument of indirect control and domination, all the more dangerous for its indirection, as when Susan Sontag speaks about “fascinating fascism” in her essay on Leni Riefenstahl, filmmaker to Hitler, or when W. F. Haug in Critique of Commodity Aesthetics speaks of “the fascination of aesthetic images” in the technocracy of media culture. 2 “Fascination,” he writes, “means simply that these aesthetic images capture people’s sensuality. In the course of dominating one’s sensuality, the fascinated individual is dominated by his or her [End Page 347] own senses.” 3 Hence, there are both ethical and political objections to the deceptions of fascination, which must then be overcome or demystified by critique, including the critique of media technologies. While some of these objections are certainly valid, they tend to take a too one-sided view of fascination, with the result that certain possibilities in contemporary culture are overlooked. What I want to propose, therefore, is a different problematic—not so much a critique of fascination-as-deception but a reconsideration of the implications of fascination for critique.

We can think of fascination as any experience that captures our attention without at the same time submitting entirely to our understanding. It is a term we come across almost everywhere today, from soap operas to esoteric scholarship. In ordinary discourse, fascination connotes simply the highly attractive, as when we speak of a fascinating man or woman or of a fascinating book or film. It is a favourite term of approbation, especially when we do not have very much else to say. In contrast, when there is too much to say, we also speak of fascination. Explicitly or implicitly, fascination has for some time been the subject of intense investigation and speculation: in literary and film theory; in philosophy, sociology, and anthropology; in psychoanalysis and the critique of political economy; in architecture and urban studies—in other words, in some of the more significant attempts to analyse the contemporary. This “double genealogy” suggests that fascination is neither knowledge nor ignorance: It is an enigmatic relation to what we do not know, a response to other imaginaries, other musics, other strange gods. We can call it, in a first approximation, a paracritical mode of attention.

Of course, there are many forms such enigmatic experiences could take; at this point, it is perhaps enough to say that in today’s globalised world of speed and information we are put more and more in touch with such experiences on a daily basis, if for no other reason than the mere fact of living in cities. Louis Aragon had already intuited in the 1920s how “our cities are peopled with sphinxes,” close cousins of the Sirens, who never give straight answers to our questions. 4 Closer in time, Mario Perniola suggests with fine hyperbole how the space of the contemporary “informational city” has some resemblance to Steven Spielberg’s film Jurassic Park, where dinosaurs from prehistory are re-created in all their hyperreality with futuristic computer technology—that is, where past and future come together to produce a confused and confusing present. 5 This is the present as a kind of Benjaminian Jetztzeit, or apocalyptic Now, where fragments of past [End Page 348] and future collide to disrupt the continuum of history. 6 The anachronisms or, better still, achronisms so produced are responsible for what Perniola, a...

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pp. 347-363
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2004
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