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Your home, my exile: boundaries and 'otherness' in antiquity and now. (Essai).


As traveller in perilous seas and storyteller, as trickster and bricoleur, as schemer and as bully, as lover and family man, as a leader of men and reader of situations, Odysseus has woven his way easily into discourses past and present. Focusing on one specific scene from the Odyssey, one in which Odysseus shipwrecked, naked and lost, in serious need of being organized, bursts into the organized routines of Princess Nausicaa, the author argues that the Odyssey offers insights into all encounters with the disorganized Other. Learning to listen to and understand the Other's voice is especially important at a time of ever-proliferating social, organizational and other boundaries.

Keywords: borders, boundaries, Odyssey, 'Other' discourse, refugees, voice


The world of the Odyssey could not be further apart from those of organizations. It is a world of heroes and heroines, gods and goddesses, ghosts and dragons, created by illiterate poets, with no rules, no regulations, no documents, no offices and no roles. There is no written-down law or system of justice. There are no information storage capacities, beyond individual memories. There are no markets, no cash and no customers. The separation between role and person is inconceivable. Even the smallest incident involves named people, who know each other as they trade blows, bluffs, gifts, insults and reputations. This is to a large measure an economy based on gift and plunder relations rather than impersonal market exchanges. (A classic account of the sociology of the Odyssey is offered by Finlay [1956/1978].)

And yet, the very distance between our world of organizations and the world of the Odyssey prompts us to look for similarities and points of contact. Hence we can think of Odysseus as a prototypical modem manager, using subterfuge, trickery and disguise to pursue a goal, downsizing his crew as situations demand and displaying a wide array of leadership virtues and vices. The Odyssey itself is comfortably installed as a metaphor for something, maybe a journey of discovery, maybe a story, maybe a parody of itself through endless parodies. At my latest count, there were no fewer than 687 items with Odyssey in their title in the Amazon catalogue. The Odyssey becomes an infinitely malleable metaphor which fits every situation -- in short, a cliche. What value then can the Odyssey add to our understanding of organizing, other than as a comfortable metaphor?

The Odyssey -- Plot, Narrative Structure and Characters

What is the Odyssey and who is Odysseus, its protagonist?

The Odyssey (Homer, 1980) is the second of two vast epic poems attributed to Homer. (There are numerous translations in many contemporary languages. Translations have been both in prose and in verse and styles have varied from the classic to the romantic and from the pompous and formal to the casual and colloquial. Translators into English have included Thomas Hobbes, Alexander Pope, Samuel Butler, T. E. Lawrence and Seamus Heaney. I have used the prose translation by Walter Shewring which combines faithfulness to the original with an unpretentious but serious style.) Homer's identity has remained hidden through the ages and debates have raged as to whether the two poems are the work of a single author, two authors or indeed multiple authors. There are also questions as to the poems' mode of composition, though the view has now prevailed that the poems were composed and performed orally and were not committed to writing until several centuries after their invention. The earlier poem, the Iliad, is a narrative which combines epic and tragic qualities; it describes a phase of the Trojan War, a long and brutal conflict, which saw armies from mainland Greece attack the fortified citadel of Troy and its allies on Asia Minor. It recounts the events that followed the dispute between Agamemnon and Achilles and its tragic consequences. It is a tale of great courage and folly, loyalty, cruelty and sacrifice, which concludes with two magnificent acts of bravery and generosity and a lull in hostilities between Trojans and Achaeans. The universe of the Iliad is heroic, aristocratic and almost static. Friends are friends and foes are foes -- which makes the disputes among friends and friendship among foes powerful drives for the narrative. War, in spite of its savagery, is conducted according to certain rules of etiquette and nobility.

The Odyssey narrates the journey of Odysseus and his comrades on their way back home to Ithaca following the fall of Troy and the defeat of the Trojans. The Odyssey's universe is very different from that of the Iliad. It is a world in constant flux and turmoil. The Odyssey is dominated by images of the wine-coloured sea, the waves, the wind and the salt, much as the Iliad is full of images of the land, bitterly contested and blood-soaked. It is a great seafaring adventure, a journey through storms and shipwrecks, punctuated by meetings with strange creatures and people, a journey full of dangers and bleakness, but also a journey of unpredictable wonders, boons and discoveries.

But what kind of journey?

The words used by the ancients to describe the journey of Odysseus and his crew is nostos, a word well known to us as the source of nostalgia, originally meaning the painful yearning for one's homeland and home. Nostos is a journey with a task, but without a mission. Unlike those of other seafaring heroes, Jason, Theseus and Aeneas, Odysseus' wanderings are not in pursuit of a noble deed, a homeland or vision. His is neither a band of rescuers nor one of refugees. Still less is Odysseus' journey a voyage of exploration, discovery or pilgrimage. Unlike the expedition to Troy it is not a raid or a conquest. The journey of Odysseus and his companions is a homecoming. A homecoming after a long and cruel war of plunder, slaughter and destruction and all its dehumanizing consequences. It is a centripetal journey, drawn towards the centre, Ithaca, the home and the marital bed, against forces of resistance. Its psychological motive is nostalgia, an overwhelming yearning for home, for that barren piece of land called Ithaca, no matter how poorly it compares with the wonders that are discovered along the way. Organizationally, we may say straight away that the Odyssey is a disastrous journey, since Odysseus alone among his crew of twelve ships will ever set foot on Ithaca again.

But the Odyssey is not only a journey. The second half of the poem takes place in Ithaca itself, where on his return, Odysseus discovers a gang of suitors installed in his palace, harassing his wife and plotting the death of his son. During his twenty-year absence, the land has been ravaged, the city has decayed and nothing is as he left it. With rightful despair, he might have exclaimed (paraphrasing a famous line) 'Chez moi le deluge!' But Odysseus is not one given to despair and indignation. While experiencing powerful emotions of recognition, pity and self-pity, he remains a practical man with a new task at hand. By concealing his identity, he sets about testing the ground, finding those who have remained loyal to him, and masterminds the destruction of the suitors and his return to the throne. In a series of powerful if perplexing encounters, he reveals his identity to different people: his son, the shepherds, the old servant, the suitors and finally his wife and his father. Through these recognition sce nes, it emerges that the warrior's homecoming after twenty years away is no easy task, but a dangerous, confusing and painful event which requires much versatility and courage to accomplish. The conclusion of the Odyssey lacks the Iliad's tragic closure and, for many, suggests many more adventures and much suffering to come. Odysseus has slain the suitors and is reunited with Penelope, but it is clear that work needs to be done to restore peace in the land. The dead suitors' families set upon him and his loyal followers. A battle erupts and only Athena' s divine intervention restores the peace, a peace which is too tentative and built on too much injustice and suffering to last.

The Odyssey's narrative structure is a source of endless fascination. Unlike the Iliad, it does not take place in serial time with occasional flashbacks, but involves numerous interwoven narrative lines developed by many storytellers for the benefit of many listeners who are themselves parts of other stories. There is a profusion of stories within the story, and even stories within stories within the story -- the very idea of a central story becomes blurred. There are many flashbacks, many narrations, many storytellers and many listeners. Thus, we learn about the fail of Troy, second hand, from the stories told by Menelaus and Helen to Telemachus, Odysseus' son, and third-hand from the songs of the blind bard Demodocus (Homer' s self-portrait of his younger Iliadic self, perhaps) to the Phaeacian court; we learn about the deaths of Achilles and Agamemnon through their own narrations, when Odysseus meets them during his visit to the underworld. But most important, we learn the majority of the seafaring adventu res from Odysseus himself, as he narrates them to his hosts, the King and Queen of Phaeacia, on whose land he has become shipwrecked. This allows both for poetic embellishments and for dazzling changes of pace, where leisurely narrative and lengthy digressions give way to paroxysms of narrative activity. It is a far more unpredictable, indeed neurotic structure than the Iliad's majestic movement from dispute to crisis to misfortune to tragic resolution. Yet, it is a very active and self-generating structure, with not a trace of the passive sequence of successive adventures to which it is translated in cartoon renderings. Its characters, far more than those of other epics, are storytellers and story-listeners in their own rights, performing their stories to each other, embellishing them, omitting vital details, and placing themselves into each other's stories. It is not accidental that commentators have tended to view the Odyssey as the first Greek novel -- a novel in verse rather than an epic poem.

Who is Odysseus, the story's central character? Odysseus is one of the most widely discussed, explored and parodied literary characters - he probably equals Don Juan and Faust in both popularity and notoriety, surfacing among others in the works of Sophocles, Euripides, Plato, the Stoics, Virgil, Ovid, Dante, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Joyce, Seferis and Kazantzakis. He is an endlessly fascinating character, capable of remarkable transformations from hero to villain, displaying extremes of courage and malice, eliciting equally admiration and vilification. (For a thorough though partisan account of the character of Odysseus in world literature, see Stanford, 1963/1992). The character is already familiar to readers of the Odyssey through his involvement in the Iliad, where he is a major character, even if he never overshadows the towering presences of Agamemnon, Achilles and Hector.

Already in the Iliad, we are familiar with his central qualities -- he is the most versatile of characters, the embodiment of practical intelligence, the source of countless stratagems and ruses, a compelling and persuasive speaker. His bravery, never in question, is always tempered by prudence and he appears to lack the trademark narcissism of other Iliadic heroes. Unlike them, he is not surrounded by coteries of fiatterers and admirers, his selfconfidence is such that he needs no friend or others to approve of him and he never acts in order merely to prove a point. He is a solitary individual, thoroughly mature, and needs no human to hold his hand -- although gods frequently come to his assistance. He is feared by foes, although one suspects that his fellow Greeks also respect him and fear him in equal measures. They certainly show little sign of love for him. They recognize him as indispensable for success in the military campaign and, in a famous incident, which is not part of the Iliad, reward him with t he armour of the dead Achilles much to the dismay of Ajax, who subsequently goes mad and kills himself. Already in the Iliad, he has acquired the epithet 'polymetis', one of several epithets involving the prefix 'poly', i.e. multiple, including polytropos and polymechanos. A man of many wiles, many devices and many machines. Unlike Achilles, Agamemnon or Diomedes, all men who rely on their valour, courage and reputation to see them through, Odysseus deploys different means for different situations -- he is capable of gentleness, persuasion, silence, planning and improvization in different circumstances.

Unlike other characters, whose epic stature depends on winning in the grand manner, totally obliterating their adversary, Odysseus generally displays an economy of effort, content to achieve his objectives with minimal fuss. For this reason, he possesses the qualities of self-control and self-discipline to a remarkable degree, knowing when to stay silent, when to engage an opponent and when to seek to outmanoeuvre him. Above all, he thinks before he talks and thinks before he acts, in a manner that brings that famous reproach from Achilles: 'The man who hides his thoughts in his heart and speaks a different word is as hateful to me as the gates of Hell.' In contrast to the brusque directness of Achilles, Agamemnon and the others, Odysseus is oblique, indirect and subtle. Or to use a different language, deceitful and dishonest, capable of ruthlessness and cold-bloodedness, but also gentleness and compassion. Yet, numerous commentators have observed a gentle side to his character, one that makes him especially attractive to women, and a very strong emotional attachment to his wife and son -- qualities that are inconspicuous in the other warrior-heroes.

The core qualities of Odysseus, his resourcefulness, remorselessness and self-control will unfold, develop and cross-fertilize in the Odyssey. Faced with the unpredictability of the high seas, its monsters, its gods and its enchanters, Odysseus proves infinitely adaptable; he is decisive when impetuosity is required and gentle when moderation is called for. Faced with adversity, he proves himself a model of survival, using every device and wile to overcome it. At this level, Odysseus is a paragon of bricolage. Unlike so many of today's managers, Odysseus never complains of inadequate resources. Making do with whatever resources are available to him, he is capable of redefining useless materials into useful ones and of redefining his objective in line with the resources available. Trapped with some of his companions in the cave by the murderous giant Polyphemus, the Cyclops who has already brutally killed and cannibalized several of his companions, Odysseus knows that the cave's opening is blocked by an unmove able rock, so killing the Cyclops will lead to inevitable death. Faced with this task, he will use what is at hand, a flask of wine to get the Cyclops drunk and a stake fashioned out of a log lying idly about the cave, sharpened, hardened and heated, to blind the giant. Note too the ruse involving his name. By paraphrasing his own name, from Odysseus to Oudeis, meaning Nobody, he prepares for his escape, when the blinded giant calls for assistance from his kinsmen. When blinding the Cyclops, he has not yet hatched a plan of how to escape from the cave, though his Oudeis deception prepares the ground by keeping the kinsmen away. He then uses the Cyclops' own strength as his resource for removing the mighty rock. The Cyclops must open the cave to let his sheep go out to graze, but he is smart enough to seek to stop Odysseus and his comrades escape by guarding the opening. It is then that Odysseus devises the plan's next stage, famously tying his surviving comrades under the bellies of the Cyclops' sheep so that they can escape unmolested. (A particularly intriguing interpretation of the episode with the Cyclops is offered by Horkheimer and Adorno 1947/1997).

In using his resourcefulness, his practical intelligence, Odysseus is no gentleman. No means is too immoral or undignified to be deployed. He lies, disguises himself, deceives and bullies to achieve his aims; and in all this he never displays any guilt or moral qualms. He continuously transgresses all kinds of boundaries, geographical, social and moral. Everything about Odysseus marks him as a boundary transgressor, from the Wooden Horse ruse which so cruelly broke the defences of the Trojan citadel, to the escape from the cave of the Cyclops. He alone among mortals can cross the ultimate boundary, passing through those hated gates of Hades, meeting the ghosts of his dead friends, relatives and enemies, and come out not only unscathed, but also with fresh resources with which to face an uncertain future. In this too, he transcends the mere bricoleur -- he is a schemer whose ruses and deceptions invite a mixture of admiration and horror. His utter remorselessness is evidence of his unshakeable self-belief but belies not a little of the psychopath.

The crossing of frontiers through deception is one of the key ideas from the Odyssey I wish to explore. Deception is clearly despised by Achilles in the Iliad, though lesser heroes find much to admire in it. Like us, the Greeks had an ambivalent attitude to it. Yet, unlike us, they seemed to relish it as a kind of virtuosity in its own right. Their gods, too, were prone to deception. As a young child, Hermes stole his brother Apollo's cattle, earning not censure but much admiration from the other gods. Athena also routinely practises deception in both the Odyssey and the Iliad, as do several other gods. The Greeks found much to admire in deception, even when it was not perpetrated pro bono publico or even in pursuit of narrow self-interest. In fact, the Greeks of old seemed to appreciate deception for its own sake -- for the hell of it. And hence, a snatched victory, an undeserved victory is as sweet, if not sweeter, than one earned with courage and blood. And this may be true for today's Greeks too, in their attitudes towards the bank robber, the dodger, the tax-evader. What the Greeks scorned is the trickster who fails -- the trickster whose bluff is trumped. Deception, in this way, was a test of character -- when successful, at its best, it overpowers sheer force. At its worst, failed deception (like a called bluff) reveals the trickster for a fool. Thus Odysseus is prone to trump the guiles of lesser tricksters.

In deception we find the product of the combination of three key Odyssean qualities: resourcefulness, remorselessness and courage. To these, we must add the quality that uniquely sets Odysseus apart from all other Homeric characters, his almost superhuman capacity for self-control, under extreme conditions of provocation. This, remember, is a society based on shame rather than guilt. Insult is the medium through which the chief currency, honour, is traded. For a man of valour1 and honour, anger, manifested in direct retaliation, far from being censured, is an instrument for gaining respect. Yet, on innumerable occasions, Odysseus tempers anger and other emotions, controlling his immediate impulses. Blinding the Cyclops in order to ensure their escape from the cave means taming his impulse to kill him while asleep. Likewise, after he arrives in Ithaca, when confronted with the storm in his own home, he tempers his craving for instant revenge, engages in a series of elaborate disguises and deceptions in order t o test the loyalty of those he left behind, before planning and executing the suitors' downfall. Now, can anyone imagine Achilles or Agamemnon sparing the sword for a disguise? His attempt to deceive his own wife Penelope as to his identity, by pretending he is a traveller and disguising himself in rags, has often been criticized as cruel and unworthy of a true hero. Yet, might Agamemnon's brutal end at the hands of his wife and her lover not have been a warning to him?

One can talk at great length about Odysseus, a truly Protean character who drives the Odyssey's plot in a way that no single hero drives the Iliad. However, we must content ourselves with one final observation. For all his wandering, sufferings and conquests, there is relatively little sign that Odysseus fundamentally changes as a person. Neither his mind nor his body changes in any fundamental way. This may be part of the Homeric universe in which the person's identity is not problematic in a psychological sense, although it maybe problematic in the forensic sense. The nature of the person does not change either through his or her actions or through his or her experiences. Odysseus' overall qualities are unchanged, even if we sense an increasing propensity towards suspiciousness and sentimentality. Throughout the narrative, he remains a character who combines courage, improvisation, flexibility and cunning with less attractive qualities of lying, bullying and immorality -- not a bad archetype maybe for a cer tain type of manager today.

The Odyssey's other characters are by no means derivative or uninteresting. There are dazzling female presences in Penelope, Nausicaa, Calypso, Circe, Mete, Euricleia and, above all, the goddess Athena. Penelope may seem a passive character, certainly out of line with the feminine ideals of our times. At times moody and depressed, she seems to be easily deceived by Odysseus' disguises. Yet, in recent times, commentators have discovered a different Penelope in the text, with much to admire in her beyond female constancy, obedience and sound housekeeping. Like Odysseus, she displays an excellent ability of reading situations, she is a cunning schemer in her own way, as shown by her stratagems to keep the suitors at a distance, she has fortitude and she is as good at defending boundaries as is Odysseus at prising them apart. Far from being tricked by Odysseus' disguise, she is aware from the first minute he appears at the palace of his true identity. It is for this reason, that she risks the challenge of the twe lve axes, which without Odysseus' presence might have seen her a hostage to fortune. Far from being a passive victim, waiting to be saved by her noble husband, still less the spoils of the struggle, Penelope is the perfect match for Odysseus -- prudent, resourceful, a complete survivor. Both are skilled crisis managers and know when to stand and fight and when to deploy different means to achieve their ends. (There are several feminist readings of Penelope, including by Doherty 1995 and Katz 1991, and several contributors in Cohen 1995. The relevance of several of these for organizations was explored by Czarniawska 2001. A stimulating feminist account is offered in a reworking of the Odyssey's plot into a novel by Malerba 1997).

The final reunion of Penelope and Odysseus is undoubtedly a poetic masterpiece. In it she turns the tables on him, affecting to test his identity (she is not one to be tricked by any returning Martin Guerre), when in fact she is testing his feelings, prior to reopening her heart to him. Only then are the two reunited as husband and wife, as lovers, as storytellers and story-listeners, in Homer's words, 'the two in their room enjoying the delights of love, then pleased one another with recounting what had happened to them.'

'Now indeed you have won my stubborn heart at last,' she said, and at once the tears rose to his eyes. He wept as he held the true-hearted wife in whom his soul delighted. As land is welcome to shipwrecked sailors when out at sea Poseidon has struck their gallant vessel -- the sport of tempest and swelling waves -- and now a few of them have swum out from the whitening waters to a refuge on shore, their bodies all encrusted with brine -- as welcome as is the dry land to those when they set foot there with all their miseries behind them -- so welcome to her was the husband she kept her gaze upon, and her white arms about his neck would even now not let him go.' (Homer, 1980)

Yet, true to their nature, they plan for the immediate future, how to face the angry families of the suitors the following day; and, for the longer future, as Odysseus insists on telling Penelope Teiresias' strange prophesy in the underworld -- according to which there will be more travels and sorrows ahead and a peaceful death in old age.

As traveller in perilous seas and storyteller, as trickster and bricoleur, as schemer and as a bully, as lover and family man, as a leader of men and reader of situations, Odysseus has woven his way easily into discourses past and present. As scholars of organizations, we can learn much from his travels and his deeds. Yet, what I want to do in the rest of this essay is focus on one specific scene from the Odyssey, one in which Odysseus shipwrecked, naked and lost, in serious need of being organized, offers an abiding image for those of us who manage, endure, and survive in today's organizations.

The Discourse of 'the Other' in the Odyssey

Picture the scene. Shipwrecked after twenty days at sea on a raft, Odysseus survives two days battling the waves, before managing to drag himself to a forbidding and rocky land, which will turn out to be Scheria, the land of the Phaeacians. A real castaway, though I doubt that Tom Hanks could do justice to the part. He is naked, starved and exhausted, but manages to find a natural shelter at the foot of two olive trees; he heaps up a bed of olive leaves and falls deeply asleep. The next day, he is awoken by the joyful laughter and shouting of young women, who, of all things, are playing a game of ball. This, remember, is the man who has landed on the lands of man-eating Cyclops and Lestrygonians, monsters and witches. He is now faced with a different challenge -- how to approach the young maidens and plead for hospitality and help:

'Odysseus crept Out of the underwood; but first with his powerful arm he tore a leafy branch from the tangled growth to go across his body and hide his nakedness. Then he advanced like a mountain lion, sure of his strength, who goes his way with blazing eyes through wind and through rain, hunting the wild deer or ranging among sheep or cattle; if flocks are penned in a strong-built fold, his hungry belly makes him go after them even there. And Odysseus, naked as he was, made bold to approach these girls with their braided hair because necessity was upon him. Frightening he looked as he stood before them befouled with brine. The other girls fled in dismay ... The princess Nausicaa alone kept where she was ... she stood her ground and faced him there. Odysseus pondered, framing a plea that would move this lovely girl but unsure if in his utterance of it he should clasp her knees or stand apart. Having considered, he thought it best to stand apart as he uttered that moving plea, because the girl might feel displ easure if he touched her. He began at once with words that would touch her heart and gain his purpose.' (Homer, 1980)

What a scene. The mountain lion meets the carefree virgin. Needless to say that Odysseus had no difficulty finding the right voice to appeal to Nausicaa. His performance, under the circumstances, is a narrative tour-de-force. Interestingly, Odysseus does not choose to tell a story, as he does in numerous other encounters, but delivers a blessing. He expresses bedazzlement at Nausicaa's beauty and grace, blessing her parents for having a daughter like her, blessing her future husband, before appealing to her compassion for a man who has endured many sufferings and survived many ordeals. Nausicaa is deeply moved by his plight and, as is clear to all, develops more than a passing interest for the stranger. She will discover the meaning of pity and love, and her life will never be the same again. She will offer food, clothes and information to Odysseus and will then introduce him to her mother and father, Queen and King of the Phaeacians. To this royal family, Odysseus will eventually recount his adventures, with us the readers eavesdropping on his tales, before he is dispatched to Ithaca on a Phaeacian vessel with noble gifts.

A cynical view of the Odysseus--Nausicaa encounter might regard her as a victim of his scheming, a tool he uses to achieve his aim of obtaining a free ride back home. But such a view would do injustice to Odysseus and, especially, to Nausicaa. Nausicaa, one of the story's great female presences, profoundly moved by Odysseus, is left with a great story to tell her children and grandchildren; indeed, in Samuel Butler's famous view, she is the true author of the entire Odyssey. Her parting words to Odysseus are not those of a person used:

'Farewell, stranger. And when you are back in your native land, remember me for it is to me that you owe your life.' (Homer, 1980)

And Odysseus' final words to her are not those of a schemer:

'Nausicaa, daughter of the great Alcinous, ... may Zeus grant me a joyful day of nostos/homecoming; and then through all my days, your name will be on my lips like a god's, because you gave me life Nausicaa.' (Homer, 1980)

Many commentators have felt cheated by this scene. A marvellous love affair which never materializes, an unlived line in both of their lives which no poet should have left unexplored. And yet, this curt, sad parting has qualities which Nietzsche viewed as simply transcendental. 'One ought to depart from life', he wrote, 'as Odysseus departed from Nausicaa - blessing it rather than in love with it.'

Far from being an instance in which Odysseus displays crass emotional intelligence to get what he wants, his encounter with Nausicaa shows him, first, as an intuitive reader of an extraordinary situation, second, as a skilful improviser, using the branch to hide his nakedness and finding the right narrative for the occasion, and third, as someone capable of exceptional emotional labour, an emotional display which combines control and abandon to touch another human being. This shipwrecked warrior, this naked lion, is separated by an immense gulf of experience from the gentle maiden whose biggest adventure to date has been a picnic with her girlfriends. An age gap, a culture gap, and a gender gap. And yet, this encounter brings them together, bridging the gap through the power of narrative. to reveal the existence of a common language and a common humanity. This achievement of narrative does not come easy. Homer himself felt compelled to oil the encounter with ample doses of divine intervention by Athena, who h elps transform a chance encounter into the forming of a relation. Yet, Odysseus is also the epitome of that ancient Greek saying 'Along with Athena, move your own hand'; his performance offers a great illustration of the effort and ingenuity that it takes for narrative to build relations across differences and to overcome the mistrust and fear of the other. As for Nausicaa, in her we find a person who is willing to stand and listen, with sensitivity, curiosity and generosity. It is her willingness to listen that allows Odysseus' voice to be heard and for their stories to come together, if only for the briefest spell.

We are now highly aware of the importance of narrative for organizing. In the encounter I have just outlined, the centrality of narrative for organizing is laid bare. At the start, we have a totally disorganized Odysseus, lacking all fixed datum in space and time, lacking clothes and, apparently, lacking all resources to organize himself. We also have a nicely organized Nausicaa with her friends, who have engaged in a familiar routine. They have loaded dirty laundry on a carriage, have gone to the river and washed it, had a pleasant picnic and are now playing a game of ball. This routine is rudely disrupted by the appearance of a wild and naked man. A great narrative exploit will have to be accomplished in order to bring these two together, to melt the boundary which separates them from each other. And we are not disappointed. The exploit is not Odysseus' alone, but Nausicaa's too, since it is her response to his narrative, with all its sensitivity to difference, respect for the stranger and generosity of spi rit, that brings their stories together. Far from shutting her ears and running away at the prospect of such a trouble-maker entering her life, Nausicaa stands and listens, listens and understands, understands and accepts the Other's voice, the other's story. And it is the poet's narrative accomplishment too that all this is achieved without a trace of the contrived, the routine or the artificial.

Contemporary Encounters with the Other

Time for an interruption. With the melodies of Nausicaa's encounter still lingering in our mind, let us move to a different scene, yet a scene where once again the disorganized meets the organized. It is a scene from our times, of large organizations, written records, and overhead transparencies. You will be familiar with this scene or many similar ones from your nightly news bulletins or newspaper reports.

It is 6 June 1993 and New Yorkers are awakened to the news that a shipwreck has been sighted not far off Rockaway beach. A group of desperate men and women are seen swimming ashore. Within minutes the police, the coastguard, the immigration services, the media with pundits and the public have gathered at the scene. Six of those shipwrecked drown; approximately 300 make it to the land.

In the next few hours, an immense organizational machinery has been mobilized to welcome the shipwrecked. A few of them, maybe those crafty heirs to Odysseus, manage to slip through this machinery. Subsequently, police with dogs capture five of them in the borough of Queens. Twenty are never accounted for. As for the remaining 282 'illegal aliens' as they have become, by nightfall they have been handcuffed and sent to distant prisons scattered across the US.

After the shipwreck, many people spoke about the survivors or on their behalf; here are some of the media headlines:

'Alien-smuggling ship runs aground; hundreds of Chinese swim onto NY beach; 7 die in frigid ocean' -- Washington Post 7/6/93

'A sea of voices, all yelling' -- Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale) NY Daily News 7/6/93

'Smuggled to New York: The scene: Waves of panic yield to elation of refugees' -- NY Times 7/6/93

'Smuggled to New York: 7 die as crowded immigrant ship grounds off Queens; One failed voyage illustrates flow of Chinese immigration' -- NY Times 7/6/93

'7 aliens die as Queens surfship founders, disgorges 250 illegal Chinese immigrants' -- The Record 7/6/93

'Tidal wave of human flotsam on a desperate venture west' -- Lloyd's List 9/6/93 'Stop the flow of human cargo' -- Seattle Post 8/6/93

'Send them back' -- NY Post editorial 9/6/93

Having survived 112 days in the darkness of a rustbucket, the Golden Venture, on one toilet and a bowl of rice daily, the 282 will experience long incarceration and many of them forced repatriation from the US. A few will be offered refugee status on humanitarian grounds. Many will seek political asylum as victims of China's one-child policy, while many, despairing of dreadful conditions in detention centres, will opt for voluntary repatriation. Their subsequent story could be described as an Odyssey in its own right, of the Kafkaesque rather than Homeric variety.

Several human rights organizations took up their cause. The story emerged that they came from the Fujian province of China, and had each paid about $30,000 to human traffickers. They might have ended in lives of indentured servitude in Chinatown restaurants. Instead, most of them spent more than three years incarcerated as 'non-criminal aliens', before being freed through a curious twist, typical of the narcissistic sentimentality of the Clinton years. In February 1997, Representative Goodling of York, Pennsylvania, the site of the prison in which many of the Golden Venture refugees had been kept, showed Clinton some of the artwork the prisoners had produced -- intricately folded paper sculptures of caged eagles and other symbols. 'That sure is beautiful,' Clinton told the congressman. 'That's what you do when you are in prison for three and a half years,' Goodling responded. Moved, the great leader signed the papers for the release of the prisoners -- not their 'naturalization', mind, the refugees would stil l have to prove to the authorities that they were fleeing political persecution.

I do not wish to use the incident to draw any moralistic conclusions. Cruelty and the defence of borders were features of the Odyssean universe as they continue to be today. I will also resist the temptation to discuss the issues of immigration and political asylum in the time of so-called globalization of everything and the free flow of information, commodities and capital across national frontiers. I want to conclude my presentation with something more modest -- how a society of organizations deals with the voice of the disorganized Other.

Remember it was the 'voices' of the screaming Chinese in the moonlight that is meant to have alerted New Yorkers to the shipwreck. Yet, these voices are lost as soon as they are washed ashore. Like Odysseus, the Chinese refugees, hungry, cold and covered in brine, emerge from the hostile sea as the Other, the needy, the displaced, the incomprehensible. Unlike his, their voices may never be heard. They will meet no Nausicaa to listen to their story; instead, they will face the world of our organizations. Our organizations are not interested in listening to the Other. They are interested in labelling, classifying and managing them, in short in incorporating them into their own narratives. The refugees' stories are not relevant, they are not required and they are not part of the narratives which will engulf and swallow them faster than the angry sea. Are they 'deserving' political refugees from Communism, or undeserving' economic migrants (like many of us in the academy)? Are they survivors or victims of crimina l people-traffickers? Are they criminals themselves? Within a matter of hours, their Otherness has been appropriated, classified and organized into our discourse of Otherness -- they have been normalized, they have become 'illegal aliens', prisoners. Any form of genuine contact or generosity between them and us is dissipated. They are those who attempted to deceive us -- and like the ancient Greeks, many of us feel contempt for those who seek to deceive and fail. Their tales are of little interest to us.

The voices of some of the Golden Venture refugees will only be heard three and a half years later, when prison has taught them to speak the language which gets results in Clinton's America -- these are the discourses of forced abortions which so moves the pro-life lobby and of sentimental artefacts which are likely to move the leader of the free world. As in the Nausicaa--Odysseus encounter, we discover again the power of narrative, though with a crucial difference -- unlike Nausicaa, we are unable to listen to the Other, until the Other has adopted our voice. Unlike Nausicaa, and despite the 687 references to the Odyssey in the Amazon catalogue and our obsession with travel and tourism, we fundamentally lack curiosity. In particular, we lack curiosity in people who speak with different voices from our own. And hence, we are unwilling to allow them to cross our borders and will only cross their borders once we have made them ours through our various globalizing discourses. (Since Hirschman 1970, a huge litera ture on 'voice discourse' has emerged. This includes Czarniawska 1999, Moore and Muller 1999, and Smelser 1998. Notable contributions on the voices of refugees and asylum-seekers include Hardy and Phillips 1999, and Hardy et al. 2001).

Encounters with the shipwrecked Other are not rare in our times. Frozen and clinging to the undercarriage of aeroplanes or suffocated in containers, these are the people whose attempts to cross frontiers undetected failed, unlike us who cross frontiers confidently equipped with the right papers, keys and security passes. When it ends in tragedy, the plight of such shipwrecked may move us. As individuals, we may display hospitality -- many American families, after all, offered to host the Golden Venture refugees. But as members of organizations, hospitality does not enter our thinking. Borders are borders. They must be respected, defended and patrolled with closed ears to the plight of the Other. Gate-keepers, security guards, guard dogs and surveillance technologies are keeping intruders out.

This then is the enduring lesson on organizing that I wish to draw from the Odyssey. As we organize our societies, our organizations, our time and our space, we create more and more slots, more enclosures, more borders, more insides and more outsides. Those outside the borders are kept outside -- their voices are ignored, until they seek to test the borders, something we experience as a violation and threat. Their stories are irrelevant. Unlike the Homeric boundaries which may be crossed under the tradition of hospitality, redefined or disregarded, ours appear impermeable. A single violation is viewed as the thin end of the wedge which will lead to the end of all borders. Our organizations themselves appear to create more and more borders and to patrol them with ever greater vigilance; these act as boundaries to movement, to communication, to expression, to narratives and, of course, to human contact. We are creating more and more Others, whose stories remained unlistened to, whose voices are unheard, whose O therness is ever more untouchable. The consequence of this is self-evident. As a modem Greek Odysseus, the film-maker Theo Angelopoulos, put it:

'We are creating ever more borders around ever decreasing areas, so that soon I will have borders right outside my own front door. I will have a border all around my house and in no time at all I will be a state all unto myself. Me!'


Events in the United States since the composition of this paper have made the need for learning to listen, understand and accept the voice of the Other, if anything, more pressing. Terrorist intrusions of boundaries will not, of course, be stopped by mere listening, understanding and accepting, without addressing political and economic inequalities and injustices. But an ever-increasing creation, reinforcement, policing and defence of boundaries is unlikely to provide the answer.


An earlier version of this text was presented as the opening address of the 17th EGOS Colloquium, Lyon, in July 2001. The theme of the colloquium was 'The Odyssey of Organizing'. I wish to thank Barbara Czarniawska, Eric Fay, and Adrian Carr for valuable suggestions and especially Roland Calori both for his insights and encouragement.


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Yiannis Gabriel

Yiannis Gabriel is Professor of Organization Theory at Imperial College, London. Recent publications include Organizations in Depth (Sage, 1999), Storytelling in Organizations (OUP, 2000) and Organizing and Organizations, co-authored with Sims and Fineman (Sage, 2000). His research interests include organizational storytelling and narrative, consumer studies, psychoanalytic theory and management learning. He was editor of Management Learning and is currently Associate Editor of Human Relations.

Address: The Business School, Imperial College, London SW7 2PG, UK.

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