I haven’t found a lot of time to post or even read recently because of college visits and general craziness at school. But, now that things have calmed down a bit, I should have more time to read and write. A few weeks ago – during spring break when I actually had time to read – I picked up a copy of Illuminations, the collection of essays by Walter Benjamin. I finished it last night. There are tons of passages and quotes I want to highlight and discuss.
In the introduction, Hannah Arendt discuss what life was like for the bourgeois German Jews of Benjamin’s time.
“It was the walk of a flaneur, and it was so striking because, like the dandy and the snob, the flaneur had his home in the nineteenth century, an age of security in which children of upper-middle-class families were assured of an income without having to work, so that they had no reason to hurry” (22).
It’s remarkable that this way of life, which was extinguished during the Holocaust, has been reborn in the United States. With gap years and unpaid internship opportunities, the lives of today’s child-flaneurs in Ameriac are remarkably similar to the lives of their European antecedents. The above passage could be a description of the lives of today’s privileged “Upper West Side Jews.”
Arendt’s writing in the introduction is amazing. Her analysis of Benjamin rivals his analysis of Kafka and Baudelaire. In part three of her introduction, she discusses Benjamin’s relationship to modernity. His discontent with the state of modern technological life mirrors, I think, the Left’s dissatisfaction with the commodification of the digital realm.
“This discovery of the modern function of quotations, according to Benjamin, who exemplified it by Karl Kraus, was born out of despair – not the despair of a past that refuses ‘to throw its light on the future’ and lets the human mind ‘wander in darkness’ as in Tocqueville, but out of the despair of the present and the desire to destroy it; hence, their power is ‘not the strength to preserve but to cleanse, to tear out of context, to destroy'” (39).
For Benjamin, quotations are a way of challenging modernity’s flow. His discomfort with the present and his dedication to history reminds me of current debates about the role of social media and digital communication. The loudest voices of opposition to the ever-accelerating train of digital progress comes surprisingly from the Left. It is almost as if the Left has adopted the mantle once held by Conservatives, who worried that TV would destroy the family and life as we know it. The Left, similarly, worries today that the Internet and it’s corporate controllers threaten everything from the future of human interaction to the conception of what is real and what is not.
Quotations, though, serve another purpose in Benjamin’s work.
“In this form of ‘thought fragments,’ quotations have the double task of interrupting the flow of the presentation with ‘transcendent force” (Schriften I,142-43) and at the same time of concentrating within themselves that which is presented. As to their weight in Benjamin’swritings, quotations are comparable only to the very dissimilar Biblical citations which so often replace the immanent consistency of argumentation in medieval treatises” (39).
This passage made me think immediately about the method of Talmudic scholarship and commentary, which uses quotation as means of discussing religious rules and codes of conduct. Just as Rabbi Gamliel or Rabbi Yochanan interact within a text to create a coherent (not always, though) discussion, Benjamin’s quotations – even those from disparate sources – link together in a cogent statement.
Arendt argues that collection, rather than being a consumerist habit, is actually opposed to the capitalist mode of production.
“As Benjamin was probably the first to emphasize, collecting is the passion of children, for whom things are not yet commodities and are not valued according to their usefuless, and it is also the hobby of the rich, who own enough not to need anything useful and hence can afford to make ‘the transfiguration of objects’ (Schriften I, 416) their business” (42).
Yes, collecting may be a signifier of wealth, but it involves the removal of objects from the productive sphere, hence the use of “transfiguration.” Politicized, to collect is to disrupt the productive forces of the economic order.
“Like the revolutionary, the collector ‘dreams his way nto only into a remote or bygone world, but at the same time into a better one in which, to be sure, people are not provided with what they need any more than they are in the everyday world, but in which things are liberated from the drudgery of usefulness’ (Schriften I, 416)” (42).
I like the passage because it provides us with an alternative and nuanced method of critiquing capitalism. Privation, while certainly a crucial aspect of capitalism, is not what is most oppressive. There can be justice even without immense material comfort. Instead, Arendth and Benjamin argue, the truly oppressive force of capitalism is the commodification of the human being or the oppression of productivity. The requirement to work and be useful alienates, just as deprivation and lack of ownership do.*
Towards the end of the introduction, Arendt returns to the place of quotations in Benjamin’s work.
“From the Goethe essay on, quotations are at the center of every work of Benjamin’s. This veryf act distinguishes his writings from scholarly works of all kinds in which it is the function of quotations to verify and document opinions, wherfore they can safely be relegated to the Notes. This is just out of the question in Benjamin. When he was working on his study of German tragedy, he boasted a collection of ‘over 600 quotations very systematically and clearly arranged’ (Briefe I, 339); like the later notebooks, this collection wa not an accumulation of excerpts intended to faciliate the writing of the study but constituted the main work, with the writing as something secondary” (47).
In a way, this is how I’ve come to think of this blog. As modestly as I can put this, like Benjamin I seek to select quotations and present them as the main work. One of the goals of this blog is to assemble a collection of quotations, not to create some larger work, but for the sake of highlighting and quoting passages themselves. Benjmain’s emphasis on quotations is a source of inspiration.
In “Unpacking My Library,” Benjamin explains why people write:
“Writers are really people who write books not because they are poor, but because they are dissatisfied with the books which they could buy but do not like” (61).
Recently, through social media and technology, objects have been elevated to extensions of the self. The kind of shoes you buy or the tablet computer you own are taken to say something about you as a person; the line at which object ends and personality begins has become increasingly blurred. It is almost as if from beyond the grave Benjamin asks us to take a step back.
“Ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them. So I have erected one of his dwellings, with books as the building stones, before you, and now he is going to disappear inside, as is only fitting” (67).
Facebook, iPads, and Blackberrys are not extensions of the self but places in which the self takes refuge, or through which the self is transmitted.
In “The Task of the Translator”, Benjamin reveals that the work of art is not just a philosophical statement but also a document of historical testimony. Comprehension of the philosophical is contingent upon comprehension of the accompanying history.
“The philosopher’s task consists in comprehending all of natural life through the more encompassing life of history. And ineded, is not the continued life of works of art far easier to recognize than the continued life of animal species? The history of the great works of art tells us about their antecendets, their realization in the age of the artist, their potentially eternal afterlife in suceeding generations” (71).
Autenticity and translation nearly always go hand in hand. Readers want to be sure that the translation they are reading matches the original intentions of the author. This obsession with faitfulness to the original, Benjamin argues, ignores the fact that the context in which works are translated are not static environments.
“The obvious tendency of a writer’s literary style may in time wither away, only to give rise to immanent tendencies in the literary creation. What sounded fresh once may sound hackneyed later; what was once current may someday sound quaint. To seek the essence of such changes, as well as the equally constant changes in meaning, in the subjectivity of posterity rather than in the very life of language and its works, would mean – even allowing for the crudest psychologism – to confuse the root cause of a thing with its essence” (73).
“For just as the tenor and the significance o the great wokrs of literature undergo a complete transofmoration over the centuries, the mother tongue of the translator is transformed as well” (73).
Sometimes in Benjamin’s work, his statements will morph into aphorisms. This happens several times in “The Storyteller”, most notably here:
“Counsel woven into the fabric of real life is wisdom” (87).
“There is nothing that commends a story to memory more effectively than that chaste compactness which precludes psychological analysis” (91).
“A proverb, one mught say, is a ryin which stands on thesite of an old story and in which a moral twines about a happening like ivy around a wall” (108).
Benjamin’s essay on Kafka is my favorite essay in Illuminations. Kafka is one of the authors to whom I feel a strangely personal connection. As a child, my father used to read me Kafka’s stories before I went to sleep. (What kid’s father reads him “A Country Doctor” at bedtime?!) Now, as a young adult, Kafka has become part of religious ritual; my secular observance of Yom Kippur entails reading The Trial in its entirety between Kol Nidre and Neila the next day. Visiting his house and grave when I was in the Czech Republic are some of my fondest travel memories.
Benjamin identifies generational conflict in Kafka’s writing.
“In the same way the fathers in Kafka’s strange families batten on their sons, lying on top of them like gian parasites. They not only prey ipon their strength, but gnaw away at the sons’ right to exist. The fathers punish, but they are at the same time the accusers, The sin of which they accusetheir sons seems to be akind of original sin. The definition of it which Kafka has given applies to the sons more than to anyone else: ‘Original sin, the old injustice committed by man, consists in the complaint unceasingly made by man that he has been the victim of an injustice, the victim of original sin.’ But who is accused this inherited sin – the sin of having prduced an heir – if not the father by theson? Accordingly the son would be the sinner. But one must not conlcude from Kafka’s defintion that the accusation is sinful because it is false” (114).
Kafka’s Jewishness is always a matter of debate. Benjamin, who connects with Kafka on more than just Jewishness, pays special attention to the role of the law – Biblical and administrative -in Kafka’s work.
“In Kafka the written law is contained in books, but these are secret; by basing itself off them the prehistoric world exerts its rule all the more ruthlessly” (115).
The law is often construed as a distinctly Jewish preoccupation. Judaism is a religion of laws that are codified in texts and then debated for centuries. Religious law, called halakha, is contained in both the Pentateuch and the Mishna. The debates are found in the Gemara. But there is also another component to the Jewish religious tradition. In contrast with the “scientific” halakah is the the narrative and even mystical aggadah – parables and stories which reveal aspects of the tradition. In Kafka, Benjamin identifies the written or formalized law – halakha – as oppressive. He identifies Kafka with aggadah.
“His gestures of terror are given scope by the marvelous margin which the catastrophe will not grant us. But his experience was baed soley on the tradition to which Kafka surrendered; there was no far-sightedness or ‘prophetic vision.’ Kafka listened to tradition, and he who listens hard does not see” (143).
“The things that want to be caught as they rush by are not meant for anyone’s ears. This implies a state of affairs which negatively characterizes Kafka’s work with graet precision….Kafka’s work presents a sickness of tradition. Wisdom has sometimes been defined as the epic side of truth. Such definition stamps wisdom as inherent in tradition; it is truth in its haggadic consistency” (143).
“The Work of Art in Mechanical Reproduction”, one of Benjamin’s most widely cited essays, encourages the reader to think about art in the context of productive society in a way that I have never seen before. First, Benjamin applies Marx to art in the capitalist mode of producition:
“The result was that one could expect not only to exploit the proleatariat with increasing intensity, but ultimately to create conditions which would make it possible to abolish capitalism itself” (217).
The contradictions of capitalism are manifest in capitalist art. This is because, as Paul Valery explains, art functions like a utility.
‘ “Just as water, gas, and electricity are brought into our houses from far off to satisfy our needs in response to a minimal effort, so we shall be supplied with visual or auditory images, which will appear and disappear at a simple movement of the hand, hardly more than a sign’ ” (219).
Again, Benjamin’s statements work well as aphorisms.
“The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition. This tradition itself is thorougly alive and extremely changeable” (223).
“For the first time in world histlry, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasticial depdence on ritual” (224).
“To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility” (224).
“The equipment-free aspect of reality here has become the height of artifice; the sight of immediate reality has become an orchid in the land of technology” (233).
The era of the blog has made everyone with a computer is an expert. TV watchers, music-listeners, book-readers – everyone can be a cultural critic. While this has been hailed as a new phenomenon, Benjamin predicted it decaes before.
“Thus, the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character…At any moment the reader is ready to turn into a writer. As expert, which he had to become willy-nilly in an extremely specialized work process, even if only in some minor respect, the reader gains access to authorship” (232).
For Benjamin, there is a reactionary and a progressive reaction of the masses towards art.
“Mechanical reproduction of art chagnes the reaction of the masses toward art. The reactionary attitude toward a Picasso painting changes into the progressive reaction toward a Chaplin movie. The progressive reaction is characterized by the direct, intimate fusion of visuala nd emotional enjoyment with the orietnation ofthe expert” (234).
There is also a specific way of interacting with art.
“Distraction and concentration form polar opposites which may be stated asfollows: A man who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it. He enters into his work of arat the way legend tells of the Chinese painter when he viewed his finished painting. In contrast, the distracted mass absorbs the work of art. This is most obvious with regard to buildings. Architecture has always represented the prototype of a work of art the reception of which is consummated by a collectivity in a state of distraction. The laws of its reception are most instructive” (239).
A lot of (digital) ink has been spilled about the New Aesthetic recently. One of the more memorable essays spoke about the need to formulate an accompanying politics. Benjamin provides important insight into what constitutes fascist aesthetics and what constitutes emancipatory aesthetics.
“Facisms attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascisms sees its salvation in giving these masses nto their right, but instead a chanceto express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property” (241).
Like neoliberalism, fascist aesthetics allows for “self-expression,” as long as it doesn’t threaten the status quo of property relations.
“War and war only can set a goal for mass movements on the largest scale while respecting the traditional property system.”
“Only war makes it possible to mobilize all of today’s technical resources while mainntaining the property system” (241).
An aesthetics that does not oppose war will be instrumentalized as a weapon.
“To the latter, the aesthetics of today’s war appears as follows: If the natural utilization of productive forces is impeded by the property system the increase in technical devices, in speed, and in the sources of energy will press for an unnatural utlization, and this is found in war.”
“Imperialistic war is a rebellion of technology which collects, in the form of ‘human material,’ the claims to which society is denied its natural material. Instead of draining rivers, society directs a human stream into a bed of trenches; insttad of dropping seeds from airplanes, it drops incendiary bombs over cities; and through gas warfae the aura is aboloshed in a new way” (242).
The final essay in the collection is “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” While the content is fascinating, Benjamin feels a bit out of his element. Most of what he writes is not groundbreaking; much of it has been said before, by Marxists who preceded him. Benjamin relies more heavily on aphoristic expressions, and the essay is less coherent a whole.
“Empathy with the victor inevitably benefits the rulers. Historical materialists know what that means. Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate. According to traditional practice, the spoils are carried along in the procession. They are called cultural treasures, and a historical materialist views them with cautious detachment…There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another” (256).
The most interesting parts of Benjamin’s writing are the parts where he discusses the traits of fascist art and fascist history. Everywhere, in all disciplines and aspects of life, the specter of fascism lurks. Most often, this secret fascism manifests itself in the form of permanent crisis or state of emergency.
“The ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping within this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve in the struggle against fascism” (257).
Benjamin notes that there exists a reactionary class consciousness. This kind of class consciousness acknowledges the struggle between labor and capital, but is fixated on the exploitation of the past rather than the emancipatory potential of the future.
“Social Democracy thought fit to assign to the workign class the role of the redeemer of future generations in this way cutting the sinews of its greatest strength. This training made the working class forget both its hatred and its spirit of sacrifice, for both are nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than that of liberated grandchildren” (260).
As a likely history major in college, I love the advice Benjamin gives in “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Benjamin provides the tools to answer the question: what kind of historian do you want to be?
“Historicism gives the ‘eternal’ image of the past; historical materialism supplies a unique experience with the past. The historical materialist leaves it to other to be drained by the whore called ‘once upon a time in historicism’s bordello. He remains in control of his powers, man enough to blast open the continuum of history” (262).
*Last week I sat in on a seminar at the university I will be attending next year. In it, the students were discussing “A Theory of Wrongful Exploitation” by Mikhail Valdman. During the seminar, I was instantly reminded of the above critique of capitalism – that the very idea of labor is itself wronfully exploitive. In capitalism, there is no reasonable alternative to working; starvation is the only other option. Furthermore, in capitalist production, workers do not obtain the full value of their labor; value is extracted by employer, bosses, and etc. One could even argue that in this era of executive bonues that amount to tens of millions of dollars, these bosses benefit excessively from the extraction of value from their employees. Lastly, the fact that employees cannot reasonably choose an alternative to employment – the only alternative is starvation – is used by employers and bosses to force workers to accept the aforementioned unfavorable terms. The whole of capitalist production, then, is wrongfully exploitive.