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The works of Walter Benjamin have been a regular source for the many critical turns in the humanities that have been identiﬁed over the last two decades. What those various turns (linguistic, visual, topographical, ethical, and so on) amount to, is a meta-turn towards inter- and transdisciplinarity as organizing principles for current endeavours in the humanities; and Benjamin has a particular status as a model inter- and transdisciplinarian. This is the fundamental ‘Copernican’ turn, the dialectical awakening (GS V.1, 490; AP, 388), in the understanding of culture to which Benjamin’s writings make such a fundamental contribution. This collection of essays takes stock of Benjamin’s interdisciplinary thinking and some of the key opportunities for turns in critical thinking and analysis that it presents across a range of disciplinary domains and between them. The essays incorporate discussion of aesthetic production with relation to various media and genres (painting, cinema, photography, drama, essay, ﬁction, biography) and the intermedial or intergeneric relations between them. And they range over a number of key critical discourses — philosophical, historical, aesthetic, political, and theological — while also prospecting the territory between these. An abiding feature of the essays gathered here is thus the work of moving between different forms of object and different discursive domains, testing the dialectical energy that emerges through such work in both areas, but also — and critically — between them. For the overarching transitional space here is that between critical discourse and object of analysis, both of which are rendered transitional in themselves as they are made to occupy that space together and to work upon each other. The critical modulation between conceptual thinking (crossing disciplinary boundaries) and attention to material (crossing objective and categorical boundaries) is perhaps the most signiﬁcant characteristic of what is called here Benjamin’s ‘passage-work’. The term passage-work hails, of course, second-hand from one of Benjamin’s most inﬂuential texts, the Passagen-Werk or Arcades Project, the work in which he establishes himself as perhaps the preeminent critic of urban culture in both its ‘high’ and ‘low’ forms, and in the medial territory between these. An appropriate entry to the present
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collection might thus be the text that gives access to the Passagen-Werk, a prospectus for, and passage to, the extensive passage-work of that work: the essay ‘Paris, die Hauptstadt des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts’ (‘Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century’). The Passage, or arcade, as explored in this essay, is an appropriate emblematic structure for the present collection of essays, channelling some of the crowding variety of human life, objects, and preoccupations that converges in the modern metropolis into a transitional space for viewing (in Benjamin’s terminology, Schauplatz), where these can be observed, individually and collectively, in passage. This is the Passage as what we might call microcosmopolitan, presenting in the domain of the ‘off-street’, the transversal thoroughfare cast between metropolitan streets and interior, ‘a city, a world in miniature’ (GS V.1, 83; AP, 31). Benjamin’s Paris prospectus-essay indeed imitates, performs, in miniature, the PassagenWerk as a whole, by setting short, exploratory studies in an open form of montage or network. The titles of these essayistic studies or internal passages indicate a model form of attention that is cast between two things, personal and/or material. Thus, ‘Baudelaire, or the streets of Paris’ gives its attention to (or divides it between) the writer and the thoroughfares of the city inhabited by his work, casting the two in a dialectical relationship between identiﬁcation and alternation. Such two-way passages are the characteristic disposition, or dispositive structure, of Benjamin’s work. Indeed, the overarching title, Passagen-Werk, a ‘working title’ for this text in process or under construction, incorporates just that principle. It articulates space (in the model form of the arcades) and work (work in progress, or in passage), hyphenated as if to represent at once the gap and the conduit between them. Many of the key titles of Benjamin’s oeuvre maintain such a dialectical articulation between domains or dimensions. His Berliner Kindheit um neunzehnhundert (Berlin Childhood around 1900) indicates a tension of scales between metropolitan space and the time of childhood for the biography in miniature(s). The title is cast between the particular of the biographical account and the universal of childhood, inhabiting a space between these, showing a characteristic Benjaminian attention to the passage between detail and mass. In its alternative version, the work is called ‘Berliner Chronik’, indicating that the biographical text is also something of a chronicle, with a historic narrative scope and generic disposition more in scale with its metropolitan epithet. The ‘Kleine Geschichte der Photographie’ (‘Little History of Photography’) also modulates history into a minor form, both reducing the already long history of
Introduction: Benjamin’s Passage-work 267
photography to a short account, and showing how this representative medium of modernity has the potential to represent, in short, its time. It is work in the mode of what we might call minor history, characteristic of Benjamin’s historiographical method. The ‘Kunstwerk’ or ‘Work of Art’ essay similarly creates tension by locating the work of art in the temporal dimension of technological modernity, with its principle of reproducibility. It is as though Kunstwerk, too, is subject to hyphenation, as the work of art in its traditional understanding becomes art-work, where work — as in the PassagenWerk — is an elaborate technical business of reproduction, compilation, and transduction, as much as work of origination.1 And, as a ﬁnal example, the Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels (Origin of German Tragic Drama) suggests a literary historical study of the origin of a nationally identiﬁed genre, but proceeds to dismantle the inaugurating moment in question, deploying it into the dialectical process of historical development which it might be supposed to ground. The Ursprung too seems to have an invisible hyphen, as less a stable point of origin than a mobile ‘primal jump’ (Ur-sprung) to elsewhere,2 a term with fundamental resonance for the philosophy of history as well as the literary historical case in point. And the genre under scrutiny is no less cast between categorical spaces, between affect and activity, stasis and motion: Trauer (mourning) articulated with Spiel (play).3 With this interworking or interplaying of dimensions in mind, we might return to the ‘Paris’ essay and consider what it means to call a city the capital of a century, indicating that the key form of passage that the Passagen-Werk will undertake is that between space and history, or — in its more particular form — between the local experiences of place and time. Deploying the dialectical energy built into the German terms Zeitraum,4 space of time, or Geschichtsraum (GS V.2, 1014; AP, 845), space of history, this is perhaps the most fundamental form of passage-work in Benjamin’s project. In the working convolutes of the Passagen-Werk, Passage is understood in both spatial and temporal terms, as a paradigm for the complex — we might say convoluted — process of transition between the epochs of modernity. It thus reﬂects also on work as a category of process over time, rather than the work as ﬁnished object of labour. Following this model, in the case of each of the texts referenced above, the dialectical business of passagework is constructed into the terms of the work in question and serves to question the work that it undertakes. The title is emblematic in its function as textual threshold, the point of passage into the work and already engaging its explorations of what German would
call Zwischenräume, of ‘spaces between’ categories, dimensions, and disciplines. What kind of passage-work do the essays in this volume do then in their turn? And what kind of passage-work do they thereby trace and show functioning in Benjamin’s writings? On the one hand, each of them is concerned with inter-categorical spaces, as indicated in the titles of the pieces. Some of these spaces are shared by more than one essay, and there are many particular points of passage between the contributions. While a small collection of this sort cannot hope to prospect the full scope of the Benjaminian project, it does represent an exploration of some of its most fundamental themes and materials, and casts this in a textual topography that draws upon Benjamin’s own. In the opening essay, Carolin Duttlinger considers Benjamin’s accounts of the reception and production of narrative. For the age of modernity, narrative is a function that is in passage, and as such caught in a dialectic between attention and distraction. The pre-modern mode of story-telling, which relied upon a communal sense of space and time, the mode of sustained experience that Benjamin calls Erfahrung, is lost to the experiential world of urban modernity, which is marked by an accelerated and shock-driven mode of experience (Erlebnis). What Benjamin argues, however, is that modern narrative cultures have ways of engaging nonetheless with the form of production and reception, suspended between attention and distraction, that characterized the communal world of story-telling. Duttlinger traces variations of this engagement in Baudelaire’s poetry, Brecht’s theatre, and silent ﬁlm. The metropolitan micro-narrative of Baudelaire’s ‘A une passante’ (‘To a passer-by’) stands as a model for, precisely, this mode of representation in passage, en passant. It is a form of re-production of modern experience that works in the manner of the Passage as space of modern experience, at once a mobile site of distraction and surprise and one in which more attentive modes of encounter are produced and received. As Duttlinger argues, this is also a model for Benjamin’s own writerly praxis, especially in its micrographic urban modes (in One Way Street and Berlin Childhood), cultivating a productive dialectical interference between the holding and passing of experience. If Benjamin identiﬁes a particular form of this dialectic in silent ﬁlm, Thomas Elsaesser considers how the model of Erfahrung and Erlebnis, as established in the essay ‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire’, might have passed in to the conditions of ﬁlm culture more broadly. He reviews Benjamin’s terms in the light of the recent affective and cognitive
Introduction: Benjamin’s Passage-work 269
turns in media studies, asking how the experience of cinema as event (indicatively on the side of Erlebnis) might nonetheless be bound into a more sustained mode of experience in passage (Erfahrung as, following the semantic core or the term, travelling). Elsaesser tests the passagework of these dimensions in cinematic experience by considering how they might be exposed at limit, through the three categories of body, time, and agency. In doing so, he draws on the one hand upon melodrama and ﬁlm noir as genres that travel at the limits of classical cinema, and on the other upon the post-classical action genres that repeatedly perform the breaking of speed and other limits and the neonoir ﬁlms that travel through time with their post-mortal narratives of body and agency. The essay concludes by positing the cult of trauma in the contemporary media-transported economy of experience as a corollary of the shock effects of late nineteenth- and early twentiethcentury life that led Benjamin to see Erfahrung as broken up in passage by Erlebnis. If the mobility of contemporary ﬁlm culture is, as Elsaesser argues, also an uncanny form of undeadness, it also attaches the travelling medium to the framing terms of the still photograph as analysed by Benjamin. In his essay, Michael Jennings explores the intermedial passage between narrative and photography in Benjamin’s autobiographical writing as marked by a melancholic cult of living death. Berlin Childhood is a text particularly attached to sites and rites of passage, and Jennings’s essay focuses on the paradigmatic ritual Zwischenraum, or inter-space, which gives entry to the ﬁnal version of the text, the thought-picture entitled ‘Loggias’. Read as a micrograph fundamentally organized by the dispositive structure of the view camera, ‘Loggias’ is situated by Jennings in the intermediate space between the enchantment of myth and the truth that the mythical works to obscure. The technology of photography is less a vehicle for the work of passage from myth to disenchantment than itself caught in passage. In the terms of Kracauer’s essay ‘On Photography’, which Jennings applies to his account of the paradigmatic status of the medium for Benjamin’s project, photography is symptomatic of the conditions of the age that it is constructed to represent. And in this reading, it is a technology that in its allegorical function for modernity is set to record its passage, its deadly nihilism. As, in the genealogy traced by Benjamin’s work on media, ﬁlm passes out of still photography but remains bound to its disposition, so photography has a similarly ambiguous relationship to the cult or exhibition values of painting. In her essay, Brigid Doherty follows a
passage between the technological media of modernity and painting by way of an art historical footnote in the ‘Work of Art’ essay regarding Raphael’s Sistine Madonna. While art history might seem to track from a paradigm of cult value to one of exhibition value, the latter taking control in the age of art’s technical reproducibility, Doherty argues that the work of art at all stages of its history in fact oscillates between those paradigms. By dint of its ‘actualization’ in the material processes of history, the Sistine Madonna as apparent epitome of an auratic model of artwork can be brought into intersection with what would appear to be its antipode in the post-auratic cut-and-paste practices of Dada, brand-marked with the principle of reproduction. Cross-reading between Raphael’s image and its appropriation in Schwitters’s Knave Child Madonna with Horse, Doherty draws out the dialectical forces of actualization, of impact and reception, that move between the two works. In Benjamin’s optic, the work of art history is thus shown to be a passage-work between original and quotation, contemplation and economic function, cult and secularization. As Doherty takes her cue from a footnote, and in reading from the margins follows a procedural principle of Benjamin’s own, Sigrid Weigel too adopts Benjamin’s methodology of strategic detour. Developing the argument of her essay out of a neglected passage, she undertakes a particular form of Benjaminian passage-work. Here passage is understandable also as an intertextual conduit, as the text in question — used by Benjamin to give access to his object of study, Karl Kraus — is quoted from another author, Adalbert Stifter. Through this indirect passage, Weigel opens up the complex relationship of Benjamin’s critical thinking to the territory of political (post-)theology. In Benjamin’s critique of Kraus’s ambiguous navigation between Creation and history, via the ﬁgure of the creature, she sees the particular character of his contribution to the debate between politics and theology in a secularizing age. She teases out the dialectical complexities of the passages between religious thought and material history in Benjamin’s writings, seeing secularization not as a unilateral transfer but as operating its passage-work in both directions. It features in particular in the achievement of justice in language: in the juridical processing of Kraus’s linguistic critique; in the operations of poetic language as adduced in the (post-)theological writings of Kafka; and in the passage-work of translation, which serves to mark out remoteness from a metaphysical originality of meaning, even as this inhabits it as a driving rhythm.
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Samuel Weber’s essay is also concerned with the transitional space between politics, theology, asthetics and the law as opened up by Benjamin’s critical project. Here the focus is on the construction of identity in that transitional space. Departing from the essay on ‘Character and Destiny’, Weber explores the passage-work that Benjamin undertakes between the categories from which identity is drawn. The dialectics between character and destiny, between the disposition of the subject — in particular the subject of theatrical performance — and the experience through which it will pass, are carried over to those between the generic terms of tragedy and comedy. Weber draws a link between the comic trait, as the particular characteristic of the comic character, and the ‘singular trait’ that Freud, and after him Lacan, identify as the determining, fetishized characteristic upon which mourning ﬁxes, and identity more generally is constructed. In either case, the trait (Zug) is at once determining and in passage, subject (following the etymology of Zug) to being drawn across or through, in train. The comic character, in particular, is in a transitional relationship to the tragic, as its counterpart in the production apparatus of theatrical performance. Weber closes his essay with an analysis of Genet’s The Balcony, and the casting of character as a tragicomic attachment to trait in the hyperbolic form of the phallus, which exposes at once its tyrannical power and its transience of function in the theatre of political power. Fundamental, then, to each of these essays is the passage-work of Benjamin’s multifarious project between conceptual categories and disciplinary domains. In both literal and transposed senses, it is a work of individual exploration (after the classic ﬁgure of the ﬂâneur), of technically mobilized transportation (as extrapolated from Erfahrung), and of the drawing of characteristics (as extrapolated from Zug) from one place to another. It insists upon mobility in its passage between places, on the model of transitional and extensional architectures like arcades, loggias, and balconies. And it extends that movement to sites of transition in formal terms (between text and apparatus or intertext, between word and image, between still and motion picture) and in ideational and ideological terms (between myth and truth value, between metaphysics and historical materialism). And yet the theoretical and analytic mobility in question also carries a critical awareness of the breaks, the bindings, the drags, and the reversals that dialectically complicate and deﬁne the operating rhythm of the work of passage.
1 Comparing the work on origins of the Passagen-Werk and The Origin of German Tragic Drama, Benjamin devolves the idea of Ursprung into the process of rise and fall in the forms and transformations of the Passagen (GS V.1, 577; AP, 462). 2 Here I follow Samuel Weber’s reading in his ‘Genealogy of Modernity: History, Myth and Allegory in Benjamin’s Origin of the German Mourning Play’, Modern Language Notes 106:3 (April 1991), 465–500 (469–71). 3 For a more detailed discussion, see Andrew J. Webber, Berlin in the Twentieth Century: A Cultural Topography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 61–103 (especially 65–6). 4 The transition between space and time in this category is given most explicitly in the idea of the ‘Zeitraum’ of a half-hour ﬁlm of Paris which would incorporate the movement over centuries in the spaces of the city (GS V.1, 135; AP, 83).
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Benjamin’s Literary History of Attention: Between Reception and Production CAROLIN DUTTLINGER
Abstract: This article argues that attention and distraction form a central concern of Benjamin’s writings on literature. Individually and in conjunction, they underpin processes of textual production and reception, yet their relationship is ﬂuid and subject to historical change. In this respect, Benjamin’s exploration of the interplay of attention and distraction in writers such as Leskov, Baudelaire and Brecht also leads to more general reﬂections about the social, cultural and psychological shifts brought about by industrialization and modern mass culture. Benjamin’s writings on literature trace developments which he also explores in relation to ﬁlm. And echoes of his ‘literary history of attention’ can also be found in both his own critical approach and his self-reﬂexive comments on the process of writing.
Keywords: attention, distraction, literature, storytelling, Freud, Brecht, Baudelaire
‘For Walser, the “how” of writing is so central that everything he has to say recedes into the background when compared to the signiﬁcance of writing itself ’ (GS II.1, 325; SW II, 258; translation modiﬁed). Walter Benjamin’s remark on the Swiss author Robert Walser can be read as a self-reﬂexive statement. Writing for Benjamin is never merely a passive tool for the recording of preconceived ideas. A key term in his critical vocabulary is Darstellung (presentation);1 as he recurrently emphasizes, the writing process, its external, material conditions as well as underlying psychological dynamics, decisively shape the textual structure and hence the presented argument. In this respect, however, Benjamin’s approach is also very different from Walser’s; while Walser’s miniatures open up a realm of ‘childlike light-heartedness, allowing text and language to ﬂow’, Benjamin’s aim is to ‘arrest’ ideas in the
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act of writing, which in turn is the product ‘of adult reﬂection and concentration’.2 Concentration certainly is a key component of Benjamin’s (theories of) textual production, yet as so often in his works, this stance is dialectically mediated. One-Way Street contains a section entitled ‘The Writer’s Technique in Thirteen Theses’, in which Benjamin grapples with the question of a productive working environment. The writer needs to escape ‘the mediocrity of daily life’ by protecting himself against distractions and interruptions: ‘A state of half-quiet, accompanied by insipid noises, is degrading’ (GS IV.1, 106; SW I, 458; translation modiﬁed). However, while an incomplete silence is counter-productive, writing does not necessarily require complete seclusion; indeed, certain background noises can have as fruitful an effect as complete silence: ‘On the other hand, accompaniment by an étude or a cacophony of voices can become as signiﬁcant for work as the perceptible silence of the night. If the latter sharpens the inner ear, the former acts as a touchstone for a diction ample enough to bury within itself even the most wayward sounds’ (GS IV.1, 106; SW I, 458; translation modiﬁed). The sound of an étude is a testimony to the player’s studied concentration and can hence serve as a productive backdrop for the writer’s own efforts; at the same time, however, such musical practice also involves an element of routine, suggesting that concentration and habit, Gewohnheit, come together in the most fruitful forms of intellectual endeavour. A similarly dialectical setup underpins the second source of constructive distraction; here, the solitary writer feels connected to his fellow human beings by means of the voices which enter his study. In both cases, then, writing is not a process hermetically sealed from the outside world but connected to it by means of aural impressions which underpin this silent endeavour. Indeed, as the text highlights, these outside impressions leave their traces within the resulting text. Through the ‘fullness’ of its diction, writing can ‘bury within itself ’ external noises — a metaphor which suggests not only the extinction of such distractions but also their oblique containment and preservation within the resulting text. One-Way Street, one of Benjamin’s most experimentally disjointed texts,3 seems an obvious example of writing which emerges from a culture of distraction. Yet just as Benjamin’s works to some extent exemplify their own theories of textual production, they also identify such patterns in the works of others — contemporary authors and
Benjamin’s Literary History of Attention
literary predecessors alike. Indeed, the interplay between attention and distraction and their impact on the various stages of literary production and reception is one of the recurring themes in Benjamin’s essays on literature. Even though Benjamin’s essays do not add up to a coherent historical narrative, they nonetheless trace an — albeit disjointed — history of literature in relation to its wider social and political context, a history in which attention plays a central yet highly precarious, changeable role. Thus Benjamin’s history and theory of literature doubles as a history of attention and the radical changes undergone by this stance in the wake of social and cultural modernization. In the essay ‘The Storyteller’, Benjamin focuses on a literary genre whose foundations are, as he claims, eroded in the process of modernization. The subject of Benjamin’s essay is the nineteenthcentury Russian writer Nikolai Leskov, whose texts exemplify the role of attention in the art of storytelling. This essentially oral tradition has come under severe threat in Benjamin’s times: ‘Beginning with the First World War, a process became apparent which continues to this day. Wasn’t it noticeable at the end of the war that men who returned from the battleﬁeld had grown silent — not richer but poorer in communicable experience?’ (GS II.2, 439; SW III, 143–4). Yet the First World War is only the most recent example in a far wider development: the loss of experience, Erfahrung, a term used by Benjamin to describe a culture in which individual experiences are embedded within a wider framework of collective cultural traditions. In modern, atomized society, Erfahrung is replaced by the more fragmented, discontinuous Erlebnis, as the individual’s experiences are no longer part of a wider horizon of meaning. Events such as the War resist their integration into collective experience and associated narratives because of their traumatic character; the root of the problem, however, lies much deeper, concerning not the nature of such experiences but the conditions of their narrative communication. Storytelling is an inherently collective, reciprocal undertaking. The storyteller’s narration is met by his listener’s interest ‘in retaining what he is told. The cardinal point for the willing listener is to assure himself of the possibility of reproducing the story. Memory is the epic faculty par excellence’ (GS II.2, 453; SW III, 153). The retaining recollection of the narrative requires a particular mode of reception, yet the mental stance which best lends itself for this purpose is rather different from
deliberate concentration. Indeed, for the story to fall on fertile ground, the listeners need to enter into a state of deep relaxation which is akin to boredom:
This process of assimilation, which takes place in the depths, requires a state of relaxation which is becoming rarer and rarer. If sleep is the apogee of physical relaxation, boredom is the apogee of mental relaxation. Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience [Erfahrung]. A rustling in the leaves [Das Rascheln im Blätterwalde] drives him away. (GS II.2, 446; SW III, 149)
How, then, can this state of deep relaxation be achieved? The boredom which Benjamin refers to is not the ennui of the ﬁn de siècle. It is not based on self-indulgent individualism but on a collective experience, a community of relaxed listeners whose receptiveness arises from activity: from pre-industrial, manual forms of labour which have become second nature and hence provide a fertile basis for the recounted stories:
The more self-forgetful the listener is, the more deeply what he listens to is impressed upon his memory. When the rhythm of work has seized him, he listens to the tales in such a way that the gift of retelling them comes to him all by itself. This, then, is the nature of the web in which the gift of storytelling is cradled. This is how today it is unraveling on every side after being woven thousands of years ago in the ambience of the oldest forms of craftsmanship. (GS II.2, 447; SW III, 149)
Among the many forms of traditional manual production, Benjamin singles out weaving and spinning, processes which reﬂect the spinning of the narrative thread and its weaving into the fabric of a story, connecting the labours of the listeners to that of the storyteller. Such manual work routines provide the ideal basis for attentive listening as they do not require conscious attention and hence free up mental capacities for the recounted tales. Alertness based on willpower, in contrast, does not yield the same results, for ‘no-one will remember worse than he who listens to a story with the intention of passing it on’ (GS II.3, 1287; my translation).4 Truly attentive, preserving reception thus arises from a coalition with its opposites, boredom and habit, fostering a sustainable receptivity which is akin to Freud’s gleichschwebende Aufmerksamkeit, his ‘evenly hovering attention’. Although we cannot be sure whether Benjamin was familiar with the 1912 text in which Freud ﬁrst coins this term,5 he read with great interest Freud’s article ‘Zum Problem der Telepathie’ (‘On the Problem of Telepathy’, 1934) at the time
Benjamin’s Literary History of Attention
of writing ‘The Storyteller’.6 In this essay, Freud examines the role of attention in relation to an apparently supernatural phenomenon. He draws on several examples where his patients had reported to him the so-called prophecies of soothsayers and clairvoyants — prophecies which did not turn out to be true but whose communicative structure led Freud to a psychoanalytic interpretation of the psychological dynamic behind this apparently supernatural phenomenon. As Freud comments:
I have collected a whole number of such prophecies and from all of them I gained the impression that the fortune-teller had merely brought to expression the thoughts, and more especially the secret wishes, of those [who] were questioning him, and that we were therefore justiﬁed in analysing these prophecies as though they were subjective products, phantasies or dreams of the people concerned.7
A decisive feature in this quasi-psychoanalytic scenario is played by the supposedly magical rituals which accompany the medium’s predictions, such as palm reading, the laying of cards or astronomical calculations.8 As Freud concludes, it is the routine nature of these acts, their repetitive and, for the medium, deeply familiar character, which makes the soothsayer receptive to the client’s unconscious phantasies and desires. As Freud states, ‘The fortune-teller’s astrological activities would in that case have performed the function of diverting her own psychical forces and occupying them in a harmless way, so that she could become receptive and accessible to the effects upon her of the client’s thoughts’.9 In a letter to Gretel Karplus, Benjamin enthusiastically thanks her for Freud’s essay,10 singling out the parallels between the essay and his own theory of language as it is developed in the essay ‘On the Mimetic Faculty’.11 Freud’s argument concerning soothsayers also has obvious echoes in the ‘Storyteller’ essay and its analysis of the interplay between routine and attention. The semi-trance produced by card and palm reading and weaving alike creates a state of receptiveness, of ‘evenly hovering attention’ directed at the other, his or her stories, thoughts and desires. Freud analyses the phenomenon of telepathy without much comment on its historical and cultural background; Benjamin, by comparison, puts particular emphasis on this dimension, describing the art of storytelling as an essentially outdated literary paradigm. Referring to his image of boredom as the ‘dream bird that hatches the egg of experience’, Benjamin continues: ‘His nesting places — the activities that are intimately associated with boredom — are already
extinct in the cities and are declining in the country as well. With this, the gift for listening is lost and the community of listeners disappears.’ (GS II.2, 446; SW III, 149). The reasons behind this decline in a constructively suspended attention are both cultural and economic, their consequences psychological as well as political. As Benjamin points out, in modern times the ability to remember stories ‘is lost because there is no more weaving and spinning to go on while they are being listened to’ (GS II.2, 447; SW III, 149). The state of mental relaxation which is so essential for constructive, preservative listening is eroded with the introduction of industrial labour. The relentless pace and high level of danger which characterizes work at the production line produces monotony rather than constructive boredom, as its structure of targets and supervision does not allow for the kind of meandering attention which emerges as the constructive by-product of manual labour. And just as the industrial revolution spells the end of traditional craftsmanship, a comparable process changes the face of narrative. As the listeners who have the leisure to take in his/her stories disappear into the factories, the storyteller is replaced by a more solitary ﬁgure: ‘The novelist has secluded himself. The birthplace of the novel is the individual in his isolation’ (GS II.2, 443; SW III, 146).12 The novel’s solitary production is in turn mirrored in the mode of its reception: ‘A man listening to a story is in the company of the storyteller (. . . ). The reader of a novel, however, is isolated, more so than any other reader.’ (GS II.2, 456; SW III, 156). In his critique of the novel as an atomizing, anti-collective genre, Benjamin echoes Georg Lukács’s The Theory of the Novel.13 Yet the rise of the novel marks only the ﬁrst stage in an on-going decline of both attention and recollection in the age of modern mass culture whose analysis complements Benjamin’s exploration of traditional storytelling. Just as the industrial revolution embodies what Long calls a ‘drive towards increased efﬁciency in economic and bureaucratic life’, a similar dynamic also invades the realm of writing and reading, especially in the case of popular genres such as romance and detective story, which demand to be read speedily, without pause for reﬂection or wider associations. This development is to some extent counteracted by the formal innovations of modernism, which require practices such as non-linear reading and re-reading and therefore ‘go against the logic of the market, in which the rapid consumption of books both stimulates and is stimulated by the constant ﬂow of new products onto the literary market’.14 The consumption of popular novels has its counterpart in the popular press, which tickles the palates
Benjamin’s Literary History of Attention
of its readers with sensationalist stories. It is this latter phenomenon which Benjamin alludes to with his phrase about the ‘Rauschen im Blätterwalde’ (the rustling ‘in the leaves’, but also, metaphorically, ‘of the pages/newspapers’) — a noise which drives away the ‘dream bird’ of boredom. The popular press erodes people’s capacity for a more continuous, embedded Erfahrung, privileging instead ‘newness, brevity, clarity, and, above all, lack of connection between the individual news items’ (GS I.2, 610; SW IV, 316). As Benjamin concludes: ‘The replacement of the older relation by information, and of information by sensation, reﬂects the increasing atrophy of experience [Erfahrung].’ (GS I.2, 611; SW IV, 316). Contrary to popular belief, this reading experience narrows rather than widens the horizon of its readers; where the storyteller took his listeners on journeys to remote times and places, the appeal of modern news items is heightened by their ‘prompt veriﬁability’, their rootedness in the familiar world of the reader (GS II.2, 444; SW III, 147). If, for economic and cultural reasons, the constructive boredom of earlier days has been eradicated, what, then, can be put in its place? While Benjamin is highly critical of large parts of contemporary literature, which he rejects as too easily digestible,15 he once more turns to oral, performance-based media as sites of possible resistance. The process of storytelling shares some crucial similarities with the reception of both theatre and ﬁlm. Although the underlying historical conditions have changed beyond recognition, a sense of fruitful relaxation can nonetheless arise in modern culture, enabling a mode of reception which is not dissimilar to the semi-distracted attention paid by past listeners. In this respect, theatre and ﬁlm continue, in a revised form, the tradition of storytelling which Benjamin praises for its collective, community building character. As in the case of ‘The Storyteller’, attention is here part of a dialectical conﬁguration, emerging from a state of semi-distracted relaxation which in turn provides a fertile ground for productive reception. One cultural domain in which such a mode of reception can be found is Bertolt Brecht’s epic theatre. Benjamin writes several pieces on Brecht, the last of which, ‘What is the Epic Theatre?’ (1939),16 opens with a section entitled ‘The Relaxed Audience’. As Benjamin points out, the appeal of the theatre is commonly associated with narrative tension, with suspense and build-up: ‘one pictures a man who follows the action with every ﬁbre of his being in rapt attention’ (GS II.2, 532; SW IV, 302; translation modiﬁed). In this respect, theatre seems to resemble other superﬁcially captivating forms of entertainment such
as newspapers and popular literature; indeed, Benjamin criticizes both popular and traditional ‘high’ theatre as beholden to ‘a sated class for which everything it touches becomes a stimulant’ (GS II.2, 697; SW II, 778). Brecht’s plays resist such ‘culinary’ forms of reception. His epic theatre requires, as well as produces, ‘an audience which is relaxed and which follows the action without strain. This audience, to be sure, always appears as a collective, and this differentiates it from the reader, who is alone with the text’ (GS II.2, 532; SW IV, 302). Brecht’s spectators thus share some crucial features with the audience of the storyteller. In both cases, the process of reception is a collective one, and in both cases, this collective experience takes place in a state of relaxed, semi-attentive receptivity; in Brecht’s case, however, this stance no longer emerges from pre-existing social structures — the tradition of manual labour — but is the intended effect of stagecraft. As in the case of storytelling, this reception is geared towards a particular result. At stake, however, is not memory, the continuation of an oral narrative tradition, but a more immediate, critical response. Brecht’s audience ‘will usually feel impelled to take a stand promptly’, but just as they followed the play in a state of detached relaxation, this attitude also underpins their judgement, which is ‘a well-considered and therefore relaxed one — in short, the stance of people who have an interest in the matter’ (GS II.2, 532; SW IV, 302). Brecht’s relaxed audience is thus far from being overwhelmed or swept along by the events on stage; their evenly suspended attention gives rise to interest and reﬂection and therefore, according to Brecht’s theory of drama, to political engagement. For Benjamin, Brecht’s epic theatre thus continues the narrative tradition previously embodied by storytelling, as both genres are aimed at an audience whose semi-alert mindset resists complete absorption. Yet Benjamin also identiﬁes this dynamic in a more modern, technological form of entertainment. His writings on the cinema are essentially concerned with silent ﬁlm and its revolutionary potential,17 which he contrasts with the traditional artwork as it is viewed in galleries and museums: ‘The painting invites the viewer to contemplation; before it, he can give himself up to his train of associations. Before a ﬁlm image, he cannot do so. No sooner has he seen it that it has already changed. It cannot be ﬁxed on.’ (GS I.2, 502; SW IV, 267). In his essay on ‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility’,18 Benjamin thus reﬁgures the dichotomy between solitary and collective reception which is central
Benjamin’s Literary History of Attention
to ‘The Storyteller’. In the latter text, collective reception is the earlier, more traditional form of experience which is then supplanted by the bourgeois genre of the novel; in the ‘Work of Art’ essay, in turn, the equally individualized viewing experience in front of a painting is once again succeeded by a collective medium. Through their dynamic, ‘tactile’ quality, ﬁlm images do not allow for sustained personal reﬂection, creating instead what Benjamin describes as a ‘simultaneous collective reception’ (GS I.2, 497; SW IV, 264) capable of transcending differences of class, gender and political orientation. Benjamin summarizes this viewing experience under the heading of distraction, Zerstreuung, a mental stance which shares some, though not all, characteristics with the productive boredom of weaving and spinning. Zerstreuung is likewise intertwined with practice (Übung) and routine; it enables a habitual, automatic response to the many disparate impressions of modern life and is hence essential for survival in the modern city: ‘the ability to master certain tasks in a state of distraction proves that their performance has become habitual’ (GS I.2, 505; SW IV, 268). This is not to say, however, that Zerstreuung numbs the individual against the surrounding reality; on the contrary, the distracted perception which can be practised in the cinema enables the observer to take in the stream of impressions in a detached yet alert way, resulting in ‘casual noticing, rather than attentive observation’ (GS I.2, 505; SW IV, 268). In an argument which resembles that of the Brecht essay, Benjamin thus concludes that ‘at the movies, the evaluating attitude requires no attention. The audience is an examiner, but a distracted one’ (GS I.2, 505; SW IV, 269). Although Benjamin rejects the kind of contemplative attention which is a feature of bourgeois art reception, his model of the audience as an examiner clearly involves an element of attention, albeit in a rather revised form. As he points out, the ‘shock-effect’ of ﬁlm, its perceptual challenge posed by montage and fast-moving scenes, must to be countered by the viewer through ‘heightened presence of mind’ (GS I.2, 503; SW IV, 267; translation modiﬁed). In the heterogeneous landscape of the modern city, then, the continuous, preserving receptivity of the storyteller’s audience would be an anachronism; with the help of silent ﬁlm, however, the modern subject can practise and adopt a similarly productive, dialectical form of response: a versatile alertness able to respond to the fragmented stimuli of city life without being absorbed by them, attention in a state of distraction. While describing cultural traditions which were eroded in the process of modernization with a certain degree of melancholy,
Benjamin nonetheless avoids a nostalgic gloriﬁcation of the past, focusing instead on hidden continuities between past and present which can be mobilized to productive effect. That said, while he singles out various distinctly ‘modern’, anti-contemplative art forms for this purpose, this does not mean that traditional literature plays no role in his critical endeavour. A focal point of Benjamin’s work in the 1930s is Charles Baudelaire, the subject of the largest section of the unﬁnished Arcades Project as well as of two essays arising from this work. The second of these, ‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire’, contains one of Benjamin’s most sustained reﬂections on the role of attention in modern literature and society, in an argument which brings together and develops the reﬂections of his earlier texts.19 Although Baudelaire’s poetry is at ﬁrst sight very different from the ‘collective’ art forms advocated by Benjamin, it shares with them an important feature: the mobilization of distraction as an integral part of literary production and reception. Among the literary genres, poetry is perhaps the one which poses the greatest demands on the reader’s attention; unlike the theatre, it is designed for individual, private consumption, and unlike in the case of the novel, the reader cannot let him- or herself be swept along by the momentum of the plot but is forced to focus anew on every individual piece, remaining alert to the multi-layered resonances between form and content, meter, sound and imagery. Poetry requires intense, preferably solitary concentration and thus falls under the category of ‘bourgeois’ high culture which Benjamin elsewhere condemns for the anti-social mode of its reception. Yet in ‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire’, he mounts a defence of high literature which derives precisely from poetry’s seemingly anachronistic status in modern culture. In his essay, Benjamin retells his narrative of cultural decline and fragmentation familiar from ‘The Storyteller’. Baudelaire is faced with the same erosion of continuous experience which already spelled the end of this oral narrative tradition. In contrast to the storyteller, however, Baudelaire is aware of this situation and incorporates it into his poetry. His envisaged readers are not those select few able to resist the erosion of continuous attention and Erfahrung but people ‘to whom the reading of lyric poetry would present difﬁculties. (. . . ) Willpower and the ability to concentrate are not their strong points. What they prefer is sensual pleasure; they are familiar with the “spleen” which kills interest and receptiveness’ (GS I.2, 607; SW IV, 313). Most importantly, however, the poet himself is not exempt from this
Benjamin’s Literary History of Attention
situation; as Benjamin states, Baudelaire ‘dedicates his book [Les Fleurs du mal] to those who are like him’ (GS I.2, 607; SW IV, 313). His poetry does not simply coincide with a cultural crisis of attention but is the embodiment of that crisis. Perhaps is it this structure of mimetic attunement which accounts for the paradoxical success of Les Fleurs du mal: ‘This book, which the author expected would be read by the least indulgent of readers, and which was at ﬁrst read by only a few indulgent ones, has, over the decades, acquired the stature of a classic and become one of the most widely printed ones as well.’ (GS I.2, 608; SW IV, 314). For Benjamin, Baudelaire’s poetry thus acts as a test case for literature in the age of distraction; written at the historical cusp of the industrial revolution, it anticipates and reﬂects the perceptual challenges of modern life.20 In the ‘Baudelaire’ essay, which emerged from Benjamin’s work on the Arcades Project, literary analysis and historical exploration are closely intertwined. Close readings of the poems are interspersed with more general reﬂections on modern city life, where modern technology contributes to the ‘standardized, denatured life of the civilized masses’ (GS I.2, 608; SW IV, 314). Trafﬁc involves the individual in ‘a series of shocks and collisions’ (GS I.2, 630; SW IV, 328), while inventions such as the match, the telephone and the camera are exemplary of the increasing fragmentation of modern experience whereby ‘a single abrupt movement of the hand triggers a process of many steps’ (GS I.2, 630; SW IV, 328). What underpins many of these innovations is the disciplinary conditioning of the human body and its integration into mechanically predetermined routines. While long exposure times in early photography require the sitter to adopt a static pose for an extended period, the industrial worker is subjected to a similar ‘dressage by the machine’ (GS I.2, 632; SW IV, 329; translation modiﬁed), whereby each hand movement ‘has no connection with the preceding gesture for the very reason that it repeats that gesture exactly’ (GS I.2, 633; SW IV, 330). The worker’s experience at the machine is mirrored by that of the gambler, whose attention is absorbed by repetitive movements without inner coherence. What all of these examples have in common is their fragmented, discontinuous nature. Life in the modern city exposes the subject to a stream of heterogeneous impressions all of which vie for his or her attention. Shock, a term familiar from the ‘Work of Art’ essay, acts as a key term in Benjamin’s literary analysis. This theory of shock is not merely founded on historical evidence but is developed in an extensive excursus on the psychological
implications of modern life. Drawing on Freud’s ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ (1921), Benjamin argues that the main function of consciousness is not the inscription of experiences into memory but, on the contrary, the protection against an overwhelming onslaught of stimuli. This capacity of consciousness to act as Reizschutz (protection against stimuli) gains particular importance in the modern city. Through repeated exposure, the defence against its heterogeneous spectacles becomes an automatic process. As Benjamin states, ‘The more readily consciousness registers these shocks, the less likely they are to have a traumatic effect.’ (GS I.2, 613; SW IV, 317).21 It is this habitual, ﬂexible form of protective alertness which is, as Benjamin argues, at the heart of Baudelaire’s works. His poems are exemplary of a type of poetry ‘for which exposure to shock has become the norm’, and in which the encountered shocks are thus ‘cushioned, parried by consciousness’ (GS I.2, 614; SW IV, 318). Baudelaire’s texts are no longer rooted in the continuous structure of Erfahrung but have mobilized the more discontinuous Erlebnis as the basis of the creative process. Importantly, however, this defence mechanism is not able to deﬂect all experiences. Baudelaire himself describes artistic creation as a duel ‘in which the artist, just before being beaten, screams in fright. (. . . ) Thus, Baudelaire placed shock experience at the very center of his art’ (GS I.2, 615–6; SW IV, 319). The creative process therefore involves both the successful defence against the shocks of modern life and the failure of this undertaking — the moment when the poet is ‘defeated’ by too intense an impression. The writer’s alertness acts as a protective but also permeable surface, and it is the failure of this protective vigilance which inscribes the encountered shocks into the body of the text. Described in such terms, Baudelaire’s poetry appears as a timely though solipsistic enterprise which does not maintain the same connection with its audience as the tales of the storyteller. Yet the image of fencing, of shock defence is in fact embedded in a form of interpersonal encounter. The shocks fended off by the alert poet are those imparted by ‘contact with the urban masses’, and the blows he deals are ‘designed to open a path for him through the crowd’ (GS I.2, 618; SW IV, 321). If the urban masses thus pose a challenge to the poet’s synthesizing faculties, they also serve as the necessary backdrop from which moments of sudden, shock-like recognition and alertness can arise. As Benjamin remarks in response to the poem ‘A une passante’, ‘far from experiencing the crowd solely as an opposing, antagonistic element, the city dweller discovers in the
Benjamin’s Literary History of Attention
crowd what fascinates him’ (GS I.2, 623; SW IV, 324). In this respect, Baudelaire’s poetic strategy of shock defence anticipates the response of cinema audiences in the twentieth century. Just as ﬁlm provides an Übungsinstrument or practice instrument for the modern subject, a similar ‘training in coping with stimuli’ (GS I.2, 614; SW IV, 318) also underlies Baudelaire’s poetry, which responds to the heterogeneous spectacles of modernity through a heightened level of alertness. If shock defence is thus an organizing principle of Baudelaire’s poetry then this stance is also shared by his city dwellers, whose superﬁcially scanning gaze conceals a keen vigilance:
When such eyes come alive, it is with the self-protective wariness of a carnivore hunting for prey. (Thus, the eye of a prostitute scrutinizing passers-by is at the same time on the lookout for police. (. . . ) ‘Her eyes, like those of a wild animal, are ﬁxed on the distant horizon; they have the restlessness of a wild animal. . . , but sometimes also the animal’s tense sense of vigilance’). (GS I.2, 649; SW IV, 340–1)
Rather than acting as a merely psychological defence mechanism, heightened alertness gains a wider social and political signiﬁcance in modern society. It is no longer the prerogative of those trying to escape the arm of the law but is appropriated by increasingly sophisticated networks of control and surveillance, embodying a new, disciplinary form of attention supplemented by modern technology. One such tool is the camera, which provides a mechanical extension of the human gaze.22 A defence against the challenges of modern life, alertness and vigilance also contribute to the dangers facing the modern subject. Written contemporaneously to the second ‘Brecht’ essay and the third version of the ‘Work of Art’ essay, ‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire’ reapplies the terms of Benjamin’s cultural analysis to the medium of literature. Yet while Baudelaire’s poetry reﬂects the heterogeneity of modern life, it also harbours a more contemplative dimension which allows an intermittent escape from the fragmentary structure of Erlebnis. In a reading inspired by Proust, Benjamin argues that particular days in Baudelaire’s poetry are dissociated from ordinary time and experience and become ‘days of recollection [Eingedenken], not marked by any immediate experience [Erlebnis]’ (GS I.2, 637; SW IV, 333). Such temporal spaces of recollection emerge from Baudelaire’s concept of correspondances, the idea of an inﬁnite network of vertical and horizontal relations underpinning reality, which is, as Benjamin points out, ‘the common property of mystics’: ‘What
Baudelaire meant by correspondances can be described as an experience [Erfahrung] which seeks to establish itself in crisis-proof form.’ (GS I.2, 638; SW IV, 333). It is no coincidence that Benjamin’s engagement with Baudelaire’s correspondances as a framework of memory is in turn inspired by Proust’s reading of Les Fleurs du mal. Both Proust’s model of mémoire involontaire and Bergson’s theory of durée, which acted as its inspiration, feature prominently in Benjamin’s ‘Baudelaire’ essay. Ultimately, however, such contemplative models of memory and experience prove to be insufﬁcient for Benjamin, not only because they become obsolete in modernity but also because their focus on the individual forecloses the role of wider social structures and dynamics which underpin all human experience. In Baudelaire’s poetry, in contrast, such times of remembrance take on a different function. Although they gesture towards a more uniﬁed form of Erfahrung which is resilient against the shocks of modern life, such times remain isolated exceptions in Baudelaire’s oeuvre and as such direct the poet’s attention all the more ﬁrmly to the challenges of his own age: ‘Only by making these elements [of the correspondances] his own was Baudelaire able to fathom the full meaning of the breakdown which he, as a modern man, was witnessing’ (GS I.2, 638; SW IV, 333; translation modiﬁed). In his essays on literature and culture, Benjamin recurrently thematizes the dialectical interplay between attention and distraction, concentration and absent-mindedness — an interplay whose balance changes over time but whose main constituents remain in play across historical and cultural shifts. Thus his narrative about the decline of Erfahrung and the rise of the more short-lived Erlebnis does not, unlike Adorno’s cultural critique, end in a bleak state of objectiﬁcation and alienation but remains open to opportunities for creative, critical interference which continue to arise even in modern mass culture. The terms of Benjamin’s analysis are not rigidly ﬁxed, and his gaze into literary history maintains a bifocal perspective which mediates between the past and the present, understanding literature as part of a wider, evolving ﬁeld of collective and individual experience. As a result, the reader of Baudelaire’s poetry partakes in the same experience of a fragmented modernity as the twentieth-century cinema audience. How, then, do Benjamin’s own writings and his conception of criticism ﬁt into this framework? In One-Way Street, writing is ﬁgured less in opposition to than in collaboration with external stimuli, which keep the writer connected to the world at large. If Benjamin’s
Benjamin’s Literary History of Attention
comments on textual production thus cast the writer’s concentration as rooted in distraction, to what extent do these underlying conditions shape his own critical and literary texts? At ﬁrst sight, Benjamin’s oeuvre appears to conﬁrm his own observations about a declining attention span. The bulk of his writing is made up of shorter pieces, of essays, reviews and fragments, and while this output is partly the result of personal hardship and the diminishing opportunities brought about by the political climate, even longer texts are characterized by a heterogeneous structure. This applies in particular to his two most prominent creative works, OneWay Street and Berlin Childhood around 1900, which resist a coherent narrative thread in favour of smaller, self-contained pieces. For this reason, Benjamin’s texts have been associated with an emerging genre of the ‘small form’ (kleine Form) in modernist literature. While this phenomenon could be seen as symptomatic of the shrinking attention span of modern culture, the ‘small form’ was theorized not as a sign of cultural and intellectual degeneracy but as a timely and appropriate mode of expression. Benjamin supports and tacitly aligns himself with what could be described as writing in and for a culture of distraction. In his essay ‘The Small Form’ (1926), the Viennese author and critic Alfred Polgar acknowledges ‘that a story of modest volume may (. . . ) not hold up and that the small form may well be a necessary effect of a shortness of breath’. In general, however, he insists ‘it suits the tension and need of the time, that it is in any case more suitable, as ﬂat analogy imagines, than written skyscrapers’. As he conﬁdently concludes, ‘I regard episodic brevity as thoroughly appropriate to the role today demanded of writing’.23 In a 1928 review, Benjamin approvingly cites Polgar’s essay, remarking that his approach produces the kind of sensitivity ‘demanded by austere, delicate, faceless things’ (GS III, 110; my translation). Benjamin’s own preference for shorter forms of writing, which he employs even within longer works, is thus the reﬂection of both the wider cultural climate and his personal critical agenda. Even within the framework of large-scale enterprises such as the Arcades Project, his interest is recurrently attracted by ‘small’ things — by forgotten objects, obscure sources or mundane events all of which form part of the same agenda: his pursuit of an ‘aesthetic of the small’ which uncovers overarching tendencies in the most minute details.24 Benjamin’s critical approach is not simply a concession to a declining attention span; on the contrary, it requires a sustained yet mobile concentration which is
able to grasp the wider signiﬁcance inherent in supposedly irrelevant details. Indeed, the close, even painstaking attention which Benjamin’s texts demand of their readers is embedded in their very materiality. Just as he is often drawn to ‘small’ subjects explored in small textual units, his handwriting applies this principle to the physical process of textual production. Many of Benjamin’s manuscripts are written in a small, at times even minute hand. Individual letters, which measure between one and seven millimetres, can in some cases barely be deciphered with the naked eye. The texts appear squeezed onto the pages which they occupy,25 an idiosyncratic foible which during the exile years became an economic necessity. One effect of Benjamin’s micrographs is that they decelerate the process of reception, protecting his texts against distracted, casual consumption while confronting the reader with the underlying conditions, and limitations, of the reading process. Indeed, the attention which Benjamin’s texts demand of the reader is matched, if not exceeded, by their author’s painstaking care over their production. As Benjamin notes in One-Way Street, ‘Stages of composition: idea — style — writing. The value of the fair copy is that in producing it you conﬁne your attention to calligraphy.’ (GS IV.1, 107; SW I, 459; translation modiﬁed).26 The concentration required of writer and reader is thus a key feature of Benjamin’s texts, yet this is in turn part of a more dialectical framework. Apart from his micrographic approach, the 2006 exhibition ‘Walter Benjamin’s Archive’ also illustrated his highly idiosyncratic ﬁling system, his sprawling collection of notes, pictures and artefacts which he accumulated as part of his critical enterprise. This scattered, heterogeneous archive acts as the counterpoint to the calligraphic discipline of Benjamin’s writing process, providing a more associative ‘reserve of drafts, thoughts, and quotations’.27 On one level, their fragmented status was lamented by Benjamin, who in 1935 wrote to Scholem that ‘the ﬁnal gathering of the inﬁnite scraps of my production’ (GB V, 47; my translation) was beginning to look increasingly unlikely to him at this precarious stage in his life. However, despite its owner’s melancholy wish for unity and coherence, Benjamin’s archive is also a reﬂection of his highly mobile critical approach, his ability to discern connections between apparently disparate subjects and periods. Ultimately, then, his own writings are founded on the very interplay between attention and distraction which they also discern, and indeed advocate, in the literature and culture which they explore.
Benjamin’s Literary History of Attention
1 As David S. Ferris notes, the common translation of Darstellung as ‘representation’ is misleading, since for Benjamin, ‘thought and understanding are the effect of that medium [language] and not its master’ (‘Introduction: Reading Benjamin’, in The Cambridge Companion to Walter Benjamin, edited by David S. Ferris (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 1–17 (11)). 2 Walter Benjamin’s Archive: Images, Texts, Signs, edited by Ursula Marx et al., translated by Esther Leslie (London, New York: Verso, 2007), 50; translation modiﬁed. 3 Michael Jennings argues that the experimental style and structure of OneWay Street reﬂects Benjamin’s contacts with the so-called ‘G-Group’, which included key avant-garde ﬁgures such as László Moholy-Nagy, Mies van der Rohe and El Lissitsky (‘Walter Benjamin and the European Avant-garde’, in The Cambridge Companion to Walter Benjamin, 18–34). 4 Despite his emphasis on the disposition of the listeners, Benjamin concedes that storytellers also have some responsibility for attracting and sustaining their listeners’ attention: ‘their task was less to increase its didactic content than to reﬁne the tricks with which the attention of the listener was captured’ (GS II.2, 457; SW III, 157). 5 Sigmund Freud, ‘Recommendations to Physicians Practising PsychoAnalysis’, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, edited and translated by James Strachey et al., 22 vols (London: Hogarth Press, 1953–74), vol. 12, 109–20 (112). 6 Freud’s article, which was published in the Almanach der Psychoanalyse 1935, was a reprint of a section from his lecture on ‘Dreams and Occultism’ in the New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis. In the following, I will therefore refer to the lecture as it appears in the Standard Edition. 7 Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, in The Standard Edition, vol. 22, 1–182 (42–3). 8 Freud, New Introductory Lectures, 40. 9 This concise formulation can be found in an earlier article on the same topic, yet the underlying idea is still central to Freud’s argument in the New Introductory Lectures. Sigmund Freud, ‘Psycho-Analysis and Telepathy’, in The Standard Edition, vol. 18, 173–94 (184). 10 On Benjamin’s response, see GS II.3, 952–3; there, however, the title of the article read by Benjamin is wrongly cited as ‘Psychoanalyse und Telepathie’. 11 See Miriam Hansen, ‘Benjamin, Cinema and Experience: “The Blue Flower in the Land of Technology”’, New German Critique 40 (1987), 179–224 (195). 12 This critique in turn makes it clear why Benjamin in One-Way Street places such emphasis on the chatter of voices which accompanies the writer’s work and connects his endeavours to the wider community.
290 Paragraph 13 See Alexander Honold, ‘Erzählen’, in Benjamins Begriffe, edited by Michael Opitz and Erdmut Wizisla (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 2000), 363–98 (370–3). 14 J. J. Long, W . G. Sebald: Image, Archive, Modernity (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), 140–1. 15 As he argues, the supposedly leftist writers of the New Objectivity have made ‘the struggle against poverty an object of consumption’, transforming ‘revolutionary impulses’ into ‘objects of distraction, of amusement’ (GS II.2, 695; SW II, 776). 16 This is the second of two essays under this title, the ﬁrst of which was written in 1931. 17 As Benjamin writes to Adorno in December 1938, expressing his partial agreement with the latter’s essay ‘On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening’: ‘It becomes more and more obvious to me that the launching of the sound ﬁlm must be viewed as an industrial action designed to break through the revolutionary primacy of the silent ﬁlm, which fostered reactions that were hard to control and politically dangerous’ (The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin, 1910–1940, edited by Gershom Scholem and Theodor W. Adorno, translated by Manfred R. Jacobson and Evelyn M. Jacobson (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994) 591). 18 I am here referring to the third version. 19 In June 1939, Benjamin writes to Gretel Adorno that his (second) ‘Baudelaire’ essay ‘will try to integrate crucial motifs from my essay on reproduction and from the one on the storyteller in combination with the same kind of motifs in the Arcades’ (The Correspondence, 609). 20 By responding to these challenges, Baudelaire’s poetry is both of its own time and ahead of it; only in modern, industrialized society would he ‘eventually ﬁnd the reader his work was intended for’ (GS I.2, 607; SW IV, 313). 21 Almost twenty years earlier, Georg Simmel had anticipated Freud’s theory in his seminal essay ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ (1903), where he argues that the perceptual challenges of the city require the subject to respond to the encountered impressions with a heightened level of mental response, ‘the intensiﬁcation of nervous stimulation’, in order to deﬂect them from the mind’s (emotional) core (‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’, in Simmel on Culture: Selected Writings, edited by David Frisby and Mike Featherstone (London: Sage, 1997), 174–85 (175)). 22 As Benjamin points out, ‘Photography made it possible for the ﬁrst time to preserve permanent and unmistakable traces of a human being. (. . . ) Since that time, there has been no end to the efforts to capture a man in his speech and actions’ (GS I.2, 550; SW IV, 27). 23 Alfred Polgar, ‘The Small Form’, in The Vienna Coffeehouse Wits, 1890–1938, translated, edited and with an introduction by Harold B. Segel (West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 1993), 279–81 (280).
Benjamin’s Literary History of Attention
24 Walter Benjamin’s Archive, 52. 25 In an early draft of Pariser Passagen from 1928/9, for instance, he ﬁts 81 lines onto a page 22cm tall (Walter Benjamin’s Archive, 51). 26 In the same section, Benjamin also notes: ‘Keep your pen aloof from inspiration, which it will then attract with magnetic power’ (GS IV.1, 106; SW I, 458), thus enforcing the idea that the writing process is more productive if it unfolds in adverse conditions. On Benjamin’s writing technique, see Davide Giuriato, Mikrographien: Zu einer Poetologie des Schreibens in Walter Benjamins Kindheitserinnerungen (1932–1939) (Munich: Fink, 2006). 27 Walter Benjamin’s Archive, 10.
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Between Erlebnis and Erfahrung: Cinema Experience with Benjamin THOMAS ELSAESSER
Abstract: The ‘turn’ to emotion and affect in ﬁlm and media studies may take its distance from earlier ways of understanding spectatorial involvement (modelled on psychoanalytic notions of identiﬁcation). But such approaches, whether cognitivist in intent, or inspired by phenomenology, also return to an earlier interest in bodily sensations and somatic responses when exposed to sudden motion and moving images (associated with ideas such as innervation, shock and over-stimulation). The essay proposes to bring Walter Benjamin into the debate, with a term central to his idea of modernity, namely ‘experience’, and to revive his distinction between Erfahrung and Erlebnis. Noting certain features of excess and liminiality in contemporary cinema, and mapping them across the three distinct domains of body, time and agency, Benjamin’s own attempt to locate the emotional core of the technical media is reappraised. Grounded in the peculiar variability but also interdependence of place, narration and perception, the cinema would then appear to provide Erlebnis without Erfahrung, a state formerly associated with trauma, but now the very deﬁnition of the media event. Keywords: cinema, experience, limits, embodiment, time, agency, trauma, event
The paradigm shift
This essay takes as its framework the turn to emotions in ﬁlm studies, a distinct move in the ﬁeld that implies a turn away from other ways of looking at the cinema. Thus, the new focus on emotion clearly takes its distance from psychoanalytic ﬁlm theory, notably from an emphasis on the specular drives, on desire and lack. Impatience with the psycho-semiotic approach to spectatorship, however, is itself an emotion, probably shared by groups of ﬁlm scholars — cognitivists, culturalists and Deleuzians — who otherwise do not have much in common, and rarely, if ever, seek to engage in a debate with each other.1 The temptation to initiate a debate between these camps, or
Paragraph 32:3 (2009) 292–312 DOI: 10.3366/E0264833409000625
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at least try and ﬁnd some common denominators is great.2 Resisting it, I shall instead sketch a different context, which allows me to reintroduce Walter Benjamin into the debate, and with him a term possibly even more contested than that of emotion: ‘experience’. My recourse to Benjamin and experience wants to keep an opening for both psychoanalysis and cultural studies, without foreclosing either Deleuze or cognitivism. One speciﬁc entry-point can be simply stated: whereas semiotics generally regarded ﬁlm as a discourse or a narrative, the turn to emotion presupposes ﬁlm to be above all an event. And while socalled apparatus theory took the cinema to task for pretending to be a window on the world (and not acknowledging its mirroring effects), the presumption now is that the cinema involves neither miscognition nor illusion, but is best understood as a perceptual act like any other, heightened perhaps by its immediacy and immersiveness.3 Insofar as a ﬁlm engages with the world, it does so in the form of embodied knowledge, of percepts and affects, and insofar as it assigns a role to its spectators, it does so by casting them not as voyeurs or across the imaginary identiﬁcation of the split subject, but as witnesses or participants. Instead of the Cartesian mind–body split and the Lacanian identity-machine, we now have the cinema as ‘emotion machine’.4 Central to this conﬁguration, and a ground that both the old and the new paradigm can indeed share, is the notion of experience, which to me is preliminary to any discussion of emotion in the cinema. But what sort of experience? The term, in German at last, gives rise to a rich and confusing palette of meanings: Erfahrung (between travelling [fahren] and standing still), Erlebnis (between living [leben] and death), Empﬁndung (between ﬁnding [ﬁnden] and loss), Gefühl (between feeling [fühlen] and touch). What is cinema if not a conﬁguration of the semantic ﬁelds thus circumscribed? The very diversity leads me to limit the possible concepts of experience I am concerned with here to three domains: embodiment — experience as immediate sensory presence and corporeal plenitude; time — experience as retrospectively constructed, temporally or discursively mediated self-possession and self-appropriation; and agency — experience as the exposure to limits, and the recovery from extremes. By making experience a key term, I intend furthermore to highlight the role of the cinema in modernity, and in particular, in two moments or crises of ‘modernization’. It is one particular semantic ﬁeld — experience as a retrospectively constructed, temporally mediated self-possession and selfappropriation — that resonates with Benjamin’s concerns, and
especially his well-known discussion of the conditions of experience under capitalist modernity, as elaborated in the essay, ‘Some Motifs in Baudelaire’. In line with many German late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century theorists, Benjamin makes a distinction between Erlebnis and Erfahrung, the ﬁrst associated with moments of sensation and the second with a more sustained texture of experience. As Martin Jay points out, ‘The immediate, passive, fragmented, isolated, and unintegrated inner experience of Erlebnis was, Benjamin argued, very different from the cumulative, totalizing accretion of transmittable wisdom, of epic truth, which was Erfahrung.’5 Evidently, in Benjamin’s dual scheme, Erfahrung was something no longer available to the individual in the modern world. As Jay puts it, ‘The continuum of Erfahrung had already been broken by the unassimilable shocks of urban life, and the replacement of artisanal production by the dull, non-cumulative repetition of the assembly line. Meaningful narrative had been supplanted by haphazard information and raw sensation in the mass media.’6 Yet Benjamin’s tragic sense of life, along with his dialectical cast of mind, ensured that the fractured, reactive, transient experiential state of Erlebnis was not viewed nostalgically, from the perspective of some past, fully realized plenitude or ‘ethos’. The impoverishment or atrophy of Erfahrung he diagnosed as constitutive for modernity was itself typical of experience per se, so that the ‘loss of experience’ in the modern world was in actual fact the always already present ‘experience of loss’ in human existence. How can Benjamin’s distinction be made productive for our view of the cinema, how might it help us understand what is at stake in the paradigm shift alluded to above? An answer might be given through another distinction: the one between classical cinema and modern cinema (in Deleuze’s sense of the word), and between classical and post-classical cinema (in Anglo-American parlance). It is remarkable, for instance, how closely current deﬁnitions of classical cinema correspond to Benjamin’s notion of Erfahrung: typiﬁed by narrative integration and temporal development, whether conceived in a linear fashion, as a life story, a journey (as indicated, the German word Erfahrung has as its root the verb ‘fahren’, to travel) or whether retrospectively reconstituted as a form of learning, in its charactercentred cohesion and biographical closure. Even the structuralist account of ‘imaginary resolution of real contradictions’ (Lévi-Strauss) or the pragmatic-cognitivist one of ‘problem solving’ and of ‘functional equivalence’ point in the same direction.7 Furthermore, the affective structure of classical cinema — as with Erfahrung — is that of a
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healing, a therapy, a cathartic progress from hamartia (ignorance) and miscognition, to anagnorisis (recognition) and the narrational play of different gradients of knowledge towards their eventual convergence. Classical cinema operates in an integrative fashion, and the function of narrative is to facilitate this process of turning discontinuous Erlebnis into transmissible Erfahrung. Hence Benjamin’s own emphasis on montage as cinema’s speciﬁc contribution to modernity. However, if we take Benjamin’s arguments seriously, then under conditions of modernity, only the experiential modality of Erlebnis is possible, not that of Erfahrung. And insofar as the cinema is unthinkable outside the sensory and affective conditions of modernity as speciﬁed by Benjamin’s theory of perceptual shock and the optical unconscious, then a cinema of Erfahrung, such as the classical, would indeed be an ideological construct, a nostalgic or reactionary shoring up of the fractured nature of modern experience. In other words, ‘pathos’ rather than ‘ethos’ deﬁnes the affective regime of modernity, if we consider Benjamin’s Erfahrung to be retrospectively constructed and integrated, while Erlebnis is self-presence without self-possession, and ‘pathos’ the affect appropriate to Erlebnis: singular, intermittent, discontinuous, transitory. Such a view gives added signiﬁcance to those moments (or sub-genres) in the classical period that are typiﬁed by excess, dissonance and deviations from the norm. Christine Noll Brinckmann, among others, has written eloquently about the deviant modes of the classical, notably in the musical (Busby Berkeley’s Lullaby of Broadway, from Golddiggers of ‘35).8 Here, the norm-deviancy model will be replaced by the Erfahrung/Erlebnis model and extended to the debate around melodrama. Melodrama came to prominence in ﬁlm studies when this previously despised genre began to be theorized within the psychoanalytic paradigm of desire and lack, absence and presence, of gender asymmetry and deferred closure. But if one were to take account of the changed paradigm, and look at cinema as event and experience, it would make of melodrama, belonging to the disruptive genres of excess just highlighted, one of the genuinely modern(ist) types of experience, at the limit of Erfahrung. Its ‘deviations’ from the classical would become the very index of its more historically appropriate form of ‘authenticity’. Or put the other way round: if the cinema — insofar as it is part of modernity and insofar as we regard it as an authentic ‘experience’ — has, as indicated, to be deﬁned as Erlebnis, and not as Erfahrung, then (the theoretical interest in) melodrama is symptomatic of the recognition that cinematic experience is by necessity disruptive,
fractured. Melodrama becomes, as it were, the hidden ‘truth’ of the classical by highlighting just how far any kind of classical cinema must be a retrospective revision of Erlebnis into Erfahrung. Always bearing in mind that the historical grounds for such a retrospective revision in the American cinema may be more complex than simply ideological obfuscation or nostalgic (self-)deception, this double face of melodrama may well have been one reason why it became crucial in the debates of the 1970s, at the same time as Hollywood cinema’s illusion of coherence was deconstructed from positions more radical than Benjamin’s distinctions between the two kinds of experience.9
Experience of limits, limits of experience
However, the attempt to resituate classical cinema (and to indicate a possible basis on which to distinguish within its deviant genres, while also identifying a line from classical to post-classical cinema) is not the only reason for invoking once more Benjamin’s idea that cinema is Erlebnis, rather than Erfahrung. By underlining the distinction I also intend to specify in what way I sense myself at odds with the cognitivists on a procedural point, when they use the cinema to deﬁne experience normatively. For cognitivists, the skills involved in the processes of perception, sensation, affect and feeling when in the cinema are not merely identical with those deployed in ordinary life-situations. They are evolutionary adaptations, and thus to all intents and purposes hard-wired, so that it makes little sense to speak of a ‘modernist’ visuality. Nor, accordingly, should we attempt to periodize particular somatic states or changes in the human nervous system, in the hope of correlating the cinema experience with a historical episteme or with social processes and technical innovations, such as — to name a few of the usual suspects — urbanization, the railways, electriﬁcation or any of the other cultures of modernity.10 Yet there is certainly something symptomatic (and thus variable and context-dependent) about the cinema. When thinking about ﬁlm viewing as a mode of experience, both the conditions of spectatorship and the affectivity these conditions generate are part of a historically speciﬁc (visual-sensory) culture, subject to change and analysable from an aesthetic as well as anthropological perspective. In particular, the constellation of event, spectatorship and experience suggests issues of cultural memory, and this in turn raises questions about the function of cinema as a prime means of rhetorically organizing, technically storing and culturally transmitting such a memory.
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Going to the cinema, however common an event it has become in the last hundred years, is still pursued as an experience which viewers expect to be exceptional, rather than normative. Why we go to the cinema, what we go to the cinema for, and what, time and again, takes us back to the movies is the anticipation of an extreme experience, of a limit experience. It is something larger than life, something out of the ordinary, which may include minimalist states or experiences at the edges of everyday perception and sensation. It involves registers where cinema tests — and contests — the conjunction of affect and agency, so crucial to both phenomenological and cognitivist accounts of emotions, but also central to the (classically deﬁned) aesthetic act, viewed under the double injunction of (passive) receptivity and heightened (active) awareness.11 In order to illustrate this dimension of cinema, it may be useful to introduce my third deﬁnition of experience: experience as the exposure to limits, and the recovery from extremes. Avant-garde art in the 20th century is replete with experiments and explorations of ‘limits’ and ‘extremes’, most strikingly after the traumata and horrors of the First World War. But philosophy and critical theory have also had much to say about limits: from Nietzsche’s anti-Kantian aesthetics of the Dionysian to Georges Bataille’s idea of ‘expense’, and from Maurice Blanchot to Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben.12 In this sense, exposure to and recovery from limits is as fundamental to modernity as is the cinema itself. The conjunction suggests a focus on three aspect of experience, already alluded to: ‘embodiment’, ‘time’ and ‘agency’ as those modalities of experience that can be associated with experience as a limit, and its negative correlative, the limits of experience. Limit experiences are above all limits in our sense of body and embodiment, agency and helplessness, time and its apparent irreversibility. The self-shattering type of experience, as imagined, for instance, by Bataille, exceeds the bounds of both chronos (the linear ﬂow of time) and kairos (the decisive moment, the epiphany). Bataille had a lifelong preoccupation with the intensity of the instant, which he played off against the opacity of duration. His notion of ‘inner experience’ was fundamentally negative, and in particular, it was ‘the opposite of action. Nothing more. “Action” is utterly dependent on project’; and project, according to Bataille, would ‘situate true existence in a future state, thus undermining the moment of presence, albeit not a plenitudinal presence, that is essential to inner experience’.13 It is not easy to specify what Bataille meant
by ‘inner experience’ which for him was intense, discontinuous, punctual. While for Ernst Jünger, battle as inner Erlebnis became the new (post-bourgeois) foundation of self, unmediated and authentic, for Bataille, there was no inner experience other than negative, dissociated. One might say (paraphrasing Marx) that the experience of limits is something that happens to human beings ‘behind their backs’, and while it may not be ‘against their will’, it challenges notions of bodily integrity, of agency, as well as of temporality, by keeping the self in a permanent present, which is also a state of tension and suspension. This permanent present, long recognized as the very condition of time in the cinema, has been interpreted both positively and negatively, and occasionally it has even been seen as a positive negativity, while cultural pessimists tend to see such ‘now-ness’ as the very curse that afﬂicts our societies of the spectacle.14 Even mainstream cinema, when seeking out the limits of experience, has, whether by default or design, come up against the experience of limits, if not exactly as envisaged by Bataille or Blanchot. However, while the references are different from those either of the post-First World War avant-gardes’ experience of limits, or of the post-Second World War reﬂections on the limits of experience (as in Foucault, Lyotard or Agamben),15 the experiential parameters are remarkably similar. The second half of this essay will therefore specify further these three kinds of ‘limits’ that are the conditions of possibility of the cinematic experience as Erlebnis always at the edge of Erfahrung: the body as limit, time as limit, and agency as limit.
The body as limit
In recent years, there has been an extensive focus on the body, gendered and sexualized, ethnically marked or set up as norm, fetishized or deviant, in Hollywood cinema. While this debate has been predominantly concerned with issues of representation, the notion of the body as experiential limit has occasionally been raised, most notably perhaps in discussions of the horror ﬁlm. There, theorists as different as Carol Clover, Murray Smith and Noel Carroll have been careful to make distinctions between psychic, somatic, physiological, and affective states, all involving the body as total perceptual surface, rather than merely metonymically represented through the eye and the look, or metaphorically as the (over-determined) bearer of coded cultural and gendered signs.16
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One important essay is Noll Brinckmann’s exploration of the somatic responses and bodily reactions that images or sound–image combinations can generate in classical cinema. In her paper ‘Somatic Empathy’, the examples are mostly drawn from the thrillers of Hitchcock, focusing on the affective, ‘motor mimicry’ that they elicit from the spectator.17 Among the studies that Brinckmann cites is Linda Williams’s very well-known essay ‘Film Bodies: Gender, Genre and Excess’ from 1991.18 There, Williams probes the interface between the psychic (fantasies), the physiological (somatic, involuntary manifestations) and the affective (emotional states and the range of feelings) of the spectator’s body, when watching certain types of movies. She pays particular attention to what she calls the body-genres: melodrama, horror-ﬁlms and pornography. Williams’s thesis has been so inﬂuential not least because she identiﬁes three genres in which bodily integrity is in some sense the limit, and where the codes of representation are fractured, even if only momentarily, by somatic responses that are transmitted to the spectator, opening up a kind of circuit of contagion beyond empathy and close to bodily mimesis. Although apparently similar, Williams’ ﬁndings stand to some extent in contrast to Brinckmann’s investigation, which focuses more on the contradictory, negative play of somatic empathy, how it works against the ﬂow of the spectator’s sympathy, such as the involuntary salivation that sometimes occurs when watching someone cut a lemon. Brinckmann’s perspective, even on Hitchcock, is informed by the practice of the avant-garde in ﬁlm and the visual arts. Extending her focus, one could draw on quite a range of artworks, including the ﬁlms of Valie Export from the 1970s, or the subsequent generation of body artists using ﬁlm and video, in order to test the spectator’s somatic stamina. Such body-based performance art has emerged with special force since the 1970s — coinciding with the rise of video and the women’s movement. Apart from the Vienna Actionists (to whom Valie Export belonged), one could name Carolee Schneeman, Vito Acconci, Paul McCarthy, Shigeko Kubota, Marina Abramovic and Orlan. These artists foreground a body often in pain, or seemingly beyond pain, as it submits to repetitive, mechanical intervention or makes itself vulnerable to technological, often medical, invasion. The always implied limit here is death, and as Hal Foster has polemically argued, this art ‘oscillates between the obscene vitality of the wound, and the radical nihility of the corpse’.19 We will come back to this distinction, having sketched the second parameter.
Time as limit
One source that Williams quotes is Franco Moretti on the question of why we cry in the face of works of art and literature. Moretti’s thesis is that several conditions need to be met before there are tears: one, a situation of powerlessness to intervene, which for Moretti is tied to a perceived asymmetry between the wrong that has been done, and the punishment it receives. Tears result from one’s helplessness, as a result of excessive justice, which is to say, injustice; second, a sudden, but carefully prepared switch of narrational perspective and point of view is required, leading to a shift in the regimes of knowledge among the characters and between the characters and the spectator. Finally, there needs to be a moment of recognition (or anagnorisis), but a recognition that comes too late (to prevent death): the rhetoric of ‘too late’, as he calls it.20 It is an experiential category that might be aligned with the predicament of arriving or knowing too late that delimits the Erfahrung of self in Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood (GS VII, 395–6; SW III, 354). Moretti’s hypothesis, which has helped to explain, in ﬁlm studies, the affective-somatic effects of melodrama’s uneven distribution of knowledge, or moments of belated anagnorisis, emphatically relates tears in ﬁction not to description or depiction, but to storyconstruction, and in particular, to narration, focalization and point of view. In addition, the ability of melodrama to arouse time-based emotions such as melancholy, regret, nostalgia and a sense of loss — the typical ‘pathos’ of melodrama — refers us back to the original meaning of pathos already quoted, namely of a feeling that pertains to the ﬂeeting, the transient, the ephemeral in life, in contrast to the permanent and ideal (ethos), which originally referred to the universal. Williams, in her essay, extends Moretti’s ‘rhetoric of the too late’ to posit several orders of temporality, assigning not only to each of her genres one particular bodily ﬂuid (sweat, tears and semen), but also one particular time-frame: too soon for horror, too late for melodrama, and the ‘now’ of pornography. This is both witty and ingenious, and these time-frames help to modify the idea of a directly mimetic response that could otherwise be read out of her body-genres, with their speciﬁc physiological, involuntary responses. Asking for more work to be done on the historical context, the social parameters and the generic origins, Williams might, however, also have argued that more work should be done on these temporalities, or rather, on the aspect of their failure, in relation to the affect they are supposed to produce.
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Were one to think her ideas about time frames and temporality further, one could answer Williams’ question about the historical context of these genres with her own argument. When she correlates these time frames with the fantasies underpinning the three genres she discusses (the fantasy of union with the mother in melodrama, the primal scene and the threat of castration and sexual difference in the horror ﬁlm, and the primary fantasy of parental seduction in pornography), she already holds the key to at least one aspect of their temporality. For as we know, the very nature of fantasies is that they are experiences of failure, which is why they have to be repeated, endlessly; and thus their temporality of repetition joins those secondary elaborations, which at least in melodrama and the horror-ﬁlm, are characterized by bad timing, missed opportunities or excessively close encounters. All of these, it is true, have to do with a belatedness in the characters’ responses to a given situation, but also with an alternative turn, or a course of action that was not taken. Melodrama, for instance, is as much a genre of the ‘if-only’, of the temporality of regret, as it is of the ‘too late’. This contrasts, one might say, with the ‘happy’ genres of perfect timing, notably comedy and the musical. The genre that is missing, however, and which under the aspect of its time frame, becomes even more suggestive after reading Williams, is ﬁlm noir. Admittedly, one would be hard-put to assign to it a similarly clear-cut somatic response or physiological attribute (‘cold perspiration’, perhaps: sweat having already been assigned to horror), but that is also because the bodily state it suggests, and the temporality it is caught up in, are so extreme, and involve such limit-situations that recovery is almost inconceivable. To put it very brieﬂy, the temporality of ﬁlm noir is that of empty time, at least by our conventional standards, beyond both chronos (linear time) and kairos (closure, anagnorisis). Perhaps it could be the temporality that the Greeks called aion, and that, according to Deleuze, is the non-pulsed time of a ﬂoating, nondirectional universe, the simultaneous presence of past and future as pure extension, but also as pure repetition.21 In ﬁlm studies, ﬁlm noir is often associated with the temporality that Freud called Nachträglichkeit, deferred action or après coup: it, too, is too late, like melodrama, but whereas melodrama is infused by desire, and thus knows regret, the temporality of ﬁlm noir is one beyond desire. The disaster, the catastrophe, has already happened, it is deﬁnitely too late (for action), but it is also too soon (for closure). In other words, while classical cinema potentially deals with all these temporalities, for ﬁlm noir the same temporalities constitute an impossible temporal
horizon, where there can be no single time frame: in the time of the limit experience it is invariably too soon/too late, it is invariably now and always. Thus, the non-mimetic, and yet somatic side of cinematic experience at the limits is found especially in ﬁlm noir — a genre long recognized at the margin of classical cinema, and yet sensed to be at the heart of many of our deﬁnitions of modern cinema, and very much — in the form of neo-noir — a central genre of so-called postclassical cinema. Why? For the protagonist of ﬁlm noir, it is too soon, too late and now, because he is someone who has already survived his own death. Film noir asks: what does it feel like when you may be already dead, whether you know it or not? This leads to the third limit.
Agency as limit
Moretti already pointed out that helplessness in a situation that, from the ethical point of view, requires action is one of the conditions provoking an (involuntary) bodily-somatic response. However, his theory of tears was based on the inability to intervene on behalf of an other. What states of body and mind correspond, then, to action in the name of the self, and conversely, what kinds of limit to agency is at stake when acting on behalf of the self is blocked? Agency in the name of the self is, of course, the very presupposition of the motivational action-schema typical for classical cinema. Its standard deﬁnition, as formalized by Bordwell, speaks of a ‘charactercentred causality’, embodied in a protagonist who is goal-oriented, who believes in process-as-progress and whose behaviour is oriented towards solving a problem.22 In the terminology of Torben Grodal, these modes of agency are called ‘telic’, ‘para-telic’ and ‘pragmatic’.23 If such are the normative formulations, what would constitute the limits of this classical model of agency? Already in the 1980s Steve Neale attempted to deﬁne Hollywood genres according to different actionschemata and their blockages, derived partly from Moretti (in his essay ‘Melodrama and tears’),24 and partly by adapting concepts from psychoanalysis. Thus, comedy could be characterized by moments where blocked agency in the hero leads to involuntary laughter, a redeﬁnition of the reality status of the action or a switch in context, and the musical would be the genre, where moments of blocked agency in the plot or the emotional entanglements among the characters lead to dance, also redeﬁning the reality status of the image, by designating it as dream or fantasy.25 All three approaches
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in turn can be contrasted to the classical psychoanalytic-semiotic formulation by Raymond Bellour, for whom Hollywood action and suspense genres, and in particular Hitchcock’s ﬁlms, operate according to the repetition-resolution schema of what he terms ‘the symbolic blockage’. Subtending the logic of overt action-adventures is a psychic schema that enacts a set of symbolic relations, in which actions are not so much pragmatic and telic, but parapractic and iterative, based on miscognition and (compulsive) repetition, thereby protecting the protagonist from the knowledge of the ‘true’ (i.e. incestuous) goal of his unconscious desire.26 In Bellour’s version of classical cinema the nexus of cause and effect, the logos of chronos, remains preserved, as is the bodyimage of the male hero. What holds time, body, and action together in his version of the classical, is that conscious and unconscious motivation inhabit the same narrative space, rendered homogeneous and transparent because linear purposive action is ‘doubled’ and split across the divide of (unacknowledged) sexual difference. Yet here Gilles Deleuze’s revisions of the classical are of special interest, since the same Hitchcock is singled out as the director in whose work the sensory-motor scheme of the body of classical cinema experiences its ﬁrst critical rupture. Eschewing psychoanalytic or gender-speciﬁc terminology, Deleuze notes a crisis of the ‘movement-image’ (his term for classical Hollywood), for which Vertigo can stand as a prime example, announcing what he calls the ‘time image’ of modern (European) cinema. In the time image, the prevailing temporality is, as already mentioned, that of aion, the time of an immanent now, into which are folded several pasts, or as Deleuze puts it, ‘the unlimited past and future, which gather incorporeal events at the surface, as effects’. Agency, in this model would be that of neither action nor project, to pick up Bataille’s terms again, but of intensities, dispersals, and of those perpetual, reversible states that Deleuze calls ‘becomings’.27 Nothing at ﬁrst glance, therefore, would seem further removed from this modern cinema of Deleuze than the kind of action-cinema we have become familiar with from contemporary (blockbuster) Hollywood, also referred to as post-classical cinema. Indeed, in several deﬁnitions, the post-classical is a kinetic-mimetic cinema of pure sensation, mechanical energy, violence, acceleration, approximating the roller-coaster ride (Speed), imagining plots of spectacular technological failure or natural disaster (Titanic, Twister) or both (Independence Day), exposing the sensorium to barely conceivable body horror (Silence of the Lambs) and slasher violence (Halloween, Friday
the 13th).28 To its detractors, post-classical cinema is a return to the movement-image in its most unsublimated and unsymbolized forms, politically reactionary and aesthetically retrograde.29 For others, it is a cinema of an immersive experience, breaking down that artiﬁcial window-on-the-world effect of classical cinema,30 often quite literally: scenes of shattering large sheets of glass are some of the notable effects in works as different as Die Hard and James Bond movies (The World is not Enough), The Hudsucker Proxy and The Matrix. Tactile and haptic sensations compete with ocular events, doing away with that carefully crafted architecture of looks of classical mise-en-scène (based as it was on regulating distance and proximity through inference and ‘suture’), but also redrawing the spaces of ‘experience’. From the perspective of the classical, this crashing through the mirror/window metaphor becomes emblematic of breaking out of some sort of limit, most clearly in The Matrix, and its play with ontological boundaries, leaving the protagonist, among others things, not knowing whether he is action hero or acted upon (Neo’s dilemma of being or not being the ‘chosen one’). More generally, the so-called action-hero genre represents a break with the classical, precisely to the degree that its enacts another limit of agency: extending ad absurdum the character-centred causality of the classical calculus of motive, means and effects, the hero’s actions mark a limit (the proverbial ‘overkill’), as he takes extravagant risks, exhibits unmodulated extremes of affect or emotion, and deploys his bodily or ballistic means spectacularly in excess of his goals. But while in the classical, excess marked the moments of exception, in post-classical action-cinema, excess has in some sense become the norm, or rather: excess is now the sign of crisis of the norm, not the deviation from the norm. Accordingly, one should read agency in such ﬁlms not as action in the conventional sense, but as instances of a re-action cinema, in which the causal nexus has broken down. Its barrage of spectacular effects are, properly speaking, a protective shield, to fend off not only an overload of stimuli, as Benjamin had argued for the cinema of montage in the 1920s, but an overload of systemic breakdowns, incalculable risks and invisible threats. As such, the action hero is in a permanent state of hypertension and alertness at the exposed limit of an experience that is no longer narrativized or integrated. Instead of containing threatening events in a perception-affection-action schema, as did the classical hero, the new ‘action hero’ masters experience in a mode of temporal suspension: he anticipates the omnipresent emergency and catastrophe by perpetually pre-empting their imminence.
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Phrased like this, post-classical action-cinema has structural features that make it the inverse of another kind of limit to agency, at the other end of the spectrum so to speak, invoking the classical and also exceeding it. This limit is once more the blockage of action on behalf of the self, to which we earlier assigned a genre but no somatic state. Helplessness in relation to the self generally implies the subjectposition of the victim, and although this can occasionally be found in male heroes, it is not the one that holds the key to the genre we are here concerned with. For most directly opposed to the helplessness on behalf of another of melodrama, as well as to the pre-emptive anticipation on behalf of the self just discussed in the action-adventure ﬁlm, is the protagonist of ﬁlm noir. Retrospectively, he might now be seen to represent an inversion of both: anticipating an omnipresent emergency, he is nonetheless helpless to help himself, becoming more often than not a spectator and witness of his own doom (cf. The Killers). In this sense, ﬁlm noir has very distinct parameters not only of action, but also of body and time. Classic noir, for instance, invariably features the male body as damaged: he may have head wounds and suffer from amnesia, as in The Blue Dahlia or The High Wall; he may be stricken by insomnia, as in Woman in the Window; he may be fatally poisoned, as in Dead on Arrival or he may be bleeding to death, as in Double Indemnity. Film noir knows two temporalities that are rarely synchronized: time running out, emptying itself (e.g. The Killers), and the temporality of the ﬂashback, i.e. a time of ambiguous retrieval (e.g. Detour, CrissCross). In either timeframe, the noir hero usually ﬁnds himself too late to recover, and too soon to expire, existing in the negative ‘now’ of suspended animation. Once again, the post-classical cinema has produced a genre or group of ﬁlms which has tended to aggravate, amplify or radicalize these states of mind and body: the so-called neo-noir. Neo-noir knows its own time, body and action-schemes, but its starting point are those of noir: Head wounds return in Angel Heart or Memento; hypnagogic states and insomnia return, for instance, in Lost Highway, Fight Club or Insomnia; we ﬁnd the poisoned body of DoA in the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple or the inexorably dying replicants of Blade Runner, while a visibly maimed body is that of Jake Gittes with his slit nose in Chinatown. Yet there are also intensiﬁcations, so that neo-noir’s body schema tends to be that of paralysed in-action alternating with hyperactive violence (Lost Highway, Fight-Club), prosthetic bodies (Blade Runner, Terminator), amnesiacs (Memento). The appropriate temporality is that of the time travel paradox (Total Recall, Terminator II, Twelve Monkeys) and the time
loop or Moebius strip (Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive), while the limit of agency is that of catatonia, or, as already hinted at by Hal Foster, the ‘nihility of the corpse’. For what is remarkable about many contemporary ﬁlms, right across the genres yet all inﬂected towards neo-noir, is how many of their protagonists are in some sense already dead, even as the action continues: explicitly so in Robocop, Interview with a Vampire, Pulp Fiction (the character of Vince), The Sixth Sense and American Beauty, or symbolically so, in Fight Club, Twelve Monkeys, and arguably, Forrest Gump. Whereas Gump, on the surface at least, is able to tell his story and to make for himself a (fantasmatic) place in it — however scandalous, impertinent or comic this place may appear to the spectator — in a ﬁlm like Memento, the hero deﬁnitely cannot get his story together anymore, not even through ﬂashback, nor by letting time run backwards.
The new limits: trauma and experience
If these protagonists are ‘dead men’ (rendered explicit in the title of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man or Tim Robbins’s Dead Man Walking, but also in Lester Burnham’s opening words in American Beauty), they have, psychoanalytically speaking, fallen out of the symbolic order of desire and lack, and have become ‘drive creatures’, psychic automatons or zombies, whose narrative goal is less aimed at regaining their ability to ‘desire’ than it is their need to restore their (consciousness of) mortality (in order for there to be closure). Paradoxically, as Freud noted, it is the death-drive that prevents an organism from ‘dying’, so that, in these ﬁlms, we can say that the classic noir hero has merged with the vampire ﬁgure, but not as the blood-lusty predator, rather as the melancholy un-dead Dracula, haunted as much as haunting. The privileged body of neo-noir is therefore indeed the corpse, reviving the ﬁgure of Nosferatu, carrying his own (metaphoric) cofﬁn. What makes the neo-noir hero un-dead (and thus, after all, a companion to the cyborg of the Terminator type action-hero genre) is an excess of ‘experience’ as limit-Erlebnis, obliging him to ‘play dead’ to human emotions: they have become ‘too much’. As a hypothesis one could say that while the cyborg hero is the drive creature of pure affectivity (the ‘obscene vitality of the wound’, in Foster’s phrase), the neo-noir protagonist experiences emotions so extreme, so irretrievable in terms of temporality, event and body that he is not merely helpless to act. He no longer even feels the impulse to act, however catastrophic the wound. Thus rather than speaking of an experience of failure, as in
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classical noir, we would have to speak of the very failure of experience: no words, no action, no memory can recreate a coherent sequence of events or restore the cause-and-effect chain of a chrono-logic: ‘it hurts so much, I cannot feel a thing’ is how Foster aptly summarized a certain body art he is describing. The name for this ‘failure of experience’ in contemporary culture is trauma, not only because the traumatized person cannot put his or her experience into discourse, but because the shock of trauma is often said to leave no visible symptoms, no bodily marks.31 While it would be grossly oversimplifying to assert a single concept of trauma, or to suggest that its uses in culture can be deﬁned outside speciﬁc political and ideological debates, there are aspects of the trauma discourse that address issues implicit in my question about the limits of experience/the experience of limits.32 The very diffuseness of the term across high and popular culture, and its migration from clinical psychology to literary discourse and critical theory suggests that ‘trauma’ offers itself as a ‘solution’ to a problem yet to be speciﬁed. In respect to contemporary cinema, the shattering, immersive and at the same time fragmented experience alluded to, and reproducing the breakdown of Erfahrung into Erlebnis also on the side of the viewer, suggests — at the beginning of the 21st century — a set of analogies to the period close to the beginnings of the 20th century, when Walter Benjamin ﬁrst theorized shock, trauma and dissociation as both cinematic forms and symbolic cultural formations. Thus, just as after 1918, the violent disarticulations of body and time, found in the practices of the avant-gardes, were related to the war neuroses which ﬁrst gave rise to the discussions about trauma,33 so Gilles Deleuze, for instance, sees the disarticulation of the body schema of perception-sensation-action in the cinema after 1945 as a consequence of the catastrophic events of the Second World War, especially the Holocaust and the atomic bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Deleuze’s insights have also been applied to American cinema in the 1970s, relating its ‘affection image’ to the trauma of Vietnam, and the defeat of the aspirations of the Left.34 Convincing as this may seem, one has to ask oneself: why this return to (the discourse of) trauma, in one case (the Holocaust and Hiroshima) with a ﬁfty-year delay, in the other (Vietnam) after a twenty-year hiatus? If latency is a recognized feature of trauma, and if a generational change may also provide an explanation, a more provocative answer might be that of Hal Foster, whose observation that trauma became in the 1990s the ‘lingua franca’ of the art world
implies that ‘trauma’ may be the conveniently established label for a sensibility or state of mind only tenuously connected to the historical events we usually associate with the term.35 Foster’s answer addresses more the high-culture discourse of the art world than the prevalence of what he calls trauma ‘babblings’ in popular culture.36 To include the cinema, for instance, might be more complicated, just as it might prove more controversial. Here the return to Benjamin offers a particularly intriguing hypothesis, since he had, in his reﬂections on the sensory ramiﬁcations of modern experience as typiﬁed by shock, discontinuity and distraction, paid less attention to war-trauma than many other contemporary commentators. Instead, he highlighted the impact of the technical media as well as of metropolitan modes of existence: in other words, the modernizing aspects of a subjectivity apparently similar to a traumatized state of mind. Following Benjamin, therefore, the question to ask would be: what is so ‘modern’ about this disarticulation of body, sense, memory and speech that it makes trauma the appropriate term? Or even more pointedly: what is so (post-)modern and modernizing about trauma? In an essay on Christopher Nolan’s Memento, I have explored these issues, arguing that the ﬁlm uses both its generic identity of neo-noir and its modality of experience as trauma in order to put forward a new model of the body as somatic-sensory medium of inscription. Such a conception of the body bypasses perception, affect and cognition by making the protagonist an amnesiac, unable to remember events or recognize his surroundings other than through visual aids, scriptural traces and acts of repetition.37 Perhaps I can conclude by extending this suggestion with a particularly provocative hypothesis. Can we connect the types of ‘failure’ to integrate perception of place, painful memories, uncertainty about cause and effect, as well as the co-presence of past events in the present and the mixing of temporalities (all usually associated with trauma) to a seemingly quite unrelated or opposed phenomenon, namely the ‘themed environments’ of tourist cities, shopping malls, ‘parks’ and entertainment ‘worlds’? The hypothesis would be that the pervasive trauma discourse as diagnosed by Foster does indeed point to a crisis of experience, of the ability to be an agent in and the author of one’s own life. Yet rather than this ‘trauma trope’ relating to particular historical events, or even to a competition for ‘authenticity’ by each of us claiming victim-hood (as Foster asserts), trauma would represent the ‘solution’ to a problem located elsewhere: it would be the name for a new mode
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of Erlebnis without Erfahrung. Not, for sure, that of the Benjamin’s metropolis or assembly-line factory work, but of a perceptual and somatic environment so saturated with media-experience that its modes of reception, response and action require various kinds of uncoupling and unstitching of the motor-sensory apparatus in order to ‘cope’. ‘Successful’ immersion in this environment would have as its correlative a ‘traumatic’ mode of spectatorship, by which I mean the kind of ﬂexible attention and selective numbness that absorbs the intermittent intensity of affect, the shallowness of memory, the ennui of repetition, the psychic tracelessness of violence which constant contact with our contemporary mediatized world implies. Trauma would be the solution, because it represents a new ‘economy of experience’: its shortcuts, blackouts and gaps are what saves the self from an otherwise ruinous psychic investment in the multitude of events observed, of human being encountered, of disasters and injustices witnessed — which no personal memory nor even public history could encompass or contain. Its opposite but also complement would be the new ‘experience economy’: the themed environments of carefully controlled narratives, where distant pasts are made present and faraway places brought near, where reality takes on the shape of a story, while stories become real and ﬁctional characters come to life. These are the contemporary spaces of Erfahrung devoid of Erlebnis: staged events, simulated dangers and performed identities — all made ‘safe’, ‘familiar’ and ‘closed’, this time by enacting the limits of experience through regulated zones of access and exclusion, at once mediated and transparent, at once therapy and stimulation, in other words: policed in equal measure by force and by fantasy. Thus, the limits of experience taken from Benjamin, and explored in cinema theory around body, time and action have led, via ﬁlm noir and neo-noir, back to Benjamin’s original distinctions. Thanks to his perspective, however, the experience of limits in post-classical cinema and contemporary media culture now suggests certain limits of (the word) ‘experience’ as an operative term in this project of modernity — seeing how the new frontiers of the experience economy make personal or national trauma and Disneyland or shopping malls the recto and verso of each other, or make Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park belong together under more than the heading of authorship. It remains to be seen whether this is an impasse or a passage along which either the idea of post-classical cinema or the new turn to emotions can be further discussed.
1 For Gilles Deleuze, see his Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986) and Cinema 2: The Time-Image, translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989). A programmatic statement of the cognitivist approach is Post-Theory, edited by David Bordwell and Noel Carroll (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1996). 2 See Slavoj Žižek, The Fright of Real Tears: Krzysztof Kie´ slowski Between Theory and Post-Theory (London: BFI Publishing, 2001). 3 For apparatus theory, see The Cinematic Apparatus, edited by Teresa de Lauretis and Stephen Heath (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1985). A critique of illusionism is provided by, among others, Richard Allen, Projecting Illusion: Film Spectatorship and the Impression of Reality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). A strong case for cinema as immersive event is made by Vivian Sobchack in The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992). 4 The subtitle of Ed S. Tan’s Emotion and the Structure of Narrative Film: Film as an Emotion Machine (Mahwah NJ: Erlbaum, 1996). 5 Martin Jay, Cultural Semantics (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998), 48–9. 6 Cultural Semantics, 49. 7 The terms of deﬁnition are taken from David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson, and Janet Staiger’s The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985). 8 Christine Noll Brinckmann, ‘Busby Berkeley’s Montageprinzipien’, in Handbuch der Filmmontage: Praxis und Prinzipien des Filmschnitts, edited by Hans Beller (Munich: Fink, 1993), 204–20. 9 Colin MacCabe, ‘Realism and the Cinema: Notes on some Brechtian Theses’, Screen 15:2 (1974), 7–27; Cahiers du Cinema editors, ‘John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln’ in Movies and Methods, edited by Bill Nichols (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), 493–529. 10 David Bordwell has polemicized most sharply against what he sees as the fashionable argument around visuality and modernity; see his On the History of Film Style (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1998). Tom Gunning has responded in ‘Early American Film’ in Oxford Guide to Film Studies, edited by J. Hill and P. Church Gibson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 269–71. 11 For a slightly different formulation of the affectivity shaping the viewing condition of Hollywood ﬁlms, see Thomas Elsaesser ‘Narrative Cinema and Audience-Oriented Aesthetics’ in Popular Television and Film, edited by T. Bennett et al. (Milton Keynes: Open University, 1981), 121–36.
Between Erlebnis and Erfahrung 311 12 See Georges Bataille, Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927–1939, edited and translated by Allan Stoekl (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985); Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, translated by Ann Smock (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995); Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, translated by Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993). 13 See Georges Bataille, Inner Experience, translated by Leslie A. Boldt (Albany NY: State University of New York Press, 1988), 46. 14 See Roger Kennedy, Psychoanalysis, History and Subjectivity: Now of the Past (New York: Routledge, 2002). 15 Michel Foucault, ‘An Aesthetics of Existence’ in Foucault Live: Collected Interviews, 1961–84, edited by Sylvère Lotringer (New York: Semiotexte, 1984); Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984); Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and the Bare Life, translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press 1998). 16 Noel Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror, or; Paradoxes of the Heart (New York: Routledge, 1990); Carol Clover, Men, Women and Chain Saws (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993); Murray Smith, Engaging Characters: Fiction, Emotion and The Cinema (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995). 17 Christine Noll Brinckmann, ‘Somatische Empathie bei Hitchcock: Eine Skizze’ in Der Körper im Bild: Schauspielen — Darstellen — Erscheinen, edited by Heinz B. Heller et al. (Marburg: Schüren, 1999), 111–20. 18 Linda Williams, ‘Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess’, Film Quarterly 44:1 (1991), 2–13. 19 Hal Foster, ‘Obscene, Abject, Traumatic: The aesthetic of abjection and trauma in American art in the 1990s’, October 78 (Fall 1996), 106–24. 20 Franco Moretti, Signs Taken for Wonders (London: Verso, 1983). 21 See Gilles Deleuze: Seminar session, 3 May 1977, ‘On Music’, translated by Timothy S. Murphy (http://nml.cult.bg/data/music). 22 David Bordwell, ‘Classical Hollywood Cinema: Narrational Principles and Procedures’, in Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology, edited by Phil Rosen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), 17–34. 23 Torben Grodal, Moving Pictures: A New Theory of Film Genres, Feelings and Cognition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), 283. 24 Steve Neale, ‘Melodrama and Tears’, Screen 27:6 (Nov–Dec 1986), 6–22. 25 Steve Neale, Genre (London: BFI Publishing, 1980). 26 Raymond Bellour, ‘Symbolic Blockage (on North by Northwest)’, in The Analysis of Film, edited by Constance Penley (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002), 77–192. 27 Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense (London: Continuum, 2004), 72.
312 Paragraph 28 See, for instance, Geoff King, Spectacular Narratives: Hollywood in the Age of the Blockbuster (London: I. B. Tauris & Co./New York: St Martin’s Press, 2000). 29 One of the ﬁercest critics is Jonathan Rosenbaum; see his Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Conspire to Limit What Films We Can See (Chicago: A Cappella, 2001). Others regard the notion of the post-classical as misguided and superﬂuous; see David Bordwell, ‘Intensiﬁed Continuity: Visual Style in Contemporary American Film’, Film Quarterly 55:3 (2002), 16–28. 30 See Scott Bukatman, Matters of Gravity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003). 31 Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996). 32 See my ‘Trauma: Postmodernism as Mourning Work’, Screen 42:2 (Summer 2001), 191–203. 33 See Tony Kaes, ‘War — Film — Trauma’ in Modernität und Trauma, edited by Inka Mulder-Bach (Vienna: Edition Parabasen, 2000), 121–30. 34 See Christian Keathley, ‘Trapped in the Affection-Image: Hollywood’s Posttraumatic Cycle’, in Screening Disability, edited by Anthony Enns and Christopher R. Smit (Lanham MD: University Press of America, 2001), 99–116. 35 Hal Foster, ‘Obscene’, 106–7. 36 ‘Obscene’, 106. 37 Thomas Elsaesser, ‘Was wäre, wenn du schon tot bist? Vom “postmodernen” zum “post-mortem” Kino’, in Zeitsprünge, edited by Christine Rüffert et al. (Berlin: Bertz, 2004), 115–25.
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The Mausoleum of Youth: Between Experience and Nihilism in Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood1 MICHAEL W. JENNINGS
Abstract: Key sections of Walter Benjamin’s montage-text Berlin Childhood around 1900 ﬁgure the relationship between human experience and modern media, with the sections that frame the text, ‘Loggias’ and ‘The Moon’, structured around metaphors of photography. Drawing on the work of Siegfried Kracauer, and especially his seminal essay ‘Photography’, Benjamin develops, in the course of his book, a theory of photography’s relationship to experience that runs counter to the better-known theories developed in such essays as ‘Little History of Photography’ and ‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility’, theories that are part of the broad currents of technological utopianism and, as such, emphasize photography’s transformative potentials. In the Berlin Childhood, Benjamin instead emphasizes photography’s role in the mortiﬁcation and annihilation of meaningful human experience. Photography emerges here as the mausoleum of youth and hope. Keywords: photography, myth, experience, media, nihilism, Kracauer
In the ﬁnal, 1938 version of his montage essay Berlin Childhood around 1900, Walter Benjamin gave pride of place to the Denkbild, or ﬁgure of thought, titled ‘Loggias’, placing it as the ﬁrst section of the text. Already in 1933, soon after it was written, he had described the little text as ‘the most exact portrait that I am able to make of myself ’.2 This is, in many ways, a puzzling statement. Of course, there are a number of explicitly autobiographical elements in ‘Loggias’. Benjamin evokes the Berlin of his birth and early childhood, a Berlin on the threshold of modernity, poised between the ancient sounds of carpet beating and the technologized racket of the S-Bahn, Berlin’s municipal railway. And he allows a whiff of the southern air that was so necessary to his existence after his ﬁrst trip to Capri in 1924 to waft into the Berlin courtyard of his youth. Yet these references stop far short of an ‘exact portrait’ of this elusive ﬁgure — a ﬁgure properly without
Paragraph 32:3 (2009) 313–330 DOI: 10.3366/E0264833409000662
bios.3 And neither is the artful interweaving of a number of the main themes and preoccupations of Benjamin’s work — the allure of the not-yet phantasmagorical natural world; the motifs of dreaming and obsolescence; the intuition of a not-yet-present knowledge; and the reliance on image and allegory — sufﬁcient to justify this description. The key to the claimed portraiture lies instead in the description of a tree that emerges from the pavement of the courtyard outside the loggia itself. The large iron ring that encircles the tree marks off a conjured space: puzzlement as to what ‘went on within the black pit’ (GS VII, 386; SW III, 345) elicits from the narrative voice the kind of brooding more usually associated with the contemplation of the corpse in Benjamin’s account of the baroque Trauerspiel.4 Although the invocation of magic and enchantment is pervasive in the Berlin Childhood, the ‘magic curves’ evoked here recur in particularly powerful form in the later sections of the text titled ‘Market Hall’ and ‘The Otter’. In the Market Hall, or Mark-Thalle, a space of misprision and ambiguity, the child encounters market women, ‘priestesses of a venal Ceres, purveyors of all fruits of the ﬁeld and orchard, all edible birds, ﬁshes, and mammals — procuresses, unassailable woolclad colossi’. These priestesses guard a sacred space: beneath the rounded hems of their skirts the speaker senses ‘a bubbling, oozing, and welling’, ‘the truly fertile ground’ (GS VII, 402; SW III, 362). This oozing, fertile ground is a substrate hidden not just below the rounded skirt, but beneath the ground of Berlin and in particular beneath the tree in the courtyard. These are, in short, mythic spaces, spaces suffused by a dangerous magic. By the early 1930s, when he produced the earliest versions of the Berlin Childhood, Walter Benjamin’s theory of myth had undergone a signiﬁcant transformation. In the theory of criticism Benjamin had developed between 1914 and 1924, myth had initially occupied a position as the polar opposite of truth. The theme of the great essay on Goethe’s Elective Afﬁnities of 1922 was the degeneration of everything human into the purely natural, into mere myth, as it occurs in the course of a marriage’s dissolution. ‘When they turn their attention away from the human and succumb to the power of nature, then natural life, which in man preserves its innocence only so long as natural life binds itself to something higher, drags the human down.’ Benjamin is there at pains to deﬁne ‘the meaning of the relation between truth and myth’, which is fundamental to all knowledge: ‘This relation is one of mutual exclusion. There is no truth, for there is no unequivocalness — and hence not even
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error — in myth.’ (GS I, 138, 162; SW I, 308, 325–6). As Benjamin scholars have long known, much of the thrust of his analysis here is indebted to Hermann Cohen’s theology, and especially to his Religion of Reason from the Sources of Judaism, with its polemic against the mythic nature idolatry of paganism,5 a theme taken up powerfully by Horkheimer and Adorno in Dialectic of Enlightenment, with its relentless attack on anthropomorphism as ‘the projection of the subjective onto nature’.6 The work on the Goethe essay also took place, though, against a very different background: Benjamin was at the time a regular contributor to the sociological discussion circle at the home of Marianne Weber, an important feminist theorist and politician who was also the widow of the sociologist Max Weber. It was during these months of contact with Marianne Weber and Max Weber’s brother Alfred that Benjamin wrote down one of the most spectacular of the many short texts that remained works-in-progress, never to be published in his lifetime. ‘Capitalism as Religion’ gestures toward Max Weber’s fundamental insight into the religious nature of the capitalist work ethic, but it is signiﬁcant that, as early as 1921, Benjamin grounds his argument not in Weber, or indeed in scientiﬁc Marxism, but instead in the analysis of the fetish character of the capitalist commodity that Marx offers in the chapter of Capital called ‘On the Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret thereof ’ — and thus in the analysis of myth. Benjamin argues that capitalism is perhaps the most extreme of all religious cults, founded as it is upon a purely psychological relationship to fetishized objects. Devoid of doctrine or theology, the cult maintains itself solely through the permanent celebration of its rites — shopping and consumption. And, for Benjamin, this reinvention of time as feast day without end in turn enables the most crippling effect of capitalism: ‘the cult makes verschulden — indebtedness and guilt — pervasive’ (GS VI, 100; SW I, 288; translation modiﬁed).7 This inculcation of a guilt-ridden indebtedness leads not to the ‘reform of existence’ but to its ‘complete destruction. It is the expansion of despair, until despair becomes a religious state of the world’ (GS VI, 101; SW I, 289). Benjamin’s little fragment, written in Weber’s orbit, participates in the large, postWeberian project, the exploration of the paradoxes and ambiguities arising from Weber’s attestation of the disenchantment of the world. In a reading that could hardly vary more from Weber’s understanding of religion, though, Benjamin offers his ﬁrst remarks on the manner in which capitalism as religion effects the re-enchantment of the world.
Already in the Goethe essay, then, Benjamin was moving toward a highly differentiated understanding of myth. However inimical to human life myth might remain, however much in need of Entzauberung or disenchantment, Benjamin argues that recognition of myth is the precondition to genuine knowledge:
Since, however, there can just as little be truth about it (for there is truth only in objective things [Sachen], just as objectivity [Sachlichkeit] lies in the truth), there is, as far as the spirit of myth is concerned, only a knowledge of it. And where the presence of truth should be possible, it can be possible solely under the condition of the recognition of myth — that is, the recognition of its crushing indifference to truth. (GS I, 162; SW I, 326)
The Berlin Childhood builds directly on this position. The lure of that chthonic space beneath the tree in ‘Loggias’ is fundamentally unlike those obsolescent capitalist objects Benjamin had begun to analyse in the essay on Surrealism, objects such as early train stations and the arcades themselves that derive their appeal from their mixed, ambiguous nature — and that might help ignite revolutionary energies. The courtyard and the depths beneath the tree hold the promise, for the child, not just of a mythic ambiguity, but of an authentic knowledge.8 Yet, in examining the role of myth, an important aspect of ‘Loggias’ has been neglected: its insistence on the perspectival nature of all knowledge. The courtyard, with its ringed tree and chthonic depths, takes on its mythic aspect only as it is viewed from a particular position. And it is viewed, ﬁrst and foremost, from the loggia in the most literal of its ﬁgurations: the courtyard is mythic when viewed as a theatrical stage from a loge or box.9 The child’s spectatorial gaze, framed by the loggia, is an indispensable component of the scene’s theatricality, the process through which it is transformed and seems to take on an enigmatic life of its own. The magic promised beneath the tree is realized, then, only from within a speciﬁc situation of spectatorship. But there is another, more important level of ﬁguration at work here. The loggia itself is a box-like structure whose heavy ‘roll-up shutters’ seal it off from the windows of the apartment while the shutter-like ‘roller blinds’ control the perceptibility of the courtyard. The loggia ﬁgures, in other words, not just a theatrical loge, but a view camera. The ‘photographic’ nature of the Denkbild, the ﬁgure of thought that is the primary textual unit of the Berlin Childhood, has of course long been acknowledged. What has remained unclear, however,
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is the extent to which the text as a whole is suffused and structured by photographic metaphor. The loggia as camera is only the ﬁrst, if the most important, of these ﬁgures. In the pages that follow, Benjamin deploys a number of related ﬁgures: the murky light that predominates in section after section is the light of the salt print, the light of the platinum print, the light of Atget. And the water that lies deep or ﬂows gurgling from its subterranean source often ﬁgures the developing and ﬁxing bath from which the latent image inscribed on the negative emerges.10 The Denkbild as image, then, is not merely conceived as a textual analogue of the photographic image; its very textuality is produced through recourse to the language of photography. It is in this sense that section after section of the text produces a scene in which that which we cannot understand is made visible. The conditioning of experience by modern media is of course a pervasive theme in the Childhood. Already in ‘Loggias’ we encounter not just the form of the photographic apparatus predominant in the nineteenth century, the view camera, but other pre-cinematic forms as well, as the gaze from the view camera-like loggia itself gives way, already in this ﬁrst section of the text, to a view of the courtyards from the passing S-Bahn, that is, to an implicitly cinematic ﬁguration of spectatorship.11 The all-over view of the photographic negative is here juxtaposed to the segmentation of the passing scene, the frozen nature of the photograph to the shock-interrupted mobility of the view through the train window, itself a shuddering cinematic frame. The tensions between photography and the experience of the railroad journey with its pre-cinematic forms of experience give rise to the next section in the text, ‘Imperial Panorama’, with its cinematic shifting of ‘frames’ as the spectator awaits the ‘ringing of a little bell that sounded a few seconds before each picture moved off with a jolt, in order to make way ﬁrst for an empty space and then for the next image’ (GS VII, 388; SW III, 347). And in the next section, ‘The Telephone’, we see enacted the gradual displacement of unmediated, acoustic communication — coded broadly, in essays such as ‘The Storyteller’, as traditional or pre-capitalist — by modern media. Poised as it is between the essays ‘Little History of Photography’, with its introduction of the concept of aura, and ‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility’, with its attribution to the photographic apparatus of the ability to effect a salutary distance between human beings and what Georg Lukács ﬁrst called second nature, we might expect the reference to the camera in ‘Loggias’ to stand for a particular process of de-auraticization, that is, the liberation
of the human sensorium from the deadly effects of a tradition suffused with the effects of phantasmagoria.12 The idea complex to which I allude here, enriched by the theory of the optical unconscious, argues that the photographic apparatus is the precondition of a certain kind of liberating habituation, a reception in distraction, that alone might serve as the basis for a genuinely revolutionary politics.13 But this is precisely what the ﬁgurative evocation of the view camera in ‘Loggias’ does not do. In the little text’s last paragraph, the scene of photography is evoked once again. In the loggia, ‘space and time come into their own and ﬁnd each other’ (GS VII, 388; SW III, 346). As Vilém Flusser has put it, the photographic image is a ‘foreshortening of the four spatiotemporal dimensions within the two of a surface’, the result of a capacity to ‘abstract surfaces from space-time and to project them back into space-time’.14 This space-time is, as Benjamin claims in ‘The Otter’, a ‘prophetic’ dimension in which ‘all that lies in store for us has become the past’ (GS VII, 407; SW III, 365). In that tree well, then, the child gazing out from the loggia/loge/camera encounters intimations of the life to come, but a life that will remain in the thrall of that particular past that is Berlin around 1900. An anticipation of this prophetic voice marks the very beginning of ‘Loggias’: the child, laid into the loggia as into a cradle or onto a mother’s breast, is serenaded by the caryatids. Their lullaby in fact contains nothing of the future, so the prophecy must lie elsewhere. It lies in the Spruch, or saying, that can, for the remainder of a life, conjure through Rausch — that intoxication without intoxicant — the air of the courtyard. The courtyards are thus potentially sites of a privileged epistemology. Their air can make present — the German verb vergegenwärtigen has material and temporal connotations — that which is otherwise inaccessible. Yet the effect of this photographic moment is anything but the threshold experience that Winfried Menninghaus ﬁnds so pervasive in Benjamin’s engagement with the problem of myth; it is anything, that is, but a rite of passage from the thrall of mythic nature and toward liberation. At the end of the Denkbild the loggia as camera instead assumes one more ﬁgurative dimension, becoming the mausoleum of a speciﬁc form of experience. ‘Loggias’, for all the beauty of its evocation of the dream world of childhood, with its intimations of an immediate access to the hidden knowledge whose presence is always signalled by magic, thus ends on a sobering note. This is another of the senses in which it is autobiographical: it traces a human life from birth to death. If the loggia itself, ﬁgured at ﬁrst as a cradle, plays a role in the gestation of dream, memory, and signiﬁcance, by the end of the
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text its cocoon-like form has taken on a ﬁnal degree of encapsulation: it is the tomb of childhood. The ﬁgure of the body embalmed and sealed off recurs frequently throughout the Childhood: In ‘Butterﬂy Hunt’, the taxodermic impulse always present in Benjamin speaks of the frozen horror of the encapsulated body; and in ‘Victory Column’, it is world history itself that is killed off and interred, with the column in the Tiergarten as its stele. The Childhood presents, on this reading, a moving portrait of the child’s consciousness as privileged receptor of a charged experience, an experience that might give rise to a not-yet conscious knowledge of the present moment. But this consciousness, for all its privilege, is a dead form, sealed off in its tomb, incapable of moving past itself. Adult consciousness — interpellated, fetishized, phantasmagoric — cannot reenter the mausoleum, has no access to the undoubtedly positive potentials of myth. And the photographic moment seems less to record that entombment than actually to bring it about. Photographic seeing, in its peculiar interlacing of ‘here and now’ and ‘then and there’, thus holds the key to the ‘temporal homeopathy’ Benjamin describes in the Foreword to the 1938 version of the Berlin Childhood: it is a form of ‘inoculation’ in which ‘those images which, in exile, are most apt to waken homesickness: images of childhood’ are deployed in order to limit the pervasive feeling of loss that characterizes the present. Photographic seeing enables ‘insight into the irretrievability — not the contingent, biographical but the necessary, social irretrievability — of the past’ (GS VII, 385; SW III, 344). It effects the interment of the past, its identiﬁcation with the child who dwells in his loggia ‘as in a mausoleum long intended just for him’ (GS VII, 388; SW III, 346). What, then, is the role of photography in this mediation of mythic knowledge and death? Already in 1923, Benjamin had isolated photography as a privileged epistemological medium — and a medium with an intimate relationship to the recognition of myth. In two short texts on Baudelaire, he had written of a photographic plate that captures the ‘essence of things’ (GS VI, 133; SW I, 361). These plates, of course, are negatives, and, as Benjamin claims, ‘no one can deduce from the negative (. . . ) the true essence of things as they really are’ (GS VI, 133; SW I, 361). In a remarkable attempt to evoke the originality of Baudelaire’s vision, Benjamin attributes to him not the ability to develop such a negative, but rather a ‘presentiment of its real picture’ (GS VI, 133; SW I, 361). Thus, Baudelaire’s vision deep into the nature of things in a poem such as ‘Le soleil’ (‘The Sun’), his ﬁguration of history as a multiple exposure in ‘Le cygne’ (‘The
Swan’), and his fundamental sense for the negative — as the transient and always irreversible — in ‘Une charogne’ (‘A Carcass’). What is most signiﬁcant about the relays between the early Baudelaire texts and the Childhood, though, is their mutual attribution — to Baudelaire and to the child/photographer — of a capability analogous to that which he attributes to Kafka in his great essay of 1934, an intimate knowledge of humanity’s ‘mythical prehistory’. It is the ‘true nature’ of the photographic negative that opens the knowledge of myth, of primordial good and evil, to Baudelaire’s ‘inﬁnite mental efforts’ (GS VI, 133; SW I, 361). Yet this understanding of photography’s ability to enable a kind of intuition of myth stops far short of the corrosive role attributed to it in ‘Loggias’. Benjamin’s own work provides few clues as to how his thinking on photography moved from an unambiguous attribution of cognitive power in 1923 to the destructive role evident in the Berlin Childhood. In the decade between 1924 and 1934 — the year of the ﬁrst drafts of the Berlin Childhood — Benjamin’s writings had changed radically. Before 1924, Benjamin had written precisely one piece on contemporary literature, an unpublished essay on Paul Scheerbart. Before 1924, his understanding of politics and his political engagement are a matter of intense debate; he is described variously as apolitical, an anarchist, a proto-Communist, or a right-wing radical. And up until 1924, Benjamin had planned, albeit with considerable ambivalence, a career in the university. Beginning in 1924, he turned his attention and his energies in precipitously new directions: to contemporary culture — with an emphasis on popular forms and on what we might call everyday modernity, to Marxist politics, and to a career as a journalist and wide-ranging cultural critic. These three central aspects of Benjamin’s turn in 1924 have received varying attention: the turn to Marxism is very well documented and plays a role in nearly every reading of the life and work; the failed academic career and the decision to pursue a career as a freelance cultural critic has, surprisingly, remained undervalued; but the shift from German Romanticism and its predecessors to contemporary European culture — and especially to popular culture and the theory of media — which is in many ways the most momentous decision for Benjamin in the 1920s, remains a black hole in Benjamin scholarship. At ﬁrst haltingly, and then, beginning in 1926, with a vengeance, Walter Benjamin turned his thought and writing to Europe, to the modernist and avant-garde culture being produced in France and the Soviet Union, and especially to popular culture and the media
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in which it appeared, something Benjamin and his friend Siegfried Kracauer in some ways invented as a ﬁeld of serious investigation. His range in the period is astonishing: between 1926 and 1931, Benjamin produced essays on children’s literature, toys, pedagogy, gambling, graphology, pornography, folk art, the art of excluded groups such as the mentally ill, food, and a wide variety of media including ﬁlm, radio, photography, and the illustrated press. Writing for some of the most prominent weeklies and monthlies in Germany, he established himself in the late 1920s as a visible and inﬂuential commentator on cultural matters. Some part of the scholarly neglect of Benjamin’s role as a critic of popular culture in the late 1920s and early 1930s undoubtedly stems from the formidable difﬁculty of ﬁnding an adequate approach to this new material. Benjamin himself was the ﬁrst to have this problem. His theoretical writing, for all its brilliance and occasional jabbing, unforgettable insight, had in the period in question lost some of the force and all of the architectonic complexity of his pre-1924 work. Each of his writings in the years 1912–1924 represents a contribution to an integrated, if highly esoteric and even refractory theory of criticism — as Gershom Scholem once put it, each of these major works describes a philosophy of its object. Only somewhat tentatively in 1929, with major essays on Surrealism and Proust, and then with full force in 1931 with a great essay on Karl Kraus and a magisterial essay on photography, would Benjamin return to the admixture of interpretation and theory that had marked his early work and would again mark his work of the later 1930s. In the major works of the period immediately after the Kraus essay — ‘Experience and Poverty’ of 1933, ‘The Author as Producer’ and ‘Franz Kafka’ of 1934 — and then, beginning in 1935 and continuing to the end of his life, the intensive absorption into the world of the Parisian arcades and Charles Baudelaire, an absorption that would produce central essays on Baudelaire, on ‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility’, on the philosophy of history, and the great torso of the Arcades Project, Benjamin ‘returned’ to his earlier practice. He developed an extensive methodological superstructure based not only on his early theory but also on his intervening reading of contemporary cultural material. Benjamin’s political turn between 1924 and 1926 was apparently accomplished much more easily than was the turn to contemporary culture. The political turn was effected virtually instantaneously, and left very few marks of tension or struggle in his work — as he famously
suggested, the 1924 habilitation thesis on the Baroque Trauerspiel, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, was ‘already dialectical, if not yet materialist’.15 The confrontation with contemporary culture, and especially with popular culture, however, did not by any means come easily. It seems that Benjamin somehow felt that the turn to contemporary culture necessitated the development of a totally new theory appropriate only to that culture, and he thus abandoned his own, carefully worked out theoretical position. What is not clear is whether Benjamin thought that the older theory, developed in intimate reciprocity with older culture, was inherently inappropriate to his new cultural interests, or whether he himself simply saw no way to apply that theory in individual cases. Whatever the case, the works produced between 1924 and 1934, while hardly devoid of theoretical interest, all too seldom speak either to one another or to a grand theory in the manner that every word Benjamin wrote before 1924 clearly does. The question arises then, as to the role played by the writings produced between 1924 and 1934 in the development of what we now know as Benjaminian theory. In 1935, Benjamin began to disseminate the results of his research and thought on the Paris of the middle years of the nineteenth century — his work on the Parisian arcades as a central metaphor through which the emergence of modern, urban commodity capitalism in France might be better understood. Now this project, unlike anything else Benjamin wrote after 1924, was organized around a highly coherent, rigorously developed theory; what is more, central aspects of that theory are derived directly from Benjamin’s pre1924 works. The question arises then, as to how Benjamin was able to construct a bridge backwards. How did he manage to develop the brilliant, enormously suggestive readings of the cultural objects produced under high Capitalism based on the ideas he had produced in reference to a much older art? This is clearly a complex question, but an important part of the answer lies in Benjamin’s intellectual relationship with his friend the German novelist, ﬁlm theorist, and cultural analyst Siegfried Kracauer.16 In the early and mid 1920s, Benjamin and Kracauer had systematically exchanged work; Kracauer knew, as quotations in his essays from this period and later indicate, even a series of early, unpublished essays by Benjamin, essays that had been central to Benjamin’s formulation of his early theory. After 1925, while Benjamin worked toward but was frustrated in the formulation of a coherent theory of culture, and especially popular culture, Kracauer began to
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take deﬁning concepts and theories from Benjamin’s early work and apply them to everyday culture in the Weimar Republic in new and sometimes astonishing ways. Although his creative misprisions of Benjamin are widespread, they are particularly important in the cluster of essays at the heart of Kracauer’s great collection The Mass Ornament. There, in essays with titles such as ‘Cult of Distraction’, ‘Travel and Dance’, ‘Those Who Wait’, ‘Calico World’, and ‘The Little Shopgirls go to the Movies’, Kracauer offered a series of brilliant analyses and critiques of contemporary culture. His gaze was particularly attuned to Berlin’s diverse and frenetically active leisure world: spectacles with tiller girls, movies, shopping, bestsellers. It was Kracauer, then, who showed Benjamin how a theory like his, apparently suited only to the refractory objects of a mandarin cultural elite, might open up the world around him. Kracauer’s refunctioning of these Benjaminian concepts is particularly important for Benjamin’s nascent theory of media; and no essay was more important for Benjamin than Kracauer’s great essay of 1927, ‘Photography’. In that essay, though, the true action seems to be anywhere else but in a modern medium such as photography. Truth, after all, resides elsewhere, as Kracauer is at pains to tell us — in fact, photography is not only said to be indifferent to truth, it is ﬁnally nothing more than ‘a jumble that consists partly of garbage’.17 Worse, it is deeply complicit with the most degraded practices of capitalist society: ‘In the hands of the ruling society, the invention of illustrated magazines is one of the most powerful means of organizing a strike against understanding.’ (K, 58). And in the essay ‘The Mass Ornament’, with its brilliant analysis of the entwinement of capitalist reason and myth, Kracauer shows that ‘capitalism’s core defect’, the defect that leads to degradation, is that ‘it rationalizes not too much but too little’ (K, 81). Photography would seem, then, to be complicit with anti-rational forces and thus in part accountable for the spread of a pernicious mythological thinking. Insofar as the opening pages of ‘Photography’ take photographic practice at all seriously, they seem to do so only in terms of the purported temporal authenticity of photography’s reference. ‘Although time is not part of the photograph like the smile or the chignon, the photograph itself (. . . ) is a representation of time.’ (K, 49). The work of art, by contrast — and here Kracauer mainly intends painting — is a privileged locus of meaning. Painting is uniquely capable of representing what Kracauer calls ‘memory images’ or ‘monograms’, moments of time remembered that are shot through
with signiﬁcance. And these images are related in an important way to truth:
Truth can be found only by a liberated consciousness which assesses the demonic nature of the drives. The traits that consciousness recollects stand in a relationship to what has been perceived as true, the latter being either manifest in these traits or excluded by them. The image in which these traits appear is distinguished from all other memory images, for unlike the latter it preserves not a multitude of opaque recollections but elements that touch upon what has been recognized as true. All memory images are bound to be reduced to this type of image, which may rightly be called the last image, since it alone preserves the unforgettable. The last image of a person is that person’s actual history. (. . . ) This history is like a monogram that condenses the name into a single graphic ﬁgure which is meaningful as an ornament. (K, 51)
These last images, these monograms, are represented in the painting as their meaning takes on spatial appearance — whereas in a photograph, the mere spatial appearance of an object is the only meaning to which it can possibly obtain. The object represented in a painting is ‘permeated by cognition’ (K, 52) in a way unobtainable to the photograph. Kracauer’s ideal painter creates works of art in which reside a truth content that ‘outlasts time’. But, as Brecht was wont to remind us, die Verhältnisse sind nicht so — conditions today just aren’t like that. Modern consciousness is anything other than the ‘liberated consciousness’ capable of discerning truth. Kracauer has a rather precise idea of what modern conditions are like: ‘One can certainly imagine a society that has fallen prey to a mute nature which has no meaning no matter how abstract its silence. The contours of such a society emerge in the illustrated journals.’ (K, 61). In this apparently witty apercu resides the insight fundamental to Kracauer’s mature work, and to Benjamin’s as well: that the conditions that obtain in their historical period are nowhere directly accessible to human cognition — they emerge, if ever, only in highly mediated and abstracted form. As allegories. In photographs. In perhaps the densest section of a very refractory essay, Kracauer engages, through direct reference to Benjamin’s book on the Trauerspiel, in the debate on symbol and allegory that is so signiﬁcant to the German cultural tradition. He begins by aligning the memory image, or monogram, with the symbol. Symbols are, in Kracauer’s phrase, ‘dependent upon natural conditions, a dependence that determines the visible and corporeal expression of consciousness’ (K, 60). In epochs in which nature comes wholly to dominate
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consciousness, however, ‘symbolic presentation becomes allegory’ (K, 60). It is interesting to note that Kracauer, like Benjamin, distances himself from the more rigid teleologies of Bloch and Lukács, adopting a view of historical expression indebted to Riegl and even to a certain extent to Worringer.18 Just as the art of the Vienna Genesis emerged as not just characteristic of its age, but as its only historically responsible expression, so too does allegory, for Benjamin and Kracauer, become the only responsible trope of modernity. And in Kracauer’s essay, photography is deﬁned as an allegorical practice, in essence, the primary expression of the Kunstwollen, or artistic willing, of modernity. If, though, photography can capture only ‘the residuum that history has discharged’ (K, 55), of what exactly is it expressive? In Kracauer’s view, photography is uniquely charged with the laying bare of a nature from which human consciousness has wholly departed. A nature that is at once inimical and highly seductive, at once ‘the sum of what can be subtracted’ from the human being and something more appealing to consciousness even than images: ‘The more decisively consciousness frees itself from [its natural] contingency, in the course of the historical process, the more purely does its natural foundation present itself to consciousness. What is meant no longer appears to consciousness in images; rather, this meaning goes toward and through nature.’ (K, 60). Kracauer attempts here to create a post-Weberian vocabulary for what is still the process of Entzauberung or disenchantment; he is careful to avoid the vocabulary of commodiﬁcation, reiﬁcation and second nature then under rapid development in the wake of Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness. Yet what Kracauer means with the notion of the ‘pure presentation’ of nature to consciousness is not far either from Lukács’s notion of second nature or from the discourse of phantasmagoria that had begun to play a role in the discussions between Adorno and Benjamin by 1927. The assumption common to all three positions is that the human sensorium confronts an environment that appears to be coherent, meaningful, and given, but that is in fact the objective manifestation of networks of fetishized commodities which, working together, serve to disorient and denature the human sensory and cognitive abilities. Considered in its relationship to a ‘foundation of nature devoid of meaning’ (K, 61), photography thus performs central epistemological tasks, in that it is capable of raising to the level of consciousness the conditions that actually obtain. Or, as Kracauer puts it, ‘It is the task of photography to disclose this previously unexamined foundation of nature’ (K, 61–2). It does so through a particular form of consonance
between its mechanisms and the age in which it arises: ‘No different from earlier modes of representation, photography, too, is assigned to a particular developmental stage of practical and material life. It is a secretion of the capitalist mode of production. The same mere nature which appears in photography ﬂourishes in the reality of the society produced by this capitalist mode of production.’ (K, 61). Photography is, like the Trauerspiel in its relationship to its age, historically responsible, in that it is, in its brokenness, thoroughly symptomatic of the conditions that produced it. But, more importantly, photography serves, much as had Benjamin’s early criticism, as a form of mortiﬁcation or annihilation of its object.19 ‘A shudder runs through the viewer of old photographs. For they make visible not the knowledge of the original but the spatial conﬁguration of a moment; what appears in the photograph is not the person but the sum of what can be subtracted from him or her. The photograph annihilates the person by portraying him or her, and were person and portrayal to converge, the person would cease to exist.’ (K, 56–7). Photography produces — and does not merely represent — a ‘disintegrated unity’, a ‘ghost-like reality’ that is unredeemed and ‘gathers fragments around a nothing’ (K, 56). Or, in a recurrent ﬁgure from the text, the ‘inert world’ is revealed, dormant in its cocoon (K, 60). And here we are, back at the problem of allegory — and in the loggia. As a nearly random set of pixels, which is only another term for a spatial representation, a photograph presents elements in space ‘whose conﬁguration is so far from necessary that one could just as easily imagine a different organization of those elements’ (K, 56). If for Benjamin, in allegory anything can mean anything else, in Kracauer’s conceptualization of photography the image as spatial representation is susceptible to a particular recombinatory logic. But that logic is societal, and not tropological. Kracauer imagines that that same society that has fallen prey to a mute nature, if relentlessly exposed to the mortiﬁcation of the photographic image, might fail to endure. This, it seems to me, is the meaning of Kracauer’s enigmatic sloganeering for photography as the ‘go for broke — va banque — game of history’ (K, 61). Giving ourselves up to photographs means, for Kracauer, our acceptance of the possibility that the world as we know it could be brought to its end — by photographs. It could be revealed as a heap of garbage and simply cease to have the kind of meaning that alone ensures its perpetuation. With Kracauer’s ideas on photography and its ﬁguration in the Berlin Childhood in mind, we might map Benjamin’s thinking on media,
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and especially on photography and ﬁlm, in the 1930s by constructing two parallel trajectories. One of those trajectories is shaped by a strong emphasis on technological utopianism. Benjamin’s involvement with the avant-garde artists of the G-Group in the early 1920s, and especially his intensive interchanges with László Moholy-Nagy, had lasting effects on his thought.20 The role of the apparatus as prosthesis, the penetration of a certain reality by the apparatus, and the resultant reception in distraction — in short, the optical unconscious and its effects — cannot be fully understood without recourse to Moholy’s groundbreaking work in the 1920s in texts such as ‘ProductionReproduction’ and Painting — Photography — Film. Although some of the results of his reading of Moholy are evident in One Way Street, Benjamin’s reception of him largely lay dormant for 15 years, only to emerge with a vengeance in the artwork essay.21 If we now — after a long detour — reenter the loggia of Berlin Childhood, we ﬁnd ourselves at the starting point of a very different trajectory in Benjamin’s thinking about media. This trajectory draws heavily on Benjamin’s own early work, and it builds on Kracauer’s refunctioning of the theory that informed that work. It is a trajectory that emphasizes the destructive, allegorical nature of the media image. And as such it is suffused with Benjamin’s essential nihilism. If Kracauer allowed himself to imagine the passing away of a society, Benjamin, like D. H. Lawrence, liked to think of the world going pop. As Eduardo Cadava has shown, that dark stream of thought ﬂows through the work on the Arcades project, as photography is often associated with the moment of arrest — if not, by then, quite of erasure.22 Passing, then, through the loggia, and in fact through the remainder of Benjamin’s remarkable text, we ﬁnd ourselves, at the end, in the child’s bedroom and in the section called ‘The Moon’. This Denkbild is a carefully constructed pendant to ‘Loggias’. As in the ﬁrst text, domestic architecture is ﬁgured as an optical apparatus. A pale beam of moonlight steals into the chamber through the shutter-like blinds — and if we are not quite reminded of a view camera, with its orientation toward its object, the bedroom with its darkened interior nonetheless strongly suggest the pre-photographic form of the camera obscura, with its very direct light-writing, photo graphein, on its rear wall. ‘The Moon’, in fact, is a virtually symphonic reiteration and refunctioning of the major motifs of the Berlin Childhood as a whole: the notion of mimetic exchange between child and butterﬂy so prominent in ‘Butterﬂy Hunt’ and elsewhere emerges immediately as the earth and the moon become interchangeable; the circular forms — of the
tree ring and of the marketwomen’s skirts — return in the hem-like ornamentation of the basins on the nightstand; and the clinking of the glass jug recalls the sounds of modern technology — the shuddering of the panorama, the shrilling of the telephone — that so undoes the subject. Myth is very much at work, then, in this room: the child awakens in a space bathed in an eerie glow that unhouses him. Stripped of any thought of a future, the child is again, as in ‘Loggias’, entombed, trapped within the irremediable pastness of the photograph. ‘The Moon’ is, in fact, for all its character as a domestic miniature, a great apocalyptic vision. In the moonlit room, ‘nothing more remained of the world than a single, stubborn question. It was: Why is there anything at all in the world? why the world? With amazement, I realized that nothing in it could compel me to think the world. Its nonbeing would have struck me as not a whit more problematic than its being, which seemed to wink at nonbeing’ (GS VII, 427–8; SW III, 383). If, more than a decade later, Horkheimer and Adorno would emphasize the dark side of enlightenment in their vision of the interplay of myth and reason, Benjamin was nonetheless there before them. The de-auraticizing potential of the photographic apparatus is indeed revealed in the Berlin Childhood. But, if myth is reduced to its barest elements and depotentiated, this nonetheless occurs at a price. The effect is the liberation of neither vision, nor consciousness, nor political agency. It is the entombment of childhood, of hope, of the future. This is not the elimination of myth, not the effort, as Benjamin put it in Convolute N of the Arcades, to cultivate ﬁelds ‘where only madness has reigned’, forging ahead with ‘the whetted axe of reason’ in order to clear the ‘undergrowth of delusion and myth’ (AP, 456–7). This is a vision of a different order: we are preserved for all time in the thrall of myth, unredeemed, aware of a knowledge we can intuit but never attain, entombed — in short, photographed.
1 Earlier versions of this essay were delivered at Northwestern University, Stanford University, the University of California, Davis, the University of Oxford, and the University of Cambridge. I am grateful to the members of those audiences for their critical reactions, and especially to my hosts, Professors Peter Fenves, Seth Lerer, Gerhard Richter, Anthony Phelan, and Andrew Webber. I am especially grateful to my friend Howard Eiland, whose conversations on the Berlin Childhood lent decisive inﬂuences to this essay.
The Mausoleum of Youth 329 2 GB IV, 267. 3 On the problem of Benjamin and biography, see the introduction to Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, The Author as Producer: A Life of Walter Benjamin (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, forthcoming in 2010). 4 I cite from the last version of Berlin Childhood, which dates from 1938. 5 See especially Bernd Witte, Walter Benjamin: Der Intellektuelle als Kritiker (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1976), 48ff., and Michael W. Jennings, Dialectical Images: Walter Benjamin’s Theory of Literary Criticism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987), 68–9, 134–5. 6 Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, translated by Edmund Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 8. 7 From ‘Capitalism as Religion’. For a full reading of this fragment, see Uwe Steiner, ‘Kapitalismus als Religion: Anmerkungen zu einem Fragment Walter Benjamins’, Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 72.1 (1998), 147–71. 8 The most important study of the role of myth in Benjamin’s work remains Winfried Menninghaus, Schwellenkunde: Walter Benjamins Passage des Mythos (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1986). 9 The term ‘Loggia’ refers in German to a typical architectural feature of an apartment building: unlike a balcony, which extends beyond the building’s skin, a loggia is, as it were, carved out behind the skin, with three interior walls, a roof, and a railing on the open side. The word is related etymologically to the theatrical loge. 10 I am grateful to Frances Jacobus-Parker for this insight, which emerged in the course of a discussion of the Berlin Childhood in the Princeton seminar ‘Reading Photographic Writing’ which I taught with Eduardo Cadava in 2008. 11 On the relays between the railway and the cinema, see especially Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986). 12 On the concept of aura, see especially Miriam Bratu Hansen, ‘Benjamin’s Aura’, Critical Inquiry 34.2 (Winter 2008), 336–75. 13 On the role played by distraction and innervation in the formation of a collective consciousness susceptible to revolutionary action, see especially Howard Eiland, ‘Reception in Distraction’, Boundary 2 30.1 (2003), 51–66. 14 Vilém Flusser, Für eine philosophie der fotograﬁe (Göttingen: Edition Flusser, 2006), 8. 15 GB IV, 18. 16 The best short introduction to Kracauer’s work remains Thomas Y. Levin, ‘Introduction’ to The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1995).
330 Paragraph 17 Kracauer, The Mass Ornament, 51. All further references to this volume occur within the text, designated as K plus page number. 18 On Benjamin’s relationship to Riegl and Worringer, see Michael Jennings, ‘Walter Benjamin and the Theory of Art History’ in Walter Benjamin 1892–1940: Zum 100. Geburtstag, edited by Uwe Steiner (Berne: Peter Lang, 1992), 77–102. 19 On criticism as annihilation or mortiﬁcation, see Jennings, Dialectical Images, 164–211. 20 On Benjamin’s relationship to the historical avant-garde movements, see Michael Jennings, ‘Walter Benjamin and the European Avant-garde’, in The Cambridge Companion to Walter Benjamin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 18–34. 21 The most important work on distraction (and especially its relationship to the important concept of innervation) has been carried out by Miriam Hansen. See especially ‘Benjamin on Cinema: Not a One-Way Street’, Critical Inquiry 25.2 (Winter 1999), 306–43, and the chapter ‘Innervation, Mimetic Faculty, Optical Unconscious’ in her forthcoming book, The Other Frankfurt School. 22 See Eduardo Cadava, Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 59–64.
Between the Artwork and its ‘Actualization’: a Footnote to Art History in Benjamin’s ‘Work of Art’ Essay BRIGID DOHERTY
Abstract: This article analyses a footnote to the third version of the ‘Work of Art’ essay in which Walter Benjamin presents an account of ‘a certain oscillation’ between ‘cult value’ and ‘exhibition value’ as typical of the reception of all works of art. Benjamin’s example in that footnote is the Sistine Madonna (1512–13), a painting by Raphael in the Dresden Gemäldegalerie that has played an important part in German aesthetics since Winckelmann. Benjamin’s footnote on the Sistine Madonna, along with his critique of Hegel’s aesthetics in that context, demand to be understood in relation to his remarks on Dada elsewhere in the artwork essay, and to his claim that technological reproducibility leads to the ‘actualization’ of the original reproduced. In that connection, the article concludes with an analysis of Kurt Schwitters’s 1921 montage picture Knave Child Madonna with Horse. Keywords: actualization, technological reproducibility, cult value, exhibition value, Sistine Madonna, Hegel’s Aesthetics, Dada, Schwitters
‘The medium though which works of art continue to affect later ages is always different from the one in which they affect their own age; in those later times that medium also constantly changes in relation to older works’, wrote Walter Benjamin in an unpublished 1920 fragment. He continued:
But this medium is always comparatively fainter [dünner] than that through which works affected their contemporaries at the time they were created. Kandinsky expresses this by saying that the eternal value [Ewigkeitswert] of works of art appears more vividly to later generations, since they are less receptive toward their current value [Zeitwert]. Yet the concept of ‘eternal value’ is perhaps not the best expression of the relation. We ought instead to investigate which aspect Paragraph 32:3 (2009) 331–358 DOI: 10.3366/E0264833409000637
332 Paragraph of the work it really is (quite apart from the question of value) that seems more evident to later generations than to contemporaries. (GS VI, 126–7; SW I, 235; translation modiﬁed)
Benjamin’s ongoing work between 1935 and 1939 on the epochal essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility’ represents, in no small part, an attempt to conceptualize both the relation of the media through which he believed older works of art continued to affect his contemporaries to the media in which those works existed in their original forms and the relation of contemporary media to those older works themselves. Rather than dispensing with the question of value as such, in ‘The Work of Art’ Benjamin explores the question of ‘which aspect of the work it really is that seems more evident to later generations’ in terms of the relation of what he calls the ‘cult value’ (Kultwert) of the work of art to its ‘exhibition value’ (Ausstellungswert). Crucial to Benjamin’s concerns in the essay is his effort to formulate a theory of the work of art and of the effects of its changing media of presentation within and across historical epochs, a theory in which ‘technological reproducibility’ leads to the production of more powerful effects of apparent proximity and vividness for later generations than original works of art retain the capacity to generate. Among Benjamin’s preparatory notes for the ﬁrst version of ‘The Work of Art’ appears a numbered list of eight ‘Preliminary Theses’. The ﬁrst four theses each present something to which ‘the technological reproducibility of the work of art’ variously leads: ﬁrst, the artwork’s ‘reassembling’ (Ummontierung); second, its ‘actualization’ (Aktualisierung); third, its ‘literarization’ (Literarisierung) — with that term crossed out and replaced by ‘politicization’ (Politisierung); and fourth, its ‘wearing out’ (Verschleiß ) (GS I.2, 1039). In what follows, I consider Benjamin’s notions of Ummontierung, Aktualisierung, Literarisierung and Verschleiß in relation to his ﬂeeting engagement, in a footnote to the third version of ‘The Work of Art’, with Raphael’s Sistine Madonna (1512–13), a painting housed since 1754 in the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden, where from 1855 to 1940 it was exhibited in a custom-built, free-standing, decorative frame that bore an inscription from Vasari’s Lives of the Most Eminent Painters (ﬁgures 1 and 2). From the time of its arrival in Dresden to the moment of Benjamin’s writing of ‘The Work of Art’, the Sistine Madonna was widely revered and often described as singularly impressive in its original form as a work in oil paint on canvas. It was also reproduced in unusually wide-ranging media and large numbers beginning in 1780, the date
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Figure 1. Raphael, Sistine Madonna, 1512–13, oil on canvas, Gemäldegalerie, Dresden.
Figure 2. Raphael’s Sistine Madonna (1512–13), as installed in the Semperbau, Dresden, 18551940, photograph circa 1930.
of the ﬁrst reproductive engraving of the painting by Christian Gottfried Schultze. By 1908, Theodor Lessing could write: ‘There is no painting, no work of art of any sort, as popular and as widely beloved as the Sistine Madonna. It hangs in every parlour. It is displayed in every shop window. All over Europe, all over America. Billions of people have beheld this painting. For countless numbers it is the only painting they know.’1 Some twenty years earlier, in Das Leben Raffaels (The Life of Raphael) (1886), art historian Herman Grimm dated the efﬂorescence of reproductions of the Sistine Madonna to the period between his childhood in the 1830s — when, he says, perhaps only a few thousand people knew of the painting, an engraving of which hung in his father Wilhelm Grimm’s sitting room — and the time of the writing of his own book on the artist, when ‘countless’ reproductions could be found world-wide. Thus he traces, concisely, an aspect of what Benjamin set out to explore as ‘the “fate” of the work of art in the nineteenth century’.2 It is, of course, to the invention of
Between the Artwork and its ‘Actualization’
Figure 3. Johann Friedrich Wilhelm Müller, copperplate engraving (1815) after Raphael, Sistine Madonna (1512–13), Albertina Museum, Vienna.
photographic technologies that Grimm attributes the vast increase in the number and accessibility of reproductions of the Sistine Madonna. Subsequent editions of his popular book on Raphael describe the uncanny effects of one such reproduction: ‘I had the latest largescale Dresden phototype framed and hung it in my room. After a short while I felt as if assailed, for these forms, mother and child, fastened their gazes too ﬁrmly upon me. It was as if this space no longer belonged to me, but to the Madonna.’3 Hence when Benjamin turns to the Sistine Madonna in a footnote to ‘The Work of Art’, he turns to a picture whose ‘technological reproducibility’ had since the nineteenth century ﬁgured prominently in literary, philosophical, and art historical discussions. As early as 1835–6, Stendhal had described the impact of Johann Friedrich Wilhelm Müller’s 1816 copperplate engraving of Raphael’s painting (ﬁgure 3) in terms that hint at the force Benjamin would attribute a century later to techniques of photographic reproduction in particular and to the
‘technological reproducibility’ of works of art broadly conceived. In his autobiographical text The Life of Henry Brulard, Stendhal establishes an effect that would seem to resemble what Benjamin called Aktualisierung as a cause of something like the Verschleiß, the deterioration or depreciation, of the original work of art. As Stendhal puts it, a reproduction has the capacity to take the place of the original in the memory of someone who views ﬁrst the latter and then the former. ‘My memory,’ Stendhal writes, ‘is nothing more than the engraving.’
Which is the danger of buying engravings of the beautiful pictures you see on your travels. Soon the engraving constitutes the whole memory, and destroys the real memory [le souvenir réel]. That’s what happened to me with the San Sisto madonna in Dresden. Müller’s beautiful engraving has destroyed it for me, whereas I can picture to myself perfectly the nasty pastels by Mengs, in the same Dresden gallery, of which I haven’t seen an engraving anywhere.4
Art’s fateful hour has struck for us
For Benjamin, the ‘reassembling’ and the ‘actualization’ of the work of art — recognized as effects of the work’s technological reproducibility — precede, mediate, and perhaps potentiate the work’s politicization as well as its Verschleiß. If actualization, for Benjamin, is a primary effect of the technological reproducibility of works of art, it is also crucial to his conceptualization of the history of art as such. ‘The history of art is a history of prophecies’, he writes in a fragment prepared in connection with the second version of ‘The Work of Art’:
It can only be written from the standpoint of the immediate, actual present; for every age possesses its own new but uninheritable potential to interpret the prophecies that the art of past epochs conveys to it. It is the most important task of art history to decipher in the great artworks of the past the prophecies valid for the epoch of its writing. (. . . ) In order for these prophecies to become comprehensible, circumstances must have come to fruition, ahead of which the work of art has rushed, often by centuries, often also by just a few years. These circumstances are, for one thing, speciﬁc societal transformations, which alter the function of art, and, for another, certain mechanical inventions. (GS I.2, 1046–7)
Although the signiﬁcance of the term ‘image’ (Bild) differs from, and arguably exceeds, that of ‘artwork’ (Kunstwerk) in Benjamin’s writings, his remarks on the history of art in the 1935 fragment resonate with his formulations in the Arcades Project regarding what he calls the ‘historical index of images’. According to Benjamin,
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such an index ‘not only says that they belong to a speciﬁc time, but, above all, that they ﬁrst come to legibility in a speciﬁc time. And indeed this attaining to legibility is a speciﬁc critical point of the movement in their interior. Every present is determined by the images that are synchronic with it: each now is the now of a speciﬁc recognizability [Jetzt einer bestimmten Erkennbarkeit]’ (GS V.1, 577–8; AP, 462–3; translation modiﬁed). In his correspondence of October 1935, a period of intense work on the artwork essay, Benjamin explains that he has recently ‘recognized a hidden structural character in present-day art — in the present-day situation of art — that allows for the recognition of what is for us decisive, what indeed breaks through for the ﬁrst time in the present moment, in the “fate” of the work of art in the nineteenth century.’ Thus, in ‘that aspect of the art of the nineteenth century which only “now” is recognizable, which never was so before and never will be so again’, Benjamin located a ‘decisive example’ by means of which he was able ‘to realize my theory of knowledge, which is crystallized around (. . . ) the concept of the “now of recognizability”’ — a concept, he acknowledges, whose ‘implementation’ in his work remains ‘very esoteric.’5 The ‘now of recognizability’ reappears, famously, in Benjamin’s meditations ‘On the Concept of History’ and related writings of the late 1930s. While those texts fall outside the scope of the present essay, this text aims to illuminate, perforce obliquely, aspects of Benjamin’s philosophy of history and theory of knowledge in relation to the history of art and the conceptualization of the work of art in his writings of the 1930s.6 ‘Art’s fateful hour has struck for us’, Benjamin writes in a letter to Max Horkheimer of 16 October 1935, ‘and I have captured its signature in a series of preliminary reﬂections entitled “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility”. These reﬂections attempt to give the questions raised by art theory a truly contemporary form: and indeed from the inside, avoiding any unmediated reference to politics.’7 In the ‘Preliminary Theses’, Ummontierung and Aktualisierung appear as concepts intended to mediate the connections Benjamin proposed to draw among technological reproduction, works of art, and politics. Aktualisierung names what would take place in a ‘now of recognizability’, or in a moment of art-historical deciphering of the prophecies encoded in works of art, while Ummontierung ﬁgures the transformation of the work of art as such. Though neither term appears in the artwork essay, the concepts they were meant to manifest remain central to Benjamin’s claims.
A certain oscillation between two polar modes of reception
A long footnote to section ﬁve of the third version of ‘The Work of Art’, invokes the history of the Sistine Madonna as an instance in which ‘a certain oscillation between (. . . ) two polar modes of reception [of works of art] can be demonstrated’, namely, one that accentuates the artwork’s ‘cult value’ (Kultwert) and another its ‘exhibition value’ (Ausstellungswert). In a condensed presentation within this ﬁnal but arguably incomplete version of the artwork essay, on which Benjamin worked from spring 1936 to March or April 1939, he asserts that this ‘oscillation’ between modes of reception that variously emphasize cult value and exhibition value ‘can be demonstrated for each individual work of art’. And he insists that ‘the aesthetics of Idealism, which conceives of beauty as something fundamentally undivided [ungeschieden]’ cannot account for the polarity of cult and exhibition value in the ‘beautiful image’ (schönes Bild), even as that polarity ‘announces itself ’, in particular, and crucially, within Hegel’s philosophy (GS I.2, 482–3; SW IV, 273–4, 257). If, as Hegel put it in his Aesthetics, by the nineteenth century, Europeans were ‘past the stage of being able to venerate works of art as divine and as objects deserving our worship [Andacht]’ and if at that point in history it could be said instead that ‘the impression [works of art] produce is of a more reﬂective kind, and what they arouse in us requires a more stringent sort of test and proof by other means’,8 Benjamin would construe that ﬁrst stage of the reception of works of art (venerating works as divine objects) as emphasizing cult value, and the second (both more reﬂective and requiring more stringent testing) as emphasizing exhibition value. And he would further recognize cult value as that which is typically associated, in Hegel’s terms, with a notnecessarily-beautiful image whose reception is oriented to the worship of the work of art as a ‘thing’, and exhibition value as that which is typically associated, again in Hegel’s terms, with the work of art as a beautiful image which contains ‘something external’ (ein Äußerliches) and possesses a ‘spirit’ (Geist) that ‘speaks to the human being’ (GS I.2, 482–3; SW IV, 273).9 In the quotations from Hegel as Benjamin conﬁgures them in the footnote that immediately precedes the note on the Sistine Madonna in the artwork essay, the beautiful work of art’s production of a ‘more reﬂective impression’ than that of the not-necessarily-beautiful work of art made to be venerated as divine, goes hand in hand with the arousal, by the beautiful work of art, of something ‘in us’ that ‘requires
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a more stringent test’. And both effects are invoked as dimensions of a mode of reception oriented towards exhibition value. Benjamin does not name the ‘problem’ he claims Hegel ‘sensed’ within his own aesthetics of Idealism, but it might be fair to speculate that it would involve the potential for viewers and indeed theorists of works of art to identify aesthetic experiences of reﬂective impressions generated by beautiful works of art with situations of religious devotion and hence implicitly to receive the beauty of those works as something other than undivided. That is to say, the problem would have to do with the potential for oscillation in the reception of the beautiful work of art between polar modes of reception variously accentuating cult value and exhibition value, a potential that went unrecognized as such by Hegel, even as he noted both the beautiful work of art’s incorporation of something external and its possession of a spirit that addresses those who behold it. In order to demonstrate how the reception of a work of art oscillates between a mode of reception that is associated with worship and that therefore accentuates cult value and one that accentuates exhibition value, Benjamin appends a second footnote to the sentence in which he announces the existence of those ‘two polar types’ of the reception of works of art.10 ‘The transition from the ﬁrst kind of reception to the second deﬁnes the history of artistic reception in general’, he asserts, while a ‘certain oscillation between those two polar modes of reception can be demonstrated for each work of art’ (GS I.2, 482–3; SW IV, 257, 273–4). It is here that Benjamin directs his readers to the Sistine Madonna. Drawing on Hubert Grimme’s brief 1922 study, ‘Das Rätsel der Sixtinischen Madonna’ (‘The Riddle of the Sistine Madonna’), Benjamin suggests that Raphael’s painting was ‘originally painted for exhibition’, with its putative inaugural installation having been ‘just above the cofﬁn’ of Pope Julius II during his lying-in-state in 1513 in the choir chapel of San Sisto in the Papal Basilica of Saint Peter in Rome (GS 1.2, 483; SW IV, 274). The interpretation of the Sistine Madonna put forward in Grimme’s study has been challenged convincingly in more recent accounts of the painting, as has the use to which Benjamin put Grimme’s analysis.11 At stake here is not the accuracy of Benjamin’s claims about the painting, which indeed contain errors of fact large and small, but the conceptual foundations and implications of those claims in relation to the broader context of ‘The Work of Art’. ‘What Raphael presents [darstellt] in this picture’, says Benjamin, ‘is how the cloud-borne Madonna approaches the papal cofﬁn from the rear of the niche, which was framed by green portières
[Portieren]. On the occasion of the funeral service for Pope [Julius II] an outstanding exhibition value of Raphael’s painting found its use.’ Only later, outside the frame of the aims of its original commission and production as, according to Grimme, a ‘provisional memorial’ to Pope Julius II,12 did the Sistine Madonna come into a new kind of use as an ‘object of worship on the high altar’ in the abbey church of San Sisto in the Benedictine monastery at Piacenza (GS 1.2, 483; SW IV, 274). Thus, for Benjamin, the history of the Sistine Madonna reveals the reception of the painting to have ‘oscillated’ between a situation in which ‘a primary exhibition value’ emerged and one in which the ‘cult value’ of the painting subsequently came to the fore. Moreover, Benjamin seems to assume, each of those two situations of reception possesses an internal counterpart within the painting itself. The devotional postures of the two saints depicted in the painting exemplify the activity of prayer before an object of cult value, while the green curtain that frames the Madonna’s seemingly imminent movement out of the picture indicates a threshold between two kinds of space, that of the painting and that of the site of its original display, where the work’s primary exhibition value was established. Benjamin’s choice of the word ‘Portieren’, which also signiﬁes in the sense of the English ‘porter’ or ‘doorkeeper’, to name the green curtain in the painting is striking in this connection. It effects a kind of virtual displacement or minimal animation of the curtain in relation to the intercessory saints, those ﬁgures of devotion who instantiate as models for the viewer a properly devotional relation of prayerful reverence to the ﬁgures on the other side of the threshold marked by the curtain and the area at the bottom of the picture that Benjamin identiﬁes as a wooden panel representing a part of the papal cofﬁn. Crucial for Benjamin’s notion of an ‘oscillation’ between polar modes of reception is his understanding, based on Grimme’s innovative history of the picture, that an ‘outstanding exhibition value’ of the Sistine Madonna was ﬁrst revealed in the ritual context of a papal funeral in St. Peter’s, and that the picture’s subsequent deployment for its ‘cult value’ in liturgical contexts on the high altar of the abbey church of San Sisto implied that the painting had ‘within certain limits declined in value [war (. . . ) in gewissen Grenzen entwertet]’ in the course of its move from Rome to Piacenza (GS 1.2, 483; SW IV, 274). Benjamin recognized Grimme’s account of the Sistine Madonna as an example of a new and rigorous approach to art history which, insofar as it was ‘built upon the most inconspicuous data [unscheinbarsten Daten] of an object’
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and ‘focused on the material determination [Materialbestimmtheit]’ of the work of art, demonstrated its practitioner’s capacity to wrest fresh insights from even a ‘hackneyed object’ (abgegriffenes Objekt) (GS III, 366; SW II, 668; translation modiﬁed). By the 1920s, Raphael’s masterpiece could justly be seen as ‘hackneyed’ — or, more literally, ‘worn out’, as if by the touch of many hands — in relation both to its place in the history of German literature and philosophy since the mid-eighteenth century, and to its status as perhaps the most widely reproduced work of art in German culture. In the original, unpublished version of his essay ‘Rigorous Study of Art’, Benjamin grants Grimme’s short history of the Sistine Madonna a prominent place in connection with his review of the ﬁrst volume of the Kunstwissenschaftliche Forschungen (Studies in the History of Art), a 1931 collection edited by Otto Pächt and with an opening essay by Hans Sedlmayr, from whose title Benjamin derived that of his review.13 Benjamin’s inclusion of ‘The Riddle of the Sistine Madonna’ in that context is noteworthy, as he acknowledges that Grimme, whose ﬁeld of expertise was Oriental philology, does not belong to the group of art historians of the so-called Vienna School whose work was represented in the Kunstwissenschaftliche Forschungen. Benjamin nevertheless attributes to Grimme’s study, in which an inquiry into the roles of the wooden panel and the green curtain is crucial, a ‘devotion to the insigniﬁcant’ (Andacht zum Unbedeutenden) animated by its author’s ‘readiness to drive research forward to the ground from which even the “insigniﬁcant” — no, precisely the insigniﬁcant — acquires meaning’. And he praises the way in which, by making contact with the concrete ground of ‘past historical existence’ (geschichtliches Gewesensein), Grimme demonstrated that ‘the “insigniﬁcant” [with which his research] is concerned (. . . ) is the inconspicuous [Unscheinbare] or also the striking [Anstößige] (the two together are not a contradiction) which survives in true works and which is the point at which the work’s content breaks through for the authentic researcher’ (GS III, 366; SW II, 668; translation modiﬁed). With regard to the reception of the Sistine Madonna, beginning with the description of that work in Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s Reﬂections on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture (1756), it would not be improper to associate the wooden panel and the green curtain with what Benjamin calls the Unscheinbare, and the ﬁgure of the Madonna as arca dei bearing the Christ-child as the Word-becomeﬂesh with what he calls the Anstößige. Benjamin brings those two elements of the painting together in his single-sentence account of the
work — which links the wooden panel and green curtain to the staging of the Pope’s lying-in-state in 1513, and accordingly associates the appearance of the Madonna’s forward movement with her seemingly imminent traversal of the boundary between the depicted space of the painting and the real space of the chapel in which he believed its inaugural exhibition took place — as if his own footnote to art history might be read as an exemplary instance of its writing in miniature. In Benjamin’s description, the Madonna appears to be moving forward out of the clouds in the painting in such a way that she would have seemed — in the context of what he understood from Grimme to have been the painting’s original installation — to be stepping out towards the pope’s cofﬁn from a niche-like space framed by a tomb curtain. In referring to the seeming movement of the Madonna, Benjamin invokes as anstößig an aspect of Raphael’s painting that had been crucial to its reception in Germany since the publication of Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder’s Outpourings of the Heart of an Artloving Friar in 1797. And in calling up the forward-stepping Madonna as a ﬁgure who appears as if about to enter the real space in which the painting is seen, he links Raphael’s pictorial production of an effect of apparition to the historical situation of reception in which Grimme’s study had located the Sistine Madonna. Thus Benjamin attempts — in the single sentence of his art historical footnote — to demonstrate that the Unscheinbare (the wooden panel, the green curtain) and the Anstößige (the as-if forward-stepping, threshold-crossing Madonna and Child) have ‘survived’ in this well-worn masterpiece, and have ‘broken through’ to the ‘true researcher’ (that is, to Grimme, and to Benjamin himself). Whereas art historical interpretations of the painting have associated the powerful effects of the appearance of the Madonna and Child in Raphael’s painting with the theological signiﬁcance of the revelation of the Christ-child as the incarnation of God, a preﬁguration of Christ’s sacriﬁcial death, and hence a kind of foundational ﬁgure of prolepsis or prophecy,14 Benjamin in effect takes the appearance of those ﬁgures as an occasion to read the history of art as a history of prophecies in relation to which his own inquiry into the fate of the work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility might be situated. Moreoever, in stating that ‘what Raphael presents in the picture is how the cloud-borne Madonna approaches the papal cofﬁn from the rear of the niche, which was framed by green portières’ (emphasis added), he presents the painting’s capacity to produce an effect of apparently imminent movement across the threshold between the space depicted
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within it and that of its exhibition — an effect of what we might call Anstößigkeit — as the subject of the painting itself.15 Citing the foreword to Heinrich Wölfﬂin’s Classic Art (1898), Benjamin opens his ‘Rigorous Study of Art’ with a critique of the art historian’s attempt to ‘remedy the bleak condition in which his discipline found itself in the late nineteenth century’ by means of the ‘formal analysis he placed at the center of his method’ (GS III, 364, 369; SW II, 666). In his analysis of the Sistine Madonna, Wölfﬂin explores the formal pictorial problems posed for a painter of the classic style wanting to render a ﬁgure ‘standing erect and walking over the clouds as an apparition [Erscheinung]’ that is only visible for an instant. ‘The direct emergence out of the picture, the bearing down on the spectator’, Wölfﬂin writes, ‘is inevitably connected with an unpleasant impression. There are indeed modern paintings which seek this brutal effect. Raphael has used every means to arrest the movement [sistieren], to contain it within certain limits (. . . ) The motif of movement is a wonderfully light, hovering gait.’16 Thus, for the formalist art historian, Raphael succeeds in at once presenting and arresting the movement of the Madonna as the Anstößige in the work of art. The effect of ‘direct emergence’, which Wölfﬂin describes as virtually bound to be unpleasant, even brutal, is here contained and transformed by means of the painter’s virtuosity and invention to produce a motif of hovering movement, preserving the autonomy of the work alongside or rather by means of its astonishing appearance. The near-pun on the title of the painting suggested by Wölfﬂin’s use of the Latinate ‘sistieren’ indicates a point of intersection between Benjamin’s formulation of a rigorous art history as one able at once to contain and to analyse the Anstößige (as in his own condensed demonstration in presenting the subject of the Sistine Madonna) and Wölfﬂin’s method of formal analysis, according to which, in the case of that painting, the production of an effect of dynamic movement ﬁnds its proper, which is to say classical, fulﬁlment in the production of an effect of arrested movement, an effect registered in the art historian’s own striking use of the verb sistieren. For Wölfﬂin, the pictorial effects that establish the Madonna’s apparent forward motion belong to a new aesthetic disposition of classical art in the early sixteenth century made manifest as a ‘demand for spaciousness [Räumigkeit]’ in which, among other transformations, the horizontal increases in signiﬁcance, as in the arrangement of the clouds over which the Madonna treads, and in their relation to her presentation as a ‘pure vertical that has an awesome effect [ungeheure
Wirkung], the primitive in the larger context of a fully realized art’.17 Wölfﬂin’s distillation of the striking ﬁgure of the Madonna in Raphael’s painting into this vertical that appears to emerge and set itself loose upon the viewer might be said to stand for the positionality of the easel picture when hanging vertically, and at a considerable height above the viewer: ‘the Madonna should descend’, Wölfﬂin insists. ‘If one places the painting low it loses its best effect.’ Interested not in the historical circumstances of its original exhibition but in the implications of its present-day display for the realization of effects of pictorial form, Wölfﬂin remarks at the end of his discussion of the Sistine Madonna that the massive decorative frame in which the painting had been exhibited since 1855 ‘seems perhaps a little too heavy: without the large pilasters the ﬁgures would appear much more impressive [bedeutend]’.18 In his footnote, it is as if Benjamin was transposing an adaptation in miniature of Wölfﬂin’s account of the classical containment of the anstößig effects of the composition of the Sistine Madonna into the historical construction built up by Grimme in his account of the painting’s commission and initial exhibition. The Anstößige is thus placed within the frame set by Grimme in his scrutiny of the ‘inconspicuous data’ of the wooden panel and the green curtain, elements of the painting unmentioned by Wölfﬂin. The aim of Benjamin’s presentation is to insist on the signiﬁcance of the speciﬁc characteristics and effects of a singular work of art in the situation of its original installation and ‘primary exhibition value’. Thus, in his formulation of an ‘oscillation’ between poles of reception variously emphasizing exhibition value and cult value, the inbuilt exhibition value of the Sistine Madonna is understood to have been ‘actualized’ in a particular historical context, where a painted ﬁgure appears on the verge of stepping out of the space of a picture into that of its exhibition.
Hegel and the mastery of presentation
Given the context in which the Sistine Madonna comes into play in the artwork essay, it makes sense to assume that Benjamin had read Hegel’s various remarks on the painting; and surely he would also have been familiar with discussions of the painting in the work of Wölfﬂin, Winckelmann, Wackenroder, August Wilhelm Schlegel, and Friedrich Nietzsche, each of whom took pains to body forth in writing the apparent movement (in Winckelmann’s case, the related
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and at least equally vivid stillness) of the Holy Virgin as painted by Raphael. ‘What’, declares Hegel in his Aesthetics, ‘has Raphael not made of the Madonna and Christ-child!’ ‘It is not the visible beauty [sinnliche Schönheit] of the forms’, he asserts, ‘but the spiritual animation [geistige Beseelung] whereby mastery manifests itself and which leads to the mastery of the presentation.’19 Hegel’s emphasis on ‘spiritual animation’ as that by means of which mastery manifests itself in Raphael’s painting ﬁnds an historical-materialist counterpart in Benjamin’s claim that ‘what Raphael presents in the picture is how the cloud-borne Madonna approaches the papal cofﬁn’. What Benjamin intends to invoke is another kind of manifestation of mastery, one that would reveal how ‘an outstanding exhibition value of Raphael’s painting found its use’ on the occasion of its ﬁrst display. Benjamin makes the presentation of exhibition value integral to the composition of the picture itself. For him, what Raphael ‘presents in the picture’ is not so much a subject as a process — not a ‘what’ but a ‘how’ — and the ﬁgure of the Madonna treading over clouds as if taking hovering steps towards the actual space of the painting’s display stands in the footnote as an emblem of the placement of emphasis on exhibition value. Absent from the artwork essay’s one-sentence history of the Sistine Madonna are those elements of the picture that might serve as emblems of the placement of emphasis on cult value, elements attended to vigorously in so many other accounts of the painting. Hegel, for example, notes an effect produced by Raphael’s depiction of the Christ-child’s face that reveals ‘the most beautiful expression of childhood, and yet we can see [in it] something beyond purely childlike innocence, something which makes visible as present [läßt gegenwärtig sehen] the Divine behind the veil of youth and gives us an inkling of the expansion of this Divinity into an inﬁnite revelation’.20 Thus conceived, the Christ-child’s face is a ﬁgure of prophecy or prolepsis within the painting, and hence potentially also a ﬁgure for the way in which, when presented as Benjamin proposed, works of art convey prophecies across the ages. In this connection it might be said that Hegel’s concept of devotion or worship (Andacht) as it ﬁgures in the section on the Romantic arts in the Aesthetics presents worship itself as a kind of actualization — an activity or perhaps a state of being which, as the subject matter as well as the aim of a painting, provides an occasion for the revelation of ‘spiritual animation’ as the medium of the manifestation of mastery and the origin of the ‘mastery of presentation’ in painting. ‘Worship itself is the prayer answered; the petition itself is bliss’, writes Hegel,
and points to the ‘prayerful situation’ of St. Sixtus and St. Barbara in Raphael’s picture as an exemplary instance in which prayer ‘not only shines through the ﬁgure and situation as a ray of transﬁguration, but is in itself the situation and what exists and is to be presented.’21 In this Hegel suggests that he, like Benjamin, understands Raphael to be making visible in the Sistine Madonna less a depiction of a speciﬁc subject matter, whatever the relative conceptual or theological complexity of that subject matter might be, than a presentation of ‘how’ something transpires in, and by means of, a painting. For Benjamin, the ‘how’ concerns the Madonna’s seeming to tread over clouds as if on her way out of the painting and into the space of its exhibition, in other words the presentation of a ﬁgure of actualization by means of what Hegel calls the manifestation of mastery and the mastery of presentation. For Hegel the ‘how’ concerns this double form of mastery in relation to a situation not of exhibition but of devotion, one in which worship itself and the actualization of that to which devotional prayers are directed not only emerge as identical to one another, but become so to speak the situation of their own existence.
Dada and the brandmark of reproduction
In the artwork essay, Benjamin presents an instance of actualization by means of technological reproducibility that demands to be understood in relation to his invocation of the Sistine Madonna elsewhere in the essay. The Dadaists, Benjamin asserts:
attached much less importance to the commercial usefulness [merkantile Verwertbarkeit] of their artworks than to the uselessness [Unverwertbarkeit] of those works as objects of contemplative immersion [kontemplative Versenkung]. They sought to achieve this uselessness not least by thorough degradation [Entwürdigung] of their material. Their poems are ‘word salad’ containing obscene expressions and every imaginable kind of linguistic refuse. It is the same with their paintings, on which they mounted buttons or train tickets. What they achieved by such means was a ruthless annihilation of the aura in their creations, which they imprinted with the brandmark of reproduction through the very means of production. (GS I.2, 463; GS I.2, 501–2; GS VII.1, 379; SW IV, 266–7; SW III, 118–19; translation modiﬁed)22
In writing those lines about Dadaist artworks, Benjamin almost certainly had in mind the work of Kurt Schwitters, whose pictures of the 1920s frequently incorporated tickets and other materials drawn
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from everyday life. For Benjamin, imprinting works of art with the brandmark of reproduction effects an annihilation of aura — which is to say, among other things, that it destroys the means by which artworks achieve and maintain the appearance of their autonomy from the ordinary world in which they are exhibited and seen.23 The appearance of the autonomy of the artwork as exhibited in the ‘here and now’ of its original form is associated in ‘The Work of Art’ with the production of perceptual effects of distance understood as effects of the artwork’s aura. Hence imprinting an artwork with the brandmark of reproduction has, for Benjamin, the anti- or counter-auratic effect of presenting the work to its beholders as one among other real things, of bringing it so to speak within the reach of those who behold it. Where reproductions as such are concerned, Benjamin insists on the signiﬁcance of the fact that they place the copy of the original in situations that cannot be reached by the original itself: ‘The cathedral leaves its site in order to be received [Aufnahme zu ﬁnden] in the studio of an art lover’. ‘It might be stated as a general formula’, Benjamin continues, ‘that the technology of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the sphere of tradition (. . . ) And in permitting the reproduction to encounter its recipient [dem Aufnehmenden] in his or her own situation it actualizes that which is reproduced’ (GS VII.1, 352–3; GS I.2, 438; GS I.2, 476–7; SW III, 103–4; SW IV, 254; translation modiﬁed). Benjamin’s use of Aufnahme and der Aufnehmende — the latter replacing and in effect both activating and virtually technologizing what was in the ﬁrst version of the artwork essay ‘der Beschauer’ (the viewer) — brings reception into association with processes of technological reproduction, while his assertion that the technology of reproduction at once detaches the reproduced object from the sphere of tradition and actualizes that which is reproduced expands upon the ‘Preliminary Theses’. In imprinting their creations with the brandmark of reproduction in the course of their production, the Dadaists — so the logic of Benjamin’s argument — made works of art that effected their own actualization while removing themselves, proleptically, from the sphere of tradition. Or, perhaps better, those works were intended to refuse from the moment of, even by the very means of, their own production to take up a place in tradition, insofar as those means of production incorporated signs and indeed on occasion traces of the Verschleiß — the wearing-down and using-up — of the work itself. This incorporation was effected by techniques of what
Benjamin called Ummontierung, a term that itself incorporates, through the transformative turn of its Um-, both a deconstructive and a reconstructive moment — a reassembling perforce preceded by a disassembling. As productions marked with the brandmark of reproduction, original works that manifest their own Aktualisierung and Ummontierung by means of the technique of Aufmontierung (assembling or montage) through which they were produced, Dadaist artworks as Benjamin describes them take on an intensiﬁed, indeed violent, effect of sensuous presence:
From an alluring appearance before the eye or an enchanting composition of sound the Dadaist work of art became a projectile. It struck the beholder. And it thereby stood at the brink of winning back for the present the tactical/tactile quality [taktische Qualität] that is most essential to art in the great periods of historical transformation. That everything perceived, everything sensible is something that jolts us — this motif of dream-perception, which comprises the tactical/tactile side [taktische Seite] of the artistic — was set in motion once again by the Dadaists. (GS I.2, 463–4; GS I:2, 501–2; GS VII.1, 379–80; SW IV, 267; SW III, 119; translation modiﬁed)
Thus Benjamin suggests that, under certain historical conditions, precisely those works that take up an avowedly, indeed vehemently, destructive stance in relation to artistic tradition might be said nonetheless — or indeed thereby — to ‘actualize’ aspects of the art of the past, by activating, tactically, the tactile qualities he believes to have been essential to works of art in past epochs of radical historical change.24 The ‘great period of historical transformation’ with which Benjamin was inclined to associate the period in which Dada emerged was, of course, the cultural epoch of the Baroque, and his description of the ‘barbarisms’, ‘excesses and crudities’ of Dada art locates the force of those works precisely in the sort of ‘brutal effect’ that Wölfﬂin in his account of the Sistine Madonna had ascribed to ‘modern paintings’, works whose effects, like those of the Baroque, staged an opposition to the aesthetic autonomy and sensuous containment of the classical style.25 For Benjamin, the Dadaist artwork at once ‘stands on the brink of winning back for the present’ the taktische Qualität of works made in ‘great periods of historical transformation’ and ‘strains after effects’ whose realization demands a ‘changed technical standard, that is, a new art form’, speciﬁcally ﬁlm (GS I.2, 462–3; GS I.2, 501–2; GS VII.1, 378; SW III, 118; SW IV, 266; translation modiﬁed). The incapacity of Dadaist works to achieve the ‘physical shock effects’
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realized in ﬁlm has in Benjamin’s account two closely related causes: ﬁrst, the Dadaists’ commitment to presenting works of art as the centre of a scandal, which kept the virtually physical shock effects of their projectile-like works wrapped up inside the packaging of the moral shock effects of scandal; and, second, the inbuilt technical limitation of the ‘canvas [Leinwand] on which a painting is located’ as compared to the ‘screen [Leinwand] on which a ﬁlm unrolls’. ‘The image on [the screen] changes, the image on [the canvas] does not. The latter invites the viewer to contemplation’ (GS I.2, 464; GS I.2, 502; GS VII.1, 379; SW III, 132; SW IV, 267; translation modiﬁed). The ﬁrst version of the artwork essay presents the effects of Dadaist artworks in terms of a ‘motif of dream perception’ that the Dadaists succeeded in ‘setting in motion’ or ‘putting in play’ again as the taktische Seite of the artistic, even as their original works could not quite ‘win back for the present’ the taktische Qualität of art as that quality had been realized in past eras of historical change. Benjamin’s invocation of a ‘motif of dream perception’ in which ‘everything perceived, everything sensible is something that jolts us [ein uns Zustoßendes]’ recalls his formulation of the Anstößige in works of art as not so much ‘shocking’ in the moral sense of scandalous or offensive, but ‘striking’ in the aesthetic sense of singular and powerful.26 Thus the motif of the Zustoßende encompasses both the mechanism of the Dadaist work’s destructive relation to artistic tradition and to reception in a state of contemplative immersion, and its engagement, as art, in an historical enterprise of attempting to ‘win back for the present’ aspects of aesthetic experience no longer generated by paintings in their traditional forms.
Knave Child Madonna with Horse
Kurt Schwitters, once a student of painting in Dresden, used a reproduction of the Sistine Madonna of the sort whose ubiquity Grimm and Lessing had described as the ground for his 1921 montage picture Wenzelkind Madonna mit Pferd (Knave Child Madonna with Horse) (ﬁgure 4). The composition of Schwitters’s picture turns on the Ummontierung of the ‘threshold ﬁgures’ in Raphael’s original that art historian Daniel Arasse dubbed ‘spectator angels’, ﬁgures whose postures and gazes constitute what he calls a ‘reﬂexive look’, the ‘look of the painting upon itself ’, which aims to orient the spectator outside the painting towards what happens within it.27 In Knave Child, all that can be seen to remind the viewer of the appearance of Raphael’s
Figure 4. Kurt Schwitters, Mz.151 Knave Child Madonna with Horse (1921), collage, paper, on paper, Sprengel Museum, Hannover, Sammlung NORD/LB in der Niedersächsischen Sparkassenstiftung. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG-Bildkunst, Bonn.
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‘spectator angels’ is a glimpse of the hair and of a single wing of the angel on the right as those elements of the reproduction of the original remain exposed alongside the mounted-on fragment of a technical illustration that covers the entirety of the angel on the left. And yet in Schwitters’s montage the mechanical apparatus shown in the technical illustration, which looks as though it might be part of a manual press used to produce phonograph records (the word RECORD can be seen imprinted on the surface below the wheel), recalls the posture of the angel who in Raphael’s picture tilts his head backward slightly to look up and back at the Virgin and Christ-child as he leans on the wooden panel at the bottom edge of the canvas. In Knave Child, the mechanical apparatus makes up something like a composite ﬁgure of the ‘spectator angels’ in the painting as it rests not on a graphic reproduction of the wooden panel as depicted in the painting but on a cut-out and pasted-on printed phrase that reads: ‘Gedankenvoll ließ Viktor das Blatt sinken’ (‘Thoughtfully Victor let the sheet drop’). In Knave Child, then, a spectator-angel’s tilted head has been covered by, and in effect transformed into, a machine’s tilted wheel, as if to present the montage picture as ﬁguring and potentially inducing a tactile activation of spectatorship that might proceed, as if tactically, according to a set of instructions presented in the illustration for implementation by the spectator’s hand. This ﬁguration of a tactical, tactile activation of spectatorship is achieved by means of a recasting of the boundary that in the original painting has been understood variously to announce the work’s autonomy (thus Wölfﬂin and Arasse), or, as in Benjamin’s account, to represent the pictorial threshold that stages the painting’s subject as the how of its potential interpenetration with the space of its exhibition. In this connection, the Ummontierung into an unseeing machine of a ﬁgure which in the original embodies a spectatorial position of contemplative immersion potentially stages, in Benjamin’s terms, at once the actualization and the Verschleiß of the original by means of a kind of transformation made possible through its technological reproducibility. That transformation or reassembling appears oriented towards reactivating what Benjamin in the artwork essay calls the taktische Seite of the artistic, and it might be said to involve an attempt to retrieve or rather to reinvent a taktische Qualität understood to be absent from the worn out or hackneyed object that a work like Raphael’s original had become for Benjamin in the age of its technological reproducibility. Thus Schwitters’s picture might be said to ﬁnd common cause with Benjamin’s own one-sentence history of the Sistine Madonna, in which the painting’s central ﬁgure emerges as if set in motion by his interpretation.
The Madonna at the centre of Schwitters’s picture bears the head of a contemporary lady on top of that of Raphael’s Virgin Mary, with just enough of the reproduced original remaining for the viewer to ‘see’ (through visual anamnesis of an already familiar composition) those parts that have been covered over in course of the artwork’s Ummontierung. Crucially absent in Knave Child is the Madonna’s intense gaze as aligned in the original with the grave cast of her mouth, the latter a feature that in Schwitters’s work appears below a double that makes the Virgin sport a supplementary coy grin. And if the shape and orientation of the wheel at the bottom of the picture might put a viewer in mind of the haloes in the painting that are also now only partly visible, the band and the arched feather on the lady’s up-to-date hat seem to invite an amused acknowledgment of the loss of an auréole.28 As with the lone angel’s wing and the lower part of the Madonna’s face, the Christ-child’s partial halo sets in motion a recognition of what cannot be seen in Schwitters’s picture — a recognition he could have assumed would be actualized in a viewer’s mind by means of a visual anamnesis derived from the reception of virtually omnipresent reproductions of the Sistine Madonna like the one deployed in his montage. The single patch of color that appears in Knave Child — a quadrilateral of blue paper pasted on to the left above the wheel that recalls the hue of the painted robes of the Madonna in the original — ﬁgures forth a different sort of actualization as it invokes the seeming movement of the Virgin’s garments in the painting only to bring them to a standstill, ﬂattened against the picture’s literal surface. That quadrilateral patch of blue paper might be seen as something like a ﬁgure for the actualization of the work of art reproduced — that is, something like a formal counterpart to the historical Ummontierung of the Virgin Mary into a ‘new woman’ from ca. 1921. Schwitters’s deployment of the piece of blue paper alongside the technical illustration of a fragment of a mechanical apparatus sets in motion a play of spatial relations within the work that is keyed to the acknowledgment and articulation of its literal surface by means of the appearance of the pasted paper as a small quadrilateral ﬁgure for the picture surface as such, and as a piece of material mounted on that surface.29 Crucial in Schwitters’s picture is, further, the way in which that small, ﬂat, non-representational blue form might be said to establish an ambiguous but visually consequential relation to the absent blue of the Madonna’s cloak as it appears in the original painting. That blue cloak manifests in its folds the dynamism of the Madonna that
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emerges in Benjamin’s interpretation as the ‘how’ of her cloud-borne movement as if into the space on the other side of the picture plane, which Benjamin names in turn as the ‘what’ that Raphael ‘presents’ in the painting. The patch of blue paper also recalls the blue of the left arm of Saint Barbara’s garment, which in the original encloses a limb whose gesture, like that of its counterpart drawing back the curtain at right, structures the presentation of the pictorial space of the Sistine Madonna as one into which the viewer looks. Finally, the quadrilateral shape recalls the Gestalt of the work of which it has been made a part. Placed near the illustration of the wheel (an apparatus to be grasped) and the caption that invokes a sheet let sink by one himself versenkt, the pasted-on blue quadrilateral sets up a tactile orientation of Schwitters’s montage to a hand that might, in the scene of viewing, grasp the picture itself as a sheet. That patch of blue, then, at once afﬁxed to and seeming to have the potential to ﬂoat free from the surface of the picture, appears as an actualization of something akin to the ‘how’ that Benjamin framed as ‘what Raphael presents’ in the Sistine Madonna. If, for Benjamin, ‘what Raphael presents in the painting is how the cloud-borne Madonna approaches the papal cofﬁn from the rear of the niche, which was framed by green portières’, what Schwitters presents in his Knave Child might be described as how the tactical/tactile side of the artistic is set in motion again by means of an Ummontierung to which the technological reproducibility of the original painting leads. Both Schwitters and Benjamin, it seems, recognize — as if in a Jetzt der Erkennbarkeit — something like an anti-classical taktische Qualität in Raphael’s painting. Schwitters presents that taktische Qualität as a pseudo-painterly pastedon patch of blue, while Benjamin invokes it as an apparently actual (perhaps proto-cinematic) movement as if across the threshold that separates the space of the painting from the space of its exhibition. Rather than facing, at the threshold of the depicted space, a pair of spectator-angels, the viewer of Schwitters’s work encounters a technical illustration of a wheel, a representation of a thing she or he might reach out to grasp with a hand. For its part, the fragment of paper that presents the phrase ‘Gedankenvoll ließ Viktor das Blatt sinken’ invokes thoughtfulness and the tactile act of a hand letting drop a sheet of paper in its grasp; and it thus seems to comment upon the now invisible states of thoughtfulness and gestures of touch presented by the spectator angels in the painting. Read as a caption to the work of which it is a part, the phrase at the bottom of Schwitters’s montage, along with its counterpart at the top, might be said to indicate, in
the terms Benjamin proposed in his preliminary notes for the artwork essay, the literarization of Raphael’s original. Indeed the role of the mounted-on printed phrases is crucial in Schwitters’s montage, in which the spatial and metaphorical relations of the curtain and the wooden panel on which the angels in the original lean — that is the compositional elements through which the picture’s central ﬁgures are revealed in Benjamin’s interpretation as if permanently on the verge of moving out of the picture-space — are transformed by the Ummontierung manifested in the presentation of the phrases ‘Amerika ist angenehm berührt’ (America is pleasantly touched) and (to repeat) ‘Gedankenvoll ließ Viktor das Blatt sinken’. Read as ironical ﬁgurations of aspects of what Benjamin called ‘contemplative immersion’ (kontemplative Versenkung), those phrases provide a linguistic counterpart to the mechanical apparatus into which the bodies of the spectator angels have been transformed. ‘Amerika’ enjoys a feeling of being touched, perhaps as one might be touched or moved by a work of art, while ‘Viktor’, a name that in the post-World-War-One German context might have served as a virtual synonym for ‘Amerika’, has in his contemplation lowered or let slip from his grasp a sheet of paper, perhaps a sheet bearing a picture at which he had been looking, a now sinking sheet displaying an image that had induced his sinking into thoughtful or contemplative immersion in the ﬁrst place. To reintroduce Benjamin’s terms from the artwork essay, Schwitters’s Knave Child takes shape as a production imprinted with the brandmark of reproduction, bearing signs speciﬁcally of reproductive technologies for printing words and images for a mass market, and perhaps also for pressing phonograph records for a new kind of listening audience. Among the picture’s printed phrases is the cheap price tag ‘3 Pf.’. Pasted onto the picture surface near the image of the horse (Pferd) who has joined Saints Barbara and Sixtus as a third ﬁgure alongside the Madonna and Christ-child, the ‘Pf.’ in ‘3 Pf.’ suggests the repetition of the sound with which the word ‘Pferd’ begins, and thereby signals, comically, something like that third ﬁgure’s nonsensical contribution of a mere aspiration (‘Pf.’) to a now profane exchange which in the original had taken the form of a sacra conversazione. If the pastedon phrases in Schwitters’s montage mock, as manifestations of the literarization of the original work of art, the kind of contemplative immersion associated with the reception of pictures in devotional contexts and therefore with what Benjamin calls ‘cult value’, they also interfere with the appearance of an effect of seeming movement in
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Raphael’s painting that serves in Benjamin’s account of the picture as the formal pictorial evidence of the work’s primary ‘exhibition value’. When recognized as a work of art in which Ummontierung, actualization and literarization neither revive nor redeem Raphael’s original painting, and in which those effects, moreoever, emerge alongside — and as techniques for revealing — the Verschleiß of the original as an effect of its technological reproducibility, Knave Child Madonna with Horse points to the insightfulness of Benjamin’s analysis of Dadaist works of art. And yet by means of its own enigmatic ﬁgurations Schwitters’s picture also points to the esoterism Benjamin acknowledged as characterizing the artwork essay as an inquiry into a ‘hidden structural character in present-day art’. Returning to Benjamin’s preliminary notes to the artwork essay, we might read his gesture in crossing out Literarisierung and replacing it with Politisierung as itself one of Ummontierung, Aktualisierung and Verschleiß, a gesture whose graphic ambition and critical insufﬁciency would continue to shape the claims within and about ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility’ throughout the history of its composition and reception.
1 Theodor Lessing, Madonna Sixtina: Aesthetische und religiöse Studien (Leipzig: Seemann, 1908), 16. Unless otherwise noted, all translations are my own. 2 Herman Grimm, Das Leben Raphaels (Berlin: Wilhelm Hertz, 1886), 90. See also the incisive criticisms of Benjamin’s account of nineteenth-century reproductive media in Stephen Bann, Parallel Lines: Printmakers, Painters and Photographers in Nineteenth-Century France (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001), 7–43. 3 Herman Grimm, Das Leben Raphaels, fourth, revised edition (1903), as cited in Emil Schaeffer, Raffaels Sixtinische Madonna als Erlebnis der Nachwelt (Dresden: Wolfgang Jess, 1927), 122–3. 4 Stendhal, The Life of Henry Brulard, translated by John Sturrock, preface by Lydia Davis (New York: New York Review Books Classics, 2002), 486, translation modiﬁed. It is worth noting here that Benjamin understood Stendhal’s writing in terms that are closely related to the notion of Aktualisierung under consideration here. For Benjamin writing in 1928, Stendhal was a writer whose works ‘belonged to a genre whose actuality is latent at the time they are published, so that scarcely anyone notices it; only later, in the light of their posthumous reputation, does it become recognizable
356 Paragraph how they manifest the deepest internal dimensions of their age’ (GS III, 155; SW II, 159–60, translation modiﬁed). Walter Benjamin, Letter to Grete Karplus, 9 October 1935 (GB V, 171). On the signiﬁcance of paintings in Benjamin’s theory of knowledge, see Sigrid Weigel, ‘Die unbekannten Meisterwerke in Benjamins Bildergalerie’, in Walter Benjamin: Die Kreatur, das Heilige, die Bilder (Frankfurt/Main: Fischer, 2008), 265–96. ‘To Max Horkheimer’, The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin, edited by Gerschom Scholem and Theodor W. Adorno, translated by Manfred R. Jacobson and Evelyn M. Jacobson (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 509; translation modiﬁed; (for German, see GB V, 177–81). G. W. F. Hegel, Werke 13: Vorlesungen über die Ästhetik I, edited by Eva Moldenhauer and Karl Markus Michel (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1986), 24; Hegel’s Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, I, edited by T. M. Knox (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 10; translation modiﬁed. On Benjamin’s references to Hegel in the artwork essay, see Eva Geulen, ‘Under Construction: Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”’, in Benjamin’s Ghosts, edited by Gerhard Richter (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002), 137–41; see also Geulen, Das Ende der Kunst: Lesarten eines Gerüchts nach Hegel (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 2002), 65–89. The passage Benjamin quotes from the Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Geschichte appears in the edition cited in the artwork essay (Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Geschichte, edited by D. Eduard Gans, Werke, vol. 9 (Berlin: Duncker und Humblot, 1837), 414), but not in later editions. The English translation in Benjamin’s Selected Writings combines into one what are presented in his Gesammelte Schriften as two separate footnotes appended to a single sentence (GS I.2, 482–3; SW IV, 273–4). For an interpretation of the Sistine Madonna to which the refutation of Grimme’s claims is crucial, see Johann Konrad Eberlein, ‘The Curtain in Raphael’s Sistine Madonna’, The Art Bulletin 65:1 (March 1983), 61–77. For a critique of Benjamin’s conceptualization of Kultwert and Ausstellungswert with regard to the Sistine Madonna, see Daniel Arasse, ‘L’ange spectateur: La Madone Sixtine et Walter Benjamin’, in Les Visions de Raphaël (Paris: Liana Levi, 2003), 113–41. Hubert Grimme, ‘Das Rätsel der Sixtinischen Madonna’, Zeitschrift für Bildende Kunst 57, Neue Folge 33:3/4 (1922), 49. See Thomas Y. Levin, ‘Walter Benjamin and the Theory of Art History: An Introduction to “Rigorous Study of Art”’, October 47 (Winter 1988), 77–83; Michael W. Jennings, ‘Walter Benjamin and the Theory of Art History’, in Memoria: Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) zum 100. Geburtstag, edited by
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17 18 19 20 21 22
Uwe Steiner (New York: Peter Lang, 1992), 77–102; Wolfgang Kemp, ‘Fernbilder: Walter Benjamin und die Kunstwissenschaft’, in Links hatte sich noch alles zu enträtseln, edited by Burckhardt Lindner (Frankfurt/Main: Syndikat, 1978), 224–57; and Christopher S. Wood, ‘Introduction,’ The Vienna School Reader: Politcs and Art Historical Method in the 1930s (New York: Zone, 2000), 9–72. See, for example, John Shearman, Only Connect: Art and the Spectator in the Italian Renaissance (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 104–5; and Eberlein, ‘The Curtain’. Benjamin’s designation of the ‘how’ of the Virgin’s movement as ‘what’ Raphael ‘presents’ suggests an emphasis on the capacity or ability of a painting on canvas to produce an effect of movement that relates to aspects of Benjamin’s thought and writing discussed in Samuel Weber, Benjamin’s –abilities (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), especially 13–19, 31–52, 95–115. Heinrich Wölfﬂin, Die Klassische Kunst: Eine Einführung in die Italienische Renaissance, sixth, revised edition (Munich: F. Bruckmann, 1914), 131; Classic Art: An Introduction to the Italian Renaissance, translated by Peter and Linda Murray (London: Phaidon, 1994), 131–3; translation modiﬁed. Wölfﬂin, Klassische Kunst, 242, 245; Classic Art, 255, 257; translation modiﬁed. Wölfﬂin, Klassische Kunst, 133; Classic Art, 135; translation modiﬁed. Hegel, Werke 15, 21; Aesthetics II, 800–1; translation modiﬁed. Hegel, Werke 15, 49; Aesthetics II, 823; translation modiﬁed. Hegel, Werke 15, 54–5; Aesthetics II, 827; translation modiﬁed. In this and subsequent quotations from the ‘Work of Art’, I refer to the relevant passages in each of the three German versions of that essay, as published in the Gesammelte Schriften. References also appear to the second and third versions of the essay in the Selected Writings; an English translation of the ﬁrst has yet to be published. On Benjamin’s concept of ‘aura’, see Miriam Hansen, ‘Benjamin’s Aura’, Critical Inquiry 34 (Winter 2008), 336–75; Samuel Weber, ‘Mass Mediauras, or: Art, Aura and Media in the Work of Walter Benjamin’, in Mass Mediauras: Form, Technics, Media (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996), 76–107; and Josef Fürnkäs, ‘Aura’, in Benjamins Begriffe, edited by Michael Opitz and Erdmut Wizisla (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 2000), 95–146. On the signiﬁcance of Benjamin’s use of the term taktisch in ‘The Work of Art’, see Tobias Wilke, Medien der Unmittelbarkeit: Dingkonzepte und Wahrnehmungstechniken, 1918–1939 (Ph.D. Dissertation, Princeton University, 2008), 202–42. On the motif of Handgreiﬂichkeit in ‘The Work of Art’, see Geulen, ‘Under Construction’.
358 Paragraph 25 Theodor W. Adorno alluded to a link between Benjamin’s remarks on Dadaist artworks in ‘The Work of Art’, and his analysis of the Baroque Trauerspiel in Die Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels (1925/28) when he wrote, in a postscript to a letter to Benjamin of 18 March 1936, ‘I should also like to express my particular agreement with your theory of Dadaism. It ﬁts in with the essay as perfectly as the passages on “bombast” and “horrors” ﬁt into your book on the Baroque.’ See Adorno and Benjamin, The Complete Correspondence, 1928–1940, edited by Henri Lonitz, translated by Nicholas Walker (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 133. 26 Benjamin’s invocation of a ‘Formel der Traumwahrnehmung’ may be connected to his reception of Freud’s discussion of traumatic dreams (Unfallsträume) in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), a text of which Benjamin ﬁrst made note in 1928, and which would come to play a signiﬁcant part in his 1939 essay, ‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire’. It is worth noting in this connection that the term ‘taktische Qualität’ is translated as ‘qualité traumatique’ in the 1936 French version of ‘The Work of Art’ (GS I.2, 734). Benjamin’s ‘Formel der Traumwahrnehmung’ also recalls, however, the very different theory of dreams in Ludwig Klages, Vom Traumbewußtsein (1914), in Sämtliche Werke, vol. 3, edited by Ernst Frauchiger, et al. (Bonn: Bouvier, 1974), 157–238. 27 Arasse, ‘L’ange spectateur’, 132. 28 See Benjamin on Charles Baudelaire’s ‘Perte d’auréole’ in ‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire’ (SW IV, 342). 29 For a discussion of related kinds of pictorial effects in Cubist collage, and a brief but interesting treatment of Schwitters’s work, see Clement Greenberg, ‘The Pasted Paper Revolution’ (1958), in The Collected Essays and Criticism, Volume 4: Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957–69, edited by John O’Brian (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 61–6.
Between Creation and Last Judgement, the Creaturely and the Holy: Benjamin and Secularization SIGRID WEIGEL
Abstract: This article analyses how Benjamin takes Kraus’s reference to the creaturely (Kreatur) as a symptom of an ahistorical attitude which projects the state of genesis, i.e. the world of God’s creatures, into history. It reads the essay on Karl Kraus as a main site for Benjamin’s dialectical approach to secularization, which is characterized by the distance both from genesis and redemption. The awareness of the fundamental difference which separates human concepts from biblical ideas or words which may be observed in many of Benjamin’s texts (such as the book on the Baroque Trauerspiel and the essays on language, on Goethe’s Elective Afﬁnities, and on Kafka) forms a kind of leitmotif of his work. It is only from this radical separation that he is able to deal with the echo realm of the sacred in modernity. Keywords: creaturely, sacred, holy, secularization, law, Last Judgement, religion
It is characteristic of Walter Benjamin’s simultaneously fascinating and difﬁcult writing that he neither presents his thoughts in a discursive continuity, ordering them in terms of subject-matter, themes and aspects, nor provides his readers with a conceptual resumé. Rather, although the composition of his texts is founded on a conceptual systematic, he unfolds his arguments and his work on concepts and theorems by means of readings, quotations and thought-images. His way of writing means that even after multiple readings, passages can catch the eye which have hitherto attracted little attention in scholarship, and which set in train new and different ways of reading his works. An example of this is a long quotation from Adalbert Stifter in the 1931 essay ‘Karl Kraus’, one of the few places where Benjamin talks overtly about secularization. For the purposes of my essay it forms the starting-point for an investigation of his concept of secularization, or rather his way of dealing with secularization: for Benjamin does
Paragraph 32:3 (2009) 359–381 DOI: 10.3366/E0264833409000649
not so much work with a theory of secularization, a term which he anyway seldom uses explicitly, but his approach to language, concepts and images itself represents a rhetorical and epistemological practice conducted vis-à-vis scenes of secularization.1
‘This insolently secularized thunder and lightning’: the holy, the law and Creation
The aforementioned passage is a commentary on a lengthy quotation from the preface to Stifter’s Bunte Steine (Coloured Stones) (1853), in which Stifter describes natural phenomena as the ‘effects of far higher laws’ and compares the ‘wonder’ felt in relation to them with the reign of the moral law in the ‘inﬁnite intercourse of human beings’. Benjamin comments on this passage:
Tacitly, in these famous sentences, the holy has given place to the modest yet questionable concept of law. But this nature of Stifter’s and his moral universe are transparent enough to escape any confusion with Kant, and to be still recognizable in their core as creature. (GS II.1, 340; SW II, 437; emphases added)2
In his reading of Stifter’s at ﬁrst glance apparently harmless naturedescription, Benjamin picks out his description of natural phenomena as the effect of ‘far higher laws’ and thus discovers in it a far from harmless operation: a tacit substitution of the holy with a concept of law whose origin in religion is only to be discerned in the attribute ‘higher’. He continues:
This insolently secularized thunder and lightning, storms, surf, and earthquakes — cosmic man has won them back for Creation by making them its answer, like a statement of the Last Judgement, to the criminal existence of men. Only the span between Creation and the Last Judgement here ﬁnds no redemptive fulﬁlment, let alone a historical overcoming.3
What instantly catches the attention here is the word ‘insolently’ (schnöde). It separates Stifter’s version of a poetic secularization of natural phenomena both from a different form of secularization which would somehow not be insolent and from one more than insolent, say contemptible. Notable, too, is the characterization of the concept of law as ‘modest yet questionable’. The ambiguity of the attribute bescheiden, which means ‘moderate’, but might also be read as ‘scanty’ or ‘insufﬁcient’, is echoed in the oscillation of bedenklich between ‘requiring interrogation’ and ‘dubious’, even ‘discreditable’.
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Benjamin’s commentary on this insolent secularization consists of two arguments. The ﬁrst is that in Stifter’s talk of the ‘effects of far higher laws’, the concept of the holy has been replaced by the concept of law, a substitution which, since it has occurred ‘tacitly’, remains concealed. The questionable character of the concept of law is not least the result of the tacit substitution through which the formulation ‘higher laws’ can continue to proﬁt from the allusion to the holy even as it seems to have left the sphere of the holy behind. The second argument is initiated with the word ‘but’ and stresses the transparency of Stifter’s nature and of his moral universe, through which their creaturely status remains discernible, meaning that they cannot be confused with the Kantian moral universe. A closer examination of the opposite, that is, of a form of appearance not transparent, but obscure, in which the creatureliness of Stifter’s nature would then not be recognizable, is not undertaken by Benjamin at this point. At most, it is hinted at through the reference to the Kantian moral universe. The pathos formula in the Critique of Practical Reason of the ‘two things’ which ‘ﬁll the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe’, in the much-quoted formulation ‘the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me’,4 is contradicted in Bunte Steine through the way in which Stifter distinguishes between them. ‘Conspicuous events’ in nature are seen by Stifter as manifestations of general laws which act silently and incessantly in nature, while ‘the miracles of the moment when deeds are performed’ are for him only small signs of a general power, namely the moral law, which, in Stifter’s view, ‘acts silently, animating the soul through the inﬁnite intercourse of human beings’ (cited from GS II.1, 340; SW II, 437). Hence admiration in the face of natural laws is distinguished from the admiration owing to moral laws. In his commentary on Stifter here, Benjamin indirectly criticizes Kant’s ethics which, in assuming a life of ‘intelligence’ independent of the entire world of the senses,5 overlooks the creaturely core of nature — including human nature. Although Benjamin emphasizes the greater transparency in Stifter’s differentiation between nature and moral universe, what troubles him here is Stifter’s use of the concept of law as a covering term for a concealed notion of the holy. The deﬁnition of a form of secularization which is not insolent remains a gap in Benjamin’s text, and the task of imagining it is left to his readers. This much is clear, however: the question involuntarily posed by the word ‘insolently’ concerning the possibility of different forms of secularization points towards the issue of the cognizability of those substitutions through which secularizing operations take
place. Benjamin’s observation that Stifter’s substitution has taken place ‘tacitly’ implies that a different linguistic or rhetorical mode would be required if it were to become cognizable. Secularization which does not operate insolently is thus implicitly deﬁned as a reﬂexive attitude in one’s dealings with the legacies of religion in the modern age. The argument so far has established the following: in the context of secularization, Benjamin criticizes the concept of the law as a covering term to the extent that it conceals within it the precise relationship between the holy and the creaturely. Thus the passage gathers together three central terms — the law, the holy and the creature — which have been the object of widespread interest in recent Benjamin scholarship. In order to clarify what insolent secularization has to do with Karl Kraus, the context of the passage needs to be explained. The quoted sentences occur in the ﬁrst part of the essay ‘Karl Kraus’ of 1931 which is composed as a triptych bearing the three chapter headings ‘Cosmic Man’ (Allmensch), ‘Demon’ and ‘Monster’. In this essay, Kraus is represented as a polemicist with an attitude which Benjamin characterizes as noblesse in armour. Kraus’s criterion for world-historical villainy, according to Benjamin, lies beyond any bourgeois respectability which is only suited to trivial misdemeanours. Commenting on Kraus’s tact, he describes it as a ‘theological criterion’. Tact is thus understood not as a skill which eases social interaction, but as ‘the capacity to treat social relationships, though not departing from them, as natural, even paradisal, relationships, and so not only to approach the king as if he had been born with the crown on his brow, but the lackey like an Adam in livery’ (GS II.1, 339; SW II, 436–7). This means that tact is, far from adherence to a social norm, a means of treating the creature as a divine Creation.
Kraus ‘in the temple of the creature’
In order to clarify what the theological means in this context, Benjamin interprets Kraus’s concept of the creature as an inheritance from theology. Kraus’s concept of creature ‘contains the theological inheritance of speculations that last possessed contemporary validity for the whole of Europe in the seventeenth century’ (GS II.1, 339; SW II, 437; emphasis added). These speculations have not been able to maintain their validity in unchanging form; rather, the theological legacy in the concept of creation has undergone a transformation in order for it to ﬁnd expression, for example, in the ‘cosmic-human
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[allmenschlichen] credo of Austrian worldliness’ (GS II.1, 339–40; SW II, 437; translation modiﬁed).6 This credo is expressed by Benjamin in a telling image: that of incense in the mists which occasionally still recalls the rite in the church into which Creation has been turned. Incense and church are here interpreted as the zero degrees of rite and Creation. For Benjamin, then, Kraus’s concept of the creature is a symptom of the theological legacy in a world in which the idea of Creation has been transformed into an ecclesiastical order, or in other words, in which the cult has been institutionalized. This is the constellation which marks that insolent secularization which Stifter is introduced as representing. By contrast with the unambiguous positioning of Stifter as the representative of a ‘cosmic-human credo of Austrian worldliness’ or, alternatively, of a ‘patriarchal [altväterliches] credo’ (GS II.1, 341; SW II, 438), the position which Benjamin ascribes to Kraus is more ambivalent. For the latter, too, the diagnosis holds that he is operating in ‘the span between Creation and Last Judgement’ without ﬁnding any ‘redemptive fulﬁlment’ (GS II.1, 340; SW II, 437). Landscape is for Stifter’s prose what history is for Kraus, so that ‘for him, Kraus, the terrifying years of his life are not history but nature, a river condemned to meander through a landscape of hell’ (GS II.1, 341; SW II, 437; translation modiﬁed). The image makes it clear that Benjamin’s critical gaze is not just directed at the mythologizing process, at the perception of history as nature. What particularly interests him is the virulently theological topology (the ‘landscape of hell’). For Kraus, Benjamin writes, history is ‘merely the wilderness [Einöde] dividing his genus [Geschlecht] from Creation, whose last act is world conﬂagration’, and ‘[a]s a deserter to the camp of animal creation — so he measures out this wilderness.’ (GS II.1, 341; SW II, 438; translation modiﬁed). Apocalyptic world view and devaluation of history are therefore not just two sides of the same coin. In Benjamin’s perception, they also evoke an attitude in which the human subject allies itself with the animal creature and ﬁnds itself mirrored in it. The role of the animal creature thus becomes a symptom of an anti-historical theological mythologization in modernity, an attitude which Benjamin describes as a legacy of the Baroque. Benjamin elucidates the attitude towards the creature from both sides, in terms of affection towards animals, and in terms of their transformation into Creation’s mirror of virtue, an act of imagination. He sees an echo of the ‘all-human credo’ wherever ‘Kraus concerns himself with animals, plants, children’ (GS II.1, 340; SW II, 437;
translation modiﬁed). Benjamin treats the way in which Kraus ‘inclines toward’ the animal ‘in the name of the creature’ with undisguised irony; the animal is for Kraus, says Benjamin, ‘Creation’s true mirror of virtue, in which ﬁdelity, purity, gratitude smile from times lost and remote.’ (GS II.1, 341; SW II, 438). His irony is directed at the projection involved where the virtues that have only grown up in the course of human cultural history are mistaken for the innocence of paradise and where ‘purity’ is discerned, of all things, in animals. The name ‘creature’ stands precisely for this projection of the state of Creation within history. When the human being looks into his own face in the mirror of the animal creature, Creation and history merge into one. In the animals as emblems of Kraus’s attitude Benjamin discovers something ‘inﬁnitely questionable’, above all because they are his own creations, since ‘recruited solely from those whom Kraus himself ﬁrst called intellectually to life, whom he conceived [zeugte] and convinced [überzeugte] in one and the same act’ (GS II.1, 341; SW II, 438). Here Benjamin takes Kraus as an example of an autopoietic system whereby one’s own imaginative projections are regarded as the embodiments of creation, in whose mirrorings a reﬂection of the Creation falls back upon the author. The critique is intensiﬁed in Benjamin’s image of the ‘temple of the creature’. Benjamin formulates a lapidary objection against such a procedure, one central to present debates about ﬁctionalized works of Holocaust witness: ‘His testimony can determine only those for whom it can never become an act of procreation [Bestimmen kann sein Zeugnis nur die, denen es Zeugung nie werden kann].’ (GS II.1, 341; SW II, 438; translation modiﬁed).7 With this, Benjamin criticizes the reference to animals as representatives of a creaturely state of innocence, conferred upon them as it were as God’s creation, which disregards the real living animals. But more than this, he reserves the act of witness (Zeugnis) for a constellation which is not the result of an ‘intellectual’ procreation (Zeugung), that is, the generation of ‘life’ through an act of imagination. Benjamin’s commentary on the ambiguity of meaning which characterizes the speeches and writings of Karl Kraus cannot be discussed in detail here. However, in the course of his discussion of the concrete themes, objects and motifs of Kraus’s texts, Benjamin comes back again and again to the basic structure of a signiﬁcant historico-philosophical topography: the ‘span between Creation and Last Judgement’. For Benjamin, Kraus embodies a stance which — in the midst of modernity and its technological developments — takes up a relation to the theological inheritance through such concepts as
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that of the creature, albeit without these leading into a redemptive history. He presents Kraus to us as a persona operating in a complex and complicated intermediate space between the world of Genesis and the present. By neglecting history which would ﬁll this intermediate space in the form of a time-span, Kraus ﬁnds himself in a position on the threshold to the Last Judgement (GS II.1, 348; SW II, 443). Its perspective is compared by Benjamin with the foreshortening in a Baroque altar painting. Where Creation and Last Judgement abut on one another in a relation of immediacy, with no intervening historical time, their orders come into conﬂict, a conﬂict which is one of principles: ‘If he ever turns his back on Creation, if he breaks off lamenting [Klagen], it is only in order to accuse [anzuklagen] at the Last Judgement.’ (GS II.1, 349; SW II, 443; emphases added, translation modiﬁed). Anklage, the language of the law, and Klage, the language of creatures, are directed at different authorities; not only are they incompatible, they are in conﬂict with one another. This conﬂict ﬁnds expression in a multiplicity and polyphony of linguistic and bodily gestures. Polemic, headstrong stubbornness, biblical pathos, theological tact, lamentation, demonic voice are the effects of a stance with which the speaker, maintaining his position on the threshold, turns ﬁrst in one direction, then in the other, addressing himself as he does so to different authorities. What is at issue in the Krausessay is not so much the historical ﬁgure of Karl Kraus as the illumination of this intermediate space and the clariﬁcation of the after-effects of the theological inheritance in speciﬁc present concepts. Benjamin’s engagement here is rather directed at the precise analysis of the various overlays, substitutions, transformations and references which connect contemporary concepts to ideas derived from a divine order. In two of the central motifs, that of the creature as the mirror of virtue or morality and that of the perception of history as nature, Benjamin’s Kraus essay connects back to his book on German tragic drama, developing ideas ﬁrst set out there concerning secularization. In The Origin of German Tragic Drama, Benjamin had explored the Baroque attitude to the world, in the view of which history appears as itself a tragic drama. In such drama, history and Creation have become indistinguishable. And this is precisely the theological legacy of speculations from the seventeenth century which for Benjamin belong to the pre-history of that insolent secularization through which the ‘wonders of nature’ are seen in the literature of the nineteenth century as the effects of higher laws.
The ‘secularization of the historical in the state of Creation’
In Benjamin’s book on German tragic drama, the Baroque is not only the scene of the sovereign prince who, on account of his Janus-like stance between ‘the unlimited hierarchical dignity, with which he is divinely invested’ and his state as a poor human being, can develop in both ways, to become a tyrant and ‘victim to the disproportion’ between the two states (GS I.1, 250; OGTD, 70). In this book, the creature takes on a similar signiﬁcance to that in the Kraus essay:
The creature is the mirror within whose frame alone the moral world was revealed to the baroque. A concave mirror; for this was not possible without distortion. Since it was the view of the age that all historical life was lacking in virtue, virtue became of no signiﬁcance also for the inner constitution of the dramatis personae themselves. It has never taken a more uninteresting form than in the heroes of these Trauerspiele, in which the only response to the call of history is the physical pain of martyrdom. And just as the inner life of the person in the creaturely condition has to attain mystical fulﬁlment, even in mortal pain, so do authors attempt to freeze the historical events. The sequence of dramatic actions unfolds as in the days of Creation, when it was not history which was taking place. (GS I.1, 270; OGTD, 91; translation modiﬁed; emphases added)
Under the conditions of history in which virtue and historical life have become separated, the person reverts to the creaturely condition — a constellation which for Benjamin is characterized by three elements: the standstill of history, physical pain and the meaninglessness of inner virtue. This description may help to explain Benjamin’s not very readily accessible interpretation of the Baroque as the comprehensive secularization of the historical in the state of Creation (GS I.1, 271; OGTD, 92). The Origin of German Tragic Drama occupies a particular position in Benjamin’s works in that he actually does speak of secularization in it, that is, he uses the term explicitly. It is admittedly less striking when he calls the Baroque Trauerspiel a ‘secularized Christian drama’ (GS I.1, 257; OGTD, 78) or when he refers to the king in the Spanish Baroque drama as a ‘secularized redemptive power’. The notable formulation concerning the ‘comprehensive secularization of the historical in the state of Creation’, which he describes as the last word in the escapism of the Baroque is not so easy to understand, however. The unusual reference to the ‘secularization of the historical’, which runs counter to conventional notions of secularization as a process of transformation
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which goes from the sacred or the theological to the historical and not vice versa, already introduces a complex dialectic into secularization. With the ‘secularization of the historical in the state of Creation’, Benjamin thematizes a form of transformation of history back into a precarious version of the natural state, a kind of ‘restoration of the timelessness of paradise’ (GS I.1, 271; OGTD, 92) with the effect that history merges into the setting, thus disappearing in its capacity as history. For the concept of secularization being addressed here, then, the image of the creature is central. If the reduction of the human being to the creaturely state is understood by Benjamin as secularization, then this process must be accompanied by the withdrawal of the signiﬁcance which points beyond the creaturely state and which belongs to the historical. Even if this signiﬁcance has accrued around the human being within history, it is an indication of his origin in another sphere. Elsewhere, in the ‘Critique of Violence’, Benjamin wrote of the double meaning of such words as ‘existence’ and ‘life’ as being derived from their reference to ‘two distinct spheres’ (GS II.1, 201; SW I, 251). What is withdrawn from the human being in the ‘secularization of the historical in the state of Creation’ is that aspect of existence which is more and other than ‘mere natural life’ (GS II.1, 200; SW I, 250). Drawing on a biblical idea, human existence, understood as simultaneously natural and supernatural, is a product of history. Where this other sphere is present in knowledge, the consciousness of loss which ﬁnds expression in the concept of the creature is nevertheless informed by that knowledge. When persons who ﬁnd themselves reverted to mere life understand themselves to be in the state of Creation, then their notion of the creature refers to their sense of loss, and not to the original state of Creation. In this sense, originating in Creation is inscribed into the concept of the creature just as much as the distance from the ‘innocent ﬁrst day of Creation’ is (GS I.1, 253; OGTD, 74; translation modiﬁed). The implication is that the concept of secularization in The Origin of German Tragic Drama appears as a kind of counter-concept to messianism. While the messianic aims at redemption through the fulﬁlment of history, secularization here means the withdrawal of sacred signiﬁcance within history, the transformation of existence back into the creaturely state or of history back into nature. In another passage concerned with the ﬁgure of the tyrant, Benjamin ascribes to the dictatorship of the tyrant the utopia of a ‘restoration of order in the state of emergency’: this, too, is then a
form of transformation of history back into nature, more precisely into the ‘iron constitution of the laws of nature’ (GS I.1, 253; OGTD, 74) whereby standstill, in the sense of petrifaction, is seen as the ideal and the goal of dictatorial force. The image of a counter-historical or anti-historical stance appears as a leitmotif in the Baroque tragic drama, setting the direction for the constitution of the Baroque without being able to lessen the distance from the ‘innocent ﬁrst day of Creation’. As there can be no return to the paradisiacal state in which nature and Creation were still identical, that world image which is the product of an anti-historical attitude bears the features of an — in the ﬁnal analysis impossible — imitation of Creation: ‘The sequence of dramatic actions unfolds as in the days of Creation, when it was not history which was taking place.’ (GS I.1, 270; OGTD, 91). Benjamin speaks in this context of an anti-historical re-creation. This renewed creation is not only directed against history, but also presumes — in opposition to history — to be able to orientate itself in respect of the world of Creation. Benjamin discusses the embodiment of an ‘anti-historical newcreation’, for example in the case of the ‘chaste princess’ of the martyr-drama who, like Gryphius’s Catharina, resists the tyrant despite being subjected to mortal pain. Her ‘chastity’ is as far removed from ‘innocence’ as nature is from paradise. Rather, it is the result of a stoic technique, not dissimilar to the ‘iron laws of nature’ which the tyrant attempts to substitute for history. The difference is that, unlike with the tyrant, it is not the result of unlimited absolutist power, but rather of a kind of enabling act to ‘a state of emergency in the soul, the rule of affects’, through ‘stoic technique’ (GS I.1, 253; OGTD, 74 translation modiﬁed). Analogies in the Kraus essay are biblical pathos and the empty phrase which are described as an ‘Ausgeburt’, a spawn of technology (GS II.1, 336; SW II, 435; translation modiﬁed). In comparison with the complex constellation of secularization in The Origin of German Tragic Drama, the relevance of secularization to modernity in the Kraus essay is patently reduced, while the theological inheritance of the Baroque is above all tied to the concept of the creature. Perhaps this also helps to explain why in ‘Karl Kraus’ the talk is only of an insolent secularization. In claiming that ‘cosmic man’ has won back for Creation the ‘insolently secularized thunder and lightning, storms, surf, and earthquakes’ by turning them into a Last Judgement’s answer to the criminal existence of men, Benjamin is emphasizing the other side of secularization: less the withdrawal of a supernatural signiﬁcance in the state of nature than the tacit
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sanctiﬁcation of ‘natural wonders’ as the ‘effects of far higher laws’, which goes hand in hand with the idea of Creation.
The resonant space of the holy
If one looks back from the Kraus essay over Benjamin’s earlier writings, then the work on a dialectic of secularization becomes visible as a constant motif. It is relevant to his theory of language, derived from the caesura between Adamite language and the language of signs, in his early texts. It is relevant to the interpretation of translation as the measure of the distance from pure language in the essay on the task of the translator, his analysis of the relation between justice and the law in the ‘Critique of Violence’ and the ﬁgure of the counter-striving constellation of the profane and the messianic as a lesson in the theory of history — all of these reﬂections from the early 1920s. It is relevant, too, to his critique of the attempt to appropriate a divine mandate in the theology of poetry propagated by Stefan George and his disciples, and to the discussion of the idea of a natural guilt context in the essay on Goethe which followed a few years later, the examination of the Janus-like ﬁgure of the sovereign and of allegory in The Origin of German Tragic Drama, and the ﬁgure of profane illumination in the essay on Surrealism from the late 1920s — to mention only the most important stages on the way. And of course, the trail continues even after the Kraus essay, for example in the way Benjamin elucidates the after-life of such theological concepts as inherited sin, guilt and shame in the world of Kafka’s Trial which appears to the characters who people it as a purely creaturely world, for they have lost the doctrine and the knowledge of the theological origins of their concepts; also in his primal history of modernity, the Arcades Project, in which the phenomena of a world saturated with technology and machines appear to those who have produced them as natural history and modernity itself as the time of hell; and ﬁnally in the concept of the Now or Jetztzeit, as the model of messianic time, in the theses on the concept of history. In order to read these projects as Benjamin’s speciﬁc contribution to secularization, a number of different approaches or detours — ‘detour is method’, as Benjamin wrote — are imaginable. One possibility would be to go through his writings tracing a line along signiﬁcant concepts, for example that of the holy. Taking this concept as the focus, one might start with the short text Socrates (1916) and its ‘holy’ question awaiting an answer which Benjamin introduces as a contrast
to the Socratic question. The twenty-four-year-old Benjamin criticizes the latter as a ‘mere means to compel conversation’, caricaturing it as the ‘erection of knowledge’. Here, the holy forms a horizon in front of which the degradation of the question to a mere pedagogical method is subjected to a biting critique:
The Socratic inquiry is not the holy question which awaits an answer and whose echo resounds in the response: it does not, as does the purely erotic or scientiﬁc question, already contain the methodos of the answer. Rather, a mere means to compel conversation, it forcibly, even impudently, dissimulates, ironizes — for it already knows the answer all too precisely. (GS II.1, 131; SW I, 53)
The holy question distinguishes itself from being a mere means above all through the echo which resounds in the response, through granting a space of ‘life’ to language. This resonant space is further illuminated by a reading of the essay written in the same year, ‘On Language as Such and on the Language of Man’, in which speaking about nature with the aid of language as a medium is distinguished from the scenario in which recognizing and naming, the translation of the mute into the sonic, come together as one. From here on in, the critique of mere means can be traced as one of the most important leitmotifs of Benjamin’s thought. When something is turned into a mere means for another purpose, when something is enlisted into the service of something else, as a typical phrase of Benjamin’s has it, then this is an indication that the dimension of the holy within it has been eradicated. It is in this sense that the enlistment of the services of theology, which ‘today, as we know, is small and ugly and has to keep out of sight’, by the ‘puppet called “historical materialism” ’, as in the ﬁrst of the thought-images of ‘On the Concept of History’, is an indicator for the desecration of theology which is the necessary precursor to its deployment as a means to an end (GS I.2, 693; SW IV, 389). This in turn recalls the Kraus essay’s diagnosis that cult and creation have been transformed into the mists of incense and church. The notion of the holy as a resonant space resists in principle a rhetoric in which ‘holy’ is used as an attribute, be it the characteristic of the supernatural, a heavenly or theological authority, or any other kind of unity. Already on these grounds it becomes plausible that Benjamin rejects the ‘dogma of the sacredness of life’ in the ‘Critique of Violence’ because a unity such as the mere life, sometimes ‘all animal and even vegetable life’, or quite simply human life is thus sanctiﬁed (GS II.1, 202, 201; SW I, 250). As an attribute, ‘holy’ can only apply to language to the extent that it moves within the resonant space of the holy text, as thematized in
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‘The Task of the Translator’ (1921). This essay speaks of ‘Holy Writ’ and scripture and of the ‘hallowed growth of languages’ (GS IV.1, 21, 14; SW I, 262, 257). In the works of Benjamin that followed, the concept of the holy disappears into the background somewhat, only to re-emerge at prominent points in the Kraus essay where it is deployed in a number of different directions. While the commentary on the Stifter quotation criticizes the concealment of the holy in the concept of law, the sanctiﬁcation of the word takes on central importance for poetic language. In a passage on Kraus’s linguistic gesture, his ‘sanctiﬁcation of the word’ appears in opposition to Stefan George’s use of language as a mere means to aid his ascent to Olympus. At issue is music. First, Benjamin notes that Kraus, in his lectures on Offenbach, ‘conﬁnes music to limits narrower than were ever dreamed of in the manifestoes of the George school’ (GS II.1, 359; SW II, 450). However, this antimusical attitude does not yet make of him the partisan of the school whose programme Benjamin had criticized in the Goethe essay, as a requisitioning of a divine mandate (GS I.1, 159; SW I, 323). In what follows, he immediately takes back the closeness posited between Kraus and George on account of their antipathy towards music:
This cannot, of course, obscure the antithesis between the linguistic gestures of the two men. Rather, an exact correlation exists between the factors which give Kraus access to both poles of linguistic expression — the enfeebled pole of humming and the armed pole of pathos — and those which forbid his sanctiﬁcation of the word to take on the forms of the Georgean cult of language. To the cosmic rising and falling that for George ‘deiﬁes the body and embodies the divine’, language is simply a Jacob’s ladder with ten thousand word-rungs. Kraus’s language, by contrast, has done away with all hieratic moments. It is the medium neither of prophecy nor of domination. It is the theatre of a sanctiﬁcation of the name — with the Jewish certainty, it sets itself against the theurgy of the ‘word-body’. (GS II.1, 359; SW II, 451; emphases added)
In the one, language is a vehicle for the ascent of the genius, in the other language is the site for the sanctiﬁcation of the word: Benjamin sees the latter as founded in the tradition of the sanctiﬁcation of the name, the Kiddusch Haschem (Leviticus 22:32), that is the highest principle of the Jewish religion. In this respect, poetic language is seen by Benjamin as the inheritor of this religious tradition, as a kind of resonant space of the biblical linguistic scene. When, in the continuation of the essay, he places the poetic praxis of Kraus’s The Forsaken under the much-quoted motto ‘The more
closely you look at a word the more distantly it looks back’ and calls it ‘a Platonic love of language’, he is seeing it as a language which is ‘intimately bound to Eros’. Features of the poetological praxis concerned with expressing this binding are rhyme and name, dedication and quotation: ‘As rhyme, language rises up from the creaturely world; as name, it draws all creatures up to it.’ (GS II.1, 362; SW II, 453; emphases added). With this, the capacity is ascribed to poetic language of enabling the creature to gain access to another sphere, beyond that of the creaturely world. This notion, too, is illuminated if one thinks back to the primal scene of naming and recognizing in the early essay on language, to the translation of the mute language of things into human language, that biblical primal scene of naming in which Creation receives a language through being named. As in the passage quoted from the Stifter commentary at the beginning, here, too, the holy and the creature are brought together, but in a radically different context from that in the Stifter commentary. If the holy is granted a surprisingly positive signiﬁcance here, it is neither as a separate sphere — as for example in the opposition of the sacred and profane — nor as a quality ascribed to an authority, a species or a concept. Rather, what is at issue in the sanctiﬁcation of the word, described with reference to Kraus’s poetic method, is a linguistic praxis standing in the line of inheritance of a cultic attitude which has disappeared from cultural history. By contrast with the theological inheritance of the cosmic-human concept of Creation, which resulted in a insolent form of secularization, here it is a matter of an active shaping of the after-life of religion in the modern age, which now can be understood as a perspective for a non-insolent secularization. This has nothing to do with a religious attitude to art, nor with the worship of art in the aftermath of the ‘death of God’; this linguistic praxis traces its origins back to biblical language. The poetic praxis which Benjamin appreciates is that which stands in the resonant space of the image of divine justice as language (GS II.1, 349; SW II, 444). It is a Jewish-biblical notion which also underpins Benjamin’s view of language as the matrix of justice in his much-quoted theory of the quotation: ‘In the quotation that both saves and punishes, language proves the matrix of justice. It summons the word by its name, wrenches it destructively from its context, but precisely thereby calls it back to its origin.’ (GS II.1, 363; SW II, 454). When Benjamin goes on to characterize origin and destruction as the ‘two realms’ which in the quotation ‘justify themselves before language’, then he is developing
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his theory of quotation in accordance with a messianic model. The perfection of language follows the pattern of the completion and perfection of history in salvation. For he continues: only where origin and goal interpenetrate — in the quotation — is language perfected. Thus the quotation has a similar position in relation to language as salvation has in relation to history. The linguistic praxis which is oriented towards the sanctiﬁcation of the word is based upon a messianic concept. The ﬁnal sentence of Benjamin’s theory of quotation returns once more to the contrast between this attitude and the cosmic-human concept of Creation he had criticized earlier. While the creature in whose name Kraus ‘inclines toward’ the animals is caricatured in the ﬁrst section of the essay as Creation’s true mirror of virtue ‘in which ﬁdelity, purity, gratitude smile from times lost and remote’ (GS II.1, 341; SW II, 438), here the quotation becomes the mirror of ‘the angelic tongue in which all words, startled from the idyllic context of meaning, have become mottoes in the book of Creation’ (GS II.1, 363; SW II, 454). When, in the modern age, a mirror relationship to Creation is established through an approach to religious tradition, this can only take place in language, since the idea of Creation stems from the book of Creation, Genesis. The essay’s second section deals with Kraus’s efforts to develop in his critique of the law a similarly resonant space of language as the matrix of justice. Benjamin expresses this in the image of ‘the linguistic rules of court’ (Sprachprozeßordnung),8 an attempt which he interprets as a ‘Jewish salto mortale’: ‘To worship the image of divine justice as language — even in the German language — that is the genuinely Jewish salto mortale by which he tries to break the spell of the demon.’ (GS II.1, 349; SW II, 444; translation modiﬁed) The concepts which preoccupy Benjamin in his essay on Karl Kraus are closely related to his work on the Kafka essay on which he spent several years. The ﬁrst sketch for this essay, the ‘Idea of a Mystery’ (1927), presents a constellation comparable to that with which Kraus embodies on the threshold between Creation and Last Judgement: ‘To represent history as a trial in which man, as an advocate of dumb nature, at the same time brings charges against all Creation and the failure of the promised Messiah to appear.’ (GS II.3, 1153; SW II, 68; translation modiﬁed) And it is not far from the poetology which upholds the principle of a sanctiﬁcation of the word to Kafka’s literature which, in Benjamin’s reading, takes on those questions which
are orphaned in a world without religion:
Kafka’s work, which is about the darkest concerns of human life (concerns which theologians have time and again attended to but seldom in the way that Kafka has done), derives its poetic greatness precisely from the fact that it carries this theological secret entirely within itself, while appearing outwardly inconspicuous and plain and sober. (GS IV.1, 467; my translation; emphasis added)
Benjamin’s concern will not be to throw light on this theological secret, but rather to examine the ways in which the laws and rites of tradition live on in Kafka’s world of creatures without being recognizable to them as such. He adopts from Willy Haas the interpretation that the ‘mysterious centre’ of Kafka’s Trial, described as ‘forgetting’, derives from the Jewish religion, and he quotes Haas: ‘The most sacred. . . act of the. . . ritual is the erasing of sins from the book of memory.’ (GS II.2, 429; IL 127; ellipses in the original) At the centre of Benjamin’s own reﬂections on the creature and Creation is not the holy or the sacred, but the ways in which the stance towards religious cults, consigned to the past by secularization, nevertheless still ﬁnds expression in the modern age. That the terms secularization and the holy occur relatively seldom in the course of Benjamin’s pursuit of these questions must be regarded as his own theological secret. Since his reﬂections largely take the form of thoughtimages, his approach to secularization will in what follows be traced in relation to those ﬁgures, images and scenes through which his work on the dialectic of secularization is articulated. The focus here is both on secularization as a descriptive historical category and on an attitude that bears the dignity of a method.
The scene of secularization: remoteness from Creation
Benjamin’s thinking about secularization is elaborated topographically, via historical constellations which appear in the form of thoughtimages and scenes into which history has passed. One of these images, and one which is at the very core of his theory of history, is the remoteness from Creation. It is a ﬁgure to be understood as literally the foundation and central thought-image of his historico-theoretical reﬂections. The most important reference point for this ﬁgure is the early essay on language, in which Benjamin reads the Book of Genesis as a historico-theoretical narrative. This text presents the end of the paradisiac state of language, or the Adamite language of naming, as a
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Fall of the spirit of language which arises at the moment in which language enters the state of history. With the beginnings of a language of signs in which human beings speak about things, a language deﬁned by characteristics such as judging, differentiation between good and evil and the possibility of abstraction, with the entry into a language that operates within history, in other words, the access to Adamite language is cut off. Its characteristics can now only ﬁnd expression through a variety of non-communicable modes. By contrast with the mute language of nature and things, which in the Adamite state is translated into the verbal language of human beings, after the caesura of the Fall there begins an ‘other muteness’, in so far as the ‘overnaming’ of nature by men gives rise to lament (GS II.1, 155; SW I, 73). Lament is thus seen as the creature’s form of expression once it has become distanced from Creation. Five years later, in ‘The Task of the Translator’, the constellation of a caesura which marks the end of paradise and the beginning of history reappears, but now in relation to the space which is opened up beyond the Fall, conceived by Benjamin both as distance from Creation and as distance from revelation. In the messianic perspective, the gaze is directed not backwards, toward what is lost, but forwards, toward that revelation which stands at the end of history. As far as the theory of translation is concerned, the decisive epistemic step consists in not pursuing the familiar debate about literal translation versus translation focused on meaning. Instead, Benjamin ascribes to translation a symptomatic character: it is a test of the distance from revelation. Even when he states that the interlinear version of Holy Scripture is ‘the prototype or ideal of all translation’ (GS IV.1, 21; SW I, 263), the issue is not how to approach this ideal, but rather the reﬂection on the distance from the prototype. Since the task of translation catches ﬁre upon the eternal life of the works and the perpetual renewal of language, it is up to translation to put the growth of languages to the test:
If, however, these languages continue to grow in this way until the messianic end of their history, it is translation that catches ﬁre from the eternal life of the works and the perpetually renewed life of language; for it is translation that keeps putting the hallowed growth of languages to the test: How far removed is their hidden meaning from revelation? How close can it be brought by the knowledge of this remoteness? (GS IV.1, 14; SW I, 257; emphasis added)
It is in this sense that Benjamin understands ‘all translation’ as a ‘somewhat provisional way of coming to terms with the foreignness
of languages’. Translation is, in this reading, a symptom of the distance from Creation and of the remoteness from revelation. Translation and lament in Benjamin form a kind of corresponding conﬁguration. While translation presupposes a conscious knowledge of the remoteness from Creation and revelation, lament is an unreﬂective expression of this remoteness in the sense that it is addressed within history directly to Creation. In the Kraus essay, published a decade later, the position ‘on the threshold of the Last Judgement’ becomes one in which those linguistic gestures through which the modern age relates back to Creation are tested for their effectivity. The image of Kraus on the threshold between Creation and Last Judgement is a dialectical ﬁgure. The gesture of lament within it is interpreted as an attitude which addresses Creation directly, as if there were no distance from it; it turns back, rather like the lyrical ‘I’ in Scholem’s poem ‘Gruß vom Angelus’ (‘The Angel’s Greeting’) in the line ‘Ich kehrte gern zurück’ (‘I would gladly turn back’). The gesture of ‘Anklage’, accusation or complaint, meanwhile, arises out of a reversal or an interruption of lamentation, whereby the authority to which the complaint is addressed in a world which has turned its back on Creation is modelled after an image of divine judgement: as ‘Weltgericht’.9 While lament is completely dependent on a notion of Creation which sees history as nothing but a time of waiting before the kingdom of salvation comes, complaint is by contrast a profane form of speech, imitating a divine court. This threshold position, described in terms of a simultaneity of incompatible linguistic gestures and thus not permitting any durable, unambiguous meaning, goes some way to explaining the text’s closing image, in which a ‘new angel’, an ‘Unmensch’, an a-human being appears.10 On this ‘evanescent voice’, Benjamin claims, ‘the ephemeral work of Kraus is modelled. Angelus — that is the messenger in the old engravings’ (GS II.1, 367; SW II, 457). In the thought-images of the theses on the concept of history (1940), written a decade later, this a-human being reappears as the ‘Angelus Novus’, albeit now quite clearly and explicitly differentiated from human beings. The reversal between Creation and Last Judgement, lament and complaint which characterized the earlier position on the threshold is here transferred into a conﬁguration of opposing forces. In it, lament and the gaze backward onto the distance from Creation are ascribed to a mute angel who ﬁxes his stare on the catastrophe while ‘a chain of events appears before us’ (GS I.2, 697; SW IV, 392). The Janus tone of lament and complaint is
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here distributed between two positions looking in different directions: between ‘our’ gaze from our standpoint as subjects within history, outside of which we cannot step except at the price of our status as human beings, and the angel’s, who gazes in the direction of paradise, back to where history originated in the Fall. As the double of the historical subject, the angel embodies the knowledge of the distance from Creation which quite literally runs counter to the knowledge of the chain of events. This also means, however, that our gaze and the angel’s cannot be reconciled within a single perspective. In the ‘Angelus Novus’, Benjamin presents a dialectical image which he had discussed almost two decades earlier in a conceptual thought-image in the ‘Theologico-Political Fragment’ as a counterstriving constellation: the image of two arrows pointing in different directions, in which messianic intensity and the dynamic of the profane, while opposed to one another, nevertheless propel each other forward (GS II.1, 203–4; OWS, 155). In this historic-philosophical lesson, Benjamin uses a critique of political theocracy as the basis for developing the core philosophical thought of his dialectic of secularization — a reason why his theory of history should not be confused with political theology. This core thought is that the order of the profane cannot be built upon the idea of the kingdom of God. Rather, messianic intensity is inscribed within the profane as rhythm. Benjamin describes the messianic rhythm of nature as happiness and argues that the earthly restitutio in integrum leads to the eternity of downfall. This recalls both the biblical notion that man is made of earth and must return to earth and the contemporary biological view of mortality as the assimilation of the organic to the inorganic, which Sigmund Freud adopted in the same period in his essay Beyond the Pleasure Principle. In Freud, the death drive as a general drive of everything living to return to the anorganic world and Eros as a life-preserving drive are opposed to one another.11 But where Freud describes the death drive and Eros as a constellation of counter movements, the same constellation in Benjamin conjoins mortality and the search for happiness: ‘For nature is Messianic by reason of its eternal and total passing away.’ (GS II.1, 204; OWS, 156). When he writes that earthly striving is directed simultaneously toward happiness and downfall — toward its downfall in happiness — then this rhythm alludes both to messianism and to the ﬁndings of modern science. Benjamin’s lesson in the philosophy of history, which begins with the rejection of theocracy for the order of the profane, thus ends in a double reference to biblical and scientiﬁc viewpoints.
The language of secularization: ambiguity or double reference
What is the implication of these reﬂections for the conceptualization of language in the scene of secularization? Benjamin’s observation comes to mind that in Kraus’s polemic, his rhetoric and his gestures, progress and the archaic coincide. Benjamin describes Kraus’s polemic as ‘the most intimate intermingling of a technique of unmasking that works with the most advanced means, and a self-expressive art operating with the most archaic’ (GS II.1, 345–6; SW II, 441; emphases added). A leitmotif of the Kraus text is equivocality, a speciﬁc dual semantics which must be seen as the linguistic effect of the position on the threshold between Creation and Last Judgement, between lament and complaint. The sensations and opinions pilloried by Kraus as the bad principles of the daily press are countered by him, says Benjamin, on the one hand with lament, as when he opposes the daily press with ‘the eternally fresh “news” of the history of Creation: the eternally renewed, uninterrupted lament’ (GS II.1, 345; SW II, 440). On the other, he leads a linguistic battle in the name of justice, the Sprachprozeßordnung mentioned earlier. For in Kraus’s judicial chamber, it is language that presides. Justice and language remain, for him, ‘founded in each other’. What does this mean, though, and what is the consequence of this being ‘founded in each other’? Benjamin characterizes Kraus in this context as a zealot who places the legal system itself under accusation, attacking the law, not for individual judgements, i.e. misjudgements, but ‘in its substance’. For he accuses the law of its betrayal of justice — and Benjamin adds: ‘More exactly, betrayal of the word by the concept, which derives its existence from the word’ (GS II.1, 349; SW II, 444). The abbreviation holds the key. What it is saying is: just as the concept derives from the word, so the law derives from justice; and Kraus charges both derivations — law and concept — with high treason vis-à-vis the idea to which they owe their existence. His accusation thus relates to the betrayal of concepts such as justice and the word in whose name the complaint is simultaneously ﬁled. In other words, complaint of this kind, conducted within history or within the order of the profane, while appealing to notions of divine order, produces a paradox. In it the victims of the betrayal (justice and the word) and the authorities to whom the appeal is made are identical. It is only on the basis of this constellation that the full sense of that salto mortale becomes clear which Benjamin discerns in Kraus’s linguistic judicial procedure: ‘To worship the image of divine justice as language — even in the German language — this is the genuinely
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Jewish salto mortale by which he tries to break the spell of the demon.’ (GS II.1, 349; SW II, 444; translation modiﬁed). The passage presents in condensed form Benjamin’s thinking about justice as an idea which precedes the positive law since it originates in a biblical context. In so far as legal order, as a historical order, takes the idea of divine justice as its point of orientation, while positive law, as human law or the law made by human beings, simultaneously marks the distance from the sphere of divine justice, the law is characterized by a structural equivocality. Indeed, Benjamin speaks in the Kraus essay of the ‘constructive ambiguity of law’, a formulation which captures his perception that an unavoidable dual semantics is inscribed into the constructive function of the law within history, because justice in historical terms carries within itself a reference to the idea of Justice in a pre-judicial, biblical sense. By contrast, justice in this latter sense acts destructively against the law if it is appealed to in the critique of present concrete jurisdictions. As Benjamin states in the last passage of ‘Karl Kraus’: ‘Destructive is therefore that justice, which stops the constructive ambiguities of law.’ (GS II.1, 367; SW II, 456; translation modiﬁed). To conclude: among the dominant theories of secularization, the most prominent version assumes that secularization is to be understood as a phenomenon of transferral or translation. This places the rhetoric of secularization at the centre of attention.12 Against this horizon, Benjamin appears as distinctive, for he operates by contrast in a historical scene in which secularization is conceived of as a test of the distance from Creation or revelation, that is, always in terms of a difference from Creation, but in the knowledge of the origination of one’s own present language in biblical language, its derivation from a beginning which must be thought of as always already irretrievably lost. The terms of this language cannot be simply transferred into secular concepts — justice into ethics, for example. Rather, they function as a standard which can be neither avoided nor met. In this space deﬁned by its remoteness from Creation, though, language acquires its double sense only via the detour of a clear distinction between concepts which are derived from a divine or biblical order and those of a profane order. Their referentiality and their speciﬁc ways of alluding, each according to their kind, to biblical language, to divine justice and the idea of Creation can only be discussed on the basis of this distinction. A reﬂexive secularization which acts in the knowledge of this constellation of history does not express itself in transferrals and translations, the results of which present themselves as
the products of complete secularization, while in fact being marked by the precarious ambiguity of their Janus-like form. In opposition to these, Benjamin sets thought-images and ﬁgures which do not seek to reconcile Creation and history or bring them onto the same level, but which reﬂect the double reference to both profane and religious ideas: double reference in the place of ambiguity. Translated by Georgina Paul
1 This article is based on the ﬁrst chapter of my new book: Walter Benjamin: Das Heilige, die Kreatur und die Bilder (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 2008). 2 Translation modiﬁed: creature instead of creation for German ‘Kreatur’. Since all English translations of the Kraus essay translate ‘Kreatur’ as creation, Benjamin’s reﬂections on the relations and tensions between Kreatur/creature, Geschöpf/creation, and Schöpfung/Creation in the sense of Genesis get lost in translation. Benjamin’s ‘Kreatur’ emphasizes the relatedness of human beings to animals, i.e. to creaturely life, whereas ‘Geschöpf ’ means a product of men’s creation imitating God’s Creation. At the same time, the relationship between Genesis (Schöpfung), generation (Erzeugung), and procreation (Zeugung) opens up the ﬁeld of sexual connotations. For this see my ‘Eros and Language: Benjamin’s Kraus Essay’ in Benjamin’s Ghosts, edited by Gerhard Richter (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 278–98. For the problem of translations of Benjamin’s writings see my article ‘Lost in Translation: Vom Verlust des Bilddenkens in Übersetzungen Benjaminscher Schriften’, in Perception and Experience in Modernity, Benjamin Studies 1 (Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi, 2002), 47–63. 3 Translation modiﬁed: ‘like a statement of the Last Judgement’ instead of ‘world-historical’ for German ‘weltgerichtlich’ (not ‘weltgeschichtlich’). Benjamin’s reference to ‘Weltgericht’ in its double meaning of Last Judgement and world court is crucial for the whole essay in which he illuminates the biblical legacy in Kraus’s references to justice and to worldly courts/laws. What is at stake here is the notion of a Last Judgement which casts its shadow on all notions of justice already within this world. 4 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 161. 5 Critique of Practical Reason, 161–2. 6 Benjamin’s usage of ‘allmenschlich’ connotes not only the cosmic but also the ordinary notion of human, whereas the ‘Unmensch’, title of the third part, personiﬁes the lack of all ordinary human attributes and attitudes. He is less a monster rather than an a-human being similar to the angel.
Between Creation and Last Judgement, the Creaturely and the Holy 381 7 In respect of the aftermath of the Holocaust, I have analysed the concept of ‘Zeugnis’ by differentiating between the gesture of witness and the historical and legal notion of testimony. See my article ‘Zeugnis und Zeugenschaft, Klage und Anklage: Zur Geste des Bezeugens in der Differenz von identity politics, juristischem und historiographischem Diskurs’ in Zeugnis und Zeugenschaft, Einstein Forum Jahrbuch 1999 (Berlin: Akademie, 2000), 111–35. 8 ‘Sprachprozeßordnung’ is an artiﬁcial creation, substituting the element of penalty (Strafe) in the German word Strafprozeßordnung with language (Sprache). 9 See note 3. 10 See note 6. 11 Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, in The Standard Edition, vol. 18, 1–64 (38). 12 Hans Blumenberg, Legitimität der Neuzeit, revised edition (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1996).
Between Part and Whole: Benjamin and the Single Trait SAMUEL WEBER
Abstract: This text, which is part of a project, ‘Toward a Politics and Poetics of Singularity’, explores the implications of a phrase used more or less simultaneously, although independently, by Walter Benjamin and Sigmund Freud, ‘the single trait’ (der einzige Zug). In his 1962 lectures on the problem of identiﬁcation, Jacques Lacan focused on this phrase in Freud in order to exemplify the difference between the subject and the signiﬁer. The use of the phrase by Benjamin in his essay on ‘Destiny and Character’ inﬂects the discussion toward questions of ‘comedy’ and ‘tragedy’, and thereby links the singularity of the signifying process to literary and theatrical forms. Keywords: politics, theology, singularity, character, genius, comedy, tragedy
Politics, in its theory if not in its practice, has always tended to subordinate the singular to the general, usually by equating singular with the particular, which, qua ‘part,’ already implies its dependency upon and subservience to the ‘whole’. At the same time, theoreticians of ‘liberal democracy’ have sought to justify the institutions in which the whole materializes itself politically — state and people — as the indispensable conditions both of the development of the individual and of its self-fulﬁllment. Nothing is more familiar than this claim, going back at least to Hobbes, and yet nothing is more enigmatic. For after all, what is this ‘self ’, whose fulﬁlment and protection constitute the goals of modern politics? In the Christian tradition, out of whose crisis the political systems and strategies of ‘western modernity’ emerged, the self is generally conceived of as that which marks the ability of an individual to stay the same over time. In this sense, the self can be considered to be the secular successor and counterpart of the ‘soul’. As a ‘self ’ the individual resists temporal alteration and transformation. But the word itself is ambiguous, especially when one compares it to its counterparts in other languages. For instance, English-speakers can all too easily
Paragraph 32:3 (2009) 382–399 DOI: 10.3366/E0264833409000650
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forget or overlook the fact that ‘an individual’ need not necessarily be human: the word can designate any entity insofar as it is considered to be in-divisible and thereby self-contained. In short: autonomous. In other languages, ‘self ’ — as in the French soi — is above all a reﬂexive pronoun, standing not necessarily for human beings, but rather marking a certain reﬂexivity: the movement of something returning to what it was. Ever since Descartes, to be sure, such reﬂexivity has been associated with the human individual, and in particular with its capacity to be self-conscious, to be a cogito. But this distinctively modern, ostensibly secular conception has its theological roots. If only a human can be considered a law unto itself, i.e. autonomous, it is because only human beings are construed as created in the image of a Being that by deﬁnition is self-sufﬁcient. It is from this being that the world emerges and it is in its image that man is created. The notion of human autonomy can thus be considered to be a consequence of the monotheistic notion of a self-identical divine Creator. Only man approaches the original and originating selfidentity of the Single God. But this approach is not unequivocal: man is both singular and plural, just as the story of the creation is split into two versions. In being gendered, man is split into man and woman, Adam and Eve. And yet both are members of a single genus. It is that split that seals the fate, shapes the destiny, of ‘man’. In eating of the Tree of Knowledge man becomes guilty; his punishment is mortality; work and suffering are its immediate manifestations. Death is thereby introduced into human life, but as though from without, as though it were external to life: as a punishment for a transgression. Man becomes mortal — he was not created so — only because he is guilty, and he is guilty because he has knowingly violated the law laid down by his Creator. But if death came into the world through the actions of man, it can be surmounted also through the same: it is this promise of salvation and of ‘resurrection’ through good works and ‘faith’ that deﬁnes and legitimates the modern nation state, whether conceived of as a Leviathan or more liberally, as a consensual collective. ‘Homeland Security’, for instance, is one of its avatars. It identiﬁes evil with the Other, deﬁned as the ‘enemy.’ In this light, the sovereign nation-state appears as the heir of a double and split tradition. On the one hand, its claim to undivided authority follows in the traces of the Catholic Church; on the other hand, it recognizes limits to its sovereignty, thereby reﬂecting the challenge to institutional universality ﬁrst posed by the Reformation, with its insistence on the individual as locus of faith and hence of salvation. It
is out of this split tradition that political theology emerges. A nationstate is not a universal Church, although it inherits the monotheistic claim to universality, a claim that inevitably brings it into conﬂict with other equally particular, equally sovereign nation-states. In the wake of the Thirty Years War, the modern system of nation-states sought through ‘international law’ — or, as it is called in German, Völkerrecht — to institute a system through which the inevitable conﬂicts between particular political entities could be regulated. The task inherited from Christianity shifted from that of organizing ‘salvation’ to that of assuring public ‘safety’ (in French, one word ﬁts all: salut).1 The raison d’être of the modern state has therefore not been directly eschatological or redemptive, but rather protective, and therefore not theocratic but rather politically theological. The state seeks to secure and protect the lives and livelihoods of its members. In the process, the notion of ‘guilt’ gives up some of its original religious meaning in the original sin of Adam and Eve, and acquires a predominantly moral and legal one. It is the ‘guilt’ of those who violate the laws, which in turn are presented as the condition of security and of protection, of public safety. Here again, the cause of guilt, in the legal sense, is bound up with intention. Just as original sin was brought into the world by an intentional act, a deliberate transgression, so juridical guilt is dependent upon intention. The inference drawn is that just as sin can be purged by penance or repentance, so guilt, the result of an intentional act, can therefore be purged by intention, either internal as remorse or external as punishment. The goal of such penance or repentance, of such punishment, is to ‘redeem’ the ‘guilty’ mortality of the living individual by asserting its subordination to the nation or people. Given the massive fact and inﬂuence of this onto-political-monotheological tradition, any alternative to what I will call the dominant monotheistic-individualistic interpretation of guilt and its obverse, the good citizen, will have to seek its point of departure in the internal contradictions and tensions of the prevailing tradition rather than appealing to an exteriority that qua exteriority is already included in the internal logic and program of the mono-theological political system and its institutions.
With this in mind, I turn to a short text of Walter Benjamin’s, which does not directly address political questions, but aesthetic ones:
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‘Destiny and Character’ (‘Schicksal und Charakter’),2 written in 1919 but not published until 1921. Although ostensibly not concerned with political issues, it was composed at the same time that Benjamin was elaborating what he initially hoped would be a general theory of politics, of which however only one text, his ‘Critique of Violence’ (‘Kritik der Gewalt’) has survived, while two other major essays, ‘The True Politician’ (‘Der wahre Politiker’) and ‘True Politics’ (‘Die wahre Politik’), have been lost. He begins his essay by criticizing the prevailing tendency to interpret destiny and character as causally related, with character as the cause and destiny as the effect. Against this causalist approach Benjamin argues that what destiny and character truly have in common is that both are never accessible directly but only through signs: character through (mainly) bodily signs, destiny through both bodily signs and those of external life (GS II.1, 172; SW I, 202). And ‘a signifying connection [Bedeutungszusammhang]’, Benjamin asserts, ‘can never be grounded causally’ (GS II.1, 172; SW I, 202). Just how this connection should be understood, Benjamin is not ready to say: he acknowledges that in the rest of his essay he will restrict his discussion to the semantic aspects of destiny and character, ‘die Bezeichneten’ (GS II.1, 172; SW I, 202), rather than analyzing their distinctively semiotic aspect. Having thus challenged the prevailing tendency to associate character with destiny as its internal cause, Benjamin begins to deploy his arguments in favour of their radical separation. Once again, he does so by challenging the prevailing view, which associates destiny with religion and character with ethics. He begins by advancing what will be his major argument with respect to destiny, namely, its constitutive relation to ‘guilt’, to ‘Schuld’ (GS II.1, 173; SW I, 203). And it is here that his remarks connect with, and indeed inspired, our introductory reading of the biblical fall. For in attempting to arrive at a genuine understanding of the relation of ‘guilt’ to ‘destiny’, Benjamin is ﬁrst of all concerned to challenge the prevailing interpretation of guilt as consisting in a transgressive action, and of destiny as consisting in the ‘response of God or the gods to [such] a religious offense [Verschuldung]’ (GS II.1, 173; SW I, 203). Destiny, he argues, is indeed linked to guilt, but not to guilt understood in a religious or moral sense. For the latter presupposes — again the biblical reference is clear — a state of innocence, a non-guilt (in German: Unschuld), a paradisiacal situation in which guilt is absent. The model of such innocence and its loss is of course the Garden of Eden, but for Benjamin this is precisely not what marks the notion of
guilt with which he is concerned and in which he sees the explanation of destiny. The text that informs his notion of guilt, which is tied not to innocence but to misfortune, is therefore not that of Genesis but that of Greek tragedy, above all the Oresteia of Aeschylus, to which he will explicitly refer in his subsequent discussion of tragedy in the Origin of German Tragic Drama. For it is in Greek tragedy, according to Benjamin, that the essence of destiny and of guilt is both revealed and transcended:
Rather, in tragedy pagan man becomes aware that he is better than his gods, but the realization robs him of speech, remains unspoken [verschlägt ihm die Sprache, sie bleibt dumpf]. Without declaring itself [ohne sich zu bekennen], it seeks secretly to gather its forces. Guilt and atonement it does not measure justly in the balance, but mixes indiscriminately. (GS II.1, 175; SW I, 203; translation modiﬁed)
Note here how in the process of tragedy, the subject has shifted from the tragic hero as a person, to the language in which he is engaged, above all negatively, by refusing to speak. It is not so much ‘he’ that is struck dumb, as language itself which is muted, or rather, the preexisting, predominant language of a certain pagan polytheism. Thus language is for Benjamin not religious, but rather legal in both origin and structure. Its salient characteristic emerges in an image that Benjamin invokes to describe it: that of the scale of legal justice, which in turn is based on equivalence, on the commensurability of guilt and atonement, of Schuld and Sühne. Hence, the ﬁgure of the scale of Justice (GS II.1, 174; SW I, 203), which in turn presupposes the separability of what it measures, ‘guilt’ and ‘atonement’ (or punishment): ‘The laws of destiny — misfortune and guilt — are elevated by law [das Recht] to measures of the person (. . . ) Law condemns not to punishment but to guilt. Destiny is the guiltnexus [Schuldzusammenhang] of the living.’ (GS II.1, 174–5; SW I, 203–4; translation modiﬁed). Far from being at home in the realm of religion, then, ‘destiny’ for Benjamin belongs to the juridical realm. But this statement in turn requires further elaboration. For Benjamin’s association of guilt with both atonement (Entsühnung) and punishment (Strafe) shows that his notion of the judicial is already informed by certain moral-religious concepts. And as the last (and often cited) sentence of the passage just quoted indicates, this moral-religious dimension is inseparable from a ‘biological’ one, which in turn is not without its biopolitical implications. What is decisive is that the ‘person’ subjected to fate through guilt and misfortune is, in the judicial system, measurable. And
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this in turn subordinated to criteria that render him commensurable. What is the basis of such commensurability, which provides the ‘scale’ on which the legal subject is judged — which is to say, condemned or exonerated? It is precisely his appurtenance to ‘the living’, which in this case designates a generic category, what Feuerbach and Marx call a Gattungswesen, a ‘species being’ — a term that has recently become frequent in biopolitical discourses. Benjamin elaborates this bio-generic dimension of ‘guilt’ as follows:
Destiny is the guilt-nexus of the living. This corresponds to the natural condition of the living (. . . ). It is not therefore really man who has a destiny (. . . ) but the bare life in him that partakes in natural guilt and in misfortune by virtue of its phenomenality [kraft des Scheines]. (GS II.1, 175; SW I, 204; translation modiﬁed)
For Benjamin, then, all destiny is manifest destiny — tied to phenomenality, to appearance and to illusion, since all three of these meanings are wrapped up in the untranslatable German word, Schein (literally ‘shine’, or ‘semblance’). But the basis of its manifestation is also ‘natural’, which here suggests that it is linked to an interpretation of human life that can be described (Benjamin does not do so) as paradoxical. For it is a life that on the one hand is construed as ‘natural’ in the sense of being intrinsically meaningful, self-contained, but on the other, as guilty and unfortunate, which implies not so much unhappiness as involvement with and dependence on others. But one, if not indeed the most signiﬁcant, attribute shared by living beings as individuals is mortality. It is only by participation in something other than themselves, some sort of supra-individual project, community or collective that they can hope to attain a certain measure of ‘survival’. The question then becomes: survival in what form? In ‘Destiny and Character’ Benjamin’s response is twofold, but also fragmentary. As we have seen, one part of it points to Greek tragedy as the historical moment when ‘man becomes aware that he is better than his gods’, something he can express only by not expressing it, or rather by refusing to express it in the language available to him. The tragic hero, like Orestes, falls silent, but his fall is fortunate insofar as it disrupts the scale of (existing) law and order. The self-isolation and abandonment of the tragic — more precisely Aeschylean — hero reveals the nature of destiny only by breaking with it and by gesturing toward something else: a temporality informed not by the present but by what is to come. This gesture — the eloquent
refusal to speak — breaks the ‘guilt-nexus’ of destiny by opening it to a different future. For, as Benjamin emphasizes:
The guilt-nexus [of destiny] is temporal in a totally inauthentic way, very different in its kind and measure from the time of redemption, of music or of truth. The complete elucidation of these matters depends on determining the particular nature of time in destiny. The fortune-teller who uses cards and the seer who reads palms teach us at least that this time can at every moment be made simultaneous with another (not present). (GS II.1, 176; SW I, 204; translation modiﬁed)
Character as comedy
It is therefore precisely at this point that he turns to the second topic of his essay: to the question of ‘character’. This turn appears within the overall structure of this text highly and signiﬁcantly ambivalent. On the one hand, it is a turn away from the question of ‘destiny’ insofar as Benjamin will insist that character, properly understood, has nothing to do with destiny. On the other hand it is a continuation of his analysis of destiny, insofar as he also emphasizes that destiny and character share the quality of being accessible only through signs, which in turn necessitate ‘interpretive practices’, ‘deutende[n] Praktiken’ (GS II.1, 176; SW I, 204). How Benjamin deals with this ambiguity is in itself signiﬁcant: he distinguishes the two by reasserting that they ‘belong’ to, or are situated in, two very different ‘spheres’. Destiny, as we have seen, belongs to the ‘sphere’ of myth, which for Benjamin is the origin also of law (and hence, of a certain politics). It derives from an attitude that construes human being as essentially ‘natural’, i.e. self-contained, in particular with respect to ‘life’. The result is guilt, or rather, the mythical-juridical-political — and, I would add, theological — system that conﬁrms guilt by institutionalizing it.3 Comedy, on the other hand, Benjamin assigns to a different ‘sphere’, which he at ﬁrst assimilates to that of destiny by designating it as a ‘natural sphere’, ‘Natursphäre’ (GS II.1, 176; SW I, 204), a term he had not used previously, despite his emphasis on the ‘natural’ dimension of ‘destiny’, its connection with ‘bare’ or ‘natural’ life. And once again, in order to distinguish character from destiny, Benjamin continues to emphasize the reasons why they have previously been conﬂated: above all, the belief that their ‘naturalness’ would provide a basis for knowledge of the future, a knowledge that would overcome the uncertainty of temporal existence. The most prominent term that Benjamin employs in this connection, and which he will use precisely
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to distinguish destiny from character, is that of the net or network (‘Netz’), the fabric or tissue, ‘Gewebe’ (GS II.1, 176; SW I, 204). But not just any tissue or net: indeed, what makes the tissue, or text, into a net is precisely its seeming ability to reduce the spaces between its component stitches: the tissue is ﬁrm (‘fest’) insofar as the net is drawn tightly closed (‘gedichtet’), and it is this tautness of the netting that transforms it into a solid ‘cloth’ or ‘Tuch’ (GS II.1, 176; SW I, 205). Character is thus understood as the basis and object of what could be called characterology, the organized systematic knowledge that determines character in terms of properties or qualities, ‘Eigenschaften’ (GS II. 1, 177; SW I, 205). Knowledge of character is possible by virtue of such properties, which once determined resist the contingencies of time and space, remaining constant. Although Benjamin does not pursue this line, the use of character analysis in criminology (today’s notion of ‘proﬁling’) would be one effect of this attitude. But it is based on a conception of character that Benjamin then goes on to reject, for the simple or not so simple reason that character, and the moral sphere to which it is assigned,4 can be determined only by ‘actions and never qualities’ (GS II.1, 177; SW I, 205). In this context it should be noted that as soon as Benjamin begins to outline his approach to character, he introduces another word that can be seen as providing an alternative to the notion of ‘Eigenschaft’ (quality, property, feature, characteristic), namely: ‘trait’. Characteristic of his use of this term is that the ﬁrst time he employs it is when he begins to insist on the necessity of demarcating character from destiny in a radical manner, and this despite their both belonging to ‘natural spheres’: ‘On the other hand, the concept of character will also have to divest itself of those traits [Züge] that constitute its erroneous connection to that of destiny.’ (GS II.1, 176; SW I, 204; translation modiﬁed). Already this ﬁrst, negative use of the word ‘Züge’ (traits) displays what will turn out to be one of their essential qualities: that of being removable. They are something that can be shed, replaced by other traits. And indeed, this removability is what distinguishes the ‘trait’ from the ‘property’ — which cannot be removed, legitimately at least, from its ‘owner’ or subject. Such connotations explain the rather surprising way in which Benjamin then goes on to deﬁne the ‘natural sphere’ to which character belongs, and which in fact then seems anything but natural: the theatrical stage. If ‘destiny’ is associated with ‘tragedy’, but in a way that does not emphasize the theatricality but rather its
mythical-legal dimension, ‘character’ for Benjamin is at home in comedy, which in turn is inseparable from the stage. At the ‘centre’ of comedy is, Benjamin asserts, character comedy, just as comedy itself is the milieu in which ‘character’ must be understood — or rather experienced. For unlike destiny, character comedy, such as that of Molière, does not pretend or claim to offer knowledge, either psychological or moral:
If the object of psychology is the inner life of man understood empirically, Molière’s characters [Personen] are of use to it even as means of demonstration. Character unfolds [entfaltet sich] in them like a sun, in the brilliance [Glanz] of its singular trait [seines einzigen Zuges], which allows no other to remain visible in the vicinity of its blinding light. (GS II.1, 178; SW I, 205; translation modiﬁed)
It is not just the character ‘trait’ that distinguishes it from destiny and thereby deﬁnes its essence for Benjamin: it is the fact that in the ‘sphere’ that is the setting of character — namely, the theatrical world of comedy, the ‘trait’ must be understood as being radically singular: ‘The sublimity of character comedy rests on this anonymity of human beings and of their morality in the midst of the highest unfolding of the individual in the singularity of its character trait.’ (GS II.1, 178; SW I, 205; translation modiﬁed; emphasis added). For those who would be tempted to reduce Benjamin’s thought to a celebration of naming and of the name, his emphasis here on anonymity can serve as a useful corrective. The ‘highest unfolding of the individual’, in this context at least, leads not to anything like a proper, or even improper name, but to a certain anonymity that marks the radical singularity of character, but also its comic dimension. If one considers the use of names in the sole comedies explicitly mentioned here by Benjamin — those of Molière — the notion of ‘anonymity’ would have to be understood as having a certain ‘generic’ quality about it: The Misanthrope, the Miser, The Imaginary Patient — all of these would normally be understood as names of general types. At the same time, however, Benjamin insists on the dimension of ‘individuality’ in character comedy, and in a very distinctive manner. By comparing the comic character to the ‘sun’, he places it at the center of a solar system, which however it also seeks to blot out and render invisible through the power of its manifestation. Benjamin repeats this solar allusion a bit further on, in order to illustrate the distance that separates character from destiny, for which he invokes once more the image of the net: ‘The character trait is not therefore the knot in the net. It is the sun of
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individuality in the colorless (anonymous) sky of man, which casts the shadow of the comic action.’ (GS II.1, 178; SW I, 206). This is a strange ‘sun’ indeed: instead of creating the conditions of visibility, it blinds — this itself of course is a long-standing topos going back at least to Plato. However, Benjamin adds a new twist to it: the sun blinds not to itself, but to the others in its vicinity. And the ‘comic plot’ emerges not as the light it emits, but as the shadow it casts. But something is missing: for however single and solitary the sun may be, it can never ‘cast a shadow’ all by itself. There must be something else that blocks its rays. The sentence that follows the one just quoted suggests what that other might be. Benjamin places it within parentheses: ‘(This places Cohen’s profound dictum that every tragic action, however sublimely it strides upon its cothurnus, casts a comic shadow, in its most appropriate context.)’ (GS II.1, 178; SW I, 206).
The plot thickens: ‘genius’
If tragedy and comedy are thus portrayed as inseparable, however distinct they may be (a thought hardly originating with Hermann Cohen), then all of Benjamin’s efforts to clearly separate and distinguish destiny from character may turn out to be more complicated then it might seem. If we try to reconstruct what Benjamin calls the ‘eigentlichen Zusammenhang’ or authentic context for Cohen’s remark, by juxtaposing it with Benjamin’s images, then the ‘sun’ of the comic character appears to be overlaid with the ‘tragic plot’ described by Cohen: both cast the shadow that is the ‘comic plot’. The ‘tragic plot’ however is what according to Benjamin seeks to break through the net of destiny. That break-through, then, would take the form of the ‘comic plot’, marked now not by the silence of the hero, as in tragedy, but by the ‘singular trait’. How, then, is this strange phrase to be understood. One more passage from Benjamin’s text may put us on the track of a possible response, one which de-naturalizes the light-image of comedy and thereby casts it in a new light — and at the same time, shadow:
While destiny brings to light the immense complexity of the guilty [verschuldeten: indebted] person, the complications and bonds of his guilt, character gives this mythical enslavement of the person to the guilt-nexus the answer of genius. Complication becomes simplicity, destiny freedom. For the character of the comic ﬁgure is not the scarecrow [Popanz] of the determinist: it is the beacon [Leuchter: chandelier] in whose beams the freedom of his actions becomes visible. (GS II.1, 178; SW I, 205–6; translation modiﬁed).
As so often with Benjamin, images that one otherwise might expect to clarify and render concrete in fact render more obscure and complex — not the least irony in a passage that celebrates the replacement of ‘complication’ by ‘simplicity’. But this is perhaps also part of its comic character. In any event, the ‘sun’ here reveals itself to be anything but a lumen naturalis: it is the chandelier or candelabra which shows the way, the beacon that beckons. But the way it lights up with its chiaroscuro rays, its light turned to shadow, is that of the stage, on which character is stripped of its moral pretensions by a theatricality that is characterized here as the ‘answer of genius’ to the ‘guilt-nexus’ in which destiny enmeshes and thrives. The ‘single trait’ that deﬁnes comic character — that deﬁnes character as comic and as theatrical — is thus described by Benjamin as ‘the answer of genius’, and a few lines later on, as ‘manifestations of the new age [Weltalter: global age] of genius’ (GS II.1, 178–9; SW I, 206). A new conundrum thus emerges in the constantly evolving Vexierbild or puzzle-image that characterizes the writing of Walter Benjamin in general, and ‘Destiny and Character’ in particular. For what, after all, are we to understand by ‘genius’? Giorgio Agamben begins a recent essay entitled ‘Genius’ with the helpful reminder that, etymologically, the word is closely related to ‘engender’. What is implied in this link between ‘genius’ and ‘engendering’ is not simply the continuation of the same in the other, in offspring for instance, but rather a separation of subject from the process of generation, one which produces — engenders — a tension between ‘Genius’ and ‘Ego’:
Genius is our life insofar as it does not belong to us. (. . . ) [The subject] is traversed by two conjoined and opposed forces: one that moves from the individual to the impersonal and another that moves from the impersonal to the individual. The two forces coexist, intersect, separate, but can neither emancipate themselves completely from each other nor identify with each other perfectly.5
Although Agamben’s only literary reference in this essay is to Ariel and Prospero in Shakespeare’s Tempest, his emphasis on the tension between ‘the individual and the impersonal’ and the mention of a play, if not a ‘character comedy’, can help put us on the track of Benjamin’s cryptic use of the word ‘genius’ in regard to the comic character and its ‘singular trait’. For Benjamin too no doubt had a literary text in mind when he invoked this word, although it was not Shakespeare, nor probably not even a comedy, but rather the poetry of Hölderlin. Several years earlier, in 1916, Benjamin had written an essay on ‘Two
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Poems by Friedrich Hölderlin’, in which the word occupies a small but decisive part. One of those two poems, ‘Blödigkeit’, usually translated as ‘Timidity,’ begins thus:
Are not many of the Living known to you? Does not your foot stride upon what is true, as upon carpets? Therefore, my genius, only step Naked into life, and have no care! (SW I, 22)
Hölderlin’s genius, like Agamben’s, is inseparable from the individual and yet irreducible to it — because it is deﬁned precisely by its divisibility, its separability, its inability to stay with and be absorbed into an integrated ego. In the case of the comic character, individuality becomes ‘singular’ and a ‘trait’ by being set on stage. The stage, whether tragic or comic, or neither, always involves a relative, a relational situation, in which space and time converge but never close or conclude. The space of the stage is always open to transformation: always open to the invisible others, not just to the audience of a single night, but to audiences to come, as well as to others who may never actually see or hear the play, but who will be affected by its after-effects. The single trait is thus ‘comic’, lends itself to laughter and to amusement by presenting itself in isolation, and yet never being absolutely cut off from its surroundings, its past and its future. This is why the singular trait always tends to be on the move, on the run, drawing away from something and towards something else. It always seeks to place itself at the center of its world, whether as the sun in a solar system, or the chandelier in a theatre. But it seeks not so much to make visible as to blind to whatever surrounds or approaches it. It seeks to do this, but remains comical in never attaining what it seeks. Its non-attainment is already inscribed as the comic dimension of its singular trait.
Identity, identiﬁcation and the ‘single trait’
Comedy has long been understood to have an eminently social signiﬁcance. And one can see how this tradition is continued in the ambivalence of Benjamin’s singular trait. But what about politics? Can there be a politics of the singular trait? Would it be a comic politics? Is politics comic, but without knowing or acknowledging it? And comic in what sense, and to whom? Two very brief indications in response
to these questions will have to sufﬁce here as an initial exploration of whether and how a ‘politics of singularity’ might be thought. In the same year as Benjamin wrote ‘Destiny and Character’, Sigmund Freud published his essay on ‘Group Psychology and Ego Analysis’. A central chapter in that book was devoted to the problem of ‘identiﬁcation’, which Freud described as an inevitable process in the formation of the ego but also one that always remained highly ambivalent. Focusing as almost always on the male child, Freud wrote that identiﬁcation marks the child’s ‘earliest emotional tie to another person’. It is an ambivalent tie insofar as it involves the desire to be ‘like’ the other person, which ultimately means replacing the other by occupying its place. For an ego that seeks to deﬁne itself as selfconsciousness — as cogito — only one body can occupy one place at one time. There is therefore, from the point of view of this ego, place only for one person at one time. To identify with another, with the father or mother, is therefore to take the place of that person, which in turn involves replacing the other. One of the means often cited by Freud as a means to this end is cannibalism. Another, apparently opposite means of replacing the other with whom one identiﬁes is by taking on his or her or its traits. However, Freud insists that such a process is never all-inclusive. Rather, it is in all senses of the word, partial: it identiﬁes not with the other as a whole person, but only with a part — with what Freud calls a single or singular trait (‘einzigen Zug’) of the other.6 This form of identiﬁcation Freud then interprets as a powerful force in the formation of groups, of ‘masses’, and in the organization of such masses through identiﬁcation of, and with, a leader. Writing in 1921, the German word Freud used was ‘Führer’. The constitution of a ‘Führer’ as leader of masses involves not the whole person but the extrapolation of a partial, indeed of a singular trait. Freud’s use of the term ‘einzigen Zug’, writing in the same year that Benjamin’s essay appeared, would probably have been forgotten had it not been for Lacan, who in his 1962 lectures on the problem of ‘Identiﬁcation’ called attention to Freud’s notion of the ‘singular trait’ — translated as the ‘trait unaire’ — by placing it at the heart of his reinterpretation of psychoanalysis in general. Hitherto, Lacan told his listeners, philosophy from Plato to Kant (and presumably beyond) had placed its emphasis on the One as the symbol of Unity. By contrast, the Freudian experience and experiment according to Lacan emphasizes not the unity of the subject but rather the ‘singular trait’, this ‘unsituatable
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thing, this aporia for thought that consists in the fact that it is reduced to a whatever [n’importe quoi]’. And he continues:
The paradox of this One is that the more it resembles (. . . ) the more the diversity of all appearances is erased in it, the more it supports, even incarnates (. . . ) difference as such. The reversal of the position around the One results in the fact that we pass from the Unity (Einheit) of Kant to singularity (Einzigkeit), to uniqueness as such. (. . . ) If the function that we assign to the One is no longer that of Unity but rather of Singularity, we have passed — and this is the novelty of psychoanalysis — from the virtues of the norm to those of the exception.7
It is this notion of the ‘trait unaire’ that subjects the subject not just to a signiﬁer, but to a network of signiﬁcation through which singularity comes to be deﬁned as a differential and relational notion, as a trait or a trace, as Derrida would later call it, thereby stressing its temporal relation to what has preceded it and what will come after it. Whether Freudian, Lacanian, or read through a conﬂuence of both, the ‘singular trait’ entails a process by which the subject, including the political subject, deﬁnes its place in a social and political context determined as irreducibly ambivalent. The claim to be self-identical and indeed omniscient derives from the legal system as such, and not just from a particular set of laws. If Josef K. (in Kafka’s Trial) is awakened one morning to ﬁnd himself accused of a crime of which he knows nothing, not even the nature of the crime, this ‘Kafkaesque’ situation reﬂects nothing speciﬁc to Kafka, but the very basis of legality itself: the legal ‘ﬁction’ that everyone is expected to know the law in all of its dimensions, and negatively, that Ignorantia legis neminem excusat: ignorance of the law excuses no one. And yet this same system of law also recognizes that other basic principle of Western jurisprudence, derived from Roman law, namely the principle of mens rea: that intention or awareness of the effects of one’s acts is a constitutive element in determining guilt. Perhaps this is why the ‘man from the country’ must wait in vain before the Gate of the Law before learning, shortly before his death, that this gate was for him alone: his ‘singular trait’.8 It is this apparently irresolvable aporia at the heart or all law, and hence of politics — or is there a politics conceivable that would be beyond, before or outside the law? — that leads Benjamin to refer, in his ‘Critique of Violence’ to the fact that something is ‘rotten in the law’ (GS II.1, 188; SW I, 242), and that the institutional agency charged with administering it therefore deserves particular attention, namely: the Police Force.
This introduces the second and concluding point — and text. And this time it is in fact a theatrical text, and a comic one to boot. Indeed, it could almost be classiﬁed as a contemporary ‘character comedy’, although the characters are more allegorical than psychological. This is perhaps why the play itself bears the name not of a character type, as with Molière, but of a place: Jean Genet’s The Balcony. This turns out to be both the balcony of a bordello and the balcony of a kind of theatre. For in this whorehouse clients come to play out their fantasies in a space they assume is safe and secure. In special rooms they excite themselves by assuming social roles that are not their own: General, Judge, and Priest. In their private rooms, the characters exhibit themselves and watch themselves being watched while on display. In that sense the rooms are very much part and parcel of ‘the balcony’ — and unknown to the characters they are all visible and watched on central television screens by the owner of the bordello, Mme Irma, assisted by her friend, the Chief of Police. Against a background of political turmoil, that at times seems about to engulf the balcony, the Police Chief takes on an ever more important role. But this Police Chief is troubled. He has a problem. He wants and needs to transform his role: not to give it up but to change it, by changing its image. Whereas the other bulwarks of the social and political order — Judge, General, and Priest — are all objects of social esteem and recognition, the Police Chief, like the police itself, suffers from a lack of recognition and esteem. To the police falls the dirty work of applying the laws, making them work in a state of permanent exception. This is why they must assume duties that are apparently foreign to their function: as Benjamin notes in his ‘Critique of Violence’, they must not only enforce laws but also make up new ones as they go along. This is due to the fact that the police have to mediate between the structural generality of the law and the necessity of applying it to ‘cases’ that are always more or less singular, more or less exceptional. Benjamin can hardly ﬁnd words strong enough to describe and disqualify this hybrid function of the police: antinatural, spectral, ignominious. He concludes that its force ‘is formless [gestaltlos], like its nowhere-tangible, all-pervasive, ghostly presence in the life of civilized states’ (GS II.1, 189; SW I, 243). In Benjamin’s essay on the Critique of Violence, or Force, to be sure, there is scarcely a trace of the comic. But his description of a police that is both monotonous and ghostlike anticipates certain aspects of Genet’s much later play. As already mentioned, the Chief of Police suffers from the lack of what today might still be called ‘image’. And much of his
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effort in the play is devoted to trying to ﬁnd ways of improving it, so that he too may one day be granted entrance into the Pantheon of revered political icons. The Chief of Police aspires to a kind of sanctiﬁcation. He hopes one day to be one of those ﬁgures that draw the clients to the Balcony, where they can ‘play’ out their fantasies by dressing up as public ﬁgures. But how is this image-elevation to be accomplished? Suddenly, he stumbles upon a possible strategy. ‘The people’, he argues, may ‘fear and envy a man’, but the same is not true of ‘a wrinkle, for example, or a curl. . . or a cigar. . . or a whip’.9 The Police Chief has stumbled upon the secret of identiﬁcation, and perhaps of political identity itself, at least in our societies: if people can be afraid of a ‘man’, they react differently to a partial trait: to a curl of hair, for instance, or a cigar, or a riding whip. The partiality of identiﬁcation that Freud observed, Genet in this play interprets as a response, not simply of genius to destiny, but of anxiety to what it desires but also fears the most: the whole individual, i.e. the primal father. To take the place of the other means to do away with the other, and therefore with the identiﬁcatory basis of constructing the self. The single trait is a way of negotiating that double bind, by establishing an identiﬁcation that could be called ‘synecdochal’: pars pro toto. But this identiﬁcation remains therefore always partial also in the sense of partisan: it must always seek to deny its own partiality, its own alterity. And so, at about the same time that Lacan had begun elaborating his theory of the imaginary, The Police Chief comes up with the proposal to ameliorate his image:
THE CHIEF OF POLICE: (. . . ) The latest image that was proposed to me. . . I hardly dare to mention it to you. THE JUDGE: Was it. . . very audacious? THE CHIEF OF POLICE: Very. Too audacious. I’d never tell you what it was. (Suddenly, he seems to make up his mind.) Gentlemen, I have sufﬁcient conﬁdence in your judgment and devotion. (. . . ) It was this: I’ve been advised to appear in the form of a gigantic phallus!10
Although Genet wrote his play in the mid-1950s, it is interesting to observe just how much the police have captured the public imagination ever since, and increasingly so. How many television series, how many Hollywood and other ﬁlms are built around detectives, and play out in the milieu of the police? Genet’s Police Chief is thus a relatively early anticipation of this development. In his project to resuscitate his image, as a giant Phallus — imaginary signiﬁer par excellence, according to Lacan — he is successful; the defeated
revolutionary is the ﬁrst client to come to the balcony precisely in order to play the role of the Police Chief. His role culminates in a scene of self-castration. The play draws to a close as the Chief of Police stages his beatiﬁcation by taking his leave with the following words:
CHIEF OF POLICE: Did you see? Did you see me? There, just before, larger than large, stronger than strong, deader than dead? So I’ve got nothing more to do with you. (. . . ) I’ve won the right to go and sit and wait for two thousand years. (To the photographers) You! Watch me live, and die. For posterity: shoot! (Three almost simultaneous ﬂashes). I’ve won! (He walks backwards into the tomb, very slowly.)11
His ﬁnal words, ‘Think of me!’,12 echo the cry of Oedipus at Colonos, as well as the ‘Remember me’ of the ghost of King Hamlet. In this character comedy, the ‘single trait’ that alone is allowed admission to the political-theological pantheon is that of the Giant Phallus as the force of law. But as Lacan reminds us, the Phallus is not just an imaginary representation: it also marks the point at which the image reveals its signifying character. The notion of the singular trait, in its singularity, entails also and perhaps above all a partiality, a differentiality and alterity that cannot be absorbed into any totality, including that of a logic of the signiﬁer. For the I (which the singular often entails but with which it is by no means identical), whether as Freudian ego, Jakobsonian shifter, or Hölderlinian poet, is never simply all by itself, much less self-sufﬁcient. And in this fact, that of an irreducible heterogeneity and relationality, there lurks perhaps the possibility of another kind of politics, one for which the singular trait would not simply be a moment consecrating the image of a sovereign and autonomous individual, whether as state, as life or as their fatal convergence in the ideal of market-driven governance. Rather, the singular trait would emerge as that which pulls — and the word Zug in German comes from ziehen, to pull or to draw — away from any selfenclosed or ‘natural’ sphere, toward a space that is no longer spherical, and hence that is never entirely at home with itself.
1 For some of the valences of salut, see Jacques Derrida, Adieu — à Emmanuel Levinas (Paris: Galilée, 1997). 2 While the title is generally translated as ‘Fate and Character’, destiny is closer to the root of ‘schicken’ (to send).
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3 Although Benjamin explicitly asserts that ‘destiny’, in being mythical, is not ‘religious’, that does not necessarily contradict or exclude my interpretation that it is nevertheless theological, insofar as the world of myth is one that seeks to provide a logos of the gods. What is more difﬁcult is the relation of Greek polytheism to Christian ‘monotheism’, since from this text as from others it is clear that Benjamin construes the latter as a continuation of the former: Greek guilt becomes Christian ‘original sin’. 4 It should be noted that this conception of ‘morality’ is resolutely pre-Kantian, insofar as it equates morality with nature. 5 Giorgio Agamben, ‘Genius’ in Profanations, translated by Jeff Fort (New York: Zone Books, 2007), 9–18 (13). 6 Sigmund Freud, ‘Group Psychology and Ego Analysis’, in The Standard Edition, vol. 18, 65–143 (107). 7 Jacques Lacan, unpublished seminar on L’identiﬁcation, session of 21 February 1962 (my translation). 8 See Derrida’s essay on Kafka’s text of the same name, ‘Before the Law’, in Acts of Literature, edited by Derek Attridge (New York/London: Routledge, 1992), 181–220. 9 Jean Genet, The Balcony, translated by Bernard Frechtman (London: Faber and Faber, 1965), 91. 10 The Balcony, 91–2. 11 The Balcony, 111. 12 The Balcony, 111.
Notes on Contributors
Brigid Doherty is Associate Professor in the Departments of German and Art and Archaeology at Princeton University, where she is also a member of the core faculty in the Programs in Media and Modernity and European Cultural Studies. Her recent publications include a coedited volume of Walter Benjamin’s writings, The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media (2008). Carolin Duttlinger is University Lecturer in German at the University of Oxford and Fellow of Wadham College. Her research is concerned with twentieth-century German literature and thought, with particular reference to text–image relations and the history and theory of perception. She is the author of Kafka and Photography (2007) and has published widely on writers such as Benjamin, Adorno, Freud, Canetti, Klüger and Sebald. She is a co-founder of the Oxford–Princeton Research Collaboration ‘Benjamin Encounters’ and co-director of the Oxford Kafka Research Centre. Thomas Elsaesser is Professor Emeritus of Film and Television Studies at the University of Amsterdam and Visiting Professor at Yale University. His essays on European cinema, ﬁlm history and media archaeology, American cinema and contemporary media theory have been published widely in collections. His most recent books include: Weimar Cinema and After (2000), Metropolis (2000), Filmgeschichte und Frühes Kino (2002), European Cinema: Face to Face with Hollywood (2005), Terror und Trauma (2007), Filmtheorie: zur Einführung (2007, with Malte Hagener; English edition, 2009) and Hollywood Heute (2008). Michael Jennings is the Class of 1900 Professor of Modern Languages in the Department of German at Princeton. He has published on many aspects of modern German literature, aesthetics, and political thought. He is the author of two books on Walter Benjamin: Dialectical Images: Walter Benjamin’s Theory of Literary Criticism (1981) and, with Howard Eiland, The Author as Producer: A Critical Biography of Walter Benjamin (forthcoming in 2010). He also serves as the general editor of the standard English-language edition of Benjamin’s works, Selected Writings (1996–2003).
Paragraph 32:3 (2009) 400–401 DOI: 10.3366/E0264833409000674
Notes on Contributors
Andrew Webber is Reader in Modern German and Comparative Culture at the University of Cambridge and Acting Director of the University’s Centre for Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities (CRASSH). He has published widely on German and comparative literary, cinematic, and visual cultures, and has a strong interest in psychoanalytic theory. His most recent books are The European Avant-garde: 1900–1940 (2004), Berlin in the Twentieth Century: A Cultural Topography (2008) and, co-edited with Emma Wilson, Cities in Transition: the Moving Image and the Modern Metropolis (2008). Samuel Weber is Avalon Foundation Professor of Humanities at Northwestern University and directs the University’s Paris Program in Critical Theory. His most recent publications include Benjamin’s abilities (2008), Targets of Opportunity: On the Militarization of Thinking (2005) and Theatricality as Medium (2004). Sigrid Weigel is Director of the interdisciplinary research centre in the humanities, Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung (ZfL), in Berlin. She holds an honorary doctorate of the University of Leuven, is an honorary member of the MLA, president of the International Walter Benjamin Association, and a member of the Academia Europaea. Her recent books include Walter Benjamin: Das Heilige, die Kreatur und die Bilder (2008), Genea-Logik: Generation, Tradition und Evolution zwischen Kultur- und Naturwissenschaften (2006), Ingeborg Bachmann, Hinterlassenschaften unter Wahrung des Briefgeheimnisses (1999) and Body- and Image-Space: Re-Reading Walter Benjamin (1996).
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