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THE CASE OF BENJAMIN’S MOOR
[Southwest Africa] must be inhabited by white colonists. Therefore the natives must disappear or rather put themselves at the disposal of the whites, or retire into the reserves that are set apart for them. —Evans Lewin, Germans and Africa We cannot draw closed the net [of capitalism] in which we are caught. Later on, however, we shall be able to gain an overview of it. —Walter Benjamin, “Capitalism as Religion” [T]he traces of imperialism can be detected in Western modernism, and are indeed constitutive of it; but we must not look for them in the obvious places. —Fredric Jameson, “Modernism and Imperialism”
igerian-British artist Yinka Shonibare has made a career of cultural mélange. His installations have featured staid Victorian interiors reupholstered and repapered in shockingly brilliant “African” prints. He has likewise dressed Gainsborough’s “Mr. and Mrs. Andrews” (those smug symbols of private landed property and English respectability), along with numerous other historical, futuristic, and contemporary Wgures, in purposefully outlandish fabrics (often rendering the overall effect of the tableaus more unsettling by beheading the mannequins as well). He emphasizes that the textiles his work evocatively deploys represent a far-Xung geography: Indonesian batik techniques were appropriated by Dutch traders and taken over in turn by English manufacturers, who shipped the brightly colored fabrics to colonial markets in Africa, where they have since become markers of “authentic” African identity. Of his
Cultural Critique 52—Fall 2002—Copyright 2002 Regents of the University of Minnesota
own “return” of these fabrics to Europe, Shonibare muses: “by making hybrid clothes, I collapse the idea of a European dichotomy against an African one. It becomes difWcult to work out where the opposites are. There is no way you can work out the precise nationality of my dresses, because they do not have one” (Waxman, 36). Although Shonibare tends to read his own work consistently in this culturalist way, as a critique of authenticity and as an evocation of identity crises in a globalizing world, it is nonetheless possible to see his vibrant fashion statements and satiric interiors as exposing simultaneously a political-economic “unintentional truth” in which a “dichotomy” is far more evident: the (occluded) reliance of European wealth on imperial control of global trade, which literally put clothes on the backs and furnished the houses of European elites in the colonial period, and continues to underwrite global inequalities today.1 Economist magazine—hardly a left-wing publication—recently enumerated some of the metropolitan strategies that reinforce global structural inequality in relation to Africa, confessing:
The World Bank reckons that, if North America, Europe and Japan were to eliminate all barriers to imports from sub-Saharan Africa, the region’s exports would rise by 14%, an annual increase worth about $2.5 billion. Another calculation shows that developed countries’ farm subsidies amount to over $360 billion a year, some $30 billion more than Africa’s entire GDP. And while the prices of rich countries’ exports have been rising, those of Africa’s primary products have, on average, been falling (by 25% in 1997–99). Nor has the rich world always been at pains to promote good government in Africa. During the cold war, it was happy to Wght its wars through African proxies, to prop up corrupt regimes and sell them weapons with which to suppress their subjects and swell their foreign debt. Partly as a result, that debt has been crushing for Africa: several countries have been spending more on service payments than on education and health. Meanwhile the aid that helped to assuage western consciences has often been tied to western exports. (“Africa’s Elusive Dawn,” 17)
When confronted with such political-economic realities (and these are merely the tip of the iceberg, being limited to mainstream economists’ understandings of what matters), any suggestion that it is “difWcult to work out where the opposites are” starts to look suspect.
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The point here is not to suggest that Shonibare’s intended critiques of binaries in order to combat racism are irrelevant, but rather that they have swept the metropolitan critical Weld (where Shonibare has been taken up quite alacritously) so decisively that attention to speciWc historical conditions that serve to anchor and privilege certain geopolitical (or even local social) relations often go by the wayside. However salutary poststructuralism has been in making theoretical room for Xuidity and hybridity, then, it still behooves us to remember that Britain would never have become “itself” without imperialism. As Raymond Williams has put it in the course of his monumental The Country and the City: “what was happening in . . . the metropolitan economy, determined and was determined by what was made to happen in . . . the vast regions beyond it, in other people’s lands” (279). Recognizing deWnite dominators and dominated in this way provides a rationale for reparations and redress that are otherwise obscured by what Cynthia Enloe has called the “politics of invisibility,” in which the fundamental assumptions and practices of capitalism, abetted by everyday habits of consumption, ignorance, and averted eyes in the metropole, enable miserable working conditions, poverty wages, unequal trade and the reproduction and manipulation of gender and racial hierarchies (149). Thus, in Enloe’s view, reading our way beyond the world according to transnational corporations and their governmental and cultural support systems demands that we recognize that there is actual “blame, credit and responsibility to apportion” for the current state of the world, and, most important, that if this world has been made to serve certain interests, it can be unmade: “it becomes possible to imagine alternatives” (3). The work of imagining alternatives to capitalism is, however, hampered when potentially devastating critiques (such as Shonibare’s installations) are tamed by reinscription into more palatable narratives, such that identity crisis displaces domination and the endless play of signiWers elbows exploitation from view.2 Against such a dynamic, this essay, taking Walter Benjamin’s Berliner Chronik as its focus, asserts that his critique of the “phantasmagoria”3—or dehistoricizing mythos—of capitalism in his later work, as well as the reading strategies he proposed to resist its allure, remain relevant to the task of anticapitalist struggle (which must necessarily be anti-imperialist
today) as long as their dialectical force is not derailed by certain varieties of poststructuralist reinscription, which work to defuse it. Before I begin to outline how Benjamin is best read in my view, I want to give a brief example of an approach to his work I Wnd incomplete in ways similar to Shonibare’s self-analysis. Carol Jacobs reads Berliner Chronik as a labyrinth that at any given moment offers multiple paths for exploration: “it is difWcult to orient ourselves in this text, even if we heed Benjamin’s admonition to renounce the center, difWcult to Wnd points of entry, to locate a place for commentary as a vantage point from which to contemplate, a window, perhaps, a threshold that might open before us the slate of Benjamin’s text” (25). This is, of course, a familiar poststructuralist argument. For Jacobs, as for so many who write about this aspect of Benjamin’s work, its discontinuities instruct us about problems of language and identity that would not become theoretically elaborated more generally until years later; he is poststructuralist avant la lettre, in their view, since he indicates that life, space, time, and language are mise-en-abyme, always pulling or pushing us further along just when we thought we had Wnally got somewhere: “perhaps the labyrinths of which (and in which) he writes . . . are always moving” (38). However, as we shall see, “class” for Benjamin (nowhere mentioned—in its social sense— in Jacobs’s chapter, although it is a central concept in Berliner Chronik) is not so undecidable, or Xuid, as this kind of analysis would suggest.4 Thus, while Jacobs is able to refer to Benjamin’s childhood encounter, in the parlor of an aunt, with a toy mine in which “little men pushed wheelbarrows, labored with pickaxes, and shone lanterns into the shafts in which buckets were winched perpetually up and down,” only in purely metaphorical terms (discussing it as one among several “mines of treasure” in the text referring to the elusive work— or rather play—of memory), Benjamin’s preoccupation with class encourages us to consider another interpretive possibility: the mine as a critique of a world that consigns some actual people to such “perpetual” labors, and others to comfortable contemplation of such distant activities in the bourgeois parlors made possible by them (“Berlin Chronicle,” 12). It is the evasion of this other perspective—a view of what we might call the strategic binarization on which capital relies—less than Jacob’s attention to fragmentation, plurality, and Xuidity, per se, which is problematic.5 I will be attempting to show
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that the interruptive aspects of the text on which she focuses are important, but that they have as their goal the critique of capital that is rarely broached by critics such as Jacobs. Peter Osborne has already rightly blasted such “post-structuralist” readings of Benjamin as problematically reliant on a “providential historicism” that Benjamin himself persistently decried, but I would like to further insist (and lament) that they are directed, implicitly or explicitly, to obscuring his Marxism and, thus, the ways in which for him, as for Adorno, the fragmentary is privileged only in relation to a totality hegemonized by capitalism that both critics wished to see destroyed (300).6 As Susan Buck-Morss explains, for Benjamin and Adorno “each particular was unique, yet each contained a picture of the whole, an ‘image of the world,’ which within a Marxist frame meant an image of the bourgeois social structure” (Origin, 76; emphasis added). Taking Benjamin’s “dialectical images” seriously as demanding an anticapitalist reading practice, I want to turn to one such image that emerges in the Berliner Chronik, as Benjamin opens a reXection on his venture-capitalist father’s various business transactions, and indicate its anti-imperialist potential. To be sure, Benjamin’s work is not an obvious place to seek a critique of imperialism—indeed, a previous critic’s attempt to consider such a possibility has been met with derision.7 But as Fredric Jameson suggests in the third of the epigraphs that begin this paper, obvious places are not the only ones—perhaps not even the most important ones— to put on the itinerary when pursuing the imbrication of imperialism and European modernism, an insight that owes something to Adorno’s and Benjamin’s own tendencies to seek out truth in unlikely, seemingly trivial or marginal objects or locations.8 That I will be taking up my larger point about how to read a marginal(ized) aspect of Benjamin’s writing by way of his reference to one such object—a sculpture of a “Moor” that found its way into the household of his childhood—should, thus, be considered methodologically signiWcant. Although it is typical to search out the moments when “imperialism” Wnds its way into a Euromodernist text in order to expose complicities, I want instead to propose that in certain circumstances critique might also be discovered in such sites and to suggest that the complicity emerges rather in our failure to detect, amplify, and continue the critique.
In fact, given the preoccupation of the Berliner Chronik with pointing the reader toward whatever capitalism would render invisible, this image of the Moor may well be the most symptomatically neglected in the Benjamin criticism:
the real token of my father’s profession in our apartment was a Moor [Mohr], almost life-size, who stood on a gondola [Gondel] reduced to one-thirtieth of its size, holding with one hand an oar that could be taken out, and lifting on the other a golden bowl. This work of art was made of wood, the Moor black [schwarz], the gondola and oar glowing in many colors beneath the varnish. The whole, however, was so urgently oriented toward its companion piece that I cannot tell today whether a second Moor, whom I imagine with it, really stood there originally or is a creature of my imagination. (“Berlin Chronicle,” 37–38; Berliner Chronik, 75)
Benjamin says nothing further about this “work of art,” but the seemingly incidental mention of the sculpture of the Moor invites many questions. He emphasizes in this same section that the transactions in which his father engages Xood the household with a curious assortment of commodities remarkable to the young Benjamin principally because of their derivation from places and people “never seen” (niemals in mein Blickfeld traten) by the son (Berliner Chronik, 74). What does the Moor have to tell us in its context of a generalized invisibility—a world of capital that the child Benjamin knows only from indistinct fragments, such as snatches of telephone conversation, labels on commodities, passing mentions of names at the dinner table, and fantasy images of his father’s whereabouts when he was away on business? And, above all, why is the “real token” (eigentliche Wahrzeichen) of the relation to the world of a German venture-capitalist in the early twentieth century a representation of an African holding out a golden bowl, an African, furthermore, who seems to be “oriented toward” (angewiesen [auf], dependent on) a (possibly) absent companion? My claim is this: the Mohr should be read as an analogue to the much-discussed Wgure of the Hure (whore) in this text—both being deployed in the course of Benjamin’s late work toward “awakening” metropolitan subjects from the capitalist dreamworld, or phantasmagoria; it is important to pay attention to the former as well as the latter because the Moor in Berlin reminds us that the dream of capital is global, not merely local, in its desires and effects, as the
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context of European imperialism during Benjamin’s childhood and at the moment of the writing of his Berliner Chronik offers ample evidence. It will not be my task here to “prove” that Benjamin was consciously anti-imperialist, though I think such a case could be made. Rather, I want to insist that his work inculcates a reading practice useful to anti-imperial critique, whatever his intentions, and that this reading practice is particularly evident in his later experimental and explicitly Marxist texts. As is well known, Benjamin turned increasingly to Marxist concepts in his work from 1924 onward.9 To be sure, Gershom Scholem and others would greet this turn to Marxist thinking with skepticism, but Benjamin persistently defended himself against charges that his use of Marxism was superWcial or that Marxism had rendered his own work superWcial: “the most trite Communist platitude possesses more hierarchies of meaning than does contemporary bourgeois profundity, which has only one meaning, that of an apologetic” (Correspondence, 372–73; emphasis in original). This imperative to read deeply is particularly crucial in late texts such as the Berliner Chronik, which interrogates bourgeois social relations along lines laid out in Capital I, where Marx proffers the prosthetic lenses of historical materialism by which “the secret of proWt-making [is] . . . laid bare” (280). In exposing this secret, what Marx lays bare is the social: “the mysterious character of the commodity form consists . . . simply in the fact that the commodity reXects the social characteristics of men’s own labour as objective characteristics of the products of labour themselves” (164–65; emphasis added). Marx viewed capital’s depredations, like Poe’s purloined letter and Ellison’s invisible man, as paradoxically hidden right before “visible” people’s eyes. To dissolve the mystery, to read the “social hieroglyphic” of the commodity, is to return men to a proper understanding of their real social relations. Behind the relentless, even violent, visibility of capitalist modernity, then, with its panoptic surveillance, photographic and Wlmic exposure, the continuous optic schooling of desire by the advertising system, the shop window, the beguiling luster of the commodity form, huddles the weak and deformed sociality of capitalism, awaiting transformation to an “association of free men [and women] . . . expending their many different forms of labor power in full self-awareness as one single social labour force” (171).
This “spectre of communism,” as Marx and Engels had put it earlier in the Manifesto, hovering on the threshold between invisibility and apprehension, suppression and realization, (dis)embodies the desire for sociality redeemed (2). The Wgure of the whore in Benjamin’s texts has often been recognized as inhabiting this threshold.10 On the one hand, she signals capitalism’s reduction to thingliness of the human, whether sold by the hour or for an hourly wage. On the other hand, even as commodity, she fails to relinquish her human form, thus potentially entangling the buyer in a nagging inkling of the social relations that commodiWcation usually completely obscures. As we shall see, the Berliner Chronik, continuing Marx’s emphasis on the social, characterizes the promised land beyond such commodiWcation as “real social existence” (wirkliches gesellschaftliches Dasein) (“Berlin Chronicle,” 10; Berliner Chronik, 23). Benjamin’s Moor, too, inhabits this threshold between subjection and real social existence with the whore, and further insists that the whole world must be accounted for if real social existence is to be obtained. The Moor—and the meaning I am attaching to it—has gone unnoticed hitherto, I suspect, because of the curious marginalization of German imperialism in the enormous scholarly output on Walter Benjamin’s work.11 Calling attention to this absence, I draw on recent cultural and historiographic studies that have been emphasizing the negative effects of the neglect of the broad workings of the imperialist imagination in Germany, and focusing attention not only on the short-lived (1884–1918)—but ideologically important—German overseas empire, but also on the imperialist understandings of Germany’s place in the world that preceded and followed the period of formal colonialism.12 What this work suggests—though you would be hard-pressed to know it from the bulk of Benjamin scholarship— is that imperialism was a fact of everyday life in the capital city into which Benjamin was born in 1892. Germany entered the colonial project late in relation to rival European nations, which fueled elite urgency about global politics and the balance of power in the late nineteenth century. Otto von Bismarck, who had led the transformation of a continental archipelago of states into a uniWed Germany in 1871, was, at Wrst, publicly disinterested in overseas expansion, but by the mid-1880s he had reversed his position entirely, and eagerly hosted—in Berlin—the West Africa Conference, that infamous series
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of meetings of metropolitan states that recognized Germany as a serious contender for colonial power for the Wrst time as it helped to establish criteria for dispute resolution among the conference attendees as they competed with each other to subordinate uncolonized parts of Africa to their formal control.13 Pressured by industrialists and speculators with interests in various colonizable regions, nationalist politicians concerned about competition with the sizable empires of France and England, and members of the “colonization societies,” such as the Kolonialverein, who began agitating for German territorial expansion in the early 1880s in order to promote German Kultur, Bismarck had begun to pursue colonial policy in earnest. By 1914, the German overseas empire covered over a million square miles, populated by some fourteen million people, mostly in Africa, but also extending eastward to include several PaciWc islands and a foothold in China, with the 1898 acquisition of Kiao Chow (Jiaozhou).14 This is not to suggest that German colonialism was especially successful from an economic point of view for Germany as a whole (though there were considerable fortunes amassed by individual traders and investors). The report of the U.S. delegation on colonial matters to the Paris Peace Conference after World War I, when Germany was forced to relinquish all of its overseas colonies, pointed out that white settlement, raw materials extraction, trade, and even German cultural dissemination were all minimal in them (Beer, 10–11). Indeed, except for tiny Togo and, when not disrupted by conXict, Kiao Chow, the German colonies had been vast Wnancial sinkholes. Many millions of marks had to be spent in establishing administrative outposts, technical infrastructure, assisting the other European powers in keeping China subordinated to its interests as much as possible, and, especially, brutally suppressing large rebellions in the African possessions. In Southwest Africa, for example, German forces pursued what amounted to an extermination policy against the Herero and Nama peoples to undermine their resistance movements, with effects of widespread devastation and massive loss of life. The colonies were so spectacularly unsuccessful economically, and resulted in so many public relations difWculties, in fact, that continued broad support for them can only be explained in other terms: in their signiWcance as tools of propaganda and cultural symbolism at home, and their value as evidence of global ambition to
hold up to European rivals. Acquisition and maintenance of colonies was directed in large part to securing Berlin’s place as a “world city” (Weltstadt) for inhabitants anxiously aware of the greater imperialist cachet of London or Paris, and, above all, to “assert [Germany] as a world power,” as Woodruff Smith has emphasized (“Colonialism,” 437).15 The existence of the colonies was thus made elaborately visible in Germany during Benjamin’s childhood and youth. To be sure, alongside the references to the glories of empire, scandals and doubts about the colonies were recorded in the press and fought out in the Reichstag (the left being, for the most part, vehemently antiimperialist), but whether excoriated or celebrated, the overseas possessions were dramatically manifest.16 As with the commodity form, however, this hypervisibility, this insistent display, at least on the part of procolonial factions, was accompanied by obliterations, exclusions, and invisible countertexts. The extermination policy in the African colonies was one example of this, as the Wrst epigraph for this paper indicates.17 As people with desires, needs, and rights to control their own lives, the colonized must necessarily become invisible to the colonizer. This invisibility was not restricted to the settler colonies by any means, and resulted from the fact that the colonial relation was predicated on the usefulness of the colonized land and peoples for the colonizer. Often this rationale was dressed up in the rhetoric of a mission of salvation or civilization to the colonized, but only in the context of the use of colonies to solve problems of various kinds for the colonizer, as supplier of raw materials; market for excess metropolitan production; destination for emigration; exotic training site for the ambitious in the military, trade, professions, and civil service; pawn in international politics among the colonizing powers; and, of course, a source of proWts. John Stuart Mill’s Principles of Political Economy was straightforward about this, describing colonies in general as “outlying agricultural or manufacturing establishments belonging to a larger community,” and the British West Indian colonies in particular as “the place where England Wnds it convenient to carry on the production of sugar, coffee and a few other tropical commodities” (685–86).18 Though Germany’s colonies, unlike England’s, were rather a disappointment to it, hopes for their usefulness on this English model continued high, which required that a colony’s use to
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Germany be privileged over any local desire, which had to be (was) brutally repressed. A second dialectic of (in)visibility, however, is equally important. Many historians have noted that, in general, business and industrial enthusiasm for colonization was muted or nonexistent as German capital set about establishing what Wolfgang Mommsen has called “informal economic imperialism” instead.19 What he meant by this is simply that the strength of the German economy, with its robust rate of growth and its rapid rise to the position of one of the top world trading participants in the later nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries, was predicated not on direct colonial relations but on production for export, monopolization, cartel formation, and a rise in participation in international Wnancial markets—circulations of capital that have been described by W. O. Henderson as “invisible exports” (241). While the colonies got a lot of very public attention, it was the quieter mechanisms of political-economic positioning that secured Germany’s place in the global trading hierarchy. Economic historians have even suggested that the relative lack and eventual loss of colonies was a real advantage, since it forced German companies “to cope with the vagaries of and the keen competition on the world market.” Hence, even after the massive World War I losses of the colonies and other territory, Germany “was still integrated into the international division of labor, exporting industrial products and importing foodstuffs and raw materials” so that the losses were not so devastating as they otherwise might have been (Braun, 20–21, 33). In any case, with or without colonies, the fundamental assumption that as much of the rest of the world as possible should be rendered useful to it did not wane in Germany (to the contrary, it arguably increased in the postwar period).20 And without colonies, informal economic imperialism was, necessarily, the set of practices through which Germany’s political and economic goals were actually pursued and accomplished. It is crucial that we recognize that this is so, as it explains how it happened that when Germany ceased to be a colonial power, it remained a great imperial power. Colonies, Lenin understood well, are not the only means by which imperial power is fueled. Imperialism is the global form of capital, by no means reducible to colonialism alone; rather it encompasses the networks of banking, production, and trade established to beneWt some peoples
over others at the global level—”the struggle for economic territory,” not only colonies (Lenin, 75). As we have already seen, the explicitness of colonialism can even be considered a liability to an imperial state since the ideal situation for the beneWciaries of global unevenness is one in which whatever brutalities or inequalities result from it appear to be natural (drought, famine, overpopulation), or just (an effect of refusals to institute “free” markets or austerity programs, ineptitude and “corruption”), or at least inevitable, if sad (“the poor will always be with us”). For this appearance to succeed, any strategies deployed to maintain local and global inequalities must remain generally invisible. As Immanuel Wallerstein has put it:
Unequal exchange is an ancient practice. What was remarkable about capitalism as a historical system was the way in which this unequal exchange could be hidden. . . . By that we mean that actual prices always seemed to be negotiated in a world market on the basis of impersonal economic forces. The enormous apparatus of latent force (openly used sporadically in wars and colonization) has not had to be invoked in each separate transaction to ensure that the exchange was unequal. Rather, the apparatus of force came into play only when there were signiWcant challenges to the existing level of unequal exchange. Once the acute political conXict was past, the world’s entrepreneurial classes could pretend that the economy was operating solely by considerations of supply and demand, without acknowledging how the worldeconomy had historically arrived at a particular point of supply and demand, and what structures of force were sustaining at that very moment the “customary” differentials in levels of wages and of the real quality of life of the world’s work forces. (31–33; emphasis added)
Thus, even after Germany’s loss of colonies in 1918, the basic structure of globally institutionalized inequality could (and did) remain intact—indeed, intensiWed as German capital slowly worked its way toward the dominant economic position in Europe, albeit not without setbacks caused by vicissitudes of economic cycles and the depredations of the wars. I have already indicated two mechanisms through which this globally instituted inequality was sanctioned: the “visibility” of the colonizer’s agenda at the cost of the (attempted, at least) obliteration of the colonized, and the assumption that inequalities that result
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from either formal or (especially) informal imperialism are natural and just, an assumption that requires an extremely selective view of the world. I will turn now to the role played by images of “blackness” in German culture as sites through which such (in)visibilities were negotiated, in relation to Africa in particular. German ethnographic collections; periodicals and monographs; live displays of “primitive” peoples in zoos, circuses, and like venues; colonial and “adventure” literature; the reception of entertainment by black (American and African) stage performers; understandings of art (collected from the colonies, as well as the extensive use of its techniques in European expressivist and primitivist works); travel writing; and so on, all in their own ways, participated in this process of rendering subordinated peoples (in)visible, sometimes in spite of their ostensible goals.21 Indeed, European primitivism, although its stated agenda included a critique of European rationalism and civilization, is a telling example of the suspect ways that colonial culture had become part of the idiom of intellectual life in the high imperialist moment. As numerous critics have now observed, primitivist art, which thrived in the interwar years, rarely successfully eluded Eurocentrism in spite of its celebration of “primal” non-Europe.22 Indeed, its assumptions situated “primitive” peoples in the childhood of humankind (albeit transvalued as desirable), and took it for granted that the world of artistic form was Europe’s for the appropriating. Both assumptions were all too compatible with imperialism, which also saw the “primitive” world as temporally “behind” Europe, and all the world’s resources as properly belonging to it. To be sure, some European artworks are more easily deployed against Eurocentrism than others, and it is here that we might look for clues as how best to read Benjamin. The dada montage artist, Hannah Höch, for example, had been clipping images from German ethnographic journals as well as news and fashion magazines all during the twenties to produce a series of collages called “From an Ethnographic Museum,” which juxtaposed fragmented representations of non-European persons and objects with European ones, foregrounding their mediation through European venues, such as museums and mass publications.23 These works deploy difference in scale, coloring, and so on to produce disorienting Wgures who remain oddly disconnected even when all body parts are more or
less present. “Die Süße” (“The Sweet One”), for example, features an anthropological photograph of a large mask from the French Congo— pasted over with made-up eyes and lips from European fashion glossies—perched over the elongated torso of a Bushongo idol from which a shapely pair of very white and high-heeled legs emerge. A white left hand, much larger than the right hand (intact on the idol’s torso), Xoats armlessly and eerily over the abdomen of the composite. Unlike most primitivist arts in Europe that referenced the supposedly more authentic, mythic, and spontaneous works of non-Europeans as an attack on the losses that reason, civilization, and commodiWcation had visited on the metropolis, Höch’s montages here as elsewhere seem to have the quite different agenda of calling into question the conventions of representation in mass publications, which fetishize the female form, the primitive other, and nature alike (see Makela, 70–72). Her montages show fragments in struggle, rather than organizing themselves into a tidy gestalt. Illustrating contradiction, they disallow reassurance. At the same time, the very target of their critique—representations as disseminated via media and museums—calls to attention the institutions over which some people, within and outside the metropole, have more control than others: thus Höch’s images work by fragmenting the all too seamless metropolitan worldview inculcated by such institutions. As Maud Lavin and Maria Makela both point out, Höch does this by carefully positioning many of the composite images on pedestals, emphasizing their display function, and, of course, by implicating the “museum” in the title of the series, as well as by selecting, and transporting to new, disorienting settings, images from wide-distribution publications that viewers easily could have received at home. In these ways Höch exposes the mystified efforts of the purveyors of images who, in early Birmingham School terms, had gained crucial control over the “deWnition of the situation,” and suggested that to redeWne the situation, the conditions that give rise to such deWnitions must also be changed.24 In the places where Benjamin’s approach accomplishes a similar task of disruption and reorientation of perspective, it attains its greatest power. For it is only rarely in the texts of European modernism, in work such as Höch’s, that global relations so emphatically refuse to settle into a celebratory mélange and thus are able to point us toward
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a world of exploitation and domination that capitalism attempts to keep invisible. As Frantz Fanon would complain: “European opulence is literally scandalous, for it has been founded on slavery, it has been nourished with the blood of slaves and it comes directly from the soil and from the subsoil of that underdeveloped world. The well-being and the progress of Europe have been built up with the sweat and the dead bodies of Negroes, Arabs, Indians, and the yellow races” (96). So long as the existence of this theft, which Anouar Abdel-Malek calls “historical surplus value,” remains mystiWed, chances for its redress are nonexistent, as the debate on reparations at the 2001 UN conference on racism illustrated so dramatically. While the political force of even the most challenging of the primitivist images was often muted by the unequal global context in which they circulate(d)—since they could so easily be made to help shield from view ways in which imperialism made possible a certain quality of life (including frenetic levels of artistic production) in Europe at a very high cost to other peoples—Höch and Benjamin, I would suggest, direct our attention precisely to the dialectic of (in)visibility, implicitly refusing closure to imperial ideologies. SpeciWcally, Benjamin’s Moor functions as an image in the Berliner Chronik through which imperial relations are gestured at, just as the (much discussed) image of the whore is the site in which class relations in Berlin are Wgured; in other words, the Moor is best understood in terms of the speciWc type of capitalism that developed during Benjamin’s lifetime: its imperial mode. The Moor’s imperial meaning can be deciphered, I think, if we take a hint from Fredric Jameson, as I suggested in the third epigraph.25 One of the things that we can discover along these lines in the Wgure of the Moor is that the “truth of . . . experience [of capitalism] no longer coincides with the place in which it takes place” (Jameson, “Cognitive,” 349). While the sculpture apparently did not offer itself as a critique of capitalism while ensconced in the bourgeois interior of his childhood, it is forced to take on other signiWcations when Benjamin resituates it in the Berliner Chronik as a key to opening the “mystery” of capital. SpeciWcally, it suggests that capitalism relies not only on local class relations, but also on global ones. To understand the Moor in this way, we must Wrst tease out the class analysis of Berliner Chronik and consider its relation to the form
of this text. The Berliner Chronik presents us with a series of disjunctive vignettes that are thematically interrelated without ever forming an entirely coherent whole; in this respect it is similar to a Höch photomontage. It begins with a tour of the Berlin to which a wealthy child is introduced by nursemaids, meanders through the city unveiled by a succession of other guides, makes a stop at the aunt’s parlor with the “glass rhombus containing the mine,” which I discussed earlier, pulls us into the Kaiser Friedrich School for a bit and then into the meetinghouse of the Berlin Free Students’ Union, and so on, through cafés, shops, houses, down streets, over to Paris; the text leaps about temporally and spatially with abandon, between childhood and adulthood, and from one fragment of city to another.26 Since Berliner Chronik was left incomplete at Benjamin’s death, claims about its form cannot be predicated on the placement of particular vignettes, but only on the generally disjunctive aspect of the text, which it shares with others of Benjamin’s post-1924 work, from One Way Street (1928) to the (also incomplete) Arcades Project. The ordering principle for all these bits and pieces in Berliner Chronik is the narrative “I,” Benjamin’s persona, but “Benjamin” emphasizes that the “I” unfolds only in its spaces, implying that the subject is no more coherent than the city-morcelé of the text.27 As with Höch’s work, then, the reader of Berliner Chronik is shuttled between coherence and its abeyance, an abeyance, however, that we learn has a class origin. Benjamin repeatedly uses words and images indicating the isolation, imprisonment, and limits of the bourgeois subject; this isolation leads not to wholeness but to the impossibility of achieving it. Benjamin’s boyhood schoolmates are described as prisoners—without any sense of inmate solidarity. To the contrary, the adult Benjamin recalls the “multitude” (Masse) of his class (in both senses; Klasse is cognate across meanings in German and English) with “revulsion” and reports that “solitude [Alleinsein—literally, “being-alone”] appeared to [him] as the only Wt state of man” when confronted by his schoolfellows (“Berlin Chronicle,” 12–13; Berliner Chronik, 27). Although solidarity was promised by school songs (so effective ideologically as to arouse “inWnite melancholy” even in young Benjamin), school actually offered a series of “catastrophic encounters” and “alien[ating] and threatening [befremdlichen und bedrohlichen] circumstances” that opened an “abyss” between himself
FIGURING THE (IN)VISIBLE IN AN IMPERIAL WELTSTADT
and others (“Berlin Chronicle,” 14–15; Berliner Chronik, 30–31). These images of enclosure and isolation in Berliner Chronik indicate Benjamin’s perceived lack of commonalty with his class (both because of the atomization imposed by capitalist social relations in general, and his own adult disenchantment with his class of origin). “A mob of school children,” he insists, “is among the most formless and ignoble [gestaltlosesten und unwürdigsten] of all masses, and betrays its bourgeois origin in representing, like every assembly of that class, the most rudimentary organizational form that its individual members can give their reciprocal relationships” (“Berlin Chronicle,” 13). In other words, atomization undermines the possibility of bourgeois solidarity in any meaningful sense, however tightly pressed together individuals may be, rendering their gegenseitiges Verhältnis (reciprocal relation) extremely limited (Berliner Chronik, 28). Not only do bourgeois subjects fail to achieve real social relations with each other, but they are also cut off from fully human engagement with other classes—a more serious divide. Thus, school is only one site in which Benjamin discovers the limits of his “class”—one of the words that he describes as having been introduced to as an experience in very early childhood, long before he knew its meaning in either its schoolroom or social senses, the latter of which he would not be acquainted with for “two decades” (“Berlin Chronicle,” 44). Linking the two meanings of “class” in the Berliner Chronik, Benjamin likens his school experience of estrangement—the “abyss”—explicitly to the gap he felt open up between his mother and himself, Wgured in the “pedantic care with which . . . [he] always kept half a step behind her” during walks through the city (4). Since his mother is identiWed as the emblem in the Berliner Chronik of bourgeois “tradition,” his reluctance to keep up with her signals more than a familial rift. She mediates his relation to “ofWcial” commercial Berlin: the shops in which clothing and other provisions were acquired, the sites of “the false worship that humiliated [her] . . . before idols . . . An impenetrable chain of mountains, no, caverns of commodities—that was ‘the town’“ (“Berlin Chronicle,” 40). Along with this consumerist relation to “the town,” these excursions signiWed a class relation, which rendered much of the city off-limits and invisible by “enclosing him in the district [in sein Wohnviertel schloß] where he lived” with “the class that had pronounced him one of their number”
(“Berlin Chronicle,” 10; Berliner Chronik, 23). In such a context, Benjamin observes, a wealthy child’s Wrst sustained confrontation with poverty is typically a literary and imaginary one. He recalls in particular a story he composed himself about a man obliged to walk about encased in an advertising placard who, frustrated that passersby refuse to take his Xyers, “secretly jettisoned his entire consignment.” The adult Benjamin associates this “unfruitful” gesture with “sabotage and anarchism,” and likens its misguidedness to that of the intellectual unable to “see things clearly” [zur Einsicht in die Dinge zu kommen] (“Berlin Chronicle,” 11; Berliner Chronik, 24). He further likens it to his own laggard pace during walks with his mother, which he attributed to “the stubborn refusal under any circumstances to form a united front, be it even with . . . [her].” The Berliner Chronik can be read, I would suggest, as a quest for a more “fruitful” solution to this predicament than that offered by the class-limited city and its cloudy-eyed intellectuals; it is an attempt to imagine another mode of living, awakening the possibility of a liberatory “united front,” or “real social existence” [wirklichen gesellschaftlichen Daseins], a concept introduced in this section about his mother—but only to mark the ways in which the whole structure of bourgeois life prevented one from attaining it (“Berlin Chronicle,” 11; Berliner Chronik, 24). The text’s entanglement of place, time, and subjectivity reveals above all that the “I,” like the memories it generates, is social rather than private (enclosed), though bourgeois everyday life is organized in such a way as to deny this as much as possible.28 For this reason, to read the Berliner Chronik’s fragmented form as celebratory, or even as a reXection of an irreducible condition, is to seriously mistake Benjamin’s purpose. Fragmentation in this text evokes capitalist atomization and estrangement, which is historical and therefore not irremediable. This does not mean, of course, that the redeeming of the fragmented world is a simple matter or that struggles for “real social existence” are not fraught with missteps and blindness, as Benjamin’s own youthful attempts to attain it attest. The stakes of this struggle, and their pitfalls, are worked out most emphatically for Benjamin in the memories that cluster around the meetinghouse he rented as president of the Free Students’ Union. Adult Benjamin emphasizes that it was “as sharply divided from proletarian youth as the houses of this rentiers’ quarter were from those
FIGURING THE (IN)VISIBLE IN AN IMPERIAL WELTSTADT
of Moabit [working-class neighborhood], and these houses were the last of their line just as the occupants of those apartments were the last who could appease the clamorous shades of the dispossessed [die fordernden Schatten der Enterbten] with philanthropic ceremonies” (“Berlin Chronicle,” 18; Berliner Chronik, 38). The city could not be preserved in this form (spatial or social), the mature Benjamin muses, and achieve even the limited goals of the Union (“a Wnal, heroic attempt to change the attitudes of people without changing their circumstances”). Ultimately the contradictions of his youthful politics, when conjured up by Benjamin’s memory, elicit the realization that “the city of Berlin would also not be spared the scars of struggle for a better order.” Schools and households cannot be improved without “destroying the state that needs bad ones” (“Berlin Chronicle,” 20; Berliner Chronik, 42). The youth movement is thus ultimately recognized as no better an engagement with “the dispossessed” than his childhood imaginings of them, both being predicated on a certain dialectic of (in)visibility. The class-limited politics of his youth, which managed to press him up against the Landwehr Canal “that marked the [bourgeois] district off from the proletarian quarters” but kept him from going further, left the working-class inhabitants on the opposite shore literally unknown, although young Benjamin believed he was working on their behalf (“Berlin Chronicle,” 18). His early politics failed because, for true social justice to emerge, what needed to change were the economic, political, social, and cultural conditions that enabled the bourgeoisie to remain segregated in their neighborhoods, unaware not only of “the poor” in any distinct way, but also that “the poor” were actually “dispossessed,” which implies a denied relation to the wealth of the city from which the Landwehr Canal divided them symbolically and practically.29 Given such a sociospatial situation, it is not surprising that having described—and critiqued—the “enclosures” of the city as they formed him, Benjamin seeks out “thresholds” (Schwellen) that (he hopes) will permit movement beyond boundaries both spatial and social: the utopian possibilities in dystopian Berlin as he rummages about in the “junk room [Abstellraum] of the West End bourgeoisie” (“Berlin Chronicle,” 20; Berliner Chronik, 42). The whore emerges prominently at this point as the Wguration of both this desire and the impossibility of attaining it under conditions of capitalism:
There is no doubt at any rate, that a feeling of crossing the threshold [Schwelle] of one’s class for the Wrst time had a part in the almost unequaled fascination of publicly accosting a whore in the street. At the beginning, however, this was a crossing of frontiers [Schwelle(n)] not only social but topographical, in the sense that whole networks of streets were opened up under the auspices of prostitution. But is it really a crossing, is it not, rather, an obstinate and voluptuous hovering on the brink [Schwelle], a hesitation that has its most cogent motive in the circumstance that beyond this frontier [Schwelle] lies nothingness [Nichts]? But the places are countless in the great cities where one stands on the edge [Schwelle] of the void [Nichts], and the whores in the doorways [in den Haustoren] of tenement blocks and on the less sonorous asphalt of railway platforms are like the household goddesses of this cult of nothingness [Nichts]. (“Berlin Chronicle,” 11; Berliner Chronik, 25)
Benjamin’s repeated use of “Schwelle” (threshold) in this passage is extremely insistent in the German text, where it appears Wve times in only these few lines. Although the English translation in ReXections renders “Schwelle” a number of different ways (threshold, frontier, brink, edge), it seems signiWcant to me that Benjamin so often chose here a “homey” border word—evoking the intimate apertures of bourgeois households, sills of doors (Türschwellen)—eschewing, for example, “Grenze” (border, boundary) with its emphatically statist connotations.30 This continual reference to the boundaries of the private household extended out into the West End as a whole seems to transform the neighborhood into the private house of a class, and young Benjamin’s (attempted) escape from it seems to undermine that enclosure. However, we Wnd by the end of the passage that the threshold is never really crossed, which intensiWes the sense of boundedness. Young Benjamin (ostensibly) comes up to “the void” but goes no further. Nevertheless, for adult Benjamin, the very site of youthful limit is a (potential) site of transformation later on. The paragraph on the void begins with a reminder that the images being presented are memories and cannot be extricated from the “Medium” (cognate with English) in which they emerge: “the present [Gegenwart] in which the writer lives” (“Berlin Chronicle,” 10; Berliner Chronik, 23). The memory-image, with the present as its new setting, makes it possible for the remembering subject to see the past events in a “new and
FIGURING THE (IN)VISIBLE IN AN IMPERIAL WELTSTADT
disturbing [befremdlichen, estranging] articulation,” prompting the recognition that the pampered and protected child was “enclosed” and “conWned” to the “afXuent quarter” in which he was born, utterly excluded from any real knowledge of his class “other,” whom he imagines, if at all, as living in “the back of beyond” (auf dem Dorfe), a region about which he knows nothing (“Berlin Chronicle,” 11; Berliner Chronik, 23). This absolute divide of knowledge and space, imposed and learned in earliest childhood, might give rise to the notion that the bourgeois world is all there is, or at least all there is worth knowing or inhabiting—the rest consigned to “Nichts”— nothingness. The resulting poverty of imagination concerning other possible worlds thus marks (and limits) the class. The shock of an “estranging,” discordant image confronting the subject from the depths of the temporal (and/or geographical) distance can, however, rupture the mystifying social void in which the bourgeois subject habitually lives. In this instance the shocking image is that of the whore (Hure)—not morally, but materially. The whore is one of Benjamin’s favored images of modernity because she embodies the dialectic, as I noted earlier. She is, thus, a threshold Wgure par excellence, hinting at a realm beyond the imprisoning relations of capitalism, while herself remaining subordinated to them. In Berliner Chronik, however, she also indicates that thresholds are not crossed by the young Benjamin, even when he is attempting to do so, because boundaries inhabit the classed subject who is himself “enclosed” as a private individual. Purchasing the wares of the “Hure” is not ultimately transgressive, although it might feel that way to the bourgeois youth; such transactions merely reinforce the conditions of capitalism in which the selling of the self is the norm. However, when they reappear in the Berliner Chronik, the whore and, as we shall see, the Moor can disrupt this norm by directing us toward other possibilities. Thus, the Berliner Chronik—in restaging memories—attempts a more productive “threshold” activity than the young Benjamin was capable of, situated as he was by his class position to see things awry. Given the Berliner Chronik’s project of offering an against-thegrain view of capitalism, it is hard to imagine that it is insigniWcant that the section of it in which the Moor surfaces is speciWcally concerned with the “mystery” or “secret” (Geheimnis) of capital accumulation as it manifests itself in the upper-class household. Benjamin
speciWcally describes the bourgeois interior as a site in which global fantasies are played out in the “Exposés” for The Arcades Project: “in the interior, [the bourgeois householder] brings together the far away and the long ago. His living room is a box in the theater of the world” (9). The “Arcades” (forerunners of shopping malls) and “World Exhibitions” provided a more grandiose version of the bourgeois interiors that they helped inspire in world-encompassing directions, “a world in miniature” (3).31 The problem with this “world” of the arcades, exhibitions, and bourgeois interiors from Benjamin’s perspective is that it is ruled by the commodity form and thus presents a distorted, or obliterated, view of the exploitation required to maintain it: “its ingenuity in representing inanimate objects corresponds to what Marx calls the ‘theological niceties’ [fetishism] of the commodity” (7). The inanimate, in other words, hides from view the actual workings of the living world, with its networks of exploitative local and global social relations. The Moor, then, like the whore elsewhere in the text, can serve a “threshold” function, but this time for the nation rather than the household alone: the bourgeois household being, it turns out, a site in which (ideological) relations to the whole world, as a Weld for (ostensibly) legitimate appropriation, are staged. Against these legitimating narratives, the image of the Moor, like the whore, works by offering a site of troubling contradictions to view. On the one hand, Benjamin seems to suggest that his father and the Moor—the “token” of his father’s profession, as he tells us— are equivalent, but, on the other hand, he reminds us that the Moor, as an artwork, is a commodity, something actually traded by his father.32 The sculpture depicts a dealer in gold, a trader, like the elder Benjamin, who has “connections with traders” and the “occult world of business and traders,” but the sculpture is also itself traded (and ultimately possessed) by Benjamin’s father, traded and possessed in a world in which the relations between blacks and whites, Africa and Europe are not equal (“Berlin Chronicle,” 36, 38). A text that repeatedly calls attention to class inequalities and their structural determinants at the local level invites an analogous exploration of this exoticized image that, in any case, does not quite Wt tidily into the local scene in a country in which the black population was very small and for which “Africa” signiWed colonized space. Furthermore, a black man sold at auction, as this sculpture was (it was acquired at
FIGURING THE (IN)VISIBLE IN AN IMPERIAL WELTSTADT
the auction house in which Benjamin’s father had been a partner), even in efWgy and as art, could not but evoke a history of enslavement in the Germany of Hegel’s Philosophy of History and a whole panoply of related texts, reinforcing negative or, at best, paternalistic images of blackness, even after the end of the slave trade as such.33 Indeed, Benjamin’s use of the archaic term “Mohr” to signify a black African intensiWes the sense that we are meant to read the Wgure historically.34 To the extent that blackness signiWed a history of slavery to Europe, the “Mohr” like the “Hure” (who reappears at the end of this section—evocatively dressed in a sailor suit) is a disconcertingly liminal Wgure. Commodity and human in one, the slave is a category mistake that illustrates and critiques the thingiWcation of the human that capitalism, in Benjamin’s understanding, both requires and obscures. Hence the Moor, like the whore, could evoke the mystery of capital and its potential dissolution. However, the Moor’s function must be in excess of, or at least other than, the whore’s, or Benjamin could have relied on the whore alone to serve his purposes in this place as well as elsewhere in his text. The excess of the Moor in relation to the whore is that it wrenches the Berliner Chronik and its understanding of capitalism into a necessarily and explicitly international arena. The “Mohr” carries the trace of a historical relation of theft and oppression between Europe and Africa— a relation that, as we have seen, was a matter of particular concern for image production in Germany during Benjamin’s childhood and youth, which coincided almost year for year with the period of acquisition, maintenance, and loss of Germany’s colonies. In any case, there is no question that Benjamin understood ostensibly distant spaces to be implicated in each other. Indeed, Benjamin’s illuminations about Berlin’s social relations are made possible only by indirection, by the intervention of Paris, a city that—as Moscow later on—taught Benjamin more about his native city than his birthplace ever could have managed on its own.35 To choose Paris, a city that Benjamin would soon refer to as the “capital of the nineteenth century,” as a guide to Berlin is necessarily to draw Benjamin’s natal city into international relations through association with another city unambiguously recognized as global in its stature and imperial in its reach. Benjamin’s perspective is not that of the celebratory, or even weary, cosmopolitanism of the modernist that Raymond Williams so
disparaged; rather Benjamin insists on the radical incompleteness of every space, culture, subject, and language, a position that he returns to in his work again and again.36 Indeed, the relation of Paris to Berlin that Benjamin describes in the Berliner Chronik is analogous to the relation between French and German in Benjamin’s translation theory—an unsurprising intertwining given that Benjamin “translated” both the linguistic and spatial boundaries between the two frequently in his lifetime.37 For Benjamin the ultimate work of translation was not to indicate the distinction between languages, but rather their “relationship” (Verhältnis) (Illuminations, 72; Gesammelte Schriften 4, part 1: 12). No language ever attains its “truth” on its own, in his view; it is only fulWlled in its relations to all other languages: “the totality of their intentions supplementing each other” (Illuminations, 74; emphasis added). However enclosed the German language, people, or cities may appear, their “truth” will always elude them because it arises in and depends on elsewheres in its unacknowledged—indeed, largely unimagined—linguistic, cultural, social, political, and economic intertwinings. In the real world of geopolitics and hierarchies of nations, however, languages (and nations) do not confront each other as anything like equals. Paris was capital of the nineteenth century in large part because of France’s imperial incursions, whose effects are discreetly signaled in Benjamin’s choosing as an epigraph for the 1935 Exposé of his Arcades Project the French words of a Vietnamese poet, Nguyen Trong Hiep, one of the few non-European voices in Benjamin’s work. Paris is intertwined, unquestionably, with Berlin in Benjamin’s account, but also, via Nguyen, with Hanoi (and so on, through all its various material relations with the world). We must attend to the totality of these relations, and the inequality of peoples with respect to each other implied in the world’s actually existing form, whether or not Benjamin explicitly thematized these relations at any length. They are, it seems to me, implicitly important, even crucial, given the anticapitalist reading practice he does explicitly engage. In any case, some things, he insisted, were better expressed by not being said at all. As he puts it in Convolute N of The Arcades Project: “method of this project: literary montage. I needn’t say anything. Merely show. I shall purloin no valuables, appropriate no ingenious formulations. But the rags, the refuse—these I will not
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inventory but allow in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them” (460). While in his texts Asian, South American, and African images can certainly be read as playing the role of displacing, or standing in for, the actual oppressive material entanglements of Europe and the “rest of the world,” as in other primitivist appropriations, we can also see how his reticence might be directed against obfuscation since the form of Benjamin’s text, and the reading practice it demands, always points us toward the unsaid.38 The unsaid in his case differs, then, from the “sanctioned ignorance” for which Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak rightly took to task Foucault’s writing, in which the colonial situation seems everywhere evoked but rarely named as such—certainly not as the fact of European everyday life that it has been from the sixteenth century to the present (291). The difference in the case of Berliner Chronik is that Benjamin’s compiling out of the mass of evidence before us the ordinarily overlooked, misread, and despised was intended to bring capital’s invisibilities into focus. In this respect, although his texts don’t announce an anti-imperial agenda as such, they can still be understood as providing an anti-imperialist reading practice—or at least demanding such a reading practice from inhabitants of an imperialist world to which his texts are offered as counterpoint. My claim that Benjamin’s writing can provide a speciWcally antiimperial pedagogy depends on our taking seriously the possibility of the sort of montage or, alternatively, dreamwork reading strategies he advocated, operating in contrast with the sort of atomizing and decontextualizing reading encouraged by—for example—newspapers, which he found so suspect.39 The bourgeois newspaper, of course, purports to leave nothing of signiWcance unsaid (“all the news that’s Wt to print”), nor to betray any interests. Its tone is detached, its style straightforward and serious. Tellingly, however, when Benjamin offers an exemplary symptom of a metropolitan capitalist modernity in which people are “increasingly unable to assimilate the data of the world around [them] by way of experience,” the newspaper comes immediately to his mind:
If it were the intention of the press to have the reader assimilate the information it supplies as part of his own experience, it would not achieve its purpose. But its intention is just the opposite, and it is achieved: to isolate what happens from the realm in which it could
affect the experience of the reader. The principles of journalistic information (freshness of news, brevity, comprehensibility, and, above all, lack of connection between the individual news items) contribute as much to this as does the make-up of the pages and the paper’s style. (Karl Kraus never tired of demonstrating the great extent to which the linguistic usage of newspapers paralyzed the imagination of readers.) (Charles Baudelaire, 112)
The newspaper’s fragmentation reXects and elicits not only the fragmentation of its readership, but their blindness to their real conditions of existence, all the more insidious because it does so in the guise of informing them: showing them the world as it really is (the current events equivalent of history-according-to-Ranke, as Benjamin depicts him in the “Theses”). By saying so much, the newspaper hides much more. Once again in this case, as so often with Benjamin, we are urged to recognize that seeing should not lead to believing when we read a newspaper. We should consider, rather, what fails to come into view, especially the network of social relations that underwrites the news. For Benjamin, “where there is experience in the strict sense of the word, certain contents of the individual past combine with material of the collective past” (113). The newspaper, conversely, in the very process of supposedly making the world visible, actually helps make real social relations invisible, and in doing so undermines any possibility of collectivity, locally or globally. By mimicking the brevity and fragmentation of journalism, but—unlike newspapers—focusing on the archaic, establishing thematic networks of interconnections among the items, and posing certain problems of “comprehensibility” self-consciously in his often elliptical and suggestive, rather than straightforward and interpretive, presentations of material, Benjamin persistently resisted what he saw as journalism’s desocializing, numbing, and distancing effect. Whereas the newspaper seems to give you the world as it is in brief, Berliner Chronik instead offers brief fragments that indicate how tenaciously the capitalist world eludes collective understanding of its totality. In a text gesturing toward this totality, Benjamin’s Moor occupies a gap or hole left in the wake of Georg Simmel’s theorization of metropolitan modernity in essays such as “Metropolis and Modern Life,” which depict modernity as at once the bearer of freedom and
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loneliness, as a spur to creativity and individualism, and as an assault in which “violent stimuli” (aufdrängende Impressionen) take their toll on city dwellers who become blasé, indifferent, and detached in response (325). Never in “Metropolis and Modern Life” does Simmel suggest that the modernity of the (unnamed) Berlin he holds up to view is, at the very moment he is writing, perpetrating an assault on the peoples of Africa and Oceania, an assault that brought “violent stimuli” into their lives in a modern way, though one at some variance, of course, with the hustle and bustle of a metropolitan thoroughfare that Simmel has in mind. He does allude to the “cosmopolitanism” (Kosmopolitismus) of modernity: “for the metropolis,” he observes, “it is decisive that its inner life is extended in wave-like motion over a broader national or international area” (334–35). The metropolis exceeds itself, in this way, and thus has “life, might, importance, responsibility.” At the level of the subject, this outward extension (nowhere called imperialism) augments the freedom and sense of individual importance of each city dweller: “it is our irreplaceability by others which shows that our mode of existence is not imposed upon us from the outside.” For many thousands of peoples in Africa and Oceania, however, the growth of metropolitan centers was predicated on a “mode of existence . . . imposed from the outside.” The blindness to imperialism as part of metropolitan modernity and thus to modernity as a set of global, though uneven, relations was endemic in early European theorizations. Benjamin’s Moor, conversely, depicts a modern metropolis inhabited by the traces of its putative other, insisting that we understand modernity as a global totality: the very interpretation that I suggested Shonibare’s work invites, but that his own reading forecloses. As an artwork, a “cultural treasure,” the Moor sculpture carries with it the history of barbarism that Benjamin’s “Theses” remind us of—in this case, in relation to Africa in particular—and thus directs us to all the global “anonymous toil” that renders the European collection of such objects possible (Illuminations, 256).40 Under conditions of structural inequality, it is arguably an advantage that Benjamin chose not to spell out his sociospatial theory but rather to enact it in the behavior of the prose—in the use of evocative imagery and the networks of relations established among the fragments such that they hint at a totality greater than the sum of
the parts, but to which any part might nonetheless give us access. The fragments, after all, always direct us to look further, to the place beyond our current vision, around the corner (between the lines), and especially to reassess the certitude that we really see all of what is there, right before our eyes. Both are crucial tasks for an anti-imperial reading practice. Each fragment of Berliner Chronik is at once threshold and network of intertwinings, incomplete in itself, but nevertheless evidence of, and the route to, a totality that remains beyond our full imagining, both because it is a process, not a stable “thing,” and because of its complexity. As Benjamin put it, “we cannot draw closed the net [of capitalism] in which we are caught” (“Capitalism,” 288). But he did not think that this was a permanent state: “Later on, however, we shall be able to gain an overview of it.” The “later on” is when it is destroyed. In the meantime, we have to remain attentive to the unsaid and invisible.41 Gaps and elisions in Benjamin’s text teach the reader to be more attuned to the gaps and elisions in the world, which may appear all too coherent and seamless. The everyday experience of imperial relations by African peoples was (is) often invisible in the metropole as such—either completely so, because unspoken, or because diverted by fantastical displacements. As we have seen, however, Benjamin’s Berliner Chronik critiques the metropolitan bourgeois subject precisely for remaining blind to the class injustices of capital in the ordinary practices of his everyday life; the Moor pushes this critique onto a broader scale, where it is thoroughly relevant today. Global business as usual still depends on the assumption that it is natural and just for whole swaths of the planet to be virtually excluded from the global economy except in the terms dictated by the metropole, and that the wealth and resources of some nations are meant to Xow to others who can put them to the “best” uses, the standard economic justiWcation for the Xow of scarce minerals—and virtually everything else—to where there is cash, without consideration of disproportion or relative need.42 In the spring of 2000, the Economist published a cover story it titled “Hopeless Africa.” Although only a single page long, it ranged over the entire continent, shaking its editorial head gloomily over the sad state of affairs. “African societies,” the essay avers, “for reasons buried in their cultures, seem especially susceptible to . . . brutality, despotism and corruption”
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(17; emphasis added). Imperialism as well as continued trade, aid, and lending policies that advance metropolitan interests are not mentioned. A followup article in the same issue brings up charges of exploitation and domination, as well as racist perspectives on African failure to thrive, only to reject both as (apparently equally) wrongheaded and to pin blame on African leaders.43 After a Wrestorm of letters the journal did concede, in a later reply to critics, some of the massive evidence (which I cited at the beginning of the paper) supporting the exploitation over the racist theory of global inequality. Having detailed these daunting global conditions and forces, however, the Economist still manages to conclude that internal factors are paramount: “most ordinary Africans are ill-served by their leaders. That is Africa’s continuing tragedy” (“Africa’s Elusive Dawn,” 18). It should be emphasized that the editors do not suggest that African leaders might be overwhelmed—not as people, but precisely as leaders—by the very enormity of the global forces stacked against them.44 Ama Ata Aidoo’s furious retort indicates some of the problems with the Economist’s assumptions—and how remarkably deeply imperialist attitudes still permeate the metropole:
[T]hose who know it for a fact credit Africa with an almost inexhaustible percentage of the whole world’s natural resources. The desire to loot these riches has led stakeholders to abuse its people verbally, physically, psychologically and in other unimaginable ways. The campaign to portray Africans and people of African descent everywhere as next to animals must surely have one objective: to demonstrate that Africans do not deserve to have Africa—at least, not as much as others do. (5)
Against the demonstrably destructive effects of European positive knowledge, Benjamin opens the possibility of bringing the negative to bear: we must recall that his memory fragment contains the vague outline of “another Moor” to which the Wrst appears to be “urgently oriented.” The familiar European image of the docile and willing native, then, is not offering his wares/gift in this memory to a white man, but to a Moor who is (perhaps) absent. The absent Moor directs the metropolitan us (urgently, even) to remember that the familiar image with which Benjamin confronts us does not tell the whole story on its surface any more than did the image of the sandwich-board
man through whom Benjamin had once imagined “the poor.” Colonialism obliged the native to disappear as a being distinct from the interests of the colonizer. The absent Moor in Berliner Chronik, I would suggest, is the placeholder for all that metropolitan elites do not know—cannot know—about the peoples of the world othered by them, not because they are mysterious and inscrutable, but because the vantage point from which they look necessarily leaves so much out of frame and focus, beyond the ken of people with a deep investment in not seeing that global inequalities are a result of remediable conditions, not nature, and ongoing imperial oppression, not the ineptitude of nonmetropolitan peoples. Marxism gives us access to a reading of Benjamin’s text as a critique of imperialism—capitalism’s totality—that still needs to be deployed; poststructuralism on its own heretofore has often merely encouraged us to admire Benjamin’s fragments.
I would like to thank Amata Schneider-Ludorff for help with the German, and the members of my writing group at Syracuse University for valuable critique of an early draft of this essay: Dympna Callaghan, Michael Echeruo, Susan Edmunds, Bob Gates, Priya Jaikumar, Claudia Klaver, Christian Thorne, Silvio TorresSaillant, and Monika Wadman. I’d also like to thank the two anonymous readers for the journal, and especially the special issue editor, Keya Ganguly, for insightful suggestions for clarifying and tightening the argument.
1. For recent commentary on Shonibare, who has been one of the particularly successful (and therefore much written about) black British artists, see, for example, Enwezor; Hylton; Hynes; Oguibe; and Picton. Some critics, I should note, emphasize the same global politics that I do here: I am critiquing Shonibare’s own self-analysis speciWcally. Arguing that the sort of political-economic critique I am foregrounding has already had its day, Shonibare observes: “Up until the mid-1980s, very serious feminist work and very serious Black art was being made, looking at issues around slavery and colonization, very wellmeaning work. That was the context in which I was at college. I thought, well, those issues have been well-raised, and I felt that it had been done. Wouldn’t it be good to just surprise people: Black people can laugh, too! We’re not serious all the time! I felt that it was time to loosen up a little. When I make work I draw from my own experiences. But my experiences are not all gloomy. There are times when I feel silly. I do recognize that there are issues that are still a problem, but I just wanted to have a bit of a laugh about it all because it’s so stupid” (Waxman,
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37). The problem with his own readings of his work, as this passage suggests, is that they tend to want to privilege the playful “identity” issues over—even against—all other modes of reading, such that the relation between political economy and identity seems less likely to be seen or worked out, in spite of the fact that his art seems to allude to it so manifestly. Given this disavowal, his work must be read “against the grain” of his intention, so to speak, to bring the political economy back into view. Adorno and Benjamin referred to such a process as the quest for “unintentional truth,” which was crucial to their wrenching of utopian possibilities out of unlikely sites (see Buck-Morss, Origin, 77–81). 2. This is not to say that poststructuralist critiques are utterly false or useless; rather it is to emphasize that they must be deployed in full recognition of the determinant power relations that do still pertain in the world (which is a statement that certain poststructuralisms would already disallow). As Asha Varadharajan reminds us in a critique of tendencies to see “Xuidity” everywhere, such readings too easily forget “that the circulation of power and of subject positions must nevertheless foreground who regulates whom” (74). Similarly, Timothy Brennan has nicely observed in his critique of the overzealous turn in theory toward identifying hybridities and mixtures that these are “complete as identity and incomplete as situation”—the situation being one in which relations of identiWable oppression and resistance are evident (18). I have tried to be attentive to “situation” here. The crucial point is that what works for a cultural analysis is often woefully inadequate to a political-economic one (and vice versa), which is why each approach must confront, and be confronted by, the other, instead of attempting to ignore or deny the validity of the other. 3. See the “Exposé of 1939,” in The Arcades Project, for an explicit elaboration of this concept. 4. As Fredric Jameson has often observed, the “disappearance of class” is so axiomatic in contemporary U.S. ideology that it is not surprising that it has often disappeared from social critique as well. This disappearance, however, is itself part of capital’s politics of invisibility. See, for example, his “Class and Allegory in Contemporary Mass Culture,” chapter 2 of Signatures of the Visible. 5. I coin “strategic binarization” as the global force against which one must deploy what Gayatri Spivak has called (good) “strategic essentialism” (for a discussion of the importance of this term, the limits of deconstruction, and the endless pluralization of “difference” as “politics,” see Harasym, ed., 10–11, 104, 109). This reminder is important not least because capitalism, too, has “difference” in its arsenal for deployment at the local level while the global divide between metropole and periphery ever widens, as Stuart Hall has recently been emphasizing; see “The Local and the Global,” especially 28–31. 6. The best discussions of totality and Adorno/Benjamin to my mind remain Buck-Morss and Jameson, especially in Late Marxism. For an inXuential contrasting view, see Jay. 7. John Kraniauskas has written what may be the only article previous to this one that takes up at length the implications of the imperial context of
Benjamin’s writings. My project is at considerable variance with Kraniauskas’s (I come to exactly the opposite conclusion to his that Benjamin’s work cannot serve an anti-imperial function), but certainly I would want to defend his attempt to historicize Benjamin’s work in the colonial context in which it was written, even though in a review of the volume in which the essay appears, Gerhardt Richter dismisses this exercise (well beyond his concern with unfortunate philological errors that he identiWes in Kraniauskas’s text) apparently because “colonial” is not one of Benjamin’s privileged concepts and “there is very little that motivates a sustained political consideration of ‘anticolonial struggles in Africa and Asia’ . . . from within Benjamin’s work itself” (213). As I indicate in this essay, Fredric Jameson (among others) has already shown us that such explicit thematization is hardly necessary to a text’s participation in the production of (anti-) imperial ideology. Richter’s trivializing of Kraniauskas’s essay is all the more surprising as his own book (2000) would seem to invite attention to passing moments, and the unsaid, in the Benjaminian text. 8. A number of critics have linked Benjamin’s own work broadly with modernism. See, for example, Frisby: “[T]he search for a social theory of modernity is fused with that of a concern for the aims and sometimes techniques of modernism in [Simmel, Kracauer, and Benjamin]” (5). On issues of method, see Buck-Morss, Origins and Dialectics. 9. The question of the content of Benjamin’s Marxism is not an easy one. As is repeatedly pointed out, not only did he attempt to wrench together concepts and modes of thought that were alien to each other and, as a result, horriWed his various readers and friends more decidedly entrenched in one camp or another, but his Wrsthand study of Marx and Marxism was relatively limited. On the other hand, his brother was a Communist, and a number of key intellectual friends and allies from Asja Lacis to Brecht and Adorno were Marxists, albeit of radically different kinds, which impacted on his own ambivalences and methodological ambiguities. What can be said of a text such as Berliner Chronik, nonetheless, is that its sympathies are Marxist and useful to Marxism, although the same text (and others) have also recommended themselves to a host of other uses. My essay is devoted to the importance of keeping alive the Marxist Benjamin, not just as one, but as privileged, among the others. Momme Brodersen’s biography of Benjamin catalogs the various moments of encounter with Marxist inXuence while remaining skeptical about how deeply they took. Numerous attempts have also been made to reclaim Benjamin for one variety or another of Marxism, from Adorno on. See, for example, Eagleton’s effort to associate Benjamin with “Western Marxism” and Margaret Cohen’s quite different “Gothic” appropriation. 10. See, for example, Buck-Morss, “Flâneur,” and also Dialectics, 184–85; Leslie, 114–15; Rauch; Weigel, 92–94. 11. Although there are passing references to European imperialism scattered throughout the criticism, and there have been a number of recent applications of Benjamin’s concepts and method to (post)colonial situations and “different cultural imaginaries” (e.g., Abbas; Hansen; Harootunian, in Steinberg),
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as well as some studies of colonialist extravaganzas and exhibitions that interested Benjamin, such as the World Fairs (e.g., Hinsley, in Steinberg), German imperialism has received surprisingly little attention as a context for Benjamin’s work, with an essay by John Kraniauskas being an exception (see note 7). 12. Particularly zealous has been Susanne Zantop, as both author and editor. See, for example, Zantop; Friedrichsmeyer, Lennox, and Zantop; and Zantop, in Denham. 13. See Pogge von Strandmann; Wesseling (section II, chapters 5–6); also see Förster et al., especially the essays by Pogge von Strandmann, Bade, Mommsen, and Fisch. 14. For overviews, see Henderson (224–29) (economic history); Mommsen (Imperial Germany, chapter 5); and, especially, Smith (“Colonialism and Colonial Empire” and The German Colonial Empire). 15. On Berlin’s anxieties about, and attempts to achieve, world city status, see Masur, chapter 5; and Large, chapter 2. Feuchtwanger has explained that for Germany as a whole, “colonies and navies were accoutrements of the welldressed world power which no German government could give up,” in spite of the high cost (142). 16. To their credit, much of the left was against colonization from the start. The Social Democrats before World War I and the Communists after—SPD (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands) and the KPD (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands)—were ofWcially internationalist and anti-imperial parties. The major left-wing leaders were all against colonization on economic, political, and especially moral grounds (see Stoecker and Sebald; and Steenson, 67–78). Wilhelm Liebknecht’s long Wnal speech in 1900 (circulated as a memorial pamphlet after his death) was a furious indictment of German colonial adventurism and its horrendous costs to both the peoples of Africa and the East, as well as most of the population of Germany (collected in Pelz, ed.). Rosa Luxemburg spoke out against colonies often, as in the famous “Junius” pamphlet in which she takes to task the members of the SPD who defected from internationalism to jingoism during World War I, and thus to supporting Germany’s various expansionisms (collected in Waters, ed.). Throughout the three decades of German colonial adventurism, in fact, many left intellectuals and artists participated in the production of anticolonial propaganda. Bertolt Brecht, for one, penned an internationalist solidarity song that exhorted all people “black or white or brown or yellow [to] leave [their] old disputes behind” and band together in the Wght to destroy capitalism, at a time in which the left press made a similar case, in word and image (see Weitz, chapter 7). And not least, of course, there was the largescale ongoing evidence of resistance to imperialism in the colonized countries themselves, news of which Wltered back, albeit distortedly, to Berlin, fueling internationalist critiques of imperialism. 17. It should be noted that Evans Lewin, the author of the Wrst epigraph, is not German, but rather a Wercely nationalistic Englishman anxiously taking stock of German “aims on the Dark Continent,” as the subtitle of his 1915
book proclaims. He quotes the passage I cite in the course of his discussion of deplorable German settler attitudes toward “natives,” attributing it to the Deutsche-Südwestafrikanische Zeitung, but does not give full bibliographical information, and I have been unable to track the reference down, though there was deWnitely a newspaper of this name published between 1898 and 1914. Given the tendency of the colonial powers to toss accusations of bad behavior at each other, it is possible that the quotation is manipulated. The sentiments expressed are not, however, out of line with colonial press writing (of any of the colonial powers, in spite of Lewin’s attempt to render it singularly “German”). And it is certainly not at odds with the German ofWcial extermination policy in Southwest Africa, on which see Bley; Drechsler; and Smith. The quotation can be found on page 117 of Lewin’s book. 18. This examination of “anomalous cases” (as the table of contents in this edition puts it) is one of the more remarkable passages in the Principles for its matter-of-factness and astonishing limit to discussion of the anomaly of this case. Indeed, the West Indies are compared to Manchester if it were moved to “a rock on the North Sea (its present industry nevertheless continuing)” (685), without any distinction being made between the relationship of the inhabitants of Manchester to England and the inhabitants of the West Indian colonies and England (685). Mill manages this because he views the relationship between metropole and colony as that “between town and country” (686)—much as Raymond Williams (with a quite different agenda) would later do in The Country and the City (see chapters 24–25)—but without in any way examining the speciWcity of the colonial situation, ethically or otherwise. 19. See chapter 5 of Mommsen; for a recent discussion of German attempts to extend its (informal) inXuence in Latin America, in particular, which brought it into some contention with the United States in this period, see Mitchell. For a general overview of economic issues and trends (to which colonies are so insigniWcant as not even to Wgure) before World War I, see Berghahn, chapters 1–3. 20. As Smith observes, “German colonialism did not die in 1919, however. Indeed, the colonial movement became in some ways more popular and better organized than before” (“Colonialism,” 450). Also see Herman (Lenin-inspired assessment); and Schmokel. 21. See Gilman; Lloyd; the essays collected in Blackshire-Belay, ed.; McBride, Hopkins, and Blackshire-Belay, eds.; Friedrichsmeyer, Lennox, and Zantop, eds. 22. See, for example, Clifford (especially “On Collecting Art and Culture”); Edwards; Lloyd; Torgovnick. 23. See Lavin, chapter 5; also Makela. Not all critics agree that Höch’s work is as critical of racism or imperialism as I am suggesting here, but her concern for gender oppression certainly made her sensitive to issues of representation and display (on that critics agree). This sensitivity, I am contending, does ultimately have the effect (given her material in the ethnographic museum series, at any rate) of calling racial and ethnic, as well as gender, representation into question,
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whatever her intentions. As Lavin concludes in her chapter on the series, “Hoch deviated from the nonambiguous, folkloristic representation of African and other tribal peoples in the Illustrierte and lays the foundation for a critique of racism, even if she did not pursue it further” (182). 24. See in particular “The Social Production of the News” in Policing the Crisis, Hall et al. The concerns of Policing intersect with numerous themes in this essay: the politics of (in)visibility; the irreducibility of the legacy of imperialism to understanding current global (and local) inequality; and, as I shall take up at the end of the essay, the role of newspapers in securing the status quo. 25. Jameson continues by suggesting that “obvious” places would be “content or representation” and argues for the importance of paying attention to form. I build on his suggestion in this essay by focusing on the reading practice that Berliner Chronik seems to demand, and also by pointing to the workings of dialectical images that wed form and content. Actually, Jameson’s own reading practice indicates that he, too, is interested in content—but often not on obvious content or obvious readings of it. His important point is that even texts that are not explicitly about imperialism can nonetheless have quite a lot to say about it. 26. Neither Berliner Chronik nor the similarly structured Berliner Kindheit (Berlin childhood) were published during Benjamin’s lifetime in their collected forms (though some of the vignettes were published separately). Furthermore, the typescript of the Berliner Chronik (unlike that of the Berliner Kindheit) does not appear to have been fully prepared for publication by Benjamin before his death. The two texts overlap so little in material, however, that it is doubtful that the Berliner Kindheit is a displacement of the Berliner Chronik. I have worked with the Berliner Chronik here, even though it was not the text circulated for publication in Nazi Germany; of the two Berlin texts, it is by far the most explicit about class issues. That it was the less explicitly politicized Berliner Kindheit that Benjamin ultimately chose to attempt to publish in the 1930s is due, I would argue, not to some distaste for or lack of investment in Berliner Chronik, but to a prudent assessment of the situation in which he was attempting to live and work in the early Nazi period. Writing to Scholem from Paris at the beginning of his exile there in 1933, he observes: “under such conditions, the utmost political reserve, such as I have long and with good reason practiced, may protect the person in question from systematic persecution, but not from starvation” (from the increasing refusals to publish his work) (Correspondence, 405–6). 27. “Reminiscences, even extensive ones, do not always amount to an autobiography. And these quite certainly do not, even for the Berlin years that I am exclusively concerned with here. For autobiography has to do with time, with sequence and what makes up the continuous Xow of life. Here, I am talking of a space, of moments and discontinuities” (“Berlin Chronicle,” 28). 28. Susan Buck-Morss has made the perceptive observation that while Benjamin has been criticized for imposing his biography allegorically on whatever text comes to hand and thus reducing it to the personal, his approach is better read in exactly the opposite way—that the individual for him is emblematic of
the social (Dialectics, 31–32). Benjamin’s own comments on memory, at least, accord better with Buck-Morss’s reading (though she does not mention this passage): “Man’s inner concerns do not have their issueless private character by nature. They do so only when he [the modern subject] is increasingly unable to assimilate the data of the world around him by way of experience” (Illuminations, 158). I shall return to this point in the discussion of newspapers later in this essay. 29. The signiWcance of the Landwehr Canal was intensiWed for the German left after World War I, since it was the site in which the battered body of Rosa Luxemburg was discovered after she “disappeared” from police detention in 1919 in the wake of the worker uprising of that year in Berlin (Large, 163). 30. Benjamin underscores the association of “Schwelle” with the bourgeois household elsewhere in the text, in phrases such as “die Schwelle jenes Hauses” (the threshold of that house) (“Berlin Chronicle,” 27; Berliner Chronik, 55). One of the interesting uses of Grenze, alternatively, emerges in the course of a discussion of the “boundary” of childhood memory, transforming time into a sort of foreign country and linking Benjamin’s discussions of the interpenetration of spaces and of times (see “Berlin Chronicle,” 29; Berliner Chronik, 58). 31. Berlin never hosted a World Fair, though it did put on an Industrial Exhibition in 1896, in which it attempted to accomplish similar grandiose aims of augmenting Berlin’s prestige, and it used anthropological exhibits to contrast with the technological ones in order to do so (Large, 81–83). For a discussion of the anthropological displays at the World Fairs, with Chicago as the case study, see Hinsley (“Strolling through the Colonies”) in Steinberg, ed. 32. There is another way in which the father and the Moor might be seen as comparable in the context of German racism, whose effects Benjamin was certainly experiencing at the time of the writing of the Berliner Chronik. Sander Gilman has noted that “in Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf as well as the ideological bible of the Nazi movement, Alfred Rosenberg’s Der Mythus des 20. Jahrhunderts, . . . the presence of the ‘Blacks’ in Germany is linked with or paralleled to the central stereotype of German racism, the Jew. . . . Indeed one of the qualities ascribed by anti-Semites to the Jews (as well as to the Gypsies) was their ‘blackness’” (xiv). After the war, with a very different agenda, Aimé Césaire would describe colonialism as a form of fascism with the hopes of encouraging horror at its practices at a moment in which imperialism was still ongoing, while fascism was defeated and discredited. Later Paul Gilroy and others would insist on the importance of examining the abuse, displacement, extermination, enslavement, and extinguishing of human possibilities that have been visited on black peoples, alongside those visited on the Jews over the centuries and in the Holocaust. This parallel remains a contentious issue, but it seems plausible to me that writing in the context of racism against Jews, Benjamin might well have had cause to reXect, consciously or unconsciously, on other racisms, which could have had something to do with the Moor, of all things, being conjured up in his memory in relation to his father. 33. See Buck-Morss, “Hegel,” which discusses the intriguing possibility that
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the Lectures may have marked a backsliding into the crassest racism on Hegel’s part, but nonetheless a backward move that had a long impact; see also Miers in Gifford, ed., on the impact of slavery on German and British colonial policy; the texts listed in note 21 also have some interest to the question of the association of “blackness” with slavery. 34. As Sander Gilman notes, the old high German word “môr” was Wrst used principally to designate North Africans, but slowly expanded to include Africans more generally, especially in terms of a religious conXict between the Christian and Muslim worlds: “the term Mohr became a portmanteau concept for the dark-skinned non-Christian” (xii). By the time Benjamin was writing, however, “Mohr” was generally replaced by “Neger” to distinguish sub-Saharan peoples. 35. The Wrst line of Benjamin’s essay on Moscow is “More quickly than Moscow itself, one gets to know Berlin through Moscow” (“Berlin Chronicle,” 97). 36. See, for example, Williams’s “When Was Modernism?” in Politics of Modernism. 37. “The Task of the Translator,” for example, is a preface to Benjamin’s translation into German of a collection of Baudelaire’s poetry. 38. One Way Street is particularly jam-packed with such imagery, some of it difWcult to reclaim as anti-imperialist. However, a long middle section titled “Imperial Panorama,” as well as the very last section, a meditation on the ill effects of the desire of “imperialists” for “mastery of nature” on a “planetary” scale (104), make clear that Benjamin did not consider imperialism to be a dead issue for Germany after the loss of colonies. Also in One Way Street we are presented with a scene involving a target range at the fair in which, when the mark is hit, a door opens and “before red plush curtains stands Moor who seems to bow slightly. He holds in front of him a golden bowl” (85). The Moor with the golden bowl in the later Berliner Chronik, I would suggest, wrenches the target range sorts of Moors of everyday racist representation into a rather different relation to viewers than they otherwise might have had. 39. Benjamin, of course, earned a large portion of his own income from journalism—print and radio—until 1933 when the Nazi takeover pretty much closed off his avenues for publication in Germany, except for a handful of works under a pseudonym. This obviously did not temper his critique. 40. There is nothing to suggest that the sculpture was a product of Africa, of course, nor do I suggest that this was the case; I merely refer to its referential function as a dialectical image and what it opens up to view, not its provenance. 41. This raises the question of why, if the Moor sculpture is as important as I am saying it is, it has not received attention hitherto. In response, I would point to Benjamin’s own frequent allusions to words, images, and experiences that are encountered in one moment, only to have their meanings emerge much later. In the Berliner Chronik, he cites not only words (“class,” “love,” “syphilis”) in these terms, but also the sites and objects of his childhood that he holds up for later inspection when, situated anew, they take on new meanings. Criticism of the
same work at different times can have a similar function of drawing out the meanings of things that speak urgently to them; I argue that the Moor needs to speak to our time, urgently. 42. Jennifer Wenzel gave an excellent paper at the 2001 meeting of the Modern Language Association on this very problem, with the Congo as her case study. 43. SpeciWcally, the longer Economist article characterizes the two views it would dismiss as, on the one hand, emanating from those people who would “blame the way the rest of the world has treated Africa, citing exploitation going back to the slave trade and European colonial rule. They blame cold-war rivalry for propping up greedy dictators in the Wrst 30 years of African independence, and now they trace the continent’s failures to debt, exploitative trading relations and too-strict demands for economic reform from the IMF and the World Bank”; and on the other hand, derived from those people who propose that “Africa’s wars, corruption and tribalism are ‘just the way Africa is,’ and that African societies are unable to sustain viable states.” The editors conclude, “In the past, outsiders would have described Africa’s failure in racial terms. Some still do. They are wrong, but social and cultural factors cannot be discounted” (“Heart,” 22). 44. C. L. R. James’s book-length assessment of Nkrumah shows that one does not have to defend the brutal, corrupt regimes that have marred postindependence history in many African states in order to view them in a global context. That there is stacking of the international economy against nonmetropolitan nations has been afWrmed not just on the left (which, of course, has been saying this for a long time), but even from fans of capitalist globalization, such as George Soros, who has recently argued that “reform” is needed “to correct the built-in bias in our existing international trade and Wnancial institutions that favors the developed countries that largely control them” (8).
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