You are on page 1of 14

Beckett, Benjamin and the Modern Crisis in Communication Author(s): Jan Bruck Reviewed work(s): Source: New German

Critique, No. 26, Critical Theory and Modernity (Spring - Summer, 1982), pp. 159-171 Published by: New German Critique Stable URL: . Accessed: 06/02/2012 19:37
Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at . JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact

New German Critique and Duke University Press are collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to New German Critique.

Beckett, Benjamin and the Modern Crisis in Communication

by Jan Bruck

Beckett has so far largely defied sociological analysis, and most scholars are still preoccupied with the psychological and philosophical aspects of his work.' In an attempt to move towards a sociological perspective which could help to define more precisely the place and function of Beckett's writings in contemporary Western society, I am going to make use of Walter Bejnamin's theory of literary production, which provides an explanation of the crisis in communication and aesthetic perception that has been constitutive for many modern writers since the turn of the century. In drawing this connection, which surprisingly has so far escaped attention, I am not considering Beckett's oeuvre in toto, but only those texts which he wrote a few years after World War II - Waitingfor Godot and the novel trilogy Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable. I shall assume that his later plays and novels can be seen as a consistent development of the earlier themes and problems, some of which he had already formulated in his major aesthetic manifesto, the essay on "Proust" of 1931. This treatise raised issues strikingly similar to those which Benjamin discussed a few years later in his Illuminations essays, particularly "The Storyteller" and "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire." They deal with the concepts of "storytelling," "memory" and "experience" which provide focal points for the comparative analysis of Benjamin's aesthetic theory and Beckett's literary practice.2 When Beckett arrived on the European scene, he was received by a
1. This is still evident, for example, in a recent selectionof criticalessays edited by H.
Engelhardt and D. Mettler, Materalien zu Samuel Becketts Romanen (Frankfurt/M., 1976).

The only important of by exceptionI knowof is the interpretation Endgame Th. W. Adorno, II "Versuch, das Endspiel zu verstehen,"Noten zur Literatur (Frankfurt/M.,1963), pp. 188-236. Adorno relates Beckett'snihilisticview of historyand his parodyof existentialist eventsof fascismand the War.I am not dealingwith historical philosophyto the catastrophic the essay in detail, since it does not providea basisfor a systematic The analysis. sociological better known treatiseon "Commitment" (New Left Review,87/88 [1974],75-89) mightbe more fruitfulin this direction. 2. Benjamincriticismin Englandand the USA has been growingin recentyears. Most Red Benjamin," Letter,7 (1978);R. helpfulfor this analysiswere:R. Burns,"Understanding G. Davis, "Benjamin, Storytellingand Brecht in the USA," New GermanCritique,17, Special WalterBenjaminissue (Spring1979), 143-157; and S. M. Weber, "WalterBenja159


Jan Bruck

stunned, speechless audience, whose traumatic experience of fascism and the War had destroyed its power of memory - the ability to "think history" (Adorno) and the capacity to relate its "story." Yet the speechlessness whch beset both Beckett's heroes and their audience alike was not only due to the horrors of war; beyond the immediate historical catastrophe, it signalized the destruction of the traditions and values of Western culture and society, which Beckett saw in terms of a fundamental crisis in communication and aesthetic representation. Waitingfor Godot presents this dilemma. Vladimir and Estragon, the existential tramps, have lost the essential capacity to tell their story - memory. Not only do they fail to remember how they came to be where they are, they also do not know what to do: "nothing to be done" is the leitmotif of their habitual and frustrating dialogue. As "time has stopped," preventing any development or change, there can be no progress in their understanding of the world, no formation of an experience on which they themselves or the audience could build:3 V.: And where were we yesterdayeveningaccording you? to E.: How do I know? In anothercompartment. There'sno lack of void. V.: (sure of himself).Good. We weren'there yesterdayevening.Now what did we do yesterdayevening? E.: Do? V.: Try and remember. E.: Do... I supposewe blathered. V.: (controllinghimself).About what? E.: Oh... this and that, I suppose,nothingin particular. (withassurance). Yes, now I remember,yesterdaywe talkedabout nothingin particular. That's been going on now for half a century. V.: You don't rememberany fact, any circumstance? E.: (weary). Don't tormentme, Didi. V.: The sun. The moon. Do you not remember? E.: They must have been there, as usual. V.: You didn't notice anythingout of the ordinary? E.: Alas! Beckett's creatures have been stripped of all the elements which identified the bourgeois individual as the subject and center of the world: possessions and property, social relations and human ties, knowledge and rationality. Beckett treats these values of bourgeois life with cynical contempt, parodying the most important discourses that provided the ideological backing of Western society - the Bible, Science and Philosophy - whose failure in explaining the world and in providing a useful knowledge of the self and
min, CommodityFetishism, the Modernand the Experienceof History,"The Unknown Dimension in EuropeanMarxismSince Lenin, ed. Dick Howardand Carl E. Klare (New

249-275. York:BasicBooks,1972),

3. Waiting Godot (London, 1959),p. 66. for

Beckett, Benjamin and the Modern Crisis in Communication


of society became drastically apparentin the historicalmomentof fascism and the War. The inabilityto communicateexperiencethrougha "story"is also the for subject matterof the novel-trilogy precedingWaiting Godot.The hero of the first part, Molloy, attempts to reconstructhow he reached his mother's room in which he is living, incapacitated, aftercrawlingout of a ditch throughunknownterrain.As in Godot, the essentialelementsnecessary for the formationof an experienceare lacking,and althoughthe hero is still able to recallpeople and occurrences the past, to reminisceabout of certain aspects of his life, his writingdoes not comprisea unified"story," as the traditionalcoordinatesof space and time are out of order. Having discarded materialpossessionsand humanties, Molloy engages in trivial activities and thoughts,merely to pass time and to wait for his end which occurs in part II of the trilogy, MaloneDies. Lying in his mother's room, Malone, alone, is awaiting his death. There is no need anymoreto reconstructthe past, only to play the final game. Tied to his bed and equippedwith a shortpencil, Malonerelateshis final "stories," "lifeless like the teller,"4 stories about the inability to narrate, to describe,to communicate.Malone'sdesireis to writehis novel into death, to die writing and to write dying, thereby "being given... birthto into death."5His desirefor deathcan be linkedwitha "detestation for the mother who ejected the hero from the womb." According to Fletcher, most of Beckett's earlyheroes regardthe womb as a "protective calm" and life as "a punishment, a pensum," which makes death "a second, and perhaps happier birth," because "it will finally reverse the process that has been so painful to recalland for which life itself has not find been sufficientto atone."6 Psychoanalytic interpretations theirparallel in those that relate the trilogy to biblical myth: "Buildingthrough biblical allusions a parodic dialectic between Genesis and Revelation, Beckett mocks the beginning and the end of "creation."He uses the Creative Wordas a comicepistemological mirrorreflectinga distortedand now grotesque image of his narrator"I," "creatorof all fictions..." Birth and death correlate to creation and destruction, the individual as human life being as pointless and incomprehensible is the historyof humankindin general.On the aesthetic/epistemological plane, thispsychological or mythicaldeath signifiesthe declineof the storyand of its author, in short the crisis in communication. In The Unnamable,the point of no returnis reached.An unidentifiable
4. Molloy, MalloneDies, The Unnamable (London, 1959),p. 180.
5. Ibid., p. 285. 6. J. Fletcher, "Malone 'Given Birth to into Death,'" ed. J. O'Hara, Twentieth Century

(New York, 1955),p. 60. of Interpretations Molloy, MaloneDies, The Unnamable

7. Jan Hokenson, "A Stuttering Logos: Biblical Paradigms in Beckett's Trilogy," James Joyce Quarterly, 8, No. 4 (1971), 293.


Jan Bruck

"I" sits, in purgatory, watching the shadows of Malone, Molloy and all other heroes of the previous novels move past, no longer in life, mere speech, language, consciousness. There is no longer any "story," however rudimentary, to be told, all traditional categories of time, place, subject and object have been jettisoned, all sense of continuity, tradition and identity has been lost, and distrust in the power of memory is complete. What is left is a conglomerate of contradictory, self-relativizing and nonreferential statements that flow on from page to page without a break, "inarticulate murmurs" that cannot be ended. The "story" ends without an end, so to speak: "... the voice begins again, it begins trying again, quick now before there is none left, no voice left, nothing left but the core of murmurs, distant cries, quick now and try again, with the words that remain, try what, I don't know, to have them carry me into my story, the words that remain, my old story, which I've forgotten, far from here, through the noise, through the door, into the silence, that must be it, it's too late, perhaps it's too late, perhaps they have, how would I know, in the silence you don't know .. " ". .. I can't go on, you must go on, I'll go on, you must say words, as long as there are any, until they find me, until they say me, strange pain, strange sin, you must go on, perhaps it's done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be silence, where am I, I don't know, I'll never know, in the silence you don't know, you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on."8 It seems here that Beckett reached as close as one possibly could to expressing the fundamental dilemma of communication which he formulated several times in his theoretical essays (Three Dialogues, I) and which reappears, in distorted form, in The Unnamable: "The fact would seem to be, if in my situation one may speak of facts, not only that I shall have to speak of things of which I cannot speak, but also, which is even more interesting, but also that I, which is if possible even more interesting, that I shall have to, I forget, no matter. And at the same time I am obliged to speak. I shall never be silent. Never."9 What a short-sighted critic discounts as "lack of talent" in writing stories (Alvarez) is precisely the point of Beckett's work: by producing texts which lack the essential ingredients of story-telling - plots with a clear beginning, middle and end, and characters sure of their identity he demonstrates that the meaningful writing of stories and novels is no longer possible. Beckett's prose is a parody of story-writing, it is "metafiction" in the sense recently defined by Margret Rose, in that it "supersedes a tradition of prose, while making this reflective supersession a

8. Op. cit., p. 417f.

9. Ibid., p. 294.

Beckett,Benjaminand the ModernCrisisin Communication 163 subject of another fiction."'0 Through their parodistic self-destruction, Beckett's "stories" represent the dilemma of story-telling, and the crisis of literary communication in the contemporary Western world. In order to uncover the causes of this crisis and the dilemma of aesthetic representation, I will now turn to Benjamin. Benjamin's main theoretical goal was to uncover the links that exist between the changing modes of aesthetic perception and artistic creation on the one hand, and the general "production process," the technique or technology of the production and reproduction of artworks, on the other. As the latter progresses, revolutionizing the means of communication (from print and lithograph to film and radio), artistic forms undergo crises which necessitate the introduction of new forms. In preindustrial culture, where the production of artworks relied on the technology of the artisan, story-telling was the dominant medium of communication. With growing industrialization and the invention of print, literary production superseded the oral tradition and the novel became the dominant form. Finally, with the appearance of advanced technology such as newpaper and film, the dominance of the traditional forms of "narrating" was challenged by a new, post-literary form of communication which Benjamin calls "information." In the process of this development, a fundamental change took place: in preindustrial society, where artistic production was part of a ritual or cult, the work of art was endowed with a near sacred "distance," "inapproachability" and "uniqueness" in place and time, in short with an "aura"; and it contained a truth that was passed on from generation to generation. With the advent of mechanical reproduction, the work of art moved out of its collective cultic context into the competitive sphere of the commodity market, where the "exhibition value" became prevalent, destroying the traditional aura, i.e. its authenticity and authority, and leading to a crisis in aesthetic perception. Out of this crisis, however, originated a new form of communication which emancipated the audience from authority and tradition and released its critical potential, thereby changing it from a passive recipient of pre-established truths to an active collaborator, less interested in cathartic experiences than in political argument. Benjamin applied this general model to the analysis of the modern crisis in communication and the decline in traditional aesthetic forms in his essays on "The Storyteller" and on "Baudelaire," which provide a basis for the critical analysis of Beckett's dilemma of story-telling. The essay on "The Storyteller" is concerned with the reasons for the disappearance of story-telling in the modern world. The traditional story, which Benjamin defines of course in an ideal form, derives from oral traditions in artisan culture, describing either local events and traditions ("lore of the past") or journeys and travels ("lore of faraway places"). It

10. M. Rose, Parody/Meta-fiction (London, 1979), p. 65.

164 Jan Bruck was characterized by an "orientation towards practical interests," i.e., it contained "something useful" in the form of counsel or advice. In modern times - probably beginning with the end of the Middle Ages - giving counsel through a story becomes less and less possible, since the communicability of experience receded and "wisdom," which Benjamin defines as "counsel woven into the, fabric of real life," is dying out." The resulting decline of the story coincides with the rise of the novel as the dominant epic form. As an expression of the aspirations of the bourgeois industrial age, this new form of aesthetic communication is due to the loss of many of the characteristics that defined story-telling, in particular the change from a collective to an individualist social structure. Whereas the storyteller passed his experiences on to the other members of his social group as counsel and in a communal situation, the novelist speaks for "the solitary individual,"12 the privatized subject, who is no longer linked to the other members of the society through communal ties, but through increasingly complex and rationalized apparatuses of socialization and communication. Benjamin does not enter into an analysis of the social and economic factors responsible for the radical transformation from artisan to industrial culture. He is concerned only with the impact of the technological changes, accompanying the social transformation, on aesthetic perception and the modes of artistic production. They are to him the indicators that reveal the changing social function of literature and art. The process of transformation, which took place gradually over hundreds of years from mythical age to modern industrial society, led to the replacement of traditional forms by information as the new medium of communication. Benjamin explains the fundamental difference between story-telling and information in this way: "the value of information does not survive the moment in which it was new. It lives only at that moment; it has to surrender to it completely and explain itself to it without losing any time."'3 For this reason, information constantly needs to be replaced and renewed. Mass media communication does not aim at the formation of a complete, unified experience which could be perpetuated in future generations; its purpose is "to isolate what happens from the realm in which it could affect the experience of the reader. The principles of journalistic information (freshness of the news, brevity, comprehensibility and, above all, lack of connection between news items) contribute as much to this as does the make-up of pages and the paper's style."'4 The amount of sense stimuli and items of information has multiplied many times over through the increased number of signs and signals, the speeding up of traffic and communication, the pace of work in the factory and general global mobility, as is the case in mass society. In
11. 12. 13. 14. W. Benjamin, Illuminations (London, 1970), p. 85f. Ibid., p. 87. Ibid., p. 90. Ibid., p. 160f.

and the ModernCrisisin Communication 165 Beckett,Benjamin

such a world it is of course much more difficult, if not impossible, to

structure the millions of bits of information into a unified whole and to make sense of them in their totality. With the rapidly changing and expanding horizon of communication in which every individual is living, the connection between the present and the past, the self and the others, the individual and the community is breaking up, worsened by the increasing subjection of the individual to anonymous forces of bureaucracy and economic interests. As a result of this simultaneous expansion and disintegration of social communication, we no longer possess a discourse which functions as a source of truth and wisdom as the old stories and the Bible did in earlier times. Instead, we have to contend with competing discourses, as disparate and contradictory as the reality we live in, and it seems hard to imagine that the world will ever agree on any discourse which it can share collectively as a common medium of communication. The decline of storytelling manifests itself also in fundamental changes

in the notions of truthand representation. The "story"in its simpleforms

(e.g. the saga, legend or fairy tale) had a linear morphology with a clear evolution of plot and character - the dominant parts of narration. In this, it did not differ much from the telling (and later writing) of history and, before it assumed a purely fictional character, could claim a "truth" similar

to that of history,on the groundsthat it relatedevents of the past, even if

they were mythical or legendary. The "truth" of the story/history lay in the coherence and plausibility of the events, it revealed itself through that structured order, and the listener comprehended it because the story, rendered usually in a collective situation, revealed a truth explicable in terms of the audience's shared experience. With the rise of the novel and following the failed attempts by idealistic and romantic writers in the early nineteenth century to regain the lost world of legend and myth, the completeness of a story and its ability to relate a "true" experience was no longer guaranteed through its history-relating structure. The realist novelists and their successors were increasingly compelled to search for the - now privatised and internalized - truth in an abstract relation of reflection between the work of art and reality, between the internal structure of the text and that of its object, trying to bridge the gap that had been opened up by the Kantian separation of the recognizing subject and the objective world. The difficulties of objectively representing the world through signs (language) became an urgent matter for philosophy and aesthetics and can be traced from the nineteenth-century novelists to the nouveau roman, from the realists to the surrealists, expressing in the aesthetic/epistemological sphere the atrophy of experience and the privatization of the individual that occurred in the social sphere. It is this dilemma of communication and aesthetic representation to which Beckett's work gives meta-fictional expression.'s
15. The implicationsof this epistemological dilemmafor Beckett'swork have been dis-

166 Jan Bruck In order to understand the implications of this dilemma for Beckett more fully, we need to take a closer look at the concepts of "memory" and "experience," the structure and function of which Benjamin and Beckett explain in their essays on "Baudelaire" and "Proust" respectively. According to Benjamin, "memory" is the cardinal faculty in producing and listening to a story, it is "the epic faculty par excellence" as it "creates the chain of tradition which passes a happening on from generation to generation,""'6 and thereby provides those cultural and spiritual links necessary for the experience of completeness and totality: "Where there is experience (Erfahrung) in the strict sense of the word, certain contents of the individual past combine with material of the collective past. The rituals with their ceremonies, their festivals..,. kept producing the amalgamation of these two elements over and over again. They triggered recollection at certain times and remained handles of memory for a lifetime.""'7With the rise of the novel, the role of memory changes. For the privatised individual whose communal ties have been cut off and whose immediate relationship with death and eternity has been destroyed (making way for a "transcendental homelessness" which Lukics regards as characteristic for the modern novel), the past can be at best recollected synthetically, through the powers of association and reminiscence, as in the exemplary case of Proust. Consequently, the "quest for life" (Lukics) becomes the goal of the modern novel, which centres on the development of an individual hero and his consciousness which, in Hegelian terms, tries to reconcile itself with reality and understand itself as part of a necessary historical process within an ideal totality. The new faculty constitutive for the novel is "involuntary memory," as distinct from "voluntary memory"; Beckett and Benjamin borrow the terms from Proust, who first introduced them in his novel, modifying Bergson's concept of memoire pure. In the essay on "Proust," Beckett defines "involuntary memory" as a faculty the novelist needs to evoke an image of the past and of the unity underlying the complexity of human action. Proust was the last and foremost novelist to utilize its power; in his Remembrance of Things Past, the "miracle of evocation," initiated usually through intense sense perceptions which Beckett calls "fetishes," occurs about thirteen times, beginning with the famous madelaine steeped in tea. They bring back the narrator's past, revealing its unity with the present and thereby its essence. In contrast to this, "voluntary memory" is "the uniform memory of intelligence," which can reproduce only "those
cussed by Olga Bernal, in "Le Dilemma de la representation," Language et fiction dans le roman de Beckett (Paris, 1969) (German translation in Engelhardt/Mettler, Materialen . . .) The study is partly based on Foucault's discourse analysis provided in his Les Mots et les choses, but it lacks a sociological dimension. 16. Op. cit., p. 97f. 17. Ibid.. p. 96.

Beckett,Benjaminand the ModernCrisisof Communication 167

formed."Its impressionsof the past that were consciouslyand intelligently and images are "arbitrary" "remote from reality,"and its actionscan be compared to the turningof pages in a photographalbum: "the material that it furnishescontainsnothingof the past, merelya blurredand uniform projection once removedof our anxietyand opportunism that is to say, nothing."'8 The novelist who is unable to drawon the power of involuntary memory- and most modernwritersafter Proustseem to be in this predicament- cannot overcome the gap between presentand past, consciousness and the world in a totalizingpicture. In search of a more precise definitionof voluntarymemory,Benjamin
draws on Freud and his Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1921), where he

contrasts memory with consciousness:"Becomingconscious and leaving behind a memory trace are processes incompatiblewith one another." Reformulatedin Proustiantermsthis means that "onlywhat has not been experienced explicitly and consciously, what has not happened to the subject as an experience (Erlebnis),can become a componentof involuntary memory."'9Freud had stated that consciousness(or voluntarymemory) does not retain any permanent memory traces at all; its function consists, rather, in the "protectionagainststimuli,"and againstthe excessive energies at work in the external world which enter consciousnessin the form of "shocks." "The more readily consciousnessregistersthese effect."20 WhatFreud shocks, the less likely are they to have a traumatic of describeshere seems similarto the mechanism repression throughwhich we shift unpleasant experiences and problems into the subconsciousto of is avoid being troubledby them. But whereasthe mechanism repression one of storing away without a release, the function of consciousnessor voluntarymemoryas describedhere is to preventthe externalstimuliand shocks from becoming a traumatic Erfahrung,from leaving behind a memory trace, by turning them into a short-lived, conscious Erlebnis. (Benjamin makes use here of the two differentmeanings,in German,of the word "experience,"for whichthe Englishlanguagehas no equivalents. Erfahrungrepresentsa wholeness and continuity,a unifiedexperienceof reality, which carrieswith it an increasein knowledgeand wisdom- in this sense, older people are supposed to have "experience."In contrast, Erlebnis is an atomised and isolated experience, realitylived in disparate and fragmentedmoments which do not form any coherenceand continuity.) It needs pointingout, of course, thatalthoughour memorytodaymay not achieve the completeness of earlier generations, it is impossiblefor anyone to live without any memorytraces at all, withoutsome notion of continuity and tradition,as a point of referenceand a parameterfor our individual and national identity. The dichotomy between consciousness
18. Ibid., p. 32f. 19. Ibid., p. 162f. 20. Ibid., p. 163.


Jan Bruck

and memory is, in everyday psychological reality, not as strict as Benjamin's theoretical opposition in the aesthetic sphere makes it appear to be. Without a knowledge of Freud, and a few years before Benjamin, Beckett arrived at surprisingly similar insights into the function of consciousness and "voluntary memory," which he equates with "habit": "Habit is a comprise affected between the individual and his environment."21 It is also an "agent of security," and "when it ceases to perform that second function, when it is opposed by a phenomenon that it cannot reduce to the condition of a comfortable and familiar concept, when, in a word, it betrays its trust as a screen to spare its victim the spectacle of reality, it disappears, and the victim, now an ex-victim, for a moment free, is exposed to that reality,"22 - or, we may add, its shocks and threats. Related to habit is curiosity, "a non-conditioned reflex. . . . a reaction before a danger stimulus," it is the "safeguard, not the death, of the cat,"23 a mental readiness and attention which includes the occurrence of the unexpected into its horizon. The curiosity of the cat is the attitude called for by the modern artist; voluntary memory with heightened awareness is the recipe for the modern artist who wants to survive - as it is for people in everyday life, separated from the communal ties that provided order and tradition. This is the point at which Beckett parts with Benjamin, as well as most modernist writers. Although he recognizes the protective function of consciousness and voluntary memory, he regards the loss of involuntary memory and the concurrant atrophy of experience, which has rendered the story (and the novel) a useless instrument of communication, as the sign of a fundamental inability of the modern artist to communicate, as the virtual end of communication. Instead of utilizing the creative potential of schock experience in the fashion of other modernist writers, Beckett pursues the depressing task of expressing the meaninglessness of discourse, and the catastrophic impact of mass-society and war on consciousness and memory. Not seeking refuge in either avant-garde experiments or in political utopias, he dedicates himself to the expression of the failure of the modern artist to perform his traditional function: that of giving meaning and unity to the world through his discourse. In view of the catastrophes that he experienced, and the greater potential ones facing humankind today, he denies any positive value to human history and moves towards a position of complete silence. But to reach that position, he is compelled to write, to express his traumatic experience of shock, to use the words which contain the very angst of which he is a victim. In this sense his work is truly absurd. In sharp contrast to Beckett, Benjamin discovered in the loss of aura and the disappearance of traditional artistic forms (such as the story) the
21. Proust (London, 1965), p. 18. 22. Ibid., p. 21. 23. Ibid., p. 30.

and the ModernCrisisin Communication 169 Beckett,Benjamin potential for new, revolutionary means of communication which can help to liberate the audience from authority and tradition and instill a political awareness, thereby laying the ground for a democratic and collective artistic production and consumption of the type envisaged by the Russian film-makers of the 1920s and by Brecht, whose theory and practice of epic theatre and whose notion of dialectic intervention (Eingreifen) through art became a model for Benjamin's aesthetic ideas. For Benjamin the task of the modern artist is to develop a trained consciousness, always ready to parry the continuous barrage of threatening sense stimuli, or "shocks," and to utilize their critical potential. The first writer for whom "the experience of shock has become the norm" was Baudelaire, whose poetry displays "a large measure of consciousness" and reveals "a plan at work in the composition"24 not unlike, one may add, Poe's stories of "ratiocination." Benjamin regards Baudelaire as the first modern artist and shows how the shock-experience of the crowd and the amorphous masses in the industrial cities has become constitutive for his work. In the twentieth century, movements such as futurism, dadaism and surrealism based their aesthetic manifestos and artistic practices on the experience of shock, intensified by the reality of war, industrialism and imperialism. Formally, this new orientation manifested itself in the destruction of traditional syntax and a disregard for the rules of logic and empirical observation which is not quite what Benjamin had in mind when he talked about the most revolutionary kind of modern art, the film, whose arrival he explains in the following way: "Technology subjected the human senses to a training of a new kind. There came the day when a new and urgent need for stimuli was met by the film. In film, perception in the form of shocks was established as a formal principle. That which detemines the rhythm of a conveyor belt is the basis of rhythm in film."25 Jump-cut, close-up, slow motion and other technical innovations were attempts to exploit the experience of shock, by separating certain aspects and details out of the stream of events and alienating their impression, thereby making them available to conscious, critical analysis, similar to Brecht's technique of "epic theatre." Whereas Beckett saw modern technology solely as a destructive force, Benjamin believed in its aesthetically productive and politically liberating potential. However, Benjamin's technological and aesthetic optimism, which he inherited from the 1930s, is no longer justified today. The historical development has shown that it is not technological progress and concomitant aesthetic/cultural revolutions per se that lead to political liberation. The subjection of the modern mass media to the forces of the capitalistic market, which requires the continual production of commodities and assimilates even the most radical theoretical and artistic practices, 24. Op. cit., p. 164. 25. Ibid.,p. 177.


Jan Bruck

clearly limits the political influenceof the modernwriteror artist.Benjamin's theoretical position is in fact an ambiguousone: it forces him to ascribe aesthetic- and political- liberationto a technological progress resultingfrom the same economicand socialforceswhichat the same time prevent that very liberation.This dilemma led Adorno, who insistently criticisedBenjamin'sand Brecht'snaive optimism,to defendBeckett and the modernistwritersagainstthe attacksfrom the Left and to espouse an aesthetic practicewhich, ratherthan attemptingto intervenein the political process, assumesa positionof total negationandwithdrawal, alwaysof course in danger of being destroyed throughit. Beckett himself defined this attitude in his essay on "Proust":"The artistis active, but negatively, shrinkingfrom the nullityof extracircumferential phenomena,drawninto the core of the eddy." For Beckett, any attempt to break out of the communicationaldilemma is futile and art remainsthereforenothingbut "the apotheosis of solitude."26 Adorno's point needs to be taken seriously,althoughhe does fall into the opposite extreme by placingBeckett and Kafkaabove Brechtand the "committed" writers in the measure of their political import, and by denying the relevanceof direct politicalinterventionto the artist.In view of this it is necessaryto overcome the simplistic- and elitist- opposition between "modernism"and "realism,"avant-garde and politicalart, and to see the relationship betweenthemas a dialecticalone. Despite their obvious differences,most modernistand realistliterature art sharean and to antagonistic,negativerelationship the existingsocialandpoliticalorder, and both draw their strengthand criticalpotentialfrom their relationship to each other.27Explicitlypoliticalauthorsare not necessarily more "committed" than absurdistwriters such as Kafka or Beckett, whose greater in politicalscepticismhas some justification a worldfacedwith the threatof destruction throughyet another- atomicwar. And despite the need for direct political action and intervention,it would be naive not to see the constant danger of failure of the kind which Beckett's work expresses. What is to be avoidedis a self-indulgent which,in the face of the pessimism I itself to politicalinactivity. do not thinkthat possible catastrophe,resigns Beckett's work is of this kind;I regardit ratheras a politicalact, a warning of a danger of which we have to be aware. The dilemma in which both Beckett and Benjaminfind themselvesin relation to politicalrealityand the similarities well as differencesin their as
26. Op. cit., p. 164. 27. It is time that aesthetictheorymovedout of the enclosuresof the modernism-realism debate, which has reifiedworksof art into fixedobjectsand aestheticpositionsinto political the as dogmas, disregarding fact that artisticproduction, well as theoretical activity,do not exist in their own right, but as part of a dynamicprocessof communication takingplace between texts and their audiencesand dependenton specifichistorical situations.It is, after and all, not only the work of art as such, but also our interpretation the use we makeof it which is politicallyreactionary progressive. or

Beckett, Benjamin and the Modern Crisis in Communication


theoretical position are revealed in their notion of history. For Beckett, history is primarilya process of destruction:"There is no escape from yesterdaybecauseyesterdayhas deformedus, or has been deformedby us. Deformation has taken place. Yesterdayis not a milestonethat has been passed, but a daystoneon the beaten trackof the years, and irredeemably part of us, withinus, heavy and dangerous.We are not merelymoreweary because of yesterday, we are other, no longer what we were before the calamity of yesterday."28The destructiveexperience of war lurks also behind Benjamin's work: historyoverwhelmsus in the form of catastrothe phes and confrontsus in ever new momentsof "emergency"; past has to be struggled against and coped with all the time, and cannot be offBoth Beckett and loaded with a comfortableknowledgeof the future.29 conceptsof history:the idealisticbelief Benjamin relinquishthe traditional in a gradualdevelopmenttowardsever greaterperfection,the positivistic view of an evolution according to natural laws, and the dogma of a necessarymovementtowardsan ideal goal. Being in the positionof Tantalus (Beckett), we live, accordingto Benjamin, in a constant "state of emergency," no longer certainof our future. It is not only the destructive experience of war, but also the awarenessof the widersocial and political crisis of mass-societywhich is responsiblefor the pessimisticaspects of Beckett's and Benjamin's work. Both believe that bourgeois society is faced with a fundamentalcrisis and is nearing its end. But whereas in Beckett's work the breakdownof society and the crisisin communication and aesthetic representationtake the form of a total negation, describing its catastrophic effects without any indication of positive alternatives, Benjamin, from the vantage point of his materialistphilosophy,regards the crisis as a necessarystage in the historicaldevelopmentfromcapitalist to proletariansociety, from literate to mass-media culture.He recognizes the progressive potential of the mass-media for the liberation of the individualfrom authorityand traditionand for the developmentof democratic forms of communication,no longer based upon auraticexperiences Thisoptimistic view is, but on criticalargumentand politicalconsciousness. as we know better today, overshadowed a fundamental dilemmawithin by cannotfuncthe political process:moderntechnologyand the mass-media tion in a democraticway without political liberation,and politicalliberation is impossible without the help of the new media. Both requireeach of other, and until the media have been changedfroman instrument social control into a forum of collective decision-making,Beckett's vision of could crisis and destructionpresentsa seriouswarning:that the individual be engulfed and communitiesdestroyedby the oppressiveand contradictory forces of mass-society.
28. Ibid., p. 13. 29. See in particular "Theseson the Philosophyof History." the