McKenzie Wark assesses the uses of Walter Benjamin today.
"Benjamin practiced his own version of what I call low theory, in that the production of knowledge was not contemplative and was disinterested in the existing language games of the disciplines. Knowledge has to be communicated in an effective manner. 'The task of real, effective presentation is just this: to liberate knowledge from the bounds of compartmentalized discipline and make it practical.'
"Benjamin has a genius for using the energies of the obsolete. But one has to ask if the somewhat cult-like status Benjamin now enjoys is something of a betrayal of the critical leverage Benjamin thought the obsolete materials of the past could play in the present."
Walter Benjamin has a reputation as a sophisticated reader of literary texts. But perhaps his media theory is not quite so elaborate. Here I shall attempt to boil it down in a very instrumental way. The question at this juncture might be less what we owe this no longer neglected figure but what he can do for us.
Benjamin thought that there were moments when a fragment of the past could speak directly to the present, but only when there was a certain alignment of the political and historical situation of the present that might resonate with that fragment. Applying this line of thought to Benjamin himself, we can wonder why he appeared to speak directly to critics of the late twentieth century, and whether he still speaks to us today.
Perhaps the connection then was than he seemed to speak from and speak to an era that had recently experienced a political defeat. Just as the tide turned against the labor movement in the interwar period, so too by the late seventies the new left seemed exhausted.
He appeared then as a figure both innocent and tragic. He had no real part in interwar politics, and committed suicide fleeing the Nazis. He could be read as offering a sort of will-to-power for a by then powerless cultural and political movement, which thought of itself as living through dark times, awaiting the irruption of the messianic time alongside it in which the dark times might be redeemed. He was a totem for a kind of quiet endurance, a gathering of fragments in the dark for a time to come. But perhaps his time no longer connects to our time in quite the same way. And perhaps it does Benjamin no favors to make him a canonic figure, his ideas reduced to just another piece of the reigning doxa of the humanities.
As a media theorist, Benjamin’s contributions are fragmentary and scattered. They might be organized around the following topics: art, politics, history, technology and the unconscious. Here I will draw on the useful one-volume collection Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media (Harvard University Press, 2008).
Benjamin had already started to think art historically rather than stylistically before his engagement with Marxism. Here the work of the art historian Alois Riegl was probably decisive. Formal aesthetic problems are of no particular interest in themselves. “The dialectical approach… has absolutely no use for such rigid, isolated things as work, novel, book. It has to insert them into the living social contexts.” (80) Attention shifts to practices. The reception of the work by its contemporaries is part of its historical effect on its later critics as well. Reception may vary by class, Benjamin notes in passing, anticipating Raymond Williams.
Not the least significant historical fact about art was the emergence of forms of reproducibility far more extensive than the duplication of images on coins known since the Greeks. The project for modern art history was thus an “attempt to determine the effect of the work of art once its power of consecration has been eliminated.” (56) The eternal as a theme in art – in western art at least – was linked to impossibility of reproducing them. Fine art practices thus have to be thought in terms of the historical situation in which they appear alongside other practices, in particular new forms of reproducibility.
Central to thinking art then is an intersection of technical and historical forces, and hence the question of how art is made: “the vital, fundamental advances in art are a matter neither of new content nor of new forms – the technological revolution takes precedence over both.” (329) Benjamin draws our attention to the uneven history by which the mechanical intervenes in its production. So while the piano is to the camera as the violin is to painting, reproducibility has specific histories in regard to specific media forms.
The question of technical reproduction brings up the wider concept of technology itself. Here Benjamin provides at a stroke a key change of point of view: “… technology is the mastery not of nature but of the relation between nature and man.” (59) The technical relation is embedded in a social relation, making it a socio-technical relation. Here we step away from merely ontological accounts of technology towards a social and historical one, which nevertheless pays attention to the distinctiveness of the technical means of production.
Writing in the wake of the Great War, Benjamin is one of innumerable writers and artists who saw the potential of technology, including media technology, within the context of its enormous destructive power. The war was a sort of convulsion of the techno-social body, a sign of a failed attempt of our species-being to bring a new body under control.
But technology is not an exogenous force in Benjamin. He is neither a technological determinist nor for that matter a social constructivist. (Note, incidentally, how this hoary old way of framing this debate puts a finger on the scale of the social.) “Technology… is obviously not a purely scientific development. It is at the same time an historical one. As such, it forces an examination of the attempted positivistic and undialectical separation between the natural sciences and the humanities. The questions that humanity brings to nature are in part conditioned by the level of production.” (122) It’s a matter then of thinking the continuum of techno <-> social phenomena as instances of a larger historical praxis.
Benjamin also dissents from the optimistic belief in technology as progress that he thought had infected social democratic thinking in the inter-war years. “They misunderstood the destructive side of this development because they were alienated from the destructive side of dialectics. A prognosis was due, but failed to materialize. That failure sealed a process characteristic of the last century: the bungled reception of technology.”
This might be a useful lesson still for our own time. Benjamin does not want to retreat from thinking the technical, nor does he fetishize it. The technical changes to the forces of production have their destructive side, but that too can be taken in different ways. It is destructive in the sense made plain by the war; but it might be destructive in another sense too – destructive of the limits formed by the existing relations of production.
Tech change in media form brings political questions to the fore, not least because it usually disrupts the media producer’s relation to the means of production. “The technical revolutions – these are the fracture points in artistic development where political positions, exposed bit by bit, come to the surface. In every new technical revolution, the political position is transformed – as if on its own – from a deeply hidden element of art into a manifest one.” (329)
This understanding of technology frames Benjamin’s approach to the politics of both art and knowledge. Both are potentially the means by which our species-being might acquire a sensory perception and a conceptual grasp of its own socio-technical body and direct it towards its own emancipation. The task of the cultural worker is to contribute to such a project. It’s a matter of understanding and redeploying the mode of perception in its most developed form to such ends. The mode of perception of the early twentieth century appear as one in which “distraction and destruction [are] the subjective and objective sides, respectively, of one and the same process.” (56) That may be even more so today.
Benjamin practiced his own version of what I call low theory, in that the production of knowledge was not contemplative and was disinterested in the existing language games of the disciplines. Knowledge has to be communicated in an effective manner. “The task of real, effective presentation is just this: to liberate knowledge from the bounds of compartmentalized discipline and make it practical.” (61)
Both knowledge and art matter as part of the self-education of the working class. Benjamin thought the social democrats had made an error in diluting this labor point of view into a mere popular and populist pedagogy. “They believed that the same knowledge which secured the domination of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie would enable the proletariat to free itself from this domination.” (121) The project of an art and knowledge for liberation posed questions about the form of such art and knowledge, in which “real presentation banishes contemplation.” (62)
The artist or writer’s relationship to class is however a problematic one. Mere liberal sympathy for the ‘down-trodden’ is not enough, no matter how sincere: “a political tendency, however revolutionary it may seem, has a counter-revolutionary function so long as the writer feels his solidarity with the proletariat only in his attitudes, not as a producer.” (84) What matters is the relation to the means of production, not the attitude: “the place of the intellectual in the class struggle can be identified – or better, chosen – only on the basis of his position in the process of production.” (85)
Benjamin was already well aware that bourgeois cultural production can absorb revolutionary themes. The hack writer or artist is the one who might strike attitudes but does nothing to alienate the productive apparatus of culture from its rulers. “The solidarity of the specialist with the proletariat… can only be a mediated one.” (92) And so the politics of the cultural worker has to focus on those very means of mediation. Contrary to those who would absorb Benjamin into some genteel literary or fine art practice, he insists that “technical progress is for the author as producer the foundation of his political progress.” (87)
The task then is to be on the forefront of the development of the technical forces of cultural production, to make work that orients the working class to the historical task of making history consciously, and to overcome in the process the division of labor and cult of authorship of bourgeois culture. Particularly in a time of technical transition, the job is to seize all the means of making the perception and conception of the world possible and actionable: “photography and music, and whatever else occurs to you, are entering the growing, molten mass from which new forms are cast.” (88)
Moreover, Benjamin saw that the technical means were coming into being to make consumers of media into producers. Benjamin is ahead of his time on this point, but the times have surely overtaken him. The ‘prosumer’ – celebrated by Henry Jenkins – turned out to be as recuperable for the culture industry as the distracted spectator. The culture industry became the vulture industry, collecting a rent while we ‘produce’ entertainment for each other. Still, perhaps it’s a question of pushing still further, and really embracing Benjamin’s notion of the cultural producer as the engineer of a kind of cultural apparatus beyond the commodity form and the division of labor.
Reading Benjamin can easily lead to a fascination with the avant-garde arts of the early and mid 20th century, but surely this is to misunderstand what his project might really point to in our own times. Benjamin had a good eye for the leading work of his own time, which sat in interesting tension with his own antiquarian tendencies. His focus on the technical side of modern art came perhaps from Lázló Moholy-Nagy and others who wrote for G: An Avant Garde Journal of Art, Architecture & Design.
He understood the significance of Dada, the post-war avant-garde that already grasped the melancholy fact that within existing relations of production, the forces of production could not be used to comprehend the social-historical totality. Dada insisted in a reality in fragments, a still-life with bus-tickets. “The whole thing was put in a frame. And thereby the public was shown: Look, your picture frame ruptures time; the tiniest authentic fragment of daily life says more than painting. Just as the bloody finger print of a murderer on the page of a book says more than the text.” (86) The picture-frame that ruptures time might be a good emblem for Benjamin’s whole approach.
His optimism about Soviet constructivism makes for poignant reading today. He celebratedSergei Tretyakov, who wanted to be an operating rather than a merely informing writer. Too bad that the example Benjamin celebrates is from Stalin’s disastrous forced collectivization of agriculture. Tretyakov would be executed in 1937. Still, Gerard Raunig has more recently taken up the seemingly lost cause of Tretyakov.
Benjamin was however surely right to take an interest in what Soviet media had attempted up until Stalin’s purge of it. “To expose such audiences to film and radio constitutes one of the most grandiose mass psychological experiments ever undertaken in the gigantic laboratory that Russia has become.” (325) This was one of the great themes of the Soviet writer Andrei Platonov. Unfortunately Benjamin, like practically everyone else, was ignorant of Platonov’s work of the time.
Surrealism contributed much to Benjamin’s aesthetic, particularly its fascination with the convulsive forces lurking in the urban and the popular. Like the Surrealists, and contra Freud, Benjamin was interested in the dream as an agency rather than a symptom. Surrealist photography taught him to see the photograph in a particular way, in that its estrangement from the domestic yielded a free play for the eye to perceive the unconscious detail.
Surely the strongest influence on Benjamin as a critical theorist of media was the German playwright Berthold Brecht and his demand that intellectuals not only supply but change the process of cultural production. Brecht’s epic theater was one of portraying situations rather than developing plots, using all the modern techniques of interruption, montage, and the laboratory, making use of elements of reality in experimental arrangements. Benjamin: “It is concerned less with filling the public with feelings, even seditious ones, than with alienating it in a enduring way, through thinking, from the conditions in which it lives.” (91)
One thing from Brecht that could have received a bit more attention in Benjamin is his practice of refunctioning, basically a version of what the Situationists later called détournement. This is the intentional refusal to accept that the work of art is anyone’s private property. Reproducibility has the capacity to abolish private property in at least one sphere: that of cultural production.
Here the ‘molten’ dissolution of forms of a purely aesthetic sort meets the more crucial issue of ownership of culture. But Benjamin was not always clear about the difference. “There were not always novels in the past, and there will not always have to be; there have not always been tragedies or great epics. Not always were the forms of commentary, translation, indeed even so-called plagiarism playthings in the margins of literature…” (82) Here he comes close to the Situationist position that all of culture is a commons, but he still tended to confuse formal innovation within media with challenges to its property form.
Benjamin also had his own idiosyncratic relation to past cultures. The range of artifacts from the past over which Benjamin’s attention wander is a wide one. His was a genius of the fragment. He was alert to the internal tension in aesthetic objects. Those that particularly draw his attention are objects that are at once wish-images of the future but which, at the very moment of imagining a future, also reveal something archaic.
Famously, in writing about mid-19th century Paris, he took an interest in Parisian shopping arcades, with their displays of industrial luxury, lit by gas lighting and the weak sun penetrating its covered walkways through the iron-framed skylights. These provide one of the architectural forms for the imagination of the utopian thinker Charles Fourier who thinks both forwards and backwards, mingling modern architecture with a primal image of class society.
Actually, one could dispute this reading. Charles Beech, Fourier’s biographer, thinks the Louvre was his architectural inspiration. And Fourier’s utopia is hardly classless. On the contrary, he wanted a way to render the passion for distinction harmless. The method might be more interesting in this example than the result.
Benjamin is on firmer ground in relating the daguerreotype to the panorama. (Of which the Met has a fine example). The invention of photography expands commodity exchange by opening up the field of the image to it. Painting turns to color and scale to find employment. This chimes with McLuhan’s observation that it is when a medium becomes obsolete that it becomes Art, where the signature of the artist recovers the otherwise anonymous toil of the artisan as something worthy of private property: “The fetish of the art market is the master’s name.” (142)
Art favors regression to remote spheres that do not appear either technical or political. For example: “Genre painting documents the failed reception of technology… When the bourgeoisie lost the ability to conceive great plans for the future, it echoed the words of the aged Faust: ‘Linger awhile! Thou art so fair.’ In genre painting it captured and fixed the present moment, in order to be rid of the image of its future. Genre painting was an art which refused to know anything of history.” (161) So many other genres might fall under the same heading.
Benjamin also draws our attention to a class of writing that saw a significant rebirth closer to our own time, but which in the Paris of the mid-19th century was represented by Saint-Simon. This is that writing that sizes up the transformative power of technology and globalization but omits class conflict. These days it is called techno-utopianism. In distancing itself from such enthusiasms, critical theory has all too often made the reverse error: focusing on class or the commodity and omitting technological change altogether or repeating mere petit-bourgeois romantic quibbles about its erosion of the homely and familiar. The challenge with Benjamin is to think the tension between technical changes in the forces of production and the class conflicts in which it is enmeshed but to which it cannot be entirely reduced. In thinking the hidden structural aspects not just of consciousness but also of infrastructure as the Benjamin channels Sigfried Giedion: “Construction plays the role of the subconscious.”
The life of the commodity is full of surprises. For instance, consider Benjamin’s intuition about how fashion was starting to work in the mid-19th century. “Fashion prescribes the ritual according to which the commodity fetish demands to be worshipped.” (102) Fashion places itself in opposition to the organic, and couples the living body to the inorganic world. This is the “sex appeal of the inorganic,” which Mario Perniola will later expand into a whole thesis. (102)
Fashion makes dead labor sexy. It points to a kind of value that is neither an exchange value nor a use value, but that lies in novelty itself – a hint at what Baudrillard will call sign value. “Just as fashion brings out the subtler distinctions of social standing, it keeps a particularly close watch over the coarser distinctions of class.” (138)
Another artifact that turned out to have a long life is the idea of the home and of interior decoration. The mid-19th century bourgeois was beginning to think the home as an entirely separate, even antithetical, place from the place of work, in comparison to the workshops of their artisanal predecessors. “The private individual, who in the office has to deal with reality, needs the domestic interior to sustain him in his illusions.” (103) One might wonder if in certain respects this distinction is now being undone.
The central thread of Benjamin’s work on Paris was supposed to be Baudelaire, who made Paris a subject for lyric poetry. It was a poetry of the urban wanderer, the celebrated flaneur, who for Benjamin had the gaze of the alienated man. The arcades and department stores used the flaneur as a kind of unpaid labor to sell goods. It’s a precursor to social media.
Both the flaneur and the facebooker are voluntary wanderers through the signage of commodified life, taking news of the latest marvels to their friends and acquaintences. The analogy can be extended. The flaneur, like today’s ‘creatives’, was not really looking to buy, but to sell. Benjamin’s image for this is the prostitute: the seller of the goods and the goods to be sold all at once.
The flaneur as bohemian, not really locatable in political or economic terms as bourgeois or proletarian, is a hint at the complexities of the question of class once the production of new information becomes a form of private property. Who is the class that produces, not use values in the form of exchange values, but sign values in the form of exchange values? Benjamin comes close to broaching this question of our times.
Benjamin offers a rather condensed formula for what he is looking at in his historical studies of wish-images. “Ambiguity is the appearance of dialectics in images, the law of dialectics at a standstill. This standstill is utopia and the dialectical image, therefore, dream image. Such an image is afforded by the commodity per se: as fetish.” (105)
The commodifed image is a fragment of dead labor, hived-off from a process it obscures. This is the image as fetish, a part-thing standing in for the whole-process of social labor. And yet at the same time it cannot but bear the trace of its own estrangement. As fragment it is fetish, but as mark of the absence of a real totality it points in negative toward utopia.
The Paris Commune of 1871 put an end to a certain dream image, forward-looking yet archaic. It was no longer an attempt to complete the bourgeois revolution but to oppose it with a new social force. The proletariat emerged from the shadows of bourgeois leadership as an independent movement. The dialectic might move forward again.
But this was only one of two developments that characterize the later 19th century. The other is the technical development of the forces of production subsuming the old arts and crafts practices of cultural production. Aesthetics, like science before it, becomes modern, meaning of a piece with the development of capitalism as a whole.
Benjamin: “The development of the forces of production shattered the wish symbols of the previous century, even before the monuments representing them had collapsed. In the nineteenth century this development worked to emancipate the forms of construction from art, just as in the sixteenth century the sciences freed themselves from philosophy. A start is made with architecture as engineered construction. Then comes the reproduction of nature as photography. The creation of fantasy prepares to become practical as commercial art.” (109)
Out of the study of 19th century Paris, Benjamin develops a general view of historical work that might properly be called historical materialist. “Every epoch… not only dreams the one to follow but, in dreaming, precipitates its awakening. It bears its end within itself and unfolds it – as Hegel already noted – by cunning. With the destabilizing of the market economy, we begin to recognize the monuments of the bourgeoisie as ruins even before they have crumbled.” (109) Benjamin pays much less attention to an epoch’s ideas about itself than its unconscious production and reproduction of forms, be they conceptual or architectural. (Which incidentally is why I am more interested in container ports and server farms than the explicit discourse of ‘neoliberalism‘ as a key to the age).
The historical-reconstructive task is not to restore a lost unity to the past, but rather to show its incompletion, to show how it implies a future development, and not at all consciously. Fragments from the past don’t lodge in a past totality but in constellation with fragments of the present. Benjamin: “history becomes the object of a construct whose locus is not empty time but rather the specific epoch, the specific life, the specific work. The historical materialist blasts the epoch out of its reified ‘historical continuity’ and thereby the life out of the epoch and the work out of the lifework. Yet this construct results in the simultaneous preservation and sublation of the lifework in the work, of the epoch in the lifework, and of course of history in the epoch.” (118)
“Historical materialism sees the work of past as still uncompleted.” (124) The task is to find – in every sense – the openings of history. ”To put to work an experience with history – a history that is originary for every present – is the task of historical materialism. The latter is directed toward a consciousness of the present which explodes the continuum of history.” (119)
The materials for historical work may not actually exist. In his essay on Eduard Fuchs, Benjamin draws attention to their shared passion for collecting, and for the collection as “the practical man’s answer to the aporias of theory” (119) Whether Daumier’s images, erotica or children’s books, the collector feels the resonance in low forms.
Such material has to be thought at one and the same time in terms of what it promises and what it obscures. “Whatever the historical materialist surveys in art or science has, without exception, a lineage he cannot observe without horror. The products of art and science owe there existence not merely to the effort of the great geniuses who created them, but also, in one degree or another, to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” (124)
Benjamin sets a high standard for the sorts of political claim that cultural work of any kind might claim, as it is always dependent on the labor of others. “It may augment the weight of the treasure accumulating on the back of humanity, but it does not provide the strength to shake off this burden so as to take control of it.” (125)
He did not share the optimism of inter-war social democracy, which still tended to see capitalism as a deterministic machine grinding on it its own imminent end. Benjamin was far more attuned to the barbaric side that Engels had glimpsed in his walks around Manchester.This barbarism, taken over from bourgeois culture, infected the proletariat via repression with “masochistic and sadistic complexes.” (137)
Benjamin thought both art and literature from the point of view of the pressure put on them by modern technical means. “Script – having found, in the book, a refuge in which it an lead an autonomous existence – is pitilessly dragged out into the street by advertisements and subjected to the brutal heteronomies of economic chaos.” (171) A great poet might acknowledge rather than ignore this. “Mallarmé… was in the Coup de dés the first to incorporate the graphic tensions of advertising into the printed page.” (171) A quite opposite reading, incidentally, to the recent and very interesting one offered by Quentin Meillassoux.)
Benjamin also grasped the role of the rise of administrative textuality in shaping its aesthetics: “the card index marks the conquest of three dimensional writing…. And today the book is already… an outdated mediation between two different filing systems.” (172) The modern poet needed to master statistics and technical drawing. “Literary competence is no longer founded on specialized training but is now based on polytechnical education, and thus becomes public property.” (360) One wonder what he would have thought about the computer-assisted distant reading of the digital humanities.
His more famous study is of photography and its transformation of the mode of perception, influenced by the remarkable photographer and activist Germaine Krull (subject of a recent retrospective). The first flowering of photography was before it was industrialized, and before it was art, which arises as a reaction to mechanical reproducibility. “The creative in photography is its capitulation to fashion.” (293)
Benjamin draws attention to pioneers such as Julia Margaret Cameron and David Octavius Hill. Looking at his image of the Newhaven fishwife, Benjamin “feels an irresistible compulsion to search such a picture for the tiny spark of contingency, the here and now, with which reality has, so to speak, seared through the image-character of the photograph…” (276) The camera is a tech for revealing the “optical unconscious.” (278)
Eugene Atget comes in for special consideration as the photographer who began the emancipation of object from aura. This is perhaps the most slippery – and maybe least useful – of Benjamin’s concepts. “What is aura, actually? A strange web of space and time: the unique appearance of a distance, no matter how close it may be. While at rest on a summer’s noon, to trace a range of mountains on the horizon, or a branch that throws its shadow on the observer, until the moment or the hour becomes part of the appearance – this is what it means to breathe the aura of these mountains, that branch. Now, ‘to bring things closer’ to us, or rather to the masses, is just as passionate an inclination in our day as the overcoming of whatever is unique in every situation by means of its reproduction.” (285) Aura is the “unique appearance of a distance,” at odds with transience and reproducibility.
Where other critical theorists put the stress on how commodity fetishism and the culture industry limit the ability of the spectator to see the world through modern media, Benjamin saw a more complex set of images and objects. He does not deny such constraints: “But it is precisely the purpose of the public opinion generated by the press to make the public incapable of judging…” (361) But rather tries to think them dialectically as also implicated in their own overcoming. Even a limited and limiting media cannot help pointing outside itself, and at the same time containing its own trace of its own limits.
Thus, in thinking about Mickey Mouse cartoons, Benjamin remarks that “In these films, mankind makes preparations to survive civilization.” (388) Disorder lurks just beyond the home, encouraging the viewer to return to the familiar. On the other hand, cinema can be a space in which the domestic environment can become visible and relatable to other spaces. “The cinema then exploded this entire prison-world with the dynamite of its fractions of a second, so that now we can take extended journeys of adventure between their widely scattered ruins.” (329)
The figure of the ruin in Benjamin goes back to his study of The Origins of German Tragic Drama, his doctoral thesis (which did not receive a pass). There the ruin in connected to allegory. “Allegories are, in the realm of thought, what ruins are in the realm of things.” (180) Allegory, in turn, implies that “Any person, any thing, any relationship can mean absolutely anything else. With this possibility, an annihilating but just verdict is pronounced on the profane world.” (175) The allegorical is central to Benjamin’s whole method (and taken up by many, from Jameson to Alex Galloway). “Through allegorical observation, then, the profane world is both elevated in rank and devalued.” (175)
Benjamin saw the baroque rather than the romantic as a worthy counterpoint to classicism, which had no sense of the fragmentary and disintegrating quality of the sensuous world. Nature appears to the baroque as over-ripeness and decay, an eternal transience. It is the classical ideal of eternal, pure and absolute forms or ideas in negative. From there, he removed the ideal double. It may creep back, at least among some interpreters, in at various moments when Benjamin evokes the messianic, but the contemporary reader is encouraged to complete the struggle Benjamin was having with his various inheritances.
Historical thought and action is about seizing the fragment of the past that opens towards the present and might provide leverage towards a future in which it can never be restored as a part of a whole. Benjamin: “structure and detail are always historically charged.” (184) And they are never going to coincide in an integrated totality, either as a matter of aesthetics, or as a matter of historical process.
Allegory is also connected to the dream. On the other side of the thing or the image is not its ideal form but the swarming multiplicity of what it may mean or become. This is where the critic, like the poet, sets up shop, “in order to blaze a way into the heart of things abolished or superseded, to decipher the contours of the banal as rebus…” (237)
The dream was all the rage in the early 20th century, as Aragon notes in Wave of Dreams.Benjamin refunctioned this surrealist obsession. Benjamin was rather more interested in the dreams of objects than of subjects. “The side which things turn towards the dream is kitsch.” (236) He met the kitsch products of the design and culture industries with curiosity rather than distaste or alarm. “Art teaches us to see into things. Folk art and kitsch allow us to see outward from within things.” (255)
Benjamin has a genius for using the energies of the obsolete. But one has to ask if the somewhat cult-like status Benjamin now enjoys is something of a betrayal of the critical leverage Benjamin thought the obsolete materials of the past could play in the present.
After discussing him with my students, we came to the conclusion that one could thing of, and use, all of Benjamin’s methods as ways of detecting the historical unconscious working through the tensions within cultural artifacts. Benjamin can be a series of lessons in which artifacts to look at, and how to look. One can look for the fragment of the past that speaks to the present. One can look within the photograph for the optical unconscious at work. One can look at obsolete forms, where the tension between past and dreamt future is laid bare. One can look at avant-gardes, which might anticipate where the blockage is in the incomplete work of history. One can look at the low or the kitsch, where certain dream-images are passed along in a different manner to fine art.
Our other thought was that one thing that seems to connect Benjamin to the present even more than the content of his writing is the precarity of his situation while writing it. Like Baudelaire and the bohemian flaneur, his is in contemporary terms a ‘gig economy’, of freelance work and of permanent exclusion from security. This precarity seemed to wobble on the precipice of an even greater, and more ostensibly political one — the rise of fascism. Today, the precarity of so many students, artists, traders in new information — the hacker class as I call it — seems to wobble on the precipice of an ecological precarity. If in Benjamin’s day it was the books that were set on fire, now it is the trees.
Originally published at Public Seminar and reproduced with permission.
London events marking the 75th anniversary of Walter Benjamin's death are listed here, and include 'Walter Benjamin Now' at the Whitechapel Gallery, Esther Leslie and Brian Dillon in conversation at the London Review Bookshop, and 'Walter Benjamin: Digital Afterlives' at Carroll / Fletcher.