Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Change
Also by Anca M. Pusca EUROPEAN UNION Promises and Challenges of a New En...
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Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Change
Also by Anca M. Pusca EUROPEAN UNION Promises and Challenges of a New Enlargement REVOLUTION, DEMOCRATIC TRANSITION AND DISILLUSIONMENT The Case of Romania
Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Change Edited By Anca M. Pusca Goldsmiths, University of London, UK
Selection and editorial matter © Anca M. Pusca 2010 Individual chapters © their respective authors 2010 All rights reserved. No reproduction, copy or transmission of this publication may be made without written permission. No portion of this publication may be reproduced, copied or transmitted save with written permission or in accordance with the provisions of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, or under the terms of any licence permitting limited copying issued by the Copyright Licensing Agency, Saffron House, 6–10 Kirby Street, London EC1N 8TS. Any person who does any unauthorized act in relation to this publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages. The authors have asserted their rights to be identiﬁed as the authors of this work in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. First published 2010 by PALGRAVE MACMILLAN Palgrave Macmillan in the UK is an imprint of Macmillan Publishers Limited, registered in England, company number 785998, of Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire RG21 6XS. Palgrave Macmillan in the US is a division of St Martin’s Press LLC, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010. Palgrave Macmillan is the global academic imprint of the above companies and has companies and representatives throughout the world. Palgrave® and Macmillan® are registered trademarks in the United States, the United Kingdom, Europe and other countries ISBN 978-0-230-58086-2
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Printed and bound in Great Britain by CPI Antony Rowe, Chippenham and Eastbourne
List of Illustrations
List of Contributors
Aesthetics of Change: An Introduction Anca M. Pusca
Towards a Global Space of Democratic Rights: On Benjamin, Gramsci, and Polanyi Renate Holub
Erasing the Traces, Tracing Erasures: Cultural Memory and Belonging in Newcastle/Gateshead, UK Zoë Thompson
‘Sunshine and Noir’: Benjamin, Kracauer and Roth Visit the ‘White Cities’ Graeme Gilloch
Liquidation and Shattering: Aesthetics and Politics in Cold Climates Esther Leslie
Fashion and Its ‘Revolutions’ in Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Petra Hroch
Proof of the Forgotten: A Benjaminian Reading of Daguerre’s Two Views of the Boulevard du Temple Elizabeth Howie
Commodity Display and the Phantasmagoria of Modernity: Exploring Walter Benjamin’s Critique of History Rolando Vázquez
The Aura of Art After the Advent of the Digital Konstantinos Vassiliou
Towards a Benjaminist Political Economy Claes Belfrage
Anca M. Pusca Index
List of Illustrations 2.1 2.2 2.3 6.1
The Sage, Gateshead. 2008. Inside The Sage, Gateshead. 2008. Bottle Bank. 1925. Daguerre 8 am picture of Boulevard de Temple. 1938. Courtesy of Bayerisches National Museum, Munchen, Germany. Daguerre 12 pm picture of Boulevard de Temple, 1938. Courtesy of Bayerisches National Museum, Munchen, Germany.
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Acknowledgements I would like to thank each of the contributors to this volume for their excitement and dedication to the project as well as the other participants to the Walter Benjamin: Aesthetics of Change conference that made this project possible in the first place. Special thanks go to Claes Belfrage and Daniela Tepe for helping to organize the conference, the Department of Political Science and International Studies and the Department of Sociology at the University of Birmingham, UK for cosponsoring the conference, as well as the European Commission for funding my research while at the University of Birmingham. I would also like to thank the Bayerisches National Museum, Munchen, Germany and the Libraries & Arts Service of Gateshead Council for their generosity in allowing us to reproduce the first Daguerre photographs of Paris in Chapter 6 and Bottle Bank, Gateshead photograph in Chapter 2, respectively. Last but certainly not least I would like to thank my editors at Palgrave Macmillan, Olivia Middleton, Philippa Grand, and Shirley Tan for their excellent feedback and support throughout the life of this project, as well as the Politics Department at Goldsmiths, University of London, my new home during the last stages of this publication.
List of Contributors
Claes Belfrage is a Lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Swansea, UK. His research focuses on processes of financialization, welfare state restructuring and European integration, using critical social theory, cultural political economy and aesthetic theory to conceptualize the embedding and disembedding of the economy in the everyday. Graeme Gilloch is a Reader in the Department of Sociology, at the University of Lancaster, UK. He is the author of two monographs on Benjamin: Myth and Metropolis: Walter Benjamin and the City (1996) and Walter Benjamin: Critical Constellations (2002). He is currently writing an intellectual biography of Siegfried Kracauer. Renate Holub is the Director of Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of California at Berkeley. She is the author of Antonio Gramsci. Beyond Marxism and Postmodernism [translated into Farsi and Korean]. Currently she is completing a study on the philosophical foundations of human rights. Elizabeth Howie is Assistant Professor of Art History in the Visual Arts Department of Coastal Carolina University, US. Her work focuses on modern and contemporary art with an emphasis on the history and theory of photography. Petra Hroch is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Alberta, Canada. Her research focuses on visual and performance art, aesthetic, social, and political theory. Petra is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholar and Izaak Walton Killam Memorial Scholar. Her doctoral research is also supported by the Ralph Steinhauer Award of Distinction. Esther Leslie is Professor in Political Aesthetics in the School of English and Humanities at Birkbeck, University of London, UK. She is ix
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the author of Walter Benjamin: Overpowering Conformism (2000), and Walter Benjamin: Critical Lives (2007). Other books include Hollywood Flatlands: Animation, Critical Theory and the Avant-garde (2002) and Synthetic Worlds: Nature, Art and the Chemical Industry (2005). She is a co-editor of Historical Materialism: Research in Critical Marxist Theory, and she is in the editorial collective of Radical Philosophy and an editor of Revolutionary History. Together with Ben Watson she runs the website www.militantesthetix.co.uk. Anca M. Pusca is a Lecturer in the Department of Politics at Goldsmiths, University of London, UK. She is the author of Revolution, Democratic Transition and Disillusionment (2008) and European Union: Promises and Challenges of a New Enlargement (2004). Her research focuses on the relationship between aesthetics and politics in the context of postcommunist transitions. Using the work of Walter Benjamin as a main source of inspiration, it seeks to understand processes of change as embedded in the material and visual environment surrounding us. Zoë Thompson is an AHRC-funded PhD student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Birmingham, UK. Her research concerns the regeneration of post-industrial cities through culture, in particular the aesthetic configuration of space formed by new iconic cultural venues. Her research interests include the aesthetic theories of Benjamin, Baudrillard and Kracauer; city cultures; cultural spaces; the politics of citizenship; new social movements, and mobile communication technologies. Konstantinos Vassiliou is a PhD student at the University of PanthéonSorbonne, Paris France. His research and publications focus on the theory of the avant-garde and on the cultural transformations in the contemporary era. Rolando Vázquez is Assistant Professor in Sociology at the Roosevelt Academy, Utrecht University, Netherlands. His research is focused on three interdisciplinary topics: ‘post-colonial thinking’, ‘visual social experience’, and the ‘critique of modern time’, bringing together many different fields such as: social theory, continental philosophy, postcolonial critics, visual studies, international political economy, photography and aesthetics. His reflections on the visual aspects of social life and temporality also take expression in his photographic project, Critical Photography: http://www.criticalphotography.com/.
Aesthetics of Change: An Introduction Anca M. Pusca
This volume was born out of a conference bearing the same name, which was held at the University of Birmingham, UK, in February 2008. The conference brought together a number of Benjamin scholars from around the world, working in disciplines as varied as literature, cultural studies, sociology, history, journalism, politics and international relations. Organized around the theme of ‘change’, the conference sought to, on the one hand, use the concept of ‘change’ as an interdisciplinary bridge that would allow for new explorations of Benjamin’s work, and on the other, push for research that would explore the methodological implications of Benjamin’s conceptualization of ‘change’ and its possible application to contemporary examples. Each of the chapters thus reflects on both the implications and applications of Benjamin’s concept of ‘change’ through a series of aesthetic judgements on contemporary empirical and theoretical sites: places/cities; objects/fashion; images/film; economy/education. Following the spirit of Benjamin’s Arcades Project, the volume acts as a kaleidoscope of change in the 21st century, tracing its different reflections in the international contemporary while seeking to understand both individual and collective reactions and adjustments to change. The volume thus attempts to address a series of questions: 1) is there something significantly different about the way in which ‘change’ occurs in the 21st century?; 2) is change mainly reflected in the material and visual environment surrounding us or someplace else?; and 3) what are the sensibilities through which we perceive change, and more importantly, have those sensibilities been increased or dulled by modern technology? While the volume assumes a certain familiarity with Benjamin’s work, it is intentionally written in accessible language that will allow 1
2 Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Change
different sets of audiences to relate to it, notwithstanding their level of interaction with Benjamin. Meant to increase the appeal of Benjamin’s work particularly in light of its possible contemporary applications, as well as deepen the theoretical discussion on Benjamin across disciplinary lines, it makes no one theoretical commitment: each of the authors comes from a slightly different theoretical background, thus suggesting that Benjamin’s conceptualization of change and its methodological implications can appeal to theorists of ‘change’ from across the theoretical spectrum. The idea of an ‘aesthetics of change’ is not put forward as a theoretical construct that carries a singular or unique meaning. The construct simply suggests that there is a relationship between ‘aesthetics’ and ‘change’, one that should perhaps be prioritized in our sociological, economic and political explorations of change. It does not suggest singular definitions of either ‘aesthetics’ or ‘change’. In fact, each of the authors in this volume works with their own unique definition of the two terms. Initially proposed in my own work as a way to examine the overlooked importance of ‘materiality’ and ‘visuality’ – from urban and industrial decay and regeneration to marketing – in the context of the Central and East European post-communist transitions (Pusca, 2008), the idea of an ‘aesthetics of change’ emerges in this volume as nothing but a constellation of different interpretations of the relationship between the two. The volume consists of nine chapters arranged thematically along the following lines: examining the impact of Benjamin’s intellectual and historical milieu on his particular conceptualization of change; understanding Benjamin’s empirical examination of places/cities as key to his theoretical understanding of change; relating Benjamin’s fascination with particular objects/fashions to the rise of commodity fetishism today; zooming in on images/film/photography as significantly changing the way in which we ‘sense’ and experience change; and last but not least, pushing against particularly strong disciplinary barriers to discuss the importance of Benjamin’s work to fields such as economics and international political economy. The remainder of this introduction will address each of the chapters individually and highlight some of their most significant contributions. In Chapter 1, Renate Holub seeks to locate Walter Benjamin within a particular intellectual and historical milieu, presenting him alongside two other important intellectuals of the time: Antonio Gramsci and Karl Polanyi. Like Gramsci and Polanyi, Benjamin is described to live and write in the tradition of a public (counter)-intellectual, perhaps the
Anca M. Pusca 3
19th century version of what we might today call an ‘activist’. Intellectually, he is drawn to the important debates of the time – the relationship between ideas and social practices, individuals and collectives, rights and democratic communities – yet is forced by circumstances beyond his control1 to examine them outside of the strict lines of academia. Without this academic ‘control’, Benjamin’s writing and thought develops differently from that of other ‘tenured’ intellectuals, serving to challenge some of the commonly held positions on what constitutes politics, violence, history and aesthetics. She traces Benjamin’s fascination with the relationship between aesthetics and change back to his personal experience of 1910 as the ‘revolutionary year’ in Europe and Germany in particular, and the events that were to follow it, and argues that Benjamin’s turn towards an aesthetic examination of change is directly related to the shortcomings that he observes in two of the most important debates at the time: 1) a debate on the perceived ‘acceleration of time’; and 2) a debate on the cause and effect of the expansion of the public sphere through the rise of the middle class and along with it, a reconceptualization of womanhood and the woman’s role in society. Both his critique of linear time and implicitly of the idea of progress and the possibility of an ‘acceleration’ of time, as well as his critique of the fetishistic way in which the new middle classes enjoyed their acceptance into the public sphere, are supported by a series of aesthetic judgements, many of which are explored in the following chapters. In Chapter 2, Zoë Thompson seeks to understand the relationship between aesthetics and change in light of Benjamin’s fascination with the urban environment – its ruins, as well as the modern constructions that replace them – as the ultimate repository of the material (and emotional) effects of social, economic and political transformations. Using Benjamin’s examinations of Paris, Berlin and Moscow as a methodological model, she turns towards modern day urban and industrial regeneration projects in Newcastle, UK – focusing specifically on the building of the Sage Gateshead, the new symphony hall on the banks of The River Tyne – in order to discuss the implications of this targeted erasure of former industrial patrimony, and long with it, of the memories embedded in its material. Zoë proposes the concept of an ‘aesthetics of disappearance’ as a more adequate way to understand change through ‘regeneration’. Arguing that memories often require a material support in order to resist through time, she is critical of the lack of any attempt to even symbolically maintain some kind of support for
4 Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Change
both the personal and collective memories surrounding the area on which the Sage Gateshead now stands. Relaying a series of touching personal stories that trace the last remaining material evidence of the author’s grandmother’s pub on the regeneration site, Zoë balances these highly emotional stories with a theoretical examination of how this ‘aesthetics of disappearance’ is sustained, on the one hand, by the erasure of what Benjamin would call the ‘aura’ of the former industrial bank, and on the other, by what Baudrillard would call the erasure of the ‘real’. In both cases, the ‘new’ – in this case the Sage Gateshead – emerges as, on the one hand, an artificial, tourist oriented, celebration of change that relies almost exclusively on ‘spectacle’ rather than memory, and on the other, an unexpected catalyst to the same memories of the past that it invariably erases. In Chapter 3, Graeme Gilloch also picks up on Benjamin’s fascination with cities as an entry point into his exploration of the relationship between change and aesthetics, yet turns towards the sometimes puzzling variation in Benjamin’s choice of cities as key to understanding his unique methodology. Tracing change aesthetically requires a carefully trained eye as well as a certain distancing from daily routines that tend to dull our perception apparatus. Graeme argues that this distancing, for Benjamin, is acquired in two ways: 1) through practices of flanerie: breaking of routine, usually in familiar settings, in order to reveal the unfamiliar; and 2) by travelling to remote, quiet cities – in Benjamin’s case either Marseille, Nice or the Mediterranean islands – in order to acquire a perceptual contrast. These counter spaces, he argues, are essential for restoring vividness to the otherwise dulled habitual perception of modernity. Strongly anchored in tradition and nature, these spaces appear to slow down time, blur the divisions between the past and the present, and thus allow one to soak in the moment without fearing the constant need to adjust to what may come in the future. Graeme compares this kind of experience to cinematic perception – the slowing down of the quotidian through the creation of an imaginary space that exposes perception simultaneously to scenes from the past, present and future. It is through this cinematic perception, he argues, that change becomes most visible. In Chapter 4, Esther Leslie approaches the relationship between aesthetics and change from yet another perspective: looking at how change has been represented in modernity, particularly at the time of Benjamin’s writing. She finds a number of recurrent themes in these
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representations, many of which favour fluidity and transparency: glass objects, glass architecture, ice. She finds these representations fascinating and traces them back to: 1) the fascination with a liberated way of seeing within modernity: what she calls, the ‘transformational look’ – the ability to see unobstructed in all different directions; and 2) the physical and metaphorical fragility implied within this liberated way of seeing as reflected in the actual fragility of glass architecture and the metaphorical fragility of any see-through environment. Esther concentrates on the examination of two sets of metaphorical representations of the ‘transformational look’: 1) the snow globe as a physical and metaphorical embodiment of ‘frozen modernity’; and 2) McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland cartoons, depicting Little Nemo’s adventures in a frozen, petrified/icefied New York that crumbles under the warm touch of a little boy. Each of these representations serves to underline a number of important reflections on change in modernity: 1) the implicit desire to ‘freeze’ time, to stop change in order to allow for a closer, more careful look at the different fragments of reality: snow globes being nothing but perhaps an idealized miniaturization of the ‘transformational look’; 2) the need for an overarching, dominating view: the snow globe being the embodiment of the ultimate panopticon that allows complete detachment from what lies inside the ‘view’, yet an ability to touch its outer, transparent glass layer; and 3) the literal and metaphorical fragility of a modernity that is built on ideals of transparency (glass, ice) that threaten to shatter at any time. In Chapter 5, Petra Hroch focuses on a different kind of examination of the relationship between aesthetics and change. Arguing that fashion, like architecture, is the ultimate material and physical mark of change, she proposes a theoretical and methodological examination of how fashion can be used to best understand the spirit of the moment, the present, as well as how this present is both different from as well as intrinsically connected to the past. Like Benjamin, Petra argues that fashion is a process rather than an object: there is never anything finite about fashion. Instead, it is an ongoing repetition and re-assessment of the ‘now’ and the ‘latest’ that is always recycled from a ‘then’ and a ‘past’. The tempo of this constant recycling not only coincides with but is also constitutive of the tempo of modern life in general. Fashion, thus, according to Petra, has a political potential not only in that it makes the cycle of history visible but also in that it potentially dictates the rhythm of this cycle. Looking at fashion today, Petra argues that at least two interpretations are possible: 1) to observe it as the perpetuation to the absurd of
6 Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Change
commodity fetishism, in which the fashion fetish itself becomes the ultimate commodity; and 2) to see some of its expressions, such as fashion collections and the emerging phenomena of online flanerie, as attempts to re-establish the revolutionary potential of fashion. She associates fashion collections with Benjamin’s concept of the ‘collector’: like the collector, the fashion designer classifies, marks and sometimes predicts change. Looking at today’s phenomena of online flanerie, she suggests that street fashion and style photoblogs such as Garance Doré, The Sartorialist, and Copenhagen Cycle Chic serve to re-politicize the street by showing how walking and cycling – as opposed to driving – can be chic. Implicit in this, is that sites like these have the potential to literally transform the physical infrastructure of the urban environment in order to best fit the needs of a new ‘fashion’ generation. The following three chapters address the relationship between aesthetics and change by analysing the role that different types of images – from the daguerreotype, to the poster and the digital photograph – have historically played in capturing and reflecting change. Building on Benjamin’s idea that history decays into images, each of the chapters examines three different historical eras and the role that the medium through which they were represented played in our particular understanding of them. In Chapter 6, Elizabeth Howie examines the first two photographs/daguerreotypes taken by Louis Daguerre on the Boulevard de Temple in Paris as critical gateways for understanding the origin of photography as creator of a particular way of seeing and remembering. Comparing Daguerre’s work to Benjamin’s Arcades Project, she argues that the photographs manage to capture the three dimensions of time – past, present, future – in one viewing experience, thus revealing through this static image of movement, the otherwise invisible experience of change. Through a careful examination of these photographs, Elizabeth traces both their ability to subtly capture class differences on film for the first time – by including in their frame not only the street and the blurred crowd, but also the less blurred, more static image of the shoe polisher and his clients – as well as their ability to channel vision in particular directions, and through that, change the very experience of seeing. These initial photographs introduced, for the first time, the idea of seeing without touching, smelling, or tasting, thus serving to separate the sense of vision from the others, allowing it to specialize in technicalities of the form itself and its representation. This in turn, had a significant impact not only on the experience of seeing, but more
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importantly, on the experience of seeing ourselves and our society, by making visible what Benjamin called the ‘dream-like’ nature of our existence and the need for change through ‘awakening’. In Chapter 7, Rolando Vázquez focuses on the invention of yet another type of image, and with it, another way of seeing: the 19th century poster. If seeing and photography up until then served mainly as a way to remember, the invention of the poster marks a radical shift in the role of imagery and photography: from memory to commodity, the utility of the poster being directly connected to its own commodity status as well as the commodity status of its depictions. Rolando interprets Benjamin’s own fascination with the 19th century poster in light of its appeal as: 1) the ultimate symbol of modernity as phantasmagoria: the transformation of reality into a consumer’s paradise in which everything is or stands to become a commodity; and 2) a unique methodological device, whereby, the fragment – the poster being only one example of a fragment – becomes the ideal entry point for a critique of totalizing narratives of history. Focusing on Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters, and his depictions of ‘La Parisiene’ in particular, Rolando argues that it is these posters that mark on the one hand, the entry of French womanhood into public life, and on the other, its transformation into the ultimate commodity. As an image of femininity packaged for its display value, ‘La Parisiene’ played on the idea of womanhood through representations of frivolity and superficiality mixed with style and sophistication, turning French femininity into an object of international desire, and perhaps more importantly, into a financially viable exchange value, becoming one of France’s principal exports in the 1880s. The poster is thus presented to serve, on the one hand, as a means to both market a particular commodity – in this case women – and radically alter the nature, status and identity of that commodity; and on the other hand, as a theoretical fragment that captures the radical effect that the invention of marketing has had on modern society. In Chapter 8, Konstantinos Vassiliou looks at the relationship between aesthetics and change through the prism of yet another type of image: the digital image. Focusing on the effect that digital media has had in the realm of art, he seeks to reassess current arguments that see digitality as an inherent threat to the ‘aura’ of the object of art. Building on Benjamin’s understanding of the ‘aura’ as something that ties the object emotionally to its viewer either through tradition, nature or memory, Konstantinos rejects the idea that techniques of reproduction, such as photography, and digital photography in particular,
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can erase the aura of an object of art by diminishing the importance of its authenticity and its physical presence. Although digitality allows for an endless and yet flawless reproduction of the image of art – to a point where there is no ‘original’ digital image that can be distinguished from its reproductions – the threat lies not in the technical aspect of digitality, but rather in the cult built around the aura of particular objects of art. Focusing on the example of the famous Mona Lisa, Konstantinos examines how it is the ‘aura’ of the painting, rather than the painting itself, that has become the commodity par excellence. Noting that it is this cult and veneration of the notion of art that causes the work of art itself to fade in the midst of the spectacle, and not digital techniques such as digital photography, he points out that digital images do nothing but reveal a transformation that has already occurred: the prioritization of the relationship between the ‘aura’ of the object of art and its consuming public over the unmediated relationship between the object itself and its viewer. He concludes that the technology of digitality itself does not necessarily insert yet another layer of distancing between the ‘original’ object and the viewer, as long as this direct relationship is still possible. In Chapter 9, Claes Belfrage also reflects on the relationship between aesthetics and change by focusing on images, yet this time, a very different set of images: marketing images that are used to sell and promote particular financial tools, from banking to investment and pension plans. Introducing the concept of ‘economic aesthetics’ Claes argues that it is essential for both economics and political economy to turn their attention towards the role that ‘perception’ and ‘aesthetics’ play in promoting and legitimating not only particular financial tools over others, but also entire economic systems such as capitalism vs. social democracy. Arguing that new modes of sense-perception come to dominate and in some cases, support processes of exploitation, Claes builds on Benjamin’s work in order to explore the aesthetic embeddedness of the capitalist system by, on the one hand, developing the idea of ‘economic aesthetics’ not only as a theoretical construct, but also as a possible methodology; and on the other hand, by discussing its political implications. While much of the chapter examines how ‘economic aesthetics’ could be used as a methodological and political tool theoretically, it also suggests that empirically, the current economic crisis constitutes as great starting point for its application.
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The conclusion serves to bring together these very different interpretations of the relation between aesthetics and change and argue for a more ‘aesthetically’ attune social science, and what that would imply. While celebrating Walter Benjamin’s work, the volume hopes to do much more than simply explore the meaning of his ideas: it hopes to provide a set of useful methodologies through which these ideas could be applied to current economic, social and political transformations.
Note 1 Benjamin’s application for a tenure position at University of Frankfurt was denied when his Habilitation was considered unsuitable, and he was forced to retrieve it. After that, Benjamin worked mainly as a journalist and independent writer, supported by institutions such as the Institute for Social Research.
Bibliography Anca Pusca, ‘The Aesthetics of Change: Exploring Post-Communist Spaces’, Global Society, 22, No. 3 (2008).
1 Towards A Global Space of Democratic Rights: On Benjamin, Gramsci, and Polanyi Renate Holub
Introduction: Towards a global civil society Walter Benjamin [1892–1940], Antonio Gramsci [1891–1937], and Karl Polanyi [1886–1964] are members of a particular intellectual generation in Europe. Although they spent their childhood and youths in vastly different national socio-cultural milieus and geographic environment – Berlin, Ghilarza-Sardinia, and Budapest/Vienna, respectively – they could not but experience, however directly or indirectly, a range of world-historical events. During their formative years, these included a new geopolitical division of the world as marked by the Spanish-US American War, the Buren War in Southern Africa, and the JapaneseRussian War. In their adult life, these world-historical events ranged from World War One, the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, the end of the Ottoman, German, Habsburgian, Russian, and Chinese Empires and failed attempts at socialist revolutions on the European continent, notably in Germany, Italy, and Hungary. These events also ranged from the rise of state fascism in Italy and Germany, the expansion of European colonialism in the Middle East as arranged by the Treaty of Versailles, the spectacular collapse of the transatlantic capitalist financial system on October 24 of 1929, and the nascent assumption of a bipolar geopolitical hegemony on the part of the United States and the Soviet Union. These events intersected in the transatlantic regions with the transformation of the predominant organization of economic production, finance, and markets under the technological conditions of high capitalism [Fordism, Taylorism, Sloanism] and, in a variety of countries in Europe, with the reorganization of state apparatuses and judicial systems after World War One. But they also intersected with the expansion and differentiation of new social formations, especially 10
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among the lower middle class strata, a social differentiation which would profoundly impact a reorganization of cultural practices by way of cultural integration of technological innovations such as radio, gramophone, photography, film, automobility, and so on. The political administration of mass societies could now harness the power of culture industries in the organization of the control of mass cultures. As a result of these profound transformations of the political, social, economic, and cultural spheres, intellectuals, qua knowledge organizers, saw themselves confronted with apparently unprecedented philosophical and moral challenges as they scrambled to grasp the relations between social transformations and received ideas. It is no coincidence that relatively new knowledge fields, such as sociology, anthropology, and psychoanalysis, gained entry into academic cultures at this particular historical juncture. Whereas the first aimed at establishing the differences between modern and non-modern social structures, all three of them concentrated their efforts on understanding the relations between individuals and group structures. If until the end of the 18th century the predominant historical tasks of a majority of European intellectuals pertained to the establishment of a human right to critique authority, be it in the realm of politics, religion, or knowledge, during the 19th century the tasks pertained above all to promote the rights to the establishment of non-feudal, non-absolutist, and non-clerical political orders: the establishment of a modern nation state, that is, based on a separation of powers, electoral systems, and majority rule. In the case of Germany and Italy, as well as other Eastern European regions, intellectual mobilization also focused on national unification. With the rise of the modern parliamentary nation state, based on a modern constitution and a plurality of political parties, including working class parties, this tendency towards future orientation in relation to rights expansion among a majority of the intellectual strata did decelerate. Although the new Western European modern parliamentary nation state, be it in its monarchical or republican form, found its existence in the context of a particular mode of production, namely industrial capitalism, a mode of production which historically has been contingent on the reproduction of social classes with unequal access to the control of the relations and forces of production [control of land, labour, capital], the intellectual generation to which Benjamin, Gramsci, and Polanyi belonged on the whole began to increasingly delink their philosophicalmoral projects from a collective future based on the expansion of rights. In the social and cultural hegemony of the bourgeoisie, the dominance of private property, privilege, and patriarchy received a renewed lease on
12 Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Change
legitimacy.1 The process of deceleration in terms of the promotion of philosophies of rights expansion is above all apparent in the contests about methodological groundings which erupted in the late 19th century. That one of the founder’s of the modern social sciences, Max Weber, would reproduce this contest in his very own methodology is a sign of the times.2 As far as the relation between future orientation and rights is concerned, it is true that pre-World War One and pre-World War Two nationalist movements had their brands of nationalist intellectuals, who hailed the future of their nations. But it was not for purposes of augmenting the greater universalization of the space of democratic rights. Conversely, some of the most renowned European intellectuals of the era preferred the past to the future of their respective societies. Freud, Proust, and Weber are all cases in point.3 There is plenty of room for speculation concerning this state of affairs. One thing is certain, though. The adventures of the concept of democratic human rights in European intellectual history reflect a curious trajectory.4 By 1910, it had barely emancipated itself from the shackles of predominant Natural Law theories in the context of which human rights variably derived from and were invariably linked to the foundations of divine law. But as soon as the concept of human rights had liberated its own foundations by placing them on a human principle of the right to rights, it began to endanger its newly grounded liberty for justice, equality and expansion of rights by endowing the system of capitalism, with its inherent constraints on the expansion of substantive democratic equality among social strata, with personified attributes of ‘liberty and freedom’ for infinite growth, expansion, and wealth accumulation. Benjamin, Gramsci, and Polanyi are among those European intellectuals who criticized the presumed benefits of such concepts of infinite growth in relation to the expansion of substantive democratic human rights in a finite global space. Karl Mannheim, who happens to be a member of the very generation of Benjamin, Gramsci, and Polanyi, as well as an important intellectual figure in Polanyi’s biography, suggested, as against Marxist and Weberian assumptions, in his seminal work on the sociology of knowledge, that structures of thinking are not only rooted in social space, but also in social time. While the concept of ‘social space’ was derived from a historist and historicist understanding of the materiality of ideas in a historical context, ‘social time’ is a conceptual innovation in that it attempts to grasp the phenomenon of acceleration and deceleration of time in a socio-historical context in relation to rights expansion and rights con-
Renate Holub 13
traction. Thus social movements, revolts, and revolutions can accelerate the establishment of new democratizing rights institutions, but they can also revert processes of democratization.5 Conservative revolutions do exist. Mannheim’s investigative gaze was fixed on the early part of the 19th century, when social time accelerated due to the collective impulses towards democratization mobilized by young generations. In other words, the fantasies and imaginations in relation to human rights, identity, and dignity, collectively constructed in word, speech, and image, by young generations, powerfully impacted entire national collectives for a specific period of time. An acceleration in the expansion of a collective consciousness about formal democratic equality, justice, liberty had taken place. If the youth movements in the first few decades of 19th century Europe constitute formidable examples of such social dynamics as studied by Mannheim, the student movements and to some extent the women’s movements in the third quarter of the 20th century, which occurred in many global regions, do not less so.6 The intellectual-moral and spiritual energies unleashed by the 1960s have retained some of their force even almost half a century later, albeit that the dispersion of these energies has been uneven. In the 1960s, there too obtained an acceleration in the expansion of consciousness in relation to the contradictions in societies subject to the interests of underregulated accumulation of wealth on the part of a minority, the dominance of private property and privilege, that is, in relation to national and global majorities. The facts of continual exploitation of social strata on a national and global level and the facts of multiple processes of commodification of bodies, minds, and souls in the structures of patriarchy, in the midst of administered societies, and in the systems of manipulation of public opinion clashed with a generational critique of the cultural accommodation to these facts on the part of an elite controlled mass media as well as on the part of conformist scholarship. This fractured the cultural hegemony of the bourgeoisie in many layers of civil society. ‘1910’, or the symbolic date of the onset of theoretical productions on the part of Benjamin, Gramsci, and Polanyi, surely, does not lend itself as readily as the 1830s or the 1960s as an originary historical moment in which the moral-intellectual and cultural directives of young generations accelerated the democratic pace – in formal and substantive terms – of transatlantic history. But ‘1910’ constitutes a historical moment of ‘social time’ in the Mannheimian sense nonetheless, not because it witnessed a relatively homogenous movement, but rather because it witnessed a proliferation of contesting and
14 Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Change
competing youth movements, political movements, cultural movements, theoretical movements and so on. This proliferation cannot be de-linked, of course, from general demographic increases in the context of capitalist societies from which new social formations, particularly among lower middle class strata, had emerged. This lent itself to the creation of new political, vocational, and cultural organizations and affiliation. By the same token, Europe’s capitalist societies, in spite of cyclical crises of the capitalist mode of production which it attempted to counterbalance with forays into all manner of colonialist ventures, by 1910 had become relatively affluent. This increase in affluence, measurable on the basis of salary increases of the populations at large in the period from 1870 to 1910 and by the population’s increased access to large social infrastructures and social welfare provisions, had also generated greater demands for the organization of leisure [sports clubs, bicycle associations, church choirs, cabarets, cinema, gardening opportunities, and so on]. Moreover, the increase in differentiations of social formations, linked to the technological needs of an expanding economic apparatus, and the political needs of an expanding capitalist state apparatus, is also reflected in the state directed facilitation of greater access to social mobility. As members of the lower middle classes consequently arrived at the university in larger numbers, they too formed their associations and organizations, which obviously were associations of young generations.7 The considerable extent of all manner of new organizations, parties, and affiliations, and the public discourses emerging from them, contributed to an expansion of the ‘public spheres’ and hence to a broad social engagement with competing systems of values and conceptions of the world.8 If the movements of the 1820s, 1830s and the 1960s were democratically driven, and if, in addition, the movement of the 1960s embraced an ethics of pacifism, the ideological contestations defining the social dynamics of ‘1910’ on one hand anticipate the public legitimations of fascisms and nationalsocialisms of the 1920s and 1930s, and on the other hand, they reflect continuity in support of the doctrines of nationalist economic imperialisms.9 Mannheim’s concepts of ‘social space’ and ‘social time’ are analytically still propitious for apprehending some of the complex conditions under which Benjamin, Gramsci, and Polanyi constructed their intellectual life projects on the concept of democratic self-organization of the expansion of human rights. But since by the early 20th century, transatlantic intellectuals had to negotiate their projects in the context of modern capitalist mass societies in which new theoretical and new sociological conditions impacted the traditional functions of
Renate Holub 15
intellectual work, some modifications of the Mannheimian concepts are in order. Benjamin, Gramsci, and Polanyi constructed their projects on the principle of the self-organization of democratic rights in relation to the contradictions embodied by the capitalist state. They did so in the context of a complex space which had become subject to at least five major dialectically intersecting intellectual and sociological tendencies. These pertain to 1) overproduction of ideas and theories; 2) expansion of the field of ‘public thinking and public production of ideas’; 3) processes of social differentiation; 4) systematic organization of ‘intellectual functions’ in the disciplines of academic institutions in the service of the maintenance of domination of societies by capitalist economic and state elites; and 5) increase in the academic production of ‘experts’ and ‘specialists’ who profess methodological and analytical value-neutrality and scientific predictability of social facts. When Benjamin, Gramsci, and Polanyi engaged in the study of the contradictions between unequal access to the control of the relations of production and the promises of modern democratic constitutions as symbolized by the enlightenment terms of liberty, equality and justice, these contradictions had become subject to a range of conceptual distortions, displacements, obfuscations, and exaggerations in the context of a mirage of theories. Indeed, the essential character of their ‘social time’ was constituted by an acceleration in the expansion of theories, ideas, concepts, analytical instruments, and methodologies, an acceleration and expansion of ideas which resulted in an overproduction of theories. While debates raged with regards to the proper foundations of methodologies, a principled debate about the conditions and function of this overproduction of theories did not take place, as actual acceleration and overproduction of theories were not questioned in terms of their relevance in relation to the expansion of democracy.10 Similar to processes of overproduction of material commodities, in the context of which the production of whatever commodities until recently trumped questions about the function of unbridled commodity production in the accumulation of waste, the destruction of ecosystems, and the depletion of natural resources, the processes of overproduction of ideal commodities likewise trumped questions about the function of the relevance of ideas and concepts in relation to dignified relations in social structures, democratic rights, and authentic peace. The overvaluation of the capitalist production process appeared to have informed an overvaluation of the production of ideas under conditions of high capitalism: their relevance was simply intrinsic to their existence. It
16 Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Change
seems that never before in Europe’s intellectual history were intellectuals required to compress into space and time of their own life-time a command of the proliferation of ideas and ‘isms’ which had accumulated on the market place of ideas by 1910. As members of their intellectual generation, Benjamin, Gramsci, and Polanyi were required to command the ‘contests of the faculties’ between all manner of idealisms and Marxisms, historicisms and historisms, evolutionisms, positivisms and nihilisms, utilitarianisms and neo-Kantianisms, biologisms and neo-Hegelianisms, relativisms and pragmatisms, phenomenology and pre-Wittgensteinian Cambridge philosophy, including remnants of Natural Law and Natural Rights Theories, not to mention all manner of differentiations in the sociological and psychological fields. While contests of the faculties had occurred at other moments in Europe’s intellectual history, never before, it seems to me, had intellectuals met with having to sort out such a vast variety of ontologies, epistemologies, and ethical systems in a single intellectual life-time. The barrage of ‘isms’, whose philosophical relevance and claims to truth was deemed among its respective followers beyond much doubt, was breathtaking. By 1910, the expansion of a public intellectual sphere, which had obtained throughout the 19th century by way of the launching of new scholarly journals, scientific congresses, publishing houses, and literary clubs, had significantly contributed to this unprecedented proliferation of theories, and hence in an unprecedented production of moralintellectual systems. Benjamin intuited as much when he remarked that practically every reader, under conditions of modern mass societies, had become a writer, as many economic and bureaucratic activities required the modern subject to engage in a measure of writing.11 Similarly, Gramsci’s analysis of civil society included the study of every possible piece of writing destined for readers, such as a parish newsletter, or a serial novel in a newspaper, precisely because civil society is constituted by multiple layers of ‘intellectual functions’.12 As the ‘intellectual public sphere’ began to turn into a ‘public sphere’ tout court, all members of the public turned into potential producers and consumers of theories, concepts, categories, and values. But they also turned into potential critics of predominant ideas and theories. This expansion of ‘public intellectuality’ ran counter to processes of ‘social differentiation’ intrinsic to modern class societies. While the state, as already mentioned, promoted social mobility through facilitation of access to a university education for members of lower middle class strata, students of lower middle class background were predominantly channelled into
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the lower orders in the hierarchy of ‘state professions’: into the ranks of grammar school teachers, and not into the rank of the professorial mandarins, for example, or into the ranks of low and middle level bureaucrats, hence not into leadership positions. In Italy, the ‘state professions’ included the ‘church professions’, as peasant and lower middle class families aspired to priesthood for at least one of their sons, as Gramsci noted. It is, statistically speaking, no coincidence that Gramsci, from a disadvantaged background, never finished his university studies, whereas Benjamin and Polanyi, arriving at the university with considerably much more cultural capital, did. The fact that the latter two did not assume university positions after completing their studies is above all linked to the high unemployment rate among university students, where an academic proletariat of sorts had emerged by the 1920s. As a result, all three of them ended up making a good part of their living as journalists. While in the affluent and literate societies of transatlantic capitalisms the majority of populations had become potential public producers and distributors of ideas, their appearance on the historical stage of political actors generated a modicum of anxieties among the traditional intellectual strata. Not surprisingly, the relations between ‘public intellectuality’, namely intellectual functions on the part of educated and thinking citizens along democratic lines of thought and the received role of intellectuals as moral leaders of political persuasion of any kind is reflected in important publications, such as in Ortega y Gasset’s La rebelión de las masas and in Julien Benda’s La trahison des clercs. These publications squarely pit ‘public intellectuality’ to ‘received functions’ of elite intellectuals, based on the assumption that only elites could and should ‘function’ as intellectuals. In the United States, ‘public intellectuality’ was deemed to assume status of subordination far less ceremoniously to the rule of a few in the name of the ‘prize of freedom’: to the modern public relations agent of Edward L. Bernays Crystallizing Public Opinion  for one, or, somewhat later, after World War Two, to the ‘public philosophy’ of the elite philosopher, for another, as in Walter Lippmann’s The Public Philosophy .13 For Benjamin, Gramsci, and Polanyi, the category of ‘intellectuals’, no longer exhausted itself in a 19th century concept of ‘elite intellectuals’, namely ‘intellectuals’ who function as cultural organizers and distributors of dominant belief systems and rules of moral conduct. They made attempts to bring some order into the myriad of claims made about society by leading public intellectuals and the actual practices in every day social, economic, and cultural life. This theoretical ordering
18 Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Change
of the relations between ideas and practices had become not only extraordinarily complex, all claims to authenticity, truth, and scientificity of the various ‘isms’ to the contrary, but also extraordinarily contested. It is interesting in this context to remember that the capitalist state would attempt to systematically curb this state of affairs. Its state elites by the first few decades of the 20th century began to channel the synthetic capacities of intellectuals, their ‘intellectual functions’, that is, into the mono-disciplines of the academies. In the context of a hierarchized division of academic labour, the newly established values of ‘expertise’ and ‘specialization’ required a definitive methodological basis, a predilection for specific analytics, a distinct habitus of professionality, and a mono-disciplinary structure of thought. In the European universities run by the state, the university intellectuals to a large extent became ‘state intellectuals’, whose existential survival, including the much coveted pension provisions, tended to variably interlink with the interests of the state.14 The ‘social time’ Benjamin, Gramsci, and Polanyi thus shared is that in compressed space of time, namely their life-time, they had to evaluate, juggle, combine, deconstruct and recombine an unprecedented plurality of competing ideas. Their ‘social time’ was compressed in more than one way, however. For they met the theoretical challenges of acceleration in the overproduction of ideas as described above under conditions of fascist and national-socialist threats to their existence. Indeed, as is well known, while Polanyi barely survived these threats, Benjamin and Gramsci succumbed to them. Gramsci provides a glimpse of these compressed conditions when he decided to shorten his research programme, which he had begun to develop in 1929, in 1931.15 He knew that in Mussolini’s prisons, he could not much count on his time. Similarly, Benjamin offers a glimpse of his compressed conditions in a letter written shortly before he approached the Spanish border in August of 1940.16 But if their ‘social time’ was compressed, their ‘social space’ was much less so. True, all three of them developed their intellectual projects in a specific national space, and all three projects surely carry the markers of their national cultural unconscious: Benjamin’s linkages to the German enlightenment which grounds his notion of aesthetics, Gramsci’s obsession with the history of Italian intellectuals, which generates his rich concept of ‘civil society’, and Polanyi’s focus on economic theory in relation to anthropology, which runs up against the economic dimensions of the epistemological conceptions of the Vienna Circle as well as the individualist penchants of the ontological foundations of Freudian psychoanalysis. Benjamin’s, Gramsci’s, and
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Polanyi’s ‘social space’, albeit compromised by despotic threats, largely escaped compression because they developed their intellectual projects not at the centres of the academic establishments, but at their peripheries. They had no membership in the ‘mandarine club’. 17 As a result, their imaginations remained relatively unencumbered by the system of punishment and reward central to main stream academic operations. Their thinking and writing is largely free from the disciplining commands of single academic disciplines, their habitus as intellectuals remains in a constant state of probing, experimenting, questioning. Rather than imposing conclusive, definitive, or synthetic images of the present, their ‘structures of thinking’ remain open to the future eventualities of new social facts or relations.18 Even a cursory comparison of their style of thinking as compared to that of Hannah Arendt, for instance, would reveal enormous differences in terms of habitus, language, and perception of intellectual self.19 Arendt identified with the field of German philosophy, and the authoritarian status the field of philosophy, personified by the mandarine philosophers, commanded at the German university of her formative years as intellectual. Her similarity to Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt in this respect cannot be easily dismissed. What I would like to propose is that from their respective peripheral stations in the predominant transatlantic organization of knowledge of the 20th century, Benjamin, Gramsci and Polanyi managed to cultivate intellectual liberties which endowed them with the capacity to produce ‘productive-directive concepts’. These are concepts which, although based on analysis and study of complex yet concrete phenomena linked to their own historical epoch, even after six, seven, or eight decades and more offer moral-intellectual directive power to critical social theory. This is so – and here I take the liberty to loosely borrow from Walter Benjamin and André Breton – because these concepts ‘tremble with reflections of the future’.20 By way of short-hand, let me circumscribe these key concepts as ‘aesthetics of mass-intellectuality’, ‘civil cultures of societies’, and ‘societies of reciprocities’, respectively. As we will see in the second part of this article, the force of these ‘productive-directive concepts’ also resides not simply in their rootedness in a space of democratic rights conceptualized since the enlightenment – the right to human dignity in democratic community – a space they share with many critical intellectuals of their generation. The force of these ‘productive-directive concepts’ also resides in their capacity to link the concept of the power of democratic self-organization of human rights to dignity in the social relations of communities to locations both inside and outside the ‘spaces and times’ of their own life-times. These included spaces and
20 Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Change
times outside Europe. While Gramsci knew that he himself would not see his prison writings published, that he was writing for readers who would live after him, and hence for future readers, Benjamin, in his intuitions of the moral forces of the past, endowed generations of trampled historical spaces of Northern and Southern hemispheres alike, with the dignity of linking their past to his own present and hence to the future. Polanyi expressed it most distinctly: I am writing, he said, for the people of the Third World. To concretely imagine these linkages with spaces and times outside the predominant transatlantic imagination is what Benjamin, Gramsci, and Polanyi, as European intellectuals, do not share with most critical social theorists of their generation. In this, their imaginations indeed ‘tremble with reflections of the future’, a specificity which no doubt explains the extraordinary interest in these three theorists on the part of democratically minded intellectuals from all global regions as global social justice movements and formations of global civil societies have arisen next to the monumental shifts of the epicentre of economic and cultural power from the Atlantic to a plurality of regions in the world, including Asia Pacific and Latin America.21 In collectively participating in the invention of this multi-polar future in a substantive and formal democratic key, some of Benjamin’s, Gramsci’s, and Polanyi’s conceptual images, as explicated in the following sections, are invaluable legacies.
Benjamin’s ‘Aesthetics of Public Intellectuality’ In one of his early essays, entitled ‘Das Leben der Studenten’, Walter Benjamin examined the functions of the German university of his own epoch and arrived at the following conclusions: 1) The university constitutes a space in which a certain percentage of the young generation are socialized into acceptance of the status quo based on a capitalistic class society; 2) The university legitimizes processes of repression and commodification of the mind, soul, and body by predominantly promoting ideologies of accommodation to bourgeois professional and family life. This occurs at the expense of critical thinking, as well as at the expense of neutralizing erotic drives, which amounts to a strangling of creativity embedded in these drives. The silent legitimation of the widespread use of prostitution on the part of the almost exclusively male student body facilitates such forces of repression; 3) Most students subject themselves, without critique and resistance, to this state of affairs, as even their oppositional attempts remain within the contours of the politics of liberalism on one hand, and, on the other hand,
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within the social theories promoted by main stream press. By refraining from inquiring into the most profound collective experiences, such as art, poetry, and religion, students themselves destroy the very essence of young generations, namely their potential for unencumbered creativity and innovation; 4) Intellectual revolutions, which once emerged from the sphere of art and social life, could in the era of high capitalism in principle be transmitted by the energy and vision of the young generations, if such capacities were not already doomed to failure due to the academic and political legitimation of an acceleration in the increase of specialization of disciplines and sub-disciplines. Central to these specialization processes are the separation of questions of morality and ethics from systems of knowledge production; 5) Most students have consented to the instrumentalization of their souls for purposes of maintaining routinized institutions of bourgeois professional and family life without asking questions about the conditions these institutions impose on the creative potentials of human beings in relation to a dignified community.22 The reason for this state of affairs is to be found in a particular conception of history, Benjamin reasoned, namely one which ultimately assumes the infinity of time. Thus it is only interested in distinguishing the pace of life and epochs, which move fast or slowly along the path of progress.23 Yet the fast track of progress, which finds most apposite a separation of morality from the socio-economic and political institutions, and which consequently circumvents the questions of the function of the university in the totality of social relations, is not conducive to authenticity of existence. It pertains to the realization of the creative capacities of human beings in relation to a ‘menschenwürdige Gesellschaft’, in relation to ‘dignified collective spaces’.24 The programmatic critique Benjamin offered in this essay on the sociological category of German university students and the ideological function of the university in relation to both the geopolitical expansion of transatlantic capitalism and the impact of capitalist relations of production on the structures of everyday social and cultural life anticipates major arguments of the social and cultural critique of the European and North American student movements of the 1960s.25 While no doubt they obtain national variations in the formation of the transatlantic student movements, they also obtain central similarities. These range from a critique of the predominant pedagogical and curricular models of the universities, intent on producing – through infantalization of the student body – obedience to the status quo rather than critical questioning to a critique of the role of the university in
22 Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Change
the ordering of human relations in a capitalist economy, society, and state. They also encompassed a study of the social division of labour in a class society as well as studies of the function of the authority structures in the family in relation to citizen’s obedience to authority structures of the state. Moreover, there were also debates about the academic tendency towards specialization of disciplines at the expense of interdisciplinary research. In addition, there developed, particularly among women involved in the women’s movement, systematic analysis of the variability in the social organization of intellectual and erotic drives along gender lines. Where Benjamin’s essay on ‘Das Leben der Studenten’ would clash head on with most women in the student movements of the 1960s is his assumption that the ‘necessity of independence of the creative man, […] is conditioned on the incorporation of a woman (who is not productive in a male sense) into a community of producers, a community based on love [… and that …] the demand for such a form has to originate among the students themselves, because it is form of life.26 Surely, Benjamin here above all critiques those hypocritical dimensions of bourgeois society in which men and women alike legitimate the function of prostitution in student life for purposes of delaying the more respectable social arrangement of marriage until completion of university studies. But his conception of the necessity of the love of women in the life of intellectual and artistic creators, based on the assumption that they are not productive ‘in the sense of a man’, could no longer be shared by the women contingent of the student movement of the 1960s, precisely because the women’s movements, which developed parallel to the student movements in the transatlantic worlds, had centred on women’s capacities for independently determining the range of their intellectual, moral, and sexual self-realization. That even practically 50 years after the Second Wave Women’s Movement psycho-social studies suggest that the desire of male control of women’s intellectuality and sexuality continues to be reflected in the continual devaluation of women in the social and cultural realm of the everyday is simply a reminder that Benjamin’s universalist take on the supportive but ultimately subservient role of women in the biography of male creative life, which he expressed almost a hundred years ago, is as generational and personal as it is patriarchal and hence institutional.27 We know from historical record that while many women of Benjamin’s generation in Europe and North America attempted to construct their independent sexual and intellectual lives, relatively few succeeded under the circumstances at hand. But it is also part of the historical record that Benjamin’s own relations with women
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have not been impervious to the gender question: the influence Asja Lacis exercised on the social direction of his thinking is a case in point.28 If Benjamin’s critique of the German university employs analytical instruments familiar to the projects of the transatlantic student movements of the 1960s, it necessarily touches upon major themes which would emerge in the writings of Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, and other intellectuals usually linked to the tradition of critical theory of the Frankfurt School. This is so precisely because the significance of the Frankfurt School is not separable from its dialectical engagement with the ‘infinite day dreams’ of the young generations of the 1960s, of which it was but one of many sources.29 While some of the most important features of Benjamin’s essay on ‘Das Leben der Studenten’ variably anticipate or link up with conceptual images of the Frankfurt School, and the social movements of the 1960s, as is apparent from the previous pages, other conceptual images do not as easily entertain elective affinities with critical theory. Among these are Benjamin’s concepts of the ‘present’, or ‘Gegenwart’, his concept of ‘mass intellectuality’, as well as his concept of ‘menschenwürdig’, namely the right to a dignified existence understood as the ‘right to violence-less-ness’. In order to support my claim, I would like to again return to Benjamin’s essay on the life of students, which begins with the following lines: There is a view of history that puts its faith in the infinite extent of time and thus concerns itself only with the speed, or lack of it, with which people and epochs advance along the path of progress. This corresponds to a certain absence of coherence and rigor in the demands it makes on the present. With these two initial sentences Benjamin constructs a framework within which the critique of the function of the university in a particular economy and state takes place. By circling around notions such as ‘progress’, and ‘epochs’, ‘accelerations and decelerations’, ‘infinite times’ and ‘present’, it evokes a conceptual imagery of temporal and spatial movements. This imaginative architecture, which he developed as early as 1915, would be present in Benjamin’s thinking to the last writings of his life. Thus it is at work not only in ‘Das Leben der Studenten’, which focuses on a critique of the political function of the university, as we already mentioned, but it is also at work when he engages with a critique of the state’s range of deployment of violence, as he does in his essay on Kritik der Gewalt . In addition, when he
24 Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Change
is critical of the ‘state intellectuals’, due to their tendencies to turn science into fashion, or to proceed with journalistic superficiality and dilettantism, as he does in Wissenschaft nach der Mode , he is also moving in this very imaginative architecture. It is also squarely present in his Theologisch-politisches Fragment, and his Geschichtsphilosophische Thesen, written towards the end of his life in the later 1930s.30 This framework of ‘progress’ and ‘epoch’, ‘accelerations and decelerations’ ‘infinite times’ and ‘present’ centrally pertains to the problematization of the notion of ‘progress’ as it had emerged since the European enlightenment of the 18th century. It happened to sustain a version of progress as promoted by all manner of future oriented ‘isms’, ranging from economic and political liberalisms to Hegelian and Marxist conceptions of historical progress. But it also solicited a rejection of industrial and technological progress on the part of cultural movements, such as romanticism, as well as on the part of all manner of conservative traditions. Benjamin rejected the liberalist-capitalist notion of progress because of its tendencies towards the marketization of art, the repression of aesthetic impulses, and the negation of artistic creativity and freedom. In this posture Benjamin is paradoxically both an heir to European modern aesthetic theory as well as to German enlightenment aesthetics.31 But Benjamin’s architecture of temporal and spatial movement also runs up against the predominant Hegelian-Marxist conceptions of progress, in the context of which the civilizations of Europe and North America presumably led global societies on a linear historical trajectory.32 Benjamin’s scepticism with respect to the traditional Marxist notion of progress is most explicit in his Thesis No 9 of his Geschichtsphilosophische Thesen, sometimes rendered as his ‘concept of history’. We will return to this important Thesis No 9 in a moment. What is central to my argument here is not so much Benjamin’s linkages with the Frankfurt School, and his position in the tradition of neo-marxism which many critics have found perplexing. Rather, what I would like to indicate is that in spite of his extraordinary conceptual and moral affiliations with the critical theory of the Frankfurt School – an affiliation which is squarely apparent from the content of his essay on ‘Das Leben der Studenten’, as introduced above – he moved his theoretical project far beyond some of the essential features of neomarxism and the Frankfurt School by way of a particular disposition: his continual insistence on the concept of the ‘present’. In German, the notion of ‘present’ translates as ‘Gegenwart’. All three major notions of time typical of the language structures of the Indo-European languages, such as past, present, and future, display greater semantic sim-
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plicity in English, which derived its terminology from Romance languages, as compared to German. The German terms ‘Vergangenheit’, ‘Gegenwart’, and ‘Zukunft’ offer a host of adjectival and substantive derivatives, particularly when endowed with prefixes and suffixes, and hence with extraordinary semantic possibilities in terms of the concepts of space and time. Such permutations are not as readily available in the basic temporal terms derived from Latin.33 As far as the noun ‘Gegenwart’ is concerned, there are a series of derivatives, such as the adjective ‘gegenwärtig’, which in turn displays semantic affinities with ‘geistesgegenwärtig’. The latter signals a disposition in which a person, being most attentive to her environment, successfully reacts to a challenge or a shock with the might of her sensuous and intellective capacities. This is a figure of thought immensely common in Benjamin’s oeuvre, as has been pointed out in many essays included in this anthology, particularly in the essays by Claes Belfrage’s [Cultivating a Mass Investment Culture] and Anca Pusca’s [Benjamin’s Concept of Shock]. What I would like to emphasize here is not so much Benjamin’s use of concepts of the ‘present’, but rather, his own ‘Gegenwärtigkeit’ or even ‘Geistesgegenwärtigkeit’ in relation to an unprecedented phenomenon: namely, when he ‘makes present to himself’ the unprecedented presence of the masses in urbanized modernities. In fact, while Benjamin makes use of many dimensions of the concept of the ‘present’ throughout his work, none is more powerful than the relation he established between himself as an art critic, essayist, writer, raconteur and art historian and the urban masses surrounding him.34 In this resides the character of one of his ‘productive-directive concepts’, namely concepts, as I explicated above, which ‘tremble with the reflections of the future’. Unlike traditional elite perceptions of the masses on the part of predominant intellectual strata, Benjamin neither separates himself from the urban masses, he is not afraid of them, nor does he objectify them. As compared to other intellectual formations of his epoch, such as the George Kreis, or the schools of aestheticism, renaissancism, and psychoanalysis, with which Benjamin after all shares considerable interests, he does not erect a protective wall between himself as an individual and urban mass realities.35 The self-regulation of individualization does not take place. Rather, Benjamin persistently seeks interaction with and immersion into urban mass societies by performing for them as essayist, book reviewer, radio literary host, story teller, collector, and journalist. When he reflects on the phenomenon of urban mass societies, then he does so in terms of the capacities of modern mass societies in relation to the production of new forms of perception
26 Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Change
and creativity. In the age of mass literacy, the rise of urban masses carried within itself the rise of mass intellectuality. Urban masses are central to Benjamin’s work to the extent to which he comprehended that urban mass society, and hence the masses, were not going to disappear. Most importantly, mass societies potentially generated from within themselves ‘mass intellectualities’. The implications of this fact of modern mass societies in terms of a potential rethinking of the projects of dignified human relations – relations which are liberated from violence – are extraordinarily wide-ranging. Benjamin could only perceive himself as being part of these processes of social and cultural innovations. The centrality of the concept of ‘masses’ in Benjamin’s project is surely apparent in the enthusiasm with which he examined the correspondences between Baudelaire’s poetry and the epoch of high capitalism in Paris. But this enthusiasm is heightened when he examines the concept of ‘mass intellectuality’ in relation to new technologies potentially furthering processes of democratization on the part of the urban mass societies. This is particularly obvious in his inimitable essay ‘Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit’.36 In it, Benjamin not only recognizes the democratic potential of media such as photography and film, in that they enable the majority of the populations to become artistic producers themselves. But he also points out that these new media open up new forms of perception of everyday life. In fact, film technology through optical possibilities can increase the sensation of ‘being in the present’ and hence increase the epistemological capacities of seeing relations from multiple points of view. For Benjamin, these new technologies could link the potential of mass intellectuality to engage in the struggle for dignified human relations between human beings, namely relations which consist in accommodating, rather than undermining, negating, or even destroying, the dignity of humankind. Just as at the end of the 20th century all manner of critical theorists engaged in debates about the new information-technological capacities of networks and the internet in expanding democratizing relations on a local and global scale, Benjamin reflected on linkages between processes of democratization and deployment of new technologies on the part of mass societies.37 By relating himself to ‘mass intellectuality’, or to ‘public intellectuality’, as I called it in the first section of this article, Benjamin intuited the self-organizing capacities of democratically oriented collectives in terms of expanding the human rights to non-violent social relations which accommodate human dignity rather than crippling it, threatening it, or even annihilating it.38 Surely, Benjamin’s mobilization of entire registers of Marxist terms which he repeatedly evokes – ‘capitalist rela-
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tions of production’, and ‘oppression of the working class’, or ‘epistemological superiority of the standpoint of the industrial working class’ – coupled with the biographical detail of his close relationship with Bertold Brecht tends to support the idea that his project had its share in the traditions of 20th century western marxisms, and that, therefore, the concept of mass intellectuality should translate into ‘the intellectuality of the working class avant guardes’. This would place Benjamin into the vicinity of an ideological position in the context of which the possibility of democratic mass mobilization exhausted itself in the vision of mass mobilization of the industrial working class. But as the dramatic debate between Benjamin and Adorno indicates, even Adorno, whose penchant for aesthetic solutions in response to the structures of capitalist commodification is well known, was not enthused about Benjamin’s take on the evolution and interpretation of historical flows in relation to received Marxist conceptions of the dialectic.39 It is possible, of course, that in Benjamin’s work there simply obtains what he himself astutely noticed in relation to Kafka: namely that profound tensions can run through the life and work of an artist.40 This is at least what much of the secondary literature on Benjamin has come to conclude when faced with Benjamin’s position between Marxism, on one hand, and, what is sometimes called his Messianism, on the other hand. Such evaluation precludes his precise location in the Marxist camp. But Benjamin’s astute recognition of the extraordinary implications of the unprecedented presence of urban mass societies opens up a vista which remained closed to more traditional versions of Marxism. True, masses existed before the 19th and 20th centuries. But never before existed the potential that masses, rather than elites, could promote their own versions of the nature of human relations. This implies that masses of people are capable of the self-organization of practices and social relations bent on exiling ideas and practices of violence from everyday life. As Benjamin noted, under national-socialism, mass culture was controlled by the elites. The theatres, the stadiums, the film ateliers, the publishing houses all were managed by the visions of the Nazi regime. But the monumental art produced by fascism had no function for the future, because such art, in its monumental material conditions, was not reproducible by people. Hence it was profoundly undemocratic, as it precluded reproducibility. In Benjamin’s reflections on mass societies, with its direct linkages to mass intellectuality in relation to new technologies, there squarely resides a glimpse of the possibility of the organization of mass intellectuality on a global scale: the organization of global civil societies, that is. Hence mass society, in itself was not necessarily destined by historical fiat to become,
28 Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Change
as historical object, subjected to administration, manipulation, and deception by well-organized elites. While in the work of Marcuse, Horkheimer, Adorno and other critical theorists, mass societies were primarily viewed in terms of what they denied to authentic human existence; in the work of Benjamin, mass societies, in their potential of generating ‘mass intellectuality’ or ‘public intellectuality’ contained the promise of building new social relations between human beings, relations which were not simply relations but which were ‘menschliche Beziehungen’. Again, such a concept is reminiscent of the Marxist philosophical apparatus. But in Benjamin’s work, the concept of the possibility of ‘menschliche Beziehungen’ is linked to ‘Menschenwürde’. This enables him to link the present of authenticity, as desired by the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, to a past in which human dignity any where in the world had been annihilated due to its subjection to extraordinary acts of violence.41 Collectives in the present can redeem such violence by exiling practices and ideas of violence from their respective societies. ‘Progress’, for Benjamin, then, is not ‘progress’ as understood in the tradition of the European enlightenment. As he writes in his Thesis No 9, the Angelus Novus, as painted by Klee, resembles ‘the angel of history’. The angel is caught in a storm, which, originating in paradise, forces the angel to move towards the future, with its face looking towards the past. All the angel can see with horror in this storm are the mountains of rubble of the past, signs of violence and deaths, which reach the sky. What we call progress, Benjamin writes, is this storm.42 Whoever has inhaled the air at haunted places of rubble, where masses of people have been dehumanized by violence, knows that our present is linked to the past, as Benjamin inimitably evoked. What would it mean if masses of people in the world today, ‘public intellectuality’, that is, would redeem the past of violence with an all-encompassing refusal of promoting violence in the structures of everyday social, cultural, intellectual, and geopolitical life? These are ‘productive-directive concepts’ which patiently wind their way through the pages of Walter Benjamin as they unmistakingly ‘tremble with reflections of the future’.
Between Gramsci’s ‘Civil Cultures of Societies’, Polanyi’s ‘Social Cultures of Reciprocities’ and Benjamin’s ‘Aesthetics of Public Intellectuality’ in the information age If Benjamin brings into his field of moral vision the suffering of conquered peoples in the past anywhere in the world in relation to the
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responsibility of ‘public intellectuality’ of the 20th century, Karl Polanyi and Antonio Gramsci engage their thoughts about future eventualities of new social realities on a global scale with relations between present and past collectives as well. Such intellectual habits hardly assign transcendental status to the concept of individualism and the theories of individualism it sustains in the area of political, geopolitical, social, and economic thought. Hence all three theorists attempted to grasp both the synchronic and diachronic dimensions of the dialectical relationship between individuals and communities, a relationship which is the informing basis of creativity, innovation, and future orientation, as expressed in languages, religion, art, and other material and ideal institutions.43 In other words, all three theorists distanced themselves from the hegemony of the concept of the ‘individual’, on the basis of which predominant social, political, and geopolitical theories assume that competitive rules of conduct naturally determine all manner of actions in relation to dominance and subordination.44 These range from individual action vis-à-vis other individuals, or actions of individual social strata vis-à-vis other social strata, to the individual actions of nation states vis-à-vis other nation states. On the subject of Gramsci’s understanding of the relations between past, present, and future, I would like to point to an extraordinary passage in Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. For already in the early 1930s, Gramsci wondered in his prison cell about future economic transformations of East Asia: ‘Concerning the function of the Atlantic in civilization and the modern economy. Will this axis move to the Pacific? The largest populations in the world are in the Pacific East. If China and India would become modern nations with large masses of people involved in industrial production, their separation from European dependence would indeed break the actual balance: hence transformation of the American continent, the shift of American life from the Atlantic to the Pacific etc. One should look at all of these questions in economic and political terms, trade terms, etc.’45 While intellectuals living under colonial or semi-colonial conditions in Africa, Latin America, and Asia had begun to critically think about the future of the political economies of their region, few critical intellectuals of Gramsci’s generation had significantly reflected on the eventuality of such momentous transformations which would move the epicentre of the global economic weight from the Atlantic to the Pacific.46 The implications in terms of power shifts evoked by Gramsci’s inquiry were even less a matter of substantive debate among leading transatlantic intellectuals of Gramsci’s epoch. All manner of colonialist and imperialist ventures, which had been harnessed in the
30 Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Change
service of gaining advantage in the unrelenting capitalist competition for raw materials, investment opportunities, and market shares assisted in the predominant definition of self-perception and identity of transatlantic national citizenries in relation to the rest of global populations. If 19th century cultures in Europe had generated a variety of nationalisms, in the context of which nations intermittently proclaimed their cultural superiority vis-à-vis other nations in Europe; by the early 20th century the perception of European superiority in relation to other global regions found its most apposite expression in many important publications. Max Weber’s introduction to the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, where he traces the distinctions of Western science, mathematics, historical thinking, art, architecture, music, law, political institutions and so on, is representative of such expression.47 For only cultures of Europe and North America, he reasoned, had generated capitalism. While Weber’s depiction of the transatlantic scientific and cultural achievements attempted to avoid positive moral evaluations of occidental modernity, the nexus between a presumed superiority of the European mind and morality, and hence of the institutions of European societies and cultures, had been systematically implanted into the cultural unconscious particularly under conditions of high capitalism.48 With some exceptions, Europe’s and North America’s exceptionality remained its preferred object of study, among liberals, conservatives, and leftists alike.49 That Gramsci would reflect on the impact of possible economic transformations on the future of all global regions is not surprising, if we take into account that he was not simply a European intellectual. He was, above all, a ‘Southern’ intellectual, both born into a modest social and cultural capital of Italy’s South and into a modest hegemonic capital of Southern Europe. As such, he was attuned to issues pertaining to regional variability in relation to resource allocation, or to national variability in terms of access to the control of market shares in global trade and investments. He knew something about the political economy of the production of dependencies on the national and international level. In the national planning of its political economies after reunification in 1871, Italy’s elites had assigned a subordinate economic role to the Italian South by the organization of a capital intensive industrial mode of production in the North and a predominantly labour intensive agricultural mode of production in the South. Gramsci would dedicate a systematic study to this factor in variability. It had facilitated a continuous exploitation of illiterate peasant masses by southern landed elites, intensified social discrepancies between the
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North and the South in terms of access to educational, cultural, and professional opportunities, and it had seriously compromised the participation of the peasant masses in the political process.50 All three factors played a substantive role in the support the fascist regime enjoyed in the ranks of the southern rural petty bourgeoisie, whose spontaneous fear of the large peasantry generated their seizure of the role of mediators between the ideology of the Southern landed elites, aligned with the capitalist industrialist elites of the North in a historic bloc, and a disaggregated, fragmented, passive and hence ideologically disoriented, mass peasantry in the South.51 In other words, the uneven development between the industrial North and the agricultural South had but generated most fragile ‘civil cultures in Italian society’, in the context of which the disparate levels of consciousness in relation to rights expansion compromised social cohesion and cultural homogeneity in relation to norms and application of democratic rights. By the same token, in the organization of international economic, trade, and financial regimes of high capitalism in the period of 1870–1910, Italy’s location on the southern periphery of Europe had among a variety of factors impacted the pace of its capitalist evolution in terms of production, trade, and investments, and hence the limited status and sphere of influence on the roundtable of predominant international capitalist actors. As a result, although the Italian government of high capitalism pursued colonialist interests in Africa, notably in Ethiopia and Libya, its participation in the international ‘Scramble for China’ is practically non-existent.52 There may have been other reasons why Gramsci paid attention to the East. For one, Italy’s strategic position in the Mediterranean, and hence on one of the worlds most important international maritime transportation routes between Europe and Asia, practically since the end of the Renaissance, had been of foreign policy interest to the empire builders in Europe, such as England, Austria, Spain, and France. Italian intellectuals were aware of it, Machiavelli’s writings representing one of the earliest examples of such awareness. With the construction of the Suez Canal, the strategic position of Italy in the East-West transportation systems had become even more of an issue – for Europeans and Italians alike – as Italy’s proximity to the Suez Canal, a most vulnerable conduit between the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean, increased the significance of access to the spheres of influence in relation to the control of Italy’s foreign relations programme.53 Further, Gramsci may have heightened his interest in the Pacific while sojourning in Moscow in the early 1920s. After all,
32 Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Change
Russia’s historically consistent imperialist outlook towards the East had dramatically accelerated during the 19th century as it engaged, next to Britain, France, Germany and the United States, in economic, diplomatic, and financial processes which contributed to an acceleration in the disintegration of the Chinese empire. Russia reversed this trend by developing new policies, particularly after the Chinese revolution of 1911–1912 and the May 4th Movement which led to the foundation of the Communist Party in China in 1920. In fact, by the 1920s, the Soviet Union had offered, by way of the Karakhan Manifesto, to return much coveted railroad concessions in China to the Chinese government, while simultaneously sending advisors to assist in the building of a fledgling Chinese communist party. In other words, although Gramsci composed his thoughts on the future of the Pacific region when India was still a colony under British rule and when China, internally divided by innumerable civil strives, was threatened by Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, he was too much of a historical, political, economic, technological, and geopolitical thinker not to reflect on the dialectic between the evolution of the organization of processes of industrial-technological production and the organization of regimes of international relations and trade. Indeed, it was only ten years or so after his death in Mussolini’s prison that India had gained independence from Britain, thereby launching into existence the largest formal democracy of the world. Conversely, China, as a sovereign republic, had begun to consolidate its communist revolution under the leadership of Chairman Mao Ze Dung by 1949. Both countries had begun to consolidate under sovereign control the organization of their economies and societies along capitalist and socialist lines, respectively. By 2009, the increasing globalization of processes of organization of production, finance and trade, which accelerated, by way of information-technological revolutions of the 1990s, the transformation of industrial capitalism into informational capitalism, has begun to encompass not only India’s economies organized along capitalist lines, but also China’s economies, the precise nature of which remains a matter of considerable debate in the predominant economic literature. What renders Gramsci’s comments of the early 1930s on India and China so prescient resides in the obvious fact that by 2009 China and India have indeed become substantive players in the organization of the global economy and trade as well as of international relations.54 Their new global status is apparent above all through their investment and diplomatic strategies in the context of global developing economies. Moreover, the increase in the size of the workforce in India and China has contributed to their productivity growth, as the low labour
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costs in both countries tend to attract investors. The proliferation of technological applications in the capitalist production processes which facilitates increases in productivity, has neither made contingent the variable of cheap labour in the equation which measures productivity growth, nor has it impeded the expansion of expensive labour, as salary surpluses are the condition for the purchase of commodities, as Gramsci noted already in his notes on ‘Americanism and Fordism’, in which he analysed the persistence of the extraction of surplus value from wage labour in the capitalist production process notwithstanding the unprecedented application of technological innovations in its organization.55 In other words, even seven decades or so after Gramsci’s essay on ‘Americanism’, labour intensity still constitutes a key variable in the equation of productivity growth, even under conditions of the modes of production of informational capitalism which tends to be technology intensive and capital intensive. Moreover, Gramsci’s reflections in the 1930s on the spatial transformations of the economic organization in the United States is of incisive interest, since in the economic history of the North American continent the most advanced and profitable economic sectors – information-technologies, aviation and space technologies, military technologies, nano-technologies, medical technologies and so on – have indeed moved to a large extent towards the Pacific Coast, to California, Oregon and Washington, that is, particularly since the end of World War II. Silicon Valley may serve as the most illustrious example, as it represents not only one of the most important backbones of global informational capitalism, but also a global centre of innovation, creativity, and invention of new forms of global democratic interactions linked to the liberatory potential of the internet.56 Both functions are intricately interwoven with the attraction of talent from around the world, including from India and China. Since the advent of the internet, the edge the traffic in volume and speed commanded between North America and Europe as compared to North America and Asia is in a process of gradual diminution. While all these factors mentioned above point to a remarkably anticipatory content of Gramsci’s reflections on the status of China and India in 21st century world history, what appears to me to be even more groundbreaking are the questions he raises with respect to the political impacts on the ‘civilizations of modernity’ generated by the shift of the epicentre of the economic weight from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Do his questions not imply that the status of Eurocentric culture and power could be minimized, or even displaced by such enormous shifts?57 Does it not follow that new cultures could emerge
34 Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Change
beyond the ‘civilizations of modernity’, including new ‘civil cultures of societies?’ It would be difficult to make the claim that the Prison Notebooks offer a fully articulated architecture of new ‘civil cultures beyond modern societies’. After all, Gramsci was mostly interested in an analysis of the political and ideological fields of Italian society under the capitalist and fascist nation state, under which he lived. In such analysis, he developed the central concepts of civil society, political society, intellectuals, and hegemony, the four pillars of his critical theory. These concepts were useful to grasp the operations of both fascist and capitalist hegemony. But Gramsci also constructed elements for cultural strategies designed to participate in the replacement of the domination of Italy’s economy, politics, and culture by a minority of elites with the self-organized power of the masses of the working people. There is no doubt that the industrial proletariat and its organizations are central to Gramsci’s conception of self-organizing capacities of societies, particularly in light of the fact that he, as all other intellectuals of his generations, developed his visions of the future against the background of the rise of the Soviet Union. Yet by the same token, the organized proletariat in Italy was charged by its leadership with creating political alliances with many social and political constituencies in order to resist fascism. Among these alliances are those with the liberal intelligentsia.58 True, in his paragraph on Asia Gramsci evokes the notions of ‘modern state’ and ‘industrial production’, such that his vision of future historical possibilities appears to be exclusively linked to the political organization of industrial working classes in Asia: this evokes visions of socialist or communist or social democratic internationals. However, since Gramsci does operate in his very paragraph on Asia with terms such as ‘economic, political, trade, etc’, as we recall from above, his field of analysis about the future relations between the political economies of the Pacific and the Atlantic is dialectically expandable at least in two significant ways. First, by using the term ‘political’ in relation to production and trade, he establishes a dialectic between the politics of the ‘internal, or domestic politics’ and politics of the ‘external, or international politics’.59 Since domestic politics find their expression in political society and civil society, the relations between these two political forces are not independent from external politics in the area of trade, finance, and production. Secondly, since ‘international politics’ proper find expression in a variety of regimes, agreements, organizations, associations etc on the international as well as the transnational level, these structures of the ‘international’ in their
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complexity are also in a dialectical relation with the ‘internal politics’ of a particular nation state.60 The implications of the complexity of this nexus in relation to ‘new civil cultures of societies’ on a global scale are not developed to any extent in Gramsci’s paragraph on Asia, but his thoughts on the recognition of this nexus open up a horizon of new possibilities. In other words, his reflections about future historical possibilities can now be organized along two axes. The first hinges on constructing social and political relations in Italy in the context of which human beings can live and work together with dignity in the context of social collectives of formal and substantive democracies. These are states based on the rule of law, economies which minimize the exploitation, oppression, or the commodification of the majority by a minority, societies which tend towards the exclusion of violence from their institutions and theories, cultures which self-organize themselves through democratic communication, solidarity, friendship, reciprocity, and non-contractuality. The second hinges on his understanding of the dialectic between domestic and international politics, into which international production, finance, and trade regimes are embedded, as is apparent from his paragraph on Asia, in relation to his epistemological approach to the knowability of the future, of which he treats in other sections of the Prison Notebooks. In order to delineate Gramsci’s approach to the future, it is useful to look at one of his discussions of the philosophy of Benedetto Croce in his Prison Notebook No 10. In an ‘Introduction to the study of philosophy’ Gramsci engages with the Kantian concepts of numina and phenomena, whereby the first, as is well known, denominates ‘the thing in itself which one cannot know’ and the second ‘the phenomenological world which is knowable’.61 While Gramsci calls into question the ‘objective status’ of the phenomenon in the Kantian system, in that objective knowledge, conceived along Hegelian-Marxist lines, is always interested knowledge linked to a subject’s interests and needs, he relocates the noumenon into a space of knowability in that he proposes that ‘objective knowledge’, due to its tendentially exclusionary practices generated by interests and needs, simultaneously produces an ‘extra’ or a ‘surplus’ of ‘knowable entities’ which remain outside the purview of the subject’s epistemological enterprise. Such surplus may be eventually accessible to knowledge acquisition on the part of the subject through the refinement of intellectual instruments generated by the transformations of social and technical conditions. As far as the future is concerned, ‘historical prevision, or historical foresight consists simply in that act of thought which projects into the future a process
36 Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Change
of development which is based on the study of those processes which led from the past to the present’. Against the background of the concept of ‘surplus knowledge’, the accent of the epistemological linkages about past and present thus appear in relation to the rise of new instruments of knowledge generated by new technological conditions. Indeed, in his analysis on the relations that obtain between past and present in Italy, in his study of the status of ‘civil cultures of contemporary Italian societies’ that is, Gramsci systematically studied, all appearance of unsystematicity to the contrary, the processes of development of democratic public spheres. One of the key analytical concepts pertains to Gramsci’s study of uneven development in Italy. This unevenness in development is due to the uneven penetration and distribution of a consciousness of the self-organizing capacities of collectives in relation to restricting institutional and theoretical norms of violence and rules of conduct. Gramsci uses the terms of uneven cultural and moral preparation of the Italian people when discussing the unevenness of a ‘longue duree’ of what Benjamin would have called ‘public intellectuality’. In order to combat this unevenness in ‘civil’ preparation, Gramsci develops his theories of critical pedagogy, in which pedagogies of the oppressed and adult education play an important role, as does the idea of the implementation of discipline in education on all scholastic levels.62 Gramsci, who compares Italian ‘civil cultures’ to those of Germany, France, and Britain, registers a wide deficit in democratic consciousness in Italy due to the immense heterogeneity in moral and intellectual preparation. The ‘public intellectuality’ Benjamin intuited in the German context, due to the relative homogeneity of German civil cultures which had evolved since the reformation, was absent from the civil cultures in Italy.63 By inquiring into the democratic deficits of Italy’s civil cultures, Gramsci developed a comparative sociology of intellectuals in Europe. In this comparative study, he noted that French enlightenment philosophers had systematically participated in the state-wide preparation of the French revolution. The political impact of the French revolution on French ‘public intellectuality’ at large was translatable into the central significance of German idealist philosophers in the education of the German public on the principle of the right to rights. In other words, although no political revolution had taken place in Germany, German idealist philosophy functioned as a political movement. Conversely, English political economy, such as had been developed by Adam Smith and David Ricardo, also translated into a political force towards the expansion of a collective consciousness on the principle of the right to democratic rights.
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In Italy, Gramsci found due to the proliferation of cosmopolitan intellectuals who had preferred to link their fantasies to membership in an ideal republic of European literati, intellectuals overall had made little use of their capacity to translate the English, French and German experiences into an Italian context. The historical formation of significant ‘public spheres’ had not taken place. Italy’s ‘civil cultures of societies’ still awaited their futures. Although Gramsci, in light of the passive revolution in Italy which had been ushered in since its unification in the 1860s, remained in general sceptical about possible accelerations in the formation of democratic public spheres in Italy, his own cuttingedge thinking in relation to Asia Pacific, where politics intersects with trade, production, and finance in geopolitics, coupled with his epistemological insights, actually do undermine his scepticism. For did he not ponder the possibility of an acceleration in democratic knowledge acquisition due to technical advances? Did he not propose that transformations of social and technical conditions could generate and refine new intellectual instruments useful for acquiring knowledge of those aspects of reality which hitherto escaped the self-interested gaze of the subject? Indeed, with the advent of the internet, into the technology of which is embedded extraordinary potential for innovation in democratic or public communication between self-regulating democratically oriented communities, Gramsci’s horizon of the linkages between multiple structures of the ‘international’ and the ‘national’ can enlighten our understanding of the global realities of new democratic possibilities. These include the formation of new ‘civil cultures of societies’. Indeed, the social science literature over the past few decades has begun to study not only new ‘international’ regimes of governance, but also the formation of global civil societies or global public spheres. If Gramsci painted the potential of the formation of such transnational ‘civil cultures of societies’ in the softest of pastels, Benjamin used expressionist colours, as when he intuited, through his ‘productive-directive’ concept of the ‘aesthetics of public intellectuality’, the extraordinary political implications of the concept of ‘mass intellectuality’ in relation to the self-organization of democratic societies.64 Of the three of them, Polanyi had the most formidable chromaticity. In many places and in many times, he indicated in his research, societies had demonstrated their capacity for self-organization.65 This simply was a fact of world history. Karl Polanyi noted in his extraordinary study of the evolution of capitalism in Britain that the ‘great transformations’ ushered in by the capitalist revolution of the production processes destroyed traditional
38 Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Change
forms of social and cultural life. As a result, all manner of grassroots movements and forms of organization emerged throughout the 19th century in order to counter the poverty, violence, and marginalization to which the working populations had been subjected by the destructive forces of capitalism. Polanyi developed the concept of ‘double movement’ in order to analyse Britain’s 19th century. Whereas the capitalist evolution, under the predominant aegis of the doctrine of self-regulating markets, subjected states and societies to the logic of laissez-faire capitalism, through the social capacity of self-organization the populations most effected by this doctrine sought to re-embed their economic activities in communities and social relations. Polanyi’s The Great Transformation offers many extraordinary insights into the social and theoretical framing of the evolution of capitalism over the past few centuries. Among his central theses I would like to point to just five: 1) States can accelerate or decelerate the destructive impact of capitalist modes of production on social and cultural life by intervening in the juridical organization of the regulations governing the processes of economic production and trade. 2) The notion of the selfregulated market, as proposed by predominant liberal economic theory, is a historical idea and not a historical fact. It is even less a natural fact based on natural laws. 3) The theories of utilitarianisms, which constitute the basis of liberal economic thought, are based on an ontology which assumes that human beings by nature are invidious, individualist, greedy, and competitive. Anthropological and ethnographic studies do not support such Hobbesian and Maudevillian ontological assumptions as economic activities of production and exchange in many societies are defined by social bonds of ‘reciprocity’ and ‘redistribution’. 4) Markets by nature do not replace basic economic activities such as house holding. 5) The marketization of labour, land, and capital under conditions of modern capitalism, in which societies, politics, cultures and nature are subjected to the laissez-faire principle, is not a measure of human progress. It tends towards the destruction of human solidarity, community, and nature alike.66 Polanyi clearly corrected Marxism when he rehabilitated the important function of the juridical instruments available to the state for purposes of regulating the protection of the population under conditions of capitalist production and trade. But Polanyi also critiqued the ontological assumptions of predominant economic, social, and political theories in the context of liberalism. His studies in critical anthropology, critical ethnographic work, coupled with his analysis of world economic history in relation to trade and markets of early empires
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enabled him to discern self-regulating social principles in a variety of geographic, economic, and historic contexts.67 Thus, for instance, in his work on Dahomey and the Slave Trade, he noted that internal markets subject to regulation functioned independently from external markets. While Whidah, a port of trade on the West African coast engaged with traders from Europe, the king of Dahomey rigorously regulated that trade while simultaneously declaring the internal markets off limits to the foreigners. Although exchange on the internal market was based on money, albeit in the form of cowries, this market did not expand.68 Hence there does not obtain an intrinsic propensity for markets to expand, even when a form of money is used in exchange. Dahomey’s exchange was thus regulated by internal circuits of money and goods, and not linked to external circulations of capital. Conversely, exchanges on Dahomey’s internal market never compromised labour and land. They were not subject to marketization. As a result, social self-organization generated the reproduction of solidarity, reciprocity, trust, and friendship. These social values were not intrinsic to earlier modes of social organization exclusively, Polanyi noted, nor were they exclusively existent at the peripheries of the global economic order. As the counter-movement in the 19th century had indicated, even in the heyday of capitalism in Britain, situated at the very centre of transatlantic capitalism, workers organized themselves for purposes of defending a modicum of collective responsibility in the organization of social and cultural life. If, as Benjamin once wrote in his Theologisch-politisches Fragment, the greatest accomplishment of Bloch resided in the fact that he negated the political significance of theocracy – whereby he simultaneously affirmed the theocratic or religious significance of the belief systems of capitalism – we can state about Polanyi that his greatest achievement resides in his negation of the negation of the self-regulating capacities of societies promoted by all manner of neoliberal social sciences. Indeed, it was fascism’s central intent to eliminate such selfregulating social and cultural capacities from its corporativist state, as it designed social policies for purposes of forcing self-regulating social capacities into compromise, conformism, accommodation and complicity with the fascist state.69 It thus eliminated the substance of democracy. Polanyi’s analysis of the self-regulating capacities of societies in relation to land, capital, and labour constitutes his central ‘productivedirective’ concept. The fact that the values of solidarity, trust, friendship, and reciprocity he discovered in self-regulating societies were surely also central to many of the social movements and students movements of the 1960s is particularly impressive if we take into account
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that young generations in the most affluent global regions had the capacity to insist on collectively imagining such values, all demagoguery and propaganda about the absolute values of unlimited accumulation and consumption to the contrary. The desire for transparency in the constructions of social relations has also been at work in recent attempts over the past decades or so on the part of many indigenous movements around the world, from the Zapatistas in Mexico to the struggles of the ‘first peoples’ in New Zealand, Bolivia, and Peru.70 At issue is the self-organization of social and economic relations, particularly as it pertains to labour, land, water, and other natural resources. The self-organizing capacities Polanyi traced historically and geographically have now been enhanced through the invention, use, and application of information technologies, which includes the worldwide web and the internet. This has facilitated the organization of new circuits of exchange of information on a global scale in relation to the formation of ‘civil cultures of societies’. Benjamin’s ‘public intellectuality’ and Polanyi’s ‘societies of reciprocities’, linked with Gramsci’s concept of the building of ‘civil cultures of societies’ are of great significance in this context, because our contemporary ‘social time’ as well as ‘social space’ are now inseparably intertwined with the ‘information age’. This affiliation endows social space and time with new historic possibilities towards accelerating and expanding the processes of liberation and emancipation from structures of thought steeped in violence. Such structures include theories of violence including just war theories. No doubt, Benjamin, Gramsci and Polanyi developed their democratic theories under the impact of their personal experiences of historically unprecedented collective rights oriented movements and events: the workers council movement in Turin for one, in the case of Gramsci, the municipal movement in Vienna, for another, in the case of Polanyi, and, in the case of Benjamin, the extraordinary general strikes and demonstrations which brought millions of citizens into the streets of the German and European cities. But they also developed their liberation theories under great duress, when fascist and Nazi demagogues managed to impose images of exceptionalist nationalisms. Central to such images is the concept of the ‘superiority of the individual’. The power of the ‘productive-directive’ concepts of Benjamin, Gramsci, and Polanyi alike resides in the fact that they stated with great clarity against the background of fascism and Nazism that it is not individuals, but people together, who produce a surplus in sustenance and thus the trade in it, and that people, together, in community, are capable of self-regulating production, trade, and exchange. And just as
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individuals do not constitute the basis of communities, individual nation states equally do not constitute the basis of global communities. As new circuits of communicative potentials now link the self-regulating collective efforts on global trajectories of rights expansions, Benjamin’s concept of ‘mass-intellectuality’, Gramsci’s concept of ‘civil cultures of societies’, and Polanyi’s concept of ‘societies of reciprocities’ continue to ‘tremble with reflections of the future’. It is now our responsibility to detect new conceptual and practical possibilities for liberation under the conditions of our ‘social space’ and our ‘social times’ as we move along the first quarter of the 21st century.
Notes 1 This retreat into bourgeois hegemony is particularly apparent with respect to patriarchalism, as the contraction of the transatlantic First Wave Women’s Movement [1860–1910] suggests. 2 For studies of Weber’s methodology, see Fritz Ringer  Max Weber’s Methodology. The Unification of the Cultural and Social Sciences. Harvard UP: Cambridge, MA, USA and London, UK. For a brief historical overview of the location of the social sciences between natural sciences and the humanities, may I refer to my essay ‘The future of the Social Sciences’. In Journal of Social Sciences, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand, Vol. 32, No. 1, January–June 2001, Ed. Chaiyan Chaiyaporn, pp.1–36. 3 I am referring here to Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and its Discontent , to Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu [1913–1927], and Max Weber’s powerful images of the ‘iron cage’ and ‘disenchantment’ as evoked in his Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism . 4 I define ‘human rights’ not only along registers established by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations, but also along the registers established in the historical tradition of the philosophies of rights. In that tradition, the principle of the right to rights gradually delimited subjection to violence. As a result, its logic points to the abolition of all forms of violence, such as war, and hence to a negation of the ‘right to war’, which subjects human beings to violence in International Rights Regimes. This tendency in the history of the philosophies of rights logically leads to the abolition of theories of the rights to war, including just war theories. 5 Charles Tilly  Contention and Democracy in Europe, 1650–2000. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK. Sidney Tarrow  The New Transnational Activism. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK. 6 Kurt H. Wolff  Ed From Karl Mannheim, 2nd expanded edn. With an Introduction by Volker Meja and David Kettler. Transaction Publishers: New Brunswick (USA) and London (UK). Original edn 1971. pp.351–98. Although in his essays ‘On the Problem of Generations’ Mannheim was exclusively describing the youth movements in Germany, as they constituted themselves among the romantics, Vormärz and Junges Deutschland, his sociological examination on the concept of ‘generations’ evolved against the background of the work on generations by Ortega y Gasset in Spain and
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Agaton in France. In the context of the historiography of Spanish cultural traditions, the concept of the ‘generation of 1898’, with central figures such as Machado and Unamuno has become a household term. Italy’s 19th century also offers considerable empirical data in relation to significant youth movements, exemplified by Guiseppe Mazzini’s organization of ‘Giovane Italia’, on one hand, and by his ‘Giovane Europa’, on the other hand. Interestingly, the question of a United Europe also substantively resonated in some quarters of these organizations which were all involved, to various degrees, in the liberation of Italy from colonial powers and in Italy’s political unification: the Risorgimento, that is. Fritz K. Ringer  The Decline of the German Mandarins. The German Academic Community, 1890–1933. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, USA. He notes that whereas the German universities had an enrollment of 14 000 students in 1870, it counted 51 000 [excluding 11 000 technical students] in 1910 and 72 000 in 1918. Not surprisingly, in the 1920s, the formation of an academic proletariat had begun. ‘Public sphere’ is a term derived from Habermas’s theory of communicative action. Although, as compared to 1910, the doctrines of nationalist economic imperialism have been tempered in recent years, in practice they continue, as trade imperialism, to this day, due to utilization of new international institutional instruments, such as the WTO. As I write these words, in the midst of the global financial crisis, the powerful global economic actors in charge of the WTO would like to resume the DOHA rounds, without consideration of a restructuration of this organization, even though it has tended to privilege the interests of the most affluent economies at the expense of developing economies and developmental states. The recent formation of the G21 organization is a response to this unevenness in the distribution of control in global trade regimes. Joseph A. Schumpeter [1883–1950] is a contemporary of sorts of the intellectual generation under consideration here. In his monumental History of Economic Analysis  with a New Introduction by Mark Pereleman. Oxford University Press: New York, USA, he noticed that an overproduction of ideas had taken place by the 1890s, namely in the area of economic theory. He attributes this phenomenon to published debates among economic theorists which often were based on misunderstandings. Nonetheless, he states that too much energy was wasted in these debates. pp.759–824. While a sociology of knowledge of the transatlantic worlds throughout the 20th century is faced with intermittent published polemics among members of a field of knowledge in the sense Schumpeter described it in relation to the 1890s, one is also faced with a more peaceful overproduction of theories in the last quarter of the 20th century, particularly in the humanist wings of the academies. From the point of view of a non-transatlantic observer, this production is less about contestations and more about a modicum of a collective academic narcissism in the context of an affluent society in which the facts of publications tend to establish their intrinsic value to the accumulation processes of science. Thomas Kuhn demystified these processes already at the beginning of the second half of the 20th century with his The Structures of Scientific Revolutions . The University of Chicago Press:
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Chicago, Ill., USA. See also Paul Feyerabend  Farewell to Reason. Verso: London, UK and New York, USA. Walter Benjamin  ‘Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit’. In Illuminationen. Suhrkamp Verlag: Frankfurt/Main. Germany. pp.136–70. The concept of a hierarchized ‘multiplicity’ of intellectual layers is particularly apparent in Gramsci’s famous essay on the ‘Southern Questions’. Antonio Gramsci  The Southern Question. Tr and intro Pasquale Verdicchio. Bordighera Incorporated: West Lafayette, IN, USA. Original edn 1926. p.43. Lippmann and Bernays had concurred on the necessity of elite controlled managements of the production of consent in the context of modern democracies long before Lippmann published his book. Walter Lippmann  The Public Philosophy. Mentor Books: New York, NY, USA and Edward L Bernays  Crystallizing Public Opinion. New York, USA. See also Edward L Bernays  Propaganda. Intro Mark Crispin Miller. Ig Publishing: Brooklyn, New York, USA. As late as the 1960s, Jean Paul Sartre reminded audiences in Kyoto and Tokyo, Japan, that the relations between state and ‘state intellectuals’ in the economic circuits of the transatlantic worlds, which include Japan, had by no means lost their ideological significance. See his plaidoyer pour les intellectuals  Gallimard: Paris, France. For a discussion of this issue, may I refer to Renate Holub  Antonio Gramsci. Beyond Marxism and Postmodernism. Routledge: London, UK. ‘To realism farewell: Gramsci, Lukacs, and Marxist Aesthetics’. pp.33–67. See his letter to Adorno, dated August 2, 1940, from Lourdes. Gershom Scholem and Theodor W. Adorno  Ed and Annotations The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin. 1910–1940. Tr by Manfred R. Jacobson and Evelyn M. Jacobson. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, Ill. USA. p.637. Polanyi did hold some academic teaching positions, but his academically most important stint at Columbia University came late in life. One of the first translations of Gramsci’s work to appear in English was entitled The Open Marxism of Antonio Gramsci . Tr and annotated by Carl Marzani. Cameron Associates: New York, USA. May I refer to an article on Hannah Arendt which I wrote over ten years ago. While I would be able to write this piece today in a more differentiated way, I would still emphasize Arendt’s intellectual identification with a certain habitus of German intellectuality of the first half of the 20th century. Although the content of Arendt’s work, mostly written after World War Two, reflects the intellectual concerns of her new environments in the United States, the structure of her thinking, and hence the style of her writing, is unmistakingly linked to her intellectual socialization into the field of German philosophy. Renate Holub, ‘Hannah Arendt Not Among the Germans: Intellectuals, “Intellectual Fields” and “Fields of Knowledge”. p.31. Fall 1997. http://learning.berkeley.edu/holub/articles/ Hanagf.pdf Walter Benjamin  ‘Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit’. Illuminationen. p.62, Footnote 26.
44 Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Change 21 For Benjamin I suggest the following publications: Beatriz Sarlo  Siete ensayos sobre Walter Benjamin. Fondo de Cultura Economica de Argentina, Buenos Aires, Argentina; Mauro Ponzi  Walter Benjamin e il moderno. Bulzoni: Rome, Italy; Martin Kohan  Zona urbana: ensayo de lectura sobre Walter Benjamin. Grupo Editorial Norma: Buenos Aires, Argentina; Leandro Konder  Walter Benjamin: o marxismo da melancolia. Campus: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; and Michael Lowy  Walter Benjamin; avertissement d’incendie: une lecture des theses sur le concept d’histoire. Presses Universitaires de France: Paris, France. The interest in Gramsci in all global regions has found its way in innumerable publications. For an introduction into the global reception of Gramsci’s work see Giuseppe Vacca and Giancarlo Schirru  Studi gramsciani nel mondo 2000–2005. Il Mulino: Bologna, Italy. See also: Dora Kanoussi  Ed Gramsci en America. Universita Autonoma di Puebla-Plaza y Valdes Editores-International Gramsci Society: Puebla, Mexico. Dora Kanoussi  Ed Poder y Hegemonia Hoy. Gramsci en la era global. Universita Autonoma di Puebla-Plaza y Valdes Editores-International Gramsci Society-Fondazione Istituto Gramsci: Puebla, Mexico and Rome, Italy. Juan Carlos Portantiero  Los usos de Gramsci. Grijalbo conceptos: Buenos Aires, Argentina. For Polanyi I suggest the following publications. Kari Polanyi-Levitt  Ed The Life and Work of Karl Polanyi. Black Rose Books: Montreal, Canada. Marguerite Mendell and Daniel Salee  Eds The Legacy of Karl Polanyi. St Martin’s Press: New York, USA. Benoit Levesque  Ed L’autre economie. Presses de l’Universite du Quebec: Montreal, Canada. 22 Walter Benjamin  ‘Das Leben der Studenten’, in Illuminationen. Ausgewählte Schriften. pp.9–21. Original edn 1915. 23 ‘Es gibt eine Geschichtsauffassung, die im Vertrauen auf die Unendlichkeit der Zeit nur das Tempo der Menschen und Epochen unterscheidet, die schnell oder langsam auf der Bahn des Fortschrittes dahinrollen. […..] Die jetzige historische Bedeutung der Studenten und der Hochschule, die Form ihres Daseins in der Gegenwart, verlohnt also nur als Gleichnis, als Abbild eines höchsten metaphysischen Standes der Geschichte beschrieben zu werden’. p.9, Illuminationen. Op. Cit. English translation from Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 1, 1913–1926, Eds Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, USA and London, England: 1996. p.36. 24 The concept of ‘Menschenwürde’ has a long history in the context of European cultures, particularly in Italy and Germany. As ‘dignity of the human being’ it was central to important schools within the humanist traditions in Italy, which attempted to place human capacities of ‘nolle, volle, posse’ on human foundations, rather than on divine foundations [Pico della Mirandola, Ficino, and Valla are good examples]. For an overview in relation to the Italian case, see Agnes Heller  Renaissance Man. Schocken Books: New York, USA. Earlier attempts to realize such shifts from divine to human foundations of knowledge are inherent in the work of leading Muslim philosophers, such as in the writings of Ibn Ruschd [Averroes] from Cordova, Spain, whose work enjoyed an important reception history in Northern Mediterranean regions outside Spain, such as in France, and Italy. The concept of ‘dignity’ reemerged particularly in the work of German
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enlightenment thinkers, such as in Fichte. For discussions of this concept in the German enlightenment, see Leszek Kolakowski  Main Currents of Marxism. Its Origins, Growth, and Dissolutions. Tr P.S. Falla. Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK. pp.50–80. The most famous example in the history of this concept in the second half of the 20th century is the volume by Ernst Bloch  Naturrecht und menschliche Würde. Suhrkamp: Frankfurt, Germany. Student movements emerged in many global regions, not only in the nation states of the major actors of the transatlantic economies: Europe, North America, and Japan. But the students movements of the transatlantic worlds differ from those in most other global regions to the extent to which transatlantic students did not have to develop their critical projects under the threat of state violence – which often lead to exile, imprisonment, torture and even death – as many students around the world did. Nonetheless, also in North America and Europe some students to various degrees became victims of state violence. ‘Die notwendige Unabhängigkeit des Schaffenden und die notwendige Einbeziehung der Frau, welche nicht produktiv im Sinne des Mannes ist, in eine einzige Gemeinschaft Schaffender – durch Liebe – diese Gestaltung muss allerdings from Studenten verlangt werden, weil sie Form seines Lebens ist’. p.18, ‘Das Leben der Studenten’, in Illuminationen. For a revealing insight into the relation between the continual devaluations of women on the part of some men in everyday social life and some of the psychological dimensions of male sexuality see the excellent recent interview with Rolf Pohl, a social psychologist, which appeared on March 8, 2009, on the International Women’s Day, in the TAZ or Tageszeitung in Berlin, Germany. While many feministically trained women have over the past decades developed the analytical tools to deconstruct the foundations of these devaluations, not many men have come forward with similar analyses since the women’s movement. For these reasons I consider Pohl’s research significant. Frederik Hetmann  Reisender mit schwerem Gepaeck. Beltz Verlag: Weinheim, Germany. Theodor W. Adorno  Über Walter Benjamin. Suhrkamp: Frankfurt, Germany. Hannah Arendt  Walter Benjamin, Bertold Brecht. Zwei Essays. R. Piper: Munich, Germany; Momme Brodersen  Walter Benjamin. Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt/Main, Germany. Ernst Bloch  distinguishes between night-dreaming and daydreaming. Whereas night-dreaming manages experiences of the past, daydreaming includes elements of inventive storytelling and anticipations of the future. In his Das antizipierende Bewusstsein. Suhrkamp Verlag: Frankfurt, Germany. pp.29–44. Walter Benjamin  Zur Kritik der Gewalt und andere Aufsätze. Mit einem Nachwort von Herbert Marcuse. Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt/Main, Germany. pp.29–66. Walter Benjamin  Der Stratege im Literaturkampf. Suhrkamp Verlag: Frankfurt/Main, Germany. pp.69–72. Theologisch-politisches Fragment in Illuminationen. Op. Cit. pp.262–63. Ueber den Begriff der Geschichte [Geschichtsphilosophische Thesen] in Illuminationen. pp.251–61. While Kant’s Critique of Judgment constitutes a basis for modern aesthetic theory in the context of which the realm of aesthetic functions relatively
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independently from epistemology and ethics, there are interpretations of Kant in which the human capacity of ‘posse’ or potentiality is linked to ‘volle’ and ‘nolle’, and hence to the possibility to engage in the creation of beautiful human communities which are worthy of the dignity of human beings and human relations. This is particularly the case in Schiller’s influential aesthetic theory, where the aesthetic sphere, or the experience of beauty, anticipates experiences of ‘beauty’, ‘harmony’, and ‘symmetry’ in politics: the absence of violence, arbitrariness, and hierarchies, that is. See Klaus Berghahn  ‘Schillers Aesthetische Utopie’. In Regionaler Kulturraum und intellektuelle Kommunikation vom Humanismus bis ins Zeitalter des Internet. Festschrift fuer Klaus Garber. Ed Axel E. Walter. Rodopi: Amsterdam, Netherlands and New York, USA. A struggle of antagonistic forces – be it in the realm of ideas about rights, or in the realm of rights over control of production – leads to a progressively better future for all. In the context of this vision, as Marx synthesized it in the Communist Manifesto, the French revolution had ushered in the victory of the bourgeois classes over and against feudalism, clericalism, and absolutism, just as the eventual victory of the industrial proletariat over the capitalist elites would usher in the end of the oppression of the working class under conditions of unequal relations of production. A magician in the handling of prefixes and suffixes with respect to the terminology of time and place is surely Martin Heidegger, as his Sein und Zeit  or Being and Time amply demonstrates. ‘Not living in the present’ is what Benjamin missed among his peers in his essay on student life. There are many dimensions to the Benjaminian use of ‘present’: the present appears as a traditional historical space, such as in the epoch of 19th century social, economic, and cultural Paris. Baudelaire’s poetry generates corresponding images, figures, and atmospheric evocations of this ‘present’. Conversely, ‘the present’ of the historical macro space of baroque Germany Benjamin saw crystallized in the microspace of the Trauerspiel. But the ‘present’ is also a social space in which acceleration and deceleration of time intersect. This is surely the case with Benjamin’s concept of the flaneur,, who, in the midst of the urban, social, and cultural transformations generated by high capitalism takes his time when immersing himself into and when withdrawing himself from the rapid rhythms of capitalist urbanization. For a synthetic overview of the literary-aesthetic environments and tendencies in which Benjamin found himself see Geschichte der deutschen Literatur. Vom Ausgang des 19. Jahrhunderts bi 1917  Volk und Wissen Volkseigener Verlag: Berlin, Germany. Illuminationen. pp.136–70. Manuel Castells’s work on the information age ranks among the most distinguished discussions on the democratic potential of the informationtechnological revolution over the past three decades. His scientific webpage contains bibliographies and recent essays. http://annenberg.usc.edu/Faculty/ Communication/CastellsM.aspx Habermas’s development of the concept of ‘public sphere’ overlaps to some extent with the Benjaminian concepts of ‘mass intellectuality’, which I rendered also as ‘public intellectuality’. But Habermas’s central unit of applica-
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tion of his concept remained the nation state, although under conditions of global transformations he eventually did recognize a necessity of thinking about ‘public spheres’ beyond the nation state. Current research on ‘global civil societies’ tends to incorporate the Habermasian concept, but Gramsci’s concept of ‘civil society’ is more flexible and promising in this respect. Michael Lowy has repeatedly written beautiful pages on Benjamin’s imagination of historical flow. See Michael Lowy  Walter Benjamin; avertissement d’incendie: une lecture des theses sur le concept d’histoire. Presses Universitaires de France: Paris, France. See his review of ‘Max Brod, Franz Kafka. Eine Biographie’. In Der Stratege im Literaturkampf. p.85. Ernst Bloch’s use of the term ‘Menschenwürde’ is central to his project. But in contradistinction to Benjamin, Bloch emphasizes social or organized manifestations of this desire for human dignity throughout European history. He traces this organized desire in his monumental three volume study The Principle of Hope. In other words, whereas Bloch uses the existence of this desire or principle as evidence of its historical irreducibility, Benjamin’s accent is on linking this historical irreducibility, in the remembrance of violence on the part of present generations, to the abolition of violence. Ernst Bloch  Das Prinzip Hoffnung. Suhrkamp: Frankfurt, Germany. Written in exile in the United States 1938–1947. Illuminationen, p.255. Michael Buroway has published a most informative essay on Gramsci and Polanyi. ‘For a Sociological Marxism: The Complementary Convergence of Antonio Gramsci and Karl Polanyi’. Politics and Society, Vol. 31, No. 2, June 2003. pp.193–261. He too stresses the collective conditions of creativity and innovation, the most essential expression of which is the capacity for social self-regulation. Social Darwinism is sometimes used to describe this form of individualism, but a deeper understanding of the predominance of the concept of the ‘individual’ in social science theories, in public policies, in public discourse, and in public self-perception would require a comparative study of individual nation state cultures. I tend to hypothesize that significant variations would obtain. Antonio Gramsci  Quaderni del Carcere. Ed Valentino Gerratana. Vol. 1. Einaudi: Turin, Italy. p.242. Written in prison between 1929–1933. W.E. Burghardt Du Bois  The World and Africa. An inquiry into the part which Africa has played in world history. International Publishers: New York, USA. First edn 1946. Aime Cesaire  Discourse on Colonialism. Tr Joan Pinkham. Monthly Review Press: New York, 1972. Original French edn 1955. Frantz Fanon  Toward the African Revolution. Tr Haakon Chevalier. Grove Press: New York, USA. Weber wrote the ‘introduction’ many years after the publication of the Protestant Ethic, namely in 1920. Current editions tend to use it as a regular introduction, as if he had written it in 1904 or so, thereby linking his statement of European distinctions to his detached presentation of the rise of capitalism in relation to protestant value bearers in Western societies. What the introduction indicates, however, is his concern about criticism of his
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53 54 55
thesis on the part of non-eurocentric anthropological and ethnographic research. Karl Polanyi’s studies, based, as they were, on anthropological and ethnographic research, are indeed powerful statements about the shortcomings of Weber’s understanding of the irreversible trajectory of transatlantic rationalities. See Max Weber  The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Tr Talcott Parsons. With a Foreword by R.H. Tawney. Dover Publications, INC. Mineola: New York, USA. Author’s Introduction, pp.13–31. Edward Said has masterfully traced the presence of such unconscious in the predominant European mind, above all in his work on orientalism. Janet Abu Lughod, Andre Gunder Frank, and Peter Gran, among others, have studied the contingent relations which obtained between the rise of transatlantic capitalism and other global regions. Systems theorists, among them Immanuel Wallerstein and Giovanni Arrighi, have furthermore indicated the dependencies of transatlantic economies on the circuits of commerce and trade in Asia during the rise of capitalism. The exceptions one can find most easily in the sphere of painting and music, such as in Picasso’s turn to African shapes or the evolution of twelve tone music, or in the area of critical ethnography and critical anthropology. Illiteracy was a variable which denied peasants electoral rights up to almost the entire first decade of the 20th century. Given Italy’s high illiteracy levels, still over 70% in the 1870s in a population of 20 million, and the concentration of it in the South, the exclusion of the peasantry from parliamentary politics indeed enabled a minority to decide on the future of the young nation state. Antonio Gramsci  The Southern Question. Original Italian edn 1926. Given the innumerable forays into Asian, particularly Chinese territories on the part of transatlantic capitalist powers – by way of securing concessions for ports in China, by leasing waterways, or by way of investing and controlling profits from railroad construction in China, not to speak of ending historical tributary relations between China and contiguous nations by annexing entire territories as occurred in Burma by the hands of the British, and in Vietnam by the hands of the French – Italy’s participation in these ventures is most minimal, for good reason: it did not command the means for it. Luciano Russi  Nascita di una nazione. Ideologie politiche per l’Italia [1815–1861]. Clua: Pescara, Italy. Both nations are members of the G21. ‘Americanism and Fordism’ in Antonio Gramsci. Selections from the Prison Notebooks . Ed Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. International Publishers: New York, USA. pp.279–322. The literature on information technology can be divided into three major currents: 1) the pessimistic literature, which focuses on the uses of information technology for purposes of control and surveillance of modern citizenries; 2) the celebratory literature, which tend to view all manner of electronic gadgets as signs of civilizational progress; 3) a democratic tendency, which stresses the liberational potential of information technology by way of judicious application and use of it. Manuel Castells’s research over the past
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15 years has been particularly important in terms of discussing the democratic potential of information technologies. Goran Therborn  ‘Europe in the Twenty-first Century. In Peter Gowan and Perry Anderson, eds The Question of Europe. Verso: London, UK. pp.357–85. Among the alliances he suggested was one with the important liberal intellectual Piero Gobetti, author of the concept of the ‘liberal revolution’. An interesting introduction to his style of thinking is Piero Gobetti  La filosofia politica di Vittorio Alfieri. Grafiche Cesari: Ascoli Piceno, Italy. Written in 1922. For establishing relations between ‘politics’, ‘international politics’, and ‘economics’, see the interesting essay by Sabine Kebir  ‘L’internazionalismo di Gramsci e i problemi odierni della sinistra’. In Giorgio Baratta and Guido Liguori, eds Gramsci da un secolo all’altro. International Gramsci Society and Editori Riuniti: Rome, Italy. pp.211–17. In addition: Andreas Bieler and Adam David Morton  Images of Gramsci. Connections and contentions in political theory and international relations. Routledge: London, UK. Mario Proto  Ed Gramsci e l’Internazionalismo. Nazione, Europa, America Latina. Piero Lacaita Editore: Manduria, Bari, Rome, Italy. I would like to refer to my essay ‘Transcommunality in a Global World’  in John Brown Childs. Transcommunality. From the Politics of Conversion to the Ethics of Respect. Temple University Press: Philadelphia, USA. pp.146–57. Also see Partha Chatterjee  The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World. Columbia University Press: New York, USA, and Kalyian Sanyal  Rethinking Capitalist Development: Primitive Accumulation, Governmentality and Postcolonial Capitalism. Routledge: New Delhi, India. Antonio Gramsci  Quaderni del Carcere. Ed Valentino Gerratana. Vol. II. pp.1290–1. There is a large literature on Gramsci’s theories of pedagogy, educational philosophy. For an introduction, see Carmel Borg and Peter Mayo  Public Intellectuals, Radical Democracy and Social Movements. Peter Lang: New York, USA. The important paragraphs of his comparative study of European national intellectualities are in the Quaderni No. 1, paragraph 154, Quaderni No. 2, paragraph 49, and Quaderni No. 3, paragraph 31, 48, 51, 142, Quaderni No. 4, paragraph 3. The concept of ‘translatability’ provides a cohesive thread for these various paragraphs. That Benjamin hoped to counter the rapid subjection of Germany’s public spheres to the demagoguery of the Nazi apparatus is apparent from the fact that even as late as 1936 he hoped to participate in the opposition to the Third Reich by rejecting accommodations and conformisms to the violences perpetrated by the supporters of national-socialism. Publishing under a pseudonym, he offered an edition of beautiful letters written by Deutsche Menschen who were psychologically rooted in the basic ethics of the enlightenment. The simplicity of the prose contrasted with the bombastic ideologies of the regime, as Adorno emphasized in his comments on it. Walter Benjamin  Deutsche Menschen. Eine Folge von Briefen. Suhrkamp Verlag: Frankfurt, Main, Germany. As Adorno explains in an appendixed
50 Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Change
essay, Benjamin had published these letters in 1931/32 in the important newspaper ‘Frankfurter Zeitung’. While the Nazis attempted to destroy the legacies of the enlightenment, they were ultimately unable to do so, as the predominant philosophical content of the student movement in Germany of the 1960s illustrates. Adorno, in spite of his experiences of anti-semitism and exile, reflected similarly on the longevity of enlightenment ideas. Karl Polanyi  The Great Transformation. The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Beacon Press: Boston, MA, USA. Gregory Baum  pointed out that Polanyi was among the first social thinkers to recognize the damaging impact of the self-regulated market upon nature. See his Karl Polanyi. On Ethics and Economics. McGill Queens University Press: Montreal and Kingston, Canada. Karl Polanyi, Conrad M. Aresnberg and Harry W. Pearson  Trade and Market in the Early Empires. Economies in History and Theory. The Free Press: New York, USA. Karl Polanyi  Dahomey and the Slave Trade. University of Washington Press: Seattle, WA, USA and London, UK. Karl Polanyi, ‘The Essence of Fascism’, John Lewis, Karl Polanyi, and Donald K. Kitchin, eds  Christianity and the Social Revolution. Books for Libraries Press: Freeport, N.Y., USA. pp.359–94. Jeffrey Sissons  First Peoples. Indigenous Cultures and Their Futures. Reaktion Books: London, UK, and Richard Howson and Kylie Smith  Hegemony. Studies in Consensus and Coercion. Routledge: London, UK.
Bibliography Adorno, Theodor W. Adorno  Über Walter Benjamin. Suhrkamp: Frankfurt, Germany. Arendt, Hannah  Walter Benjamin, Bertold Brecht. Zwei Essays. R. Piper: Munich, Germany. Baum, Gregory  Karl Polanyi. On Ethics and Economics. McGill Queens University Press: Montreal and Kingston, Canada. Benjamin, Walter  Deutsche Menschen. Eine Folge von Briefen. Suhrkamp Verlag: Frankfurt, Main, Germany. Benjamin, Walter  Zur Kritik der Gewalt und andere Aufsätze. Mit einem Nachwort von Herbert Marcuse. Suhrkamp Verlag: Frankfurt/Main, Germany. Benjamin, Walter  Der Stratege im Literaturkampf. Suhrkamp Verlag: Frankfurt/Main, Germany. Benjamin, Walter  Illuminationen. Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt/Main, Germany. Benjamin, Walter  ‘Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit’. In Illuminationen. Suhrkamp Verlag: Frankfurt/Main. Germany. pp.136–70. Benjamin, Walter  Selected Writings, Volume 1, 1913–1926, eds Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, USA and London, UK.
Renate Holub 51 Berghahn, Klaus L.  ‘Schillers Ästhetische Utopie’. In Regionaler Kulturraum und intellektuelle Kommunikation vom Humanismus bis ins Zeitalter des Internet. Festschrift fuer Klaus Garber. Ed Axel E. Walter. Rodopi: Amsterdam, Netherlands and New York, USA. Bernays, Edward L.  Crystallizing Public Opinion. New York, USA. Bernays, Edward L  Propaganda. Intro Mark Crispin Miller. Ig Publishing: Brooklyn, New York, USA. Original edn 1928. Bieler, Andreas and Adam David Morton  Images of Gramsci. Connections and contentions in political theory and international relations. Routledge: London, UK. Bloch, Ernst  Das antizipierende Bewusstsein. Suhrkamp Verlag: Frankfurt, Germany. Bloch, Ernst  Naturrecht und menschliche Würde. Suhrkamp: Frankfurt, Germany. Bobbio, Norberto  ‘Gramsci e la concezione della societa civile’. In Gramsci e la Cultura Contemporanea. Ed Pietro Rossi. Editori Riuniti-Istituto Gramsci: Rome, Italy. pp.75–101. Borg, Carmel and Peter Mayo  Public Intellectuals, Radical Democracy and Social Movements. Peter Lang: New York, USA. Brodersen, Momme  Walter Benjamin. Suhrkamp Verlag: Frankfurt/Main, Germany. Buroway, Michael  ‘For a Sociological Marxism: The Complementary Convergence of Antonio Gramsci and Karl Polanyi’. Politics and Society, Vol. 31, No. 2. pp.193–261. Castells, Manuel  http://annenberg.usc.edu/Faculty/Communication/ CastellsM.aspx Cesaire, Aime  Discourse on Colonialism. Tr Joan Pinkham. Monthly Review Press: New York, 1972. Original French edn 1955. Chakrabarty, Dipesh  Provincializing Europe. Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton University Press: Princeton, N.J., USA. Chatterjee, Partha  The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World. Columbia University Press: New York, USA. Du Bois, W.E. Burghardt  The World and Africa. An inquiry into the part which Africa has played in world history. International Publishers: New York, USA. First edn 1946. Fanon, Frantz  Toward the African Revolution. Tr Haakon Chevalier. Grove Press: New York, USA. Feyerabend, Paul  Farewell to Reason. Verso: London, UK and New York, USA. Geschichte der deutschen Literatur. Vom Ausgang des 19. Jahrhunderts bi 1917  Volk und Wissen Volkseigener Verlag: Berlin, Germany. Gobetti, Piero  La filosofia politica di Vittorio Alfieri. Grafiche Cesari: Ascoli Piceno, Italy. Written in 1922. Gowan, Peter and Perry Anderson, eds  The Question of Europe. Verso: London, UK. Gramsci, Antonio  Quaderni del Carcere. Ed Valentino Gerratana. 4 Vol. Einaudi: Turin, Italy.
52 Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Change Gramsci, Antonio  The Southern Question  Tr and intro Pasquale Verdicchio. Bordighera Incorporated: West Lafayette, IN, USA. Original edn 1926. Heller, Agnes  Renaissance Man. Schocken Books: New York, USA. Original Hungarian edn 1967. Hetmann, Frederic  Reisender mit schwerem Gepäck. Beltz Verlag: Weinheim, Germany. Holub, Renate  Antonio Gramsci. Beyond Marxism and Postmodernism. Routledge: London, UK. Holub, Renate  ‘Hannah Arendt Not Among the Germans: Intellectuals, ‘Intellectual Fields’ and ‘Fields of Knowledge’. p.31. http://learning.berkeley.edu/holub/articles/Hanagf.pdf Holub, Renate  ‘The future of the Social Sciences’. In Journal of Social Sciences, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand, Vol. 32, No. 1. Ed. Chaiyan Chaiyaporn. pp.1–36. Holub, Renate  ‘Transcommunality in a Global World’. In John Brown Childs. Transcommunality. From the Politics of Conversion to the Ethics of Respect. Temple University Press: Philadelphia, USA. pp.146–57. Howson, Richard and Kylie Smith, eds  Hegemony. Studies in Consensus and Coercion. Routledge: London, UK. Kanoussi, Dora  Ed Gramsci en America. Universita Autonoma di PueblaPlaza y Valdes Editores-International Gramsci Society: Puebla, Mexico. Kanoussi, Dora  Ed Poder y Hegemonia Hoy. Gramsci en la era global. Universita Autonoma di Puebla-Plaza y Valdes Editores-International Gramsci Society-Fondazione Istituto Gramsci: Puebla, Mexico and Rome, Italy. Kebir, Sabine  ‘L’internazionalismo di Gramsci e i problemi odierni della sinistra’. In Giorgio Baratta and Guido Liguori, eds Gramsci da un secolo all’altro. International Gramsci Society and Editori Riuniti: Rome, Italy. pp.211–17. Kohan, Martin.  Zona urbana: ensayo de lectura sobre Walter Benjamin. Grupo Editorial Norma, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Kolakowski, Leszek  Main Currents of Marxism. Its Origins, Growth, and Dissolutions. Tr P.S. Falla. Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK. Konder, Leandro.  Walter Benjamin: o marxismo da melancolia. Campus, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Kuhn, Thomas  The Structures of Scientific Revolutions. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, Ill., USA. Levesque, Benoit  Ed L’autre economie. Presses de l’Universite du Quebec: Montreal, Canada. Lippmann, Walter  The Public Philosophy. Mentor Books: New York, USA. Lowy, Michael  Walter Benjamin; avertissement d’incendie: une lecture des theses sur le concept d’histoire. Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, France. Marzani, Carl  Ed and Tr The Open Marxism of Antonio Gramsci. Cameron Associates: New York, USA. Mendell, Marguerite and Daniel Salee  Eds The Legacy of Karl Polanyi. St Martin’s Press: New York, USA.
Renate Holub 53 Polanyi, Karl ‘The Essence of Fascism’. In John Lewis, Karl Polanyi, and Donald K. Kitchin, eds.  Christianity and the Social Revolution. Books for Libraries Press: Freeport, USA. pp.359–94. Polanyi, Karl  The Great Transformation. The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Beacon Press: Boston, MA, USA. Polanyi, Karl, Conrad M. Aresnberg and Harry W. Pearson  Trade and Market in the Early Empires. Economies in History and Theory. The Free Press: New York, USA. Polanyi, Karl  Dahomey and the Slave Trade. University of Washington Press: Seattle, WA, USA and London, UK. Polanyi-Levitt, Kari  Ed The Life and Work of Karl Polanyi. Black Rose Books: Montreal, Canada. Ponzi, Mauro  Walter Benjamin e il moderno. Bulzoni: Rome, Italy. Portantiero, Juan Carlos  Los usos de Gramsci. Grijalbo conceptos: Buenos Aires, Argentina. Proto, Mario  Ed Gramsci e l’Internazionalismo. Nazione, Europa, America Latina. Piero Lacaita Editore: Manduria, Bari, Rome, Italy. Ricardo, Michel Mjica  Democracia Sustantiva, Democracia Formal y Hegemonia en Antonio Gramsci. Academia Nacional de la Historia: Caracas, Venezuela. Ringer, Fritz K  The Decline of the German Mandarins. The German Academic Community, 1890–1933. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, USA. Ringer, Fritz  Max Weber’s Methodology. The Unification of the Cultural and Social Sciences. Harvard UP: Cambridge, MA, USA and London, UK. Russi, Luciano  Nascita di una nazione. Ideologie politiche per l’Italia [1815–1861]. Clua: Pescara, Italy. Sanyal, Kalyian  Rethinking Capitalist Development: Primitive Accumulation, Governmentality and Postcolonial Capitalism. Routledge: New Delhi, India. Sarlo, Beatriz  Siete ensayos sobre Walter Benjamin. Fondo de Cultura Economica de Argentina: Buenos Aires, Argentina. Sartre, Jean Paul  plaidoyer pour les intellectuels  Gallimard: Paris, France. Schumpeter, Joseph A.  History of Economic Analysis. With a New Introduction by Mark Perelman. Oxford University Press: New York, USA. Scholem, Gershom and Theodor W. Adorno  Eds The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin. 1910–1940. Tr Manfred R. Jacobson and Evelyn M. Jacobson. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, ILL. USA. Sissons, Jeffrey  First Peoples. Indigenous Cultures and Their Futures. Reaktion Books: London, UK. Tarrow, Sidney  The New Transnational Activism. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK. Therborn, Goran  Europe in the Twenty-first Century. In Peter Gowan and Perry Anderson, eds. The Question of Europe. Verso: London, UK. pp.357–85. Tilly, Charles  Contention and Democracy in Europe, 1650–2000. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK.
54 Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Change Weber, Max  The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Tr Talcott Parsons. Foreword by R.H. Tawney. Dover Publications, INC. Mineola: New York, USA. Original German edn 1905 and 1920. Vacca, Guiseppe and Giancarlo Schirru, eds  Studi gramsciani nel mondo 2000–2005. Il Mulino: Bologna, Italy. Wolff, Kurt H.  Ed From Karl Mannheim. 2nd expanded edn. With an Introduction by Volker Meja and David Kettler. Transaction Publishers: New Brunswick (USA) and London (UK). Original edn 1971.
2 Erasing the Traces, Tracing Erasures: Cultural Memory and Belonging in Newcastle/Gateshead, UK Zoë Thompson
Introduction This chapter sets out a relationship between Walter Benjamin and Jean Baudrillard that is then used to inform a reading of a contemporary urban space: The Sage, Gateshead, one of a number of flagship buildings built since the Millennium in the UK, seeking to revitalize the iconography of former industrial cities. In the case of The Sage, a recent addition to the Tyneside1 skyline completed in 2004 and designed by ‘starchitect’ Sir Norman Foster, what is offered is both a striking insertion of a novel architectural form, and a staging of cultural experience in its function as a concert hall. Historically, the fortunes of the local area were established through a triumvirate of heavy industries. Coal mining, in particular, provided the economic underpinning to the region since at least the 13th century, and the River Tyne gifted the region with the means to transport this fuel with relative ease down the east coast to the lucrative markets of the south and, most importantly, London. The steel industry was also a vital economic driver for the region and Tyneside, along with its neighbour Wearside, became the largest and most successful shipbuilding area in the UK, from the 19th century onwards. The region thus played a key role in the military conflicts of the empire and its concomitant expansion through trading, importing and exporting of the spoils of imperialist Britain (Manders, 1973; Brazendale, 2004). With the economic downturn of the 1970s and 1980s and a shift in the political horizon of the country with the election of a Conservative Government under Margaret Thatcher in 1979, 55
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Tyneside suffered, along with other industrial cities in the UK, a rapid and devastating decline. Although there is one surviving shipyard on Tyneside, the days of its reliance on heavy industries as economic drivers, are over. More recently, the local economy, in line with a wider global shift, has taken a turn towards tertiary industries – there are large numbers of call centres and other service sector companies based in the region – and to the tourism sector as a main source of income. Overturning the image of the region as an ugly, industrial and cultural wasteland has been a prominent and necessary strategy of the various local authorities involved in regenerating Tyneside. It is also necessary to draw a distinction between the region’s capital city, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and Gateshead, the adjacent town on the south side of the River Tyne. Newcastle’s city status and its function as the main business, shopping and leisure destination have meant it has always been better equipped to cope with economic transformations than its poorer neighbour. The Quayside area of Newcastle was first redeveloped in the 1980s. Gateshead’s renaissance, which is the focus of this chapter, comes at least a decade later. In this chapter I will argue that by attempting to re-make the region’s image and, simultaneously, key into networks of mobile capital by courting the tourist market and the disposable income of locals, buildings such as The Sage simultaneously erase and evoke, eradicate and re-inscribe notions of cultural memory and belonging as it pertains to contemporary cites. We may concede that much recent architecture, and the transformation of the urban fabric it entails, appears generic: the serial reproduction of place-making buildings deploying ‘pre-programmed’ methods of design, such as CAD.2 The resulting ‘architectural code’ renders one place indistinguishable from another when, paradoxically, the aim is to create instantly recognizable logos (Augé, 1995, p.370; Baudrillard, 2006b; Baudrillard and Nouvel, 2002). I want to interrogate this notion by seeking the traces of memory and belonging that exist in spite of such buildings, or, indeed, which may be evoked by them. The chapter is also rooted in a theoretical exegesis of the work of Walter Benjamin and Jean Baudrillard. I contend that their work can be usefully read through the theme of the urban and used to inform and contribute to contemporary understandings of the city. Baudrillard appropriates the work of Benjamin in his formulation of the aesthetic mode prevalent in advanced capitalist societies and engenders a radical (mis)use of Benjamin’s concept of technical reproducibility to produce
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his account of simulation and hyperreality. To develop the critical relationship, its convergences and departures, between Benjamin and Baudrillard I suggest that the guiding concept is that of the constellation. The constellation is appropriate to understanding the relationship between these two thinkers, and their usefulness for urban analysis, because it has particular temporal and spatial effects. It is also fundamentally an image and the role of the image and its transformation is crucial to both their work. The constellation is also a useful trope because it is deceptive, since it appears and deceives at the same time depending on the position from which one looks thus, as Gilloch notes: ‘points which seem nearest to one another may prove to be those furthest apart’ (2002, p.25),3 and is therefore particularly suited to the complex ways in which Benjamin and Baudrillard come into proximity with each other. The chapter, however, ultimately argues for a Benjaminian position in that, whilst taking Baudrillard’s claims of the transformation of the aesthetic sphere seriously, it wishes to maintain an adherence to the ‘weak messianic power’ of which Benjamin writes. It seeks out, therefore, the possibilities of its existence within the realm of simulation that Baudrillard determines. Where might these messianic moments be found, who registers them, and what form might they take? If, as Baudrillard argues, the revolution of the image sphere has transformed our ability to register the effects of time, history, and the self, as anything other than an aesthetic pleasure, what are the implications of this for the transformations of urban space and its concomitant effects on lived experience? Do the aesthetics of change that accompany the transformation of once industrial space into postindustrial developments wipe out all connections to history and context in a seamless colonization, thus substituting change for disappearance? I want to argue that whilst it might appear to be so – Baudrillard has many valid points – it is never so completely. The simulation never quite perfects its virtual assault. Benjamin’s concept of the trace is used to unpack and reflect on these ideas considering what is at stake in the aesthetic configuration of urban space. In the face of this apparent flawless transformation of urban space, there remain traces of previous usage, both material and immaterial, in memories, in ruins, and in views, that are activated through walking as a critical practice. These traces act as apertures – openings into the present – that reveal it to be contingent rather than the natural unfolding or the destiny of urban space. The Sage, then, does not merely cover over traces and impose itself, as Baudrillard suggests, rather its very
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existence creates the possibility of such traces returning – even if only fleetingly. The fact that the local history of the area will soon become commodified and overlaid by an official version as expressed by the recently opened heritage centre4 on the site, presses ever more keenly on the need to capture such traces in all their evanescence. As Doreen Massey states: ‘the identity of places is very much bound up with the histories which are told of them, how those histories are told, and which history turns out to be dominant’ (1995, p.186). In order to attempt the capture of these residues, I will use a combination of close theoretical exegesis and ethnographic material prompted by the building and its locale. Since I am local to the area, having grown up there, my experience of it clearly has a particularity that cannot be overlooked. Yet, being someone who grew up in Gateshead but who has spent the last 15 years living elsewhere, I am in an ambiguous position with regard to reading this radically transformed landscape. Whilst Benjamin believed that being a ‘native’ is important to the forming of a city in one’s mind,5 he also considered that since cityscapes were appropriated by habit, the power of the city to reveal itself to the indigenous citizen wanes with use and familiarity.6 It comes as no surprise to me, then, that this exploration of the site of The Sage, as a local of Gateshead, takes me through, not only the space and its surroundings as tourist, but also back in time through memories of the same, yet substantially different place. There is, then, both a spatial and temporal disturbance involved in my theoretical excavations. In order to maintain the notion of an oscillation between collective and personal memory, and the importance of each as a critical register to understanding urban space, the ethnographic sections are marked in italics. The use of the term ‘ethnography’ to describe such sections may appear problematic and to differ from its more common use as a method of qualitative social research. However, the naming of this material as ethnographic is, I think, licensed by Benjamin’s insistence on the differing nature of the experience of urban space depending whether one is a local or a tourist. These sections function as subjective ‘field notes’. This method also follows the writings of both Benjamin and Baudrillard, who each toyed with the ‘autobiographical’ in their own work, and with writers such as Dorinne Kondo, Allen Shelton and others more familiar to cultural anthropology and sociological ethnography (Kondo, 1990; Shelton, 2007). I seek to problematize the notion that spaces can be occupied or experienced objectively outside of the nexus of power relations that constitute them. As Kant reminds us, we
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cannot access the thing-in-itself but only the thing as it is experienced through our own particular set of experiences, sense impressions and social constraints, or what Bourdieu has called habitus (Kemp, 1968, p.24; Bourdieu, 1977). If the experience of urban space cannot be divorced from the context, history, and experiences of the observer who occupies it, perhaps – and as against Baudrillard – the local will always experience the global architectural forms that increasingly occupy urban space in a way that might evoke moments of rupture to that apparent seamlessness; threads that might be unpicked.
Memory and the city In Berlin Chronicle, an account of the city of his childhood, Benjamin writes of memory as a key location, able to harbour the traces of the chaotic, frantic, onslaught of urban living. He writes, ‘the city – where people make the most ruthless demands on one another, where appointments and telephone calls, sessions and visits, flirtations and the struggle for existence grant the individual not a single moment of contemplation–indemnifies itself in memory’ (1999b, p.614). This securing of the urban in the memories of the city dweller is a strategy that seeks to rupture, or at least hold off momentarily, the threat to the past and the future engendered by iconic projects of regeneration. Whilst such buildings, and certainly in the case of Tyneside,7 are generally perceived as successful in rejuvenating former industrial sites blighted by the wane of their manufacturing industries, projects such as The Sage form part of a homogenous wave of ‘image make-overs’, brutally inserting shiny new architectural forms where once there was industrial wasteland.8 Such unequivocal praise for cultural regeneration fails to address the ethics of re-inscribing new practices onto space that all but erases its former purpose, the lives of those who used the space previously, or the lives of those displaced by the imposition of culturally exclusive venues (Bailey et al., 2004; Miles, 2005a; Miles, 2005b; Miles and Paddison, 2005) Further, Edensor (2005) argues that the eradication of the interstitial spaces provided by industrial ruins, removes valuable sites able to provoke critical reflection. Edensor ‘understands industrial ruins as symbols through which ideologically loaded versions of progress, embedded within cultures of consumption … can be critiqued’ (2005, p.15). Thus, memory has a political purpose. To remember is not just to call forth past experience in a wave of rose-tinted nostalgia, or an act of mourning over what once was and is no longer; rather, it is to perform
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an act of redemption. Forgetting, as Benjamin reminds us, is to abandon oneself to the myth of progress.9 Further, buildings such as The Sage, as key markers of reinvention and economic progress attest to a double forgetting: erasing the ruins of an industrial past and superimposing that past’s traces with their own footprint: in the case of The Sage, a footprint measuring 8584m2.10 As such ruins disappear, the critical ‘spark of illumination’ that might be revealed through memory, only grows in significance. In this context, I’m arguing that such memories are political because they counter the more exclusionary discourses of progress that accompany projects of urban regeneration, by privileging other narratives, in momentary flashes as briefly captured traces. Tolia-Kelly’s concept of ‘re-memory’ is particularly useful here. Re-memory is ‘not always a recall or reflection of actual experiences…re-memory can be the memories of others as told to you by parents, friends…[providing] a sense of self beyond a linear narrative of events’ (Tolia-Kelly, 2004). Since the memories precipitated by The Sage of Gateshead’s past are not my memories but memories of my grandmother’s memories, re-memory is a useful conceptualization of the ways in which memories proliferate and adhere to the sensory stimuli of physical spaces.
Deciphering traces In the Arcades Project, Benjamin writes, ‘to dwell is to leave traces’ (1999a, p.9). For him, such traces offer up the possibility of decipherment. Through the collection of traces, of the debris, detritus and discarded remnants of the city, we might find clues to, not only the past, but possible futures the past contained. The collection of traces is to bring together a constellation of the past, present and future in a moment of redemptive proximity. Benjamin makes a distinction between the concepts of trace and aura suggesting, ‘The trace is the appearance of a nearness, however far removed the thing that left it behind may be…. In the trace, we gain possession of the thing.’ Whereas aura ‘is the appearance of a distance’ through which the thing ‘takes possession of us’ (1999a, p.447). The concept of aura, as it pertains to Benjamin’s aesthetic theory is fundamental to the constellation of his and Baudrillard’s work. Aura, being that which attaches itself to the traditional artwork as a composite of originality, uniqueness and singularity, is eroded through the reproducibility inherent in new media technologies such as film and photography, for Benjamin (2003, p.255). The destruction of aura, then, is linked to the obliteration of traditional bourgeois claims to
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culture as neutral, eternal and progressive, and the implications of this for the wider structural organization of class society. Whilst Benjamin attributes a radical political potential to the imaginative and collective possibilities proffered by post-auratic image technologies, Baudrillard identifies this moment as the inception of the eradication of the ‘real’ – being the distinction between actuality and its representation. Thus, Benjamin’s tentative political potential is radically re-directed to demonstrate the fate of the aesthetic in advanced capitalist societies in Baudrillard’s theory of simulation (Baudrillard, 1993; Baudrillard, 1994). For Benjamin the image sphere provides the space for the transformation of reality through a new understanding of its modes of appearance as well as exposing latent possibilities for its collective reorganization. For Baudrillard this critical potential is short-circuited. The mode of simulation, which Baudrillard suggests dominates postindustrial societies, is one where the semiotic omnipresence of the image and its infinite proliferation closes the gap necessary for critical reflection. For him it makes no sense, nor is it possible, for the image sphere to retain its critical power. This is important, since we could argue that urban regeneration projects such as The Sage, attempt to reproduce an auratic spectacle through the construction of iconic architectural destinations. Thus, if The Sage is an auratic object that seeks to ‘take possession of us’ as visitors, by detecting the traces it covers over and evokes, as they are configured through personal and collective memory, we might outwit or outmanoeuver this aim. In this way, we subvert the building’s auratic claim through the collection of material and immaterial traces: ruins, photographs and memories. Postcard cities I turn now to an exploration of The Sage itself. What does the building invite me to do should I enter into its glassy, steely embrace? The eastern path to The Sage is landscaped: neat, orderly, and unblemished. Immediately outside its revolving doors is a large circular paved area: a pseudo agora. Inside the building, a vast concourse traverses the whole of the first floor from the east to west entrances. Various, but controlled, possibilities for its use are present, advertised by familiar urban signifiers: café, gift stand, ticket office, brasserie. The building, in offering all the activities of the city under one roof, calls out to me, ‘loiter, linger, pause under the space of my steel canopy…don’t leave me’. Above all, The Sage feels empty, echoey, forlorn. Inside the landmark, the most interesting thing to see is the view outside. The concourse functions as a lookout post, a viewing platform across the River
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Tyne. As Roland Barthes notes, Guy de Maupassant had a similar impression of the Eiffel Tower. Eating his lunch there everyday, he was afforded what he regarded as the best view of the city made possible by the structure: one in which the Eiffel Tower didn’t feature (2000: 236). I cannot imagine this is the fate the architects, planners and local council had envisioned for The Sage. In Invisible Cities (1977), Italo Calvino describes a city that has been so transformed through development it now bears little relation to its past self: In Maurilia, the traveller is invited to visit the city and, at the same time, to examine some old postcards that show it as it used to be: the same identical square with a hen in the place of the bus station, a bandstand in the place of the overpass, two young ladies with white parasols in the place of the munitions factory. If the traveller does not wish to disappoint the inhabitants, he must praise the postcard city and prefer it to the present one, though he must be careful to contain his regret at the changes within definite limits: admitting that the magnificence and prosperity of the metropolis of
The Sage, Gateshead. 2008. Photograph by author.
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Inside the Sage, Gateshead. 2008. Photograph by author.
Maurilia, when compared to the old, provincial Maurilia, cannot compensate for a certain lost grace, which, however, can be appreciated only now in the old postcards, whereas before, when that provincial Maurilia was before one’s eyes, one saw absolutely nothing graceful and would see it even less today, if Maurilia had remained unchanged; and in any case the metropolis has the added attraction that, through what it has become, one can look back with nostalgia at what it was (1997, pp.30–1). Of course, Calvino reveals his vast panorama of world cities as a fiction. Every city described by Marco Polo in the book is Venice, or at least a version of Venice, thus revealing the city as a palimpsest: a collection of layers built up from different stories, times and spaces that multiply and expand the city, allowing it to transcend the limits of its existence as a bounded space (Highmore, 2005). Yet, certain versions of cities, particularly those that are officially sanctioned by local authorities and other agencies of regeneration, are often the most dominant. A ‘postcard’ city is what Gateshead, or more properly to give it its new tourist moniker ‘NewcastleGateshead’, has become. Indeed, it is
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what the local agencies have actively sought to produce through the transformation of the built environment. Gone are the heavy industries, in their place a cleaner, better-presented city-break destination. This multi-coloured media face is made possible because of a triumvirate of ‘millennial’ projects, of which The Sage is the most recent.11 Commissioned by Gateshead Council in 1997 after a competition that saw renowned architect Sir Norman Foster the victor, the building opened in December 2004. Costing a total of £70m (with £47.3m awarded in National Lottery Funds via The Arts Council of England), the building’s primary function is as a concert hall. Under its globular awning, various musical spaces provide a home to Northern Sinfonia orchestra and Folkworks, an education and music collaboration. In terms of acoustic capability, The Sage is said to be on a par with The Grosser Saal in Vienna and The Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. The Sage, as an iconic building and as a tourist destination, inscribes new practices of looking and consuming onto the Gateshead townscape. The Sage is now both an object of the tourist gaze (Urry, 2002) and the commodification of that gaze in the sale of postcards of its image, and the snapshots of the tourists who visit the site (Crang, 1996). However, The Sage received mixed reviews in the architectural trade press, one critic noted, it is ‘…a building without parts. A building of a single, unmodulated scale. A building without top or bottom, without front or back’ (Woodman cited in Price, 2007, p.250). And further, as Price notes, ‘The critics were not suggesting that it simply dwarfs surrounding structures but that the single oversailing roof fails to provide any human scale that relates to its location’ (2007, p.250). Such criticism seems to suggest that rather than revitalize city culture, The Sage stands apart from its location, as an imposing, ‘auratic’, though nevertheless impressive, icon, rather than providing the stage on which to instigate a new urban rhythm on Tyneside.
Cultures of conviviality/cultures of transparency The Sage prides itself on its ability to reinvigorate the south bank of the Tyne. It enthusiastically details its social spaces, its various cafes and bars, but most effusively, the 100m public concourse that traverses the building, which acts as a threshold to the east and west sides of the new river walk. Gateshead Council’s website suggests, The covered concourse, with its magnificent panoramic views is the public focus of the building. This is a major new internal public
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space, an ‘urban living room’, open fourteen hours a day, with cafés, bars and ticket office…forms part of a major pedestrian route linking the Swing Bridge with the new Gateshead Millennium Bridge (gateshead.gov.uk: 2007). That the concourse is advertised as an ‘urban living room’, blatantly acknowledges what Benjamin foresaw in the Parisian arcades: the historical destiny of city space. As Gilloch argues, the interiorization of the city street captured in the arcade was, for Benjamin, an example of the ‘“embourgeoisement” of space… The arcade was the interior disguised as an exterior, a place of exclusion and of the exclusive. It shut out unpredictable and unwelcome elements, both natural (rain) and social (the poor)…. The arcade was the fantastical successor to the street and its subtle transformation’ (1996, pp.125–6). Similarly, The Sage’s rhetoric of ‘public’ space and urban culture is a perfect example of the current colonization of the city in the form of this pre-scribed, pseudo-public space. Baudrillard writes, Inventing a public space is indeed a grand design. But what’s the point of wanting to recreate it in an enclosed space that is designated and protected (whatever it may be) while the whole problem is that public space is disappearing in the rest of the city… [such buildings] seek to disguise and exorcise the devastation and desertification of the town (2006b, p.75). The thresholds of The Sage serve to filter out undesirables: those who are not partaking in conspicuous consumption or city-break tourism. In the arcades, Benjamin recognized the inception of the aesthetic configuration of space into a site of phantasmagoria and consumption. The Sage in its adherence to that model is merely one of the most recent examples of that legacy, and takes it a step further. While the arcades of Paris were dream worlds housing commodities; architectural forms such as The Sage are themselves commodities: big, shiny, temples lulling the tourist, the consumer and the city-dweller to them in choreographed somnambulism. The imposition of The Sage on this space serves as both an act of forgetting and a wilful inducement to sleepwalk. If the Arcades were attempts to recreate the cluttered bourgeois interior in the public spaces of the city, the new steel and glass structures of the early 20th century, Benjamin hoped, might usher in a new age, freed from the trappings of bourgeois culture and commodity
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fetishism. He held a tentative hope that the transformation of architecture brought about by new material technologies could assist in the revolutionary purpose at hand. 12 This hope is evidenced by his assessment that ‘objects made of glass have no “aura”’ (1999b, p.734). Yet this idea, appropriated in the work of Jean Baudrillard, contains no such utopian redemption, however slight. Baudrillard suggests that whilst transparency in architecture may have begun with the modernists as utopian and transformative, when transported to late capitalist, media-dominated societies, this transparency is not a shift towards the politicization of the masses, but rather an example of the proliferation of the image – to the point of obscenity – made stone (or rather glass and steel). The problem Baudrillard has with contemporary architecture is its pornographic visuality, which removes the ‘secret’ and all possibility of illusion – all elements for him of a symbolic exchange – lost in favour of a semiotic omnipotence. Such buildings usher in a barren sameness, a virulent metastasis of simulation,13 that threatens to infect all aspects of social life, eradicating all traces of otherness, alterity, negativity, or what he terms ‘evil’.14 The success of such endeavours perform what Baudrillard considers to be the ‘perfect crime’: being that ‘which attempts to efface its own traces’ (2005, p.13). The architectural object, designed purely through computer-aided design, in its dependence on the binary model of the virtual, is totally complicit in this movement: divorced from context, history and identity it is ‘clone architecture’, able to be endlessly reproduced, spreading indiscriminately over every available space. It is the ‘ready-made’ of the built environment. He argues: This is not simply a matter of materials and building techniques; it is also a question of models. Just as all images are possible using the camera, which asks nothing more than to function, so all architectural forms can be revived out of a virtual stock of forms, arranged either conventionally or in some other way. As a result, architecture no longer refers to a truth or originality of some sort, but to the mere technical availability of forms and materials (2006a, p.166). This ‘virtual’ architecture is no more prevalent than in what is perhaps the exemplary instance of regeneration through iconic architectural means: Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Of it, Baudrillard says: …a virtual object if ever there was one, the prototype of virtual architecture. It was put together on a computer out of optional ele-
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ments or modules, so that a thousand similar museums could be constructed merely by changing the software or the scale of the calculation. Its very relation to its contents – art works and collections – is entirely virtual….Now, admittedly, it is not just any old technology and the object is a marvel, but is it an experimental marvel…which will give rise to a whole host of clones and chimeras. The Guggenheim is a spatial chimera, the product of machinations which have gained the upper hand over architectural form itself (2006a, p.167). The extent to which The Sage might fall into the category of architectural chimera is ambiguous. It certainly seeks to perform the same function as Gehry’s Guggenheim: regeneration through culture in the form of a landmark building. It also attempts to make a bold iconic statement in its site on the banks of the River Tyne. The problem with this kind of architecture for Baudrillard is that it has already anticipated its own reception. For Benjamin, the modern city, its architecture and its crowds were conceptualized as labyrinthine.15 The labyrinth form was, for him, the foundational spatial, temporal and phenomenological figure that best described the rhythm and experience of urban capitalist modernity in its complex, interwoven, opaque, mythological and ineluctable nature. Such maze-like forms must be ‘mined’ for their secrets , ‘excavated in order that traces and signs of another reality could be both recalled and redeemed’ (Frisby, 1986, p.211). To understand the city as a labyrinth is to configure it as an experience of both possibility and risk, of diversion and transgression.16 For Baudrillard, this chance has been eradicated in buildings like The Sage. Benjamin’s Minotaur – the mythic creature that haunts the labyrinth – and thus the risk element of urban space, has been preprogrammed out. There is no unforeseen danger, no unaccounted for element lodged in the building by mistake, to traverse it offers no unexpected turn: its origin in the computer code ensures that. Whilst Benjamin was cautiously optimistic that post-auratic cultural forms were, ‘the enemy of secrets’ (1999c, p.734) (secrets in this sense being the structures supporting traditional bourgeois culture), for Baudrillard, the destruction of this ‘secret’ is exactly that which ushers in these hyper-functional, pre-determined spaces. The buildings, for him, are monstrosities that ‘do not provide a rhythm for the city and its exchanges, they are projected on to it like extraterrestrial objects, like spacecraft falling to earth from some dark catastrophe’. To understand such spaces, then, for Baudrillard, it is no longer possible to
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adhere to Benjamin’s notion of excavation with the aim of revealing the cities concealed spatial and social layers in their maze-like form and secret flows. For him, buildings like The Sage, being superimposed as pre-formed objects onto the city’s surface, break the tacit link between architecture, place and context. They are mere spectacles of architectural functionality and possibility in all its phantasmagoric narcosis. The visitor to them becomes not flâneur but badaud, the stupefied, passive imbiber of ‘cultural good’.17 For Baudrillard, the construction of iconic buildings ‘serves only to impress the tourists, and their function, like that of airports and places of interchange in general is that of a place of expulsion, extradition and urban ecstasy’ (2006b, p.52). If Benjamin’s liminal spaces such as the arcade, the railway station and the winter garden were thresholds to forms of urban experience that disrupted the clear demarcations of public and private, interior and exterior, whilst simultaneously creating new stages to house the ‘dreaming collective’; in Baudrillard’s analysis of contemporary versions of the same, such architecture functions, rather, to serve an eviction notice on prior forms of urban sociability. If The Sage is, as Baudrillard maintains such buildings are, crash-landed onto its site, where might the after-shock of such an event register? I want to argue that it is in the memories that are evoked by the pedestrian experience of such an ‘alien’ architectural form.
Framing a view Returning now to The Sage, as I survey the view of Gateshead framed by the building’s vast, bulbous windows, I inspect a landscape lived and worked on by my ancestors, part of their everyday lives, their quotidian experience, at any time over the last hundred or so years. This same but radically altered scene is now reified as part of a tourist gaze: framed by and because of, The Sage. Each point upon which the eye rests is able to elucidate a memory: the street where my great-grandparent’s pub was; the place my mother and aunt worked; the bridge the boy from school threw himself off, and so on: A Small History of Gateshead. From here, I can just make out what is left of Bottle Bank: the ancient road from the River Tyne to Gateshead and the south, the trade route, the black market route. What was once a narrow, steep, publined passage is now manicured and widened, loft apartments and the Hilton Hotel, lining its west side. These are views that are made possible by The Sage, views that are seen afresh when framed by the building’s skeleton. My mind is cast backwards into the past, my feet propel me out of the eastern door, away from The Sage and onto what’s left of old Gateshead streets.
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Instead of acquiescing to the building’s desperate cry for me to linger, its demand has the opposite effect. The magnetic, auratic Sage propels/repels me out of its doors. Having presented me with a view that I have never seen before in quite this way, I unfurl myself from its steely grip to peer at the traces it has revealed. Exiting from The Sage’s western door, I head towards Bottle Bank. In 1831, the architect Thomas Oliver, in his ‘Perambulatory Survey, took a walk through this area detailing his surroundings. He lists the oil refineries and manufacturers, the rope works, boat and ship builder’s yards, the docks, quays and collieries, located here (Manders, 1973, p.53). Taking this same walk today, the scars of Gateshead’s industrial past can just about be discerned, but they are harder to find and rapidly disappearing. The landscape described by Oliver is long gone, in its place a carefully coiffured, urbanity. Wholly different to the place I remember, having grown up here. Wholly different to the landscape described in the stories of my family; the stories that located ‘us’ in this place, tied us to this townscape, that catalogued our lives in this built environment. As a child, I always loved the name ‘Bottle Bank’, a magical phrase conjuring up images of a lost Gateshead, to my 1980s sensibility. Whenever my grandmother would share its stories, her exotic tales of the strangers who came in on the various river craft, it seemed a very different place to the street as it existed during my childhood. Her parents were publicans and ran the Full Moon pub on the street during the 1920s. She would tell me of late nights and boozy men, after-hours card games, and the disdain of her disapproving straight-laced mother. I was always fascinated to hear more of this glamorous nocturnal life my grandmother had been party to, as a young girl. However, this past, both hers and Gateshead’s, was only revealed in snatched phrases, disconnected reminiscences, momentary indulgences. Attempting to piece together when she would have lived on Bottle Bank, and how old she would have been, for the purposes of my research, the traces were harder to discern. Searching the archives of trade directories and census records, I was unable to find entries detailing the time her family spent on the street. Further, the pub itself, I found, was not on Bottle Bank after all but further down towards the river, its official address being 25 Bridge Street. Perhaps not only memory, but also mis-memory has a hand in constructing our relationship to space, as Benjamin states: the city is appropriated by habit in a state of distraction (2003, p.268).18 Or, perhaps it is merely the mistake of the child in the city seeing in the long stretch of Bridge Street and Bottle Bank, progressing as they did one to the other, a street that continued forever. The pub was located at the cross roads of Bridge Street, Bottle Bank and Church Street and it existed on this site until at least 1935.
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Exactly when the Stephenson family ran the pub is not clear but it loomed large in the (mis)memories of my grandmother and for me constructs a topographical marker of old Gateshead. Photographs of it have proved equally elusive and of the three located it is featured only partially: peeking out
Figure 2.3 Library.
Bottle Bank. 1925. Photographer Unknown. Courtesy of Gateshead
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between other buildings or with only its roof or gable end captured. Partial, fragmentary images, just like my grandmother’s memory of it and its own history, reduced as it is, to single-line entries in old trade directories. Today the street-name sign has gone too. The only sign there now is outside the new loft apartments and reads ‘Curzon Place’. Whilst Bottle Bank still exists, it bears no name. How ironic that in spite of this Gateshead Council has recently installed a memorial sculpture to a famous local fiddle player who lived on Bottle Bank. It exists as the only ‘approved’ monument to a once central site now vanished.19 Whilst The Sage fabricates a synthetic urbanism, in a chimera of cultural participation, in its ability to frame a view that might not have been seen before in quite this way, it allows for the opening up of an aperture: a space to the past via a journey along the streets its very existence hastens to eradicate. It is, then, an ambiguous space, simultaneously hopeful and hopeless, oscillating as it does between erasing the past and revealing its traces. Its hopelessness is its reduction of urban experience to a set of coded signs shorn of any undesirable elements. Its hopefulness is the reaction it might provoke despite itself: the exploration of the traces that remain on its site or those that might be evoked by it. Such traces produce both an act of remembrance and a moment of critical redemption embedded in the act of walking, as a refusal of the closing off of the past and other potential futures. The concern, of course, is that if our cities come to look more and more similar through re-development, and the particular ‘aesthetics of change’20 that this engenders, all traces of their past use and the lives of those who inhabited them are erased. One form of intervention or interruption of such processes of colonization might be contained in the practice of walking.
Thresholds to the past: Walking the city In One-Way Street, Benjamin reveals how the city unfolds itself to the walker through personal connections: A highly convoluted neighbourhood, a network of streets that I had avoided for years, was disentangled at a single stroke when one day a person dear to me moved there. It was as if a searchlight set up in this person’s window dissected the area with pencils of light (1996, p.461). One of Benjamin’s key images of urban subjectivity, the flâneur, as city walker, experiences on foot the modern city, its liminal spaces, its
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anonymity, and its non-stop spectacle. Although an ambiguous figure – he ends up, in his last incarnation, himself commodified – the figure offers a metaphor for urban experience and the potential walking might have to rebuff the onslaught of capitalist modernity; the possibility of a pedestrian politics. Certainly, Michel de Certeau (1984) considers walking in the contemporary city a critical practice that can transform the rational, planned space of ‘concept’ cities and produce a counter-reading of the cityscape. The spatial and signifying practices of urban walking ‘elude urbanistic systematicity’ through ‘legend, memory, and dream’ (1984, p.105). Subverting or transforming the pre-scribed spatial order, the walker can perform a ‘pedestrian speech act’.21 Since, for de Certeau the urban spectacle, of the kind The Sage represents, eradicates ‘superstitions’: the ‘stories and legends that haunt urban space like superfluous or additional inhabitants’ and that make a city liveable. Acts of walking, then, attempt to ensure such spectres endure. Despite his provocation that no redeeming feature is possible in a pre-programmed built environment, even Baudrillard must concede that, as hard as they try, such places cannot pre-determine absolutely their every use (or non-use). He concedes: ‘the rules of the game do not belong to anyone. Every model, every project must inevitably expect to be thwarted. The architect…is never master of the city or the masses, nor of the architectural object and its use’ (2006a, p.76). This détournement of a building’s prescribed use is perhaps our only hope against the functionality and transparent circulation demanded by such projects, for Jean Baudrillard. Nevertheless, for him this subversion of rules is not political but, rather, concerned with the perverse logic of the masses and of the object itself. He writes, ‘If you install rigid structures, they will invent flexibility. But if you propose flexibility, they will invent something else – just as children do with their toys. That reaction, this malign inflection, this perverse effect cannot be built into any forecast…it is the effect of the ill will that is engineered behind all objects’ (2006a, p.76). This notion of children’s play and the appropriation of space is an interesting link to Benjamin’s concept of mimesis. For Benjamin children’s use of both space and material objects always runs counter to adults’ prescriptive use of the same, and contains within it the kernel of political potential important to his notion of the generational aspect of messianic redemption (2003, p.390). He writes, ‘Children are particularly fond of haunting any site where things are being visibly worked on. They are irresistibly drawn to the detritus generated by building, gardening, housework, tailoring,
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or carpentry. In waste products they recognize the face that the world of things turns directly and solely to them. In using these things, they do not so much imitate the works of adults as bring together, on the artifice produced in play, materials of widely differing kinds in a new, intuitive relationship’ (1996, p.450). The potential embodied for Benjamin in improvisatory action, in the reconfiguration of given objects, materials and spaces inherent in a child’s eye view and appropriation of the city, is a useful, complimentary model to the types of walking practices that adhere to the critical possibilities of flânerie, and as against the badaud’s sleepwalking. Certainly, recent plans for the development of land next to The Sage seek to provide spaces for walking that connect the various disparate sites of recent development in Gateshead in ways that provide improvisation, use and reuse, and are not merely limited to the iconic projects that line the riverbank. Urban Initiatives, in a development report for the local council, acknowledge that Gateshead’s rapid redevelopment around The Sage has neglected the connective tissue of pavements, and other forms of pedestrian permeability necessary for convivial urban street life, and seeks to remedy such omissions in its recommendations for future development. Drawing a contrast with the Newcastle side of the river, and in an apparent criticism of The Sage, BALTIC and the Hilton Hotel sites on the Gateshead side, the Urban Initiatives’ report states that, ‘the urban tissue on the Gateshead side of the Tyne appears fragmented…dominated by large footprint buildings set in large, undefined open spaces that generally discourage use by pedestrians’ (Initiatives, 2007). This at least gives hope that future transformations might recognize the unpredictable pedestrian as a vital component of contemporary city living.
An aesthetics of disappearance? However, even the possibility of walking as critical practice, as a catalyst of memory, is fraught with danger as the sites that prompt memories disappear. Memory as a redemptive practice is not concerned with reconstructing a coherent picture of the past. As Benjamin writes, ‘articulating the past historically does not mean recognising it “the way it really was”. It means appropriating a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger’ (2003, p.391). The ‘danger’ in this case being that the urban space of contemporary Gateshead, with its voluminous redevelopment projects, covers over this link to its past and to other possible futures. The rapidity with which urban space evolves in
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contemporary cites can only add to the unravelling of memories the city space evokes.22 The sense in which the aesthetics of disappearance is intrinsically linked to the aesthetics of change as urban spaces evolve, is also considered by Benjamin’s friend and colleague, Siegfried Kracauer, who highlights this threat in his essay ‘Street without Memory’ (1932). Kracauer describes how one’s memories can be shocked into being, as familiar landmarks disappear, or are erased entirely by the destruction of the space in which they stood. Such erasure, for Kracauer, was the installation of an eternal ‘now’, a constant presentness.23 This, too, is Baudrillard’s fear: that memory itself will be eradicated by the imposition of simulated versions of the past, synthetic histories engendered by a process of ‘museification’ that produces an officially sanctioned form of cultural memory. He writes, ‘It is no longer buildings which burn or cities which are laid waste; it is the radio relays of our memories you can hear crackling’ (2006b, p.54). Memory itself may be under threat by the eradication of ruins and the simulations that take their place. Yet, I want to argue that memory still retains the ability to rupture the seamless colonisation of public space, to reconnect cities to their pasts and potential futures, even if only fleetingly. Unexpected apertures can appear, provoked by the very buildings that seek to cover over the traces of the city’s history. The traces that are evoked by The Sage, the space of and for memory that it makes, is one that even the violence of its staging cannot eradicate. The silencing of the past and the spectres that haunt this location can be articulated through the momentary arrest of memories, captured on foot. Memory, then, acts as a temporary cessation, the attempt to salvage something non-synthetic from contemporary urban space and the constant transformation it heralds, a form of the ‘weak messianic power’ to which Benjamin attests. As Gilloch writes of Kracauer’s disconsolation at the disappearance of his favourite cafés: The fate of the cafés brings into focus distinctive features of our experience of the modern cityscape: how ‘perpetual change erases memory’; how the endless quest for novelty merges into the flow of undifferentiated, empty time; how the past is consigned to oblivion by the present, and perhaps most importantly how it may fleetingly reappear as a disturbance that gives a shock to today’s passer-by. For it is paradoxically the act of obliteration, the present absence of the former cafés which brings them so vividly to mind. Demolition and
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erasure bring with them a sudden appreciation of what is no longer there (2004, p.300). In a journey that began in a pre-scribed space, a programmed, ‘auratic’ edifice such as The Sage, I too have been travelling, into Gateshead’s past, and mine, before it is too late. We can only hope that the unexpected responses to such spaces, the apertures that might open in memories, however fleetingly, might prevent the complete decoupling from the past and the imposition of a constant ‘now’.24 If The Sage is a catalyst of apertures, the time and space opened up by them – just as in the lens of a camera – is one that occurs in a split second. Yet, this fragile chance is that to which we must cling since, as Benjamin reminds us: Cultural treasures, [and we might include The Sage in this category if we believe the rhetoric which surrounds it] ‘owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great geniuses who created them, but also the anonymous toil of others who lived in the same period’ (2003, p.392). A commitment to finding such apertures, such traces, in our prefabricated present, however slim the chance, is a labour of responsibility to the past, and the future, we must bear.
Conclusion This chapter has sought to interrogate the claims that recent projects of urban regeneration work to produce formulaic and repetitive cityscapes using a theoretical framework informed by Walter Benjamin and Jean Baudrillard and applied to a case study building, The Sage, Gateshead. Through a combination of theoretical exegesis and ethnographic material in the form of memories, I have attempted to argue for the value of memories as examples of the traces of the ‘weak messianic power’ to which Benjamin attests. This power exists in spite of the insertion of iconic spaces of development, and indeed, can be evoked by such spaces. Despite taking Baudrillard’s claims for the aestheticization of everyday life and its proliferation in the viral models of CAD architecture informing many iconic buildings seriously, I used Benjamin’s notion of the messianic to argue that the simulation, cannot foreclose every aspect of its particular proliferation, nor can it foresee every aspect of its use. The Sage, despite being a coherent, hermetic
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object, when placed on its site, offers itself as a catalyst to new critical apertures, both material and immaterial. Such apertures, whether as memories, vistas or ruins, are messianic traces, captured on foot in the act of walking. Such practices, I have suggested, are a necessary counter to discourses of local history which privilege officiallysanctioned versions of the past, and discourses of urban regeneration, which uncritically privilege new developments as progressive, irrespective of context.
Notes 1 Tyneside is the term used to describe the conurbation that comprises the majority of the metropolitan county of Tyne and Wear. It includes the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the towns of Gateshead, Jarrow, North Shields, South Shields and all other settlements lining the banks of the River Tyne in North-East England. 2 CAD or computer-aided design is the use of computer software programmes for various forms of product, engineering and architectural design. Instead of building plans having to be drawn by hand by teams of draughtsmen and women, such software allows for speedier changes and increased manipulation of the image on screen. The drafting can be done in both 2D and 3D form. The main advantage of such a method is the creation of a digital prototype of a building which can be verified and tested on screen rather than having to be manufactured and constructed as an actual material object. 3 Further, as Buse et al. have pointed out in their discussion of the importance of the constellation in Benjamin’s work: ‘what appears to us as an image in the night sky is in fact a juxtaposition of stars which are more and less distant from us…the light that makes up a constellation is a composite of light from different times depending on the distance it has had to travel to reach us’ (Buse et al., 2006, p.108). The constellation thereby offers a spatial and a temporal element to the understanding of how these two thinkers connect. 4 The visitors’ centre Gateshead Heritage @ St Mary’s was officially opened by the Earl of Wessex on 29th January 2009. It is staged in St Mary’s church next to The Sage, the oldest building in the vicinity, dating back to the 12th century, and redeveloped following a £1.2m transformation, funded by Gateshead Council, the European Regional Development fund and the heritage lottery fund. (Gateshead Council, 2009). 5 In his review of Hessel’s On Foot in Berlin, entitled The Return of the Flâneur, Benjamin writes, ‘If we were to divide all the existing descriptions of cities into two groups according to the birthplace of the authors, we would certainly find that those written by natives of the cities concerned are greatly in the minority. The superficial pretext – the exotic and the picturesque – appeals only to the outsider. To depict a city as a native would call for other, clearer motives – the motives of the person who journeys into the past, rather than to foreign parts. The account of a city given by a native
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will always have something in common with memoirs; it is no accident that the writer has spent his childhood there’ (1999a, p.262). He writes, ‘It is true that countless facades of the city stand exactly as they stood in my childhood. Yet I do not encounter my childhood in their contemplation. My gaze has brushed them too often since, too often have they been the decor and theatre of my walks and concerns’ (1999b, p.611). Witness the recent article in The Guardian entitled ‘Spirit of the North’, 14th February 2008 (Jeffries, 2008). The exemplary example of this shift being Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao but could also include The Lowry, Salford; Urbis, Manchester, and Middlesbrough’s MIMA. Edensor suggests, ‘modern capitalism proceeds by forgetting the scale of devastation wreaked upon the physical and social world…obliterating traces of this carnage fosters the myth of endless and seamless progress’ (2005, p.101). Umberto Eco argues, ‘one forgets not by cancellation but by superimposition, not by absence, but by multiplying presences’ (Eco cited in Boym, 2001, p.108). The other two being the Gateshead Millennium Bridge and the renovation of the Baltic flour mill into BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. In a section of the Arcades Project that pours scorn on the claustrophobic clutter of the bourgeois living room, he writes: ‘Living in these plush compartments was nothing more than leaving traces made by habits. Even the rage expressed when the least little thing broke was perhaps merely the reaction of a person who felt that someone had obliterated “the traces of his days on earth”. The traces that he had left in cushions and armchairs, that his relatives had left in photos, and that his possessions had left in lining and etuis and that sometimes made these rooms look as overcrowded as halls full of funerary urns. This is what has now been achieved by the new architects, with their glass and steel: they have created rooms in which it is hard to leave traces. “It follows from the foregoing”, Sheerbart declared a good 20 years ago, that we can surely talk about a “culture of glass”. The new glass-milieu will transform humanity utterly. And now it remains only to be wished that the new glass-culture will not encounter too many enemies’ (1999c, pp.701–2). Baudrillard says, in an interview given in 1995: ‘simulation today assumes the form of virtuality, through which we are attempting to invent a perfect, self-identical world’ (2005, p.12). Chris Turner writes, by way of explanation, ‘What exactly does Baudrillard mean by evil? First, it must be said that it is to be understood not theologically as substance, but metaphysically as form. It is, as Baudrillard says elsewhere, the “non-unification” of things – good being defined as the unification of things in a totalized world’ – and, as such, it comprises for us ‘all that rests on duality, on the dissociation of things, on negativity, on death’ (2005, pp.14–15). Thus, evil is that element of the system that is not and cannot be self-identical. Evil is Baudrillard’s latest configuration of the symbolic element that remains embedded in the semiotic world but which is subsumed in it by the proliferation of simulacra. Through-out his work is has been named variously: symbolic exchange,
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seduction, fatality, radical illusion, but all terms essentially refer to the same concept. Indeed, as Frisby notes, the notion of the labyrinth is central to Benjamin’s analysis of the topography of Paris, to his analysis of modernity, and his method of writing (Frisby, 1986, p.210). For a wider discussion of the role of freedom and risk in the city and in particular the role of women as figures of urban disorder, see Elizabeth Wilson (1992). The badaud is a French term used to indicate another urban type contemporaneous with the flâneur. Shaya explain its origins: ‘The word can be translated as gawker; it carried the connotation of idle curiosity, gullibility, simpleminded foolishness and gaping ignorance’. The Grand dictionnaire universel (1867) defined him (sic) in this way: ‘The badaud is curious; he is astonished by everything he sees; he believes everything he hears, and he shows his contentment or his surprise by his open, gaping mouth.’ If the flâneur was the model for the Baudelairean poet, the badaud offers a model for the crowd he passed through (Shaya, 2004, pars 15–16). However, mis-remembering, (as Benjamin demonstrates when recalling what he elects as ‘the most remarkable of all the street images from …early childhood’ (1999b, p.597)) is also crucial to urban experience. The childhood experience he recollects as an adult has grown hazy in its details: he is unable to remember whether he witnessed this important image with his nursemaid or his governess; just as my grandmother misremembered the street name of her childhood home. Or, rather, the streets at child’s eye level were indistinguishable from one another. A report from BBC News website states: ‘plans have been unveiled to create a permanent memorial to a famous 19th century Tyneside Musician…a spokesman for Gateshead Council said “…I think it is fitting that this James Hill commemorative piece should be situated close to where his home was on Bottle Bank and near The Sage Gateshead… I hope people young and old, passing on their way to Gateshead Quays, the Hilton or the Swing Bridge will all enjoy the piece and get to know something of James Hill and his music”’ (2007). For a detailed examination of the notion of the ‘aesthetics of change’, which proposes a spatial as opposed to a textual or representational approach to the notion of aesthetics, and which focuses ‘on the direct experience of seeing, the material space and the practice of walking…as a particular way of experiencing spaces of change or transition’, see Anca Pusca’s recent work in this volume and elsewhere (2008, p.370). De Certeau writes, ‘First, if it is true that a spatial order organizes an ensemble of possibilities (e.g., by a place in which one can move) and interdictions (e.g. by a wall that prevents one from going further), then the walker actualizes some of these possibilities. In that way, he makes them exist as well as emerge. But he also moves them about and invents others, since the crossing, drifting away or improvisation of walking privilege, transform or abandon spatial elements. Thus Charlie Chaplin multiplies the possibilities of his cane: he does other things with the same thing and he goes beyond the limits that the determinants of the object set on its utilisation. In the same way, the walker transforms each spatial signifier into something else’ (1984, p.98).
Zoë Thompson 79 22 As Edensor points out, ‘Though rapid in Benjamin’s era, the processes of the rampant replacement of commodities and the resiting of production now operate on a far more global scale than when Benjamin was writing, indicating the even speedier production of obsolescence whereby whole urban areas and industries, together with their factories, their labour, the techniques and machinery used in prediction, and the objects they produced, all become waste’ (2005, p.101). 23 Esther Leslie writes of Kracauer, ‘He tells of his searches for two favourite cafés on the Ku’damm. All he finds of one is a hollowed-out interior. And the other, now a confectioner’s, so represses the earlier memory of the café that it is as if it had never been there. Only the present exists’ (Leslie, 2004, pp.78–9). 24 The fragility of this chance is captured well by Perec (1997) in a rumination on his home city of Paris: ‘My spaces are fragile: time is going to wear them away, to destroy them. Nothing will any longer resemble what was, my memories will betray me, oblivion will infiltrate my memory. I shall look at a few old yellowing photographs with broken edges without recognising them. The words “phone directory available within” or “snacks served any hour” will no longer be written up in a semi-circle in white porcelain letters on the window of the café in the Rue Colquilliere’ (1997, p.91).
Bibliography (2007) ‘Memorial Plan for Fiddle Player’. http://newsvote.bbc.co.uk/mpapps/ pagetools/print/news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/tyne/4616262.stm 01/02/2008 (2009) ‘Gateshead Heritage @ St Mary’s is Now Open!’ http://www.gateshead. gov.uk/Leisure%20and%20Culture/Local%20History/heritage/home.aspx 16/02/09 Augé, M. (1995) Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (London: Verso). Bailey, C., Miles, S. and Stark, P. (2004) ‘Culture-led Regeneration and the Revitalisation of Identities in Newcastle, Gateshead, and the North East of England’. International Journal of Cultural Policy, 10. Barthes, R. (2000) A Roland Barthes Reader (London: Vintage). Baudrillard, J. (1993) Symbolic Exchange and Death (London: Sage). Baudrillard, J. (1994) Simulacra and Simulation (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press). Baudrillard, J. (2005) The Intelligence of Evil or the Lucidity Pact (Oxford & New York: Berg). Baudrillard, J. (2006a) Mass Identity Architecture: Architectural Writings of Jean Baudrillard (Chichester, England: Wiley Academy). Baudrillard, J. (2006b) ‘Truth or Radicality: On the Future of Architecture’, in Proto, F. (ed.) Mass Identity Architecture: Architectural Writings of Jean Baudrillard (Chichester, UK: Wiley Academy). Baudrillard, J. and Nouvel, J. (2002) The Singular Objects of Architecture, (Minneapolis, Minnesota: The University of Minnesota Press). Benjamin, W. (1996) Selected Writings Volume 1 1913–1926 (Cambridge, MA & London: Harvard University Press).
80 Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Change Benjamin, W. (1999a) The Arcades Project (Cambridge, MA & London: Harvard University Press). Benjamin, W. (1999b) Selected Writings Volume 2, part 1 1927–1930 (Cambridge, MA & London: Harvard University Press). Benjamin, W. (1999c) Selected Writings Volume 2, part 2 1931–1934 (Cambridge, MA & London: Harvard University Press). Benjamin, W. (2003) Selected Writings Volume 4, 1938–1940 (Cambridge, MA & London: Harvard University Press). Bourdieu, P. (1977) Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). Boym, S. (2001) The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books). Brazendale, A. (2004) Gateshead: History and Guide (Stroud: Tempus). Buse, P., Hirschkop, K., Mccracken, S. and Taithe, B. (2006) Benjamin’s Arcades: An Unguided Tour (Manchester: Manchester University Press). Calvino, I. (1997) Invisible Cities (London: Vintage Classics). Crang, M. (1996) ‘Envisioning Urban Histories: Bristol as Palimpsest, Postcards, and Snapshots’. Environment and Planning A, 28, 429–452. de Certeau, M. (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press). Edensor, T. (2005) Industrial Ruins: Spaces, Aesthetics and Materiality (Oxford & New York: Berg). Freud, S. (1963) Civilization and its Discontents (London: The Hogarth Press Ltd). Frisby, D. (1986) Fragments of Modernity: Theories of Modernity in the Work of Simmel, Kracauer and Benjamin (Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press). Gilloch, G. (1996) Myth and Metropolis: Walter Benjamin and the City (Cambridge: Polity Press). Gilloch, G. (2002) Walter Benjamin: Critical Constellations (Cambridge: Polity). Gilloch, G. (2004) ‘Impromptus of a Great City: Siegfried Kracauer’s Strassen in Berlin und Anderswo’, in Hvattum, M. & Hermansen, C. (eds) Tracing Modernity: Manifestations of the Modern in Architecture and the City (London: Routledge). Highmore, B. (2005) Cityscapes: Cultural Readings in the Material and Symbolic City (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan). Initiatives, U. (2007) ‘Gateshead Quays, MU9 Site, Urban Design Strategy: Appraisal and Design Principles’. (Gateshead Council). Jeffries, S. (2008) ‘Spirit of the North’. The Guardian (London). Kemp, J. (1968) The Philosophy of Kant (Oxford: Oxford University Press). Kondo, D.K. (1990) Crafting Selves: Power, Gender, and Discourses of Identity in a Japanese Workplace (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press). Kracauer, S. (1987 ) Strassen in Berlin und Anderswo (Berlin: Das Arsenal Verlag). Leslie, E. (2004) Hollywood Flatlands: Animation, Critical Theory and the AvantGarde (London: Verso). Manders, F.W.D. (1973) A History of Gateshead (Gateshead: Northumberland Press Limited). Massey, D. (1995) ‘Places and Their Pasts’. History Workshop Journal, 39, 182–92. Miles, S. (2005a) ‘Our Tyne: Iconic Regeneration and the Revitalisation of Identity in NewcastleGateshead’. Urban Studies, 42, 913–26. Miles, S. (2005b) Understanding the Cultural ‘Case’: Class, Identity and the Regeneration of NewcastleGateshead, Sociology [U.K.]. 39(5) 2005 December, 1019–28).
Zoë Thompson 81 Miles, S. and Paddison, R. (2005) Introduction: The Rise and Rise of Culture-led Urban Regeneration, Urban Studies. 42(5–6) 2005 May, 833–9. Perec, G. (1997) Species of Spaces and Other Pieces (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin). Price, W. (2007) Big Sheds (London: Thames & Hudson). Pusca, A. (2008) ‘The Aesthetics of Change: Exploring Post-Communist Spaces’. Global Society, 22, 369–86. Shaya, G. (2004) ‘The Flâneur, the Badaud, and the Making of a Mass Public in France, circa 1860–1910’. The American Historical Review, 109. Shelton, A. (2007) Dreamworlds of Alabama (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota). Tolia-Kelly, D. (2004) ‘Locating Processes of Identification: Studying the Precipitates of Re-memory through Artefacts in the British Asian Home’. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 29, 314–29. Urry, J. (2002) The Tourist Gaze, second edition (London: Sage). Wilson, E. (1992) The Sphinx in the City: Urban Life, the Control of Disorder, and Women (Berkeley, CA & Oxford: The University of California Press).
3 ‘Sunshine and Noir’: Benjamin, Kracauer and Roth Visit the ‘White Cities’ Graeme Gilloch
Into the labyrinth Picture this if you will: a boy, perhaps 13 years old, stands before you, a red cloak draped casually, innocuously, over his arm. As you draw closer, you notice he is smiling in a curious manner – a smile that is conventional, ceremonial, cold, calculated. You are now almost within touching distance. Suddenly the smile vanishes; the cloak is moved swiftly aside. There is a glint of something metallic in the bright sunlight and then a terrible piercing sensation as a long dagger is plunged into your vulnerable body. You stagger backwards and slump to the ground, fatally wounded. And as your lifeblood drains away into the sand, you see the chilling smile return to the boy’s face, you hear distant cheering echoing all around. And picture this, too: you have lost your way among the backstreets of an unfamiliar city. You are exhausted by the heat and disoriented by the maze of alleyways and passages leading off hither and thither. Unexpectedly, you emerge into a deserted, treeless square. No shade, no shadows, no relief from the sweltering sun. And then, suddenly, you sense that you are being watched. Behind curtains, shutters and blinds, from windows and doorways, unseen eyes are observing you, scrutinizing you, following your every move and gesture. You should not be here. You should never have come here. You must go and quickly, but how? Which way? But it is already too late. The eyes that are fixed on you have magically transfixed you. They will not let you escape so easily. These two unsettling tales of the labyrinth form the bases of Siegfried Kracauer’s short texts ‘Lad and Bull: A Study in Movement’ – an account of a bullfight in Aix-en-Provence in September 1926 – and 82
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‘The Quadrangle’, the second part of his ‘Two Planes’ fragment envisioning Marseilles (see Kracauer, 1995, pp.33–9). I begin with these uncanny episodes – ones that call to mind nightmarish scenes from cheap Hollywood thrillers – because they eloquently capture in different ways the paradoxes and contradictions which make Mediterranean France, and the city of Marseilles in particular, sites of intense fascination not just for Kracauer, but also for his friend Walter Benjamin and his fellow journalist on the Frankfurter Zeitung, Joseph Roth. While Benjamin penned some three brief essays focusing on Marseilles, two of them involving his hashish experiments,1 Roth’s The White Cities: Reports from France 1925–39 (2004) provides a series of texts dedicated to Provence, the Midi as well as his beloved Paris where he was the newspaper’s principal correspondent. These writers and writings were brought to mind for me by the posthumous publication of W.G. Sebald’s Campo Santo (2005), a collection of diverse essays and reviews but most importantly, four studies of Corsica, the island about which he planned a major book from the mid-1990s onwards, one which was left unfinished – or unwritten – at the time of his untimely death in December 2001. And so what I want to present in this paper is itself part of a larger ongoing work, or set of works-in-progress exploring two aspects. Firstly, how these different authors write of their encounters with the cityscapes and landscapes of southern France, settings they found to be, on the one hand, sensual and seductive, sunlit and sublime; and, on the other, seedy and sordid, squalid and sadistic. And secondly, how these experiences colour their critical understanding of the metropolitan modernity to which they are accustomed. The ‘white cities’ serve as sites from which to reflect upon lives more ordinary – childhoods cut short, hopes unfulfilled, promises unkept – in the grey cities of ‘foggy countries’ as Roth terms them (2004, p.97): Vienna, Frankfurt, Berlin and elsewhere. For me, the vitality, volatility and violence of the ‘white cites’ is perhaps best captured by amending a memorable phrase coined by the contemporary American sociologist Mike Davis (1990) to describe the antinomies of Los Angeles in the 1920s and 30s: LA is a city of ‘sunshine or noir’; for me, the white cities are home to ‘sunshine and noir’. ‘Sunshine and noir’: such a combination manifests itself in different ways: it involves the juxtaposition of opposites and contradictions, each serving to highlight and accentuate the other. This is most evident in Roth’s accounts of the Provençal cities inland: Arles, Nîmes, Vienne,
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Tournon and others. Regarding Avignon, for example, erstwhile papal seat and ‘the whitest of all cities’ (2004, p.98), Roth observes how the relentless southern sun creates exaggerations and extremes: ‘Harsh light produces harsh shadows and a stronger contrast between light and shade. The sun reveals more details and gives them greater prominence’ (2004, p.97). Here there is a stark polarization of all elements. There is brilliant white and pitch black, but no nuances, no subtleties, no chiaroscuro of shadings and gradations. Sunshine produces noir as its inevitable antithesis, its unmistakable alter-ego. Alternatively, this co-presence of opposites manifests itself not with the clarity of counterpoint, but rather as contamination, as the one dwelling within, mingling with and tainting the other. This is especially the case in Marseilles, ancient city of commerce and trade, modern port and migration gateway. Here, there is nothing pure, nothing pristine, no perfection. Instead, all is blemished, infected, spoilt. Nothing escapes pollution and contagion. The dark, the disturbing, the nightmarish and noirish may be thrown into relief by the sunshine of azure Mediterranean skies, but it cannot be extracted or eradicated. It is an indelible stain, an inoperable cancer, knowledge of which makes even the most radiant of days sombre, macabre.
‘Bacillus Culture’: Benjamin in Marseilles Like his earlier journalistic city portraits of Naples (1924) and Moscow (1927),2 Benjamin’s ‘Marseilles’ study is an imagistic miniature which seeks to capture the vivid colours, diverse impressions and abundant stimuli of the contemporary cityscape as experienced by the alert and astute observer who, open to every sensation, every invitation, wanders its streets, alleyways and squares, explores its markets, cafés and bars, peruses its edifices, objects and inhabitants. Modern Marseilles is a site of sensory superabundance for those with an appetite for the city in all its extremes, contradictions and discontinuities. So, without further delay, let us join Benjamin down at the harbour. Under the delicious heading ‘Shellfish and Oyster Stalls’ he provides us with an illuminating illustration of the contrasts and contaminants of this city. In this fragment, he offers a – potentially – mouth-watering description of the delights of a humble quayside seafood stand: fresh ‘mountains of pink shellfish’ arise next to ‘yellow domes of lemons’ set amid ‘the marshland of cress’; ‘Oursins de l’Estaque, Portugaises,
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Maremmes, Clovisses, Moules marinières – all this is incessantly sieved, grouped, counted, cracked open, thrown away, prepared, tasted’ (Benjamin, 1999, p.234). The shellfish stall seemingly offers a cornucopia of crustaceans and citrus for the pleasure of the eyes, nose and taste buds. One can imagine such a scene: all manner of Mediterranean delicacies and delights, all manner of salty smells and tastes, the sounds of seabirds circling overhead and the spectacle of shipping in the bay, a surfeit of sensations to tempt and tantalise the dazzled visitor. But Benjamin immediately disenchants any such romantic visions. The piles of wet shellfish look ‘warty’ he says; they are continuously swilled by ‘a dirty cleansing flood over dirty planks’ (1999, p.234). And this is not all: ‘over there, on the other quay’ (1999, p.234), Benjamin notes, one finds booths laden with ‘“souvenirs”, the mineral hereafter of seashells’. Kitsch, knick-knacks of all kinds: ‘paste jewelery, shell limestone, and enamel’ (1999, p.234), little brooches and miniature boxes, cheap trinkets, gaudy tokens of love for sale to the crews of foreign and homecoming ships newly docked and soon bestowed on the prostitutes and brothel-keepers of Les Bricks. This is a city of oily-fingered Odysseus and penny-turning Penelope. And the appeal of the rosy-hued shellfish diminishes still further when one learns that pink ‘is the color of shame here, of poverty. Hunchbacks wear it, and beggarwomen. And the faded women of the rue Bouterie are given their only tint by the sole pieces of clothing they wear: pink shifts’ (Benjamin, 1999, p.232). Shellfish are not the only pink flesh for sale here. One quickly loses one’s appetite. Yes, there is the salty, clean smell of the sea borne on the winds, but this is overpowered by ‘a stink of oil, urine and printers ink’ (Benjamin, 1999, p.232). In his 1925 account of the city, Roth goes much further. The nose is subject to a sensory overload: Here is the intoxicating cosmopolitan smell you get when you store a thousand hectolitres of turpentine next to a couple of hundred tonnes of herring; when petroleum, pepper, tomatoes, vinegar, sardines, leather, gutta-percha, onions, saltpetre, methylated spirits, sacks, bootsoles, canvas, Bengal tigers, hyenas, goats, Angora cats, oxen, and Turkish carpets get to breathe out their warm scents; and when, on top of that, the sticky, oily, and oppressive smoke of anthracite swathes everything living and everything dead, masks all smells, saturates the pores, fills the air, hovers over the stones, and finally grows so strong that it muffles sounds, as it has long ago dimmed the light. I was looking for the boundless horizon here, the
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bluest blue of sea and salt and sun. But the water in the harbour is dishwater with vast grey-green fatty eyes (2004, pp.54–5). In the end, Marseilles is not so much ‘intoxicating’ as just plain toxic. Yes, this is a cosmopolitan city, an ancient melting pot for all nationalities, peoples, cultures and beliefs, for many centuries a safe haven for anyone and everyone, those passing through, those who stay. Yet, Benjamin notes, the city is inhabited by ‘the harbor people … a bacillus culture, the porters and whores products of decomposition with a resemblance to human beings’ (1999, p.232). The port is home to destitution and decay, vice and viciousness, penury and promiscuity. Marseilles is, then, a city wherein opposites coalesce, wherein extremes implode, where the beautiful and grotesque, the alluring and the abhorrent, the delightful and the defiled are constant bedfellows. And nowhere is this more evident than in the design of the city’s new cathedral. In an extended metaphor combining the sacred and profane, Benjamin describes this architectural monstrosity of the recent past as a giant railway station, the ‘Marseilles religion station’ (1999, p.234) as he puts it, in which fellow travellers sit in great waiting rooms studying timetables and schedules disguised as hymn books, biding their time until the next departure for the hereafter. In another memorable passage Benjamin notes: ‘to know the mourning of such radiant, glorious cities one must have been a child in them’ (1999, p.234). And here again we see the juxtaposition – not reconciliation – of incongruities and opposites: the sombre notion of ‘mourning’, of sorrows and shadows, of bereavement and the grave, is here run together with intense illumination and wonder, the brooding end of life with the innocence of its earliest childhood days. Whether it is demonic or divine, of one thing one can be sure in Marseilles: the visitor is always alive to and aware of its radically deceptive and discordant moods and moments. One cannot exist amid such contrasts with immunity and indifference. The senses are surprised, stimulated, saturated, satiated. Experience is intensified, invigorated, intoxicated; perception is expanded, enriched, amplified. One’s senses, attenuated and atrophied from so many days under gloomy grey skies, attune themselves anew. The sun’s glare ensures that everything appears bright and crisp, even the filth and pollution. The visitor sees the city with new eyes: the acute, aesthetic vision of the artist.
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Intoxication and imagination In the light of this, one thing should be clear: Marseilles is the last place one needs to experiment with narcotics. For in so many ways, the very experiences that Benjamin records as drug-induced are those of this cityscape anyway. At the opening of his ‘Hashish in Marseilles’ (1930) he notices the following changes in conditions and qualities: […] a dull feeling of foreboding; something strange, ineluctable, is approaching … images and chains of images, long-submerged memories appear; whole scenes and situations are experienced. At first they arouse interest, now and then enjoyment, and finally, when there is no turning away from them, weariness and torment. By everything that happens, and by what he says and does, the subject is surprised and overwhelmed. His laughter, all his utterances, happen to him like external events. He also attains experiences that approach inspiration, illumination … Space can expand, the ground tilt steeply, atmospheric sensations occur: vapor, an opaque heaviness of the air. Colors grow brighter, more luminous; objects more beautiful, or else lumpy and threatening…. All this does not occur in a continuous development; rather, it is typified by a continual alternation of dreaming and waking states, a constant and finally exhausting oscillation between totally different worlds of consciousness. In the middle of a sentence, these transitions can take place … All this the subject reports in a form that usually diverges very widely from the norm. Connections become difficult to perceive, owing to the frequently sudden rupture of all memory of past events; thought is not formed into words; the situation can become so compulsively hilarious that the hashish eater for minutes on end is capable of nothing except laughing […] (1999, p.673). In this uncharacteristically euphoric state, Benjamin ventures out on an evening perambulation around the centre of Marseilles. Reluctant to risk straight away the city’s principal thoroughfare, the Cannebière, Benjamin installs himself in a little harbour bar, observing the regulars with a transformed gaze. The hashish, he recalls: […] made me into a physiognomist, or at least a contemplator of physiognomies, and I underwent something unique in my experience: I positively fixed my gaze on the faces that I had around me, some of which were of remarkable coarseness or ugliness. Faces that
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I would normally have avoided for a twofold reason: I would neither have wished to attract their gaze nor have endured their brutality. It was a very advanced post, this harbor tavern (1999, p.675). Intently observing his drinking neighbours, Benjamin’s own aesthetic sensibilities are suddenly stimulated, and his appreciation of the painterly gaze enhanced: I now suddenly understood how, to a painter (hadn’t it happened to Rembrandt and many others?),3 ugliness could appear as the true reservoir of beauty – or better, as its treasure chest: a jagged mountain with all the inner gold of beauty gleaming from the wrinkles, glances, features. I especially remember an infinitely bestial, vulgar male face in which the ‘line of renunciation’ struck me with sudden violence. It was, above all, men’s faces that had begun to interest me. Now began the game, which I played for quite a while, of recognizing someone I knew in every face […] (1999, p.675). And this is precisely what Marseilles is for Benjamin – a ‘reservoir’ or ‘treasure chest’ of ugliness in beauty, beauty in ugliness, to which his senses have been reawakened. And two comments should be added here: firstly, as the epigram from Breton prefacing the ‘Marseilles’ reflections reminds us, far from confining such a sense of intoxication and moments of profane illumination to the effects of narcotics, Benjamin insists on their quotidian and studious character – ‘the most passionate investigation of the hashish trance will not teach us half as much about thinking (which is eminently narcotic) as the profane illumination of thinking will teach us about the hashish trance. The reader, the thinker, the loiterer, the flâneur are types of illuminati just as much as the opium eater, the dreamers, the ecstatic. And more profane’ (1999, p.216). Benjamin’s artistic vision owes far more to his role as urban thinker, stroller and dawdler, to his amblings and meanderings through the cityscape of Marseilles, than to the hashish experiment itself. Secondly, Benjamin’s experience in the harbour bar sparks a mode of creativity in him that is literary and textual rather than visual and pictorial. He notes: To begin to solve the riddle of the ecstasy of the trance, one ought to meditate on Ariadne’s thread. What joy in the mere act of unrolling a ball of thread! And this joy is very deeply related to the
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joy of intoxication, just as it is to the joy of creation. We go forward; but in so doing, we not only discover the twists and turns of the cave, but also enjoy this pleasure of discovery against the background of the other, rhythmic bliss of unwinding the thread. The certainty of unrolling an artfully wound skein – isn’t that the joy of all productivity, at least in prose? And under the influence of hashish, we are enraptured prose-beings raised to the highest power (1999, p.677). I want to suggest that although Benjamin moves away from the optical here, the renewed observational acuity of the image-maker remains key, for it is not so much the role of the painter that is most significant in this context, but of the photographer and, above all, the filmmaker.
The ‘Radiance of the Sunset’ ‘Sunshine and noir’ – this is suggestive, of course, of cinema. And this is as it should be. I want to suggest that one may understand the sublime perceptions and experiences of the ‘white cities’ as cinematic or more precisely as ‘filmic’ in a particular sense, one which returns us to the work of Kracauer.4 Under the title ‘Film in Our Time’, Kracauer provides an extraordinary Epilogue to his 1960 Theory of Film – a book whose original conception can be traced, as Miriam Hansen points out, to the “three fat notebooks” he compiled while trapped in Marseilles in 1940–1 (1997, pp.xiv–xv). In this Epilogue, Kracauer’s painstaking exposition of cinematic devices, techniques and forms unexpectedly gives way to a critical portrayal of modernity as a world of impoverished human perception and experience, a world in which the singular and vital qualities of quotidian things go largely unnoticed by an inattentive and disinterested humankind. Drawing implicitly on Georg Simmel’s famous notion of indifference as the defining characteristic of the modern metropolitan personality, the so-called blasé attitude, and more explicitly on themes articulated in his own deeply pessimistic writings of the Weimar years, Kracauer presents a desolate vision of the contemporary big city as a cold and soulless environment marked by instrumentalism, abstraction and calculation. Beset by a profound sense of isolation and alienation, by an enduring inner loneliness and emptiness, by an inescapable feeling of boredom and tedium, we moderns, we metropolitans, are, as Kracauer puts it in his ethnography of
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Berlin’s white-collar workers, spiritually “shelterless” [obdachlos] (1998, p.88). And such melancholy conditions and monotonous experiences are exacerbated, not alleviated, by the mass ornaments, novelties and distractions spawned by the burgeoning culture industry, above all, the film factories of both Neubabelsberg and Hollywood. Yet this critical diagnosis of modernity, far from leading to cynicism and pessimism regarding the character and consequences of cinema, provides the proper and necessary context in which the radical and very real promise of the film medium emerges. For Kracauer, the film camera penetrates the material world and presents it to us either for the first time, or in a completely transformed light, or both. Film enables us to see that which was previously invisible to us (Benjamin’s famous ‘optical unconscious’), and allows us to see once more, indeed, again and again, that which has simply faded into the background, that is to say, the unnoticed, unobserved backdrop, of our everyday, workaday lives. Film brings into focus and restores to us the vivid colours and the vital qualities of what surrounds us. In short: we see the physical world, the natural realm anew. He writes: Film renders visible what we did not, or perhaps even could not, see before its advent. It effectively assists us in discovering the material world with its psychophysical correspondences. We literally redeem this world from its dormant state, its state of virtual non-existence, by endeavoring to experience it through the camera. … The cinema can be defined as a medium particularly equipped to promote the redemption of physical reality. Its imagery permits us, for the first time, to take away with us the objects and occurrences that comprise the flow of material life (1997, p.300). Kracauer looks to film for the revelation of phenomena and the restoration of jaded human faculties. In this way, film provides for a new ‘aestheticization’ or (re)enchantment of the everyday. But one should be careful here. What enthuses Kracauer is not some reactionary de-politicization or spurious mystification of the world, what Benjamin might dismiss as the re-auraticization of nature. Rather, Kracauer’s point is to stress the potential of a new technological form to bring about nothing less than the critical renaissance of human perception, appreciation and sensitivity. We find we are touched by, moved by, the world we inhabit. We rediscover our sense of awe and wonder at ‘the radiance of the sunset’ (1997, p.296). And more. Our own place within it is restored to us as ‘home’. In exploring
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the ‘texture of everyday life’ (1997, p.304), Kracauer contends that films ‘help us not only to appreciate our given material environment but to extend it in all directions. They virtually make the world our home’ (1997, p.304). And it is here that the full significance of film for Kracauer becomes apparent. Film shows, or gestures towards, the way to ‘shelter’, the way home. And this is certainly not to be understood as proposing some sentimental journey into the past, dubious dewyeyed yearnings for some pre-industrial, pre-metropolitan idyll. Rather, with film as our guide, as our very own Ariadne, we must set out upon ‘paths that wind through the thicket of things’ (1997, p.309), cinematic expeditions and explorations that will so recuperate and reinvigorate our sense of who, what and where we are, of ourselves and our surroundings, our environment, that we humans, for the first time, come to find our rightful place amid first and second nature. Not mere temporary ‘shelters’, but a genuine and enduring future home for the homeless: this, for Kracauer, is the ultimate, utopian promise of film. What I want to suggest is this: that the experience of the ‘white cities’ is ‘filmic’ in precisely this restorative sense. The perceptual renewal which Kracauer identifies as the fundamental promise of film is in some ways both anticipated and fulfilled in the sensuous, sensitising encounter with the Mediterranean cityscape.5 Marseilles, this least homely of cities, this transient haven of migrants, exiles, refugees and nomads, paradoxically makes the world our home again; it cures our nostalgia, our longing for home, our homesickness born of grey skies and greyer buildings.
Uncanny memories Under the cloudless heavens of Provence, we witness and appreciate once more the radiance of the sunshine as well as of the sunset. But what of noir? Perhaps the answer to this is to be found in the complex temporalities that are at play in the ‘white cities’. With the obvious exception of Marseilles, such cities might be thought to provide sites of escape from modernity, refuges offering a sense of the persistence of the past, of the unchanging and ‘timeless’. One might reasonably ask: Are the ‘white cities’ alluring because they are home to traditional experiences and residual rituals long since vanished from contemporary cityscapes elsewhere? Quite the opposite. These are the very terrors they harbour.
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Kracauer’s account of the bullfight in Aix makes the blood run cold. In a 1925 piece on Nîmes, Roth is incensed by the cowardice and cruelty of the spectacle he witnesses, identifying the sufferings of the bull with those of the human victims of other past atrocities.6 True, time seems to stand still here, but for Roth this is anything but recuperative or restorative. In the unambiguously titled ‘Nothing Going On – In Vienne’ (1925), he emphasises the city as a place of inertia, of torpor, of endless inactivity, pointless routine, deathly stillness and silence.7 The ennui of the overstimulated, indifferent metropolitan is not offset by the tedium of the always-the-same of parochialism. Brutality and boredom: these are the hallmarks of such cities. So it is little wonder that Benjamin, Kracauer and Roth are drawn instead to the miasmic modernity of Marseilles. For it is here, after all, amid the viral culture of the harbour, perfumed by industrial waste and commercial wares, that the senses are stimulated and heightened; it is here, in sordid backstreet bars, not ancient olive groves and gardens inland, that one sees through the eyes of the painter of modern life. Paradoxically, only the vibrancy, the vitality of the metropolitan environment can serve as antidotes to the misery and melancholy of the urbanite. Importantly, this restoration of sensibilities and sensitivities should not be assumed to be an immediate and unmitigated pleasure. It must be understood as the return of that which has been habitually dulled, forgotten, repressed. As such, the very rediscovery and renewal of one’s perceptual and productive powers is itself something that might be experienced as ‘uncanny’, as Freud makes clear in his famous essay. And this would certainly correspond to the curious homeless–homeliness character of Marseilles – it is a city of the heimlich – unheimlich, those apparent opposites, which in reality blur imperceptibly but inextricably into one another by means of mutual contamination. Marseilles is a city of sunshine and noir because it is a city of illumination and the uncanny, of radiance and mourning, of a ‘dirty cleansing’ of the senses, to use Benjamin’s description of the shellfish stand. But there is another temporal dimension to this notion of the return here, in the south of France, of what was lost there, in Germany, in Austria, many years earlier. And here the unchanging character of the ‘white cities’ is significant in a rather different way for Roth. The ‘nothing-new’ of these loci and their apparent ‘timelessness’ leads him to reflect upon, even to recover, a lost age of childhood innocence and wonder at the world, and this has a particular poignancy for him.
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As for Benjamin, childhood and mourning come together in a particular constellation. Roth writes with both elation and bitterness: I found the white cities just as they were in my dreams. If you find your childhood dreams, you become a child again. It was more than I dared hope. Because my childhood is quite irrecoverably remote from me, separated by a global conflagration, a world on fire. My childhood was nothing more than a dream itself. It was expunged from my life; years that hadn’t just disappeared, but were dead and buried (2004, p.73). Roth, like Benjamin and Kracauer, was, of course, part of that generation who, ‘pulled out of our history classes on the Thirty Years’ War and plunged into the World War, […] have the feeling that the Thirty Years’ War has never stopped in Germany’ (2004, p.74). And so it is that, in the south of France, enemy territory just ten years before, each of them finds some prospect not so much of consolation for a childhood violently curtailed by catastrophe, or for a generation wiped out on the fields of northern France, but of the possibility of a newly and uncannily restored human sensory and perceptual capacity that might redeem the world and make it our home once more. The ‘white cities’ become mnemonics for times and dreams past and ‘reservoirs’, ‘treasure chests’ for the future – though we will certainly require an Ariadne to lead us through the labyrinth and out into the sunshine. For Benjamin, Kracauer and Roth, in different ways, the ‘white cities’ offer shelter for the spiritually homeless and constitute sites of hope for those with so little reason to be hopeful.
Notes 1 ‘Marseilles’ (1929, Benjamin, 1999, pp.232–6); the curious ‘MysloviceBraunschweig-Marseilles’ (1930, 1999, pp.386–93); and, ‘Hashish in Marseilles’ (1932, 1999, pp.673–9). 2 For a discussion of these other city writings, see Gilloch (1996). 3 The reference to Rembrandt here is intriguing. Benjamin may be thinking of Georg Simmel’s fascinating 1916 study of Rembrandt. Eschewing conventional biography, Simmel details how the very concept of ‘life’ [Leben] – and this involves both the creative inner life of Rembrandt, and the inner life of the sitter that manifests itself in their physiognomy – coalesces in Rembrandt’s portraiture. According to Simmel, Rembrandt is the incomparable painter of the individual life because his images uniquely depict the very movement of life itself, indeed they are still images which somehow succeed in representing life-as-movement, and more. Rembrandt captures
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the individuality of the sitter in that he is able to represent their full life, that is to say, the complete life they have lived hitherto. Like no other artist, Rembrandt is able to paint or sketch not just the actual appearance of the sitter in that brief moment of posing, but much more: the whole course of their life as incorporated, as manifest, as etched in the very contours, lines, colouration, and blemishes of their bodies and countenances (hence his predilection for painting elderly subjects, those whose features and expression bear witness to long experience). In his capturing of the idiosyncracies of the individual person, Rembrandt becomes for Simmel the very first ‘painter of modern life’. This connection between Kracauer’s reflections on film and Benjamin’s hashish experiments in Marseilles is also discussed at greater length in an insightful and eloquent recent study by Tara Forrest (2007). Roth notes: ‘On the street and in society I look just the way I do at home. Yes, and I am at home there. I know the sweet freedom of not seeming to be anything more than what I am. I don’t represent, I don’t exaggerate, I don’t deny. And even so I don’t catch the eye. In Germany it’s practically impossible not to catch the eye unless I playact, unless I deny, unless I exaggerate’ (2004, p.72). Roth writes of the bull about to die: ‘Now he has ceased to be an animal. Now he is the embodiment of all the martyrs of history. Now he looks like a mocked, beaten Jew from the East, now like a victim of the Spanish inquisition, now like a gladiator torn to pieces, now like a tortured girl facing a medieval witch trial, and in his eyes there is a glimmer of that luminous pain that burned in the eyes of Christ. The bull stands where he is and no longer hopes’ (2004, pp.52–3). Roth, 2004, pp.41–4.
Bibliography Benjamin, Walter (1999) Selected Writings Volume 2 1927–34. Cambridge MA: Harvard UP. Davis, Mike (1990) City of Quartz. Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. London: Verso. Forrest, Tara (2007) The Politics of Imagination. Benjamin, Kracauer, Kluge. Transcript Verlag: Bielefeld. Gilloch, Graeme (1996) Myth and Metropolis: Walter Benjamin and the City. Cambridge: Polity Press. Kracauer, Siegfried (1995) The Mass Ornament. Weimar Essays. Cambridge MA: Harvard UP. Kracauer, Siegfried (1997) Theory of Film. The Redemption of Physical Reality. Princeton NJ: Princeton UP. Kracauer, Siegfried (1998) The Salaried Masses: Duty and Distraction in Weimar Germany. London: Verso. Roth, Joseph (2004) The White Cities: Reports from France 1925–39. London: Granta Books. Sebald, W.G. (2005) Campo Santo. London: Penguin. Simmel, Georg (2005) Rembrandt: An Essay in the Philosophy of Art. London: Routledge.
4 Liquidation and Shattering: Aesthetics and Politics in Cold Climates Esther Leslie
Aesthetics and change How can change be represented? Change is by its nature in movement, a transition. How can a movement from one state to another be modelled in aesthetic form? How can representation, which, it might be said, fixes images or moments, be turned to the task of tracking a shift from one state to another? This was the issue that various theorists in the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917 posed. Georg Lukács, for one, forwarded the novel as a form that could map change – as an actual past and a future possibility (Lukács, 1980). It could do this because the novel provided a mirror of motive forces in the actual world that is perceived to exist outside the fiction. The novel, if it is a successful one in Lukács’ eyes, renders ‘typical characters’, with fully rounded personalities acting in realistic situations. Such well-formed characters are fit for the steely task of changing the world, inside and outside the literary text. Cervantes, Shakespeare, Balzac and Tolstoy are literary forbears worthy of imitation, for they make every effort to represent society as a totality and the protagonists of their fictions act in a rational manner within a recognizable world. In distinct opposition to this stance, other theorists have focused less on words as windows onto a world of acting, transforming human beings and more on the materiality of artworks, whose production and reception constitute in themselves acts of transformation. This is the context of an aesthetics of production, as espoused, for example, by Productivists and Constructivists such as Popova, Rodchenko or El Lizitsky in the post-revolutionary Soviet Union. This insists that the cultural object become a thing of use, functional, an object that through its engagement with us, in turn, alters our engagement with 95
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the world. The artwork is changed into a functional object and it changes our relationship to the world of objects and the social relations within that world. Art and artworks as transformative, in some sense, is also relevant to dada, whose incorporation of real world materials, such as bus tickets, cigarette ends or magazine clippings, changes the parameters of what constitutes art, where beauty lies and who might be an artist. Photomontage takes this aesthetics of change further. In the politicized work of an artist such as John Heartfield, audiences are encouraged to transform their sense of what a cultural object is and does. Change is incorporated into the materials themselves, as, in pursuit of political enlightenment, they are shifted from one context and meaning. For example, in After Ten Years: Fathers and Sons (1924), a line of skeletons is placed next to a newspaper’s image of a military general and one of some children dressed as soldiers and marching with guns. Combined, the three images bounce off each other and the caption and produce new meanings out of their relationships. The general and the skeletons are large in scale: death and the military are equated. The soldiers are small: emphasizing their youth and their associated quality as sacrificial lambs. The skeletons are in a row as in graves, just as the soldiers are in a marching row: their filing to the grave is suggested visually. The above examples have suggested various ways in which change plays a role in aesthetics – as a thematic element and as a formal element. The next section concentrates on the ways in which Walter Benjamin drew elements from all these approaches, but broke radically with the notion of the art object, preferring instead to focus on how a transformational – or dialectical – look or sensibility might be exercised on any object or experience.
Walter Benjamin and change Some time in 1931 or 1932 Walter Benjamin jotted down a small note on ships, mine shafts and crucifixions inside bottles (Benjamin, 1999a, p.554). He also mentions the Panoptikum: it refers to a cabinet of curiosities, or more specifically, the Panoptikums of the late 19th century that were waxworks museums, with dark drapes and grotesque wax objects. Commenting, in The Arcades Project, on Panoptikum, Benjamin observes of the word: ‘Panopticon: not only does one see everything, but one sees it in all ways’ (Benjamin, 1999b, p.531). These objects under glass and inside the waxwork cabinet alike propose microcosms, in which seeing is liberated in all directions: everything can be seen
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and in all ways. There is something extraordinary about these objects under glass or contained in cabinets, placed in such a way that they might be the object of extended and curious viewing. Benjamin’s thoughts on objects under glass were stimulated by his investigations of the late 19th century bourgeois parlour that had been his own childhood home. These rooms were cluttered with glass domes placed over hair sculptures or wax flower arrangements, stuffed animals or fake religious relics, and snow globes, a development out of the decorative glass paperweight. What sort of objects were those particular glassy objects that Benjamin collected and which, as Adorno recounts, numbered among his favourite belongings? (Adorno, 1963, p.237). In his short piece on things in bottles, Benjamin cites a comment by Franz Glück on Adolf Loos. On reading Goethe’s complaint against philistines and those art connoisseurs who grab hold of the engravings or reliefs that they are examining, Loos concluded that anything that can be touched cannot be an artwork and, conversely, that whatever is an artwork must be withdrawn from access. Benjamin’s typically contrarian extension of the thought asks then whether these objects under glass are therefore artworks, ‘because they have been placed out of reach’ (Benjamin, 1999a, p.554). This sliver of insight leads to the heart of Benjamin’s ideas as laid out most famously in his essay from the 1930s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility’ (Benjamin, 2003). In the epoch of mass production, cultural artefacts meet the viewer halfway, metaphorically and actually. They exit from darkened niches of cathedrals, leave the gallery, are released from the captivity of singular time and space to enter into the orbit of the viewer. In reproduced form artworks can be grasped in the viewer’s hand. As film, the pacey and choppy rhythms and milieu they depict are familiar to viewers from their everyday technologized and city lives and so can be easily grasped – or, to put it another way, understood. These objects, appropriatable by the masses, are not artworks, but democratically manipulatable forms of culture, things after art, and, as such, prefigurations of a new political age. Is the contemplative glassed-over scene an artwork because it is withdrawn from touch? Or is it rather there to be grabbed as object, a small world taken into the hand? Is the snow globe, indeed, so charged an object for Benjamin because it is and is not, at one and the same time, distanced and close, an object that marks the cusp between art and non-art?
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That snow globes, commonly characterized as the epitome of kitsch, should feature in a controversy about aesthetic definition and value is not a surprise, for everything about the snow globe elicits contradiction, or dialectics. The snow globe contains a world under glass, or, later, clear plastic. As such the scene contained is untouchable, but the globe itself exists precisely to be grasped in the hand. The hand neatly fits around its rounded or oval contours, in order to shake the miniature scene, so that the artificial snow flakes, be they of bone, rice, corn, polystyrene or glitter slowly sink through water, enhanced with glycol and perhaps anti-freeze and anti-algae agents. The snow globe comes properly to life only when it is fully filled with a liquid that becomes invisible, functioning solely as a medium for impeding and transporting snowflakes until they settle. After shaking, it is as if life has suddenly entered and then crept away again. For Adorno, the glass globes contain Nature morte, still life, dead life. Their appeal for Benjamin, Adorno claimed, was like that of other ‘petrified, frozen or obsolete components of culture’ such as fossils or plants in herbariums. Benjamin was attracted to anything that has alienated from itself any trace of ‘homely aliveness’ (Adorno, 1963, p.237). The snow globe presented an image of the petrified arrest that is industrial modernity. Its microcosm contains only the dead, the ruined, the lost. As such, perhaps a trickle of hope could be squeezed from it: it mimics the negativity of the wider world we inhabit and so, for the literary theorist Paul Szondi, the emphasis, on the contrary, was on their freeze-framing, for Benjamin, of a scene of life, not death. He called the snow globes ‘reliquaries’, which provide a form of shelter. As such they seem to preserve something, a scene or an event, for the future. For this reason, he associated them with Benjamin’s miniature memoir scenes that snapshot moments of ‘hope in the past’ and transport them into the future (Szondi, 1978, pp.500–1). Szondi’s sentiment can be phrased in a more sentimental version: the snow globe circulates commercially as a souvenir or memento. It is supposed to capture an instant to be relived forever in memory, a moment that compels the viewer to express, like Goethe’s Faust, ‘verweile doch, Du bist so schön’, ‘stay a while, you are so beautiful’. Might the snow globe fascinate Benjamin because it models a principle active in Benjamin’s conception of modernity: intermittently, when a human grabs it, the snow globe depicts the moment of quake or shattering – Erschütterung. Modernity is just this shake up, this shattering of what was there before – techniques, ideologies, customs – and the forcing of a new period in which change is the one constant.
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Benjamin uses the term in his programmatic statement on art in the new epoch of technological reproducibility. Mechanical reproducibility in art and the widening of access to cultural artifacts through reproduction lead to a ‘tremendous shattering of all that has previously been passed down – a shattering of tradition which is the obverse of the contemporary crisis and renewal of mankind’ (zu einer gewaltigen Erschütterung des Tradierten – einer Erschütterung der Tradition, die die Kehrseite der gegenwärtigen Krise und Erneuerung der Menschheit ist) (Benjamin, 2003, p.104 [translation amended]). The flurry inside the snow globe is an illustration of the overturning of settled values and presents a moment, a briefly glimpsed possibility of change. As such it provides an emblem of Benjamin’s aesthetics of change. Benjamin’s aesthetics – as exemplified in this object – is a transformed aesthetics, whereby he abolishes or overturns hierarchies of value by making a kitsch object philosophically legible. His aesthetic approach also alights upon an object that thematically envisions change as prelude to the much-awaited broader cosmic change.
Materials and transformation Walter Benjamin’s aesthetics allows the distillation of philosophical and political meaning from kitsch, ephemeral or throwaway objects. There is little that is more transient and throwaway than the daily newspaper. It is here that I wish to focus in order to probe, from a Benjaminian point of view, the aesthetics of change in modernity. From 1905 until 1913, with a brief revival in the mid-1920s, McCay’s comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland investigated city fantasy and anxiety at a time of rapid change (McCay, 1997). Through the concept of a boy dreaming, each weekly strip prises a way into what might be termed the ‘technological unconscious’. Little Nemo’s adventures take place in a dramatic cosmos, where elements of contemporary New York are visible as well as the transmutation of these elements into dreamy and nightmarish forms. The stories include bizarre features, such as being pursued by tall buildings, or humans shrinking away amidst vast city structures. Sometimes humans grow to immense proportions and run amok, damaging the buildings. New York and its buildings, its streets, docks, rivers and alleyways, are active participants in the storylines. New York, or the supermodern city space, is revealed in the comic strip to be a place of modern anxiety about urban space, an unease generated by the built environment, with its monstrous power to crush, oppress, damage. This environment, the one in which
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the actual cartoonist sits, is, indeed, novel, and rapidly changing. Here, in the New York of the first decades of the 20th century, land was sold or leased, as part of grand speculations, and buildings were flung up swiftly, forcing effectively earthquakes to rumble across the city. And so sometimes humans might equal nature’s force in their devastating rearrangement of landscapes. In the Slumberland vignettes, the house and all the other buildings, often buildings of state, glass palaces, ice palaces, elaborate banqueting halls and ballrooms, confront the party of adventurers as sites of confusion, and danger. These architectural spaces are enemies, dystopias, as well as places of possibility and play and sometimes beautiful beyond belief. However horrifying, because of its repetitions, week after week, McCay’s comic strip city presents the city as a ‘Spielraum’, a place of play, with room for manoeuvre, or, as the primary English translation of Benjamin’s term puts it, ‘a vast and unsuspected field of action’ (Benjamin, 2003, p.117). The comic strip city can be endlessly reinvented and recombined. Transformation can always be transformed again. McCay’s comic strips provide visions of a social unconscious of modernity as it is in formation – the meaning of cities, the scope of the cosmos, the uses of technology, the discrepancies between dreams and waking life. Little Nemo and his chums are surely adventurers in a ruined and reformulating worldscape. If McCay’s fantasy environments are ones of rapid transformation, it is no surprise that their structures are recurrently built out of materials that in their very substance signal transformation, shifts of state, shattering, reconstitution, and fragility: ice and glass. Often Little Nemo finds himself in icy, snowy realms. Ice and snow are cold – they generate the opposite conditions to the snug bed of a little bourgeois boy tucked under his blankets. And yet snow blankets the Earth too. Where snow and ice are, there are opposites at work – which is why it offers itself for utopian reverie, for where there is opposition there is dynamism, mobility, movement and transformation. Under snow colour is extinguished by whiteness. Roughness is overlaid by the smoothness of ice. And furthermore, ice and snow are made of water. The fluid, the fluid of fluids, is frozen into crystals. What was always moving becomes still, until it melts again back into water. Ice crystals are the immobilized that is dynamic through its interaction with environment. Ice is, therefore, a transient form, which is perhaps to say, not a form at all, for it always presses towards formlessness again. There is something materially present in the constitution of ice that allows it to annex to powerful fantasies of transformation.
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Just as Little Nemo’s story melts away each week, just as the dream melts upon awakening, the architecture of Jack Frost’s Ice Palace – visited in a number of episodes and described by a character as the ‘grandest place’ ever seen – melts too: the building becomes only a memory. Or indeed, rather than melting, it is smashed. At one point, as Flip slides uncontrollably along the floor and crashes into the bulky Mr. Sleet, the staircase shatters. Part of ice’s materiality is its propensity to not only melt but break. Along these lines, in 1905, Little Nemo visits a glass palace where all the inhabitants are made of glass. Having awoken in his room and left his bed, he finds his bedroom has become a cave of glass. Curious Little Nemo enters the cave and meets Bulzubb who tells him that the cave and all its inhabitants are made of glass. Little Nemo is introduced to Queen Crystalette, who is to lead the boy into Slumberland. Little Nemo is captivated by the Queen’s beauty and immediately falls in love. He tries to embrace her as they proceed down a glistening avenue to Slumberland and the guards intervene. But Little Nemo’s infatuation is so strong that he cannot stop himself from grasping her. She shatters. Her escort faints and knocks all the other people over. Little Nemo confronts a room of shards. – the ‘bespangled and bejewelled retinue were now a heap of splinters, a mass of jagged fragments’. These crystalline environments are fragile, and their fragile untenability undoubtedly contributes to their beauty. Such fragility is materially occasioned. Ice and snow melt. Glass and ice shatters. Such material consequence is echoed in the stories, for Nemo’s dream states – of coldness, suffocation, unease – are often stimulated physically by a blanket slipped from his body or over his head, overindulgence at dinner or a noise from outside. But the fragility and transience of the environments that Nemo explores are not just materially but also socially occasioned. In respect of glass, those opening moments of the 20th century were a time when some of the glass structures that people knew and that had an affinity to the Palaces that Nemo explores – such as arcades, palm houses and train sheds – were becoming decidedly historical, of the past, falling into ruin or disuse or unfashionability. It was almost 100 years from the institution of the first arcade, in London, built of glass for the sale of sparkly jewellery, and 70 years – a lifetime – since the erection of the first Palm House, a glassy and iron container of displaced natural forms. These glass palaces were, imaginatively and really disintegrating, melting into memory or ripped apart by processes of city modernization.
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Ice in architecture had had its day too. McCay’s Palace of Ice strips appear at the close of an epoch of Ice Palaces built in North America. An architectural form slips into history and memory. What were the ice palaces? They were attempts to take advantage of an extremely cold climate. They were extraordinary feats of construction. They were the centrepiece of Winter carnivals in Ottawa and Quebec and St. Paul’s, Minnesota. The first of these appeared in 1883 in Montreal. Modest in scale, it was nonetheless beautiful and encouraged larger structures in subsequent years. For a few years these extraordinary palaces appeared in the cold Northern climes, each one outbidding the previous one in size and spectacularity: a daytime house of alabaster became a crystal palace at night, until it melted away again. The ice palaces attracted thousands of visitors, who were in awe of their immensity, beauty and skilful construction. There were other attractions such as ice rinks, ice sculptures and ice mazes. These structures and the associated carnivals were firmly about the generation of leisure and tourism industries in cities that had little else to offer, certainly in the Winter. A wave of warmer winters made the ice palaces no longer possible in the first decade of the century. It might also be noted that in the same period in which McCay deploys these elements to fantastical effect in his comic strips, visionary and utopian architects built entire cities out of glass and ice, in their imaginations and sketchpads. It is as if it is released from the clutches of death at the point of its death, to be reborn. These architects and their schemes might be usefully illuminated through the lenses of their contemporary Walter Benjamin, in as much as their utopian constructs are directed towards assessing and promoting social change through aesthetic considerations of technology. Utopian eulogies to the fragile beauty of glass and ice – and not just its reflection of revolutionary socialities but also its generation of them – found expression, in fantastical form, in Paul Scheerbart’ pamphlet Glass Architecture from 1914 and Bruno Taut’s Alpine Architecture from 1919 (Sharp, 1972). Scheerbart, who was a favourite writer of Benjamin, was a science fiction author and architectural theorist.1 In his writings on glass architecture, Scheerbart made glass the purveyor of a new morality. Window glass is crystalline. Its crystalline character stands for absolute form, the perfection and completeness of materials. Its fragility becomes a moral trait: it breaks (rather than bending like metal or other substances). It is the contrary of stone and brick. Those two are like tough coatings, impenetrable, blocking – like a shell or armour, keeping the world out. Through a combination of light, colour
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and glass – as well as water, a natural ally of glass, thinks Scheerbart – modern living could be transformed – indeed an epoch of world peace and harmony would ensue once glass were everywhere. This is a utopia indeed, but one that might teeter on realization. Scheerbart’s pamphlet is dedicated to Bruno Taut, initiator of the ‘crystal chain’ letters, who in the year of Scheerbart’s publication had designed the brightly coloured Glass Pavillion at the Werkbund Exhibition in Cologne with a 14-sided prismatic dome and glass block staircase (which was in turn dedicated to Scheerbart and decorated with his slogans: Scheerbart’s slogans included such gems as: ‘COLOURED GLASS DESTROYS HATRED’, ‘WITHOUT A GLASS PALACE LIFE IS A BURDEN’ and ‘GLASS BRINGS US THE NEW ERA; BRICK CULTURE IS ONLY HARMING. Taut’s pamphlet ‘Alpine Architecture’ was comprised of drawings and handwritten words in several parts. The first three parts deal with Crystal Houses, vast, labyrinthine structures. The Crystal House is built entirely of glass – coloured glass, built in the region of the snowfields and glaciers, a ‘temple of silence’, sparkling in the sun and revolving in the light. It is not the ‘City’s Crown’, for: ‘Architecture and the vapour of cities remain irreconcilable antitheses’ and architecture cannot be ‘used’, but rather should be dedicated to delight. The sublimity generated by the Crystal House is not restricted to it. If mountains were the traditional spot for the experience of Kantian sublimity, this did not prevent Taut from imagining their being made into something more wondrous, hence their embellishment. Utopian glass-builders formed the lunatic fringe in the grouping ‘The Glass Chain’ of 1919–20. Le Corbusier, in those years, diverted glass to other uses – corporate and private. In so doing he translated glassy confusion and illusion into legible, modern, industrial spaces that are only superficially seethrough. As Walter Gropius put it in 1926, the glass architecture that was a poetic utopia becomes reality unconstrained (Gropius, 1988). Peter Behrens, Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer designed factories of glass, but the referent was not to magic, radiance and beauty, but rather a newly derived political-social imperative: the idea of transparency, for which read rationality. There is a certain story of decline here, in its presentation by the arcades’ leading interpreter, Walter Benjamin. It is a story of how, for the 20th century, the iron and glass arcades become a ‘hollow form’), filled with the debris of broken commodity fetish promises (Benjamin, 1999b, p.546). But, equally Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project presents all this as a potential liberation that simply has not yet been actualized. Benjamin
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is convinced that the glass and iron of the arcades was a form of architecture, or a way of living, that came too early. He writes of ‘glass before its time, premature iron’. And these buildings – arcades, winter gardens and railroad stations – he states, ‘have long since given way to the hangar’ (Benjamin, 1999b, p.873). The potential change illustrated and enacted in the utopian buildings of glass and ice does not translate into reality. Winsor McCay’s comic strip also managed to preimagine the forces that would thwart such change. Jack Frost’s Palace of Ice in Slumberland suffers an abrupt transformation after several episodes. Nemo and friends reach the Palace and gaze at the beautiful frozen garden of Jack Frost, when, suddenly, a van arrives. It is the High Price Ice Company, with its workers bellowing ‘get out of the way’. A team of men jump from the lorry and begin to carve the palace into blocks of ice and haul them onto the van. All that remains by the following week’s episode are a few floating ice patches, upon one of which stand Nemo and friends, adrift in a modern world over which they have no control. Commodity relations smash ice up. Use value – and aesthetic value – converts into exchange value. McCay’s comic strips, in their absorbency of urban and technological potential and disequilibrium, forecast some of the trajectories not just of architecture and its materials but also the people mobilized within the city. The concrete dystopias of daily life under advancing capitalism are envisaged thematically, as well as repetitively, each time Nemo awakens to the reality of his repressive guardians at the end of the story. New York – the site of McCay’s labours – turns out to be a dystopia towards which modernity is headed. Benjamin’s aesthetic attunement to the throwaway and ephemeral allows this once much loved marginalia to be plundered for its futures, including those yet to emerge. The changes immanent in actuality are mapped in the concoctions of popular materials, as are potential futures. In Benjamin’s analysis, these coagulates of kitsch and corn, are absorbent of social dreaming, wishes and desires, everything that we would hope not to have to experiences and all that we might wish to exist. Nemo – the name means nobody – is a small bourgeois boy of about six, whose fantasies of travel across regions and into the hidden spaces of cities come just after those of another bourgeois boy, whose childhood fantasies of travel and cities are recorded later in his Berlin memoirs. These Berlin memoirs are those of Walter Benjamin from the 1930s and are titled Berlin Chronicle and Berlin Childhood around 1900 (Benjamin, 1999a and 2003). The world out there, in the city, was
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glimpsed by a child hungry for experience. He found experience, heightened moments, in strange corners. In his Berlin memoirs, an architectural urban space becomes suffused in temporalities that extend it into its future, already Benjamin’s past or present at the time of writing: some things only dimly sensed have come into being but could already be perceived in the shapes and shadows of the city’s corners. Benjamin’s procedure in his historical texts is an Aktualisierung, an updating. Like the snow globe shaken to new life, his visits in history – be it in the shape of his own childhood or that of the arcades of 19th century Paris – present just such a shimmering in the present: something petrified into consensus is re-awoken from a dreamlike state. Benjamin’s vignettes evoke climacteric nodes in past time – portmanteaux of pressures and tendencies, hopes and omens – that came to shape collective social futures and allow the possibility of grasping premature hopes as well as the ominous developments of actuality. A place or a moment might not be fully apprehended at the time, but the study of its graphic rendition later lays bare the dense web of connections that has produced the now. To render it in the present was to reanimate the social and historical networks that brought both it into being and prevented other histories unfolding. There is much in this description of the vignettes that tallies with Benjamin’s idea of photographic technologies and their access to an optical unconscious: the export of past constellations into the present for purposes of social knowledge, the exposure of absence and loss, as much as that which is registered on the plate of memory and passes through time.
Shattering and aesthetics In the late 1920s Walter Benjamin argued that new technologies of entertainment, specifically the technologies of film, animation and photography, could draw invisible forces out into the open and make them conscious. In 1927, in a defence of Sergei Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin as well as the American funnies, Benjamin identified how technological culture affects – produces, or reproduces – consciousness. We may truly say that with film a new realm of consciousness comes into being. To put it in a nutshell, film is the prism in which the spaces of the immediate environment – the spaces in which people live, pursue their avocations, and enjoy their leisure – are laid open before their eyes in a comprehensible, meaningful, and
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passionate way. In themselves, these offices, furnished rooms, saloons, big-city streets, stations, and factories are ugly, incomprehensible, and hopelessly sad. Or rather they were, and seemed to be, until the advent of film. 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 (Benjamin, 1999a, p.17). The world is ‘laid open’ and viewers come away with an enhanced knowledge of the structure of actuality through exposure to the film’s superperceptive and analytical eye, as well as the barrage of editing techniques that pick apart the filmic space. Cinema detonates a ‘prisonworld’. Audiences penetrate the secrets contained even in very ordinary reality, once it has been fractured into shards. Adventurous travellers are offered a multitude of trips through widely strewn ruins in a world turned anti-physical. The dynamite of the split-second explodes this world. Space is expanded and shrunk by montage, while time is stretched and contracted by time loops. Cartooning and comic strips take such anti-physics for granted. Benjamin says that this cosmos of detonated physics requires Mickey Mouse as occupant, for his function is curative. This is another way of approaching the world under glass. The world re-presented in film is a world seen through the glass of the lens. That mechanical eye picks out scenes for peculiar concentration and focus, and it does something to them – much as in the ‘Panopticon: not only does one see everything, but one sees it in all ways’. The image of reality that Benjamin’s concept of film and photography brings back may be an image, but it is an image with depth, not a surface. It can be cut into. It is montaged, a term that is imported from the world of engineering and architecture and which presented itself, in the years around the First World War, through the ambitious and more or less fantastical theories and practice of Bruno Taut’s crystal chain or Paul Scheerbart’s theory of glass architecture, amongst others, as the primary realm for utopian exploration and new world building. Architectural experiment, like montage, allowed revised possibilities of inhabiting space, of interacting socially and of experiencing beauty. For Benjamin, all the arts culminate in architecture: the modern work of culture, such as is film and photography, finds its template in architecture, itself a penetrable space that is experienced through collective and ‘tactile’ reception (Benjamin, 2003, p.120). With its architectural, tactile and collective referents, the montaged work reinvented everything: the space in which the artwork exists
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(accessible in some way), the materials of which it might be made (diverse, and, even, including scrapped matter), the relationships between the various modes of art (intermedial and non-hierarchical), the relationship of parts within the artwork (disjunctive) and the relationship between viewer and artwork, artistic producer and the audience for art (dynamic, anti-contemplative, interactive). The image world of film, photography, the comic strip – each one segmenting and recombining aspects of the world – seems peculiarly attuned to render the dynamics of change. Furthermore, the point is made that change is not a passive unfolding, an inevitable and eternal shifting, but rather something done to the world and to social relations, technologies and so on, by human beings acting under specific circumstances. This is the point of Benjamin’s aesthetics, which bestows a specific role on the viewer, who enters into the image worlds laid bare and re-assembles them imaginatively. The use of ice and glass in this essay has served simply to underline the transient, fragile and shatterable nature of the world in which we find ourselves living.
Note 1 Walter Benjamin reckoned him to be his favourite writer in an interview for a Soviet newspaper in Moscow 1926.
Bibliography Adorno, T.W. (1963) ‘Charakteristik Walter Benjamins’ in Prismen: Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft (Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag). Benjamin, W. (1999a) Selected Writings: Volume 2:2, 1931–1934 (Cambridge, MA.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press). —— (1999b) The Arcades Project (Cambridge MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press). —— (2003) Selected Writings: Volume 3, 1935–1938 (Cambridge, MA.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press). Gropius, W. (1988) ‘Glasbau’, Die Bauzeitung 23 (1926) reprinted in Hartmut Probst and Christian Schädlich (eds) Walter Gropius, Vol. 3, Ausgewählte Schriften (Berlin: Ernst & Sohn,) pp.103–6. Lukács, G. (1980) ‘Realism in the Balance’ in Fredric Jameson (ed.) Aesthetics and Politics (London: Verso) pp.28–59. McCay, W. (1997) Best of Little Nemo in Slumberland (New York: Stewart, Tabori, & Chang). Sharp, D. (ed.) (1972) Paul Scheerbart, Bruno Taut, Glass Architecture/Alpine Architecture (New York/Washington: Praeger Publishers). Szondi, P. (1978) ‘Hope in the Past: On Walter Benjamin’ , Critical Inquiry, Vol. 4, No. 3, Spring 1978, 491–506.
5 Fashion and Its ‘Revolutions’ in Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Petra Hroch
Fashion is the eternal recurrence of the new. Are there nevertheless motifs of redemption precisely in fashion? – Walter Benjamin, ‘Zentralpark’ in Gesammelte Schriften, 46. In the Foreword of The Arcades Project,1 Walter Benjamin’s elaborate collection of literary fragments, the translators write that one of the purposes of Benjamin’s famously unfinished work was to ‘document as concretely as possible … the scene of revolutionary change that was the nineteenth century’ (AP, 1999, p.xii). Perhaps not surprisingly, this era of rapid transition was the period that gave rise to fashion both as a material object (for example, couture) and as a process (or a cycle of change). The industrialization and increased urbanization that characterized nineteenth-century Parisian life led to changes in clothing style that outpaced the slower, more gradual shifts in style of earlier centuries. The nineteenth century saw the emergence of fashion as a process (or rather, a set of processes) characterized by constant, ongoing, and rapid alterations in clothing styles or ‘fashions’ (as the items themselves also came to be called). The fashion ‘process’ – a cycle of continuous change – worked in tandem with the increased speed of production of clothing, as well as the increased rate at which various styles were taken up (and subsequently abandoned) by various ranks of city dwellers seeking to stay on top of the latest trend. Of primary concern to Benjamin were the effects of high capitalism on life in the modern world, and fashion as a cycle of constant change epitomized these effects (AP, 1999, p.xii). Perhaps it is due to the instability of the modern era that we find Benjamin looking to material objects – to the ‘things’ (like the objects of fashion) that were able to be grasped, or be ‘[present] at hand’ – as a means by which to literally 108
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‘come to grips’ with, or to understand, the spirit of the time (AP, 1999, H1a,2). Benjamin’s literary fragments in the Arcades reveal his interest in, on the one hand, the latest fashions – the objects at the forefront of the capitalist wave, whether in the nineteenth century or in his own – and on the other hand, his fascination with the detritus that the cycle of fashion leaves in its wake. In this chapter I trace Benjamin’s ideas about fashion and its life cycle – from its appearance as la mode to its disappearance as the outmoded. In so doing, I explore how things, for Benjamin, function at once as keys to unlocking the past, and for revealing the past’s ongoing relevance to a revolutionary politics of the present. Benjamin saw in the objects of fashion an example of a peculiar phenomenon – fashion objects were always meant to capture the essence of the ‘now’ and yet (or rather, as a result) they were always fleeting. He found fascinating not only the way in which the aesthetic – the look and the feeling – of any particular fashion item corresponded with the ever-changing social and political world of its wearers, but also how the fashion world was complicit in an overall aesthetic of change in modern life. In other words, Benjamin was at once concerned with changes in aesthetics – fashion objects as expressions, reflections, or ‘snapshots’ of change – as well as with the aesthetics of change – fashion as exemplar of the perception, feeling, and unfolding of change itself. The aesthetic of change Benjamin identified in the fashion process is one that he critiqued – he saw it as proceeding in endless ‘revolutions’, cycles, or repetitions. At the same time, what he identified as simply recurrences of the same also held, for him, the potential for ‘revolutions’, or radical breaks from the past.2 I argue that the relationships Benjamin’s evocative juxtapositions of quotations compels us to consider between revolutions (as cycles) and revolutions (as breaks), sameness and change, changing aesthetics and the aesthetics of change, invite us to see both the possibilities of change in what seem monotonous cycles, and to remain critical of sameness disguised as change. While we may expect revolutions to be seismic events and believe sudden large-scale upheavals to be necessary for historical change, Benjamin’s analysis of fashion presents another way of thinking about revolution. That Benjamin saw the possibilities of revolutions in the objects of fashion presents both a more modest and a more radical reformulation of the concept of revolution – more modest in recognizing the revolutionary even in small change, and more radical in recognizing in small things the spirit of revolutionary change. Further, for Benjamin, the value of objects of fashion is that despite their being so fleeting (or rather, precisely because they are
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fleeting) they are grounded in the ‘now’ – the place from which there are (potentially) endless possibilities. Since the emergence of fashion in the nineteenth century, it seems that constant change (as the cliché suggests) is indeed the only thing that has remained the same in the contemporary capitalist era (as well as in today’s fashion scene). What is the return of the peaked shoulder pad pointing toward today? Where and how, if not in Parisian arcades, do we engage today in fashion flânerie? And how do Benjamin’s observations about aesthetics and politics remain relevant to contemporary fashions and revolutions?
La Mode and modernity: Benjamin’s fashion sense Benjamin’s first Exposé in The Arcades Project, ‘Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century “Exposé of 1935”’ begins with an emphasis on the rise of fashion. He recounts how ‘the first condition of [the arcades’] emergence’ was ‘the boom in the textile trade’ (1999, p.3). The second condition for the emergence of the arcades, Benjamin writes, is ‘the beginning of iron construction’, in which iron (initially used in the laying down of railroads) and glass were used as building materials (AP, 1999, p.3). For both the arcades and train travel, the rigid stability of iron was used, paradoxically, to construct ‘transitory’ structures. Railway transit moved both people and commodities quickly across long distances; arcades built out of iron and glass were not only, literally, passages, or passages for the movement of people, they were also ‘a world in miniature’ through which commodities and money passed, reflecting the transition of fashions – ‘the “mode” of the world “outside”’ (AP, 1999, p.3). Indeed, the arcades were not only ‘covered galleries housing shops that fashion made prosperous’, – they were themselves ‘among the novelties of their day’ (AP, 1999, A3a,1). Of course, by the time Benjamin wandered through them the arcades were well-known historical artifacts – remnants of the early capitalist era. That The Arcades Project opens with Benjamin focusing on fashion is noteworthy because it shows the importance that Benjamin attaches to fashion as an embodiment of the spirit of the modern era. That is, for Benjamin, fashion not only resulted from, but epitomized, the quickened pace of life and seemingly constant change ushered in by the expansion of capitalism. Iron structures supported the trade of commodities and the movement of capital. The iron that was raised to build arcades and laid down to extend railways supported the growth of fashion as a new industry – it provided the horizontal architecture
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(the railways) that moved textiles, and the vertical architecture (the arcades) that not only housed, but – ideally – ‘moved’ garments off of the shelves (so to speak).3 Of course, the arcades were also structures (like the railways) that facilitated the movement of people. Fashion has since its beginnings been closely connected with architecture, and like architecture, it is also linked with movement. For Benjamin, fashion and architecture were both considered gauges of the nature of modernity because of their relationship to movement, change, and transition. Architectural forms – although ‘permanent’ in their construction – often served as ‘transitory’ structures that not only housed fashions and moved people, or housed people and moved fashions, but also interacted directly with changes in fashion, contributing to fashions’ transitions. Clothing styles adapted to the changing architecture of the city: the carving out of Haussman’s grand boulevards, for example, transformed Paris’ obscure, and obscured, labyrinthine sidewalks into wide, open, flânerie-friendly catwalks. The transitions of fashion were then – and are still today – a visible signal of the inherently transitional (and transitory) nature of modernity. The emergence of capitalism not only created the architecture that supported the fashion industry, but also the desire to accumulate both monetary and symbolic capital that was, and remains today, the underlying force of fashion’s cycles. As Peter Wollen recounts in his analysis of the concept of fashion in The Arcades Project, at the beginning of the century, clothing was ‘mainly “made-to-measure” rather than “ready-to-wear”’ (Philippe Perrot qtd. in 2003, p.133). ‘Made-to-measure’ clothing, as part of the pre-fashion system, was an aristocratic mark of the ‘monopoly of luxury’ (Wollen, 2003, p.133). However, following the French Revolution ‘wealth rather than rank as such became important’ and the middle class enjoyed ‘the ability to deploy wealth through fashion, as a form of symbolic capital’ (Wollen, 2003, p.133). In the evolving social and economic system, famous couturiers and their boutiques still existed for the very rich, and used clothing was still sold ‘at the lower end of the scale’ (Wollen, 2003, p.134). But over time, the flourishing of the second-hand markets created a market for ready-to-wear [prêt-`a-porter] garments (Wollen, 2003, p.134). In the 1840s, a systematization of ‘sizes, patterns and measurements’ made possible the selling of pre-made clothes that fit customers and imitated the styles of the more costly ‘made-to-order’ fashions (Wollen, 2003, p.134). Department stores eventually housed ready-to-wear clothing and prioritized ‘rapid turnover with a high volume of sales, stimulated by lower prices and new advertising techniques’ (Wollen, 2003,
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p.134). The shift to ready-to-wear clothing meant that fashionable styles became increasingly accessible to a mass market. The broader access to the latest styles, rather than make class divisions less visible, contributed to the creation of more – and more narrow – distinctions (among, for instance, manufacturers or materials). Benjamin, in The Arcades Project, cites Rudolphe von Jhering who observes that to fully appreciate the essence of contemporary fashion was to understand that the motive that churned the various processes involved in the fashion cycle was ‘the effort to distinguish the higher classes of society from the lower, or more especially from the middle classes’ (qtd. in AP, 1999, B6, B6a,1).4 As von Jhering explains: Fashion is the barrier – continually raised anew because continually torn down – by which the fashionable world seeks to segregate itself from the middle region of society; it is the mad pursuit of class vanity through which a single phenomenon repeats itself: the endeavor of one group to establish a lead, however minimal, over its pursuers, and the endeavor of the other group to make up the distance by immediately adopting the newest fashions of the leader. …Thus, novelty is the indispensable condition for all fashion (AP, 1999, B6; B6a,1).5 Wollen notes that Benjamin was ‘fascinated by the combination of novelty and repetition that characterized the movement of fashion’ (2003, p.138). For Benjamin, the cycles of fashion both reflected and constituted the tempo of modern time. Indeed, Benjamin describes fashion as ‘the mould in which modernity is cast’ (qtd. in Wollen, 2003, p.138). Fashion’s ‘mould’ takes the shape of a cycle that must repeatedly reach for the ‘new’ in an effort to express the very moment that is ‘now’. The tempo of modern time is marked by continuous turnover in an effort to be contemporary – a transience that is necessary in order to maintain a connection with the present. To look ‘modern’ means, after all, to be dressed in the very latest fashion – the fashion that has just come along and expresses the current moment (and that must thus necessarily also go out of fashion in the next moment). In Tigersprung, Ulrich Lehmann parallels the concepts of la mode and modernité (2000, p.xiv) when he writes, It is not only the etymological root – the Latin modus – that betrays the close relation between these two phenomena; the parallel chronological development of their inherent ideas, aesthetic expres-
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sions, and historical interpretations also shows that la modernité and la mode are indeed sisters in spirit and appearance (2000, p.xvi). In short, Lehmann suggests that fashion (la mode) is the ‘supreme expression’ of the ‘contemporary spirit’ (la modernité) (2000, p.xii). If fashion is emblematic of modern time, it follows that ‘both the transitory and the paradigmatic quality of fashion’ which fascinated Benjamin, parallels the quality of modern time – a time of repetition, but also a time of ongoing transformations which result from the imperative to be ‘modern’ (Lehmann, 2000, p.xvi). It is this set of relationships of fashion with the temporalities of modernity – and in particular, its relationship with an ever-changing ‘now’ – that, as I will go on to describe, make the aesthetics of change of fashion take on ‘revolutionary’ political potential. For Benjamin, fashion patterns are linked with political possibilities. As Lehmann notes, for Benjamin, ‘the stylistic qualities of modern, metropolitan life are fused with a radical modernity that possesses revolutionary potential’ [my emphasis] (2000, p.xvi). I will now explore two connotations of the word, ‘revolution’, in order to more closely examine the nature and potential of fashion. A ‘revolution’ (from the Latin revolutio, ‘a turn around’) can mean, of course, the repetitive cycle of the same, but it can also mean a radical break that leads to change. In what follows I elaborate upon the cyclical nature of fashion and trace, too, how fashion breaks with the continuum of history, how it is revolutionary in the political terms Benjamin espoused. Although Benjamin recognized (and indeed, critiqued) the capitalist underpinnings of the imperative for change in fashion, he also recognized the potential for political change in the connection between fashion and its expression of an ever-changing present. One can trace a history of, for example, the birth of bloomers and women’s greater freedom of physical – but also social and political – movement on the bicycle (not to mention the connections to be made among other changes in clothing and other cultural shifts). In recent years, a renewed focus on fashion is once again revolutionizing not only cycling, but also pedestrian politics in our urban centres. Indeed, this connection between fashion, movement (or urban mobility), and urban architecture as a political and politicized site of change is an idea to which I will return. However, more than any particular fashion item leading to a particular political change or revolution, fashion as a cycle characterized by constant aesthetic changes creates an aesthetic of change that is, the perception or feeling that change is characteristic
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of the spirit of the time. Benjamin is simultaneously suspicious of an aesthetic of seeming (or merely aesthetic) change, and holds out the possibility that fashion, as an expression of the modern ‘now’, a ‘now’ that is always in flux and thereby open to possibility, has transformative potential.
Round and round and round it goes: Fashion, ‘Revolution’ and the eternal return Benjamin points out that ‘in order to become the new, fashion always cites the old’ (qtd. in Lehmann, 2000, p.xx). Indeed fashion, often, simply is the old – for example, antique furniture, exposed beat-up brick walls, antique jewelery, or vintage clothing (AP, 1999, I4,2). Other times, fashion’s ‘citation’, or reconstitution of the old, occurs as an ‘[alteration] by which new apparel can be derived from remodeling the old’ (AP, 1999, B3,2). Of course, as Benjamin notes, changes in fashion do not necessarily involve digging up old items, nor the physical pinning and tucking of, for example, an old jacket to create a new silhouette, as much as they ‘cite’, or bring-back designs from the past through reference – a perhaps subtle but, to the eye of a careful observer, telltale sign of the influence of something that came before on that which is considered avantgarde.6 Like many of our parents (or even grandparents), who remark at today’s fashion comebacks (‘I used to wear shoes just like that!’) – and whose closets we might wish we could have perused (‘Why did you ever throw those shoes away?’) – Benjamin recognized that repetition underpins the apparent ‘novelty’ of fashion. Indeed, Benjamin regarded fashions, les nouveautés (novelties), as expressions of a non-linear mode of historical time – as a sort of eternal return. Fashion, in other words, made the cyclical pattern of history (in which it participated) visible. The repetition evident in the cycles of fashion contributed to Benjamin’s critique of the enlightenment (and capitalist) myth of progress as creating a semblance of the new while relying on the repetition of the same. Benjamin, in his second Exposé, the ‘Exposé of 1939’, cites Maxime du Camp, when he observes that, ‘History is like Janus; it has two faces. Whether it looks at the past or the present, it sees the same things’ (AP, 1999, p.14).7 In the same Exposé, Benjamin quotes August Blanqui, whose book L’Eternité par les astres, ‘presents the idea of the eternal return ten years before [Nietzsche]’ (AP, 1999, p.24). The basic premise for Blanqui’s under-
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standing of the eternal return of history is deduced from logical scientific reasoning. He explains: The entire universe is composed of astral systems. To create them, nature has only a hundred simple bodies at its disposal. Despite the great advantage it derives from these resources, and the innumerable combinations that these resources afford its fecundity, the result is necessarily a finite number, like that of the elements themselves; and in order to fill its expanse, nature must repeat. (AP, 1999, D7; D7a). Extending this logic to an understanding of history (and using fashion as its symbol), Blanqui notes: Nature must repeat to infinity each of its original combinations of types […] These doubles exist in flesh and bone – indeed, in trousers and jacket, in crinoline and chignon. […] Here, nonetheless, lies a great drawback: there is no progress […] what we call ‘progress’ is confined to each particular world, and vanishes with it. […] In infinity, eternity performs – imperturbably – the same routines (AP, 1999, p.25).8 In a number of passages in the Arcades, Benjamin lightheartedly compares life’s repetitive rhythm with amusement park rides (AP, 1999, D6a,1). Writing about the ‘new velocities’ of the nineteenth century, he observes that they were ‘first tried out … in the spirit of play’ (AP, 1999, B2,1). The ability to go faster, as he points out, did not lead to progress; rather, he notes, ‘the loop-the-loop came on the scene, and Parisians seized on this entertainment with a frenzy’ (AP, 1999, B2,1). It was not only the loop-the-loop amusement park ride to which Parisians gravitated; the same enigmatic ‘need for sensation’, he continues, has ‘from time immemorial’ found ‘satisfaction in fashion’ (AP, 1999, B2,1). Fashion, like the loopthe-loop ride satisfied the ‘need’ for the ‘sensation’ of movement and provided Parisians with the perception, feeling, or aesthetic of change. However, Benjamin was concerned that changes in fashion provide the feeling that we are moving ‘forward’ whether or not we are in fact only going in circles. Thus, the more serious side to the increasing speed of sartorial rotation did not escape Benjamin’s critique. Nowhere is his concern more evident, than in a passage in which he quotes the assertion of a fashion retrospective publication
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stating that ‘fashion consists only in extremes: frivolity and death’ (AP, 1999, B3a,4). Implicit, then, in Benjamin’s seemingly humourous, yet also serious warnings regarding the cyclical nature of the universe and the sensations of the latest twists and turns is a critique of the myth of progress and the very concept of novelty. Benjamin, quoting Nietzsche, muses that the idea that ‘the world intentionally avoids a goal … must occur to all those who would like to force on the world the capacity for eternal novelty’ (AP, 1999, D8,3). Georg Simmel took this reflection on the problem with the myth of progress even further and related it to fashion when he suggested that ‘the perfect creation of sartorial fashion … was designed to last forever by those aware that it will “die” within six months’ (qtd. in Lehmann, 2000, p.205). The implication seems to be that if the makers of modern fashions are aware that fashion is the ‘dying echo’ of innovation, while continuing the drive for the new, then the cycle of the old masquerading as the new makes the novelty of fashion an intended illusion. Moreover, when the ‘new’ is a commodity, Benjamin’s critique connects a critique of the enlightenment to a critique of capitalism. Benjamin, quoting Paul Valéry notes that novelty is not merely an illusory concept, but that The new is [a] poisonous [stimulant] which [ends] up becoming more necessary than any food; [novelties are] drugs which, once they get a hold on us, need to be taken in progressively larger doses until they are fatal, though we’d die without them. It is a curious habit – growing thus attached to that perishable part of things in which precisely their novelty consists (AP, 1999, S10,6). Despite being critical of the illusion of progress and the myth of novelty being intentionally propagated to serve the ends of the enlightenment (as well as capital), Benjamin seems, at the same time, to have come to terms with a Blanquian/Nietzschean observation that nothing is ever really new. He seems, also, not to regard this state of affairs as entirely disabling. As a result, Benjamin seems to think of fashion objects as well as collected objects as both perpetuating the cycle of the commodity fetish, and as possessing a liberating potential.
You say you want a revolution: Fashion and transformation Benjamin’s cyclical time, I would like to suggest, was not necessarily closed, or inert; rather, it was full of revolutionary potential (in the
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second sense, in which we are using this term – that is, revolution as a break in history). As Caroline Evans notes, ‘In moments of rapidly changing fashion … mutability itself becomes charged with meaning because it can enact, or speak, … through the process of change’ (2000, p.102). Fashion, Evans continues, ‘“acts out” [or expresses a moment]’ in a period of transition (2000, p.102). Benjamin proposes that the new is not an arbitrary choice but rather, belongs to a given time, is contextual, and is responsive. As Benjamin points out, there is ‘no immortalizing so unsettling as that of the ephemera and the fashionable forms preserved for us in the wax museum’ (AP, 1999, B3,4). Benjamin, by taking into account both the ‘revolutionary’ (repeating) and the ‘revolutionary’ (changing) potential of fashion, treats fashion as a dialectical image (Wollen, 2003, p.131). As he explains, he veers between ‘viewing fashion, on the one hand, as a manifestation of commodity culture – or, more specifically, of commodity fetishism – and, on the other hand, as the manifestation of a long-repressed utopian desire, to be reenergized at a moment of historical awakening’ (AP, 1999, B1a,2; K2a,4). Although, according to Benjamin, the changing aesthetics of fashion should be subject to critique (and recognized as the old masquerading as the new, and thus as contributing to the myth of progress), if everything new is always already something that came before, then fashion’s aesthetic of change also makes fashion a site of new combinations and re-combinations of the ‘utopian desires’ of the past, and thus, a site of endless ‘reenergizations’ and potential. Fashion as a dialectical image creates a momentary break in history through its constant – and constantly fleeting – connection with the present. If the dialectical image is ‘a way of seeing that crystallizes antithetical elements by providing axes for their alignment … the “synthesis” of which is not a movement towards a resolution, but the point at which their axes intersect’ (Buck-Morss 1989, p.7), then fashion creates such an image when it ‘flashes up’ – intervening between the past and the present and expressing the ‘now’ (Benjamin, ‘On the Concept of History’, 2003, p.391). All fashion is marked with the ‘now’ – for an item to be fashionable, it is necessarily ‘of a time’ and will thus inevitably expire. Fashion takes risks – it commits to a moment and stamps itself with a ‘style’ that, because it is perfectly ‘now’, will inevitably become ‘then’. But can parallels be drawn between modernity, as expressed in la mode and modern political concerns? That is, does fashion, the
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expression of ‘the spirit of the day’, contain potential for revolutionary politics? Or, in other words, can an aesthetic of change precipitate more than just an ‘aesthetic’ of change? Lehmann’s reflections on Benjamin suggest that it can. He writes that fashion is ‘a social force – a stylistic revolution sharing the same cultural features with a political one’ (2000, p.xviii). He notes that fashion, because it both encompasses the past and expresses the present, became for Benjamin ‘the one dialectical image’ and ultimately ‘a symbol of modernity’s potential for not only stylistic but fundamental change’ (Lehmann, 2000, p.214). But how can a ‘fashion revolution’, translate into a political one? Fashion not only crystallizes the present, but also, has the potential to predict: ‘Each season brings, in its newest creations, various secret signals of things to come’ (AP, 1999, B1a,1) … ‘[w]hoever understands how to read these semaphores would know in advance not only about new currents in the arts but also about new legal codes, wars, and revolutions’ (AP, 1999, B1a,1). Benjamin points out that it is here, surely, that ‘the greatest charm of fashions’ lies, but so too does the challenge of ‘making the charming fruitful’ (AP, 1999, B1a,1). One late, but noteworthy, fragment in Benjamin’s ‘On the Concept of History’ isolates fashion as ‘the metaphor for the construction of history’ and as full of transformative potential (Lehmann, 2000, p.xvii). In this fragment, Benjamin observes that history is the subject of a construction whose site is not homogenous, empty time, but time filled […] by now-time [Jetztzeit] […] The French Revolution viewed itself as Rome reincarnate. It cited ancient Rome exactly the way fashion cites a bygone mode of dress. Fashion has a nose for the topical, no matter where it stirs in the thickets of long ago; it is the tiger’s leap into the past […] the same leap in the open air of history is the dialectical leap Marx understood as revolution (qtd. in Lehmann, 2000, p.395). So how do we break out of fashion’s revolving revolution into a transformative one? How do we rupture the homogeneity of time and take advantage of the potential of ‘now-time’? Benjamin believes that the answer lies in keeping the future and the past in mind at the same time – as a dialectic. Fashion embodies, for Benjamin, this simultaneous looking back and pushing forward, and it contains,
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also, the potential to respond to the present and, in so doing, affect the future. Fashion, of course, has a relationship with the past not only because it constantly cites, and thus ‘revives’ the old, but also because it is always becoming old. For Benjamin, the way to avoid fetishizing fashion is to place it into a productive tension, a dialectical relationship, with the outmoded. In the Arcades, Benjamin follows the fashion cycle from beginning to end; that is, he focuses not only on the matter that makes up the latest trend, but also looks back at the ‘late’ things past. So what happens to all the outdated fashions? Why look to them? What do they contain? Lehmann notes that ‘fashion is at its most evocative in an imagined, “dated” condition: the “clothes of five years ago” …’ (Lehmann, 2000, p.xviii). By concentrating on outmoded objects, Benjamin’s hope is to illuminate the past – its successes and its failures – in order to shed light on the present moment and guide those living in the present into a revolutionary future.
Old collections Benjamin’s writing makes clear that his interest in fashion extends to the period of its going out of fashion, when it becomes ‘outmoded’ debris of the bourgeoisie. As cultural debris, fashions become the obsession of one of The Arcades Project’s key characters – the collector. For Benjamin’s collector, objects (and images) are ‘cultural archive[s]’ that can be ‘raided’ or codes that can be read (Evans, 2000, p.108). The collector’s method, however, is not simply one of finding clues from the past, it is one that uses these clues to seek the meaning of the present. To bridge this gap of time – to make the past relevant to the present – the collector ‘receives’ things into his time and space, and brings old objects to life by taxonomizing the debris. As John Carpentier notes, the collector ‘takes on the role of great nomenclator’; in order to make past events real, the collector ‘names’ the ‘hopes and regrets, the curiosities and fears, that seethe in the darkness of the inner-world’ (AP, 1999, J43a,8). Items in a collection – whether a collection of antiques or vintage fashions – come with stories of acquisition and histories of previous ownership that bring each out of their anonymity (out of their status as mere ‘debris’) and bestow significance upon each through a kind of ‘naming’ (or a re-tracing of their story, their history, their past).
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Is the collector’s relationship to the objects in his or her collection not, one might ask, a fetishistic relation to an object akin to that of a consumer to a new commodity (indeed, aren’t the new fashions introduced by designers each season also ‘collections’)? For Benjamin, the task of the collector is precisely the opposite: he explains that to the collector ‘falls the Sisyphean task of divesting things of their [fetishistic] commodity character by taking possession of them’ (AP, 1999, p.19). And at the same time, the collector, also ‘delights in evolving a world … in which things are freed from the drudgery of being useful’ (AP, 1999, p.19). Reviving the old object is thus not about bringing to life a new commodity character, nor is it about recovering its former usefulness, it is about finding a new potential in it. For today’s photographer (a collector of images) or fashionista (a collector of clothing) – objects and images (whether vintage or, for that matter, modern) are in the collector’s hands ‘enriched through his [or her] knowledge of their origin and their duration in history’ (AP, 1999, H4,4). For the ‘true collector’, writes Benjamin, each object in the collection becomes ‘an encyclopedia of all knowledge in the epoch, the landscape, the industry, and the owner from which it comes’ (AP, 1999, H1a,2). The collector tries to discover not only the life that the object had, but also the life an object might have had. By doing this, he or she can discover the Zeitgeist of the past, the future it may have predicted, and the revolutionary potential that lay latent in it – the potential of the ‘what could have been’. Visiting the ‘last refuge’ of old objects, Benjamin writes: Here was the last refuge of those infant prodigies that saw the light of dark at the time of the world exhibitions: the briefcase with interior lighting, the meter-long pocket knife, or the patented umbrella handle with the built-in watch and revolver. And near the degenerate giant creatures, aborted and broken-down matter. We followed the narrow dark corridor to … a discount bookstore, in which dusty tied-up bundles tell all sorts of failure (AP, 1999, H1,1). So what could be revolutionary about this assembly of ‘failed’ objects? For Benjamin, these objects provide clues about the unfulfilled potential of the past that, of course, can only be grasped in the present. The act of collecting, then, for Benjamin, is the act of revisiting, researching, and thereby, in a way, reviving latent, potentially
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revolutionary powers. Old fragments, for the collector, and for the historical materialist, rouse the past and awaken its potential in the present. Benjamin explains that the task of a historical materialist is to ‘brush history against the grain’ and so awaken hidden political potential (‘On the Concept of History’, 2003, p.392). The historical materialist is interested not in ‘great men and celebrated events of traditional historiography but rather [in] the “refuse” and “detritus” of history’ with methods ‘more akin’ to those of the ‘nineteenth century collector … or indeed to the methods of the nineteenth-century ragpicker, than to those of the modern historian’ (AP, 1999, p.ix). Benjamin, of course, was himself a collector, or ragpicker, in this very sense, as The Arcades Project epitomizes. In this tome of citations and commentary, Benjamin describes his compositional method as ‘literary montage’ or collection (AP, 1999, N1a,8). He writes, ‘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 inventory but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them’ (AP, 1999, N1a,8). Benjamin’s The Arcades Project focuses on images of the nineteenth century which he felt ‘resonated with his own period, the 1930s’: on the one hand, ‘the figure of the prostitute, the city of Paris, its early nineteenth-century arcades and late nineteenth-century shop windows’ and ‘urban consumption’ and on the other, ‘urban dereliction and detritus in the form of ruin, dust, and the ragpicker’ (Evans, 2003, p.102). These juxtapositions create the ‘dialectical images’ that work ‘like a montage technique of cinema’9 (Evans, 2003, p.102). They function to highlight the disjunction (past and present) between ‘elite fashion and ragpicking, luxury and poverty, excess and deprivation’ and in so doing expose that ‘the woman of fashion’ and ‘the ragpicker’ are in fact a part of the same capitalist cycle (Evans, 2003, p.106). Benjamin’s work was likened by Adorno to a textile – a complex and transient fabric that leaves impressions – and his method compared to weaving. When encountering Benjamin’s work, Adorno advises, ‘One who looks in Benjamin’s philosophy for what emerges from it will necessarily be disappointed; it satisfies only the person who broods over it until he finds what is inherent in it: “Then one evening the work becomes alive”’ (Schriften, 1992, p.229). The importance of Benjamin’s Arcades Project for us today is in its laying out a complex architecture of modernity – one that outlines a critique of capitalism and
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one in which, at the same time, inheres the possibility of a redemptive future. By interweaving his own collected insights with the citations of past authors, Benjamin highlights striking parallels between revolutions (as cycles) and revolutions (as breaks), sameness and change, changing aesthetics and the aesthetics of change and invites us to see in the spaces, the occlusions, and the seams between these concepts the possibilities of change in what seem to be cycles of the same, and critiques of sameness masquerading as the new. Contrary to the expectation that revolutions must come in the form of complete overturnings or upheavals, Benjamin shows that each turn of a cycle has revolutionary potential. That Benjamin sees the possibilities of revolutions in the small, ordinary, everyday objects of fashion, is – it is worth repeating – both a more modest and a more radical reformulation of the concept of revolution; more modest, as I’ve noted, by recognizing the revolutionary even in small, silent, everyday change, and more radical, by recognizing in small things the spirit of revolutionary change. It is, after all, precisely because of fashion’s ‘everydayness’ that it remains a site of ongoing repetition and ongoing potential creativity. We get dressed each day, and even if this is a daily repetitive task, each iteration of ‘outfitting’ creates the opportunity to combine and recombine what’s in our closet to suit the mood of the day (or to suit our mood that day). Donning our daily duds, we step out into the world, but where and how do we engage today in fashion flânerie? And does (or how does) the material we wear matter today?
Revolutionary fashion: Cycle chic If the high volume of traffic on street style blogs such as the Parisian Garance Doré (www.garancedore.fr) or New York’s The Sartorialist (www.thesartorialist.blogspot.com) is any indication, fashion and flânerie has a new forum. Contemporary street style photoblogs such as these (themselves collections) feature images that on a daily basis display the sartorial selections of city-dwellers around the world to a global audience. While this online flânerie might seem only to recapitulate Benjamin’s concerns about the aestheticization of the political sphere (insofar as our engagement with everyday life is seemingly flattened out on the screen, alienating us further from the material and political reality of our lives), street style photoblogs can also be seen as a stylistic revolution that actually extend onto the street and (by focusing on the aesthetic and by aestheticizing the polit-
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ical) revolutionize and re-politicize urban spaces. Garance Doré, The Sartorialist, and other street style photoblogs such as Copenhagen Street Style, Stil in Berlin, London’s Face Hunter, Tokyo’s Style Arena (to name but a few) feature images of people around the world. These fashionable folks are not (all) the professionally made-up and branded models being photographed on studio sets (although, depending on the blog, the people featured are sometimes professional models, designers, or other fashion celebrities and do wear what are sometimes recognizable labels – even if they aren’t always explicitly labeled). Although there are differences among the photoblogs, on many of the blogs the featured fashionistas are simply people on the street that have that morning combined their clothing in a unique way – and in a way that catches the scopophilic eye of the photoblogger. These street style photoblogs not only champion a diversity of looks but also reveal how strolling in the city can be stylish. After years of a car-centred urban design, and the association of large cars with luxury, street style photoblogs show that walking can be an ‘attractive’ form of transportation (given pedestrian-friendly urban infrastructure). The photoblog Copenhagen Cycle Chic (www.copenhagencyclechic.com) takes this trend a step further, and in a sense, brings us full circle. It was, after all, a revolution in fashion at the turn of the nineteenth century – the advent of bloomers – that made cycling (and the mobility and independence that comes with it) accessible to women. Today, it is fashion again – as depicted on a blog that The Guardian calls ‘The Sartorialist on two wheels’ – that may become a vehicle for change, for making cycling more accessible and more desirable to people in cities around the world (qtd. in Copenhagen Cycle Chic). Copenhagen Cycle Chic’s stated objective is to transform the perception of cycling as a sport associated with spandex, or a mode of transport associated with danger and helmets, to a chic, safe, accessible (given the right infrastructure and the promotion of a cycling-oriented culture) – way of moving around cities. Copenhagen Cycle Chic uses the aesthetic – photos of fashion-forward people on bikes – to promote forwardthinking urban planning, policy, and infrastructure that caters to cyclists. The spin-offs of the bike chic trend – social, political, and environmental – aren’t shabby either. Perhaps the fashion photoblog – which documents what people wear – has the potential to reshape how we encounter and experience the cities we inhabit. By depicting diverse forms of sartorial innovation these blogs transform our expectations of what streets are capable of
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and of what cities can be (or become). By documenting the aesthetic appeal of urban spaces in which walking and cycling are not only possible, but comfortable and even fashionable, these fashion-oriented photoblogs contribute to the desires of city-dwellers around the world for more public-space-oriented urban design – so that they too can look chic and feel good going for a stroll or a spin.
Notes *To accompany this chapter, I have presented a series of photographs that comprise my own collection of vintage fashions in shop windows in Lyon. Many of these were photographed on rue Auguste Comte (a street that is considered the heart of the ‘antique quarter’) as well as other Lyon boutiques housing more ‘modern’ haute couture. The photographs of architectural forms around Lyon illustrate examples of stable iron constructions (such as old iron-and-glass rooftops) and built forms that epitomize transient cycles (the ferris wheel that not only moves in circles but appears in Place Bellecour for only a short period each year). These photographs can be viewed at: www.flickr.com/photos/petrahrochphotography 1 The Arcades Project may from here on be abbreviated as AP. 2 Benjamin held out the possibility of political change in changes that seemed merely aesthetic. At the end of his famous essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility’, he warned that the ‘aestheticization of politics’ leads to fascism and that the what is necessary is a dialectical counter-force, or a ‘politicization of the aesthetic’ (Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings 1938–1940, vol. 4). His seeing the possibility of political changes in aesthetic objects, can be seen as part of this effort to politicize – to read the political in(to) – the aesthetic. 3 Further, the arcades had a hand in transforming these garments, through their display and presentation, into more than mere objects, but commodities – turning fashions into the epitome of commodity fetishism. 4 Fashion thus functioned – and continues today to function – ‘politically’ in a very direct way in everyday life: fashion makes statements about the power, wealth, or status of a social group. The increased accessibility of fashion, rather than creating greater equality among its wearers, conversely carved only more notches of ‘fashionable-ness’ and thus more rungs in the social ladder. At the same time, the increased accessibility of fashion allowed such ‘politics’ of fashion to be manipulated and subverted in numerous critical and creative ways (for example, in the establishment of centres that take donations of business wear and help those less fortunate to don a power suit and ‘dress the part’ for an interview). I am interested in fashion in relation to political possibilities also in a more abstract sense. That is, I am interested not only in fashion objects in relation to the politics of everyday life, but also in the fashion cycle – a site of changing aesthetics – and the political potential of the ‘aesthetic of change’ which inheres in it. 5 We might be aware, of course, of other trajectories: for example, the movement of fashion trends from ‘bottom’ to ‘top’ in twentieth-century clothing trends such as punk, a style which began in the streets and was later appro-
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7 8 9
priated by designers of haute couture. Novelty, or at least the illusion of it, remains even in this example, the ‘indispensable condition of fashion’. Punk, too, when it became ‘fashionable’ to the masses, became fashionable because it was a ‘new’ look. In this sense, fashion functions much like a language. To ‘cite’ in literary terms is to use signs to quote or refer to an earlier statement, author or work. It can also mean, more generally, to call to mind, or to recall an earlier item or event. Elements of fashion are ‘citations’ in that they are also signs – they provide hints – that point to the past. Antique pins, brooches, or cameos – or anything else ‘vintage’ – is transformed from costume (or pretense of the past) into fashion wear (an updating of the past into the present) when incorporated into a contemporary mode in much the same way that citation without the conscious use of quotation marks is copying, whereas citation when incorporated into current thought makes it au courant, relevant, and even avant-garde. This idea is expanded upon in AP, 1999, S1,1. Note, interestingly, that Blanqui here mentions fashions, specifically, as repetition in nature – in ‘trouser and jacket … ’. ‘The principle of montage is that the third meaning is created by the juxtaposition of two images, rather than any immutable meaning inhering in each image … the flash of recognition of the historical object within a charged forcefield of past and present was the dialectical image that transformed both’ (Evans, 2003, p.102).
Bibliography Adorno, T.W. (1992) ‘Introduction to Benjamin’s Schriften’ Notes to Literature. Vol. 2. Trans. S. W. Nicholson (New York: Columbia University Press). Benjamin, W. (2003) ‘On the Concept of History’ in H. Eiland and M. Jennings (eds) Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings 1938–1940. Vol. 4. (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press). Benjamin, W. (2003) ‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility’ in H. Eiland and M. Jennings (eds) Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings 1938–1940. Vol. 4. (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press). Benjamin, W. (1999) ‘Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia’ in H. Eiland, M. Jennings and G. Smith (eds) Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings 1927–1934. Vol. 2. Trans. R. Livingstone et al. (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press). Benjamin, W. (1999) The Arcades Project. Trans. H. Eiland and K. McLaughlin (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press). Buck-Morss, S. (1989) The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (Cambridge: The MIT Press). Copenhagen Cycle Chic: Streetstyle & Bike Advocacy from the World’s Cycling Capital, www.copenhagencyclechic.com, date accessed 5 December 2008. Evans, C. (2000) ‘Yesterday’s Emblem’s and Tomorrow’s Commodities: The Return of the Repressed in Fashion Imagery Today’ in S. Bruzzi and P. Church
126 Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Change Gibson (eds) Fashion Cultures: Theories, Explorations and Analyses (New York: Routledge). Evans, C. Fashion at the Edge: Spectacle, Modernity, and Deathliness (London: Yale University Press). Lehmann, U. (2000) Tigersprung: Fashion in Modernity (Cambridge: The MIT Press). Wollen, P. (2003) ‘The Concept of Fashion in The Arcades Project’ boundary. 2, 30:1 (Durham: Duke University Press).
6 Proof of the Forgotten: A Benjaminian Reading of Daguerre’s Two Views of the Boulevard du Temple Elizabeth Howie
Photography fascinated Walter Benjamin. Indeed, he called it ‘the first truly revolutionary means of reproduction’ (1987, p.224). But one of its earliest manifestations, the daguerreotype, was less about mass reproduction than about magical replication and a shockingly new relationship between the past and the present. Although a number of inventors had been working toward the development of the photographic process, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre’s version galvanized the world, forever changing our relationship to history, memory, and aesthetics.1 Benjamin’s work attests to his interest in Daguerre, particularly Daguerre’s Diorama. Daguerre revolutionized the familiar panorama, a form of popular entertainment which consisted simply of a monumentally wide painting of a landscape and/or narrative scene, with his Diorama, which added the element of temporality by simulating the passing of the hours of the day with changing lights (1999, p.690). Yet on the subject of Daguerre’s images Benjamin is silent,2 very strangely considering that his two views of the Boulevard du Temple are the ones that changed history forever. The two images with which Daguerre gave photography to the world were concerned directly with the subject matter of The Arcades Project, the fabric of the city of Paris on the threshold of modernity, and as such they are harbingers of radical change. Susan Buck-Morss notes that the incomplete Arcades Project is ‘a historical lexicon of the capitalist origins of modernity, a collection of concrete, factual images of urban experience’ (1986, p.99). And ‘concrete, factual images of urban experience’ are precisely what Daguerre presented to the world in 1839.3 Photography itself was a flash in the history of history: for the first time, the past was certain as the present, as Roland Barthes writes, thereby dividing the history of the world (1981, p.88). These 127
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earliest photographs, before the medium became part of industrialism’s futile replication of the new as novelty, were monads fit for Benjamin’s pedagogical constellation. For a brief time, before being capitalized on in a market based on reproduction, the daguerreotype shocked awake a dreaming 19th century. Benjamin’s compelling interest in photography is evident in several of his works. In ‘A Small History of Photography’ (originally published in 1928) the medium’s pre-industrialized earliest forms are among the last refuges of aura, ‘the cult value of the work of art’, in their capacity to capture the mystery of the human countenance (1997, p.243). In ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (originally published in 1936), photography is an example of capitalist technology which radically transforms visual culture. While photography’s association with reproduction was problematic, in The Arcades Project, photography figures as a metaphor for a philosophy of history.4 In this work, Benjamin’s language frequently evokes the photographic, as in, for example, his idea of telescoping the past into the present, and his concept of the flash capable of illuminating the past (1999, p.471). Photography’s origins are relatively free of historical fog, as Benjamin observes in ‘A Small History of Photography’, (1997, p.240). On January 7, 1839, physicist François Arago announced Daguerre’s invention of the photographic technology of the daguerreotype to the French Chamber of Deputies. There Daguerre presented two views of Paris’s Boulevard du Temple to demonstrate his process. Taken at 8:00 a.m. and near noon, they resonate powerfully with Benjamin’s concerns about history.5 In addition to the Boulevard du Temple views, he shot the Luxor obelisk at the Place de la Concorde and the Tuileries Palace at morning, midday, and evening. As photography theorist Geoffrey Batchen points out, ‘These series not only calibrated the passing of time in the form of changing shadows and legibility but presented time itself as a linear sequence of discrete but related moments. Daguerre showed, in other words, that photography was able to bring the present and the past together in the one viewing experience, that photography could fold time back on itself’ (1999, p.135). This folding of time, bringing the present and past together, is that powerful telescoping of past into the present that Benjamin advocates. Daguerre’s two specimen images are nearly-identical views of the Boulevard du Temple, shot from the upstairs window of his studio (Figs. 6.1 and 6.2) (Frizot, 1998b, p.28).
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Figure 6.1 Daguerre 8 am picture of Boulevard de Temple. 1938. Courtesy of Bayerisches National Museum, Munchen, Germany.
What the pictures depicted would look familiar to Daguerre: the same somewhat banal city scene he saw from his window. But due to the long exposure time, somewhere between 15 and 30 minutes, the images Daguerre recorded were not exactly those he saw every day. Instead of appearing to add time to a static scene as the diorama did, the daguerreotype subtracted seemingly static scenes from passing time. Anything in the scene that moved during the exposure either showed up blurred or else did not show up at all; thus the emptiness of the streets in Daguerre’s images is an illusion. In addition to the celebrated Diorama, the Boulevard du Temple was home to cafés and so many theaters that it earned the sobriquet Boulevard du Crime for all the theatrical murders it housed. The street would never have been empty at either 8:00 a.m. or at noon (Rice, 1999, p.7). Thus the apparent absence of pedestrians and street traffic is a mirage. The light that drenched the sensitized metal plate during the photographic process has erased almost all of the inhabitants of the bustling, crowded street. Each view was, as Shelley Rice observes, the ‘magical image of a time
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Figure 6.2 Daguerre 12 pm picture of Boulevard de Temple. 1938. Courtesy of Bayerisches National Museum, Munchen, Germany.
frame that did not coincide with [Daguerre’s] own experience’ (1999, p.7). Indeed, those magical images and their tangential relation to reality presage photography’s transformation of our experience of time and reality. Daguerre’s photographic images, while they could replicate a scene from reality, were in themselves singular and valuable. Benjamin points this out when he discusses the value of daguerreotypes: ‘They were one of a kind; in 1839 a plate cost an average of 25 gold francs. They were not infrequently kept in a case, like jewelry’ (1997, p.242). The daguerreotype was singular because it had no negative; the image left on the sensitized plate was the image that was visible in the developed state.6 Without a negative, the daguerreotype is inherently not reproducible, and resists accurate photographic reproduction. Looking at a daguerreotype is a bit like looking at a very old mirror whose silvering has oxidized; the image is somewhat fugitive, and is best seen if the metal plate is slightly tilted. A conventional photograph of a daguerreotype cannot capture this shimmering quality. Thus these earliest photographic images still possessed aura, unlike
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later forms of photography. The power of these singular images, seen by so few, not reproducible, exemplifies the type of aura that Benjamin argues photographic reproduction destroys. Their power is in their singularity, the fact that they could not be seen by the masses. For Benjamin, ‘the prime of photography – the work of Hill, Cameron, Hugo, and Nadar – occurs in its first decade’ (1997, p.5).7 In his ‘Small History’ he rhapsodizes over portraits from photography’s first days, prior to the industrialization of the medium. Benjamin calls early portraiture the last refuge of aura: ‘The cult of remembrance of loved ones, absent or dead, offers a last refuge for the cult value of the picture. For the last time the aura emanates from the early photographs in the fleeting expression of a human face. This is what constitutes their melancholy, incomparable beauty’ (1987, p.226). Such photographs, still clearly novel and thus magical to photographer, subject, and viewer, rather than technological, retain a power lost as advances diluted the effect of the medium. The nature of such early photographic images results, Benjamin argues, from a fortuitous confluence: the skill of the first photographers, who were often trained artists taking up the trade which put miniaturists out of business; the innocence of the first sitters, who had not yet learned how to compose themselves for the camera; and the technology itself, which required long exposure times during which the sitter could reflect on the fact of having his or her countenance recorded for perhaps the first or only time (1997, p.248; 1999, p.6). The emptiness of the Boulevard du Temple in Daguerre’s two views is not the only striking feature of these two photographs. What is more surprising is the fact that it was neither the romantic Luxor obelisk nor Tuileries that Daguerre, the showman who might be expected to exploit such images, used to demonstrate the success of his work to the Chamber of Deputies. Nor did he choose the artistically composed images of fossils and shells or art reproductions he had photographed in his studio. Instead, he chose the commonplace scene of the Boulevard du Temple views, which could not distract from the magic of the photograph’s ability to obviously capture two discrete times of day. Despite their quotidian subject matter, the two views shot from Daguerre’s studio window were ‘the best-known pictures of 1839: every Paris correspondent, whether he had seen them with his own eyes or could only follow descriptions given by others, gave an account of this sensational new process using these two pictures as examples and pointing out the innumerable details that could be picked out in them’ (Starl, 1998, p.36). The Arcades Project includes Arago’s chronicling of
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the powerful public reaction to the announcement of Daguerre’s discovery to the French Chamber of Deputies: A few hours later, opticians’ shops were besieged; there were not enough lenses, not enough camera obscuras to satisfy the zeal of so many eager amateurs. They watched with regretful eye the setting sun on the horizon, as it carried away the raw material of the experiment. But on the morrow, during the first hours of the day, a great number of these experimenters could be seen at their windows, striving, with all sorts of anxious precautions, to capture on a prepared plate the image of a dormer-window opposite, or the view of a group of chimneys (Figuier, 1851, cited in Benjamin, 1999, p.677). Marc Antoine Gaudin, a witness to the announcement who became one of the earliest daguerreotypists, wrote that once the details of the process were released, ‘Each of us wanted to copy the view from our window. Fortunate indeed was the man who on the first attempt obtained a silhouette of roofs against the sky: he went into ecstasies over chimney-pots’ (Frizot, 1998a, p.26). These similar observations of the desire to capture any view, even an ordinary rooftop scene, reflect the public’s desire and alacrity to embrace this new technology. Out of nowhere, apparently, the introduction of the photographic process condensed a previously invisible army of neophyte photographers. The long-simmering desire to stop time, to capture a perfect projection of the world inside a camera, had finally been fulfilled. It is ironic that this stilling of time took place as the world at large was accelerating at a heretofore unknown pace. Benjamin notes that, ‘In 1839 it was considered elegant to take a tortoise out walking. This gives us an idea of the tempo of flânerie in the arcades’ (1999, p.422). Nevertheless, Paris in 1839 was about to be plunged headlong into the throes of industrialization, urbanization, and a population explosion that would radically transform the substance of the city. Materializing on the verge of tremendous change, the photographic process reminded viewers of all that could be forgotten and lost, of the existence of the very things that Benjamin in the next century believed could dispel the consumer dream world. The publicity surrounding Daguerre’s invention, a publicity made possible by increasingly rapid forms of communication, briefly awoke the dream world of Paris to the reality of the past, to its existence in fragments discontinuous with the present. It demonstrated that concrete existence of the past, however
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mundane, as something that people had been capable of forgetting. Rice writes, ‘what was present was a fragment, pointing to what was absent; what was visible was a trace, a trail, leading to what was not’ (Rice, 1999, p.75). Photography, as the technology that revolutionized reproduction of the visible world, is the medium that profoundly transformed the organization of sense perception in the 19th century. As Benjamin observes, ‘The manner in which human sense perception is organized, the medium in which it is accomplished, is determined not only by nature but by historical circumstances as well’. He argues further that ‘social transformations [are] expressed by these changes in perception’. And, in fact, ‘if changes in the medium of contemporary perception can be comprehended as decay of the aura, it is possible to show its social causes’ (1987, p.222). These are ‘the desire of contemporary masses to bring things “closer” spatially and humanly, [and]…their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction’ (1987, p.223). Photography was the technology which gave the masses access – closeness – to things which had previously been unavailable, out of sight, out of reach. The shock of photography quickly reverberated throughout the world. And although daguerreotypes were singular images, they reproduced themselves with increasing rapidity. The clamour for photography resulted in the rapid commodification of photographs themselves. By the fall of 1839, they were available for purchase in major European cities as well as New York (Starl, 1998, pp.36–7). The rapid commodification of photography is evidence of one of its most important powers: in an era of rapidly increasing consumerism, it promised to enable almost anyone to possess an image of almost anything. Photographs were images one could touch of objects one could not necessarily touch; having learned to enjoy looking without touching, consumers found photographs a satisfying compromise. Benjamin notes in the ‘Small History’, ‘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. Every day the need to possess the object in close-up in the form of a picture, or rather a copy, becomes more imperative’ (1997, p.250). Thus, the potentially democratic possibilities of photography, its ability to make images available to all, was thus eventually subsumed by consumerism. About this Benjamin comments, ‘For its part, photography greatly extends the sphere of commodity exchange, from the mid-century onward, by flooding the
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market with countless images of figures, landscapes, and events which had previously been available either not at all or only as pictures for individual customers’ (1999, p.6). Inspired by Proust, Benjamin wished to compile a montage that could trigger a collective mémoire involontaire, using the forgotten to resurrect a forgotten past. Benjamin compiled the montage that is The Arcades Project out of the debris, the waste, of nineteenth-century mass culture, in which he sought the ‘source of philosophical truth’ (Buck-Morss, 1991, p.ix). His montage was intended as a constellation of fragments of the past which could trigger an awakening from the pernicious dream state of the present. Historical evidence of the past, especially that consisting of forgotten refuse, was the only possible stimulus (Buck-Morss, 1991, p.x). In such debris Benjamin saw the origins of the present. Daguerre’s two views of the Boulevard du Temple, while not debris, represent pivotal historical evidence of the transformation wrought by the advent of photography and two unremarkable fragments of time, rescued from time’s onslaught, that simultaneously transformed the world’s relationship to time and history. Buck-Morss notes, ‘Benjamin’s goal was to interpret for his own generation these dream fetishes in which, in fossilized form, history’s traces had survived’ (1991, p.39). Among Daguerre’s earliest experimental images was a daguerreotype of a display of fossils and shells shot in his studio. Photography theorist Philippe Dubois, in a statement that attests to this fossilizing aspect of photography, observes that ‘with each photograph, a tiny piece of time brutally and forever escapes its ordinary fate, and thus is protected against its own loss’ (Dubois, 1983, n.p., in Metz, 1985, p.84). Cut out of the flow of time, the photograph has a stillness that implies timelessness, seeming to promise the evasion of progress, or death. Like the forgotten commodities of the dusty arcades, photographed moments persist like fossils, preserving minute details, beyond their expected life span. The crystal clarity of the photograph’s fossilized image is behind its ability to shock. It was in part the details that shocked the first viewers. There was simply too much to see, more than the eye could take in. Unlike the early photographic results obtained by Nicéphore Niépce, William Henry Fox Talbot, and Hippolyte Bayard, Daguerre’s technique produced scenes of extraordinary clarity. The Boulevard du Temple images reveal with dazzling sharpness the tiles of the roof of the nearest building, the cobbled paving of the boulevard, and the latticed arc sheltering the front roof area of the building seen from the side in the
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foreground. In the ‘Small History’, Benjamin cites German photographer Karl Dauthendey’s description of Daguerre’s images: ‘We didn’t trust ourselves at first…to look long at the first pictures he developed. We were abashed by the distinctness of these human images, and believed that the little tiny faces in the picture could see us, so powerfully was everyone affected by the unaccustomed clarity and the unaccustomed truth to nature of the first daguerreotypes’ (1997, p.244). Contemporary commentators were captivated by this precision. Photography historian Timm Starl argues that ‘only the sharpness of the image and the wealth of detail it contained could give the viewer the sense of seeing something that had really existed’ (Starl, 1998, p.34). Foremost among these fascinatingly rendered details in Daguerre’s oeuvre were two that were not so clear: the blurry images of two men visible in the 8:00 a.m. view. As Benjamin notes, ‘What makes the first photographs so incomparable is perhaps this: that they present the earliest image of the encounter of machine and man’ (1999, p.678). Benjamin is speaking in general about photography, yet his statement is particularly relevant to Daguerre’s 8:00 a.m. scene, with which these two figures’ relative stillness fortuitously coincided. The blurry outline of a man with his leg propped up on a box is framed in a bend of the boulevard by an elegantly curving curb. A less distinctly formed figure sits on a box in front of the standing man. These two figures are absent from the noon scene; instead, there are just a couple of boxes and a low post, perhaps a place to tie up a horse. Looking back at the first scene, the seated figures become clearer when one sees that the second figure and the post blur together; imagining the figure separately from the post, one can picture the figure’s head lowered over the standing man’s shoe, the curve of his back emerging behind the post as he bends to his work. However, only one of the men has consistently been recorded historically: the standing man. As Batchen points out, ‘More than the first photo to show people, it is also the first to illustrate both labor and class difference, and in a particularly graphic fashion’ (1999, p.236). The first written documentation of the occlusion of the boot black occurs in a letter written by Samuel Morse, who saw the daguerreotype on March 7, 1839 during a visit with Daguerre (Frizot, 1998b, p.28). On April 9, 1839, the New York Observer published a letter he wrote to his brother about it (Gernsheim and Gernsheim, 1968, pp.89–90). Morse writes, ‘the Boulevard, so constantly filled with a moving throng of pedestrians and carriages, was perfectly solitary, except an individual
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who was having his boots brushed. His feet were compelled, of course, to be stationary for some time, one being on the box of the boot black, and the other one on the ground. Consequently his boots and legs were well defined, but he is without body or head, because these were in motion’ (Rice, 1999, p.6). The boot black is mentioned obliquely but not seen, simply not recorded in Morse’s account.8 The occlusion of the boot black by Morse and subsequent commentators (including Shelley Rice and Michel Frizot) foreshadows the phantasmagoric way in which Haussmann’s Paris ‘reflected the images of people as consumers rather than producers, keeping the class relations of production virtually invisible’ (Buck-Morss, 1991, p.81). These two men, who could have had no concept that they were being photographed, who would never know their figures would be alternately immortalized or forgotten in this image, did not perform in what would become the customary way of behaving when confronted with a lens of a camera: adopting of a pose of absolute stillness. Especially in the first photographic portraits, the subject had to remain perfectly still so that a clear image could be obtained. While the first photographic subjects had, as Benjamin notes, an innocence before the lens, subsequent sitters were often all too conscious of the photograph’s power to still and subdue. Cadava describes a photograph of Benjamin himself as a child: ‘Worried that he is about to become an image, that he is about to be killed, he freezes into what he will soon become: a petrified image’ (1997, p.11). Even without a flash, the artificial stillness of the photographic image creates what Cadava calls ‘the petrified restlessness of the image’ (1997, p.xx). But the figures in the Daguerres almost circumvent this Medusa effect. Their escape from gorgonization, and almost from fossilization, points to a potentially utopic capability of the photograph. Neither obliterated by moving too quickly, nor petrified catastrophically, the figures hover between presence and absence. This daguerreotype simultaneously presents the undeniable existence of the past in tandem with the possibility of escaping the gorgonizing flash that simultaneously illuminates history and captures its catastrophic status-quo quality. At the same time, it bears witness to the dream-like existence from which Benjamin desired to awaken consciousness. It is a precise image of multiple aspects of both problem and potential. With their preternatural heightening of detail, daguerreotypes show more than what was visible to the naked eye – everything in focus at once – but also what could not be seen: moments accumulated in a single image, and unnatural emptiness. In the ‘Small History’,
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Benjamin describes this quality of photography: ‘For it is another nature that speaks to the camera than to the eye: other in the sense that a space informed by human consciousness gives way to a space informed by the unconscious’ (1997, p.243). Photography’s ability to open up vision, to capture more details than the unaided eye could see, to enlarge, reveal what is hidden or invisible under normal visual conditions, is what Benjamin calls the optical unconscious. In ‘The Work of Art’, Benjamin expands on this concept: the enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case was visible, though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject… Evidently a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye – if only because an unconsciously penetrated space is substituted for a space consciously explored by man… The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses (1987, pp.236–7). If that is the case, and if photography has the magical capacity to seem to still time, what else can it reveal? Not only did daguerreotypes startlingly transcend the usual visual world, but because the photograph for the first time makes the past as certain as the present, they arouse the temptation to look in any photograph for a clue of the future awaiting the referent of the photograph. What Benjamin seeks in the ‘Small History’, what he asks of photography, is for a ‘spark of contingency’, something in a photograph, an emissary of the past, which can foretell the future: No matter how artful the photograph, no matter how carefully posed his subject, the beholder feels an irresistible urge to search such a picture for the tiny spark of contingency, of the Here and Now, with which reality has so to speak seared the subject, to find the inconspicuous spot where in the immediacy of that longforgotten moment the future subsists so eloquently that we, looking back, may discover it (1997, p.243). Thus the photograph can be both a monadic emissary from the past, erupting into the present, and also a sign of the future. Benjamin’s interest in the kind of trans-temporal interpretation or revelation made possible by photography relates to his understanding of the Kabbalah, influenced by Gershom Scholem. Buck-Morss draws
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attention to Benjamin’s kabbalistic interpretation of the debris of the past. She describes such an approach as a way to read sacred texts ‘for hidden meanings that could not have been known at the time of their writing, rejecting the historicist approach of interpreting texts in terms of authorial intent’ (1991, p.243). Benjamin takes the mystical impulse of kabbalistic interpretation of sacred texts and applies it to historical objects. In the Arcades Project, discarded debris is the sacred text to be interpreted to discover a meaning its makers did not intend. The photograph’s magical quality of survival from the past makes it possible to treat it in a manner akin to the interpretation of the sacred texts of the Kabbalah. Benjamin invokes this idea of kabbalistic future interpretation and its relation to photography in his citation of the following passage by literary historian André Monglond: ‘The past has left images of itself in literary texts, images comparable to those which are imprinted by light on a photosensitive plate. The future alone possesses developers active enough to scan such images perfectly’ (1930, p.xii, cited in Benjamin, 1999, p.482). As magical survivors from the past, photographs make possible a kabbalistic interpretation that frees them from the continuum of time. Benjamin writes, ‘while the relation of the present to the past is a purely temporal, continuous one, the relation of whathas-been to the now is dialectical: is not progression but image, suddenly emergent’ (1991, p.462). The photographic image, a sliver of past time, is that ‘what-has-been’,9 the essence of the dialectical image. This concept of a future interpretation problematically implies the benefits of progression, of technological progression of the type which Benjamin abhors. But the idea that the future holds interpretation impossible in the present clearly emphasizes that the past, in the form of a monad, is not continuous with the present. What inconspicuous spot or spots might await interpretation in Daguerre’s two views of the Boulevard du Temple? Auratic augurs of a technology of reproduction that would radically transform visual culture, their content epitomizes the city of Paris on the vertiginous brink of transformation. In their absenting of almost all human forms, the two Daguerres also prefigure the alienating city scenes of Eugène Atget: ‘Atget…around 1900, took photographs of deserted Paris streets. It has quite justly been said of him that he photographed them like scenes of crime. The scene of a crime, too, is deserted; it is photographed for the purpose of establishing evidence’ (Benjamin, 1987, p.226). The artificially deserted Boulevard du Temple, twice pictured, is also there to establish evidence, but the evidence of photography, not a crime. Benjamin praises
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Atget for his photographs’ destruction of aura. Atget almost always passed by the ‘great sights and so-called landmarks’ according to Benjamin (1997, p.250). Instead, Atget photographs prosaic city scenes, which, like Daguerre’s but for different reasons, lack human presence: Remarkably, almost all these pictures are empty. Empty the Porte d’Arceuil by the Fortifications, empty the triumphal steps, empty the courtyards, empty, as it should be, the Place du Tertre. They are not lonely, merely without mood; the city in these pictures looks cleared out, like a lodging that has not yet found a new tenant. It is in these achievements that surrealist photography sets the scene for a salutary estrangement between man and his surroundings. It gives free play to the politically educated eye, under whose gaze all intimacies are sacrificed to the illusion of detail (1997, p.251). For Benjamin, the desolation of Atget’s streets ‘initiates the emancipation of object from aura which is the most signal achievement of the latest school of photography…He looked for what was unremarked, forgotten, cast adrift, and thus such pictures too work against the exotic, romantically sonorous names of the cities; they pump the aura out of reality like water from a sinking ship’ (1997, p.250). Yet we find that the ‘latest school of photography’ anticipated in Daguerre’s two views of the Boulevard du Temple, their twinned emptinesses providing ‘the stripping bare of the object, the destruction of the aura, is the mark of a perception whose sense of the sameness of things has grown to the point where even the singular, the unique, is divested of its uniqueness—by means of its reproduction’ (1997, p.250). The public history of photography begins, then, with a Benjaminian constellation of reproduction and singularity, of aura and its destruction, and of seeds of the past that could only be fully understood by the future. For Benjamin, what the first photographers captured was and still is capable of shocking, and awakening, the viewer. Photographs are monadic emissaries from the past. Such objects of history, ‘blasted out of the continuum of historical succession’, are monads because of the historical confrontation that makes up the interior (and, as it were, the bowels) of the historical object, and into which all the forces and interests of history enter on a reduced scale. It is owing to this
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monadological structure that the historical object finds represented in its interior its own fore-history and after-history (1999, p.475). Seeking an awakening without forgetting, Benjamin’s pedagogy was, as Buck-Morss puts it, an attempt ‘to educate the image-creating medium within us to see dimensionally, stereoscopically, into the depths of historical shade’ (1991, p.292). His pedagogical montage was, then, also a sort of photographic device to enable awakened seeing. Photography represented a Copernican revolution: ‘nature was no longer inert, subject merely to observation – it acted, as though by remote control, on certain sensitive substances’ (Frizot, 1998c, p.16). This belief was at odds with the growing belief, in the light of technological prowess, that mankind was omnipotent, capable of dominating nature (Buck-Morss, 1991, p.254). Instead, to the earliest photographers, nature’s chemicals and light worked their own magic. Benjamin’s concept of the dialectical reversal, the awakening of consciousness, similarly involved a Copernican revolution in terms of the idea of historical progress. He writes, ‘Formerly it was thought that a fixed point had been found in “what has been”, and one saw the present engaged in tentatively concentrating the forces of knowledge on this ground. Now this relation is to be overturned, and what has been is to become the dialectical reversal—the flash of awakened consciousness’ (1999, p.388). The dialectical reversal undoes the traditional form of history, with the dreamer of the present day looking back through the continuum of time to a point in the past. Instead, ‘the new, dialectical method of doing history presents itself as the art of experiencing the present as a waking world, a world to which that dream we name the past refers in truth. To pass through and carry out what has been in remembering the dream! – Therefore: remembering and awakening are most intimately related. Awakening is namely the dialectical, Copernican turn of experience’ (1999, p.389). As BuckMorss observes, ‘Benjamin’s Copernican revolution completely strips history of its legitimating, historical function’ (1991, p.x). Instead, history’s forgotten refuse – like the mundane moments captured in Daguerre’s one-of-a-kind views – became the concrete artifacts of the origins of the present that can awaken present consciousness to the truth. Beginning in 1853, Baron Haussmann began his transformation of Paris, drawing straight lines through the labyrinthine old city. His project destroyed the collective memory of old Paris (Rice, 1999, p.145), including many of the arcades. Much of the Boulevard du
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Temple fell victim to Haussmann’s transformation; thus Daguerre’s images, picturing the boulevard’s illusory frozen emptiness and marking it as outdated, out of use, when it was not, provide a ‘spark of contingency’, ‘the inconspicuous spot where in the immediacy of that long-forgotten moment the future subsists so eloquently that we, looking back, may discover it’ (Benjamin, 1997, p.243). They made permanent something that would in a few years time be radically altered. But part of the Boulevard du Temple still exists, and, ironically, certainly fell within the purview of Benjamin’s own flânerie around the Bibliothèque Nationale.10 Daguerre’s two images of the Boulevard du Temple, ordinary but auratic, portents of radical change in both society and visual culture, haunt Benjamin’s work on photography.
Notes 1 Geoffrey Batchen documents the startlingly widespread interest in fixing the image of the camera obscura in (1999) Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography (London: The MIT Press). 2 In the ‘Small History’, he mentions Arago’s report to the Chamber but does not describe the Boulevard du Temple images. 3 I am making this link between Benjamin’s word images and Daguerre’s literal images because of Benjamin’s obvious interest in the earliest forms of photography. 4 This topic is beautifully explored in E. Cadava (1997) Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History (Princeton: Princeton University Press). Cadava writes, ‘The questions raised by the links between photography and history touch on issues that belong to the entire trajectory of his writing – the historical and political consequences of technology; the relations between reproduction and mimesis, imagery and history, remembering and forgetting, allegory and mourning, visual and linguistic representation, and film and photography’ (p.xix). 5 Apparently he made another image, no longer extant, of the same scene late in the afternoon, but it is unclear whether that was the same day. That image showed horses that moved during the exposure (Batchen, 1999, p.133). 6 The process Daguerre invented was quite time consuming and technically complex. The first step was the preparation of a copper plate which had been thinly coated on one side with pure silver. The plate was sprinkled with pumice, and then buffed with a rag which had been dipped in olive oil. After it was buffed the plate was rinsed with diluted nitric acid and dried over a spirit burner. The plate was then placed face down in a container of iodine crystals. Once the plate was turned a golden yellow by the iodine vapour (5 to 30 minutes) it was sensitized and ready to use. All of the above took place in dim lighting. The photographer then had up to an hour to use the plate. It had to be placed inside the camera in complete darkness, then exposed. After exposure, the plate was removed from the camera in
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8 9 10
darkness. It was then placed into a slotted wooden box that held it at a 45-degree angle over a small container of mercury. The mercury was heated to 60 degrees Celsius, creating a vapour which condensed on the exposed plate for a period of two to three minutes. The image was fixed by lowering the plate into a solution of sea salt or sodium thiosulphite, and then rinsing it in warm distilled water (J.-C. Gautrand, 1998, p.38). He is referring to David Octavius Hill, Julia Margaret Cameron (although she did not take up photography seriously until the early 1860s), Charles Hugo (who was the son of Victor Hugo, and did not take up photography until 1850), and Félix Tournachon, who worked under the name Nadar, and whose major portrait works began in 1855. In addition, Morse has forgotten that the head and body of the standing man are visible, although with blurry edges. Barthes, in Camera Lucida, refers to ‘that-has-been’ as the noeme of photography (1981, p.78). Buck-Morss (1986, pp.129–32) reconstructs Benjamin’s perambulations.
Bibliography Barthes, R. (1981) Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang). Batchen, G. (1999) Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography (London: The MIT Press). Benjamin, W. (1999) The Arcades Project, trans. H. Eiland and K. McLaughlin (Cambridge and London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press). Benjamin, W. (1987) ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ in H. Arendt (ed.) Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books). Benjamin, W. (1997) ‘A Small History of Photography’ in One-Way Street and Other Writings (New York: Verso). Buck-Morss, S. (1991) The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press). Buck-Morss, S. (1986) ‘The Flaneur, the Sandwichman and the Whore: The Politics of Loitering’, New German Critique, 39, pp.99–140. Cadava, E. (1997) Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History (Princeton: Princeton University Press). Dubois, P. (1983) L’acte photographique (Paris and Brussells: Nathan and Labor, 1983). Figuier, L. (1851) La Photographie: Exposition et histoire des principales découvertes scientifiques modernes (Paris). Frizot, M. (1998a) ‘1839–1840: Photographic Developments’ in M. Frizot (ed.) A New History of Photography (Koln: Konemann). Frizot, M. (1998b) ‘The Daguerreotype, Total Impression of Reality’ in M. Frizot (ed.) A New History of Photography (Koln: Konemann). Frizot, M. (1998c) ‘Light Machines: On the Threshold of Invention’ in M. Frizot (ed.) A New History of Photography (Koln: Konemann). Gautrand, J.-C. (1998) ‘The Daguerreotype’ in M. Frizot (ed.) A New History of Photography (Koln: Konemann, 1998). Gernsheim, H. and Gernsheim, A. (1968) L.J.M. Daguerre (New York: Dover Publications).
Elizabeth Howie 143 Metz, C. (1985) ‘Photography and Fetish’, October 34 (fall 1985), pp.81–90. Monglond, A. (1930) Le Préromanticisme française, Vol. 1, Le Héros préromantique (Grenoble). Rice, S. (1999) Parisian Views (Cambridge and London: The MIT Press). Starl, T. (1998) ‘A New World of Pictures: The Use and Spread of the Daguerreotype Process’ in M. Frizot (ed.) A New History of Photography (Koln: Konemann).
7 Commodity Display and the Phantasmagoria of Modernity: Exploring Walter Benjamin’s Critique of History Rolando Vázquez
[A]rt’s last line of resistance coincides with the commodity’s most advanced line of attack Walter Benjamin We have grown used to the overwhelming presence of images formed by the media industry. These images are part and parcel of our daily life. They configure clusters of meaning, visual narratives through which our identities and our very notions of the real are negotiated. The commodity largely shapes our visual environment. The lines that follow open the question of commoditization of the visual. This is not a ‘history’, a chronological narrative of the emergence of the visual dimension of the commodity. It is rather a reflection based on a collection of fragments interspersed with images from the past. We hope that these fragments mainly of the Paris of the 19th century will stir echoes with the media world of today. The colour lithographic poster, ‘la Parisienne’ and the shop-window are here summoned in order to better understand the mechanisms of display and desire that underpin everyday experience in the consumer society. ‘The world dominated by its phantasmagorias … is “modernity”’ (Benjamin, 1999b, p. 26). This text focuses on how the temporality of modernity, enters the realm of everyday-life experience through the strategies of commodity display. In the visual stage of the commodity the present is reaffirmed as the site of the real, the permanent stage for the phantasmagoria of modernity.
The image and Benjamin’s critique of history To continue our discussion on modernity and the experience of the visual, we need to stop and think of the relation between the image 144
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and temporality. We propose a distinction between the consumer images and the images of thought. The consumer images, as happens with advertising images, re-affirm the time of the now whereas the images of thought, such as metaphors, exceed the dimension of the present and create correspondances with the past, in other words, they enable us to summon the past in its absence. At the heart of this distinction there are two different relations to time. The time of the now and the time of memory, mnemonic time. These diverting temporalities of the image provide us with a theoretical ground to pursue our study of the commoditization of the visual in consonance with Benjamin’s critique of history. To read Walter Benjamin is to be surrounded by images; Hannah Arendt said that without being a poet, he ‘thought poetically’. The image is central to Benjamin’s work; both in his use of metaphors for writing as in his understanding of history. We could not understand Benjamin’s conception of history without approaching his conception of the ‘metaphor’. [A] metaphor establishes a connection which is sensually perceived in its immediacy and requires no interpretation… Since Homer the metaphor has borne that element of the poetic which conveys cognition; its use establishes the correspondances between physically most remote things (Benjamin, On Some Motifs in Baudelaire, 2003b, p.338). The metaphor is an image that illuminates a connection that remained invisible. Not only is this connection done across a distance that is unbridgeable for chronological reason, but it is part and parcel of that distance; so much so, that it is possible to say, paraphrasing Benjamin’s concept of the aura, that such an image is the very apparition of distance and hence of the otherwise irretrievably absent. ‘The essentially distant is the unapproachable’ (Benjamin, 2003b, p.338). We now see why this emerging image appears suddenly as an event, in its break with the linearity of the modern notion of time through which reason threads endless chains of facts into chronologies. ‘The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be sized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again’ (Benjamin, 1973, p.247). Michel Foucault, in his introduction to The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969) noticed that the time line of historical reason can get infinitely divided and multiplied so as to produce series of series, however these sequences suggested by
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Foucault never cease to reproduce the chronology of the past-presentfuture sequence. ‘The “historical materialist” … stops telling the sequence of events like the beads of a rosary. Instead he grasps the constellation which his own era has formed with a definite earlier one. … to blast open the continuum of history’ (Benjamin, 1973, p.254). Benjamin made of the fragment a methodological and epistemic answer to the totalizing narrative of history. It coincides with his ‘attempt to capture the portrait of history in the most insignificant, representation of reality, its scraps, as it were’ (Benjamin in Arendt, 1973, p.17). The fragment and the image can be seen as methods of enquiry devised to avoid the historicist representation of history. Their operation is that of opening up the past in its very distance by bringing it to light fragmented, dispersed, in discontinuity. In other words, these devices seek to reveal the absence of the past without harnessing it to the objectification of the present. By bringing to light the discontinuous, the fragment becomes a tangible critique of chronology and the fiction of continuity. To the representation of the past as a series of facts, as an object of knowledge the emerging image brings up the experience of the past as distance. The quality of the distant is such that it can only be recognized in its absence; the moment it is appropriated as an object it ceases to be distant. And it is precisely this absencing, this irreducible ‘negative’ experience of the distant that which mediates the relation of the present with the past. The fleeting quality of the distant calls for an ontology of difference, one through which we would be able to recognize that the past is always disperse, always changing and always already at a distance from the present. Thus the ‘real’ image of the past, the summoned image of the past flits by, it cannot be apprehended, reduced to an object of the present. The monument is a perfect example of the objectification of the past and the denial of its distancing, its absenting. The opening of the past as distance and questioning as being the task of thinking are intimately wedded. The opening of a distance raises the question of the incompleteness of the present, it signals its borders. The distant brings to question the veil of normality of the present. Thus the relation to the past becomes a critical and challenging methodology to the way things are, to the semblance of normality that characterizes modernity’s systems of oppression.
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The poster For Walter Benjamin, the phantasmagoria of modernity cannot be just considered to be a theoretical device that reveals the ideological content of modernity. The phantasmagoria of modernity has a concrete historical form in the urban physiognomy and experience. The phantasmagoria is manifest in the objects, places, displays, perspectives and experiences that make modern life. Our investigation proposes to show how … the new forms of behavior and the new economically and technologically based creations that we owe to the nineteenth century enter the universe of a phantasmagoria. These creations undergo this ‘illumination’ not only in a theoretical manner, by an ideological transposition, but also in the immediacy of their perceptible presence. They are manifest as phantasmagorias. Thus appear the arcades … also included in this order of phenomena is the experience of the flâneur, who abandons himself to the phantasmagoria of the marketplace (Benjamin 1999b, p. 14). The colour lithographic poster belongs to this order of phenomena. The image, endlessly multiplied in the city walls, imbued the city space with the symbolic qualities of the commodity. In the plastered posters the fetishism of the commodity acquired a visual presence, its material affirmation. Ever since, the city walls have been covered with the flowing veil of marketing, that reproduces the dynamics of consumption but also that enforces modernity’s cult of the new. In other words, the visual discourse being continuously written in the city space is an extension of modernity’s dominant notions of history, of time and reality. The technologies of reproduction that Benjamin sees as endangering the aura of authenticity of the work of art, are precisely the technologies that made the poster possible. The poster is in fact made to be reproducible. In the Paris of La Belle Époque, the poster is the meeting point between a booming advertisement industry and a buoyant art scene. The commodity meets art; utility and aesthetics merge in the poster image. Through its visual multiplicity, the poster enacts in the streets of the metropolis the phantasmagoria of modernity, transforming the
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aesthetic experience of the city dweller. In 1895 the art critique Charles Hiatt witnessed these transformations: The great masses of variegated colour formed by Chéret’s posters greet one joyously as one passes every hoarding, smile at one before the windows of every kiosque. The merits of the Saxoleine lamp, the gaieties of the Moulin Rouge, the charms of Loie Fuller, the value of a particular brand of cough-lozenges, are insisted upon with a goodhumoured vehemence […] His style […] is infused with a somewhat hectic gaiety which holds a not unimportant place in the lives of us suffering from this ‘sick disease of modern life’ (Hiatt, 1976, p.33). Ever since, walking in the city meant to walk amid commodity images. The consumption of images was not only readily available for the masses, but it simply could not be avoided. Posters came as heralds of the phantasmagoria of modernity, they celebrated novelty and progress, they disseminated the modern experience of time, ‘empty time’. The city dweller becomes a consumer living in the sway between the boredom and monotony of automatism and the desire of the commodity. The poster in its multiplicity submerges the city in a landscape of images that convey in their perpetual novelty the ephemeral temporality of desire. Buchloh traces back the pervasive presence of images in the consumer culture of the 1950s to the 19th century poster. As one of the essential dispositifs of enforcing consumption on a heretofore unimaginable scale, advertising would at first deploy the newly refined technique of large-scale color offset lithography on outdoor billboards, a technology that would contribute tremendously to the transformation of the experience of public urban space. This upgraded version of the nineteenth-century technology of the large-sized public poster… would insure from now on that not a single moment of distracted strolling in the city could be spent in the absence of the commodity image (Buchloh, 1991, pp. 98–100). Moving through the city involves the individual in a series of ‘casual’ encounters with the images and desires of consumption. The emerging visual economy is also an economy of desire. The pervasive presence of the commodity image brought the visual experience of the pedestrian
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close to Benjamin’s shock experience. Speaking of a lithograph that depicts a gambling club, Benjamin says that the Gamblers ‘behave like the pedestrians in Poe’s story. They live their lives as automatons and resemble Bergson’s fictitious characters who have completely liquidated their memories’ (Benjamin, 2003b, p.330). The poster signals a moment and a ‘mechanism’ through which the image is separated from memory, and enters the chronology of the ephemeral. Due to their fleeting quality, these images suffer a transformation. The commodity images become indexes of the emptiness of modern experience, the empty time that Benjamin saw in fashion and that he discovered while reading Baudelaire and Blanki’s hallucinations in prison. Blanqui revealed … in his last piece of writing, the terrifying features of this phantasmagoria. Humanity figures there as damned. Everything new it could hope for turns out to be a reality that has always been present; and this newness will be as little capable of furnishing it with a liberating solution as a new fashion is capable of rejuvenating society (Benjamin, 1999b, p.15). Amid the flow of novelty images, the pedestrians are trained to forego their memories and enter the reveries of the commodity. Their visual experience and their notions of the real become ever more entwined with the fleeting present. The aesthetic experience of the city dweller becomes subject to the technologies and ‘practices’ of commodity desire.
La Parisienne It is misleading to see the individual that inhabits the multiplication of sights and visual experiences just as an automaton, a machinelike individual. Somehow, thanks to this very multiplication, the ‘signseer’ becomes not only akin to the producer and the automatism of machinery, but he comes to resemble the commodity, he acquires traits of the fetishism of the commodity. The city dweller, the visual consumer becomes commodity-like. Thus, at the turn of the century in Paris, we see the emergence of ‘la Parisienne’. She is a beholder of the spectacle of modernity and the ephemeral time of novelty. In her demeanour she inhabits but also performs the magic of the commodity. The Parisian woman was said to rule the salons of Europe, setting trends in fashion and etiquette to which all women would soon
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aspire. She represented novelty, modernity and style (Garb, 1998, p.87). We can consider, next to the colour lithographic poster, the identity performance of ‘la Parisienne’ among the practices of display that were to transform the aesthetic experience in the 19th century city. Superficial, stylish and sophisticated, her embellished person represented a feminity which was packaged for its display value. Her function was to be seen and her ideal milieu was the public spaces of the city: the boulevards, parks, balls, shops, theatres and salons for which Paris has become famous (Garb, 1998, p.88). Towards the closing of the nineteenth century, public space in the modern city became coextensive with the spaces for display. The city’s public spaces were turned into thriving arenas for the non-ending flow of commodity desires. Public display became the necessary complement to the production of commodities in the industrial floors. The embodiment of the commodity in ‘la Parisienne’ is an early example of the consumption of identity and public recognition mediated by the techniques of display and production of desires. The fetishism of the commodity ceases to be a ‘magical’ and somewhat unintended quality of the commodity, to become itself an industrial product. The ‘Parisienne’ had become one of France’s principal exports by the 1880s …. By this time, the ‘Parisienne’ had not only been naturalized as the desirable representation of the feminine but ‘she’ had become necessary for the smooth functioning of the economy (Garb, 1998, p.87). The elaboration and dissemination of the identity of ‘la Parisienne’ is clearly linked to the extensive use of fashion plates and the poster. Since the beginnings of visual marketing women were associated to the image of the commodity. As if by coupling the commodity with the feminine body, the commodity could be endowed with the erotic desire historically associated with the women’s body. Thus the visual representation of women in connection to the commodity became a major technique in the production
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of consumer desire. In the case of ‘la Parisienne’ we can see how the performance of such an identity and its public recognition became closely entwined with commodity display. Women were simultaneously deified and enslaved by a system of exchange which depended on their consumption of commodities while they themselves were commodified (Garb, 1998, p.88). However, it is misleading to see the embodiment of the commodity of ‘La Parisienne’ just as commoditization. Through the performance of the commodity image, women also gained visibility and access to public spaces. The very strategies of their commoditization were used to support the tactics by which women were to transgress their confinement to spheres of private life.1 Ruth Iskin in her study of women in lithographic posters argues that we cannot underestimate the importance of women’s entrance to public spaces: [W]omen increasingly populated the city’s space which had been identified as a masculine domain in contrast to the domestic sphere of femininity … The freedom to practice flânerie in the metropolis meant stepping out of the conceptual and physical segregation of the gendered territories of ‘private’ and ‘public’ (Iskin, 2003, pp.350–1). Thus, together with the practices of identity consumption and display also came a transgression of the traditional seclusion of women into the private space. This tradition of gender oppression carried on into the discourses of flânerie that errased the flâneuse from the narratives of the 19th century city. Certainly, late-nineteenth-century discourses attributed supreme detachment to masculine flâneurs and its diametric opposite – an inability to resist consumer temptations – to women (Iskin, 2003, p.348). Without overlooking that the visibility of the commodity was a constitutive tactic through which women could enter public life, let us go back to see how in the case of the
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parisienne consumption and display became one and the same practice. In selling late-nineteenth-century women a variety of goods, these kinds of posters sold women their new ‘selves’ (Iskin, 2003, p.351). To understand the entwinement between display and consumption remains one of the central preoccupation of the sociology of the consumer society. It contains the clues to better understand how consumption became a practice of identity and social recognition (Bauman, 2008). More generally these question responds to a wider theoretical agenda that seeks to reveal the relationship between visibility and modernity.
The shop-window as stage The poster’s function stems from the symbolic dimension of the commodity. In the poster the commodity as symbolic value reaches the concreteness of perceptible experience. The commodity comes to view and finds its completeness as an image, it appears concretely as detached from the social conditions of its production as well as from the commodity as an object of use-value. Could we not say that the power of attraction of the poster resides in the absence of the commodity as object, in the absence of the social relations of production? Desire would then appear as the tension between the display and absence. The shop-window emulates the theatre’s stage in its practices of display. It conveys a visibility that hides, a spectacle that turns the city and the pedestrians into a theatre as if bringing Shakespeare’s famous verse into the service of the commodity: ‘All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players’. In 1909 the opening of the Selfridge department store in London provides us with a glimpse into the interplay between strategies of commodity display and the transformation of experience. [Selfridge] taught Londoners to look at his store by turning its opening into a special event and encouraging consumers to think of the store as a theatre. His show windows were the centrepiece of this shopping drama, and their unveiling served as its opening act […] Nearly all reports of the opening emphasized the ‘new sensation’ created by such ‘lofty’ windows with their ‘delicately painted’ back-
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grounds […] Both inside and outside the windows, theatrical techniques helped Selfridge invest ordinary goods with cultural and social meanings (Rappaport, 2004, p.152). It is not surprising that the commodity as aesthetic experience borrows its practices from the arts: theatre, painting and the panoramas. The production of desire cannot be sundered from the development of the techniques of display. Desire production accentuates the relationship between looking and consuming, between visual experience and the need for appropriation. The visual becomes a realm of mediation between the commodity production and commodity consumption. The functioning of the nascent form of consumer capitalism in the late nineteenth century cannot be understood without paying attention to the visual and its connection to desire. Lèche vitrine: … [t]he delicious sensation of looking at desirable objects is akin to licking, a very physical way of describing the eroticized pleasures of looking (Garb, 1998, p.108). The commodity borrows the aesthetic pleasures of art and the eroticism of the body to bring them under the command of the ‘psychologism’ of display, to render them useful to the imperatives of the industrial economy. It can be argued that with the development of the techniques of display and of the deliberate production of desire, capitalism entered a new stage in the transformation of experience and of public space. [I]n practice there is a technique in the poster, a science based on psychology which allows us to construct our poster like an engineer constructs a bridge (Paul Dermée in Halter, 1992, p.41). With the development of the techniques of display the fetishism of the commodity enters the realm of production. In other words, it is a moment in which science and technology extend their sphere of action into the production of desires.
Display, reproduction and time The strategies of display, that made possible the production of consumer desire on a mass scale, were also propagating the modern notion of time. The experience of modern time appears most clearly in the
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experience of novelty with which the strategies of display enticed the passer-by; a novelty, as Benjamin argued, that is always the same. Novelty is the sign under which the commodity image is endlessly multiplied. Through commodity display, progress and utopia, the modern ideals of politics, science and technology, extend their influence into the aesthetic experience of everyday life. The poster as the visual expression of consumer desire is also the actualization of the transitoriness and repeatability of the commodity. In looking at the reproducible character of the poster it becomes clear that its sameness does not refer to the uniqueness of an original, but that it is always already sameness. In the case of the poster there is no ‘unique’, there is no ‘original’ other than the sameness of the reproduction. This speaks of the temporality of the commodity, the temporality of consumption and its break away from the past. ‘The equipment-free aspect of reality has here become the height of artifice, and the vision of immediate reality the Blue Flower in the land of technology’ (Benjamin, 2003a, p.263). The artifice is that which has lost all relation to the ‘unique’, to a reference outside the time of the now. In the vistas opened up by the spectacle of the commodity, the artifice is endowed with a sense of reality as it enters the realm of sensory experience; the artifice becomes normality. The ‘immediate reality’ of the artifice bars all access to the experience of ‘distance’, that distance that Benjamin saw as a characteristic of the aura. There is an impossibility to experience the distant when exercising one’s aesthetic experience in the spaces of the commodity, when our identity is imagined within the play of desire and consumption. We could say that the endangered experience in the commodification of life is the experience of the distant. In one of his memoirs, Benjamin’s speaks of the experience of illusion that came with a poster: ‘Many years ago, on the streetcar, I saw a poster … And didn’t that poster furnish an image for things that no one in this mortal life has yet experienced? An image of the everyday in Utopia’ (Benjamin, 1999a, p.174). The poster actualizes the temporal experience of the commodity, empty time. It actualizes the phantasmagoria of modernity, the utopia of progress, and renders them to the experience of the senses. However the very quality of the poster as a fleeting image reveals the empty time of the experience of modernity. The ephemeral nature of posters advertising new products was a means of forcing the individual to accept novelty and
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innovation as a given condition of modern life (Levin, 1993, p.103). In its ephemeral nature the commodity image is also testimony to the emptiness of experience within the logic of display, desire and consumption that characterizes the commodification of social life. It is the affirmation and the revelation of the time of the now as the sole site of experience, with the concomitant negation of the experience of the time of memory, of the past. In other words, the spectacle of the commodity enforces the hierarchy of modern time. This hierarchy is characterized by a present that is affirmed as the sole site of the real; a future that is construed in the image of utopia, that is, a desired and always to come ‘modern’ time; and a past that is negated as a site of experience and is reduced to be a static archive, an object of the present.
Concluding remarks The advent of the strategies of commodity display, such as the visual representation of the lithographic poster, the embodiment of ‘la Parisienne’ or the theatricality of the shop-window meant the commoditization of aesthetic experience. The fact that the visual expression of the commodity is the outcome of the encounter between art and the commodity character is full of open questions that exceed the scope of these reflections. The visual entwinement between art and the commodity is a moment of fracture, of radical change, both for the work of art as for the experience of capitalism. Whereas art becomes enmeshed in the cycle of production and consumption of the commodity, the fetish character of the commodity takes its visual form and erupts in the cityscape. The fetishism of the commodity ceases to be a characteristic derived from the system of production to enter the realm of production itself. Desire is fabricated. The commodity becomes a part of a visual economy that meant a radical transformation of experience. The ensuing aesthetic experience gives certainty to the temporality of the commodity, to the spectacle of empty time. Modernity’s cycle of fantasy and utility is explicitly revealed in the nineteenth century strategies of display. In other words, in the strategies of desire and display we see how the process of rationalization relapses into the enchanted.
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These reflections draw on Benjamin’s analysis of the phantasmagoria of modernity as a tangible dimension. The nineteenth century poster, ‘la Parisienne’ and the shop-window uncover a history of the interplay between the commodity image, the production of desire and the consumption of identity, that is still at work in our present consumer society.
Note 1 To read more about everyday tactics of subversion within the grid of the systems of utility and rational action see Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).
Bibliography Arendt, H. (1973) ‘Introduction’ in W. Benjamin and H. Arendt (ed.), Illuminations (pp.7–55). London: Fontana Press. Bauman, Z. (2008) The Art of Life. London: Polity Press. Benjamin, W. (1973). ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ in W. Benjamin, Illuminations (pp. 245–55). London: Fontana Press. Benjamin, W. (1999a) The Arcades Project. (R. Tiedemann, ed. and H.A. Eiland, Trans.) Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Benjamin, W. (1999b) ‘Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century: Exposé ’ in W. Benjamin and R. Tiedemann (ed.), The Arcades Project (H.A. Eiland, Trans., pp. 14–26). Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Benjamin, W. (2003a) ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility’ (Third Version) in W. Benjamin, H. Eiland and M.W. Jennings (eds), Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings Volume 4 1938–1940 (pp. 251–83). Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Benjamin, W. (2003b) ‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire’ in W. Benjamin and H.A. Eiland (ed.), Walter Benjamin Selected Writings Volume 4 1938–1940 (E.A. Jephcott, Trans., pp.313–55). Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Buchloh, B.H. (1991) ‘From Detail to Fragment: Décollage Affichiste’. October, 56 (Spring), 98–110. de Certeau, M. (1988) The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press. Foucault, M. (1969) L’archéologie du savoir (The Archaeology of Knowledge). Paris: Gallimard. Garb, T. (1998) Bodies of Modernity, Figure and Flesh in Fin-de-Siècle France. London: Thames and Hudson. Halter, A.A. (1992) ‘Paul Dermée and the Poster in France in the 1920s: Jean d’Ylen as ‘Maitre de l’Affiche Moderne’, Journal of Design History, 5 (1), 39–51. Hiatt, C. (1976) Picture Posters (org 1895 ed.). East Ardsley: EP Publishing Limited.
Rolando Vázquez 157 Iskin, R.E. (2003) ‘The Pan-European flaneuse in fin-de-Siècle Posters: Advertising Modern Women in the City’, Nineteenth-Century Contexts, 25 (4), 333–56. Levin, M.R. (1993) ‘Democratic Vistas-Democratic Media: Defining a Role for Printed Images in Industrializing France’, French Historical Studies, 18 (1), 82–108. Pusca, A. (2008) ‘The Aesthetics of Change: Exploring Post-Communist Spaces’, Global Society, 22 (3), 369–86. Rappaport, E. (2004) ‘A New Era of Shopping’ in V.R. Schwartz and J.M. Przyblyski, The Nineteenth-Century Visual Culture Reader (pp. 151–63). New York and London: Routledge.
8 The Aura of Art After the Advent of the Digital Konstantinos Vassiliou
‘To articulate what is past does not mean to find “what it really was”. It means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger’ (Benjamin, 1971b, p.197) writes Benjamin in his sixth theses on the Philosophy of History. In a similar vain it is not so compelling today to try to seize from the past the meaning of Benjamin’s concept of aura, but conversely it is time to address the cultural concerns that are enshrouded in auratic nebulae. Thus, to rethink Benjamin’s concept of aura cannot be an analysis of the pertinence or of the efficacy of the term in contemporary media. It can neither be assigned to a project of readjusting aura conceptually, in order to engage critically with our media environment. We are entangled with media, which plays a role far more intrusive than Benjamin could ever conceive, and the dual relationship he sought to describe between medium and art has become more and more blurred – more ‘atmospheric’ in Benjamin’s terms. Therefore, tracing auratic schemas in the early 21st century has a certain task of apprehending the particular relations of this more atmospheric and ubiquitous mediatic environment. The word ‘relations’ is a congener to the cognitive genus of aura: aura denotes an affinity, a feeling, and even an existential flow that can be less thought and more possibly enacted. This paper will attempt an interpretation of this enactment, of this drama of aura, in our entanglement with the various dispositifs of digital culture, with main focus on the field of art.
Introduction to the concept of aura Aura etymologically is a recalcitrant word. Its origin is the Greek word αυ′ρα. It means breeze or light wind. Áυ′ρα has itself an uncertain ety158
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mology either from the word α′ηµι or either from the word αη′ρ1 (air). Áηµι means to blow, to envelop or to agitate. Even as early as in the Homeric Hymns α′ηµι is used in a similar sense with Benjamin’s aura. The verb is used in the phrase ‘Beauty surrounded her, like floating around her’2 – which introduces the metaphor of a floating veil that generates a perceptual and emotional distance as in the famous definition of aura by Benjamin. Αη′ρ in Homer’s Iliad is used to describe mist or a nebulous layer.3 In Euripides, αυ′ρα is related to a sentimental disposition.4 This sympathetic quality is apparent also in the late 19th century occult connotation of the word, an emanation of a human vital force being able to interact with its environment. Benjamin’s thought, polemical to all popular spiritualism of his time, holds no account of this sympathetic function of the aura. Benjamin does not endow aura with a sympathetic quality: Benjamin’s aura is not merging into its surrounding, being able to unite with it into a common flux; instead it is the apparition of a distance, impossible to surmount, no matter the degree of closeness. But is there one ‘aura’ in Benjamin’s writings? This is not a question in order to decipher any original or authentic ‘aura’, attesting thus a kind of religious philologism to Benjamin’s writings. It enables though to grasp plural auratic relationships or enactments that can manifest their presence. Adorno sensed that in Benjamin’s work there was a continuity from his early analysis of art symbols to the ‘aural’. When Adorno sent to Benjamin his critique for the essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility’ (from now on the ‘Work of Art’ essay) he commented: ‘in your book on the Baroque you accomplished the differentiation of the allegory from the symbol – in the new terminology the “aural” symbol’ (Adorno and Benjamin, 2006, p.146). The ‘aura’ concept had also appeared in Benjamin’s 1930 essay ‘A Short History of Photography’ and along with the essay ‘Some Motifs in Baudelaire’, these texts describe relations between media and art, which are profoundly connected with the concept of aura. Moreover, aura is probably incubated in various instances in Benjamin’s work through vague constellations that he conceived in his mystique of urbanity and in his approach of the ritualistic function of art. We could argue that there are two kinds of auratic relationships that Benjamin points out. The first one is associated with a kind of poetics of tradition, a chronic accumulation of cognitive processes that were deployed throughout the traditional ways of perceiving reality or a historic veil that embosoms any work of art. The second one is a kind of natural aura that emanates from specific objects or beings, such as
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humans in the early portrait photography. These auratic veils can be eliminated according to Benjamin by the potential of reproducibility, cinematic vision or by a shock of perception as in Baudelaire’s poetry. Thus, Benjamin thinks of auratic relationships as twofold: as ‘historical’ and ‘natural’ ones. The interest that he bears in any possible fading of the aura lies in the fact that its fading is the aesthetic counterpart of social transition. ‘If changes in the medium of contemporary conception can be comprehended as the decay of aura, it is possible to show its social causes’ he states in the ‘Work of Art’ essay. This means that the posture that Benjamin adopts vis-à-vis art and society is important, in order to apprehend the thrust of the auratic relationships he describes. Rainer Rochlitz (Rochlitz, 1992) has formulated the hypothesis that Benjamin’s writing can be divided into three major phases. The first one, till 1926, when he is interested primarily in the philosophy of language and the sublime, the second one from Oneway Street  to the ‘Work of Art’ essay  when he inscribes art within the context of the avant-garde and politics and finally a third one, during the years following till his death, when he reinstitutes aesthetic autonomy. One can be reluctant to assign such a clear intentionality to a writer such as Benjamin, who is often portrayed as one of the most apocalyptic writers of modernity rather than a systematic theorist, standing as Adorno famously wrote at the ‘crossroad of theory and magic’ (Adorno and Benjamin, 2006, p.322). But Rochlitz’s general account, one of the closest readings in Benjamin’s entire work, succeeds at least in showing that multiple nebs and several auratic paradigms are required to apprehend the stance and the discourse of Benjamin’s attempt to disenchant art for the sake of politics. And this multiplicity is to be taken in firm consideration when addressing this issue in the context of the contemporary digital apparatus.
The aura of art today through the Benjamin-Adorno debate The first and major question to be examined regarding this issue is how the variable status of the autonomy of art since the 60s has had an impact on the ‘aura’ of the work of art. In order to answer this question, we ought to take a look at various arguments, which contrary to the ones brought up by Benjamin, remain in favour of the ‘aura’. Famously, the most convincing of these arguments were pointed out by no other than Adorno himself. The debate between Adorno and Benjamin is still surprisingly very pertinent so as to bring forth the issues behind the status of media culture today. For Adorno the ‘auto-
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nomy of the work of art [was not] a prerogative’ but the ‘aural element of the work is declining – not only because of its technical reproducibility, incidentally but above all because of the fulfillment of its own autonomous laws’ (Adorno and Benjamin, 2006, p.148). Adorno was also very much negatively disposed against any idealism of bourgeois art. A negation of aesthetic orthodoxy of beauty was needed against the commoditization of art in a capitalist society, which is a point that is largely forgotten when Adorno is simply portrayed like the hardcore elitist of the Frankfurt School, something like the leftist equivalent to Leavis and Eliot. Nevertheless, Adorno always maintained a strong sense of formality in aesthetics, which, precisely in their negation of art, could develop a sense of autonomy that could surmount the problem of commodity. For Adorno this was a very vital political issue, not just a moment of realism inside culture, but moreover an alternative discourse for oppositional politics. Overall, this meant that autonomy was not something correlated to the magical cult of a work of art, as Benjamin came to believe. On the contrary, for Benjamin, or at least for the Benjamin of the ‘Work of Art’, there is a spell in any autonomous work of art, a spell that for the sake of political upheaval it ought to be brought to an end. In this respect, the poetics of photography, which refuses to ‘pass all the way to the side of art’, (Benjamin, 1971a, p.152) could offer an undeniable help in order to accomplish this task. This well known controversy between Adorno and Benjamin is not to be taken in a monolithic way, as a division of segregated postures that these two thinkers had adopted. In Adorno’s case, the connection of high formality with a moment of truth in social reality can always be turned to a mystification of the Kunstwollen despite his efforts for its eventual demystification. Heidegger has labelled the metaphysics of Nietzsche as ‘Plato reversed’ (Heidegger, 1971, p.181) and Adorno’s aesthetics are also in a way ‘Plato reversed’ as well. They both acknowledge an overwhelming power of art and if Plato rejects art for the sake of the Republic, Adorno, on the contrary, feels it is the last horizon of resistance, the only way to see outside the cave of commodities. There is also an inconsistency in Benjamin’s writings. Benjamin states for example that ‘the most accurate technique could give a magical value that a painting can never give us’ (Benjamin, 1971a, p.152), a statement in some kind of contradiction with his famous opposition of the magician-painter and the cinematographer-surgeon. Benjamin finds something beguiling in the techniques that he praises, which is associated with a certain magical element, something wunderbar that he senses throughout the modern experience.
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This fascination is also connected not only with the new or with progress itself but also with a nostalgic fleeting of the past. Benjamin is thus wholeheartedly a modernist writer because his thought can only be fully appreciated on the verge of modernism’s transition, like the moments of apocalyptic history that he evokes in his Theses and his melancholic admiration for the aesthetic phenomenon of fleeting time. In the ‘Work of Art’ essay he writes about early portrait photography: ‘For the last time aura emanates from the early photographs in the fleeting expression of a human face. This is what constitutes their melancholy, incomparable beauty.’ (Benjamin, 1971b, p.100) and Adorno speaks of his ‘nostalgic negation of the aura’ (Adorno, 1995, p.73). The fact that Benjamin sensed the effect of these moments, developing a correspondent way of writing specifically for this change, is somehow responsible for his great echo today, which builds largely upon our own nostalgia of modernity. In a certain respect, we are still trapped between Benjamin’s and Adorno’s ambiguous discordance, between the amplitude of their postures. This has to do firstly with the dubious status of contemporary art and of neo-avant-gardes and secondly with the fact that this discordance constitutes today the very discourse that postpones perpetually the so-called end of art, attesting to contemporary art a never ending problematic on the Hegelian sublation of art unto philosophy. But all this suspicious anxiety on the notion of art is nowhere else to be found but inside the enclave of the art market. This doubt of art is sold as a definition of art. Les extrêmes se touchent. Yet, another determinant stratum of this debate is that today there is a major media transition whose core is the remediation from the analogical to the digital.
Digitality and authenticity in art Surprisingly, the expression ‘digital media’ is somewhat problematic. In reality there are no digital media. Digitality, in its omnipresent power, is essentially a common protocol (brought to existence on the basis of algorithms and cybernetics) according to which we organize existing media. As Friedrich Kittler has pointed out, this entails the gradual eradication of the proper notion of the medium and today we are starting to experience what he was imagining 20 years before: ‘With numbers everything goes. Modulation, transformation, synchronization; delay, storage, transposition; scrambling, scanning, mapping – a total media link will erase the very concept of a medium. Instead of
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wiring people and technologies, absolute knowledge will run as an endless loop’ (Kittler, 1999, p.2). The death of media implicates a solidification of the aura, since the antagonism, which Benjamin sensed in between the aura of the art object and the specificity of the medium, starts to evaporate. The aura of the work of art is today amplified through diffusion and reference in an ocean of digital information systems. Benjamin presumes that through reproduction, it will be the object’s authority that will be shaken (Benjamin, 1971b, p.92). Things may seem different now. Aura becomes the commodity par excellence in an art world where objecthood, technique and media become obsolete. It is highly possible for example that the echo of the Da Vinci Code has contributed a lot to amplifying the aura of Leonardo’s paintings in the Louvre, and an unsuspected visitor will be taken by surprise by the massive worship of these paintings in the museum. This kind of pilgrimage is not about finding out what makes Mona Lisa so special, it is not a cult of Mona Lisa, it is the cult of the aura of Mona Lisa. Art is one of the few domains where the reproduction of the original has ended in dissolving the work itself in the aura that surrounds it. Thereby, the work itself, which is based on technique, on the medium and on the object, all the things that a digital culture sweeps away, fades in a mist of spectacle, credit, in the aura not of the work of art, but of art itself. It has often been said that the rise of the digital is the end of the prototype that an analogical medium always has. For a great part of today’s intellectuals this seems to have a liberating effect. Technoenthusiasm and techno-fetishism allies with the neoliberal left in order to declare the end of the unspoken authentic One. The absence of prototype is becoming the cornerstone of the metaphysic pedagogy of the digital myth. This point constitutes a purely strange merge of metaphysical ontology and media theory, since exact reproduction came to exist not only as a result of the digital revolution, but first and foremost, as a result of the industrial revolution. That is the main point of Benjamin’s argumentation, which uses the word ‘reproducibility’ (Reproduzierbarkeit) in the German version of his ‘Work of Art’. Before digital technology, when two different people saw a film in another copy of a videocassette or listened to an album of a different vinyl copy, if the copies they had were in good condition, they finally had no doubt that they saw the same film and listened to the same music. The same applies to digital technology. The material condition of the medium is still responsible for the document to be accessed, for example a DVD or even a stream of a movie in the internet: a scratched
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DVD or a low connection will modify the document to be seen or listened. But in an overall level, nobody acknowledges that he has seen the ‘digital version’ of a Bergman film or that he has heard the ‘analogical version’ of a Bach fugue. I would not like here to align with an appraisal of the inauthentic as a way of liberating western culture from its long-lived metaphysics of the One and the authentic. Attesting to the inauthentic, a liberalizing effect assumes that the authentic had merely by its very existence and not by its qualities, a qualificatory effect. No matter the effect of the authentic on our culture, the authentic does indeed have some inherent qualities unable to be found in any reproduction, and that’s why it so hard to crack its resistance in the era of digital reproduction. It is the cult of authenticity that is of course the wrong leap in perception aesthetics. Therefore, what seems to be more pertinent in a digital era is an epistemology of the authentic and not its unconditional refusal, an epistemology that can examine the qualities not of the authentic but of something authentic, an epistemology whose analytical tools will unmask the authentic, thus avoiding also the very spell that authenticity can cast upon us. In ancient Greek the word αυθεvτ ´ια (authenticity) and the word for the person who committed murder or suicide αυθ´εvτ ης are closely related (From the verb ‘αυθ´ιηµι’ [authiêmi] which means literately ‘to throw oneself’). Not unjustly, since authenticity and self-negation are both a way of closing and opening oneself before the worldly experience. An epistemology of the authentic could show the processes of such rupture and openness in terms of technicality, singularity and even ecstasy. The issue of a generic aura of art becomes today more urgent throughout the galloping expansion of contemporary art and modern art museums, which set out to institutionalize and canonize the avant-gardes. Adorno could imagine that a subversion of art could become a dominant mode of artistic creation, but certainly not that it would be drawn back to instrumental rationality, which was the case since the academization of the avant-gardes. Moreover, this artistic creation today is endowed economically and culturally exactly with the essence of ‘quality art’ that Adorno was so eager to denounce. The elusiveness of the ‘negative dialectics’ that Adorno conceptualized according to high technical aspects which could evolve in a kind of social antithesis gave its place to the logic of aesthetic subversion, based on the conventions of art institutions and the fusion between art and theory, devoid from any technical matter. Conversely, the cult of the art object that Benjamin tried to eliminate seems to be
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getting larger if not monstrous. What could be a clearer sign of the failure of Benjamin’s aesthetic project, than the fact that, unlike no other era in world art, historiography and museology have managed to extirpate from art any notion of historicity and style and infuse in it instead with the reign of eternal and monumental nihilism? Constantin Guys, the painter of modern life, is today not a heroic but a pitiful figure for the art institution. Someone of course can suggest that modern day museums, especially those of modern and contemporary art, are not displaying objects in the same cult fashion as older museums did. But strangely enough contemporary art museums are probably the only place where any object, apparatus or installation is presented under the same spell of the aura of art. They are the shiny proof of the infinite possibilities of capitalism and the endless experimentation of the neo-avant-gardes, which constitute a new type of artistic sublime as Lyotard has suggested (Lyotard, 1988, p.102); an albeit Faustian sublime, we may add, where man stands consumed and helpless before its creation, this is to say the ever-growing totalitarian character of capitalism.
Aura, sign value and the rise of the readymade If we want to follow the example of Benjamin and examine the real impact of digitality in art we ought not to find a way of how art can be sustained at all costs in a digital context but how this new condition transforms the condition of art itself. Benjamin’s thrust in his writings on cinematography were not that he conceived the artistic features of cinema, which remained a specific task for cinema studies, but adversely that he set his focus on how cinema will change our artistic and cultural paradigm. Digitality denies an aura based on presence, since it denies presence altogether. The medium, the aesthetic and perceptive qualities and the technique of the work have long ceased to be characteristics that are entwined with the cult of art, its aural function, just because they cannot define anything that is properly artistic. Adorno was emblematically announcing in the beginning of his Aesthetic Theory that it is no longer self-evident what is specifically relevant to art and aesthetics, acknowledging exactly this new cultural shift. In a digital culture, the transformation of media specificity in an invariable digital signal through different mediations is coupled with the advent of the readymade in a contemporary art where artistic media become gradually insignificant. Indeed, the institutionalization of the
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readymade meant a slow death for all art and theory of art based on media, just as digital processing obliterated technical media. We cannot have today a more newer Laocoon just as Greenberg would hope; and it is not completely a coincidence that the continuous theory quarrels on artistic media in American contemporary art, between abstract expressionism, minimalism, land art and conceptualism, came all to an end in the 80s when digital devices started to have an impact on our everyday life. The reign of logos in technique, through calculability and system theory, was accompanied by the reign of logos in art, incarnated through the reign of the readymade and postmodern theory. The latter was no more than a theoretical amalgamation that finally generated a theoretical code which university and art institutions quickly considered their lingua franca. The application of postmodernism in art had scarcely any artistic, technical and media implications. Its application was born out of a submissiveness of art to logos, a submissiveness of technique to logic. Postmodernism was thus the first really technological art where technique and logos, artists and theoreticians could work on exactly the same code forming the first ‘total art world’. A new artistic sign system was established, which was largely based upon the politically correct of minority politics and the total power of the institution of art to bestow the artistic accolade according to norms and discourses administered by itself; a sort of institutional hegemony this time exerted by the paradoxical alliance of radicals and official institutions. In this way, the art world managed to replace substantially the symbolic value of art by a system oriented sign value of art, thus displacing the cultural function and substituting it with rational function of art (Baudrillard, 1972, p.64). This is correlative to a general decadence of symbolic forms, decadence that is a prerequisite of any digital mediality. Baudrillard had the great insight on the dawn of the digital era to critic the Marxian notion of the ‘fetishism of commodity’ and explain the driving force behind consumerism according to a passion for the code of a consumerism system, which the system of sign value generates (Baudrillard, 1972, pp.95–113). Accordingly, today the kind of artistic code brought forth by postmodernism becomes the essential economic and cultural component to sustain an art whose aesthetic and artistic agency is rendered impotent. In this context, the readymade remains the only process of claiming (through the agency of the institution) a transposition from artistry to highbrow art. The institution becomes literally the ‘curator’ of the
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artistic code, whose norms and rules assure its value as art. This function of the code, exemplified in the readymade, is determinant to a shift from the aura of the object – an aura of presence – to the aura of sign value – an aura that is appropriate for a digital culture. The synergy between digital technology and the aural function of the sign system of contemporary art is best demonstrated with the ever-growing archives of artifacts, of works, and of genres to be labelled as or connoted with contemporary art and the avant-garde. These archives take a monumental form in the aggressive expansion of museums (for example the Guggenheim Las Vegas exhibition ‘The art of the motorcycle’ designed by Frank Ghery) or a digital form as for example in Ubu web, a ‘completely independent resource dedicated to all strains of the avant-garde, ethnopoetics, and outsider arts’ (www.ubu.com) as we read in the site’s front page. Man Ray once stated that ‘Dada cannot live in New York. All New York is Dada and will not tolerate a rival’ (quoted in Foresta, 1988, p.88), anticipating, in this way, the institutionalization of a (dadaistic) avant-garde ethos, which became the driving force of highbrow culture in the second half of the century. Today, we absorb this driving force through an enormous archiving and filing of 20th century culture, according to the sign system code of modernist and contemporary art. This process, which has nearly mapped all previous highbrow culture at the international level, continues to be built upon pop culture. Rock music for example has undergone a considerable process of legitimization during the last years and there is an increasing flirtation between rock bands and art institutions. Someone could speculate that the loss of this symbolic function is the final justification for Benjamin, who in the Origin of German Tragic Drama argued for the transmutation of the symbolism of the work of art into the poetics of allegory. Nevertheless, what the contemporary art system has put forth doesn’t have much in common with this argument. Allegory is scarcely related to today’s sign system of art. The power of allegory resides in its incommensurable conception of what is being said and what is being shown. For Benjamin, this was the materialization of a melancholic and fleeting representation of the modern experience, which is much more relevant to the symbolic value of art that is to say to a purely cultural value. On the contrary, what we experience in contemporary art is a total system where the works that gain in popularity become an exemplification of the sign system of art, they become its emblems; and emblems have nothing to do with melancholy, they are a sign of power.
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What has replaced this cultic function of art is the function of status. Although contemporary art has been transformed into a cultural industry that is exploiting art as raw material for commercial and productive ends, it retains nevertheless a strong legitimization discourse within society, which takes its origins from the inclusion of visual arts in liberal arts during the Renaissance. Whereas, since this inclusion, art has always maintained a high cultural status, its connotation with religion and afterwards, its affiliation with the strong academicism of enlightenment, was responsible for a cultic function of the art object. Although today some may find a great religious and cultic connotation in the veneration of the art works in museums, we cannot really acknowledge a cultic function of the work. Instead, we venerate the notion of art more than some works in particular, the stereotype of the genius-artist more than artists themselves, in other words, the sign system of art, with all its clichés and conventions, more than the work of art itself; and this becomes more true, in as much as we approach the art of our own era where the sign system value totally defies the symbolic value.
Aura and digital immateriality Digital technologies have always thought to be close to an immaterial level of organization. There is a great lie and a great truth to this assumption. On the one hand, it is apparent that a set of material, economic and geographical factors regulates the flow of digital data. On the other, digital technologies are always related to an immaterial realm since they constitute, for the first time in human history, the rendering of logos to technical terms; there is actually nothing technical in digitality itself, digitality just uses technique to increase the speed of logical processes. Hence, the digital actually originates from an immaterial process of calculability and rationality, which is translated into technical terms, notably transistors and integrated circuits, to achieve instrumental and scientific applications. The same, in general, applies to the major component of digital technologies in our age, that is to say cybernetics. That means basically that the tactility that Benjamin saw in the art of cinematography is no longer present. For Benjamin this sort of tactility was a major aesthetic effect provoked by ‘changes in places and focus which periodically assail the spectator […] which constitutes the shock effect of films, and like all shocks, should be cushioned by a heightened presence of mind’ (Benjamin, 1971b, p.120). Today, the
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viewing subject has not only interiorized this kind of ‘shock’ of continuous change but moreover digital technologies have actually altered our proper conceptions of localization and concentration. Therefore, even if changes in ‘focus and places’ are far more violent in digital cinematic esthetics, experienced in Hollywood films, video clips, advertisements and the Internet, they do not provoke any shock because our mode of concentration, thinking, and feeling starts to appropriate an abrupt, or even ‘jumping’, state of mind. This is correlative to the fact that aura in the digital apparatus is based not on presence and distance but, on the contrary, on immersion. It is the immersive power of digital technologies that steams from an aligning point of our ‘jumping’ state of mind and an incessant exchange of information that is fueling the allure of informatics. It is the promise of a total experience of simulation where just the simple act of interaction could attain the sublime. It can be a battlefield, a porn movie, an excursion in the mountains, an art installation, designed to heighten the senses in a self-satisfactory experience that is in fact an experience of desublimation. Animal urges and instrumental values of humanism could be merged in a single and total environment where the I will feel jubilation through the osmosis of digital data. When total immersion will have been accomplished that ‘aura’ of immersion will vanish just because non-immersion will not be an alternative. That is why thinking about the Benjaminian aura today can only offer a practical and powerful path insofar as it is thought as our ‘flash in a moment of danger’. Strangely enough aura is close to another Greek word α νριο ´ meaning tomorrow, whose etymology comes from the word ηως ´ which means morn. In a way it is a very fruitful contingence, because Benjamin’s theory is a theory of transition, of change, of tomorrow. But tomorrow and yesterday are not to be thought in terms of futurology and prophecy but in the perspective of revealing the present. Aura is trapped exactly in this historical progress that Benjamin describes as a ‘storm’ in his famous analysis of the Angelus Novus of Paul Klee. ‘Every epoch dreams of the one to come, but by dreaming it precipitates its awakening’ (Benjamin, 1971b, p.53) is one of Benjamin’s most well known quotes. But such assumptions cannot be made in any other time of the day but the morn, this hypnagogic, somnolent state between quickening and dreaming, this apocalyptic and dialectical moment where the dreamer becomes aware of the dream. In this way aura can give us today this apocalyptic sight for our moment and become a memory flirting with our danger. And it seems that this danger is none other than, to paraphrase, the fatalism
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reflected in the communist manifesto: all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with inebriated senses his virtual conditions of life and his virtual mutual relations.
Notes 1 cf. Chantraine, Pierre (1999) Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue grecque (Paris: Klincksieck). 2 cf. Homeric Hymns, v.276. 3 cf. Bailly, Anatole (1950) Dictionnaire Grec-Français (Paris : Hachette). 4 cf. Euripides, Iphigeneia at Aulis (v.1325) and The Suppliants (v.1048).
Bibliography Adorno, Theodor W. and Benjamin, Walter (2006) Adorno-Benjamin Correspondence 1928–1940, translated from German to French by Philippe Ivanel and Guy Petitdemange (Paris: Gallimard). Adorno, Theodor W. (1995) Théorie esthétique, translated from German to French by Marc Jimenez (Paris: Klincksieck). Baudrillard, Jean (1972) Pour une critique de l’économie politique du signe (Paris: Gallimard). Benjamin, Walter (1971a) Essais, Vol. 1, translated from German to French by Maurice de Gandillac (Paris: Denoël). Benjamin, Walter (1971b) Essais, Vol. 2, translated from German to French by Maurice de Gandillac (Paris: Denoël). Benjamin, Walter (1985) Origine du drame baroque allemand, translated from German to French by Sibylle Muller (Paris: Flammarion). Foresta, Merry (ed.) (1988) Perpetual Motif: The Art of Man Ray (New York: Abbeville Press). Heidegger, Martin (1971) Nietzsche, Vol. 1, translated from German to French by Pierre Klossowski (Paris: Gallimard). Kittler, Friedrich (1999) Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, translated from German by Geoffrey, Winthrop-Young and Wultz, Michael (Stanford California: Stanford University Press). Lyotard, Jean-François (1988), ‘Le sublime et l’avant-garde’, in L’inhumain: causeries sur le temps (Paris: Galilée). Rochlitz, Rainer (1992) Le désenchantement de l’art: la philosophie de Walter Benjamin (Paris: Gallimard).
9 Towards a Benjaminist Political Economy Claes Belfrage
Introduction In Political Economy, Benjamin is frequently referred to typically in the form of catchy quotations. Indeed, in Western intelligentsia, a ‘Benjamin cult’ has emerged (Buck-Morss, 1989, p.ix). Benjaminist Political Economy is nevertheless unheard of.1 This chapter outlines such an approach. Through a critique of Benjamin’s understanding of dialectics and intended to develop context-sensitive concepts for thinking about the processes by which the aesthetically embedded economy undergoes change, it develops Benjaminist dialectics. Drawing on fragments of Benjamin’s fragmented thought and interpretations of his work, I construct a dialectical concept of ‘economic aesthetics’ to sketch the contradictions emerging with the economic transformations that we have come to know as the ‘financialization of everyday life’, or the privatization of financial risk (e.g. Martin, 2002). Post-war Keynesian Fordism enabled the construction of a Sorelian ‘myth of consumption’. Financialization can be understood as a very powerful set of processes by which the ‘myth of consumption’ itself is commodified through the mass-formation of investor subjects, which at the same leads to its possible demise. Economic aesthetics sensitizes us to the fact that financialization constitutes a profound challenge to capitalist modernity on the level of subjectformation. The formation of investor subjects becomes uncertain and contingent upon rising asset prices, but above all it fundamentally unravels the economic security promoted on a mass scale with the post-war project of full employment and substantial welfare provision, which has come to underpin the ‘myth of consumption’. The chapter proceeds in the following manner. Firstly, what is meant by the ‘aesthetically embedded economy’ is demonstrated by developing 171
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Benjaminist dialectics. This serves to lay the foundation for the development of the dialectical concept of ‘economic aesthetics’. In the development of this concept, I proceed in three stages: by critiquing Benjamin’s understanding of consumption, by reconceptualizing Buck-Morss’s notion of the ‘synaesthetic system’ (1992), and by conceptualizing, and thus invoking, ‘economic aesthetics’. This enables us to see the deep contradiction between financialization and post-war Keynesian Fordism. I conclude by stressing the utility of approaching the political economy of financialization from a Benjaminist perspective and suggest moments for which the construction of other and related dialectical concepts could be meaningful.
A critique of Benjamin’s dialectics Benjamin came to express a direct commitment to Marxism. Still, the nature of this commitment is far from straightforward and quite arguably deeply problematic (Adorno, 2007, pp.129–31). As Clark argues, Marxism’s impression on Benjamin was ‘pervasive, vital, and superficial’ (2003, p.41). Benjamin famously employed a peculiar understanding of history and time, which contributes to rendering his work neither ‘historical materialist’ nor ‘dialectical materialist’. Lingering in his work, even in the more Marxist, later stages of his life and translating into his particular take on dialectics, were both a profound Jewish Kabbalistic mysticism and a legacy of German idealist philosophy. As Buck-Morss argues: ‘in his move to Marx, rather than forsake (Kantian) philosophy or (Kabbalist) mysticism, he retained what he considered their common cognitive structure but “refunctioned” it…, transforming idealist cognition into materialist cognition, and religious illumination into profane illumination’ (1977, p.22). In Adorno’s words (1997, p.233), ‘He is driven not merely to awaken congealed life in petrified objects…but also to scrutinize living things so that they present themselves as being ancient, “ur-historical” and abruptly release their significance.’ From the perspective of the present, the ancient was made meaningful and vice versa: ‘the very newness and modernity of the present could be made to suddenly release its significance when seen as [ancient]’ (Buck-Morss, 1977, p.58). The purpose was nevertheless not to ‘conserve the traces of a purportedly eternal truth but rather to escape the trance-like captivity of bourgeois immanence’ (Adorno, 1997, p.236). Simplistically put, at the core of his (changing) dialectics was the intention to ‘de-mythologize’ past and present by allowing each to illuminate the other. To render his thought even more eclectic, he drew on elements of Freud’s work to construct his notion of a class-based ‘collective dream’
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and to develop his understanding of everyday experience as neurological.2 In a dialectical manner, Benjamin, in a seemingly reversed reading of Marx and Freud, ‘found in Marxist theory a justification for the conception of a [lived] collective dream, and in Freud an argument for the existence of class differences within it’ (Buck-Morss, 1983, p.228). To engage with his work for the purpose of developing an approach to political economy is difficult, firstly, due to this eclecticism and, secondly, due to ‘his own hostility to the academic mode of production, and the complex strategies whereby his texts resist such reductiveness’ (Eagleton, 1981, Preface). Arguably, any attempt to present a coherent and ‘true’ account of ‘Benjamin’ is a disservice to his, and quite arguably one’s own work. As Wieseltier claims in the preface to Reflections, ‘among the great modern intellectuals, he was the one who least added up’ (2007, p.vii). Nevertheless, this eclectic collection of seemingly idiosyncratic ideas is, as I will argue, very useful if re-worked. In particular, it is meaningful to engage in the Benjaminian exercise of constructing dialectical concepts, or ‘images’, because it enables us to understand his approach to dialectics. It sought to allow ‘a contradictory, moving context [of a historically and spatially specific capitalism] to be thought’ (Haug, 2005, p.262). This ‘art’ ‘means having the wind of history in one’s sails. The sails are the concepts’ (Benjamin, 2002, p.473). Through this exercise, Benjamin sought to present the way in which a historically and spatially specific, yet always changing, capitalist economy was aesthetically embedded, or more precisely how it was aesthetically experienced and practiced. However, to employ his method is neither straightforward nor, as I will argue, meaningful from a perspective, which, like Benjamin once did, seeks to not only understand but also engender change. Therefore, to allow oneself to be inspired by Benjamin in the development of an approach to political economy involves critiquing his work, to carve out a meaningful interpretation with the help of the interpretations of others: to construct a Benjaminist dialectics. Marx lays bare the causal connection between economy and culture. For us, what matters is the thread of expression. It is not the economic origins of culture that will be presented, but the expression of the economy in its culture. At issue, in other words, is the attempt to grasp an economic process as perceptible Ur-phenomenon, from out of which proceed all manifestations (Ibid., p.460). Benjamin’s work inspires us to think about the connections between economy and culture, as ‘aesthetically’ expressed or ‘sense-perceived’; to theorize the everyday expressions of an economic process as an
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Ur-phenomenon. In other words, how the capitalist economy is ‘aesthetically’ ‘embedded’ in the form of norms, values and practices of sense-perception in everyday life. Yet, Benjamin was wary of the economic determinism that had come to dominate Marxism, not the least conspicuous in the deliberations of the Second International (1889–1916). He was dissatisfied with the prevailing Marxist understanding of dialectics both in terms of theory and method. It was ‘un-sensuous’. He appreciated the young Hegelian Marx’s unfinished attempt to invert and re-theorize Hegel’s dialectic, which pointed to a sensuous Marxism that ‘scientific marxism’ had abandoned (e.g. Arato and Breines, 1979, pp.15–16, 124). In particular, the prevailing method of Marxism was the object of his concern: ‘Must the Marxist understanding of history necessarily be acquired at the expense of history’s perceptibility?’ This, in turn, led him to ask: ‘in what way is it possible to conjoin a heightened vividness [Anschaulichkeit) to the realization of Marxist method’ (Benjamin, 2002, p.461)?3 Problematically, the method Benjamin sought to develop in response to this question lacked a clear and coherent theory of mediation. It represented a peculiarly ‘magical’, yet arguably positivist, Marxist method. As Adorno put it to Benjamin with reference to the latter’s Baudelaire study: ‘The “mediation” which I miss and find obscured by materialistichistoriographic invocation, is nothing other than the theory which your study omits’ (Adorno, 2007, p.129). As Eagleton argues, Benjamin’s method risks hardening the forms of sense-perception, upon which exploitative economic processes rely, ‘into no more than [capitalist] ideology’s inverted mirror-image, replacing a theoretical myopia with a corresponding astigmatism’ (1990, p.334). If anything meaningful therefore is to be salvaged from Benjamin’s dialectics such a theory of mediation is required, to ensure that economic process does not fully determine its aesthetic expression. Or, for that matter, that aesthetic expression does not fully determine economic process. We must understand economic form as expressed in the everyday in its uncertain specificity, aesthetically articulated in an inherently intersubjective and contingent manner. The expression of ‘the economic’ and ‘the cultural’ under capitalism thus takes the form of a dialectical ‘synthesis’ (Buck-Morss, 1991, p.73). It is this synthesis of economy and culture, the aesthetic embeddedness of the economy, which according to Benjaminist dialectics must be excavated in depth (see also Eagleton, 1981, p.55). I am here referring to the exercise of seeking to grasp ‘economic aesthetics’, which I will later conceptualize in historically and spatially specific ways in relation
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to a spatially and historically specific development of capitalism. This involves identifying the processes by which the economy is aesthetically embedded in everyday life, but also those projects that seek to dis-embed and re-embed the aesthetics of the economy, recasting the aesthetic experience of the economy in new ways, and exercising an influence over how the economy and its transformation are senseperceived and thus understood. The concept of ‘economic aesthetics’ sustains a historically specific and subjectively experienced reality, which is crucial for understand-ing processes of economic change because it invests institutions, discourses, bodies and (inter-)subjectivities of economic processes with agency, fragility, unevenness and struggle, yet at the same time a dialectical continuity. As such, it is only meaningfully developed in relation to such and not as a transcendental concept. Nevertheless, to ensure understanding of the approach developed here, it makes sense to outline some form of generalized definition. ‘Economic aesthetics’ refers to the multilayered senseperception of the economy, intersubjectively appropriated and produced as meanings and practices, consciously and unconsciously, by individuals in an unevenly developing capitalist economy. The historically developing economy creates traumas and desires, and encourages processes of learning. Traumas, desires and learnt logics are shaped bodily and intersubjectively and structure everyday meanings. Consciously or unconsciously, they inform everyday practices. These meanings can be understood as the building blocks (similar to ‘mythemes’, see Levi-Strauss, 1968) of a myth. These are never omnipotent or stable, but jostle with one another for the position in which they are called up by particular contexts and discourses. Nevertheless, ‘economic aesthetics’ can become tendentially stable or hegemonic4 and contribute to the formation of a ‘Sorelian social myth’ by providing ‘an immanent mobilising image, a vision of the future’ (Ryner, 2006, p.64). Yet, and this must be made clear, such myths are constructed in relation to material processes linked to projects of capitalist accumulation. It is here argued that in order to understand the tendencies and countertendencies in contemporary economic transformations such as financialization, we need to understand how meanings and practices are aesthetically embedded in the economy in historically and spatially specific ways because such constructions may serve to structure the way in which the economy develops. ‘Economic aesthetics’ are formed in the everyday of space. Lefebvre tells us that the everyday is ‘an object of programming…, whose unfolding is imposed by the market, by the system of equivalences, by marketing and advertisements’ (in Davies and Niemann, 2002, p.558).
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Space relates to the socially produced grids and horizons of social life that guide as well as render possible the development of socio-economic relations over space and time (Lefebvre, 1991, p.129). ‘Economic aesthetics’ are therefore our unstable, normative and practical embeddedness in the capitalist economy. As such, there is no Althusserian economic determinism ‘in the last instance’ in this approach. There is only an economic determinism in ‘the first instance’, which sensitizes us to economic form without assuming its content (Hall, 1996). From this perspective, we become concerned with processes of economic transformation unfolding in seemingly contingent and unpredictable ways (Buck-Morss, 1991, p.73). Here it becomes useful to reconceptualize Raymond Williams’s notion of ‘structures of feeling’: that emergent, pre-lingual and intersubjective consciousness, capable of translating into nascent and emergent social and cultural structures (Schutz, 1962, pp.7–47). If instead applied to aesthetics (or sense-perception), we can see how the contingency and unpredictability of economic transformation in significant, although far from exclusive, part can derive from clashes of emergent, pre-lingual and intersubjective sense-consciousness with prevailing modes of sense-perceiving in everyday life. As such, prevailing economic aesthetics can come to be conflicting or complementary to unfolding economic processes and lead to the latter’s reinforcing, reorientation or even undoing. Indeed, the struggle over and legitimacy of the direction of capitalism is intimately linked to the embedding, dis-embedding and re-embedding of economic aesthetics. To seek to conceptualize and thus illuminate these clashes must be the ‘objective’ of Benjaminist political economy. The study of historically and spatially specific capitalist transformations from a Benjaminist dialectical perspective requires an understanding of time and space.5 Benjamin’s understanding of historical change seems on the surface pessimistic: ‘The fact that “everything just goes on” is the crisis’ (Benjamin, 1974, p.583). While this, in the context of another crisis and the onset of economic recession, seems like a meaningful interpretation, Benjamin still sought to identify glimmers of hope in the micro-spatialities of everyday life. The capitalist economy needs to be reproduced and legitimated, and that inevitably occurs through its aesthetic embedding in everyday life; we cannot understand the economy without experiencing it and we cannot experience it without some form of understanding of it, conscious or unconscious, lingually expressed or not yet so. If we understood the historically and spatially specific aesthetic embeddedness of the capitalist economy in everyday life better, we could politicize processes of aesthetic embedding more effectively.
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Yet, the dominant concerns with the aesthetics of the economy are today predominantly either ‘culturalist’ or ‘economistic’, and thus not recognizing any dialectical relationship between the ‘cultural’ and the ‘economic’. For instance, cultural studies have come to be concerned largely with aesthetics as pleasurably constitutive of consumerist identity and social status, not needs and inequality (e.g. Lodziak, 2008). Mainstream neoclassical economic approaches are not particularly interested in aesthetics as intersubjectively and historically constituted, but simply assume that consumption is market-determined and inherently pleasurable: the more commodities consumed the better (Ackerman, 1997, p.652). Marxist political economy largely refuses to get involved in the study of the aesthetic embedding of the economy, and rather remains uncomfortably wedded to economic determinism (Wittel, 2004).6 Consumption becomes generally theorized in terms of a function of objectively determined classes, rather than exploring the processes by which particular commodities are aestheticized so as to appeal to or be ‘resisted’ by intersubjectively constructed socio-economic groups. As a consequence of these approaches’ general neglect of ‘economic aesthetics’, capitalist history persistently flows, as Benjamin conceived it, oppressing its past and present. Benjaminist dialectics, in contrast, challenges the continuous flow of capitalist history by seeking to rupture its seemingly steadily evolving processes, ‘to brush history against the grain’ (Benjamin, 1999, p.248), to challenge aesthetic-economic shibboleths, in order to redeem the oppressed and neglected past. To Benjaminist dialectics, rupturing the flow of capitalist history involves illuminating the ways in which new modes of sense-perceiving come to dominate and support new forms or processes of exploitation, and how the resulting ‘detritus of history’ is rendered ‘offbeat and deviant’ (cf. Eagleton, 1990, p.334), dis-embedded and sometimes re-embeddeded. Again, this must be done without risking hardening the forms of senseperception upon which exploitative economic processes rely. What becomes necessary is to historicize capitalism from a Benjaminist dialectical perspective, seeking to theorize what consumption means at this particular historical juncture. In order to do this and before we can develop the notion of ‘economic aesthetics’, we need to explore how Benjamin approached consumption.
Benjamin on consumption For Benjamin, not only shocking and mind-numbing Taylorist production processes (Benjamin, 1999, pp.170–2), but also conspicuous spaces of luxury consumption, such as the Parisian Arcades, exploited
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labour (Benjamin, 2002) in what we can call early capitalist modernity. To Benjamin, exploitation related strongly to the notion of ‘alienation’, or more precisely the deprivation of imagination and creativity, key to emancipation. Particularly interested in consumption and approaching it through Marx’s notion of the commodity fetish, Benjamin understood consumption as a profoundly social phenomenon, which gained particular significance in the city. The city symbolized the hope for Enlightenment for ‘the masses’ that had been drawn there as a result of industrialization and urbanization, offering the opportunities to set off on a quest for true consciousness. Yet, the experience of the city failed to deliver. Everyday life instead gradually came to embody the instrumental rationality of the Enlightenment project, institutionalized in capitalist labour processes, bureaucratic-corporate practices and consumption, which, of course, were aesthetically produced in various forms (e.g. Buck-Morss. 2002). Replacing the Enlightenment promise, consumption started to take centrestage. Facilitated by the commodity fetish, consumption celebrated ‘wish-images’ of luxury. These were phantasmagorically projected, for instance in the form of advertisements, onto spaces of dreams, such as the Arcades. These ‘wish-images’ depended on the construction of novelty ‘in order to generate a repetitive, ever-identical demand’ (Buck-Morss, 1981, p.72). By definition, novelty implied the impossibility of the satisfaction of desires: ‘Novelty is a quality which does not depend on the use-value of the commodity. It is the source of the illusion which belongs inalienably to the images which the collective consciousness engenders’ (Benjamin, 1973, p.172). Each act of commodity exchange is at once uniquely differentiated and a monotonous replaying of the same old story. The epitome of the commodity is thus the cult of fashion, in which the familiar returns with some slight variation, the very old and the very new caught up together in some oxymoronic logic of identity-in-difference (Eagleton, 1990, p.317). Consumption was thus a matter of emulation, or ‘identity-in-difference’, by which commodities were becoming the determinants of social status, or ‘belonging-in-solitude’. In urban mass culture, these particular social relationships ‘between people…[took on] the phantasmagorical form of a relation between things’ (Rühle (Marx) cited in Benjamin, 2002, p.182). The masses ‘became a permanent presence in social life’ flowing through space in quotidian rhythms, ‘anonymous, fungible and rootless’,
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and above all subjected to the moral messages of advertisement and dreamlike ‘wish-images’ (Buck-Morss, 2002, p.134). This dream consciousness gained and deepened under mass consumerist capitalism. Yet, while it was shared by bourgeoisie and proletariat, it could be enjoyed differentially, and was thus potentially destabilizing: Although the arcades were open to rich and poor alike, the way one experienced this space was totally class-determined. The bourgeoisie, strolling along the passage in front of these displays, was given the chance ‘… to display themselves, and the opportunity to marvel at the products of a blooming luxury industry, to buy them, to put them on, to show, and to use them.’ The view was, of course, quite different for the working class. These displays of luxury were signs of their own misery, the fact that the new social wealth which their own labour was producing had become the source of their impoverishment. At the same time, there was a danger that the glamour and lustre of the scene would blind the workers to the reality of their self-alienation, that this new worship of commodities and the spectacles of their display, would function, like the old religion, as an opiate of the masses (Buck-Morss, 1981, p.67). As such, the emerging dreamworld of mass consumption served to reproduce capitalism. At the same time, this dreamworld could turn into capital’s nightmare and therefore had to be controlled. If organized, the masses formed a potent physical force whose power constituted a threat to sovereign power. Consequently, spreading consumerist dream consciousness to the masses became an imperative for capital, and the capitalist state in particular.7 From Benjamin’s historically and spatially specific perspective, mass consumerism promised political disarmament. Benjamin’s countermove was the construction of ‘dialectical images’, founded on an epistemology which we could call ‘constellatory’. These ‘images’ (descriptions or photographs) were intended to awaken ‘the masses’ by rendering visible the divisions, gaps, repetitions and contradictions of the dreamworld they experienced. His images sought to overcome the dualism of the subjectobject relation by radically fusing concept and object, ‘a form of criticism so tenaciously immanent that it would remain entirely immersed in its object’ (Eagleton, 1990, pp.328–9). The ‘images’ juxtaposed extremes, typically the archaic and the modern, yet presented the task of ‘revealing the configuration in which they congealed or converged’ to the subject. It was through a Kantian philosophical experience (Erfahrung) of the subject
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that ‘constellations’, or ideas, could be made out: ‘ideas are to objects as constellations are to stars’ (Benjamin, 2003, p.34). An ‘inner logic’ could supposedly be found between these phenomena enabling objectively structured links to be drawn between them (Buck-Morss, 1977, p.91). Inspired by Surrealism, Mysticism and Brecht’s epic theatre, Benjamin understood the ‘dialectical image’ to project a ‘flash of light’, a moment of profane illumination. However, as Adorno rightly pointed out, in the absence of a serious theory of mediation, rather than ‘avoiding the extremes of positive theology or vulgar materialism, Benjamin’s dialectical images had a tendency to be guilty of both’ (ibid., p.143). The question arose: if neither theory of mediation nor theoretical framework were effectively provided, how could Benjamin expect this ‘inner logic’ to be found? Moreover, even if this inner logic could be found, why would it necessarily result in that the phenomena, as Benjamin sought, were resurrected? By circumventing determinations stipulated by a theory of mediation, or ‘the relative causal weight and efficacy of different constituents within a whole system…[by equalising] out all elements of the object’ (Eagleton, 1990, p.331), these images tend towards political impotency (Wieseltier, 2007, p.ix). While fascinating, Benjamin’s constellations point to a ‘free play of difference’ as they leave their interpretation up to the undetermined imagination of the allegorist. As Eagleton argues, capitalism is ‘a system of transformations…[which] can be encompassed as an object of study neither by a “structuralist” narratology that expels all heterogeneity, nor by a cultic pluralism that dissolves it to sheer difference’ (1981, p.74). Benjamin threatens to deprive the subject of its agency and its critical role. In sum, in his reaction to what he perceived as the universalizing history of the Marxism of the time, Benjamin’s ‘dialectical concepts’ fail to politicize the aesthetic embeddedness of the capitalist system. They may illuminate ‘the people without history’, but forget why and how aesthetically they are deprived of one. Rather than being capable of awakening the dreaming masses, of being emancipatory, therefore, these images potentially just provide capitalist ideology’s inverted mirror-image. Out of this discussion arises the intention to develop a framework that enables the construction of theoretically mediated concepts that, true to Benjamin’s intentions, serve to underline the historically and spatially specific aesthetic embeddedness of capitalist everyday life. However, this cannot be understood unless ‘the aesthetic’ is further unpacked. We must theorize, in a historically and spatially specific
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manner how the capitalist economy is aesthetically embedded, how it is experienced. The chapter therefore next proceeds in its development of Benjaminist dialectics by exploring aesthetics as neurological experience in early capitalist modernity.
The synaesthetic system in early capitalist modernity In her Aesthetics and Anaesthetics: Walter Benjamin’s Artwork Essay Reconsidered (1992), Susan Buck-Morss usefully develops Benjamin’s thinking on the neurological as embodied and intersubjective to attempt to rescue ‘the aesthetic’ from the claws of the bourgeoisie. Indeed, Benjamin had critiqued Kant, the bourgeois philosopher par excellence, for ‘the limited nature of [his] concept of experience…[I]ts inadequacy when confronted with the transitoriness of the phenomena, on the one hand, and their…noumenal truth, on the other’ (BuckMorss, 1977, p.91). In bourgeois theory and in the reified everyday, the aesthetic infers ‘sensibility’, ‘fictitiousness’ and the ‘heteronomous’. Even in Habermas’s (the black sheep of the Frankfurt School) neoKantian representation, the aesthetic is ‘a kind of sandbox to which one consigns all those vague things…under the heading of the irrational…[where] they can be monitored and, in case of need, controlled’ (Jameson, 1990, p.232). Of course, according to the Enlightenment project, the aesthetic represents an obstacle to the rational pursuit of the universal truth, to emancipation or the gaining of true consciousness. Indeed, ‘Kant’s [final] ideal is autogenesis. The moral will be cleansed of any contamination by the senses’ (Buck-Morss, 1992, p.9).8 In the essay, Buck-Morss explores an idea that Benjamin touches upon in his Artwork essay, but which he never fully develops: ‘to render politics aesthetic’ (Benjamin, 1999, p.234). He stops short of developing this idea due to his understandable fear of Fascism’s capacity to ‘manage’ (Betreibt) the aestheticization of politics (1992, p.4).9 Yet, as Buck-Morss claims, pursuing this idea has political potential. Buck-Morss attempts to do just that by deconstructing the ‘myth of autogenesis’ and by replacing it with her own ‘Benjaminist’ take on the neurological as embodied and intersubjective. In so doing, she seeks to redeem ‘the aesthetic’ by putting it in a dialectical relationship with ‘politics’. The parallels with the project at hand, to construct a dialectical Benjaminist political economy should by now be clear: to identify and map projects which serve to sustain or transform forms and conventions of sense-perceiving, and thus understanding, the capitalist economy. This necessarily involves grasping how they become embedded or
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resisted in the everyday, and how this has changed under capitalist modernity leading up to its most recent stage: financialization. BuckMorss returns to the ancient Greek origins of aesthetics. Here, the aesthetic has two related meanings: Aisthitikos refers to that which is perceptive by feeling, whereas Aisthisis signifies the sensory experience of perception. In other words, she tries to retrieve the material to sensuous experience, to relate the experience of truth to sense-perception. Sensing occurs through our nervous system, which connects our body surfaces with the brain. The exact nature of the affect of sensing is, however, (still) a matter of theory and not, despite the increasingly loud claims of cognitive science and its followers in political economy (e.g. Blyth, 2003; Jacobs, 2009), scientific empirical study.10 As BuckMorss argues, the nervous system is not contained within the limits of the body, it is in fact a completely open system: As the source of stimuli and motor response, the external world must be included to complete the sensory circuit…Sensory deprivation causes the system’s internal components to degenerate…The field of the sensory circuit thus corresponds to that of ‘experience’, in the classical philosophical sense of a mediation of subject and object, and yet its very composition makes the so-called split between subject and object (which was the constant plague of classical philosophy) simply irrelevant (Buck-Morss, 1992, pp.12–13). Buck-Morss refers to this system as the ‘synaesthetic system’, an aesthetic system of intersubjective and embodied ‘senseconsciousness’. To develop her thinking on this, she returns to Benjamin’s historically and spatially specific understanding of the early capitalist modernity of Paris. In a manner inspired by Freud, Benjamin understood Paris as providing stimuli (‘excessive energies’), threats of ‘shock’, against which the ego deployed consciousness to prevent these from imprinting themselves in memory. Thereby, trauma is prevented by isolating present consciousness from past memory. Without memories to relate experience to, the latter is impoverished. Yet, as capitalist modernity proceeds and Taylorist production processes and commodity fetishism exploit labour, shock becomes ‘the very essence of modern experience’ (Buck-Morss, 1992, pp.16–17). Experiencing early capitalist modernity involved the transformation of mimetic capacities from those of ‘empowerment or innervation’ to that of a defensive ‘shock absorber’ (ibid., p.17). Hence, the organism is paralysed or deprived of its active response,
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robbed of its imaginative capacity. Consequently, the system undergoes a reversal of functions. The synaesthetic system takes the role of protector, while consciousness is sidelined. The threats of bodily trauma and perceptual shock are now the task of the synaesthetic system to deal with. This cognitive system becomes a system of anaesthetics: Of course, the eyes still see. Bombarded with fragmentary impressions they see too much – and register nothing. Thus the simultaneity of overstimulation and numbness is characteristic of the new synaesthetic organization as anaesthetics (Buck-Morss, 1992, p.18). This is a ‘dialectical reversal, whereby aesthetics changes from a cognitive mode of being ‘in touch’ with reality to a way of blocking out reality’ (ibid.). It is a crisis of the cognitive experience of mankind: ‘selfalienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order’ (Benjamin, 1999, p.235). Echoing Benjamin at his most melancholic, Buck-Morss describes early capitalist modernity as inhabited by men deprived of their ability to ‘experience’ the truth and thus incapable of distinguishing enemy from friend (1992, p.18). It presents a picture of seriously damaged humanity, seemingly beyond repair, while not referring to any historically specific precedent (the religious opiate of pre-modern times was no alternative). Yet, fortunately, Buck-Morss’ account is too deterministic and too pessimistic. Instead, and this as I will show is an important difference, I will interpret early capitalist modernity in a slightly more optimistic fashion before proceeding to post-war Keynesian Fordism and finally financialization. As I will sketch below, financialization, like previous processes of commodification, seems, when most deeply aesthetically embedded, stable and indeed unstoppable. Benjaminist political economy may not on its own be capable of demonstrating the frailties of financialization, but can point to which particular forms and conventions of sense-perceiving the economy are supporting it and how. As such, the approach is politically purposeful. By placing phantasmagorias and the failure of early capitalist modernity to deliver true consciousness at centrestage, Benjaminist dialectics enables a more optimistic and open-ended understanding than that of Buck-Morss. Rather than being emancipatory, early capitalist modernity starts to bring about the ‘reification of consumption’. According to BuckMorss, phantasmagorias target the synaesthetic system, seeking to manipulate them by flooding them. They attempt to ‘alter consciousness,
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much like a drug, but they do so through sensory distraction rather than chemical alteration, and – most significantly – their effects are experienced collectively rather than individually’, assuming the status of objective fact (ibid., pp.22–3). Indeed, phantasmagorias target the synaesthetic system, but whilst Buck-Morss argues that consciousness has, through the reversal of the system, become the protected and the synaesthetic system the shield, it is here claimed that consciousness remains in place as protector and guardian of the desires and traumas of the synaesthetic system. As such, consciousness, similarly to BuckMorss’s argument, ‘anaestheticises’ the synaesthetic system. However, it is an imperfect serum. The synaesthetic system is still capable of forming some desires and still experiences trauma. This potentially allows for ‘critical moments’ to emerge in a complex relationship to prevailing ‘economic aesthetics’ as consciousness gives in to the desires and traumas of the synaesthetic system. An example of such a ‘critical moment’ would be the struggle in everyday life between ‘depression’ and ‘abundance’ following the ‘Great Crash’ of 1929. The emerging sense and phantasmagorical projection of consumer society as ‘modern times’ clashed with ‘hard times’, through the lens of Protestant notions of thrift, diligence and the rejection of stock market gambling (Barnard, 1995). Indeed, in relatively non-phantasmagorical environments (e.g. nonurban areas), consciousness did not to the same extent need to be deployed, enabling the synaesthetic system to sense-perceive its environment and connect experience with past memories. In urban areas of phantasmagorical intensity, ‘the masses’ posed both a threat and an opportunity to sovereign power. The key to their pacificity and participation laid in the construction of a consumerist Sorelian ‘social myth’, through effective forms of communicating ‘wish-images’. The project of mass consumption, that is the realization of a ‘dream image’ of emancipation, was projected directly onto ‘the masses’ through ‘doubling’, the duplication of ‘virtual realities as material phantasmagorias that could be really experienced’ (Buck-Morss, 2002, p.150). The availability of effective media technology and the aesthetics of these phantasmagorias came thereby to be essential, albeit far from a guarantee, to sustaining power in urban areas (Buck-Morss, 2002). Thus, in the times of Walter Benjamin in early capitalist modernity, the synaesthetic system started undergoing a process of anaestheticization destroying the power to respond politically even when self-preservation is at stake (Buck-Morss, 1992, p.18), leaving ever-decreasing opportunities for critical moments to open up.
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The anaestheticization of the synaesthetic system profoundly intensified and became more widespread with the introduction of advanced capitalist modernity, arguably starting with the ‘regulation’ of postWorld War II Fordism(s) (Aglietta, 1979) combined with the advent of new communication technologies further facilitating the construction of phantasmagorias. Stable mass consumption was made possible over the lifecycle by the building of Keynesian welfare states committed to full employment and income security. Indeed, consumption became an institutionalized right as part of ‘social citizenship’ (Marshall, 1950; Ryner, 2008). This, from the angle of the development of the synaesthetic system, was of course promoted as the primary desire. At the same time, Fordist ‘creative destruction’ created traumas (e.g. Harvey, 1997, pp.125–88; Belfrage, 2008). The key moment here for our construction of an understanding of economic aesthetics, is the socialization of risk that Fordist regulation came to imply, which furthered the pursuit of ‘real experience’. Yet, as in any mode of regulation, there were inherent contradictions in the advanced capitalism of Fordism, which contributed to its crisis emerging in the late 1960s (e.g. Aglietta, 1998). These related importantly to new and complex gender relations as a consequence of women entering the labour market on a mass scale and the radicalization of the feminist movement (e.g. Jenson and Mahon, 1993). The mass arrival of the woman worker on labour markets paralleled a flexibilization of production, which affected the political commitment to sustaining stable and high levels of employment. The feminization of the labour force in combination with the ageing of advanced capitalist societies challenged the Fordist welfare state and thus consumption as an institutionalized right. More fundamentally, not only consumer subjectivity, but the synaesthetic system as a whole, underwent a major transformation with the flexibilization of production and the individualization of consumption (e.g. Piore and Sabel, 1984). Massively increased consumer choice implied the enormous growth of the advertisement industry and the explosion of projections of individualized wish-images (e.g. Arvidsson, 2004). Consumption did also become more pervasive in the everyday life of advanced capitalist modernity, which reinforced prevailing structures of ‘belonging-in-solitude’. Social hierarchies and mobility became increasingly predicated upon ‘symbolic values’ (Baudrillard, 1998). Moreover, discourses promoting private savings grew in strength with the besieging of the welfare state and the growing financial sector on the back of post-war reconstructions of financial market legitimacy (e.g. Aitken, 2005). These transformations
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in everyday life interacted in complex and often contradictory ways to constitute the everyday aesthetics of economic change. The ways in which these contradictions were constructed and managed in the stagflationary crises of the 1970s and their aftermath of neoliberal politics and financial marketing served to further disembed the economic aesthetics of Keynesian Fordism (e.g. Belfrage, 2008). On the level of the synaesthetic system, centering on the pursuit of ‘true experience’ through mass consumption, the synaesthetic system, already tendentially anaestheticised, underwent considerable transformations with the onset of Fordist crises. As capitalism and its phantasmagorical projections intensified, the ego’s increasingly desperate deployment of consciousness to protect the synaesthetic system takes its toll on the connectivity between the ego and consciousness. Consciousness, increasingly disconnected from the role given by the ego, yet continuing to ‘protect’ the synaesthetic system, becomes tendentially reified. As such, it starts to accept certain frequently phantasmagorically presented, ‘imperatives’ as threats to the possibility of ‘real experience’, i.e. consumption. The neoliberal discourses of competitiveness, demographic crisis and ‘the race-to-the bottom’ came to challenge Fordist regulation and thus the perceived sustainability of the pursuit of ‘real experience’. The most frequently and seriously deployed imperatives could and were thus projected onto the synaesthetic system, creating traumas and reactions of urgency by the latter, which in turn were attended to by guardian consciousness. These tendencies have been significantly reinforced under processes of financialization. Financialization emerged out of the neoliberal management of Fordist crises. It has involved promotion of the privatization of financial risk, which in turn has jeopardized lifelong stable consumption enabled by Fordism. It fundamentally involves a continuous, complex and profoundly emotional decision-making process between consuming and investing (Martin, 2002). Indeed, the pursuit of ‘real experience’, as once upon a time promised by the Enlightenment project and subsequently mass consumption, is no longer a citizen’s institutionalized right. It has become an increasingly unequally distributed opportunity, desperately sought by those without and guarded by those in its possession. In the context of financialization, this is not the least apparent in the increasing disposition towards an active appreciation of ‘financial literacy’, but also the everyday flooding of phantasmagorias as premised upon making the right financial investment or choosing the right form of credit. For sure, financialization constitutes a critical challenge to capitalist modernity, and the emerging contradictions of these processes make the study of its
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aesthetic embeddedness crucial if we are to understand the ability of the financialized economy to reproduce itself. Applying Benjaminist Political Economy and the dialectical concept of ‘economic aesthetics’ to this context promises to be highly relevant as it emphasizes the aesthetic construction of everyday life, dominant and emergent forms and conventions of sense-perception, in capitalist economies, and thus potentially its strengths and weaknesses.
Conclusion In this conclusion, I will summarize the meaning and purpose of Benjaminist political economy, and I will sketch a two-step methodology for operationalizing it. The chapter makes the case for a Benjaminist political economy. Through a critique of Benjamin’s dialectics and a reconceptualization of Buck-Morss’s notion of the ‘synaesthetic system’, I have conceptualized the capitalist economy as aesthetically embedded. Drawing on fragments of Benjamin’s fragmented thought and interpretations of his work, I theorize the mediation which Adorno identified to be lacking in his work. I thereby develop a Benjaminist dialectics. To both illustrate and refine this, I construct the dialectical concept of ‘economic aesthetics’. This concept is intended to capture how and why the aesthetic embeddedness of a historically and spatially specific capitalist economy changes in the everyday of space. Borrowing from Lefebvre, this everyday is conceived as an object of programming, yet this is an uncertain process as a consequence of jostling aesthetic meanings, or forms and conventions of sense-perception. ‘Economic aesthetics’, then, provides a historically and spatially specific framework for exploring how the capitalist economy is aesthetically embedded, dis-embedded and re-embedded. I argue that this is of political significance because it enables us to see deep contradictions between contemporary processes of financialization, which privatizes risk and thus jeopardizes mass consumption, and post-war Keynesian Fordism, which socialized risk and secured mass consumption. It points to a dialectical relationship between the ‘archaic’ and the ‘present’ by positioning the consumerist Sorelian myth, emerging in early capitalist modernity that Benjamin studied in Paris, at its core. It enables the highlighting of processes of reproduction and contestation of the building blocks of the aesthetic embeddedness of contemporary capitalist everyday life. As such, the approach outlines a political economy research agenda for understanding projects of aestheticizing the economy, which avoids, on one hand,
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‘economistic’ and, on the other hand, ‘culturalist’ pitfalls that serve to ensure that capitalist history persistently flows. The contradictions of financialization, which have become thoroughly visible since the outbreak of the ‘credit crunch’ and the resulting recession, cannot be understood if we surrender to such simplifications. Indeed, they are simplistically reproduced in current debates about the causes of the crisis. These either revolve around the unregulated greed of the financial industry in selling debt or the irresponsibility of households in obtaining it, again for the purpose of sustaining the consumerist Sorelian myth in the context of dismantling welfare states. The projects of aesthetically embedding what can be understood as the ‘credit party’ in everyday life will be misunderstood unless our analysis is sensitized to the dialectics of aesthetics and economic determinants in the doing and undoing of the financialized economy. This involves going deeper than attributing blame in a simplistic manner. The operationalization of Benjaminist political economy requires a two-step methodology. Firstly, it studies how institutions and practices of specific economic projects, we can call them ‘accumulation strategies’ (see Jessop, 1982), seek to (intentionally or unintentionally) construct embedding, or practically legitimating, forms and conventions of sense-perception of the economy with the purpose of rendering it in the first place normal and secondly practical and attractive. As the approach assumes, these forms and conventions are inalienable elements of processes of embedding the economy in everyday life. These emergent forms of processes of change are particularly fragile and subject to (re-)articulation and contestation. They cannot be understood in isolation from pre-existing and parallel, stabilized or institutionalized, ‘economic aesthetics’. Secondly, and following on from this, it seeks to conceptualize and identify moments or tendencies of fragility of these forms and conventions in the everyday sense-perception of the economy. How are these emergent forms and conventions understood and ‘misunderstood’, and in relation to what? How are they normalized and ‘abnormalized’? And, ultimately, how are they resisted (e.g. consciously ignored or replaced by alternative aesthetic forms)? In sum, this chapter has shown that a critical consideration of Benjamin’s work enables us to understand central problems in contemporary capitalism. Maybe, just maybe, the crisis of capitalism, ‘that it just goes on’, can be fundamentally ruptured by illuminating the detritus of history, which is everyday life.
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Notes 1 Susan Buck-Morss’ (1995) article ‘Envisioning Capital: Political Economy on Display’ could be seen as an exception. However, she makes no explicit claim to draw inspiration from Benjamin. 2 Of course, in the famous Hornberg letters, Adorno strongly objected to Benjamin’s differentiation between classes in the dreaming collective, as he deemed this to be incompatible with Marxism: ‘It should be clear and sufficient warning that in a dreaming collective no differences remain between classes’ (Adorno, 2007, p.113). The work of Georg Simmel (esp. 1971) seems to also have played a role in his understanding of the neurological. 3 The success with which Benjamin himself drew up a coherent methodology to address these perceived flaws is, however, highly questionable (Clark, 2003, p.42). 4 This is so because the universalization of the particular can never be completed (Laclau, 2000). 5 Benjamin’s opinion on historicism remains subject to considerable debate (e.g. Lukacher, 1982; Kittsteiner et al., 1986; Eagleton, 1990, pp.333–4; Tiedemann, 1989; Santos, 2001). 6 Fine (1994) points to important ways in which Marxist political economy could theorize consumption in more useful ways. 7 Of course, Benjamin discussed the role and myth of executive violence in his ‘Critique of Violence’ (see Benjamin, 2007). 8 As Buck-Morss (1992, p.8, fn.22) points out, Feminists have convincingly argued that this understanding of the aesthetic is phallocentric and is fundamental to Western ideas of freedom. 9 In his defence, Benjamin states: ‘all efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war’ (Benjamin, 1999, p.234). 10 Similarly, the interests of ‘classes’ are not materially given, they demand processes of social construction, whether conscious or unconscious (Hall, 1996; Hay, 2006).
Bibliography Ackerman (1997) ‘Consumed in Theory: Alternative Perspectives on Economics of Consumption’, Journal of Economic Issues, XXXI (3), 651–64. Adorno, T. (1997) ‘A Portrait of Walter Benjamin’ in T. Adorno Prism, pp.227–41 (Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press). Adorno, T. (2007) ‘Letters to Walter Benjamin’ in T. Adorno et al. Aesthetics and Politics (London: Verso). Aglietta, M. (1979) A Theory of Capitalist Regulation (London: New Left Books). Aglietta, M. (1998) ‘Capitalism at the Turn of the Century: Regulation Theory and the Challenge of Social Change’, New Left Review, 232, 41–90. Aitken, R. (2005) ‘“A Direct Personal Stake”, Cultural Economy, Mass Investment and the New York Stock Exchange’, The Review of International Political Economy, 12 (2), 334–63.
190 Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Change Arato, A. and Breines, P. (1979) The Young Lukacs and the Origins of Western Marxism (New York: Seabury Press). Arvidsson, A. (2004) ‘On the “Pre-History of the Panoptic Sort”: Mobility in Market Research’, Surveillance & Society, 1 (4), 456–74. Barnard, R. (1995) The Great Depression and the Culture of Abundance: Kenneth Fearing, Nathanel West, and Mass Culture in the 1930s (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press). Baudrillard, J. (1998) The Consumer Society. Myths and Structures (London: Sage). Belfrage, C. (2008) ‘Towards “Universal Financialisation”, in Sweden?’, Contemporary Politics, 14 (3), 277–96. Benjamin, W. (1973) Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism (London: New Left Books). Benjamin, W. (1974) Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. 1, R. Tiedemann and H. Schweppenhauser (eds) (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag). Benjamin, W. (1999) Illuminations (London: Pimlico). Benjamin, W. (2002) The Arcades Project (London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press). Benjamin, W. (2003) The Origin of German Tragic Drama (London: Verso). Benjamin, W. (2007) Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings (New York: Schocken Boods). Blyth, M. (2003) ‘Structures do not Come with an Instruction Sheet: Interests, Ideas and Progress in Political Science’, Perspectives on Politics, 1 (4), 695–703. Buck-Morss, S. (1977) The Origins of Negative Dialectics: Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin and the Frankfurt Institute (New York: Macmillan Free Press). Buck-Morss, S. (1981) ‘Walter Benjamin: Revolutionary Writer’, New Left Review, 128 (July–August), 50–75. Buck-Morss, S. (1983) ‘Benjamin’s Passagen-Werk: Redeeming Mass Culture for the Revolution’, New German Critique, 29 (spring/summer), 211–40. Buck-Morss, S. (1989) The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press). Buck-Morss, S. (1991) The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press). Buck-Morss, S. (1992) ‘Aesthetics and Anaesthetics: Walter Benjamin’s Artwork Essay Reconsidered’, October 62 (Fall), 3–41. Buck-Morss, S. (1995) ‘Envisioning Capital: Political Economy on Display’, Critical Inquiry, 21 (2), 434–67. Buck-Morss, S. (2002) Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press). Clark, T.J. (2003) ‘Should Benjamin Have Read Marx?’, Boundary, 2 (30:1), 31–49. Davies, M. and Niemann, M. (2002) ‘The Everyday Spaces of Global Politics: Work, Leisure, Family’, New Political Science, 24 (4): 557–77. Eagleton, T. (1981) Walter Benjamin: Or Towards A Revolutionary Criticism (London: Verso). Eagleton, T. (1990) The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Oxford: Blackwell).
Claes Belfrage 191 Fine, B. (1994) ‘Consumption in Contemporary Capitalism: Beyond Marx and Veblen – A Comment’, Review of Social Economy, 52 (3), 391–6. Hall, S. (1996) ‘The Problem of Ideology – Marxism Without Guarantees’ in D. Morley and K.-H. Chen (eds) Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies (London: Routledge). Harvey, D. (1997) The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (London: Basil Blackwell). Haug, W.F. (2005) ‘Dialectics’, Historical Materialism, 13 (1), 241–65. Hay, C. (2006) ‘Constructivist institutionalism … Or, why ideas into interests don’t go’, presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, 31/8–3/9, Philadelphia, PA, USA. Jacobs, A.M. (2009) ‘How Do Ideas Matter?: Mental Models and Attention in German Pension Politics’, Comparative Political Studies, 42 (2), 252–79. Jameson, F. (1990) Late Marxism: Adorno, or the Persistence of the Dialectic (New York: Verso). Jenson, J. and Mahon, R. (1993) ‘Representing Solidarity: Class, Gender and the Crisis in Social Democratic Sweden’, New Left Review, 201, 76–100. Jessop, B. (1982) ‘Accumulation Strategies, State Forms, and Hegemonic Projects’, Kapitalistate, 10/11: 89–112. Kittsteiner, H.D., Monroe, J. and Wohlwarth, I. (1986) ‘Walter Benjamin’s Historicism’, New German Critique, 39, 179–215. Laclau, E. (2000) ‘Identity and Hegemony’ in J. Butler, E. Laclau and S. Zizek, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left (London: Verso). Lefebvre, H. (1991) The Production of Space (Oxford: Blackwell). Leslie, E. (2000) Walter Benjamin, Overpowering Conformism (London: Pluto Press). Levi-Strauss, C. (1968) Structural Anthropology (London: Penguin Press). Lodziak, C. (2008) The Myth of Consumerism (London: Pluto Press). Lukacher, N. (1982) ‘Walter Benjamin’s Chthonian Revolution’, Boundary, 2, 11 (1/2, Autumn, 1982 – 2/2, Winter, 1983), 41–57. Marshall, T.H. (1950) Citizenship and Class and Other Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). Martin, R. (2002) Financialization of Daily Life (Philadelphia: Temple University Press). Santos, M.S. (2001) ‘Memory and Narrative in Social Theory: The Contributions of Jacques Derrida and Walter Benjamin’, Time & Society, 10, 163–89. Piore, M. and Sabel, C.F. (1984) The Second Industrial Divide: Possibilities for Prosperity (New York: Basic Books). Ryner, M. (2008) ‘Neoliberal European Governance and the Politics of Welfare State Retrenchment: A Critique of the “New Malthusians”, in van Apeldoorn, B. Drahokoupil, J. and Horn, L. (eds) Neoliberal European Governance and Beyond (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan). Ryner, M. (2006) ‘The Nordic Model: Does It Exist? Can It Survive?’, New Political Economy, 12 (1), 61–70. Schutz, A. (1962) Collected Papers, Vol. II (The Hague: Nijhoff). Simmel, G. (1971) ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ in D.N. Levine (ed.) On Individuality and Social Forms (London: University of Chicago Press).
192 Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Change Tiedemann, R. (1989) ‘Historical Materialism or Political Messianism? An Interpretation of the Theses “On the Concept of History”’ in G.F. Smith (ed.) Benjamin (Chicago: Chicago University Press). Wieselter, L. (2007) ‘Preface’, in W. Benjamin, Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings (New York: Schocken Books). Wittel, A. (2004) ‘Culture, Labour and Subjectivity: For a Political Economy from Below’, Capital & Class, 84, 11–29.
Conclusion Anca M. Pusca
This volume proposed that Walter Benjamin’s work is key to understanding the relationship between aesthetics and change today. While Benjamin’s interpretation of this relationship relied mainly on empirical and theoretical observations emblematic of the 19th century, this volume has sought to update his observations from the perspective of the 21st century. Reading Benjamin’s work as a methodological model of perception/observation, and embedding of theory in the material, several of the chapters have sought to test the extent to which Benjamin’s model still applies today. Perhaps not surprisingly, for a group of Benjamin scholars, the answer has been overwhelmingly positive, suggesting a series of potential alternative sites of examination – such as practices of industrial regeneration, online flânerie, digital photography, marketing and financialization – as well as new readings of classical Benjaminian sites such as urbanization, architecture and fashion. Updating Benjamin’s model is perhaps particularly important in today’s theoretical environment that has seen many of the social sciences turn towards different interpretations of the ‘aesthetic’ as the new frontier. Notwithstanding the lack of agreement on what constitutes ‘aesthetics’, many of the social sciences today – sociology, cultural and visual studies, urban studies, political theory and international relations being perhaps at the forefront – have noted an increasing interest in the visual and the material as a source of theoretical and methodological engagement – whereby images and objects become much more than illustrations, but rather a source of knowledge in themselves. The aesthetic turn in Sociology and International Relations has sought, perhaps along not such dissimilar paths, to draw attention to the increasing role of imagery in today’s social 193
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and political environment, and thus, to the need of finding new ways of not only ‘reading’ the image, but of allowing the ‘image’ to speak for itself. This move towards aesthetic interpretations has resulted in what Wolff calls a ‘[…] turn away from the hermeneutic and the analytic to what has been called the power of the image – the sense that there are ways in which the work of art eludes interpretation and speaks directly to the viewer’ (Wolff, 2008, p.120). Talking specifically about the role that Benjamin’s work, along with that of Simmel, Kracauer, Bloch, Lukacs and Adorno, has played in this turn, she argues however that no clear model of interpretation exists beyond Benjamin’s idea of the dialectical image and Bloch’s theory of the ‘significant fragment’, which can also be seen in Benjamin’s work. While Benjamin does offer us a series of examples about what would constitute a dialectical image or a significant fragment – fashion, architecture, urbanity, language, a child’s play, photography – he is certainly not very specific about either how he came to encounter these images/fragments – beyond his explanation of the process of flânerie – nor how one is supposed to interpret their theoretical significance. The only thing that is perhaps clear, is that the ‘aesthetic’ turn, through Benjamin’s eyes, need not necessarily constitute a turn away from language and text towards pure imagery, but rather a turn towards a verbal or literary picture: Benjamin’s own work remains written as text, despite perhaps his struggles to undermine our classical understanding of what text is and more importantly, the extent to which text alone can serve as a theoretical foundation for any set of claims. This volume has sought to overcome some of these challenges by, on the one hand treating the ‘cross-disciplinary nature of aesthetics’ (Halsall et al., 2009. p.1) and through it, ‘the fact that aesthetics has no single definition or subject matter’ (Halsall et al., 2009, p.2), as a source of freedom of interpretation as opposed to a lack of clarity; and on the other, by focusing on the relationship between ‘aesthetics’ and ‘change’ as a particularly fruitful source of knowledge in today’s sociopolitical environment. Avoiding the trap of seeking set models of interpretation that follow strict methodological rules in order to best capture this ‘aesthetic turn’, the chapters work in the Benjaminian tradition of making theory seem effortless by allowing the ‘objects’ of their study – whether it be the building of the Sage in Newcastle, snowglobes, the new cycle chic in fashion, daguerreotypes vs. digital photographs or posters – to take centre stage and speak for themselves. Thus, the volume’s main theoretical contribution lies not in its attempt to
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‘settle’ in any way the debates surrounding the recent ‘aesthetic turn’ in the social sciences, but rather in its attempt to ‘update’ Benjamin’s model of interpretation to fit the needs of the 21st century. I have started this volume by arguing in the introduction that its text will attempt to indirectly address a series of questions: 1) is there something significantly different about the way in which ‘change’ occurs in the 21st century?; 2) is change mainly reflected in the material and visual environment surrounding us or someplace else?; and 3) what are the sensibilities through which we perceive change, and more importantly, have those sensibilities been increased or dulled by modern technology? It is perhaps time to briefly summarize the extent to which the volume has managed to answer these questions and what have been some of its most significant contributions. Perhaps the most significant departure in how today’s process of change is reflected in the material and visual environment lies, on the one hand, in the further deepening of capitalism – and with it, an increasing agglomeration of material; and on the other, in the overwhelming reach of different techniques of reproduction into every aspect of our social, economic and political environment – and with it, an increasing agglomeration of images. This has resulted into a paradoxical need to, on the one hand, periodically ‘clear’ the material space in order to make room for the ‘new’ – giving birth to what Zoe Thompson calls an ‘aesthetics of disappearance’; and on the other, into the opposite tendency to ‘pack’ the visual space to a point where the distinction between the ‘real’ and the ‘reproduction’/‘the virtual’ becomes impossible. Sifting through this material and visual space however, doesn’t necessarily require new ‘tools’. As different authors in this volume suggest, Benjamin’s interpretation of the relationship between history and memory, image and temporality, object and aura, are still as pertinent today as they were in the 19th century, the only difference perhaps lying in the need to ‘update’ his interpretations to today’s new technologies – such as digital photography. Yet, as Konstantinos Vassiliou argues, there is nothing radically new in the technique of ‘digitality’ itself: its threat to the ‘work of art’ is no different from the one noted by Benjamin with the emergence of photography. Change today remains embedded in the material and visual environment surrounding us, yet has been increasingly studied under the conceptual umbrella of ‘revolutions’, ‘transitions to capitalism’, ‘structural adjustments’, ‘democratization’ and ‘institutional restructuring’. A return to an aesthetic interpretation of change – through its material
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and visual embeddedness – is important to the extent that it promises to provide important insights into, what Petra Hroch calls, the silent revolution of the everyday. Looking for change not only in radical moments of ‘coups’, ‘violent transitions’ and ‘revolutions’ but also in the less visible and yet perhaps equally significant moments of style adjustments and perceptual changes, provides a clearer insight into both the cyclical nature of change – and its constant recycling of the past – as well as its reactionary nature – whereby not just ‘fate’ and ‘history’ dictate change, but also our own past adjustments to change. The sensibilities through which we perceive change, as Benjamin noted early on, have been significantly affected by technologies of reproduction, such as film and photography as well as by new and extended uses for glass. As Esther Leslie notes, the early modern obsession with the ‘liberation of seeing’ through the panopticon, snow globes and glass architecture, continues today, perhaps with more of a focus on depth of seeing rather than field of seeing alone. This is perhaps best reflected in what she calls the emergence of the ‘transformational look’, and what Graeme Gilloch identifies as the ‘cinematic vision’, both mechanisms of enhancement of perception through fragmentation – either technical, material or psychological – in order to slow down/break down an otherwise overwhelming (post)modern environment that risks to dull our senses to a point of oblivion. This being said, I would like to end this volume not with any attempt to further crudely conclude what is otherwise a very complex set of arguments, but rather with sincere thanks to each of the contributors for turning what started initially as a conversation between Claes Belfrage and myself at one of the International Studies Association annual conferences, into a broader and much more meaningful conversation at the Birmingham conference, and now, what I can only hope will prove to be an even more insightful and illuminating conversation in the current volume. If at least some theorists of change will turn their attention towards Benjamin’s work as a result of this volume, I will have considered this project a success.
Bibliography Costello, D. and Willsdon, D. (eds) (2008) The Life and Death of Images, New York: Cornell University Press, Ithaca. Halsall, F., Jansen, J. and O’Conner, T. (eds) (2009) Rediscovering Aesthetics: Transdisciplinary Voices from Art History, Philosophy and Art Practice, California: Stanford University Press, Stanford.
Anca M. Pusca 197 Osborne, P. (2009) In Rediscovering Aesthetics: Transdisciplinary Voices from Art History, Philosophy and Art Practice (eds, Halsall, F., Jansen, J. and O’Conner, T.) California: Stanford University Press, Stanford. Wolff, J. (2008) The Aesthetics of Uncertainty, New York: Columbia University Press.
Index Adorno, Theodor, 23, 27–8, 43, 45, 49–50, 97–8, 121, 159–64, 166, 172, 174, 180, 187, 189, 194 Apertures, 57, 71, 74–6 Arcades (Project), 1, 6, 60, 65, 77, 96, 101–4, 108–12, 119, 121, 127–8, 131–4, 138, 140, 177–9 Architecture, 5, 23–4, 30, 34, 56, 66–7, 75, 101–6, 110–13, 122–3, 193–4, 196 Arendt, Hannah, 19, 43, 45, 145–6 Atget, Eugene, 138–9, 149 Aura, 4, 7–8, 60–1, 64, 66–7, 69, 75, 90, 128, 130–1, 133, 138–9, 141, 145, 147, 154, 158–69, 195 Authentic(city), 8, 15, 18, 21, 28, 147, 159, 162–4 Barthes, Roland, 62, 127 Baudrillard, Jean, 4, 55–8, 60–1, 65–8, 72, 74–5, 166, 185 Berlin, 3, 10, 59, 76, 83, 90, 104, 123 Calvino, Italo, 62–3 Cinema(tic)/(tography), 4, 14, 89–91, 106, 121, 160–1, 165, 168, 196 Civil Society, 10, 13, 16, 18, 34, 47 Commodity, 2, 6–8, 15, 65, 103–4, 116–17, 120, 124, 133, 144, 147–56, 161, 163, 166, 178, 182 Consciousness, 13, 18, 31, 36, 87, 105, 125, 136, 140, 175–9, 181–9 Unconscious, 30, 48, 90, 99–100, 105, 137 Constellation, 2, 57, 60, 76, 93, 105, 128, 134, 139, 146, 159, 180
Consumption, 40, 59, 65, 121, 147–8, 150–5, 171–2, 177–9, 183–9 (re)/(bi)Cycle, 5, 14, 108–9, 111–24, 119, 121–4, 155, 167, 185, 194 Daguerre, Louis, 6, 127–32, 134–9, 141 Daguerreotype, 6, 127–30, 132–7, 194 De Certeau, Michel, 72 Destruct(ion)/(ive), 15, 38, 60, 67, 74, 139, 183, 185 Digital, 6–8, 76, 158, 160, 162–9, 193–5 Dream, 7, 23, 45, 65, 68, 72, 87–8, 93, 99–101, 104–5, 128, 132, 134, 136, 140, 169, 172, 178–80, 184, 189 Edensor, Tim, 59 Eisenstein, Sergei, 105 Enlightenment, 15, 18–19, 24, 28, 36, 45, 49–50, 96, 114, 116, 168, 178, 181, 186 Erase(ure), 4, 8, 56, 59, 71, 74, 129, 162 Everyday, 21–2, 26–8, 45, 62, 68, 75, 90–1, 97, 122–4, 144, 154, 156, 166, 171, 173–88, 196 Fantasy, 13, 37, 65, 99–100, 102, 104, 106, 155 Fetish, 2–3, 6, 66, 103, 116–17, 119–20, 124, 134, 147, 149–55, 163, 166, 178, 182 Film, 1–2, 6, 11, 26–7, 60, 89–91, 94, 97, 105–7, 141, 163, 168, 196 Flânerie, 4, 6, 73, 110–11, 122–3, 132, 141, 151, 193–4 Flâneur, 46, 68, 71, 76, 78, 88, 147, 151 198
Index 199 Frankfurt School, 23–4, 28, 161, 181 Freud, Sigmund, 12, 18, 41, 92, 172, 182 Gaze, 13, 37, 64, 68, 77, 87–8, 104, 139 Glass, 5, 61, 65–6, 77, 96–8, 100–7, 110, 196 Goethe, Johann Wolfgang, 97–8 Gropius, Walter, 103 Heartfield, John, 96 Ice, 5, 100–4, 107 ice palaces, 100–3 Identity, 7, 13, 30, 58, 66, 150–6, 177–8 Illusion, 66, 78, 103, 116, 125, 129, 139, 154, 178 Illumination, 60, 86–8, 92, 147, 172, 180 Image, 1, 2, 6–8, 13, 19–20, 23, 40, 56–9, 61, 64, 66, 69, 71, 76, 78, 87, 89–90, 93, 95–6, 98, 106–7, 119–23, 125, 127–36, 140–2, 144–52, 154–6, 174–5, 179, 193, 195 Dialectical image, 117–18, 121, 173, 179–80, 194 Digital image, 7–8 Wish-image, 178–9, 184–5 Imagination, 13, 19–20, 47, 87, 102, 178, 180 Intellectual, 2–3, 10–23, 25–31, 34–7, 40, 163, 173 Labyrinth(ine), 67, 78, 82, 93, 103, 111, 140 Little Nemo, 5, 99–101 Local, 26, 55–6, 58, 62–4, 71, 73, 76 Lukacs, Georg, 43, 95, 194 Marseille, 4, 83–4, 86–9, 91–4 Marx, 12, 16, 24, 26–8, 35, 38, 43–7, 118, 166, 172–4, 177–80, 189 Messianic/Messianism, 27, 57, 72, 74–6
Memory, 4, 7, 55–6, 58–61, 68–74, 79, 87, 98, 101–2, 105, 127, 140, 145, 149, 155, 158, 169, 182, 195 Mickey Mouse, 106 Modernity, 4–5, 7, 30, 33, 67, 72, 78, 83, 89, 91–2, 98–100, 104, 110–13, 118, 122, 127, 144, 146–56, 160, 162, 171–2, 178, 181–7 Montage, 96, 106, 121, 125, 134, 140 Moscow, 3, 31, 84, 107 Paris, 3, 6, 26, 43–4, 46–7, 65, 78–9, 83, 105, 110–11, 115, 121, 127–8, 131–2, 136, 138, 140, 144, 147, 149–51, 182, 187 Parisien(e), 7, 65, 108, 110, 122, 144, 149–52, 155–6, 177 Perception, 4, 8, 19, 25–6, 30, 86, 89, 90, 109, 113, 115, 133, 139, 160, 174–7, 182, 187–8, 193, 196 Perec, Georges, 79 Phantamagoria, 7, 65, 144, 147–9, 154, 156, 183–6 Photograph(y), 2, 6–8, 11, 26, 134, 137 Progress, 3, 21, 23–4, 28, 38, 48, 59–61, 69, 76–7, 83, 114–17, 134, 138, 140, 148, 154, 162, 169 Public (adj, noun), 2–3, 7, 8, 13–17, 20, 26, 28, 36–7, 40, 42, 46–9, 64–5, 68–9, 74, 124, 132, 139, 148, 150–1, 153 Publicity, 132 Psychoanalysis, 11, 18, 25, 137 Representation, 5–7, 61, 95, 141, 146, 150, 155, 167, 181 Revolution, 3, 6, 10, 13, 21, 32, 36–7, 42, 46–50, 57, 66, 95, 102, 108–11, 113–23, 127, 133, 140, 163, 195 Ruin, 3, 57, 59–61, 74, 76, 98, 100–1, 106, 121
200 Index Scheerbart, Paul, 102–3, 106 Shock, 25, 68, 74, 127, 133–4, 139, 149, 168–9, 177, 182–3 Simulation, 57, 61, 66, 74–5, 77, 169 Snow globe, 5, 97–103, 105, 194, 196 Spectacle, 4, 8, 61, 68, 72, 85, 92, 149, 152, 154–5, 163, 179 Symbol(ism)/(c), 3, 7, 13, 15, 59, 66, 77, 111, 115, 118, 147, 152, 159, 166–8, 178, 185
Taut, Bruno, 102–3, 106 Technology, 1, 8, 26, 33, 37, 48, 67, 100, 102, 128, 131–3, 138, 141, 148, 153–4, 163, 167, 184, 195 Trace (noun), 55–61, 66–7, 69, 71, 74–7, 98, 133–4, 172 Tourist, 4, 56, 58, 63–5, 68 Women, 7, 13, 22, 41, 45, 76, 78