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Archive for the ‘benjamin’ Category

baudelaire vs. anarchism (of detail)

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From Baudelaire’s essay “The Painter of Modern Life”:

In this way a struggle is launched between the will to see all and forget nothing and the faculty of memory, which has formed the habit of a lively absorption of general colour and silhouette, the arabesque of contour. An artist with a perfect sense of form but one accustomed to relying above all on his memory and his imagination will find himself at the mercy of a riot of details all clamouring for justice with the fury of a mob in love with absolute equality. All justice is trampled underfoot; all harmony sacrificed and destroyed; many a trifle assumes vast proportions; many a triviality usurps the attention. The more our artist turns an impartial eye on detail, the greater is the state of anarchy. Whether he be long-sighted or short-sighted, all hierarchy and all subordination vanishes.

I wonder what Walter Benjamin made of this passage. Hard not to think of his description of a “perception whose ‘sense of the universal equality of things’ has increased to such a degree that it extracts it even from a unique object by means of reproduction,” although, of course CB is warning against the arrival of such a mode of perception while WB is (with due ambivalence) welcoming its arrival.

Obviously the relationship between literary form and political form is complex – incredibly complex. But it’s nonetheless there, and there more than simply as metaphorical. I’m going to leave this as I’m busy with nothing more than a potential suggestive stub which I’ll hopefully return to soon: linguistic / discursive / narrative forms come and go, and with them ways of seeing or thinking. Avant garde literature at times tries to bring new forms into existence or even into currency.

(One other stub: I might be wrong, but it strikes me that we have only paintings of crowd scenes from Paris 1848-1851 not photographs. We only get unmanned barricades in the latter, as the photographic process at the time demanded long exposures. This to me seems interesting, and almost undoubtedly relative – if tacitly – to what I’m trying to suggest about the quotation above from Baudelaire… See here… And correct me if I’m wrong…)

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April 3, 2012 at 2:29 pm

…in the (coming of) age (movie) of its technological reproducibility

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Haven’t seen the film yet, but strange, this from the New York Times review of Tiny Furniture:

One of the knots that Ms. Dunham requires you to untie while you’re watching “Tiny Furniture” is the extent to which she is playing with ideas about fiction and the real, originals and copies. Is the character Aura actually Ms. Dunham (the unique woman who lived in that loft) or is the director playing a copy of herself? Ms. Dunham doesn’t overtly say. One hint, though, might be the character’s unusual first name, which suggests that Ms. Dunham, at the age of 24 and herself a recent graduate, has read the social theorist Walter Benjamin’s 1930s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” one of the most influential (and commonly classroom-assigned) inquiries into aesthetic production and the mass reproduction of art.

Benjamin argued that an original work of art (say, a Rodin sculpture), has an aura, which creates a distance between it and the beholder. But aura decays as art is mechanically reproduced (say, for postcards). This decay is evident in cinema, where instead of individuals contemplating authentic works of art, as in a museum, a collective consumes images in a state of distraction. While there were dangers inherent in this shift, and while cinema could uphold what he called “the phony spell of a commodity,” its shocks might also lead to a “heightened presence of mind.” (“The conventional is uncritically enjoyed, while the truly new is criticized with aversion.”) Cinema, in other words, might spark critical thinking.

Strange move, if that’s what’s going on. Seems perfectly evocative of the way that certain “canonical” theoretical texts turn, via the way they are presented in undergraduate classrooms at liberal arts colleges and the like, into a generalized soup of “life philosophy” and gnomic multi-use utterances. Someone texts their girlfriend / or boyfriend: Please stop texting me to check what I’m doing when I’m drinking with my friends – it’s like I’m living in the panopticon! Or, on a bros night out, Dude, she’s like your pharmakon – the medicine that you need but also the poison that’ll kill you.

Loss of the aura indeed. Suppose it’s bound to happen. “Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction…” and so forth.

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April 2, 2012 at 9:35 am

Posted in benjamin, movies, theory

notes on violence and justice

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1) Rewatching the first season of the Sopranos (can it really have been a decade since?) and amongst all of the wonderful (and wonderfully woven) thematic threads is one that I’d forgotten. In S01E09, which is best remembered for the Uncle Junior “South of the Border” sequences, Tony and the boys decide to punish their daughter’s soccer coach when it’s discovered that he was sleeping with one of his charges. What follows is a sequence in which the males are frustrated in their plans through the reasonable intervention of several women, especially Artie Bucco’s wife (who identifies the egotism inherent in the planned action – the fact that the coach would die more than anything else for the collective satisfaction of the mobster fathers) and Jennifer Melfi, Tony’s shrink, who asks the critical question: Why is it that Tony feels that it’s his job to exact justice in every case?

2) The stage is set for the anti-climactic ending by playing the potential climax out in advance, only in small scale and in a banal setting. Artie Bucco and Tony are out for dinner, and they see a young guy wearing a baseball cap in this relatively swish restaurant. After a conversation-that-aging-white-guys-like-to-have about declining social standards and the like, Tony gets up from the table, walks over to the becapped diner, and tells him to take off the fucking hat. The kid does so, embarrassing himself in front of his girlfriend in the process.

3) I’ll admit, I have a little bit of a problem with this sort of thing myself. It’s important, I think, to draw an immediate distinction between calls-to-action that really are yours (your wife / your daughter / your son / your husband is in trouble and its up to you, and only you, to respond) and this other category of events that the Sopranos episode is highlighting.

I’ve ended up in problem after problem in life by throwing myself into frays that were not mine – always, always, on the side of “justice,” or at least what seemed just to me at the moment – it ways that might seem absolutely baffling to someone wired otherwise. They would ask me, just as I am now asking myself, “Why is it your business, business that you actually have to bring to some sort of conclusion, if for instance some young kid hits on a girl in a bar over-aggressively? Why is that your fight to fight?”

4) I don’t like spitting on the street. The other day I was walking down the road when the kid in front of me hocked up a huge one and sprayed in on the pavement. I was just about to tap him on the shoulder to ask why the fuck London seemed like him the right place to blow his brown sputum around when I realized it was one of my tutorial students from last year, one of my favorite ones. I ducked away without him seeing that I was behind him.

5) What exactly is my problem with protest? I’ve been trying to sort it out this week, obviously in the wake of the big demonstration in London on Wednesday. I hate going to them, though often have. Obviously they have to happen, but for some reason (just being honest here – perhaps in the tradition of Orwell on the sense that he could never quite overcome that poor people smelled – and hopefully in service of some larger claim) I can’t help but walk around incredibly fucked off at everyone around me. Whether self-satisfied later-day liberals or kids who don’t seem to know what they’re actually protesting, whether anarcho-thugs bent on violence for its own sake or annoying academics taking a break from skimming the New Left Review – I am an equal opportunity hater, even if – as is generally the case – I am fully on-board with the cause in question.

6) When I was in grad school, I attended one of the anti-WTO protests in New York. After I proudly reported this fact to one of my smarter and more pragmatic friends, he asked me – quite simply – what it was exactly I was protesting. I could not coherently answer.

For whatever reason of bearing or position, people don’t often ask me questions like that, questions based on an assumption that I simply am too ignorant to answer. It was an awkward 30 second exchange whose import I’ve never quite shaken.

7) I was in my office meeting with students during the early stages of the protest this Wednesday. I’d check the BBC News video feed on my computer and as things heated up at the Millbank Centre I decided that I really wanted to go down there. I mean like viscerally.

8 You really learn what it means to live in a country without a revolutionary tradition when you watch the news media – and even various student representatives – go into an absolute fucking flutter over the destruction of a rather incidental amount of property. America gets panicked about a lot of things, but christ, I can’t imagine the response to some equivalent act of group vandalism taking quite this tone and intensity. Sure, the building housing the Conservative Party HQ isn’t some random Starbucks or Gap outlet, but still….

9) The left response to the seizure of the building has been incredibly incoherent, incoherent in the guise of semi-reasonableness but really wearing the hairshirt of fear and irresolution. For instance:

Why couldn’t Solomon explain her actions? One assumes that she and the other who participated in this event actually did have reasons for doing what they did. One further assumes that she here on Newsnight she wanted to avoid falling into a trap that she presumed Paxman (and the British media in general) was laying for her, but ended up blundering into a far worse situation in the end. In refusing to answer directly, what ends up filling the gap where the reason should be is not the presumption of violent intent. It’s the presumption of stupidity, collective stupidity.

Even worse, some sort of on-message conspiratorial stupidity – which becomes the global effect when one considers many of the articles and documents written in support of the occupation. Again and again, the occupation is explained as an effect of amorphous “student frustration” – which only again begs the question of what, exactly, this act would do to assuage or ameliorate this frustration. It doesn’t get much better in things like the now infamous “Goldsmiths Lecturers Letter” (full text here):

We also wish to condemn and distance ourselves from the divisive and, in our view, counterproductive statements issued by the UCU and NUS leadership concerning the occupation of the Conservative Party HQ. The real violence in this situation relates not to a smashed window but to the destructive impact of the cuts and privatisation that will follow if tuition fees are increased and if massive reductions in HE funding are implemented.

Well OK. That’s pretty carefully worded, but ultimately says not much more than “look over there not here!,” which doesn’t really amount to a serious appraisal of the actual event that the letter is ostensibly focused on but which it ultimately skirts. As such, it opens itself even more flagrantly to the exact sort of co-optation that it ultimately and quickly suffered from. Co-optation without side-effect, as there was nothing in the statement to poison with reason those who would use it irrationally.

Again, assuredly there were reasons, even if uncomfortable ones, for entering the building. It’s my hunch that they would in fact play better than this sort of thing that we’re seeing from the left on television, in the papers, and in a series of petitions and collective letters. If occupations and the like are going to be conducted, if windows are, yes, going to break (as Solomon vaguely promises during the programme), mightn’t it be a good thing to be able to describe why in fact they are happening? The collapse of the London Eye is nothing compared to the wholesale destruction of Higher Education in the UK. The collapse of the London Eye is a deeply-felt expression of student frustration. I don’t want to talk about the collapse of the London Eye, even though I planted the charges. I want to talk about student fees. I’m afraid it didn’t play well this time, and will play even worse next time.

10) At the end of the Sopranos episode that I mentioned above, Tony actually bows to the reasonable arguments advanced and decides to call off the hit. He ends up rolling on the floor of his house, in a drink-n-valium fueled stupor, only able to say to his wife “I didn’t hurt nobody.” He’s restrained his impulses for once, thought something through for once, let the “system work” for once, and ends up an incoherently frustrated mess, basically a very large child in a semi-coherent state.

While most of us are able to step back comfortably from an endorsement of mafia-style vigilante violence of the sort dealt with there, I still think that the episode serves as a very vivid and ambiguously wired political or ethical allegory. That is to say, the crossing of ethical demand and psychological need, the complex relationship between instantaneity and process, and in particular the very complex question of impersonal involvement, even violent involvement, in the pursuit of justice of one stripe or another, are persistent ones, insoluble but worth seeing (I hope, I hope) presented vividly.

11) Why did I want so badly to go down to Millbank? Was it simply because there was the possibility of violence? Why didn’t I go down to Millbank? Well that, my friends, is a longer story than I can possibly tell here.

It’s bad form in even a vulgarly dialectical essay like this one, but I hope that you can see the aporia that’s looming over this piece.

12) Of course some of the impulse to violence in the service of justice is hardwired, written into our basic codes and structures. Interesting to think so, though. Seems an animalian holdover, something quite primitive, but on the other hand: do animals commit vigilante violence?

I suppose the question of vigilantism comes down to an issues of numbers, sets. Family – herd – neighborhood – any random victim on the street.

13) Of course it’s hardwired, but it’s also an impulse I clearly learned from my father. Such vivid memories from my childhood – the time at the baseball game when teenagers were carrying on behind us, using foul language and generally being loud, and my father…. turned around on them. A scene that I’ve been repeating my entire life, along with many others of the same, my entire life: in thought and dream and often enough action. When one is a child, a boy child enamored with his father, these scenes seemed like living allegories of bravery and abstract justice, arbitrary interventions on behalf of justice for its own sake.

Now, while some of the sheen of those moments has been retained, I increasingly want to ask – him, the him in myself – the very question that Melfi asks Tony:  Why was this sort of thing his job? Why is it our job?

14) Under-interrogated psycho-social issue: What is the effect of having a father who went to war when you yourself did not? A grandfather who did while your father did not? I suppose I could ask some of my friends whose fathers served in Vietnam…. Mine was Canadian so (fortunately) missed the show. I suppose I could ask some of these friends, but would risk wandering them into the high traumas of parental alcoholism and violence that I know understand were going on behind the scenes, at night when I generally wasn’t there.

15) The numbered, thetical form that these personal-cum-political blogessays that I write often take allows for a certain halting stream of consciousness, not unlike that which is supposed to obtain during psychoanalysis, to take place. Just write what comes next, from whichever frame of reference it comes.

Of course, this tactic (tactic?) inevitably results in a document useful only as a clearing house for further thought – it is not thought itself. It is a smooth, empty concrete floor where one spills out all of the contents in the hopes that once out one might put them back together again with coherent form.

16) The hidden non-sequitur incoherence of Benjamin’s “Work of Art” essay… The madness of the ending – as an ending to that piece – despite the brilliance of the observations arriving at cinematic pace throughout…

“Fiat ars – pereat mundus”, says Fascism, and, as Marinetti admits, expects war to supply the artistic gratification of a sense perception that has been changed by technology. This is evidently the consummation of “l’art pour l’art.” Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art.

17) Theory and what it excuses: if I were to put myself back in the frame of mind that I once briefly held – during the coursework time, I suppose, of my PhD – I could allow myself to wrap this up in a theoretical aporia, a full-empty question or request for further thought that allows me to step away without solving anything out. We must interrogate the complex entanglements of personal desire and public good, personal perversity and rational action, that informs each and every act of political violence, in this context potentially liberatory political violence. I could glibly ignore the performative contradictions inherent in my piece, expecting that mystified readers would leave off the contradiction inherent in everything that they exuberantly label performativity.

Identifying knots of over-determination but doing so in a tone that seems to indicate that you are announcing a political program is something like treading water while selling slickly-packaged books to the passing tourist boats.

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November 13, 2010 at 2:36 pm

our daily bread: quotidian / epiousios

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From Jon Meacham’s review of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch in today’s NYTBR:

[I]n a wonderfully revealing insight of MacCulloch’s, that the “daily bread” for which countless Christians ask in the Lord’s Prayer is not what most people think it is, a humble plea for sustenance. “Daily” is the common translation of the Greek word epiousios, which in fact means “of extra substance” or “for the morrow.” As MacCulloch explains, epiousios “may point to the new time of the coming kingdom: there must be a new provision when God’s people are hungry in this new time — yet the provision for the morrow must come now, because the kingdom is about to arrive.” We are a long way from bedtime prayers here.

Wonderfully reminiscent of the strange dialectical temporalities at play in, say, Benjamin’s theses “On the Philosophy of History,” that. The ur-symbol of the quotidian is actually, when the translation engine is run in reverse, revealed to be shot through with a kind of post-redemptive future anteriority. Because of the imminence of redemption, we must start asking now for what we’ll need after the redemption. And we ask in terms derived from the needs that will be abolished with the redemption, because they are the only terms (and needs) that we know. Because of this, we modify these present terms with a single word that means at once of different substance and not now but very soon. Wonderful….

And more wonderful still: the fact that implicit in the entire complicated structure is the fact that with the arrival of the redemption comes not the abolition of needs but rather their metamorphosis and augmentation – perhaps even their drastic intensification…

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April 4, 2010 at 8:48 am

Posted in benjamin, temporality

“such as are supplied by the advertising pages of a newspaper or the traffic of a big city”

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Lil help. There’s this clip that one sees in documentaries highend and low centered on London / urban life. A mass of pedestrians, circa say the 1950s, are crossing a busy intersection – actually a circle, if I recall correctly. They don’t wait for the lights – they stride out as a clump, wait at an island, clump out again this time halting a car rather than waiting for it to pass. That’s the whole thing.

Some of you know the clip I’m talking about. Black and white. Crops up all the time. Am writing something and would love to snag a still or stills of this. I’ve seen the clip many times (in fact, recently) but I can’t find the source.

Obviously, it’s not in the one above – that’s just a gift from me to you, a day-brightener.

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September 16, 2009 at 11:33 am

Posted in benjamin, cities

flaubert vs. socialism

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A passage from one of Flaubert’s letters written during the composition of Madame Bovary, transcribed in Francis Steegmuller’s (quite wonderful, if a bit wacky) Flaubert and Madame Bovary: A Double Portrait:

I am turning toward a kind of aesthetic mysticism…. When there is no encouragement to be derived from one’s fellows, when the exterior world is disgusting, enervating, corruptive, and brutalizing, honest and sensitive people are forced to seek somewhere within themselves a more suitable place to live. If society continues on its present path I believe we shall see the return of such mystics as have existed in all the dark ages of the world. The soul, unable to overflow, will be concentrated in itself. The time is not far off when we shall see the return of world-sicknesses – beliefs in the Last Day, expectation of a Messiah, etc. But all this enthusiasm will be ignorant of its own nature, and, the age being what it is, can have no theological foundation: what will be its basis? Some will seek it in the flesh, others in the ancient religions, others in art; humanity, like the Jewish tribes in the desert, will adore all kinds of idols. We were born a little too early: in twenty-five years the points of intersection of these quests will provide superb subjects for masters. Then prose (prose especially, the youngest form) will be able to play a magnificent humanitarian symphony. Books like the Satyricon and the Golden Ass will be written once more, containing on the intellectual plane all the lush excesses which those books have on the sensual. That is what all the socialists in the world have not been willing to see, with their eternal materialistic preachings. They have denied pain, they have blasphemed three-quarters of modern poetry, the blood of Christ that quickens within us. If the feeling of human insufficiency, of the nothingness of life, were to perish (the logical consequence of their hypothesis), we should be more stupid than the birds… Perhaps beauty will become a feeling useless to humanity, and art something half-way between algebra and music.

Steegmuller doesn’t indicate (part of the wackiness of the book…), but I think this is from 1852 or so. Since part of the subtext (and, really, it will remain only subtext, samizdat) of my book is to transform Flaubert into the father of a (subtextually – my my I’m careful!) socialist literary modernism in a slightly roundabout but perhaps longrun fruitful way, passages like these are, um, problematic to say the least.

But despite Flaubert’s anti-humanism, that is to say real misanthropy (he’s not kidding with the stuff at the top of the quote), there’s a way that this passage from a letter self-deconstructs in the long run and in view of the novel that he was writing at the same time. No one is more preoccupied and convinced by the already present stupidity that comes of modernity than Flaubert. And the Satyricon and Golden Ass‘s intellectualization of sensual pleasure is just what he’s in the process of purging in his narrative work, work that is getting him over the hubristic collapse of Saint Antoine. And most importantly the algebraicifcation of art is something that other letters from the period suggest he believes that he himself is up to: “When literature achieves the accuracy of an exact science, that’s something!”

This isn’t the heart of my argument; this is only the dressing. The heart of the argument perhaps goes something like this: that modernism (and proto-modernism such as Flaubert’s) attempted to write (or even just think) a literature that wasn’t dependent upon the event, and that in attempting to write or to think such a thing, these modernists  (inadvertently, unconsciously, or not…) implicitly criticized the revolutionary event as itself a construct fully consummate with the temporality of life under capitalism. Even more complicated than how this happen is why this happened, and that is what I am tapping away, coffeehouse by coffeehouse, at now.

Ooooof. Poor W. Benjamin, caught in the messianically-inflected anxiety of influence trap vis a vis Flaubert. (Check the indicies… There’s the plagiarized passage from Lukács in “The Storyteller,” but look out for other references in the Collected Works. But do you really think he wasn’t worried about Flaubert, given his other interests?)

I may, in the course of everything else to do and under the influence of fast-typers, queue up a quick thing on Flaubert and socialism in the next few weeks. Unfortunately, you’ll none of you see that if I do. Fucking pseudoblog!

(Special to Pollian: did you see the bit about “half-way between algebra and music”? That’s not bad for you and your thing, eh? There’s a lot for you in Flaubert’s letters, I think. Was praising somewhat enviously your thing, btw, to a friend today….)

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June 23, 2009 at 10:35 pm

Posted in benjamin, flaubert

Ulysses and the past disaster

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Read this post as an extended footnote to my previous one. It’s very easy to forget, I suppose because it’s set in 1904, that Joyce wrote Ulysses during and after the First World War. For instance, Badiou does in The Century:

The twentieth century kicks off in an exceptional fashion. Let us take the two great decades between 1890 and 1914 as the century’s prologue. In every field of thought these years represent a period of exceptional invention, marked by a polymorphous creativity that can only be compared to the Florentine Renaissance or the century of Pericles. It is a prodigious period of excitement and rupture. Consider just a few of its milestones. […] This period also sees the publication of the vast novels of James and Conrad, the writing of the bulk of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and the maturation of Joyce’s Ulysses.

Badiou is making a point here about the relationship between culture before and after the First World War, so it does matter that he’s a few years off with the dating of the development of Ulysses. And it mattered to Joyce, apparently, that we take heed of the dates of the texts “maturation.” Remember what happens at the very end?

watchman going about serene with his lamp and O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

Trieste-Zurich-Paris 1914-1921

The dates and places mark the text as itself marked by the particularly brutal time and place it was written. They are arguably – traditionally – considered to be a part of the text itself, rather than “supplementary” materials added on like an author’s note on the last page of the text.

What do we miss when we read Ulysses without attending to what Joyce clearly wanted us to know (if only retroactively, retrospectively) about his novel? One way to put it is that this novel about 1904 wants to announce itself as a sort of dialectical image, if a strange sort of one. Here are the requisite quotes from Benjamin, the first from the Arcades Project, the second two from the Theses. You’ve probably read them before…

It’s not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation. In other words, image is dialectics at a standstill. For while the relation of the present to the past is a purely temporal, continuous one, the relation of what-has-been to the now is dialectical: is not progression but image, suddenly emergent.

The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again. ‘The truth will not run away from us’: in the historical outlook of historicism these words of Gottfried Keller mark the exact point where historical materialism cuts through historicism. For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably. (The good tidings which the historian of the past brings with throbbing heart may be lost in a void the very moment he opens his mouth.)

The historical materialist cannot do without the notion of a present which is not a transition, but in which time takes a stand [einsteht] and has come to a standstill. For this notion defines the very present in which he himself is writing history. Historicism offers the “eternal” image of the past; historical materialism supplies a unique experience with the past. The historical materialist leaves it to others to be drained by the whore called “Once upon a time” in historicism’s bordello. He remains in control of his powers – enough to blast upon the continuity of history.

I’d argue that the dates at the end of Ulysses, particularly if they’re taken (as I take them) to be part of the text proper, force us to take the novel as something in line with Benjamin’s notion of the dialectical image rather than, say, simply a “historical novel.” 1904 is summoned / presents itself because it was 1914-1921 in Trieste-Zurich-Paris, rather than the alternative.

But it’s a strange sort of dialectical image or collection of dialectical images. First of all – but I suppose this is true of all images of the sort – it’s not clear what exactly we’re supposed to take from what Joyce has collected. Franco Moretti in Signs Taken for Wonders brilliantly claims that Ulysses is a sort of retrograde dystopia, one that predicts the worst of all possible bad futures, the bad future that has already come to pass:

Ulysses is indeed static, and in its world nothing – absolutely nothing – is great. But this is not due to any technical or ideal shortcoming on Joyce’s part, but rather his subjection to English society: for Joyce, it is certainly the only society imaginable, although he just as certainly condemns it, through a hyperbolic presentation of its worst features, to a future of paralysed mediocrity (a future that Joyce, with a stroke of genius, places in the past, as if to underline his consummate scepticism: one can always hope never to reach the negative utopias of science fiction, but if a negative utopia came into being twenty years ago, and no one realized it, then the die is truly cast…)

But there’s something else that’s strange and complicating about all this. June 16, 1904 is also (we know, we know) the date when Joyce first went out with his future wife Nora Barnacle and when, according to semi-official legend, she gave him a handjob. * This fact somewhat over or underdetermines all that I’ve written above, hard to say which, but nevertheless does lead on to the next of my thetically arranged series of posts, in which I attack Benjamin for always fantasizing about explosions where none were to be found…. Coming soon….

* I’ve always been a bit curious about this whole handjob thing, as the letters indicate that it really did mean quite a lot to JJ, but also JJ clearly had been with women – prostitutes – before Nora and assuredly in a more than manual sort of way. Somehow the handjob from a non-prostitute was more, well, epiphanic than anything else that had happened with prostitutes. Which makes sense…. And doesn’t. No it does actually. But for a good time, read this exchange. Just found it.

Written by adswithoutproducts

January 11, 2009 at 11:50 pm

Posted in badiou, benjamin, joyce, war

melancholic intensity and short form writing

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Philip Lopate on Susan Sontag on Walter Benjamin in The Threepenny Review:

Benjamin was […] another exemplar for her of “the freelance intellectual.” Finally, he was a negative model in the difficulty he had finishing books. “His characteristic form remained the essay. The melancholic’s intensity and exhaustiveness of attention set natural limits to the length at which Benjamin could develop his ideas. His major essays seem to end just in time, before they self-destruct.” Her own essay on Benjamin runs a mere twenty-five pages. She later said, by way of explaining why she no longer gave her main energies to essay-writing, that some of the essays in Under the Sign of Saturn had taken her six months to write. From my perspective, this means she should have persisted in essay writing; it was just getting to the proper level of difficulty.

Just as the “literature of the no” (more to come on this) encourages one to romanticize one’s own lack of productivity, reading something like this is suggestive in probably just the wrong way. The ultimate intensity would take the form of aphoristic captions underneath single photos on an underread blog? But why do they require books? No one reads them anymore anyway!

(BTW I think everyone should subscribe to The Threepenny Review, by the way. It never ceases to amaze me that when I write in for address changes or to resubscribe and the like, it’s always Wendy Lesser herself who writes back…)

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December 2, 2008 at 12:48 pm

Posted in benjamin, distraction

benjamin’s bedside table

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The NLR has some late previously-untranslated work from Walter Benjamin, a survey of French literature in 1940, that he wrote for the boys at the ISR back in New York.

Basically, you find here a map of what he was reading extrinsically while working on the “Concept of History” piece. I’m not sure what to make of that, other than the fact that surrealism was busily dying at the time and he was busy, as you’ll see, noting its death… Which surely figures in the “History” essay, but it’s going to take some thinking to say how.

(I’m not entirely sure whether the piece is available without subscription, whether I’m getting auto-logged into the NLR site or not. But if you don’t have a subscription and you can afford it you prolly should just get one….)

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July 9, 2008 at 11:52 am

Posted in benjamin

battle of the titans…

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…the titans of my own personal canon. Here, in an excellent review of new works from Kundera, Coetzee, Sontag, and Mario Vargas Llosa, Jonathan Rée has one of my favorites going after another.

But Coetzee does not confine his attention to novelists, and an outstanding essay on Walt Whitman allows him to explore a conception of democracy that he himself would evidently endorse: democratic politics, he suggests, is “not one of the superficial inventions of human reason but an aspect of the ever-developing human spirit, rooted in eros.” Those who make a fetish out of politics, he implies, are in danger of foreclosing on democracy. Take Walter Benjamin, for example. Coetzee, refusing to treat him with the awed indulgence that has become customary, contends that when Benjamin decided to become a good communist, it was not through an imaginative appraisal of political options, but was simply “an act of choosing sides, morally and historically, against the bourgeoisie and his own bourgeois origins.” And if there was something silly and unconvincing about Benjamin’s Marxism—”something forced about it, something merely reactive”—it could perhaps be attributed to a certain literary narcissism. “As a writer, Benjamin had no gift for evoking other people,” Coetzee says; he had “no talent as a storyteller,” and no capacity for the kind of compassionate intelligence implicit in the art of the novel. In a perverse attempt to opt for political realism rather than literary imagination, Benjamin managed to cut himself off from both.

This is interesting stuff, isn’t it? Coetzee has morphed into a writer who, when set to write fiction turns up with an essay in hand, just as when the situation calls for an essay, he throws fiction. But here, he accuses Benjamin of being neither fish nor fowl: his engagement was only ever forced and Oedipal, and on the other hand when he turns in the other direction he only discovers his own talentlessness.

Despite being a reflexive defender of Coetzee, I actually think he gets it very wrong here in the end. I actually think – and have written and may one day publish – that it is exactly when WB got most literary (in a certain specific way that there’s not really time to explain here, but the “messianic” threads are where I’m headed) that his work skewed toward a sort of portentous uselessness and maybe even something like bad faith.

More to say about this, of course, but then I’d be traipsing into my own real world work, which simply is not done, chez adswithoutproducts. But a few other things from Rée’s essay. Discussing Sontag’s At the Same Time, he notes that Sontag’s

fury at the condition of the US—she speaks of a “culture of shamelessness,” marked by an “increasing acceptance of brutality” in which politics has been obliterated and “replaced by psychotherapy”—seems to have made her forget her own better self.

…which is, I think, exactly the conclusion, in basically exactly the same terms, that the soon-to-be-departed Sopranos has been building to, no?

And finally, what to make of Vargas Llosa’s redeployment of the “democratic” and “pluralistic” ethos of the novel into service (both metaphorical and, according to him, material, historical) of the neoliberal project?

Vargas Llosa’s prose is sometimes slow-paced, but it speeds up when he reflects on the “collectivist ideology” of nationality. “There are no nations,” he says, at least not in a way that could “define individuals through their belonging to a human conglomerate marked out as different from others by certain characteristics such as race, language and religion.” For Vargas Llosa, nationalism is always “a lie,” but its rebuttal is to be found not so much in high-toned internationalist universalism as in the dissociative particularities of literature, and especially in a well-narrated novel. The novel, he thinks, articulates a basic human desire—the desire to be “many people, as many as it would take to assuage the burning desires that possess us.” Alternatively, it stands for a basic human right—the right not to be the same as oneself, let alone the same as other people. And the defiant history of democracy began not in politics but in literature, when Cervantes first tackled “the problem of the narrator,” or the question of who gets to tell the story. No doubt about it: Don Quixote is “a 21st-century novel.”

Another horribly quick answer: I think he might well be right about this. I also think that this is exactly, if indirectly, one of the issues that writers we term “modernist” had with the form from the start of the period / movement. Right from Bovary forward, where Vargas Llosa’s “basic human desire” to identification gets twisted into a very strange knot indeed…

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June 6, 2007 at 10:11 am

those who live in (and lock down) glass houses…

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Unfortunately, this is all of the Maison de Verre that most of us will ever be able to see….

maison-de-verre-tm.jpg

See the tiny little bit of verre there in back, through the window? It was a bit consoling to know that in standing before the locked front door, I was standing where some of my heroes, like Benjamin, once stood. But a building as important as this one really shouldn’t be in private hands…

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June 3, 2007 at 11:03 pm

left hook

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A nice piece on the future of the left and the “social state” from Zygmunt Bauman in the journal Soundings (not a journal that I’ve seen before… but it looks interesting…) I’ll give away the end:

Contrary to the assumption of ‘third way’ advocates, loyalty to the social state tradition and an ability to modernise swiftly – with little or no damage to social cohesion and solidarity – need not be at loggerheads. On the contrary, as the social democratic practice of our Nordic neighbours has demonstrated, the pursuit of a more socially cohesive society is the necessary precondition for modernisation by consent. The Scandinavian pattern is anything but a relic of the past. Just how topical and alive its underlying principles are, and how strong its possibilities for inspiring human imagination and action, is demonstrated by the recent triumphs of emergent or resurrected social states in Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil and Chile. Gradually yet indefatigably they are changing the political likeness and popular mood of the Western Hemisphere. They bear the hallmarks of that ‘left hook’ with which, as Walter Benjamin pointed out, all truly decisive blows in human history tend to be delivered. And though this is a truth that is hard to perceive in a Britain that is sunk in the murky dusk of the Blairist era, it is the truth nevertheless.

Still, aren’t both Sweden and Denmark currently run by center-right liberalizing governments? Shouldn’t we be anxious that the Scandinavians themselves are starting to feel that the “Scandinavian pattern” is a relic of the past?

UPDATE: Uh oh…

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May 14, 2007 at 11:11 pm

“stands still and has come to a stop”

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(xposted to Long Sunday)

It is helpful, if also a bit unnerving, when media culture generates near proofs, direct materializations, of theses that you’ve already been walking around feeling smugly smart about. The thesis that I’m thinking about right now isn’t exactly mine, but it is one that has held my attention for a little while now. And I think I can localize the origin of this line of thought down to a single passage from William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, a passage that clues us in to the significance of the novel’s title.

“Of course,” he says, “we have no idea, now, of who or what the inhabitants of our future might be. In that sense, we have no future. Not in the sense that our grandparents had a future, or thought they did. Fully imagined cultural futures were the luxury of another day, one in which ‘now’ was of some greater duration. For us, of course, things can change so abruptly, so violently, so profoundly, that futures like our grandparents’ have insufficient ‘now’ to stand on. We have no future because our present is too volatile. … We have only risk management. The spinning of the given moment’s scenarios. Pattern recognition.” (Clipped from here).

It is an argument about science fiction that is also an argument about the experience of time at present, or vice versa. And it is in an excellent description of the state of speculative films today. In one of the DVD extras for Children of Men (unfortunately not available on line) the set-designers and stylists discuss the fact that Cuaron wanted everything in the film to look like stuff from today, only older and more weathered, which is exactly what we get. The future as present-less-infrastructural investment. Disaster movies set themselves in a next year that looks a lot like last year, while Al Gore’s apocalyptic infomercial confusedly quivers between easy futural solutions (buy carbon indulgences!) and a deeper, more convincing sense that we are always already fucked.

Newsmagazine features on future stuff has morphed into special issues on What Is About to Happen, and What Are They Doing to Stop It. From this…

to this…

(Survival Guide???? See what I mean…)

What set me to writing this post (the “near proof” mentioned above) was the trailer for a new PKD film-adaptation, reportedly quite terrible: Next.

A PKD symptomatic in with the protagonist can only see into the proximate future – a future that apparently climaxes with the detonation (or do they stop it???) of a nuclear device in an American shipyard. Right. It is tough to think of a premise that comes closer to exactly mimesis of the dominant temporal strategy of the first four years of the Bush administration, which I was only half-gulible enough to half-take serious, as I anxiously sort-of awaited the truck bombing of the synagogue and the two cop cars constantly parked in front of it at the end of my street in Brooklyn.

The progression of PKD films over the past quarter-century is vividly emblematic of the recision of the future; with each iteration, we draw closer to the present, and even drop at times back into the past. First, there’s Blade Runner, with its replicants and super-huge video screens and so forth, even if things are dusty and noirish. Then there’s Total Recall with the robot drivers and Mars Today and tennis sim that Sharon Stone practices with. But A Scanner Darkly is a retro future, set in a Californicated past of stoners and beautiful losers, no matter where (when) it thinks it is. (I know I’m leaving a few out, but bear with me….) And then there’s Here.

When I teach utopian / dystopian fiction from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries to my undergraduates, I usually start by taking them on a little mental journey back to a time when the question future was actually up for argument, and then bring them back to the here and now to ask them what, if anything, they can imagine significantly changing during the course of their lives. More and better video games, older and older people, fewer and fewer good jobs. But, of course, no fundamental alteration in the political or culture organization of things – their kids, if they have them, will live in the same sort of world as they do. Maybe someone will cure cancer, perhaps there will be free tv on the internets, but mostly things will rest as they are.

The first time I used this ploy, I actually waited to hear what they thought the future might look like. I have since learned to lecture straight through the socratic counter-point. They don’t answer; they’ve never, it turns out, even considered the question – at least the vocal ones haven’t. It is all entirely new to them…

It is tough, though, to know exactly what to make of this development – the foreshortening of the future from way, way out there to quite soon to almost now down toward in selben Augenblick. On the one hand, of course, it marks a foreclosure of the concept that the world might be radically otherwise, as there will never be any time for it to radically change. On the other hand, the whole scenario calls to mind Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” and its resistance to the Social Democratic concept of progress as a “progression through a homogenous, empty time” in favor of a “notion of a present which is not a transition, but in which time stands still and has come to a stop.”

At any rate, perhaps this sort of issue is exactly the sort of thing that the present day literature department should take up as a task. We English professors love the conjunction of the aesthetic and the political. But something has happened that makes it nearly impossible (save through pseudo-blog) to make this argument publically.

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April 24, 2007 at 12:35 am

Posted in aesthetics, benjamin, movies

a reminder

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From the section of Verso’s Aesthetics and Politics that deals with Benjamin’s notes on conversations with Brecht:

24 July 1934. On a beam which supports the ceiling of Brecht’s study are painted the words: ‘Truth is concrete.’ On a window-sill stands a small wooden donkey which can nod its head. Brecht has hung a little sign round its neck on which he has written: ‘Even I must understand it.’

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January 25, 2007 at 1:16 am

Posted in benjamin

civilization / barbarism

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New one over at Long Sunday, simply citing this from a T.J. Clark interview in the Brooklyn Rail

Rail: Right at the start of the book, in the Preface, you say a few words about the difference between what you’re doing in Afflicted Powers and The Sight of Death and ‘the alternative currently on offer in so much of the Left academy.’ It’s pretty clear that you haven’t much sympathy for what passes these days as Left art history. Why not?

Clark: I think it’s stuck with an out-of-date sense of the issues. As if it mattered any longer—as if it had any present political point—to prove for the umpteenth time that what we poor suckers had imagined was a difficult and double-edged picture of the human condition was really, hey presto!, just another instrument of ruling-class oppression… Here’s Bruegel for you—provider of sneering moralistic services for a bunch of bourgeois Puritans. Where does one start with this? Maybe by looking back at the canonical quote from Walter Benjamin, and reminding oneself of what it did and did not say. It did not say that “There is no document of civilization which is not really, when you look at its origins and function, a document of barbarism.” It said: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” This is a dialectical thought, not an anti-canonical put-down. The work of art is a document of civilization and of barbarism. The job of the materialist is to think the two identities—the two kinds of belonging to history—together. Not to reduce one to the other. A materialist will presumably be interested in what it was, in the sets of possibilities offered by a specific medium, a specific practice, that opened the space in which a jolly denunciation of peasant foolishness became something else.

(via 3quarks)

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November 8, 2006 at 11:28 pm

Posted in aesthetics, benjamin