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Archive for the ‘benjamin’ Category

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