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completely useless for the purposes of fascism

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From Benjamin’s preface to “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”:

The concepts which are introduced into the theory of art in what follows differ from the more familiar terms in that they are completely useless for the purposes of Fascism.

What Benjamin was not saying:

The concepts which are introduced into the theory of art in what follows differ from the more familiar terms in that they are completely useless for the purposes of Fascism, since they are anodyne enough to appeal to the vital center.

The concepts which are introduced into the theory of art in what follows differ from the more familiar terms in that they are completely useless for the purposes of Fascism, as Fascism will not be able to “pin” them on us later in the press.

The concepts which are introduced into the theory of art in what follows differ from the more familiar terms in that they are completely useless for the purposes of Fascism, as they strike a middle ground between radicalism and conscious complicity.

The concepts which are introduced into the theory of art in what follows differ from the more familiar terms in that they are completely useless for the purposes of Fascism, since they avoid the risk of wandering into a scary, dark ideological alley.

The concepts which are introduced into the theory of art in what follows differ from the more familiar terms in that they are completely useless for the purposes of Fascism, since they are the proper utterance of the “reality-based community.”

The concepts which are introduced into the theory of art in what follows differ from the more familiar terms in that they are completely useless for the purposes of Fascism, since, really, Fascism is the wrong word for what we are up against.

Und so weiter…

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August 11, 2006 at 12:48 am

Posted in benjamin

addressed to an alternative future

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Cited at If:book, John Berger on the photograph:

[Susan Sontag’s] theory of the current use of photographs leads one to ask whether photography might serve a different function. Is there an alternative photographic practice? The question should not be answered naively. Today no alternative professional practice (if one thinks of the profession of photographer) is possible. The system can accommodate any photograph. Yet it may be possible to begin to use photographs according to a practice addressed to an alternative future.

. . . . For the photographer this means thinking of her or himself not so much as a reporter to the rest of the world but, rather, as a recorder for those involved in the events photographed. The distinction is crucial.

Berger’s riffing on Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” looks like. Not sure if I go along with the rest of the post on If:book, where the writer proceeds to apply Berger’s formulation to the sumptuous meals he eats at his summer retreat on Sardinia (pretty sure that’s not the sort of photography that JB was thinking of) nor of the final turn toward the consideration of flickr. But the distinction does seem to be crucial, if a bit opaque. It has to mean something more than a change in the direction of sympathies, as sympathetic images are no less adaptable to the reign of spectacle than unsympathetic ones. (“The production of images also furnishes a ruling ideology. Social change is replaced by a change in images.”)

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July 21, 2006 at 10:57 pm

a date which will live in infamy

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Crossposted from Long Sunday. It’s a follow up to Jodi Dean’s recent post at LS on desire and 9/11, and the comments below it.

The concluding paragraph of Benjamin’s Work of Art essay:

Fiat ars – pereat mundus,” says Fascism, and, as Marienetti 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 a politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art.

Relatedly, think back to the summer before the attack, the Pearl Harbor trailer. Christ – the damn thing actually ran for about a year before every single movie that made it to the theater. I must have seen it thirty times.

trailer_21.jpg

Think back to FDR’s speech that runs as a voiceover, as we watch the kids pretend to be fighter pilots, soliders screw nurses, women hang out laundry. The everyday.

How long is America going to pretend that the world is not at war?

From Berlin, Rome, and Tokyo, we have been described as a nation of weaklings and playboys, who hire British or Russian or Chinese soldiers to do our fighting for us.

We’ve been trained to think that we are invincible. But our people think Hitler and his Nazi thugs are Europe’s problem. We have to do more. Does anyone think that victory is possible without facing danger? At times like these we all need to be reminded of who we truly are – that we will not give up.

December 7th, 1941. A date which will live in infamy. The United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by the empire of Japan.

We are war. Tell that to the soldiers who today are hitting hard in the far waters of the Pacific. Tell that to the boys in the flying fortresses. Tell that to the Marines.

Toward the end of the trailer, subtitles appear on screen:

it was the end of innocence and the dawn of a nation’s greatest glory.

Think of how focus-grouped and wideband market-prepped this movie was. The trailer in particular. Think about what secret or not so secret desires the producers were touching, titillating, conjuring?

The contemporary reviews were on message:

Ninety minutes into this massive movie the attack commences, and the spectacular images come hurtling like fireballs. This is, let’s be honest, what we’re here for, and what most Jerry Bruckheimer-produced movies serve up best: the poetry of destruction (Newsweek).

The picture is nearly painstaking in its traditionalism, a tale of love, war, and valor in which nostalgia for ”simpler times” gets mashed together, almost fetishistically, with nostalgia for old movies and for the spirit of knightly self sacrifice during World War II (Entertainment Weekly)

Telepathy, for sure. If we have to know anything, it is that the causes of things aren’t always as straight and clear as Occam’s Razor might suggest.

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July 4, 2006 at 11:54 pm

distraction

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So I’ve been writing a ton this summer, and it’s not a new thing but when I write I constantly click open the rss reader to siphon it down as it fills. It is one of my many, many bad writing habits. And unlike some of my bad habits, which are a bit edge-sharpening, give me a little burst of clarity and fixity as I circle and stream along, the feeds are purely distracting. When I’m lucky, it’s a single sweep through, no links followed. When unlucky, I get caught up in it, end up leaving comments somehwhere or ordering books from Amazon etc. When I’m shit out of luck and concentration, I’ll blog about something that I’ve read. (You might notice I’ve been posting way more than usual of late…)

Addictive. I’ve always been a bit of an info-freak, newspaper fetishist, trend gnawer, whatever. But rss is a whole nother story. After, what’s it been, two years or so, my collection of feeds is heading toward some sort of tipping point where I’m provided constantly and instantaneously with everything that I have to read right now. And it takes a toll on the work…

…I mean, I guess it takes a toll. It should, right? I’ve already mentioned my complete inability to read Actual Books this summer. But I’ve written quite a lot, am relatively happy with what I”ve written, etc, etc…

Ok – the point: during my writing time, quite a bit of mental energy is spent holding the world (in the shape of these feeds) out. They have nothing to do with what I’m working on, and I’ve got this reflex developing that

A kind of banally deconstructive question: How is my current work shaped by what I spend so much effort excluding? And what would work that embraces rather than walls out distraction look like?

A few Benjamin cites to help out. On the one hand, from “The Work of Art” essay:

The painting invites the spectator to contemplation; before it the spectator can abandon himself to his associations. Before the movie frame he cannot do so. No sooner has his eye grasped a scene than it is already changed. It cannot be arrested. Duhamel, who detests the film and knows nothing of its significance, though something of its structure, notes this circumstance as follows: “I can no longer think what I want to think. My thoughts have been replaced by moving images.” (Georges Duhamel, *Scenes de la vie future*, Paris, 1930, p. 52.) The spectator’s process of association in view of these images is indeed interrupted by their constant, sudden change. This constitutes the shock effect of the film, which, like all shocks, should be cushioned by heightened presence of mind. By means of its technical structure, the film has taken the physical shock effect out of the wrappers in which Dadaism had, as it were, kept it inside the moral shock effect.

But on the other hand, from “The Storyteller”:

Every morning brings us news of the globe, and yet we are poor in noteworthy stories. This is because no event any longer comes to us without already being shot through with explanation. In other words, by now almost everything benefits information. Actually, it is half the art of storytelling to keep a story free from explanation as one reproduces it. Leskov is the master at this (compare pieces like “The Deception” and “The White Eagle”). The most extraordinary things, marvelous things, are related with the greatest accuracy, but the psychological connection of the events is not forced upon the reader. It is left up to him to interpret things the way he understands them, and thus the narrative achieves an amplitude that information lacks.

(BTW: do you see the funny turn here, so characteristic? We expect the news to be disjointed, not the story, right? But then it is the story that lacks the connective tissue that runs between events….

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June 30, 2006 at 12:38 am

Posted in benjamin, blogs, distraction

à une passante

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What began as a shocking development, as unsettling as it was enlivening –

La rue assourdissante autour de moi hurlait.

Longue, mince, en grand deuil, douleur majestueuse,

Une femme passa, d’une main fastueuse

Soulevant, balançant le feston et l’ourlet;

Agile et noble, avec sa jambe de statue.

Moi, je buvais, crispé comme un extravagant,

Dans son oeil, ciel livide où germe l’ouragan,

La douceur qui fascine et le plaisir qui tue.

Un éclair… puis la nuit! — Fugitive beauté

Dont le regard m’a fait soudainement renaître,

Ne te verrai-je plus que dans l’éternité?

Ailleurs, bien loin d’ici! trop tard! jamais peut-être!

Car j’ignore où tu fuis, tu ne sais où je vais,

Ô toi que j’eusse aimée, ô toi qui le savais! (translations)

– becomes the fix that we missed, what we’ll move mountains and monuments to have again. We’ll pay handsomely for it, this love at last sight. We will, we say, plan contingency into our plans.

Diventity: Identity, Density and Diversity

I propose one simple caveat urban design should strive to implement:

“Good urban space optimises Diventity” *.

Diventity is a concept that links diversity, density, and identity, and I define it as such:

Diventity allows identity to recursively emerge from the density of diversity, when that density reaches a critical mass.
[snip]

A city is much more than its stones, a city is memories and relationships and friendships and fears and ambitions; it is stories and histories interacting in the society-space-time continuum.

We form these subjectivities only if the city provides us the right opportunities, because a city is first and foremost our memory-forming medium. We remember our first kiss through who we kissed and when and where we were when we kissed.

[snip]

A place with enough differentiated identities (spatial, social, etc), distributed in the right proximity (or density) to allow them to interact without obliterating one another, might create enough such moments to allow for identity-shaping memories to emerge. We can say that such a place has Diventity.

It is worth remembering that Les fleurs du mal was published during the early years of Haussmann’s transformation of Paris. An anti-“diventity” plan if there ever was one…

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June 15, 2006 at 12:04 am

no more amazement

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Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History, VIII.

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism. One reason why Fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as a historical norm. The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge—unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.

No more amazement, bemusement, cute quips and quotes, expressions of horror that are down deep registrations only of indolent ennui. Not the exception, but the rule. Nothing special. Nothing new, all of this.

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April 26, 2006 at 2:03 pm

Posted in america, benjamin, everyday

benjamin on the blog

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From the Work of Art essay, thesis X:

For centuries a small number of writers were confronted by many thousands of readers. This changed toward the end of the last century. With the increasing extension of the press, which kept placing new political, religious, scientific, professional, and local organs before the readers, an increasing number of readers became writers–at first, occasional ones. It began with the daily press opening to its readers space for “letters to the editor.” And today there is hardly a gainfully employed European who could not, in principle, find an opportunity to publish somewhere or other comments on his work, grievances, documentary reports, or that sort of thing. Thus, the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character. The difference becomes merely functional; it may vary from case to case. At any moment the reader is ready to turn into a writer. As expert, which he had to become willy-nilly in an extremely specialized work process, even if only in some minor respect, the reader gains access to authorship. In the Soviet Union work itself is given a voice. To present it verbally is part of a man’s ability to perform the work. Literary license is now founded on polytechnic rather than specialized training and thus becomes common property.

Of course, it was probably just a passing phase, a little utopian flicker before the tubes grow tolls… You didn’t really think this could go on like this, did you?

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April 26, 2006 at 12:29 pm

you are all so tired…

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One place to look for Benjamin on Loos is “Experience and Poverty.”

A complex artist like the painter Paul Klee and a programmatic one like Loos – both reject the traditional, solemn, noble image of man, festooned with all the sacrificial offerings of the past. They turn instead to the naked man of the contemporary world who lies screaming like a newborn babe in the dirty diapers of the present.

This is a fantastic piece. Interesting stuff on an architectural theorist and novelist Paul Scheerbart, whom I’m going to look into when I get back to the library. A bit more:

Poverty of experience. This should not be understood to mean that people are yearning for new experience. No, they long to free themselves from experience; they long for a world in which they can make such pure and decided use of their poverty – their outer poverty, and ultimately also their inner poverty – that it will lead to something respectable. Nor are they ignorant or inexperienced. Often we could say the very opposite. They have ‘devoured’ everything, both ‘culture and people,’ and they have had such a surfeit that it has exhausted them. No one feels more caught out than they by Scheerbart’s words: “You are all so tired, just because you have failed to concentrate your thoughts on a simple but ambitious plan.”

(What comes next, about Mickey Mouse, actually, is fantastic as well. But I’ll leave you to find it on your own…)

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April 14, 2006 at 1:29 pm

everyone can find in it his own existence

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From Walter Benjamin’s “The Image of Proust” in Illuminations:

What was it that Proust sought so frenetically? What was at the bottom of these infinite efforts? Can we say that all lives, works, and deeds that matter were never anything but the undisturbed unfolding of the most banal, most fleeting, most sentimental, weakest hour in the life of the one to whom they pertain? When Proust in a well-known passage described the hour that was most his own, he did it in such a way that everyone can find it in his own existence. We might even call it an everyday hour.

There are lots of different ways to describe Benjamin’s distinctive form of writing, his idiosyncratic form of thought. Some prefer the term “thetic,” which obviously works best with the pieces actually broken into theses, like the “Theses on the Philosophy” of history or the “Work of Art” essay. Others go with “dialectical,” which works as well, but perhaps distracts a bit from the actual contours of the texts.

This passage from the essay on Proust is a perfect example of what I would call Benjamin’s late and distinctive form. And it bears an amazing message, if you listen closely.

The third sentence takes up the blurring of the event, the significant occurrence, into the banal, the long durée, the everyday. For a gloss we can turn back just a bit for this:

Only the actus purus of recollection itself, not the author or the plot, constitutes the unity of the text. One may even say that the intermittence of the author and plot is only the reverse of the continuum of memory, the pattern on the backside of the tapestry.

In Proust’s work, then, we find a reversal of – or the surfacing of the reversal of – the conventional way that he conceive of novels. Rather than organizing the inchoate, the author and plot only interrupt, disrupt, punctuate the underlying continuum of infinite recollection. This reversal levels the finite event down into the infinite “unfolding” of time.

Well enough. But then back to the next sentence of the initial quote, which sends us in a very different direction:

When Proust in a well-known passage described the hour that was most his own, he did it in such a way that everyone can find it in his own existence. We might even call it an everyday hour.

Do you see it? The leap? From the dissolution of significance into the everyday, without a breath, into this – into the generalization of the particular, into communicability. We start with nihilism, neglect the anxious consideration of the abyss that we might expect, and turn in the next sentence to communication.

Reminds me, just this tiny passage, quite a bit of the move that’s being traced out here – the work that gives this blog its name.

The commodification of the human body, while subjecting it to the iron laws of massification and exchange value, seemed at the same time to redeem the body from the stigma of ineffability that had marked it for millennia. Breaking away from the double chains of biological destiny and individual biography, it took its leave of both the inarticulate cry of the tragic body and the dumb silence of the comic body, and thus appeared for the first time perfectly communicable, entirely illuminated. The epochal process of the emancipation of the human body from its theological foundations was thus accomplished in the dances of the ‘girls,’ in the advertising images, and in the gait of fashion models. This process had already been imposed at an industrial level when, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the invention of lithography and photography encouraged the inexpensive distribution of pornographic images: Neither generic nor individual, neither an image of the divinity nor an animal form, the body now become something truly whatever.

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March 22, 2006 at 1:22 am