Read an ExcerptStyle and Time
Essays on the Politics of Appearance
By ANDREW BENJAMIN
Northwestern University Press
Copyright © 2006
Northwestern University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One Benjamin's Modernity
Any argument that starts with the claim that it concerns a theory of modernity is constrained to account for the nature of modernity's inception. Even in working with the assumption of modernity's presence, there would still have to be a description of that which was located in its differentiation from the modern. Part of the argument to be developed here is that for the major thinkers of modernity, its occurrence is thought in terms of a break or an interruption. In part 1 of this book, the particular project is to locate that thinking in the writings of Walter Benjamin. A context therefore is set by those writings and the presence within them of attempts to develop a relationship between modernity and its necessary interarticulation with a philosophical conception of historical time. Given this context, the opening question has to concern the specificity of interruption within those writings.
How is interruption to be thought? What is the conception of interruption at work within Benjamin's writings? Although it appears as a motif in his engagement with Romanticism and is then repositioned-if not reworked in the later writings in terms of a thinking of historical time-interruption as a mode of thought within Benjamin's work can be identified under a number of different headings. In each instance, what insists is the question of what interruption stages. In Benjamin, as will become clear, interruption is the term through which a theory of modernity can be thought. This is not to argue that it is identical with the conception of modernity located in Benjamin's writings as such. Rather, it is modernity as an interruption, one that has to be maintained and which will vanish within the resurgence of historicism understood as the insistence of continuity in the face of discontinuity, that marks the move from a specifically Romantic motif to a thinking of historical time. The Romantic motif of interruption provides a possible form for such a thinking of historical time. The direct consequence of this is that to the extent that this latter point is the case, then a theory of modernity will owe as much to a Romantic heritage as it will to one coming from the Enlightenment. Indeed, it can be further argued that thinking the particularity of modernity as an interruption depends upon the successful distancing of the conception of historical time within the Enlightenment tradition.
Interruption is named in different ways. Perhaps the most emphatic, and the one that will allow this theme to be traced here, is the "caesura." The aim of this chapter is to develop an understanding of interruption in terms of the "caesura," and then to note the effective presence of this specific mode of thought within a number of different texts. Often interruption will be named differently. Rather than attempt a synoptic exercise, two particular moments will be taken up. The first concerns the work of the caesura in Benjamin's essay "Goethe's Elective Affinities," and the second is the recurrence of the term in Konvolut N of The Arcades Project (N10a, 3). In regard to Benjamin's own chronology, these texts mark the beginning and the end of his writing career. While Benjamin wrote both his doctoral dissertation and his essay on Hölderlin prior to the Goethe essay, the latter can be seen as the point of departure for both the concept of criticism he developed in the dissertation and his sustained engagement with the Romantic heritage. The Arcades Project, while not finished in a literal sense, always brought with it the possibility of never being finished. As such it was the work that truly marked the end of Benjamin's writings.
Almost at the end of Benjamin's extraordinary study of Goethe's novel, he writes that a particular sentence contains what he describes as the "caesura of the work." Analyzing this claim will open up the way the caesura is staged in his early writings. The passage in question is the following:
In the symbol of the star, the hope that Goethe had to conceive for the lovers had once appeared to him. That sentence, which so to speak with Hölderlin contains the caesura of the work and in which, while the embracing lovers seal their fate, everything pauses, reads: "Hope shot across the sky above their heads like a falling star." They are unaware of it, of course. (SW 1:354-55/GS 1.1:199-200)
The presence of the star cannot be divorced from its presence as a symbol. The text is clear: "Denn unter dem Symbol des Sterns" ("In the symbol of a star"). Introduced with the symbol is the split that works within the caesura and which is registered in the lovers' nonregistration of the star as the symbol of hope. Understanding that split means paying attention to the complex relationship between time and the Absolute as it figures in the symbol insofar as the symbol is evidenced in this passage. (At this stage in Benjamin's development, he is yet to formulate a sustained distinction between symbol and allegory.) Benjamin has allowed here for a conception of the symbol that departs from the simultaneity of the relation between symbol and the symbolized, though it equally departs from the hermeneutic demands of surface/depth as the setup through which the symbol is constrained to be interpreted. The opening up of the symbol occurs within what could be described as a destruction entailing ontological and temporal considerations. Destruction figures in the Goethe essay in a number of different places. One of the more significant is in terms of the "torso."
Benjamin refers both in the Goethe essay and in the doctoral dissertation to the "torso." In the case of the dissertation, the term is used to argue that the particular "can never coalesce with the Ideal" but has to remain "als Vorbild" (as a prototype). In the Goethe essay the symbol is also linked to the "torso." It is presented in relation to the work of "the expressionless." Benjamin writes: "Only the expressionless completes the work by shattering it into a thing of shards, into a fragment of the true world, into a torso of a symbol" (SW 1:340/GS 1.1:181). What is a "torso of a symbol"? The first part of the answer to this question is that it is a result: the consequence of the work of the "expressionless." The work is completed in its being fragmented. The mistake would be to read this as a literal claim. There aren't any shards; there will not have been any fragments. Rather, the moment (and it is a moment, Benjamin writes, in einem Augenblick) is that in which the most severe form of irreconcilability occurs. The torso of a symbol, however, is not given within the structure of necessity demanded by diremption, since it does not envisage its own overcoming or resolution. Rather, it is the staging of an opening that can only ever be maintained as this opening. Being maintained in this manner, it defines a predicament in which the problem of closure and thus resolution is staged without an end being envisaged.
What then of the "torso" in this predicament? As a torso, the symbol has been stripped of the structure and thus of the possibility of temporal simultaneity; nonetheless, this cannot be interpreted as opening up a field of infinite deferral. The work is still completed. The expressionless completes. Again the text is clear: Benjamin states, "vollendet das Werk" (completes the work). It is completed by the occurrence within it that is the work of a temporal register that cannot be assimilated to the temporality of expression. What this means is that what completes the work is integral to the work's formal presence and not to the "content" of its narrative. The "expressionless" is not the interruption of continuity, nor is it simple discontinuity. It completes the work by showing, on the one hand, the perpetual vacuity of expression if expression were thought to voice the all; and on the other, by demanding of the work that it recall-recall within and as its work-its separation from the eternal. While more needs to be said, the introduction of time allows the problem of the nature of the caesura, and in this context its relation to hope, to be staged. In the passage already noted the caesura enters with a particular purpose. The expressionless understood as "a category of language and art"-though not of a work or genre-"can be no more rigorously defined than through a passage from Hölderlin's 'Remarks on Oedipus'" (SW 1:340/GS 1.1:181), to which Benjamin adds that the deployment of the caesura beyond its use in a theory of tragedy has not been noticed, let alone pursued with adequate rigor.
Two points therefore arise. The first is that the caesura allows for a rigorous definition of the expressionless. Second, the caesura is to be used other than in its employment within a theory of tragedy. The caesura is precisely not an emblem of rhetoric. On one level the caesura and the expressionless are different names for the same possibility, namely, an interruption that yields completion. It is this possibility that needs to be pursued by a return to the passage in which the completion of Goethe's novel is identified as occurring in a single sentence. How could it be that a sentence might "contain the caesura of the work"? What is shattered in this case? Where are the shards? Here there are no twitching limbs vainly gesturing at what remains, i.e., the torso. How then is this claim to be understood? Moreover, the passage in which this phrase-"which will complete the work"-is presented does not occur at the novel's completion. It may set the seal for what will occur and yet it occurs pages from the end. How then does it work to complete the work? For Benjamin this has to be the question proper to criticism, if only because the answer would "provide detailed knowledge of the work."
It is essential therefore to return to one of Benjamin's formulations of criticism. Only with an understanding of criticism will it become possible to follow the role attributed to the caesura in the Goethe essay. The essay is, after all, a work of "criticism." The passage in question moves criticism through a number of vital stages. While the passage is detailed-containing in addition an important reference to Schlegel's own criticism of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister-its detail is essential:
The legitimization of criticism-which is not to posit criticism as an objective court of judgment on all poetic production-consists in its prosaic nature. Criticism is the preparation of the prosaic kernel in every work. In this, the concept of "preparation" is understood in the chemical sense, as the generation of a substance through a determinate process to which other substances are submitted. This is what Schlegel means when he says of Wilhelm Meister: "the work not only judges itself, it prepares itself." The prosaic is grasped by criticism in both of its meanings: in its literal meaning through the form of expression, as criticism expresses itself in prose; in its figurative meaning through criticism's object, which is the eternal sober continuance of the work. This criticism, as process and as product, is a necessary function of the classical work. (SW 1:178/GS 1.1:109)
Criticism is that approach to the work in which the identification of its particularity allows for its incorporation into what Romanticism would have identified as "the realm of the Absolute." The move, in the most direct sense, would be from the "prosaic kernel" to the prose of criticism. The extent to which a work is criticizable is the extent to which it prepares itself (is prepared) for this possibility. The complicating factor in this passage is how the distinction between the "literal" and the "figural" is to be understood. For Benjamin, "prosaic" has two meanings. The first refers to its presence defined within the context of the passage as "unmetrical language," i.e., the prosaic expressed in the prose of criticism. However, the prosaic is also "grasped by criticism in a figurative sense" as "the eternal continuation of the work." What this means is that criticism holds to particularity while, at the same time, allowing for the particular's absorption into the Absolute.
Criticism is able to allow for the completion of the particular work to the extent that the work is criticizable. As it is formulated in the Goethe essay, this signals the presence of the possibility of showing "in the work of art the virtual possibility of formulating the work's truth content" as the "highest philosophical problem." The latter is of course the staging of the Absolute and its impossible possibility. The moment that brings this together is the caesura. As has already been intimated, the first reference in Benjamin's text to this term that is worth noting concerns his identification of the caesura as it figures in Hölderlin's "Remarks on Oedipus." It is important to return to the actual text he cites. The Hölderlin text as cited by Benjamin is as follows:
For the tragic transport is the actually empty and the least restrained.-Thereby in the rhythmic sequence of the representations wherein the transport presents itself, there becomes necessary what in the poetic metre is called caesura, the pure world, the counter-rhythmic rupture-namely, in order to meet the onrushing change of representations at its highest point, in such a manner that not the change of representation but the representation itself soon appears. (SW 1:340-41/GS 1.1:181-82)
Hölderlin's formulation is more complex than suggesting a form of interruption that would only ever be a counter-rhythm. Meter does not measure the interruption. That would make the caesura a literal breaking apart. Rather, such a rupture must take place on the level of representation and presentation. The site of interruption is the "sequence of the representations" and their movement is that of the "onrushing change of representations." The sequence and the movement produce the site of interruption. This sequence cannot be straightforwardly conflated with plot. Sequence and movement need to be viewed in temporal terms. They involve a particular form of unfolding: one which articulates a sequential temporality. The caesura is positioned by place-insofar as it can be located-while it is not the work of place. Thus, it is not another occurrence. The complicating factor here is that interruption is the interruption of a certain temporal sequence, though it is equally the interruption of the possibility of reading that sequence as the unfolding of the purely transcendental. In other words, the work is neither regulated nor caused by that which is external to it. The former element is the one that comes to dominate Benjamin's later writings. Nonetheless, the other element is important, since what is refused by it is the possibility of an eternal other, either as God, idea, or myth, to provide the artwork with its legitimacy and, though this is probably to reiterate the impossibility of legitimacy, to offer the locus and thus determine the nature of critique. Critique is not that which occurs in terms of a relation between an external element that causes the internal components to have their specific determinations.
Excerpted from Style and Time by ANDREW BENJAMIN
Copyright © 2006 by Northwestern University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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