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DAVID S. FERRIS
Introduction: Reading Benjamin
With the appearance of Harvard University Press's edition of Walter Benjamin's Selected Writings, the great range of this thinker, critic, social commentator, and theorist has become even more apparent in the English-speaking world. Making this range more readily available will undoubtedly prompt the discussion and understanding of Benjamin to move beyond the limited number of essays that have achieved canonical status wherever the name of Benjamin is evoked, particularly in Anglo-American criticism. Admittedly this access to a wider range of material in English will complicate the received picture of Benjamin even as it offers greater scope to track the development of his thought and the concepts through which it was expressed. In many ways, this Cambridge Companion has been edited with a view to providing a guide to the concepts and issues that will come under scrutiny as this fuller evaluation of Benjamin's thought gets under way within the English-language interpretation of his writings.
The organization of the volume has been guided by two concerns. First, to achieve an adequate account of key elements in Benjamin's thought and, second, to place these elements in relation to each other so that the shifting emphases and material through which Benjamin developed his thinking can be discerned. The organization is then thematic, taking up issues that traverse Benjamin's writing. While every attempt has been made to be comprehensive, the essays commissioned for this volume do not exhaust the wealth of interest in philosophical, cultural, theological, or historical materials exhibited by this critic. With such a multifaceted thinker as Benjamin, choices have to be made if the intentions of a series such as this one are to be fulfilled. In some cases, subjects that could, in a different context, receive the attention of individual scrutiny have been treated across several of the essays published here. What should be focused on in Benjamin's voluminous œuvre has also been guided by what is most useful for someone coming to Benjamin for the first time. To this end, the volume attempts to give a strong sense of the philosophical and historical context within which he writes and with which he so frequently takes issue.
Given the breadth of Benjamin's intellectual interest, introducing him in single essay is a task that threatens to overwhelm even the most focused of intentions. Rather than provide an overview, or synopsis of the contents of this volume, this introduction will be concerned with the task that confronts even the most elemental encounter with Benjamin: the task of reading a prose that varies from the curtly aphoristic to the strenuously discursive. This is, of course, a task that Benjamin, as a writer, was well aware of and also addressed in his writing. The task of this introduction, then, will be to engage the question of reading Benjamin which is, perhaps, just another way of saying that it will engage with the difficulty of reading Benjamin. But, first, some signposts crucial to an understanding of Benjamin's career and the singular nature of his writing.
The period from the 1910s to the late 1930s witnessed historical and intellectual changes whose effects are in many ways still being played out in the postmodern. For Benjamin, in particular, this meant not only the political effects of nineteenth-century capitalism and the social transformations they fostered but also an intellectual journey that begins under the influence of neo-Kantianism and progresses through German idealism, Freud, Surrealism, the kabbalah, Marx, and Brecht. The different stages of this career mark the extent to which Benjamin also offers an index to some of the dominant influences on the social, political, and intellectual history of the twentieth century as it forged its modernity. Yet, this index is rather a singular refraction. What Benjamin took up in his thought was rarely, if ever, returned to its source intact. This characteristic already indicates that what was almost never at stake in Benjamin's understanding was an accurate historical account of say, works by Proust, Goethe, Kafka, and so on. Benjamin was not a critic in that sense. His tendency is to read how the work of others grappled with issues that were essential to his own time and intellectual formation. Although his reading and the work it produced reflects the attempt to understand a modernity no longer capable of the philosophical and political accounts the past has bequeathed to it, it was to this past that Benjamin would insistently turn in order to confront central questions in his work: in what philosophy, in what politics, and in what language is modernity to articulate its present, its future? That this articulation frequently took the form of an examination of the past - and of history itself - should not be seen as contradictory, since it is in the way the present reads the past that its modernity is expressed. For this reason, Benjamin deserves to be read first and foremost as an acute reader of the means through which the past is known to us - and this past takes many forms in Benjamin: literature, art, culture, philosophy. For the same reason, Benjamin also demands to be read with much care. His emphasis on the means through which the past becomes known (which translates more generally into a concern with how knowledge is produced and passed on in both high and mass culture) underlines the extent to which Benjamin's writing will also be concerned with how it will be read and understood. Such a concern also indicates the way in which Benjamin's writing is intimately linked to his thought rather than, in the classical sense, serving as a mere medium for that thought.
Early in his introduction to The Origin of the German Tragic Drama, Walter Benjamin describes the method of a treatise as digression. Clarifying this idea of digression, he then goes on to say that its "primary characteristic is the renunciation of the uninterrupted progress of an intention" (Origin, 28). With such a remark Benjamin signals the difficulty that his own work will pose. Benjamin's writing is one in which this kind of interruption figures prominently. Although this characteristic can easily be seen to be repeated in the experiments with literary form that abound during the Modernist period in which he wrote, the use of interruption in Benjamin's writing is more complex than this parallel suggests. Rather than reflect an external historical and social situation, this aspect of Benjamin's writing is closely tied to the significance he attached to the means by which knowledge, history, and even their interpretation are all given to us.
Even in the phrase cited above, an indicator of this complexity is present - and one that gives a strong sense of how important Benjamin's style of writing is to his thought. Benjamin does not simply say in this phrase that the primary characteristic of the digression is to interrupt what he describes as the intention of a written work. If this is what had been said, his remark on method would suggest that interruption is to be valued above all else and that any other intention is to be superseded by a characteristic more in keeping with a modern world. But, Benjamin does not quite say this. Here, the wording of his thought takes on a prominence that cannot be ignored. Benjamin speaks of method as possessing an intention that is also interrupted. Benjamin does not oppose interruption to intention here. To take only this from his words would be to avoid much of the complexity of his thought. It would also be to assume that any writing in which intention dominates simply belongs to a past we should leave behind, preferring instead to favor interruption as the distinguishing mark of a writing that is genuinely modern. The issue is never that simple in Benjamin, and reading his work demands that we question the habit of thought that would simply oppose intention to interruption and see them as two separate models of writing.
To question this habit of thought is to question the kind of seamless progression toward meaning that makes reading an exercise whose purpose is to affirm an essay's intention as if it were also its conclusion. To do so not only is to avoid engaging with the nature of writing as Benjamin understands it, it is also to refuse the particular relation between writing and thought that is central to so much of Benjamin's writing. Through this relation between intention and the interruption occasioned by a digressive method, Benjamin pursues a method that demands the thoughtful response of his readers, demands what Benjamin will describe as the "process of contemplation" (Origin, 28).
Although one contribution to this volume will discuss interruption in greater detail and with greater reference to Benjamin's other work, its significance as an essential starting point for reading Benjamin cannot be avoided.1 This is especially important since the interruption referred to here is not presented in Benjamin's work as a subject or a theme in the same way that the artwork, translation, language, or even works such as Goethe's Elective Affinities are the subjects of individual essays.
Following his remarks on the treatise in the Introduction to The Origin of the German Tragic Drama, Benjamin develops further the effect of a writing characterized by interruption. This mode of writing is compared to the movement of thought. Benjamin writes: "Tirelessly thought begins continually from new things, laboriously returning to the same object. This continual pausing for breath is the mode most proper to the process of contemplation" (Origin, 28). The end effect is to induce a contemplation, but not simply the contemplation of a single object as would be the case when we understand contemplation to describe the way in which our thought can be wholly preoccupied by whatever we direct our attention toward. Rather, contemplation is here understood as a process in which the different levels of meaning that can be attached to the original object are recognized and experienced. This signals an important aspect of Benjamin's investigations, in particular, it draws attention to the way in which they are given to us. First, these investigations are as much concerned with their chosen subjects (for instance, film, photography, aura, storytelling, translation) as they are with the means by which these subjects are made and have been made significant. For Benjamin, cultural and historical artifacts reveal a sedimentation of meaning. Benjamin, however, is less interested in adjudicating between the competing claims of these layers of meaning. The issue for Benjamin is to grasp what the factual existence of such layers means. To do this requires not only a mode of inquiry that is sympathetic to this approach, but also a style of presentation in which the understanding Benjamin wishes to grasp can be made known to the reader. This is why the pausing for breath is favored by Benjamin; the pausing marks the moment at which the beginning of another level of meaning is indicated.
This style of presentation demands much of the reader. It is perhaps easiest to grasp it by recalling Benjamin's own metaphor for the effect it produces: a mosaic. Having lost any sense of a continuous unbroken development, such a writing takes on the character of discrete moments punctuated by pauses. To borrow Benjamin's metaphor, the task of reading such a writing is comparable to being confronted with the individual pieces of ceramic tile from which a mosaic is formed. Each of these pieces can be understood as one level of meaning. However, it is not Benjamin's intention to produce a work or a text that is merely a collection of fragments - despite the condition in which his major work, The Arcades Project, was left at the time of his death.
Benjamin describes the effect of the mosaic and its relation to contemplation in the following words: "Just as the majesty of mosaics remains despite their fragmentation into capricious particles, so philosophical reflection need not be concerned about its vitality" (Origin, 28). With the example of the mosaic and the visual image produced from its fragmentary parts, another understanding emerges from the continually interrupted process of contemplation. According to what Benjamin has already said, this understanding cannot be seen as simply what the mosaic intended to represent. But how is such an understanding to be conveyed? In the example of the mosaic it is easy to see because of the material it is composed from. In the case of writing it is much more difficult, especially since the metaphors we frequently use to describe writing have established a standard for judgment, and this standard is at considerable odds with what Benjamin will explore both in the practice of his writing and in his thought.
Characteristically, for Benjamin, the difficulty of arriving through thought or contemplation at the image so readily made available, or intended, by the mosaic brings us closer to the understanding he wishes to convey. Where thought is concerned, the relation between the pieces of the mosaic and the overall image it presents is nowhere seen as a direct one for Benjamin. In the case of the mosaic, this difficulty is noted by Benjamin when he draws attention to the difference between an artistic medium made up of "individual and disparate" (Origin, 28) pieces and the sacred image this form was so frequently employed to portray in the Middle Ages. In the case of thought and contemplation, the importance of the individual pieces or levels of meaning increases as their difference from this image becomes more pronounced. Benjamin describes this relation in the following words: "The value of fragments of thought is all the more decisive the less they are able to gauge their unmediated relation to the underlying idea, and the brilliance of the presentation depends as much on this measure as the brilliance of the mosaic does on the quality of the glass paste" (Origin, 29). Simply put, the value of individual thoughts is derived from how strongly individual they are, from how indirectly they relate to the underlying idea - just as the mosaic owes its brilliance not to the overall image it presents but to the brilliance of each individual piece of glass; and how more different could an overall picture be from one piece of glass? The significance of this manner of thinking (and which contributes greatly to its difficulty) can be traced to a refusal to accept the kind of understanding that would judge, for example, the brilliance of the mosaic according to the subject it represents. Benjamin focuses on the means by which such images are made possible, he focuses on the individual pieces, the details and discovers brilliance on this level. Contrary to traditional expectations, the significance of these details is derived not from the overall picture or underlying idea (which would be a direct relation) but from the stark contrast between such a picture or idea and the fragmentary, discontinuous material it is composed from.
As a result of refusing this traditional understanding, the significance of the parts is no longer dependent on the whole. But, as Benjamin insists, this does not mean that the parts have no relation to the overall picture or underlying idea. Rather, it means that the relation between them is no longer imposed from the top down, instead, it has to be thought from the bottom up, from what Benjamin terms "immersion in the most minute details of the material content" (Origin, 29). By privileging the detail, Benjamin undertakes a significant shift that has both historical and philosophical effects. For example, history is no longer conceived of as a master narrative within which every detail can be given its place. Instead, history is understood to reside in a mass of material detail whose existence works against any linear, continuous model of historical development. Nowhere is this understanding more in evidence than in the project that remained incomplete at the time of Benjamin's death, the Arcades Project; but, its effect can also be seen on a less extended scale, and it is here that the philosophical import of this emphasis on the detail finds its expression.
After describing how the process of contemplation resembles the mosaic, Benjamin turns to the form of writing, in particular, to its unavoidable and most essential unit, the sentence. Although Benjamin will distinguish speech from writing, when he does, the distinction is made in order to indicate how writing lacks an effect that will always try to realize the underlying idea or overall picture of the mosaic. Benjamin writes:
While the speaker uses voice and the gesture of mime to support individual sentences, even where they cannot stand up on their own, constructing out of them - often vaguely and precariously - a sequence of ideas, as if producing a bold sketch in a single attempt, the writer must stop and restart with every sentence. (Origin, 29)
Lacking the secondary help of mimic gestures (the word Benjamin uses here evokes pantomime) or even tone of voice, writing is like a mosaic unable to present its overall picture. Some further precision is necessary here - as it is almost everywhere in Benjamin. This does not mean that there is no overall picture. Rather, it is a question of how such a picture is produced. For Benjamin the picture is the result of how we put together the different pieces of the mosaic given to us in writing. Unfortunately, writing, unlike the mosaic, does not yield its overall picture if we simply step back and open our eyes. In the case of writing, such a picture is always produced through the employment of our understanding. Benjamin indicates that, in writing, this understanding is constantly spurned into action by the stopping and restarting of every sentence. In this respect, Benjamin sees the strongest possible affinity between the contemplation of an object and an essential element of all writing. Benjamin describes this affinity in the following words but also attaches a warning to this description - as if to preempt any misreading. After describing the form of writing, Benjamin states: "this applies to the contemplative mode of presentation more than any other. Its aim is not to sweep the reader along and inspire him with enthusiasm" (Origin, 29). The form of writing is not some rhapsodic sequence of waves breaking over the barriers of our understanding and carrying us away goodness knows where. Benjamin is much more precise than this and such precision points directly to how his writing is to be read. Rather than be swept away by an endless wave of sentences, the stopping and restarting are understood as moments in which the reader is forced to pause and reflect. This is explicitly stated by Benjamin as he describes the form of writing: "this form can be counted successful only when it forces the reader to stop" (Origin, 29). If this were not enough, Benjamin adds, "the more significant its object, the more interrupted the contemplation must be" (Origin, 29). Not only are we required to pause and reflect by a prose style in which a sentence causes us to halt before proceeding to the next but we are also required to recognize that the contemplation this interruption gives rise to must also be similarly detached from its object, especially, in cases where what is being contemplated is of great significance.
Benjamin's insistence on this detachment prompts the question of why he should take such pains to draw our attention to the means by which his thought can be presented. A remark following the sentence last cited indicates why Benjamin is so insistent. Benjamin describes this interrupted writing as "sober prose" and then goes on to state that it is "the only style suited to philosophical investigation" (Origin, 29). This squarely relocates thought in the means of expression rather than seeing it as something that an expression represents. Indeed, one of the crucial shifts to register while reading Benjamin is this shift away from a prose that strives to represent thought. In its place Benjamin offers a prose that strives to present thought. The difference made by this particle "re" is crucial here - unfortunately it is not always well registered in the translation of Benjamin's writings. The determining characteristic of this prose is its pausing for breath, its avoidance of a seamless continuity. This is the style of writing Benjamin refers to as "sober prose." This description may appear odd if it is considered from the perspective from which we are taught to judge prose. Nothing would appear to be more sober than a prose clearly in the grasp of an intention that it successfuly expresses. With Benjamin it is precisely the reverse. Only an interrupted writing is sober and only a sober writing can give access to genuine thought. All else fails to register that thought can only be discovered in the means by which it is expressed. Accordingly, to read Benjamin is to face the form, the style of his writing as much as it is to register what he says about a given subject.
A sense of this style of writing can be conveyed if the phrases from the introduction to Benjamin's The Origin of German Tragic Drama cited individually above are assembled as they are written (in what follows, the order of ideas now adheres more closely to the order of Benjamin's words):
In the canonical form of the treatise, the single persisting sign of an intention that is more closely educative than didactic appears in the authoritative citation. Presentation is the essential of its method. Method is digression. Presentation as digression - that is the methodical character of the treatise. Renunciation of the uninterrupted progress of an intention is its primary characteristic. Tirelessly thought begins continually from new things, laboriously returning to the same object. This incessant pausing for breath is the most authentic form of existence of contemplation. For, while it [thought] follows the different levels of meaning in the contemplation of one and the same object, it receives the impetus of its continually renewed beginning and the justification of its intermittent rhythm. Just as the majesty of mosaics remains despite their fragmentation into capricious particles, so philosophical reflection need not be concerned about its vitality. (Origin, 28)
The almost telegraphic character of each sentence in this group already indicates the extent to which Benjamin's thought is focused at the level of the individual sentence. Each sentence has its idea. At the same time, each sentence remains emphatically fixed on that idea as if we were indeed being presented with one brilliant piece of mosaic glass at a time. The sentence in which the mosaic is first introduced is a particularly good example of this. The mosaic does not necessarily follow from what has gone before; its appearance causes one to pause by the end of the sentence and consider why it has in fact materialized. One cannot simply move on to the next sentence, one is forced to pause and consider its origin. This pattern whereby a sentence introduces something unforeseen (as a result of which the new element appears to stand alone) and then forces us to contemplate its relation to what has gone before is the way in which Benjamin's "sober prose" challenges its reader, challenges the expectation that the content of what Benjamin has to say can be uncovered once its medium has been penetrated. For Benjamin, the medium and its form are essentially related to his thought. To fail to take this relation into account is to fail to recognize the extent to which his writing demonstrates that our knowledge of a subject is not directly attributable to that subject nor does it allow us to possess that subject. Rather, our knowledge of a subject is the means by which we relate to what we do not possess. Sobering indeed.
The sobriety Benjamin describes as the essential characteristic of a thoughtful prose is not without precedent. It occurs first within German Romanticism about which Benjamin wrote in his first published book, The Concept of the Criticism of Art in the Early German Romantics (1920). Although this book displays less of the "sober prose" that would become characteristic of Benjamin's writing, it does display the elements that would combine in his writing. Sobriety as it is presented by the German Romantics, in particular the foremost theoretician of this movement, Friedrich Schlegel, refers to their attempt to render all sacred, infinite, absolute, and transcendental matters profane. No longer intoxicated by the thought of the transcendent we are rendered sober. The shift in understanding the Romantics sought may be best typified if sobriety is thought of as an antidote to mysticism. Yet, as Rodolphe Gasché has shown in an essay on this work, Benjamin does not quite take up this meaning of sobriety. Indeed, Benjamin is critical of the way in which the Romantics sought to make everything finite, even the infinite, by means of their sobering intentions. Gasché, after citing several sentences from the end of Benjamin's study of the Romantic concept of criticism makes the following remarks on this tendency and Benjamin's relation to it:
"This can be illustrated in an image as the production of the blinding brilliancy in the work. This brilliancy - the sober light - extinguishes the plurality of the works. It is the Idea" (119). These final lines of Benjamin's dissertation speak a final critical word about Romantic criticism. The sober light of the prosaic Absolute that criticism exhibits in all works is a blinding light. It is so dazzling that it becomes deceptive. In its brilliancy, all differences fade absolutely. Its spell, the fascination it exerts, is that of the fact - of the Absolute become secular.2
In comparison to the sober prose Benjamin describes in the introduction to The Origin of the German Tragic Drama, the Romantics are perhaps a little too sober, a little too inebriated by their own sobriety. Yet, it is clearly from them that Benjamin has picked up the notion of a sober prose. The distinction between the sobriety of Benjamin and that of the Romantics is alluded to by Gasché in the passage just cited when he observes that the sobriety of the Romantics causes "all differences [to] fade absolutely." If this is the task of criticism in the German Romantics then it runs to what Benjamin understands as the task of criticism. Gasché again remarks: "[Benjamin] shows that, for the Romantics, criticism has no pedagogical aim. Its function is not to assess or judge the work."3 Benjamin, by differentiating himself from the Romantics on this point, indicates what his sober prose aims at: it seeks to preserve a criticism in which the understanding still has a crucial role to play. This does not mean that criticism in Benjamin's hands is to be understood as a synonym for the interpretation of another work. The Romantics had in any case pushed the concept of criticism far beyond such a role when they defined the task of criticism as an exercise in exposing the "prosaic kernel" at the center of every work of art - a task that sought to demonstrate that every artwork exposes the absolute as finite, as something prosaic, secular and therefore not transcendent. So defined, every artwork produces the same result. This result is the price the Romantics had to pay for the sober understanding they brought to the work of art. In contrast, the understanding of sobriety exhibited by Benjamin points rather to a desire to preserve the differences the Romantics sought to dissolve.
Why Benjamin took this path can be understood if the full consequences of the Romantics' definition of criticism is recognized. Since the Romantics separated the task of understanding from the task of criticism, Benjamin's rejection of their position indicates the attempt to return the task of understanding to criticism (in effect, Benjamin returns criticism to a field dominated by questions about the status of knowledge and how we arrive at it).
Crucially, Benjamin sought to preserve a difference that would legitimize criticism after the Romantics. Benjamin sought, in effect, to preserve the difference between a necessarily limited and finite activity such as criticism and something infinite such as the absolute. In this respect, Benjamin, unlike the Romantics, demands that whatever is absolute should not participate or be discovered in whatever is finite or limited. Already in 1916, this thinking is particularly evident in his reflections on language. In a letter to Martin Buber from this year, Benjamin writes:
My concept of an objective and, at the same time, highly political style and writing is this: to awaken interest in what was denied to the word; only where this sphere of speechlessness reveals itself in unutterably pure power can the magic spark leap between the word and the motivating deed. (C, 80)
|List of contributors|
|List of abbreviations and short titles|
|Introduction : Reading Benjamin||1|
|1||Walter Benjamin and the European avant-garde||18|
|3||Language and mimesis in Walter Benjamin's work||54|
|4||Walter Benjamin's concept of cultural history||73|
|6||Benjamin and psychoanalysis||115|
|7||Benjamin and the ambiguitics of Romanticism||134|
|8||Body politics : Benjamin's dialectical materialism between Brecht and the Frankfurt School||152|
|9||Method and time : Benjamin's dialectical images||187|
|10||Benjamin's phantasmagoria : the Arcades Project||199|
|11||Acts of self-portraiture : Benjamin's confessional and literary writings||221|
|Guide to further reading||238|