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Walter Benjamin Overpowering Conformism Esther Leslie P Pluto Press LONDON • STERLING, VIRGINIA First published 2000 by Pluto Press 345 Archway Road, London N6 5AA and 22883 Quicksilver Drive, Sterling, VA 20166–2012, USA Copyright © Esther Leslie 2000 The right of Esther Leslie to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library ISBN 0 7453 1573 9 hbk Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data Leslie, Esther. Walter Benjamin : overpowering conformism / Esther Leslie. p. cm. — (Modern European thinkers) Includes bibliographical references. ISBN 0–7453–1573–9 1. Benjamin, Walter, 1892–1940—Political and social views. I. Title. II. Series. PT2603.E455 Z726 2000 838'.91209—dc21 00–020282 Designed and produced for Pluto Press by Chase Production Services, Chadlington, OX7 3LN Typeset from disk by Stanford DTP Services, Northampton Printed in the European Union by T.J. International, Padstow Contents Acknowledgements vi Preface: An Accumulation of Technological Themes vii 1. Explosion of a Landscape 1 2. Benjamin’s Objectives 42 3. Berlin Chthonic, Photos and Trains and Films and Cars 63 4. Dream Whirled: Technik and Mirroring 89 5. Murmurs from Darkest Europe 123 6. The Work of Art in the Age of Unbearable Capitulation 130 7. Time for an Unnatural Death 168 Benjamin’s Finale: Excavating and Remembering 208 Notes 236 Bibliography 276 Index 292 Acknowledgements The Collected Writings, Gesammelte Schriften, of Walter Benjamin appearedin1991asa14-partboxset.Itcontainednotonlyjuvenilia alongside multiple versions of the famous pieces and notes and drafts, but also an extensive ‘editorial apparatus’, with datings, excerpts of relevant correspondence, indication of first places of publication, types of paper and ink used and all the other things that an obsessive scholar needs and wants to know. (In this, it is unliketheEnglish-languageWalterBenjamin:SelectedWritingsfrom The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.) The robust box sethasservedmewell,andIthanktheeditorsforalltheirscholarly effort.TheGesammelteSchriftenwasmymainsourceofinformation, and this meant that I often translated quotations from Benjamin myself as I made notes for this book. I sometimes stick with those translationshere,butIalsoprovidepagereferencestotherelevant place in published English translations where those are available. This book took on its shape over the 1990s. That decade opened with the calendrical opportunities for reflection offered by the 50th anniversary of Benjamin’s death. Then came the centenary cele- brations, which were followed by the flurry around the opening of Dani Karavan’s monument at Portbou. All these events produced more and more words about Walter Benjamin. My contribution found first form as a doctorate, whose successful completion was much aided by my supervisor, Dr Margarete Kohlenbach, and my examiners, Professor Edward Timms and Dr Steven Giles. Since that completion, this contribution to the ever-growing pile of Ben- jaminiana has been recomposed time and again. Sometimes sentences or paragraphs found their way out of my study into articles or reviews or conference papers, only then to be altered and imported back again. Some might recognize certain turns of phrase. For opportunities to unravel further my thoughts on Benjamin I thank the editors of Things, Mute, the Journal of Design History, Art Criticism Theory, De-, Dis-, Ex-, Revolutionary History, New Formations and the organizers of the digital ‘Artwork project’ at London’s Camerawork and all the others who published my words or gave me a stage for an hour. Above all, I thank my parents, George and Sheila, and Ben Watson. vi Preface: An Accumulation of Technological Themes On ‘overpowering conformism’ The phrase ‘overpowering conformism’ is a half-quote whose con- notations mark out some parameters for a study of Walter Benjamin’s work. The phrase alludes to Benjamin’s caution in one of his final compositions, ‘Über den Begriff der Geschichte’, written at the end of the 1930s: Ineveryepochtheattemptmustbemadeanewtowresttradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.1 Conformism here refers to the energies of conventional inter- pretation. These ensnare tradition and the receivers of tradition in tales devised, or at least approved, by the ruling class and its ideology-mongers. The accumulated experience of the oppressed is overwritten in histories that re-transmit the existing balance of power: business as usual. Long dead, Benjamin is himself now part of transmissible tradition. Using here the phrase ‘overpowering conformism’ flags a desire to wrest Benjamin from a conformism inherent in those appropriations that excise him from a culture of engaged political critique. ‘Overpowering conformism’ suggests a confrontation with domesticating readings of Benjamin’s work. Wresting Benjamin’s writings from the conformism that threatens to overpower their reception is the task. Such an assignment is aided by taking cognizance of Benjamin’s onslaught on a second conformism mentioned in ‘Über den Begriff der Geschichte’ – the conformity of reformist theory and practice.2 Reformism is still the conformity that overpowers the supposedly critically-minded. Nowadays it is frequently reformist-minded theorists who see reflected in Benjamin their own defeatist melancholy and desperate half-hope that, ameliorated by their wishful thinking, things might just work out for the best in the end, somehow. No major shake-ups intended. This is quite contrary to Benjamin’s intent. In his final notes on the concept of history, Benjamin attacks reformist political tactics and economic delusions for their bypassing of the insurgent, self-organized moment of proletarian revolution. For Benjamin, without revolution there can be no redemption from ‘this life here’, since revolution and vii viii WALTER BENJAMIN redemption are fused.3 In the wretched late 1930s, while some of his contemporaries looked to Moscow and others vacillated (and numerous others hailed Hitlerite Munich), Benjamin attacked the ‘innate’ conformism of the left parties.4 Conformism of one sort manifests itself for him in 1939, in the chimera of an ever-onwards- and-upwards progress of history, a salvation that can take place without the intervention of revolutionary subjects. This desperate and blind faith flies in the face of an actual devastation – plain for all to see – of the working class and the labour movement. Benjamin recalls that such devastation set in after the failure of the Spartakus rebellion in Germany, and it was exacerbated by the regimes of Hitler and Stalin. He sees a downhill tumble of the prospects for workers’ self-activity. Not that he loses hope. But the reformist-meets-Stalinist trust in the progress of history, and the more or less wilful ignorance of Marx’s insistence on proletarian self-emancipation, mean that proclaimedly progressive ideologues overlook the catastrophic impact of the defeat of revolution in Germany in the Weimar years and after, and in the Soviet Union under Stalin. They put their faith in history, economy and theory, and do not put their energies into the re-animation of class struggle. Conformism incubates business as usual; that is to say, nothing changes, because to the conformists it seems that nothing very much needs to change. Benjamin thought that the so-called critics were mistaken. Business as usual is a state of emergency. In a defence of the absolutely revolutionary fracture, in thought and in practice, he concludes: ‘That it continues “like this” is the catastrophe.’5 From the mid-1920s, Benjamin investigates Marxism. He explores Marxist theory, enters into dialogue with Marxists and visits the Soviet Union. Benjamin is a nonconformist, often sceptical about trends engendered by the Communist Party of his day. His misgivings multiply as Stalinism solidifies its rule, and what passes for Marxist analysis extinguishes its revolutionary spark. He deploys the tools of historical materialism quirkily, and yet no more idiosyncratically than does the ‘official’ Marxism of the party. Benjamin’s nonconformism is conspicuous in his critical interrogations of the ways in which party communists make use of Marxist maxims. It may be tedious to participate in prolonging the game of selecting quotations, reinserting ellipses, arguing over the political affiliations of a dead man. But asserting the revolutionary under- pinning of somebody’s thought is, if nothing else, a poke in the eye of those perpetrators of scholarship who endlessly defuse, debarb and domesticate that which has slipped into the intellectual bequest. However, recovering theory is not a matter of archival accuracy alone. Benjamin’s political work is still of interest if its PREFACE ix strategies and insights can be of use for analysis and action today, if it can be used as a resource and research tool for overpowering present political and cultural conformism, if it can be found to possess continuing relevance or, maybe, Aktualität. Aktualität is a word that recurs in Benjamin’s writing. For example, it appears in 1921, when he announces the formation of a journal, Angelus Novus. The Aktualität of Angelus Novus is said to mean the capturing of the underlying, decisive ‘spirit of the epoch’.6 Aktualität is mentioned again in 1925 when, having resigned himself to a career in upmarket feuilleton journalism, Benjamin defends the topicality of popular illustrated magazines – that they speak to the moment.7 In a letter to Hugo von Hof- mannsthal introducing Einbahnstraße in 1928, he insists that Aktualität is the obverse of the eternal in history, and is endlessly more significant for historical, political and cultural research.8The concoction of the theoretical concept Aktualität was evidence of Benjamin’s attempt to avoid high-minded abstraction. He wants to engage in the world as he finds it. Refusing to focus purely on the formal aesthetics of the painterly canvas surface or extrapolat- ing for purposes of bloodless philosophizing and eternity beckoning the subtleties of Hegelian thought, Benjamin, the ‘anthropological materialist’, enters drawing rooms and attics, spaces and scenes of historical, material human traces. Materialism – in Benjamin’s sense – assumes an interaction between people and world. Humans work upon physical things and materialism questions the ways in which they do this and the relationships into which they enter in order to do this, and how this alters their thoroughly historical human nature. In order to study such matters, Benjamin is enticed into lodgings crammed full with baubles and valuables and vibrating with scratchy phonographs. He proposes taking seriously the clutter of material existence, and wants expressly to analyse the commodity trash of mass production, scrutinizing what his friend Siegfried Kracauer called ‘inconspicuous surface-level expressions’ which, ‘by virtue of their unconscious nature, provide unmediated access to the fundamental substance of the state of things’.9An attitude informed by Aktualitätgrabs quotidian objects whose very insignificance and ‘unconscious nature’ warrant their indexical relationship to social truth and social lies. Whether on the track of theorists’ more or less secret politics, or on the trail of the embedded social and historical meanings of things, to negotiate Aktualität is to enmesh critique in precise social observations and to be responsive to the urgencies and apprehensions of the moment, to be topical. An attitude informed by Aktualität understands Benjamin in context, underscoring his reactive engagement with contemporary controversies and phenomena. x WALTER BENJAMIN But how can Benjamin’s stress on Aktualität be interpreted today? The meaning of Aktualität is fractured, for it has to acknowledge a constellation between the past and present. Aktualität entails responsiveness to the specific historical and political conditions of the scrutinized object’s emergence into the world and into theory. The questions must be posed: what conditions impinged on Benjamin’s thought, how was his theory inflected by its sorties into historical and political actuality? But also to be faced in this idea of Aktualitätis the relationship between the object of study, Benjamin, and this present, this urgent moment, now (for all moments are urgent). Benjamin details this linearity-defying perspective: ‘Telescoping of the past through the present.’10 Even the past is topical, for it has significance in the present. The past reverberates in the present; the present filters the image of the past. Critique, sensitive to the conditions that shape the past, cannot evade the concerns of the present. A perspective convinced of past Benjamin’s continuing relevance for the present draws on the Aktualität of his offensive against a technology fetishism that is ignorant of the stipulations accorded by the private mode of appropriation. Such ignorance may be newly prevalent in the hyper-cyberbabble of the new millennial- ism. The notion of the technoid subject might give a neon-green light to cybermaterialism and its visions of machinic subjects, enhanced with prosthetics, wired up and plugged into inflowma- tion (a version of Marinetti’s futurist rhapsody for a postindustrial age). What happens in this cyber-conception of material is that the distinction between machine–technology–worker – a technician producing within technical relations of production – is collapsed into a single, mythic, postnatural subject. This subject embodies, quite literally, technology, technical relations of production and producer, and so can only with difficulty be envisaged as involved in a process of exploitation. But a communion with high-tech that evades relations of exploitation is a rare privilege. Cybermaterial- ism sets up a frozen concept of technology, a blindly determining force, shooting us back to Second International Marxism, and it is no wonder that Charles Darwin and friends enjoy a new popularity: the talk, for all its rhetoric of revolution, is of evolution. The cybers seek through technology a new determination of the species. Benjamin might sometimes be wheeled on to articulate the early birth of this machine-man, but he would be shocked at the cybermonster’s class-blindness. Under investigation here is the Aktualität of Walter Benjamin, then in his time, and now in mine. Nowadays, constantly, the attempt has to be made to wrest his work away from a conformism about to overpower it – bred of an historical and political amnesia about the past and the present, affecting those quite able to forget. PREFACE xi ‘Overpowering’ possesses another sense. It means exertion of an unavoidable effect, suggesting another layer of significance embedded in the phrase ‘overpowering conformism’. In Benjamin’s analyses, adaptation to new technological forms by all elements of the social ensemble results from an irresistible conformism. This second sense of overpowering conformism points out a certain formal and technical determinism in Benjamin’s work, at moments redolent of the determinism of thinkers on the left, whose automatic, evolutionary presumptions Benjamin is often keen to counter. Such determinism is especially manifest in his thoughts on aesthetics. Numerous essays set out from the presupposition that technology generates new forms, and that adoption of the formal characteristics of new technological forms – in art and in all social practices – becomes unavoidable over time. Technological form precipitates social form. In practice, however, Benjamin asserts, this falling into conformity with new technological forms and consummation of the reorganization of production and reception that they suggest is retarded by capitalist relations of production. The central contradiction of capital’s new order consists in the fact that the socializing of production and its col- lectivizing of culture are countervailed by a retrograde movement, instituted to safeguard the social templates of class society. Benjamin concentrates his inquiries in the space opened up by this misalignment between the technological dynamic and the mode of social ordering. He identifies this misalignment as the two-way pull of forces and relations of production. For Benjamin, Technik (technique, technics, technology) is implicated in the mismatch of forces and relations of production. His assumption that the orga- nization of the technological forces of production discharges a determining effect on all sections of the social totality is coupled with the insistence on analysis of the relations of production. Such analysis forms part of Benjamin’s political strategy to nurture proletarian activism. Forces of production and what are seen by Benjamin to be their ‘appropriate’, ‘conforming’ relations of production can be played out pre-emptively in the realm of art. Cultural production and cultural reception are forms of training. The rehearsal in culture of new modes of social relations becomes the precondition for the general overpowering of conformism in its cultural and political guises. Focusing on technology does not render an analysis a contri- bution to Marxist theory. Marxist theory demonstrates sensitivity to the relationship posited between technology and non-technology – that is, the relationships between technology, nature and world. For a theory to be called Marxist it needs to flaunt an interest not just in the hardware of production but also in relations of production.11 It is in order to insinuate this dual concern that the xii WALTER BENJAMIN term Technik is more often than not left untranslated in this study. The German word Technik transmits a more open sense than the English word technology concedes. In order to demonstrate that the word Technik has caused other translators conceptual grief, a citation from one of Habermas’s translators should suffice: Although German has adopted to some extent the corrupt usage of technology (Technologie) to mean technics rather than its study, the adjective technisch means technical and technologi- cal. That is, it emphasizes the form of making and controlling as well as the machines used in these processes. It has been translated in both ways. Similarly, Technik means technique, technics and technology.12 Technik intimates a sense of both technology and technique. Benjamin seems to squeeze full meaning from this compact word. In signifying simultaneously technology and technique, Technik alludes to the material hardware, the means of production and the technical relations of production. To accent technical relations of production is to acknowledge that there exist social and political relationships between producers and means of production. Technique also refers to the accumulated skill and knowledge, the scientific data necessary for the manipulation of machinery. The point to be made here is simply that Benjamin uses the term Technikrather than the word Technologie, and this might be because Technikcovers social and political relations, as well as the empirical fact of machinery. Technik includes reference to social relations and, as such, is a category of experience. Whenever Benjamin uses the term Technik, he is mindful of a complex of human relations of ownership and control.13Benjamin’s dynamic of social actuality, informed at its core by human labour and the interactions between technology and technique, insists on an awareness of both the factuality of the objective world and its contents and the actuality of subjective human interaction with that objective world. A dual concern with technology and technique is manifest not only in Benjamin’s strictly social and political assessments, but also exerts direct bearing on his aesthetic formulations. These formulate a specific interest in technological art-forms and ask questions about the relations of production and reception that those forms intimate. Of course, the word Technik has aesthetic resonances too. To highlight this point, here is a citation from a book by two people both connected to Benjamin, who represent two poles of influence on him. His friend and critical theorist, Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno, and Bertolt Brecht’s musical collaborator, Hanns Eisler, published, in English first, a study of film scores titled Composing for the Films (1947), while living near Hollywood. The limits and confusions of the terminology of technism, and the contradictions

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