Saturday, February 11, 2006


A propos: "Jesus Christ This Is Long"

File also under: "Graduate School is Not Easy."

“If the smoke from the tip of my cigarette and the ink from the nib of my pen flowed with equal ease, I should be in the Arcadia of my dissertation.”

I have been having an email discussion over the past few days with my friend Sian about a film she made 15 or so years ago and which I just showed my 1020 class. It’s a short, experimental documentary (surprise!) about…ummm… well so, okay, it really can’t be conceived of as a totality (but it won several awards, including an Emmy, so it was somehow institutionally legitimated). I showed it to my class in hopes that both the themes and the construction would help us make some connections between telling stories with words and telling stories with images. The film is constructed, Sian says, like a coiled spring, which I am still having difficulty with; it tells the story of how children use fairy tales to build their world (“for a child, the whole world is home”) , and then as we grow up, slowly “awakening” from this ability (in order to have some concept of history and contextualization), the fairy tale as “home” seems to disappear, only to reappear fragmented in a collection of urban artifacts, which we then engage with in a variety of ways. I guess that the structure of the film follows this submerging and reemerging of “home”; the oft repeated soundtrack intones : “This is the key to the kingdom. In the kingdom there is a city. In the city there is a town. In the town there is a street. In the street there is a lane. In the lane there lies a house. In the house there is a room. In the room there is a bed. On the bed there is a basket. A basket of flowers.” And back out again.

Part of my comments to her were that the film seems to rush at me like a soft but insistent wind from down a long passageway. And for some reason, the almost imperceptible tinkling of glass, or chimes, or something, is the same sound I hear when I read the Passengen. Well, Sian doesn’t know from Benjamin, so she found this kind of unhelpful. Still, I think that this must somehow connect to what Kristine had to say about a) the significance of childhood to Benjamin and b) some kind of non-textual, non-visual understandings of his work. Obviously, the soft but insistent wind speaks to the beating of the wings of the angel of history down the glass covered passages of the Arcades. But that’s just me. But, at the same time,exactly, that’s just me, standing there (which I actually have, once or twice – but it’s not entirely necessary). So what does this have to do with anything?

I’m glad you asked. This brings me to the part that should have been my post last week, to which I have given the working title:

“What is It about Benjamin, Anyway?”

Last week in class, I started with this quote from “One Way Street”: “And in the denaturing of things -– a denaturing with which, emulating human decay, they punish humanity – the country itself conspires. It gnaws at us like the things, and the German Spring that never comes is only one of countless related phenomena of decomposing German nature. Here one lives as if the weight of the column of air that everyone supports had suddenly, against all laws, in these regions become perceptible” (454).I guess there are (at least) two things here. One, why Germany? Let’s go with the obvious, shall we? It was Benjamin’s childhood home, the location of his earliest “fairy tales.” I had tried, in class, to address the question (posed not altogether well in Pym’s “Benjamin at the Border”) of how we might explain the lack of exteriority that Pym claims led Benjamin to NOT escape the Nazis when he could/should have. Now I don’t know about this. But, secondly, I want to suggest that the “becoming perceptible” (and I mean that in the least Groszian way possible – at this point) of the weight if a column of air IN GERMANY points to a configuration that is a suggestion of how to read Benjamin. That is, exteriority has to be conceived of as an exteriority to the body, upon which, in Benjamin’s case, was materially and historically located in Germany (even when it was also in Paris or in Moscow) but, in the sense of the dialectic of location that Buck-Morss explains so well, could not be completely separated from the movement of Benjamin’s own body through different locations in his history.

Hence the importance of “One Way Street.” Not because it exists in a genealogy, but because it makes explicit the lived dialectic that produces Benjamin’s work. So my terming it a “baby Arcades Project” was both totally wrong and productively not wrong. As Buck-Morss notes, Benjamin meant for the Passengen to contain a “fiendish intensification” of the “profane motifs” in “One Way Street” (SBM 20). Intensification, to me, points back toward the kind of resplendent echo that ties bodily, lived experiences to theoretical work not so much allegorically – which would, then, lead to a “One Way Street” begat “Arcades” kind of genealogy – but, rather, as – yes – a kind of spring. So perhaps when I said “baby Arcades,” I ought to have said something about childhood? And perhaps B’s works can, and should be read in part aurally, as resonations of each other? And that they are somehow likewise coiled like a spring? Buck-Morss helpfully points out that “Benjamin’s interpretations of literary texts have been described critically as only allegories for his own lived experiences. The matter may well be the reverse, that Benjamin perceived his own life emblematically, as an allegory for social reality, and sensed keenly that no individual could live a resolved or affirmative existence in a social world that was neither” (SBM 31-32). I would add to that, could not produce a narrative of that world that was resolved or total.

Okay, so, “One Way Street.” Fragments that imagine walking down a street, and in that street there is a lane, etc etc, and on that bed there lies a basket. A basket of flowers. Benjamin’s own reflections on German economics, on Paris, on criticism, are set alongside and are indeed inseparable from his longing for Asja Lacis. Why didn’t Benjamin leave Europe for Palestine or America? In large part, because of Asja Lacis. He did indeed refuse a kind of exteriority, but not the kind that Pym accuses him of refusing. And it was indeed a kind of extra-European exteriority that Benjamin refused, but again it was not, I believe, as Pym envisioned it. Benjamin may have refused a separation of his work from his lived, bodily experience as it took place – undeniably – in Europe. Buck-Morss: “The “liberation of vitality that he experienced as a philosopher , a writer, and a human being clearly was her doing, and for anyone who has known the creative intensity of the erotic and the political as a double awakening, wherein work and passion are not separate corners of life but fused intensely into one, the decisive significance of their relationship will come as no surprise” (SBM 21).

And this in fact seems counterintuitive to so much that I have learned about theory. In order to avoid allegorizing the lives of individual authors in their texts, maybe I have, to some extent, thrown out the baby with the bathwater. Because what about the lived experience of which that text was wholly and materially a part? Benjamin’s contribution to revisionist theories of the avant-garde may be just that, and may in turn be why – partly unconsciously – he is so wholly, bodily, completely a part of my project. Criticism, writes Benjamin in “OWS,” “is a matter of correct distancing. It was at home in a world where perspectives and prospects counted and where it was still possible to adopt a standpoint. Now things press too urgently on human society” (476). To this I would connect Benjamin’s work on the Surrealists, as well as to my own desire to figure a way to re-theorize avant-garde documentary media. “To turn the threatening future into a fulfilled ‘now,’” writes Benjamin, “is a work of bodily presence of mind” (483). And you know, now that you mention it, this sounds Queer to me (but that’s another intervention…still…); the Surrealists, according to Benjamin, “are the first to liquidate the sclerotic liberal-moral-humanistic ideal of freedom” (Reflections 189). He goes on to pretty much forecast my dissertation, and this is the (partial) answer to “What is It about Benjamin, Anyway?” : “Only when in technology body and image so interpenetrate that all revolutionary tension becomes bodily collective innervation, and all bodily innervations of the collective become revolutionary discharge, has reality transcended itself….For the moment, only the Surrealists have understood its present commands” (R 192).

Which brings me back to: what might this sound like? Maybe like the slight tinkling of wind rushing down the glass corridors of the Arcades. Maybe like the jangling Baroness’s “leafy limbswish.” Maybe like a chorus of children whispering “this is the key to the kingdom.” Probably not like “In tenement blocks, [where] there is a music of such deathly sad wantonness that one cannot believe it is intended for the player: it is music for the furnished rooms, where on Sundays someone sits amid thoughts that are soon garnished with these notes, like a bowl of overripe fruit with withered leaves” (“OWS” 469). (I have a friend who once very accurately likened the experience of clinical depression to “Williamsburg, Brooklyn on a Sunday afternoon in November, and you haven’t finished your homework.”) I have more to say next week, and in my presentation next month, about the “furnished rooms.” For now, I will end by offering what I think is a fundamentally aural, and wholly embodied, orientation in Benjamin’s criticism, his reflection – via his own body, and his desire for Asja Lacis – on Breton and Nadja: “…the lovers who convert everything that we have experienced on mournful railway journeys… on Godforsaken Sunday afternoons in the proletarian quarters of the great cities, in the first glance through the rain-blurred window of a new apartment, into revolutionary experience, if not action. They bring the immense forces of ‘atmosphere’ concealed in these things to the point of explosion. What form do you suppose a life would take that was determined at a decisive moment precisely by the street song last on everyone’s lips?” (R 182).


Anonymous srt said...

"Obviously, the soft but insistent wind speaks to the beating of the wings of the angel of history down the glass covered passages of the Arcades."

Gorgerous sentence...will continue reading now...

2:43 PM  
Anonymous srt said...

Although I am entirely unversed in these conversations I apprecitate Bejamin's comment on theory as a "matter of correct distancing." This speaks, interestingly, to my oft used martial arts metaphors where 'distancing' and or 'positioning' are accomplished in both the obvious physical/ bodily sense and that particular emotional critical distance that prevents one from "flying off the handle" as it were.

p.s. you got really preddy wordies...

3:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What the hell are you talking about?
Uncle Doug

8:11 AM  

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