Benjamin's shock

“The intentional correlate of living experience has not remained the same. In the nineteenth century it as “the adventure”.In our days it appears as Fate. In fate is hidden the concept of the ‘total living experience’ that is completely mortal. War is its unsurpassed prefiguration. (That I was born German, then I must die for it – the trauma of birth contains already the shock that is mortal. This coincidence defines Fate.”

“That which is “always the same thing” is not the event, but what is new in it, the shock that pertains to it.”

“Empathy comes about through a declic, a kind of gear shift. With it, the interior life erects a pendent to the shock of sense perception. (Empathy is alignment in the intimate sense).” [My own translations]

I take these three comments about shock from Benjamin’s Arcades book. Like so many of Benjamin’s sentences and phrases, they carry a systematic hint, although the system into which they would fit was never constructed. To that extent, they also carry a certain glamour, the glamour of fragments that indicate some fuller but lost revelation. Like the fragments of the pre-Socratic philosophers, one wants to remove the eclipse, find the complete transcript, read the denser text out of which they were seemingly scooped. But in Benjamin’s case, the fragment reproves the desire that everything can be told, that there be some total confession that correlates to the total systems that were in play as he wrote, that the denser text is anything other than an excuse fit for conformists by which is lulled to sleep our sense of an ongoing emergency. As we know, one of those total systems drove him to suicide. Which is another way of eternalizing the fragment.

The Arcades work does not develop the notion of shock the way it develops other themes, such as fashion. Yet, in a sense, it was at the center of these themes, for at the center of the project was Baudelaire, who, Benjamin claimed, based his aesthetic practice on shock. Or based his modernity, his modernism, on shock, and in so doing incorporated it into the genetic structure of modernism. That, as we have pointed out, shock comes up in different disciplines, and constitutes an image in different ways in modernity was to an extent oddly neglected in the Arcades work, which otherwise has a very shrewd dialectical-materialist take on lighting, clothing, urban planning, etc., all passages to the burrow, or rather, passages that make up the burrow of the poetry. 

In as much as Benjamin’s view of shock encodes an inability to decide between mechanical movement and animal stimulus, it bears the impress of a certain pre-modern disposition. That is, it bears the element of the invasion of haptic space by the first mass medias. It reflects the Productivist regime of the first half of the 19th, when life crossed with electricity and the crowd was the physical infrastructure of industry and the revolution. But if we take our cue from Tarde, shock, in the second half of the nineteenth century, is a second degree phenomenon. The crowd becomes merely one extension of the larger public (it is remembered as a sort of phantom limb), and that public receives its shock through the ever more penetrating environment of the visual and press medias. Shock emerges from mechanical collision into the regime of stimulus, which is the way it forms the modern moment, or present.  Shock was not only a poetic tool, but a tabloid style. The speed graphic camera of the 1930s, the blinding flare of which became an icon for the sensational story, the shocking event, is an exteriorization of the kind of shock that joined together the animal crowd and the sensation ‘seeking’ public (which is actually sought out, rather than seeking – this is the trick of the media), haptic space and the wired in multitude:

 “The flash does far more than merely aid in exposing the negative. Intruding into the cover provided by night or darkness, its scorching light transforms both the space and figures trapped in its glare. Subject matter is vignetted and figures and ground are flattened and abstracted. While flashed compositions have the stark look of a woodcut, it is the faces of the photographer’s subjects that are most affected by the bulb’s blaze. With skin flashed to white as if powdered, mouths locked into grimaces and eyes both black as troughs and glinting like glass, subjects suffer a loss of humanity: faces freeze into crystal masks and individuals metamorphose into freakish ghouls.” [Hauptman, 1998]

Weegee’s flashbulb is the equivalent of the rapid sketching, or caricature, in which Baudelaire saw the lineaments of heroism in modern life. Speed frozen – such is the temporal coordinate towards which the simultaneity of life under capitalism directed itself.