Thursday, September 14, 2017

Benjamin - at the crossroads of magic and positivism

It is an interesting exercise to apply the method of the theorists to themselves. For instance, Walter Benjamin, who was critiqued by Adorno for developing, in his later years, a method that was at the crossroads of magic and positivism – the power of inferential juxtaposition, learned from the surrealists, and the method of dialectical materialism, learned from … well, kinda Marx, more probably Eduard Fuchs.

I myself like that idea – Adorno’s scorn for magic is part of the package of his own positivism. It is a high calling – methods are high callings, ideals – and Benjamin’s Arcades project, in its final state of gigantic ruin, shows how hard it is to follow.

I’ve been reading some of the fragments contained in volume 6 of the GW, and it is an interesting, rather vertiginous experience, as is any experience in which one finds oneself continually stumbling, continually knocking against the cracks. For instance, the fragment entitle On Marriage, which begins with a wonderful juxtaposition of the mythical and the tabloid:

"Eros, love moves in a single direction towards the mutual death of the lovers. It unwinds from there, like the thread in a labyrinth that has its center in the “death chamber”. Only there does love enter into the reality of sex, where the deathstruggle itself becomes the lovestruggle. The sexual itself, in response, flees its own death as its own life, and blindly calls out for the other’s death and the other’s life in this flight.  It takes the path into nothingness, into that misery where life is only not-death and death is only a not-life. And this is how the boat of love pulls forward between the Scylla of Death and the Charybdis of misery and would never escape if it weren’t that God, at this point in its voyage, transformed it into something indestructible. Because as the sexuality of love in first bloom is completely alien, so must it become enduringly wholly non-alien, its very own. It is never the condition of its being and always that of its earthly endurance. God, however, makes for love the sacrament of marriage against the danger of sexuality as against that of love.”

One has to pause here. First, to listen to what Benjamin is doing – juxtaposing the prose of the “death chamber”, which comes from Police Magazines and tabloid newspapers of the 20s and 30s  - adoring the rooms where the bloody corpse of some victim was found and, as well,  the gas chamber or electric chair where the murderer was murdered by the state – to Greek myth, and then to a very Biblical God. And then one has to ask whether, indeed, death more often befalls lovers than befalls wives and husbands. Here a bit of positivism, a bit more tabloid knowledge, would relegate the Wagnerian Tristan and Isolde to the margin, and the more common family murder to the front. For the marriage that “God” gives us against the unleashed forces of death and sexuality is all too often a scene of violence. Engels definitely knew this. Benjamin surely, in part of himself, knew this too. The criminologists, who now call it “intimate partner homicide”, were on the case in the 20s and 30s. The mythological correlative is not Homeric, but rather the Maerchen of Grimm, where intimate partner violence is a constant companion of princesses and peasants.

However, then, I dispute the point, from the positivist, statistical viewpoint, I grant the power of the forces of sexuality and death, from the magical viewpoint. Benjamin’s surrealist genius in taking from the press the “death chamber” and inserting it into the myth of the labyrinth is in the best high modernist tradition of violently superimposing the archaic on the contemporary. This is a tradition that is moved, obscurely, unsystematically, to protest the allochronism – that long colonial time – which names it the “modern”. But to rescue the archaic by turning to the God of our Fathers means succumbing to a fundamentally reactionary impulse, which fails the test of historicity, and locks marriage into a form that it can’t sustain.


Tuesday, September 12, 2017

barthes - the amateur mandarin

I’m reading Tiphaine Samoyault’s biography of Roland Barthes. I’ve learned that when Barthes published The degree zero of writing in the fifties, he had not yet read Blanchot or Artaud, or even – so he told a reviewer – heard of Georges Bataille. Barthes was 36.
Somehow, being an aging hulk myself, I find this a beautiful anecdote. Firstly, because it rather undermines those who are searching for influences by Blanchot or Bataille in Barthes early work – and don’t we all like to see an academicus ocassionally slip on a banana peel? – but more because, secondly, it speaks to reading outside the classroom. The classroom, in the intellectual world created by the post world war II boom in colleges, has become the site of our primal reading, and sometimes our only reading of the “great books”. It is a phrase I have heard all too often – “I read that in class”. In my mind, this is matched with another phrase, usually about something in history – say Watergate: “that happened before I was born.” As if the knowable extent of the world began when a person was born. Both speak to a sort of intellectual shrinkage.

What I like is what Ralph Ellison called the old man at Chehaw Station – the amateur who is a knower, beyond all credentialing. Barthes of course went on to read Bataille and Blanchot and the rest of them. The shock of the new was not subsumed in the canon of the old as his career unfolded – and this is why his work, to me, is that of an amateur mandarin. 

The synthetic progressive

I have been searching for a term to encompass one of the great features of capitalism – the non-necessary synthesis. I guess I will call it ...