Thursday, March 25, 2010


Go here to see something new.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


“I was walking down Annankatu Street in Helsingfors when I saw two horns, a cello, a violin, and a picture of Beethoven in a store window, and remembered music. You go out into the world and all you see is telegraph poles and city streets, and all you hear is the train moving and automobile horns. You see multitudes of people trying to do all sorts of things, and in restaurants and in the streets you hear them talking anxiously. You forget music, and then all of a sudden you remember music.

Jesus Christ, you say. There is nothing else. After the train stops and you get off, or the ship docks and you walk down the gangplank, or the airplane comes down to the earth and lets you put your feet where they belong, there is nothing. You have arrived and you are nowhere. The name of the city is on the map. It is in big letters on the railway station. And the name of the country is on the new coins which buy bread, but you aree nowhere and the more places you reach the more you understand that there is no geographical destination for man.”
-William Saroyan, “Finlandia” p. 126

“He felt even better than the time he ate two whole watermelons one Sunday afternoon while his wife was in the hospital having the baby that died.”
-William Saroyan, “The World’s Champion Elevator Operator” p. 123

“Nevertheless it is important to recognize that they [those who have wasted their early years in German schools and strive to be students] have to be creative producers, and therefore lonely, aging people, and that a richer generation of children and youths has already been born, to whom they can only dedicate themselves as teachers. Of all feelings, this is the strangest for them. This is why they cannot accept their existence and are ill-prepared to live with the children from the outset—for that is what is involved in being a teacher—because children have not yet entered the sphere of loneliness . Because they do acknowledge the process of aging, they idle their time away. To have admitted their yearning for a beautiful childhood and worthy youth is the precondition of creativity. Without that admission, without the regret for a greatness missed, no renewal of their lives can be possible. It is the fear of loneliness that is responsible for their lack of erotic commitment, a fear of surrendering themselves. They measure themselves against their fathers, not against posterity, and this is how they salvage the illusion of their youth. Their friendship is bereft of greatness and loneliness. That expansive friendship between creative minds, with its snese of infinity and its concern for humanity as a whole even when those minds are alone together or when they experience yearning in solitude, has no place in the lives of university students. In its place, there is only that fraternizing which is both unbridled and personally limited.”
-Walter Benjamin, “The Life of Students” p. 46

Monday, January 26, 2009

Rejection of History

“I never agreed with the idea of the fairly stuffy Edwardian-type gentleman,” Mr. Wigram said. “It wasn’t my idea of Sherlock Holmes.” --WIGRAM, NYT

Der epiphane Charakter der Kulturindustrie

Clock Radio

“Even though the stories are a joy to read and reread, they do tend to be fairly small, contained murder mysteries,” he said. “And so for the big mainstream audiences these days, I knew we would have to come up with something where the stakes were bigger and that had a big fantasy element.” -WIGRAM, producer of new Sherlock Holmes movie, NYT

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Paper: A New Beginning

“There was a period when people […] actually thought that the social movements could sort of takeover. But you may have a green movement which has influence on carbon tax, you may have a campaign for nuclear disarmament which lowers the temperature over the arms race, but you never have an over-all gestalt which can do everything from day care to foreign aid and see it as part of an over-all pattern to change the world. That has to come through politics” (New Yorker, p.68 Larissa MacFarquhar 12/8/08)

“Broken hands on broken ploughs,
Broken treaties, broken vows,
Broken pipes, broken tools,
People bending broken rules.
Hound dog howling, bull frog croaking,
Everything is broken.”
-Bob Dylan, “Everything is Broken”

A deeply mystical understanding of the universe as fundamentally broken rooted in Kabbalism informs both Walter Benjamin’s essay “On the Concept of History” and Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel The Slave. A cyclical sense of catastrophic defeat underlies each text. This sense is particularly Jewish in nature, but the sufferings of the Jews serve as a metaphor for the sufferings of the entire world; the Jews have suffered greatly but so has the entire underclass throughout history. Benjamin makes this synechdochal relationship explicit in his essay, which secularizes messianic thinking by applying it to the field of history instead of restricting exclusively to Jewish mysticism. Benjamin wrote his essay in 1940, as the Second World War was just beginning; he saw the rise of National Socialism and died fleeing its advance, a victim of yet another historical catastrophe. Singer’s novel was published in 1962, twenty-some years after Benjamin’s death and the full unfolding of Nazi terrors, which were likely beyond even Benjamin’s profound pessimistic imagination. In The Slave, Singer particularizes Benjamin’s messianic conception of history by setting his narrative firmly in Jewish experience and Jewish history: he uses another catastrophe (the Chmielnicki massacre of 1648) as the starting point for his novel. But this does not diminish or negate the secular broadening of messianic thinking that Benjamin initiated in his essay. Though the historical setting of Singer’s novel recalls the Jewish imperative to remember (Zakhor), its programmatic narrative design suggests that redemption is not to be found solely through Judaism, the Jewish people, or, indeed, any particular ethnic or religious group. Rather, redemption, for both Singer and Benjamin, is a process that, like history itself, is always happening; this is a radical insight that de-emphasizes the importance of apocalyptic thinking, which places redemption, characterized as the concrete realization of an ideal state of existence, at the end of history. Messianic thinking argues, rather, that redemption does not lay at the end of a path called history: it is embedded in history as “splinters of messianic time,” and presents itself as concrete opportunities that interrupt the progression of the broken nature of the universe. Any time an effort is made to repair what has been broken or correct an injustice is redemption realized. That this state of repair never becomes universal or permanent is the great unstated melancholy inherent in both texts. But hope does not entirely leave the picture. Gershom Scholem, the most important modern contributor to messianic literature, was a lifelong friend of Benjamin’s and found his conception of messianism (which Benjamin had evidently formulated much earlier than his essay) very impressive when he heard it as a young man:

In the idea of the messianic kingdom one finds the greatest image of history, on which infinitely profound relationships between religion and ethics are built. Walter said once: The messianic kingdom is always there. This insight contains the greatest truth—but only in a sphere which, to my knowledge, no one since the prophets has attained to. (Lowy, 101-102).

A messianic understanding of history—which is deeply shaped by Jewish mysticism and ethics but retains an essentially secular character—is central to both Benjamin’s essay and Singer’s novel. And the narrative of The Slave reflectively enacts some of the most important elements of Benjamin’s conception of history, often through the use of natural tropes and metaphors.

Having limned the history of messianism in “Toward an Understanding of the Messianic Idea,” Scholem turns his attention to a more specific instance in “The Messianic Idea in Judaism.” In this essay, Scholem articulates the messianic idea as it presents itself in the work of Benjamin and Singer. Messianism, he stresses, is not “part and parcel of the idea of the [unassisted and continuous] progress of the human race in the universe” (37). The mistaken yoking of messianism to Enlightenment ideas of progress was an early source of grief to Scholem. According to Lowy, Scholem, in reaction to “the fraudulent imitation of the Jewish messianic tradition [perpetrated by] the Neo-Kantian Marburg School,” wrote a scathing rebuke: “The messianic realm and mechanical time have produced, in the heads of the Enlightenment thinkers (Aufklärer), the –bastardized, accursed—idea of Progress […] This is the most pitiful interpretation prophecy ever had to bear” (98). The source of Scholem’s irritation with this linking of messianism to progress lay in his understanding that, for much of Jewish history, messianism was only thought about in “popular imagination” where it didn’t encounter “the opposition of the enlightened part of the community” (38). Here it took on an apocalyptic and utopian character. Redemption was seen variously “as a supernatural miracle involving the gradual illumination of the world by the light of the Messiah” in the Zohar (39); “a spiritual revolution which will uncover the mystic meaning, the ‘true interpretation,’ of the Torah (40); or as an imminent, apocalyptic event presaged by “disasters and frightful afflictions which would terminate history” (41). But in all these iterations of messianism, “the two states of the world [Galut, or the Diaspora, and Redemption] were still separated by a chasm which history could never bridge” (41). It was not until Rabbi Isaac Luria Ashkenazi (known as Ari, “the Lion) created an “extremely subtle and profound interpretation” did Kabbalah and messianism merge into a “unified whole” (42-43). At the heart of Luria’s system, which is fascinating but too complicated to paraphrase here, is the idea that exile, or Galut, is “a terrible and pitiless state permeating and embittering all of Jewish life, but Galut [is] also the condition of the universe as a whole” (43).In other words, the profoundly traumatic events that have historically beset the Jews are not exceptions but the normal course of Jewish history; they are an integral part of being a Jew. And this is also the condition of the entire universe, the entire course of history. Walter Benjamin expresses almost exactly this same sentiment when he writes that “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule” (392).

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Paper: Definition of positivism done for now; started on new paragraph framing the debate between positivism and Benjamin's conception of history

Walter Benjamin wrote “Theses on the Concept of History” in 1940, shortly before his failed crossing of the Spanish border at Port Bou in an attempt to escape the Nazi menace in France. In a letter to Theodor Adorno dated February of that year, Benjamin writes that these theses “represent a first attempt at pinning down an aspect of history that must establish an irremediable break between our way of seeing and the survivals of positivism which, in my view, mark out so profoundly even those concepts of history which are, in themselves, closest and most familiar to us” (17, 120 Fire Alarm, quoting Gessammelte Schriften, I, 3, p. 1225). As elsewhere, Benjamin here fails to provide a clear idea of the exact meaning of some key terms, and since these terms inform many of his most important ideas in this essay, a brief consideration of them is in order. In his book The Frankfurt School and its critics (Routledge, 2002), Tom Bottomore laments that “the Frankfurt School thinkers operated with a rather imprecise and variable notion of the object of their criticism” (28). (Though he doesn’t include Benjamin in his study, Bottomore would not have found satisfaction with the manner in which Benjamin uses the term here—or likely with any of Benjamin’s work.) Nevertheless, Bottomore attempts to define the Frankfurt School’s object of criticism for them. Adorno described positivism as “an attitude which not only clings to what is given, but takes a positive view of it” (28, FS). Bottomore’s explanation expands and refines this vague distaste, and in doing so he helps to clarify why Benjamin felt that an “irremediable break” with a positivistic view of history was necessary. Bottomore lists three primary criticisms of positivism:

first, that positivism is an inadequate and misleading approach which does not, and cannot, attain a true conception or understanding of social life; second, that by attending only to what exists it sanctions the present social order, obstructs any radical change, and leads to political quietism; third, that it is intimately connected with, and is indeed a major factor in sustaining, or producing, a new form of domination, namely ‘technocratic domination.’ (28)

Though positivism here refers specifically to a positivistic theory of science—a subject that Adorno and Max Horkheimer attack in The Dialectic of Enlightenment—Benjamin’s concern is with the application of positivism to history. Looking at positivism in relation to history helps to counter Bottomore complaint that “The connection between positivist philosophy of science […] and an acceptance of the status quo” is “asserted rather than argued” by the Frankfurt School (32, FS). When applied to a theory of history the connection gains more force if not a strict logical link. History written from the point of view of those in power is by definition accepting the status quo; and a conception of history as a series of victories does the same. Once history takes a definite, official form—a positivist form—as happens in totalitarian states, it ceases to seriously account for conflicting versions of history. Those who lose the conflicts no longer have a voice and are forgotten to history. For Benjamin, this concern likely had an intense personal connection: if the forces of fascism triumphed, how would history remember him? Such were the stakes of the argument for Benjamin. Though it is rarely mentioned explicitly, positivism lurks over Benjamin’s text, always attempting to smother its truths. A comparison of positivism to Marx’s communist specter is tempting, but a more accurate analogy would invoke Marx’s vampiric capitalism—both are insidious and broadly entrenched systems of thought and action that contribute to a degradation of human existence. And for Benjamin, positivism outstrips even capitalism in its malice because positivism undergirds the philosophies that sustain capitalism and—more pressing to Benjamin—fascism. Thus, it was imperative that Benjamin “establish an irremediable break” from such a threatening philosophy of history. Exactly how constructing an alternate conception of history fights against the menace of positivism and fascism (the two are nearly conflated) will be discussed in more detail below.

As Michael Lowy points out in his book Fire Alarm: Reading Walter Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History”, Benjamin considered this essay “a first attempt”: “the document was not intended for publication” (17). He circulated the text amongst trusted friends like Adorno and Hannah Arendt, but, Lowy writes, he feared publication “‘would throw wide open the doors to enthusiastic incomprehension’” (17). So Benjamin was aware that the style, terminology and references would be opaque to most readers, and it is perhaps read in the light of this knowledge, or at least the understanding that, as his letter to Adorno suggests, he is working in a fully allusive and dialectical mode. He wants to “pin down an aspect of history” that will provide a break with the positivistic “status quo” yet is, at the same time, close and familiar. His aim itself is dialectic and prefigures the dialectical study of history he puts forth in the essay, the past “flitting” by must be seized by the historical materialist. This essay is the means by which he hopes to effect not only that break between competing viewpoints but within history itself.

History is indeed a struggle, but not one that is won strictly through empirical means. Using the metaphor of a chess-playing automaton that secretly utilizes a “hunchbacked dwarf” to control the puppet, Benjamin suggests that a victory attained strictly through empirical means is not possible. “Historical materialism” might be the apparatus but “theology, which […] is small and ugly and has to keep out of sight” is the engine (“Concept” SW 4, 389). Benjamin is not advocating a revolution driven by religion. Rather, he is framing the conflict between a positivistic conception of history and his own conception of it. The struggle might a “class struggle,” but “the fight for the crude and material things” is only a first step toward refashioning history (“Concept” 390). Material things and changes are necessary but “confidence, courage, humor, cunning, and fortitude” fuel the struggle (“Concept” 390). In other words, history, or any conception of history that would contribute to a meaningful role in the class struggle, needs to take into account things that are not known. Such a conception of history needs to be diametrically opposed to a positivistic conception of history. Benjamin employs a botanical metaphor to illustrate this point: “As flowers turn toward the sun, what has been strives to turn—by dint of a secret heliotropism—toward that sun which is rising in the sky of history” (“Concept” 390). History tends toward the unknown; it turns away from the known past—the past that is chronicled by the victors.

Historical events have determined Jacob’s situation at the outset of the novel and, in this sense, made him a victim of history. But his understanding of his situation forms through his relation to the natural world. He remembers that “the Cossacks had advanced on Josefov,” his hometown, when he was only twenty-five, but he understands where he is now because of the seasons: “here it was the end of summer; the short days, the cold nights had come” (54). The referents with which he marks his past indicate a profound shift in his fundamental understanding of time. Whereas before he was able to measure the past by changes to his social and cultural world, now he had to measure time by the changes in nature. It’s true that the cycle of life—seen so much more clearly and easily in nature—could be said to recur in a small shtetl town as well, the changes have a human front, a personality and elemental humanity that’s hard to shake as eternally revolving, as opposed to the faceless façade of nature. Individual trees may vary, but their differences are not so easily noted as they are in the lined and aged face of a grandmother. Grandmothers may look alike across time and geography, but absent the technology of reproduction, the aura of the person claims a place above anonymous and hidden nature. History, measured against nature, becomes soulless and entirely divorced from the divine residing in the faces of loved ones. The conception of nature would change as well as the perception of it, which could be said to be whatever concrete element against which the subject measures time. If this concrete referent shifts from the personal (that is, the family: the known, the loved) to nature, which is largely a mystery, then it is no wonder that an understanding of the universe and moral conceptions would shift from the religious to the secular—but still retain the ethical element. In other words, religion becomes stripped of theology. Instead of worrying about the nature of God, Jacob begins to worry about the nature of Jacob, and how this nature affects others. God no longer judges Jacob’s actions; he judges his actions against his ideal, God. His religion becomes the pursuit of the ethical, not the face of g-d. This is not a matter of simple-mindedness. Jacob knew the ideas of “Plato, Aristotle, and the Epicureans” and “sought to understand wherever it was possible” (54). Even before the massacre occurred, it was feared in his community: “Hearts had long been frozen with fear, then one day death had struck” (54). Deracinated and cut off from his studies, his homeland and his family, Jacob inhabits a position analogous to our experience of history (or Benjamin’s famous angel of history). For him, the past has no physical manifestation. If he had been able to stay in his village, the buildings and the people and the land would inhabit and reflect the past. The time passed could be marked in people’s faces, the wear of buildings, and the familiar growing gradually older.

Jacob had just turned twenty-five when the Cossacks had advanced on Josefov [his hometown]. He was now past twenty-nine, so he had lived a seventh of his life in this remote mountain village, deprived of family and community, separated from books, like one of those souls who wander naked in Tophet. And here it was the end of summer; the short days, the cold nights had come. He could reach out his hands and actually touch the darkness of Egypt, the void from which God’s face was absent. Dejection is only one small step from denial. Satan had become arrogant and spoke to Jacob insolently “There is no God. There is no world beyond this one.” He bid Jacob become a pagan among the pagansl he commanded him to marry Wanda or at the very least to lie with her. (54)