Tag Archives: Mike Jennings

“Literarization”: Benjamin and K’naan

On the off-chance that the tone of my last offering, on the prophetic force of Benjamin’s writing on newspapers, may have been a little, well, prescriptive, I will strive for something more balanced, more thoughtful, as I attempt to reproduce, over a series of posts, some of his lesser-known writings on media, together with a gloss (whether my own or that of other, better readers of these texts) on their uncanny relevance in our own time.

Tom Levin and Mike Jennings, two of the co-editors of the indispensable volume The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media (Harvard, 2008), provide a succinct introduction to chapter VI, “The Publishing Industry and Radio,” that itself deserves wide circulation for its grasp of the critical afterlife of much of this work:  for example, Benjamin’s brief piece on “The Newspaper,” the topic of my last post.  Here is an excerpt from their introduction.

Much of his writing on the newspaper focuses precisely on the problem of how to turn a reader – understood as a passive receiver of information – into a producer.  One solution would entail providing the working class with access to writing.  As Benjamin says at the end of “The Newspaper”…

Work itself has its turn to speak.  And its representation in words becomes a part of  the ability that is needed for its exercise.  Literary competence is no longer founded on specialized training but is now based on polytechnical education, and thus becomes public property.  It is, in a word, the literarization of the conditions of living that masters the otherwise insoluble antinomies.  And it is at the scene of the limitless debasement of the word – the newspaper,  in short – that its salvation is being prepared.

Part of Benjamins’s critique involves the democratization of the processes of literary production.  In sections of the paper such as the letters to the editor, control of writing is wrenched from the grasp of a specially trained elite and passed to the hands of a broad public with a very different – but no less important – training.  Benjamin clearly hoped that this process might transform the newspaper from the inside out.

That such a transformation has by this point taken place is hardly a matter of debate.  But, as Levin and Jennings go on to observe, the implications of such a transformation are manifold.

The concept of “literarization” he invokes, though, marks a shift in the argument toward even broader political implications.  If political antinomies (competing class interests, radically unequal access to capital, and so on) remain insoluble within “the conditions of living,” Benjamin places – here and throughout his late work – enormous hope in the transformed processes of reading and writing that he calls “literarization.”  Texts themselves might provide spaces for the productive confrontation with issues of class conflict, as the newspaper becomes a public forum…

“Literarization” is thus a textual condition in which readers of all classes are exposed to “flashes” of insight that might themselves make recognizable the otherwise hidden, fundamental contradictions in the “conditions of living.” And this recognition is the precondition for any form of social change.  Thus, the dense passage quoted above suggests that the reading public might become more than passive receivers of information (or rather ideology disguised as information):  it might progress to a state in which it becomes a public of producers and readers of script – the graphic figure that may bear an emancipatory charge.  Such a transformation, for Benjamin, would constitute a revolution in the control of the apparatus of production.  [345-6]

The “flashes” of insight invoked here are of course instances of what Benjamin elsewhere terms dialectical images, which are (for example in the “Theses on the Concept of History”) the precondition for a genuine grasp of history, and hence for any historiography worth its salt.

I’ll have more to say on these matters in my next several posts.  For now, I’m moving over to Twitter to DM K’naan on that business about the last-minute cancellation of the charity gig at Simon Fraser.  He tweeted earlier that he’s not talking to the media, but wants to let his fans know what went down.  In my book, anyone who could write “Take a Minute” deserves a hearing.

Dear Mama, you helped me to write this

By showing me that to give is priceless.

’cause it ain’t every day you get a chance to give.

And any man who knows a thing knows he knows

Not a damn damn thing at all.

3 Comments

Filed under Books, Culture, Current events, History and historiography, Journalism, Media, News, Reading and writing, Tech

Back to the future (of newspapers), with Benjamin

This will not be the first time that a return to the work of Walter Benjamin has served to kick-start this blog’s overarching project.  In this case, I was prompted to reach for Benjamin after reading a passage from Clay Shirky’s recently published Cognitive Surplus:  Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.  While I cited the passage in question a few posts back, I will reproduce its core claim here.

The internet is the first public medium to have post-Gutenberg economics.  You don’t need to understand anything about its plumbing to appreciate how different it is from any form of media in the previous  five hundred years.  Since all the data is digital (expressed as numbers), there is no such thing as a copy anymore.  Every piece of data, whether an e-mailed love letter or a boring corporate presentation, is identical to every other version of the same piece of data.

You can see this reflected in common parlance.  No one ever says, Give me a copy of your phone number.  Your phone number is the same number for everybody, and since data is made of numbers, the data is the same for everybody.  Because of this curious property of numbers, the old distinction between copying tools for professionals and those for amateurs – printing presses that make high-quality versions for the pros, copy machines for the rest of us – is over.  Everyone has access to a medium that makes versions so identical that the old distinction between originals and copies has given way to an unlimited number of equally perfect versions. [54-55]

Some of you will understand my urge, upon reading and reflecting on Shirky’s formulations, to return with dispatch to what is probably Benjamin’s best-known essay, whose title in English is “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility.”  I was fortunate to have at hand the volume edited by my dear friend Tom Levin and my former colleague at Princeton, Mike Jennings, which includes “The Work of Art” as well as Benjamin’s other writings on media, some of which are lesser known, especially to readers of English translations of his work.

Was it serendipity that led my eyes down the table of contents, past “The Work of Art” and other essays I’d read before, some more than once, to the volume’s final section, “The Publishing Industry and Radio?”  Arguably.  In any case, here I found a small goldmine, some of which I will share over my next several posts.

For now, I will copy-blog Benjamin’s brief essay entitled “The Newspaper.”  Its prophetic character will be evident to anyone who has reflected for longer than 30 seconds on the internet’s impacts on journalism, publishing, and media.  I would simply suggest by way of editorial comment that those who concern themselves with the future of newspapers might do worse than to return to this particular trace of their past.

The Newspaper

In our writing, opposites that in happier ages fertilized one another have become insoluble antinomies.  Thus, science and belles lettres, criticism and literary production, culture and politics, fall apart in disorder and lose all connection with one another.  The scene of this literary confusion is the newspaper; its content, “subject matter” that denies itself any other form of organization than that imposed on it by the reader’s impatience.  For impatience is the state of mind of the newspaper reader.  And this impatience is not just that of the politician expecting information, or of the speculator looking for a stock tip; behind it smolders the impatience of  people who are excluded and who think they have the right to see their own interests expressed.  The fact that nothing binds the reader more tightly to his paper than this all-consuming impatience, his longing for daily nourishment, has long been exploited by publishers, who are constantly inaugurating new columns to address the reader’s questions, opinions, and protests.  Hand in hand, therefore, with the indiscriminate assimilation of facts goes the equally indiscriminate assimilation of readers, who are instantly elevated to collaborators.  Here, however, a dialectical moment lies concealed:  the decline of writing in this press turns out to be the formula for its restoration in a different one.  For since writing gains in breadth what it loses in depth, the conventional distinction between author and public that the press has maintained (although it is tending to loosen it through routine) is disappearing in a socially desirable way.  The reader is at all times ready to become a writer – that is, a describer or even a prescriber.  As an expert – not perhaps in a discipline, but perhaps in a post that he holds – he gains access to authorship.  Work itself has its turn to speak.  And its representation in words becomes a part of the ability that is needed for its exercise.  Literary competence is no longer founded on specialized training but is now based on polytechnical education, and thus becomes public property.  It is, in a word, the literarization of the conditions of living that masters the otherwise insoluble antinomies.  And it is at the scene of the limitless debasement of the word – the newspaper, in short – that its salvation is being prepared.

1 Comment

Filed under Books, Culture, History and historiography, Journalism, Media, News, Reading and writing, Tech