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“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.


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Media 101 (or is that 2.0?)

What follow are some edifying formulations on “media” from Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus:  Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age (Penguin, 2010, 26-27).

Because we are increasingly producing and sharing media, we have to relearn what that word can mean.  The simple sense of media is the middle layer in any communication, whether it is as ancient as the alphabet or as recent as mobile phones.  On top of this straightforward and relatively neutral definition is another notion, inherited from the patterns of media consumption over the last several decades, that media refers to a collection of businesses, from newspapers and magazines to radio and television, that have particular ways of producing material and particular ways of making money.  And as long as we use media to refer just to those businesses, and to that material, the word will be an anachronism, a bad fit for what’s happening today.  Our ability to balance consumption with production and sharing, our ability to connect with one another, is transforming the sense of media from a particular sector of the economy to a cheap and globally available tool for organized sharing.  (26-7, emphasis added)

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