Tag Archives: Walter Benjamin

From my #Jan25 #Egypt notebook

There are two specific moments, or passages, in the Robert Fisk interview I linked to in my last post that, to my mind, constitute the beginnings of a materialist historiography of the uprising in Egypt.  These are as close to dialectical images, in Walter Benjamin’s sense, as anything that has passed before or under my eyes in the past eventful week.  I transcribe them below; you can read the full transcript at http://www.democracynow.org/2011/2/3/robert_fisk_obama_administration_has_been

 “The key that I’ve seen over the last few days has been the way in which the army on Friday [28/1/2011] was told by Mubarak to clear the square, and the individual tank officers refused.  I actually saw them tearing off their tank helmets, where they were receiving orders on their own military net, and using their mobile phones.  And in many cases, they were phoning home, because they come from military families.  They wanted to know from their fathers what they should do.  And, of course, they were told, ‘You must not shoot on your fellow citizens.’  And that, I think, was the moment when the Mubarak regime broke.  Or if we look back historically, that’s what we’ll believe.  So I think it is broken, it’s finished, whatever Mr. Mubarak may dream about in his pantomime world.  And I think that was a very critical moment.”

“And it’s been interesting watching the behaviour.  I mean, I’m right up right next to the tanks and, you know, where stones are falling and so on.  Yesterday, for example, a young soldier was standing in tears as the stones went in both directions past him.  And he was obviously torn apart by what he should do between his duty as a soldier and his duty as an Egyptian.  And in the end, he jumped down from the tank, crying and throwing his arms around one of the protesters.  And that – you know, that was a very significant moment, I thought, in this.  You know, if big history is made on the streets, this was a little tiny microcosm of what was actually going over.”

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“Let no thought pass incognito”

As a relative newcomer to blogging, I count myself fortunate in my readership.  Though my stats are nothing to write home about, I have something much more important (to me at least):  a handful of readers apparently willing to think with me.  I was reminded of this by a comment left on a recent post about Walter Benjamin’s writing on newspapers, one that began (auspiciously) by quoting me quoting Benjamin:

“Work itself has its turn to speak.” I am letting that line echo a bit in my mind….

As Benjamin also predicts, again, what was old has become new again. Thank you for turning this up.

For me, this succinct comment resonates like crazy.  The re-citing of Benjamin’s language (in translation, of course) – “Work itself has its turn to speak” – redirects us to a formulation that appears deceptively brief, almost pithy, and yet is anything but.  “I am letting that line echo a bit in my mind” attests that such distilled and difficult thought takes time to unfold, if it is not to vanish irretrievably – succumbing to the threat of disappearance that for Benjamin haunts the dialectical image (a threat that, for blogger and micro-blogger , is part and parcel of reverse chronology).  Indeed, it recalls another passage from Benjamin’s writing, one I cited in a post written at the end of 2009 (http://wp.me/pLpwg-19 ).  “The Writer’s Technique in Thirteen Theses,” part of the volume One-Way Street, lists the following under number 5:  “Let no thought pass incognito, and keep your notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens.”  My gentle reader is precisely not letting this thought – “Work itself has its turn to speak” – pass unrecognized.  (And no one on any side of any border I can think of will miss the stringency of Benjamin’s analogy regarding his notebook-keeping practices.)
The final part of the comment is for me likewise galvanizing:  “Thank you for turning this up.”  My assumption (and I of course stand ready to be corrected) is that the “turning up” involved is not so much a cranking of the volume as a given track is played, but rather akin to an archaeologist’s (or, more prosaically still, a researcher’s) practice when it meets with some success.
 
 
 
But as I have written here before, this blog’s project is very much one of “turning up” writing from the proximate or more distant past that might help us to take stock of our own present, particularly when it comes to the unpredictably unfolding trajectories of media, journalism and historiography.  My own working term and concept for this has been curation, and, for better or worse, this blog is unabashedly curatorial, whether serendipitously or by design.
 
It goes without saying that I am not the only one who is thinking in terms of curation these days.  To borrow once again from an earlier post ( http://wp.me/pLpwg-Fy ), let me cite Mashable‘s Pete Cashmore:  “For those adrift in a sea of content, good news:  A ‘curation’ economy is beginning to take shape….” [“Twitter lists and real-time journalism,” http://www.cnn.com/2009/tech/11/04/twitter.lists/index.html ]  Whether its inception is late-breaking or old news, there is little doubt that the curation economy is the site of important work, where it may even transpire that “work itself has its turn to speak.”

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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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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.

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“Give me a copy of your phone number”

The following paragraphs from Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus jumped off the page as I read them again just now.  What would Benjamin make of them?

Or Gonzalez-Torres, for that matter?

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]

To be continued, in one form or another.

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“Cc…: CCC,” part 13

Hi  all,

John, your invocation of Stuart Marshall’s effort to historicize the epidemic in his 1987 videotape brought to mind your own indelible contributions in this regard, notably Zero Patience, which dates from 1993.  As Paula Treichler writes of your film in How to Have Theory in an Epidemic, “Early in Greyson’s musical…the character of Sir Richard Burton performs an ode to empirical science:  ‘A culture of certainty,’ he sings, ‘will wipe out every doubt.’  But by the end of the film, virtually every apparent certainty has been called into question, including some of the most treasured certainties of AIDS treatment activism.  The character of George, losing his sight from CMV, is also losing patience with treatment orthodoxies, no matter whose they are.  But even as his poignant refrain asserts this condition of radical uncertainty – ‘I know I know I know I know that I don’t know’ – Greyson’s story of the stories of the epidemic never lets us forget what we do know:  That a narrative can be powerfully persuasive, that a democratic technoculture must find ways to acknowledge the power of competing narratives, and that, for all the power of narrative, this epidemic leaves hundreds of thousands of people dead.”  She goes on to remark that, as the film unfolds, the various codes and conventions that have characterized the historiography of the epidemic “are self-consciously framed, contrasted, and denaturalized:  repeatedly called ‘tales,’ ‘stories,’ and ‘histories,’ they are used and manipulated to furnish data for grant proposals, fed to the media, distorted by the media, juxtaposed to other stories, told differently by different people, espoused and repudiated, hammed up, camped up, acted out, politicized, ridiculed, idealized, and discredited.  In this sense, they represent competing regimes of credibility…placed in visible collision.”

In the aftermath of writing The Brevity of Life, this recalls for me the threat to historiography formulated by Walter Benjamin in his fifth thesis On the Concept of History:  “The true image of the past flits by.  The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again…. For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own threatens to disappear irretrievably.”  Like the dancing shadows John invoked in his last message to us, flitting around the hearth of the virus, whose company presumably includes a number of more and less helpful, useful, risky analogies.  As William Haver notes in his admirable essay “Interminable AIDS,” “The ghost is the figure of what we can never quite forget altogether, but also of that which memory can never satisfactorily recover:  the figure of the impossibility of forgetting what we have forgotten.  The ghost is the figure of what disrupts every attempt at historiographical pacification.”  Witness Zackie’s video phantom addressing the conference delegates and the world from the screens temporarily erected in Barcelona for the occasion.

And John’s question – “Do we learn from history, or do we do history a disservice by recasting its specificity into a generalized metaphor for today’s agendas, today’s needs?” – resonates with Gertrude Stein’s singular history lesson, the final line of her poem “If I told him”:  “Let me recite what history teaches.  History teaches.”  If, as Gregg contends (with Benjamin), “A radical break with history can only follow from a radical break with an understanding of history,” we urgently need to attend to what HIV/AIDS has to tell us, to teach us, about our understanding of history.  For example, as Gregg also points out, “When we are forced to contemplate the AIDS crisis in the U.S. [in 2002], all illusions of progress disintegrate.”  Hence our received understanding of what Benjamin calls “the historical progress of mankind” is radically undercut by the material events that constitute the history of the pandemic to date, and in particular is shown to rely on a notion of our progression through a homogeneous, empty time.

More later, I hope.

Deborah

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“the x factor” (“The West Wing,” part 5)

2.  As the examples enlisted in the foregoing posts eloquently demonstrate, the need to tell time is also the need to attest, to testify in words and images not just to a time that is, as Derek Jarman has it, “all awry,” but to an unfolding history that depends upon such testimony for its own survival in collective memory.  The tasks of writing and reading the historiography of HIV/AIDS were outlined in advance by Walter Benjamin, who summoned us, prospective readers of his theses “On the Concept of History,” to recognize in the image of the past what urgently concerns our own present, lest it disappear, perhaps irretrievably.  

Paul Klee, "Angelus Novus"

Writing decades later in his capacity as witness to the pandemic’s devastation, Aaron Shurin likewise proposes to read and record “the process of history itself disappearing,” in an effort to “turn it around.”  Like Herve Guibert’s autothanatographical roman, like the giveaway paper stacks and candy spills proffered by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, like Stephen Andrews’ “Untitled” (2000-2001), with its poignant and pointed citation of Jarman’s Blue, Shurin’s Unbound can claim to be of AIDS, with the full force of the partitive. 

Invoking “the oracular remark of the greatest of poets,” which has itself effectively disappeared, leaving our posterity only the barest, most prosaic traces of its former glory, Seneca ventures in “De brevitate vitae” that “‘It is but a small part of life we really live.’  Indeed, all the rest is not life, but merely time.”  The foregoing posts drawn from the manuscript of The Brevity of Life urge with all due humility that it is time that we have interminably to tell in our attempts to reckon with what we have come (only belatedly) to call AIDS.

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