Other Voices, v.1, n.1 (March 1997)
Copyright © 1997 by John Parker, all rights reserved
I. Allegories of Historical Materialism
Allegoresis and collection are the twin foci around which the elliptical writings of Walter Benjamin orbit. The former, as a mode of criticism, transforms the latter practice into a version of materialist historicism:
The period, the region, the craftsmanship, the former ownership--for a true collector the whole background of an item adds up to the magic encyclopedia whose quintessence is the fate of his object (60).
This sentence exemplifies Benjamin's tendencies as a writer, with its heterogeneity ("magic encyclopedia ... quintessence ... fate ... object"), its tendency to see in the specific object a grander narrative (just as the allegorist sees noumenal truths embodied in the phenomenal), and its attempt to distinguish "the true collector" from an ostensibly quite similar, but opposed, historical formulation: here, the false collector who is an investor. The grand narrative which the collector discerns in the object collected is not merely its immediate history, its period, region etc., but history itself as it spills out from history's most conservative vessel: the material object. A quotation which Benjamin borrows from Proust argues this position: "the past is 'somewhere beyond the reach of the intellect, and unmistakably present in some material object'"(158). This specific articulation creates for Benjamin a difficult task, as his criticism must strive to capture what is at once "beyond the intellect" and "unmistakable." That this criticism is most aptly embodied in the figure of the collector is not surprising, since he who collects has access to the "magic encyclopedia" afforded by objects and can therefore see "through them into their distant past as though inspired" (61). The magical, or prophet-like function of the collector, its "old-age" image (61), mediates the divide between what is unthinkable and what is self-evident.
There are two particularly good ways of collecting books, Benjamin explains. One, the most praiseworthy, is to write them oneself. Another is to inherit. He synthesizes the two in his own criticism by writing what he has inherited, (quotations, ideas, images) and adding what he has written to his collection of books. Here is how "Unpacking my Library" ends:
For inside [the collector] there are spirits, or at least a little genii, which have seen to it that for a collector--and I mean a real collector, a collector as he ought to be--ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them. So I have erected one of his dwellings, with books as the building stones, before you, and now here he is going to disappear inside, as is only fitting (67).
I will address later the significance of the repeated attempt to define "true" collection, but for now I want to emphasize how once Benjamin's essay becomes a part of his collection, the author (the speaking voice, but speaking of himself in the third person as he becomes other) is dialectically folded into the objects which surround him. Man can only become fully alive to himself when he sees his relation to the past. The way to approach that past, however, is through objects, which, in the Western, post-Kantian tradition, ought forever to alienate a subject from his own historical constitution. Unless, as the above quotation demonstrates, that subject is an Hegelian (that is, dialectically reasoning) collector of objects who, by writing what he has inherited and then collecting what he has written, inherits himself and his past in all its fullness.
The collector departs from Hegel, however, in his vision of a history--no longer represented as the process of Absolute spirit coming to self-consciousness in the consciousness of those embedded in the material, historical world, but as a ruin: fragments compounded of fragments which, if not for the agency of collector, storytellers, translators and historical materialists, would be perverted and crushed by the weight of so much historical accumulation, particularly the accumulation which was endemic to Benjamin's time: Fascism and world war.
A similar dialectical process, whereby the subject becomes one with the object, pertains to the act of storytelling:
There is nothing that commends a story to memory more effectively than that chaste compactness which precludes psychological analysis. And the more natural the process by which the storyteller forgoes psychological shading, the greater becomes the story's claim to a place in the memory of the listener, the more completely is it integrated into his own experience, the greater will be his inclination to repeat it to someone else someday, sooner or later (91).
Stories, like a collector's objects, are essentially transmissible and therefore create an intersubjective realm between the present hearers/tellers and those who have heard and told the story before. This succeeds only to the extent that the story works its way into a hearer's experience [Erfahrung]. Thus once the story is retold, it may be told with a personal, experiential sedimentation which, when incorporated into the experience of a hearer/collector, makes the teller a part of his audience: "[Storytelling] does not aim to convey the pure essence of the thing, like information or a report. It sinks the thing into the life of the storyteller, in order to bring it out of him again"(91-2). The story is like a quotation. Once heard, it becomes a part of the hearer's discourse and may in turn be quoted, that is, abstracted from the contextual discourse in which it is embedded and put into circulation in another's discourse. This continues endlessly, but the quotation, the story always leaves behind a trace through which any hearers who become tellers may then commune.
Something like this happens more explicitly for the translator, whose aim "intends language as a whole, taking an individual work in an alien language as a point of departure"(76). (As always with Benjamin, totality comes through the partial, the whole through the fragment.) When a translator works upon another language his own changes:
While a poet's words endure in his own language, even the greatest translation is destined to become part of the growth of its own language and eventually absorbed by its renewal. Translation...is charged with the special mission of watching over the maturing process of the original language and the birth pangs of its own (73).
Birth here recalls the remark "I am not exaggerating when I say that to a true collector the acquisition of an old book is its rebirth"(61). As with collecting and storytelling, the translator's project takes a specific object (an alien text) and by the action which constitutes his relation to that object (here translating) he transmutes it into his own experience, his own self. For the translator, this means reproducing the object in his own language where, though no longer self identical, it still retains "the echo of the original"(76). At the same time, the translator's own language will have been transformed as well, and thus his own experience and self. This process is dialectical in that both thesis (alien text) and antithesis (the translation) work together to form a synthesis--the creation of a "pure language" which is reducible neither to the alien tongue/text that imprisons it, nor the translator's language which liberates it:
Both the translator's object and his method of translating are equally fragmented versions of a whole which only comes into being once he fuses the two. With the translator, the whole to which his fragments belong is "a greater language;" for the collector, the "greater language" is the greater narrative of history. In both cases, the collector and the translator must interpret their respective objects in such a way as to make whole what has been sundered.
The image of the empty vessel occurs frequently in Benjamin's writing, and has to my mind something of the status of a rune, an enigmatic expression of the crisis of a historical materialist upon realizing that he studies a history which, without his intervention, culminates only in nonsensical ruins. "The traces of the storyteller," Benjamin says, "cling to the story the way the handprints of the potter cling to the clay vessel"(92). The translator had to put the fragments together himself in order to create the vessel. But the audience of the storyteller discovers the vessel already whole and must trace the ghostly fractures where its seams have been smoothed. Benjamin repeats this description verbatim in the second section of "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire." One finds an even more extreme restatement in the description of the aura he gives in the ninth section, "If we designate as aura the associations which, at home in the mémoire involuntaire, tend to cluster around the object of a perception, then its analog in the case of a utilitarian object is the experience which has left traces of the practiced hand"(186). Here, however, the image has changed to such an extent that its meaning is unclear. What is "the practiced hand?" Is it the hand which shaped the object? Why then is it "experience" that shows the trace of the hand and not the object? Experience of what? These ambiguities reflect a latent tension in Benjamin's writing which come to the surface in his concept of the aura. I will analyze that concept later when I discuss "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." But first I want to explore further the implications of the "vessel" image.
If the translator creates a "vessel," this is to say that his labor forges a whole which is empty. Benjamin's Messianic eschatology may help to explain this curiosity. For him, human history as such cannot be redeemed, only preserved, reconstructed, until the moment of ultimate redemption when it will be filled by the Anointed. Given the character of its own constituents, human history is no more than an amalgamation of fragments. Yet the image of the vessel glued back together negotiates several difficulties; it preserves the integrity of any historicizing project (translation, story telling, collecting) while at the same time asserting its ultimate futility. Reconstructing the past is to construct an empty thing, and yet only then may the emptiness be filled, but not by the historian or the allegorist. Only the Divine Allegorist may descend upon the shell of an image, a narrative, a vessel, itself meaningless, and wrench it into a plenitude of meaning. The final goal of a translator's task lies beyond the ability of a translator to attain because that goal, with reference only to his practice, is devoid of meaning and empty; but because this is so, it may be made meaning-full. In a discussion of Hölderlin's infamous translations of Sophocles, which he takes to be exemplary, Benjamin writes:
[They] were his last work; in them meaning plunges from abyss to abyss until it threatens to become lost in the bottomless depths of language. There is, however, a stop. It is vouchsafed to Holy Writ alone (82).
"To be sure only a redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past," he writes in the third thesis on history, "which is to say, only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments. Each moment it has lived becomes a citation l'ordre du jour--and that day is Judgment day"(254).
Quoting Pascal, Benjamin writes, "'No one...dies so poor that he does not leave something behind.' Surely it is the same with memories too--although these do not always find an heir." The collector, the storyteller and the translator (and thus, as I have been arguing, Benjamin the historical materialist as well) are all in different ways heirs to the memories of the past. As I have mentioned, Benjamin felt that inheriting one's books was the soundest way to do it, "for a collector's attitude toward his possessions stems from an owner's feeling of responsibility toward his property. Thus it is, in the highest sense, the attitude of an heir, and the most distinguished trait of a collection will always be its transmissibility" (66). All that is transmissible may be inherited and all that is inherited carries with it the weight of a family--the ideal historical materialist will look through his inheritance as though it were intimate. The heirs of the past will also become its preservers and purveyors, as the collector passes on his collection, the storyteller retells the stories he himself has heard and the translator bequeaths a text from one language to another. Benjamin's deep adoration of Kafka comes down to just this, that "he sacrificed truth for the sake of clinging to its transmissibility"(144). The truth, especially the historical, turns out to be valuable only insofar as it arises from and creates a common tradition which may unite the experience of humanity through the ages. This possibility is predicated on the truth attaining transmissible form--a form towards which Benjamin's criticism, in all of its allegorical manifestations, pushes it. "Memory creates the chain of tradition which passes a happening on from generation to generation(98)," but only if there is someone willing to remember the happenings, the objects, in all of their irreducible fullness.
II. Allegories of the Marketplace
But, as I have been alluding all along, there is a darker side. To read collection as an allegory in the first place is to already subvert its truths; for if collection can be an allegory, then the virtues of collecting are baffled and dissipated; allegory stresses repetition, the gap between symbol and symbolized. Authenticity, presence and meaning--all of which the collector claims to behold in his collection--are thereby threatened since the allegorical reading can superimpose any number of "master narratives" onto specific histories. For instance, the concepts in these first three essays have correlatives in the market place they would reject and these correlatives allow one to read them as allegories of that market place. Transmissibility, after all, resembles nothing so much as commodification. The lengths to which Benjamin goes to counter this resemblance suggests the dangerous proximity of the two concepts. Thus he asserts relentlessly the uselessness of the collectable object--only then can the fact that ownership is "the most intimate relationship one has to objects" be in any way positive, or constructive since it then becomes an ownership which transcends the utilitarian, commodifying marketplace. Translation, similarly, does not strive to transmit mere meaning, which like a commodity can be packaged and shipped from language to language, but something more vague: a deeper, "pure" language. He opposes storytelling to newspapers, vehicles of "information," in that the former has no immediate utilitarian function. It communicates experience, in all of its opacity and those experiences, because they are those of the dead, take on utter singularity. But these distinctions from the commodity become impossible to maintain when one realizes that they match word for word the ideology of the commodity. Commodites homogenizes every object through the relentless assertion of utility and cash-value, but they do this while claiming to be unique and immanently valuable.
Benjamin struggles against this reading of his text by stressing always that he is speaking of "the true collector," not he who would invest in books in order to resell them at a higher price. And yet Benjamin reveals in a brief anecdote the perilous proximity of this own practice to that of the capitalist investor. At an auction, Benjamin bids an especially high price in order to pre-empt the bid of the famous Munich collector, Baron Von Simolin, and winds up having to pay more than he can afford. Here we see two "true" collectors driving up the price of a book, like traders sparring on the Stock Exchange floor. And the inevitable result of such sparring--the defeat of one of the competetors--becomes a part of Benjamin's story only by virtue of its exclusion: "the following morning at the pawnshop is no longer a part of this story, and I prefer to speak about another incident"(65). But for the true collector, books are not objects which can be pawned, reduced, that is, to an abstract figure of value. Only the exigencies of the time--he was a student with little money--forced him into the marketplace. The pressure of those exigencies never go away and finally erupt into the center of his work in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Before I turn to that, though, I want to mention the "other incident" which Benjamin narrates, as it ostensibly describes a moment when he was able to outwit his times and market forces.
He calls this other incident "the negative of an auction." It recapitulates the earlier scene with Baron Von Simolin only now the rival investor remains mysteriously unidentified. And unlike the Baron, this rival appears to have a particular vendetta against Benjamin:
[The rival bidder] seemed only to have waited for my bid to counter with his own, evidently prepared to top any offer. After this had been repeated several times, I gave up all hope of acquiring the book which I was most interested in that day (65).
Benjamin's retelling of this event takes on more significance once he describes the book he had hoped to acquire: "in [the book's preface] the author-editor tells the story of his life in the guise of an obituary for his supposedly deceased unnamed friend--with whom he is really identical..." (65-6). What this intimates is that the unnamed investor is likewise identical with Benjamin and that the entire anecdote is an allegory for the impossibility of evading the all pervading touch of capitalism. Although he refuses to bid, what he "hoped for came about: no interest no bid, and the book was put aside'(66) allowing him to return later and buy the book at a bargain.
One sees how the moment of capitalism's greatest subversion, when one refuses on the grounds of an oppositional philosophy to enter into the fray of purchasing, is also its greatest moment of triumph. Benjamin's refusal to participate is that of the investor cleverly outmaneuvering his competitors in order to buy cheaply what he may later sell dear. The poignancy of this narrative derives from the suggestion that under a capitalist system, the competitor is always the self and by either bargaining or refusing to, one cheapens what is of most value.
III. Allegories of the Negative
Instead of constructing further barriers between his own practice and the practices of the historical moment he would transcend, Benjamin embraces the underside of his own theories in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." There he proclaims the disintegration of the aura and champions the revolutionary potential which is thus released. It will be of use therefore, to look at some of his other references to the aura.
Earlier in my discussion of the vessel image in Benjamin's work, I quoted a definition he gives of the aura which designated it as "the associations which, at home in the mémoire involuntaire, tend to cluster around the object of a perception"(186). Its place in memory reveals that the aura is what has made the objects of the collector, the translator and the storyteller seem so meaningful: "Once you have approached the mountains of cases in order to mine the books from them...what memories crowd in on you!"(66), he writes of his collection. He connects storytelling explicitly to memory: "Memory is the epic faculty par excellence"(97) and even employs the term "aura:"
The storyteller: he is the man who could let the wick of his life be consumed completely by the gentle flame of his story. This is the basis of the incomparable aura about the storyteller....The storyteller is the figure in which the righteous man encounters himself (108-9).
The aura is elsewhere defined in these telling terms:
Experience of the aura thus rests on the transportation of a response common in human relationships to the relationship between the inanimate or natural object and man....To perceive the aura of an object we look at means to invest it with the ability to look at us in return. This experience corresponds to the data of the mémoire involontaire (188).
As one can see, before the essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," the aura is the source of all value in a deteriorating world. It grounds the practice of the collector, the storyteller and indirectly the translator for it lends to their activities a purposefulness they would otherwise not have, becoming only allegories of market strategies. It makes sense that he would have to declare war on this concept given the way those activities resemble market strategies even with their aura--given, in fact, the resemblance of aura to ideology. Benjamin attempts in this essay to theorize a negative which could not be assimilated to what it negates. So begins "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction:"
The concepts which are introduced into the theory of art in what follows differ from the more familiar terms in that they are completely useless for the purposes of Fascism. They are, on the other hand, useful for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art (572).
Where his own previous concepts continued to recapitulate capitalistic strategies, the new ones will avoid any such taint. They achieve this purity by employing an analysis which is only negative and critical and in no way prognostic. Instead of constructing a utopian vision of what the communist future holds (which is, in a sense, what the first three essays did by describing quasi-utopian practices) he will consent only to a stubborn critique of what is. By focusing exclusively on history's bad side, he will not allow that bad side to sneak up from behind and betray him. If this is precisely what happened with his earlier formulations of the virtue of transmissibility, he will now proclaim the disintegration of that concept and all its corollaries:
The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced. Since the historical testimony rests on the authenticity, the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction when substantive duration ceases to matter. And what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object (574).
It's as though Benjamin takes more seriously than Marx the notion that capitalism contains its own subversion--the path to subversion is not to resist and revolt, but to accede and accelerate. Thus the fact that the "technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition" (574) is no longer a process to try and reverse by collecting or telling stories, for by not resisting it, one may subvert the whole system all the better: "The instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice--politics" (576). And thus what has been veiled all along in the storyteller's mystical relation to early rituals, the collector's "magical side," and the translator's mysterious insight into a universal tongue--the negative judgement which the utopian levels against the present--is translated into an explicitly political content. Because of the disintegration of the aura, it is no longer possible to maintain conviction in the redemptive character of a mystical materiality. Imbued as it is with the logic of capitalism, such materiality can only be accepted if the historian first recognizes, as Benjamin did, that "there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism" (256). Acknowledging this ambivalence precipitates the realization that commitment gains force only by preserving its negative dimension.
All citations are from Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schoken Books), 1969, with the exceptions of those from the essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, which are taken from the anthology The Critical Tradition: Classic Text and Contemporary Trends ed. David Richter, (New York: St. Martin's Press), 1989.