August 20, 2012 § Leave a comment
The conviction persists that a handful of fragments from One Way Street – even, or especially, those weird concatenations of dream-imagery & cryptic aphorism – are of more importance, more use, than whole swathes of the ‘analysis’ that blogosphere & msm alike pump out, lined with hard-edged facts like nuggets of undigested fibre. To this could be added all the ‘reportage’, the overheated lifestyle memoirs & ‘personal’ columns masquerading as political thought that circulate through those same media circuits. It goes without saying that, where Benjamin writes that “[t]he construction of life is at present in the power of facts far more than of convictions”, ‘facts’ & ‘convictions’ must be taken as two halves of the same coin, the two concepts under which reified thought organises the proliferating phenomena of a world produced by a system unfolding through persistent contradiction. Not to claim that ‘facts’ are ideology (we’re not quite that Althusserian yet), or, worse, de Manian tropes. Oddly, both ‘facts’ & ‘convictions’ are what is left over when you apparently extirpate ‘ideology’. Everything not assimilable to this economy – which covers & outlines the contours of “everything that is the case”, in Wittgenstein’s phrase – becomes “that whereof we cannot speak” & hence “should remain silent”. But the entire frame within which everything that is the case is the case remains unhinted-at. That frame’s existence, its givenness, is of course limned by ideology. The claim that leftist writing must be ‘uncomplicated’ – itself a misnomer: what could be more tough & spindly & lucid than Benjamin’s writing? – in order to appeal to a posited ‘mass audience’ (e.g. the 10 people who still read The Independent), that any encounter w/ disciplines of thought that attempt to think this frame itself, & beyond the meagre possibilities it posits, will fog the clear pane of language, serves to reinforce the power of the system that makes what is the case the case. (The death of Alexander Cockburn brought with it the reflection that ‘radical’ & ‘journalist’ could no longer be conjoined without provoking laughter.) Critique attempts to speak of that whereof we must remain silent. Everything I write – might as well say ‘I’ at this stage in the game, rather than ‘he’ – is informed by this (yes, laugh) conviction.
Update: a couple of sentences that turned up in a discussion of this piece w/ someone on facebook are here appended:
the form of ‘practical’, ‘hard-headed’ analysis prioritised by left commentators (what a dreary designation!) is, paradoxically, a disappearance from political reality into a particular set of codes or tropes – structuralism got this right if nothing else (& I think it got more than this right). In fact, the Zizekian cry of “pure ideology!”, wearying though it is, is useful here: practicality, as it’s conceived of in this sort of writing, is precisely ideology. I don’t think that a social reality made opaque by reification is going to be analysable, in an active, useful way, by a form of writing that reiterates the coordinates of reified consciousness. Where the average Laurie Penny column or Socialist Worker article, for example, might once have fallen on the side of changing the world (as in the 11th thesis on Feuerbach) they’re now simply interpretation (& not good interpretation at that).
Update 2: this note was precipitated by the realisation that I’d stopped making an effort to even to briefly engage with most of the leftist writing (commentary, analysis, ‘creative’ nonfiction) or writing about my other areas of interest (poetry, music) from a leftist perspective that comes my way (mostly via Twitter). This is down to a lack of time – as a postgraduate student I’ve got stuff to be getting on with – & information overload (it’s difficult to pay any attention to things unless I totally, definitely want to read them, as there’s always ten other things vying for yr time). There’s also this: in Blog Theory (2010), Jodi Dean writes “After a few months reading a given blog or frequenting a set of sites in the blogipelago, predicting the range of responses to any given post or comment was easy. In the words of a blogger quoted in an Australian newspaper, ‘The same old people saying the same old things. Boring. Boring. Boring.'” If anything, this situation has worsened since that comment was made in 2007. My suspicion is that this isn’t simply the result of the circle-jerk structure & atmosphere of online discourse, or of the spillage of thought onto other social networks (although Tumblr & Twitter have, in their way, altered the metabolism of web language), or of the most interesting bloggers de facto quitting for print (k-punk, Owen, Nina, Jane Dark, Anwyn Crawford) or slowing their workrates to almost nothing in the face of IRL interests (Pierce Penniless, DomFox, Robin Carmody, ZSTC). All those things feed into it, of course, but no single one accounts for it. Rather, it seems, the worst possibilities of the structures of online discourse (circle-jerking, etc.) has coupled with the institutionalisation & professionalisation of blogging, coupled in turn with a reaction to the crisis that plays into the hands of everything-that-is-the-case. (This has been the case too w/ the ‘post-blog’ leftist mags, though I still hold out fragments of hope for them – but that’s an issue for another time.) The most exciting examples of thought during the most exciting period of political mobilisation came from the likes of DSG, Escalate, Joshua Clover’s pieces for the LARB; the books that mattered the most to me during that period – though perhaps this isn’t something to be pleased about, given my track record as a human being during that time – were One Way Street, Swann’s Way, Minima Moralia, Dialectic of Enlightenment. To be Lyotardian for a second: if what both the centres & the margins of leftist discourse are churning out is so fucking boring & delibidinized as writing or as a labour of thought that even overexcited Marxists like me can’t be bothered with it, it’s not likely to rock any social boats further afield.
Update 3: from Esther Leslie’s Walter Benjamin: Overpowering Conformism (Pluto Press, 2000):
“Benjamin as tragic hero, torn apart by melancholy and the difficulty of existing, becomes detached from the political history in which and against which he was engaged actively, and is made a passive victim of a sorrowful fate. There is a danger of memory as disempowerment, as sweet melancholy. Benjamin notes the tendency for memory and memorials to fetishize the act of remembering and not the remembrance of acting. In his Passagenwerk, Benjamin sketches the ‘brooder’, the pre-eminent melancholy subject, who dwells on fragments, clouded by a tormented sense of occluded significance indwelling in insignificant things. Benjamin is always more interested in what he calls, after Proust, involuntary memory, which rejects the conscious application of subjective meanings upon the range of experiences presented to consciousness. Involuntary memory provides an unexpected shocking link between a concrete experience in the present and its cognate in the past. It is a deliverance from temporality. It produces a shock, a waking up, albeit to the power of something like a dream. In contrast to the endless task of memory and mourning, history-telling becomes, for Benjamin, especially in his theses form – a writing that tends towards action – a type of praxis, a grasping, a Begreifen, which produces the history it reports, by theorizing, not narrating, and so making history, not writing it”
Obviously Leslie, as a Swappy, is anxious to emphasise Benjamin’s connections with then-active organisations & struggles (basically by suggesting his tentative involvement in 4th International circles). The fact that the approach of The Arcades Project (& the writing that emerged from it: the artwork essay, the two major Baudelaire essays, the Theses on the Philosophy of History), as an instance of materialist historiography & theory, is somewhat to one side of contemporary approaches even in the Frankfurt School, let alone Trotskyist or Stalinist circles, shouldn’t be diminished. But this quasi-detachment, this relentless pursuit of his own projects, is, as Leslie emphasises, a way of being true to historical materialism as a theory & praxis in the moment of its distortion by Stalinism, & in the political crisis that required it urgently.