Notebook (screen studies)

January 31, 2015 § Leave a comment

birn02_3701_01“First, the matter of dreaming and waking. One aim of The Arcades
Project, at least in its later stages, was to plot the relation between the true (unconscious) collective dreaming of the nineteenth century, encoded in the constellation of forms, materials, novelties, commodities, advertisements, and literary detritus that Benjamin made his own, and the conscious utopias of Saint-Simon and Fourier. (Marx believed himself to have surpassed such utopia building, but did he? That is another of The Arcades Project’s questions.) I do not believe this cluster of issues ever comes into focus. Saint-Simonianism, which is the epitome of a kind of technocratic dreaming of the future familiar to us digital scribes, slips dully through Benjamin’s fingers. Yet the point at which socialism and machinolatry intersect is vital to an understanding of the last two hundred years. Benjamin never, in my view, gets on terms with Saint-Simon, and even his treatment of Fourier is ultimately too picturesque, too much an item in a cabinet of socialist curiosities. Nor do I think his note cards do much to clarify the relation of these forms of dreaming to the one going on in the Passage Choiseul. And does not the failure of Benjamin to do so—or really to show us even a glimpse of how such a clarification might be managed, within his structure—point to the limits of his notion of history? For the nineteenth-century ‘‘collective’’ dreamed many of its futures while it was wide awake. It dreamed different futures, according to its changing sense of which collective (within the dream totality of collectives) counted. And it acted on its dreams; it acted them out*.

Benjamin would reply, if I understand him, that these waking acts of the imagination (these strange discourses, these rushes to the barricade) were too flimsy and technical to lead us to the heart of things. But were they? The Commune awaits a truly Benjaminian treatment. Fourier’s madness is deeper than we know. There is a cryptic entry in Convolute W where revolutions are described as ‘‘an innervation** [we could almost say a jerking into life, a galvanizing] of the technical organs of the collective,’’ like ‘‘the child who learns to grasp by trying to get hold of the moon’’ (AP, W7,4). We have already glimpsed the idea cropping up in the dossier on Marx. Reference is made to the ‘‘cracking open of natural teleology’’ (AP, W8a,5). Both are described as ‘‘articles of my politics’’—as if such a politics were being actively aired and developed elsewhere. Maybe the book itself would have faced these questions head on. Maybe they would have intertwined with the dark, inconsolable history of the proletariat I have said can be seen in the making***. Dream versus revolution, then. Collective versus class. Utopia versus allegorical stifling and dispersal. One shivers at the presence of the ghost of a further, wider dialectic in the scattered notes. But making the ghost palpable would have meant throwing almost everything back in the melting pot.

Then, finally, we come to the question of Parisian art—and beyond it, Paris seeing. There is a lovely phrase for the arcades in one of Benjamin’s first sketches—‘‘the city in a bottle’’—which he drops when he moves the sketch into Convolute Q. The phrase was surely not lacking in poetry, but maybe the poetry was of the wrong kind. Benjamin wanted his arcade windows always to be dusty, not opening onto the outside world. Visual art for him equaled Grandville, Eiffel, Daguerre, and Nadar, the panorama painters, Daumier (but how quickly the Daumier dossier peters out!), Redon, the Metro entrances. Manet is mentioned only once in passing—notable in a book where Baudelaire is the main guide. Impressionism does not get a look in; Ingres (painter of the horror of bourgeois subjectivity) barely figures; Seurat not at all. Benjamin’s Paris is all interior, all gas lit or twilit. It has no true outside—no edges, no plein air, no Argenteuil or Robinson. No place, that is, where Nature itself is put through the sieve of exchange value and laid on in the form of day trips and villégiatures; and no answering dream of pure visibility and outwardness, or the endless strangeness of earthbound life. No Déjeuner sur l’Herbe or Grande Jatte.

‘‘Whereby the sensuous-concrete counts only as a phenomenal form of the abstract-general.’’ In my view, you either see that Manet was the visual artist who was able to show us the abstract-general and sensuous-concrete becoming moments of one another, or you don’t. And if you don’t, I am not convinced your version of Marxism will ever attain to the measure of vividness (Anschaulichkeit ) it so much wishes for. Not if your chosen subject is Paris in the nineteenth century.

Paris for Benjamin is a city of signs, words, and gesticulations, not scenes and sights. He is a flaneur, not a tourist. Nowhere in the convolutes is there an entry from Murray or Baedeker. I do not believe Benjamin was deeply (meaning blankly) receptive to the look of things. He was at home in the Passage des Panoramas, with the indoor machinery of visualization working full tilt; one senses that if he had ever found himself on Manet’s Butte de Chaillot, or at Caillebotte’s great intersection of the rue de Saint Pétersbourg and rue de Turin, he would not have allowed himself the true frisson of loss of bearings and entry into the realm of the eye. Agoraphobia was not his thing. Somewhere he tells the story of Mallarmé every day crossing the Pont de l’Europe and being ‘‘gripped by the temptation to throw himself from the height of the bridge onto the rails, under the trains, so as finally to escape the mediocrity which imprisoned him’’ (AP, M15,2). But he does not build on the anecdote, and I feel he does not quite see its point. Benjamin’s Paris is not frightening enough—not empty enough, disenchanted enough. I do not think the Paris book is sufficiently aware that its passages were pathetic enclaves of dreaming—reservations of the marvelous—in a great desert of the smart. Benjamin wanted the wonderful too much.

One way of putting this (it has the air of a formula, but it gets matters clear) is to say that Benjamin’s Paris is all dream and no spectacle: The apparatus of spectacle is not understood by him to invade the dream life and hold even unconscious imagining in its grip. Not to put one’s full stress on the city as more and more, even in the time of the arcades, a regime of false openness seems to me to miss something essential about bourgeois society—something dreadful and spellbinding. If you leave out Mallarmé swaying by the railings, you leave out part of modernity’s pain. Equally, if you leave out the line of painting from Delacroix to Matisse (which Benjamin does, essentially), you leave out too much of what made the pain endurable—meaning bourgeois hedonism, bourgeois positivism and lucidity. This is not a matter of pitting high art against photography and caricature, incidentally—of course we need histories of all three—but of asking what this particular high art has to tell us about the culture that spawned it.

These matters lead finally to Benjamin’s deepest presuppositions as a historian. The presuppositions are written into his choice of objects. Roughly speaking, Benjamin seems to have believed that the true history of the recent past could be put together from its high and low literature, its phantasmagoria, and its kitsch. Painting is barely part of his archive… Benjamin is interested always in the utopian moment to be found in the negative—in the dinginess and clutter of the arcades, in Grandville’s whimsy, in Fashion swapping aphorisms with Death, in the cheap patter of the feuilletoniste, in Baudelaire’s ‘‘Hélas! tout est abîme.’’ No one would deny that these are part of the story. All honor to Benjamin for bringing them to light. But perhaps we have come to a moment, oddly, when the other side of the nineteenthcentury dialectic needs to be reasserted: not only the wishes and potentialities threaded improbably through the negative, but, even more, what the century’s proudest forms (its actual achievements) of lucidity and positivity went on disclosing of terror—of true abîme—built into the bourgeoisie’s dream of freedom. Mallarmé swaying by the railings, yes; but also Seurat looking through the bright screen of unique sensations to the standardization and atomization that the screen (the new screening and dedifferentiating of everything) made possible. Hedonism and positivism—and the whole project of radical secularization that attended them—were just as integral to our grandfathers’ dream-life as magic lanterns and The Hunting of the Snark. And just as frightening, just as absurd.

Benjamin famously believed that the modern was the time of hell. But it seems to me he never realized that what was most hellish about modernity was pleasure in its highest bourgeois form—the moment of sheer appropriation and instrumentality in the face of experience, of disabused belonging to the world and turning it immediately to one’s purposes. It is hellish, and it is heavenly. Aby Warburg once, toward the end of his life, dictated some notes about Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’Herbe, in which he described the painting, touchingly, as ‘‘the image of a liberated humanity that moves with assurance in the sunlight [die Prägung freien Menschentums, das sich im Lichte selbsticher empfindet].’’ No doubt the verdict is naïve. But maybe, after Benjamin—after a half-century of the hermeneutics of suspicion—what needs to be recaptured is the sunlight, the full illusion of assurance and transparency. For this illusion was the nineteenth century’s chief utopia. And out there, beyond the academy, it still holds the majority in its grip.”

* Clark presumably here means 1) the factories 2) the colonies

** Miriam Hansen’s chapter on “innervation” in Cinema and Experience brings out the genealogy of the term & shows that it contains much more implications than Clark suggests here

*** see Konvolut a


January 29, 2015 § Leave a comment

Benjamin writes on August 16th 1931: “It is poverty that compresses the creativity of our best talents today, with an enormous atmospheric pressure. In this way, talent finds a refuge in the belly of the cultural section of the newspaper – as if in the belly of a wooden horse, from which one day this creativity will emerge and set alight the Troy of the modern press.” Our situation today is so far reversed that I laughed out loud the first time I read this. The cultural section, its paths of approach guarded by the internship, the unrenumerated online writing, the nepotistic connection-making, is precisely the part of the newspaper most securely barred to talent unsupported by the safeguards of class privilege. Poverty is precisely what prevents writers from gaining positions where they can stretch their writing limbs; those who smuggle their way into the cultural section are compelled by penury to pitch & write only the most saleable work, a quality wh/, thanks to useless editors, becomes, as in the equation of the armchair Jeremiahs, commensurate w/ insipidity, simplification, condescension & contentless modishness; politics, or even a critique of the press that might take its coordinates from structural critiques of the economic system in wh/ the press is embedded, are scoured out or given over to the most hopelessly short-sighted individuals* as appeasements of the vengeful god of the press’s own conscience. What might have become, under the “pressure” of base imposed need, the sparks of an incipient inferno, has crushed the destined carriers of the flame to a pulp.

* Hence Johann Hari, Laurie Penny, Tanya Gold etc ad nauseum

January 22, 2015 § Leave a comment

via JGV

Notebook (rupture)

January 20, 2015 § Leave a comment

“the stakes are high. As Clark wrote twenty years later, looking over ‘On the Social History of Art‘, he wanted not ‘a recipe for reading “social content” out of art works,’ but ‘a framework within which it might be possible to rethink, historically, the very process by which a particular work produced its meanings and lost them.’

Sometimes, though, the question needs to be twisted. Clark’s question makes sense for high or fine art – for art self-consciously made and received within a tradition that has, for works that pass certain tests, so to speak preapproved their illumination. For low art – or vernacular art, or everyday art – one always has to begin with an argument that a work produced in, or dropped by, this sort of tradition, has any meaning at all beyond ego , commerce or sociology. The notion of works that in some way or another contest their time is basic to the criticism of fine art; no critic approaching vernacular art has ever really beaten back the premise that work in popular culture is made by its time. Clark rightly dismisses the idea of a work of art reflecting its era, or some facet of it, but such a dead and deadening notion rules in the criticism and the history of popular art – and when you work within the terms of cultural reflection, you always find exactly what you’re looking for.

For popular art – art made within a tradition the operating premise of which is to replicate a work and sell as many copies as possible as fast as possible – the question is not that of letting the social into the art. It’s a question of freeing the art from the social – and here too the stakes may be high. It may be that unless certain works of art can be loosened from the social circumstances that seemingly produced them, there can be no history, social or otherwise – no history we have to answer to, a history that is more than the sum total of, to quote Clark again, ‘the topical needs of the moment.’*… To refuse to account for ourselves – or to be unable to, to be unable to see history as the product of certain choices made at certain crossroads, a commingling of private motives brought to bear on public works – is to leave nothing to writing history but burying the dead.

As Marx loved to say, let the dead bury the dead. Some artists are dead to the degree that they are subsumed by the social, and alive to the degree that the social can be distanced from their work; as with any attempts to bring the dead back to life, it’s easier said than done.


[…] The blues was something new. Just as Robert Johnson’s music made a breach in my white, middle-class, modern world, around 1900 blues made a breach in the known world of southern blacks. It wasn’t like the old field hollers, work songs, animal fables, ring shouts, spirituals, though musicologists have traced the lines back so that you’d think a breach had never been made. A leads to B & B leads to C, & who can deny it? But the testimony of those who were there counts – & what those who were there said was that they’d never heard anything like this before, & weren’t sure they ever wanted to hear anything like it again. A white woman heard her black teenage maid moaning to herself as she folded laundry – whatever the song was about, the white woman testified, if it was a song, if it was about anything, it wasn’t laundry. W.C. Handy was waiting for a train late one night; two men with guitars sat down beside him & began to play; later he wondered if it hadn’t been a dream. […]

Compared with Skip James or Tommy Johnson, Robert Johnson does not sound particularly individualistic. He sounds very traditional – & also as if the tradition, this particular racial/economic/social/religious happenstance, is meaningless, as if it had never existed…. Robert Johnson takes the tradition as a given, in the same way that we take it as a given that the people we meet will speak, eat, & sleep; he then goes beyond the tradition to such an extent concepts  of speaking, eating, & sleeping lose their meanings, or acquire entirely new ones.

Robert Johnson, his music says, worked & lived with a deeper autonomy than other blues singers, most of whom came forth to affirm autonomy. He made his music against the limits of that autonomy, limits he discovered & made real, & he did so with more ferocity, & more tenderness, than other blues singers, all of whom encountered similar limits. The difference is this: other blues artists dealt with that problem within the bounds of the form of Mississippi Delta blues, speaking that common language. If the tradition allowed them to refuse the limits on their lives, they accepted the limited power of the tradition to affect those limits, to make sense of them.

Robert Johnson did not do this. As an individual, sparked by the blues tradition to wanted more out of life than he might have otherwise demanded, he refused to accept the limits of the blues tradition itself – a tradition that, as an aesthetic form, at once inspired & limited his ability to make demands on life, to protest against it. Just as around 1900 blues made a rent in black American life, in 1936 Robert Johnson made a rent in the blues.

Blues was his language, his only means of making a mark on the world, of leaving it even slightly different than he found it. He mastered the tradition – he formally extended the vocabulary of blues guitar, formally raised the level of song composition, deepened its formal possibilities for vocal strength & delicacy. … You hear a man going further than he could ever have been expected to go – even if you know nothing of the particular limits of Mississippi blues, you can hear those limits being smashed, or hear the artist fall back violently before them…. So you begin to ask: what would it mean to want that much? what would it mean to lose that much?”

January 15, 2015 § Leave a comment

Notebook (sorcerer)

January 5, 2015 § Leave a comment

Braque, Still Life with a Guitar, charcoal, collage & oil on canvas, 61x116.2cm, 1919

Braque, Still Life with a Guitar, charcoal, collage & oil on canvas, 61×116.2cm, 1919

“What [Hegel] did not see, as I understand it, was that the full depth and implication of that inability – the inability to go on giving World and Idea sensuous immediacy of a kind that opened both to the play of practice – would itself prove a persistent, maybe sufficient, subject…. Modernism, as I conceive it, is the art of the situation Hegel pointed to, but its job turns out to be to make the endlessness of the ending bearable, by time and again imagining that it has taken place – back there with Beethoven scratching out Napoleon’s name on the Eroica symphony, or with Rimbaud getting on the boat at Marseilles. Every modernism has to have its own proximate Black Square.

Therefore our failure to see Jackson Pollock and Clyfford Still as ending something, or our lack of a story of what it is they were ending, is considerably more than a crisis in art criticism or art history. It means that for us art is no longer a thing of the past; that is, we have no usable image of its ending, at a time and place we could imagine ourselves inhabiting, even if we would rather not. Therefore art will eternally hold us with its glittering eye. Not only will it forego its role in the disenchantment of the world, but it will accept the role that has constantly been foisted upon it by its false friends [*cough* Romantic Moderns *cough*]: it will become one of the forms, maybe the form, in which the world is reenchanted. With a magic no more and no less powerful (here is my real fear) than that of the general conjuror of depth and desirability back into our world-that is, the commodity form. For the one thing the myth of the end of art made possible was the maintaining of some kind of distance between art’s sensuous immediacy and that of other (stronger) claimants to the same power.”

Notebook (school days)

January 3, 2015 § 4 Comments

Dave Smith C

Woolf’s now-notorious remarks on Ulysses – the Yale Modernism Lab has a good reconstruction of her reading – are not simply or merely racist or (straightforwardly, in the limited reading usually given to the category) classist. To rehearse, the diary notes from August 16th 1922: “An illiterate, underbred book it seems to me: the book of a self taught working man, & we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, & ultimately nauseating. When one can have the cooked flesh, why have the raw?” What’s buried in Woolf’s dismissal here is not only criticism of an undermodernised education system still labouring under popery – at least as it would compare in VW’s mind w/ that of late Victorian England, wh/ though she didn’t experience firsthand, her father (a near-contemporary of Arnold) & brothers were naturally involved in – nor exactly of the levels of intellectual training that went into the work (Joyce was not, in the strict sense, an autodidact: he attended Catholic private schools & got his degree in modern languages from UCD). Rather Woolf is viewing the book in the light of its relation to a specific formation of learning – the training provided for generations first to the sons of the English aristocracy & then to the bourgeoisie, imbricated in a whole set of social institutions: the public schools, Oxbridge, the church, the military etc. What Woolf wishes for brackets together style & a class’s self-conception: an ideal of smoothness, refinement (also in the sense of discrimination, active shaping & choosing), holistic integration, right intuition or intuitive rightness, in wh/ culture is, in Raymond Williams’ words, “a whole way of life” – everything signified by the word “breeding”, wh/ Joyce, the son of an alcoholic rates collector, apparently lacks. (Woolf knew herself to be one of the gawking bougies signified by the word “snob” – her paper read to the Bloomsbury Memoir Club, ‘Am I A Snob?’, silently trumpets a ‘yes’ to the question throughout.) For Woolf the book has not yet crossed the threshold from nature to culture (symbolised, a la Levi-Strauss, by the cooking of food). Anthropology – &, of course, ideology-critique – answers naturally enough here that what Woolf sees as education itself is only one historically specific formation of learning; “the self-taught working man” is also an agent in his own culture (though one wh/ enough of Woolf’s contemporaries saw as merely inferior copy of culture-as-such – who was it who complained about “paperbacks of Plato”? Pound, Eliot, Leavis?) But those adjectives Woolf appends (carefully? quickly?) to said “working man” still exert a certain kind of explanatory power. When the figure of the autodidact appears again in a sympathetic light, it’s w/ the exact same traits: think of John Reed’s self-portrait in Ten Days That Shook the World, or Philip Marlowe’s uneven interests (poetry & chess but not Proust), or the early publicity image of Dylan Thomas as untutored genius or noble savage (“the Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive”). For these accounts, the “insistent”, “raw”, “striking” quality is a welcome contrast to bourgeois complacency. But such fetishisation is also a form of condescension: the autodidact allows the seasoned intellectual a taste of the exotic, whilst leaving his system of knowledge as secure as ever.

Certainly that’s how it felt for me. At university being the smartest person in the room (tutors aside, obviously) seemed pointless & unpleasant: as the only person who tended to speak, I was the only person savaged by the academics, even though I didn’t half the time think that what was spilling out of my mouth stood up to scrutiny, or that I believed it. Everyone else in seminars seemed not to care one way or the other: flapping my mouth didn’t lower or raise me in their valuations. The nice fantasy of the nerd, that they will one day find themselves in a place where knowledge, & acting like one has knowledge, is valued, is, it turns out, precisely that. Culture was, for me, precisely not “a whole way of life”, except in the sense that I didn’t really think about anything except books & music. (Those friends who, years later, I learnt were as transfixed by culture as me knew how to hide or sublimate it – part of the long story of cool as it moved across the second half of the twentieth century from lumpen to bourgeois culture.) What Woolf wants as well – & what she, despite her lifelong denials, received as part of her training as a member of her class & milieu – was a certain self-confidence: undemonstrative but adamantine, structuring everything from the presentation of ideas to the bearing & dressing. (One is tempted to wonder if Joyce’s sartorial excesses, at least in the Paris years, had something to do w/ this.) One encounters this again & again, to the point of tiresomeness, in accounts of the academy: the arrogant young men (typically) w/ unshakeable but weightless faith in their statements & ideas. (This is, I suppose, what privilege theory designates by its eponymous noun.) By contrast, the autodidact is forced into the intellectual corollary of a Jackie Collins heroine’s plot: the attempt to beat the class system at its own game. The autodidact must become excessive, indulgent of every intellectual malice, profiting on every intellectual vice. This of course is the secret history of vulgarity: the uncanny Other of aristocratic ‘good taste’, the excluded & frightening part of itself. & yet I’ve never quite felt able to claim vulgarity for myself*, only – like Alan Partridge – stumbling into a disavowed unseemliness out of my apparently natural coarseness.

But I’ve wondered more & more the last year whether this wasn’t part or root of a real loss. The development of the autodidact’s sensibilities along other lines than those of bourgeois culture, w/ all its attendant specialisations (divisions of labour) & compensatory gains (iron self-assurance etc) involves the nondevelopment of other skills & capabilities. More & more since university I’ve worried about my inability or lack of wish to a) specialise** & b) study for extended periods or in particular depth on any one topic. Effectively, I’ve worried for a long time, I’m a dilettante w/out the resources to support the classic dilettante (ie a private income). This is of course also an inability to conform to the standards of ‘research’ in the academy – but behind me stands a whole history of ‘alternative research’ recuperated by this same institution (apotheosised in White Noise‘s “American Environments” department, where one guy “only reads the back of cereal packets”). I was thinking about this again in relation to Francis Spufford’s The Child That Books Built & Brian Dillon’s (controversial) essay on Barthes. The instability of the autodidact, his inability to take culture w/ the equanimity it deserves, is at once productive – making gains against the internal barriers of both the conservative fraction of the working class & the internal barriers of higher education – & self-sabotaging, precisely b/c it doesn’t, in & of itself, prepare for him for the apparently unending task of ‘proving himself’ against an academy wh/, despite its capture by the liberal discourses of political correctness, hasn’t changed its complexion. Better, perhaps, Bryan Ferry than James Joyce.

* the most obvious figure here who has made such an incorporation is Jarvis Cocker – or at least the avatar of Pulp’s great period, from ‘Babies’ to This Is Hardcore – for whom in ‘I Spy’ “grass is something you smoke, birds are something you shag”, but spies “for a living / & I specialise in revenge”, a line that recalls Benjamin’s remark that Baudelaire was “a secret agent – an agent of the secret discontent of his class with its own rule”.

** this is a journalistic as much as an academic problem: the inability to develop a shtick, a persistent angle, a specialist area on wh/ my ‘expertise’ can be called, is a deadly debilitation in the culture press, & very likely the reason why my career as an opinion columnist was short-lived***

*** that & publicly insulting wh/ever sub chose the headlines for my pieces

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