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


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