Patrizia: And in no other way can one deal with the arcades—structures in which we relive, as in a dream, the life of our parents and grandparents, as the embryo in the womb relives the life of animals. Existence in these spaces flows then without accent, like the events in dreams. Flânerie is the rhythmics of this slumber. [D2a,1]
10. Luis: In the “Translator’s Introduction” to the Trauerspiel book, you also seem to point to a type of inference that Benjamin looks to attain, as a critical methodology (“METHODE IST UMWEG!”), one that he distinguishes from “the seamless deductive connectivity of science.” Is this ambiguity of inference the ‘weak messianic power’ Benjamin looks to bestow upon ‘his’ ideal historiographer , one I would interpret as a type of nature-maker?
Howard: Yes, as you indicated in our previous conversation, ‘Bestand’ is a key term in later Heidegger, used, in connection with the concept of ‘Gestell’ or ‘Ge-Stell’, in reference to the standing reserve or collective resources of the totally mobilized technologized world. Now, Gershom Scholem, you remember, who was no simple-minded rationalist, and who at least early on propounded—with Walter Benjamin—a theological anarchism, accused Benjamin, in letters later on, of ambiguity-mongering. But surely a recognition of fundamental ambiguity and ineluctable aporia, if not exactly of total chaos, is crucial to any real sense of the historical significance of modern life. Method requires indirection, to paraphrase the ‘Trauerspiel’ Hamlet, and at times, it would seem, requires even “equivocation.” A science of breaks, or cuts (Derrida), or lightning flashes [N1], rather than seamless connectivity. Method as montage. What Benjamin characterizes as the “weak messianic power” is, as you know, a function of historical ‘time’; it bespeaks the mysterious but legible ‘claim’ which the past has on each present generation, along with the receptivity to the deep, slumbering and bubbling past with which the present as such is ‘endowed’ (and that, I should think, is where the ‘nature-making’ comes in). There is a persistent, constantly renewed and varied dialectic here, as in Heidegger (leaving aside their politics or ‘metapolitics’ for the moment, one can see both men, I was suggesting, for all their differences, as revolutionary heirs of the Neokantian tradition)—a dialectic of nature and culture, givenness and agency, physis and technē.
11. Luis: I earlier asked about what could be perceived as positivist instrumentalisations of dialectics… and I would like to return to that once more… again, I wonder about the other side of the emancipatory ‘mastering’ of nature… did Benjamin consider the potential instrumentalisation of such a notion, as an argument perhaps for reinforcing the colonial project (or rather, was he concerned with colonialism)?
Howard: You refer to Benjamin’s invocation of the ‘dialectical essence’ of technology in [K3a,2], where the ‘revelation’ of what is natural—let us say, self-engendering or emergent of itself—in modern machine construction and the new physics, etc., is countered by the ‘liberation from nature’. The mastering presupposes immersion in what is revealed, i.e., experience and education, not any sort of instrumentalizing will to power. The argument, to call it that, is reminiscent of Fourier, with his emphasis on play. And clearly related to the dialectic of receptivity and productivity mentioned in my response above (Question 6).
I believe we touched on the ‘Tiefe des Urwalds’ in [N1,4]—the primeval forest where, until now, only madness has reigned, and the consequent task of clearing the undergrowth of myth and delusion—in our conversation at the Harvard Coop. I’m not aware of much else in Benjamin that might be stretched to suggest a concern with colonialism specifically. His critique of objectification, instrumentalization, and commodification (which in many ways goes back to his student years and to works like Metaphysics of Youth and On Language as Such and on the Language of Man). He liked Joseph Conrad and spoke, like him, of ‘the interior jungle’ in One-Way Street in a passage followed immediately by the little section entitled “Gloves,” which concerns the mastering of disgust.
It is in the famous passage at the end of One-Way Street that he speaks of education in terms of the “mastery (if we are to use this term)” not of children but of the relationship between the generations, as technology is the “mastery not of nature but of the relation between nature and humanity”. The critique of imperialism is explicit here. As is the deconstruction of mastering.
12. Luis: Ok, but then what aspect of the Arcades do you feel gave WB the strongest sense of confidence about it manifesting as a ‘natural form’? Similarly, what gave WB the sense that the Arcades would register as a demonstration of ‘progress’, as he would expect from a work of art?
Howard: As you’ve suggested, the discourse of ‘nature’ and ‘life’ tends almost everywhere in Benjamin to be problematic, in both an epistemological and a moral perspective. In Critique of Violence, under the apparent influence of Hermann Cohen in particular, there is adumbrated a conflict of nature and spirit, and there is an explicit, now famous or infamous, denial of anything sacred to ‘bare life.’ But how to square this with the affirmation, from his 1919 dissertation and Task of the Translator forward, of the ‘afterlife’ of works of the spirit?
I suppose the emphasis on chance and contingency, the author’s coming upon recondite things in the library by chance [N2,4], the way a flâneur comes upon mnemonically alive things by accident in his walks through the city, or the way a movie camera discovers unexpected stations in everyday urban spaces, is part of what would point to that which in The Arcades Project ‘is nature.’
Benjamin maintains in many places that there is no detectable progress in the general history of humankind but only in specific areas, such as, most obviously, the field of medicine. So, if this grand, unfinished notebook that we call today a book, and even a classic or magnum opus, The Arcades Project, is a demonstration of any sort of progress, I guess it would have to be progress specifically in extending the principle of montage: montage as a literary form and montage thinking.