Saturday, 7 November 2009
Sunday, 28 September 2008
Saturday, 27 September 2008
Given that political action is the outward manifestation of the affirmation of eternal recurrence, then it will always take the form of a Dionysian activity. It is in this sense that Benjamin asserts that “political action, however destructive, reveals itself as messianic” (SW 4:402). As a method of engagement in both the present and the past, political action must destroy in order to create. The affirmation of the opening up of history is manifest as an actual re-creation of history. For Benjamin, the historian’s task, as Pierre Missac puts it, is “to apply the Nietzschean formula ‘Become what you are’ to the present of history” and in doing so helps to shape that present. In this sense, it is imperative not to fall back into the old ways of historicizing. The history of culture is indeed the history of barbarism, and the historian “dissociates himself from this process of transmission as far as possible and regards it as his task to brush history against the grain” (SW 4:392). However, this does not mean simply writing counter-histories, for these histories reverse the Dionysian process. It is a reactionary, weak nihilism that says “yes” to progressive history but “no” to the predominant progressive history. Thus, brushing history against the grain means much more than simply “to view it from the standpoint of the defeated, the excluded, the pariahs”, as Michel Löwy argues in his book, for this still recognizes the validity of the historical narrative. Rather, to truly brush against the grain is to liquidate the categories by which cultural artifacts derive their power.
In this regard, the politics of class struggle have to be reconsidered. As Benjamin states in “Fire Alarm” from One-Way Street, “it does not refer … to a struggle whose outcome is good for the victor and bad for the vanquished” (SW 1:469). Class struggle must reject the categories of conflict by which the old system qualified its victories. As such, it must be thought outside of terms of classes struggling against each other, of oppressor and oppressed, for it is precisely this conception that ties the concept of class liberation to progress, and in truth undermines the very struggle. As such, class struggle has to be seen as something bigger, as Raoul Vaneigem argues:
“The history of humanity is the history of one basic separation which precipitates and determines all others: the social distinction between masters and slaves. By means of history men try to find one another and attain unity. The class struggle is but on stage, though a decisive one, in the struggle for the whole man.”
Likewise, throughout his work, Benjamin refers to the revolutionary struggle involving all of humanity; the passengers on the train are “the human race” (SW 4:402). The class struggle can only be completed via the liquidation of the class distinction (the classless society) and the place in which this occurs is history.
The affirmation of the moment presents “a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past” (SW 4:396). As discussed above, this does not mean it is a fight for the past of the oppressed. The emancipation of people is intimately tied to the emancipation of the past from the clutches of historical progress; liberation of the past translates to freedom in the present. The way in which this oppressed past is redeemed is via affirmation of eternal recurrence. In the moment of affirmation, the moment is frozen as a monad, allowing us to see all of time as intended in that moment. The operation of eternal recurrence is such that every moment is intended in all other moments, as they are co-dependent across the sequence. In that way, every moment is as important as all others. The emancipation of the past is achieved by the rejection of all forms of valuing that privilege certain aspects of the past. The most nihilistic thought flattens all of existence, and as such it destroys any grounds against which this privileging would be intelligible. Thus the affirmation of eternal recurrence manifests itself in the historical realm as the leveling of all histories: on a cosmic, non-human scale – which is how Benjamin describes history – the history of people losing coins under furniture becomes as important as the French Revolution. The monadical structure of the image allows us to see all of history a single moment, and the grasping of it as such is an act of affirmation. Affirming eternal recurrence allows all of history to become visible through a single moment, and in that way, it facilitates redemption, as “only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments” (SW 4:390).
Friday, 26 September 2008
Tuesday, 23 September 2008
At the same time, Benjamin states that each image “flashes up at the moment of its recognizability” and “threatens to disappear in any present that does not recognize itself as intended in that image” (SW 4:390-1). It is up to us to recognize this image. There can be no inevitability, as this would cause the whole system to fall back into the same trap of progressive teleology against which it has struggled for emancipation. Benjamin states that the image appears “in a moment of danger” (SW 4:391); this moment of danger has to become the moment of decision. For Benjamin, this moment of danger was the looming approach of the fascist war machine, which he saw inscribed in the very foundations of fascism. One could pick out an almost infinite number of instances which could serve as practical examples for a moment of socio-historical crises. In fact, as Benjamin says, this “‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception, but the rule” (SW 4:392). All of history becomes a moment of danger, but this moment of danger is also a chance to grasp the image of the past.
The emancipation of the past is bound to our decision in the present. Benjamin charges the new historian to “bring about a real state of emergency”, and thereby bring about this decision (SW 4:392). In other words, as Cadava writes: “if one wishes for [true progress], one cannot trust to a process of gradual, infinite improvement, but must struggle for a radical break." The affirmation of the moment as moment destroys the continuum of history. The image appears, but it its appearance alone is not enough. The idea that just seeing the image will force the break is an additive process; construction also implies action. That Benjamin makes “literary montage” the method of his project, saying, “I needn’t say anything. Merely show,” (AP [N1a,8]) does not preclude action; rather, it opens up a new possibility for action via a new means of presentation. The image is presented to us, but the grasping of the image in order to see ourselves intended, is still a decision up to us. Thus, Benjamin makes the choice simple: we can deny becoming and continue “to tell the sequence of events like the beads of a rosary” (SW 4:397), the consequences of which invariably lead to fascism; or we can affirm becoming, and in doing so deny the false becomings, which leads to a complete destruction of the historical continuity upon which the power of fascism relies. Weak nihilism passively goes along with the grand march of history, affirming anything that comes along with no ability to deny. Active nihilism transforms the will to deny into a mode of affirmation, liberating history from any notion of narratability, “leading the past to bring the present into a critical state” (AP [N7a,5]). Engagement with the past is now inexorably tied to a critical engagement with the present. Thus, the act of affirmation manifests itself within the realm of politics.
Benjamin cites the following passage on eternal recurrence from Nietzsche in The Arcades Project: “the great thought as a Medusa head: all features of the world become motionless, a frozen death throe” (AP [D8,6]). Eternal recurrence becomes a photographic apparatus, freezing the world at all points. Via affirmation, we are able to construct these images of history. As Eduardo Cadava writes, “for Benjamin, there can be no history without the Medusa effect – without the capacity to arrest or to immobilize historical movement, to isolate the detail of an event from the continuum of history.” This arrest freezes the moment as a moment, and gives the historian space to wrest it from its placement in progressive of history. Benjamin speaks of the goal of historian as “[blasting] open the continuum of history” (SW 4:396). There is no continuum of history; the destruction of the continuum is much like the disintegration of the aura. It is not so much that it is destroyed, as it is shown never to really have existed at all. That is to say, history existed, but it existed as an artificial construction of man. It seems contradictory to say that affirmation is linked to the destruction of this construction. If history appears to us as a continuum, would transvaluation not dictate that this appearance be the way things really are? The thrust of Benjamin’s argument here is to show that the continuity of history is merely the “persistence of [the] semblance of persistence” (AP [N19,1]). As we have seen with the aura, things are not always appear, and the object of affirmation is to strip these things down to see what they really are.
“‘Construction’ presupposes ‘destruction’”, Benjamin writes; the Dionysian affirmation is two-fold, taking joy in both (WP §1049). Transvaluation consists of the destruction of old values in the construction of new ones. As such, the Dionysian affirmation must also contain a negation. In order to affirm the “world as it is”, it is absolutely necessary to deny the world as it is not. This is the nature of the destructive forces of construction. Fascism, history, and the aura are false becomings, presentations of the world as it is not. Dionysian affirmation is a critical tool, calling all of existence into crisis. On the other hand, simple affirmation, as the affirmation of what is, then things never leave the status quo, and we are bound to an eternity of catastrophe. This is the affirmation of Zarathustra’s ass, who “does not speak, except always to say Yea to the world he created” (Z, 322). Blind affirmation leads the affirmer to follow just about anything, just like Zarathustra’s guests. Fascism purports itself as a historical norm, but there is no criticality to its affirmation; it represents a mere revaluation. In order to break free of historicism, it becomes necessary to destroy the need for historical continuity; we must destroy in such a way that “continuity” is no longer meaningful. Transvaluation demands a negation, but as Nietzsche tells us, “it does not halt at a negation, a no, a will to negation” (WP §1041). It is not enough to understand it simply in terms of the idea that “extreme positions are not succeeded by moderate ones, but by extreme positions of the opposite kind” (WP §55). That it is one way of looking at it, but it does not go far enough. Revaluation is a product of reactive forces, clinging to the old elements of valuation. Transvaluation, the transmutation of values, means a qualitative shift in the value giving element. It is a transformation of the destructive into the creative, the act of destruction into an affirmation. As Deleuze explains, “the will to nothingness is converted and crosses over to the side of affirmation, it is related to a power of affirming.” Affirmation now has a double-action: the affirmation of what is also entails a simultaneous refusal and destruction of what is not. This is why in place of the continuum, Benjamin offers up the idea of the constellation. The Medusa-action of eternal recurrence freezes existence, and allows us to pluck the elements out to form the constellation. As Benjamin writes in the notes to the Theses, “articulating the past historically means recognizing those elements of the past which come together in the constellation of a single moment” (SW 4:403). The constellation is formed via a process similar to the transformation of will described above. The arrest of time via eternal recurrence freezes of the moment within the image – “dialectics at a standstill” – allowing all the dialectical tensions are seen for what they are: the positive and negative elements. What Benjamin proposes is a shift in perspective, in which all the negative elements are seen in a positive light, in such a way that “a positive element emerges anew” (AP [N1a,3]). Considered in terms of affirmation, the negative is affirmed in its status as the negative side of the dialectic. By placing things into the constellation, their relative position and status is affirmed as well; it is not a haphazard construction. Those things that are outside becoming, these false constructions, are rejected, and are thus affirmed in their exclusion from the constellation. As such, these false becomings are transformed, “ad infinitum, until the entire past is brought into the present in a historical apocatastasis” (AP [N1a,3]).
Friday, 19 September 2008
Another aspect of historicism which crumbles under the thought of eternal recurrence is progress. Progress is little more than the ossification of history into a fixed narrative, closing the borders of the past at all points. For Benjamin, there is no such thing as progress. Becoming wants nothing and aims at nothing, and as such it tends only towards itself. The most nihilistic thought attacks the notion of progress, as Eduardo Cadava writes, “within a cosmic process of repetition, the notion of progress belongs to the domain of phantasmagoria.” Given the knowledge of recurrence, belief in any notion of progress seems incredibly foolish; eternal recurrence brings the untenability of traditional history to the fore, exposing it for what it is. Progress implies movement towards something, towards a definite endpoint; it implies improvement. For Benjamin, this manifests itself, via the vulgar-Marxist conception, as the transformation of history into a natural science. History tries to follow the same rules as science, looking for laws and truths with which to claim some authority on the past. This is precisely what Nietzsche is referring to when he critiques the pursuit of historical knowledge. Historical truths and norms are impossible because “[the world] is ‘in flux,’ as something in a state of becoming, as a falsehood always changing but never getting near the truth: for – there is no ‘truth’” (WP §616). Becoming evades all laws and truths, and as such, progress can never approach anything other than becoming itself.
The notion of progress is extremely dangerous for Benjamin, as it is in its name that the opponents of fascism accept its emergence as a “historical norm” (SW 4:392). There is no such thing as historical norms; they are solely the invention of man, forcing some kind of order onto the past. In thesis IX, Benjamin refers to progress as storm which prevents history from righting itself. The angel of history is caught in the wings of progress, helpless to repair the catastrophe of human history as he is ceaselessly blown away. Progress is inherently tied to the status quo; in fact, it creates the status quo. “That things are ‘status quo’,” writes Benjamin, “is the catastrophe” (AP [N9a,1]). Progress refuses to let things be, trying to organize history in to norms, laws and narratives. As such, it subverts human activity: “nothing so corrupted the German working class as the nothing that it was moving with the current” (SW 4:393). The problem lies in that there is no “current” in becoming, it just flows. It moves and unfolds, but it has no ends other than itself. This belief in progress amounts to little more than petty fatalism, pushing towards the inevitable end of the linear course of history, whether it be the victory of fascism or the utopia of the proletariat (SW 4:394). It is precisely this conception of progress that causes the worker to sacrifice his revolutionary potential, as it presents fealty to progress as inherently revolutionary. This conception is impossible, there is no such thing as the end of the course of history (for becoming has no aim). The closest thing to the end of history is the perspective afforded us via the thought of eternal recurrence, which is that existence never ends, it just recurs. The idea of progress crumbles, and “the idea that history is something that can be narrated” dies with it (SW 4:406).
There is a unifying core principle that underlies the various manifestations of progress: “the concept of [mankind’s] progression through a homogenous, empty time.” Benjamin argues that “a critique of the concept of such a progression must underlie any critique of the concept of progress itself” (SW 4:395). Progress relies on the openness of the future, the endless extension of existence; it needs space to operate. Even those conceptions of progress which approach something – revolution, utopia, et cetera – are reliant upon a concept of time as an empty space across which it can march on its way towards destiny. However, in the realm of eternal recurrence, time is always already spoken for. Nietzsche writes that time is eternal, and the changes within time – that is to say history and becoming – are merely how we experience it. Repetition simply reveals to us the fact “that it has always happened thus” (WP §545). This is not to say that Benjamin rejects progress in favor of a fatalistic conception of history, for fatalism means nothing if we do not know what was fated beforehand. The only end – fated or otherwise – towards which existence tends is recurrence. The affirmation of eternal recurrence negates fatalism, turning it into an act of creation. At the same time, Benjamin tells us that instead of empty time, we should see the history as a construction within “time filled full by now-time” (SW 4:395). Now-time is a tool with which the continuity of the discourse of historical progress can be broken, in that it is used to link the present to moments in the past. Now-time as recurrent time means that progress can no longer attain to its narrative of causality, for within eternal recurrence, the motor of existence is “no longer cause and effect” (WP §1059). The eternal repetition of the interaction of forces removes cause and effect, as each element of the cycle conditions all other. Eternal recurrence provides us with a sequence of events, but it does not mean that they necessarily cause each other. Nietzsche explains that “the feeling that post hoc is propter hoc can easily be shown to be a misunderstanding”; rather, the cycle “is comprehensive” (WP §545).
This is not to say that Benjamin – or Nietzsche for that matter – is annihilating history. The Dionysian process means that the old forms of historicism are destroyed in order to make way for a new creation of history. The additive process of historical progress, the accumulation of “a mass of data to fill the homogenous, empty time” (SW 4:396), can never approach becoming, for becoming itself is a process of this destructive regeneration. As such, the new form of historiography must take this maxim into account: “the relationship of what has been to the now is dialectical: is not a progression but image, suddenly emergent” (AP [N2a,3]). The activity of history is now solely concerned with the undertaking of the construction of images.