Sunday, 28 September 2008

Affirming Redemption

Mankind is redeemed via affirmation. Redemption becomes nihilistic, in as much as it is tied to a power of affirming that negates the notion of progress and creates the possibility for redemption. Traditional messianism offers “redemption from life”, it forcing us to look to something beyond this world; “Dionysus cut to pieces is a promise of life: it will be eternally reborn and return again from destruction” (WP §1052). The Dionysian messiah turns the act of redemption back towards living. It destroys the qualities that curse this world and creates the higher values anew, via the affirmation. “Redemption is the limes of progress”, Benjamin writes (SW 4:404). It cannot come at the end of a fixed progression, but rather exists as its interruption. In political terms, this is why “classless society is not the final goal of historical progress but its frequently miscarried, ultimately achieved interruption” (SW 4:402). As such, any moment becomes the moment of possibility for the affirmation. In the end of the Theses, Benjamin states: “For every second was the small gateway in time through which the Messiah might enter” (SW 4:397). This gateway is usually attributed as the “narrow gate” from Matthew 7:13-14, which serves as the pathway to eternal life. However, there is another gate that leads to eternity. In “Of the Vision and the Riddle”, Zarathustra stands at the gate marked “moment”. All time stretches along the path ahead of and behind him. It is at this gate that eternal recurrence is presented: “Everything straight lies. … All truth is crooked, the way itself is a circle” (Z, 178). Every moment becomes a moment in which we can affirm this moment as having the same status as all other moments; every moment assumes the status of the last judgment, destroying and recreating the world. The affirmation of eternal recurrence opens up the possibilities of every moment, destroying the illusion of progress and precipitating action.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

annihilating politics

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

nihilism in action

As we have seen, the core of Benjamin’s task can be summed up within the decisional character of eternal recurrence, coming down to a choice. On the one hand, we are given passivity: denial; weak, reactive nihilism; the blind affirmation that does not know how to say “no”. On the other, we have activity: affirmation; consummate, active nihilism; affirmation that says no to all blind affirmations in order to say “yes”. The thought of eternal recurrence is such that it cannot be merely thought, it must be acted upon. Zarathustra tells the tale of the shepherd, in whose throat a black serpent has bitten down. Zarathustra struggles futilely to extract the serpent; he tells the shepherd: “its head off! Bite!” (Z, 180). This illustrates two crucial aspects of affirmation. Firstly, it is up to us to take the bite. Technology can create any number of new ways of presentation, which the historian can use to present new images, but it is left to the viewer to grasp it. Secondly, the thought of recurrence, while a thought, must manifest itself as action. Nietzsche discusses the development of nihilism as a psychological state, but it fulfills itself when it leads to action: the passive nihilism of contemplation is transformed via the act of affirmation, which completes nihilism. As such, the thought of eternal return, of nihilism, of affirmation, is not merely a thought; it “is only as that bite.” The same applies to Benjamin’s work: the thought of affirmation is not merely a thought; it manifests itself as action, which as Benjamin tells us, will always be political action.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

critical moment of danger

This is not to say that Benjamin has no concept of progress at all. Rather, progress properly thought must be removed from all notions of teleology and ends. Progress is imagistic: “[it] has its seat not in the continuity of elapsing time but in its interferences – where the truly new makes itself felt for the first time, with the sobriety of dawn” (AP [N9a,7]). That is to say that progress is emergent, not additive. It comes from the affirmation of the moment as such, emancipating the past from the clutches of traditional progressive historicism. This emancipation, however, is not necessarily inevitable. The viewing of the constellation creates a shock, “by which thinking is crystallized as a monad” (SW 4:396). The monad allows the entire system to be viewed through a single point: seeing the image of this moment allows us to see all moments in their imagistic fullness.

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.

affirmation and the dialectical image

Benjamin states that in opposition to the additive method of historicism, his “materialist historiography … is based on a constructive principle” (SW 4:396). Instead of tracking the course of progress through an empty time, Benjamin proposes a new method based on gathering up the traces of the past and allowing them to display themselves in their fullness. It is not the case that “what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present casts its light on what is past”; “rather,” Benjamin tells us, “image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation.” Put simply, “image is dialectics at a standstill” (AP [N3,1]). The image is a construction within the moment. As each moment is spoken for in that the thought eternal recurrence makes each moment full of all other moments, images constructed within it can show things that happened in the past. This forms a constellation, in which the linkages to these past events become visible. In an astronomical sense, the formation of a new constellation does not necessarily mean the creation of new stars; the stars are always there, the constellations are merely ways of grouping and viewing the stars. Furthermore, considered in terms of a constantly expanding universe, these constellations themselves are always in flux, as the stars are not in a fixed point within space. A constellation is in entirely dependent on perspective. This is why the image is “dialectics at a standstill”: in a universe of becoming, in a dialectic which is constantly in motion, the image only attains visibility as a construction within the moment of the moment. Benjamin speaks of the dialectical image flashing up in the moment, “in the now of its recognizability”, but “in the next moment [it] is already irretrievably lost” (AP [N9,7]). By the time this moment has passed, the cosmos has shifted and the constellation has taken on a different form. The disintegration of the aura means the opening of the borders of the artwork, leaving it open to different interpretations at each point. However, this also means that each interpretation only attains to intelligibility within its moment of origination. Benjamin informs us that his methodology necessitates “the notion of a present which is not in transition, but in which time takes a stand and has come to a standstill” (SW 4:396). This does not contradict the notion of a universe of becoming, but rather, this means that the moment exists as an instance of this becoming. The present freezes in its instantiation and then turns into the past. Thus, the dialectical image becomes the image of the moment, capturing it as a moment of arrest. In as much as it is the still image of a passing moment, the dialectical image can be understood, as Eduardo Cadava argues in his book, in terms of a photographic image and its relation to history. The photographic instant takes up the moment of its instantiation; by the time the photograph has been taken, the moment has already passed. Benjamin’s “Little History of Photography” was written in regards to early photographic techniques that required great amounts of time, but the same concept holds true even for the most instantaneous methods of photographic imaging. Even the digital camera, while producing the freshest, most recent image, is still only capable of capturing an image of something that has passed. Thus, the construction of the dialectical image becomes an instantaneous process in which the present is “arrested” in its transition to the past. This arrest is made possible via a process of affirmation of eternal recurrence.

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

the untenability of history

The first step in the transvaluation of history entails the destruction of the old forms of history, which is accomplished via the “most nihilistic thought”, eternal recurrence. Benjamin tells us that “in the idea of eternal recurrence, the historicism of the nineteenth century capsizes” (AP [D8a,2]). This form of historicism is based on much of the same values as the old forms of aesthetics, that is to say, of the historical object having a unique existence in space and time. In the last chapter, it was shown how, given the thought of eternal recurrence as a form of mass production, even unique art objects become mere recurrent reproductions. Eternal recurrence means that in order for a thing to be, it has to recur. As such, everything that is now has already been. This understanding now forces itself on the past, in that it transforms “even the historical event into a mass-produced item” (AP [J62a,2]). As a mass produced item, the historical event can hold no claims to a unique existence; from the point of view of recurrence, the Paris commune is no longer “the” Paris commune, but rather “a” Paris commune. The result of this thought, Benjamin tells us, is that “every tradition, even the most recent, becomes the legacy of something that has already run its course in the immemorial night of the ages” (AP [D8a,2]).

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.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

political view of the past

One of the most famous usages of Nietzsche in Benjamin’s oeuvre appears in the History essay:
“We need history, but our need for it differs from that of the jaded idlers in the garden of knowledge” (SW 4:395). This comes from Nietzsche’s essay “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life.” The passage there continues on, saying, “we need it, that is to say, for the sake of life and action. … We want to serve history to the extent that history serves life” (H, 59). Here, Nietzsche prefigures what effects transvaluation might have on history. As we discussed earlier, the problem comes when we choose to evaluate something transitory – as art and history are merely material manifestations of becoming – in terms of something constant. The central problem with history as an academic discipline, as Nietzsche sees it, is that in the name of knowledge, it turns away from living. This is very similar to the problem he has with most academic pursuits: they tend to valuate the valueless – that is to say, the things beyond the realm of value. Becoming has no value; it lacks anything against which to measure it. Man’s fatal error is that he does not see this: “the aberration of philosophy is that, instead of seeing in logic and the categories of reason means toward the adjustment of the world towards utilitarian ends … one believed one possessed in them the criterion of truth and reality” (WP §584). The creation of a true or real world is an act of treason against this one. For both Nietzsche and Benjamin, traditional history is the practice of constructing a “real” or “true” world in the past. But we do not want the real world. If we have abolished the real world – and hence the apparent one – in the present, then it no longer holds true in the past either. Thus, as Benjamin says, the task of the historian does not entail “recognizing [the past] ‘the way it really was’” (SW 4:391). The way things “really were” no longer has any meaning, as the distinction is unintelligible. The issue at stake in history is the same as in aesthetics. Traditional history is the application of stagnant categories of value onto the past: “historicism offers the ‘eternal’ image of the past.” However, what Benjamin, after Nietzsche, is offering is “unique experience with the past” (SW 4:396). History becomes political in that its valuation is no longer tied to any categories other than the categories of becoming. Thus, rather than an evaluation of history, historical materialism translates into an experience of becoming, “[blasting] as specific life out of the era” (SW 4:396).

It is absolutely essential to this conception of history to appropriately understand becoming. Nietzsche equates becoming to living because that is the way humans experience becoming; it is so phrased in opposition to stagnation and “being”. This is not to say, however, that becoming has any vested interest in human life. “Life is a unique case,” Nietzsche says in The Will to Power. “One must justify all existence and not only life – the justifying principle is one that explains life, too” (WP §706). As we discussed earlier, eternal recurrence is dependent on the fact that becoming aims at nothing. It has no master plans, no end. It is nothing more than the unfolding of a series of interactions. Benjamin offers a citation to similar ends in Thesis XVIII of “On the Concept of History”:

'In relation to the history of all life on earth,' writes a modern biologist, 'the paltry fifty-millennia history of homo sapiens equates to something like two seconds at the close of a twenty-four hour day. On this scale, the history of civilized mankind would take up one-fifth of the last second of the last hour.' (SW 4:396)

The idea here is a sort of a non-anthropomorphic, non-anthropocentric concept of the universe, in as much as the past has always existed but humans have not. In other words, the past is everything that has previously happened; history is just human understanding of the past. History, as it is a concept, is entirely a construct of human thought. The problem, as Nietzsche and Benjamin diagnose, arises in as much as people forget the constructed nature of history. Forgetting in and of itself does not constitute a problem, as it can play an essential part in affirmation. However, disregarding the nature of history leads to its ossification as the cult of history. Much like what happens in non-political aesthetics, we create a theory of valuation in opposition to life. Forgetting its origin, it claims to be the only valuation, denying all change and fluctuations. History, like the artwork, is a product of becoming, and as such, its borders must be open.

Transvaluation affects a re-orienting of history, “by dint of a secret heliotropism” (SW 4:390); the center of the historical universe is no longer knowledge but rather becoming. The old categories of history referred back to purely fictitious values. There is much still at stake here for Benjamin. Fascism’s power is not just in aesthetics, but in history as well, turning the past into a historical narrative and ossifying it into the story of the fatherland’s inevitable victory. Thus, Benjamin again attempts to present theories that are useless to fascism in that they expose fascism’s inherent fictions. He writes: “The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge – unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable” (SW 4:392). Once again, Benjamin presents us with a choice: recognize the transitory nature of history and affirm it for what is, or deny becoming and buy into the grand narratives of fascism.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

becoming-political of aesthetics

The transvaluation of aesthetics places the value giving judgment in the political. The loss of aura is an emancipatory act. Aesthetics inherently becomes political. Aesthetic experience becomes political experience. This is slightly different than say Kant or Schiller, in whom the aesthetic experience lays the ground work for politics. Schiller, for example, feels the free play provided by an experience of the beautiful is what prepares man for politics. Benjamin differs, in that for him, aesthetic experience is the political. The exhibition value of an artwork is a measure of it political affectivity. Technology enhances is this, in that it creates new exhibition spaces, reaching masses and affecting more people in ways previous mediums could not. For Benjamin, the art is valued on it political basis, and as such, and experience of the beautiful is an inherently political experience. Art effects the organization of masses. One example Benjamin gives of this is the formation of habits. Habituation is an example of the way in which the medium of art creates a political grouping by its ability to “mobilize the masses” (SW 4:269). The ability of art to form politicized masses means that “to theorize and make recommendations for artistic practice is also to make theoretical recommendations for political practice.” However, the interrelation of aesthetics and politics is not an unqualified good for Benjamin. Once again, it comes down to a choice between affirmation and denial. In one of the most famous passages of the artwork essay, Benjamin tells us that the interrelation can take two forms: the aestheticization of the political characteristic of fascism; or the politicization of aesthetics as performed by communism.

Aestheticizing the political is what happens when we merely revaluate. It is a reaction against the changes of becoming. What Benjamin means by the “aestheticizing of political life” is that values become stagnated and turn back in on the political. Instead of aesthetics being evaluated in terms of becoming, becoming is now evaluated in terms of the old aesthetic values. It is an essentially reactive maneuver, “[responding] to the changes in perception wrought by new technologies.” In his “Theories of German Fascism”, Benjamin says the fascists relate to technology as “a fetish of doom” in that they cannot see the way in which it is constitutive of experience (SW 2:321). As Nietzsche reminds us, there is no value suitable for the evaluation of becoming, and this “fetish of doom” as it falls under “philosophical pessimism”, it “ranks among comical things” (WP §708).

As comical as it may have been for Nietzsche, fascism carried far more gravity for Benjamin. The problem is not that fascism merely is anti-technology. In fact, the fascists were highly technological. They mechanized warfare and industrialization to a degree never before seen; the Nazi war machine was previously unparalleled in human history. The true danger is that fascism utilizes technology, but it only does so in an unnatural manner. In terms of artistic production, instead of liquidating the aura in the wake of reproduction, fascism resurrects ritualistic values in order to subjugate reproduction. “Ahistorically insisting on its eternal features,” Esther Leslie notes, “fascist art and politics demonstrate the re-entry of cult values” into modern production. This is part of the power of fascism. Ritual values were always based on the unique existence of the artwork. These were called into question by reproduction, which is able to produce seemingly infinite copies. Rather than finding these objects bereft of aura, it applies the same categories of authenticity to these reproductions. Technological reproduction becomes a miraculating machine, endlessly creating magical copies. Thus, a print of a photograph of Hitler becomes a religious icon and a mass-produced swastika becomes a sacred standard. By reintroducing the aura, fascism becomes capable of instilling any object with a sacred power. At the opening of the essay, Benjamin asserts that his ideas are “completely useless for the purpose of fascism” (SW 4:252). This is accomplished, in as much as the liquidation of the aura can be seen as an exposition of false basis from which fascism draws its power. If we can see the other world to be false, then fascism appears to us stripped of its veil, laid bare in its false creations.

If the aestheticization of politics is understood as the stagnation of the political via old aesthetic values, then the politicization of aesthetics can be understood as the emancipation of aesthetics via the political. As we described in the above section on transvaluation, aesthetics is opened up in a continuous process of transvaluation. As opposed to the denial of becoming characteristic of fascism, “communism, for Benjamin, affirms the flux of identity and the permanent revolution of the organization of experience.” Communism represents the possibility of change and a different relationship to technology. In opposition to the fascistic “fetish of doom”, communism sees technology as “a key to happiness” (SW 2:321). (Insert note about communist utopias as the space in which technology is put towards human ends. I remember reading somewhere someone talking about this. But I’ve been pouring over my notes and I can’t seem to find it. So, I’m just leaving it for the time being until I can remember where I read it.)

There is no middle ground for Benjamin in this debate. The difference between the two, between fascist domination and communist utopia, comes down to a simple choice. Esther Leslie phrases it in no uncertain terms: “the crisis must culminate in either the rejuvenation of humanity, marked my humanity’s adoption of a political relation to art, or its complete destruction, signaled by an aestheticization of politics.” The stakes are dire, as Benjamin new all too well. It is not possible to do nothing. Fascism thrives on the passive assent of a reactive nihilism. The only way to counter this is through the creatively destructive affirmation of an active nihilism.

call for re/transvaluation

The old aesthetic values fall into what Nietzsche speaks of as “higher values.” Authenticity and uniqueness are called into crisis (via reproduction) and are shown to be “categories that refer to a purely fictitious world” (WP §12b). But it is not enough to stop here, with the death of aura. A nihilism that merely destroys the old values constitutes a weak, reactive nihilism. It is like a petulant child, denying anything put in front of it. “If the tyranny of former values is broken in this way”, Nietzsche writes, “then a new order of values must follow of its own accord” (WP §461). Creation and destruction are inextricably linked within the Dionysian affirmation. Creation is only possible via destruction. In his description of the Nietzschean operation within Deleuze’s philosophy, Peter Hallward says, “an active or masterful force is one that creates values rather than extinguishes them.” This is slightly misleading, for it implies that the extinguishing of values is outside the creative realm. A more accurate statement would be: “an active force is one that creates values as it extinguishes them.” The only complete nihilism for Nietzsche is one that overcomes itself.

It is not enough to say “that nothing formerly held true is true” (WP §459). Nihilism demands more than just a new set of rules. Art has changed its rules before. Even when the explicitly religious valuations were discarded, the same structures of value led to the secularized “cult of beauty” (SW 4:256). The task Benjamin accomplishes in this work is the exposition of all these various forms of valuation as having the same basis: ritual, which in turn is based on uniqueness and authenticity. In order to achieve true change in the theory of art, the concept of aura must be liquidated, for, as Deleuze states, “it is only by changing the element of values that the values that depend on the old element are destroyed.” It is a weak nihilism that engages in mere revaluation, attacking the symptoms of values but not the underlying disease. Active nihilism, on the other hand, culminates in transvaluation: “not a change of values, not an abstract transposition … but a change and reversal in the element from which the value of values derives.” However, in order for this to truly be the completed form of nihilism, the element of value has to be that which itself constitutes change. For Nietzsche, that element is becoming: “becoming has no value at all, for anything against which to measure it, and in relation to which the ‘value’ would have meaning, is lacking” (WP §708). There is no standard by which to judge becoming, nothing to compare it to. It can form the element of valuation, though, in that things can be judged by their relation to becoming. That is to say, to what degree does it facilitate or deny becoming. In this way, transvaluation achieves an overcoming of nihilism, in that it turns nihilism itself into constant transvaluation.

Benjamin says that once emancipated from the strictures of the rule of aura, art finds a new social function: “Instead of being founded on ritual, it is based on a different practice: politics” (SW 4:257). Politics serves as the new element of valuation for art. Like becoming, politics is beyond value in and of itself. There is no measure to which we can judge politics. There are ways of judging political formations and organizations, but these are not evaluations of politics as such. Whereas before, basing value in terms of ritual, artworks’ use-value was cultic. Cultic value represents the values of inaccessibility, of higher values. But the affirmation of their demise leads to something different, for “to affirm is to unburden: not to load life with the weight of higher values, but to create new values which are those of life, which make life light and active.” The political valuation links politics to becoming, that is to say, to life itself. The use-value facilitated by political valuation of art is what Benjamin terms “exhibition value.” The exhibition value is related to politics in that it is derived from the way it associates becoming and living to the work. This of course, changes the functions of art, and leads to “a qualitative transformation in its nature” (SW 4:257).

One of these transformations, Benjamin tells us, is that “the artistic function may subsequently be seen as incidental” (SW 4:257). The political valuation of art certainly changes the value of artistic function, but we misread Benjamin if we see this as a negation of artistry. That would be to misunderstand the nature of the change in values. A properly nihilistic transvaluation means that no destruction goes unaccompanied by a new creation. In The Disenchantment of Art, Rochlitz writes: “the technically reproducible work of art, as Benjamin had described it, no longer contained any properly artistic value; desacralization has left in its wake only instrumental and therapeutic functions.” It is true that Benjamin does not account for a “properly artistic value”, but those artistic values were based in the old system of valuation. In the wake of transvaluation, artistry, too, must be rethought. “Art as was can no longer be in the face of reproduction,” says Esther Leslie, “and artistry moves from isolated and unique production to a sort of scientific production in front of a number of production experts.” That is to say, that the death of traditional art means the death of traditional artistry. Technological reproduction creates new forms of art, forms that are reproduced by virtue of their very production. Film, for example, presents itself as a form which can be exhibited in ways never before possible for traditional forms. If art is to be judged on its political basis, than artistry becomes a measure to which the political value is effectuated within the exhibition of the work. Granted, as Benjamin states, artistry does become increasingly incidental. This is due to the fact much of this effectuation occurs via the reproductive process. Still, it is up to the artist to produce works that facilitate this process to a certain degree of success. Furthermore, the artist himself takes a completely different role, as the effect of exhibition takes precedence over the effect of the artist. The artwork is no longer dependent on its status as created by an artist for its value. Still, this is not to say that artistry is dead, but that it has merely been transmuted.

But it is not just artistry that is transformed in this new relation. The nature of experience finds itself in crisis. Benjamin tells us that the “The crisis of artistic reproduction that emerges in this way can be seen as an integral part of a crisis of perception itself” (SW 4:338). Or, put another way, “the issue of what constitutes a work of art is symptomatic of the broader question of how to respond to the change in the character of experience provoked by technological progress.” Our ways of perception, our experience of the artwork were based on a certain type of experience. For example, in Kantian aesthetics, the aesthetic judgment “cannot be other than subjective.” That is to say, it has to be based on what “the subject feels himself, [namely] how he is affected” by the artwork. The beautiful was derived as a use-value from the effect. This experience is based around the old experience of the artwork, a reflection on a unique object in a unique space and time. The beautiful takes a different role in the realm of mechanical reproducibility. The nature of the reflection changes, as “technology has subjected the human sensorium to a complex kind of training” (SW 4:328). The feeling of pleasure is based around the political exhibition value of the object of reproduction. The beautiful in the classic sense no longer applies. Rather, beauty must now be conceived as a qualification of the politicality of the work. This change in the relation of experience is embodied by Baudelaire: “He named the price for which the sensation of modernity could be had: the disintegration of the aura in immediate shock experience. He paid dearly for consenting to this disintegration – but it is the law of his poetry” (SW 4:343).

Let us consider this in another way. Benjamin defines the aura of natural objects as “the unique apparition of distance, however near it may be” (SW 4:255). The power of the auratic lies in its unattainability. When applied to art objects, it means that no matter how close one gets to the object, it can never get grasp the source of its power. The apparition of distance means that the true distance to the source of the aura is an illusion. It can never be fully grasped; one cannot touch a ghost. This is to say that there is something outside of experience. Or rather, that which we experience is not the real thing. In destroying aura, Benjamin also destroys the “other”, “unachievable” world from which it draws its power. For Nietzsche, there is no such thing as a “real world”. All valuations which place the existence of a realm outside our own are condemnations of this world: “to imagine another, more valuable world is an expression of hatred for a world that makes us suffer” (WP §579). If suffering is a part of experience, then it is no means to devalue the world; the concept of suffering has to be included within experience. In the auratic mode, in which that which we perceived was not included in the real world. Like Benjamin, Nietzsche rejects and destroys the realm beyond perception. He writes: “We have abolished the real world: what world is left? The apparent world perhaps? … But no! With the real world we have also abolished the apparent world!” (TI, 51). The distinction between real and apparent is no longer intelligible. In the affirmation of the destruction of the “real” and “apparent” worlds, we create something new. For Nietzsche, there is just “the world, as it is, without subtraction, exception or selection” (WP §1041). We have to redefine experience to fit this understanding of the world. Esther Leslie describes the process: “in a sense all experience for Benjamin is technological, since the term technology designates the artificial organization of perception; as such, experience changes with the development of technology.” This changed in experience is still experience. It invokes new experiences, while at the same time it degrades or eliminates old ones. Baudelaire saw the perceived decline in the quality of experience as part of modernity. “The law of his poetry” is such that he has to “[transform] a degraded lived experience into an experience in the full sense of the term.” But it becomes more than revaluating experience. Against a sort of bizarre lament of the decay of experience, experience undergoes a transvaluation in Baudelaire. If this is what we experience, then that must be experience. We misunderstand this to say that this experience is degraded. Following Nietzsche, it demands that we abolish any idea of a realm of experience beyond that which we actually experience.

Under this definition, the experience of the artwork takes precedence over the artwork itself. More than that, experience itself is linked to becoming. Art is valued by politics, but this is based in an experience which is dependent on becoming. What follows from this is a redefinition of not just art, but of everything along these lines as a mode of passing and becoming. The auratic work denies becoming. Its basis lies in its unique existence in space and time. As such, it sees itself as fixed within that space and time. According to say, the Catholic Church, the Madonna means the same thing now that it did in the fifth century. However, this denies the true nature of the world as a product of becoming. The world is always in flux, Nietzsche says, and as such, “it has a different aspect from every point; its being is essentially different from every point” (WP §568). As the artworks persist through time, they become subject to the same form of change. The artwork, like the origin, reveals different facets of itself over time. It then comes down to a choice: affirmation or reaction. Either deny becoming and cling to the auratic, or affirm becoming and the new political valuation of art. In the affirmation of the flux of becoming, art becomes emancipated and open: “if [the borders of a work] are permeable and open, then the work is constantly in a process of transformation, becoming other than itself.” Meaning is not fixed in time. Given the new standard of aesthetics as political, as a form of use value, then it is foolish to think that usage might not change over time. As such, I myself, as a creature of becoming, am not fixed in time. In affirming myself in recurrence, I also affirm all other selves that I pass through to get to myself. The moment I affirm, I no longer am: “I deactualize my present self in order to will myself in all other selves whose entire series I must be passed through” in order to recur. The same is the case with art. In affirming the artwork as an emergence of becoming, I deny all the past formulations of meaning that it took as no longer relevant in this particular moment. The artwork is open at every moment, but this opening means the closing of the preceding ones. This is not to say that history has no bearing on an object, but rather that this bearing is itself no longer fixed. Everything now becomes dependent on its mode of becoming and passing away. The value giving element is becoming itself.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

the crisis of meaning

The meaning of artwork was tied to its ritualistic function, its “original use value” (SW 4:256). The cultic value assigned to these works depends on the specificity of the objects. However, technological reproduction calls this value into question. Before, it was always possible to tell the difference between originals and reproductions. Now, technology reaches a point where it is no longer an intelligible distinction. Technology assumes the same role as eternal recurrence. As Eduardo Cadava puts it, “the thought of eternal Return is a thought of technological reproducibility.”

Thought in terms of the eternal recurrence, there is no such thing as an original anything. On a systemic scale, we have no way of knowing what number recurrence we are on. Given the idea of eternal return as mass production, each event is something that has already been produced on previous cycles. In “Little History of Photography”, Benjamin speaks of “the peeling away of the object’s shell, the destruction of the aura, [as] the signature of a perception whose sense for the sameness of things has grown to the point where even the singular, the unique, is divested of its uniqueness – by means of its reproduction” (SW 2:519). Benjamin is discussing the experience of art in the wake of photography. The reproducibility of the photograph forces a change in the way all art is perceived. Even paintings or sculptures are thought of in terms of how they can be reproduced, or are approached as though they are already reproductions. Now, we can apply this perception to eternal recurrence. As a giant process re-production, eternal recurrence divests all things of their uniqueness. Nothing is new, nothing is special. Everything that happens now has already happened and will always happen. In terms of this cycle, the originality of all works crumbles. Even the original “Venus de Milo” is not the original, but rather a recurrent reproduction. There never was an original, because to be is to recur.

In light of this, it is foolish to say that technology kills art. To say that is tantamount to saying that God was alive until the late nineteenth century when Nietzsche killed him. God did not die; Nietzsche merely removed the shroud over his grave to show that he never existed at all. In the same sense, art has always been “dead”. Eternal recurrence already strips everything – not just artworks – of their uniqueness, and has done so since time immemorial. Eduardo Cadava explains it perfectly in Words of Light: “technical reproduction is not an empirical feature of modernity; it is not an invention linked to the so-called modern era. Rather, it is a structural possibility within the work of art.” Technology simply mirrors the process of eternal recurrence: in the same way that that to be is to recur, to be is to be reproducible. That is to say, reproduction does not destroy art. It merely unveils the underlying illusion in the way art is perceived.

The stripping away of the aura is not so much a stripping as it is an unveiling. Benjamin defines the aura as “a strange tissue of space and time: the unique apparition of a distance, however near it may be” (SW 2:518). Elsewhere, Benjamin states that the historical, traditional, ritualistic “aspects of the artwork” can be focused “in the concept of the aura” (SW 3:103). In other words, aura is the veil of authenticity. Authenticity is based in the “here and now of the original” (SW 4:253). It represents “the quintessence of all that is transmissible in it from its origin on, ranging from its physical duration to the historical testimony relating to it” (SW 3:103). Reproduction calls all this into question. “The whole sphere of authenticity eludes technological… reproducibility”, in that it can produce reproductions that are indistinguishable from the original, yet contain none of the traits of transmission or historicity. Rather than saying that reproduction destroys authenticity, it is more correct to say that reproduction shows the fallacy of authenticity.

“In principle, the work of art has always been reproducible”, writes Benjamin in the opening of the first thesis (SW 4:252). Before this time, however, reproductions have always been identifiable, been distinguishable from the original. In fact, Benjamin tells us, authenticity is a byproduct of reproduction technology. It is only when techniques develop to a point where they approach the original that the concept of authenticity emerges. “A medieval picture of the Madonna at the time it was created could not yet be said to be ‘authentic’”, he writes in a footnote to the artwork essay. “It became ‘authentic’ on during the succeeding centuries” (SW 4:271). Authenticity is something that gets applied after the fact, after the act of production. It arises as a response to the encroachment of new technologies onto old concepts of uniqueness. Before, authenticity could retreat to it historical, chemical, and ritualistic basis as a stronghold against the inauthentic forgeries of reproduction. The best hand reproductions and art forgeries still bare a different strain of traceable history than the original, whether it is brushstrokes, chemical composition of the material, or provenance. However, it is now possible to produce items with none of these characteristics. Benjamin’s famous example is of the photographic print. A single negative can produce an innumerable amount of identical prints; “to ask for the ‘authentic’ print makes no sense” (SW 4:256). Technical reproduction expands this beyond merely photographs. It is no longer reasonable to privilege the authentic over any other iteration of the object. Since, as Cadava points out, “the age of technical reproduction includes all of history” , it is possible to understand that this authenticity never made sense. In the realm of recurrence, nothing is authentic; everything has always been reproduced.

Without authenticity, without aura, art no longer as a source of value. The basis of its meaning has always depended on its uniqueness. Benjamin attributes “l’art pour l’art” as a reaction to this crisis, a “theology of art” (SW 4:256). However, this reaction is the wrong way of looking at the crisis. The loss of meaning, authenticity and aura, the loss of the traditional values of aesthetics are only is only seen as a crisis from a perspective where these things are still relevant. Authenticity does not exist, and its absence from modern life is by no means an indication of nor a cause for decline. “It is by means of fiction that one falsifies and depreciates” , says Deleuze in Nietzsche & Philosophy. This crisis of meaning is similar to the crisis brought about by nihilism which Nietzsche outlines in The Will to Power. The old ways of evaluating are called into crisis and exposed as fallacies. As a consequence, “the categories ‘aim’, ‘unity’, ‘being’ which we used to project some value into the world – we pull out again; so the world looks valueless” (WP §12a). This valuelessness is not a problem for Nietzsche, for “once we have devaluated these three categories, the demonstration that they cannot be applied to the universe is no longer any reason for devaluating the universe” (WP §12b). There is no such thing as higher values for Nietzsche. This is part of what a nihilistic reading of “The Work of Art…” entails. We misinterpret Benjamin if we see the decline of the aura or the decline of the artist as a negative, lamentable event. For example, Rochlitz chastises Benjamin, saying, “[he] no longer even asks about the aesthetic qualities of works of art.” But these qualities are based on the old categories. The problem of their absence from art it is not a problem in the wake of technical reproducibility, which shows them to have never been valid categories at all. The necessity of certain values becomes unfathomable in a world free of that mode of valuation. This is why Benjamin privileges film and photography, as they represent an acceleration of the tendency. They are artworks solely made for the purpose reproduction. That is to say, to produce is to participate in reproduction. Benjamin hopes that through shattering the wall of authenticity and aura, he can help “[emancipate] the work of art from its parasitic dependence on ritual” (SW 4:256).

the work of art in the age of nihilism

“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” may be the extreme form of Benjamin’s nihilism in the economy of his oeuvre. – Rainer Rochlitz, The Disenchantment of Art, 164.

The word “nihilism” does not appear anywhere in the text of “The Work of art in the Age of Its Technical Reproducibility.” Nor is there any mention of Nietzsche. But the effects of both upon the work are very obvious. Benjamin was working on various drafts of the essay from 1935. By this point in time, Nietzsche reaches the height of his infamy in Germany as Hitler’s favorite philosopher. Given that the goal of the work is to create concepts of art that are “completely useless for the purposes of fascism” (SW 4:252), it seems understandable why Benjamin might want to leave these references out. Benjamin did not buy into the fascisization of Nietzsche, as evidenced by heavy usage of Nietzsche quotes in the notes of the same time period. It does seem understandable why Nietzsche does not make an explicit appearance here.

Nonetheless, there is an intensely nihilistic overtone to the work. While contemporary art critics decried the destructive assault on art initiated by technology, Benjamin saw it much differently. Howard Caygill writes:

Benjamin sought not merely recognition of the destructive side, but engaged nihilistically to affirm it as opening possibilities for the future. This was particularly crucial with respect to the work of art, which seemed most threatened by the development of technology. Instead of lamenting the destruction of art by technology, Benjamin sought to affirm a different future for art in the wake of its destruction.

The overriding theme of this essay can be boiled down to the tension between active and passive nihilism. Passive or reactive nihilism denies the destructive element of technology and art. It stands opposed to becoming and tries to hold fast to traditional forms and meanings. Active nihilism on the other hand, affirms the destruction of these forms as a mode of the unfolding of becoming. In terms of recurrence, the destruction of art is never the destruction at all, but rather a point in the chain of cosmic production.

The so-called destruction of art is the reaction to the new forms of art that begin to emerge as a result of technology, namely film and photography. As well, reproduction technology has developed to a point where the reproduction of old artworks “profoundly modifies their effect” (SW 4:253). Benjamin feels that is traditional effect of art is tied “unique existence in a particular space … that bears the mark of the history to which the work has been subject” (SW 4:253). This is mark is what Benjamin terms the “aura”. This aura finds its power in ritual. The earliest forms of art were linked ritual, “and it is highly significant that the artwork’s auratic mode of existence is never entirely severed from is ritual function” (SW 4:256). Ritual, be it magical or religious, is based on the uniqueness of the items worshiped. Uniqueness is what differentiates a table knife from a sacrificial dagger, an ordinary wine glass from a communion chalice. The same applies to artworks. The uniqueness of the painting led to the “cult of beauty”. Given that traditional art theory is based on singularity, the whole system is called into question with the introduction of new techniques of reproduction. The problem arises in that reproduction technology has advanced to such a degree that artworks can no longer lay claim to uniqueness.There are two possible responses for this crisis, one of which is passive, reactive nihilism. This entails denying the changes of art, holding on to old forms, and evaluating new emergences via the old criteria. An example of this would be questioning whether or not photography is art. As we will see later, Benjamin shows that there is a high price to pay for this. The other alternative is the acceptance of change, the embracing of new forms, and the creation of new criteria. This is only achievable via the affirmation of the crisis as such, which is to say, via the nihilistic affirmation.

Monday, 8 September 2008

quick thoughts on the decisional character of recurrence

I've been thinking about this over-riding theme with Benjamin and Nihilism lately, is that it comes down to a choice: passive nihilism or active nihlism. in the ER chapter, as we see, the choice is between passive acceptance or even reactivity towards ER (Blanqui) or active affirmation. The choice is driven by the possibilities opened up by affirmation. With aesthetics, it becomes a little more weighted. Passive/reactive nihilism stagnates aesthetics, whereas Active nihilism active reshapes the criteria of aesthetic experience. For Benjamin, it's quite simple. Passive nihilism leads to Fascism, active nihilism leads to communism (lower case/non-soviet/communard communism). The choice manifests itself again in history. Do we grasp the dialectical image as it flits by, affirming return, passing, and transitivity? Or do we sell ourselves out to the propaganda of progress? Which leads us to politics. What is the status of the political choice in all this? The question becomes one of what form the political decision can take in this space. I can offer up some ideas of what it won't be: revisionist history, progressivism, the inevitability of the proletariat. In a way I feel it could very easily link up with what Alex is doing (that's probably because i've been talking to him about our projects every day). But i think the conclusion/afterword should talk about the new space this line of reasoning raises: questions of praxis that could be addressed by transverality and group subjectivity (he's working on Sartre, Guattari, and Badiou on the group).

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

origin and recurrence

The critique of mechanism focused on the problem of a final state. Equally problematic is the status of the initial state. Benjamin likens eternal recurrence to a perpetual motion machine, but even these machines require an initial action to precipitate the subsequent unending flow of reactions. Thus, the system has to be conceived as a perpetual motion machine already in motion: “the world exists … it becomes, it passes away, but it has never begun to become and never ceased from passing away” (WP §1066). The assembly circle has always been at work. The element of creation has to recur to keep the system running, otherwise, as “Nietzsche correctly points out … if it were the One which returned, it would have begun by being unable to leave itself.” There can be no singular thing. In order to be at all, things have to recur. In other words, we would be wrong to see eternal recurrence as the mass production from a mold, for this would imply that there was an original prototype of the mold. It is not the case that there was once an “original” iteration of the cycle, an initial run of which all other cycles are mere copies. “On the contrary, [eternal recurrence] swallows up or destroys every ground which would function as an instance responsible for the difference between the original and the derived” ; the idea “original” has no placeholder within eternal recurrence.

Even events are produced by this mass production and as such are constituted by their recurrence. It is true that each passing moment is characterized by its newness, but that newness itself is recurrent. The event then appears as a function of this unfolding. “Origin is an eddy in the flow of becoming”, Benjamin states in the epistimo-crtical prologue to the Trauerspiel book; it “[describes] that which emerges from the process of becoming and disappearance” (O 45). The origin emerges from within the unfolding of becoming, and as such, it is ultimately folded back into it. In fluid dynamics, eddies are formed by the actual flow of the system itself. They are a disturbance, an interruption that swells up within the flow and is then subsumed back into it, entirely internal to the system. It is true that introducing a new element into the system – say changing the shape of the flow path or increasing the volume of flow – can lead to the formation of new, unexpected eddies. Eternal recurrence, especially the way Benjamin conceives it, is a closed system. In a closed fluid system, eddies are imminent to the system and can be tracked back and predicted through the course of the system. It is in this sense that Benjamin speaks of origin. The origin only makes sense in the fact that it emerges and passes away. This becomes amplified when projected onto an eternal scale, as the origin emerges and retreats eternally. The origin is conditioned by the cycle, but in this capacity it also conditions the cycle, and hence, all of recurrence.

The historical event as mass produced item can be understood in a similar fashion. It is produced by the system, and at the same time it is a determining factor in production. As a product of becoming and passing away, its significance lies not only in what it was, but what it came from, what it became, and what it did not become (O, 46). Its status as an event means that its meaning itself is a process of becoming and passing away. This becomes a mode of investigation for Benjamin. For example, Howard Caygill points out: “As an origin, the arcade does not possess a fixed character, but reveals different aspects of itself through the passage of time.” The origin’s intelligibility can only manifest in terms of its relationship to becoming. Furthermore, this relationship itself is only truly understood in the light of becoming as a mode of eternal recurrence.

Eternal Recurrence as Mass Production

Nihilism becomes a productive element of creation for Benjamin via the eternal return. In this way, Benjamin tells us, "eternal recurrence turns even the historical event into a mass produced item" (AP [J62a,2]). Creation is not necessarily mass production. The dice-throw of Nietzschean affirmation is a long way from the factory floor. Creation as mass production presents itself as the counterpoint to the unfolding as creation discussed above. Viewed from the perspective of the cycle, everything is new. Each event conditions the next, and the entire cycle unfolds as a product of recurrence. At the same time, when viewed from a perspective outside of the system (outside of time), eternal recurrence functions as a cosmological assembly line pumping out an endless stream of identical cycles. The means of this production is time, and its labor is becoming. Time exists within each cycle, but the entire system itself is timeless, untimely. "That everything recurs is the closest approximation of a world of becoming to a world of being" (WP §617); the constant movement of the system (becoming) manifests itself in each instance by creating the world. Another way of looking at it is the interpretation offered by Deleuze: "it is not being that returns but rather the returning itself that constitutes being insofar as it is affirmed of becoming and of that which passes." Eternal recurrence is more than just the repetition of being; its movement constitutes being as such. On a cyclic scale, capitalist modes of production mimic this process in the case of the commodity: "in mass production the ever-selfsame manifests itself overtly for the first time" (SW 4:182). An experience of the mass produced commodity becomes a glimpse in to the process of eternal recurrence. Benjamin saw "the doctrine of eternal recurrence as a dream of the immense discoveries imminent in the field of reproduction technology" (SW 4:182).

At the same time, it is important to note that Nietzsche saw his theory as more than a simply mechanistic theory. If the universe did behave in a mechanistic fashion, "it would not condition an infinite recurrence of identical cases, but a final state" (WP §1066). However, Benjamin points out in Convolute D that perhaps Nietzsche misunderstands what a mechanistic theory of recurrence would actually entail. Nietzsche's entire operation is based around the fact that there is no such thing as a final state: "that a state of equilibrium is never reached proves it is not possible" (WP §1064). If it was reached, the whole system would have stopped. Hence, the continued existence of the world proves the impossibility of stasis. The problem that Benjamin points out is that this very argument "seems to turn the phenomenon of the perpetuum mobile [perpetual motion] (for the world would be nothing else, according to his teachings) into an argument against the mechanistic conception of the world" (AP [D8a,3]). In other words, Nietzsche grounds his world in a mechanistic conception of perpetuity, but in turn uses that world to disprove the basis of his own grounding. Nietzsche does state, however, that it is "an imperfect and merely provisional hypothesis" (WP §1066). The task at hand now becomes the development of a more perfect hypothesis, one which, according to Benjamin, is more mechanistic.

Recurrence is indeed driven by perpetual motion. It is through this perpetual unfolding that being occurs at all, in as much as being is a function of recurrence. But there needs to be space in this operation for a creative element since eternal recurrence is essentially creative. In Nietzsche and Philosophy, Deleuze, too, rejects the mechanistic conception, saying that it "does not necessarily or directly imply the eternal return." But, with Benjamin, we are looking for a theory of recurrence that still has space for mechanism. The problem, for Deleuze, lies in the fact that there is not enough space for the creation of novelty within the operation of mechanical. Eternal recurrence has to be understood "as the expression of a principle which serves as an explanation of diversity and its reproduction, of difference and its repetition."

The idea of eternal recurrence as a form of mass production reconciles these modes of thought. Nietzsche's conception of recurrence gives us the infinite interaction of finite forces, creating an assembly line that never runs out of energy – due to the law of conservation of energy (WP §1063) – or material – once the cycle runs its course, it starts over. The "end state" to which Nietzsche attributes the mechanistic conception is not an end state at all, but rather the point of repetition; the assembly line of recurrence is actually an assembly circle. At the same time, the new, as created within each cycle, is characterized by its guarantee of difference. The repetition of this takes place via the recurrence of this creating. In other words, what recurs is the creative element itself. For Deleuze, that element is difference; for Nietzsche, it is the will to power; and for Benjamin, it is the process of mass production.

The Three Horsemen of Recurrence: Baudelaire, Blanqui, and Nietzsche

Nietzsche says the idea of eternal recurrence is “[nihilism] thought in its most terrible form” (WP §55). For him, it represents the culmination of thought, the “thought of thoughts”. The most direct engagement with this concept occurs in Benjamin's writings and research for the Baudelaire book. Here, Benjamin attempts to negotiate his way around differing theories of recurrence:

… The idea of eternal recurrence emerged at about the same time in the worlds of Baudelaire, Blanqui, and Nietzsche. In Baudelaire, the accent is on the new, which is wrested with heroic effort from the “ever-selfsame”; in Nietzsche, it is on the “ever-selfsame” which the human being faces with heroic composure. Blanqui is far closer to Nietzsche than to Baudelaire; but in his work, resignation predominates. In Nietzsche, this experience is projected onto a cosmological plane, in his thesis that nothing new will occur. (SW 4:175)

However, what Benjamin separates as three conflicting theories of eternal recurrence actually reflect the three different attitudes, different responses to “the thought of thoughts”, all of which can be subsumed within Nietzsche's theory of recurrence. The principle antagonism for Benjamin is between Nietzsche and Baudelaire as regards their stance towards the “ever self-same.”

It is true that Nietzsche does advocate a sort of heroic stance in the face of recurrence. In The Gay Science, he gives two choices. On the one hand, we can “throw [ourselves] down and gnash [our] teeth and curse” the thought of recurrence (GS §341). The option which Nietzsche pushes for, however, is to adjust our outlook in such a way as “to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal” (GS §341). Blanqui, in his writings on recurrence, sets up a series of possible worlds in which all the different potentialities are played out across the heavens. Offering no comfort to himself, Blanqui states that he sees himself trapped at his desk through infinity; Benjamin cites: “throughout the entire universe, he is the same confined man he is on this earth.” What is a source of resignation for Blanqui serves as a cause for relish in Nietzsche. “I seek an eternity for everything,” he writes in his notes on eternal recurrence (WP §1065). It is this seeking to which Benjamin refers when he speaks of the heroic. This heroism culminates in the affirmation of recurrence. In “Of the Vision and the Riddle”, Zarathustra instructs on affirmation as “courage that attacks” by saying, “'Well then! Once more!'” to everything (Z, 178). It is through affirmation that the hero stands in the face of the most terrible thought and embraces it; even the terror of sameness is overcome. But how is one to reconcile the self-same with the new?

Benjamin differentiates Baudelaire's heroism from Nietzsche's by its orientation towards the new. The tension arises from the fact that Nietzsche's world conception means that “the world ... lacks the capacity for eternal novelty” (WP §1062). The entire system is based around the fact that the infinite interaction of finite forces can produce only a finite number of distinct reactions. Recurrence occurs when the all these reactions have taken place. There is no final state for Nietzsche, therefore the interactions must continue. Since each reaction conditions subsequent ones, the entire cycle must be repeated. “The world as a circular movement of absolutely identical series that has already repeated itself infinitely often and plays its game in infinitum” is the operational model Nietzsche puts forth of his theory (WP §1066). On one hand, this can be taken as an ironclad pronouncement, sentencing us to an eternity of sameness. There is indeed no escaping the cycle, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. Benjamin suggests this negative connotation, this sense of being damned to recurrence, is result of a contamination of the thought of recurrence by religious ideas, which leads to “substituting an eternity of torments for the eternity of a cycle” (AP [D10a,4]). Against the tyranny of the cycle, Benjamin places Baudelaire, in whose work “the new in the ever-selfsame, and the ever-selfsame in the new”, is revealed (SW 4:175).

The arena for this revelation is modernity. Baudelaire invokes the idea of modernity as a way of wresting the new from the ever-same. “Modernity stands opposed to antiquity”, says Benjamin, “the new, to what is always the same” (SW 4:183). The emergence of the new is what marks modernity: “… the productive misunderstanding by which the ‘new’ became the ‘modern’ … originates in Baudelaire” (SW 4:183). At the same time it all relates back to eternity. Even the transitory nature which characterizes modern life is itself eternally transient. Benjamin characterizes “fashion [as] the eternal return of the new” (SW 4:179). (Insert commentary on Painter of Modern Life and how it plays into the importance of the eternal essence of the new.) The dandy becomes an example of self creation. At the same time, all these forms of relate back to the eternal. The new is a product of recurrence: “Here, the idea of eternal return is the ‘new’, which breaks the cycle of eternal return by confirming it” (SW 4:179).

While Nietzsche does expressly exclude perpetual novelty from his system, he is by no means opposed to the new. What is required, though, is a new conception of the new, a conception like not unlike Baudelaire’s. According to Benjamin, "The idea of eternal recurrence derived its luster from the fact that it was no longer possible, in all circumstances, to expect a recurrence of conditions shorter than that provided by eternity" (AP [J62a,2]). Novelty and recurrence are no longer opposites. The reconciliation of Benjamin and Nietzsche takes place thusly: there is no systemic novelty; there is serial novelty. The series play out the same way over and over. But at the same time, the nature of the system is such that within each series, we are guaranteed that nothing will be the same until we get to the end. There is no escaping recurrence, but that inescapability opens up a whole new realm of possibility for Nietzsche.

The difference between an eternity of the self-same or an eternity of the new comes down to a choice. If the idea eternal recurrence is only seen as an endless cycle of meaningless repetition, then, as Heidegger states in his lectures on Nietzsche, “we are not grasping it in its character as a decision.” From its first emergence, Nietzsche poses eternal return as a choice: heroic resolve or cowardly submission, embracing the demon instead of cowering at his feet. But mere heroic resolve does not fully acknowledge the decisional nature, as it amounts to little more than fatalism. Against this, Nietzsche proposes the doctrine of “amor fati” as “the highest state a philosopher can attain” (WP §1041). In the same way it destroys death , affirmation turns fate into an operation of the will. Once recurrence is affirmed, the question changes slightly. Now, Nietzsche “asks us whether we merely want to drift with the tide of things or whether we would be creators.” In other words, to affirm is to create. “Amor fati signifies wanting chance, signifies differing from what was” ; affirming fate turns the outcome of chance into a creation of the new. The outcome of eternal recurrence, Nietzsche states, is “no longer ‘cause and effect’ but the continually creative” (WP §1059).

This creation of the new is not boundless. It is still held in check and limited to an intra-cyclic level; creation takes place within cycles, not between them. “We create something new only on the condition that we repeat”, Deleuze says of eternal recurrence in Difference and Repetition. The nature of creation is such that it necessitates recurrence. In Benjamin’s Baudelaire, the ever-selfsame is not negated. Rather, it is transformed in such a way that the new can be extracted out of it. As we have seen, the same operation occurs in Nietzsche. The point of this is that engine of eternal recurrence and production in Benjamin is actually nihilistic in nature, in as much as eternal recurrence is “the most extreme form of nihilism” (WP §55).

Monday, 1 September 2008

update and updated outline

On a positive note, all this time spent reading and obsessing and working myself into a nervous wreck seems to have paid off, as I'm making pretty good progress on the eternal recurrence chapter. Wrote about 1000 words yesterday, got another grand or so to go before I call it a night. In the meantime, I thought I'd post up some new developments to the structure of the project.

New Outline:


· Introduce the idea of the project. Brief overview of Benjamin, Nihilism and Nietzsche

· Benjamin's Relationship to Nihilism and Nietzsche

· Said Relationship in the Secondary sources

· Overview/Outline for the project

Eternal Recurrence

· Baudelaire, Blanqui, and Nietzche.

· Eternal Recurrence = nihilism = affirmation

· Affirmation = creation

· Mass Production

· Eternal Recurrence as engine of mass production

· Viewed from outside the system.

· Mass production and the emergence of the ever selfsame

· Deleuze and the recurrence of the creative element.

· What is the status of Origin (ursrpung) within Eternal Recurrence?

· Origin as an eddy in the flow of becoming. – The recurrence of the moment of creation.

· An event that has no meaning in and of itself. Only makes sense in terms of the cycle.


· What would a nihilistic reading of WofA mean?

· "Benjamin sought not merely recognition of the destructive side, but engaged nihilistically to affirm it as opening possibilities for the future. … Instead of lamenting the destruction of art by technology, Benjamin sought to affirm a different future for art in the wake of its destruction." (Caygill, 93)

· The crisis of meaning.

· Authenticity

· WofA fn4. – Authenticity is ascribed after the fact.

· Mass Production and Recurrence

· On an eternal scale, even the orginal wasn't original

· Meaninglessness is only a crisis from the point of view of meaning (WP §12)

· Call for revaluation/transvalution.

· Re: normalization of shock experience. See: III & IV in "On some motifs in Baudelaire". (4:317-21)

· Cult and Auratic Value as the consequences of re-valuation as opposed to trans-valuation.

History and Dialectics

· Recurrence, Mass Production, and History

· Universal/Primal History

· Against Meaning/Against Authenticity

· The Image: Dialectical Image vs. Dialectics

· Role of Affirmation

· Grasping the DI and the Decisional Character of Recurrence

· Nothing is ever lost to history, but at the same time, it has to be grasped. Moment of danger and the state of emergency.

· Progress, Remembrance, & Ressentiment

Conclusion: Politics

(Quote from TPF and then de Man)

· Political Implications of Nihilism.

· Against progress – No Wohlfarth (no move to the center)

· Against ressentiment – No Lowy (Revisionist history)

· Revaluation and Higher Values

· What becomes of the messiah? What of the constantly deferred revolution?

· Narrow gate and "Vision and the Riddle"

Afterword (If there's room?)

· What new questions are raised?

· What of Marxism?

· How does this translate into praxis?