Tuesday, 2 September 2008

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.

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