Walter Benjamin - Radical Chains

Walter Benjamin - Radical Chains

I'm told you raised your hand against yourself / Anticipating the butcher / After eight years in exile, observing the rise of the enemy / Then at last, brought up against an impassable barrier / You passed, they say, a passable one.
From Radical Chains no.2

radical chains

On the Suicide of the Refugee W.B. (by Bertolt Brecht)

I'm told you raised your hand against yourself
Anticipating the butcher
After eight years in exile, observing the rise of the enemy
Then at last, brought up against an impassable barrier
You passed, they say, a passable one.

Empires collapse. Gang leaders
Are strutting about like statesmen. The People
Can no longer be seen under all these armaments

So the future lies in darkness and the forces of right
Are weak. All this was plain to you
When you destroyed a torturable body.

It has been frequently noted that 1990 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the fall of continental Europe to Fascism. In the midst of this remembrance the mass displacement of the civilian population and the flight of the refugee has served as little more than a footnote to the formal drama of diplomatic intrigue and military maneouvre. Yet it did not require the declaration of national war to create a German diaspora comprised of jews, communists, liberals and others. Many oppositionists had already departed their native country during the 1930s, seeking, among other places, shelter on French soil. By June 1940, the relative security afforded by this location was violently disturbed by the armistice signed between the Third Reich and the Vichy Government. Thousands hurriedly decamped once again and trecked along an established escape route to North America, via the Iberian Peninsula.

On the 25th September 1940, a small group of refugees approached the Spanish town of Port Bou by an unguarded route, across mountainous terrain. Their journey was thwarted by Spanish guards who had closed the border earlier that day and who intended to return them to France the next morning. That night, one among the refugees, Walter Benjamin, took his own life. The following day, disturbed by what had happened during the night, the guards relented and his companions proceeded to Portugal.

On hearing of his death, Bertolt Brecht, himself having just reached the safety of the United States, was reported to have said of Benjamin that German literature had suffered its first real loss to Hitler.

Benjamin was born in Berlin in 1892, the son of affluent Jewish parents. The family lived in a substantial house in Grunewald, the patrician quarter of the German capital. By his own account he grew up in a materially comfortable and secure environment, surrounded by the objects of his father's trade in antiques and valuable oriental carpets. Here he absorbed the extravagant habits of the compulsive bibliophile and collector of objects of beauty.

Prior to the outbreak of the Great War, he developed precocious talents as a writer within the broad and diverse German Youth Movement. This mass organisation drew its support from all sections of German society and acted as a conduit for the expression of protest against the decaying values of the previous generation. This tended to take an atavistic form evoking nature and tradition rooted in Teutonic myth, purity and heritage. Benjamin never subscribed to this dominant perspective but gravitated towards a milieu guided by the rationalistic humanism of the educational reformer Gustav Wyneken. He subsequently observed that this movement comprised, in large part, the radical borgeoisie, which was both incapable of either superceding its subjectivist or individualist orientation. While actively interested in Jewish theology and counting Gershom Scholem - a leading scholar of Jewish mysticism and authority on the Kabbalah - as one of his earliest and closest friends, he was never drawn towards Zionism. Nevertheless Judaic conceptions of a future transfigurative moment remained important for Benjamin's development, selectively appropriated on his own terms and for his own purpose.

He remained an active member of the Youth Movement only until the declaration of war. The enthusiastic endorsement of the national call to arms by its leading members only served to crystallise his prognosis that it was an essentially reactionary force. Benjamin avoided military conscription by feigning sciatica, and soon departed Germany. Exiled and isolated in a Europe traumatised by total war, he developed a romantic anti-capitalism, a trajectory encouraged through his association with Ernst Bloch. He apprehended the modem world as souless, dispirited and prosaic, a condition that demanded apocalyptic transcendence. In this context it is understandable that Benjamin, like both Lukacs and Bloch, turned towards the realm of art in pursuit of this theme. It was here that the most developed and unambiguous utopian impulse to transcendence was thought to be expressed in the authentic work of art. By 1919 he had completed a doctoral thesis at Berne University, Switzerland on The Concept of Art Criticism in German Romanticism, a distillation of themes developed in the war years.

By then, Benjamin had been married for two years, and despite his attempts to find work, was forced in 1923 to return with his young wife and son to his parental home. Although he failed to secure himself a university post, he had begun to establish his reputation as a "man of letters". By 1925 he had translated and seen published a selection from the work of the 19th century poet, Baudelaire and completed a major study of the German poet, Goethe.

The immediate post world-war period may have been personally disordered for Benjamin, but they were inordinately tumultuous years for German society. In Russia the question of power had been forcefully posed by significant sections of the working class, but in Germany, the bourgeoisie was able to meet that challenge with an effective and ruthless opposition that Swept the workers' movement from the streets. By 1923, Germany was experiencing a general crisis exemplified by rampant inflation. Wages fell, the working day lengthened, unemployment rose. Hitler's disbandment of the Trade Unions in 1933 his first piece of major social legislation - was yet another expression of a process decisively set in motion a decade earlier. It was both through these unfolding conditions and as a consequence of them that Benjamin, like so many of his generation, became progressively radicalised and receptive to revolutionary praxis. His own intellectual development during this period continued to be influenced by his friendship with Bloch and Scholem and his increasing interest in marxism focussed on Lukacs' History and Class Consciousness, and the consequent debates following its publication. A further and perhaps decisive influence was a developing relationship with the young Bolshevik theatre producer, Asja Lacis, an assistant to Brecht and Piscator, which rapidly progressed from assignation to a tempestuous love affair.

During the rest of the 1930s, and until Hitler's rise to power, he managed to secure enough funds through employment and parental generosity to allow him to make extended trips to Paris, the Mediterranean, and afford a lengthy stay in Moscow in the winter of 1926-7.

His trip to the U.S.S.R. had a twofold purpose. To visit the hospitalised Asja Lacis and to reach a decisive conclusion as to whether to join the German Communist Party (K.P.D.), a matter which he had frequently considered. A range of factors were taken into account in this deliberation: Pragmatically the K.P.D. could offer him paid employment - an attractive proposition as his academic career had all but stalled. Secondly, and rather naively, he saw the party as an environment in which he could fruitfully intervene, since it was "organised and guaranteed contact with the people". He never joined, concluding that his main area of competence was "overspecialised". Instead he gravitated towards influential circles orbiting around Adorno, Horkheimer, and most fruitfully for Benjamin, Brecht. At this point, he construed his own project as working in "an illegal incognito among the bourgeois authors", pursuing a destructive project from within.

Driven into exile for the second time in his life, along with so many of the same milieu, his primary source of support from 1934 onwards was a small but regular stipend, paid by the relocated Frankfurt Institute of Social Research. In return for this support he supplied one major essay every year and an irregular series of reviews. This at least provided for his basic needs, supplementing this income by writing for a variety of emigre journals.

These mature years of his life were his most productive. However he never saw the publication of a full length book under his own name. What has been bequeathed in the form of a collection of aphorisms - One Way Street, (1928), reviews of contemporary literary production, monographic presentations of particular movements or individuals, or his better known theoretical work in essay form - for example, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935) - nonetheless represents a prolific intellectual activity. Yet despite this productivity, Benjamin never completed the most enduring of his work, the suggestive Arcades project which he was to work on from the late 1920s until his death. Intended to represent a panoramic disclosure of 19th century Paris, the project encompassed architecture, literature, and the character of the life of the city.

A refugee in Paris since 1935, living a financially precarious and isolated existence, he was incarcerated in an internment camp in the autumn of 1939. Through the efforts of influential friends he was soon released and eventually secured a U.S. entry permit.

However, the last few months of his life were desperately tortuous. In his final letter to Adorno, Benjamin vividly expressed the sense of being encircled and overcome by the forces of destructive reaction who could clearly identify him as both a jew and a communist: 'The total uncertainty as to what the next days, the next hours will bring has dominated my existence for many weeks. I am condemned to read every newspaper (they appear here on only one page) as a writ published against me and to hear every radio report the voice of bad tidings." His apartment, containing the expansive library -the tools of his labour - which he had painstakingly assembled was eventually confiscated by the Gestapo. He was unsure of the fate of the manuscripts abandoned to the care of Parisian friends. Besides, he was not drawn by the prospect of settling in the United States, where he assumed he was destined to be carted up and down the country, exhibited as the "last European".

His repute as a polymathic critic of intellectual and cultural production is entirely posthumous. During his own life he was known only in small, albeit influential circles of friends and associates in France and Germany. Benjamin's wider reception can be dated from 1955 when Adorno undertook the task of editing a selection of his essays. It was not until the 1970s that his major writings appeared in English under the title Illuminations (1973).

The disparate reception of this work after his death is indicative of a genuinely original thinker who's legacy requires thoughtful appropriation. He has largely remained a hostage to those of his contemporaries who reduce the scope of his thought to one of its many determinants, alternatively to those archaeologists of the aesthetic who call him to their service in wilfully arcane academic dispute. For example, both Susan Sontag and Hannah Arendt lay claim to aspects of his writings whilst simultaneously detaching him from the marxist tradition.

In post-War Europe Benjamin's influence became widely assimilated in theoretical and academic dispute and, less conspicuously, in a wider arena. John Berger's influential television series Ways of Seeing, originally broadcast in the early 1970s was directly influenced by Benjamin. While the particular content of his work remains vigorously contested his insightfulness is beyond doubt, the originality of which is attested to by the difficulty with which it has been appropriated in the anglo-saxon world.

To approach Benjamin's legacy is to approach a body of work that does not lend itself to casual reading. His sentences are concentrated, his writing style is simultaneously opaque and concise. There is the non-appearance of immediate consistency where motifs, which ordinarily run at cross purposes are brought together but never unified. His thought is perhaps best apprehended as allegorical, he was the master of the extended metaphor, which sought to find both past and future location in order to illuminate the present moment. The anglo-saxon habit of reading in a literal manner fails to make any effective connection with the metaphorical intent of his paradoxically couched word formations.

Within his work there is an attempt to seek and disclose the contiguous relationships of a range of exploratory strands of 19th and 20th century intellectual and artistic production. This process focussed on movements such as Surrealism or Dada, or individual producers, for example, Baudelaire, Fourier, Bergson, or Proust. Receptive to so much and so many he remained outside established orthodoxy and beyond consignment to a single location within the division of intellectual labour.He was never simply a literary critic or sociologist of art, a philosopher or aesthetician.

The pivotal point in Benjamin's development occured around about 1925 in his engagement with the marxism of the period. It followed from the completion of his book manuscript on German Tragic drama, which itself was concerned with the political nature of cultural practice, a manuscript which he later recognised as being dialectical but not materialist in orientation.

Aware of these failings, his attention became focussed on the multiplicity of ways in which that practice was conditioned and mediated by changing forms of technology and social Organisation.

The key category that he developed in this context, was Technik, a word which in German means both "technology" and "technique", an ambiguity which he retained in order to emphasise the realm of practical material intervention as the integration of theory and practice. For Benjamin, Technik expressed the unity of theory and practice, of human relations of production and the means of production, of technique and technology. This implied a decisive rejection of the positivist separation of these realms, or the supercession of one by the other as in Hegel's triumph of the spirit.

Benjamin located intellectual activity within the context of Technik echoing Marx's rejection of assigning it the capacity for an independent and distinct development of its own. He railed against the account given by the bourgeois intelligentsia of its own activity as an attempt to expose and assert a constellation of qualities which were timeless in nature, rather than recognising a continuous process of change and movement which demanded purposive understanding rather than introverted contemplation.

The bourgeoisie was not the only object of attack. He took issue with those on the left who asserted that adherence to the 'correct' political line absolved the work of art from having to measure up to any 'bourgeois' standards of quality. Benjamin saw political tendency and quality unified in what he called 'literary tendency'. In his view, "This literary tendency, which is implicitly or explicitly included in every correct political tendency, this and nothing else constitutes the quality of a work. The correct political tendency of a work includes its literary quality because it includes its literary tendency." (his emphasis). The unification of political tendency and literary quality is ensured by the use of progressive literary tendencies.

For Benjamin, these tendencies included the attempt to break from private speculation and in Brecht's words, "break into other people's heads", awakening "deliberation and action". Consequently the ability of this form of production to effect change could be judged on its ability to organise and reorganise political groupings, formation and party. He was careful to stress that the organisational usefulness of writing ought not to be confined to propagandist use. Commitment alone was not enough since "the best opinion is of no use if it does not make something useful of those who hold it". In order to subvert this possibility, progressive writing had to be simultaneously a model to instruct others in production, and secondly, to place an improved apparatus in their hands: An apparatus that would be the better "the more consumers it brings into contact with the production process- in short the more readers and spectators it turns into collaborators".

An exemplification of the use of a progressive literary technique was where the effect was to intervene in and aid the forging of class organisation out of a responsive and collaborative proletariat. Antithetical to this was a conception of addressing the public as a passive consumer of products originating from an individual creator. The public was a corrupt and alienated condition of the mass as much as was the conception of an individual creative personality. To proceed otherwise was to reproduce the opposition of theory to practice, producer to consumer and the active to the passive - in short the very antinomies of bourgeois society.

It was Benjamin's contention that the writer must be transformed from being a "supplier of the production apparatus, into an engineer who seeks his task in adapting that apparatus to the ends of the proletarian revolution". This conception was predicated upon the "functioning transformation" of various aspects of mass culture, specifically those developed through techniques of mechanical reproduction which already served to dissipate the aura surrounding the previously unique and distanced work of art embedded in tradition and ritual. This auratic quality induced concentration, empathy, absorbtion and identification on the part of the reader or audience. These conditions of aesthetic and political passivity were seen to be undermined by the development of photography, film, radio and mass circulation newspapers which served to destroy the unique and harmonious work of art. The progressive consequence of this was the emergence of an estrangement on the part of the audience, which created the possibility for a critical attitude towards that being experienced. This apprehension consciously intersected with Brecht's theatrical technique of alienating the audience from what was being performed on the stage. This strategy sought to transform the passive consumer into the active creator through the use of episodic play structure, direct addresses to the audience and open-endedness of conclusion.

It was never satisfactorily ascertained where the body of the refugee was laid to rest. Hannah Arendt, who had known Benjamin during his stay in Paris, arrived in Port Bou a few months after his death but sought his grave in vain. As the years passed by others came in search, this time to be greeted by cemetary attendants who directed the curious towards a wooden enclosure upon which his name had been scrawled. This apocryphal location owed its existence to the shrewd perception of the attendants who recognised that the satisfied visitor was more likely to be generous when dispensing a tip.

Even in death it is strikingly apposite that Benjamin remains enigmatic, subject to the curious enquirer in search of what is then willed into existence, ably assisted by an overseer of the relic who is in a position to exploit apparent ambiguity for a self-interested purpose.

For too long the written trace of Benjamin has been subject to an analogous fate. His image splintered by arcane factional dispute, elevated as a creative if obscure individual genius and consigned to one or other area of an increasingly detailed location in the division of intellectual labour.

Benjamin advanced beyond the confines of the dominant debates on artistic, literary and intellectual production in the 1930s. He was one of only a handful of theoreticians who not only rejected the sterility of Stalinist diamat, but who also tried to both broaden and deepen marxist theory. To undertake this in isolation and exile, in the face of fascism's advance was to undertake a herculean task.

Walter Benjamin inaugurated a project that demands recovery; a recovery that is perhaps only now possible. As Stalinism enters a period of terminal decline so the possibilities to successfully appropriate what was denounced as heretical unfold.