Walter Benjamin

Benjamin’s Nightmares and Schindler’s Dreams

Remainders of the Frankfurt School's Never Never Land of 1933 - 1945

5 October, 2009 Musings on What Might Yet Be

We have to wake up from the existence of our parents....” —Walter Benjamin

In Walter Benjamin’s lifetime, in his own judgment, he deemed himself a failure. By the measures of an academic, he was right. Benjamin failed his Ph.D. examination because his readers could not understand his highly involuted style of writing, nor could he articulate it since he often thought in terms of opposites. How appropriate that his magnum opus he subtitled “A Dialectical Fairyland.” That is, he was talking about the phantasmagoria (the illusions of the good life through conspicuous consumption) that capitalism creates through exchange value to give a substantive content to abstract labor. I think too he was self-critical in that he wondered what impact his revolutionary writings had on the proletariat; actually, they had none. Hitler triumphed with the proletariat coming over to his side after his legal ascendancy to power. Benjamin knew that the proletariat was always a deus ex machina to mediate history from its transition from capitalism to socialism. The problem was that the mediation was theoretical. The first generation Jewish Frankfurt School Marxists (never more than fifty in number) came from the upper middle class; their contacts with workers were virtually nil and patronizing, if not actually fanciful. Fame came to him posthumously. Benjamin, largely through the polemics of his friends, has emerged as the icon of the thirties as the antipode to Stalin. He has been defined, retroactively, as the best of the democratic left.

I have not started reading The Arcades Project for fear of being disappointed. My quotation is what strikes me as most apropos. Our real parents always disillusion us when they turn out not to be epic, but plain ordinary. I feel the same dread that my icon will have been demonstrated to have clay feet, as he did commit suicide, though with an exhibition of a virtù Machiavelli might have admired. Once the extenuating circumstances were known, his revolutionary act was an altruistic suicide in Durkheim’s scheme of things.

I have read R. J. Clark’s mixed review of the above magnum opus, in London Review of Books (22 June 2000). In short, he said that the work is not a Communist Cantos. I have no such expectations. He damns by faint praise. The words murder him, much like the posthumous exhuming of Cromwell’s body to behead him. Clark says the tome is boring; at times, he felt like hurling it against the wall. Nonetheless, there is redeeming value, according to Clark. Benjamin has an opaque, aphoristic style of writing that can be very off-putting, but insightful. The serious reader will find in it a cornucopia of insights that thread common themes through the text. Particularly, he says that subjectivity itself, our interior minds—our very souls—are dominated by the processes intrinsic to capitalism that transmute humanity into an alienation from itself (concepts taken from the “early writings” of Marx) that cannot rectify itself from within the system. Capitalism has no spiritual center of gravity to make the lifeworld it creates meaningful, no matter how fantastic the Midas touch within its forces of production.

The quotation above is relevant because our parents have expectations of our being more successful than they. Each generation, particularly with a university degree, should breed more apt competitors in the struggle for existence. Temple University students can relate to that maxim. Look at the pathological relationship between the teacher and the student. It is classic transference at work. The teacher is the grade giver and the student the consumer of that scarce commodity called an A. This mirrors the fetish commodity, monetary relationship between employer and worker in the exchange of labor for wages in the marketplace. Knowledge is for technical consumption, not humanistic self-consciousness.

Clark says, devastatingly, that Benjamin is boring! That sums up the man’s life. That is one hell of an epitaph to put on his life’s project! What Benjamin does is try to take the interiority of his mind and impose its forms on social reality. That is not a very Marxist approach; it should be the reverse. Philosophers are to change the world, not mirror its shortcomings in self-absorbed reflections. That criticism can be placed on the whole Frankfurt School collectivity in that it never got to praxis, or mass political agitation and action. These “flaneurs” thought they could stroll to socialism by wishful thinking and good intentions. They never really had to “sell out” in that they were born into wealth and had an enviable endowment of funds. So, Benjamin not only flunked out of the university, he never even made a living. With his sui generis historiography, he simply wrote what he saw at the mundane level in nineteenth-century Paris, the cultural center of the West and capitalism.

Benjamin claimed, “The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach, of intellect, in some material object...which we do not suspect.” I concede that point. But how do we create meaning in a disenchanted world? The bourgeoisie amuse themselves, apparently happily so. For instance, he dismissed the Impressionists as sellers of an artifact and commodity. I must disagree with him here because not only do you have to embody your noble thoughts by making a living, but if you can create objects that are beautiful and timeless, is not that a victory of the spirit within the constraints of the system? I do not find the socialist realism of Stalin an acceptable alternative. Might not the same analysis be put forward to apply to the information revolution with its production of data? While not beautiful, is there not certainly use value for the consumer that democratizes public life as never before, and hence intrinsically worthy of production? At least, there is that real possibility. To say unreflexively that art, whatever the medium, must shock bourgeois sensibilities to strike at the system as naive. It can lead to fanaticism and purges when social reality, the organic culmination of thousands of generations of culture, proves recalcitrant to transcendence by what amounts to a macro-mutation (revolution by coup d’état).

The arcades of Paris embody the dialectical fusion of dream and fact. Dreams are by nature solipsism; my dreams might be not to your liking—and vice versa. The question is how people disengage the two. That requires a historical materialist approach to show how the capitalist exploits workers and appropriates their surplus value. Today, the equivalent of what is not really an equally balanced historical comparison lies in the symbol managers of our mass society who manipulate consumers. So, capitalism is to late capitalism what Rockefeller is to Gates. Our dream worlds of a better life with social significance allow us to embrace our exploiters as heroes. They become larger than life when, in actuality, they are in defiance of fair play and ethically formed good conduct, derived from the practice of common sense.

My anxiety lies in reading Benjamin’s great work because his world and mine coincide; both failed human projects we are. So, the work will reside on my shelf as a testimonial to my own lack of nerve. But the Arcades project is also a symbol of hope. I do not want to be disenchanted again. Because once hope no longer exists, for the agnostic, there is only the leap of faith into a self-inflicted death that could just as well be ignominious as noble, as in Benjamin’s sacrifice. I decline that gambit; I choose life, however forbidding, waiting for dawn. So, I take a grim reconciliation in the following quotation from the book reviewer: "And doesn’t the failure to do so—to show us even a glimpse of how such a clarification might be managed—point to the limits of Benjamin’s notion of history? For the 19th-century "collective" dreamed different futures, according to its changing sense of which collective (within the dream totality of collectives) counted. And it acted on its dreams; it acted them out.” Clark is justifying the material lifestyle provided for the majority of citizens in the West as a consequence of the Industrial Revolution. Yes, much is detritus; much is salvageable, including the forsaken among us.

Ron Schindler