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Category Archives: Walter Benjamin

The Unlived Life and Unnecessary Triviality

Poetix offers a beautiful post on the meaning of the unlived life Latourian/Marxist valuation and its necessary connection to vitalism.

“A premise of Marxist economic theory, in particular of the Labour Theory of Value, is that exploitation is odious: the “surplus value” extracted from workers is a part of their life (that is, of their labour) which is taken from them and not returned. Not only is the working life of the worker actively curtailed by exhaustion and immiseration, but even the life he has left is not lived to the full inasmuch as he never enjoys the full fruits of his labours.”

From this comes to mind the Process Theology definition of “Evil”, derived from Whitehead and Aristotle, presented by Cobb and Griffin. Process Theology is an off-shoot of Whiteheadian metaphysics. Under this definition, there are two kinds of evil, absolute as Discord and relative as needless Triviality:

“Discord, which is physical or mental suffering is simply evil in itself, whenever it occurs. Triviality, however, is only evil in some cases. A trivial enjoyment is not evil in itself insofar as its harmony outweighs its discordant elements. But if it is more trival, and hence less intense than it could have been, given the real possibilities open to it, then it is evil. Hence while discord is absolutely evil, triviality is only comparatively evil.”

[Briefly summed up here: A Non-moral theory of Evil ]

With this in view, the soterial drive is the drive for the redemption of the “triviality” of other lives, a re-inscription of the meaning of their persisting notes in the strain. It is perhaps why Zionist movements and Christian Eschatology have played a heavy hand in the history of the West, in particular during it turning points of modernity 17th century and early 20th(and perhaps now). Keeping with an analogy of music, notes that are played trivallyso in history, the banal, sing-song jingles of an immature happinesses, or worse, the culdesacs of suffering, sour notes let out, each can take on a difference juxtaposed meaning when considered with our own actions. In this sense, our actions are genetic fulfillments of the hopes, unconscious and conscious, of others.

I think it is right to read the very question of continuity within the question of the maximalization of the intensity of our present lives, and hence attribute an implicit vitalism to any rational scheme to make sense of our world. As we stretch the living band to its most taut, discord reaching point, and form counterpoints to that tension, it is ever the graves of others that we retroactively over-turn and rebury.

The Angel of History

I differ though from Benjamin’s notion of historical impasse, the sense that we are ever removed from the paradise of a growing piling up of corpses and fragmentations, the haunting of a hautology:

A Klee drawing named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

– Walter Benjamin,

Ninth Thesis on the Philosophy of History

And I do not read individuation as a necessary ghosting as Benjamin evocatively summons up,

Standing behind the doorway curtain, the child [who is hiding] becomes himself something floating and white, a ghost. The dining table under which he is crouching turns him into a wooden idol in a temple whose four pillars are the carved legs…. Anyone who discovers him can petrify him as an idol under the table, weave him forever as a ghost into the curtain…. And so, at the seeker’s touch, with a loud cry he drives out the demon who has so transformed him – indeed without waiting for the moment of discovery, he grabs the hunter with a shout of self-deliverance.

Walter Benjamin, One Way Street

The reason for this is that given a Spinozist conception of sense-making, one already takes any notes played as optimally intense, not from their perspective, but the perspective of the fullness of Substance’s expression. But, this is not to say that our position, or own historical attempt to maximalize ourselves beyond the locality of our individuation, beyond the ghosting implicatures of the Symbolic, necessarily doesn’t keep a record of the relative intensities and trivialities of others, not only of the past (!), but of the present and the future. It is musicology. As such, there is more than enough room though for the Caliban Question, and the imagination as prophetic, including the spectres of ghosts.

[Also recommended, the “Life Beyond Life” post at Complete Lies.]

Walter Benjamin: The Task of the Philosopher

Between the Scientist and the Artist

Walter Benjamin – I am mixed on how I feel towards him – wrote what he called an “Epistemo-Critical Prologue” for his doctoral thesis on German Trauerspiel: The Origin of German Tragic Drama. His habilitation was refused, no doubt in part due to the wide-sweeping, if obscure considerations of his prologue.

Some passages are worth quoting, if only as a kind of Remembrance. And at most, as a reinitiation of the question, What is the Philosopher? Interesting to me is his Nietzschean-like embrace of the rhetorical style (that is, a materiality) of this genred discourse, and the way that he attempts to place the philosopher, culturally, and epistemologically, between that of Scientist (much on the ascendancy as a figure of authority in our times) and the Artist (much appropriated to the mechanisms of power and expression in a media-age). He writes: 

If it is the task of the philosopher to practice the kind of description of the world of ideas, which automatically includes and absorbs the empirical world, he then occupies an elevated position between that of the scientist and the artist. The latter sketches a restricted image of the world of ideas, which, because it is conceived as a metaphor, is at all times definitive. The scientist arranges the world with a view to its dispersal in the realm of ideas, dividing it from within into concepts. He shares the philosopher’s interest in the elimination of merely the empirical; while the artist shares with the philosopher the task of representation. There has been a tendency to place the philosopher too close to the scientist, and frequently the lesser kind of scientist; as if representation had nothing to do with the task of the philosopher. The concept of philosophical style is free of paradox. It has its postulates. These are as follows: 

  1. The art of the interruption in contrast to the chain of deduction;
  2. The tendency of the essay in contrast to single gesture of the fragment;
  3. The repetition of themes in contrast to shallow universalism;
  4. The fullness of concentrated positivity, in contrast to the negation of the polemic.

The demand for flawless coherence in scientific deduction is not made in order that truth shall be represented in its unity and singularity; and yet this very flawlessness is the only way that the logic of the system is related to the notion of truth. Such systematic completeness has no more in common with truth than any other form of representation which attempts to ascertain the truth in mere cognitions and cognitional patterns…

Interesting as well, despite its Platonic and Kabbalistic shading, is his proceptive comparison of ideas to “constellations”:

 …Ideas are to objects as constellations are to stars. This means, in the first place, that they are neither their concepts nor their laws. They do not contribute to the knowledge of phenomena, and in no way can the latter be the criteria with which to judge the existence of ideas. The significance of phenomena for ideas is confined to their conceptual elements. Whereas phenomena determine the scope and content of the concepts with encompass them, by their existence, by what they have in common, and by their differences, their relationship to ideas is the opposite of this inasmuch as the idea, the objective interpretation of phenomena-or rather their elements-determines their relationship to each other. Ideas are timeless constellations, and by virtue of the elements being seen as points in such constellations, phenomena are subdivided and at the same time redeemed; so that those elements which it is the function of the concept to elicit from phenomena are more clearly evident at the extremes. The idea is best explained as the representation of the context within which unique and extreme stands along side its counterpart.

“Epistmo-Critical Prologue”

As the contemporary philosopher positions her/himself within the context of importance, the image of constellation-reader makes up an interesting analogy, for science has done much good at dissolving the constellations of any importance; but we have to ask ourselves, how much are we stillsailors at sea? Within our ship, which has expanded at an incredible rate, we know “how it works” of so very many things. Our machine-interface has expanded from the jib and the mast and the rudder, and extended itself to a very great breadth through all kinds of wonderful instrumentalities. But as the surface area, the border of a sphere increases, evermore so does its volume, and the requirements for internal conceptional interaction would appear to become moredense. The requirement for rigorous invention of a conceptual apparatus for doing, for communicating, on which the meaning of our multifarious interactions rest, is increased. While eyes lay at the horizon of our limits, and our discovery (at the particle, the calculation, the device), what really is on the ascend ency is the integral capture of these limits. It is for this reason that the artist really is, in a hidden way, on the rise (employed by ever means in a media technique of representation). The question arises, how closely should the philosopher sit to scientist, as the sphere of knowledge expands? Culturally, where are her/his talents to reside?  

Is there not a need to invent new constellations?