Saturday, October 3, 2015

A feuilleton against barbarism

....The literary work is a function of what Benjamin
called "literary technique," conditioned primarily by the reproduction
technique, but also by the social situation of authors, their cultural tradi-
tions and their personal experience. Finally, Benjamin saw all these factors
in relation to the stage of the economic conditions of production, thus
showing his Marxist perspective. The multiple mediations, however, free the
work of art from acting as a mere reflection of reality. Based on its unequal
levels of development, which are considered by him less a utopian
prefiguration than a rescue of the past and therefore a construction of the
historically determined subject, the work of art can become an active force in
the present....

"The novel, whose beginnings reach back into antiquity, needed hundreds of
years before it found in the developing bourgeoisie the elements bringing it to
fruition. With the appearance of these elements the story began its slow
retreat into obsolescence .... On the other hand, we recognize that with the
established rule of the bourgeoisie and the emergence of the press as one of
the most important instruments of capitalism, a new form of communication
appears which, no matter how far in the past its origins may lie, has never
before influenced the epic form in any decisive way . . . This new form of
communication is information. "Only today is it fully clear just how much
the superabundance of information has changed the function and reception
of literature. On the one hand, literature attempts to assimilate itself to the
new reality as documentary literature. On the other hand, at least in Western
society, the novel, as popular literature, deteriorates to the level of politically
inferior mass entertainment or as high literature, it becomes , with few
exceptions, a plaything for intellectual interpretation. This means that the
novel is less and less able to fill the functions of consciousness-forming and
socialization that it had for the rising bourgeoisie. These functions are
increasingly taken over by the excess of historical and topical documentation
offered by the mass media, especially television.

Benjamin only experienced newspapers, radio and film as vehicles of mass
communication. Unlike Adorno and Horkheimer, however, he does not reject
them out of hand as "culture industry." Instead, he sees in them a new supra-
individual form of communication which will lead to a new collective art if it
can be freed from the domination of capital. This is why Benjamin puts such
emphasis on the experiment with writer-workers ; for in their communications
the individual no longer describes his private fate or that of a fictional hero,
rather he communicates social experiences. According to Benjamin, this is a
return of the story on a higher level, since here it becomes a depository for
collective knowledge. In contrast to traditional story-telling, this type of
writing lacks aura, that is historical uniqueness. Its supra-individual aspect no
longer arises from a natural succession of generations of story-tellers ; rather it
arises from the universal synchronism brought about by technology, the
negative expression of which is the omnipresence of events diffused as
information by the mass media.
Intended as a polemic against Lukacs, Brecht's remark speaks directly to
Benjamin's literary praxis : "Our starting point is not the good old, it is the
bad new. The problem is not to reduce technology, but to expand it. "

Benjamin's own
theoretical position lies in another system of coordinates. It is characterized
by his experiences as a member of the metropolitan intelligentsia and his
contact with the judaic-mystical tradition. As a solitary intellectual divested
of a social function, he came to see society's poverty, the decay of tradition
which has led to a "new barbarism."64 Indeed, from the clippings, fragments
and left-overs of what he ironically called "cultural wealth" he was able to
read the sign of the times; thus, the most heterogeneous elements point to
present poverty and coming catastrophes : the experience of human impo-
tence in technological warfare, glass architecture, Scheerbarth's novel
Lesebandio, figures by Klee and verses by Brecht. 65 In his own writings,
however, these fragments are given organization by the messianic hope for an
end of history. In the light of this faith mediated by the Jewish tradition, even
a figure like Mickey Mouse, which might appear as a prototype of the modern
lack of tradition, becomes the pledge of another undistorted world.


Excerpts from: "Benjamin and Lukacs. Historical Notes on the Relationship Between  Their Political and Aesthetic Theories"

New German Critique.  No. 5 (Spring, 1975), pp. 3-26

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