Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Walter Benjamin's Aesthetics of Redemption.

It is still not possible to post images, since they continue to be blocked. I hope someday to be able to do so again. Meanwhile, I like this movie image (a link appears below) from an eighties' romantic comedy. I'll let the reader make the necessary associations between that image and this text. I regret that obstructions and efforts to frustrate my communications, make it impossible for me to share these images and thoughts in the form that I would like. Someday, we'll have real freedom of expression on-line. According to my security system, my most frequent attacker is, since 6-21-06 there have been 24 intrusion attempts on my system. Perhaps this is only a coincidence.

http://www.gagarinreport.com/images/lloyd.jpg (If the link is blocked from this page, simply Google it on your own.)

Picture a hunchback, wandering through the old streets of Paris, looking into antique shops and flea markets. He comes upon a display containing many old broaches and pieces of jewelry, and finds a dusty old cameo. He cleans the antique artifact, discovering a portrait of an eighteenth century woman. She is beautiful. With a little cleaning, the colors suddenly come to life in this miniature work of art. The hunchback is entranced. He researches this work in order to discover the identity of the sitter, so beautifully "seen" by the painter. Who was the painter? What did he feel for this woman? Who was the woman in the portrait?

Eventually -- through painstaking research -- an identification is possible. A romance is suspected between the painter (maybe Fragonard? Watteau?) and this mysterious woman. Their story is kept alive by the hunchback. They are returned to us, somehow, as a result of this rediscovery and retelling. They are seen again. For them to be "seen" is to be placed within the evolving narrative of an artistic and political tradition.

Miniatures were meant to be carried by loved-ones, usually men, to war. Perhaps the dreamy quality in her eyes, the love in those eyes, was meant for this man in her life, who may have perished in those wars. Who carried this portrait? What happened to him? What were their names? Shall we give them new names? Do we have the power or right to name them? Do we have their permission to do so, now that they are gone?

Walter Benjamin is an enigmatic figure in twentieth century philosophy. He is a Marxist and a mystic, a proponent of mass culture and its critic, writing of hashish and revolution as well as Talmudic interpretation. Like Ernst Bloch, he may be thought of as a "theologian of revolution." His life was brief and tragic. Dying in 1940, as he fled the Nazis, he felt that his work was incomplete. His books are curiously enigmatic and resonate for readers today, even for readers whose enthusiasm for all forms of Marxism has now waned or disappeared entirely.

For Benjamin, the world is a city of ruins bearing witness to a meaning which has fled and must be reconstructed. Each of us is like that forgotten artifact found by the hunchback. We are immersed in the half-forgotten history and abandoned intellectual tradition in which we find ourselves -- and perhaps in something more, call it an ancient cosmic narrative that we make or discover? -- which alone can provide us with meaning and truth. There are obvious associations with the work of contemporary philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, especially his arguments in After Virtue.

To find the "truth" about that miniature work of art is to place it within a history, an artistic tradition, a trajectory in time and culture, an artistic vocabulary, perhaps, even a spiritual tradition, most of all within a narrative of reconstruction. Does the work suggest an association with Christian iconography? Is the woman in the painting hinting at an identification with, say, Mary Magdalene? There is no possible meaning for such objects -- or the persons associated with them -- outside of an aesthetic community and a shared journey in time. Taken from its context, removed to another planet, the art work is literally meaningless. To know what the object is, it is necessary to rebuild its world, so as to place it in a community.

Each piece of rubble or ruin in Benjamin's imaginary city is, therefore, a clue to a lost and not yet rediscovered paradise. For Benjamin, "everything present testifies to an absent truth and offers itself to the critical eye as a sign to be interpreted." Richard Kearney comments:

... everything real points to a surreal level of meaning beyond itself. "Allegory displaces authenticity in all things," writes Benjamin, in characteristically cryptic fashion. The world can no longer be taken for granted as a universal given; it is now exposed as an allegory with a complex of meanings open to a wide range of implicitly related readings. Benjamin never forgot the cabalistic teaching that there are at least forty-nine levels of meaning to everything!

Benjamin sees himself as the hunchback living in the "interstices" (see the work of Miami philosopher and artist, Alfredo Triff) of his imaginary city. See Alfredo Triff, Art and The Interstice (Florida; Saeta ed./Nosti Press, 1991), pp. 71-74. He often signed his letters "the hunchback." Professor Arendt says: "In his writings and also in conversation he used to speak about the 'little hunchback,' ... a German fairy tale figure out of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the famous collection of German folk poetry." Benjamin is the collector, the hunchback, who redeems objects from utilitarian routine.

How much more necessary is this act of redemption when it comes to persons in our world? The receptionist who longs to be seen as a person, in her uniqueness and pain at being stared at every day; the mailcarrier who is not seen but only sought for what he brings, whose conversation interests us for a moment and in whom we express human concern -- both of these persons become friends in exchange for our concern. So many people in large cities stare at strangers and scream, silently, that they wish to be seen.

In a similar way, the woman you see as a sexual object -- a thing to be used and discarded -- I see as a person. Her beauty is more powerful and true, as it fades -- fades only physically -- with the passage of time, becoming something more private, spiritual and more truly ours, becoming a much greater (because it is non-physical) beauty for me, because I love her. Loving someone is the ultimate act of redemption, of "seeing" that person, in all of her complexity and contradictions. "I see the beauty inside and that makes you beautiful on the outside."

Hannah Arendt summarizes Benjamin's stance in her introduction to Illuminations: "Collecting is the redemption of things which is to complement the redemption of man." The hunchback, thus, also becomes an object of redemption, a person who is in turn "collected" or seen aesthetically and morally, in something akin to a dream state. In the first Surrealist Manifesto, Andre Breton writes: "Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of association heretofore neglected, in the omnipotence of the dream, and in the disinterested play of thought." In Benjamin's mutual process of redemption, the "power to name" is highly significant:

Things have no proper name, writes Benjamin, except in God. For in his creative word, God called them into being, calling them by their proper names. In the language of men, however, they are overnamed. There is in the relation of human languages to that of things, something that can be approximately described as overnaming: overnaming as the deepest linguistic reason for all melancholy ... It is certain that the language of art can be understood only in the deepest relationship to the language of signs.

Recall my discussion of the constitutive power of naming. To provide you with a name, is to constitute you as a subject. Hence, the power of epithets, but also of titles. Naming is the ultimate freedom in construction by way of language, so that a name that we are forced to impose upon another is also an imposition on us. No one knows my name, except the person who loves me.

Choice is everything with language use, as with morals and love. You must choose my name and I must choose to accept it. A distinction is drawn, then, between symbol and allegory: "For symbolism the divine is imminent; for allegory it is radically transcendent, a perpetual absence, [maybe a refusal to presume to name what cannot be named?] a Deus Absconditus."

For Benjamin, redemption is possible only with a turning of the modernist and Capitalist conception of time inside out: no longer linear, time becomes a spiral or mandala, making all times present, all moments now. Think of Borges in El Aleph or William Blake's "infinity in one hour."

Benjamin counsels a messianic form of Marxism or socialism that fights to redeem the forgotten past. Those ghostly values are all round us, implied in our art and religions, in the aspirations and struggles of our fathers and mothers. Redemption is a restoration of what was broken and lost in other lives, in our own individual lives too. In the film Amistad, the African hero calls upon his ancestors at a moment of crisis and refuses a "slave name." Similarly, by acquiring an entry into the philosophical project of humanity, we call upon our ancestors in our daily struggle with these questions of meaning, purpose and tragedy. This brings Benjamin to an engagement with memory and Jung's "collective subconscious."

This act of naming and constructing is a rescuing of what has always been sought or yearned for, of what is found in our practices and institutions, the gold at the bottom of the well. Think again of American Constitutional hermeneutics. What is it that we are always trying to get right in Constitutional interpretation? It is at this point that Benjamin's project may be brought into a useful relation with Paul Ricoeur's hermeneutics of freedom. Richard Wolin writes:

In all of these respects, it is clear that the vitalist fascination with archaic images, the unconscious, dreams, shocks, collective forms of experience, and states of ecstasy in which the unity of the self dissolves, represented for Benjamin an important complement to what he found of value in the profane illuminations of the surrealists. Reactionary thought, too, contained "energies of intoxication" that needed to be won over for the revolution. But in this case, it would not be a ... (a revolution from the right).

Benjamin's answer is a theory of dream consciousness:

His theory of dream consciousness has much in common with Bloch's notion of "dreaming towards the future." It is precisely in this sense that he employs Michelet's saying, "Every epoch dreams its successor," as a motto to introduce his central statement of method[.] The allegory-laden, commodity utopias of the nineteenth century engendered a proliferation of dream- and wish-images, a phantasmagoria, that humanity would be able to possess in reality only if it becomes conscious of it." Benjamin associated the act of "becoming conscious" with the moment of awakening from the dream; [by understanding its meaning?] it was an act that at the same time, entailed a realization of the utopian potential contained in the dream.

We look around us and see what our obscene collection of objects and commodities are hinting at, as the "dream" of our time and place: an idealized or fantasy image of community and perfection. These trinkets bearing price tags are all about the hope for love and community that is displaced into a single act in our society, which is economic consumption. We will never be satisfied or fulfilled by consuming. Our human relations are mediated by money, including sexual relations, which become the simulacra of intimacy. We get to buy things and people, when what we really want is to find love and meaning in relationships that are freely chosen. For Benjamin, the objects themselves -- even the humblest of them -- can be redeemed for this true human project, and thereby made meaningful through the rediscovery of their beauty.

This project cannot be separated from the religious aspirations of humanity. Its dual aspect may be suggested by the frequent self-identification of Jesus, for example, as both "the son of man" and "the son of God," a realization of our spiritual natures in this material world, here and now. This is a cabalistic (we are "pierced vessels") and gnostic ambition, connecting Judaism and Christianity, but even more it is at the center of the universal mythical imagination of humanity. This achievement of full humanity is what Joseph Campbell describes as the purpose of the "hero's journey."

This is not simply a utopian aspiration, since as Karl Marx said: "Humanity only sets itself tasks that it can solve." It is only made to seem impossible by the logic of a system that wishes to program us into roles as docile consumers. We are hampsters on the running wheel of endless commercial activity in our consumer society. Accordingly, hope becomes dangerous and those who create or seek beauty, those who dare to "imagine," must be ostracized and dismissed as fools or dreamers. This imagining is a very American activity, where commercial rewards are really incidental to achievement, though they are often mistaken for achievement itself.

Benjamin anticipated all of this, insisting that we must continue to hope, however desperate our situation may be, since "hope was only created for those without hope."

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