Esther Leslie | Walter Benjamin
For a Marxist Poetics of Science: An Interview with Esther Leslie
First published in Historical Materialism
Can you tell us a bit about your intellectual and political formation?
I come from a political family — my parents were Trotskyists, my grandparents on one side were anarchists and, on the other, one grandfather had been involved in unemployment marches. There was a strong sense of class consciousness and political engagement at home. My anarchist grandfather, who was German, was a book publisher and bookseller in London and so we were surrounded at home by many books, from him and also because my parents could never stop acquiring books — they themselves became involved in a journal, Revolutionary History, and a publishing venture, Socialist Platform. My anarchist grandmother was a Jew of Polish descent and she had been arrested in the struggle for woman’s votes towards the start of the century and was a firebrand speaker at Highbury Corner, denouncing war. I was intrigued by this political tradition and by the presence of Germans and Jews in my lineage. It drew me towards Marx and also drew me to investigate the meaning of Nazism, especially as in my teenage years the National Front fascists were gaining prominence in the UK. I was a teenager when punk emerged and I was drawn to anarchist bands, such as Crass and the Poison Girls, and my schoolfriends recorded on their label. Aesthetically though I preferred the simultaneously melodious and dissonant punk of ATV, the Buzzcocks, the Nightingales, and others. This fueled too an interest in the mass reproduced form that is the record cover, a small artwork. I watched and read John Berger at an early age. I found Walter Benjamin on the bookcases. We had piles of Marx and Trotsky at home. I went to Sussex University because it was understood as a more radical place than others. I studied German so that I might get to live in Berlin for a year. While there, I took courses — on the aesthetics of the ugly, on Fassbinder, on Georg Buechner, on Benjamin and thresholds, on the anthropology of the early Marx and many more things — which opened up a lot of areas and intensified the excitement of learning.
In your first study, Walter Benjamin, Overpowering Conformism, you attempt to offer an analysis of Walter Benjamin’s oeuvre that differs substantially from the conformist readings of his work. Which are these readings? What do these studies not grasp from his analysis in order to be defined as conformist? Additionally to this study, you offer a presentation of his politics. What kind of politics did he endorse? Was he Marxist? If yes, what kind of Marxism did he promote? For example, what was his take on the Marxist analytical metaphor of base and superstructure?
I wrote my PhD on Benjamin and technology. There had been a wave of interest in Benjamin in English in the late 1970s, early 80s, Eagleton, Jameson, Julian Roberts for example who had taken for granted that Benjamin was Marxist, in some way. John Berger’s Ways of Seeing from the early 1970s presented itself as a popularization of Benjamin’s ideas and it directed those ideas determinedly towards emancipation, without compromise. By the time I came to write my PhD in the 1990s, a new Benjamin was being invented. It was one that was doused in melancholy, loss, impossibilities, suicides. It was one tied up in complex linguistic theories that seemed more drawn from Derrida and deconstruction. It was one that emphasized Judaism as holding the key to Benjamin’s thought. It was one that took Scholem’s claim to be the only true interpreter of Benjamin seriously, negating Brecht, negating Adorno. It was also one that tried to reimagine Benjamin as a proponent, a trailblazer of consumerism, a dilettante of the Arcades. It seemed as if, from various directions, Benjamin was being made useless, postmodernised, seized from his time and directed towards either a smooth fitting into ours — he would be so at home in the shopping mall — or make to face it impotently, like his own angelus novus, watching in sweet horror the broken rubbles of the hopes and dreams of modernity, of revolutionaries which can of course never be realized, are fatal, are impossible and vicious.
The hate was removed from Benjamin. The energies of hate, the cool appraisal of the horror and of who causes it. It was all gone. This was not a Benjamin who was Brecht’s finest interpreter. Nor a Benjamin who wrestled with actually existing communism. Not a Benjamin who experienced daily, in his adult years, what it meant to be short of means, to be censored, made into a hack, oppressed. There are quite a number of people who feel comfortable with that Benjamin today — and seem to refuse to read anything of his published after 1918. Benjamin is rooted in his times. This is why he was clear about who was working in the cultural field in any way adequate to those times. This was why he was interested in technology — cultural techniques as well as technological forms that make commodities, make wars, make possible new ways of living. I wanted to bring out that sense of Benjamin as materialist. It means making clear how extraordinary his study of the Arcades as a crucible of the nineteenth century, as a kind of technology, was. He indicted consumerism as the birthplace of fascism. I still don’t think people credit with enough perspicacity his idea of the aestheticization of politics. His Marxism relates to this — it is a Marxism of the everyday, a full accounting of experience and how experience can be alienated from the experiencer — as he explains in his 1933 essay “Experience and Poverty.” Experience is a battleground. The battleground forms our experience — directly then for those on the battlefields of the First World War, but no less now in our age of permanently threatened war, hi-tech war. We are in the shadow of war, as he was, and our experience is overshadowed by this. Benjamin’s Marxism of the everyday is also a Marxism that understands Surrealism, understands how dream and wish and hope colour our engagements in the world, render art a training ground, a prefigurative space, a gauge, and a promise. Benjamin’s was astute politically and curious — you can sense that in his conversations with Brecht, in his discussions in Moscow, his thoughts in letters on the Popular Front in France. Scholem wanted to portray Benjamin as a naïve figure, but that is a misrepresentation. His theses on the Concept of History contribute a profound historical document, not a jolt arising from disappointment, but a full reckoning of the calamitous actions and concepts of Social Democracy. Stalinism, and Fascism.
As to the formal apparatuses of Marxism — I do not think Benjamin — nor I — is unduly concerned by questions of base and superstructure. Or at least these things, once they become formulaic, work against Marxism. Benjamin’s sense of a relationship of expression between base and superstructure strikes me as interesting — he compares it to a person sleeping who has indigestion, and that uncomfortableness comes to expression in the dream, not as a direct reflection, but as an expression, a kind of translation, that, as we know with dreams, may be quite distorted. I have taken this idea quite literally lately (in a research and artistic project on Milk, called “Deeper into the Pyramid,” with the artist Melanie Jackson) and have been looking at cheese and dreams and the purported relation between the two, especially as evinced in Winsor McCay’s Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend. There is a processing of the modern world, its anxieties and its technologies, its pressures and possibilities in the dream, through the workings of cheese on the body; and it takes on exaggerated expression, but is not the less true. The line by Adorno, “Only the exaggerations are true,” on psychoanalysis, strikes me as more broadly pertinent. It is why Benjamin was interested in Grandville’s caricatures and why I have looked at cartoons so much.
One of the main topics with which Benjamin was engaged with and you analyse in your work is that of photography. Why did he decide to deal with such a medium? What is his take on photography as technological form and political tool? What were the consequences of the invention of photography for global culture according to him?
Benjamin was drawn to photography because it was unavoidable in his period, or rather it was visible because it was everywhere and still new enough to appear rather than fade into a background and become unseen. This is a signal of the extent to which Benjamin was alive to his environment, was part of the world in which he lived and wanted to understand it affects upon humans. Similarly he is alive to the presence of neon in the city and writes strikingly about what it does to language and to our consciousness in his One-Way Street. He is not alone in these observations. Siegfried Kracauer is another figure who takes his cues from the streets of Weimar, who translates experience within the modern world into existential and political form. Kracauer writes a powerful essay on photography — and I wonder if this was a spur for Benjamin to contribute his own take. Clearly Benjamin had an interest in mass reproducibility, in the shift of the artwork away from unique individual existence in one place and time. The photograph has no original. Not only that as city dweller we become aware of its multiplicity, its existence as one and the same thing in countless magazines, on countless posters, on postcards, in books, on the side of vehicles. Benjamin noted that it changes how we view art — brings a version of a unique artwork into our hands, our rooms, our contexts and lives. But he was more interested in how it becomes a thing for itself, art, cultural expression made in order to be replicated, in order to be transported and recontextualised.
What relationship did that have to politics? Of course, he was aware that it was photography that was one of the most politicized forms for the modernists of the new Soviet Union, in the work of Rodchenko and others. It was also the case that there was an efflorescence of photography in Weimar Germany and he was intrigued about its melancholic deployments of the image, how it did not serve revolutionary thinking, but because a blank affirmation of misery or a surrender to it or a beautification of what exists in the work of New Objectivists like Alfred Renger-Patzsch. The most sophisticated aesthetic discussions in Weimar and in Europe more generally were taking place in relation to film and photography — with the Film und Foto exhibition in Stuttgart in 1929, or the theory and practice of László Moholy-Nagy. It is also significant that women around Benjamin took photographs and wrote about them, such as Gisele Freund.
He wanted to make his contribution, I suppose, and I find it interesting that his Small History of Photography from 1931 appears in the Literarische Welt. Photography is the new literature of this world. As he notes, quoting Moholy-Nagy, the illiterate of the future is the person unable to read photography. That is, I suppose, still true, or even truer, though we now have to factor in how much more sophisticated are the means by which photography can be manipulated or dislocated from its context and circulated for various ends. Here Benjamin’s thoughts on the caption and how it anchors may be of interest, for the way they suggest the need to anchor the image, to produce a dialectic between word and image, to pull it into a context — the caption need not be seen as a descriptive title, more a kind of angling on the image, on what it shows, or does not show. I imagine that he might have been thinking of the way Heartfield uses text in his photomontages, not to tie down the meaning of the poster, but to blast it into political associations, the destabilizing and humorous effects of puns, making a bridge between the world of nonsense represented in the press and official discourse and the enlivening ways in which language is used in the streets and at moments of struggle.
What are the commonalities and differences between Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin in their analytical method of the diptych “art and politics”?
Benjamin was a canny interpreter of Brecht. Brecht was a great interlocutor with Benjamin. Brecht was in the main an artist. Benjamin was in the main a critic. They have different aims, and so how they might address the relationship of art and politics is different. One analyses the potentials, as well as observing the ways in which the relation is distorted under fascism. The other works to develop art that is sufficient to the demands of the time, adequate to produce an audience that can criticize, be mobilized intellectually and emotionally by what they see. Brecht’s exchanges between aesthetics and politics were worked out in the theatre, collectively Benjamin was far more interested in the capacities of technology – potentially in many ways – to work towards emancipatory politics. He also observed how technology had altered cultural form, under capitalism. Brecht stuck with traditional forms, plays, poems, for the most part. He innovated within those traditional forms, of course, existing modes of acting, staging, plotting, using vocabulary and subject-matter, that politicized the forms. At points, at his most classically political, he drew on history, displacing contemporary questions into peasant settings from the past. His experiences of Hollywood and of Weimar Film too were negative, as much as they were educational. He made a book out of the dire experience of seeing what G.W. Pabst did to his Threepenny Opera in film. He learnt an extraordinary lesson about the bourgeois state when the film he worked on, Kuhle Wampe, was censored.
Benjamin did not have such practical experiences of industry or state intervening in, working on outputs. But in terms of commonalities and differences, I don’t think that for either of them there is an easily definable relationship between aesthetics and politics that can be measured and then set one against the other. Both of them modulate what they mean by that relationship, by the transfer between art and politics, aesthetics and politics. They both have experiemental attitudes — Brecht in terms of the plays and formats that he writes and stages and works on. Benjamin in terms of his theoretical investigations, but also his own practical experiments. I did say that Benjamin was more a theorist than a practitioner, but he was a sophisticated user of radio and his radio scripts are an extraordinary aspect of his work. Benjamin worked in the progressive radio networks of Weimar Germany, using technology and form to generate a critical, self-reflexive audience. He did radio lectures for children, which are intimate, ambitious, and engaging — that is forcing engagement from his audience. He also did radio dramas and strange word games. All this was an immanently political practice — using a technological form to promulgate a certain pedagogy through culture, history, social studies.
He also wrote odd short stories, which I issued an edition of, together with two younger colleagues, Sam Dolbear and Sebastian Truskolaski. These are also miniature models of how voice, narrative, release of information, perspective generate a politics of the text. For that volume, titled The Storyteller, we were also concerned to foreground the extent to which Benjamin was interested in pedagogy and education, and supported those initiatives that addressed children playfully or as peers. The politics of education was important to him from his earliest days and he had a certain experience of what a progressive education might be through his times at the Hermann-Lietz-Schule Haubinda in Thuringia from 1905-1907. Brecht too is concerned to understand his poetic practice as a kind of learning — in the most progressive way — maieutic, bringing to consciousness, dialogue, measuring experience against representation, using humour and irony.
One of the several topics that Benjamin engaged with is Fascism. What are the main insights that Benjamin offers for the understanding of the phenomenon? Which aspects of his understanding on the phenomenon do you think are still relevant today and can help us to understand better the current far-right that has emerged since the last global financial crisis?
Benjamin seems to become really aware of fascism as a phenomenon in 1930. That is the year of his essay “Theories of German Fascism,” where he condemns the work of fascist Ernst Jünger and his circle. Benjamin attacked the mysticism of war indulged in by Jünger, a continuation into the postwar of the Freikorps brutes, the “war engineers of the ruling class.” Jünger was two years later to publish a fantasy of the soldier-worker as automaton, ahuman and anatural in a totally mobilised society. The new machinic person is a worker-soldier technocrat, who is a “type,” and is motivated by “the will to utilise technology.” He subordinates his self to the “total state,” and the reward is immortality. War is magical. War is beautiful. War is an aesthetic experience of the highest order. The critique of this stance is something Benjamin will return to in the context of Nazism, when he considers the ways in which technological production and reproduction feed war and reactionary politics.
The problem, in Benjamin’s diagnosis, though it manifests itself in various ways, is at bottom a misachieved relationship between technology and nature, as overseen by those with power, be they imperialists or capitalists or both. Imperialist capitalism turns technology against nature, militarising landscapes, slaughtering people in the pursuit of conquering other countries, as well as dominating its own. To explore social form, Benjamin makes an analogy between children and nature, on the one hand, and adults and technology and technique, on the other.
The mastery of nature, so the imperialists teach, is the purpose of all technology and technique. But who would trust a cane wielder who proclaimed the mastery of children by adults to be the purpose of education? Is not education above all the indispensable ordering of the relationship between generations and therefore mastery, if we are to use this term, of that relationship and not of the children? And likewise technology and technique are not the mastery of nature but of the relation between nature and man.
Education is about regulating relationships between the generations, bringing new accords between those who have different experiences and futures. Just as the aim and mode of technology, in its engagements with humans, need not be to incite violence and oppression, so too education is about calibrating a communal endeavour, whereby young and old communicate, and perhaps, through the mechanism of their relationship, each learns from the other. Politics resides in the regulation of a relationship, not in the infantilisation of one part or the violent domination of it. It is not the case that technologies work, in themselves, towards the liberation of the individual or the collective. Rather, capital smashes time and space as it was known and rewrites the world in its image, from the colonies to the centres of power. The “human sensorium,” notes Benjamin, is submitted, across this period, “to a complex training.” New media forms exercise this on the body. The shock experience of factories and streetscapes is processed, accommodated to, or explored in the shock experience of new technologies of distraction. Benjamin’s commitment is to an “anthropological materialism” that is aware of the recomposition of nature, in its form as human body, which the human sensorium experiences through technological development. This experience is intense and is felt on the body. Fascism fights to shape that body in its own image — indeed radio and other technologies of culture will become some of its tools, at least in the field of ideology, but perhaps more fundamentally, in the field of a kind of biopolitics.
At points Benjamin studies the past in an effort to understand how capitalism created the conditions for the victory of fascism in Europe. Benjamin writes of his Arcades Project: “We can speak of two directions in this work: one which goes from the past into the present and shows the arcades, and all the rest, as precursors, and one which goes from the present into the past so as to have the revolutionary potential of these ‘precursors’ explode in the present.” The second direction leads out of or away from fascism — and is the axis of hope. In the first direction, the arcades, and the culture of consumerism these ushered in, is identified as a prerequisite of fascism, which cannot be understood without reference to capitalism, both in terms of its economic basis and in the way in which people are encouraged to conceive themselves, against all reality, as consumers and national masses, not workers and internationalists. At the same time, the arcades and other similar nineteenth century forms, such as railway stations, museums, exhibition halls, fizz with utopian promise, the promise of luxuries, of mobility, of knowledge. Benjamin is always alert to a dialectical switch in which the contemporary “hell” of commodity production and capitalist society can be probed to reveal traces of hope, but this is also the forging ground of a consumerist mentality that feeds fascism and an aestheticization that amplifies the cultivation of myth. This is the ground on which fascism thrives.
Progress, Benjamin declares, is a nineteenth-century phantasm. The trust in progress affected philosophers and industrialists as well as Social Democratic reformists. Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History” presents a critique of progress as exemplified in a nineteenth century historiography, which had been produced by a bourgeoisie that, so he tells us, had reneged on a critical attitude, for which it no longer had any use. The concept of progress becomes a dogma at that moment when it is no longer a socially critical concept. In addition to his suspicion of the concept of progress, Benjamin’s theses on the philosophy of history and his study of Eduard Fuchs, the collector, from 1936, level a more specific criticism of the confusion of human progress with technological progress. The bourgeoisie imagine infinite expansion, with the production of endless commodities to be placed in untold markets. And the Social Democrats of his time imagined that such expansion could, in the end, benefit the working class, for it would allow eventually the enrichment of each and everyone. This was tantamount to the gradual evolution to socialism, without the need for forceful revolution. Benjamin notes a confusion that arose in Social Democracy at this time. It held a misguided understanding of the role of labour, which then turned into a fetish of labour, and a belief in salvation through technology, rather than through altering the relations of production, which is another way of saying regulating the relations of technology. Benjamin observes: “This vulgar-Marxist conception of the nature of labour bypasses the question of how its products might benefit the workers while still not being at their disposal. It recognizes only the progress in the mastery of nature, not the retrogression of society; it already displays the technocratic features later encountered in Fascism.”
The Social Democratic reformists had been so convinced that progress would occur, indeed was occurring, and they were so sure of the existence of their mass base, under any circumstance, that they had entered into bargains with the political establishment. Benjamin identifies their bull-headed belief in progress and their faith in a mass base as the political will for “servile inclusion in an uncontrollable apparatus.” Technological development, industrial production that “outstrips human needs” (most noticeably in the production of newspaper copy and armaments) and the swooning crowds, mobilised but not “active,” had brought about something quite other than socialism: world war. And it did this twice.
Benjamin intertwines technology, class, and consciousness, in order to pursue his programme of liberatory politics. If the state treats its citizens as fools, props, and as suffering sources of profit, then the antidote to that is a collective that has shaken off its passivity. A passage that Benjamin included in the footnotes of the second version of “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technical Reproducibility” explores this. The proletariat is a mass, but it only appears to be a compact one from the outside, through the eyes of its oppressors. At the moment of its self-activation, it begins to loosen up and moves from being a reactive force to an active one. As an active body, this proletarian mass, acting out of solidarity, lifts the separation between individual and mass, or rather renders it dialectical, such that revolutionary leadership does not pull from the front, but is rather absorbed constantly into the mass, which mobilises a collective rationality. This is not the mass that Gustave Le Bon identified in his explorations of “mass psychology.” His is the petty bourgeois one, which is pressed into a deadened compact mass by the pressures of the classes that flank it and it has a psychology, or an emotional basis that can be — and will be — mobilised reactively. Benjamin alludes to its panicky manifestation as enthusiasm for war, hatred of Jews, or the drive for self-preservation. Fascism cultivates compaction, which serves it well, while Communists prepare for the abolition of masses altogether, their dissolution into self-activating collectives. As an additional tool of rule, Fascism extends the aestheticising elements of commodification into the spectacle of politics, abusing what it means to be political and what it means to use technology at one and the same time.
In the various versions of “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility” (1935-8), Walter Benjamin recognises the ways in which mechanically reproduced art is intimate with mass movements. Mechanically reproduced art renders images of these compact and loosening masses — tight ornamental ones of fascist rallies and ones in which the figures scatter, regroup, represent themselves and stand beside themselves. While Hollywood puts energy into polishing the disempowering cultish and gleaming commodity glow through its magnetic stars and their fabled histories, Benjamin’s commentary on fascist aesthetic cultism ponders the Nazi use of recording machines at vast rallies, monster meetings, mass sporting events and in war. The latest technologies are deployed by the Nazis to make heartfelt representations of the masses at play, at work, at war. Manipulated emotion is the currency in Hollywood and at the Reichsfilmkammer alike. The mass reproduction of artworks — the genetic ability to make many copies — is aligned with the emergence of mass movements, in a political sense. Mass movements are, in themselves, not marked in any specific political way. Benjamin recognises the aspiration of fascism to be a mass movement, as much as Communism would claim to be one. But these mass movements have very different qualities, just as film too might operate politically in very different ways.
For all mass movements, film is a powerful agent, not least because it provides a huge image of those mass movements as they go about their work and play. The mass movements seem to be represented in the fullest sense — given political voice, present in the world. Benjamin observes that, in the Nazi newsreel, for example, they are not given political rights, but only an “expression,” and this is one in which their movements are marshalled for the camera’s eye, which seeks out ornamental patterns. The camera participates in movement with its “liftings” and “lowerings,” as well as other modes of cutting into time and space. It finds within the filmed objects their vibrations and rhythms, arrangements and energies. What Benjamin appears to describe as produced by the camera lens and visible through the cinematic apparatus is an animated vision — mobile products, anthropomorphised nature. Film, in whatever form, is well adapted to display the dynamics of the modern world. In addition, the mechanical reproduction of art mobilises by detaching the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. It displaces the artwork or even dislocates it from the realm of art itself. Furthermore, it subjects the artwork to a movement. It moves it into the ambit of the recipient, and out of the space of the gallery.
In a sense, the camera and cinematic apparatus appear as forms that regulate the relation between human and world. The camera and the cinematic apparatus permit the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his or her own particular situation. These processes have great effects. They lead to a tremendous shattering of tradition which, Benjamin notes, is the obverse of the contemporary crisis of the 1930s and the potential or necessary renewal of mankind. In the worst scenario, the mass movements are hardened into patterns having relinquished their own autonomy. They are moved and mobilised. The immobilising spell exerted by repressive government, states, or reactionary artworks, who have seized control of the regulatory mechanism, might yet be broken, Benjamin insists, in a kind of image therapy, which presents in one image or in a montage of images, both the forces of oppression — the flaw of the world — and the possibility of error’s supersession — the redemption of reality.
What of all this is still relevant? I think shocking is that we have to consider the question of its continuing relevance. But capitalism and fascism have a curious shadowing relationship. Scratch a reactionary and you find a fascist, more or less. Capitalism and fascism are enmeshed and exist in a death dance, where one disavows the other, uses the other as threat or scare or mobilises the spectre or the power of its violence, in order to coerce peoples to act in certain ways, one sets the other up as its enemy, but at bottom both want the same, the protection of property relations as they currently exist, or their contraction to even fewer holders.
The techno-fetishism of fascism has returned (if it ever went away) in extraordinary ways in the ideas of venture capitalist technologist Trump associates such as Peter Thiel. Thiel, for one, despises democracy and is working to dismantle it, working in the penumbra of “dark enlightenment” ideas and siphoning some of his billions towards “radical science” projects through the Thiel foundation, such as seasteading, or off-shore nation formation, anti-matter space propulsion, embedded biomodules to measure constantly the autonomic nervous system or reprogramming of a patient’s own cells to create a sustained, personalised drug factory. These are technologically enhanced futures carried out under privatized relations of production.
The aestheticization of politics is barely less relevant, in the age of Trump, and not just him. Politics as soap opera. Politics as spectacle? Politics as Punch and Judy show. The misapplication of technology, its diversion into destructive ends, which are also highly profitable ends, is no less relevant. That reaction is generated and managed as a way of polarizing and thereby manipulating populations seems clear. That Social Democracy has failed, or has been unable to loosen itself from the illusion of the reformability of Capitalism is an ongoing issue.
In short, we are not so far away from the 1930s in terms of the structures of ownership, the fetishizing and mysticism around technology, the appeal to broad masses in the name of political movements that mask their actual visions of the future and promise only that those you hate, because they have taken something from you, will fare worse in the future, even much worse. Perhaps there is little faith in progress now. Even the Social Democrats do not pretend that there will be jam tomorrow. And yet have we really taken cognizance of how precarious any future for us actually is.
Your next study, Hollywood Flatlands, brings into light the links between animation, avant-garde and modernist criticism. What was the take of Walter Benjamin on Hollywood animated cartoons and more precisely on Disney’s Mickey Mouse? Did Horkheimer and Adorno have a different take on the issue from that of Benjamin? You argue also that those who took cartoons most seriously were the political revolutionaries of the interwar period, could you elaborate further on this issue? You tend to treat in your book cartoons not only as a direct expression of the capitalist mode of production but also as a potential avenue of its negation, could you tell us more about this double nature of cartoon?
Walter Benjamin was one of a number of European intellectuals who were fascinated by Disney, by cartooning and animation as a form — and saw it doubly, as a product, an archetypal product of capitalism, and as a destructive form, in the sense of the “destructive” character that Benjamin writes about, which means that it opens up ways of conceiving humans, ourselves, outside or without the parameters of bourgeois humanism. In the early 1920s, animation promised to annihilate painting, or to show it up for what it had become — static, eversame, trapped within the confines of a frame that had become a kind of prison, cut off from the world and from life, or from the lively principle that suffuses all life worth living. Animation promised — for the critic and filmmaker Hans Richter — twenty-four Mondrians a second, which is so much better than one. Animation pledged kaleidoscopic experience. It promised not only to exceed painting through mobility and rhythm, but also to do what cinema should do, and was failing to do, as it became a conventionalised form, a banal representation. Animation could be “pure” cinema, cinema purified, cinema proper, absolute cinema. Animation hits out against all restriction. Animation is subversive of order, of logic, of stasis, of all that would insist things are so and must be so. Animation is a more-or-less anarchic play of moving light broken into spectral colours or blacks, whites, and greys, which are coaxed into forms and figures that seem to possess life or liveliness. Animation is an art of metamorphosis, of transformation and it is as if the ways in which the animated form shifts from one state to another proffers an inkling of a transformation that could be undergone by all — politically, socially. Therein lies the utopian axis of animation — motility and mobility are its propulsive force, the opening onto an infinite, anti-gravitational other-space.
In 1932 at a premiere of Oskar Fischinger’s “Study no. 12” in Berlin the critic Bernhard Diebold gave a speech titled “The Future of Mickey Mouse,” which gives a sense of how, in this moment, it was possible to think together in some way advanced art and commercial animation. If cinema was to be an art form, Diebold argued, it required animation, because that made conceivable a cinema that had broken free of a naturalist template and conventional storylines. Animated film rebelled against the inherited artistic genres, forging something new: “living paintings,” “musography,” “eye-music,” “optical poetry” and “the dance of ornaments.” For Diebold, Disney figures, with their flexible and rhythmic universe, had just as much pointed the way here, as had the absolute films of Fischinger, Hans Richter, Walter Ruttmann, Lotte Reiniger, and others. This was a period in which Eisenstein could crow about his debt to Disney, Adorno could at the very least think about — indeed watch — Betty Boop, Vertov, and Shklovsky could imagine the future of film in cartoons, Oskar Fischinger could go to Hollywood and Kracauer could be disappointed enough to admonish Dumbo as a setback for the revolutionary movement. And Walter Benjamin could enthuse about Mickey Mouse, writing in 1931 a defence of Mickey Mouse’s utopian unmasking of social negativity and the rejection of the civilized bourgeois subject by this mouse-shaped figure of the collective dream.
Such an understanding of Disney found within this lowly product avant-garde and utopian elements. In the first version of Walter Benjamin’s “Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproduction,” a section titled “Mickey Mouse” explains how in film’s montaged world, steps are taken towards a critical reconfiguration of our own world. Cartoons exacerbate that upshot of acted film, where the nature that reveals itself to the camera, a second nature, is dissimilar to the unmediated nature that appears to the eye in the world. Daring travellers set off on a panoply of jaunts through extensively scattered ruins in a world in which physical laws have been upended. The dynamite of the split-second explodes this world, notes Benjamin. Space is stretched and contracted by montage, while time is overextended and speeded up in time loops. Cartooning always operates with anti-physics. And it outbids the individualism of madness and dreams by producing “figures of the collective dream such as the earth-encircling Mickey Mouse.” Benjamin observes that the cosmos of detonated physics needs Mickey Mouse as its occupant, for his function is curative.
As much as cartoons presented the impossible and the unleashed, they also reflected the rhythms and tensions of the modern world. Our modern viewing selves were shaped in the dots and lines and jerky, saccadic rhythms of cartoons, as well as in their seriality and their inhumaneness. For all the emphasis on animation’s quest for liveliness, depth, and development, it remains movement mobilised by a machine; its vision of the actor in its world is as a mark, a point, a streak, both reduced and extended. And it is in this that animation articulates, in animated overliveliness of everything, or especially of that which is not human. It makes palpable the secret of commodity-producing society. Things — or commodities — exert more effects on the world than do people. The truth of who has the capacity to act in the world, who has productive potency, creativity, and value, is revealed in this filmic, cinematic mechanism that has been read so much in relation to fetishism.
By placing his understanding of the Disney films in the context of Nazi victory in Germany, Benjamin considers the latest Mickey Mouse films to teach a salutary lesson: “Their dark fire-magic, for which colour film has provided technical preconditions, underlines a trait, which until now was only present in hidden ways. It shows how comfortably fascism — in this realm too — can appropriate so-called ‘revolutionary’ innovations. What surfaces in the light of the latest Disney films is actually already present in some older ones: the tendency to locate bestiality and violence quite comfortably as accompaniments of existence. This calls on an older and no less terrifying tradition; it was introduced by the dancing hooligans which we find in mediaeval pogrom images, and the ‘ragged band’ in Grimms’ fairy tales form their imprecise, pale rearguard.” Violence is now exposed as less a critical metaphorical dismantlement, and more a component of life, a realistic representation of ordinary brutality. Animation sharpens the meaning of film — as dreamland, as reflective technology, as pedagogic lesson about brutality and victimhood, as release from tensions of the world, as utopian prompt that holds open the space to reimagine what can be. Over time, film yields to photographic immediacy’s forceful ideology of naturalism. Film is forced into the service of reproducing an ostensible vision of a heightened real.
From the 1930s onwards, the Disney studio tamed the cartoon, abolishing its original anarchy and formal inconstancy. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs from 1937 was the first film to make widespread use of dialogue to express the personalities of its characters and to show how these characters thought. They became fully rounded. Cartoons inflame pathos. Snow White’s scenes were lengthened as the story developed — she became the focus of identification, rather than the odd looking dwarfs. At the same time, the sound track was used to supply and give meaning to feelings and sensations in addition to conveying dialogue. Modernist dissolution of reality is abandoned in favour of the illusion of reality. Disney desired his cartoons to look 3-D real, from the subdued earthy backgrounds, to perspectival faithfulness, to the life-likeness of movements and skin-tone. Using techniques such as rotoscoping, the Disney studio increased its animators’ knowledge of organic structure and demanded a more acute sense of timing, breaking down movements in order to build them up mechanically. Disney shaped an animated imitation of realist cinema, in terms of content and form; romantically realistic, an idealized real. Disney places cartoons at the service of commercialism — making of them Adorno’s commodity form, proposing a false appearance of integration and wholeness, mysteriously masking the labour that went into their production. And they are dissociated from the art of the avant-garde with its fragmentation and disintegration, which makes clear how constructed not only it is, but also our world.
Animation, or cartooning, made itself available to social readings — dystopic and utopian ones. It spoke to questions of commodity fetishism and curious alliances. It also pressed forward the formal questions of modernist art — of self-reflexivity and flatness versus depth, of universal language and montage. It was for these reasons that the art film clubs of Europe began to screen Disney films along with Eisenstein films, as did the Film Society in London, run by Iris Barry and Ivor Montagu, which showed Disney’s The Barn Dance in 1929 together with Battleship Potemkin, in the presence of Eisenstein himself. Felix the Cat was another cartoon character who won the heart and minds of writers and intellectuals — with the film journal Close Up publishing Dorothy Richardson’s appreciation in 1928 and Aldous Huxley praising Felix cartoons as a new possibility of storytelling beyond mere words and still images. Iris Barry wrote of him in 1926 as simultaneously high-brow and popular. It was she who really pushed for inclusion of animation in the Film Study department at New York’s Museum of Modern Art from 1932. That was not an easy quest. She had asserted the potential for animation to transcend divisions of high and low culture and insisted on its legitimacy as a modern, exciting, innovative art form. But those who had investments in art of various kinds found it hard to perceive such throwaway and multiply replicated materials as worthy of collecting and archiving. And those who produced the materials were loathe to give away their commercial assets to a public library — and anyway there were themselves not convinced of their lasting value or purpose for posterity. For the producers the film strips were materials to be played and played until they ripped and tore apart. That was all. There are competing systems of value at work here. In part a compromise was found — the more or less unique production sketches of Disney films fitted much more neatly into the archive.
Adorno had much to say about the value of Disney, specifically its value to a carceral and punishing society, in which the beatings that Donald Duck takes are lessons for us, and we learn to take beatings ourselves or to relish the sight of others being subjected to them. He leant on Benjamin to revise his opinions of cartoons. In the debate between them lies much of interest. It always depends on what animation, what cartoon, when, where. Neither is right. Both are right.
Your next study, Synthetic Worlds, is an account of the material history of colour as synthesized by chemistry from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. Could you speak about the periodization you follow in this study? Does the history of colour coincide with the history of the industry? Is there a direct analogy between the two? In this study you based a lot in the concept of “artificiality” — could you tell us more about this? Could you explain the dialectic between industrial production and nature played out in the case of the chemical industry of colours?
This book traced connections between chemistry, art, and aesthetics, assuming a confluence of technologies of industrial production, philosophies of science, politics, aesthetics and art practice. The time-span ran from the late eighteenth century to the post-Second World War. Synthetic colours were invented in the mid-nineteenth century, but, as I argue, the technology and science that brought them into being derived from the philosophical insights of German Romanticism and its attendant philosophy of nature. That is why the book begins with the exploration of the mine, as it appears in German Romantic fairy-tales and in the writings on minerals composed by those who were geology students or mine inspectors, and also, at one and the same time, Romantic poets. I also located the ideas within the exploration of colour as carried out by Goethe. My book on animation had a chapter on colour in which I lay out the standoff between Newton and Goethe — this is crucial for me, for it is about how science or the derivation of knowledge about nature takes place, how it involves or wards off the subjective aspect. Colour, chemical hues, and the synthesis of colour and materials are topics that recur through the book. The colour theories (sometimes set out in the form of a colour wheel) and nature conception of Goethe, Philipp Otto Runge, the Schlegel brothers, and other Romantics in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century were outcomes of the mutual influence of Romantic natural science, alchemical thought, and aesthetic theory. It is on the basis of these conceptions that the German chemical industry that emerged in the 1840s is footed. The chemical industries of colour synthesis and pharmaceutical production in Germany develop conjointly from the middle of the nineteenth century. Colour is not the only place to investigate the meeting of chemistry and culture. Other substances feature, for example, pearls and diamonds/mother of pearl, and simulant gems, Plastics: celluloid and Bakelite, Magnetic tape — from leather to recording, Perlon, nylon — dressing for the miracle, lustreware — china as metal, surface coatings and surface imitations — wood grain patterns, wood chip paper, and Formica — the triumph of synthetics as imitation of nothing. I have looked at some of these in other contexts.
Company and chemical-industrial history provided only the context for the book, which is also concerned to interweave scientific and economic data — technologies and economies of industrial production — with political, theoretical and aesthetic interpretation. A recurrent theme is investigation of the implications for society of the ability to synthetically produce or imitate natural substances. From the Schlegels and the Romantics onwards the fake or synthetic and its relation to nature has been at issue. Does the presence of surrogate synthetic materials affect the status of the authentic object? (Recording technologies and celluloid technologies are also pertinent here). The history of plastics and other synthetics raises questions about the impact of “artificiality” on the idea of the real. This, of course, has a longer history — in the Middle Ages, for example, the imitation of gold by yellow paint came to be more valued than gold itself, in some contexts. But the age of synthetic substances gives the debates renewed vigour. The debates can be reconstructed in a number of areas.
For one, in the arguments in natural science that informed Marxist and other understandings of the relationship between the social world and the natural world. For Engels, the extraction of alizarin forms a crucial part of his understanding of philosophy and science. In his critique of Feuerbach, Engels writes: “The chemical substances produced in the bodies of plants and animals remained just such ‘things-in-themselves’ until organic chemistry began to produce them one after another, whereupon the ‘thing-in-itself’ became a thing-for-us, as, for instance, alizarin, the colouring matter of the madder, which we no longer trouble to grow in the madder roots in the field, but produce much more cheaply and simply from coal tar.” Lenin contributed to this discussion as he tried to establish a theory of knowledge and objectivity: “Things exist independently of our consciousness, independently of our sensations, outside of us, for it is beyond doubt that alizarin existed in coal tar yesterday and it is equally beyond doubt that yesterday we knew nothing of the existence of this alizarin and received no sensations from it.” Lukács takes up Engels’ commentary on alizarin combatively in his Hegelian philosophy of praxis. Here we see the challenge of non-natural materials interpreted in a philosophical-political context, as part of a critique of Kantianism.
These debates are not restricted to Marxists. Heidegger, for example, addresses counterfeiting and the “essence of truth” with recourse to natural and “fake” substance: “The true is the actual. Accordingly we speak of true gold in distinction from false. False gold is not actually what it appears to be. It is merely a ‘semblance’ and thus is not actual. What is not actual is taken to be the opposite of the actual. But what merely seems to be gold is nevertheless something actual. Accordingly, we say more precisely: actual gold is genuine gold. Yet both are ‘actual,’ the circulating counterfeit no less than the genuine gold. What is true about genuine gold thus cannot be demonstrated merely by its actuality. The question recurs: what do ‘genuine’ and ‘true’ mean here? Genuine gold is the actual gold, the actuality of which is in accordance with what, always and in advance, we ‘properly’ mean by ‘gold.’ Conversely, wherever we suspect false gold, we say: ‘Here something is not in accord.’” Such an approach did not interest me in the slightest though. I prefer to think about gold in relation to Marx’s ideas on gold as aesthetic quality, as material form, as currency.
Where is value asks one chapter, on the basis of Marx’s value theory in the light of the development of simulants. This is also a question addressed to aesthetic value. The book registers the shifting nature of debates in philosophy and science as the chemical industries develop and the marketing of synthetic and chemical products expands along with the development of advertising. It is keen to monitor the aesthetic and cultural implications for poetics of chemical developments. How and when do the new substances find their way into poetic language? Rimbaud’s “Alchemy of the Word” is just one place where this infusion might be determined. Other themes addressed in the course of the book include Walter Benjamin’s 1920s’ and 1930s’ analyses of Baudelaire’s lyric poetry of inorganic materials, and also his analyses of Baudelaire’s starless, gas-lit city of artificial light. How are the products packaged? What claims are made for their material properties? Is their “non-naturalness” at issue? Another question raised by synthetic production is that of industrial waste and pollution. Marx’s and Engels’ theory of the chemical industry’s early recycling led them to draw conclusions about the nature of the capitalist economy. And, importantly, from a materialist perspective (and one in which Engels, son of a textile manufacturer and sometime boss of a mill, was well-informed), the issue of synthetic dyes, in particular, sheds further light on the development of the textile industry (motor of the industrial revolution), supplementing any economic study with an aesthetico-cultural scrutiny of fashion, consumerism, and the manufacture of desirable goods.
One chapter examined the case of Bauhaus and after, bringing out the paradoxes of art-science in twentieth century Germany. Colour was a concern at the Bauhaus, and Bauhaus Meister Johannes Itten conceived a colour wheel in the 1930s. This came after an intense agitation for the standardisation of colour, once new pigments had entered the world of fine art (notably in J.M.W. Turner’s paintings) and affected the ways that art is discussed as chemicals’ fragility and toxicity came slowly to light. From the middle of the nineteenth century aniline colours are available to art, but they have no body, and this affected technique. A. W. Keim established “The German Society for the Promotion of Rational Methods in Painting” with its control of pigments and its fixing of the palate to include White Lead, Zinc White, Cadmium Yellow Light, Iron Oxide colours, Alizarin Crimson Madder Lake, Cobalt Blue, Native and Synthetic, Ultramarine Blue, Natural and Synthetic. The Bauhaus also had a rational approach to materials, in the art school that was well-known as a place where chemistry and art were brought together through experiment. The bauhaus was where Willi Baumeister and Oscar Schlemmer worked and their association with it led to a painting-ban in the Third Reich. Baumeister and Schlemmer were taken in by an industrialist, Kurt Herberts, who owned a coatings factory in Barmen. From there the artists investigated the modulation and patina of synthetic paints and coatings, releasing industrial textbooks back into Nazi Germany, filled with the type of blots and scribbles that would later become the basis of Baumeister’s successful post-war abstractionism. A secret art practice under cover of science goes on in Nazi Germany.
There were many themes in the book, including the emergence of those extra-bright, super-synthetic Day-Glo colours, and at the same time it was a history of the firms that come to make up I.G. Farben, a conglomerated firm that is indicted for its role within the Nazi regime, specifically at Auschwitz, where it ran a slave labour factory. It was an effort to rewrite Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, drawing out how the intuitions of deranged poetics can be found in documentary actuality, indeed outbid in many regards. I am pleased that aspects of my work went back into an artists’ film titled Rainbow’s Gravity, by Kerstin Schroedinger and Mareike Bernien, on AGFA’s colour film processing factory in Nazi Germany and in the GDR.
Through this work, I wanted to develop a poetics of science, a Marxist poetics of science, which addresses the world in its totality, through all the possible ways in which it could come to be known, in disciplinary terms, and thereby detonating the divisions. I extended this work in my latest book on liquid crystals. Ostensibly it is a history of the discovery of this chemical biological form in 1888. This discovery though is made dependent on economy and technology — and so has implications for philosophy. I explore this through animation, theories of life, art nouveau, crystals, and mortification in Marx (the crystallization of energy in wage labour) and the Crystal Palace of Commodities, snow globes and snowflakes, mountain films, Cosmic Ice Theory, liquid capital and the emergence of the liquid crystal screen that accompanies all of us all the time. I develop a conceptual network between dialectics, the fluid and the frozen, the notion, cited by Benjamin, of petrified unrest, as well as his “polar thinking.” The timespan is from the Romantic epoch — in this case that of Caspar David Friedrich and his painting Sea of Ice, in the 1820s, to the very present. For me, to be a materialist means taking seriously the ways in which matter, the material around us, is a product of and a pressure on modes of acting and thinking. Liquid crystal is quite directly, for we mainly comprised of it. What are the various ways in which that statement can be made meaningful?
Your next work, Walter Benjamin, as the title indicates deals with the work and life of the German cultural critic. What is its relation with your first study? Is it a continuity of it? In this study that goes against the stereotypical narrative of the tragic and lonely intellectual figure you attempt to contextualize his thought inscribing it within the debates of the interwar period. What were the main events in which Walter Benjamin participated? Could we — based on this analysis — name him an intellectual of the conjuncture?
In order to write my more arcane poetics of science, my publisher extracts from me a book they hope might sell. A biography of Benjamin was the price for Synthetic Worlds. I was happy to write it. I am never happier than when thinking about Benjamin’s contribution to the world. The biography was very hard for me to write though. I did not allow myself to be speculative. Everything was tied down to a fact, something in a letter, in a diary. I stuck to a rigid timeline. I held fast to the world in which Benjamin lived. At the same time, I was translating a beautiful book from the archive in Berlin, for Verso — Walter Benjamin’s Archive. This gave me lots of ideas too, lots of insights into more intimate, lesser known aspects of Benjamin’s life, such as the glossary of his son’s Stefan’s vocabulary, replete with puns. I have always wanted to counter the idea of the lonely Benjamin, and so was able to have an opportunity to firmly set him amongst his peers, amongst the discussions of his time, in that sense he is of his conjuncture, as well as lifting himself out of it or spanning himself between various impulses, different political trends, various aesthetic movements, varied genres and activities. Benjamin existed through the first half of the twentieth century. He bore the brunt of the vilest politics on his body. He observed some of its most exhilarating events. He knew some of the people whose work still speaks to us. His own writings, varied as they are, fragmentary as some of them are, still yield ideas, inspiration, critical challenges.
Now let’s discuss a bit the Historical Materialism initiative, now in its twentieth year, in which you are one of the founding members. Let’s begin with how the publication of the journal of Historical Materialism began. What were the initial aspirations for it? Could you mention some continuities and discontinuities in the twenty years history of the journal?
I was not there right at the beginning. I was brought in before the first issue appeared though, so while not a founder, I have been involved since the journal has been in existence. We were initially self-published, did it all ourselves, including putting the journal in envelopes in my living room. The partnership with Brill has changed that and imposed on us a certain regularity, mechanized processes, and it has professionalized certain aspects — paying a copy editor, for example. We inhabit also a different environment of scholarly journals and online publishing nowadays. But I don’t think those changes have fundamentally altered the way in which we come together as a group of editors and discuss each article sent to us, commission reviews, argue over the direction of the journal, the necessity or not of a certain piece. I believe we wanted a journal which could represent the variety of ways in which Marxism could be brought to bear on aspects of the world. We did not want to be stuck in disciplinary silos but thought that one of the more brilliant things about Marxism is how it refuses those divisions, or if it does not refuse them, it becomes stupid. I am not claiming that we do not publish Fachidioten in the journal, of course, but the aspiration at the start was to publish articles that emerged from a Marxist perspective and could be read by anyone who was engaged in that mode of thinking — or interested to learn more about it — and acting, irrespective of theme. We wanted to represent the work of both the established scholars in Marxism and a younger or newer generation. We had aspirations to be the leading Marxist journal. We have tried to be supra-sectarian — and have weathered some difficult moments as groups on the Left around us have collapsed, gone rotten, recomposed, been riven apart. The board has constantly replenished itself, which has been a good thing, bringing in international perspectives, which enabled us to not get too embroiled in the catastrophic moves of parts of the UK Left. Perhaps it means that there is little collective memory of what we have been — but that is not a bad thing. Why look back, to glorious or inglorious pasts? One continuity has been the provision of covers by Noel Douglas. 20 years of covers is an achievement — but then these covers are also a tracking of the political events, highs and lows, in the world and so form in themselves a museum of world struggles, wins and defeats.
Another significant aspect of the Historical Materialism project is the conferences that it organises and which have a global character, considering that they are now held annually in four continents (India, Europe, Australia, USA/Canada). Would you like to comment on the origins of this and its transformation through time?
The conference began in 2004. It was much smaller, of course. It was even more chaotic than it is nowadays — we have learnt much about event planning and have been lucky to have been aided by some formidable organisers — always women. The conference grew in the subsequent years and is perhaps stable in terms of numbers now, but we always hope for expansion, for more people than we could possibly cope with, because for us, unlike other conferences, our conference is some sort of gauge of the significance, resonance, importance of our mode of comprehension, of Marxism in the world. We like to think that the conference is a must-do event for the global Left and enjoy the buzz of people meeting and re-meeting, quite apart from the papers that are delivered. It is not easy to organize and we do not really have institutional support, so it is in many ways done from the bottom up, which is why people should give us some slack if things do not run perfectly. The conference is franchised, so to speak now, with satellite events happening in other countries. I hope that means that the space for committed, intelligent Marxist work has expanded in the world and perhaps we have contributed to that. We have also learnt from that expansion, and from the drawing in of international voices. We are conscious that there is much beyond the Western tradition and also we have turned more attention to questions of sexuality and gender in later years.
The conferences have succeeded at creating a new solid radical milieu around them. What else has HM accomplished?
There is the book series, which has felled quite a few forests, and also, hopefully, circulated and recirculated some important materials. Some of the books in the series have been honoured with the Isaac and Tamara Deutscher prize, as recognition of their import. HM has kept Marxism as a point of attraction through years in which the Left has been, as ever, under assault, including from within its own ranks. To be able to meet together, hear each other, discuss, make future plans, develop projects, is positive.
Maia Pal: Not everyone on the radical left is a fan of anniversaries, perhaps considering their often stale and fixed look back into the past. This year’s HM conference set out to celebrate a few — the centenary of the Russian Revolution, the publication of Marx’s Capital, the journal’s birth… What do you think this says about the HM project, the left in general and the topic of memory your work generally explores? Finally, could you say something about your paper for this year’s London conference, “Lenin and the body in memorialis and the ecstatic sexuality in Eisenstein’s film” which perhaps explores this desire to keep the revolutionary past alive?
The celebration of anniversaries is usually reactionary. As I said earlier, why look back on glorious or inglorious pasts? Of course, I also take from Benjamin the idea that we have to hold onto the tradition of the oppressed, have to keep the red thread, the weak messianic force of resistance going, because otherwise the only story, or history, that remains is that of the victors. Much celebration is celebration by the victors. The monument to Benjamin in Port Bou, where he committed suicide, is to some extent sensitive to this. The memorial by Dani Karavan is in the idiom of the post-conceptual memorial as artwork. A narrow shaft leads one down to the perilous sea, in order to make us think about loss, danger, death. Etched on the glass of the memorial is, in several languages, a phrase from Benjamin, which observes: “It is more arduous to honour the memory of the nameless than that of the renowned. … Historical construction is devoted to the memory of the nameless.”
There is another intriguing history of memorialisation in Port Bou, occulded by this grander, European gesture. In 1979 a little plaque in Catalan was set in the cemetery wall. It reads “A Walter Benjamin — ’Filòsof alemany — Berlin 1892 Portbou 1940,” and in the context of post-Franco Spain appears to hint at the possibility and necessary recovery of a non-Fascist German tradition. Inside the cemetery too is another memorial stone, this time from 1990. It bears a very famous line from Benjamin: “Es ist niemals ein Dokument der Kultur, ohne zugleich ein solches der Barbarei zu sein,” then in Catalan: “No hi ha cap document de la cultura que non ho sigui també de la barbàrie.” In English this line from “On The Concept of History” reads, according to the Selected Writings, “There is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” Monuments to civilisation and culture are frequently also monuments to barbarism. Benjamin is clear, taking his line from Marx, that the oppressed are constantly robbed of their history and their memory is always “in danger” of eradication, undermined, in favour of the grand and official narratives of power, the “triumphal procession in which today’s rulers tread over those who are sprawled underfoot,” whereby historical memory is “handed over as the tool of the ruling classes.” In the preparatory note for “On the Concept of History,” he criticizes historical recounting that depends on recounting the antics of glorious heroes of history in monumental and epic form, and is in no position to say anything about the “nameless,” those who are the toilers in history, as much as those who suffer the effects of historical agency. His own mode of “historical construction is devoted to the memory of the nameless.” It is able to remember the repressed of history who were its victims and its unacknowledged makers.
Benjamin constructs a re-visioning of the past, wherein the historian bears witness to an endless brutality committed against the “oppressed.” This, he understands to have been Marx’s task in Das Kapital. Das Kapital is a memorial, an anti-epic memorial, pulsating in the present, insisting on redress. Marx’s sketch of the lot of labour is presented as a counter-balance to the obfuscation of genuine historical experience. Marx memorializes the labour of the nameless, whose suffering and energy produced “wealth” in the vast accumulations of commodities.
What interests me here is the ways in which we might think of what could be called counter-memory or counter-memoralisation not just as the acknowledgement of an alternative mode of understanding the past, but also as an ongoing necessity, that we are constantly steered away from knowledge of our own experience. The First World War was, for Benjamin, one marker of this: in it experience tumbles in the old style, no longer matching life or language. He writes: “For never has experience been contradicted so thoroughly: strategic experience has been contravened by positional warfare; economic experience, by the inflation; physical experience, by hunger, moral experience, by the ruling powers.”
We of all people are aware of Lenin’s thoughts on commemoration, as evinced in his degree from 12 Apr. 1918, titled “On Removing Monuments Erected in Honor of Tsars and Their Servants and Developing a Project for Monuments Dedicated to the Russian Socialist Revolution (On Monuments of the Republic).” This provided for the removal of monuments that had apparently no historical or artistic value, as well as for the creation of works of revolutionary monumental art, which took one of two forms: — (1) decorating buildings and other surfaces “traditionally used for banners and posters” with revolutionary slogans and memorial relief plaques; (2) — vast erection of “temporary, plaster-cast” monuments in honour of great revolutionary leaders. These monuments were created mainly as temporary works — Lunarcharchsiki recalled Lenin stating that the monument should be not of marble, granite and gold lettering, but instead of inexpensive materials (plaster of Paris, concrete, wood). Based on the frescoes in Campanella’s City of the Sun, these were to be educational, hinges for discussion in the city, occasions for learning — each unveiling was to be the occasion for a little holiday, a lecture.
Alternatively, we could think of Debord. Debord made an extraordinary book in 1959 called Memoires with the artist Asger Jorn, famously covered in sandpaper to scar the books in its proximity on the shelf. Memoires begins with a quotation from Marx: “Let the dead bury the dead, and mourn them…. our fate will be to become the first living people to enter the new life.” It is comprised of two layers, emulating the layers of memory. One layer has black ink that outlines newspaper snippets, graphics from magazines, maps of Paris and London, images of war, reproductions of old artworks, pictures of friends, hoodlum girls, people in their milieu, and the occasional thought or question from Debord. The other layer is splattered coloured inks, which lead paths from or overlap with the black inked layer. Memory is obscure, invaded, fragmented, on the cusp of disappearance. It is abrasive, cut up, destructive, involuntary — in the mode of Proust, dispersed. For the reader there is only a drift, a wandering path, with no assured meaning, a place for rag pickers rescuing the detritus of life. Countering the regimentation of time in work and the straight-ahead narrative, this book squanders time, in emulation of ruling class leisure and luxury. There are constellations, moments, evanescent points that flare up in the memoir and burn out again to be forgotten, as much as remembered.
The situationists knew that conventional forms of historical memorialization risked partaking in the society of the spectacle’s reification of everyday life. Magnificent monumentalization offered a historical survival not worth living. But they did not wish for their own erasure. They developed new strategies of memorialization, liquid ones, and as Frances Stracey puts it: “those commemorated were not reduced to a dead correlate of the present, frozen in perpetuity, but salvaged in a more revitalized form, ideally as a constantly shifting, eruptive force in the present and for the future.” Our memorials should aim at being such. My paper at the conference thinks about the ways in which film, film of a cream separator, film of a twirling ceramic pig, and film of Lenin, might speak to these concerns, might speak into a world, the Soviet one, in which Lenin’s body was frozen, hardened, its dissolution counteracted in death, supposedly for ever more. It was a wrong-footed hope, but it was emblematic of the sclerosis of the state. Sometimes forgetting might be better. Sometimes remembering differently might be advised. Keeping things alive is a kind of art, if it is not to be a cult.