Labour, Nature, and Dream (Reading Benjamin’s Theses XI & XII)

Klutsis_(1920)_Electrification_of_the_Entire_Country 2
Gustav Klutsis, Electrification of the Entire Country (1920).

Overview

• XI: Conceptions of labour and nature as they relate to utopian desire.
• XII: The figure of the working class and its place in the capitalist dream-world, with a postscript on the role of technology in this relation.

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Thesis XI:

The conformism which has marked the Social Democrats from the beginning attaches not only to their political tactics but to their economic views as well. It is one reason for the eventual breakdown of their party. Nothing has so corrupted the German working class as the notion that it was moving with the current. It regarded technological development as the driving force of the stream with which it thought it was moving. From there it was but a step to the illusion that the factory work ostensibly furthering technological progress constituted a political achievement. The old Protestant work ethic was resurrected among German workers in secularized form. The Gotha Program already bears traces of this confusion, defining labor as “the source of all wealth and all culture.” Smelling a rat, Marx countered that “the man who possesses no other property than his labor power” must of necessity become “the slave of other men who have made themselves owners.” Yet the confusion spread, and soon thereafter Josef Dietzgen proclaimed: “The savior of modern times is called work. The … perfecting … of the labor process constitutes the wealth which can now do what no redeemer has ever been able to accomplish.” This vulgar-Marxist conception of the nature of labor scarcely considers the question of how its products could ever benefit the workers when they are beyond the means of those workers. It recognizes only the progress in mastering nature, not the retrogression of society; it already displays the technocratic features that later emerge in fascism. Among these is a conception of nature which differs ominously from the one advocated by socialist utopias prior to the Revolution of 1848. The new conception of labor is tantamount to the exploitation of nature, which, with naive complacency, is contrasted with the exploitation of the proletariat. Compared to this positivistic view, Fourier’s fantasies, which have so often been ridiculed, prove surprisingly sound. According to Fourier, cooperative labor would increase efficiency to such an extent that four moons would illuminate the sky at night, the polar ice caps would recede, seawater would no longer taste salty, and beasts of prey would do man’s bidding. All this illustrates a kind of labor which, far from exploiting nature, would help her give birth to the creations that now lie dormant in her womb. The sort of nature that (as Dietzgen puts it) “exists gratis,” is a complement to the corrupted conception of labor. Continue reading “Labour, Nature, and Dream (Reading Benjamin’s Theses XI & XII)”

What the Angel Sees (Reading Benjamin’s Theses IX & X)

Caron - Dionysius the Areopagite Converting the Pagan Philosophers 1572
Antoine Caron, Dionysius the Areopagite Converting the Pagan Philosophers (1572).

Overview

• IX: The Angel of History, some readings thereof and a critique of its uptake as a positive model for historical thought.
• X: The perils of escaping the Angel’s melancholy position: the faith in progress that snares us and the problematics of Benjamin’s search for an archaic answer to modernity.

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Thesis IX:

My wing is ready for flight,
I would like to turn back.
If I stayed everliving time,
I’d still have little luck.
—Gerhard Scholem, “Greetings from the Angelus”

There is a picture by Klee called Angelus Novus. It shows an angel who seems about to move away from something he stares at. His eyes are wide, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how the angel of history must look. His face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at 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 and has got caught in his wings; it is so strong that the angel can no longer close them. This storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky. What we call progress is this storm. Continue reading “What the Angel Sees (Reading Benjamin’s Theses IX & X)”

Documents of Barbarism (Reading Benjamin’s Theses VII & VIII)

Ernst - The Stolen Mirror - 1941
Max Ernst, The Stolen Mirror (1941).

Overview

• VII: A theory of culture and its complicity in ‘barbarism.’
• VIII: Crisis as an historical concept, and Benjamin’s critique of the generalised concept of catastrophe.

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Thesis VII:

Consider the darkness and the great cold
In this vale resounding with mystery.
—Brecht, The Threepenny Opera

Addressing himself to the historian who wishes to relive an era, Fustel de Coulanges recommends that he blot out everything he knows about the later course of history. There is no better way of characterizing the method which historical materialism has broken with. It is a process of empathy. Its origin is indolence of the heart, that acedia which despairs of appropriating the genuine historical image as it briefly flashes up. Among medieval theologians, acedia was regarded as the root cause of sadness. Flaubert, who was familiar with it, wrote: “Peu de gens devineront combien il a fallu etre triste pour ressusciter Carthage!” [Few will suspect how sad one had to be to undertake the resuscitation of Carthage.] The nature of this sadness becomes clearer if we ask: With whom does historicism actually sympathize? The answer is inevitable: with the victor. And all rulers are the heirs of prior conquerors. Hence, empathizing with the victor invariably benefits the current rulers. The historical materialist knows what this means. Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which current rulers step over those who are lying prostrate. According to traditional practice, the spoils are carried in the procession. They are called “cultural treasures,” and a historical materialist views them with cautious detachment. For in every case these treasures have a lineage which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great geniuses who created them, but also to the anonymous toil of others who lived in the same period. There is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is never free of barbarism, so barbarism taints the manner in which it was transmitted from one hand to another. The historical materialist therefore dissociates himself from this process of transmission as far as possible. He regards it as his task to brush history against the grain. Continue reading “Documents of Barbarism (Reading Benjamin’s Theses VII & VIII)”