Sunday, April 19, 2015

Stephan Wackwitz - Save Walter Benjamin from his fans!

Author Stephan Wackwitz dissevers literature from science, holiness from genius in the legend of Walter Benjamin

...Benjamin's writings on German philology, history of philosophy, theology and architectural sociology had already been superseded by the time they were rediscovered in the 1960s. Only his dissertation on the early Romantic concept of poetry still has academic relevance today. But even his contemporaries could not relate to these books in scholarly terms. Benjamin's book on Baroque tragedy not only failed to get past the Frankfurt doctoral committee, whose no-name, line-toeing academics could be dismissed on grounds of bigotry; he also got the thumbs-down from pioneers in Aby Warburg circles (Fritz Saxl and Erwin Panofsky for example). And Adorno's excoriation of Benjamin's writing on Baudelaire is famous. 

So how do you explain why his writing, which fails to meet any traditional criteria, has been been so phenomenally influential since the 1960s? The content argument points to Benjamin's combination of "scientific socialism" with cabbalist and messianic motifs (most prominently in his "Theses on the Philosophy of History) which struck a chord with students' illusory hopes of revolution against all odds. And the motifs in the essay on "The Artwork in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" would certainly have been useful for a generation where most people grew up wanting to become "something media-related".

The most plausible (and depressing) explanation for the triumph of Walter Benjamin's poetic theory, however, springs from the observation that his rediscovery coincided with the rise of an academic current which had abandoned the pursuit of traditional academic standards in favour of creating diffuse meaning which could not longer be verified in scientific terms. The later work of Jacques Derrida, the Frankfurt Hölderlin Edition and the books of Giorgio Agamben could be classed as classics of this academic current, and the reception of Jorge Luis Borges in the eighties and of Heiner Muller in the nineties as their equivalent in the wider world of the chattering classes.

Today the bureaucratisation, didactisation and trivialisation of the humanities in the wake of the Bologna reform have reduced the hipness factor of academic environments and careers. The "Benjaminisation" as you could call the process, of creating poetic effects through scientific means. Catalogue texts, art theoretical "essays", curatorial concepts cite Benjamin's texts ad infinitum and occupy an intellectual no-man's-land between scholarship and poetry. 

I'm sure you know the reluctance to continue reading a text if the first paragraph is sat under a chunky quote from Benjamin's book on tragedy, and the remaining porridgy thoughts are generously sprinkled with words like "aura", "flaneur" or "shock". You want nothing more to do with it. The mixture of poetising process with scientific claim to truth feels impure if not downright unsavoury.

Let us instead take a few steps backwards in literary history. Alexander von Humboldt was one of the great natural scientists of his day. But we no longer read his reports of his travels through South America out of natural-scientific interest, but because he was also one of the greatest prose writers of his time. It is it the fate of scientific prose that its scientific relevance fades. The artistic relevance however, of scientists such as Wilhelm von Humboldt and Sigmund Freud which they undoubtedly had and still have, quite apart apart from their discoveries, are untouched by his ageing process. Dante's "Divinia Commedia" was intended once upon a time as a scientific description of the world. 

Outdated knowledge becomes unsurpassable poetry. And this applies not only to outdated scientific prose, but also ideas that were wrong from the outset. One famous 18th century example of this is Goethe'"Colour Theory" that was appallingly off, even at its time of creation, which does nothing to impair its artistic or literary qualities.

Benjamin's writings are the "Colour Theory" of the twentieth century... read more: