The Pedagogization of Culture

Considering Benjamin’s work in the light of our historical present, his broader demand for the refunctioning of art is too directly misconceived as “politicization.” What has tended to be underplayed in Benjamin’s discussion of the crisis brought about by the technological conditions of mass culture is the extent to which this transformation of art and culture involves not so much the politicization of art but its pedagogization.1 When he is being more specific, Benjamin reads the transformation of the use-value of art under the dominance of exchange-value as bifurcating into “entertainment/distraction [Zerstreuung] value” (or what he elsewhere calls “consumer value [Konsumwert]”) and “education value [Lehrtwert]”; in Brecht’s work, he claims, the two converge, “making possible a new kind of learning.”2 Here, we might recall Fredric Jameson’s more recent retrieval of the usefulness of Brechtian method as a modernism which unfolds from the sphere of art into that of pedagogy (supplementing Marx’s task of the “educating of the educators” with Maoist teaching concerning the inevitability of change).3 Reading Bull’s anti-Nietzschean philistinism through Benjamin’s (Brechtian) cultural politics schematically reveals the latter’s anticipation of a further historical shift in value, from the terrain of culture in general to the more specific field of education.

Louis Althusser is perhaps most well-known for detailing such an ideological shift. In the precapitalist period, Althusser argues, the now distinct functions of Culture and Education both lay curled up, amongst others, within the dominant ideological power of Religion.4 But if, as Althusser suggests, Education has now become the dominant Ideological State Apparatus under capitalism, it is important to recognize that until recently Education’s primary purpose was the transition and reproduction of Cultural capital itself (that is, Culture was the fundamental ideological apparatus of the capitalist nation-State). If Bill Readings is correct in claiming that the institutionalization of Cultural Studies itself was symptomatic of the very disappearance of Culture in its ideological function (in an increasingly transnational and multicultural knowledge economy), I think what we are currently experiencing is not the transition to a postideological notion of Education, as Readings argued in The University in Ruins,but the emergence of the discrete ideological functioning of Education itself from within the nested higher sphere of Culture (itself previously nested within the sphere of Religion), producing a direct and corresponding “crisis of education” under the inherited conditions of its own increasing “massification” and “commodification.”

How might we think through such a contemporary anti-Nietzscheanism within our current historical conjuncture, one that Martha Nussbaum has called a “world-wide crisis in education” and in particular a “crisis of humanities”?What is required today is a critical theory of mass education which explores the historical contingencies of our own bourgeois concept of pedagogy and makes a comparable demand for the refunctioning of our educational apparatus under such critical conditions. This demands not a reactionary conceptual retreat to a quasi-aristocratic, quasi-elitist, and individualist pedagogy for the eternal values of “culture,” “cultivation,” and “character” (Nietzsche’s unhistorical appeal to an education for Culture, which continues to resonate within much post-Nietzschean thought in its right and left variations), but instead a rethinking of the educational apparatus through its conditions of “massification” over and against its “commodification.”


The New (Old) Philistinism

We might bear in mind here how the German word philister originally meant not a disavowal of the value of art and culture – the meaning it eventually acquired under the dominance of aesthetics within cultural education in the nineteenth century – but a more general derogatory term to distinguish the ordinary townspeople from educated university students.7 Polemically speaking, a dialectical conception of a new philistinism would be orientated towards a rejection of educational elitism (in all its post-Nietzschean incarnations as “minority education”), a recognition of the complicit role education serves in the reproduction of social inequalities (including the attempt to extend an unrefunctioned bourgeois apparatus into new social spheres), an increasing dissolution of the distinction upon which the philistine value-distinction rests (through an affirmation of “mass education”), and the embrace of the negatively perceived values of “massification” itself as it comes to transform the form and content of academic activity. To sketch out one broad implication of such a perspective, we might begin by noting that bourgeois, humanist concepts of education are predominantly temporal, to the extent they focus on the teleological goal of cultivation.8 The pedagogical correlate of Benjamin’s interruptive understanding of temporal Jetztzeit, I would like to suggest, would be a spatialized concept of educational expansion.

In Anti-Nietzsche, Malcolm Bull suggests that throughout the historical sequence of modern value negations (atheism, anarchism, nihilism, philistinism), the absent negative is repeatedly defined as a subhuman inversion of the positive humanist value within the prevailing system. Bull’s construction of an anti-Nietzschean position, directed against the recovery of Culture and the hierarchical mastery of the Nietzsche’s Übermensch, argues that “there can be no humanist response to Nietzsche” and that we must give “up the idea of becoming more than man and think only of becoming something less.”9 Bull’s subsequent and implicitly pedagogic strategy of “reading like a loser” (that is, identifying – against the grain – with the rhetorically abject subject of a given narrative) therefore dissolves the boundaries drawn around an inclusive reading community, flooding them with the antisocial nihilism of the “mass of abject powerless men who have no communal feeling.”10

Such subhumanism is theoretically anticipated in the figure of the “destructive character” introduced in Benjamin’s essays from this period and identified as a precursor to the Angel of History. In his essay on the misanthropy of the contemporary satirist Karl Kraus, for example, Benjamin recognizes in the satirist’s writings the condemnation of a thoroughly impoverished humanity, played out primarily for Kraus in the erosion of the distinction between “private” and “public” life within journalism.11 Benjamin, intervening within Kraus’s polemics to dialectically rescue the figure of collective emancipation, identifies Kraus’s quasi-Nietzschean reaction against the classical ideal of humanity (his retreat from philanthropy into misanthropy staged as the withdrawal into withered private life) with an effectively unconscious confession of the “materialist humanism” of the early Marx. Similarly, we might identify the apparent asociality that is a leitmotif of Brecht’s work – clearly evident, for example, in his Handbook for City-Dwellers and the Stories of Mr. Keuner – as its “properly utopian feature”: an appeal beyond the individualism of bourgeois humanism to the utopian completion of the individual in the collective.12

Towards the conclusion of his essay on Karl Kraus, Benjamin insists that,

Work as a supervised task – its model being political and technical work – is attended by dirt and detritus, intrudes destructively into matter, is abrasive to what is already achieved and critical towards its conditions, and is in all this the opposite to the work of the dilettante luxuriating in creation […] And therefore the Unmensch stands among us as the messenger of a more real humanism […] [One must have] seen Klee’s New Angel (who preferred to free men by taking from them, rather than make them happy by giving to them) to understand a humanity that proves itself by destruction.13

Here, the figure of the Nietzschean Übermensch is countered with the technologically collectivized and abject posthumanism of the Unmensch: the “monstrous” or “inhuman,” as an inverted Nietzschean pragmatism. For Benjamin, Brecht was one such embodiment of the “destructive character”; taking my cue from his recognition of a “new kind of learning” encapsulated in the pedagogical refunctioning of Brechtian method, I wish to conclude by proposing that a concept of pedagogy theoretically informed by this inverted Nietzscheanism should be grounded not in a temporalized idea of the Humanities but a spatialized image of the Inhumanities.

[Extract from ‘Walter Benjamin and the Inhumanities: Towards a Pedagogical Anti-Nietzscheanism’, in Pedagogies of Disaster (Brooklyn, NY: Punctum, 2013); an earlier extract on ‘Benjamin’s Angel of History as Anti-Nietzscheanism’ is available here.]


1. “Such is the aestheticizing of politics, as practiced by fascism. Communism replies by politicizing art” (Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological
Reproducibility,” in sw3, 122).
2. Walter Benjamin, “Theory of Distraction,” in sw3, 142. [Addendum: Benjamin therefore implies that this “new kind of learning” entails the convergence of “teaching” [Lehre] and “distraction [Zerstreuung]”, or what we might gloss as an “education in distraction”. This insight stands completely opposed to the humanist underpinnings of the modern humanities.]
3. Fredric Jameson, Brecht and Method, 2nd ed. (London: Verso, 2011), 34.
4. Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” in Ideology (London: Verso, 2008), 25.
5. Cf. Bill Readings, The University in Ruins (Cambridge ma: Harvard University Press, 1996).
6. Martha Nussbaum, Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (Princeton nj: Princeton University Press, 2010), 2.
7. Bull, Anti-Nietzsche, 12.
8. “Psychology and ethics are the poles around which bourgeois education theory revolves […] in an undialectical manner. On the one hand, there is the question of the nature of the child (psychology of childhood and adolescence), and on the other, the goal of education: the complete human being, the citizen.” (Walter Benjamin, “A Communist Pedagogy,” in sw2, 273).
9. Bull, Anti-Nietzsche, viii; 42.
10. Ibid., 51. [Addendum: note that this should not imply an straightforward sympathy or empathy with, or pity for, the loser, which diffuses them of their potency through liberal platitudes; rather, it should most properly entail a recognition of the capacity for revenge being sown, which we should experience with fear or awe. An element of this fear and awe is contained in the mystical Fusionism of Louis-Jean Baptise Tourreil, described as the undocumented “messiah” of French socialism in the 1830s, from whom Benjamin quotes in The Arcades Project: ‘The dead are “multiform” and exist in many places on the earth at the same time. For this reason, people must very seriously concern themselves, during their lifetime, with the betterment of the earth’ (L. J. B. Tourreil, quoted in Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, p5a,2). This recognition of “the dead” as a political category deserves more serious consideration; again, it directs us away from the promise of freedom and autonomy inherent to much humanism (or, as Benjamin says, the image of ‘liberated grandchildren’) and towards that destructive vengeance contained in the ‘image of enslaved ancestors’. This implies a further inversion of Nietzsche’s philosophy of history: not the active forgetting of the Übermensch, nor the passive remembrance of the “all-too-human,” but a transhistorical unforgetting which neither ignores nor empathizes with the oppressed dead. I began to elaborate on this idea in terms of “the catastrophic function” in my keynote talk, ‘Not Even the Dead Will be Safe: The Catastrophic Function in Contemporary Culture’, for Lancaster University’s ‘Fragments of Time: An Interdisciplinary Conference on Culture and Social Change’ (16/10/13).
11.  Cf. Benjamin, “Karl Kraus,” in sw2.
12. Jameson, Brecht and Method, 10.
13Benjamin, “Karl Kraus,” in sw2, 456.


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