New book: Modernism between Benjamin and Goethe

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Out now in Bloomsbury’s Walter Benjamin Studies series:

Introduction: Perverse Antiques

The opening vignettes of Walter Benjamin’s One-Way Street  – ‘Filling Station,’ ‘Breakfast Room,’ ‘Number 113’ – traverse a backward passage from the petrol station to No. 113 of the Palais-Royal, from the present of 1920s Berlin to the Paris arcades of the early nineteenth century, and from a constructivist praxis of writing via a Surrealist preoccupation with the narration of the dream to the ‘house of dream’ itself. If these preoccupations are familiar aspects of Benjamin’s writing, the destination is more surprising: the cellar of this dream-house leads up into Johann von Wolfgang Goethe’s study. When the ‘house of our life…is under assault and enemy bombs are taking their toll,’ Benjamin exclaims, ‘what enervated, perverse antiquities do they not lay bare in the foundations!’[i]

This book seeks to rescue some of the seemingly perverse antiques that lay at the foundation of Benjamin’s thought. Specifically, it seeks to unearth the presence of Goethe’s scientific, artistic and historical writings as a strange kind of Classicism buried within the Modernist theory and practice of criticism that Benjamin develops. In doing so, it challenges a dominant understanding of Benjamin’s philosophy as essentially Romantic based on the significant role that Early German Romanticism holds in his early writings, particular in the wake of Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy’s The Literary Absolute: The Theory of Literature in German Romanticism (1978, trans. 1988), which suggested broadly affinities between German Romanticism and French post-structuralism, and so as a consequence the possibility of recuperating Benjamin’s thought for a ‘postmodern’ moment in the 1990s and early 2000s.[ii] Other commentators have emphasized Benjamin’s neo-Romanticism  as a way to enlist his thought into a revolutionary romanticism that embraces the anti-capitalism of utopian socialism, Marxism, anarchism and other contemporary political movements[iii]

At the same time, this book seeks to answer the question as to what value an aristocratic figure whose thought had been influential on a range of conservative and reactionary figures, albeit against Goethe’s own self-declared liberalism, including members of the George Circle assembled around the poet Stefan George and the Cosmic Circle assembled around the mystic Alfred Schuler, could hold given Benjamin’s radical commitments to anarchism, Marxism and the artistic avant-garde. Yet Goethe’s thought exerted such an influence not merely on Benjamin’s philosophizing but on a range of early twentieth century thinkers, including Georges Simmel and Georg Lukács, whose ideas were taken up by Benjamin and critical theorists more generally, and even, as the final chapter of this book suggests, on the artistic theories and practices of the Soviet avant-garde themselves.

Although the aesthetic theory and artistic style that Goethe develops after 1788 is described as Weimar Classicism, it is an unstable and perverse kind of Classicism, developed in very close proximity to the proto-Romanticism of Goethe’s earlier Sturm und Drang and simultaneous with the new generation of Romantics writing in the wake of Kant’s Copernican revolution. The significance of Goethe’s Classicism for these writers, it will be argued, is connected to its movement away from and opposition to Romanticism and therefore as a corrective to deficits of Romanticism, specifically associated in Benjamin’s writing with formalism, affirmationism and singularity that provide a fertile cultural ground for nationalist political movements. Even where the significance of Goethe’s writings for Benjamin’s thought is recognized, such as across Esther Leslie’s important attempts to develop a Marxist poetics of science, there tends to be a failure to conceptually differentiate Goethe’s thought from that of Romanticism and so to historically flatten out the antinomical tensions that Benjamin grasped as productive.[iv]

Benjamin’s Modernist concept of criticism, it will be argued, is constituted not by any Classical reaction to Romanticism but within the very movement between the polarities of Romanticism and Classicism. Modernism is, therefore, not conceived here as another reaction to – the acceptance or refusal of – the phenomenological experience associated with modernity, nor some progressive overcoming of previous literary or artistic perspectives, but rather as a critical deepening of a philosophical conception of literary criticism achieved through the alternation or oscillation between the opposed viewpoints of Romanticism and Classicism. In positing the existence of a Classical Goethean moment in Benjamin’s concept of literary criticism, we should conceive this as the antinomy to Romanticism in a constellation of extremes whose tension generates its Modernist depths. Conversely, placing Goethe’s Classicism in relation to Benjamin’s literary criticism reveals the historical tension with romanticism that constitute its untimely – indeed, it will be argued in the final chapter, cinematic – Modernism.

The relationship between Benjamin and Goethe constructed here is, therefore, a transcritical one, a term which the literary critic and philosopher Kojin Karatani uses to emphasize both a transcendental critique and a transversal movement of parallax. The chapters in this book therefore alternate in a transcritical fashion between the writings of Benjamin and Goethe, mediated through a constellation of other philosophical figures, including Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche, Hermann Cohen, Ludwig Klages, Salomo Friedländer, Gilles Deleuze and Reinhard Koselleck, and across three paradigmatic kinds of experience: the content of colour given expression in the paintings of Matthias Grünewald, Hans von Marées, Paul Klee and J. M. W. Turner, the destructive negation of language as bodied forth in the poetry of T. E. Hulme, and the vision of technology found in the artistic practices of F. W. Murnau, Sergei Eisenstein and Sergei Tretyakov.

The transcritical Modernism that is produced in this interstice is nominated in what follows as “Expressionist”. It should be noted that Goethe’s work predates Expressionism by nearly a century and although Benjamin belongs to the Expressionist milieu of early twentieth century Germany, he carefully distances himself from the perceived excesses of most of their art. Yet, as Andreas Kramer observes, Expressionist artists and writers sought to transform Goethe into a ‘living pre-image [lebendiges Vorbild]’ of the ‘modernist cultural project’ of their generation,[v] and Benjamin’s writings are not immune to such influences, revealing what Lisa Marie Anderson describes as the ‘thematic and structural correspondences between philosophy and literature in the Expressionist era’ and a messianic ‘openness to the possibility of apocalypse and redemption at any moment’ that bears a close affinity with the Expressionist ethos.[vi] What is termed “Expressionism” in this book is therefore utilized as a fertile and not unproblematic medium to connect the polarities of Benjamin and Goethe (as well as Kant and Nietzsche, Cohen and Deleuze, and so forth). It is posited as an excessive and unstable kind of Modernism, encapsulated in the paintings and films of Klee and Murnau discussed, but expanded to incorporate the colours of Grünewald, Marées and J. M. W. Turner, the language of T. E. Hulme, and the biomechanical effect of technology in Eisenstein and Tretyakov.

The first chapter of this book explores how Benjamin’s desire to be the foremost critic of German literature necessitated a recovery and renewal of an inherently transdisciplinary concept of criticism (Kritik) inherited from the German tradition of critical theory that runs through the philosophical criticism of Kant, the literary criticism of Early German Romanticism, and the economic criticism of Marx. Benjamin regards this renewal of criticism as necessitating a philosophical redevelopment of the Kantian system that had been partially initiated by the neo-Kantianism of Hermann Cohen. Although consideration of Benjamin’s metacritical transformation of Kantian and neo-Kantian criticism has been well established in the philosophical reception of his thought, this chapter offers a distinctive understanding of such a project by emphasizing the transdisciplinary nature of this concept of criticism.

This transdisciplinarity pertains not just to Benjamin’s (and, as the second chapter examines, Early German Romanticism’s) attempt to transpose the Kantian concept of critique into the realm of literary criticism but to Kant’s concept of criticism itself, which is borrowed from the British tradition of literary criticism. In reconnecting Kant’s concept of criticism to this original tradition of literary and, specifically, journalistic criticism, Benjamin’s ‘philosophizing beyond philosophy’ sought to develop a mode of judgement capable of criticizing the aesthetic and ephemeral content of experience. This involves a radical transformation of the relation between the Aesthetic, the Logic and the Teleological within Kant’s architectonic, which is reconstructed in this chapter via Benjamin’s disagreement with Hermann Cohen. As a consequence, the transcendental and transversal movement associated with the Kantian antinomy, in distinction to both an emphasis on Benjamin’s concept of the Stillstand or a more Hegelian-Marxist understanding of dialectic, is expanded beyond the realm of the a priori conditions of experience to encompass the content of biological, historical and artistic experience itself.

The latter grounds the basic principle examined in the subsequent chapters of the book: that Benjamin’s concept of criticism is developed from within the antinomical movement–the parallax–between Romanticism and Classicism, and it is this that constitutes its specific modernity. The second chapter investigates the first pole of this antinomy by examining how Benjamin’s subsequent attempt to investigate the philosophical history of the problem of criticism (Kritik), announced in his dissertation on ‘The Concept of Art Criticism in German Romanticism,’ transforms the philosophical concept of criticism in Kant by examining it from the transdisciplinary perspective of Romantic literary criticism. In doing so, Benjamin sought to restore a messianic relationship between particular and the Absolute in history, albeit one that is differentiated from Cohen’s neo-Kantian messianism in terms of its focus on the aesthetic and contingency content of historical experience within the ethical-historical medium of theoretical teachings (Lehre). In contrast to most one-sided interpretations of Benjamin’s Romanticism, this chapter places a greater emphasis on the epistemological and political deficiencies that he ambiguously characterizes in terms of a weak messianism, identified as its formalism, affirmationism, and singularity. These necessitate the transversal movement towards the antinomical extreme of Classicism, which are explored in detail in relation to Benjamin’s thought through the remaining four chapters of this book.

The third chapter of this book carefully delineates Benjamin’s recuperation of a Goethean concept of negative criticism, distinct from that of Romanticism, and identifies the philosophical basis of the former as the tender, delicate or fragile version of empiricism (zarte Empirie) found in Goethe’s natural philosophy. This tender empiricism is reconstructed, with the aid of Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche, in relation to an alternative development of Kant’s critical philosophy from that of German Romanticism, emphasizing how Goethe’s critique of sensibility involves an aesthetics of science that focuses not on the form but rather the pure content of nature, experienced as Ideals of sensibility associated with Goethe’s notion of exact sensorial phantasy [exakte sinnliche Phantasie]. Goethe’s natural philosophy simultaneously places on emphasis on multiplicity rather than singularity that involves the pessimistic rejection of teleological judgements concerning natural-historical progress.

These characteristics of Goethe’s natural philosophy are fundamental to his concept of literary criticism and account for the Classical features of his artistic works associated with the period of Weimar Classicism. These features are explored across subsequent chapters in terms of an alternative relationship between the particular and the Absolute, one that is examined in chapter five in terms of a sphere of pure content, in chapter six as a medium of destructive refraction, and in chapter seven as a plurality of discontinuous archetypes.

Chapter five expands upon Howard Caygill’s claim in Walter Benjamin: The Colour of Experience that an original experience of colour permitted the speculative recasting of Kant’s philosophy. For Benjamin, unlike Kant, colour is a transitive, shifting, contingent and formless content of intuition and yet no mere auxiliary to aesthetics but constitutive of the highest kind of metaphysical experience. The latter is identified with the content of pure seeing or pure perceptibility and with the ephemeral temporality of pure transience, following Esther Leslie’s recognition that this theory of colour is grounded not in the scientific doctrine of Newton but the spiritual and artistic Lehre elaborated in the philosophy of Goethe. The latter, and it’s connection to Kant’s concept of experience, is explained through a Deleuzian interpretation of Goethe’s tender empiricism, drawing on the work of Eric Alliez. For Benjamin, this perception of the pure, ephemeral content of experience is realized not directly in the colours of nature, however, but in the Expressionist paintings of Matthias Grünewald, Hans von Marées, Paul Klee and, it will be added, J. M. W. Turner.

Chapter six examines how this understanding of the experience of colour becomes transposed into the linguistic sphere as the correlating notion of the expressionless as the pure linguistics content of language, identified with an Adamic original speech or ‘pure noncommunicative language’ of silence. Although the corresponding conception of all expression as a practice of translation evokes the Romantic idea of perfecting criticism, contrasting this view with Goethe’s own theory of translation draws out a number of essential differences, most notably the transformative aspect of translation as akin to a refractive medium of chromatic differentiation, whose totality lies in a harmonic multiplicity.

A consideration of Benjamin’s essay on Goethe’s Elective Affinities elaborates on such translation in terms of the critical violence specifically involved in literary expression, in which the symbolizing activity of language becomes symbolized itself as the allegorical. This is exemplified through a closer analysis of Benjamin’s own criticism of Goethe’s Elective Affinities but also through consideration of the poetry of T. E. Hulme, whose cinder theory and imagist poetry is shown to share a comparable allegorical viewpoint to that of Benjamin and similarly situated, in a Nietzschean transformation of Kantian aesthetics, in the movement between Romanticism and Classicism.

Having examined this aesthetics of expression, chapter seven develops Benjamin’s transdisciplinary conception of literary criticism in relation to a pragmatics of history that  transposes Goethe’s description of tender empiricism from the realm of nature to that of history. As this chapter demonstrates, Nietzsche also invokes the same transposition as the foundation for his own pragmatics of history in the Untimely Meditations, and the recent work of Reinhard Koselleck provides a fuller understanding of why Goethe’s untimeliness, which presents a multiplicity of relations between the present and the sedimented experiences of the past that is rooted in his own natural philosophy, was so influential for Nietzsche, as well Salomo Friedländer and Benjamin himself. Whereas Nietzsche’s pragmatics of history is devoid of any reference to a messianic relation between the particular present and the redemptive Absolute, conflating this with a Judaic and socialistic conception of now-time (Jetztzeit), Benjamin’s own historical reconstruction of Goethe’s life, written from the perspective of post-revolutionary Moscow, aims at rescuing – against the grain – precisely these theological and political dimensions from within his thought.

While chapter six examines how Benjamin’s critical violence liberates a moment of radical theological hope within Goethe’s pagan aesthetics, chapter seven broadens this viewpoint to consider how a similar act of criticism liberates a cosmopolitical conception of technology from out of the pagan conception of history. This will connect Benjamin’s critical engagement with Ludwig Klages’s Goethean theory of primal images to a Marxist conception of the collective liberation of nature through technology via the revolutionary aesthetics of the Soviet avant-garde, in which Benjamin found the model for his own messianic revisioning of Klages, Nietzsche and Goethe. The now-time of this historically expanded and cosmopolitical conception of technology is subsequently retrieved as the modernist moment within the ‘Classico-Romantic Phantasmagoria’ of the second part of Goethe’s Faust. Conversely, these Goethean motifs play across Benjamin’s late essays on Baudelaire and on ‘The Concept of History,’ specifically in relation to the Goethean refrain, ‘All that is ephemeral/ Is only a parable;/ The inadequate/ Here becomes an Event’. In contrast to the demonic belief that ‘All that exists deserves to perish’ (Mephistopheles) and its derivations in the materialism of Marx and Engels and the idealism of Hermann Cohen (‘All that is ephemeral… perishes’), Goethes’s refrain, it is argued, constitutes the critical violence of a messianic intersection of the empirical contingency of nature and a theological contingency involved in historical redemption.

[i] Walter Benjamin, ‘One-Way Street’, in Selected Writings, vol. 1, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1996), 444-445.

[ii] See, for example, Beatrice Hanssen and Andrew Benjamin, eds., Walter Benjamin and Romanticism (London and New York: Continuum, 2002).

[iii] See, for example, Michael Löwy, ‘Revolution Against “Progress”: Walter Benjamin’s Romantic Anarchism’, New Left Review, vol. 1, no. 152 (July/August 1985); Michael Löwy, Fire Alarm (London and New York: Verso, 2005); Michael Löwy and Robert Sayre, Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2001), as well as Marcus Paul Bullock, Romanticism and Marxism: The Philosophical Development of Literary Theory and Literary History in Walter Benjamin and Friedrich Schlegel (New York: Peter Lang, 1987).

[iv] Esther Leslie, Walter Benjamin: Overpowering Conformism (London and Sterling, VA: Pluto Press, 2000); Esther Leslie, Hollywood Flatlands: Animation, Critical Theory and the Avant-Garde (London and New York: Verso, 2002); Esther Leslie, Synthetic Worlds: Nature, Art and the Chemical Industry (London: Reaktion, 2005); Esther Leslie, Liquid Crystals: The Science and Art of a Fluid Form (London: Reaktion, 2016).

[v] Andreas Kramer, ‘Goethe and the Cultural Project of German Modernism: Steiner, Kandinsky, Friedlaendar, Schwitters and Benjamin’, Publications of the English Goethe Society, vol. 71, issue 1 (2001): 18-19.

[vi] Lisa Marie Anderson, German Expressionism and the Messianism of a Generation (Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2011), 44.


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