Saturday, February 5, 2022

The Writer of Modern Life, Introduction


Benjamin, Walter. The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006. Edited by Michael W. Jennings; Translated by Howard Eiland, Edmund Jephcott, Rodney Livingston, and Harry Zohn.

[I was looking to reread Benjamin's works on Baudelaire and the 19th century in a collection; however, the previous notes I took were on a collection called Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism which I seem to no longer have for some reason (it must also have been a pdf, perhaps I just had parts and not the whole). I also have notes on some essay versions published in the Arcades project. Anyway not finding the original, and having already pieced through the Arcades essays not long ago, I figured I would read this version because it has complete versions of some essays: I will draw on my previous notes in reading it.]


Summary of Introduction by Michael W. Jennings


Jennings's introduction goes over the selection of texts and introduces Benjamin's key concepts with short discussions. First off is the dialectical image, a form of theory by montage; I'm still having trouble understanding just what the dialectical image is and how it is supposed to work, what makes it "dialectical." It seems that the dialectics is in some tension between how the image has a meaning in the present, and what its past meaning was; beyond this there seems to be, or to be the potential for, a deeper undermining of any sense or pretension of a fixed meaning (or of an appeal to the authority of fixed meaning). This, perhaps, is part of the value of studying history: it can be used to unsettle or unfinalize [to borrow a term from Bakhtin] the present; but only if the historical itself is also approached in a non-finalizing manner. 

Next key concept is phantasmagoria, akin to Debord's spectacle; Jennings traces this to Marx [and thus to Stirner]. This is also inspired by Lukacs's concept of a "second nature" (as is the spectacle, most likely). One of the importances of, and criticisms of, physiologies and panoramas is how they were complicit with this phantasmagoria. Another key concept is the theory of shock, or rather of the receptability of the poet (like Baudelaire) to receive such shocks from modern life. The ideal modern poet or "hero" as Benjamin apparently uses the term, is thus not a separate unmoved observer but one who is wounded or marked, scarred by the world and expresses this. Anyway as "modern hero" Baudelaire is the replacement for the flaneur, and also to the flaneur's successor the detective, who carries on the objectifying, phantasmagorical fixing-in-place of the urban and of meaning. Baudelaire's work in contrast has a revolutionary potential, and this is tied to his use of allegory, although once again I am still unclear of how Benjamin's concept of this works. The concept seems close to the earlier one of the dialectical image that destabilizes knowledge and, more deeply, the possibility of knowledge. Long experience (Erfahrung) and isolated experience (Erlebnis) are discussed; contra other sources I have read (Brand, I think), Jennings draws out Benjamin's ambivalent positions on both. In any event these are then tied back to the concept of shock (and of spleen and ideal in Baudelaire): somehow allegory often serves to parry the shock of experience in isolated experience. The modern hero, however, does not parry these shocks, but gives expression to them. The concept of the ideal in Baudelaire is also raised; this is held in an ambivalent tension with the spleen, thus giving Baudelaire perhaps some of that in-and-out character of the [rhythmanalyst]. Mechanization is also discussed, and Benjamin's ambivalent position explored.

The discussion ends on the revolutionary potential in Baudelaire, and the ability of his poetry to counter or overturn "auratic" art, which supports the bourgeoisie, tying again to the phantasmagoria/spectacle. Benjamin's work itself fights the phantasmagoric account of history, by tying the past to the present in that unsettling manner.

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