Wednesday, May 25, 2022

The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire, Part 4


Summary of Part IV: Addenda

This section is composed of two brief fragments from the plan for the larger book; the first on Benjamin’s method, the second on “taste.”

Benjamin remarks on the relationship between the “materialist method,” as he practices it, and the idea of truth. One cannot simply try to separate out truth from falsehood, because the object under study is “riddled with error, with doxa” (129); as the translators note, this is Plato’s word for “opinion” or common beliefs, which the philosopher must counter and go beyond to achieve truth; for Benjamin, the use of the term seems closer to “ideology” or “false consciousness” as used in the Marxist tradition. Yet his positioning of this doxa within the object is a mark of his particularly materialist form of “materialism,” akin to the way his “phantasmagoria” are situated within or as material accounts, books, specific articulations of the social (in contrast to, for example, Debord, whose “spectacle” is an over-arching abstraction, only instantiated in local forms; for Benjamin it seems the instantiation is the whole thing, the object of study). Yet this is not to say that he wants to study “the matter in itself,” as this was the goal. Rather, it must be questioned for larger purposes: using the metaphor of a stream, the “historical materialist” is not mesmerized by its beauty, nor by the mystery of its origin or source, but instead asks

Whose mills does this stream drive? Who is utilizing its power? Who dammed it? These are the questions that historical materialism asks, changing our impressions of the landscape by naming the forces that have been operative in it. (130)

[After all, the point of philosophy is no longer to merely interpret the world...] And further, these forces are to be questioned, not only in regard to the production of historical objects (as with Marx’s famous table), but of the “tradition” or means of communication/transmission of objects to the present: the “production process in which they continue to survive.” In a footnote he explains part of his fascination with Baudelaire:

There is little point in trying to include the position of a Baudelaire in the fabric of the most advanced position in mankind's struggle for liberation. From the outset, it seems more promising to investigate his machinations where he was undoubtedly at home: in the enemy camp. ... Baudelaire was a secret agent – an agent of the secret discontent of his class with its own rule. (300n261)

The section on “taste” begins with the announcement, “Taste develops when commodity production clearly surpasses any other kind of production” (131). “Taste” in the way Benjamin is using it appears to be a reaction against commodification and fetishization. Whereas buyers interacting with artisans had had some knowledge of the production process, consumers of mass-produced goods have little understanding. They know nothing about the actual qualities of the material, etc. and are unable to judge the workmanship; they are influenced instead by the “profane glimmer (Schein)” that “makes the commodity phosphorescent.”

As the expertness of a customer declines, the importance of his taste increases proportionately—both for him and for the manufacturer. For the consumer, it serves as a more or less elaborate masking of his lack of expertness. For the manufacturer, it serves as a fresh stimulus to consumption, which in some cases is satisfied at the expense of other consumer needs that would be more costly for the manufacturer to meet.

He then discusses the link between this development of “taste” and the use of language in l’art pour l’art, jugendstil poetry, and Mallarm√©. This has to do with the class position of bourgeois/lumpen writers who, renounced by or alienated from the bourgeoisie (whom they might previously have represented), have nothing to say based on their own experience, and so produce wholly "esoteric" works focusing on expressing their own character, or taste. Baudelaire, however, is different, because although his works, as well, are “nowhere derived from the production process,” nevertheless the “roundabout ways” in which his works originated “are quite apparent” in his writing, instead of obscured behind the mask of taste (133).

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