Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Profane Illumination, Chapter 2


Summary of Chapter 2: Benjamin’s Marxisms

This chapter takes on the question of the relationship between material relationships of production, and “remoter realms of the superstructure, including art” in Marxism, and how this was a central question for Benjamin; he saw the relationship as “a series of mediations, as it were transmissions” between base and superstructure (17). B opposed vulgar Marxism, which sees the base as simplistically determining, but what actual alternative he put forward has been debated; C notes his response is “maverick,” “Gothic Marxism” that attempts “to fuse Marxism with all manner of non-Marxist discourses” (18).

Benjamin turns to psychoanalytic vocabulary to conceptualize a revi­sion of base-superstructure relations which he both grounds in Marxist theory but finds Marxism unable to describe because of its own immer­sion in Enlightenment concepts of representation and causality. (18-9)

She focuses on the incompleteness of the Arcades Project, and Adorno's criticisms of B. Adorno’s criticisms will be addressed in relation to the concept of wish-image, from the second Paris Capital essay. The term “wish image” refers to “products of the superstructure from the inception of industrial production,” which “came into contact with deep-seated collective desires” (e.g., for a classless society), and which thus “could be put to socially transformative ends” (21). B considers these collective wish-images to be hidden in something like the unconscious, and his view of the cultural critic is based on the Freudian psychoanalyst, though working at a cultural rather than an individual level. He bases his wish-image concept in part on the Freudian theory of dreams. Adorno was skeptical of this. B also described wish-images in terms of phantasmagoria, a term taken from Marx’s discussion of commodity fetishism; A has no quarrel with this.

From the expose’s unconceptualized use of phantasmagoria it seems that Benjamin applies this term to those products of the superstructure where negative ideological mystification prevails. (23)

However, B does not specifically articulate the relationship between “these two forms of manifestation taken by the superstructure” (dream versus phantasmagoria). This is related to another “slippage” in B: “When discussing ideology, the Passagen-Werk often col­lapses the question of how ideology mystifies material relations into the question of how the superstructure transforms the base.” B is uncertain whether the superstructure can be experienced outside of ideological distortion.

B is interested in the subjectivity of the dialectical image; A wants to purify it of subjectivity, as an insight into or reflection of “objective conditions.” A’s Hornburg Letter has framed much subsequent discussion of B, with arguments coming down either on his side or on A’s. C discusses a quote from Konvolut K “that has become a locus classicus in Benjaminian interpretation” (28), in which he suggests that the superstructure cannot be a reflection of the base, since it involves ideological expression; instead, the superstructure must be an expression of the base:

The economic conditions of a society's existence come to expression in the superstructure, just as the over­ filled stomach of someone who is sleeping, although it may causally deter­mine the dream content, finds there not its reflection but its expression. (B, quoted in C, 28)

She gives a reading by Habermas as one end of the debate: H seems to largely agree with Adorno’s criticism. Buck-Morss, in contrast, defends B against A’s charges using the same passage. She argues that B is in fact very materialist and ties the collective dream to the class interests of the bourgeoisie. Cohen, however, wants to outline B’s position, not as a reaction to the dialectics of the Frankfurt School (and A), but to those of surrealist Marxism.

But Benjamin’s divergence from Frankfurt School Marxism must be read as his orientation toward another recognizable Marxist position rather than as his turn away from Marxist thought. (30)

She traces this influence of surrealist Marxism through Althusser, first; quoting from Reading Capital on the problem of defining/describing the “structural causality” (or “metonymic causality”) of base/superstructure-ideology relations; acc Althusser, this needs to be done in a more complex and adequate way than Marx had been able to, given the terminology etc of his time. Althusser thus incorporates Saussure, also drawing on Lacan and Freud; psychoanalysis is used to characterize base/superstructure relations, such that the economic appears “disfigured” in a superstructure which has its own material reality (32).

That Benjamin simultaneously insists on dream determination as adequate to his displacement of a vulgar Marxist base-superstructure model indicates that "expression" is a misleading phrase for the com­plexity of the concept toward which he strives. (34)

Benjamin describes the literary superstructure here as the sublimation of the contents of collective consciousness, which he qualifies not as libidinal impulses but rather as economic activity. While this repressed economic content could, as Buck-Morss suggests, be read as a class’s repressed wishes that focus on economic matters, it could also be read as the realm of economic production itself.

C shows links in the ways Althusser and B both argue for a psychoanalytically informed way of explaining base-superstructure relation. B cites Marx’s concept of “uneven development;” Althusser uses this as well in developing his own concept of overdetermination.

Althusser and Benjamin have different ways of situating/interrogating Marxism in its 19th century origins. For A, this is about rescuing Marxism as a science from these ideologically limiting origins; B’s aim is “more ambiguous,” but involves also seeing Marxism “not as a science but as an important nineteenth-century form of expression” to be investigated in relation to other such forms of expression (37). B is also interested in the therapeutic potential of psychoanalysis, “how the psychoanalytic recasting of the base­-superstructure problematic may not only diagnose the complexity of current social relations but also provide models for socially transformative activity.” B is also, obviously, more eclectic; B furthermore has a very different (theologically influenced) linguistic theory than A.

C invokes Benjamin’s “spleen and ideal” as contrasts, spleen somehow illuminates the absent ideal? Much like the fallen word (which must signify to have meaning) somehow echoes the self-sufficient prelapsarian, unified word [BwO?] In 1933, in “On the Mimetic Faculty”, B develops the concept of “nonsensuous similarity”, “concerned with the traces left by divine language in the postlapsarian world” (39). According to graphology, handwriting conceals/contains unconscious images, and B hypothesizes this might have been significant at the origins of writing: “Script has thus become, like language, an archive of nonsensuous similarities, of nonsensuous correspondences.” (B, quoted on p 39). B thus complicates his earlier linguistic theory (regarding how words from different languages have some “nonsensuous similarity” to their shared referent, and to each other (?), bringing in the concept of repression, the relationship is now seen as overdetermined.

B sometimes says “nonsensuous similarity” and sometimes “nonsensuous correspondence;” C explores this. Examples of “profane illumination” (flashes of clarity?) in B are discussed; the notion of the collective dream or “wish image” is traced through the various drafts of the Paris essay.

If the products of the superstructure take the dis­torted form of dreams, Benjamin suggests, it is because they are doubly determined, not only by material forces but also by a nonmaterial col­lective agency that Benjamin names the collective unconscious. Benjamin ties the collective unconscious to some form of buried libidinal experience when he relates it to classless society from prehistory (Urgeschichte). (42)

The collective has a “need to give the new imagistic form.” How the distant/mythic past appears in images of the new (as contrast to recent past):

In addition, these wish images manifest an emphatic striving for dissociation with the outmoded – which means, however, with the most recent past. These tendencies direct the imagistic imagination, which has been activated by the new, back to the primeval past. (B quoted on page 43)

A footnote on the influence of the surrealist Mabille gives some perspective on how B is trying to distance himself from Jung’s timeless use of archaic images as “archetypes,” which he sees as reactionary.

Social products are incomplete (they can’t deliver what they promise), and the social order of production is unjust, limiting, and exploitative: “Responding to the insufficiencies of material conditions, the collective unconscious produces images where unsatisfactory material conditions are set to right” (44). Thus the distortion of the base by the superstructure is a result of overdetermination: the superstructure is not just determined by the base, but also “by multiple nonmaterial imperatives that he characterizes in libidinal, symbolic, and ideological terms.” This in turn complicates the simple base-superstructure relation/distinction [because aspects of the superstructure are being seen as productive]

Why these determining noneconomic forces are subject to collective repression is, however, a question that Benjamin does not address. (45)

The difference of Cohen’s position from Adorno’s:

Benjamin does not employ “the notion of collective consciousness . . . to divert attention from true objectivity and its correlate, alien­ated subjectivity” ... Rather, he devises it to propose a link between base and superstructure going beyond either linear or dialectical causality as well as to differentiate the appearance of the superstructure from its material workings. Benjamin seeks to use this notion to explain how the forces of the superstructure can have an obscured effect beyond the phenomenal forms in which they appear. In addition, he opens up the possibility for therapeutic formulations of social intervention. (46)

She discusses the concept of “construction” in Freud, whether analyst reconstructs from the pieces of the past, or constructs anew, is left ambiguous.

The gauge of the accuracy of the new construction is not only its faithfulness to what has been forgotten but also its therapeutic effectiveness in the present; Freud simultaneously stresses that this gauge is far from confirming that the construction ever existed as such. (47)

B in turn distinguishes “critical construction” from “reconstruction” and from historical processes/dialectics; the wish image or utopia is in a non-place. Adorno seeks to remove/dissolve ambiguity, to uncover objective processes; B seeks to use it. C however thinks “ambiguity” is a weak term and a “strategic error” on B’s part, preferring Althusser’s “overdetermination,” which she seems to argue is the concept that B is grasping for. (Which A further is distinguishing from Hegelian dialectics, something B does not do?)

B’s method and use of psychoanalysis, though, is meant to allow for “graphicness” (Anschaulichkeit) which is lacking in regular Marxist method; he will bring in montage to achieve this. B’s model is incomplete; the question of the relation between collective and individual consciousness remains, as well as relationship between phantasmagoria and base.

She turns to Benjamin’s use of the metaphor of “awakening:”

I want here to ask only one last question: How does our awakening from the world of our parents relate to our own implication in a collective dream? More specifically, given Benjamin's libidinal notion of critique, why does he describe the critical moment with a vocabulary of awakening at all? (52)

This seems problematic because the language of “awakening” sounds more like Adorno’s Enlightenment approach, re “awakening” from the illusion of superstructure to objective awareness. Surely B does not mean this? C argues that B uses the term “awakening” for two reasons: 1) due to the influence of surrealism, which will be explored in future chapters; 2) simply because “awakening” is the natural discursive opposite of “dream,” which B has already committed to. Nevertheless he does mean it as the simple opposite of dreaming or sleep.

Benjamin focuses specifically on the language of dream in this endeavor in part because it seems to provide an elegant pivot from materialism to psychoanalysis. This language, central to psychoanalysis, is also one that Marx employs from time to time. (53)

[Unfortunately Cohen’s book is just too early to have been able to engage with Derrida’s Specters of Marx.]

The Freudian account of dream, which B is drawing on, is more complex than the Enlightenment account, and “loaded with affect and ... the ambivalence of desire and fear” (53). For B, “awakening is not waking but rather a moment that, in its access to repressed processes, must be conceived of as close to the form of experience that reigns in the world of dream” (54) B “deconstructs” the relationship between sleep and waking, seeing rather “an infinite variety of concrete states of consciousness, that are conditioned by all conceivable gradations of awakened-hood in all possible centers (B, quoted on p 54).

B abandons dream terminology in the 1939 exposé, instead using the concepts of phantasmagoria and shock, “the moment making the overdetermination regulating social processes accessible to the individual subject.”

Can it be that awakening is the synthesis whose thesis is dream consciousness and whose antithesis is waking consciousness? Then the moment of awakening would be identical with the ‘Now of recognizability’ in which things put on their true-surrealist-face (B, quoted on p. 55)

To summarize: Benjamin breaks with established Marxist views of his time by complicating the base-superstructure relationship in a way that Adorno misconstrues as idealist; B is, however, actually pursing this relation in a way informed by psychoanalysis, similar to what Althusser later does as well. (Which is why Cohen argues we can use concepts from Althusser to elucidate Benjamin). The concept of “awakening,” is not a simple opposite of dreaming, a waking-into-the-real-world a la the simplistic Enlightenment opposition as used by Adorno; it is rather a dialectic, moving from the “waking” world of the establishment, through the dream world of wishes for a revolutionary future as imaged through the past, to a new “awakening” which is similar to Freud’s “construction,” which is not necessarily a reconstruction of the actual past but more importantly, has therapeutic power in the present.

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