Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Arendt on Benjamin

A small warning - this entry will probably only interest a small number of Walter Benjamin-fans ("Benjamin-otaku"?).

I had a look at Hannah Arendt's introduction to Illuminations - a collection of essays by Benjamin translated into English - for the first time today, and was shocked to find what, in my view, must be one of the worst interpretations of Benjamin I've ever seen. It's quite legitimate to start, as she does, with a criticism of Adorno's misunderstanding of Benjamin's intentions in the essay on Baudelaire. Part of Adorno's well-known criticism is that Benjamin's attempt to relate elements of the superstructure directly to “corresponding elements in the substructure” was crude and "undialectical", too reminiscent of vulgar Marxism, and failed to do justice to Benjamin's own insights. By immersing himself in the "wide-eyed presentation of mere facts" - such as barricades or the duty on wine - his study ended up "at the crossroads of magic and positivism", a "bewitched" spot from which the way the elements were "mediated" disappeared from view (letter from Adorno to Benjamin, 10 November 1938).

Arendt defends Benjamin, saying that, yes, he was truly not a good Marxist (“the most peculiar Marxist ever produced by this movement”). She then proceeds to explain that Benjamin’s thinking was “poetical” and “metaphorical”, and that that was why he delighted in material facts. Such facts were metaphors which served to bring out truth.
He had no trouble understanding the theory of the superstructure as the final doctrine of metaphorical thinking – precisely because without much ado and eschewing all ‘mediations’ he directly related the superstructure to the so-called ‘material’ substructure, which to him meant the totality of sensually experienced data. He evidently was fascinated by the very thing that the others branded as ‘vulgar-Marxist’ or ‘undialectical’ thinking. (p.20)
So she rebuts Adorno by claiming that Benjamin’s way of seeing the relationship between superstructure and substructure was a metaphorical one. “Metaphors", she explains, "are the means by which the oneness of the world is poetically brought about”. She then proceeds to compare Benjamin to Heidegger, stressing how "close" they were or how much they had “in common” (p. 50, 53). For instance, they both shared the view that truth resided in language and “understood language as an essentially poetical phenomenon” (p. 54).

She is right in insisting that Adorno misunderstood Benjamin. Benjamin never meant to reduce elemenents of the superstructure to any material basis. Baudelaire's poem to the soul of wine wasn't a reflection in the superstructure of the wine tax in the second empire. However, she goes wrong when she tries to explain how Benjamin uses material phenomena to bring out the truth. Benjamin was not interested in “poetically” diving back into the sensual through metaphors. The entire Trauerspiel-book was an attack on art and the pretensions of art – including poetry – to reveal truth. Poetry is not a relation to Being. What, at heart, she misses is that the relationship between material facts and elements of the superstructure is that of a montage. It is neither that of a causal relationship (as in “vulgar Marxism”) nor a metaphorical one. A montage brings out truth by arranging elements into a constellation through which all the individual elements are turned into ruins, robbed of their mythical appearance of naturalness or self-sufficiency. Its effect is to shock the reader by juxtaposing the heterogeneous. It blows mindfulness to high heavens and does not invite contemplation. The montage is similar to what Benjamin calls allegory in his Trauerspiel-book, and allegory is also among the things that Arendt fails to understand. She contrasts Benjamin’s “metaphorical” thinking to the allegory, trying to portray the latter as alien to Benjamin's essentially metaphorical thought (p.19), and thereby completely misses why Benjamin himself preferred the allegory. She talks about the “spirit of Benjamin’s thought”, but the spirit she presents is Heidegger’s.

Arendt, Hannah (1973) ”Introduction Walter Benjamin: 1892-1940”, pp 7-60, in Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (ed. Hannah  Arendt, tr. Harry Zohn), London: Fontana Press.  


Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Libya and the revolution

The New York Times editorial on Libya today is indicative of the confusion that seems to be felt about this new intervention - or, rather, war - everywhere. There is concern about the lack of a clear goal, the lack of an exit-option and, I think, quite a lot of fear about what new sufferings the war will bring. There is also concern about what will become of the Arab revolution from now on.

It's true that the "allied attacks on Libya were perhaps the only hope of keeping more people from being slaughtered" and it's also true that if Quaddafi would have been "allowed to crush the opposition, it would chill pro-democracy movements across the Arab world". But it is also true, as Abdulhadi Khalaf says, that "this is a golden opportunity to train fighter pilots and secure access to oil. That is the reason why many countries now attack goals in Libya, not that they intend to stop the suffering of the people" (in Swedish here). There will hardly be any intervention in Yemen or Bahrain, close allies to the US.

Isn't there a real danger is that the intervention itself will also "chill pro-democracy movements across the Arab world"? I am not an expert on the Arab world, but I am pretty sure that no protester, absolutely no-one, wants to be seen as the vanguard of a NATO invasion.

The big question now seems to be: Is there a possibility of being for the revolution without being for the intervention?

Regardless of that, the intervening powers must refrain from anything that could hurt civilians. That's the only way to obtain a minimum of legitimacy.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Abu-Lughod "Before European Hegemony"

In her 1989 book Before European Hegemony: The World System, A.D. 1250-1350, Janet Abu-Lughod provides an interesting pre-history to the “European” world-system analyzed by Wallerstein . According to her the latter system arose as a kind of transformative take-over of an earlier system that was already in existence although it had been declining since the mid-14th century. This was not a system centred on Europe. It had several cores, but its most important center was in China. Her analysis therefore works as a criticism of Wallerstein’s at least tendential Eurocentrism (but only partly, because she is a bit Eurocentric herself, addressing a European or at least "Western" implied reader, starting the book with Europe, using Europe as a constant point of reference and sometimes curiously overvaluing Europe’s contribution to the system in a way that is inconsistent with her general thrust which is aimed at showing how peripheral Europe was).

Although this early system was not "capitalist" in Wallerstein's sense (he stresses systematic “endless accumulation” in his definition of capitalism rather than the kind of long-distance trade that Abu-Lughod describes), Abu-Lughod makes it clear that this was an important predecessor system of the properly capitalist system that emerged in the 16th century. It was in this early system that the important trade routes were established, as well as much of the productive activity and the institutions necessary for trade.

As for particular geographical areas, I liked the analyses of the Italian city states as well as the analysis of Srivijaya and its relation to China. It was also interesting to see how much emphasis she puts on factors like the Black Death in explaining the decline of the system after the mid-14th century. The decisive factor behind this decline, however, was the disruption or closing of China’s two trade routes to the west - first the landbased route across Asia (the “silk road”) after the collapse of the Mongol empire and later the seabased route when the Chinese economy no longer allowed the Ming to send navies into the Indian Ocean. “When both of these lines to the world system were open, China flourished; when they closed, China declined, and, with her, the rest of the world system” (p.258).

According to her, these developments were also of enormous importance in accounting for the rise of the new Eurocentered world system. No technological superiority was needed for the latter. “When, after 1435, the Ming dynasty withdrew a powerful Chinese fleet from the ocean… an enormous vacuum of power was created that, some 70 years later, the Portuguese intruders filled with their own brute fire power” (p. 259). So, Abu-Lughod asks, did the West rise or the East fall? She argues that “the East had already substantially ‘fallen’ before the Portuguese men-of-war appeared in the Indian Ocean. That weakened world was a plum ripe for the taking. No special ‘virtue’ inhered in the conquerors; they took control of the remnants of a preexisting world system, one they then ruthlessly honed to serve their own ends” (p.260).

A noteworthy point here is the prominent use Abu-Lughod makes of the notion of an emptiness or vacuum that can be "filled" as an explanans. This is a way of explaining things that is quite usual in everyday thought, but which hasn't been given much attention in scholarly thought (although Ahrne & Papakostas discusses it at length in one of their books). Braudel appears rather fond of the argument, as when he discusses the success of Mycenae or the Phoenicians, speculating that they were able to "fill a void" in the Mediterrenean. What is perhaps especially intriguing with this kind of explanation is that it suggests a state of very radical unpredictability. A void can be filled by almost anything. A void is a cause that at the same time accentuates contingency. If we accept, for instance, that a "void" reigned in the Indian Ocean in the 15th century then that means that whatever direction history took from then on was underdetermined, i.e. that it could just as well have developed in a completely different direction. If the Portuguese had delayed their expansion fifty years, say, then who can tell who would have filled the void instead, and with what consequences for the world system?

Abu-Lughod, Janet L. (1989) Before European Hegemony: The World System, A.D. 1250-1350, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

The Kangnido map (1402): Korean-made map of the world based on Mongolian sources (not mentioned in the book, but a nice representation of peripheral Europe from the point of view of the more central parts of the world system).
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