Monday, July 11, 2011

One Hundred Pages of Solicitude #2: The Messanic Reduction

"The years are countable, but, in contrast to most countables, not numerable." --Walter Benjamin
Today's centum study is The Messianic Reduction: Walter Benjamin and the Shape of Time by Peter Fenves. In essence, Fenves draws attention to Benjamin's early involvement with phenomenology to argue his stance regarding the differences between history and time. Fenves draws particular attention to Benjamin's friendship with mathematician/Jewish mysticism scholar Gershom Scholem, and some of his early works which have just recently been drawn to public attention, such as "The Rainbow."

My knowledge of Benjamin is very slight--it extends to multiple readings and re-readings of "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," and stays there. The essay is considered one of the foundational texts for technology-related scholarship, and it's most famously known for Benjamin's argument that the "sacred aura" that imbues a work of art is irrevocably changed when that work becomes a product for mass production. It's essentially one of the earliest texts on the effect of industrialization on society at large. I've never really thought of approaching it in phenomenological terms, and I don't think Benjamin's early associations of phenomenology are particularly well known, but once you draw attention to it, the connection becomes fairly clear, as our perceptions of "sacred auras" of objects is an often discussed topic of phenomenology at large.

I'm dwelling on the "The Work of Art" so much because the longer I do so, the longer I can put off admitting that I had a hard time following Fenres' book. It's very rooted in the tenets of phenomenology at the time and Germanic philosophy in general, neither of which being areas I'm very familiar with. In that, it reminded me of Stiegler's Technics and Time series, but with one significant difference. Even if I didn't get the specifics of Stiegler's references, I could still follow his own argument. Fenves, however, isn't so much providing his own argument as maintaining that Benjamin's argument is already there, and attempting to bring it forward. That's not in any way a derogatory comment; Fenves' goal here is to bring light to under-appreciated elements of Benjamin's work, and as such he fades into the background to an admirable degree in order to allow the figure of Benjamin to maintain central stage.

And in that, he's remarkably successful. While I may not have followed the finer points of the arguments, I definitely got a sense of the academic school that Benjamin was operating in and responding to. "The School of Husserl" is in full swing, the studies of Goethe, Kant, and Nietzche are developing at an accelerated rate, and even Benjamin's disagreements with a young Heidegger are brought to light. I was particularly amused by Benjamin's staunch insistence to keep all references to first-person "I" out of his scholarship. Not only does it inform Fenves' own stepping aside, but as Fenves points out, it's emblematic of his distance from the school of phenomenology, which is very focused on the "I" in its pursuit of how the "I" and the "Not I" differ. I'm also intrigued by the difference between Nietzche's Apollonian and Dionysian, as it's come up in other forms for me before (I'm thinking particularly of Emily Short's "Galatea"), but that's not so much a Benjamin issue per se as a general interest.

Verdict: It's expanded my scope of Benjamin, and I suppose that's a good thing.

Would Read the Rest?: Not until I had more primary Benjamin texts under my belt. And some Heidegger. And Husserl. And Nietchze, and Gothe, and Kant and...

Later Days.

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