returns and mnemonics

August 5, 2007

“Kitty want in?”: Whether voiced by a child entering into language or Descartes as he toys with his pet during philosophical turns, this is an utterance caught between the ludic and the performative. Shchrodinger’s Cat, Paul De Man’s “cat out of the bag,” Maxwell’s sorting demon – all mnemonics for a playful repetition that becomes something else, of a ritual that exceeds its own feedback loop.

One of things I find most fascinating about Benjamin’s “The Work of Art” is the way in which its own repetition and return is rarely discussed. The sudden appearance of Benjamin’s works amid the academic intelligentsia in the 1960s brought into circulation texts that had been dismissed as trivial at an earlier point in history (in Germany; but also by Erwin Panofsky in London, a perhaps even more puzzling and distressing slight). Much of this neglect can be explained in terms of politics, anti-Semitism, and fear. Yet, there is something peculiarly elusive about Benjamin’s “fit” within various modes of knowledge production, past and present.

His Marxist methodology was of particular concern for later members of the Frankfurt School – and, indeed, his habilitation committee voiced a similar reservation over his Ursprung thesis (a “metaphysical” text that never leaves such registers for a truly historical or materialist account, according to its detractors). The problem, however, is not the absence of dialectic but of the presence of a mode of dialectical exchange that the superstructure vs. substructure and its sterile abstractions could hardly take seriously – play. There are countless references to Benjamin’s “sense of play” (his editors and biographers point to it in his letters, his writings, his annotations…). The Ursprung…Trauerspiels is a stunningly intricate and patient work that is also, quite simply, about play. In German even more so than in English that play on spiel generates a double vision of “game” and “theatre.” As George Steiner points out, the Ursprung is a study with a profound interest in both the ludic and the “mimetic-histrionic.”

Play: an event where repetition exceeds the trance of ritual to become a moment of suspension. But this is not simply a suspension synonymous with an open “elevation in potentiality,” in Sam Weber’s terms. That space between the ludic and the mimetic implies a “frozen violence” (Steiner, Ursprung) as much as it does the potential for shifts, transversal movement, revolution, learning, and materialization. Herein lies an interesting aspect of Benjamin’s “Marxism” – a mode less related perhaps to Jewish mysticism and the Kabbalah than to the kinds of revolutions implied in “Tactical Iraqi” and “Domestic.” I see a challenge before us not to repeat the mistake of Benjamin’s contemporaries, to ignore the trivial in favor of larger abstractions.

In the “The Work of Art,” the “orchid” is a figure comparable to that first experience of hearing the echo of one’s own voice returning, coming back, and yet carrying forward into another register. There is violence in such moments as well as the beauty of unfolding, of “care” as an encounter with the play of me/not me. …..
“mechanical equipment penetrated so deeply into reality….The equipment-free aspect of reality[…] has become the height of artifice; the sight of immediate reality has become an orchid in the land of technology.”

Here emblematic play is a place to re-encounter the “frozen” violence along with the elevation in potentiality to events on the cusp of repetition and becoming. After all, the Orchid, orchis, is an emblem of such ludic-mimetic struggle: a nymph-satyr who, accused of rape, is transformed into a flower emblematic of desire, unfolding, love.



July 25, 2007

I am listening to a recording I made not moments ago of my son hearing his own recorded voice and reacting to it in a very engaged fashion.  He echoes his own recorded voice with great interest and excitement.  At twenty-four months, he is already embedded in the Digital Ages, where banal archives abound in fields of ones and zeros. My digital technology encoded a moment in which my son used his language skills to inquire about another creature’s wants: I recorded him asking our cat if he wanted in. My computer captured a moment of caring by digitizing “Want in kitty cat?  Want in?”  That emotion, “caring,” the daughter of Love, has timelessness about it, an aura that exists only as a radiant gist in the moment of its expression.  By attending to it, by playing with his sounds on my computer, I hope to arrange that moment and care for it over time.  I hope that my present act of mindfulness in recording this moment, now gone, will help me feel the way I felt when I witnessed what I did today. 

Reading Benjamin at the dawn of the Digital Ages has radically changed my perspective and understanding of time, particularly in terms of time’s relationship to technology and to the institutional memories enabled by these technologies that we collectively call “history.”   I hope to use this blog as a forum to flesh out these relationships between Benjamin and other “contemporary” theorists with theorists of ages, ideologies and technologies long since forgotten. 

My main field of study is medieval prayer theory, in which theorists developed pedagogies that developed “machina memorialis”–memory machines that enabled modes of being capable of recording and processing vast amounts of information necessary for cultural agency.  As Mary Carruthers describes them in The Craft of Thought, these machines “are more like a chisel or a pen” than “the ability to reproduce something” verbatim.  This cognitive technology was “the matrix of a reminiscing cogitation, shuffling and collating ‘things’ stored in a random-access memory scheme, or set of schemes – a memory architecture and a library built up during one’s lifetime with the express intention that it be used inventively”(4).  The ultimate goal of these technologies was practical and social; they were not “an art of recitation and reiteration but an art of invention, an art that made it possible for a person to act competently within the ‘arena’ of debate . . ., to respond to interruptions and questions, or to dilate upon the ideas that momentarily occurred to him [sic], without becoming hopelessly distracted, or losing his place in the scheme of his basic speech” (8). 

I see this particular technology as an extremely powerful force in the development of the individual “self” in the late-medieval and early modern periods.  As this technology was “shrunk-wrapped” in monasteries in the twelfth century and shipped to an ever-expanding lay market in the thirteenth and fourteenth century through the growth of lay devotional culture, individuals could tap into the power of liturgical prayer in the privacy of their own domestic spaces.  In short, there was an explosion of technical reproduction of prayers in the twelfth through the fifteenth centuries that mirrors the shift in the status of traditional art described in Benjamin’s essay.  I will be reading his “Work of Art” in light of my understanding of the technologies of medieval prayer. 

July 4, 2007

Current reading:

Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”
with a chapter from The Origin of German Tragic Drama (still to be selected)