‘It only needs all’: re-reading Dialectic of Enlightenment at 70

This article by Marcel Stoetzler* was originally published on openDemocracy. Seventy years ago, Querido Verlag published a densely written book that has become a key title of modern social philosophy. Underneath its pessimistic granite surface a strangely sanguine message awaits us. Horkheimer left, Adorno right, Habermas background right, running hand through hair. Max Weber-Soziologentag, Heidelberg,April,1964. Wikicommons/Jeremy … Read more

Tim Keane: “Walter Benjamin on How to Stop Worrying and Love Late Capitalism”

*The following article by Tim Keane is reposted from Hyperallergic.


Around 1925, the Passage de l’Opéra in Paris, a glass-roofed structure housing shops, known as magasin de nouveautés, was slated for demolition. This particular arcade contained a bathhouse, itinerant lodgings, a brothel or two, small restaurants, and Café Certa, a gathering spot for Dadaist and Surrealist writers and artists. Like many an outraged French writer before and since, the poet Louis Aragon blamed the demolition on the United States, complaining that France’s Boulevard Haussman Building Society had caved to “the great American penchant for city planning.”

In response, Aragon wrote Paris Peasant (1926), immortalizing the soon-to-be obliterated Passage de l’Opéra. The novel inventories the arcade’s “glaucous gleam” and “outlaw principle,” the shops’ exotic merchandise and accessories, the tempting menus, posters, magazines and advertisements, and the sly expressions of passersby — the “fauna of human fantasies,” and “unrecognized sphinxes” embodying Paris’ “contempt for prohibitions” and “irrepressible sense of delinquency.”

Walter Benjamin, a German-born intellectual temporarily living in Paris, was an immediate admirer of this new book. In a letter to Theodor W. Adorno, his friend and eventual executor, Benjamin recalled being galvanized by Paris Peasant. “I could never read more than two or three pages in bed at night,” he admits, “before my heart started to beat so strongly that I had to lay the book aside.”

Of course, that was 1928. How feasible, today, is Benjamin’s hopefulness about humanity and technology? Earlier this year the Bulletin of Atomic Scientistsmoved its doomsday clock closer to midnight, meaning that the risks of a human wipeout via nuclear weapons has become much more likely. And, if that were not dire enough, as a result of human industry and its toxic waste, the habitability of our planet has deteriorated at a faster rate than climate scientists had previously predicted.Benjamin captured his own urban wanderlust in One Way Street (Belknap/Harvard 2016). This book-length essay about aimless walks in Weimar-era Berlin, like Paris Peasant,replicates the arbitrariness of a city, describing encountered shops and objects, and mapping connections among simultaneous activities — walking, looking, thinking, joking, free associating, daydreaming and composing. Reflecting on how the “bloodbath” of World War I had been facilitated by industrialization, Benjamin closes out One Way Streeton a rousingly positive note. He proposes that technology, epitomized by the modern city, can be emancipated from the grasp of “the ruling class” and “the imperialists” with their “lust for profit.” The essay rethinks technology as reconciliatory rather than destructive, not a means for conquering nature but an instrument for mastering “the relation between nature and man.”

Meanwhile, despite its undeniable efficiencies and freedoms, digital media proceeds apace with fracturing face-to-face solidarities while accelerating the fictionalization of crucial facts. Computer hackers threaten the legitimacy of democratic elections. The current American President is an Internet troll. Given such large-scale technological malpractice, even sympathetic contemporary critics question the ongoing relevance of Benjamin, the prophet who found glimmers of hope in the “mutual penetration of art and science” heralded by what he called our “age of mechanical reproduction.”

In an attempt to save Benjamin from being eclipsed by the very cultural theories and media studies he pioneered, The Arcades: Contemporary Art and Walter Benjamin at The Jewish Museum situates his thought in relation to current — and largely American — photography, painting, film, and sculpture, as well as appropriated texts collaged into bewildering typographic arrangements by Kenneth Goldsmith.

Each gallery room is devoted to a given section – what Benjamin called a “convolute” — in his thousand-plus page tome Das Passagen-Werk (1982), known in English translation as The Arcades Project (Belknap/Harvard 1999), a speculative dive into modernity through Paris’s 19th-century shopping arcades. Lobbing a history lesson into a multimedia funhouse, this uneven yet colorful and busy exhibition provides the prospective reader of the byzantine Arcades Project with timelines of the author’s life, as well as explicatory wall charts, print photographs, and reproductions of handwritten manuscripts, lists, journals and other keepsakes. It turns out that Benjamin’s road to TheArcades Project was a long and winding one.

Born in 1892 into an affluent and secular Jewish family whose father was a sometime art dealer, Benjamin was a devoted student, specializing in the volatility of Baroque and Romantic literature. He preserved traces of religious mysticism in his writing even as he turned into a practical philosopher, social commentator, and cultural journalist. Having left an early marriage and promising academic career behind in Germany, Benjamin’s personal relationships and fact-finding travels in Europe in the 1920s and ‘30s — especially excursions to Russia and to Italy — reinforced the revolutionary beliefs about mass industrialization and rapid urbanization that he had gleaned from his reading of Karl Marx, Max Weber, and George Simmel.

And he absorbed work by contemporaries like Siegfried Kracauer, a fellow member of the Frankfurt School, who ushered in the study of film and pop culture, and Austrian satirist Karl Kraus, who ridiculed the lies and boneheaded practices of exploitative journalism. Probably the most influential contemporary guiding Benjamin’s evolution was Hungarian philosopher György Lukács. As literary critic, Lukács examined how longings for a lost utopia shaped modern literature. After converting to Marxism, he theorized about the neutering of human self-awareness and initiative by consumer capitalism. This alienating psychosocial development, sometimes known as “reification,” conditions the members of a society to be docile and contemplative once they have conceptualized their existence in terms of a commodity, functioning passively and moving “automatically,” one more object in the capitalist sphere of everyday production and exchange.

In the streets of Paris, Benjamin earned a living as a journalist while hunting out concrete examples on which to field test and then synthesize cutting-edge social theories. Encouraged by fellow German expatriate author Franz Hessel, he learned how to wander Paris with a voyeuristic curiosity modeled on that of the flaneur — a detached, attentive spectator who believed in the “religious intoxication of great cities” — who passed through every line of Charles Baudelaire’s poetry, especially the groundbreaking volume Les Fleurs du Mal (1857).

Read the full post here (about 1500 more words)

Umair Haque: “(Why) The Resistance is Losing”

The following is from Bad Words.

The Muslim ban is in effect. The info shock-troops are attacking journalists daily. There are open calls for violence from major national institutions like the NRA. Hate crimes are spiking.

Sorry. But: the resistance is losing. And it is losing badly.

Forgive me. This is going to be a brutal little essay. And it needs a disclaimer. As a brown person, it’s easy for me to be accused of being the enemy. Somehow, we always are. So let’s be clear. I don’t want authoritarianism to win.

And yet it is. How come? Because resistance isn’t nearly enough to defeat authoritarianism. resistance is not an opposition. What’s the difference? Everything.

Let me give you a small parable.

Today I read a tweet from Jon Favreau. I think he was Obama’s former speechwriter or adviser, at any rate he’s a powerful Democrat. He said (to paraphrase): “the right wing is buying up the media! This is bad guys!”. Sure, it is. Now how are we to “resist” that? We can’t. We can only oppose it — with real policies. Media is a natural monopoly. Natural monopolies tend to be run by cutthroat capitalists. Have you ever heard of a left-wing media acquisition spree? Neither have I. Because of these simple economics, every other rich country in the world has two things. One, strong media antitrust laws. Two, strong public media, like the BBC or CBC. Without those, media naturally, inevitably, inescapably becomes monopoly, and monopoly soon enough becomes the institutional support authoritarians need to rise.

But Obama never backed any of that, did he? The Dems still don’t, do they? Resistance isn’t enough.

The question is whether a society can genuinely oppose authoritarianism. With a vibrant and inclusive and strong political opposition. That opposition has to stand for what prevents authoritarianism —what limits, circumscribes, and ultimately conquers it — not merely what resists it. Do you see the difference?

Read the full post here

Adorno – “Minima Moralia 1.8: If bad boys should tempt you” (1944)

*The following is reposted from Marxists.org. If bad boys should tempt you. – There is an amor intellectualis [Latin: abstract love] for the kitchen staff, the temptation for those who work theoretically or artistically, to relax the intellectual [geistigen] claim on oneself, to lower one’s niveau, to follow all manner of platitudes in the matter … Read more

Adorno – Negative Dialectics: “Cogitative Self-Reflection”

This post is part of my ongoing blogging project called “Critical Theory Down to Earth.” In these posts I provide summaries of and brief reflections on writings throughout the wider critical theory landscape.  Negative Dialectics Part Two: Negative Dialectics. Concepts and Categories 8. Cogitative Self-Reflection Sooner or later, philosophers discover that philosophy itself is problematic. In … Read more

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