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For the exhibition ‘Threats and Containments’ - Byam Shaw School of Art March 12th 1997
Spies and Art: in a State of Emergency
I want to talk about a series of encounters between art and surveillance and politics - in 6 sections. The logic is perhaps convolute, and the themes sporadically surfacing and re-surfacing rather than tautly sustained. Whether the 6 sections form a whole argument or just a series of impermissably poetic scenes with little connection or truth-status is, of course, for you to decide.
Throughout this paper I want a quotation to be ringing in your ears. It is from Benjamin's 'Theses on the Philosophy of History' and it summons up the language of peril, of threat. Benjamin speaks of historical materialism's need to ‘seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger’ - in order to make visible the true history of oppression. He continues:
The danger affects both the content of the tradition and its receivers. The same threat hangs over both: that of becoming a tool of the ruling classes. In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.
1. Low-life, high art
In a radio lecture on the Bastille, the French state prison, Walter Benjamin associates conspirators and artists. The Bastille was a place of incarceration for people who had contravened against state security. There were two classes of prisoner held there; those who were accused of conspiracy and treason, and those more numerous inmates who were writers, engravers, book dealers and binders, all people who had propagated books that offended the king or his favourites. Peopled by conspirators and seditionaries, and governed by an obfuscatory command-structure, it was no surprise that the Bastille prison was rife with rumours. None of the inhabitants were quite certain who else lodged there behind the screened windows that stopped the prisoners from seeing the governor's strolling visitors and musicians. Sometimes the prisoners developed systems of communication, tapping information in code between cells. But prisoners disappeared from between its walls as swiftly as they had appeared, subject as they were to the whims of the powerful. The storming of the Bastille, home at that moment to just sixteen prisoners, was the first visible act of destruction of the French Revolution, and it occurred, insists Benjamin, because of the arbitrariness of its punishments, and the prison regime's remoteness from any sense of Recht, of right, of law. What was released then into the French post-revolutionary cosmos was a ragged band of writers, artists, artisans and conspirators. In short, a low-life bohemia of gossip-mongerers, art-peddlars and revolters, who dispersed into the fertile air of a new class-rule. Having occupied the same space of confinement, they forged a bond that bore offspring. For it was from their ranks that the avant-garde was born, as Clement Greenberg has told us in 'Avant-garde and Kitsch' . No longer ‘at home’ in the prison, these homeless rebels agitate and aggravate from inside the vaster prison of the bourgeois world; opposed to that world, but inside it, they figure a place apart.
Marx and Engels write about this clique in 1850, in a review responding to two books, Chenu's 'The Conspirators' [Paris 1850], and de la Hodde's 'The Birth of the Republic' [Paris 1850]. It is a milieu of bohemians; critics, seditionaries, anarchists, putschist types uncomfortable with both the old order and the new as it transpires. Marx includes amongst these bohemians full-time professional conspirators, and those who are occasional or part-time. All make their money, when not back in prison, pimping or dealing. For them all, existence is uncertain, chance-filled, and their only fixed points of call are the taverns. Their conspirators' business consists of jostling on the process of development of the revolution, artificially pushing it to crisis, pulling a revolution from out of thin air without preparing the conditions for a revolution, their critics charge. For them, the only condition of revolution is the sufficient organisation of their conspiracy. They are ‘alchemists of the revolution’ and like alchemists they are fixated, obsessive, and champion the vaporization of ideas. The conspirators embrace wild schemes and phoney science. Marx and Engels write:
They embrace inventions that are supposed to perform revolutionary miracles: fire bombs, destructive machines with magical effects, riots which are to be the more miraculous and surprising the less rational their foundation is.
Marx and Engels scold these anarchistic spontaneists. The revolutionary conspirators have no purpose other than the overthrow of the existing government - and they deeply despise the theoretical explanations of the workers' parties, with their laborious assessments of class and interests and economics. And they detest the fact that they need to take money from the ‘habits noirs’, the ‘black coats’, ‘the suits’, the more or less educated representatives of the revolutionary party. They are tied to the party, but their revolt hopes to float free of its seemingly sensible mundanity.
Such an attitude of ceaseless rebellion, and such a precarious existence, is carried over into the artistic milieu. Art is not so much inspired, as conspired. An avant-garde emerges whose techniques are modelled on the activities of the conspirators with whom they often times cavort - trouble-making, 360 degree critique, pranksterism, destructionism, tract and manifesto-issuing, and the like. Of course the relationship between the avant-garde and the vanguard of the revolutionary working class has been noted. The word, avant-garde, drawn from a military or naval context; the avant-guard, the foremost division of an advancing force - moved from there into a political usage; detailing the organized leadership of a party that at least hopes to pull the masses with it. It crossed over from there to art, in Paris, by the 1850s, just as Napoleon III elects himself emperor and secures an authoritarian rule with harsh and fleet economic-political change. From then on, the relationship between avant-garde art and the vanguard party is artful. But trickier still is the relationship between the avant-garde and the bourgeoisie. In 'The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte', Marx notes how, in France, from about 1852, with the crushing of the 1848ers' revolutionary movement now complete, the victorious section of the bourgeoisie, supportive of ‘a party of order’, sought to take its ‘cause’ away from the most articulate artists. They called upon Napoleon III:
to destroy their speaking and writing segment, their politicians and literati, so that they might confidently pursue their private affairs under the protection of a strong and untrammelled government.
Class politics are thrown awry. The bourgeoisie is cleft. The workers' movement is knocked back. Artists scurry to the margins, representing no-one clearly, and certainly not officialdom or a heroic ascendant class. It is in this atmosphere that the avant-garde militates; scuttling between factions, suseptible to influences, ideologically wed to no one force, spurning conformity in all its guises, lurching between destructive nihilism and constructive re-ordering.
Such questions of political allegiance and class-orientation most interest Benjamin in his studies of Charles Baudelaire. Benjamin detailed Baudelaire's existence as akin to that of the conspirators, disaffected, but dependent on money-suppliers, be that those in the market or on the left. Baudelaire, archetypal modern hero, dwells in a scene of extremist politics and rebellious attitudinizing. In the 'Arcades-Project', Benjamin notes this:
Professional conspirator and dandy fuse in the figure of the modern hero. This hero imagines himself to contain a quite secret society within his own self.
Super-narcissist, at home on both sides of barricades, Baudelaire epitomizes what Benjamin terms ‘the metaphysics of the provocateur’. In Belgium Baudelaire was regarded as a French police spy. In France he oscillates between backing the revolution of 1848 and supporting clerical reaction. For him, the revolt is all, even the revolt against the revolt; hence his swift shifts of allegiance. But what matter that in a situation of such confusion where police spies, as if they truly were the rebels they imitate, fall on the barricades of Paris. And where art for art's sake, as a ‘negative theology’ of art, develops into the ultimate political gesture. Baudelaire's artistic attitude hinged on rumour, conspiracy, provoked scandal, and played with irony and macabre humour - as displayed in the vicious but arch prose poem 'Let's Beat Up the Poor' ['Assommons les Pauvres']. It was, notes Benjamin, just such a milieu that produced Napoleon III, who sustained the techniques of bohemia in his rule of the Second Empire, deploying ‘surprising proclamations and mystery-mongering, sudden sallies, and impenetrable irony’. Avant-garde confusionism turns into the impenetrable murk of bourgeois power tactics. Scuppered by the failure of social revolution, the avant-garde surrenders its palette of advanced techniques to the class that rules over it. Another technique it surrenders may be one of supreme importance in modernity; the technique of penetrant looking, a technique of an acute surveillance of the scenes of modernity. In exchange, the avant-garde entertains a fantasy of individualist autonomy, outside institutional spaces of domination - places of leisure, spaces of flânerie.
2. Market Surveys
In 'The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte', Marx comments on the disastrous emptiness of history after the failure of the 1848 revolutions - a time of:
passion without truth, truths without passion, heroes without heroic deeds, history without events; development whose only motor appears to be the calender, exhausted by continual repetition of the same tensions and slackenings ... If any period of history is painted grey on grey, it is this one.
Benjamin quotes this paragraph from Marx and goes on to outline how in this period of reaction, the avant-garde, though desperate to imagine its autonomy, actually gets entangled in the economic tendrils of a victorious bourgeoisie turned reactionary. Of the hero of modernity, Baudelaire, the flâneur and artist, Benjamin writes: ‘He parades the concept of purchasability itself’. The flâneur is an observer of the market. In Benjamin's recounting of the development of modernity, as manifested by its key theorist, the metaphorics of observation, of looking, of surveillance, surface conspicuously. The avant-garde exits from the dim milieu of seedy conspirators. Emerging from the underworld to snoop upstairs, the flâneur seeks the anonymity of the crowd, while longing to stand out. Like the sharp-eyed political pundit or a canny consumer, he is an advance-guard researcher into capitalism. His knowledge is the secret science of booms and crashes. But, insists Benjamin, it is impossible to be a detached observer of the market. Flâneurs, avant-gardists, are enmeshed in the contradictions of capital. As flâneurs, the intelligentsia, artists and critics, come into the market-place. As they thought, to observe it - but, in reality, it was, says Benjamin, to find a buyer. Benjamin is explicit: in the middle of the 19th century, as the avant-garde emerges, the conditions of artistic production change. Art is the commodity form that faces a mass market, and like any other commodity, it is in competition with others. Citing the particular organization of poetry, he writes:
It is important that Baudelaire came up against the relationship of competition in poetic production. Of course, the rivalries between poets are ancient. But since 1830 it was a case of rivalries being played out on the open market. This, not the protection of nobles, lords or clerics, was to be conquered. For lyric poetry, this condition was heavier than other forms of poetry. The disorganization of its styles and schools is the complement of the market, which opens before the poet as a ‘public’. Baudelaire was carried by no style and had no school. It was truly a discovery for him when he found that he was confronted by individuals.
In 1846 Baudelaire had expressed the view that the schools of art and the associations of emancipated workers confound atomisation. He had come to the recognition that art too is about commerce, and originality no mark of authentic genius, but of the good scam, the thing that will sell. The artist of modern life is permanently under threat, menaced by market rebuff. The best artists are those who get to know the market and so work it to their advantage. And that is why Benjamin concedes that technical and formal progressions may occur in advertising, that cunning by which the dream forces itself on industry. Preparing to migrate to the frames of pictures hanging in dining rooms, Benjamin tells us, are advertisements for schnapps, cocoa from van Houten, jams from Amieux. Later, the surrealists simply make this fact of commodity aesthetics explicit when, in their poetry, they treat words like names of firms and their texts are prospectuses for firms that are not yet established.
Artists on the market are precariously poised - and the rebellious milieu that spawned them and in which they incubated their suspicion of modernization and industrial capitalism, also houses an assortment of competing individuals, outbidding each other in prostrations before the market. The avant-garde is hammered by capital, a situation that both intensifies its political critique of capital, while forcing its internal competition. Benjamin notes how art's commodity nature is heightened by the advent of photography, for photography can pull other objects into the process of circulation, realising capital from saleable segments of the optic field - and this is most peculiarly demonstrated by art itself as the photographer Disderi gains a state monopoly on all postcard reproductions of things in the Louvre.
The instability of the flâneur's position in the late nineteenth century results from a number of threats that accompany industrial capitalism. Not just the competitive logic of the market, but also the physical infrastructure of the city and the pace of labour conspire to confound the flâneur's boho lifestyle. Haussmannization, a modernization project inaugurated by Emperor Napoleon III, with its creation of sweeping broad boulevards designed to confound barricade-building, hopes to flush out the hidden haunts of low-life where bohemia had once gathered and barricaded. Later, Taylorism, with its factory system of mass production demanding universal speed-up and standardization in all areas of life, threatens the flâneur's sluggish pace of life and work, his wily Marxist knowledge that value stems from socially necessary labour time. Benjamin notes how ‘Taylor popularized the watchword `Down with dawdling!'‘, and this slogan becomes part of a general cultural war against lassitude. The flâneur's feet-dragging is his tactic played for the losing side of a class struggle over pace of life and autonomy of action. In time, the time-and-motion study cameras in the workplaces will hitch surveillance more directly to the realization of profit.
The novelist is compared to police detectives - the invasion of private space and intimacy as undertaken by Balzac, for example or Poe. Baudelaire's writing is shown to possess three of Poe's decisive elements: the victim and scene of the crime, the murderer, the masses. But the detective is missing, for Baudelaire was too on the side of the amoral. The original social content of the detective story was the obliteration of the individual's traces in the big city crowd. The missing leave no traces, no traces that are easy to reconstruct at least. Benjamin utters that since the days of Louis-Philippe the bourgeoisie has endeavoured to compensate itself fir the ‘tracelessness' [the NLB translation puts ‘inconsequentiality’ of private life in the big city. It seeks compensation inside its four wall with its host of objects, their impressions taken in velvet and plush covers and casings: slippers, pocket watches, thermometers, and egg-cups, cutlery and umbrellas. Benjamin moves from here to detailing how since the French Revolution an increasing number of controls has brought bourgeois life ever more tightly into its meshes: house numbers from 1805. Compensation by a multifarious web of registrations for the disappearance of people in cities. Signatures and photography made it possible for the first time to preserve permanent and unmistakable traces of a human being.’
There appears to be only one way for things to channel. Flânerie outflows in journalism - the writer as word-hack, the artist as illustrator, or photo-journalist. A new caste of information-providers is called into being, to produce distractions for the middle-ranks. Benjamin notes:
The press calls into being a superfluity of information, whose stimulatory effect is all the stronger, the further it is removed from any utilization. (The ubiquity of the reader alone would make utilization possible; and so this illusion is generated.) The real relation of this information to social existence is determined by the dependence of this information business on stock exchange interests and its orientation towards them. - With the growth of the information business, intellectual labour bases itself parasitically on every material labour, just as capital brings every material labour into its dependence.
The flâneur gives himself over to the market, in order to sell himself, by the column inch or box. As journalist or illustrator - chronicler of modern life - flâneurs turns observer, a type of spy, asphalt botanists. Intruding into private lives, in search of copy, their world is a phantasmagoria of faces off which they read profession, origin, and character.
So there is, insists Benjamin, a dialectic of flânerie: on the one hand, the flâneur is the person, who feels observed by everyone and everything. The flâneur is the suspect, in the milieu of the disaffected and affected. But on the other hand, the flâneur is the one who attempts to be unlocatable, undercover, the observer, not the observed. Suspect and detective, he covers his tracks as much as he seeks traces. Benjamin's is a panoptic vision of modernity - the time of the man of the crowd who leaves no traces in the urban streams that he slips through, and the time of the growth of bureaucracy, of administrative and criminalistic control techniques, of forensics, of evidence, of signatures and of photography as document.
In his collection of notes on Baudelaire in the 'Arcades-Project', Benjamin makes the following observation:
Baudelaire was lucky enough to be a contemporary of a bourgeoisie that did not yet need an asocial type such as he represented as accomplice in its domination. The incorporation of nihilism into its power apparatus was reserved for the bourgeoisie of the 20th century.
Out of a seedy milieu of rebels, putschists, conspirators, and non-conformist types, it would seem that the law of the market, and the failure of social revolution, spawns a hardened hoard of hacks and cops and dispossessed, flushed out of the underworlds and pulled into commodity-worlds, and many of them are bought up then to render surveillance functions and broadcast conspiracy theory in a darkening world. In 1938, Benjamin notes how Baudelaire once wrote in a diary that : ‘A fine conspiracy could be organized for the purpose of exterminating the Jewish race’. By the time Benjamin wrote this far more powerful conspirators and snoops were in charge in Germany.
The trace, der Spur, and the idea of evidence, detection, surveillance, adhere in Benjamin's taxonomy of culture in 20th century modernity. In 'Small History of Photography'  Benjamin emphasizes the evidencing aspects of photography. Photography, he argues, cannot fail to mirror external reality and, in mirroring it, dispense reliable optic evidence of ‘historical constructions of consciousness’, bringing hidden or repressed political and social tendencies to light - and so Benjamin imagines a photo-semiotics that can, for example, track the decline of a hypocritical and guilty bourgeoisie. The basis of photography's intractable divulgence of truth is spliced to the fact that all photographs are analogical representations through their accord at some level with an external given. A remainder of non-art subsists in photography, an unsilenceable existence. The non-art moment exceeds the representation and tenders something »new and strange«. Trace-deposits of the real are roused by the technology of photography. This technology makes imprints from history. Photography evidences. It brings objects closer - exporting them across time, across space, making them available to micro-analysis. Photography accesses a differently constituted super-charged reality, a hyper-reality, with deeper, more detailed layers, unconscious layers, not available to the naked eye and only made perceptible by technological means. The camera dispatches a reformulation of the co-ordinates of the visible world, envisioning a realm previously invisible. It transfigures the possibilities of what can be seen.
Photography, Benjamin reveals, is a place to audit evidence, a ‘Tatort’. This ‘scene of the crime’ is where historical and social processes have taken place. In relaying photography forensically, Benjamin evokes the languages of police detection and mysticism. In 'Small History of Photography' Benjamin writes:
Not for nothing have Adget's photographs been likened to those of the scene of a crime. But is not every square inch of our cities the scene of a crime? Every passer-by a culprit? Is it not the task of the photographer - descendent of the augurs and haruspices - to reveal guilt and point out the guilty in his pictures?
Photographs bear witness to the scenes of devastation and violence in modern urban life. Photographs record alienation, anonymity, reification - and social blame. Or at least they might. But Benjamin confirms that there are usages of this tool that contravene this. His comments evoke Sergei Tretyakov's verdict on John Heartfield's corrective practice. Tretyakov writes that photomontage is a technique whereby:
a photographer who wishes to grasp the social significance of a phenomenon will seek for methods to underline the essential feature, thus correcting the objectivity of the camera, which regards with indifference the just and the unjust.
Revealing guilt photographically leads, for Benjamin, to the necessity of blasting photography's pseudo-objectivity with the dynamite of the caption. The caption counter-acts the containment of meaning and the containment of art. Benjamin makes such a claim in 'Small History of Photography' and also in 'The Author as Producer', where he advocates dada's blasting of the frame of art as prelude to a blasting out from inside the gallery walls. Dada frames a found segment of the world outside of art, though not necessarily outside of representation - cigarette stubs, cotton reels, bus tickets, scraps of textile, a magazine illustration, a newspaper report. Collaging in this social debris breaks the frames of art. The new authenticity of modern montage art deploys traces of the objective world - photographic or material - in a way that is as significant, as legible, and as evidencing as the bloody fingerprint of a murderer on a page of a book, a fingerprint that discloses more than the page's text.
That photography would be draw into rhetorics of guilt and blame is unsurprising. Photography's intimacy with the mechanics of social control is well-documented; though Benjamin is always keen to point out that this embroilment of photography with oppressive power develops over time. Early photography is scientific, experimental, and utopian in its breadth. Such characteristics exemplify the relationship between world and mid-nineteenth century bourgeoisie, first experimenters with the new medium. Early photography mediates in ocular form a specific comprehension of historical time as durable, future-oriented, bound up with the idea of the continuing existence of the represented class. Benjamin locates such a picturing of temporality in the technology used. Early photographs materialize slowly on silver plates over a succession of moments. Time is spun out technologically in protracted durations of exposure which require long periods of motionlessness.
Photography, at first, then, is unencumbered by the profit dictates of its industrialization and the directives stemming from state intervention, which attend the consolidation of bourgeois rule. The bourgeois class imagines itself to be a universal liberator class, until that moment when it has conquered positions of power, at which point Benjamin describes a reactionary turn. A late entry in the 'Passagenwerk' states that, as the bourgeoisie conquer positions of power, ‘the concept of progress increasingly renounces the critical function that originally belonged to it in the nineteenth century’. Benjamin, in an early note from the 'Arcades-Project' regards as ‘politically essential’ the act of ‘illuminating the bourgeois class situation at the moment when the first signs of decline appear’. It is at the bourgeoisie's cultural forms that Benjamin aims his analytic probe. He does this powerfully in his critique of the ‘aestheticization of politics’, first voiced in 1930 as a critique of the bourgeois fetishization of war, as mediated by the fascist soldier-aesthete Ernst Jünger. In an essay on Karl Kraus, Benjamin quotes the Viennese satirist's complaint that in wartime the warrior and the journalist merge to become a journalist-warrior, who is in a prime position to rewrite the actual experience of war. In the 1880s, Baudelaire, explorer of the violence on which social relations are founded, connected journalism and war-reportage with the flâneuristic modern eye in his essay 'The Painter of Modern Life'. Baudelaire finds war's repertoire of images, battlefields strewn with corpses, ruined structures and munitions, a valuable archive and writes about the terrible poetry of the battlefield. Jünger reprises this poetry for the next generation, in the context of nihilism.
4. War, art, photography
Ernst Jünger was an army officer, noted in the 1920s for his chronicles of the front experience. SLOTERDYK CALLS HIM THE PERFECT IMAG OF BENJAMIN'S SECRET AGENT. 'In the Storm of Steel' , 'War as Inner Experience'  and other books earned him the accolade ‘aesthetician of carnage’. He fetishized the war experience, especially modern total combat as an intoxicating metaphysical encounter with chthonic, primordial elements, and he discussed the implications of new technologies on the military ‘poetry’ of the battlefield. Jünger's soldier withstands terror by strategies of depersonalization, a mystical surrender to the spirit of war and the heroic distancing of his self from individuality. His stance was that of a fear-containing indifference towards a reality distanciated through the photographic lens. Jünger's written portraits of the killing fields are frequently prismed through images of lenses, as if they were the narratives of a cameraman or photographer [as indeed Jünger sometimes was], separated off, affected, but simultaneously strangely unaffected. He produced countless photo-albums from the field of combat.
In a critique of Jünger, titled 'Theories of German Fascism' , Benjamin works against Jünger's aestheticization of the battlefield, stressing as a counter the material bodily reality of the soldier in action, against the lens. But, like Jünger, Benjamin too records the importance of the advent for photography for perceptual systems. Photographs signal a metallization of experience. Benjamin writes:
What makes the first photographs so incomparable is perhaps this: they are the first image of the meeting of person and machine.
Very soon after the first photographic experiments, he reports, the new medium came to be used as a transmitter of information. From the beginning of the American Civil War [1861-1865] photographers were interested in the scenes of carnage, snapping a war pornography of dead flesh. From the end of the 19th century, photography was closely connected to war-reportage. Benjamin points out how ‘photographie microscopiques’ were used in war to transmit secret miniaturized messages. The first commentaries on photography hinted at the idea of the deathly nature of camerawork, suggesting secret connections to the fatal confrontation of men and machines on the battlefield. Illustrious moments of imperialist advance and celebration of military victory are connected to the technology that enables self-display, as are the early moments of proud soldierly consciousness, mediated on postcard celluloid. Napoleon III had begun this particular usage, Benjamin notes, with his visit to Disderi's studio.
The first total World War saw the appearance of saturation weapons, repeating guns, machine-guns, rapid firing weapons, silent invisible chemical gases, permanent dug-in trenches and a battlefield game of hide-and-seek. Surveillance is key to modern warfare, and aeroplane technology makes it most possible. Human relations on and above the battlefield are mediated by lenses, from aeroplanes, binoculars, spy-holes. The total war world, in Benjamin's rendition, is marked by the fact that old-style soldiers disappear to be replaced by machines equipped with bodies, destined both to destroy and to record. He wrotes that total war makes explicit that the situation of the mortal ‘before the apparatus’ has become as total as once the believer ‘before God’. The means of destruction are perfected in the First World War and are then combined with the means of communication to intensify attack (radar, reconnaissance, telecommunications) and to broadcast its victories (newspaper, photography, film, radio). Areas of the globe are glutted with creeping messages providing information (propaganda) and communicating the acts of destruction. The First World War had demonstrated the first widespread use of technologised ideological propaganda as new weapon in the ruling class armoury. Information services and propaganda became quickly conflated in a situation where the ruling classes own the intellectual means of production. Total technological war, just as bloody as any war, but mediated through information services, and mediated in its tactics of long-distance, hide and seek combat. In the new technological age, film, radio, trench telephones and wireless telegraphy, radar, television, all alter the rules of engagement. Radio and t.v. technology was boosted by war. Armies were shifted using remote control by commanders who dictated orders over telephones, telegraphs and wireless terminals. War as event becomes one of the sites where a battle for ideological domination and mass mobilization behind power is fought, mobilising for the first time on a mass scale extravaganzas of nationalism and patriotism. New warfare's impact on popular consciousness is testified by Freud's note on how quickly the aeroplane and the Zeppelin entered the repertoire of dream symbols. Reconnaissance before and after photographs of villages, with black bombs frozen in mid-drop, and aerial action film sequences also important for reconnaissance purposes develop during the First World War and immediately smudge together with picture postcard representations of devastation and heroism and film footage information for the masses as pictorial journalism.
In the First World War, Walter Benjamin argues, experience [Erfahrung] and memory [Erinnerung] are chased out by the representation of war in newspapers, photography, film - the superficial contents of a state-owned or state supporting picture archive. Benjamin uses writings by Karl Kraus to criticize the practices of journalism, especially in relation to war. Journalism, he argues, rewrites the parameters of experience. Only the decay of the spoken word echoes in the postwar and a mistrust in the word's ability to be adequate to the event for which it substitutes. Benjamin quotes Kraus' protestation:
[The press] not only claims that the real events are its reports about the events. It also effects that sinister identity, whereby it seems that events are reported before they are performed... It is not a servant ..., it is the event.
Mass produced words, a surfeit of information, all cheap and devalued and available as a journalism that mediates snippets of a marketable paper reality. The total experience of world war leaves its traces in a newly forged post-war perception, a sort of battlefield look, as residue of a collective tragedy, imprinted in celluloid and newsprint. This photography gives everyone the power to gaze across a terrain of experience that Benjamin, in 'Experience and Poverty', claimed no longer communicable in words.
Benjamin shares Ernst Jünger's thesis of an atrophying of the ability to experience, caused by socio-cultural upheavals in a world dominated by technical rationality and media projections. For Jünger, the empty mechanisms of routine social actions crush magical experience. Benjamin had once encountered and appropriated kindred conceptions in the work of Georges Sorel. Sorel bewailed the contemporary loss of the sublime and sought its retrieval in the propagation of a myth of war or the myth of the general strike. Only flashes of crisis can wipe out the emptiness. In the face of monstrous, crushing technology on the battlefield, Jünger's soldier submits to de-personalization, effecting a mystical surrender to the spirit of technologized war. This retransmission of war, asserts Benjamin, is ‘an uninhibited translation to the battlefield of the principles of art for art's sake’ by a mature bourgeoisie in crisis. The fuzzy mist of yellow gas grenades and the scorched red of high intensity fire are relayed by the fascists as enigmatic, mythological effects, enveloping the carnage in a haze of beauty, and extracting a visual and auratic fascination in the event. The fiery landscape of the front posits a new aesthetics; a sublime vision of battlefield ruins. Jünger's ‘totally mobilized’ reality marks the calamitous self-prostration of natural resources, calling nihilistically for the sacrifice of humans and the rape of nature. For Benjamin, the aestheticization of experience on the battlefield, the ‘intoxication’ of the fight, is not redeemable as an augmentation of experience or a vigorous, ecstatic but misaligned exchange between humanity, cosmos and machine. It is a landscape traversed by class bluff and cleavage. New nationalism publicizes a short-circuited, unmediated fusion of nature and technology, instead of passing the two categories through social determination. Grounding the war-ideology of the proto-fascists in an economic substructure, Benjamin asserts that the idea of the nation, promoted by the proto-fascists, has hidden behind it the very specific agenda of a ruling class in economic crisis. The old officers are class warriors.
The landscape of world war is a wasteland, ravaged by technology. One single aeroplane, loaded with gas bombs, contains all the necessary power to cut off civilian amenities and life. The development of military technology, alerts Benjamin, enables the tremendous empowerment of a bureaucracy. This development - in the context of no organized revolt - nourishes fascist fantasies. Their realization depends also on the advances in surveillance and recording.
5. Traces and effacement
By 1939, Benjamin writes his 'Theses on the Philosophy of History', in which he observes famously that there is no cultural document that is not at the same time a record of barbarism. Here, as part of a desire to force the Left to think differently, he makes the claim that the state of emergency is permanent, that threats and containments are the norm. He writes:
The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is the rule. We must reach a concept of history that corresponds to this. Then our task will be to bring about the real state of emergency; and so we will improve our position in the fight against fascism.
Another war had broken out. Some artists had to hide and others preened themselves in the light of a new officially granted publicity. Benjamin notes in his writings on Baudelaire from the late-1930s: that the confrontation between the pimp and the man of letters, manifest in Baudelaire's Paris, was revitalized in this period - when the writers were driven out of Germany, a Horst Wessel legend entered German literature. [CB p81] ‘Verwisch die Spuren!’, ‘Efface the traces!’, ‘Cover your tracks!’, Brecht insisted in one poem in his 1926 lyric cycle 'Handbook for City-dwellers'. Efface the traces, rather than have someone else efface them. ‘Efface the traces’ - shrieked Benjamin in February 1933 in 'Live Without Traces', a small jotting that detailed a nightmare-vision of the knick-knack stuffed bourgeois parlour, and recounted the new, potential, glaringly visible lives with nothing to hide, sustainable inside gleaming, diaphanous steel and glass towers. After 1933 such candid life was a lost-dream. In his 1939 gloss on Brecht's poem, Benjamin noted that the phrase ‘efface the traces’ emerges as a concealed premonition of the tactic of crypto-emigration by communist activists.
The camera, potential liberator of a new ‘optical unconscious’, becomes a visioning device that asserts visual representation without political representation. Benjamin writes about the nazis' recording machine projections, in which the masses seem to look themselves in the face. In actuality, nazi reports, with their bird's eye, dictator's eye, god's eye view, emphasize the vast size of the spectacular shows, the nazi rallies and sportive-military displays. In a new technological Haussmannization, flushing out through light, the dictatorial camera eye surveys the surfaces of the productions, gliding over and across the dramaturgy and crampingly controlled choreography of events. Everything that benefits the exercise of power is to be made visible for power. Surveillance is ubiquitous. In an article called 'Painting and Photography' from 1936 Benjamin discusses how there are painters in Germany who are prohibited from exhibiting their pictures publicly - because of the forms they use or the symbols that they deploy. The police forbid them from painting and raid their studios for freshly painted images. Benjamin's essay 'Painting and Photography' was an attack on Soviet socialist realism in art, and the salvationist hope of communists that the visualizing of new and heroic subjects in art would spread the socialist message. He argued that of primary importance to the further development of art and materialist art theory was the exploration of new modes of seeing - such as the social shift from vertical to horizontal perspective - generated by dynamic aeroplane visuality - or the inquiries into technical form that lay bare an analytic unconscious, or the applied recognition of the role of economic necessity in art production. What in the end for Benjamin may signal art's value at this moment is the official or secret stamp placed on it by fascism's censors.
Greenberg, who, in 1939, in 'Avant-garde and Kitsch', had perceived the birth of the avant-garde in amongst the detritus of bohemia - the world of spies and conspirators and anarchists - had also theorized their separation from this crowd. After 1848, once romanticism has proved itself a spent force, artists, cut off from, but also tied, via an ‘umbilical cord of gold’, to bourgeois society, emigrate to Bohemia, ‘art's sanctuary from capitalism’. The avant-garde exits from politics, bourgeois or anti-bourgeois, to keep culture in life. It disengages from engagement. It flees from commitment into form; seeking a pure formalism that is about art itself and only art, or, if it is also about revolution, then it is about it only in the most secretive, suggestive and concealable ways. In presenting this tale in this way, Greenberg, the disillusioned Trotskyist, conveniently fashions the avant-garde for a new role to play in the Cold War; the role of anti-communist propaganda in the guise of anti-propaganda. The collaboration between Greenberg's favoured abstract expressionists and the American secret service is a well-known story now, told by Guilbaut, Orton and others. History repeats and the avant-garde returns, farcically enough, to the milieu from whence it came, as CIAers rub shoulders with painters, the spies who come in from the cold war.
This paper hoped to chart in broad terms the fate of the avant-garde - its emergence, its splitting and fragmentation - its relationships to conformity and non-conformity, to sabotage and counter-sabotage and how these have gone hand-in-hand with the fortunes of other social hopes.
I end simply by recording a new fixation that is an old fixation - that of numbers of current art practitioners whose artwork hopes to reveal the mechanisms of observation, of surveillance, by foregrounding those mechanisms, by reflecting on those mechanisms, indeed by using technologies of surveillance, bending them back into the space of art. Not surprisingly, for a strange new technologically boosted surveillance empiricism asserts with terrifying aggression these days that it can record guilt just by looking. - So yet again artists and spies end up as bed-fellows; these double-agents, perfecting and scuppering the means of surveillance, observing how power observes, and posing those ways of seeing as moral, political questions - the traditionalism of the avant-garde is remarkable.
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