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Walter Benjamin and the Cheerful Destruction of the Self

Esther Leslie

Around the turn of the century the Viennese architect and designer Adolf Loos began expending a lot of ink in his campaigns against embellishment on designed objects. Loos contended that the ‘march of civilization systematically liberates object after object from ornamentation’. The most famous essay by Loos must be Ornament and Crime, written in 1908. The essay’s title intimates Loos’ thesis that ornamentation on objects is a form of deceit. Ornament and Crime declares decoration to be a waste of labour, materials and capital. Reverberations from Loos’ provocative polemic resonated for some time after its original appearance, and it caught the imagination of Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, a.k.a. Le Corbusier, who reprinted it in 1920 in the second number of L’Esprit Nouveau, the journal of the Purist group. Thus it might be said that Loos’ Ornament and Crime provided a manifesto for an emergent Modernist design movement which insisted on stripping designed objects of ornamentation, and supplanting the charms of decoration by the severe, purist pleasures of cubic geometry. Translucence versus adornment, necessity versus excess, rationality versus frivolity, simplicity and clarity versus kitsch and clutter - put crudely, these polarities cut through 20th century art and design history, and frame our understanding of the concerns of Modernism.


High Modernist art practice - stripping art of ornament and ‘mere decorativeness’ - pursued a gradual refinement of artistic language until, all visual allusions and social illusions cut back, art reaches a state of purity through self-critique. The depicted object is an excuse for the realization of a formal idea. Embellishments in art are legitimate only if justifiable by art’s own laws of development. No other object is of relevance. Greenberg’s smooth art-criticism refused Surrealism’s cluttered picture contents, and he also exiled from art theory the pile-up of details gleaned of artists’ biographies, or the resonances in style of historical and social events. Such crystalline truth-seeking through formal-technical advance circumscribes the quest of the avant-garde, particularly favoured in the élitist American post-war/cold-war version of Modernism. Initially stimulating to Greenberg had been Futurism, Cubism, and other early isms of the 20th century whose advocates demanded junking the heirlooms of cultural rubbish obscuring the path through to the ‘interior essence of things’. Rejecting naturalism, Futurists, Cubists, Suprematists sniffed out the Kantian Ding-an-sich, the core thing-in-itself which exists independent of mere appearance. All these quintessentially Modernist movements had their design counterparts. De Stijl, Bauhaus, the Constructivists, Le Corbusier and others likewise spoke a language of absolutes, purity, necessity and clean lines for their pared-down ought-objects, definitely designed not to adorn dusty turn of the century drawing-room mausoleums, and most certainly devoid of ‘any superfluous elements’. But there was another modernism – that suspected the purism of high modernism.


Where some conceived avant-garde and kitsch as chronic adversaries, other avant-garde theorists brought the two together. This encounter, however, took place in terms of an enthusiastic interpenetration, rather than negation. These avant-garde-identified theorists refused the diaphanous quest for a high Modernism unsullied by the vulgar. Refusing to fixate purely on the formal aesthetics of the painterly canvas surface, those that might be called the, more or less, Marxist materialists entered the drawing rooms and lumber-rooms, overstuffed with knick-knackery and vibrating with crackly pop tunes. They went there in order to take seriously, for the purposes of social analysis, all the clutter of material existence, especially the commodity junk of mass production. They attended to what one of them, Siegfried Kracauer, called ‘unassuming and superficial expressions’ which ‘by virtue of their unconscious nature, secure unmediated access to the fundamental substance of the state of things’. In recognition of this, Kracauer investigated detective novels, best-sellers, adventure and romantic films, spectacular mass ornaments, sporting and choreographed, and chorus-lines, such as the popular 1920s dancing troupe, the Tiller Girls - quotidian objects whose very insignificance and ‘unconscious nature’ are seen to warrant their indexical relationship to social truth and social lies. And likewise kitsch - far from being the most despised, mechanical, formulaic and spurious - might indeed, they advised, be the site of the Spur, the trace; the trace of history, society, meaning, truth. Several of these materialists accented their interest in the trace. Walter Benjamin titled a file in his Arcades Project - ‘Das Interieur, die Spur’, and went particularly on the trail of 19th century clutter, in order to write a socio-political history of industrialism. In 1930 Ernst Bloch produced a volume of critiques of Wilhelmine and Weimar culture, microscopic analyses of mass experience, called Spuren. In a review of Bloch’s book, written in 1959, Adorno explained the ramifications of the title Traces: ‘something is hidden, in the middle of the normal, unremarkable everyday’. And he goes on to quote Bloch’s anti-Kantian stance: ‘The Ding an Sich is an objective fantasy’. There is no Ding an Sich, no thing-in-itself, existing independently from human consciousness and practice, but rather things for others, in others, by others, things written through with historical and social meanings. Objects in the interior, deposits of material culture might, the materialists insist, be the most socially symptomatic and legible, and, though truly in need of cashing in or redemption, definitely not to be disdainfully ignored. Kitsch suitable for investigation was understood by these Marxist materialists in its broadest sense; vulgar and cheap throwaway culture for the riffraff, as well as those overwrought interior fittings traditionally labelled petty-bourgeois. The important qualification of kitsch was simply the fact of its mass-reproduction and mass-consumption. For Benjamin, Kracauer, Adorno and Bloch, kitsch, despite its, or because of its industrialized, formulaic mass-production and its occasional phoney aristocratic pretensions, or its predictable gilding with emotional overloads, enables investigation of social desire. It enables a psychoanalysis of things, as utopian antidote to the reification of people. An illustration of this: in his early 1930s study of Kierkegaard, Adorno noted how, in the Danish philosopher’s Diary of a Seducer [1843], the objects in a room turn ersatz. Through this passage Adorno describes how, from the beginning of the age of industrial mass production, the self is taken over by commodities – subjectivity is commodified - but, as compensation or sop, the alienness of belongings turns into an expression of what is lost but most craved; the lamp as flower - a piece of organic life, with tints of the Orient, signalling the home of desire, the room becomes a ship, the window enframes a blue ocean - a glimpse of eternity. Objects occupy, that is, preserve, the spaces of our most desperate longings.


The materialists’ take on clutter and its clues was animated by a power-defying pursuit of the ‘exotic of the everyday’, and a fixation on such protagonists of the urban wastelands as rag-pickers, fictional detectives, and the collector who carries out what Benjamin terms ‘a form of practical remembering’. Of course, all these figures - at least as theorized by the materialists - transmute the objects they come across. The rag-picker, scouring the streets’ debris, re-values things outcast from commodity circulation. The detective scrutinizes all manner of things for forensic clues to human existence and activity. The collector aspires to strip things of their commodity character, removing them from the endless circulation of commodity values. The collector places these rescued things in an intimate place, and thereby confers on them a lover’s value, as they are released from the ‘drudgery of being useful’. And the materialist theorists, how do they execute the ‘trick’, the transformation of the things they redeem; a redemption which is dialectical, in that it preserves, annuls and raises to a higher level? When Benjamin noted in the ‘Collector’ file of his Arcades Project: ‘Failed material; that is the lifting of the commodity into the state of allegory’, he was indicating that theoretical investigation of material culture - its conditions of production and consumption - offered the only starting point for release from its reifying clutches. In the same file Benjamin quotes from Adorno’s 1931 article on Charles Dickens’ supremely kitsch and sentimental Victorian novel The Old Curiosity Shop. Adorno’s review claimed that the various scenes of the novel, the ‘old curiosity shop’, the puppet theatre, the waxworks museum, the graveyard, are allegories of the bourgeois world of industry, production, commerce, commodification and reification. From this perspective, Adorno deciphered Little Nell’s death:


On fleeing, Nell parted unreconciled from her things - she was not able to take anything with her from the bourgeois realm: to speak in modern terms, she failed to manage the dialectical transition. ... Because she did not succeed in grasping the thing-world of the bourgeois space, the thing-world grasps her, and her sacrifice is completed.


Little Nell achieved only the flight, first from the cluttered interior of the junk shop and the city, and then into death - and so having no power over the world, she was caught by the world. Objects are enslaving, not least because their conditions of production are deadly. Adorno writes of the ‘scattered Baroque’ in Dickens and Kierkegaard, indicating the allegorical nature of their works, wherein objects are charged with symbolic significance. Dickens’ and Kierkegaard’s attacks on the bourgeois world, he claimed, involve the renunciation of the individual and individual psychology, in favour of revealing the objective structures of living spaces. This accounts, according to Adorno, for the illustrations by Phiz inserted into Dickens’ novels - vignettes of circumstances in which figures find themselves, rather than free drawings of individuals. True redemption, for Adorno, lies within this living space and its thing-world, realizing the utopian promises of objects as yet uncashed in the petrified commodityscape. This entails, of course, a revolution in property and labour relations.


The thing-world, das Dingwelt, is a figure which occurs recurrently in Marxian critical theory of the 1920s and 1930s. Lukács developed the term reification to specify a particular quality of thingness and self-becoming-a-thing amongst the mounting piles of fetishized commodity-junk. Adorno’s thing-world was a dialectical zone where self may succumb to objectivity. Benjamin, motivated by a surrealist-tinged love of flea-markets, obsolete technologies and detritus, amassed a cluster of citations, excerpts and reflections on 19th and early 20th century stuff, in order to track down social utopian investments. And, in his art polemics, he championed dada and photomontage for their use of scraps of rubbish and their freezing in art of the ephemeral; such fragments torn from actual life which act to arrest, for purposes of allegorical interpretation and anti-art critique, the flow of commodity-production and destruction.


Adorno, Benjamin, Bloch, Kracauer all focused in on the thing-world, the phantasmagoric, frozen world of commodity-forms which beset people, only then to be chucked, through technical change and economic stimulus, onto the junkheap of the outmoded. It is kitsch which is most rapidly used up, as befits the push-pull product tempo of economic turnaround; who remembers, for example, the once popular poems of Eddie Guest or the sadistic-imperialist words of popular parlour sing-alongs, the Indian Love Lyrics, two of Greenberg’s 1939 examples of kitsch? Benjamin picked up on the extraordinary power of the soon-to-be-outmoded, not just in terms of how much sentiment people invest in the cheap objects of their environment, but also in terms of the relationship between all that stuff and art, in truth the most interesting avant-garde art. It is evident that Benjamin’s list of Surrealist muses, which includes stars of stage, screen, billboard or enamel-plate advertisements, illustrated magazines, and producers of kitsch culture, has not survived much better than Greenberg’s instances of a failure in taste; Luna, the Countess Geschwitz, Kate Greenaway, Mors, Cleo de Merode, Dulcinea, Hedda Gabler, Libido, Friederike Kempner, Baby Cadum, Angelika Kauffmann. No deep-freezer of tradition guarantees to preserve it, and yet the Marxist Modernists insist that precisely this has been most absorbent, the site of fantastic projections, and therefore social and political meaning. And not just meaning, but stimulation for an urban poetry, a lyricism of the transformed everyday. For Benjamin, Modernist culture emerges out of this kitsch and clutter, picked up off the streets and cut out of the screens, not animated by so-called eternal values of art or the high-minded quest for a purity of form and abstracted truth. Benjamin’s Modernism breeds off the mass-consumable detritus borne of and condemned to short life by capitalism. Produced by it, this Modernism nibbles away at capitalism’s pretensions, from within, like the proletariat, commodity-producers of clotted labour - a zombie-repressed always returning. Greenberg had recognized that industrial Western culture spawns simultaneously the avant-garde and kitsch, but his response was not enthusiastic. Benjamin thought, in contrast, not that the two evoked a Cain and Abel slaying to the death, but that they were symbiotic.


In 1925 Benjamin wrote his first study of Surrealism, an essay titled ‘Dreamkitsch’ in which he argued, whilst referencing the clutter of objects in his parents’ overstuffed apartment in Berlin’s West End, that Surrealists quite correctly execute not a psychoanalysis of souls but of things. The most analyzable feature of the contemporary age, he contends, is kitsch. Kitsch is:


the last mask of the banal, with which we clothe ourselves in dreams and in conversations, in order to take up into ourselves the power of the extinct thing-world.


The thing-world is extinguished because its forms are frozen and dead, though also encrypted with desires and social meanings. In ‘Dreamkitsch’ Benjamin notes that what formerly counted as art begun two metres away from the body, but through kitsch the thing-world shifts towards the person, laying emotions bare, foregrounding fantasies, acting just as does the mass-reproduced image or the montaged fragment, in that it meets the viewer halfway. Kitsch and clutter demand their rights to exist and be read; for both have overridden our former relationship to things, including art-objects. For the consumer, kitsch:


offers itself to his groping touch and finally builds its figures inside him to form a being, who could be called [here Benjamin makes a pun] - der moblierte Mensch [‘the furnished person/a lodger’].


With this Benjamin dispenses a context for the obsessive fascination of Modernist theorists with furnishings and interior decoration. Material culture inhabits us as we inhabit it, indicating that both Modernism and mass-produced kitsch appear at the close of a period of capitalist expansion which had involved the production and accumulation of commodities for kitting out the private interior, generating the materials of mass light entertainment, and establishing the practical ideology of home and family, a private realm in which the tabulations of taste act to bolster the public lie of individuality.


Our materialist Modernists had been at home amongst the plush furnishings and curlicues - and their truly intimate knowledge provided the grounds for a devastating critique. For they were, to a man, sons of prosperous businessmen and they grew up amongst mounds of bourgeois bric-a-brac. Benjamin, child of an antique dealer, nosed recurrently around the memory-ruins and rubble of his own past overcluttered interiors. His hatred of the hypocritical and unhealthy cover-ups of bourgeois ideology allowed the formulation of his hopes for the massification of mankind. In his autobiographical writings, Benjamin details little of the people he encountered in his past, but concentrates instead on the objects - the monogrammed anti-macassars, the epigrammed cushions and the unwieldy photography albums. Depicting Modernism’s strange arguments with the thing-world was like writing about spaces he - sickly child and victim of Germany’s lost revolution of 1919 - had spent too long in.


It is not a sentimentality for kitsch that the materialists narrate in deciphering the social hieroglyphs of clutter. Their Marxist commodity-critique opened them up to the contradictions of material culture; its deathly conditions of production and wish-fulfilling reception. By writing a political phenomenology of objects in his world, Benjamin furnishes effectively a history of clutter, since the beginning of industrial mass-reproduction. The contradictions of material culture and its exploitative mode of production mean that its surfaces are etched with both horror and rhapsody. The well-laboured luxuriance of the velvety sofa, replete with tassels and coverlets, underpins both individual daydreaming, as well as intimating that upholstery is not for nothing [in English at least] semantically connected to the idea of upholding the status quo, and its cruel division of labour. Underlying the mortal aspects encoded in the production of material culture, Benjamin remarks, in a rumination on detective stories, that the sofa is the perfect site of a murder:


The bourgeois interior of the 1860s to 1890s with its huge sideboards, bulging with carvings, the sunless corners where the palms stand, the balcony barricaded behind its balustrade, and the long corridors with their singing gas flames, adequately houses only the corpse. ‘On this sofa the aunt cannot but be murdered.’ The soulless luxuriance of the furnishings becomes true comfort only in the presence of a corpse. More interesting than the Oriental landscapes in detective stories is the luxurious Orient inhabiting their interiors: the Persian carpet and the ottoman, the hanging lamp and the precious Caucasian dagger. Behind the heavy gathered Khilim tapestries the master of the house holds orgies with his share certificates, feels himself the Eastern merchant, the indolent pasha in the caravanserai of indolent enchantment, until that dagger in its silver sling above the divan puts an end, one fine afternoon, to his siesta and himself.


For Benjamin, these parlour landscapes allow their inhabitants free reign over their utopian fantasies, but also it is also impossible for them, and their theorists, to escape the intimations of mortality which they encode, and recognition of the deathliness of clutter. The contradictions of material culture - insinuations of atrocity, fancy - are recorded in old photography. Photography is, for Benjamin, an ‘optical unconscious’ providing access to the truth of a material world in which private clutter signifies unfreedom and dishonesty, as well as fantasy. Benjamin describes studio portraits of himself and brother, as well as one of young Kafka, sad and small, and he points out how the photographs’ subjects are stranded, godforsaken, lost and stiffly inhuman, amongst a cramped mass of clutter. Of a photograph of himself and his brother dressed as Alpine wanderers, he writes:


Wherever I looked I saw myself surrounded by canvas umbrellas, upholstery, plinths, all lusting after my image, just as the shadows of Hades lust after the blood of the sacrifice. Finally a crudely painted vista of the Alps was brought to me, and my right hand, which was made to carry a little chamois hat, cast its shadow across the clouds and perpetual snow of the backdrop.


Late 19th century photography recreates in the prop-filled studio, described by Benjamin as amalgam of boudoir, torture chamber and throne room, an imitation of the possession-stuffed home, only then to become itself stuck in thick, dark albums, cluttering up sideboards. The lens, the objective, objectifies and holds the stiff poses of the alienated. A politico-technological paralysis is visualized in this photography. The artificiality of the studio props and the stiff postures of the subject act as an imprint of the alienation of the Wilhelmine epoch; its thing-world an encroachment of the fetish-commodity into human space. So begins a history of clutter’s physiognomy - continued by Benjamin in his deliberations on the world exhibitions, showcases where the commodity was roped into the function of national commemoration, specifying clutter as piles of souvenirs for modern amnesiacs. Benjamin writes of the memento:


The increasing self-alienation of people, who inventorize their past as dead possessions, is marked by it. ... Relics come from corpses, mementos come from an experience which has died off.


One way of dealing with this pile-up of material, and its corollary, the death of experience, is to draw it into art practices, as had the Surrealists in their quest for a reformulation of experience. Such re-imagining took place in the context of an era captivated by technologized commodity production, with its production of dashed utopian possibilities, urban trash and fashion, elements central to Surrealism’s world view. Surrealism grants access to an underbelly of experience, effected fundamentally through its ransacking of the dreamworld phantasmagoria of street trash and kitsch. ‘To use the decorative against itself’, Greenberg’s admonishment for a critical art practice, might transpire, in actuality, to be not the denial, but the social reading of mass-produced objects, in order to analyze, and so break with, the circuit of mass-produced dreams and nightmares. Here the materialist hand-dirtying of Benjamin and friends is better able to deal with, that is comprehend, the contradictions and social histories of objects in modernity.


But as well as supporting Surrealism’s analyses of kitsch and clutter and all their utopian and dystopian investments, Benjamin and friends are compelled to propagandize for the opposite, more conventionally Modernist strategy of wipe-out, emancipation from clutter. In 1931 Benjamin invents the persona of the ‘destructive character’ - enemy of the comfort-seeking ‘etui-person’:


The etui-person seeks comfort, and the case is its epitome. The inside of the case is a velvet-lined trace that he has imprinted on the world.


The destructive character is a type opposed to repression in its political and psychic senses, who - causing havoc by cutting ways through - removes the traces which sentimentally bind us to the status quo.


The destructive character knows only one slogan: make space; only one activity: clearing away. His need for fresh air and open space is stronger than any hatred. The destructive character is young and cheerful, for destroying rejuvenates by clearing away traces of our own age... .


The destructive character wants to make possible the formulation of experience according to revised and appropriate tenets. He calls for a grand futurist vacuum-cleaner to suck up the dust of ages in a streamlined, spatially-diminishing techno-modernist age.


In his collection of fragments called One Way Street, Walter Benjamin titles one section ‘Lost Property Office’ (Fundbüro). One Way Street takes all its section headings from the banal poetry of the cityscape and its object world – other examples include ‘Fancy Goods’ ‘Coiffeur For Fastidious Ladies’ and ‘Halt For Not More Than Three Cabs’. The fragment ‘Lost Property’ divides into two sections, articles lost, and articles found. Both pieces reflect not on the lost or found bric-a-brac of urban life but, instead on perception and its relation to objects seen. ‘Articles Lost’ speaks of how a first glimpse of a village, town or landscape is unique – for ‘habit has not yet done its work’. The absence of bearings makes the vista incomparable and irretrievable. We are lost in it. We are the lost articles. Later, in turn, this matchless experience is lost: ‘that earliest picture can never be restored’. Such a sentiment is reinforced in another little section called ‘Weapons and Munitions’ – where Benjamin describes looking for his lover in Riga as he paced the streets for two hours. Anticipation and unfamiliarity made the streets appear just as he felt, and as he would never see them again: sparking, combustible, waiting for the ignition that comes of desire. What is lost, then, is experience, which is unrepeatable, always unique. But experience is also historically achieved and the loss of experience, presented as a universal, is elsewhere presented as historically and socially specific when Benjamin discusses the prevailing degradation of experience in capitalist modernity – an experience that takes its cue from Taylorist factory piece work, subjugation to the conveyor belt, and war, and rendered as a series of disconnected, non-durable repeatable instants, made sufferable only by becoming the monotonous matter of habit. And retrieved by the persistent gaze of the critic.


What is experience, is a persistent question of Benjamin. It cannot be thought without materialism. He speaks at the close of his essay ‘Surrealism: the Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia’ (1929) of different materialisms. Firstly there is the ‘metaphysical’ mechanical materialism of Vogt and Bukharin – disembodied, objectified in good Kautskyian style, founded on science and cosmos and yet abstracting from any human measure. Vogt’s naturo-materialism assumed that thought was secreted by the brain, just as gall was discharged by the liver and urine by the kidneys. And valuing matter over the concrete, acting human being, Vogt ascribed to atoms a sense of pain. Benjamin contrasts this to the ‘anthropological materialism’ of the surrealists and before them the proto-Brechtian pedagogue Hebel, activist-poet Georg Büchner, Nietzsche and Rimbaud. Mechanistic materialism is not properly rooted in anthropological materialism’s double bind: a double bind that meshes physical nature and political materialism (that is consciousness, activity, history). These two forces share the assaults on the abstract spectre of spirit, tearing it limb from limb with anti-bourgeois acumen.


Here Benjamin was being strictly, if strangely, Marxist – for Marx began by criticizing the ‘one-sided’ or ‘mechanical’ materialism of Hobbes. Hobbes ruined the materialism inherited from Francis Bacon, progenitor of modern experimental science, and the one who understood matter’s ‘sensuous poetic glamour’. Hobbes systematizes, denying knowledge based on senses, instead elevating the abstract experience of the geometrician. His one-sided, mechanical materialism assists the bourgeois traits of misanthropy and self-denial. Marx writes about all this in 1844, in The Holy Family or Critique of Critical Criticism. And so the story goes on, through Locke, Condillac, La Mettrie, until its political, historical blossoming in socialism and communism. Here in a few pages Marx improvised a history of 18th and 19th century materialism, just at the moment as he invented ‘historical’ materialism, a materialism that extends beyond the scientific cosmos and includes the human and social world. The old materialists were mechanistic, non-historical and they formulated human essence only abstractly, not concretely. As Marx complains in his pithy lines on Feuerbach in ‘Theses on Feuerbach’ (1845):


the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively.


Benjamin adopts Marx’s opposition to contemplation, and human activity enters his schema as the bodily innervations of the collective, a mass subject, grappling with space and its imaging. Image (Bild), technology (Technik), body (Leib) and space (Raum) collapse onto each other at the close of the essay on surrealism. It is the image, Bild, that most intrigues Benjamin, and he contrasts it to metaphor, a technique attuned to the moral and spiritual realm, and, in some sense, part of the world of the stand in, the ‘as if’ realm. Marxist materialism and correct conduct with images both propagate, instead, a doctrine in which ‘an action puts forth its own image and exists, absorbing and consuming it’. It is closeness looking with its own eyes. It is the system that motivates its own overcoming from within its own terms, and, as such, then, according to Benjamin can be understood as the production of an equivalent, an image, without spillage, without a standing in of one thing for another – without morality, or spirit brought in to grease the wheels of transcendence – with no ‘as ifs’. Image, in this sense, has something tangible, graspable. It is a material force. Image, Benjamin notes, is a ‘world of many-sided and integral actuality’, and it resides at the heart of political action. (How much more concrete this becomes if we think contextually of the importance of reproduced images in those years, in the new media forms, and concurrently with that, in art and in popular culture, unprecedented and endless experiments in depicting visual space and shapes across time.) Benjamin’s anthropological and historical materialism manifests in the construction of a sphere of images, a Bildraum, his name for repetitions of the world, the body and technology in optical form. These furnish a room for action. Benjamin conceives the world as a 100% image space in which the artist or member of the revolutionary intelligentsia must be positioned in order to work on it, and rework it. This reworking emerges of the elements that already exist, but need still to be perceived in their interconnections.


Wrapping up

These Marxist materialists present us with an ambiguity at the heart of Modernism, an ambivalence not acknowledged by Greenberg, and not manifest in the straw man version of Modernism, often forwarded by Postmodernist theorists. In this modernist Marxist materialist version, far from modernism being the fetish of the functional, it becomes an oscillation between a potentiality, evident in the wish to abolish ‘the muck of ages’ [Marx], and the acknowledgement of everyday material culture, with its straddling of utopian potential and reified, commodified actuality. This modernism is fissured. Of course, Benjamin sees in Bauhaus and steel and glass, or in Constructivism and Futurism, a modern honesty, a ‘truth to materials’ and a transparent truth about social existence concretized without cover-up and lies. But he also, like Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Kracauer, sees that such apparent Enlightenment purism has its own mythic underside, often unacknowledged. Adorno reiterated this point later in his unfinished last work Aesthetic Theory. Looking at the aspiration to objectivity in art, as asserted, for example, by the super-modernist art movement of the 1920s, New Objectivity, Adorno wrote:


Thought through to the bitter end, objectivity turns into the barbaric, pre-artistic. The rigorous aesthetic allergy to kitsch, ornament, the superfluous, anything approaching the luxurious, contains an element of barbarism, to be understood in the sense of Freud’s theory of a destructive cultural unease. The antinomies of objectivity confirm the idea of the dialectic of enlightenment, in which progression and regression are entwined. Barbarity is literal. Because of its pure adherence to laws, the artwork is completely objectified, and becomes a mere fact.


Modernism is fractured and multiple; one part within its tradition - its objectivism, its purism - connects, in some way, to its nemesis. The pared down Modernism of Bauhaus and co, [on to Greenberg’s aestheticist disdain of an ‘outside the canvas’] and the Nazi racial-purist dream, apparently opposites, alike attempt to repress the materiality of existence, and disavow the mucky business of living.


Verwisch die Spuren!’, ‘Efface the traces!’, Brecht insisted in one poem in his 1926 lyric cycle ‘Handbook for City-dwellers’. For those traces, the monograms, screens, knickknacks on mantlepieces secreted like sprays of dog-piss, are also tied up with possession; and so signal class society. Brecht’s poetic sentiment details the issue of autonomy at stake: Efface the traces, rather than have someone else efface them. ‘Efface the traces’ - screeched Benjamin in February 1933 in ‘Live Without Traces’, a tiny fragment which presented a horror-vision of the cluttered bourgeois parlour, and detailed the new, potential, lives to be led within shiny, translucent steel and glass. In his 1939 commentary on Brecht’s poem, Benjamin noted that the phrase ‘efface the traces’ now seems to have been a secret indication of the strategy of crypto-emigration by communist activists. By 1939 it had long been obvious to Benjamin and others that it was ‘Jewish trash’, plus other bits of social refuse, which power decreed must be swept out.


It was an ex-Bauhaus-trained man, appropriately enough called Dustmann, who became the Reichsarchitekt of the Hitler Youth, and who attempted to sweep out the rubbish of a particularly politicized Modernism, in the interests of the gleaming Nazi future. As Benjamin was keen to note, in the 20th century, anti-materialist, anti-humanist aestheticism has a murky political past. And as Benjamin’s friend Scholem hinted; there is something fascist about an ordered house.


The clutter of experience, critically encountered, stripped of useless sentiment, but understood as component of modern experience has to remain, has to be a starting point for thought – for it is not power and subjectivity but the power of subjectivity, understood socially and historically and yet to be achieved.

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