Get You Back Home


Back to the Benjamin Papers

Crossing Borders: Walter Benjamin Conference in Barcelona, September 25-27 2000

Esther Leslie

Too early on the first morning conference delegates were called to the ‘French Station’ in Barcelona where a specially hired train waited to take them on the ‘pilgrimage’ to Port Bou, site of Walter Benjamin’s untimely death on September 26 1940. A motley clump of academics, students and representatives of the many sponsors of the conference settled down to the two-hour journey northwards to the border. The train burbled with conversations ranging from ‘who is this Walter Benjamin’ and ‘I hope they’re going to feed us when we arrive’, to more subtle inquiries into aura and allegory, and now and again welled up the chant of the curious - ‘what is the International Walter Benjamin Society?’, organisers of the present great shebang, and ‘What happened to the ‘International Walter Benjamin Association’, launched with a great hoo-ha in Amsterdam in 1997?

The mayor of Port Bou greeted the train on arrival and took the large party into the Customs Room at the station of this border town. He reminded us that Walter Benjamin would not have seen his room, for his entry was illegal, puffily and painfully undertaken by foot through the mountains that obstruct the frontier between France and Spain. He also assured us that Spain was now a democracy, where everything had changed compared to those bad days when the Gestapo had so much clout. The party then moved to a church in Port Bou. Perhaps it might be said that a Catholic church was an inappropriate place to reflect on Benjamin and his death. However, we were told, a service had been held there for him once before, in error. This was just one of the confusions that surround Benjamin’s death. On 28 September 1940 a funeral following Catholic rites had been held in the church for a Dr. Benjamin Walter, a name reversed for a man mistakenly assumed to be of Catholic faith and having died in transit. There were other rumours – or fallacies – that issued from Benjamin’s death. For example, that there existed a briefcase containing the manuscript of Benjamin’s final work and this had gone astray. But the blunders surrounding the death might go further even than this, as Ingrid Scheurmann pointed out in her address, which included a rendition of her and Konrad Scheurmann’s conjecture that Benjamin did not kill himself in Port Bou. The Scheurmanns, leading forces behind the IWBS, proposed this theory after getting hold of a series of documents relating to Benjamin’s death. They argue that Benjamin may have died, in fact, as result of a cerebral haemorrhage, the cause of death recorded on the death certificate. Their conjecture was intended as antidote to the widespread tragically accented and seductively poignant suicide story, confection of assumptions and wish-fulfilment, and part of a mythologisation of Benjamin as unlucky melancholic. For the Scheurmanns, as for Dani Karavan’s memorial at Port Bou, the accent should fall less on Benjamin as particularly hapless individual and more on Benjamin as representative of a typical fate (hence this conference’s interest in contemporary refugeedom and displacement). His is a fate that is historically typical, in that he was only one of many forced on the run and who may or may not have reached a destination that they were forced to choose. After all, as Benjamin tried to enter Spain that day, others, mainly left-wing activists and intellectuals, were passing in the other direction, fleeing Franco’s Spain and persecution. This is not just a historical question. Benjamin comes to stand in as a symbol of emigration – though unusually in his case he is one of the few that are named, a refugee whose name we know. Ingrid Scheurmann wanted to remind us – again as does Karavan’s memorial in Port Bou - of all the nameless refugees who risk all to cross borders, even today in a world that is economically globalised, and yet whose frontiers are lined with fortresses. This was not the only time that globalisation would be mentioned in the conference. In fact, it became a leit-motif. Indeed globalisation was identified as the spectre that haunts Europe. Globalisation threatens cultural specificity, we were told. Globalisation is Americanisation, the new Americanism. It must be resisted in favour of globality, a global consciousness that is established not on dictation but on communication (an idea that we were told is central to Benjamin’s theory). The angels, once more, all seemed to be on Benjamin’s side: his was the voice of sharing, peace and cultivation, environmentalism, justice, freedom, education – all that is good, even if empty and unspecified and uncontestable by any but the most corrupt and cynical. In the talks at the church there was no sign of Benjamin as that destructive character who preached civil war and the expropriation of the rich.

Why local dignitaries and Catalonian officials would be so keen to support the conference became clearer in the course of the speeches in the church. That day the IWBS inaugurated a Casa Walter Benjamin in an old pink building a short walk from the town’s harbour-bay. At present this is a room in a neglected building. Its walls are adorned with black and white photocopies of photographs of Benjamin. There are some facsimiles of documents. There are Xeroxes of documents, pictures and news clippings about the erecting of Dani Karavan’s monument at Port Bou. Copies of the Scheurmann’s ‘New Documents on the Death of Walter Benjamin’ were distributed freely. Casa Walter Benjamin is intended to be ‘a permanent exhibition and study centre devoted to Benjamin’s life and work and other Society activities’ (Articles of the IWBS). There are plans for the Casa Walter Benjamin. It might build a library and set itself up as a research centre, perhaps offering a scholarship or the like. Such developments sound sweet to a town that fears the consequences of the loss of customs borders in a newly integrated Europe and knows that tourism, even the barely mass tourism of intellectual pilgrimage, literary worship and academic curiosity, are better than nothing. After a boozy reception in the communal hall, it was time to return on the special locomotive. The scholarly portion of the conference was to begin early the next day.

This began in a grand ceremonial room of Barcelona University. Grand history paintings flanked us, as we sat in plush velvet pews, our simultaneous translation kits clinging to our ear lobes. The speakers sat at an altar-like table, far from the hundred and fifty strong crowd, their words simultaneously (or not) translated and broadcast into the headsets. We were informed of the boom in Benjamin studies and the many languages that his works are now available in, and the many examinations and re-examinations of his texts that occur. But why Barcelona, they pondered? Benjamin left no reference to this city. For him it was a place where ships docked and took him away to Ibiza, another Catalan-speaking province. Barcelona was a place that he passed through, just as he must have passed through Port Bou on various occasions, before being stopped there forever. He was, they said, not alone in this fate, and even the most powerful succumbed, for the President of Catalonia was arrested in August 1940 and shot in October, the month that Hitler and Franco met.

The question was addressed: what is the International Walter Benjamin Association. Rumours of animosity were quashed. Willem Van Reijen was called up to testify to the good relations between the two Benjamin ‘fan clubs’. He did so in a rather backhanded way. Turning the German acronym of the association (IWBG - Internationale Walter Benjamin Gesellschaft) into a mnemonic, he decoded the G as standing for Germania, whereas the A in IWBA stands for Amsterdam. Was this invocation innocent, or a jibe, associating the IWBS with such an imperialist moniker? He then went on to establish a division of labour between the two orders, characterising his own IWBA as more academic, more liable to footnote its submissions. He was silent then on the purpose of the IWBS, but the implication was that it would make little contribution to properly scholarly research. The IWBS’s own stated purposes do not concur:

The Internationale Walter Benjamin Gesellschaft/International Walter Benjamin Society pursues the purpose of supporting research on Benjamin’s life and work, and of discussing the creative and visionary potential of his writings and trailblazing view of modernism.

It thus intends:

--- to further interdisciplinary exchanges of views on Benjamin’s works and their reception and topicality

--- to provide critical reflection of the role of the individual (and specifically the intellectual) in society, and to develop concepts for the future

--- to conduct research into the relationship between history, memory, and cultural recollection within social and political change

--- to examine the history and present manifestations of exile and emigration, inclusive of the social and political function of old and new frontiers

--- to analyze the development of art and culture in a global media society, and to subject this to theoretical and philosophical discussion

--- to conduct research into the social and economic impact of disparities in participation in information and information technology

--- to foster discussion on basic questions of politics

To this purpose, the first academic paper began. Irving Wohlfahrt, in ‘Awakening from the Twentieth Century’, immediately turned attention to cosmic time, the millennial and problems of planetary dimensions. The metaphorical thread was that of awakening, from the dream sleep of world war one, from the enticements of the 19th century. What is the moment of awakening? It is located in the subject’s recognition of knowledge as originating in the self. This was the contribution of Kant. Kant had built on Copernicus’s bold focus on the earth as it revolves around the sun. Kant carries this focus into the human inhabitants of the earth with their inbuilt capacities for sense making. Benjamin radicalises Kant’s subjectivism, by insisting that historical knowledge is not a knowledge of the past, but a recognition of the now in which the historical moment flashes up. Instead of cutting out the subject’s own moment (in a fake objectivist quest) the moment itself becomes the medium of understanding. This was Benjamin’s discovery. He needed to build a (theoretical) telescope in order to identify it: one that cut through a bloody fog to see the ‘blood and horror’ of the last century made visible in the present. The telescope’s image is the dialectical image, and its viewing takes place in the moment of awakening. It is neither available to a dream consciousness nor woken consciousness alone, but is product of the synthesis of both. Having established this, Wohlfahrt went on to consider what politics might be appropriate to this. It is, he says, a politics that avoids total solutions, one that rejects ‘the redemption of humanity’, and yet still wants redemption. Total solutions produced totalitarianism and the victory of capitalist democracy, with its own ‘black book’ and the tolerance of genocide and atomic and genetic technologies in an ever-more communicative network of military-industrialism and multi-national capitalism. Wohlfahrt’s talk, a composite of quotations and metaphor chains, rounded in on its political point like a quarry brought finally to ground. Both Marx and Benjamin criticised the historian who was content to ‘reconstruct’. The past must be ‘constructed’ – this is the Copernican turn of historiography. And now our past and our present demand reconstruction. It is not enough, notes Wohlfahrt, to continue piling up interpretations of Benjamin. And will Benjamin help us to construct the present-past. No, says Wohlfahrt, for his is a world of old technologies: sails, scales, telescopes. These notions, these technologies and their attendant metaphors, cannot be applied in our ever more abstract system. How can such hand-made tools approach the global-digital? The loss of the Left has left Benjamin hanging. Wohlfahrt’s closing thought was practical. Let us have a research group - internet-based, of course, - that builds up an Arcades Project for the present. Let us conceive the World Wide Web as Benjamin’s ‘body- and image space.

Next up was Stephane Hessel and the tone changed to one of personal reminiscence. Hessel, the son of Benjamin’s friends Franz and Helene Hessel, had led an action-packed life. A member of the resistance in Paris, he was captured in 1944 and sent to Buchenwald, from where he escaped. After the war he served as a diplomat. In acknowledgement of the conference’s various languages he read in the original language a poem by Apollinaire, one by Hoffmannthal and one by Shakespeare before reflecting on his memories of his father and Walter Benjamin. He finished by asking whether it was better or worse for those two that they escaped the concentration camp and the atomic bomb.

The sculptor Dani Karavan, presented as a political artist, in the sense that he works in the polis, showed slides of varying quality of a number of his projects over the past few years. He emphasised his sense of his work as a physical experience. His work - like the Port Bou memorial to Benjamin - must be passed through, touched, heard, entered, climbed. Memory is in the site, was his refrain, as he spoke of his method of production, whereby a viewing of the place itself suggests the form of the sculpture, and then, so often, later he finds out about significant coincidences, things that are apposite about the site, things that he could not have known before starting, but which make the project seem necessary. Memory is in the site, says this sculptor, who emphasised that he only does commissions, and it is clear that he is busy, for memory (the replacement for history, and also summoned up in quasi-religious tones) is big business in the statuary world these days, and there is much apparently to be remembered, particularly by one who manages to produce material that is evocative enough for the liberal conscience but never too provocative.

The debate from the floor began, and with the usual questions about how ‘political’ Benjamin’s thought actually was, or in what way political. Wohlfahrt was criticised for his exhortations to act, in the name of Benjamin, for said the speaker from the floor, Benjamin’s anarchism, his ‘always radial, never consequential’ stance, could never be practically deployed. His was a metaphysics of struggle. Wohlfahrt defended the importance of the metaphor of awakening in Benjamin and insisted that Benjamin’s thought could only be unravelled in relation to revolution – the missing term that Benjamin directed Gershom Scholem to, when he gasped in unbelief at Benjamin’s ‘Artwork essay’, an unmediated collection of metaphysical and materialist approaches. But what is revolution now, asked an audience member. In his response Wohlfahrt fell back into metaphor, a poetics of revolution; perhaps revolution is the hand reaching for the emergency brake on the locomotive of progress. The next contribution from the floor was delivered in a critical and testy tone, asserting that Benjamin is a dead dog, even if he is a dead underdog, and was in danger of becoming the object of hagiography here. Herewith the session adjourned for refreshments.

In the passageway leading downstairs from the conference room a video by Michael Bielicky, an artist from Prague, played. A figure picks his way through the mountain paths on the French-Spanish border. He puffs and pants. The image that we see is one mediated by surveillance technologies. This is Benjamin on today’s US-Mexican border or the like, visible to power through its technologies of infra-red, global positioning systems. To be a refugee is a high-tech affair these days.

Bernd Witte took the microphone after the break. His paper ‘Cultural Memory and Understanding of History in Judaism’ began polemically in opposition to Wohlfahrt. He disagreed vehemently with the idea that the Internet can produce a collectivity, a body- and image-space. Such an idea of social organisation, for his ears, echoes the Nazi-Socialist attempt to organise the world after the death of God. But here the power is cathected to technology alone. In fact it is technology, in the shape of genetic technologies, that constitutes our greatest enemy today, and not our salvation. Witte wants another set of reference points: those of death, history, mythology. He spoke of Kafka as a German-Jewish writer, who writes like a dead man in his grave. He spoke of Israel and the collective memory of Israelis based on an acute historical consciousness, which is based on exile, not conquering. The fatherland is portable, said Heine, a converted Jew, but this is the Jewish founding myth, not one of occupation and destruction, but exilic life and the portable tradition embodied in canonical texts. The importance of the holy text passes over into literature - here again Heine is key for his story ‘Rabbi Abraham’, according to Witte, is the first Jewish-aesthetic text. Witte then turned to the temporal model of Judaic thought: time as ‘nunc stans’, fulfilled now-time, instead of the linear temporality. This was a time that could have won out, but history proved otherwise when the Nazis destroyed a German-Jewish relationship.

The state of Israel was the topic of the next paper ‘Memory without Rememberers, Israeli Collective Memory of the Holocaust’. Idith Zertal, from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was introduced as the conference’s exemplary intellectual: interdisciplinary, transnational and transcultural. She delivered a coruscating anti-Zionist analysis of the ‘politics of memory’. It had little to do with Benjamin, with just a few quotations threaded in here and there. It began autobiographically: her parents never spoke of the Nazis when she was a child growing up in Israel. They lived in a new land, at a new time, and it was incumbent on Jews to begin again, to reinvent themselves. These were the dominant ideas, and yet, she did also have an inkling, picked up from whispers or eavesdropping, that the Germans would one day arrive on motorcycles to carry out a work of destruction. This relationship to the past – even to a past not experienced – led her on to thoughts about memory. A touchstone here was Maurice Halbwachs’ idea of collective memory, which suggests that personal memory is socially produced, that fragmentary, individual memory is guided by a script of collective memory. The collective memory under investigation here is that of the Israeli state in the first years after the Second World War and the revelation to the world of the ‘Holocaust’. Idith Zertal termed the uses of memory in this context the ‘mobilisation of memory’ in the post-war epoch. Or better perhaps, the mobilisation of forgetting, for the injunction in the young Israeli state was ‘Thou Shalt Not Remember’. It was the duty of the new Israeli citizens to hide the news of the former calamity from their offspring. Holocaust survivors were silenced in 1950s Israel. It was only after the inauguration of commemorative celebrations in the US and France that an acknowledgement of the holocaust could take place in Israel.

Between 1945 and 1951 ¼ million survivors emigrated to Israel, displacing Palestinians in the process. Some of these émigrés had been active Zionists, but many were not. Some were allocated homes that Arabs had been forced to desert after the 1948 war. One catastrophe overlaid another. These new citizens had to be educated to sustain the rigours of life in a precarious new state. Mossad agents indoctrinated and intimidated, and bullied people to join the army. In this context there was little use for narratives or witness, victimhood or defeat. The prime minister Ben Gurion wanted the state itself to be a memorial, and he abused survivors, announcing publicly that the ‘Better part of our people were the first to be exterminated’. It was shameful to be a survivor. What Israel needed was new strong men, not people caught up in the past. The new Israeli men had to be hypermasculine, represented by those who were incapable of suffering – not the bookish scholar Jews of Europe who fell victim. And anyway the memories of those survivors from Europe, the ones who escaped becoming an absolute victim, were not ‘good enough’, not useful memories, for they were the memories of the living and not of the dead. As such they could not testify to a horror that was sublime, full and all consuming, from which no-one has come out alive. This is Primo Levi’s conundrum from The Drowned and the Saved: ‘We the survivors are not the true witnesses’. What use the memories of those who did not even touch the bottom? The Zionists thought these thoughts, said Zertal in her unyielding attack on the Israeli state. Zertal ended with a criticism of Gershom Scholem. Scholem never forgave Benjamin for failing to join him in the desert state. His punishment, she speculated, was that Scholem never arranged for Benjamin’s work to be translated into Hebrew. That is happening only now, after Scholem’s death. If anyone could have lobbied for Benjamin’s work to appear in Hebrew, it would have been Scholem, for he held much sway with publishers and could determine such matters. Such comments upset members of the audience. Her reference to Primo Levi had also caused some consternation: members of the audience could not accept that Levi’s hard accusations against survivors as fake victims could be meant on anything more than a metaphorical level. And that zionists might have had the same attitude - and that this gave grounds for comparison between Levi and the zionists - was resisted strongly by some contributors to the discussion who called it a ‘distortion’ of Levi, who at the time of making this claim in his final book was deeply resigned, and responding to a wave of ‘survivor testimonial’. Zertal held her ground in terms of the main claim that Levi was denigrating the value of ‘being a survivor’. This developed into a debate about now familiar themes of the limits of representation of the holocaust. Jean Amery had claimed that only those who had been there could speak about the ‘unsayable’ horror of the camps, and it was in response to this that Levi cast doubt on the importance of survivor testimony. Zertal compared this to other ideas about ‘witnessing’ in the context of the scandal in Israel caused by Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. After America and France had instituted holocaust memorialization, Israel followed suit and the holocaust and Auschwitz became sanctified objects about which it was very hard to speak. Certain conditions need be fulfilled. Arendt had not been ‘there’, in the camps, so how could she speak about this sanctified object. Even if she had been there, how could she say anything about it that would be meaningful (an Ameryan position), that would express the inexpressible (a Levian position). Using translation as a measure of acceptability, Zertal noted that Arendt’s book had only recently been translated into Hebrew. With these reflections, Zertal ruffled feathers and stirred up argument in what until then had been in the main a flabby, hagiographic affair. But Benjamin had by now been far left behind in these questions of ‘Realpolitik’ and state policy. Discussion brought Benjamin back in with a final impossible, unanswerable question: if Benjamin had been a survivor, what would he have said about the Shoah.

The next paper by Mauro Ponzi, from the University of Rome, picked up the metaphorical chains in Benjamin once more, slithering from quotation to quotation to reflect on exile and fragmentation. Again the German-Jewish relationship was probed in order to assert a tension, a montage, within Benjamin’s thought that pulls in different directions at once. This in turn was related quasi-biographically to a notion of exile, or foreignness - Benjamin, like Kafka or Freud - is a man from afar, a man ‘aus der Fremde’. Such selfhood was forwarded as a model for us all. Benjamin is the ‘multi-cultural personality’ that we must all strive to be. A transnational intellectual, Sr. Ponsy, thinks that he finds his own reflection in Benjamin and exhorts us all to find images and words for transcultural, transnational, transintellectual identity. Perhaps there is a value to this idea in an world of movements of capital and people and information in more or less impeded fashion across state borders, or perhaps it is a comforting thought for someone who is a position to enjoy the benefits of this development, but need not think about the ‘barbaric’ underbelly that Benjamin tells us must surely accompany this cultural transformation.

Stéphane Moses, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, spoke of Judaism and the tension between Scholem and Benjamin. For Scholem Palestine was to be the site of a spiritual rebirth of Jewishness. For Benjamin Jewishness was always just a part of European Moderne. Moses then developed this argument to show that Scholem, in fact, becomes the one, out of the two of them, to become more disappointed by modern Judaism. Scholem suffered crises once in Jerusalem. He felt alienated from the Young Pioneers who so despised the Ostjuden, the Jews from the Eastern Europe. Scholem witnessed what seemed to him far from the spiritual regeneration of a people and rather the founding of a secular society. His unpublished poems recorded his unhappiness, in lines that referred to Zion’s lost gleam and its dark nights: ‘I have lost the faith that brought me here’, notes one. Scholem left Germany in 1923, an exile voluntarily assumed, a flight of hope. Benjamin, in contrast, did not leave Germany definitively until he had to, ten years later, on the Nazi assumption of power. Benjamin hated emigrant life. His material conditions were poor. His negative response to exile life emerges, we were told, in the melancholic vision of the ‘fallen’ world that appears in the Arcades Project, a sky without stars, the empty gaze of passers-by, the destruction forever of the auratic. Exile is a miserable condition and the exile can never escape foreignness. Scholem too remained foreign in Israel, not least because his sense of what this new land would be was betrayed. Kafka, Freud and Benjamin would also have remained foreign, for rather than a home, Israel, for spiritual or political reasons, can be a place of ‘inner exile’.

In ‘Me and the Other; Ethnicity and History in the Conflict of Contemporary Europe’, Ivan Lovrenovic, a writer and journalist, spoke of the ‘long war’ in Central Europe, from 1914 to 1989, where, ironically, the most peaceful place was Yugoslavia. Since 1989 Yugoslavia has been at war. He told us of the death camps from 1992 and ethnic cleansing. He spoke of the minefields and a devastated landscape. He warned us that we would find that the archive has been burnt and that there has been a war on memory. He then spoke about a story that begins with a meeting between two men at a Bosnian railway station. One is a Jew and he wishes to leave Bosnia because of the hatred there. The story goes on to tell of the different times according to which people live in Sarajevo. In the city the clocks of the different religions beat out time at different moments – and the Jews have no clock. In guidebooks of recent years these many temporalities have been located as evidence of the co-existence of difference, but we were told by the speaker, the nationalist Serbian leader, had handed out this story, with its reference to the different temporalities, to Western officials in order to demonstrate the impossibility of multi-ethnic co-existence. Time does not bind the tribes. The story ends some years later in Spain, during the civil war of 1936- 39. In Aragon in 1938 the two men meet again in a military hospital that is bombed. They are killed. Is the story ironic, black, shot through with that familiar absurdist melancholic central European atmosphere? It seems to proclaim that hatred is everywhere, and there is no escape. Bosnia and Spain are no exception, their twentieth century is one of wars and civil tensions, not just between ethnic groups, but between brothers. The speaker left the meaning of the story open. The mood resonating after its telling was gloomy.

To close the day an artist from Madrid spoke of ‘Emigrants and Suicide’. Eduardo Arroyo has been painting portraits of Benjamin for some time. He reads to us from Lisa Fitko’s memoir of Benjamin’s failed escape across the border.

The next day opened with Adam Michnik, a Polish dissident, and a paper titled ‘Mass Society and the Individual’. He spoke little of Benjamin, rather he wanted the opportunity to report on the ‘Black Book’ of Communist crime. Benjamin angered him, because he never understood the secrets of Communist barbarism, we are told by ‘one who knows’. He launched an attack on German intellectuals who fell for the Soviet dream without understanding what it was in reality. Instead of these utopian dreamers he praised the ‘great witnesses’ who ‘understood that there is no clear answer, only a tragic one’ - figures who are ‘more legible than Benjamin’: Arendt, Weil, Bonhoffer, Malraux, Orwell. What Michnik did not mention was that these were figures who – for disparate reasons – gave fuel to the Cold War. Was that a sign of their tragic sensibility, or just of their own disillusioned accommodation to capitalist values? But Benjamin was redeemed at the end – he died, he is tragic, he prepared a testimony to the weakness of society and a defence of the individual. He teaches us to fight all forms of fundamentalism: ethnic, social, bombs and kalashnikovs. Michnik’s Benjamin - marshalled in the service of liberalism and in support of global ‘caring’ capitalism - is truly not the Benjamin that I know.

Konstantin Akinsha continued with the theme of emigration and exile in ‘A Human Individual in the Age of Clone Reproduction, The Moscow Lessons of Walter Benjamin from the Perspective of the Year 2000’. He spoke of Benjamin in Moscow, drawn there because it was fashionable for German intellectuals (I can think of many who did not go) and because of his love for Asja Lacis. He told us of how Benjamin was not impressed by the Soviet avant-garde, but preferred the Moscow museums of art from 1840s. His paper was really about his own sense of confusion at Benjamin’s aesthetic choices: essentially boiling down to the question of why did Benjamin not support the Constructivists? Surely that is what we imagine Benjamin would do. Why was he more interested in the bric-a-brac of the streets. Benjamin, he told us, did not understand Moscow. He wrote of things whose full meaning eluded him. The speaker seemed unaware of the complexity of positions held by ‘the Soviet avant-garde’ and the discussions that Benjamin had engaged in, in relation to Trotsky’s thesis against Proletkult but for modernist innovation in art. He also seemed unaware of the closeness between Boris Arvatov’s constructivist positions and Tretyakov’s statements on art and Benjamin’s own analyses. The paper developed a thesis about the limited applicability of Benjamin’s understanding of technological art and the radical nature of documentary, pointing to the uses of cameras in shows such as Judge Judy or Divorce Court. A familiar refrain from ‘Benjamin-Studies’ was finally voiced: Benjamin is important as a failure, he succeeds as a failure. Benjamin did not finish his journey. He did not reach his real Jerusalem (Moscow - by implication communism – was just a foolish diversion along the way). He is dear to us because he is weak. . Curiously intellectuals are very attracted to this notion.

Artist Ingo Günther came next, carrying his own utopia in a laptop. He told us of his project ‘Refugee Republic’. 1% of the world’s population are refugees. He has a plan to make them all cybercitizens, inhabitants of an online state that could develop its own capitalist (post-capitalist?) economy, legal structure, taxation system and so on. He questioned whether Microsoft indeed already constituted a country or state, and whether passwords were a type of passport. Refugees should demand the right to ‘telecommunications’, for then they would no longer be victims of the border, but beneficiaries of networks. The next speaker, a writer from Paris, Abdelwahab Meddeb, read from a letter that he had written to a ghostly Benjamin. This is not a real letter, but an excuse to posit a fantasy dialogue. The letter was about Alexandria and the synthesis of East and West. It was not clear why Benjamin should have been the happy recipient of this very long letter.

Discussion, yet again, broached the question of whether communism was dead. As we spoke anti-capitalist demonstrators were trashing areas of Prague in direct action against the IMF meeting. This led one person to counter Michnik’s confident claim that ‘Communism is dead’ with an equally confident and more heartfelt: ‘Capitalism is dead’.

Willem van Reijen presented a beautifully measured piece of closely read Benjaminiana, in a discussion of breath and aura titled ‘Breathing the Aura; the Paradoxical Constellation of Knowledge and Experience of Art’. Drawing on Goethe’s natural scientific studies, he proposed that Benjamin’s idea in ‘A Short History of Photography’ about the ‘breathing in of aura’ constituted aura as a physical-natural experience, and constituted experience as not primarily optical but tactical, taktisch. He spoke of temporality in Benjamin, of spinning time out or breathing time in, modes of experience of the gambler and the flaneur. This exchange of air and body was related to mimetic thought in Benjamin, producing, thereby, a holistic vision of a universe, exchanging energies, in contact at all its points. True knowledge is mimetic. The universe is dialectical, reciprocal and in tension at once. Van Reijen’s paper restored aura to the centre of Benjamin’s work, but not as it is usually received – with the bad presence of here and now that is abolished in the technological age, or the whiff of melancholy at the heart of Benjamin’s metaphysics – but as a social and natural (that is dialectically integrated) – component of experience in the world.

Professor Mikhail Ryklin’s ‘The Book Before the Book; Signature in Kafka and Benjamin’ mused on the relationship between Benjamin and Kafka, by way of the Potemkin story about the King’s signature that Benjamin relates in his Kafka essay. Reflections were arranged around the relationship of each to Judaism, and the relationship of Scholem to Benjamin’s Kafka studies.

Shifting the focus away from close readings of Benjamin, London-based art critic Henry Meyric Hughes delivered an analysis of recent trends in art gallery curating. Once more the paper was not connected with Benjamin in either an obvious or a subtle way. Its thesis was of interest to those who know little about recent developments at the Tate Modern and MOMA in New York, though the view was topdown. For example, there was no mention of the long, and ultimately successful, strike at MOMA, New York. Rather we were given the history of the periodisation of modern art and how this was reflected in gallery layout. In a post-modern age, periodising has given way to thematic layouts in galleries. This was a report from a professional, the organiser of Manifeste. It was useful for those who wished – as passive witnesses – to apprise themselves of trends in museum curation. Otherwise it avoided all questions of wider social significance, such as how can art continue to exist, under what legitimation, and how does it relate to truth.

The conference was groaning to its end. Two more papers were scheduled, both from the media-communication area. Boris Groys’ ‘New Media in Traditional Contexts’ was a reflection on the fate of the copy in the digital age. He deconstructed Benjamin’s opposition between original and copy in order to propose that there is nothing more original than a digital copy. On the web each page has a unique URL and so it must be the case that the ‘here’ of the digital page – a copy that has no singular tangible existence – is fundamentally tied to a ‘here’, a place. The copy turns into an original, and is also vulnerable, subject to material alteration and ravages of time as is the original original – in particular through a virus attack. Furthermore, argued Groys, the surfer in this mediated network experiences the re-birth of aura, which is an experience of distance. Peter Weibel extended this techno-futurist stance with reflections once more on the relationship of copy and original. He began long ruminations on the birth of the virtual and its liberatory social implications. He spoke of the mobilisation of the gaze through film and t.v., and the continuation of this mobility in mobile phones and the internet. Cinema was still tied to a place. The new technologies are tele-technologies, and they sever the link with place – with ‘the here’ in Benjamin’s ‘here and now’ couplet. We live in a ‘multi-tele-society’, where perception and communication are no longer tied to location. We can use other eyes, experience through meditated subjectivity, using VR technologies, and so on. Weibel piled up examples of techno-tele experience. The organisers gestured for him to stop. He continued speaking. He began to show a video, of a techno-tele art installation – but the image was imprecise. The video continued – he spoke over it, on and on – until eventually human agency intervened. The plugs were pulled. Bernd Witte took the stage and bitterly quipped that there were two types of Benjamin scholar, historians and communications’ futurists. Historians read Benjamin’s work and know that the question of ‘here’ is always matched by the question of ‘now’. They understand Benjamin fully, for they understand the presence of time, of history in his work. (One might add that this is what tends to make them attracted to melancholy, to ruin, to shards and the fragility of memory and the brutality of history). The other Benjaminians are futurists, utopians. They take what they want from Benjamin and say what they want, irrespective of faithfulness to text to history. And then he announced that the conference was closed, suddenly and in an unscheduled manner. No final discussions. No summary –apart from these closings word of Witte. Some applause. Some flowers for the simultaneous translators. Some flowers for Ingrid Scheurmann. Confused dispersal onto the lively Barcelona streets. The next meeting – two years on – is already being planned by the IWBS. It is to be in Kracow – expect many papers on Auschwitz, and little techno-futurism.

Get You Back Home


Back to the Benjamin Papers