So since my recent reference to it, I have been hankering to reread “Motifs.” It’s true that I often find myself thinking this, but I often fail to get around to it, plus it’s a pretty rich vein, as evidenced by the fact that I came away with some new stuff this time around.
In the past I have tended to focus on the stuff that can be traced fairly explicitly to “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.” The consciousness divided between perceiving and obscuring, the shattered shield, that sort of thing. This time I was more caught up in the processes of retrieval and ritual. When I was at Hampshire I sort of dismissed Benjamin in favor of Adorno, and I think that even at NYU, where I (along with everyone else) really embraced Benjamin and sort of understood his cultural turn, stayed leery of the stuff that evoked the past too enthusiastically.
Now that I’m an old man I sort of see where some of what he was getting at has to do with the fact that it’s easier to create your own culture in rituals when you have fewer external factors to deal with. Feeling straitjacketed by circumstance, I wonder if there is some sort of madeleine that I might require as well. There’s something to understanding that there was a nature that one was invoking.
Of course, you don’t want to go too far along that path. Just as you’re about to to say “There did I live” about the “breakers, rolling the images of the sky” you get to the stuff about photography and remember that Benjamin was a sentimental Luddite. Still, it’s good to let yourself get to the pretty part and not focus too much on stuff like “Even though chronology places regularity above permanence, it cannot prevent heterogeneous, conspicuous fragments from remaining within it.”
One of the stops on my busy Thanksgiving sojourn was Matthew’s, where he and his mother attempted to coerce C’s experiences into a narrative about how texting is rotting the delicate minds of the youth of America, and god only knows what else. During the discussion I took it upon myself to point out that adults weren’t any less susceptible to the compulsions of constant phonography, but because that was orthogonal to what they were trying to get C to say it only held anyone’s attention as fleetingly as a “LOL” sent via text message.
I think that texting/mobile web abuse is related to the confusion I touched upon here, wherein people think this stream constitutes some kind of grasp on the world. Inundated with a steady stream of faux-information and faux-communication (fauxmunication?), people are too busy pressing buttons to wonder about the quality of things, which heads off some troubling questions.
This is the look — even as late as Proust — of the object of a love which only a city dweller experiences, which Baudelaire captured for poetry, and of which one might not infrequently say that it was spared, rather than denied, fulfillment.
–Benjamin, Illuminations, 170.
As you know, allegations of “Newspeak” are so popular these days that the word has been effaced into a synonym for “NUH UH!” Here are some clarifying details from the man himself. As suggested by the title, reading it reminded me strongly of the previous post, especially in regards to conflating rights and using one’s position of privilege in society to inflict humiliations on others. There were a couple of other things that this essay made me think of, and I’m sure old George would have objected to both strenuously.
The first is “Myth Today,” which is basically a more detailed analysis of the same topic. When Orwell says “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible” he seems pretty convinced that people who distort language are acting in consciously bad faith. Barthes definitely thinks that the distortions of mythic speech can convince people that they are being truthful when they repeat it, which of course makes the problem more complex and more difficult to solve.
The other association, which is one I often reflect on when I hear about the antics of. . . whatever we should be calling right-wing sociopaths these days*, is Freud’s claim in The Interpretation of Dreams that the unconscious knows no negation. This is a little vague, but what the main thing to take away from it here is that it doesn’t recognize contradictory impulses. Mythic speech, especially the mythic speech of the present day, is packed with incompatible claims (e.g.: the bizarre right-wing allegiance of ultra-religious types and capitalist plutocrats). Today’s right wing movements are pure infantile id. They want and want and want, and will accept no explanation.
* I don’t like “Tea Partier” since that’s more of a symptomatic fad, and “conservative” while disagreeable, at least implies a consistent ideology rather than a Doctor-Doom like impulse to destroy everything just for the sake of destroying it.