Made my semi-annual reading of “Some Motifs in Baudelaire” recently, and was compelled to wonder if I miss crowds. While in Paris over the summer, I noted that it was much more crowded than Portland, and at the time my feelings about that were pretty clear. A little quiet time with Walter, however, has made me wonder.
Portland is very nice, in its way, but I’ve never found it very compelling. I don’t want to go out and explore it very much. Obviously, it suits a lot of people. Perhaps the difference is that I’m the type who finds it refreshing to parry his own blows, as it were. It is certainly the case that I find it very comforting to go out into the world and not recognize anyone. I have often thought of myself as a bit agoraphobic, but perhaps the problem that keeps me indoors is more akin to paranoia.
So perhaps the solution is brunch at The Screen Door? The problem is that many crowded places have lousy crowds. Portlanders, accustomed to a certain amount of leeway, are lousy gatherers. I think it’s also worth nothing that while crowds were smooth in NY when I lived there in 98 and 99, but the time I went back for Draper, the sort of New York flow had been irreparably disrupted by the idea that New York was somewhere that everyone should go, rather than being a place for people whose temperament it suited.
In “Motifs” Benjamin frequently returns to how unlike the crowds of Paris are from the crowds of other cities. In the context of a discussion of Baudelaire, this takes the form of suggesting that at the time no other continental cities were as urbanized (and while London is discussed earlier, it doesn’t get compared at this point.) At any rate, while I did feel penned in over the summer, it is worth noting that Parisian crowds still know how to move quickly, efficiently, and safely (definitely feel more at risk from drivers here than I did there.)
So one of the things that I’ve been working on lately is trying to avoid information overload while still allowing myself the opportunity to discover new things. Part of this process involved spending a couple of hours mapping out a substantial cross-section of the ways in which I send, receive, and store data using the internet. Looking at the visual representation, C said she felt stressed out by the number of things with which I interacted regularly and wondered why.
I said, and continue to believe, that it was because it was a comprehensible representation of the scope of the web. The complexity of my process scaled out to encompass a huge group of people gives a sense of the irreducible complexity, but not one so overwhelming that the mind simply doesn’t acknowledge it.
At this point it’s a Barthean “punctum,” placing it only barely on this side of trauma. On the face of I it, it’s easy to find this a bit overwrought, but I think it bears scrutiny. If you think about, people have always tended to avoid acknowledging the degree to which the world scales beyond them, and the world has never been so far beyond the average person as it is now, but I’m getting ahead of myself (I mean, it is the future.)
In a related development, your uncle Bruce wrote an article for Wired (a magazine that I would love to hate, but the degraded state of our discourse means it’s pretty damn good) about this newfangled “New Aesthetic.” Now I probably should have had more of an idea about this whole phenomenon, but for some reason the package as such was new to me, although I have long been familiar with the products from every day life.
Sterling starts with some effusive praise, and then gets down to the business of complaining. His objections are sound, but I think that there are two things that he says and then doesn’t combine which constitutes a significant oversight. The first observation is that many of the networks that NA celebrates are overtly hostile. No amount of charming glitches, for example, make a police surveillance network like London’s anything other than overt fascism. A lot of negative things that should be called out are instead played down.
The second is that the “8-bit” aspect of NA is complete fucking bullshit, and while he recognizes that, his analysis of it is where things go a bit wrong. Here’s what he says about them:
Finally, retro ’80s graphics are sentimental fluff for modern adults who grew up in front of 1980s game-console machines. Eight-bit graphics are pretty easy to carve out of styrofoam. There’s a low barrier-to-entry in making sculpture from 8-bit, so that you can “rupture the interface between the digital and the physical.” However 8-bit sculptures are a cute, backward-looking rupture.
This makes the whole pixelizing the external world thing seem like something that can be trimmed off, but the pixelization is actually an integral part of the process whereby people allow themselves to ignore the dangers of things like surveillance networks by making them cute. It’s a metaphor that allows someone to form an idea about how a network interacts with the world without being overwhelmed by the experience. Unfortunately, deployment of this metaphor doesn’t just ignore the unpleasant aspects of the things under observation, it actively confuses the viewer. The fact is, we’re already past the pixel-era. The eyes of the network are getting more acute all the time, and the charming pixel metaphor is a willful blindness to that, and a rush to repression.
I kind of want to talk more about this, including the fact that all human error is attributable to inappropriate metaphors, so stay tuned.
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.
Now, the best essay in Reflections is “The Critique of Violence,” but I have read that enough times that I decided to give it a miss. Instead, I read “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man.” Benjamin had a bunch of really interesting ideas about the value of translation, and this is the second most obvious place to go to get some sort of understanding of them. The upshot is that the plurality of human languages are fragments of a true originary language, in which the names humans gave to things genuinely corresponded to their natures. The value of translation is that by finding what is common in the before and after of translation you get a glimpse of the pure language to which we no longer have access. It’s a pretty cool idea, but without the stained-glass metaphor of the most obvious place to hear about Benjamin’s ideas about translations, it’s not quite as effective.
Almost all of Benjamin’s writing is sufficiently religious that someone like me (or, in a couple of important essays, Jacques Derrida) needs to do a bit of filtering in order to come away with something of value, but this piece in particular is very religious, taking Genesis as literal truth. This introduces some fruitiness (har har) about the knowledge of good and evil being “prattle” rather than any kind of knowledge as such, and an intriguing argument about why the linguistic crisis of the Tower of Babel was inevitable from the moment of the fall. There is also a very definite sense that if we were able to make some messiah-enabled return to original language that we would definitely be all having our words corresponding to things as they really are &c.
This stuff is all quite charming, but not that interesting. I’m pretty sure that this is an earlier work, and it’s grasp of things isn’t as nuanced as they get later on. I suppose it is also the case that Benjamin’s ideas about language were never as interesting as ideas about psychology. Perhaps it was a commitment to the religious fundamentals that made this the case.