Interview With Walter Benjamin

OON: Looking at the current landscape of experimental and/or avant-garde literature, what are your thoughts on categories such as conceptual writing or the “new sincerity”?

WB: I fear that, in the years intervening between my demise—about which I should not joke, but, now that I can see how the nimbus of history has hardened into a sort of amber around that event, I am tempted to exclaim the inverse marvelousness of such absurd bad timing—and this query, the importance of Surrealist “thought” to my own, post-1924 thinking may have been overestimated. By which I mean to say: in looking back at my career, I comprehend now just how rash I was in ending my apprenticeship to tradition. I failed to appreciate how rapidly and violently tradition, like a crocodile thrashing in shallow waters, consumes. I failed to recognize the actual plurality of modernity or, more properly, modernities in which my own seduction by the moving image in particular was situated. I fear my notions of technology were then too embedded in actual workings of machines, rather than the vagaries of human intention. For isn’t language a primal technology? Does language not extend our capabilities in the world, and, in the process, remake that world? Force the world’s gaze back upon itself? Fashion a world, in fact, which is centered on the human, a world in which what I do not regard is rendered invisible? Is swallowed by a blot which, could it ever be examined for what it is, would reveal itself to be negative aura? The avant-garde is less a destructive and liberatory than it is an emetic and traumatic agent. As I survey your language, the language of these questions and the language of the larger questions it both excludes and is excluded by, I see only a landscape, lunar and ruined, by the industry of mythology (one of language’s earliest “applications”). Conceptual writing is thus the omphalos stone of contemporary literature. And the “new sincerity”?  Its adherents being more plural; by which I mean, acolytes to the conjurers of individual subjectivity who have long promised to heal us and guide us into “better living,” this movement thus corresponds to that pantheon of infant gods whose father is already castrated, even though his most clever son has yet to turn his sickle against him. Carry away what meaning you will from this analogy. It is, in sum, merely a story.

OON: You had a role in our forthcoming print issue of [out of nothing]. How was your particular experience of responding directly to the creative pieces?

WB: I do not conceive of my contributions to this tract (that is what it is, yes?) in the connotations of “commentary.” The creative use of language cannot be evaluated. To attempt to do so is to invite despair. Being dead, I have had my fill of that state. So I interrogated my own reading, my own active reconstruction of the drama thus edited together. And I found that reading defined by what I can only describe as “regions of hunger.” I therefore designed my contributions instead to mark sites of in which intervention might do more than divert. In which intervention might nourish. Do not then parse me word-for-word. Appreciate instead the extent of those lacunae in the reading, how much much-ness it will take to close them. (Preserving the intactness of the arches and vaults, of course.) Perhaps it would be better to count the words I have bracketed, as if they were syllables in a haiku or beads on an abacus, and to compute the area represented. I risk contradicting myself, but this is not to suggest that the words I chose have no significance, either independent of or dependent upon the original works arguing so persuasively in those pages. Those words mean everything to me. But, in doing so, they mean “nothing” beyond me, or, perhaps, mean only by virtue of sense, not signification.

OON: I read that you met Ernst Bloch at the University of Bern around 1917, and I’m particular interested right now in his theories of the “novum.” Are you familiar with this term, and what are your thoughts on it? Might there be some value in having a similar optimism in the future of literature?

WB: I must count Ernst Bloch among my closest friends, even though I stand on a shore quite distant from his Utopia. Revolutions seem to me impossible, in the way that certain geometric convolutions are capable of being drawn but could not survive in the inimical ecology of actual physics. I do appreciate that, when Ernst Bloch writes or speaks about the “unexpectedly new,” his referent is not the future but rather the present moment, i.e., the total (if not totalizing) occupation of unmeasurable time. For we are always posterior to our future anyway, or our future in anterior to us. You are familiar with the concept of the author, in the initial drafting of his novel, writing past the end of his book? This, I believe, is how we are disposed to the future. The blank horizon that Ernst feels pulling forward with its gravity, it is behind us, pushing; not before. Presence, futurity, elapsing… these are not matters of optimism or pessimism. Presence, futurity, passing have no mass at all. I shall expand upon my earlier asservation: we should not look to revolution or revolutionary movements to disinfect history of superstition with their new rationality. Instead, we must accept the permanence, notional as well as material, of a revolutionary state of affairs. I depart from Ernst on this point, which is that the present is, by definition, irresolvable. This fact should not alarm us; it is the very substance of placidity. Literature, if it as alive, only knows that it is suffering from a sort of acromegaly, even as it cannot examine the features of its gigantism in any mirror or appraise it accurately with respect to the whirling objects that constitute its world. Literature is not written, it is writing. And who can seriously propose that they are able to read with any confidence or predictive capacity what is still being written? No one. Yet anyone can receive literature thus construed.

OON: One of your most famous insights is your description of Klee’s painting and the term “the angel of history.” Might you elaborate on this term some more, and ruminate a little on how we might read your work in 2012?

WB: Why does no one ever repeat back to me my eighth historical thesis?

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “emergency situation” in which we live is the rule. We must arrive at a concept of history which corresponds to this. Then it will become clear that the task before us is the introduction of a real state of emergency; and our position in the struggle against Fascism will thereby improve. Not the least reason that the latter has a chance is that its opponents, in the name of progress, greet it as a historical norm. – The astonishment that the things we are experiencing in the 20th century are “still” possible is by no means philosophical. It is not the beginning of knowledge, unless it would be the knowledge that the conception of history on which it rests is untenable.

Or the tenth?

The objects which the monastic rules assigned to monks for meditation had the task of making the world and its drives repugnant. The mode of thought which we pursue today comes from a similar determination. It has the intention, at a moment wherein the politicians in whom the opponents of Fascism had placed their hopes have been knocked supine, and have sealed their downfall by the betrayal of their own cause, of freeing the political child of the world from the nets in which they have ensnared it. The consideration starts from the assumption that the stubborn faith in progress of these politicians, their trust in their “mass basis” and finally their servile subordination into an uncontrollable apparatus have been three sides of the same thing. It seeks to give an idea of how dearly it will cost our accustomed concept of history, to avoid any complicity with that which these politicians continue to hold fast to.

It should be clear, in this context, that the angel of history is a Fascist, or at least a fellow traveler. He, too, is supine, sacred (grotesque, mediocre… a parody of the sacrificial), and mistaken as to the actual cause and consequent identity of emergency. And this is how my work should be read, here, at the end of an era I could be said to have inspired, but only in the way that certain fossils inspire the names we assign geological epochs. My work should be read with, not against, the grain of its own historicity.

OON: What are your thoughts on the impending end of the world? How do you think it will happen? What might there be after the apocalypse?

WB: The end of the world will take the form of a world that consists of nothing but the human. A world wholly of people, not of nature. This end has been arriving since the beginning of civilization itself. As such, civilization, when it reaches its apotheosis, will be the end of the world’s temporality and spatiality. If this sounds vaguely Zionist, or even Augustinian, I am afraid I am prevented from apologizing. What might there be after the apocalypse? I think you can guess. This ventriloquism whose source cannot be tracked, this Weiland-like launching that permits me to speak to you now, and, as I said (or did I warn?) to refuse you any excuses.

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Walter Benjamin is a German literary critic and translator. He holds a doctoral degree in philosophy from the University of Bern. While his current whereabouts are unknown, his essays and reviews, as well as the collected fragments of his magnum opus on Parisian life in the 19th century, await posthumous publication and approbation.

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