A Feel for Benjamin
Walter Benjamin once famously wrote about an important regulation he set to himself: “If I write better German than most writers of my generation, it is thanks largely to twenty years' observance of one little rule: never use the word “I” except in letters. The exceptions to this precept that I have permitted myself could be quickly counted.”1 In spite of the strict self-regulative tone and despite the fact that Benjamin has clearly followed his own rule (this can be vouched, as he says himself, by the very few appearances of “I” in his writings), it is surprising that Benjamin did in fact write numerous personal as well as autobiographical texts, particularly about his childhood memories and the unique, personal imprint the city of Berlin had on him.2 These texts are filled with sensitive, painstaking descriptions of thoughts, feelings and affects, intertwined with detailed personal memories, images and especially, the rich world of feelings that these have evoked in him.3 The internal tension between subjectivity and feeling on the one hand , and the austere insistence on avoiding, even shunning, the use of “I” on the other hand – is not merely an unsolvable puzzle in our understanding of Benjamin, and it should definitely not be understood as an indication of his notorious inconsistency. I consider this tension to be important not only for our understanding of the role affect plays for Benjamin, but foremost, since it uncovers a unique and complex structure of affectivity thought of outside the framework of psychoanalytic thought.
The relationship between the predominance of affect and the criticism of subjectivity, interestingly corresponds to the task that Benjamin himself declared to undertake when contemplating Kantian philosophy. Already in his 1918 “On the Program of the Coming Philosophy,”4 Benjamin was worried about Kant's insistence to constitute experience and its relation to knowledge on a scientific, empirical model, leaving aside its richer and deeper metaphysical content, found beyond the limits of epistemology (SW 1: 103-104). He criticizes Kant's conception of human experience therefore, as being a “naked, primitive and self-evident” structure, “virtually reduced to a nadir, to a minimum of significance” (SW 1: 101). Benjamin has several explanations to this problematics, one of which is most pertinent to the context of my argument here. Benjamin describes Kant's experience as a “relation between some sort of subjects and objects or subject and object – a conception that he was [Kant] unable, ultimately, to overcome, despite all his attempts to do so” (SW 1: 103). Despite his criticism of Kant's treatment of subjectivity, Benjamin's own task for what he calls “the coming philosophy,” does not do away with the subject altogether; Instead, he searches for an autonomous sphere of “total neutrality in regard to the concepts of both subject and object” (SW 1: 104). Benjamin is not “neutral” in regards to subjectivity or objectivity as such, but rather to their “concepts,” that is, to the limited way in which their nature as well as the relationship between them has been conceived by Kant. Benjamin's task, therefore, would be to redefine these concepts and relations so that subject and object would be considered as having a rapport free from the oppressive and problematic subjective, empirical and intentional knowledge of isolated, free-standing objects. Although Benjamin clearly shares Heidegger's critique of subjectivity here, in his insistence on retaining both subject and object, he provides us with a suggestive alternative to Heidegger's Dasein.54
Benjamin's characterization of the philosophical problematics as well as his methodological approach to his alternative, can serve us well is understanding our own task in studying Benjamin's oeuvres. Considering the aforementioned paradox between Benjamin's deep interest in affect and feeling, together with his insistence on 'bracketing' the psychological subject – we should be after a neutral sphere in which affect and feeling are thought outside of their limited and limiting psychological framework.6 We should stay away from the subject-object problematic binary, but at the same time, carefully retain the central role that affect plays for Benjamin. But how are we to contemplate the structure of affect without a subject who is affected by the objective world around him? How can a feeling not belong to an individual?7 As I have already shown in detail elsewhere, the key lies in the the important difference between emotion and the psychology of the subject on the one hand, and mood [Stimmung] on the other. The difference boils down to the question of the intentional structure of emotion, vs. the non-intentional configuration of mood, in which we are not intentionally affected by this or that object, but being affected by the world as-such.
The importance of mood [Stimmung] lies therefore in the suspension of the question whether or not an object in present opposite a subject and how the subject approaches it and is affected by it; this structure is dependent upon the problematic understanding of the intentional relation of subject to object, structured on the basis of Kant's scientific model of experience-as-knowledge. Mood offers a different configuration in which our affectedness is not determined by knowledge or anything similar to knowledge and is conditioned rather, by what belongs neither to subject nor to object but to the undifferentiated “neutral” stratum that suspends their binary and precedes the existence of both. Mood does not merely reveal the world to us 'under' a specific color of the melancholic or anxious mood; instead, it is the subject itself, and more markedly, the very possibility of subjectiveness, that reveals itself in it.
Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life, Jennings and Eiland's recent biography of Benjamin, provides us with an important entry point into the problem of affect in Benjamin's work. The biography demonstrates an important attempt to differentiate between Benjamin's personal life and his writings. More specifically for my case here, it shows how Benjamin's own feelings, relationships and ways in which he is affected by his intellectual encounters, friends, love-life and ideas – are not and cannot collapse into his philosophical and critical achievements. Taking one exemplary case that is especially important to me: it shows why it is important to understand Benjamin's preoccupation with melancholy and the central role he assigns it in his early works, as independent from his famously gloomy, depressive character, and the tragic end of his life. Melancholy is not merely a psychological trait, let alone, a pathology of Benjamin the writer; It is nothing less than a determining principle of his thought, especially, its philosophical traits.
The task at hand, hence, is to take Benjamin's own dictum in his early essay on Kant and put it together with the internal paradoxes of his own writings. Namely, to rethink the way in which affect and feeling figures so prominent in Benjamin, but at the same time carefully hidden behind his critique of subjectivity. Discovering a “neutral sphere” in regards to conceptions of subjectivity and objectivity, does not mean developing a sheer or insubstantial structure of experience, but quite the opposite: it is a neutral sphere since it does not surrender to the problematic aspects of the subject-object binary, and thought of under the gist of Stimmung, allows for the expanse of both subjectivity and objectivity to open up in all its richness. Tackling Benjamin's understanding of affects, is not merely a 'context' (historical, political or other) important for our understanding of his work; It is a vantage point that would allow us to tie together Benjamin's so called early writings with his later work and provide a common, amalgamate foundation for a rethinking of his entire oeuvres.
1 Walter Benjamin, “Berlin Chronicle,” Selected Writings, Vol.2, 603.
2 Other important 'personal' texts include of course Benjamin's Moscow Diary (trans. R. Sieburth, Harvard University Press, 1986) and "Berlin Chronicle" (in Eds. Jennings, Smith, Eiland, Selected Writings vol.2, Harvard University Press, 2005), p. 603. It is interesting to note that these are all writings dealing with places and spaces, that is, with the world around Benjamin's character and memories serving as his main, or at least explicit, point of reference.
3 Gerhard Richter interprets Benjamin's precept (never to use the word “I” except in letters) as a prescription of the subject's linguistic displacement that constitutes a condition of possibility for Benjamin's textual production of autobiography. See Richter, Walter Benjamin and the Corpus of Autobiography (Wayne State University Press, 2000): 34.
4 Walter Benjamin, “On the Program of the Coming Philosophy,” Selected Writings, Vol.1, 100-110.
5 I have developed these ideas further in Ilit Ferber, “Stimmung: Heidegger and Benjamin,” in Eds. A. Benjamin, D. Valdoulakis, Sparks Will Fly: Benjamin and Heidegger (SUNY, 2015), pp. 67-93 and in Philosophy and Melancholy: Benjamin's Early Reflections on Theater and Language (Stanford University Press, 2013), 44-56.
6 Benjamin's explicit and implicit relationship to Freud has been discussed by Nagele, Weigel, Hanssen and Ley Roff, to name a few, and deserves a lengthy discussion and cannot be fully addressed here. See also chapter one of Ilit Ferber, Philosophy and Melancholy.
7 Deleuze's discussion of affects in Spinoza's philosophy is especially pertinent here. See Gilles Deleuze, Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza, trans, Martin Joughin (Zone Books, 1992) and his lecture notes on Spinoza's concept of affect (http://www.webdeleuze.com). See also Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans., Brian Massumi (Continuum, 1988).
Ilit Ferber teaches philosophy at Tel-Aviv University. Her publications include Philosophy and Melancholy: Benjamin's Early Reflections on Theater and Language (Stanford University Press, 2013) and articles on Benjamin, Leibniz, Herder, Freud, Heidegger and Scholem. Ferber has also co-edited the books Philosophy's Moods (Springer, 2011) and Lament in Jewish Thought (De Gruyter, 2014).