Network – Figure – Labyrinth: New Routes into Walter Benjamin
These are exciting times for Benjamin studies, whose future direction will be shaped by two landmark projects on both sides of the Atlantic. The publication of Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings’s new Benjamin biography1 is complemented in Germany by the critical edition of Benjamin’s works headed by Christoph Gödde and Henri Lonitz.2 In tandem, the two projects exemplify, as well as facilitate, two essential elements of innovative Benjamin research. First, a sensitivity to Benjamin’s personal, intellectual, political and material contexts and the manifold, at times conflicting discourses and influences that were absorbed into his texts. Second, an awareness of the complex inner dynamics of Benjamin’s writings; like the Lumpensammler (rag-and-bone man) of the Arcades Project, Benjamin was scrupulous in reusing ideas, giving them new life by inserting them into new configurations, or (to use a photography metaphor) subjecting them to a second exposure. The task, then, is to get away from the focus on individual texts – still the standard approach to Benjamin in the humanities, where a small corpus of ‘canonical’ works are quoted ad infinitum – by thinking in earnest about his thought as part of a network of ideas both internal and external to his texts.
This, in fact, was the path taken by Benjamin himself. Sitting in a Paris café in the late 1920s, he was suddenly struck by the idea of drawing up ‘a diagram of my life [ein graphisches Schema meines Lebens], and I knew at the same time exactly how it was to be done. With a very simple question I interrogated my past life, and the answers were inscribed, as if of their own accord, on a sheet of paper […]. A year or two later, when I lost this sheet, I was inconsolable. I have never since been able to restore it as it arose before me then […]’.
This episode, recounted in Benjamin’s autobiographical work Berlin Chronicle, is emblematic of his critical approach. Following a sudden, flash-like ‘illumination’ (490), the narrator jots down the diagrams in a dreamlike state, using a kind of écriture automatique. Benjamin does not spell out the ‘simple question’ which gave rise to this, but only the fact that it elicited a plurality of answers, sketched out as ‘a series of family trees’ or, indeed, a ‘labyrinth’ (491). Finally, the fact that the original version was lost is not only a reflection of Benjamin’s precarious personal circumstances and nomadic lifestyle, but also ties in with his theory of history, of personal and collective memory, which is caught up in a dialectic of inscription and erasure, immersion and interruption.
One of Benjamin’s surviving notebooks contains an attempted reconstruction consisting of six adjacent ‘family trees’, three of them extensive, three made up of only two or three names. Some groups contain the members of one family, in other cases the connections are looser and more associative. Thus Benjamin’s university friend, the young poet Fritz Heinle, who committed suicide in August 1914 in protest against the outbreak of the First World War, is connected, via a few people, to Asja Lacis, Benjamin’s Latvian lover, whom he met ten years later. His estranged wife Dora and their son Stefan are in the same diagram as Dada poet Hugo Ball and Bauhaus artist László Moholoy-Nagy. As Benjamin notes, the entry point into each labyrinth is via ‘Urbekanntschaften’ – people he knew not through other acquaintances but through more impersonal circumstances – ‘through the neighbourhood, family relations, school acquaintances, mistaken identity (Verwechslung), travel companions’ (491). At the end of the Berlin Chronicle episode, the models of family tree and labyrinth are reworked yet again, when Benjamin concludes: ‘Thus the people that were around me merge into a figure (treten […] zur Figur zusammen) against the backdrop of the city’ (492). Benjamin here shifts from the spatial, topographical models of labyrinth and family trees to the more abstract and unified ‘figure’ of human relations conceived against the backdrop of the city (in this case, his home town Berlin).
Benjamin’s anecdote and the surviving drawing offer crucial insights into his personal life, his intellectual approach, and the links between the two. Underpinning the diagrams is a sense of both distance and proximity. Benjamin is taking stock of the people that shaped his thought and sustained him both during the unsettled 20s, when he was trying to establish himself as a freelance intellectual, and in the years of exile after 1932. Yet in tracing these connections, Benjamin also separates groups and people that were, in practice, closely connected. In this respect, the diagrams underline what those close to him repeatedly described his inner detachment, his ‘effort to seal his friends off from one another’.5 This was more than a personal foible; it was a stance intrinsic to Benjamin’s intellectual approach, particularly from the late 20s onwards, when he began to interweave seemingly incompatible discourses such as Jewish and Christian theology, Marxism, German philosophy and cultural theory. As Eiland and Jennings argue, this was not a sign of an intellectual opportunism but a strategy ‘designed to maintain his intellectual independence’.6
Central to Benjamin’s life and work, then, is the idea of the network, not in terms of a fixed affiliation with a particular movement or group but as a more intermittent, flexible way of making connections that could be utilised, dropped and renewed. As mentioned above, the implications of this for Benjamin studies are two-fold, concerning both the way his texts relate to each other and their connection to external discourses and debates.
Reading Benjamin’s texts in conjunction with each other, as a network of interconnected projects, enables us to trace particular across different contexts, whereby material from earlier texts gets reworked and adapted to new contexts. This task is made easier by the Harvard edition of Benjamin’s Selected Writings, edited by Michael Jennings, which assembles a selection of the projects Benjamin was working on in any one year, thus driving home the sheer range of his intellectual endeavours. Particularly from the second half of the 1920s onwards, Benjamin combines the pragmatism of the professional critic, who needs to make the best use of his ideas, with the spirit of the collector, who becomes attached to particular discoveries and returns to them time and again. One key example is the photograph of Franz Kafka as a young boy, perhaps given to Benjamin by Kafka’s school friend Hugo Bergmann, which is subjected to a series of subtly different critical exposures: first, in the ‘Little History of Photography’ (1931) as an example of the decline of the studio portrait, then as one of the ‘anecdotes’ structuring the ‘Kafka’ essay of 1934, and finally, and most boldly, in the autobiography Berlin Childhood around 1900 (1932-38), where the image is initially passed off as an authorial self-portrait only to be deleted in a later version.
Looking beyond the work and towards its wider context, one interesting and still underexplored area is Benjamin’s links to the Berlin avant-garde. This facilitated a radical shift in his thought, away from predominantly literary historical projects towards an engagement with contemporary culture. During his time in Zurich, Benjamin and his wife Dora became acquainted with Hugo Ball and the filmmaker Hans Richter, who then became a leading figure of the Berlin art scene. In 1922 he introduced Benjamin to a diverse group of artists – subsequently known as the ‘G Group’ – which also included former Dadaists Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann, the painter El Lissitzky, the architect Mies van der Rohe, the polymath Moholy-Nagy and the photographer Sasha Stone. Benjamin was loosely affiliated with this artistic network and explores avant-garde movements such as Dada and particularly Surrealism, though his theory of art and artistic practices is structured less around specific movements than around more general shifts in the social and material conditions of artistic production and their interrelation with perceptual, cognitive, patterns.
Both Moholy and Stone feature in Benjamin’s family tree. Stone designed the photomontage cover for Benjamin’s ‘montage book’ One-Way Street (1928), and though Moholy subsequently left Berlin for a position at the Weimar Bauhaus, Benjamin was familiar with his 1925 Bauhaus book Painting, Photography, Film and resumed his conversations with him in 1929. The resonances of Moholy’s ideas in Benjamin’s ‘Photography’ essays and in ‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility’ (1935-36) are well established; in his 2005 monograph, art historian Frederick Schwartz focuses on another facet of this network, namely on the close links between the Bauhaus and New Typography movement and the booming field of psychotechnics (Psychotechnik), a branch of applied psychology. Through aptitude tests and psychological training, psychotechnics tried to maximise the effectiveness of human perception at the workplace and in commodity culture. The need for perceptual training and for a renewal of human attention are recurrent themes in the different avant-garde movements of the 1920s; it is an agenda that is also close to Benjamin’s heart. He kept returning to this issue from different angles throughout the 1920s and 30s. In the early fragment ‘Über das Grauen’ (On Horror, c.1920-22), contemplation (here, in the form of prayer) is held to be compatible with an outward-directed attention, but contemplative attention is emphatically rejected as an outmoded and isolating mental stance in the ‘Work of Art’ essay. Here, the cinema is described as a training device able to turn the audience from a group of individuals into a collective, a group of ‘experts’ adept at parrying the ‘shocks’ dealt them by the cinematic apparatus. The phrase which sums up this new, anti-contemplative mode of seeing is ‘reception in a state of distraction’; another key term is habit (Gewohnheit), that is, the ability to process and assess information not in a state of conscious attention but casually, semi-automatically: ‘the audience is an examiner, but a distracted one’. 7
Benjamin’s famous claims are frequently cited to sum up the perceptual shifts engendered by the new technical media. However, by relating his argument to contemporary debates about attention and distraction, which cut across the avant-garde and contemporary science, Schwartz uncovers some revealing discrepancies. For Benjamin, distraction (Zerstreuung) amounted to the ‘ability to register stimuli, to think and act’ in non-linear, associative ways while also connecting individual observers to each other.8 For the psychologists, the term had precisely the opposite associations: distraction was a form of absorption which isolated the individual from the environment, making him or her unable to respond to the challenges of modern life. What was more, experimental research showed that a purely habitual response of the kind also endorsed by Benjamin was inadequate in moments of danger or high perceptual demand as they were routinely faced by tram or train drivers, factory workers and other technical professions. As Schwartz argues, the findings of psychotechnics were common currency at the time, but while Benjamin refers to this field in his essay, he does not in fact embrace its conclusions. In embracing distraction as the new, timely mode of perception, Benjamin sides with the leftist avant-garde and its model of a ‘socialisation of vision’, of collective perception as a tool of political mobilisation. His emphasis, here as in his set of diagrams, is on the network, on the individual’s experience as embedded within the collective. This argument, however, ignores empirical research into cognition and its rootedness in the body, research that was not, in fact, driven solely by employers’ interests – the maximisation of efficiency and profit – but also by a concern for the worker and the project of adapting working conditions in ways best suited to the individual. In Benjamin’s advocacy of distraction, perception is ‘undifferentiated according to its deployment in labour or leisure’, and with ‘only a very attenuated relation to the body’.9
The purpose of readings such as Schwartz’s is not simply to show up the holes of Benjamin’s arguments by contrasting them with the scientific and empirical research of the time. However, by showing how his ideas evolved in close dialogue with, as well as strategic disengagement from, the cultural and scientific discourses of his time, we are true to Benjamin’s own methodology and his self-conception as a writer. In excavating the networks within his thought and beyond, we are able to appreciate it in both its originality and its historical embeddedness – and therefore in its enduring importance.
1 Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life (Harvard: Belknap Press, 2014).
2 Walter Benjamin, Werke und Nachlaß: Kritische Gesamtausgabe, ed. by Christoph Gödde and Henri Lonitz (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp 2008).
3 Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhäuser, vol. 6 (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1991), p. 491.
4 The diagram and a transcript are reproduced in Frederic J. Schwartz, Blind Spots: Critical Theory and the History of Art in Twentieth-Century Germany (Yale: Yale University Press, 2005), p. 43.
5 Eiland, Jennings, Benjamin: A Critical Life, p. 322.
7 Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, vol. I.2, p. 505; Selected Writings, vol 4: 1938-1040, ed. by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Harvard: Belknap Press, 2006), p. 269.
8 Schwartz, Blind Spots, p. 76.
9 Schwartz, Blind Spots, p. 83.
Carolin Duttlinger is Associate Professor in German at the University of Oxford (UK) and Co-Director of the Oxford Kafka Research Centre. She has published widely on German modernism and contemporary literature. She is the editor, with Ben Morgan and Anthony Phelan, of Walter Benjamins anthropologisches Denken (Freiburg: Rombach, 2012) and has published numerous articles on Benjamin, including ‘Studium, Aufmerksamkeit, Gebet: Walter Benjamin und die Kontemplation’, in Profanes Leben: Walter Benjamins Dialektik der Säkularisierung, ed. by Daniel Weidner (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 2010), ‘Benjamin’s Literary History of Attention: Between Reception and Production’, in Passage Work: Walter Benjamin across Disciplines, ed. by Andrew Webber, Paragraph, 32:3 (autumn 2009), 273-91 and ‘Walter Benjamin: The Aura of Photography’, Poetics Today, 29 (2008), 79-101.