Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Allegory, Myth, And The Possible Future - Roland Boer On Walter Benjamin

The story is told of an automaton constructed in such a way that it could play a winning game of chess, answering each move of an opponent with a countermove. A puppet in Turkish attire and with a hookah in its mouth sat before a chessboard places on a large table. A system of mirrors created the illusion that this table was transparent from all sides. Actually, a little hunchback wao was and expert chess player sat inside and guided the puppet's hand by means of strings. One can imagine a philosophical counterpart to this device. The puppet called "historical materialism" is to win all the time. It can easily be a match for anyone if it enlists the services of theology, which today, as we know, is wizened and has to jeep out of sight. - The first Thesis "On the Philosophy of History", Walter Benjamin, in Illuminations, p.253. Edited and with an Introduction by Hannah Arendt.

If there is someone who could be imagined the opposite of Ernst Bloch, it would be difficult to escape the idea that Walter Benjamin is the perfect candidate. They were friends and correspondents. Both shared an affinity for literature as well as Marxism. Both were semi-assimilated German Jews "of a certain age". Beyond that, the differences could not be more plain. Bloch's works were many, varied, sometimes far too long, their Marxist pedigree always in dispute. Benjamin's longest work, his habilitationschrift, was his first work. Bloch's style of writing - expressionist, the words and sentences and paragraphs defying normal grammatical rules as they pushed the reader forward, sometimes against that reader's will, to see with new eyes - was nothing at all like the spare, traditional style of Benjamin. Yet, that style belied a depth of analytic vision, an almost furious desire to draw in whatever tools necessary to demonstrate that Benjamin understood late capitalism to be the great destroyer, not least of beauty. Among the tools Benjamin uses, from his Trauerspielbuch to his late, unfinished Passagenarbeit, was the medieval method of Biblical interpretation, the four levels of allegory. As he wrote in his first thesis on the philosophy of history, it is precisely because theology is now wizened that it can be sneaked in, almost without anyone seeing it, to be of service to stripping away the crumbling facade of late capitalist triumphalism.

The second chapter of Roland Boer's Criticism of Heaven: On Marxism and Theology considers the work of Walter Benjamin. Boer focuses on Benjamin's two major works, his first, long-languishing work on the baroque German mourning-play, to which he refers throughout as the Trauerspielbuch, and his late, never-completed work on the Arcades of Paris. While he draws in several of Benjamin's aphoristic "Theses on a Philosophy of History", as well as his essay on translation, by focusing on these two works, the bookends of his intellectual life, Boer shows that Benjamin displayed a remarkable consistency of vision, even as he, Boer, sees that consistency was paid for with the limitation that Benjamin became trapped within a certain mythological - and by "myth" Boer clearly means "false" - consciousness that derives from his too-heavy reliance upon certain theological and exegetical methods and assumptions.

Benjamin's allegorical method not only generates the failure of his overt proposal but also becomes an appropriate method for what I am suggesting. It is not, as the anti-allegorical polecmic of biblical criticism has argued for so long, that allegory seeks a wooden one-to-one correspondence to carious items in the test. On the contrary, allegory, particularly in Benjamin's hands, might be seen to reach across the divide between a capitalist present and a communist future to draw terms from that future to itself, however imperfect they might be. The question remains as to whether the mythological material that runs through Benjamin's writing is able to do the job. In terms of specific content, no, but in terms of the effort to think differently, then myth provides one way of doing so. Roland Boer, Criticism on Heaven, p. 105.
There are two parts to Boer's chapter. The first focuses on Benjamin's use of allegory. The second, which flows from the first, considers how Benjamin sees myth, not just Biblical myth, but the category itself, as a useful category for seeing how capitalism creates its own myths, destructive - even self-destructive - as they may be. Boer claims, however, that Benjamin's use of certain Biblical categories - in particular, he considers Creation and Eschaton - traps Benjamin within a mythological framework that leaves him, with his reliance upon certain theological and exegetical principles lifted from biblical criticism, unable to escape. He cannot, it seems use the myths for the sake of pushing a liberating message; indeed, by falling back, as Boer demonstrates pretty clearly, upon highly sexualized language (although I think "gendered", as clumsy as it is, would have captured Benjamin's use better), to the denigration of the female imagery. Indeed, Boer points to a passage where Benjamin, using the first three chapters of Genesis to work up a theory of language, can make a plea for more creative possibilities for men, while accepting without any criticism, the inherent secondary status of women, including downplaying procreation in favor of a yearning for a more creative masculinity.

It is Boer's analysis of this particular passage that is the clue for the much larger criticism Boer levels at Benjamin - the use of allegory traps Benjamin within the categories of myth. As he states in the passage quoted above, Boer does see possibility in Benjamin's method, but only possibility. Benjamin's ploy seems to be, according to Boer, that capitalism is not just myth-making, but is willing to draw on pre-capitalist imagery to hold up its teetering ideological structure. Much that capitalist society and culture has to say about itself is little more than a combination of myths, scavenged from wherever one may find them, that end up predatory upon themselves and even the society and culture for whose sustenance they are employed. In this sense, the destructive tendencies of capitalism are clear enough.

All the same, while Boer expresses a certain sympathy for the possibilities inherent in Benjamin's project at the very end, he nevertheless insists that, trapped by his reliance upon allegory and the inevitable mirror-game of myth, Benjamin cannot escape from myth because he does not explicitly set forth how these new myths from a post-capitalist reality, can draw us in. Too much beholden to the original creative myth, with its denigration of women, seeking solely for a creative possibility for the male, even seeing in the procreative act of women something akin to Nietzsche's eternal recurrence rather than something new, Benjamin does not move forward. While there is possibility, at the end his project flounders upon these rocks, rocks first set down when he decided to invite wizened theology in to the game.

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