March 04, 2004

More on Benjamin and Celine

I would like to say some things about Benjamin’s criticisms of Céline, now that you have had a chance to read my previous entry.

According to Benjamin, Céline was a popular novelist in a strictly technical sense, representing a form that instead of advancing the proletarian novel was a retreat on the part of bourgeois aesthetics. In fact, it’s actually a Lumpenproletarian form. Like the Lumpenproletariat, argued Benjamin, the form is unable to make visible this defect in its particular subject of history. This is the reason for the ambiguity of Céline’s writing, a writing that portrays the sadness and sterility of a life, its monotony, it’s violence and irrationalism, but not the forces that have shaped these lives. Finally, Céline is unable to say how these déclassés might begin to react against these forces.

Benjamin was at his most Marxist when he wrote this and, as Adorno has remarked, his Marxism was that of someone not from the proletariat who adopted the ideology in a rather programmatic way, as a moral act. He was like most academics and intellectuals who make this move. So I will ignore the nonsense about recognising the class structure of the masses and to exploiting it. In any case, I put the quotation from Adorno’s Prisms in my last instalment in order to discredit the view. There ‘is no real distinction … between town and castle… “State and Party” … They are all déclassés, caught up in the collapse of the organised collective and permitted to survive… [The] burden of guilt is shifted from the sphere of production to the agents of circulation or to those who provide services.’ It is not the job of a writer to exploit the situation for revolutionary or any other purposes. Benjamin knew that. His criticism was quick and cheap.

He is however right that the popular novel is a retreat on the part of bourgeois aesthetics. Indeed, it is hardly a novel at all. One of the reasons for the monotony of Céline’s books is that they make up a kind of fictionalised autobiography, with confessions, reflections and a bit of theorising thrown in. In fact, as a form, Céline’s writing is much closer to Benjamin’s than perhaps the latter cared to recognise.

The retreat on the part of bourgeois aesthetics is part of the retreat of the bourgeoisie, but it’s hard to say whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. I’m inclined to the latter alternative. The fascist (= corporate) society of the present still uses the ideology of the bourgeoisie for its own ends but I think Adorno is right – we are all déclassés. Many of us have become bourgeois in terms of our relations to the means of production – corporate practices have forced increasing numbers of ordinary people into the share market – but we haven’t become the beneficiaries of any new-found wealth. We’ve remained the cringing creeps Adorno described.

I don’t think the form is as mute as Benjamin thought. Read Bukowski. It doesn’t have all the answers but you’ll get a strong sense of who did what and how and with which and to whom. All right, the grand exploiters aren’t standing there behind the brutes, but the current exploitation isn’t carried out by a group of individuals, so there’s no one to expose. Dubya is one of us so there’s no use pointing the finger at him, for instance, or his ventriloquist master (I wouldn’t like to spend my life with Dick Chaney’s finger up my arse). But back to my point: what’s happening is structural and its political.

What do I mean by the last point? Well, I don’t see corporatism as part of the organic evolution of capital. It came about at a point when the organic evolution of capital looked to have reached its end stage and political action was necessary. At the end stage came the end game. Hey, this is reality tv in a big way.

I think Benjamin was right about the observation of nihilism in the popular novel, but I agree with Nietzsche, and Diederich Bonhoeffer for that matter. Nihilism is the sensibility of the twentieth century – what someone like Kracauer would have described as the historical condition of the objective spirit. It’s a curse but it’s our curse and we really have no choice but to run with it. But now, we are getting close to Benjamin’s – and Adorno’s – own position. According to the latter (see Negative Dialectics), the theological task can only be carried on by those who no longer believe in theology.

Posted by at March 4, 2004 09:09 AM | TrackBack
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