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On Benjamin’s Public (Oeuvre)

- October 31, 2011 in arcades project, Articles, History, Literature, passegenwerk, PD in 2011, Philosophy, walter benjamin

On the run from the Nazis in 1940, the philosopher, literary critic and essayist Walter Benjamin committed suicide in the Spanish border town of Portbou. In 2011, over 70 years later, his writings enter the public domain in many countries around the world. Anca Pusca, author of Walter Benjamin: The Aesthetics of Change, reflects on the relevance of Benjamin’s oeuvre in a digital age, and the implications of his work becoming freely available online.

Benjamin's passport photograph from 1928 - courtesy of the Walter Benjamin Archiv, Berlin.

Walter Benjamin, a German-Jewish intellectual of kaleidoscopic abilities and interests – literary critic, philosopher, translator, essayist, radio presenter – has always fascinated academics and intellectuals. His dense academic prose, his unique reading of Marxism, his fascination with Jewish mysticism, but more importantly, his ability to capture some of the major transformations of the early 19th century Europe in a series of literal and temporal frames that distilled the very material which gave it consistency – iron, concrete, shopping arcades, new technologies such as photography and film, ideological propaganda – into words, earned Benjamin a cult-like following which continues today. Artists, philosophers, theorists from every discipline, continue to offer different readings and meanings to his work, which remains strikingly relevant to social and political transformations today. If Benjamin’s public is mainly of an academic nature today, that was certainly not the case at the time of his writing. With his habilitation rejected by the University of Frankfurt, Benjamin was forced to survive outside of academia, and hence to write accordingly: most of his work appears in fragments – essays, short stories, journal entries, letters, newspaper and journal articles, radio broadcasts – which mainly appeared in the public domain through his journalistic and radio work, with the exception of a few pieces intended for publication by the Institute for Social Research led by Horkheimer and Adorno. This significantly affected not only his writing style – making most of it much more accessible to a larger public – but also his thoughts on the role of language and text. The fragmentary nature of his work, initially a result of financial and practical constraints, later became a trademark of Benjamin’s methodology, particularly obvious in his unfinished magnus opus, the Arcades Project.

Detail from a 19th century postcard showing the Passage Bellivet, Caens, opened in 1836.

Conceived as a catalogue of thoughts and images on 19th century Paris as the emblematic modern city, the Arcades Project brings incredible innovation not only stylistically – through the fragmentary nature of the text, which could be read and accessed in non-linear fashion – but also intellectually, by breaking the traditional frame of text which rests upon a necessary temporal and linguistic progression, and effectively establishing a new architecture which relies less on words and more on the images and material that those words conjure. Benjamin effectively reconstructs different Parisian frames, capturing them not unlike a photographer captures a scene. Each of these frames, as fragments of text, contains its own temporality, existing both in relation to but also independent from the others. By embedding the relevance of each frame into a temporality that emerges directly from the material it depicts – for example, by depicting the old Parisian arcades in ruin as a new type of architecture emerges – Benjamin creates a unique dialectic in which the present can never exist as independent from either the past or the future.

The Galerie Vivienne during the Bourbon restauration : 8 rue Vivienne, Paris 2nd arr. c. 1820, one of the arcades mentioned in Benjamin's Arcades Project.

The return of Benjamin’s work back to its original wider audience, the public domain, at this particular point in time, creates a series of new possibilities that Benjamin himself could not have envisioned. Internet technology and the ability to collect, categorize and re-arrange Benjamin’s fragments in an electronic publication form could perhaps provide Benjamin with a post-humos solution to his struggle to organize the Arcades Project in a manner that would both appease publishers and maintain its innovative framework. One can already imagine the possibilities of a new interactive electronic Arcades Project in which Benjamin’s fragments could easily be navigated through the click of a button, the text appearing as a digital image, a material fragment much closer to Benjamin’s original intentionality. Benjamin’s obsession with sorting, filing, keeping tabs on his work, making copies of manuscripts to leave with different friends, carrying a copy of the unfinished manuscript of the Arcades Project with him to his death, as he attempted to escape Nazi-occupied France, shows his determination to protect his work, his hope for eventual publication for future audiences. This is an incredible opportunity to pay Benjamin the ultimate compliment, by finding and bringing together all the fragments of his work, many of which still lie undiscovered and untranslated, and bringing them together into the public domain, free from the constraints of the publishers on which Benjamin depended so desperately during his life. The publication of his writings on technology, online, particularly his essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility’, but also his other writings on media, could not be more appropriate and relevant at this particular point in time. His essay on the ‘Work of Art’ has been used by many of today’s artists and theorists to understand the impact of digital technologies, as a form of reproductive technology, on art, culture and political mobilization. His arguments about the prioritization of the act of seeing, the increased speed through which information/the image in processed when reproduced by mechanical means, but also, the extent to which the technically reproduceable image is now completely removed from the actuality, and intentionality of the scene where it was initially created, remain strangely relevant today.

Interior sculpture display. at the Paris Exposition. 1900 - from Brooklyn Museum Archives, Goodyear Archival Collection.

Street scene outside the Rue de Rivoli Arcades during the Paris Exposition, 1900 - from Brooklyn Museum Archives, Goodyear Archival Collection.

The inability of perception to detect ‘authenticity’ – to connect the image with the original setting in which it was taken – had, according to Benjamin, important repercussions for how mass culture was re-imagined and potentially manipulated by different ideologies. Through technology, the image no longer stayed in the domain of ‘art’, but rather moved into the domain of ‘politics’. If film, the cutting edge technology at the time, served according to Benjamin: ‘to train human beings in the apperceptions and reactions needed to deal with a vast apparatus whose role in their lives is expanding almost daily’, one can easily apply a similar logic to different internet technologies today. Benjamin was however both admirative and weary of the technology of film, for the so-called ‘film capital’ could be used both in the interest of and against the masses. As we are increasingly learning today, same goes for ‘internet and social media capital.’ So many of Benjamin’s writings continue to carry important implications for the wider public today. It is perhaps high time that we remove the ‘aura’ around Benjamin’s figure – an aura built around limited accessibility to and tight control of his work – and return Benjamin and his oeuvre to his public.

Anca Pusca is Senior Lecturer in International Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London. She is the author of Walter Benjamin: The Aesthetics of Change and other articles on Benjamin which have appeared in Alternatives, International Political Sociology, Perspectives and the Journal of International Research and Development.

Links to Works

A selection of Benjamin’s writings are housed in German here at Wikisource, including relevant Internet Archive links.

If you are interested in helping get English translations of Benjamin’s works into the public domain then get in touch

Emma Goldman’s “anarchism without adjectives”

- January 12, 2011 in anarchism, anarchism and other essays, Books, emma goldman, kathy ferguson, Literature, living my life, mother earth, my disillusionment in russia, PD in 2011, Public Domain, social significance of the modern drama

This year, over 100 years after the publication of her seminal Anarchism and Other Essays, the writings of Emma Goldman enter the public domain. Kathy E. Ferguson, Professor of Political Science & Women’s Studies at the University of Hawai’i, provides an introduction to Goldman’s life and her particular brand of anarchism. Emma Goldman was a well-known radical critic of capitalism, the state, religion, patriarchy and colonialism during the fertile political years at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. For over a half century, she articulated an anarchist vision of a strong, free, self-creating individual within an egalitarian, participatory society. While anarchists are often dismissed as the lunatic fringe of the Left, Goldman presented anarchism as the most practical approach to human liberation. She emphasized concrete and creative anarchist activities, including cooperatives, radical schools, labor actions, and publications, which showed anarchism in action. Goldman was born in Kovno, Lithuania, into an economically insecure Jewish family. Her brief formal education was enhanced by exposure to nihilist revolutionaries and Russian radical literature. Immigrating with her sister to the United States in 1885, she settled originally in Rochester, New York. Like many young people of her generation, she was galvanized politically by the trial and execution of several young anarchists who were framed for the killing of police at the Haymarket riots in Chicago in 1886. She subsequently moved to New York City and joined the anarchist movement, rapidly rising to become one of the best known speakers in the lively radical landscape of the time. She was arrested countless times – legend has it that she took a book with her to her own lectures so she would have something to read in jail – and served three terms in prison: one year for urging unemployed workers to “take bread,” a few weeks for providing information on preventing conception, and two years for opposing conscription during World War I. After her third prison term, she and her comrade Alexander Berkman, along with 247 other radicals, were sent into exile to the newly-formed U.S.S.R. Initially supporting the Bolsheviks, she soon came to view the Communist Party as the murderers of the revolution. She and Berkman left Russia and eventually settled in the south of France. Goldman continued her lecturing and writing in Europe, England, and Canada; she strongly supported the anarchist revolutionaries in Spain in the 1930s, and was still an active speaker, writer and agitator when she died following a stroke in 1940. Strongly influenced by Peter Kropotkin’s communist anarchism, Goldman also integrated strands from Mikail Bakunin’s militant revolutionary practice, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s mutualism, and Max Stirner’s radical individualism, helping to create what many anarchists of Goldman’s generation called “anarchism without adjectives.” For anarchists, capitalism is a system that robs workers, intellectuals, artists, and peasants of their productive, creative labor, transferring both profit and control of labor to owners. Organized religion supports this theft by teaching adherents to defer to authority and hope passively for reward in the next life. The state uses organized violence to protect owners, suppress workers, and mobilize people’s loyalties and sense of home into a vicious, narrow patriotism that justifies and energizes war, which in turn furthers the profits and power of the capitalist class and its allies. Colonialism calls on the religious mandate of “civilizing” and converting the rest of the world to justify seizing the resources of less well-armed societies for global capitalist expansion. Schools undermine children’s natural curiosity and turn students into automatons regurgitating the orthodoxies they are taught. Into this sweeping critique of established authority, Goldman introduced the aesthetic sensibility of the American romantic movement, Nietzsche’s spirit of rebellion, and her own unique feminism. From Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau she absorbed a poetic, sensuous individualism. Like many other anarchists of her day, she emphasized the centrality of radical art, poetry, literature and drama to the emergence of free individuals. She was one of the first anarchists to become enthusiastic about Nietzsche, embracing him as a catalyst for a spiritual transvaluation of values. While she scorned the women’s suffrage movement, seeing any effort to reform rather than transform society as a useless distraction from more radical goals, she developed a revolutionary feminism that anticipated many themes prevalent in the later women’s movements. She focused her feminism on women’s bodies, demanding that women control their own reproduction, find their own sexual autonomy, claim equality in relations with men, and work with men to overthrow the prevailing authorities and create new relations of equality and freedom. Goldman published several of her key essays in her book Anarchism and Other Essays (1910) as well as her journal Mother Earth, published from 1906-1917. Additionally, she gave many thousands of lectures and wrote enormous numbers of letters to other anarchists and to a range of other progressive figures, including Rebecca West, John Dewey, Jack London, and Bertrand Russell. Her ideas on theater were published in The Social Significance of Modern Drama (1914) and her analysis of the rise and fall of revolution in the Soviet Union in My Disillusionment in Russia (1922). Her best known writing is probably her influential autobiography Living My Life (1931), in which she crafts the story of her lifelong political activism. Kathy E. Ferguson is Professor in Political Science and Women’s Studies at the University of Hawai`i and author of a forthcoming book on Goldman titled “Emma Goldman: Political Thinking in the Streets” (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2011).

Links to works

In Hollywood with Nathanael West

- January 1, 2011 in Books, hollywood, Literature, marion meade, miss lonelyhearts, nathanael west, PD in 2011, Public Domain, the day of the locust

Today the works of Nathanael West enter the public domain in many countries around the world. Marion Meade, author of Lonelyhearts, a new biography about West, takes a look at his life in Hollywood and the story behind his most famous work, The Day of the Locust. Hollywood has served as a novelist’s muse for almost a century. The list of writers who found inspiration there includes the likes of Fitzgerald, Mailer, Schulberg, Bukowski, Chandler, Huxley, Waugh, and O’Hara, among plenty of others. But the gold standard for Hollywood fiction remains The Day of the Locust. Nathanael West—novelist, screenwriter, playwright—was one of the most original writers of his generation, a comic artist whose insight into the brutalities of modern life would prove remarkably prophetic. In addition to The Day of the Locust he is the author of another classic Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) as well as two minor works, The Dream Life of Balso Snell (1931) and A Cool Million (1934).
Seventy years after publication, The Day of the Locust is still the most significant novel ever written about Hollywood. Beyond that, West’s story examines America during the Great Depression, revealing a diseased country being stained by corruption, hypocrisy, greed, and rage. Movie stars who get their faces on the screen did not excite West. Neither was he dazzled by Hollywood as the glitz and glamour capital of the world. Instead, his tale goes backstage to focus on the raw inner workings of a byzantine business and the working stiffs who write scripts, design sets, and appear in crowd scenes. In the novel’s opening scene, a mob of fake infantry and cavalry is being herded away to fight the fake Battle of Waterloo. “Stage Nine—you bastards—Stage Nine!” a second unit director shouts hysterically through his megaphone. West’s heroes are the cheated ones dredged up from the sea of extras and bit players, the menial assistant directors and lowly writers. Buzzing in the background, meanwhile, are the locusts, the plagues of angry migrants disconnected from Middle America, seduced by the promise of California sunshine and citrus. (The Grapes of Wrath showcases some of the same displaced folks.) Battered by hard knocks, these ragtag bands hang out at movie premieres to gawk at celebrities and sometimes they freak out and start busting balls for no apparent reason. In The Day of the Locust, they are first responsible for a bloody murder, then they riot and start setting fire to the city. By paying homage to the Hollywood machine and its invisible workers, West was able to illuminate the film business from the bottom up. There is not much beauty to be found in what he called the “Dream Dump,” or in his chronicle of American life in the Thirties. It’s all violence all the time, with sickening scenes that still retain the power to shock. W.H. Auden would call West’s people “cripples.” They weren’t cripples to West, who lovingly described his excitable characters as “screwballs and screwboxes.” His original title for the book, The Cheated, accurately reflected their frustration. A native New Yorker, West spent his early life managing Manhattan hotels and writing in his spare time. His first three novels earned a pathetic total of $780, hardly a living wage even during the Depression. Losing confidence in himself as a novelist, West in 1935 moved to Hollywood where he found a screenwriting job at one of the poorest studios, Republic, whose biggest stars were horses and singing cowboys. At the same time that he was learning the craft of movie writing, he was forming the ideas for his next novel. 1939 was a very good year for fiction. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath immediately went off the grid, creating heat and noise when it shot onto the best seller list and won a Pulitzer. (Soon the book would become a movie classic starring Henry Fonda.) Unfortunately, The Day of the Locust was eclipsed by Steinbeck’s blockbuster when it was published a few weeks later. Like his previous books, it was unbought, unread, and clobbered by most literary critics, including some of West’s own friends like Edmund Wilson who took an unexpected swipe at the novel. (It did not measure up to Miss Lonelyhearts, Wilson thought.) Writing to his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald, West sounds like a slugger who’s been knocked out: “So far the box score stands: Good reviews—fifteen percent, bad reviews—twenty five percent, brutal personal attacks, sixty percent.” Even worse, he fretted, “ Sales: practically none.” He went on to tell Edmund Wilson that “the book is what the publisher calls a definite flop.” This was a blow because its brilliance had impressed Random House and the publisher Bennett Cerf. As a result, pre-publication prospects could not have been brighter. Turning on a dime, a vexed Cerf failed to promote the title and went on to grumble that he never wanted to see another novel about Hollywood. This proved a bit of an exaggeration because he would shortly publish Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run? Who said the book business was soft-hearted?
West, devastated, was trying his damndest to sound cheerful. In truth, he felt awfully confused. “I seem to have no market whatsoever,” he said. The Day of the Locust would be West’s last book. In December 1940 he and his wife Eileen were killed in a car crash in the middle of the lettuce fields near El Centro, California. He was 37, she was 27. That he should perish dramatically on the highway came as no surprise to his friends, because he was known to be one of the world’s worst drivers. Despite West’s claim to be writing another novel his effects included only a few notes for a story that sounds similar to Miss Lonelyhearts. During the last year of his life he finally began achieving success as a screenwriter, a highly paid profession in the Thirties. Had he lived, I believe he would have continued to work in Hollywood as a screenwriter, director, or producer. He enjoyed the nice Southern California weather, not to mention a nice fat bank account. Would he have written more novels? Maybe. Then again, maybe not. In the decade following his premature death, West’s fiction was pretty much ignored until it made a comeback in the 1950s. Now The Day of the Locust is a classic and its author considered one of America’s premier novelists. Ironically, it took thirty-five years for a screen adaptation of West’s masterpiece. In 1975, John Schlesinger directed a big-budget production, whose spectacular finale showed rioters going on a rampage and setting fire to Los Angeles. Probably West would have got a kick out of seeing his screwballs and screwboxes on the screen. Marion Meade is the author of Lonelyhearts; The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010). She has also written biographies of Dorothy Parker, Woody Allen, Buster Keaton, and Eleanor of Aquitaine, as well as two novels about medieval France.

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