If this Space is For Rent, Who Will Move In?

1000 Days of Theory

If this Space is For Rent, Who Will Move In?

From Modernist to Postmodernist Forms of Criticism — Criticism as Art or Advertisement?

This Space for Rent

Fools lament the decay of criticism. For its day is long past. Criticism is a matter of correct distancing. It was at home in a world where perspectives and prospects counted and where it was possible to take a standpoint. Now things press too closely on human society. The “unclouded,” “innocent” eye has become a lie, perhaps the whole naïve mode of expression is sheer incompetence. Today the most real, the mercantile gaze into the heart of things is the advertisement. It abolishes the space where contemplation moved and all but hits us between the eyes with things as a car, growing in gigantic proportions, careens at us out of a film screen. And just as the film does not present furniture and facades in completed forms for critical inspection, their insistent, jerky nearness alone being sensational, the genuine advertisement hurtles things at us with the tempo of a good film… For the man in the street, however, it is money that affects him in this way, brings him into perceived contact with things. And the paid critic, manipulating paintings in the dealer’s exhibition room, knows more if not better things about them than the art lover… The warmth of the subject is communicated to him, stirs sentient springs. What, in the end, makes advertisements so superior to criticism? Not what the moving red neon sign says — but the fiery pool reflecting in the asphalt. [1]

— Walter Benjamin

Writing years in advance of television and the internet, Walter Benjamin’s vision of the future places the new sensibility created by mechanical reproduction at the forefront of modernity. The most important aspect of this sensibility is the radical immediacy it lodges into the heart of modern life. Benjamin understood, quite clearly, that all aspects of life would be affected by this immediacy in a way quite similar to Karl Marx’s vision of capitalism in terms of an ecological (read: total) change of society. The danger of such a change, as Benjamin and Marx understood it (both understood capitalism as creating social and cognitive changes), was the threat of homogenization and mindless consumerism. Indeed, Benjamin’s colleague at the Frankfurt School, Theodor Adorno, believed the “culture industry” turned everyone into consumers and foreclosed the possibility of thought and heterogeneity.[2] Benjamin took a much different approach, instructive for us in our post 9/11 crisis culture wherein homogeneity is circulated by reducing the world to a Manichean struggle between democracy and terror. He argued that, rather than taking a position that merely reacts to the media, intellectuals should imitate it and use its strengths in the name of revolution and heterogeneity. For this reason, he argued that criticism should incorporate aspects of film and, strangely enough, the most open media expression of capitalism: the advertisement.

Now, given this paper’s epigraph, we must ask the question of the hour for theory, which Benjamin asked nearly a century ago — should theory become the “genuine advertisement?” Walter Benjamin certainly thought this an imperative not to be taken lightly, as the “space,” perhaps of the critic, is “for rent.” In other words, the space that the “objective” critic once occupied is now on the market. To make things more intense and to force an eviction of sorts, Benjamin’s message to critics of his time (and of the future) is to realize that what was once called criticism is “long past.” As Benjamin sees it, the critic refuses to leave or, more precisely, acknowledge that criticism must change. For Benjamin, this acknowledgment must begin with accepting the possibility that the critic can, and most likely will, be replaced by what Benjamin elsewhere calls “mechanical reproduction,” but this replacement, although “mechanical,” still touches us. It is something more tactile and projective than objective criticism ever could be.

Money also touches us. According to Benjamin, it brings the “man of the street” into “perceived contact with things.” Indeed, Benjamin tells us that money does the same things a good film or advertisement does. Furthermore, a paid critic who plays the role of an artistic “interior decorator” for his patron has a knowledge which is even greater than the art lover; money brings him a different, if not more intimate, knowledge of art which, although highly subjective and profit-driven, brings warmth and contact with the “subject.” For Benjamin, this is central; and if art criticism can’t do it, then perhaps it isn’t good enough. The tone of these assertions puts criticism on the market, which, as we saw above with Adorno, is the very thing one must resist to protect critical thought.

But these fatal blows to the greatness of criticism do not spell its absolute end; Benjamin tells us that criticism must change and the model for this change is the advertisement or, simply, anything that creates a “perceived contact with things.” Like advertising, criticism must touch and fascinate readers: because they are touched by it, blown away by it, or simply “warmed by the subject,” people desire it. In a more theoretical sense, Benjamin tells us that criticism, like advertising, should affect the reader with visceral projections of “fragmented” intensity which circumvent any form of contemplation. This intensity, something like a “burst of energy,” affects the very life of the subject.

Harold Bloom, in his book, Agon [3], identifies this burst of energy with the sublime, but associates it with a more mystical image, “an invisible breath or emanation.”[4] It hits on something hidden, one might even say repressed, and, in doing so, releases a charge of energy. However, for Bloom, the energy that comes out of this marks a fear central to the destruction of that repression — the “invisible breath” is “a breeze that precedes the start of a nervous breakdown or disorder”.[5] Likewise, the advertisement exposes the reader to what Bloom calls the aura of fragmentation that hits him/her, as the car that “careens at us out of a film screen,” and, in effect, “leaves them thinking” about what hit them (post-facto) — like PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome). Bloom argues that this is what the “aura” does; but in doing so, it looks back at us as if to say that there is something in what we see that involves who we are. Bloom cites a letter of Gershom Scholem which provides his understanding of this aura: it is like the “dissolution of Angels once they have sung their hymn.”[6] This image, or in Hebrew, Zelem, is, for Bloom, the remnant of who we are after the catastrophe of modernity — “the final evidence of an authentic individuality… The aura is a final defense of the soul against the shock or catastrophe of multiplicity, against masses of objects or multitudes of people in the street.”[7] According to Bloom, this zelem is the combination of two contradictory things: “the shock or reversal and loss…and what he (Benjamin) calls in his beautiful essay on Leskov, the beautiful halo of the storyteller.”[8]

Bloom’s comparisons of the aura to the sublime, it should be kept in mind, are based, in large part, on his reading of Benjamin’s relationship to the city as evidenced by his essays on Baudelaire and Leskov. Bloom’s readings of Benjamin’s relation to the city are instructive as they identify the modernist moment, which is both destructive and creative, as it simultaneously engages in a self-destructive moment and “shines” in the process. Thus, the shocking image of the Angel screaming its last song is redemptive.

Can the same be said for Benjamin’s comments on criticism that makes use of advertising? Is this exposure to the projecting car, which touches us, a sublime and redemptive moment? Is seeing it similar to the thrill someone on the street receives from exposure to the “catastrophe of multiplicity” while, at the same time, resisting such exposure (what T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land calls a “shoring up of fragments” against fragmentation)? Tyrus Miller uses this idea as the thesis of his book Late Modernism.[9] He cites Chaplin as a prime example of the simultaneous exposure and shielding against exposure found in “late modernist” literature and film. According to Miller, mimicry of multiplicity is a way of being while not being destroyed by it. Hence, given Miller’s understanding of late modernism, a celebration of advertising and other forms of knowledge that destroy criticism is redemptive. The voice that says this, perhaps the voice of SPACE FOR RENT, is the redemptive voice of a criticism (and a subject) that has destroyed itself, yet is still there — alive. To affect this destruction, Benjamin not only tells us that criticism has been destroyed by advertising, he also tells us that objective or traditional criticism does not collide with people; all it can do is die. Benjamin wants us to feel this death. Hence, he tells us that, like a dead body, criticism “decays”; but as it decays, advertising lives on and, for Benjamin, spells the end of a vocation that has lasted for centuries. Witnessing this death, its advertisement, in fact, touches us more than criticism itself.

How could we accede to this death if it implies that criticism will become just another agency of homogenization, which will be accomplished through its mediated immediacy? Shouldn’t we preserve it against this death, as Adorno argues, so as to save thought and culture from being effaced by capital? Here, Benjamin would argue that these elements could actually encourage thought and heterogeneity. In fact, the death of criticism will enable us to get closer to the forces that shape the world and actually change their current direction, as this death puts us in “perceived contact with things.” In other words, for Benjamin, a relation to heterogeneity begins with such contact; it cannot come out of the “naïve” albeit objective contemplation of heterogeneity.

Hence, after being aware that we have entered into a relation with heterogeneity that has put us in “perceived” contact with things, wherein criticism’s demise would be obvious, Benjamin tells us that only a “fool” would lament the “decay of criticism.” Rather than mourn this death, Benjamin, during the first quarter of the century, calls for an affirmative or celebratory attitude toward this superceding of objective criticism by the fragmented immediacy put forth by film and advertising.[10] He was, arguably, the first critic to do so. That his message was neither heard nor understood for decades is evidence that the time was not ready for it. It is even more noteworthy that, although Benjamin called for critics to hear this message, it was only the efforts of artists which made it first audible. In fact, it was only with the advent of the London based Independent Group’s 1956 exhibition entitled “This is Tomorrow,” which displayed collages of popular advertisements and comics (“the throwaway object and the pop package” [11]), that Benjamin’s message (concerning the importance of advertising as an art and as a cultural novelty) was publicly recognized, but not by critics – by artists.[12] (Criticism’s reception of Benjamin’s ideas would come a few decades later.)

One of the founders of the Independent Group, Edwardo Paolozzi, came up with a new artistic creation which he called “bunk”: a juxtaposition of different advertising images in a collage.[13] Hal Foster argues that the creation of “bunk” marked the beginning of the “first pop age”.[14] Prior to the first “pop age,” Walter Benjamin, in his experimental work, One Way Street (quoted from above), created what Paolozzi might call “bunk criticism.” This term is quite significant. For, although Benjamin and Paolozzi came from entirely different time periods and cultures, they shared an interest in making use of “pop”; as artists, they saw a need to respond to a new mutation in culture found in both film and advertising. Both understood what many high cultural critics and artists failed to understand: that neither art nor criticism could ever be the same after the advent of advertising, film, and pop. Unfortunately, it has taken a long time for theorists to get this message. Although Benjamin, in the wake of advertising and film, calls it foolish to feign objectivity, not many people took (or take) this “seriously.” Perhaps they have a difficult time facing death, or better, the death-drive? Perhaps, like Nietzsche, he was writing for critics to come who would also say that criticism is “long past,” or better, “dead”; it has lost its value as it has ceased to touch us. This death is belated — strangely enough, we don’t notice the stinking corpse in front of us. The corpse is too novel or shocking as it exposes us to the finitude of our endeavors and language itself which, Benjamin argues, is in ruins. Likewise, the importance and relevance of the second age of pop art, initiated by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, was not immediately perceived: it was too novel perhaps because it was so familiar. As far as belatedness goes, it is only over the last two decades that their work has been adequately assessed with respect to criticism and postmodernism by thinkers such as Fredric Jameson, Andreas Huyssen, Roland Barthes, and those who have followed their lead. Regardless of criticism’s belated awareness of pop art, it has, at its inception, been influenced by and has influenced comics, film, advertising, mass media and music in the United States and Europe.

Indeed, pop art is a business, but is it the business of criticism? Although Jameson, Huyssen, and Barthes find it essential to use it as a basis for reflecting on postmodernism, the question as to whether or not it should affect critical writing has, since Walter Benjamin, not been properly raised.

It would be a mistake to assume that Walter Benjamin pronounced criticism long past and called for a criticism that was like advertising and film yet did not produce any examples of such criticism. Benjamin’s One Way Street is an example of such criticism. In fact, it can be argued that it is the first example we have of pop art; a predecessor to what Foster calls the first pop age. What makes Benjamin’s work pop art or pop criticism? For one, Benjamin’s work fits the criterion he has laid out for criticism. It is fragmented, “jerky,” “hurtles things at us with the tempo of a good film,” and “hits us between the eyes.” The structure of the text consists of subject-headings that are taken from headlines which are structured to get your attention: “Travel Souvenirs,” “Fire Alarm,” “Germans Drink German Beer…” and so on. Furthermore, the fragments he includes are as jerky and cinematic as their image; like images found in 1930s “flicks,” these images are hard to place: “Alleyways like air shafts. A well in the marketplace. In the late afternoon women about it. Then, in solitude: archaic plashing.”[15] Reading from fragment to fragment gives one a sense of turning through or scanning a newspaper or, to use a metaphor we are familiar with, switching from channel to channel. Like the pop art from the Independent Group, it juxtaposes advertising images and cinematic images. In the midst of this, Benjamin provides a number of criticisms, like THIS SPACE FOR RENT, which are theoretical in character and comment on the enterprise of criticism.

Benjamin’s One Way Street can also be placed within the tradition of modernist literature. Like a good modernist novel or poem, such as Pale Fire by Nabakov or The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot, it provides the reader with both a text and an interpretation of the text. It also provides a meditation on the sublime, as only the best works of modernist literature do, since it evokes something beyond language yet within language. The language of the fragment is used by Benjamin to suggest a transcendence which is indicated by absence and, as shown above with respect to Bloom’s comments, self-destruction and redemption (qua the aura). Like the sublime, the fragment hits us and leaves us thinking about something which transcends the text and marks our identity-in-transcendence. This something is beyond words, yet it is through words that are fragmented and through the failure of contemplation on the “completed form” that this transcendence can be experienced. This notion is Romantic in nature as it suggests a communion with the universe through the fragment; yet it is odd since this fragment is connected to not just words but images, advertisement, and, in the last section of One Way Street entitled TO THE PLANETARIUM, technology. In this section, Benjamin suggests that moderns need to return to a different understanding of the universe which is based on “the ecstatic trance”:

For it is in this experience alone that we gain certain knowledge of what is nearest to us and what is remotest to us, and never one without the other…It is the dangerous error of modern men to regard this experience as unimportant and avoidable, and to consign it to the individual as the poetic rapture of starry nights. It is not; its hour strikes again and again, and then neither nations nor generations can escape it, as we made terribly clear by the last war, which was an attempt at a new and unprecedented commingling with the cosmic powers. [16]

The commingling with these cosmic powers is through technology: “Gases (and) electrical forces were hurled into the open country, high-frequency currents coursed through the landscape, new constellations rose in the sky, aerial space and ocean depths thundered with propellers….in the spirit of technology.”[17] Here, Benjamin is telling us that technology is used to touch nature; and in SPACE FOR RENT, he tells us that it touches our bodies. Both suggest an “ecstatic trance”; a suspension of knowledge. It also suggests what Freud calls a death drive and a Nietzschean obsession with de-individuation. Here, his work is similar to the Surrealists who created art that took the fragments of mass culture and endowed them with psychic energy. This, in effect, aims to destroy stable notions of selfhood and, according to Hal Foster’s thesis in Compulsive Beauty, [18] installs the death drive at the heart of existence.

(Yet, as pointed out above, Bloom thinks there is a moment of (let’s say) higher individuation when the subject becomes one with these cosmic forces yet protected from their violence through the zelem (image) of this de-individuation: via “storytelling,” here about war as an expression of a desire found in technology to “touch the earth” and obviously be touched in the process.)

Given the above, the novelty of Benjamin’s work is that it transformed a form of modernist pop art into criticism and, at the same time, effaced the fine line between theory and art as well as high and low culture. One Way Street is a clarion call to criticism to destroy itself and think of itself as no different from anything else that can touch someone, regardless of the fact that it competes with the feelings money generates. Whether it is a person making a deal in the street or a paid critic does not matter, but can they touch you? According to Benjamin, it is through an often repressed psychic drive that they can touch us: the death drive which can be manifested through money and advertising.

The question we began with remains: can such a criticism, in a post 9/11 world “wage the war against totality” and homogenization? Indeed it can. But it does so by providing us with a mirror image of our own fragmentation: it goes from subject to subject and hits us, reminding us of how we flip through channels, web pages, and advertisements. Ultimately, a criticism like this can foster thought not just by fragmenting it, which is done quite well by TV and the internet, but by mimicking the process. Indeed, Benjamin believed that such mimicry, found most often in children’s play,[19] can bring us closer to a heterogeneous and tactile understanding of the world. This, for Benjamin, brings us one step closer to changing the world. Therefore, even though such mimicry, which is ultimately destructive, may be thought of as a death drive, it is clearly a drive to take things apart and remake them in ways that are not typical. Indeed, it embodies the things it takes apart and reanimates them in an entirely different way. This is especially important in this post 9/11 world where mimicry of the homogenizing drive of the media can be a means of reclaiming the media. For this reason, even Michael Moore’s employment of the media can be seen as an attempt to destroy a homogenous discourse and introduce a variety of other perspectives that contradict such a discourse (even though Moore also has an agenda, which, though leftist in nature, insists on its construction as proof). His film, Fahrenheit 9/11 brings us in touch with documentary media by undermining it, and it brings us into a “perceived contact with things,” which is more critical than consumptive.

Benjamin is the first major thinker to show us that, contrary to Adorno, boundaries between high and low culture as well as proper and improper criticism need to be dissolved if revolutionary work is to be done.[20] Indeed, these boundaries only repeat a homogenous system which underpins the essence of all capitalistic thinking. Therefore, just as Marx sees the destruction of the boundaries of the nation-state by cosmopolitan capitalistic drives for new markets as a positive force which can be used to create a global form of communism, Benjamin sees the effacement of boundaries between criticism and the advertisement as a prelude to a higher form of criticism which would be more “vital” and revolutionary.

Benjamin’s insistence on the effacement of boundaries between high and low culture or proper versus improper criticism has found its “afterlife” in the work of Avital Ronell and Steve Shaviro, though in ways that either question or affirm the transcendence discussed by Benjamin. Both critics, like Benjamin, are interested in what hits us, which is “in the street,” and want to bring the street into criticism. As such, they play on that to which we are addicted, thrilled by or simply bored.

Ronell and Shaviro — Criticism As?

Avital Ronell is truly an anomaly. Highly influenced by French deconstructionists and continental thinkers such as Martin Heidegger, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas and Maurice Blanchot, she incorporates their work into books which take popular motifs as their focus. These range from telephone and drug addiction to Rodney King, and stupidity, which are used as topics that are addressed in a manner that might be described as Heideggerian. However, of all her influences, she has been most influenced by the work of Jacques Derrida, some of which she translated into English, and Benjamin. Their work is something of an obsession for her. These theorists represent two sides of her work. Like Derrida, Ronell is interested in altering the form of critical writing. In Glas, Derrida employs the novel approach of presenting different texts in opposing columns. It evokes the notion of “intertextuality” which is a practice of modernist literature appropriated by literary criticism (for instance Julia Kristeva’s work “Stabat Mater”). This appropriation no doubt blurs the fine line between criticism and literature. Benjamin’s One Way Street does this as well, but not in the same format. Benjamin’s text uses the subject-heading of each of the fragments as an index for advertisements or newspaper clippings as his intertext; whereas Derrida uses a Genet text and an essay on Hegel as inter-texts. According to Andreas Huyussen[21], Derrida’s effacement of the fine line between theory and literature is not postmodernist; rather, it marks an effort to preserve literature from cultural interests and postmodernism.[22] For Huyssen, the obsessive interest in language and the effacement of the fine line between literature and theory is synonymous with the survival of modernism. Benjamin’s intertext, although modernist due to its obsession with the fragment and its use of fragmented narratives, uses culture qua advertising as an inter-text and can be seen as a foreshadowing of postmodernism’s effacement of the fine line between high and low culture. Benjamin and Derrida cross different borders; and rather than say one can either go one way or the other (modernist or postmodernist), the evidence shows that both thinkers are concerned with phenomenology, deconstruction, and popular culture.

Ronell’s first experiment in bringing pop art to high criticism was The Telephone Book.[23] The most obvious signifier of this can be found in the book itself which looks like a telephone book. Its exterior shape is that of a telephone book; its interior is also indexed as a telephone book. This may be considered pop art in a Warholian sense as it is a reproduction of something mechanically reproduced (a phonebook) just as Warhol produced reproductions of mechanically reproduced Campbell’s Soup cans. But as Roland Barthes points out in his essay entitled “That Old Thing Art…”,[24] the reproductions of pop art “rediscover the theme of the Double” but efface it since here “the double is harmless — has lost all maleficent or moral power.”[25] Moreover, it effaces transcendence and the deeper meaning which may hide behind it: “beside, not behind: a flat, insignificant, hence irreligious double.”[26] (Strangely enough, Benjamin finds this destruction of the aura — auratic. Warhol, according to Barthes, does not. Ronell, in her humorous and playful appropriations, also seems to be circumventing this.)

Ronell’s book also engages in postmodern parody as it personifies and inserts figures like Heidegger, Goethe, Kafka, and even Alexander Graham Bell into a fiction of her own making which involves telephone calls and séances (many of which play on the erotic nature of the phone, collect calls, and wrong numbers). By doing this, Ronell, like Derrida, effaces the boundary between theory and fiction; yet, she also flattens these characters out, as Warhol does with, say, Marilyn Monroe or Liz Taylor, by repeating them. By doing so, she doesn’t take on the project of uncovering their essence; rather, she enters them in a game of speculation and humor. Furthermore, according to Barthes, it can be argued that Ronell’s repetitions of Heidegger, Kakfa, and Goethe, like pop art repetitions, “induce an adulteration of the person”[27] and “teach us that identity is not the person.”[28] For the academic pop world, the stereotyped stars include these personages and through their repetition Ronell becomes the Andy Warhol of the academic world. In fact, what Barthes says of Warhol could equally be said of these personages Ronell addresses: “nothing is more identifiable than Marilyn, the electric chair, a telegram, or a dress, as seen by Pop Art; they are in fact nothing but that: immediately and exhaustively identifiable.”[29]

In addition to flattening out and playing on major academic identities, The Telephone Book makes several contributions to philosophy, psychology, and comparative literature. The book has implications for theory with respect to Heidegger’s notions of mitsein, technology, and art as well as the theorization of schizophrenia by R.D. Laing, Lacan, and Deleuze and Guatarri, in addition to the phenomenology of the other by Levinas and Blanchot. By writing this theory with a humorous, albeit “pop attitude,” she effaces the objectivity that theory has traditionally aimed to provide, an objectivity that Benjamin saw as always-already circumvented by “advertising.” Indeed, Ronell’s writing, like Benjamin’s, hits you, but it hits you with laughter, which, though less traumatic than a car projecting at you from a screen, is another mode of advertising. However, this mode is less interested in celebrating the ecstatic by hurtling things into space, than it is in celebrating a form of schizoid logic — making prank phone calls in an attempt to address the reader. The phone calls can also be quite serious: one of the calls made in The Telephone Book is to Martin Heidegger. Unfortunately, Ronell tells us, he refuses to answer, because with answering there is responsibility. (It is interesting that this phone call to Heidegger mimics a collect call to “Martini Heidegger” in Jacques Derrida’s book The Post Card.)

Although a popular medium and a technology, the phone becomes, in Ronell’s book, a medium of thought and thereby defies the notion that writing is the primary medium for thought. Here orality is localized through a technological medium which mediates thought rather than language; in other words, to use a metaphor used by Alan Turing, machines think. We don’t just use machines to call people; Ronell shows us, following Marshall McLuhan, that machines extend or amplify desire and play and, in effect, the nervous system. They reach out and “touch us” like Benjamin’s advertisement. For this reason, Ronell points out again and again that the phone is like a prosthesis of a nipple; in this capacity, it can be read either as a replacement or as an extension of a missing organ. Here technology trumps traditional literature because her book is not a book which belongs to the domain of language: it belongs to the telephone (hence, the title).

Another of Ronell’s books, Crack Wars: Literature, Addiction, Mania, also draws on motifs of pop culture.[30] This book probes the nature of addiction in an unusual manner. She demonstrates, through literature, philosophy, and psychology, that doing drugs and the popular rhetoric of drugs indicated by phrases such as “getting blown away,” “wasted,” and “destroyed” are linked to deeper ontological questions. She effaces the distinction between high and low culture by demonstrating how Heidegger’s Dasein is addicted to drugs and how the rhetoric mentioned above demonstrates a death drive inherent in our very Being. Furthermore, she does a “narcoanalysis” of Madame Bovary with respect to drug addiction and in doing so she rewrites Madame Bovary, transforming her into a figure reminiscent of Courtney Love.

The structure of the text, instead of using advertisements, is based on the rhetoric of drugs. The table of contents lists, chapter by chapter, this rhetoric: 1) Hits; 2) Toward a Narcoanalysis; 3) EB on Ice; 4) Shame; 5) Scoring Literature; and 6) Cold Turkey. Benjamin’s influence is obvious here as this is the language of the street that he wished to bring into theory. Furthermore, by including Heidegger’s reading of Dasein in this book as a major motif, she takes Heidegger out of high discourse and puts his work in a more democratic space of “low culture,” which is the culture of drugs. This takes what Levinas calls the “virile and heroic aspect” of Heidegger’s Dasein away and substitutes it with a Dasein whose “throwness” and passivity (to use Blanchot and Levinas’ term) is more relevant to a wider readership who might otherwise find Heidegger’s work inaccessible. Hence, in this book as in The Telephone Book, Ronell rewrites a word and concept that has become stale with overuse — Dasein — and gives it a new identity; but this cross-dressing of Dasein does not make it new. Rather, it rewrites and revises the concept to include notions more relevant to an understanding of the relationship between addiction and the death drive — addiction and responsibility — as well as addiction and selfhood (or loss thereof). These “hits,” in the tradition of Benjamin, are definitely ecstatic in nature and lift criticism to the level of street drugs as well as advertisements, both of which blow us away, though in different ways.

Like Ronell, Shaviro has cross-dressed continental philosophy. Shaviro’s project shares similarities with the work of Maurice Blanchot, George Bataille, and Gilles Deleuze. However, the main thesis of Shaviro’s book Cinematic Bodies[31] draws most of its strength from Benjamin since Shaviro, in this book, is primarily interested in how film destroys the aura, effaces the contemplative mind, and hits the body with an “excess” of sensation.

Shaviro views Harold Bloom’s reading of the aura as a “misreading,” which is something Bloom advocated. In fact, Shaviro argues that individuality (the subject), like the aura, is destroyed by film. Individuality does not remain, and, as will be argued below, the destruction of the aura effaces the modernist drive to protect the subject from dissolution. Bloom thinks otherwise, and at least one current of Benjamin, which valorizes the fragment with respect to the allegory and the work of mourning, concurs with him. Shaviro would argue that the fragment from One Way Street and also the essay “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” demonstrate an altogether different current which celebrates the dissolution of the subject.

Shaviro’s writing mimics the energy felt in films. Citing Blanchot, he argues, like Benjamin, that film destroys any self-willed objectivity by creating a fascination for and a passivity to filmic images: “The power of the ego is ruptured at the point of what Blanchot calls fascination: the moment when ‘the thing we are staring at has sunk into its image, and the image has returned to that depth of impotence into which everything falls back.'”[32] Shaviro explains that fascination happens when we lose our power over the image, “when we are no longer able to separate ourselves, no longer able to put things at a proper distance and turn them into objects.”[33] This is connected to passivity:

I do not have power over what I see, I do not even have, strictly speaking, the power to see; it is more that I am powerless not to see… I cannot willfully focus my attention on this or on that. Instead, my gaze is arrested by the sole area of light, a flux of moving images. I am attentive to what happens on the screen only to the extent that I am continually distracted, and passively absorbed into it. [34]

This continual distraction is a distraction which effaces the concentration necessary for objective thought. As in a dream, film and the criticism Shaviro proposes as a response to film become endless digressions, seductions, and titillations of the body and desire.

Shaviro’s following book, Doom Patrols,[35] examines passivity in a different manner: he looks at it from what one might call a pop perspective. The passivity referred to in this book is a Warholian passivity. Like the passivity mentioned above, it is distracted, but unlike it, this passivity does not feel any shock in the destruction of the aura. The target of this Warholian passivity is Benjamin’s notion of shock. He argues that in the postmodern world we are more like Warhol who is not shocked by anything at all than like Benjamin who sees the shock value of films or advertisements in the fact that they destroy the “aura” of objectivity. Warhol simply shrugs his shoulders at fragmentation. This shrugging of the shoulders is the ultimate “passivity” toward consumer culture.

In a section on Dean Martin, whom he likens to Andy Warhol, Shaviro argues that what makes Dean an exemplar of passivity is that he has totally surrendered himself to a host of clichés yet with a difference. His passivity to these clichés is different from Elvis in that Dean doesn’t care about who he is. Unlike Elvis, who had to conform to his image, Dean Martin effaced his image in not caring for it; nonetheless, he still played all the clichés. According to Shaviro, this passivity effaces Dean’s ego and manifests something of a death drive. But Dean’s self-destruction is not something to marvel at; it has, in Derrida’s words, always-already happened and will happen again and again. This is a phenomenon of our postmodern culture that is distracted and at the same time as powerless to the images of mass culture as Andy and Dean. Most importantly, this passivity reveals the power the visual medium has to render us powerless and fascinated. For Shaviro, this is not something to deplore.

Doom Patrols catalogues a number of sites where, I would argue, criticism makes passivity manifest and actually engages it. In fact, Shaviro incorporates his object into his criticism of it. His work is not about Warhol or Acker or Doom Patrols: it parallels the passivity found in these works. Shaviro is what Ronell might call the ultimate “junkie.” He is addicted to sites of passivity in mass or popular culture and is definitely touched by them in a way that baffles many academics.

In Doom Patrols there is no limit to self-destruction and re-creation. But, according to Shaviro, there is no remnant to mourn, qua its prior or missing unity; rather, it should be celebrated. This celebration is counter to Melancholia, which he associates with Benjamin’s reading of fragmentation found in his allegorical meditations. (I will quote Shaviro’s reading at length to illustrate the difference):

Craig Owens and Celeste Olalquiaga, among others, suggest that Walter Benjamin’s analysis of allegory is particularly appropriate to postmodern culture. In allegory, signs become materially insistent in their own right, detached from referential meaning; the mechanical piling up of fragments takes the place of organic completion or symbolic translation. The postmodern landscape is evoked by J. G. Ballard as a vista of garbage-strewn high-rise apartment buildings, shattered concrete littered with husks of burnt-out cars, snuff videos in incessant replay. Benjamin sees melancholia as a compulsive response to an intolerable situation: one in which everything seems to be fragments and ruins, in which we know that we are irrecuperably estranged from a supposed ‘origin’ to which we nonetheless continue compulsively to refer. Allegory “represents a continuous movement towards an unattainable origin, a movement marked by the awareness of a loss that it attempts to compensate with a baroque saturation and the obsessive reiteration of fragmented memories” (Olalquiaga). We imagine that these ruins once were whole, that these abandoned structures originally had a rational use, that these signs formerly had a sense, that we used to be organic bodies instead of robots. Dubious assumptions, to be sure; but as Nietzsche puts it, one has recourse to such fantasies and such arguments “when one has no other expedient.” Anxious critics today, like Adorno and Eliot before them, feel cut off, with nowhere to turn; and so they shore up fragments against their ruin, seeking desperately to assuage their narcissistic wounds. But as Nietzsche knew, every proposed remedy to nihilism only increases the strength and depth of nihilism. We invent our lost objects posthumously. The more we brood over supposedly estranged origins, the more those origins take form retroactively, even as they recede from us. Melancholia is a recursive, self-replicating structure: it continually generates the very alienation of which it then complains. I want to suggest, therefore, that allegorical melancholy is less a mark of postmodernity per se, than it is a symptom of the desperation of traditional humanist intellectuals (whether of the Marxist or the conservative variety) who find themselves unable to adapt to what McLuhan calls “postliterate” culture. These people should get a life. In the postmodern world of DOOM PATROLS, we couldn’t care less about the decline of print literacy, of the nuclear family, of historical awareness, or of authentic class-consciousness. We play gleefully in the rubble, for we know that such antiquated notions will never subvert anything; the grounds of contention and debate have long since shifted elsewhere.

Postmodernism is distinguished, then, not by any tendency to meditate on ruins and to allegorize its own disappointments; but by a propensity to invent new organs of perception and action, as Burroughs, McLuhan, David Cronenberg, Michael Taussig, and Donna Haraway all in various ways recommend. The cyborg, Haraway says, is a monstrous hybrid, “resolutely committed to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity.” Pragmatically, this means that the fragmentation that Eliot bemoaned in The Waste Land has come full circle. In works like DOOM PATROLS, dispersion and fragmentation are positive, affirmative, and even entertaining conditions. [36]

Should criticism delve into Shaviro’s postmodern world of Doom Patrols? Is a change of attitude toward fragmentation all that is needed? Should criticism just let go of the memory of what was lost if it is to, as Fredric Jameson phrases it, “renarrativize” the fragment? Shaviro thinks so. Criticism, in his opinion, should reflect this not only in what it chooses to focus on, as he focuses on comics, comedians, tangential writers, filmmakers, and cyborgs, but also in how it writes about them. Both Ronell and Shaviro represent this new trend, and it is important to follow the lead of this avant-garde because it will determine whether or not we embrace the exciting possibilities of hybridity or miss them because we are too busy reanimating traditional criticism. Benjamin’s graphic metaphor will simply be seen as an illusion. In that case, the “dark side,” melancholy, will literally have won and the “propensity” to invent “new organs of perception” will be defeated. Strangely enough, for Shaviro, passivity to sites of passivity, whether in Warhol, Acker, or in a comic called Doom Patrols, is the mother of all critical invention. It is only through such passivity that criticism can be, in Benjamin’s words, “the fiery pool reflecting (the neon light) in the asphalt.”

These words may be hard for many of us to understand, as passivity to “sites of passivity” seems a validation of capitalism which would rather we be “passive” than active. In other words, we should consume “junk” culture rather than rebel against the current political order: passivity is also a means of resisting the system. It is enthralled with “new organs of perception” which can help us to perceive and indeed be touched by things that the media does not share with us. This is a radical departure from homogeneity in the post 9/11 world as it enables us to steer clear of a Manichean attitude which has divided the world into neat categories.

Marx argued in The Communist Manifesto that the bourgeoisie had created the axe that would eventually destroy it. But as Benjamin (and Derrida) understood Marx, this axe was not just a class called the proletariat; it is also lodged in technology and in language. The excess found in both, which is actually a product of capitalistic “over-production,” can break down the homogenous system. But the novelty of Benjamin, Ronell, and Shaviro is that they do not simply see this as happening naturally. Rather, their criticism, in mimicking and incorporating the language of advertising, the street, and film, provides us with a heterogeneous experience of mass culture which can also transform it. Indeed, this type of criticism can hit us in a way that will make the world and ourselves stand apart from blind consumption and meaningless drifting from one commonly held opinion to another.

After noticing that THIS SPACE (IS) FOR RENT, we need to inhabit it critically. This can be done by working with what is already within this space. For in doing this, we will have made it our space; as Benjamin dreamed, this space is a utopian space whose contents are endless in their beauty and strangeness. But although this space could be the space of journals, Benjamin ultimately believed it was the space of the street. Today, the information highway is our new street. Can we inhabit it or is it, precisely, uninhabitable? If it is uninhabitable, why has the homogenizing force of post 9/11 culture made countless efforts to make this space its headquarters? TV and the internet are indeed final frontiers, but the fact of the matter is that neither have been totally taken over. Not yet. And, hopefully, criticism can have a say in that.

Notes

[1] Walter Benjamin. Reflections. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. New York: Schocken Books, 1986.

[2] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming. New York: Continuum, 1993, pp. 120-167.

[3] Harold Bloom. Agon. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

[4] Ibid, p. 230.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, p. 232.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Tyrus Miller, Late Modernism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

[10] Given Benjamin’s interest in the Trauerspiel (the mourning play), this is quite interesting. Benjamin’s interest in mourning fragments and the trash of history is central to much of his thought; SPACE FOR RENT tells, however, a different story. Benjamin saw the importance of affirmation in this instance because he believed that the tactility afforded by film and advertising had revolutionary potential. In his essay on art, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” he sees this potential in film rather than in advertising.

[11] Hal Foster, “On the First Pop Age.” New Left Review (January 2003).

[12] However, there was one notable artist who took an interest in advertising’s relationship with art: Wyndham Lewis. In his play “Enemy of the Stars” (first written and in 1914 and republished in 1932), a landmark in modernist aesthetics, he plays on the meaning of advertising and even includes advertisements in the published version.

[13] Foster, p. 94.

[14] Ibid, p. 95.

[15] Benjamin, p. 84

[16] Benjamin, p. 93.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Hal Foster. Compulsive Beauty. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993.

[19] Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997), pp. 262-286.

[20] Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997)

[21] Huyssen, Andreas. After the Great Divide. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.

[22] Ibid, p. 207

[23] Avital Ronell. The Telephone Book. London: University Of Nebraska Press, 1989.

[24] Roland Barthes. The Responsibility of Forms. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1985.

[25] Ibid, p. 24.

[26] Ibid, p. 25.

[27] Ibid, p. 24.

[28] Ibid, p. 25.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Avital Ronell. Crack Wars. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.

[31] Steve Shaviro. The Cinematic Body. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

[32] Ibid, p. 46.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid, p. 47

[35] Steve Shaviro. Doom Patrols: A Theoretical fiction about Postmodernism. London: Serpent’s Tail Press, 1997. (All citations come from the on-line essay.)

[36] http://www.dhalgren.com/Doom/ch01.html

Menachem Feuer has taught philosophy, literature, and humanities at The State University of New York at Binghamton, Ryerson University, Centennial College and Humber College. He has published essays on postmodern Holocaust art and literature and is currently writing a book on the theme of difference and reconciliation in Israeli literature, African-American Literature, and post-Holocaust literature, film, and art.