Scott Thompson on Thu, 28 Aug 1997 23:27:59 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Walter Benjamin Congress, Day 3 + Conclusion

III.WB Congress: Conclusion

----------------------------WB Congress: Day 3------------------------------

"In general much was discussed in Amsterdam, even when the strict schedule
eventually exacted its prerogatives and cut short a number of discussions
in progress.  If the talks in the workshops revolved around specialist
problems of a primarily philological nature, the debates in the plenary
meetings became increasingly political.  It was Werner Hamacher, who
provocatively expressed what was written on the agenda: the canonization of
Benjamin as a sublime object of research has robbed him of his critical
potential." --Christian Schulte,
"Das jederzeit moegliche Erkennen" (Frankfurter Rundschau, July 31,1997).

Unfortunately, insomnia, jet-lag, adrenalin and fatigue all conspired to
prevent the San Francisco participant from hearing Burkhardt Lindner's
opening presentation, "Zeit und Glueck. Phantasmagorien des Spielraums"
[Time and Happiness. Phantasmagorias of Free Play].  Those wishing
information about this paper or any of the other papers should contact
Helga Geyer-Ryan [International Walter Benjamin Association], Institute of
Comparative Literature, University of Amsterdam, Spuistraat 210, NL-1012 VT
Amsterdam/ e-mail: <>.  Though all participants who read
at the Congress brought a photocopy and a disk of their papers, there was
some indication that money was seriously lacking to publish them.

------------------------------Werner Hamacher-------------------------------=

Werner Hamacher's paper "Jetzt" ['NOW'] dealt polemically with Benjamin's
concept of history as applied to the current academic reception of Benjamin
as 'sublime object of research.'  'Jetztzeit' ['Now-time'] is that
interrupting lightning flash of an instant when the past is suddenly
recognized as a fleeting image in the present.  Benjamin's classic
statements  on this concept appear in  his THESES ON THE PHILOSOPHY OF

"The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an
image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is
never seen again...."

"For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one
of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably..."

"To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it 'the way
it was' (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a
moment of danger. Historical materialism wishes to retain that image of the
past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment
of danger.  The danger affects both the content of the tradition and its
receivers.  The same threat hangs over both: that of becoming a tool of the
ruling classes...."

"History is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogeneous, empty
time, but time filled by the presence of the now [Jetztzeit].  Thus to
Robespierre ancient Rome was a past charged with the time of the now which
he blasted out of the continuum of history..." [pp.255,261]

The 'Now of Recognizability' is an interrupting, dialectical lightning
flash in which the past is cited (like the quotable gesture of Epic Theatre
and the dialectical image of a surrealist collage) in the present to halt
the repressive continuum of the victors' progress.

Hamacher's polemical paper was reminiscent of the conclusion to his earlier
essay "The Word Wolke --If It Is One," where the disruptive process of
critical reading was considered an interruption of the continuum 'for a
critical, dangerous moment.'

"In these places, reading no longer blinks at an image but rather is itself
a disruptive moment of an image in which it is exposed to its non-being. It
is the moment, not lasting, of awakening. Now."

Despite the polemical tone taken by Hamacher, and later Susan Buck-Morss,
there was a pronounced lack of sincerety on the part of the plenary
speakers to subject the academic reception and cooptation of WB to any
serious scrutiny.  Hamacher spoke for many of the people at the Congress
who questioned the academic appropriation of WB, but one heard no
statements dangerous enough to threaten Herr Prof. Dr. Hamacher's
privileged position at Johns Hopkins University.  Hamacher's attempt to
play the r=F4le of enfant terrible  in an iconoclastic polemic ultimately
faltered, and really amounted to nothing more than the public
self-flagellation of a ministeriales.  Did Johns Hopkins pay for the event,
the plane fare, the hotel room at the Hilton?  Or did Prof. Hamacher, like
the non-academics, pay for everything out of his own pocket himself?  How
many of Hamacher's articles on Benjamin have been directed to audiences
outside the academy?

On the one hand, numerous Benjamin-scholars expressed discomfort and guilt
over their own comfortable middle-class positions, but tended to react like
proprietors whenever students and non-academics called such positions into
question.  This was especially apparent at the raucous meeting in the
lounge at the conclusion of the Congress at 18.30.

---------------------Day 3: Parallel Workshops (Session I-3)----------------

Five parallel workshops were held between 12.00 and 13.30.  Session I-3 in
the Tekenzaal featured Fotini Vaki (University of Essex), Peter J.E.
Langford (Wroclaw University), and Beata Frydryczak (University of Zielona
G*ra, Poland) reading their respective papers: "Experiencing Modernity and
the Disenchantment of the World," "A Critique of Vattimo's Interpretation
of Benjamin in the Transparent Society," and "Gathering a New Kind of
Experience".  The session was chaired by Scott Thompson of San Francisco,
who on more than one occasion had to explain that he had been incorrectly
listed in the program as representing the University of San Francisco, a
Jesuit school.  Thompson seemed most amused by the fact that members of the
IWBA and participants at its First Congress were automatically assumed to
be university professors or Phd candidates.

It should be added that, were only 150 nonacademically-affiliated,
free-lance writers, translators, and committed activists  to join this
organization, it could be steered in a decidedly different direction; and
it could eventually be wrested from the hands of the coopting academy which
would see in it a museum for the privileges of curatorship. (Before many of
the participants had even arrived on Thursday, an extremely bureaucratic
meeting of the members of IWBA was held to place control of the
organization in the hands of the plenary elite.  Why this meeting was not
held at the end of the Congress after everyone had arrived and had been
able to hear their 'leaders' was never explained.)

---------------------------Martin Jay---------------------------------------

The final plenary session of the Congress between 15.00 and 16.30 featured
Martin Jay and Susan Buck-Morss.  Jay's paper "Walter Benjamin, Remembrance
and the First World War" focused on one of the central events in Benjamin's
life: the suicide of the poet Friz Heinle.  At the outset of WWI, Heinle
and his girlfriend were found dead in the Meeting House which Benjamin and
Ernst Joel had rented for the members of the Free Students.  The event
deeply affected WB and Jay attempted to show just how it influenced some of
Benjamin's work, such as The Origins of the German Trauerspiel, which Jay
considered a kind of response to Heinle.  Benjamin's resistance to attempts
at 'healing' after the war were discussed within the context of remembrance
and redemption of the dis-membered.  Given the importance of the theme of
remembrance as a redemption of those forgotten, this participant found it
most annoying that Ernst Joel was not mentioned even in passing.

Benjamin and Joel had been adversaries during their student days when they
jointly rented the 'Meeting House', and WB's "Life of Students" contains
barbs pointed at Joel's social-welfare projects.  In the late 1920s, WB
participated in Joel's 'experimental psychopathology,' in which hashish was
used as a so-called psychotomimetic to simulate a model psychosis.  Such
experimentation inspired Benjamin's "Hashish in Marseilles" and his other
writings on the subject.  Aside from the participant from San Francisco,
not one other person mentioned Ernst Joel.  The academy has shut its gate
to this discussion.  Given this participant's own closeness to this
subject, it was rather difficult to listen to Jay without being acutely
aware that Joel had simply been air-brushed out of the picture.  Those who
doubt the importance of Joel's influence during Benjamin's student days
might look at Momme Brodersen's recently translated biography of Benjamin,
which builds on the work of Erdmut Wizisla's dissertation "Walter Benjamin
- Friedrich Heinle - Ernst Joel. Weltanschauung, Literatur und Politik in
der Berliner Freien Studentenschaft 1912-1917" (Berlin, 1987).  Benjamin
himself has discussed the importance of both Joel and Heinle in "Berlin
Chronicle" [in Reflections, trans. E.Jephcott, New York: Harcourt, Brace &
Jovanovich, 1978, pp. 16-17].

----------------------------Susan Buck-Morss-------------------------------

In her paper "Revolutionary Time: The Vanguard and the Avantgarde," Susan
Buck-Morss continued the academic self-flagellation begun by Werner
Hamacher. Beginning her talk with a quip aimed at the Dutch: "Liberals are
so open-minded their brains fall out," Buck-Morss proceeded to informally
curate an unconvincing Bolshevik Booster Rally aimed entirely at her
colleagues inside the ivy-beleaguered fortresses of  Cornell and other such
breeding grounds of working-class, blue-collar insurgence.  For the
umpteenth time we were again exhorted to feel guilty regarding the irony of
an academic WB Congress. O felix culpa.  Nostalgically bemoaning the demise
of the USSR, Buck-Morss tried to remind her colleagues of the present state
of Late Capitalism: "Socialism must be reinvented because capital demands
it."  Much of her paper focused on some of the progressive intellectual and
artistic avant-garde movements which the Vanguard party had fostered, such
as Constructivism. The importance of WB's essay on Nicolai Leskov, "The
Storyteller" [in Illuminations] and Benjamin's defense of this modernist
writer during the Stalinist seizure of power [with its concomitant
Zhdanovist aesthetics] was discussed in this context.  At the time WB wrote
this essay, Shostakovich had just put Leskov's Lady Macbeth of Minsk  to
music, and had incurred Stalin's wrath in the process. And though Benjamin
never did go to Jerusalem or New York, he did go to Moscow, she emphasized.
The Vanguard party's idea of time, however, had never found a receptive
ear in WB.

 Prof. Buck-Morss's attempt to rescue the progressive moments of the
socialist experiment, such as Russian Constructivism, was less than
convincing.  In general, her talk was aimed solely at other Benjamin
scholars inside the academy, and the radicalism she feigned seemed entirely
curricular.  When she admonished her colleagues to consider the present
conformist atmosphere in the university, the rewards attending less
threatening Phd theses, she met with resistance from Sigrid Weigel, who in
turn questioned Buck-Morss's presumptuousness regarding the supposed
privileged postion of said colleagues, particularly in Germany.  The
inauthentic nature of Buck-Morss's supposed radicalism was underscored by
her overt assumption that everyone in her audience was an academic.  By the
time the faint-hearted pseudo-socialist sermonette ended (16.30), the
increasingly opinionated tone of this San Francisco participant's notes had
begun to reflect a growing impatience with the utterly toothless portrait
of Benjamin that was being forged at this Congress.

Other participants at the Congress were also disenchanted.  One group
decided to hold its own ad hoc meeting in a pub, rather than attend one of
last  five  parallel workshops; and for most of us this was one of the high
points of the entire Congress.

-------------------------Informal Q & A Session-----------------------------

At 18.30 the entire Congress assembled in the bar of the Felix Meritis
Foundation for one last question and answer period before adjourning.  The
newly elected bureaucrats of the IWBA sat on a panel, hierarchically facing
the rest of the Congress. A memorable interchange took place between Susan
Buck-Morss and the participant from San Francisco.  Prefacing his question
with a laudatory remark on Buck-Morss's scholarly integrity regarding
Benjamin's experiments with hashish, he asked her to elaborate on the
revolutionary potential of cannabis.  This was evidently too much for the
'poor woman' (an epithet she herself had publicly used for Sigrid Weigel
just minutes prior to this exchange), for she rhetorically asked in
disbelief, "The revolutionary potential of drugs? Drugs create a
phantasmagoria. I believe in clear thinking.  I'm certainly not an
authority for you!"

Having traveled all the way from San Francisco on his own dime to read a
paper on Benjamin's uncompleted book on hashish, and determined to make
sure that these experiments of Benjamin's and the writings they fostered
would not be studiously avoided, the agitated S.F. participant could
finally hold his tongue no longer, and criticized Susan Buck-Morss for
using the highly imprecise buzzword "drug" when refering to cannabis,
expressing his own incredulousness that a person who had written the things
she had, could possibly espouse such a spurious line.  Indeed, Atty. Gen.
of the U.S., Janet Reno, and Drug Czar, Gen. Barry McCaffrey would have
cheered her official disclaimer.  For the record, this is what she wrote in

"Drugs did not themselves provide the 'profane illumination' that Benjamin
was seeking...Nonetheless, 'hashish, opium and whatever else' could
'provide the introductory course' for profane illumination, and the
recording of these sessions make it clear that the insights induced by
drugs were not insignificant to Benjamin's theoretical endeavors..."

When Warren Goldstein of the New School of Social Research spoke up on this
subject as well, adding that the translation of Benjamin's writings on this
subject have been ignored too long, he was quickly silenced with the curt
remark that such information was totally irrelevant to the discussion.  [In
a letter written after the Congress, he remarked: "I was really upset by
how the point which you tried to raise at the informal discussion (and to
which I added) was silenced. How does one understand Benjamin's later
theory of experience without the rausch of hashish (even if it is only an
'introductory lesson')?"]  At this point, there was a murmur of discontent
which rumbled through the back of the bar.  Quite a few of the younger
participants were shocked at the swiftness with which certain topics were
silenced by the proprietors of the International Walter Benjamin

 A final image concludes these notes: Martin Jay sitting magisterially
self-satisfied in his grey suit and telling us all that really, after all,
Walter Benjamin was just a total failure.  A failure as a critic, a failure
as an academic, a failure as an editor, a failure as a revolutionary, a
failure as a bookstore proprietor.  All in all, the worst model of an
intellectual to follow.  Unless, of course, you don't mind waiting for
posthumous fame.

I did not attend the buffet dinner "with music by 'Fritz the Cat and the
Hot Shots' and a lottery."  Inadvertently, the printer of the program had
revealed the truth of the whole event by mistakenly substituting a 'c' for
a 'z' in the following sentence: "Price: A paperback Walter Benjamin

Selling out Walter Benjamin seemed too a heavy price to pay.

These notes are dedicated to the memory of Ernst Joel (1893-1929).

[A version of this report with footnotes can be found in-progress on the
website of the Walter Benjamin Research Syndicate:

Scott J. Thompson
San Francisco
27. August 1997

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