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The Critic and the Public Culture:
for example, Walter Benjamin

Ivor Indyk

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into parts one & two


"The critic and the public culture" – there is a redundancy in the title which requires some explanation. The terms "public" and "culture" seem virtually synonymous to us. For what is the "public" realm, if it is not the common practices and values which we call, collectively, "culture"? And what is "culture", if it is not a common possession, and therefore, fundamentally, public?

Nevertheless, if "public culture" doesn't seem like a redundant description, at least not at the present time, that is because it has now become common to annex the word "culture" to the word "corporate", and to talk of two cultures: corporate culture, and that territory which it has all but usurped, and which we now call, for want of a better phrase, and with a quiet note of pathos or desperation, the "public culture".

For the literary critic, this situation is likely to be felt with particular keenness, because he or she stands, hemmed in, between two corporate worlds, the publishing and media industries on the one hand, the university on the other. For the university, which in the past offered a space which one thought of as belonging to the public culture, has now fallen hostage to the imperatives of the corporate culture. The most obvious sign of this is the university's active discouragement of public critical activity. No recognition for reviews, for essays in anything other than refereed journals, for newspaper or magazine articles, for contributions to public debate on radio, television or other public fora, for editing or publishing other writers' work.

It has often been said that Australia lacks the media to satisfy the critic's need to communicate with a larger public. Having sought to provide such a medium, in HEAT, I think it would be truer to say that, by and large, critics no longer feel the need to communicate with a larger public. The needs imposed on them by the corporate world in which they must now make their way are far more compelling than those which might call in the name of community, or public responsibility.

I take a literary critic to be someone vitally concerned with the reading of literature. Most critics are to be found in universities, because they have to make a living, or hope to make a living, by teaching. Teaching is a public activity, a contribution to the public culture however much it might be hedged by corporate economies, and the corporate criteria of assessable aims and outcomes. But it is, necessarily, confined in its reach; and it is offered as an increasingly expensive privilege.

I am concerned here with the kind of criticism which is available in a public way – which is accessible, reproducible, interesting and with what we might call "reach" – it has the potential to exercise an appeal beyond its immediately specified audience. The technology exists, or will soon exist, to give this kind of criticism great power. But the corporate mentality requires immediate returns, returns which are statistically verifiable, not virtual – student numbers, grant dollars, staff-student ratios – it needs to be able to count. So this power goes unrecognised.

It's unnecessary to go through the familiar litany of complaints about the ways in which the university restricts the public role of the critic. But I would like to single out three forms of restriction, in particular, the influence of which is now very apparent.

The first is the way the university now structures research activity in terms of the pursuit of large grants. Literary projects framed for large grants are expensive by definition: they favour the bureaucratic over the speculative intellect simply by virtue of the degree of management involved. Such projects are also large by definition: they do not encourage the kind of topical activity, the essayistic intervention, the readiness to comment, which is typical of public criticism. In them, the researcher is primarily responsible to the corporation rather than to the public, and it is easy to see why this should be so: since "large grants" are chief amongst the university's indicators of productivity and performance, and other forms of funding are tied to them, the university stands to gain more from them than does the individual researcher. They are, first and foremost, a means of generating corporate income.

The second problem is the requirement placed on the use of institutionally appropriate discourse, of the kind which will carry authority within or across disciplinary boundaries in the university system. Though it has authority within the university, the language of academic discourse has very little without it, and is not intended to. Viewed from the public realm, the terms of such a language seem set in concrete, limiting its accessibility and reach – from this perspective, it seems unnecessarily concerned with authority, since it has none. It appears alternately obscure, and comical.

The third problem is the way a whole generation of young literary critics is being trained for positions in the academy which don't exist, because the indices which govern the institution's income demand a high intake of postgraduates. To be funded to read, and to write about reading, is a wonderful training opportunity for a future in criticism – but if the future will not, for most, be in the university itself, why do we continue to train our critics in a language, a method, a focus, which will not equip them to operate where they are needed most, in the largely undermanned "public" realm?

The sequestration of criticism in our own period is the more marked if one thinks of the public role played in Australia by an earlier generation of critics, like Judith Wright, James McAuley, A.D. Hope, Vincent Buckley, or before them, Vance and Nettie Palmer and A.A. Phillips. Since the university was then only beginning to exercise an interest in Australian literature, it acted as a base from which the critic might write for the educated public at large, rather than as the exclusive and self-absorbed domain it has since become. The fact that so many of these critics were also poets or novelists in their own right enhanced their authority, though it would be unlikely to do so today.

Given the seriousness of the situation, I would like to focus on a figure outside our own immediate tradition, one who, by virtue of the supreme value he placed on the role of the critic, and his dedication to this role in a time of crisis, tells us much about the qualities necessary for a renewed public criticism in Australia. I mean the German literary critic Walter Benjamin, whose enormously influential writing came out of the brief period between the two World Wars, ending with his death in 1940, as he was fleeing from the Nazis.

The immediate appeal of Benjamin's work lies partly in the extraordinary sharpness of his critical perceptions, always an essential public attribute; partly in the trajectory his criticism took, from the reading of Goethe to the reading of the streets of Paris; and partly also because his rejection by the academy – he was denied his doctorate for The Origin of German Tragic Drama, one of the great critical documents of the twentieth century – was instrumental in the development of his role as both a public critic, and a critic reading the public realm. The image which has now become so well known, of Benjamin on the day before his suicide, perched on a mountainside above the border between France and Spain, clinging to a heavy black briefcase containing a recently completed manuscript, captures in an extreme form the precariousness, and risk, which is a feature of criticism practised outside the secure confines of the academy. Yet there is in Benjamin's critical writing, for all the darkness that he saw about him, and the sombre qualities of his own outlook, a lightness of touch, and a joyful lyrical quality. This lyricism has been all but banished from our own critical discourse, which is earnest, and keen to assert its theoretical credentials.

More fundamentally, what is remarkable about Benjamin's criticism, in a period of cultural disintegration, is the assurance it gives that every text worthy of interpretation, every detail and every object, has in it some intimation of a larger unity to which it belongs, and of which it is an expression. In the first place, Benjamin seems to have drawn on two complementary sources for this assurance, German romanticism, and Jewish mysticism. Certainly his early formulations were idealistic, and mystical in character. In his early essay "On Language as Such and on the Language of Man", this totality is the name, the divine creative power of the word, inherent in all languages, and in the mute communication of all things. Language is the medium of creation, set free in man, who by naming, in turn translates the nameless language of things. Regardless of what we now think of its metaphysical underpinning, the perspective allows Benjamin to assert "the material community of things in their communication", to see communication, and therefore community as fundamental qualities of the world.

A few years later, in his 1925 essay on Naples, it is a primitive folk energy, a "rich barbarism", which communicates itself in his description of the city, animating its spaces, overflowing its boundaries, empowering its inhabitants, charging its ordinary objects with mystery, so that not just the crowds in the streets, the food in the markets, but iced drinks and toothpaste, rubber balls and chocolate, fans and fireworks become possessed of magical properties. Benjamin calls this animation of the detail, this sense of the whole working in the part, porosity.In his subsequent essays on Moscow (1927) and Marseilles(1929) there is a similar kind of communication or flaring out of energy, constricted and frozen in the case of Moscow by State control, but reasserting itself wherever the folk traditions continue to find expression, as in the old pictorial shop signs in Moscow for example, which Benjamin reads like images in a poem, "shoes falling out of a basket, a Pomeranian running away with a sandal in his mouth. Pendants before the entrance to a Turkish kitchen; gentlemen, each with a fez adorning his head and each at his own little table...Often Moscow's evening sky glows in a frightening blue: one has unwittingly looked at it through one of the gigantic pairs of blue spectacles that project from optician's shops like signposts." In Marseilles the enchantment is felt in the bustle by the port, particularly in the shellfish and oyster stalls, as the shells are "sieved, grouped, counted, cracked open, thrown away", to be resurrected, on the opposite quay, as souvenirs, "the mineral hereafter of seashells", alongside inkpots and anchors, steamers and thermometers. "The pressure of a thousand atmospheres under which this world of images writhes, rears, piles up," Benjamin writes, "is the same force that is tested in the hard hands of seamen, after long voyages, on the thighs and breasts of women; and the lust that, on the shell-covered caskets, presses from the mineral world a red or blue velvet heart to be pierced with needles and brooches is the same lust that sends tremors through these streets on paydays."

The clear sense you get is that Benjamin is deliberately driving his interpretative skills as a critic into the public arena, and into that arena in which the public manifested itself in its most concentrated form, the streets and markets of the modern city. The essay on Marseilles begins with a quote from Breton, "the street…the only valid field of experience". The essay on Naples is dedicated to the Latvian Communist Asja Lacis, who had a strong influence on the social turn that Benjamin's thought took in the late 1920s. Perhaps inevitably, given the idealist perspective from which he comes, as a critic, the city first presents itself as a site of primitive energies. Yet that cannot be the only explanation, since Benjamin's readings constantly vacillate between these two extreme promises of unity, the metaphysical on the one hand, the primitive on the other, in his interpretations of Goethe or Proust or Kafka, no less than in his readings of the city street.

The text which most fully demonstrates the new social orientation in Benjamin's writing is the long essay "One Way Street", which he published in 1928. It seems remarkably ahead of its time. In it Benjamin reads his way along an imaginary street, stringing his meditations from the hooks provided by its apartments, shop fronts, displayed commodities, signs, graffiti and advertisements. The first stop, "Filling Station" contains this announcement:
The construction of life is at present in the power far more of facts than of convictions, and of such facts as have scarcely ever become the basis of convictions. Under these circumstances, true literary activity cannot aspire to take place within a literary framework; this is, rather, the habitual expression of its sterility. Significant literary effectiveness can come into being only in a strict alternation between action and writing; it must nurture the inconspicuous forms that fit its influence in active communities better than does the pretentious, universal gesture of the book – in leaflets, brochures, articles and placards. Only this prompt language shows itself actively equal to the moment. Opinions are to the vast apparatus of social existence what oil is to machines: one does not go up to a turbine and pour machine oil over it; one applies a little to hidden spindles and joints that one has to know.
It is typical of Benjamin that he should go for the spindles and joints, the small details on which the operation of the whole depends. He notes approvingly elsewhere how, in Proust, "remembrance progresses from small to smallest details, from the smallest to the infinitesimal, while that which it encounters in these microcosms grows ever mightier". The movement is similar to that which Benjamin inherits from Romanticism and Jewish mysticism, both of which dwell in the ruin, the fragment, stressing the limitations of the object, its incompleteness, in order to return it to the totality from which it draws its significance.

In "One Way Street" some of the objects, those from which the life has fled, or the manufactured objects accumulated by the bourgeoisie, which never had life, do not answer to the interpreter's gaze – "the luxury goods swaggering before us now parade such brazen solidity that all the mind's shafts break harmlessly on their surface." Others, like the objects which the child transforms in play, or those which have the magic of tradition or fairy-tale about them, open onto larger worlds. There is a remarkable description of a shooting range, where the striking of the bull's-eye triggers the unfolding of a mechanical tableau. Hence the large door with its target: "if you have hit the mark it opens, and before red plush curtains stands a Moor who seems to bow slightly. He holds a golden bowl before him. On it lie three pieces of fruit. The first opens; a tiny person stands inside it and bows. In the second, two equally diminutive puppets revolve in a dance. (The third did not open.)"

These little narratives, these worlds that open within worlds, are not accidental. Benjamin particularly valued the qualities of "tact" and "politeness", as the qualities appropriate to a critic who would do justice to the significance, the intimations of totality, present in ordinary things. Tact, he defined in an essay on the great Austrian critic Karl Kraus, as a kind of "moral alertness", "the capacity to treat social relationships…as natural, even paradise relationships, and so not only to approach the king as if he had been born with the crown on his brow, but the lackey like an Adam in livery." The same respect was to be given to plants, to animals, to children. Politeness is another form of tact, important both because it is itself the appearance of grace and dignity in the ordinary actions of an individual, and because it is an attitude of "alert openness" to the humble, the comic, the extreme, the unexpected. (Alertness is very close to that attitude of "astonishment" which Benjamin would later claim as the appropriate response to the work of Kafka or Brecht.)

There is an interesting gloss on "politeness" in the essay "Hashish in Marseilles", which describes how Benjamin, after smoking hashish, succumbed to hunger, which required a visit to Basso's restaurant. Here he ordered oysters from the menu, and a local dish as a main course. The waiter returned to say that his choice of main course was unavailable, and offered him the menu a second time. Benjamin's finger hovers over the previously chosen dish, then settles on the dish directly above it, which he orders. Then he orders the dish above that one, and the next dish, and the next, all the way to the top of the menu. "This was not just from greed, however," Benjamin comments, "but from an extreme politeness toward the dishes, which I did not wish to offend by a refusal." The tiny person who stands inside the first piece of fruit and bows is an expression of this politeness; the two puppets revolving in a dance in the second fruit, an expression of that dance of significance, that unity which is felt, appropriately but with astonishment, in the most unexpected places. The third fruit did not open, testifying to the unreliability of the world, the spots in it which refuse to respond, or have no life.

Continue with part two of this essay.

Bibliographical references, author's biographical note and relevant links can be found at the conclusion ofpart twoof this essay.

Please feel free to contribute to this discourse.

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