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

Part two

Ivor Indyk

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Here the critic's gaze evokes a response in the object. As Benjamin puts it in his essay on "The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism", the interpreter calls the object "into wakefulness". This responsive quality in the object, this coming alive, is what Benjamin in his later work on photography will call its "aura". Given his original standpoint in idealism, his insistence on the divine impress carried by the fragment, his constant reference to this as "semblance" ("Schein" in German),a kind of flaring out of illumination or radiance, we could think of aura as some kind of spiritual emanation. Alternatively, in view of his use of the concept of "porosity", to describe the way primitive energies express themselves through actions and objects, we might think of it as a chthonic force or power. (The effect is similar to the electricities that break out through Prichard's characters and landscapes.) But neither is the case. The concept of aura, which is articulated at quite a late stage in Benjamin's work, marks out a middle ground between the metaphysical and the primitive, a ground which is fundamentally social and historical. In his essay "Some Motifs in Baudelaire", published in 1939, he describes it thus:

…looking at someone carries the implicit expectation that our look will be returned by the object of our gaze. Where this expectation is met…there is an experience of the aura to the fullest extent. Experience of the aura [in objects] thus rests on the transposition of a response common in human relationships to the relationship between the inanimate or natural object and man. The person we look at, or who feels he is being looked at, looks at us in turn. To perceive the aura of an object we look at means to invest it with the ability to look at us in return.
This seems to echo Benjamin's vision in "On Language as Such and on the Language of Man", of a world in which everything is in communication, each expressing itself in its own language which is in turn a manifestation of pure language, the Divine Word. But there is no transcendental origin in this later formation, which is based on the communication between two human beings, and is therefore fundamentally social. In "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", Benjamin defines the aura of a work of art as an expression of "its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be". Distance is essential to this experience of aura: the object addresses the interpreter from its own time, and out of its own time. Yet this time isn't fixed. The temporal existence expressed in the aura of an object, is "all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced". The communication that takes place in the auratic moment is one between the present and the past as embodied in the object, but this past is itself dynamic, an accumulation of present moments, including the present in which the object is now observed. Our term for this historical process, in which the past is continually made present through our objects, is of course "tradition". The aura of an object is a kind of patina, a coating, a weaving of the accretions of significance with which it is endowed as an agent of tradition. As Benjamin says of the art object, its uniqueness, which is to say, its aura, "is inseparable from its being embedded in the fabric of tradition". Mechanical reproduction threatens to detach the reproduced object "from the domain of tradition", by bringing it wholly into our own time without at the same time bringing the associations it has gathered in the course of its history.

Significantly, Benjamin's notion of "aura" corresponds exactly to his understanding of the task of the literary critic, as defined in "Literary History and the Study of Literature": this is to be aware of the literary work's entire life and effects, its fate, its reception, its translations, its fame. "For with this the work is transformed inwardly into a microcosm, or indeed a microeon. What is at stake is not to portray literary works in the context of their age, but to represent the age that perceives them – our age – in the age during which they arose." It is this reciprocity and return of recognition, across the distance of time, which turns literature, according to Benjamin, into "an organon of history" – which is to say, into an agent of tradition.

And yet… What Benjamin experienced during the period in which he lived was a crisis in tradition. The auratic moments of communication with the past which he describes are sporadic and fugitive in their operation. They flash out, fleetingly, and then sink back into the stream of things. False and demonic appearances of aura (as for example in the Nazi invocations of tradition) abound. Some of the contemporary artists whom Benjamin most admires, Loos and Le Corbusier in architecture, Atget in photography, Brecht in the drama, are concerned to drive out the intimations of aura, to start afresh with few resources. "The most urgent task of the present-day writer," Benjamin wrote in 1934 in "The Author as Producer", "is to recognize how poor he is and how poor he has to be in order to begin again from the beginning."

Others, like Kafka and Proust, meet tradition as something grown strange or pathological, or substitute in its absence the personal disciplines of memory. It's significant, I think, that whenever Benjamin tries to convey the sense of aura, this intimate communication between past and present in tradition, it is always as an isolated, paradisal moment, a moment of pastoral fulfilment. "While at rest on a summer's noon," is how the famous formulation goes, "to trace a range of mountains on the horizon, or a branch that throws its shadow on the observer, until the moment or the hour become part of their appearance – this is what it means to breathe the aura of those mountains, that branch." But of course the reality was quite different. As Benjamin argued in his 1933 essay "Experience and Poverty", the First World War had set tradition at nought. "A generation that had gone to school in horse-drawn streetcars now stood in the open air, amid a landscape in which nothing was the same except the clouds and, at its centre, in a force field of destructive torrents and explosions, the tiny, fragile human body." It was in this spirit that he saw in the early version of Mickey Mouse, a figure similar to the characters of Kafka. "Mickey Mouse proves," he wrote with heavy irony, and a small measure of hope, in 1931, "that a creature can still survive even when it has thrown off all resemblance to a human being." The kind of world in which he found himself, increasingly, was a world in which things did not return the look of human recognition. The life of tradition had withdrawn from them, leaving them empty, like ruins, in its wake.

This is the world which Benjamin sought to articulate in the work which so offended the representatives of the academic establishment in 1925, The Origin of German Tragic Drama.Instead of a living tradition, in these dramas, Benjamin wrote, "the word 'history' stands written on the countenance of nature in the characters of transience". Instead of aura, what they offer to the gaze of the interpreter, is allegory. For the distinguishing feature of the allegorical object is that it no longer has a life of its own. Only in this way, can it be taken to stand for something else. Even here, Benjamin finds hope. For if the object, dead to itself, can be taken to mean something else, then it still lies within the power of the interpreter to give it significance, however schematic, however arbitrary. This is the consolation offered to a gaze which must remain, however, melancholy and alienated. Or worse. Since the allegorical attribution is more or less arbitrary, the object itself alternates between the ostentation of its allegorical appearance, and the disconsolate character of its everyday appearance as a ruin or a corpse. The gaze of the interpreter also swings between fascination and disappointment, as the object he recovers allegorically, he must abandon after its exhaustion. This compulsive taking up and discarding of objects, in the yearning for significance, Benjamin likens to the behaviour of an ape. And there is more. In an insight which Benjamin must have seen borne out in the allegorical posturings of the Nazis, he notes that "evil…exists only in allegory, is nothing other than allegory, and means something other than what it is. It means precisely the non-existence of what it presents."

I have been using Benjamin himself – or rather, his writings – in an auratic fashion, because they have a lot to say that is relevant now in defining the interpretive stance appropriate to a critic operating in, and on, the public culture. Of course, though I began by noting how that culture is under threat in Australia, it is in no way as threatened as the culture whose decline Benjamin witnessed. Nevertheless, his perceptions, born of an intense engagement which perhaps only a sense of crisis can bring, are of great relevance to our own situation.

I'm thinking not only of his commitment, as a critic, to understanding the threatening complexities of his time, though this is an important consideration. He never surrendered that magical sense of reciprocity and recognition between human beings, and between human beings and their world, which informs his work from the beginning, though his determination to mould it to the exigencies of his time, and specifically to the service of dialectical materialism, must have seemed at times, and certainly to some of his friends, to go against his natural inclinations. One of the most remarkable aspects of his work is the way he was able to transform the notion of aura, which had its roots in idealism, and mysticism, into a political understanding of the distancing effect at work in Brecht's epic theatre. Brecht's habit of interrupting or punctuating the action gave his plays a gestural quality: in that moment, in which the gesture was held, what became apparent, as though by a stroke of lightning, were the material conditions that gave the gesture its meaning. The proper reaction in the audience was one of astonishment, born of recognition. The terminology is very similar to that Benjamin used to describe the moment of reciprocal recognition in the aura, only now it is not tradition which provides the ground for it, but the dialectical view of history as a struggle for control of the means of production. In his famous formulation: "The conditions which Epic theatre reveals is the dialectic at a standstill." But in all other respects, the stance, the vocabulary, the moment of recognition, the attitude is a familiar one. "Epic theatre makes life spurt up high from the bed of time and, for an instant, hover iridescent in empty space. Then it puts it back to bed."

It is not this note, though, that I want to end on. What is most compelling for me about Benjamin is his timeliness, his almost palpable sense of time, which can only come from being thoroughly immersed in time. More than any other thinker I know, he felt time as a medium, a texture, the way it warps and folds back on itself, flows or congeals, inhibits action or gives it grace. He once wrote that the best visual equivalent of the aura was to be found in Van Gogh's late paintings, by which he meant not simply the halo which surrounds his objects, but the coarse weave of Van Gogh's brushstrokes, the wrinkledeffect which it gives to his objects. Benjamin was particularly sensitive to the strange deformations wrought by tradition as it faltered or flared out under the pressure of time, particularly conscious of what could be called the pathologies of time. This is most obvious in his interpretations of Kafka, the way, as he notes, the threatening force of the future is felt in Kafka's work as a distortion of the present, so that he is incapable of portraying any event without distortion; the way, again, the present is slowed down by the terrible weight of an uninformed past, especially apparent in Kafka's figures of authority, who seem to wake from a vegetative existence, and act out of a deep sense of exhaustion, as if they lived in the time of cosmic epochs, had eons to move, displacing the sheer mass of dead time in every gesture they made. In another essay, Benjamin presented time as a whirlpool, "in which earlier and later events, the prehistory and posthistory of an event swirl". Of Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu, with its combination of aging and remembrance, he spoke of time as a braid, an intertwining. In Julien Green, he noted how the work would suddenly fall, in its treatment of family history, into the deep recesses of primal history, as if a corridor had suddenly opened in time. Of Hofmannsthal he wrote: "The country no longer had a future. And so…the time that was yet to come was, as it were, all rolled up into the past, like a scroll, and became a sort of underworld of the future, one haunted by only the oldest of things."

These irruptions of the primeval into the present seem to me particularly characteristic of Australian literature, though the warpings of tradition which they represent exist there for different reasons to those Benjamin saw in the literature and objects of his own period. The vacillation between the metaphysical and the primitive, so dominant in Benjamin, is likewise, one of the basic reflexes of our culture. So too is that other, fundamental, set of polarities by which Benjamin sought to define the power, and the pathology, of tradition, the movement between aura and allegory, in the critic's mode of apprehension. It is this movement between the auratic and the allegorical, often in the same work, which is one of the most powerful characteristics of Australian writing, binding authors like Slessor or Prichard, Murray or Kefala or Mudrooroo, whom we would normally put in different if not in opposing camps.

There has been much talk, in Australian criticism, about the sense of place in Australia, and the mapping of its spaces. But what these polarities – the oscillation between aura and allegory, the metaphysical and the primitive – point to, is the extremely tenuous hold that tradition has here. Australia is a country with many histories, many of them suppressed or only partially told, existing side by side or overlaid, operating according to radically different scales of time. Time for us, too, is wrinkled and folded, and pierced with discontinuities. It is time, not space, which is the really difficult problem in Australia; and it is timeliness, not just as a willingness to act, but as the ability to position oneself, that is the quality we need most in our critics.

Ivor Indyk is the founding editor of the literary journalHEAT. A critic, essayist and reviewer, he has written a monograph on David Malouf, published by Oxford University Press in 1993, and essays on many aspects of Australian literature. He lectures on English and Australian literature at the University of Sydney.

Bibliographical Note

The section of this essay devoted to Walter Benjamin could not have been written without the two-volume Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, published by Belknap/Harvard University Press (Cambridge, Mass and London, 1999). Volume 1 covers the period 1913-1926, Volume 2 1927-1934. I have drawn on the following essays collected in the Selected Writings(the sources are given by volume and page number, with specific citations in parentheses): "On Language as Such and on the Language of Man", I, 62-74 (pp.73-74); "Naples", I,414-421; "Moscow", II, 22-46 (p.39); "Marseilles", II, 232-236(pp.234-35); "One Way Street", I, 444-48(pp.444,454,473); "Karl Kraus", II, 433-458 (pp.436-37); "Ibizan Sequence", II, 587-594 (pp.587-88); "Hashish in Marseilles", II,673-79 (p.676); "The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism", I,116-200 (p.147); "Literary History and the Study of Literature", II, 459-465 (p.464); "The Author as Producer", II, 768-782 (p.776); "Little History of Photography", II, 507-530 (pp.518-19); "Experience and Poverty", II, 731-36 (p.732); "MickeyMouse", II, 545-46 (p.545); "On the Image of Proust",II, 237-47 (p.244); "Julien Green", II, 331-36 (p.335);"Theological Criticism", II, 428-32 (p.429).

Reference is also made to the following works of Walter Benjamin: "Some Motifs in Baudelaire", in Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, trans. Harry Zohn (London & New York: Verso, 1989), pp.147-48; "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken, 1969), pp.220-21; The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne (London & New York: Verso, 1998), pp.177,185,233; "What is Epic Theatre?" in Understanding Brecht, trans. Anna Bostock (London: NLB, 1977), pp.12-13; "Franz Kafka", in Illuminations, pp.111-40.

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