The Distracted Schlemiel: Empirical Consciousness, Reading, and Distraction (Take 1)

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One of the definitive gestures of the schlemiel is distraction.  Nearly all of schlemiels we see in Yiddish literature are, in some way, shape, or form, distracted from the world they are living in or something that, for us, would seem obvious.  They are “absent-minded.” One prime example of this kind of distraction would be Sholom Aleichem’s character Motl.  In Motl, the Cantor’s Son, Motl’s father dies, his family goes into dire poverty, and his mother weeps constantly; nonetheless, Motl is so distracted by this or that physical detail that he cannot understand what is going on around him.  His distraction, however, is directly related to his youth and his innocence.  For Aleichem, it is simply natural.  He is not corrupted, so to speak, by the conventions of the world.  His consciousness is preoccupied or rather distracted by empirical details (not facts and not theories).

One of the things that I would like to do in this blog is to understand the meaning of this gesture of distraction.  What framework should we use to approach distraction?  Is distraction a way of challenging the status quo?  Or is it something that we should, as Bergson might say, laugh away?  Does distraction get in the way of what he would call élan vital?  Or is it élan vital?

A good place to start is with a thinker who has devoted some space to the reflection on distraction; namely, Walter Benjamin.  He mentions distraction in many places.  In his essay on “Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” and in his essay “Motifs in Baudelaire,” Benjamin notes that shock – whether by modern technology, film, or Dadaist art – distracts the viewer from contemplation of the object.   As Rodolph Gasche says in an essay on Benjamin entitled “Cutting in on Distance,” “with Dadaist art, and even more so with film since its distracting element rests on structural features such as cutting and montage, the object character of the artwork recedes entirely, and thus a radical diversion from what attracts – the singular object of the auratic work with its luring and enticing qualities – has effectively been achieved”(97, Of Minimal Things).

Distraction, in other words, is a modern phenomena that challenges the philosophical position of the contemplating subject.

Rodolphe Gasche ventures the claim that the precursor for Walter Benjamin’s foray into distraction was Immanuel Kant.  But, and here is the catch, Benjamin would be more attracted to Kant’s descriptions of empirical consciousness than to his view of the transcendental subject.

Gasche notes that for the Kant of the First Critique, “the distracted consciousness is unable to combine coherently a manifold of intuitions into one consciousness…Empirical consciousness is not only diverse and distracted in the different representations that may accompany but also distracted in itself, and thus is in no situation to secure self-coherence, or self-identity, authoritatively”(100).

In the Anthropology, Kant writes: “Distraction is the state of diverting attention from certain ruling ideas by means of shifting to other dissimilar ideas.  If the distraction is intentional, it is called dissipation; if it is called involuntary it is absentmindedness.”

Gasche argues that Benjamin was interested in involuntary distraction, that is, absentmindedness.  For Benjamin, the crowd watching a movie is not intentionally distracted.  No.  They are unintentionally distracted.  As Gasche argues, their distraction is “habitual.”

Strangely enough, Gasche notes that although Kant obviously didn’t live through the birth of the cinema, he did live in an era when novels were becoming more and more popular.  For this reason, Kant saw the novel as a distraction: “the reading of novels, in addition to causing many other mental discords, has also the consequence of making distraction habitual.”  Gasche adds that, for Kant, reading fiction “makes for habitual absentmindedness.”

When one reads, one cannot be self-present.

One wonders what Kant would say about someone who reads a novel about a character that is absent-minded.   To be sure, Benjamin affirms this kind of absentmindedness as it is a radically empirical way of relating to the world.   Instead of acting in relation to the world from a position of self-presence and knowledge, the distracted reader-slash-viewer acts on the world in an oblique (yet habitual manner).   One could say that the schlemiel, while distracted, does act in a habitual way.  One can certainly say that about schlemiels like Motl or Gimpel.

Gasche notes that “in these times” problems still need to be “solved.”  However, they are not to be solved by the self-present individual. Rather, the best person or people to solve the problems of our times are the distracted masses: “the only problem solving that has a chance of succeeding is that which occurs in an incidental fashion but has become habitual, hence repetitive and reproducible and not unique or singular, and which consequently does not focus or concentrate on what causes the problems”(101).

In other words, Gasche, paraphrasing Benjamin, is suggesting that the distracted masses can change the world, not the people who understand these causes of problems.  What needs to be cultivated, says Gasche, are “repetitive habitual modes of reaction” that prevent us from focusing on the “spell of what obtains here and now.”

This suggests that the masses should not be pragmatic; rather, the distracted masses are necessarily absent-minded and utopian.  Yet not going toward utopia by way of an idea so much as by way of “repetitive habitual modes of reaction.”

Gasche suggests that the “first citizen of a world without magic” is the collective subject.  However, Gasche notes that “a strange silence hovers about this world emancipated from myth.”   To be sure, I would argue that the strange silence has to do with the possibility of fascism.  Indeed, the distracted masses can go in any direction.  They can even, as Benjamin notes, celebrate death and aestheticize violence.  Indeed, there are many kinds of habits that can develop out of distraction many of which are terrifying.

But this isn’t what Gasche hears from the “strange silence.”  Rather, he hears something else: “In its utter profanity and blankness, the world devoid of myth points to what it cannot name, that from which the very meaning of the “profane” remains suspended”(102).

How does this all relate to the schlemiel?   Do we, in viewing the schlemiel, see what the world devoid of myth points to but cannot name?   Or does the strange silence that attends the schlemiel point us elsewhere?

Taking Benjamin and his anti-Kantian affirmation of distraction to heart, one can say that Benjamin would not shy away from the observation that we are all schlemiels.  He would say that we are all absent-minded because we are all shocked by cinema, technology, and the speed of modernity. Given this reading, can we say that social networking – constantly checking our facebook page, our email, and texting; constantly updating and looking for updates – has made us all into the absent-minded schlemiels who can do nothing more than habitually react to events, cellphones, and computers, etc?

In short, like a schlemiel, we can’t really think.  Like schlemiels, we merely react to this or that experience with this or that habit.  And this, somehow, will solve all of our problems.   This or that absent-minded reaction – to this or that crisis or shock – is the best we have.

But can we simply accept the celebration of distraction?  Can we simply celebrate absent-mindedness?  Or should we run from it – as Kant would suggest – like the plague?  And what does it mean to know that the masses are absent-minded?  Is Benjamin, the critic, also absent-minded?  Or does the intelligensia decide what habits to inculcate the schlemiel-population with?

I ask these questions at the end of this post because I think Gasche misses only one point; namely, that Benjamin struggled with the meaning of education.  As I mentioned in an earlier blog entry, Sancho Panza, the rationalist, follows Don Quixote (a fool).  But what did he learn from him?  Would Sancho Panza carry on Don Quixote’s legacy and be a fool for the next Sancho Panza or would he teach the next generation a different habitus?  Is Benjamin, like Sancho Panza, just watching the schlemiel (watching the distracted masses and its habitual reactions), bearing witness, and nothing more?   Is that all Benjamin or we can do?

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