The Distracted Schlemiel: Empirical Consciousness, Reading, and Distraction (Take 2)


The schlemiel can’t think, philosophically.  S/he is distracted by the heterogeneity of experience and seems to be endlessly playing around with all kinds of details, events, and relationships.  However, s/he is not upset over the fact that he or she cannot understand the meaning-of-it-all.  The schlemiel is not a detective (though some attempt to be).  And is not frustrated by his or her inability to know.  The schlemiel’s only frustrations are based in experience.

What concerns the schlemiel most is contacting and being contacted by whatever happens (no matter how arbitrary).  However, the experience of contact need not be bound to reality; it can also be bound to dreams.  The relationship of the reader or viewer to the schlemiel is joined by way of such real or imagined experiences.

To be sure, in the schlemiel there is joy that is purely relational.  The reader follows not so much the character as the way the schlemiel glides across the surfaces of things and into and out of relationships with the animate and inanimate.  The schlemiel’s trajectory moves through the domain of experience by way of his/her actions not by way of his or her thoughts.

However, what may avert the reader or viewer’s eye is the fact that because this distracted movement is not simply absent-minded (and, as Kant would say, unintentional); it is innocent.  This point, while seemingly arbitrary, is something that Rodolphe Gasche, in his important reading of distraction in Kant and Walter Benjamin, misses.

The innocence of the schlemiel goes hand in hand with humility which is not based on a contemplation of God; rather, it is an unintentional or distracted humility. It is based on a powerlessness that permeates this character and his/her absent-minded actions.  The fact of the matter is that the schlemiel is constantly distracted from himself by a sea of relations.  The schlemiel has no power over reality.  S/he cannot, in a Kantian fashion, live according to a regulative ideal as he/she is too busy dealing with this or that experience.  His/her humility and innocence are based on this failure.  It consists in the schlemiel’s being constantly distracted.

We see a good example of this in Shalom Aleichem’s Motl the Cantor’s Son.  In this novel, Motl, the main character, is an innocent young man who is often distracted.  The words used to describe his distraction trace his movement from one thing to another in rapid succession.  Here’s one instance in which Motl thinks he is meeting up with Meni, the neighbor’s calf.  But then, all of a sudden, he wakes up and realizes it’s just a dream.  The transition from dream to reality is really the movement from one distraction to another:

A guest comes to me – Meni the neighbor’s little calf is looking at me with knowing eyes and says, Come! We run downhill to the pond.  Not wasting any time, I roll up my trouser legs, and plop!  I’m in the pond.  I swim, and Meni swims after me.  The other side is lovely.  There’s no cantor here, no Dobtzi, no sick father.  I wake up – its’ just a dream.  Run away! Run away! Where to? Home, naturally.

After running home, he realizes that, because he was distracted, he is late.  But this doesn’t keep him from being distracted by the rhythm of his movement or his voice:

But Hersh-Ber is already up before me.  He has a huge tuning fork that he bangs on his teeth and then places near his ear. He tells me to dress quickly and go with him to shul…Come! My brother Elyahu says to me.  ‘You’ll see Papa!’ We go home together.  He walks, and I skip.  I run, I fly.

In these passages, and countless others, we see Motl being distracted by one thing after another.  In Aleichem’s The Further Adventures of Menachem-Mendl, an epistolary novel, we see similar forms of distraction in relation to Menachem-Mendl.  However, at the very beginning of the book, we see that distraction is not simply a part of Menachem-Mendl’s life and reflections (as they are with Motl); rather, in America, distraction is built into the very process of making the news (and the structure of the news itself).  Mendel reports this amazing discovery to his family in Europe in a letter:

I had thought that everything they printed in their papers they had actually written themselves.  It isn’t that way at all.  What a joke!   You would really find this amazing!  A fellow sits at a large table (there it is called a “desk”), piled high with newspapers from all over the world, snipping away with a pair of scissors like a cloak-cutter and opposite him sits a boy with fat lips, also with scissors in hand, cutting up a novel.  I could swear it was familiar, one of those trashy Shomer romances.   The boy with the fat lips reads the book while chewing something and snips away, here a page, there a page – and by morning, you have a story!

Following this passage, one will notice several others in which things seem to happen all of a sudden.  It’s as if Menachem-Mendl is constantly being distracted by this or that action or event.  To be sure, reading the novel, one feels as if one is constantly turning one’s head to one surprise or another.  And in the process, the point of it all seems to be lost and supplanted by endless distraction.

What we have here with these schlemiels is what Immanuel Kant would call an empirical consciousness.  As I noted in yesterday’s blog, Gasche, following Kant, describes empirical consciousness as follows: “Empirical consciousness is not only diverse and distracted in the different representations that it may accompany but also distracted in itself, and thus is in no situation to secure self-coherence, or self-identity, authoritatively”(100).

In his Anthropology, Kant expands on the notion of empirical consciousness by noting that: “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.”

Kant saw the affect of absentmindedness in the act of reading novels and found such activity as detrimental to thinking.  If anything, reading would confuse the subject and prevent it from “securing self-coherence” or “self-identity.”

And as we can see in the passages above, one experience or another comes to distract Motl and Menachem-Mendl.  They are, for this reason, what Kant would call absent-minded.  Reading them, one cannot help but think that their distraction is innocent and not intentional.  And the reason for this has to do with the fact that there is an overflow of fragments and movements that overwhelm their consciousness and the text.  The overflow is so great that they, literally, have no time to “secure self-coherence” or “self-identity.”

What makes these texts so interesting is that both are obsessed with movement and distraction.  However, one is more quasi-natural (Motl’s distraction, which is associated with dream of nature) while the other is not (Menachem-Mendl’s distraction, which is associated with text).  It can nonetheless  be argued that both forms of distraction, which are the bread and butter of the schlemiel, are based on 1) the character and the writer paying close attention to movement and 2) the writer being acutely aware of how writing is intrinsically an act of constant distraction.  Both forms of distraction localize on pre-modern characters from Eastern Europe, but they are thoroughly modern insofar as they take distraction as their concern and pose a challenge to Immanuel Kant’s privileging of transcendental consciousness.

When it comes to absent-mindedness and distraction, Walter Benjamin parts company with Kant.  He privileges absent-mindedness; Kant does not.  For Kant, the philosopher and the “Enlightened” individual are not absent-minded, the masses are.  Kant believed that the masses should follow the lead of the philosopher, not the other way around.  Enlightenment was achieved only if absent-mindedness was sacrificed on the alter of the autonomous subject.  Benjamin thought the contrary was the case: profane illumination comes to those who are distracted.   In other words, we can learn more from being distracted than from being rational and self-present.  We can learn more from Motl and Menachem-Mendl than we can from Kant.

Benjamin, however, doesn’t simply privilege the masses and their absent-mindedness because he thinks that empirical consciousness is better than transcendental consciousness.  For Benjamin, it is better because it is directly related to humankind’s experiential relationship with history and technology which has become more and more absent-minded.  To be sure, Benjamin thought of his critical role as going hand-in-hand with describing and recording distraction and the dissolution of the transcendental subject into the empirical subject.  Instead or reading this in a tragic way, Benjamin read such dissolution as a form of liberation and gave it great attention.  Strangely enough, he was very focused on distraction.  And what better place to study distraction that in the novel (which Kant saw as a source of distraction) and cinema (the modern source of distraction)?

In the passages we have cited from Aleichem, we can see that Aleichem’s fiction is obsessed with linking fragmented actions or texts together to make for a flickering kind of movement.  To be sure, Aleichem’s fiction foreshadows the cinema.   His characters are constantly being distracted and are on an endless detour.  And this detour goes hand in hand with an exposure of the body to many different threads of experience.

In Aleichem’s stories one is, like the schlemiels he features as main characters, constantly taken by surprise.  This constant surprise makes for the schlemiel’s absent-mindedness.  It also makes for a kind of innocence that is based on one thing alone: distraction.   In this manner, one can argue that the novel privileges experience as a way of life rather than the life of the mind as a way of life.  In Aleichem’s work, however, experience is not simply relegated to the realm of art; experience, for Aleichem, is an ethos. It is permeated by an absent-mindedness and an innocence in which the schlemiel substitutes – unintentionally – relationality for transcendental consciousness.

While this sounds wonderful, there is a problem, which we haven’t discussed. It has to do with the schlemiel’s inability to understand suffering and the workings of evil.   For instance, while Motl is distracted by this or that thing, he cannot understand the death of his father, his mother’s suffering, or his poverty.  This problem, I would argue, is also found in Benjamin’s work.  And it is a problem that Benjamin looked to address in his work by looking into the relationship of innocence (the comic) to guilt (the tragic). He looked to ground this relationship in experience yet, he knew full well, that the best way to address them was by way of a reflection that was based on a reading of the comic (in general) and himself (in particular).

Absent-mindedness and the innocence and humility that comes along with it may be an ethos of sorts but this ethos comes with a price.  And it beckons us to think about why the distracted character is so important for writers like Aleichem and thinkers like Benjamin.

In the next few blogs, I would like to take a deeper look into this ethos of absent-minded innocence and its implications.  Walter Benjamin, from a young age until his untimely death, clung to the relationship of innocence to absent-mindedness.  As I hope to show, his empirical – and I would add, literary – consciousness is tied directly to this comic element.

2 thoughts on “The Distracted Schlemiel: Empirical Consciousness, Reading, and Distraction (Take 2)

  1. I like you critique of Rodolphe Gasche’s reception of Kant and Benjamin as overlooking the innocence behind the schlemiel’s distractedness.

    I’d also like to run something by you and see if we can push the implications of the schlemiel’s childlike innocence a bit further and expand your claim that “the fact of the matter is that the schlemiel is constantly distracted from himself by a sea of relations.” It seems that the figure of the schlemiel lacks a stable identity or selfhood—his own mind is “other” to him. In that sense, it is as if one is constantly in competition with the schlemiel’s mind (fixated on movement, objects, etc) for the schlemiel’s attention.

    Distraction inherently lacks structure, routine, and coherence. Perhaps this is why Gasche and Benjamin link distractedness with the profane. I think this observation gains even more weight when you consider that from its Latin roots pro fano means “before the temple.” In other words, distractedness is what transpires outside the space of ritual, authority, power, routine, and censure. Therein lies the positive and unlimited potential of distractedness in the Kantian sense.

    Much to think about here. Thanks for the posts!

  2. Its interesting that you mention this. In Gasche’s reading of Benjamin, he also notes that distraction goes along with a habit of sorts. But, yes, it is a habit that goes against the grain because it doesn’t give in to power. But this is the case only insofar as it unintentionally resists power and routine. Distraction is, so to speak, an “innocent” kind of revolt. And this is what makes it so fascinating. It’s much more novel than the revolutionary gesture which often prides its self with knowing and doing what is right. I hope to pursue this distracted kind of ethos in future blogs. Thanks for your reflection, Shaina. I need to align innocence and distraction with discourses of power. It makes sense.

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