Ernst Bloch and Tradition – Take 2


What does Ernst Bloch mean by the “rectification” as opposed to the “reification” of heritage?  And how does he justify rectification?  And, most importantly (at least for this blog), how does this relate to the tradition of the schlemiel?

As I pointed out in my last blog entry, Bloch is in favor of a “cultural surplus” which emerges from the “utopian function.”  Such a cultural surplus would be “beyond any kind of ideology.”  According to Bloch, one creates such a surplus by creating culture.  But here’s the twist.  By creating culture, Bloch does not mean that we create something that is “new” in the sense of something that is completely “modern.”  To be sure, Bloch’s understanding of cultural creation is related to the utopian function, which is inseparable from tradition.

This creation includes actual artworks and cultural criticism.

But what makes his criticism or this or that artwork an act of “rectification” is the fact that they include what he calls an “anticipatory illumination.”  These illuminations, he insists, are not in the service of ideology.  Rather, they are the “useful information of justice.”  In other words, when criticism or art dig into tradition what they bring out, in their anticipatory illuminations, is “information” that can be used toward achieving justice.

It seems that the justification of this cultural work of rectification can be found in this end and no other.  However, some people may rightfully find this vague.  To be sure, they may accuse Bloch of embellishment.  Anticipating this claim, Bloch notes, in his essay “Art and Society,” that anticipatory illumination is not a rhetorical figure; rather, it is a “structured illumination”:

If this anticipatory illumination, as structured illumination, has nothing in common with embellishment – rather, if it is based more on the tendency and latency of the time and on the unknown essence (das Eigentliche) in which the world (not art) could attain its aim – that this is realism. (49)

Bloch’s turn toward realism is telling since it seems to echo the turn to realism made by Georg Lukacs.   But Bloch explains:

To be sure, though, this is certainly not naturalism.  It is that realism of tendency and latency (the realism that touches on both) that includes the latent frames of the powerful reality of Velasquez, Balzac, and Tolstoy, just as it made the widest reality of the powerful latency of Goethe’s Faust. (49)

Bloch’s words may confuse many a reader, but what one must realize is that he is not using realism in the typical sense nor is he is citing Velasquez et al as examples of realism. Rather, he is including their work and Goethe’s Faust as illustrating both aspects of “anticipatory illumination”: tendency and latency.

The meaning of these terms can help us to understand what Bloch means by “rectification.”   Taken together, what these works do is to create what Bloch calls the “hypothetical in the cultural heritage.”  They do this by “converting” the material of the tradition into art:

The continual and effective conversion of the material into the hypothetical in the cultural heritage, that is, in the utopian surplus as both heritage and anticipatory illumination, sublates the material in such a minimal way that it opens up its potential in the most vigorous manner and articulates its horizon. (50)

By becoming a hypothetical, by becoming a real possibility, the cultural heritage becomes relevant.  On the one hand it does not, in a Hegelian manner, become surpassed; on the other hand, by giving it attention, it doesn’t become some kind of ideal.  It is materialized:

Due to this process, material is not left idealistically or even surpassed.  Rather, it continues to enlighten, opens itself up more and more to us, to the coming foundation of consensus, to that which has yet to become, that which has still not been accomplished, but which has not been thwarted in existence, in existence as realm. (50)

At this moment in the text, Bloch concludes that now, in this stage of his argument, the difference between “tradition” and “producing the future is dissolved”:

Thus the difference between tradition and producing the future is dissolved; certainly the contrast is dissolved.  The revelation of truth in the cultural heritage is a territory with boundary lines stripped away in a wider territory of anticipatory illumination that is to be articulated in a responsible and concrete way. (50)

Bloch, using Marxist rhetoric, goes on to claim that the past, after entering such a productive process of anticipatory illumination, will no longer be alienated.  And he exclaims: “Now this would be real cultural heritage, with tradition of the future.”

But, more importantly, the production of such a cultural heritage, this tradition of the future, creates hope.  Without such work, things would be bleak.

The question is how do we do such a work in a “responsible and concrete” way?  Have we accomplished our goal of “rectification” if we have taken this or that element of the past and created an “anticipatory illumination?”   Perhaps the success or failure of such a project of recovery and rectification of the past is measured by the hope it produces?

In doing my work on the schlemiel, I wonder, given what Bloch has written, how it could produce an “anticipatory illumination” and a “cultural surplus.”  How could writing on the schlemiel – doing schlemiel criticism – rectify the Jewish tradition and offer hope?

These are all good questions to ask and consider since, of all the aspects of Jewish culture, the humorous aspect is the most referenced in the public sphere. The schlemiel has been chosen as a significant representative of Jewishness in the modern world.  This is testified by its saturation in Hollywood and on TV.   But is the schlemiel, using Bloch’s language, still alienated?  When we watch Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm or Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up, do we have an “anticipatory revelation” or is this missing in their work?

If we watch these shows and we have no sense of what is and what can be (of tendency and latency), then these works have not “rectified” the schlemiel.  Bloch would suggest, given this scenario, that if they do not then the work of criticism should.  Given this suggestion, I will continue looking into the “tradition of the schlemiel” and the “Jewish tradition” in search of “anticipatory illumination.”  I say “continue” because I have, in many ways, already been doing this.  I have been looking for how the schlemiel relates to tradition, on the one hand, and the prophetic and the messianic on the other.  The question of whether or not the schlemiel – in his or her failures – offers hope is a constant question.   I have also wondered how the utopian hope’s of the schlemiel can lead to disaster.  Moreover, I have – and will continue to address – the latency of the schlemiel in work on the schlemiel and Walter Benjamin.

Looking back on what I have written on Walter Benjamin’s reading of Sancho Panza and Don Quixote – in his Kafka essay – I can clearly see that Benjamin was looking at the structure of tradition and heritage.  He was looking into how the legacy of the fool related to his future.  To be sure, it would make sense to say that his reading of Kafka by way of Don Quixote is an anticipatory illumination.  It has a tendency and a latency to it and, as we see in at least one of his letters to Gershom Scholem, it gave him hope.

But the question, in that letter, remains.  It is the same question that Bloch would ask of the figure of the fool.  It may give hope but can it “do humanity any good?”  (Although it may rectify tradition, will it rectify humanity?)  This is the utopian question of the schlemiel.  But it may also be the schlemiel hypothesis.

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