John Steinbeck, Marc Maron & Walter Benjamin on Driving, Distraction, and Reflection


Over the years, I have driven thousands of miles across the United States. And I have always looked at these journeys – with all of those hours behind the wheel – as opportunities for me to think and reflect on all kinds of things. To be sure, some of my best thoughts have come to me while driving. I would (and have) often make it an imperative to have my tape recorder or mp3 recorder on while I drive because I don’t want to miss the thought while it happens.   I was pleasantly surprised to find – most recently – that John Steinbeck has a beautifully written passage in Travels With Charley where he writes on the topic of driving, distraction, and thought.   And between John Steinbeck and the Jewish-American comedian Marc Maron (whose autobiography, Attempting Normal, I have also been reading), I find interesting similarities and contrasts between the types of thinking one does when one is driving a car and distracted.   The differences, especially, show us how the worlds they inhabit differ in content and character. The differences between them, however, come together in the fact that the association of driving with distraction and thinking is essential.

I have written on distraction, thought, and comedy vis-à-vis Rodolph Gashe’s reflections on Immanuel Kant’s claim that “literature” is not thought but distraction and on Walter Benjamin’s words on distraction. I entitled these posts “The Distracted Schlemiel: Empirical Consciousness, Reading and Distraction.”   I’d like to briefly recount Benjamin’s philosophical account of distraction in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” It gives us a means of addressing the autobiographical-fictional-accounts of Steinbeck and Maron on driving, distraction, and thought.

At the very end of his essay, Benjamin shares his greatest thought on the new way we have of relating to the world in the “age of mechanical reproduction.” His reading of distraction is largely positive; he associates it with “habit” and a new means of dealing with “perceptual shock”:

For the tasks which face the human apparatus of perception at the turning point of history cannot be solved by optical means, that is, by contemplation, alone. They are mastered by habit, under the guidance of tactile appropriation. (240, Illuminations)

And what better form of “tactile appropriation” is there, for Americans today, than driving a car? Benjamin notes that the “distracted person (who we are, for arguments sake, calling the-person-who-drives-a-car) can form habits.”   These habits – the habits of a kind of thinking on the go – provides a “solution” to the problem of modern perception. And he goes so far as to liken this kind of distraction to the modern artists distraction while painting:

More, the ability to master certain tasks in a state of distraction proves that their solution has become a matter of habit. Distraction as provided by art provides a covert control of the extent to which new tasks have become soluble by apperception. (240)

Benjamin goes on to argue that this kind of distraction can “mobilize the masses” and suggests that the best medium for this isn’t driving so much as watching films:

Reception in a state of distraction, which is increasingly noticeably in all fields of art and is symptomatic of profound changes in apperception, finds in the film its true means of exercise. (240)

The last lines of Benjamin’s essay point out that what the public does, when watching a film, is not a form of contemplation. Rather, it is a form of “absent minded” examination:

The public is an examiner, but an absent-minded one. (241)

Taking Benjamin’s point to heart, I’d like to apply what he says to driving rather than movie going.   Steinbeck’s account of distraction and the thought it evokes, while driving, is exceptional in this regard. He goes right to the core of what Benjamin calls “habit” and “absent minded” examination. Steinbeck even coins a phrase “machine-like unconscious” to describe this state. Because it is so important, I’ll quote it at length:

If one has driven a car over many years, as I have, nearly all reactions have become automatic. One does not think about what to do. Nearly all the driving technique is deeply buried in a machine-like unconscious. This being so, a large area of the conscious mind is left free for thinking. (94)

Steinbeck now turns to the content of these thoughts:

What do people think about when they drive? On short trips perhaps of the arrival at a destination or memory of events at the place of departure. But there is left, particularly on very long trips, a large area for day dreaming or even, God help us, for thought. (94)

As one can see, “day dreaming,” which Freud associates with the artist, is mentioned side-by-side with thought. They are both absent-minded activities. However, Steinbeck reels it in by pointing out that most of his distracted day drams and thoughts have a practical dimension. He “plans houses” he will never build; “gardens I will never plant” and a “method for pumping the soft silt and decayed shells from the bottom of my bay up to my point of land at Sag Harbor (where he lived), of leaching out the salt, thus making a rich and productive soil”(94). He also notes how he has “created turtle traps” and “detailed letters he has never sent.”

Reflecting on these practical thoughts/day drams, he notes that he doesn’t know whether or not he will do this in reality but, at the very least, it comes to him as a possibility.   He also notes how, as the radio was going, his “memory” of “times and places, complete with characters and stage sets” was “stimulated.” In other words, the distraction moved from memory to fiction.   It also leads to him “projecting future scenes” that will “never take place.”   Steinbeck points out, many times, he would “write short stories” in his mind while he drove. He would “chuckle” at his “own humor” and be “saddened or stimulated by structure or content”(94).

In his final reflections, Steinbeck points out how he can “only suspect” that the “loveless” driver will dream of women, the “lonely” driver will dream of people, and the “childless” driver will dream of children. He then goes on to ask himself whether the driver will imagine regrets and go over what should have been done or said. In relation to this, Steinbeck says that he sees this “potential” in his “own mind” but can only “suspect it in others,” but he “will never know, for no one tells”(95). To be sure, the greatest secret is to be found in this “potential.” To be sure, even though Steinbeck, as we can see, discusses many things he thinks about while driving, he doesn’t discuss these darker things. He leaves them out of his text.   This habit (“potential”) and its content are his secret, one that his readers will have to guess at.

That said, it’s fascinating to see a contemporary comedian like Marc Maron doing what Steinbeck doesn’t do: he addresses these kinds of thoughts in his text. What Maron thinks about when he drives is an open secret. Writing about what he used to think about when he was driving between comedy gigs, Maron notes how, in his distraction, he thought about how he had failed and what he could have done differently:

I drove everywhere to do gigs anywhere: Pancho Villa’s in Leominster, Franks in Franklin, Cranston Bowl in Cranston, Rhode Island, Captain Nicks in Ogunquit, Maine…Most of the time I drove home for hours half drunk, chain-smoking in my car and reliving my set. I always felt like I had survived something, that the simple fact that I made it through the show meant I was victorious. But the war wasn’t over yet: The next battle was in the car, the war with myself. I’m not funny enough, that joke didn’t work, why can’t I stop sweating, fuck those people, I need more jokes, where the fuck am I, shit I don’t have a map. I’ll never forget the electricity of postperformance elation and self-flagellation, flying through the New England countryside at night in my VW Golf. Not romantic. (13)

Maron’s thoughts show us what a schlemiel-comedian thinks about while he drives home.   He discloses what Steinbeck would like to hide away and perhaps that makes all the difference. And it provides us with something to think about. Driving – and the distraction that goes along with us – leads us to think and reflect on ourselves, about how things are, how they were, and how they could be. This kind of thinking becomes what Benjamin would call an “absent-minded” habit. But the question Maron and Steinbeck were preoccupied with was what one should report about what happens in the car while we are driving.   Today, in a culture that does a lot of it’s thinking in cars or in distracted transit, this content has a personal urgency that is of great interest to all of us because, after all, we all do it. It’s a modern habit that is not simply superficial; it informs who we are and gives us a moment to take account of the real and possible past, present, and future. It allows us to drift into things we regret and things we would like to do to make life better (even though most of these thoughts, as Steinbeck correctly notes, will never make it to reality).   To be sure, our absent-mindedness, while driving from one place to another, makes for the best reflection.

Exposure, Failure, and Rhythm: Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes


Roland Barthes, the famous French thinker and essayist, is best known for S/Z, Mythologies, A Lover’s Discourse, Camera Lucida, Writing Degree Zero, Empire of Signs, and The Pleasure of the Text.  For many years, these books have had a great impact on critical theory, philosophy, comparative literature, anthropology, sociology, and even the academic studies of photography and cinema.  Although I enjoy these books and have learned a lot from them, my two favorite texts of his are his lecture notes for a course he gave in Morocco in 1978 (entitled The Neutral) and his autobiography Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes.

What interests me most about these two books are his reflections on weariness, the neutral, failure, rhythm, gesture, and himself.  Taken together, they disclose something that I also find in Walter Benjamin: an awareness of failure juxtaposed with an aesthetic sensibility that craves intoxication.  As in my readings of Benjamin, I have been reading Barthes with a desire to find his weak point; namely, his sense of vulnerability, innocence, and shame.  I have found this sensibility in a few of Barthes’ passages.  And it is in these passages where Barthes becomes small, humble, and most revealing.

In this blog entry, I will not be focusing on the lecture course; rather, I want to look at a few of Barthes autobiographical reflections which disclose exposure, failure, and a desire for protection, distraction, and aesthetic relief.  Like any good writer with a taste for the esoteric, Barthes leaves it to the reader to connect the dots, so to speak, between one reflection and another.  I would suggest that Barthes wants us to pay close attention to the rhythmic alteration between one reflection and another.  It is in the lacunae between one reflection and another that we can interpret and glean some type of wisdom.

The reflection entitled “Le retentissement – Repercussion” caught my eye.  In this passage, Barthes (who calls himself “him” rather than “I” so as to denote otherness and the fact that he sees his autobiography, as his epigram states, in terms of being a novel of sorts: “It must all be considered as if spoken by a character in a novel”) fears the “repercussion” his words and the words of others about him or his words will or may have:

Every word which concerns him echoes within him to an extreme degree, and it is this repercussion which he dreads, to the pint of timidly avoiding any discourse that might be offered about him.   The language of others, complimentary or not, is tainted at its source by the repercussion it might have…The link to the world is thus always conquered starting from a  certain fear (156).

Barthes’ fear of repercussion is a fear of exposure.  He knows that his words expose him to possible ridicule and rejection.  His words, in the mouths of others, have repercussions -meaning that they are sounded again but by another and in a way that is other.  Needless to say, the re-percussion (in the sense of a sounding or beating-again) makes him fearful and timid.  Such a confession implies that he, a well-known and highly respected writer in Europe, is exposed and vulnerable.  He is not self-possessed.  Apparently, nothing can secure him from this fear since he has no control over the repercussions of his words.  He has no control over how they will echo back to him.  Barthes language implies that, most likely, the recounting of his words will have negative repercussions – that is, they will expose him to possible damage.  He feels that the repercussions of his words will make him vulnerable and powerless.

Immediately following this reflection is yet another which deals with fear and vulnerability.  It is entitled Reussi/rate – Success/failure.  Barthes, here, reflects on Barthes “re-reading” himself. The effect of this re-reading is, yet again, a kind of exposure. This time it is an exposure to failure:

Rereading himself, he discerns in the very texture of each piece of writing a singular cleavage: that of success/failure: in gusts, felicities of expression, good patches, then bad ones, swamps and deserts which he has even begun to inventory.  Then no book is successful throughout? – Perhaps the book on Japan.

In the midst of his reflection on failure, he turns to success as a balm. And what he finds is a discourse that does not doubt itself and does not fear that its words fall flat. Rather, he finds “the continuous, effusive, jubilant happiness of the writing: in what he writes, each protects his own sexuality.”  But, given what he has just written, we have reason to be suspicious of these lines.  They are literally a distraction. The italics don’t change a thing. To be sure, his “sexuality” cannot be protected by his “continuous, effusive, jubilant” happiness of writing.  After all, didn’t Barthes say that he fears the repercussions of his words? And when he reads himself, he sees discontinuity and failure?  Is Barthes saying that writing, in differentiation to reading, is absent minded?  Is he suggesting that writing is distracted while reading is not?

Frustrated with this thought, Barthes turns to a third option, but even this option cannot lift him from being shamed and exposed.  And he, ironically, notes this:

A third category is possible: neither success nor failure: disgrace: marked, branded with the imaginary.

To be sure, his disgrace, his exposure to failure, is “branded” by the “imaginary.”  In other words, writing does not simply distract him from shame, it marks his shame, brands it.  This implies that the imaginary, that is, writing, is not a balm.  Rather, his personal disgrace is in a violent relationship with writing; it is as if writing, which is still a distraction from exposure, has forced itself upon his disgrace.

Writing tries to brand or mark shame. And this suggests ownership.  But can one’s exposure to failure ever escape writing and the distraction it offers?  Given what we have been saying about Benjamin and his interest in distraction, this is a legitimate question to ask.

Interestingly enough, the two reflections that follow are superficial and imaginary. They displace the negative affect of these two reflections by way of distraction.  The first reflection is entitled “Du choix d’un vetement – Choosing Clothes” and the second reflection is entitled “Le rhythme – Rhythm.”  Both of these reflections are, so to speak, escape routes.

In “Choosing Clothes,” Barthes likens the books one chooses to the clothes one wears.  He reads this in terms of “preparing himself to sustain…the discourse of truth starting from an economy which is that of his own body.”  In other words, these books clothe the body and protect it from negative repercussions that will inevitable ensue in “the discourse of truth.”

The reflection entitled “Rhythm” turns to another way of relating to exposure.  Barthes notes that he (that is Barthes) “always put his faith in that Greek rhythm, the succession of Ascesis and Festivity.”   In his 1978 lecture, Barthes also relates Ascesis to the “succession of paroxystic and opposite states: many collective celebrations, but between each of these festivals a period of retention, abstention, sobriety”(84).  In other words, there is a “rhythm” between one extreme state and the other in the “succession of Ascesis and Festivity.”  He contrasts this rhythm to the “banal rhythm of modernity” which alternates between work and leisure.  This rhythm is different.  Barthes refers to a “Slavic or Balkan” custom in which one “shuts oneself up for three days of festivity.”  He then suggests that one go back and forth between this kind of festivity and sobriety.   Or, I would suggest, a rhythm between exposure (reading) and distraction (writing).

The rhythm he speaks of is built into his text.  The reflection that follows this one, in fact, is all about exposure.  It is entitled “Que ca se sache – Let that be known.”  In this reflection, Barthes admits that “every utterance of a writer (even the fiercest, the wildest) includes a secret operator, an unexpressed word, something like the silent morpheme of a category as primitive as negation or interrogation, whose meaning is: “And let that be known!

In other words, Barthes realizes that in everything he writes, even with words written with great conviction (words that are fierce and wild), there is a snag.  There is something that will expose one to judgment.  By noting this, Barthes is, in effect, arguing that no matter how wild or angry he is – no matter how courageous, powerful, or self-possessed he may sound on paper– there will be something in his words – something undetected – that will render him powerless.

But does powerlessness have the upper hand in these reflections?

From what we have seen, Barthes insistence on rhythm and on protection suggests that powerlessness is, at times, sovereign.  In other words, at times one is made to be a fool.  At moments when one feels at the top of ones game, there will always be repercussions.  But, and this is Barthes point, one must know that one is always exposed to failure, judgment, and repercussions, while, at the same time, operating according to a rhythm.  Barthes suggests that style, writing, and sexuality are attempts to pull away from shame and exposure.  They distract us. However, as we saw above, imagination brands shame.  In other words, writing looks to mark exposure with its power.  But, the fact of the matter is that even though shame is marked by the imagination, shame remains.  Nonetheless, it is branded and, so to speak, re-markable.

And this is where the art meets ethics.  The exposure one has to failure, the timidity that comes with writing to others and re-reading oneself, is ethical, but this exposure is always branded by the imagination which looks to protect the body and vulnerability from too much exposure.    Or as Barthes suggests, the terror of reading oneself is tempered by the distraction of writing oneself.

What I find so interesting about Barthes’ suggestions is that they speak directly to the schlemiel and the reader of the American schlemiel.  Even though Barthes often fails to be comical (since he’s much too serious about himself), he does provide a structure which is best exemplified in the comedy of the American Schlemiel.

An American schlemiel, like Phillip Roth’s Portnoy or Larry David, is humiliated and exposed in what they say and in what they do.  But because their words are couched in the imagination, witty gesture, and style, they are innocent and, to some extent, are protected from extreme damage.  But, in the end, these schlemiels are still exposed. They are the subject of ridicule.  Their victories are, by all means, temporary.   As Barthes might say, the American Schlemiel is caught up in a rhythm of distraction and exposure.

To be sure, we love this rhythm; otherwise, we wouldn’t watch Woody Allen’s films, Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, or Andy Kaufmann’s embarrassing comic routines (to take only three examples). These shows invite us to witness how shame, in rhythmic variation, is “branded” by the imagination.   It shows us how distraction and exposure alternate.

Here’s Andy Kaufmann with a few rhythms of his own:


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.

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


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?