A Response to Zachary Braiterman’s “Messianism, History, & Schlemiel Aesthetics (Kenneth Seeskin)”


I look forward to reading Zachary Braiterman’s posts every week on his blog Jewish Philosophy Place and I admire and respect the work he has published on Jewish Philosophy, aesthetics, and theodicy.  I have learned a lot from his work.

I was especially interested in the blog entry he posted entitled “Messianism, History, & Schlemiel Aesthetics” since his entry bears mention of the work I have been doing on the schlemiel.  With respect to this blog entry, Braiterman is interested in the work I have written on the schlemiel and the Messianic Idea.  In this entry, he has drawn on it to offer an insightful critique of Kenneth Seeskin’s recent book Jewish Messianic Thoughts in an Age of Despair.

What I find most interesting about Braiterman’s reading is his approach to the Messianic Idea as a schlemiel aesthetic that really has nothing to do with the tasks of rational Jewish philosophy.   This is an interesting wedge since it challenges the use of the Messianic idea in Jewish philosophy (or in contemporary Continental philosophy) by such thinkers as Walter Benjamin, Franz Rosenzweig, Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida, Ernst Bloch, and Giorgio Agamben.

To be sure, Braiterman and Seeskin are both drawn to a Maimonidean approach to Jewish philosophy.  And this approach is suspicious of the Messianic Idea and prophetic flights of the imagination.  The Guide to the Perplexed, parts of the Mishna Torah, and the “Letter to Yemen” clearly demonstrate that Maimonides was very careful to avoid the dangers that would come by taking the Apocalyptic aspects of the Messianic idea seriously.

What Braiterman wonders about is why Seeskin would still take to the Messianic idea since, for Braiterman, it seems to be derived more from the imagination and the Midrash than from reason.  As Braiterman notes: “Messianism is rooted in the imaginary of biblical, midrashic, and liturgical source material, whereas the introduction of Kantian conceptual-moral frames struck me as off point.”

Braiterman argues that Seeskin misreads the “wilderness generation after the exodus from Egypt” and their “crying and rebellion in the desert for water.”  For Seeskin (and one could imagine, for Herman Cohen – I will return to this), they are giving up hope and are rebelling against “the belief in God and the Messianic idea.”    On this note, Braiterman sides with Emil Fackenheim who, he argues, would see their crying and despair as providing them with a “critical insight into history and the human predicament.”

In the second part of this blog entry, Braiterman addresses the question of why Seeskin would even try to reconcile Kantian ethics with the Messianic idea:

Its not clear why one might need this messiah business if all messianism constitutes is the notion that redemption depends upon human will and act, constitutional democracy, and perpetual peace.  Why do we need such an inflationary and theological word for such a flat and deflationary thing?

This is a very good question.  It’s the same question one could pose to the Jewish-German Philosopher Hermann Cohen.  After all, Cohen insisted that the Messianic Idea was a specifically Jewish contribution.  He associates it with hope.  In contrast to the Greeks, who despised hope, Cohen tells us that the Jewish tradition introduced the Messianic idea of hope:

To the earliest Greeks, hope meant no more than idle speculation.  And it is only after the Persian wars that this emotion is looked on as more than the opposite of fear, or as one of Pandora’s evils…..Nowhere in paganism does the concept of hope suggest a general enhancement of all human existence.  The widening-out into the non-personal, ethical realm, this spiritualization of a basically materialistic-personalistic emotion is the effect and indeed one of the surest marks of the idea of God’s unity or –what amounts to the same thing – of His pure spirituality.

Seeskin inherits the legacy of hope that Cohen espouses in such passages as, on the one hand, uniquely Jewish, and, on the other hand, consistent with Kantian ideas.   Nonetheless, Cohen, like Seeskin and Maimonides, has a problem which Braiterman is acutely aware: the aesthetic aspect of the Messianic idea.

As Braiterman notes “when all is said and done, the messianic idea is “just” an image, and a philosophically foolish one at that. It’s the image that rivets the eye in the prophetic literature, especially as it appears liturgically in the closed off space of the synagogue, on a Saturday night in a candle-lit Havdalah ceremony, or packed tight at the end of the Passover seder, at which point it becomes a figure sung by drunk people.”

The last words of this description of the Messianic aesthetic remind me of Walter Benjamin’s call to “win over the forces of intoxication for revolution.”  Indeed, for Braiterman, the aesthetic qualities of the messianic idea overshadow the philosophical, ethical, or political dimensions of the idea.  They are intoxicating; just like a fascinating object.  Braiterman notes the Messianic idea is “almost like a photograph, you can pick it up and consider it, and use it to this effect and to that.”

Braiterman notes that Seeskin clearly knows that the Messianic idea has “no philosophical use value, at least not in terms of determinate propositional truth contents.”  So, why, he wonders, would Seeskin even try to use it for philosophical purposes?

Musing on this, Braiterman evokes the schlemiel and my schlemiel theory blog (and book) project:

Maybe the messianic idea represents the schlemiel figure par excellence in the history of Jewish thought…How else to explain Seeskin’s book, a serious book about a serious topic written by a serious man ends with a joke.

The point of the joke, says Braiterman, is to show that, in the end, we will all realize that when “all enchantment has been removed from the world…and there is quick judgment, and arrogance are now rare,” we will no longer be enchanted by the Messianic idea.  At that point, anyone who wants to be the messiah can be.

Nonetheless, for Seeskin, it is still necessary to cast hope in the Messianic.

Braiterman avers: “Who gets to be Messiah? Any schlemiel who wants it.  That’s the punchline.”

Following this, Braiterman says that he would resist Seeskin’s claim that the “rational religion” is messianic and “reflects moral teleology.”  Moreover, Braiterman reiterates that he doesn’t accept the notion that our age is an “age of despair.”  Instead of looking toward the future, what is to come, to hope, Braiterman takes the side of the present.  In doing so, it seems that Braiterman is parting with Herman Cohen and Maimonides (who does, in fact, purport a restorative and political reading of the Messianic idea at the end of the Mishna Torah).

Braiterman finishes his piece with a basic rejection of the messianic idea as a schlemiel aesthetic: “Because maybe with this much hindsight in the history of an idea, maybe it’s easier to understand that messianism is an aesthetic, and maybe, after all is said and done, a schlemiel aesthetic at that.”

In many ways Braiterman is correct; the messianic is a schlemiel aesthetic.  To be sure, what makes it so is the fact that the schlemiel is a messianic character who is not oriented toward the present.  Rather, the schlemiel is a character which is oriented toward the future. It mixes dreams and reality and, in its simplicity, it draws its life on our hope.  Sometimes this can have negative consequences, as I have shown in blogs on the schlemiel, the Apocalyptic, and Messianic Activism.  Nonetheless, the best schlemiels, do not simply mix dreams and reality; as Ruth Wisse would say, they juxtapose hope and skepticism.

To be sure, I would argue that the Messianic idea is brought down to reality by way of Braiterman’s skepticism.  Even though he wishes to be rid of an aesthetic idea – which has nothing to do with Jewish philosophy and the concern with the present – he shows how hard it is to just let it go.   In other words, the Messianic idea, like the schlemiel, is, as Braiterman says, “infectious.”  We can’t let go of it.  And this, for Braiterman, is the irony.

Strangely enough, Hermann Cohen argues that irony has nothing to do with hope.  Greek “tragedy is predicated on fear and compassion, its comedy on the very opposite of hope, namely irony.”

Cohen finds nothing ironic about the Messianic idea, but we do.  And this irony goes hand-in-hand with the schlemiel.  The schlemiel discloses the irony of the Messianic idea by way of the juxtaposition of hope and skepticism.   In other words, a rationalist like Cohen would be befuddled by the Schlemiel.  To be sure, this character is meant to disclose a historical tension Jews have with the present and the future.

Regarding this, I wonder: if we were to reject the Messianic idea, would we also have to reject the schlemiel?

At the end of her opus, The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, Ruth Wisse says something very insightful regarding this issue.  For Wisse, in a world that is wholly skeptical or wholly optimistic, the schlemiel cannot exist.  Pertaining to Zachary Breiterman’s review of Seeskin’s book, I would say the same thing.  In a world that is wholly skeptical or optimistic the Messianic idea cannot exist.  In many ways, it seems that the schlemiel and the Messianic idea go hand-in-hand.

However, what I find most interesting about Wisse’s claim about the schlemiel is that, for her, after the founding of Israel, it no longer becomes a character of interest.  She shares this claim with a few other Zionist thinkers.   However, this is another issue which I cannot address here .

Needless to say, I think Wisse and Braiterman would like to exchange the aesthetic for the political and the future for the present.   Nonetheless, I think Wisse’s previous claim remains and that simply having a state does not mean that one is wholly optimistic or wholly skeptical.  To be sure, we still waver between hope and skepticism.  And as long as our skepticism or optimism is tainted, there will be schlemiels and Messianic ideas.

Perhaps, on the other hand, what hooks us up to the Messianic idea or the schlemiel is not hope or skepticism so much as time.  As Levinas or Derrida may argue, as long as there is a future-to-come, there will always be a Messianic idea and, as i would argue, there will always be a schlemiel.

Or perhaps, as Braiterman suggests, as long as we love aesthetics we will be intrigued by Messianic ideas and schlemiels of all stripes and colors.

Perhaps, like Walter Benjamin and Ernst Bloch, we love utopia and the messianic idea like we love the circus….

But regardless of how we view the Messianic idea we can all agree that the greatest danger the Messianic idea poses is with Messianic Schlemiels (or what I call Messianic activists) who mix their utopian-slash-Apocalyptic dreams with reality.  Perhaps the greatest of all Messianic Schlemiels was named Shabbatai Zevi, the false messiah.  Maimonides, Seeskin, and Braiterman would all agree that what happened with Shabbatai Zevi shows us the greatest danger of the Messianic Idea.  They would all, rightly, note that when a dream or an aesthetic becomes immanent in a utopian political gesture, we have crossed the line; and, as Gershom Scholem suggested with respect to Shabbatai Zevi, this kind of foolishness verges on nihilism and not perpetual peace.

“It’s Almost Incomprehensible!” The Circus and Kafka’s Natural Theater


As I noted in the last blog entry, Ernst Bloch believed that “the circus is the only honest, down-to-earth honest performance.  A wall cannot be built anywhere in front of spectators who sit in a circle and surround performers.  Nevertheless, there is an estrangement” (179).

The confluences between Bloch and Walter Benjamin, in this claim and in these descriptions, are fascinating.  To be sure, Benjamin was also interested in the circus.  He also thought that although the circus was honest and utopian, it was fraught with estrangement.

We see the circus, utopia, and estrangement breached in Benjamin’s Kafka essay; namely, in the final section of the essay (which was published posthumously) entitled “Sancho Panza.”  In this section, Benjamin addresses the circus by way of the “Natural Theater of Oklahoma” that we see in Kafka’s novel Amerika.

Before addressing the Natural Theater, Benjamin cites a few lines from a Kafka short story about the “strange” ways of Kafka’s students and scribes.  They are the carriers and transmitters of tradition to the next generation and he is astonished by them:

‘To him, hammering is real hammering and at the same time nothing, which would have made the hammering even bolder, more determined, more real, and, if you like, more insane.’

Benjamin comments on this line that:

This is the resolute, fanatical mien which students have when they study; it is the strangest mien imaginable. The scribes, the students, are out of breath; they fairly race along.  (137)

Benjamin describes the scribes and students “as out of breath.”  They “race along” to receive and deliver the message of the tradition.  Benjamin goes to Kafka for the details.  And what we learn, from Kafka’s descriptions is that the narrator is astonished by the people who receive tradition.  Instead of seeing someone like Moses, Kafka’s narrator sees a bunch of schlemiels jumping up and down to get the message of tradition.  It is “strange…almost incomprehensible!”:

Often the official dictates in such a low voice that the scribe cannot even hear it sitting down; then he has to jump up, catch the diction, quickly sit down again and write it down, then jump up again and so forth.  How strange that is!  It is almost incomprehensible! 

Instead of explaining the meaning of tradition and this strangeness, Benjamin turns to the  Natural Theater of Oklahoma in Kafka’s Amerika:

It may be easier to understand this if one thinks of the actors in the Nature Theater.  Actors have to catch their cues in a flash, and they resemble those assiduous people in other ways as well.  Truly, for them, “hammering is real hammering and at the same time nothing” – provided that it is a part of their role.  They study the role, and only a bad actor would forget a word or movement. For the members of the Oklahoma troupe, however, the role is their earlier life; hence the “nature” in this Nature Theater. (137)

The nature of the nature theater is the earlier life of these characters.  The role they study is their tradition.  In other words, their earlier life is their tradition.  They inherit their childhood and learn it, play it.   In Bloch’s language, we could say that this is the “honest” element of the circus.  They play their earlier selves and they do so openly.  There is no curtain that stands between them and the audience.

Of them, Benjamin writes:

Its actors have been redeemed.

However, someone has not been redeemed and that is the student:

…whom Karl watches silently on this balcony as he reads his book, “turning the pages, occasionally looking something up in another book which he always snatched up quick as a flash, and frequently making notes in a notebook, which he always did with his face surprisingly close to the paper.”

The careful reader will understand what Benjamin is hinting at; namely, the fact that Karl is the student.  He is taking notes and “snatches” things up “in a flash.”  He is the unredeemed schlemiel who transmits the tradition.  Echoing the title of the section, he is Sancho Panza.

And perhaps this is what is most astonishing.  The fact that the schlemiel must spend his or her days recording and transmitting a tradition he or she doesn’t understand but only receives in flashes.  When it comes, he or she must “jump” up and snatch it as it flashes.

This is something the schlemiel must do as the schlemiel is not redeemed but these actors are.  By way of the Natural Theater of Oklahoma, Benjamin is saying something different than what Ernst Bloch says about the circus.  Although Bloch says there is an honesty and an estrangement to the circus that is unparalleled, he doesn’t explain why.  Benjamin does.

The honesty of Natural Theater, of the circus, is its nature.  It is the fact that it studies its earlier life and performs it.  This involvement is redemptive for the actors. However, those who carry on the tradition do not live this life.  It is they who are estranged.

Franz Kafka’s Karl Rossmann, who the Kafka scholar Heinz Politzer calls “infantile,” is a student; as is Sancho Panza and Walter Benjamin.  They are all students of tradition.  But in being students who transmit the tradition, they are not redeemed.  Not yet.

Rather, they are comic characters whose task is unnatural and yet necessary. Their leaping around after flashes and recording them, for Kafka, may be astonishing and strange but it is “almost incomprehensible.”

In other words, it is not completely incomprehensible.  It is in these small flashes that we know that a rationalist like Sancho Panza knew that the keepers of tradition and heritage were on to something.

Bloch knew this as well.  I would like to suggest that every comedian, writer, or performer of schlemiel comedy also understands this: without tradition, there would be no comedy and there would certainly not be a schlemiel.  Perhaps this is the “only honest down-to-earth honest performance” there is?

One doesn’t have to be in the circus to be a part of the circus.  All one has to do is watch it and, for those who want to carry on its tradition, all they have to do is leap up at the “flashes,” sit down, record them, and do that again….and again.

Its “almost incomprehensible!”

Ernst Bloch’s Musings on The Circus and Utopia – Take 1


History is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogenous time, empty time, but filled with presence of the now (Jetztzeit).  Thus, to Robespierre ancient Rome was a past charged with the time of the now which he blasted out of the continuum of history.  The French Revolution viewed itself as Rome reincarnate….Fashion has a flaire for the topical, no matter where it stirs in the thickets of long ago; it’s a tiger’s leap into the past (Walter Benjamin, Thesis XIV of the “Theses on the Philosophy of History”)

Throughout the ages, many great artists, poets, and thinkers have shown great love for the circus.  They feel that there is something about the circus.  It can tell us about who we really are, what we believe in, or what we hope for.  Perhaps the circus, as Walter Benjamin might say about “the presence of the now” (Jetztzeit), is our common origin.  Perhaps the circus is the revolution.  Perhaps it is the place where, as Benjamin says of fashion, there is a “tigers leap into the past.”

The circus, like the revolution, is a space where comedy, surprise, and excitement are center stage.  It is a social, an aesthetic, and a political space.  On the one hand, the Roman satirist Juvenal used the words “Panem et Circenses” (Bread and Circuses) to criticize those in power noting that the circus distracted Rome’s political leaders from history.  And it was used as a tool for gaining power.  On the other hand, the circus has been envisioned as a space of inversion and resistance to the dominant culture.  In the circus political power appears as ridiculous: it’s the only place where you will find Nobility and Clergy dressed up as or riding pigs.  Mikhail Bakhtin was one of the first theorists to explore this aspect of the circus; and in his notion of the carnivalesque, cultural studies and postmodernism found a model that proved fruitful for at least a decade or two.   In Rome, the circus was dominated by power; but in the middleages it was not.  The circus belonged to the people.

Like Bakhtin, Ernst Bloch also found the carnival to be of great interest.  In an essay entitled “Better Castles in the Sky” (from the essay collection The Utopian Function of Art and Literature) Bloch makes a confession or admission to truth.  His admission reveals that his fascination with the circus is a fascination with what makes us utopian.  His admission discloses the circus in what I, following Bloch, would call an “anticipatory illumination.”  To be sure, I would say that the circus, for Bloch, is the ultimate anticipatory illumination of utopia: “the circus is the only honest, down-to-earth honest performance.  A wall cannot be built anywhere in front of spectators who sit in a circle and surround performers.  Nevertheless, there is an estrangement”(179).

By saying that the circus is the “only honest, down-to-earth honest performance,” Bloch is saying something quite radical.  This implies that all other artistic performances are not honest or down to earth.  It also implies that Bloch values honesty and being “down-to-earth” which are basic folk virtues. To be sure, the honesty marks a kind of innocence with what makes us utopian.  In fact, he repeats the word “honest” twice so as to underscore the importance of this fundamentally social and political virtue.  But more importantly, these values, for Bloch, find their only vehicle in the circus and in no other artistic space.  Their vehicle is comedy!

All other theatrical performances are mixed with ideology, power, and dishonesty; the circus is not.  It has the quality of honesty.  It is so honest that it is utopian.  Bloch suggests that utopian justice, in this sense, is all about a kind of honesty that can only be prefigured in the circus.

Why is this the case?  Why does the circus, for Bloch, basically articulate, unlike any other art, the utopian function?  How does it articulate the “anticipatory illumination” and what he would call “genuine heritage?”

Before Bloch makes his admissions of truth for the circus and its utopian function, he discusses the roots of the circus performance.   According to Bloch, “the sideshows at the fair” are uncanny and exciting because “they don’t originate here, nor does their magic, which is continually dusted off and revealed anew in the repeated performances of the sideshows”(178).  The magic we see at the circus “operates as if abnormal and foreign.  Yet, it is ordinary and full of swindles”(178).  To be sure, it is very canny.  It is plain, simple, and downright ordinary.  However, it is “still more substantial than the trouble that the philistine causes for the age-old joy of young and old people.”  In other words, the circus, for all its ordinariness, is more substantial than the law.

The circus is the spirit; the philistines – the ruling class – are the law.

Instead of pursuing this distinction further, Bloch takes a detour.  Bloch’s detour takes us into the life of the circus and the nature of its magic: in taking this detour, Bloch avoids talking about the origin of the circus.  All Bloch notes, before this point, is that they (those in the circus) “don’t originate here.”  Does this mean they originate elsewhere, in another world?  Where are the people of the circus from?

Bloch cuts in with quasi-historicism for an answer.  Bloch suggests, as if we know,  that a circus is a “boat like show”: “So these boat like shows set sail and are carried by the South Seas for the simple soul and the uncorrupted, complicated soul too.”  The circus, originally a boat show, is for the simpleton (the schlemiel) and the complicated soul (the skeptic).

Moreover, the ship visits all kinds of cities; the ships have no boundaries: “The tent-boats weigh anchor for a short time in the dusty cities. They are tattooed with pale green or bloodthirsty paintings in which votive pictures projecting rescue at sea disasters are mixed with those of the harem.”

At this point, Bloch slips into the mode of allegory and allusion to illustrate why the circus is the “only honest, down-to-earth honest performance.”

I’d like to closely follow his words so as to figure out what he is alluding to with a canny-slash-uncanny circus that originates on the sea but, in our day, finds itself on the ground.

Bloch creates a metonymy of sorts associating the “motor” of the boat with a sound that is “foreign, fatty, unhuman, breathless, sluggish”(178).  And from sound Bloch moves to the figure of a “dancing wax lady screwed down next to the entrance.  And she dances with sudden contortions, moves with twisted gestures of screwed down wax that turn into dance, and she throws her head back from time to time.”

The first thing that strikes me about this metonymy is that the figure moves and is nailed down; its dance embodies a dialectical tension and, for this reason, it appears comical.  It reminds me of a dancing Hula doll.

Bloch writes of this figure lovingly and situates it behind the barker of the circus, who brings her to a halt.   After noting this Bloch explains its “hidden meaning” by way of a juxtaposition of life and death:

Eventually she comes to a halt and trembles in this position right behind the barker, who fears nothing.  The type of world extolled here has the secrets of the bridal bed and also the miscarriage at one end and the secrets of the bier on the other end. (178)

This image is mythical.  Bloch passes from this image, however, to one that is full of particularities and seems to play with myth by way of plurality:

Strange human creatures and their art offer themselves to spectators in nothing but peepshows of abnormality. The sword swallower and fire eater, the man with the untearable tongue and iron skull, the snake charmer add the live aquarium.  Turks, pumpkin men, fat women, they are all there.

Once Bloch realizes he has gone way out in his description, he reels it in with some analysis, noting that “fairy tale realm reappears continually and also that of the horror story.”  This implies that the fair moves between innocence and horror.  He calls “the fair, a colorful, peasant fantasy.”  However, it is interrupted by the city (as well as by horror).

He notes the historical change from the country to the city in the movement of the fair from Europe to America:

In the large American cities it has become increasingly automated with loudspeakers and amusement centers.   However, the land of the wishes from the medieval South Seas, so to speak, has remained.  And it maintains itself out of the Middle ages, which go much further back, right to the fair of the higher order, in the kind of show of the Circenses without any curtain at all. (79)

What Bloch does over here is articulate what we saw in yesterday’s blog; namely, the “genuine heritage.”  To be sure, Bloch sees the fair as the heritage to which he, a circus lover and a lover of honesty, must turn.  His language, following upon his mention of a show of a “higher order,” a Circenses “without any curtain at all” verges on the religious and the revolutionary.

In Benjamin’s sense of the “tiger leap” backwards, Bloch sees a merging of all times in the ring of the circus.  In the “ring” of the circus the Medieval, the Roman, and the tradition of the circus on the sea come together:

For, as the miracles of the sidewshows are assembled together under one roof, in a ring, and as the managerie breaks out from here, the coliseum or the circus now originates from the South Seas. (79)

However, as with history, something is lost.  And what is it?  The hula doll I referenced above (the wax dancer):

Of course, the feature of the wax figure cabinet cannot be present here, that suspended animation, that mechanical organ, because everything in the circus is alive.  And, in contrast to the fair, which operates with concealment, with stage, showcase, and curtains, the circus is fully open.  The ring brings everything with it.

But although the hula doll is gone, something new and revolutionary, something much more revolutionary than the fair or the sea circus has arrived.  For Bloch the circus is the most revolutionary because it is “fully open.”  It is, for this reason, the most utopian space.

To be sure, following this claim that the “circus is fully open. The ring brings everything with it,” Bloch makes his greatest claim: “The circus is the only honest, down-to-earth honest performance.”

This admission of truth is his way of taking the “tigers leap” into the past.

And as Friedrich Holderlin has said (and Martin Heidegger reminds us in his famous essay on the “The Origin of the Work of Art”): “that which dwells near the origin departs.”

Or as Bloch tells us, utopia starts and will always end in the circus.


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.

Ernst Bloch’s Reflections on Tradition – Take One


In the last blog entry, I contrasted Slavoj Zizek to Walter Benjamin with regard to the tension between tradition and the liquidation of tradition. Zizek follows one strain of Benjamin; namely, the liquidationist strain.  Zizek prefers Benjamin’s “Destructive Character” and Benjamin’s notion of “Divine Violence” to Benjamin’s interest in preserving the tension between tradition and its liquidation.

At the end of my last blog entry, I stated why I was interested in such a tension; namely, because Benjamin’s reading of Kafka and Don Quixote is based on preserving this tension.  And, as I have been arguing, this tension has everything to do with the tradition of the fool and the schlemiel.   To further understand what Benjamin sought to find in this tension, I would like to turn to an essay by Ernst Bloch entitled “Art and Society” (from The Utopian Function of Art and Literature, trans. and edited by Jack Zipes and Frank Mecklenburg).

Walter Benjamin was influenced by and influenced Ernst Bloch. They had a productive relationship.  They were interested in this tension as it pertained to the future – to utopia.

For Bloch and Benjamin all works that emerge from the tradition are mortified.   They are fragmented and are in need of future redemption.  However, these works are not the works of the “victors” of history.  Rather, they are the incompleted works of those who lost.  These are the works of failures.   And, for Bloch, they are ‘our’ heritage.

In his essay “Art and Society,” Bloch cites Benjamin to illustrate some of the “spiritual” things we should take from this heritage:

They (the spiritual things) are alive as confidence, courage, humor, cunning, and fortitude, and they have a retroactive effect as time moves along.  They call into question each victory of the ruling class time and time again. (46)

However, Bloch adds on to what Benjamin says and gives it shape. He does this by calling attention to the next generation; namely, to the heirs of tradition:

In addition, cultural heritage only becomes what it is when the heir does not die along with its benefactor, when he stands on the side of the future in the past, when he stands with what is indelible in the cultural heritage and not with the takeover of parasitical rulers (46).

Bloch calls for a “productive cultural heritage” and contrasts it to a “refined completion” of “the great work of culture.”  For Bloch, a “productive cultural heritage” operates “as the successive continuation of the implications in the contellations of the past gathered around us as non-past.”  In other words, we continue a tradition whose implications are present (non-past).

Bloch notes that, as Benjamin would say, the past gives one agency.  The past, in a sense, elects one and empowers one to act.  It “anticipates” him:

The genuine agent of cultural heritage reaches into the past, and in this very same act the past itself anticipates him, involves and needs him. (46)

Bloch calls heritage a chariot which “carries only that which has an order to be sealed.” To take this heritage on, Bloch says one must be strong.  One may be overwhelmed by it.  To be sure, the person is strong because s/he takes heritage and besides having the strength to continue it s/he invents (47).

Bloch contrasts himself to Martin Heidegger who, in his opinion, created a “pseudo-philology and a pseudo-interpretation” of Holderlin, Anaximander, Parmenides, Plato, and Kant.  According to Bloch, Heidegger’s relation to history was to “caricature” it.  In contrast, Bloch argues that “genuine heritage is and remains precise and progressive transformation, and to be sure, a transformation of that immanent material in the material of heritage intended for completion without ideology, with implication”(48).

Bloch imagined a “rectification of heritage” and not a “reification of heritage.”  He imagined a rectification that would not serve this or that ideology.  This could happen in a world with a “cultural surplus beyond any ideology.”  This, Bloch says, comes out of the “utopian function.”

The utopian function, however, is not based on envisioning, quite simply, the liquidation of history or heritage.  To be sure, Bloch like Benjamin wanted to create a “cultural surplus beyond any ideology.”  And the best way to accomplish this is to dig into cultural heritage.  Namely, the heritage that many people might find insignificant or trivial.

It is these failed elements that carry the charge and call for transformation.  The interesting thing to keep in mind is that Bloch and Benjamin didn’t randomly choose this or that aspect of tradition.  They were both interested in storytelling, fairytales, folk legends, and fools.

Their heritage was plural. For this reason, Walter Benjamin and Bloch often drew on many different folk traditions in their work.  I am especially interested in Benjamin’s reading of Kafka insofar as he starts his essay not with a meditation on Jewish folklore but on Russian folklore.  And he ends the essay with a meditation on Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

Nonetheless, Benjamin doesn’t shy away from citing Jewish folklore as well.  To be sure, he too was trying to create a cultural surplus and believed, like Bloch, in the “rectification of heritage.”  And this is more than evident in his Kafka essay where, I would argue, the schlemiel and the heritage of the schlemiel emerges.

(Please note that I will touch on this heritage in this blog.  But I will delve more deeply into it in my book. After all, I can’t reveal all my secrets.)

Like Bloch, Benjamin wasn’t interested in liquidating tradition so much as in rectifying it.  As I have already shown, Benjamin was aware of what is at stake with tradition.  The question, however, is how we are to read the cultural surplus (vis-à-vis the fool) that Benjamin left for us and what we should do with it.

Now that Benjamin’s criticism has nearly exhausted itself in terms of the obsessive reading of his work in terms of crisis and destruction, its time to dig up what has been passed over as irrelevant (the detritus of Benjamin criticism is to be found in the tension between heritage and its liquidation; it is to be found in the greatest comic failure of all and the tradition that gave birth to it: the schlemiel).

In the next few blogs, I will sketch out more of Bloch’s project vis-à-vis tradition and utopia.  The point of this exercise is to help us to understand Benjamin’s interest in Kafka, the schlemiel, and tradition.