Tendencies: A Note on Walter Benjamin, Immanent Critique, Magical Observation, and the Schlemiel


As anyone who reads my blog knows, I love (literary, film, and art) criticism.  And, in many ways, I feel as if, through criticism, I am disclosing something about this or that story that has never be touched on before.  And this thing that I am bringing out marks a direction or a tendency toward something transformational. Moreover, when I do critique I feel as if I take on the very tendency that I uncover in this or that book, story, film, etc. It’s not an act of indifference for me.   This implies that my schlemiel theory project takes on a tendencies that I feel have been overlooked in this or that reading of the schlemiel.  And not only is this a public, historical endeavor, it is also personal.  A major inspiration for this approach to the schlemiel comes from Walter Benjamin and his notion of “immanent critique.”

Unlike any Walter Benjamin scholar, John McCole, in his exceptional book Walter Benjamin and the Antinomies of Tradition, looks into how Walter Benjamin understands tradition.  As a part of his investigation, McCole looks into Walter Benjamin’s reception of German Romanticism.  To this end, he provides the reader with a historical context to understand what German Romanticism looked to effectuate and what Benjamin drew from this movement.  But what makes McCole’s reflection so incisive is the fact that he suggests that, for Benjamin, the Romantic Movement had a lot in common with the Youth Movement.  Benjamin, as Gershom Scholem points out (and as we can see from Benjamin’s letters, essays, and notes from that period), was committed to this German Youth Movement.  But as Benjamin himself points out in his essay on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, this movement failed.  And this filled Benjamin with regret.  However, he managed, like Dostoevsky, to draw something out of the historical failure of the movement.  As I have noted in another blog entry, what he came out with was the wisdom of foolishness and a sense of how utopia can become self-destructive.   McCole points out that Benjamin referred to the Romantic Movement as a Youth Movement.  And like the movement, he saw it as a failure.   He saw this by way of criticism.

But this criticism was not merely a subjective reaction to failure.  McCole tells us that Benjamin’s notion of criticism draws more on Kant than on the German Romantics and that this orientation put “inherited standards of orientation” into question:

Criticism meant objective reflection on the universal characteristics of the cognizing subject, not license to pass arbitrary judgments from an unexamined standpoint.  Criticism did begin, however, by placing all inherited standards of orientation in question, rejecting dogmatic prescription of givens and absolutes whatsoever.  (85-86)

Benjamin well-knew that the German Romantic movement took its inspiration, in major part, from the French Revolution.  According to McCole, they “regarded the French Revolution as only the prelude…to a catastrophe that would bring an all-engulfing cultural transformation.” And “this expectation made them unable to accept any given, already perfected cannon of orientation”(86).  For this reason, they put “Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre and Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister alongside the French Revolution as the ‘greatest tendencies of the age’”(86).

McCole focuses in on the notion of a “tendency” since “the romantics stressed that they by no means offered perfected ideals but only pointers to the imperative of creating new norms and values.”  To be sure, he argues that not just the Romantics but Benjamin himself was interested in “tendencies” (or “pointers”) to this imperative.

To be sure, McCole suggests that Benjamin saw himself as drawing a “tendency” out of this failed movement.  He rescued this tendency from oblivion. And this rescue feeds into the reading of critique as something “positive.”  Critique created “real historical change”: “critique for the early romantics, was the indespensible counterpart to real historical change, not an alternative to it”(87).    In addition, critique looked to disclose the “metaphysical structure” found in the finite forms.  Hence, for Novalis, to “romanticize” means “to extrapolate from the particular, finite form, until its absolute, metaphysical structure revealed itself.”   One can argue that this what is meant by a tendency.  In contrast to an ideal, it is a metaphysical structure that lay dormant in things, a structre than can be used to initiate historical change and transformation.

McCole shows how Benjamin’s notion of “immanent critique” is aimed at finding such tendencies.  But these tendencies are not found in this or that historical period so much as in the artwork itself: “immanent criticism heeds the primacy of the aesthetics object’s own characteristics and properties”(89).  The artwork – if read critically – can show us a tendency that can, in fact, lead the way to historical change since the artwork’s “immanent structure” provides a “corrective of all subjectivity”(90).  And this implies that it “refracts and reforms all extrinsic forms that pass through it.”

As McCole points out, “immanent criticism” is productive and positive since, in pointing out these tendencies, it produces a new set of possibilities for the artwork that are latent in it.   This suggests that, for Benjamin, the artwork is always incomplete:

Immanent criticism regards the artwork as essentially incomplete; it unfolds the work by making its potential qualities actual, its implicit features explicit.  The result is to “reflect” the work, in the sense that criticism rises the object to a higher level of clarity and explicitness. (90).

In Benjamin’s words, the “reflection is awakened.”  This is an act of romanticization since it transforms the tendency into a quasi-absolute that is, in itself, productive.  This act, necessarily, is based on finding things in the decayed and forgotten artwork which can, of themselves (once awakened), alter history. This, perhaps, is the work of art which is “awakened” by criticism.  In other words, Benjamin looks to awaken these “tendencies” in the work of art which “point to” the imperative of change.

Benjamin calls the observation of this awakening – caused by immanent criticism – “magic observation.” And, as McCole notes, this experience of observation is “interactive” – and, in addition to raising the critics consciousness, the observation can also be “incorporated” into the critic’s self.  This was much like Novalis for whom, “the true experimenter” is one who nature “reveals itself more perfectly” if and only if he harmonizes himself with what he observes through criticism.   In other words, through the critic who becomes one with his “magical observation” (prompted by immanent criticism), one can experience the tendency toward revolution.

This model works well with schlemiel theory.  Following Benjamin’s lead, I think “immanent criticism” is of great use since the schlemiel is a character which seems to have decayed.  Yet, as Benjamin knew, comic characters show us a tendency toward revolution.  By employing an immanent criticism to the schlemiel – in this or that novel, short story, play, or film – the critic can have a “magical observation” of sorts that can be witnessed by readers.

Perhaps this is saying too much, but there is a lot of truth to it.  A schlemiel theorist should show us a tendency to change.  But this can only be found by way of rescuing the schlemiel from oblivion.  And this is a major part of my project otherwise know as schlemiel theory.  I do believe that this rescue can have a positive historical effect.  But that all depends on how my project is witnessed by others and whether it taps into a historical possibility (or possibilities) that has (or have) been overlooked.   As one can imagine, I have hope, as did Benjamin, that the trash that I have found (in this case, schlemiel trash) may indicate a possibility or tendency that has been overlooked.  And like Benjamin, I understand that this “magical observation” is based on “awakening” this tendency by way of “immanent criticism.”

This “magical observation” of the schlemiel’s awakening is my risk; and it is the risk of schlemiel theory.

The Schlemiel Who Tried to Get a Job – On Robert Walser’s “The Job Application”


While writing on Franz Kafka, the Jewish-German thinker Walter Benjamin was interested in finding common ground between Jewish and non-Jewish comic characters.  We see this project in his notes and in his essay on Kafka’s work.  To be sure, the essay starts with a reflection on a Russian fool named Shuvalkin; but it also includes reflection on Jewish fools vis-à-vis the messianic.  Kafka’s characters, as Benjamin understood them, may have some relation to the Messianic in the sense that, in their foolishness, they are the unredeemed figures of Exile.  They are incomplete and are waiting, so to speak, to be redeemed from their sad state.  What brings all of these characters together – in a state of exile – is not so much their pathetic character as a kind of innocence and blindness. This naïve state, for readers like Benjamin, gives us a sense of the best humanity has to offer in bad times.  (For Benjamin, such naïve foolishness, and not the powers of reason, idealism, progress, humanism, or heroism, is what is best in man.  After all, as Benjamin said to his friend and scholar Gershom Scholem, regarding Kafka, “only a fool can help.”)  It is the small things – things that we often miss – which, for Benjamin, hold the most meaning and hope.  And, in a world dominated by reason, humanism, and progress, it is the innocent loser who lives closest to the smallest things.  It is this character who, strangely enough, is closest to redemption.

One would think that Robert Walser, a writer Kafka and Benjamin read lovingly, would appear in Walter Benjamin’s notes or on his essay on Kafka.  But he doesn’t.  I find this omission to be very odd.   Reading Walser, I find all of the qualities that Benjamin found of interest in his essay on Kafka; namely, as I mentioned above, innocence, blindness, and the importance of small things.  To be sure, Walser is the master of these elements.

Susan Sontag, in an essay and introduction to Walser, notes that Walser is “one of the most important writers of this century” and, referencing the often melancholic writer and playwright Samuel Beckett, calls him “a good humored sweet Beckett.”   But the most important aspect of his writing, for Sontag, is found in the little things:

Walser is a miniaturist, promulgating the claims of the anti-heroic, the limited, the humble, the small – as if in response to his acute feeling for the interminable.

He was, like Melville’s Bartelby, a “non-doer.”  But, as Sontag notes, for such a non-doer we wrote a lot.  But what does an “acute feeling for the interminable” and being a “non-doer” amount to?  For Sontag, it amounts to an “awareness of the creatureliness of life, of the fellowship of sadness.”

Reading this, and contrasting it to what Benjamin thought about Kafka and the messianic, I would suggest that we read what Sontag calls “an awareness of the creatureliness of life” and the “fellowship of the sadness” against the comic.  To be sure, as I mentioned above, Sontag called Walser a “good humored Beckett” and suggests such a balance of the comic and the melancholic. But she drops in the end for melancholy.  What I’d like to suggest is that Walser – from time to time – puts out characters that resonate with the Eastern European tradition of the schlemiel: they simpletons who pronounce the tension between hope and skepticism.  And by doing so, they put the possibility of the messianic into quotation marks yet without extinguishing it.  This doesn’t bring about melancholy so much as a wounded kind of hope that is invested in the simpleton.  When reading Walser, I can’t help but hear these resonances.

The “Job Application,” a wonderful short piece by Walser, gives a good sense of what I mean by my current presumption.  Walser’s story is about a young man who wants a job.  But there is a problem.  He doesn’t understand how one should “properly” write a job application. And this has much to do with his character which is humble and innocent.

In other words, he is unable to see and understand what sacrifices one must make when applying for and working in a 9 to 5 job.  We see this in the first lines:

I am a poor, young, unemployed person in the business field, my name is Wenzel, I am seeking a suitable position, and I take the liberty of asking you, nicely and politely, if perhaps in your airy, bright, amiable rooms such a position might be free.

The schlemiel has been dubbed by Hannah Arendt – vis-à-vis Heinrich Heine – as a “lord of dreams.”  With this in mind, I can’t help but think of the schlemiel when I read Wenzel’s characterization of himself as “dreamy child” who wants a “small place in the shade.”  Wenzel repeats the fact that he is a simpleton – much like the schlemiel – when he states how:

Large and difficult task I cannot perform, and obligations of a far-ranging sort are too strenuous for my mind. I am not particularly clever, and first and foremost I don’t like to strain my intelligence overmuch.  I am a dreamer rather than a thinker, a zero rather than a force, dim rather than sharp.

His simplicity is the last quality (the most meaningful one) he wants to outline in his “job application.”  And what makes this feature most interesting is the fact that after stating it he believes that the business to which he is applying will, unlike the “world in which we live,” accept him:

My mind clear but refuses to grasp things that are many, or too many by far, shunning them.  I am sincere and honest, and I am aware this signifies little in the world in which we live, so I shall be waiting…

He naively waits for them to accept him and it seems Wenzl believes that his honesty will win them over.  But as in many a schlemiel story (such as I.B. Singer’s Gimpel the Fool or Sholem Aleichem’s Motl, the Cantor’s Son), honesty and trust do not win out although the characters, to the very end, believe they will.

Here we have a clear tension between hope and skepticism, which characterizes so many schlemiel stories; and, like them, it is the simpleton who pronounces this tension.  His interest in the little things such as trust and humility are naïve, but they are, as Walter Benjamin would say, the only things that help.  Ultimately, Benjamin clung to these simple things more than he clung to Marxism or the hope for a youth revolution (which, as I pointed out before in this blog, he wrote of in his review of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot).

In the end of the day, the schlemiel tries to get a job.  But he does so for one simple reason: to show that what is at stake with the schlemiel is something the messianic.  But instead of clinging to Marxist hope, the author – like Walter Benjamin – clings to the man-child, the schlemiel.  Somehow, he believes that simplicity, honesty, and the lord of dreams – here, Wenzel – will win out in the end.   Like Wenzel, he hopes that one day the employer will “hire” the “lord of dreams” as an employee.

This is obviously a foolish (and impossible) hope.  But, finishing the line I mentioned above in reference to Walter Benjamin’s letter to Gershom Scholem, perhaps we can say that the fool may be the only one who can help; but the question is whether or not he can do humanity any good.   This kind of question is the one that would be asked by Sancho Panza of Don Quixote.  Benjamin’s letter teaches us that the same question could be asked on the eve of the Holocaust, but can we still ask it, today, after the Holocaust and countless horrors of the 20th century?  Does it still ring true?  Or are today’s readers of Walser devoid of any hope and united in what Sontag calls a “fellowship of sadness?”