On an Aesthetic of Redemption or The Problem With Historicizing Walter Benjamin (Take 1)


I’m not an intellectual historian.  And while I enjoy reading intellectual history, I always worry about the problem of periodization.   Like any historicization, the risk is to say that on this or that date everything changed with this or that thinker.  The problem with such claims is that – in a Derridian sense – something always remains.  Many intellectual historians, in an effort to make a coherent historical narrative, often leave things out or argue that this or that element of said thinker’s thought took a turn.  While much of this may find support in this or that prooftext, oftentimes one can find counter-texts (and counter-memories, as Michel Foucault might say) to challenge this or that genealogy.   For me, the case in point is the intellectual history of Walter Benjamin.

What makes him such an interesting figure for intellectual history is the fact that he, himself, was an intellectual historian of sorts.  But his history was oftentimes focused on the intellectual history of different mediums (although they would focus on the shift as found in this or that writer, poet, or filmmaker).  In many essays, such as “The Storyteller,” “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” or “Some Motifs of Baudelaire” or in his book, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, Benjamin clearly demarcates the shift from one era to another which can be found in different mediums (the novel, storytelling, film, and poetry).    But although Benjamin made rigorous demarcations, these demarcations were not absolute.  One can see overlap.  For instance, although Benjamin announces the end of the aura in one essay, he still notes that it lives on in others.  And when he argues that storytelling has been displaced by the newspaper, this doesn’t keep him from reflecting on it and bringing out it’s modern proponents (such as Kafka, Walser, or Proust).

To be sure, Benjamin, who read much Freud and incorporated his work into his own, believed that we are haunted by the past. In addition, there are many examples in his work where the past permeates the present and serves as an index of the future.   We see this in his Arcades Project, The Berlin Childhood, One Way Street, his essays on Baudelaire and Proust, his Kafka essay, and his essays that address the Messianic.

Moreover, in his personal reflections he also takes note of what remains.

And although there is room to argue that he was noting his own personal-historical shifts (as we saw in yesterday’s blog entry), he still sees these moments as lingering in the present.    Nonetheless, some intellectual historians choose not to take this into consideration.  One such intellectual historian is Peter Osborne, who argues that Benjamin, after writing his essay on Kafka, turned wholeheartedly to the political and turned away from the aesthetic.  Were one to read Benajmin’s letters to his dear friend Gershom Scholem, however, one would find another narrative.  In that narrative, Benjamin’s interest in the aesthetic and Kafka remain right up until his untimely death.

Richard Wolin’s intellectual history also chooses to leave a few things out, but, at the very least, he does what Osborne doesn’t: he shows how certain elements of Benjamin’s work cling –from the beginning to the end – to the “aesthetic of redemption.”  Wolin’s focus is commendable and merits closer reading.  I would like to point out, however, where he draws the line and what this implies.  (I will be commenting on his book on and off in this blog, so this reading is based on the beginning of his book where he addresses Benjamin’s “origins.”)

In the first chapter of Wolin’s book, Walter Benjamin: An Aesthetic of Redemption, he makes a reading of Walter Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood around 1900.   This reading reflects, on the one hand, an acute sense of how Benjamin looked to “redeem” his past via the aesthetic; on the other hand, it looks to periodize this work and leaves no doubt in the reader’s mind that Benjamin had left this behind.

One of the things that caught my mind was Wolin’s selection of texts to illustrate Benjamin’s vision of himself in the past and how it relates to the present:

He speaks of the unclear vision of intellectuals which results from an innate tendency toward flight from reality; a tendency he claimed to have detected in himself at an extremely early age which in his eyes manifested itself in his staunch refusal to form with others in a united front…”My habit of seeming slower, more maladroit, more stupid than I am, had its origins in such walks (through the city), and has the great attendant danger of making me think myself quicker, more dexterous, and shrewder than I am.”(3)

Commenting on this, Wolin argues that Benjamin “turned to the theme of childhood memories in a time when all possibilities seemed to be blocked”(3).  In other words, Wolin historicizes this line (and the whole book) to argue that if Benjamin wrote about the past, so as to find something hopeful (or even helpful) in it, he did so because his life (when he wrote it, in the 1930s) was bleak.   But, given that reading, we could argue that everything he wrote was prompted by the fact that he saw himself as a loser and was looking, as Wolin suggests, for reasons as to why he produced such bad luck.  In other words, he was looking for how he had become such a schlemiel.    To be sure, in this passage, Benjamin is trying to explain why he appeared so belated and slow (seemingly more stupid than he was): the very characteristics of many a schlemiel who is often too late or too early for this or that thing and who, like Gimpel the Fool, appears stupid when he is not.

Although this seems negative, Wolin, at the very least, notes that Benjmain derived something meaningful from his childhood experience (but, for Wolin, this has nothing to do with the fact that he has many comic and child-like aspects to himself):

What he attempted to capture in these reflections was, above all, a capacity for lived experience associated with an upbringing in Berlin at this time, whose last vestiges were in the process of being extinguished by the world-historical march of the forces of disenchantment. (4)

In other words, the only thing that Benjamin was interested in saving from the past was his “capacity for experience.” The experiences themselves, however, are left behind forever. As Wolin notes, “Berlin existed once upon a time, as it will never appear again.”   This implies not only that this book was a commemoration of a city that is no longer, but that Benjamin cannot go back.  His book was, more or less, a movement away from the childhood and toward maturity and adulthood.  The only thing worth salvaging is something that would always be there: the “capacity for experience.”

While I find the notion of such a “capacity,” interesting, I find it elides too much.  This capacity may be something gleaned from youth but it is ultimately abstract and seems to transcend history like Aristotle’s notion of capacity and potentiality.  Rather than make this move, I’d like to suggest – as I have throughout this blog –that Benjamin was acutely aware of how all of his capacities were haunted by failure.  This historical aspect isn’t redeemed; it is a remnant from his past which pops up in most of his work in the 1930s and in his letters to Scholem.  But this failure has a comic rather than a tragic note.

The problem with intellectual history is that it might find this element to be in competition with the narrative of maturity.  And it is right for thinking this because it is; and Benjamin knew this well.  It remained with him to the end.  And even Hannah Arendt, in her introductory essay to his work (to an American audience), noted the specter that remained with him to the end: she gave it a figure, the “hunchback.”  This figure –the figure of bad luck –haunted his maturation process and it should haunt any intellectual history of his work.  It reminds us that no matter how much there is evidence of evolving thought, something, in Benjamin’s work, remains.  But for Arendt, this has more to do with bad luck as such.  To be sure, in her view Benjamin is more of a shlimazl than a schlemiel (a topic that I will be addressing in my book and in forthcoming essays).

A Schlemiel or Two in the Cartoon Lagoon – Part I


In the late 1960s Susan Sontag made many statements and wrote essays which demonstrated that she was interested in effacing the fine line between high and low culture.  In one of her most interesting essays (“The Imagination of Disaster”), she makes an in-depth reading of science fiction films and B-films.  To be sure, like her, I’ve been wanting to explore popular culture with a critical eye.  And lately I’ve been looking to find comic material on the schlemiel in popular culture as I believe that one can find some schlemiels worthy of interest there.  To this end, I have been thinking about animations.

Scrolling through my ipad facebook page yesterday, my eye caught on an interesting looking cartoon animation called Cartoon Lagoon.  The episode I found is entitled “Game Over.” When I saw the Cartoon Lagoon image and the title, I was curious.  Very…curious since the person who posted it, Jeff Newelt, works in and knows the field of comic animation and cartooning from the inside-out.  Newelt is the comics editor of Heeb Magazine, the editor of the Harvey Pekar’s Pekar Project, and of Pekar’s Book Cleveland.  Knowing this, I was excited to see what the Cartoon Lagoon was all about. “Who knows,” I thought, “maybe I’d find a schlemiel or two?”

And I did!  Here’s the trailer for the first season of Cartoon Lagoon:

As you can see from the trailer, the mission of this Submarine (“The Mantaray”) is to go out in search of the “best and the worst cartoons…ever made.”  And on this mission they must -as the captain says – “retrieve cartoons.”  The stars of the show are “Captain Cornelius Cartoon”(the adventurer), Wet Willy Jones” (the schlemiel), “Axel Rod Magee” (the shlimazl – who the captain believes he can “cheer up” by discovering a new cartoon), and “Franky Planky.”

The clip I discovered on Jeff Newelt’s facebook page is, as I mentioned above, entitled “Game Over.”  It starts off with Axel Rod Magee – a shlimazl – banging on a table repeating, several times and with a schlemiel’s insistence, “It’s Game Over!”  The character, it seems, is really down on his luck.  Like many a shlimazl, he is weakened by his situation.  And this is in contrast to the schlemiel.  To be sure, Ruth Wisse sees the comedy of the shlimazl as situational while she sees the comedy of the schlemiel as existential.  The schlemiel is – so to speak – the purveyor of bad luck.  Bad things don’t happen to him; rather, they happen to others who are in his path.  (As the American-schlemiel joke goes, the schlemiel spills the soup while the shlimazel is the one who gets spilled on.)   Regardless, both the schlemiel and the shlimazl are tied together by virtue of luck.

The schlemiel is less affected by bad luck than the shlimazl.  It’s a matter of degree.

Now…where were we…?

Yes…after freaking out about how it is all “Game Over” (and that they are all going to die in the Cartoon Lagoon), we learn that it is Axel’s birthday.  And for his birthday, he is given something that communicates good and bad luck to the user….a “nine ball.”

The fact that it is a nine-ball – rather than an eightball – is already comic; but, more importantly, this is a retro-eightball, the one popular in the eighties.


It is used as the leitmotif in this part of the episode.  The ball – so to speak – communicates things that involve winning or loosing.  Inside the popular eightball from the 80s is a pyramid floating in blue liquid; it has different “responses” on each side.  When the person shakes it up, they are given a message (as if the message spoke the “truth” or some “secret” – something common to the ouji board phenomena).

The 9 ball brings the schlemiel-shlimazel routine together and, through its answers, we learn about the comic nature of every character. After telling the shlimazl that “these things never lie,” the captain shakes it up.  He asks “are we going to watch another cartoon today?” The answer: “All signs point to yes!” The captain is ecstatic, but the shlimazl is not convinced.  The schlemiel then takes the ball and asks “Where are my car keys?”  The ball breaks with the normal answer that one might find on the cube (like the one received by the captain) and says they are “Behind your comic book collection under your dirty laundry next to your rubiks cube and your “Where’s the Beef” Lunchbox.”

This 9 ball seems to provide only good answers. Perhaps it will bring good luck?  Inspired with some small bit of hope, when the skeptical shlimazl gets it, he asks questions that have much more existential depth: “Am I going to have a long life?” The response differs radically from the other two: “Reply Hazy: Ask again Later!”  Frustrated, the shlimazl asks yet another deep, existential question: “Is this going to be my last birthday?”  And, in comic repetitive form, it replies: “Reply Hazy: Ask again Later!”  But the shlimazl doesn’t give up and asks for a third time; this question, however, hits at the core of his character: “Is something bad going to happen to me?” And it replies, in the most mocking fashion: “Dude let it go!”  At that moment, something bad seems to happen: the ship hits something. But that’s a ruse.  They’ve hit a cartoon.  The captain tells them to go to the theater to watch the cartoon discovery.

What I love about this routine is that it shows the shlimazl to be a schlemiel.  He doesn’t simply have bad luck; he seems to constantly bring it on.  His condition is existential and it is situational.  That’s the trick of being the disseminator and the target of bad luck. But unlike the other schlemiel,  “Wet Wily Jones,” Axel is struck with bad luck, sometimes bringing it on, and he knows it.  Just look at those eyes and hear his voice; bad luck and anxiety have left their mark on his body. But at the very least he gets to survive and watch yet another cartoon from the past at the end of each episode. His life isn’t that bad…

I’ll stop on this note and return – in the next blog entry on this topic – to their commentary on the Three Stooges clip (one that they discover, or rather run into, in the Cartoon Lagoon).