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Reflections on Walter Benjamin 1.

[Preface and Essay No. 1 in a Series.]



portrait_logoTHE ESSAYS THAT follow are part of a sequence. The aim is to use some of the key concepts of Walter Benjamin, that remarkable critic and cultural analyst, in order to describe aspects of contemporary culture and politics. Benjamin viewed the past as the possible site of dialectical images, in which a represented historical moment could briefly flare up, to offer its illumination to the avid enquiry of the present. All such moments constitute an act of intellectual recovery. They are not vouchsafed; nothing in the past is ever ‘safely archived’. Our transactions with what went before are as precarious as any we might presently be having with the future. The past, like the present, is being endlessly rewritten, for one ideological purpose or another.

Each of these essays is in search of such dialectical images. Benjamin’s thought is constantly summoned as the guide throughout.

1.Uneven and Combined Development.

IN 2014 THE group calling itself alternatively ISIS, ISIL or IS, the common factor in all these acronyms being the words Islamic State, announced the restoration of the Caliphate. The Caliphate had disappeared nearly a hundred years before when Ataturk informed it that it had no further function in the modern world. Well, the ‘modern world’ has of late been discovering some ancient roots and functions. In fact, the modern world in the atavistic form of this newly-restored Caliphate wishes to destroy most of modernity, except for mobile phones, Swiss watches, aeroplanes, automatic weapons, Humvees and its multiform networking facilities. Modernity here equals any deviation from Islam as interpreted by the hard Koranic reading of IS. Anathema is any notion of the liberation, sexual equality or education of women; any notion that infidel soldiers should be garrisoned in Arab lands, or anywhere near Muslim shrines; any collaboration, economic, political or military, with that great power of Satan, the U. S. A. IS has committed itself to take revenge on all who besmirch its form of Islam (the only true form) by the most pitiless means. The revenge might well be filmed. Modern mobile technology ensures that studios are no longer required.

Walter Benjamin could have informed them how ferocious modern primitivism is when allied to modern technology.

Many were the voices in the press protesting the inconceivability of such a group behaving in such a way in the twenty-first century. These journalistic paragons of the relentlessness of progress had evidently paid scant attention to modern history and its doings. Walter Benjamin could have informed them (he did, in fact, inform them) how ferocious modern primitivism is when allied to modern technology. Atavistic genocide + I. G. Farben = a new opening for a selective extinction almost as swift as the unannounced arrival of a meteor. A certain exterminating zest never seems to leave humanity for long.

And it is hardly as though illiteracy can be held to blame. We could argue that a particular sort of obsessive literacy is at the heart of the problem here. Captives are beheaded using a hand-held blade. One apparent justification for this form of execution is what is known as the Anfal sura in the Koran which informs us that the Almighty will not be unduly lenient when confronted with unbelievers: ‘I will put terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve, and so strike them upon their necks…’ Strike someone hard enough and repeatedly enough upon their necks, using a blade, and sooner or later you will separate their head from their shoulders. The Koranic periphrasis, according to this reading anyway, adumbrates beheading for those who imagine they can do without Allah, or who pay insufficient attention to his prophet.

The notion of history having become a form of collective progress is an intellectual catastrophe, according to Benjamin.

THE PROBLEM HERE is the notion of global progress. There are always specific and individual progresses, together with particular regresses, but the notion of history having become a form of collective progress is an intellectual catastrophe, according to Benjamin, and one which anaesthetises precisely those faculties which need to remain alert to barbarism’s resurgence. There is progress in dentistry; no one would wish to revert to the medieval variety, let alone the Neolithic. There is progress in chemical manufacture, bomb design, aeronautic efficiency, anaesthetics. The mistake (and it is an unforgivable one) is to imagine that these individual progresses added together make for a historic one-way-street called ‘Progress’, down which we have all been marching, in time if not exactly in step.

scarborough1A Marxist notion that came to be used extensively in regard to the Russian Revolution is the concept of ‘uneven and combined development’. Marx saw how different modes and technologies of production did not simply annihilate the old with the arrival of the new; they coexisted in a manifold of curious ways, often for a long time. Here is a photograph of Scarborough harbour in 1921. There are two steamships there; all the other craft are driven by sail. Precisely a hundred years before, the first steamship had ventured out on the waves, and the history books have a tendency to announce this as a revolutionary age of transportation, which indeed it was. But for the fishermen of Scarborough, some of whose boats were over a hundred years old, the ancient technology continued to suffice. Just as the traction engine, and then the tractor, became the new forms of ploughing a field, but to this day if you venture eastwards across Europe you will still find many ploughs being pulled by horses.

The law of uneven and combined development tells us that historical change is never linear and sequential, and it is never simply the exemplification of Progress.

The law of uneven and combined development tells us that historical change is never linear and sequential, and it is never simply the exemplification of Progress. Historical situations are never merely determined, they are always overdetermined, which is to say that multiple factors are in force, not simply one. Even serendipity and the haphazard play their roles in this great chronicle. The American Indians traded their bows and arrows for rifles and revolvers, with no technological interim. Here we have progress through ellipsis. A tribe in the Amazon could next week cease communicating at the speed of a runner through the jungle, and instead communicate at the speed of light, courtesy of invading loggers from the north, newly arrived with their computers and their mobile phones.

The Russian Revolution was an example of uneven and combined development. Antonio Gramsci called it the revolution against Capital, by which he meant that all Marx’s predictions about the likely trajectory of a socialist revolution were here contradicted. Instead of an advanced industrial society in which the contradictions between the forces and relations of production had become critically unsustainable, here was an industrially undeveloped society, with a small urban proletariat, but it was in that society that the revolution was precipitated. Why? Well, for one thing the Great War pushed certain social, economic and class relations beyond breaking-point, and the point of the break turned out to be imperial Russia. Thus are historic events never straightforwardly developmental in a predictable way; any historic conjuncture is never simply determined by a sequence of events, but always complexly overdetermined by a manifold of factors producing a manifold effect. Even at the heart of matter, modern physics has discovered, there is an indeterminacy which cannot be predicted, in its specific dynamic operations.

AND THEN THERE is Newton’s Third Law of Motion: to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. This law was formulated in the world of mechanics, but it seems to hold with remarkable consistency in the world of politics, the intellect and the emotions too. Any new development, any new invention, inaugurates a pendulum effect, whose return swing can never be exactly predicted by the clockmaker beforehand.

We can see these different laws applying by examining certain objects which the tradition has bequeathed us. Almost any fashioned commodity will combine the present and the past to a remarkable degree. Any penknife is a display of honed skills first developed in the Upper Palaeolithic. Paintings of horses by George Stubbs exhibit skills shown nearly 20,000 years before in the caves of Lascaux. The past persists into the present; the present chews its way back into the past. Past and present are held in a perennial dialectic tension.

quidpicAnybody in Britain with a one-pound coin in his pocket will find that it has been struck with the letters F. D. after the monarch’s name. Thus is the coin (and the eye that reads it) translated back four hundred years. For the term Fidei Defensor, or Defender of the Faith, was a title bestowed by Pope Leo X on the English King, for his book Assertio Septem Sacramentorum, defending the sacraments, the supremacy of the Pope, and the inviolability of marriage. That was in the halcyon days, before any shadow lay across the womb of Katherine of Aragon. The title was subsequently revoked by Pope Paul III, after Henry’s split with Rome and his excommunication, but unrevoked once more by Parliament. So any English monarch is still Fidei Defensor, or in the case of the Queen, Fidei Defensatrix. Even though the seven sacraments were reduced to two by the Reformation, the sanctity of marriage was serially questioned by Henry’s own lethal form of conjugality, and the great authority of the Pope was hardly helped along by the mighty schism inaugurated in England. Two letters on a metal disc carry four hundred years of history as their burden.

Such matters, such complexities of history, culture, religion, nomenclature, only matter if they are suddenly made to matter. The Anfal sura of the Koran only greatly matters if men in black masks wielding knives decide that this is a sacred justification for the beheading of the infidel, wherever one may find him. And his name is legion.

LandC150aAlan Wall was born in Bradford, lives in North Wales, and studied English at Oxford. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor Placebo. Jacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester. His book Endtimes has just been published by Shearsman Books, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in January. A collection of his essays has now been published by Odd Volumes, The Fortnightly Review’s publishing imprint.


One Comment

  1. wrote:

    Is this article part of a “Labyrinths and clues” or of another book?

    Note: Labyrinths & Clues has been published as a collection by Odd Volumes, our publishing venture. This article is the first in a new series by Prof Wall.

    Wednesday, 19 November 2014 at 15:46 | Permalink

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