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Reflections on Walter Benjamin 2.

Texting: Ancient and Modern.
[No. 2 in a Series.]

By ALAN WALL.

portrait_logoTHE INFINITIVE ‘TO text’ takes us back to the sixteenth century. Anyone doing it then would have been making a groove through some sort of material. Texting was writing, and writing involved an implement and a sheet it might cut into, however lightly. A quill scratches the surface of parchment or paper, and the text — whose Latin etymology leads us back to weaving — implies a tissue, a woven fabric. All the early papers were laid; wove paper was a product of industrial production in the second half of the eighteenth century. But both wove or laid papers were made at the time out of rags, so something had been woven at some point. And then the words are stitched together, using the needlepoint of a pen, and we end up with another kind of text. One like this.

plano1There are three generic kinds of printing: relief, intaglio and planographic. The first cuts away around the figure to effect protrusions from the base material, the second cuts the figure into it, and the third leaves the plane of printing entirely level. There is no incision. Writing with a pen was primarily an intaglio process. Writing electronically is planographic. We remain on the flat, and that flat is a perfect, virtual surface. No marks need be etched now into any other surface. And erasures effect an immediate disappearance; the error disappears into a black hole, which then disappears in its turn. What this means for the writing process it is evidently too early to say. But a change of technical resource so radical and all-encompassing must be having some kind of effect on the manner of our writing. Perhaps centuries to come might see a vast sea-change, invisible to the present practitioners, many of whom will in any case be carrying over their previous stylistic practices into the new technology, according to the law of uneven and combined development. The fonts we use on our computers can be traced back generically to particular ways of writing script by hand.

paper-smith-silWordsworth composed in his head, while walking about outdoors. He was famously shaky in regard to punctuation, but one never has any problem reading his rhythms, because they are dictated by pace and breath. Asked once where Mr Wordsworth’s study was, the housekeeper pointed out of the window to the garden. There is a tragic doublet to this image of interior and penless composition. Osip Mandelstam, living in exile under the terror of Stalin, could only compose silently in his head, it being impossibly dangerous to write down such verses. His wife Nadezhda would arrive infrequently and have these verses recited to her in a corner until she finally had them by heart. Then she would go back to Petersburg and write them down in secret in the night. Only thus has this poetry survived. Ernest Hemingway wrote standing up. The pugilist cannot afford to sit down until the bell rings, and there was always something of the fighter about Hemingway the writer, who wrote descriptions longhand in pencil, but dialogue on the typewriter, because he reckoned people, when talking one to one, spoke like typewriters. Don de Lillo still types up all his books on an old electric typewriter. He will not use a word processor because the natural technique there constitutes correction through erasure. He keeps each typed page of his variorum text until the end, and only then does he decide which one works best. He is archiving his own processes of composition. To do that one needs to maintain all the variants.

benjamin-notebookWALTER BENJAMIN WAS obsessive about the techniques and tools of writing. He never wrote directly on to a typewriter, as his contemporary T. S. Eliot sometimes did. He wrote initially in notebooks and on carefully chosen paper. He tells us that we should never be haphazard about the materials for writing; they are for him a matter of ritualistic preparation and care. His tiny and exact hand could fill a page with a remarkable number of words. Sometimes he needed a sheet far larger than A4, to order his thoughts coherently, particularly when planning a new work. The notebooks that have remained are handsome items, obsessively filled with his obsessive thoughts. The loss of a favourite fountain pen so distressed him that his resulting emotional paralysis could well be described as trauma.

Of all writers Benjamin was the most aware of the technologies that made writing possible. Although there had been ‘reservoir pens’ of one sort or another for centuries, the nineteenth century delivered the first true fountain pens (and a little later ball-point pens). These eliminated the need for the nib to be kept in close proximity to an inkpot, thus making the activity of writing more itinerant. And Benjamin was certainly an itinerant writer, writing in apartments, libraries, cafes and bars. He carried his pens and his notebooks around, as he often did copies of some of the images that most engaged him. He was a mobile intelligence unit moving through the streets of a city. He constituted his own moveable archive, and insisted that the greatest archive of non-sensuous mimesis was language itself.

SO BENJAMIN WAS as engrossed in the materiality of writing as he was in the materiality of nineteenth-century image production. There is a particular species of theorizing, which in its breezy readiness to conceptualize at speed, misses the actual encounter with any specific text or image. The actuality of what should be examined ends up dissolved in the acids of the schema, the universal solvent of ‘theory’. Benjamin represents the opposite of this practice. He is halted by the dense particularism of this book or that watercolour; to him each is a compressed manifold of historical meaning and circumstance. The nature of this precise encounter dictates the value of any critique which it might generate.

Benjamin felt that modern experience tends away from the incised plate of intaglio towards the smooth planographic surface.

Benjamin felt that modern experience tends away from the incised plate of intaglio towards the smooth planographic surface. This is part of what he meant by the decay of wisdom. The storyteller’s art, he tells us, is based on the accrual of wisdom around narrated events. The telling of the story enunciates the significance of each successive instant in the narrations. Actions are either wise or foolish, brave or cowardly, but they all have a meaning to be discerned. This meaning is disclosed by the storyteller, just as it was by the chorus in a Greek tragedy, which was always unillusioned in noting that the protagonists appeared to be going to hell in a handcart. But in the age of modernity, wisdom is replaced by information. Benjamin used a particular word to describe the experience that copes with modernity by letting the experiences slide by: this was Erlebnis. Those experiences which could not be disposed of with this facility, but formed an impression upon memory’s plate he called Erfahrung. Increasingly in modernity Erfahrung is replaced by Erlebnis. The experiential becomes brief, fleeting, disposable and therefore psychically unrecorded. It is, in terms of our printing metaphor, a planar surface of infinitesimal thinness, on which one may travel at the speed of light. Such a journey constitutes a glissade. It is simultaneously rapid and smooth.

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud describes two types of psychic constellation. In the first, if the psyche is prepared by sufficient anxiety to receive the shock which is heading its way, the shock will manifest itself in consciousness, and no trace need be left. The trauma has been anticipated effectively, and memory needs no construct. But there is another constellation which has not undergone any preparatory anxiety, and now the shock will find no place in consciousness – none having been prepared for it – and therefore the shock will leave a trace. Freud related such traumatic tracings to the experiences of the Great War. Recurrent dreams after the war represented a nocturnal re-assembly of the psychological field in which the wartime traumas were relived, thus providing, for years afterwards, the context of anxiety that had been missing in the first place. Thus did these dreams constitute an oneiromantic defence, provided retroactively. This distinction has more than a distant relationship to Benjamin’s division between Erlebnis and Erfahrung. That which cuts the surface leaves the trace. Erlebnis is planographic; Erfahrung intaglio.

ART TODAY TRANSLATES electronically into image and word. In a world where ninety per cent of our realities arrive in the form of electronic images, we have elected (without any individual consideration of the matter) Erlebnis over Erfahrung. If Erlebnis is smoothly planographic, glissading along, Erfahrung eats into the mind’s surface. It is either a burin digging or acid biting. It hurts, and the pain becomes a form of recall. In the sphere of Erlebnis, beyond anything which Walter Benjamin had encountered, memory is becoming not merely planographic but prosthetic too; it is detachable, like a memory stick. Each erasure enacts a disappearance. All that is left is a perfect plane, of infinite dimensions, with no depth at any point along it.

The Anfal sura was written long before the mechanical printing of the fifteenth century. The memorising of every word of the sacred Arabic text takes place today in madrassahs where the rote-learning of the Koran is obligatory. The words once cut into parchment are now printed in their millions of copies, or made available online, and they are ‘imprinted’ on the memories of a myriad young believers. The British jihadist who now calls himself Ibn Anfal, in honour of that Koranic sura, takes the words to be a recommendation of the beheading of all infidels. Soon the dreadful serrations inflicted on the neck of the hostage will be completed at last. His screams and whimpers have already ceased. The message now to be texted involves no such serrations or incisions, since it is entirely planographic, on a plane supported by no material surface: ‘It is done.’

See also: Alan Wall on ‘Textuality‘.


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.

 

 

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