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Posts tagged benjamin

Jan 22

"Reading has given us countless inhabited spaces"

Dreaming through books and in houses.

Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, #Dream House, L1, 1 #Antiquity*

The entrance to the panorama of Gropius is described as follows:

"One enters a room decorated in the style of Herculaneum; at its centre the passerby is drawn for a moment to a basin inlaid with shells, in which a small fountain is splashing. Straight ahead, a little flight of stairs leads to a cheerful reading room where some volumes are displayed.”

 Erich Stenger, Daguerre’s Diorama in Berlin (Berlin, 1925) pp. 24-25.  

Why a fountain in a covered space is conducive to daydreaming has yet to be explained. But in order to gauge the shudder of dread and exaltation that might have come over the idle visitor who stepped across his threshold, it must be remembered that the discovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum has taken place a generation earlier, and that the memory of the lava-death of these two cities was covertly but all the more intimately conjoined with the memory of the great Revolution. For when the sudden upheaval had put an end to the style of the ancien regime, what was here being exhumed was hastily adopted as the style of a glorious republic; and palm fronds, acanthus leaves, and meanders came to replace the rococo paintings and chinoiseries of the previous century.


The house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.

Words are little houses… to go down to the cellar is to dream, it is losing oneself in the distant corridors of an obscure etymology.

*Benjamin does tagging.

Oct 25

Benjamin Archiv

Walter Benjamin’s Paris address book

Where does the archive dwell? The archive, writes Derrida, needs to be sheltered. The Greek origin of arkheion refers to: “a house, a domicile, an address, the residence… of the archons, those who command”. The archive is both “there where things commence" and "there where authority and social order are exercised, in this place from which order is given.”  To archive is to assign a place, and therefore also to afford a power - for place and space are only afforded to that which is deemed to matter

Pieces of Walter Benjamin’s archive have currently moved residence from Berlin to Paris. At 71, Rue du Temple selected specimens of that which the writer collected - photographs, postcards, engravings - and samples of his own systems of notation - index cards, bookmark strips, notebook pockets - are displayed in wooden cases. The overlaps between city topography and Benjamin’s textual travail are evident, also evoked in photographs by Germaine Krull, which display Parisian vitrines, arched-glass arcades and domestic interiors, with which readers of Die Passenwerk/ The Arcades Project will be familiar. 

The visitor is welcomed by the weight of text and the minutiae of its execution; by the writer’s predilection for the miniscule and his perfection of micrographia. Tiny format pages are lined with a handwriting too fine for most eyes, the letter shapes uniformly joined and regularly kept at around one to seven millimetres. We see words crossed out, additions and omissions, arrows that change textual position. Akin to The Microscripts of Robert Walser, the density of Benjamin’s writing expresses concision and compression. Benjamin interchanged between a selection of notebooks, paying close attention to the paper, size and binding of each. His writing systems are scattered across sheets linked by classifying signs; be these alphabetical or coloured, they organise and align. His recollections are recorded only to be dispersed: torn out, or torn up, they request re-collecting.

Notebook editing

The work of the writer is one of construction and re-construction, and so too is that of the reader/visitor. Cards show graphical drawings of sections of The Arcades Project; a thin strip contains a list of the structure of an essay to be drafted on Charles Baudelaire, from which the later inter-referential tome spiralled. The work of the archive is to systematise these sheets, but if the exhibition claims to build an edifice of ideas, the archives of Benjamin resist single residency; like the writer they exist in exile. The exhibition may work, as Derrida would have it, “through gathering together signs”, but Benjamin’s archive, in its successive patterns of dispersion and reassembly, seems to challenge central commandment. Despite the canonisation of Benjamin’s thought, the work itself refutes the hierarchisation that is often inherent to the notion of putting-in-order; like Benjamin’s sketches of historical movement, his archives avoid the rule of cultural hegemony.


Benjamin’s tags

The reader usually only has access to Benjamin’s work through the surfaces of mechanical reproduction - through the standardised format of the page. Access to the origin, the commencement, of his ideas reveals the writerly processes that constitute his thought. The exhibition exposes the self-conscious organisations of a pre-machinic hand. 

No such exhibition will exist for the writers of today. If the archives of Benjamin exist in the movements of their inter-relations, contemporary digital archives also escape permanent dwelling. If we don’t catch some traces of the now, writings that are as spatially disjointed as Benjamin’s will fall into forgotten data, digital decay.* Our correspondence sits on hard-drives or in inboxes rather than in envelopes. The effortless features of word processing - the delete button, the travelling cursor, the cut and paste function - render the processes of textual change invisible. This we know. There is the acknowledgement of the digital archive’s ephemerality. Benjamin’s paper traces seem magical in their materiality. 

*The contemporary writer who typically posts to Tumblr and Twitter, composes within the frame of their mobile phone screen, types into computer documents as well as scribbling into notebooks or on the backs of napkins. All forms are accepted.

Dec 9


Natural (and not so natural) intrusions

The outdoors reader encounters a quotidian hum of surround sound. On park bench, bus seat or beach mat, the ambient noise of the setting forms an edge-of-conscious backdrop to the words on the page. The online reader must filter out another kind of ambient ‘noise’, a noise that is graphic more than auditory.

While Michel Serres believes that background noise is essential to communication, it is hard to dispute the idea that the internet’s chatter challenges our attention. Claims that attention-loss has spread to offline reading, causing more ‘shallow’, more fleeting, reading habits, are less straightforward to prove or disprove. Does the digital web re-wire the way we think or re-align the information channels of our brains, as technology radically alters the subject? Sounds a little like technoparanoia. Our brains are resilient - but also, adaptive; our patterns of thinking evolve in subliminal movements. Evolution is natural and stop it, we cannot.

There is, on this topic, considerable discussion around Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: read library ad infinitum’s dual commentary on this text and another - Clay Shirky's Cognitive Surplus -  while I read some more on attention and perception and get back to you.

I’ve been thinking, meanwhile, about intrusions to online reading - Twitter and social chat distractions aside, about the intrusion of adverts on online pages. I couldn’t help but think about ad intrusion, as a flashing promo-box scrolled across the text of the article I was reading. It was a long article for screen reading, six pages, but I was engaged enough with the subject matter to want to get to the end. The piece, on Wired’s website, which I wasn’t paying to use, was talking, incidentally, about free culture.

Clicking the x in the corner of the ad box made no difference, it remained over the text, until I eventually clicked the x of my browser. More adapted, better evolved, online readers will tell me that I am not reading correctly - that I should use Readability, download the PDF, or select and save content with Instapaper. But at the site-interface level, this, and other hustling ads, were paying for my information gathering and reading experience. They were also preventing these things.

It was the moment, in any case, to go to the British Library, minus laptop and smart phone, to read from a paper page in ‘peace’. Walter Benjamin’s One-Way Street, which I had ordered at the time cost of forty-eight hours in advance (herein the delay in the material),  was waiting for me. In the Rare Books and Music section, beside another reader’s falling-apart editions, I would skip through Benjamin’s fragments for as long as my potentially short-wired attention wished; without ads, and, as a research student, for free.

We can be pretty sure that Benjamin would have been an exemplary commentator on the network age, not least because his own texts present constellations of non-linear ideas. He had this to say: 

Printing, having found in the book a refuge in which to lend an autonomous existence, is pitilessly dragged out onto the street by advertisements and subjected to brutal heteronomies of economic chaos.

He refers to Mallarmé’s capturing of ‘the graphic tension of the advertisement’ in Un Coup de Dés. Benjamin’s words on printing evolutions and the technological and monetary pressures exerting themselves on the form of the book resonate with certain of publishing’s current problems.

Reading back over One-Way Street or the Arcades Project makes you think forward, as Benjamin voices dissatisfactions and mini-manifestos on just how a text, a writer or a reader, should work. For Benjamin, the reading process seems to be a conversation or collaboration between the interior (self, thinking subject) and the exterior (book, world). When too much of the world’s commodities come into the text, interior reflection is interrupted.

Idea becomes commodity when it is made into an object. Online, ideas are commodified by their surroundings of adverts, or with the reading barrier of a paywall. Books are objects that we like, share and circulate, for reasons far beyond capital. Once absorped in the material framework, the 'archaic stillness', of the book, the reader learns how to filter outside intrusion. We’ll have to become better adapted readers, or develop better reading tools - I’m curious to see the framework of the Google Reader for ebooks - in order to block out the intrusions of online reading.

For now, the printed page clears a space for contemplation, a space for which the screen can only strive.