Aufgehender Stern [Rising Star] – Paul Klee
11 pm Friday 10th of July 2015
In an online class on Walter Benjamin’s concept of history, Judith Butler recounts a disagreement between Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht. According to Butler, Brecht scolded Benjamin, “don’t you understand revolutionary action is the most important thing?” to which Benjamin replied “I rather prefer remembrance”. Such an assertion from Benjamin is counter-intuitive in our current value system. We tend to advocate “getting over it” and “getting on with it”. Society hurtles forward towards “development” and the individual towards “self-realisation” leaving remembrance in its wake.
In his famous text “On the concept of history”, Benjamin conceptualises the linear idea of history central to modernity, and modernisation, as “homogeneous empty time”. Modern thinking reduces temporality and history to a logical progression that can be divided rationally. It is measured by clocks and calendars and is composed of key dates and key figures. Those that have contributed to the march of “progress”. The heterogeneity of lived experience becomes quantifiable and reducible to this catalogue of key events. Events leading to modernity or self-realisation. All else is superfluous, external to the march of history. It belongs to the past.
Revolution for Benjamin involves the interruption of the inevitability of homogeneous empty time. Remembrance contributes to such a disturbance. Benjamin suggests that, from time to time, the remnants of an oppressed past flash up from the debris of history and halt the trudge towards progress. A threshold of possibility is opened up. Benjamin’s “historical materialist” is thus given the task, not of constructing a more complete chronology of history, but of composing an archive from the remnants of history that permits “the standing still of happenings” (as Butler describes it) and the reconsideration of the direction in which history is moving. The crystallization of a revolutionary moment comes through apparitions emerging from these discarded fragments that blast a chunk out of the progression of homogenous empty time. Applied to our own lives this means something very different than “getting over it” and “getting on with things” (and perhaps implies something like what Benjamin attempted to do with his own memories in “A Berlin Chronicle”).
Discard the old, embrace the new. This principle governs many aspects of our lives. We strive continuously (forced, encouraged or otherwise) to achieve the new; new theories, new experiences, new flavours, new shoes. Benjamin seems to imply that novelty cannot be achieved through this quest for the new, novelty is only made possible via remembrance, the standing still of happenings.
6 pm Thursday 25th of June 2015
As I walked out the front door I turned around. She was just standing there long faced.
“Do you have to go?”
There was no convincing answer to that question.
“I am coming back”, I managed.
She looked so glum, so frail, so helpless, not sure how to deal with this situation.
“Do you want a hug?”
That was the best I could come up with. It would have been more natural, warmer, just to have done it, but it was no longer clear to me what the teacher-student relationship permitted. Best to ask first.
“Yeah” she replied sheepishly.
We hugged quickly and awkwardly, again any warmth was minimized by the fear of possible accusations of paedophilia.
And that was it. I turned around and walked out into the cold air putting my headphones in. I was struck by Yasmine Hamdan’s haunting “Deny”. The familiarity of the street was tinged by melancholy that night, the peak hour traffic was accumulating. I had walked up and down that street nearly every Thursday evening for a year, until today. My relationship with it had been pure chance. An ad on gum tree, a reasonable price offered for my tutoring and there I was. The night was clear and crisp. I looked up, you could even see a few stars. This brought me close to tears. These evenings were meant to be just a weekly chore, I had never actually suspected that they may impact on someone else’s life, let alone my own. This was quite overwhelming. Leaving didn’t just mean passing from one hobby to another, one group of friend’s to another, one city to another. A mark was left behind.
In hindsight I cringe, but at that moment I began to draw conclusions (worthy of a lousy self-help book) from my student’s reaction to me leaving. Was the relationship we had forged through our weekly sessions one of the few stable features of her life? Was the hour and a half giving her my undivided attention something that was rare for children these days? For me, leaving wasn’t meant to be anything special. Things rarely stay the same for long. People come and go, we move on, we do different things and khalas. But there, standing under the stars, the flight away from the known towards the future didn’t seem so natural. What could have been of all those relationships, those projects, those dreams that were now fragments of memory?
9 am Wednesday 15th of July 2015
The painter does not paint on an empty canvas, and neither does the writer write on a blank page; but the page or canvas is already so covered with preexisting, preestablished clichés that it is first necessary to erase, to clean, to flatten, even to shred, so as to let in a breath of air from the chaos that brings us the vision (Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?)
I began this composition because I am leaving, not the blog, but Brunswick. I initially set out a framework to analyse the neighbourhood. Like so many projects it will be abandoned in its embryonic stage, out with the old in with the new. New circumstances, new subjects. As this didn’t seem satisfactory to me I at least wanted to reflect on its conclusion. Persisting with something seems noble, but continuing with the Brunswick idea isn’t really feasible. It is probable that as you read this I will no longer be a Brunswick resident. Such is life for many these days.
Starting again seems like the easy option to me. Write some interesting sounding ideas, lay out a framework, use some clever language and when the gruelling monotony of actually doing something rears its head, abandon ship and start all over again. I read an argument somewhere (possibly the New Spirit of Capitalism but don’t quote me on it) that our productive lives these days tend to revolve around a string of different projects. We spend our time jumping from one to another. Flexibility is an essential quality (as is being able to argue you have a certain “skill set” acquired in other loosely related activities, having participated in and possibly not finished a number of innovative sounding projects and something called “leadership”). The fleeting existence of my Brunswick project seems to be symptomatic of this. It sounded convincing, provided a framework for an investigation that will never be carried out and now provides an anecdote I can whip out to charm other intellectual wannabe’s (especially if I overlook its lack of content).
And I continue on through an endless procession of beginnings and endings and beginnings that are endings and vice versa. I can now jump on the next thing coming, right an abstract length outline, scrawl my own little message on toilet paper only to flush it away into the sewers of oblivion, and repeat. Around me homogenous empty time marches on. Once upon a time our elders bemoaned the entrapment of the picket fence, the 2.5 kids and the 9 to 5 job. Homogenization these days seems to take a different form, the new, individualisation. Our desire to break free from the entrapment of the picket fence is bottled up and sold back to us. Remembrance, instead of blasting through homogenous empty time, conjures up a new product to contribute to its forward march. Even nerdy whiteness has become a product.
How to arrest the headlong plunge into the homogenous empty time of the new? Has all belief in a time-standing-still dissolved before our eyes? Has the dream of the a-temporality of written word become just that? Is there anything worth holding on to? Benjamin prescribes (nearly 90 years ago) a solution that seems to counter his earlier argument:
Significant literary work can only come into being in a strict alternation between action and writing; it must nurture the inconspicuous forms that better fits its influence in active communities than does the pretentious, universal gesture of the book ―in leaflets, brochures, articles, placards. Only this prompt language shows itself actively equal to the moment. (Walter Benjamin, One Way Street)
And then he worked for more than a decade on the Arcades Project. It hardly seems to fit…