Crashing the Metaphysical Party: Walter Benjamin on Knowing and Thinking
Metaphysics ultimately deals with last questions; metaphysical knowledge therefore lies in the possession of the last answers whose validity is supposed to last till the end of days. The condition that such last answers could reveal would necessarily precede their possession, or, in other words, they would reveal an order of things that is independent of our knowledge of them. So why ask in the first place? Truth, you might say, is a value in itself, but would its cognition not also interfere with our order of things, our goals and hopes, our ‘lifestyle’? Metaphysical Truth, in its possibility, always comes with the command that we align to it, should it ever be revealed to us. Like in the famous joke with the Inuit and the priest, the revelation of Truth changes our own ‘metaphysical’ status. This means that the desire to possess metaphysical knowledge essentially strives for a congruence of the political and the metaphysical order. This impulse, one might say, is utopian in its best sense, but we also cannot help but see how problematic it is. Under such signs, philosophy, which has basically professionalized this quest, potentially becomes a suppressive force, claiming exclusivity and propagating the form of rule that comes with the ‘true order of things’— and which, most likely, puts those that possess it on top of the food chain with an eternal claim for legitimacy. That’s basically the sour taste that accompanies the reading of Plato’s Republic.
This is not a call for anti-intellectualism, nor a requiem for philosophy. It is rather a potential to revisit the desires and goals of philosophy, to which Walter Benjamin offers a fruitful impulse, when he says in the introduction to his Origin of the German Tragic Drama that “Knowledge is possession [Erkenntnis ist ein Haben]” and underlines that therefore “the object of knowledge is not identical with the truth” (29f.). We can see that Benjamin does not turn away from Truth, but at the same time, he proposes a different conception from the one I’ve sketched above. In the end of the book, he will criticize “pure curiosity which is aimed at mere knowledge with the proud isolation of man,” and connects it with “magical knowledge” that “threatens the adept with isolation and spiritual death” (229). In this passage, he is talking about the allegorist, but it is clear that it is essentially the philosopher that he is criticizing — the philosopher as an allegorist, an adept, as an alchemist that sits in his study looking for the magical formula, “That I may understand whatever / Binds the world’s innermost core together” (Faust).
The philosopher must therefore take on a different socio-political role, one that Benjamin outlines in another text, The Author as Producer (1934). There, he traces the question, to what degree a writer, or, as we could say, the intellectual, needs to be politically active. The extremes lie on the one hand in the bourgeois conception of the artist’s autonomy that shields him from political involvement, and on the other hand with communist conceptions of activism, which that time intended to integrate him directly into the class struggle. While Benjamin’s sympathies lie with the latter, being a leftist himself, he acknowledges the fact that pieces of art that are directly political and fomenting, are often of bad quality and rarely attain their insurgent goals. Hence, the question poses itself as one of literary quality: how can progressive — meaning socially aware — literature be good? But what is implied here is something else, namely the question of how thought can be socially relevant and influential, how philosophy can step down from its pedestal of academia without losing depth and quality.
Know thy means of production
Instead of giving in to the above conundrum that poses like an exclusive choice — either you write good books or you are a politically active writer — , Benjamin says that it’s only as long as we understand political tendency in a wrong way that we will end up with crappy writing. Instead, he says that “literary tendency, which is implicitly or explicitly included in every correct political tendency, this and nothing else makes up the quality of a work” (87). This is a bold statement, as literal value is equaled with political value. But a piece of literature does not become political through the proclamation of slogans or by presenting moral and political lessons. It’s not a contentual variable, but rather a formal one— and Benjamin introduces here the term of literary technique. Hence, “this literary tendency may consist in a progressive development of literary technique, or in a regressive one” (88). The techniques that interest Benjamin are not (primarily) stylistic ones, but rather those that concern and reflect “the productive relations of [their] time” (87), and this concerns the question of how literature is produced and how it is received.
One such technique was the Dadaist performance that questioned the possibility of poetry after the catastrophe of WWI and reflected the noise and chaos of the industrialized city just as much as the noise and destruction of the newly invented machine gun — by shocking the audience that often responded by shouting and booing. This technique, like many others of the avant-garde — and this is the backdrop of what Benjamin is talking about here — “not only destroys the conventional separation between genres, between writer and poet, scholar and popularizer, but […] questions even the separation between author and reader” (90, my emphasis). The screaming audience was as much part of the dadaist performance as the poet.
In what way did the dadaists invent a progressive technique? The bourgeois means of production of art, its famed concept of autonomy, intended to draw the sharpest line possible between producer and consumer, potentially elevating the former to the status of genius, while the latter only manages to remain in awe of the sublime piece of art. This allows only for a contemplative reception, meaning that as a reader, I am completely passive. This passivity of the reader relates to the passivity of the obedient citizen. In this radical distinction, the author is in possession of ‘divine inspiration’, while the reader, a ‘mere mortal’, is barred from the access to such marvels. This repeats the political distinction of intellectual and manual labor (Marx), wherein the bourgeois has access to knowledge due to his education, while the ‘bovine’ proletarian must do the only thing he is capable of — work. Work for the bourgeois, of course. This ultimately creates a false intelligentsia that is only interested in remaining in charge, meaning, in conserving the current power structure:
“The characteristic feature of this literature is the way it transforms political struggle so that it ceases to be a compelling motive for decision and becomes an object of comfortable contemplation; it ceases to be a means of production and becomes an article of consumption” (96f.).
Essentially, what all that amounts to, is the categorical differentiation of knowledge and action, where the intellectual, as a possessor of knowledge and the ‘know-how’ is free from political action (=autonomy), while the proletarian is ‘legitimately’ excluded from possessing the means of production. But in this relation, neither are truly productive, because the intellectual himself remains a consumer of that knowledge that his bourgeois education is passing on to him; as when he is handed over a certain canon of literary classics that he can neither question nor expand. It is the hierarchical form of the classroom: The teachers are in possession of knowledge that they produce during class, while the pupils consume that knowledge and act by writing exams. The teacher is seemingly active, but like the pupils that repeat the contents of the course book after him, so does he repeat the contents of the curriculum. Hence, not only does the radical differentiation of knowing and acting legitimate the suppression of the proletariat, but it also leads to the passivity of the intellectual. This is why a writer, who does not reflect his own position within the means of production, will never be able to produce quality work — as he cannot attain the productivity that is needed for that (like bestseller writers that only repeat the established form of the novel, but also the established from of publication of the novel). Hence, said differentiation of knowing and acting is necessarily reactionary.
Interpretation: Activity and Visibility
Questioning the separation between author and reader essentially comes along with the questioning of the differentiation between knowing and acting. As Benjamin elaborates, only those authors and artists can be considered progressive that don’t degrade their recipients to mere passive consumers. The activation of the reader can lie in participatory modes of creation, like the Dadaist performance (even against the audience’s desires), but also in the activity of interpretation as a means of producing sense. Teachers that pound into their pupils that “the author meant x when he said y” repeat the myth that the author knows everything about his work and has exclusive rights to the meaning(s) that it produces. Yet, writers are famously the worst interpreters of their own works and if Kafka magically came back to life, he might just say that he was enjoying himself coming up with things (he laughed while reading his own work aloud to his friends). Interpretation, rather, is a productive relation to a given work of art that enriches it and is just as much the reader’s as the writer’s activity. It is a collaborative exercise, and people who call interpretations random are exactly the victims of a mode of teaching that has debased them to pure consumers of education.
What Benjamin fights against here is not only the invisibility of the proletariat in bourgeois society, but of human beings within capitalism, where only the consumer products are visible as well-defined brands. Writers and intellectuals become brands themselves, established by self-promotion and sales figures. For Benjamin, a primary counterexample is Bertolt Brecht, who
“opposes the dramatic laboratory to the finished work of art [dramatischen Gesamtkunstwerk]. He goes back, in a new way, to the theatre’s greatest and most ancient opportunity: the opportunity to expose the present [Exponierung der Anwesenden]. At the centre of his experiments stands man. The man of today; a reduced man, therefore, a man kept on ice in a cold world” (100).
With the reference to the Gesamtkunstwerk, he directly attacks the Wagnerian, romantic, and in that sense bourgeois conception of art that, as the translation correctly indicates, is finished and only needs to be consumed. Brecht, with his famous alienation effect, opposed the theater of illusion, where the spectator only ‘follows the story’ and hence only needs to follow, where he is grappled by the suspense and hence only needs to be impressed. Brecht kept his spectators permanently aware that they were watching a play, which means that they were aware of their own position within the whole performance. A position, that was not given to them, but which they had to reflect and decide upon — unlike the consumer, Brecht’s spectator remains visible and active. Writers and directors always know how to lure the spectator and reader to sympathize with certain characters and outcomes; the slightest ambivalence about the depicted order of things, about how we are to interpret certain events, how we are to value them, is a potential for activity — a necessary, but not sufficient condition.
“The outcome is this: events are not changeable at their climax, not through virtue and resolve, but only in their strictly ordinary, habitual course, through reason and practice. […] It sets out, not so much to fill the audience with feelings — albeit possibly feelings of revolt — as to alienate the audience in a lasting manner, through thought, from the conditions in which it lives. Let me remark, by the way, that there is no better starting point for thought than laughter; speaking more precisely, spasms of the diaphragm generally oﬀer better chances for thought than spasms of the soul” (100f.).
Climax, virtue and resolve belong to the classicist (bourgeois) conception of theater that contemporary Hollywood cinema is perpetuating up to this day — the heroic decision of self-sacrifice, his unquestionable virtue, the resolve in the end of the second act… We all know that by heart. Yet, the most important connection in the quote above is the connection of thought with the alienation from one’s own condition. It means that you no longer assume that the current state of affairs is ‘just how it is’, and realize that the current situation can be changed; you become aware of how you yourself are part of how the system is perpetuated, of your position within the relations of production. Herein, essentially, lies all source of progressivity. It is not a fomenting decision that can only lead to blind activism, but a habit that demands perpetual attention to one’s surrounding. The laughter that Benjamin is talking about, is one that shatters the foundation of the current power relations and calls them into question. The rulers that love imagining themselves as eternally legitimized become silly in their clinging to power and their excuses make us laugh. Thought, then, as long as it does not separate knowing and acting, is revolutionary and aligned to change — and for the writer, as much as for the recipient, there is but one demand: “the demand to think, to reflect upon his position in the production process” (101).
By being inherently connected to practice, thought opposes knowledge; it is not to be possessed by a chosen few, it is rather what makes us all human. It befits each one of us, because it does not rely on the access to certain institutions. At the same time, only if such institutions of knowledge and insight serve thought can they be legitimized — not the other way round. This is a democratic vein that often gets overlooked with Benjamin and it teaches us a lot about what it means to be democratic. But what does that mean — opposing knowledge? It is once again more about awareness of the means of production than about drawing exclusive differentiations. After all, the latter would mean that we’re falling into the same trap once again.
We will find obvious examples where the differentiation of knowing and acting is legitimate. When I’m sitting in a plane, the pilot should make goddamn sure that he knows more about flying than I do. And in a way, I am in his power during the flight — which is generally a good thing, for I don’t want him to lose control during a storm. Certainly, we are in the hands of specialists a lot of times during the day — doctors, conductors, electricians, what not. This is not at stake; the goal is not complete autarky of the individual. The point is that, unlike with Plato’s sea captain, just because some knowledge about humans needs to be delegated to specialists, the very ‘metaphysical’ core remains in the hand of the individual. This includes the responsibility for oneself, to be aware of the current (social, political, and economic) situation and one’s position within it, to be aware that it can be changed by one’s own means. This metaphysical ‘undelegability’ is inherently political. When a certain class of people — a priest class, to speak with Nietzsche — claims to have knowledge about these things, this is the beginning of suppression: “We know what’s good for you.”
Dimensions of philosophy
This brings us back to the question of metaphysical knowledge. By perpetuating the current situation and legitimizing the current power structure, it is directly opposed to thought and can therefore not be desired. But where does that leave philosophy? I think that what Benjamin wrote about the writer ultimately concerns his own understanding as a philosopher. This means that the task of philosophy is on the one hand to reflect its own position in the socio-political relations of production and on the other hand to make others reflect their own position, that is, to think and to initiate thinking. Thought, as we have seen, is always connected to the potential of change, but it is not about change for the sake of it, but a change that reveals and questions means of suppression and sources of suffering.
The role that the university has taken within society has changed throughout the centuries and with it the situation of philosophy. Too often, it has served the powers the university has depended on and legitimized its rulers. Sometimes, outsiders had to correct this tendency— Spinoza, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche. The university has always been a fortress of knowledge, and there’s nothing wrong about that — the question is: Whom is that knowledge serving? Is it exclusive? What is its relation to thought? Philosophers should not be the passive recipients of a given canon, or they themselves will remain its consumers; they should not serve its knowledge, its knowledge should serve them. Like the pilot, the philosopher ought to know what he is doing, but unlike the pilot, it is not on him to bring his passengers safely to their destination. Philosophers should not act like the gatekeepers to the last answers, but rather like participants in a universal deliberation through thought.
Benjamin, Walter: The Author as Producer, in: Understanding Brecht. Verso 1998, p. 85–103 [translated by Anna Bostock].
Benjamin, Walter: The Origin of the German Tragic Drama. Verso 2003 [translated by John Osborne].