Windowmancy and the New Poverty
“Glass, it is not by chance, is a hard and smooth material on which nothing can grab hold, It is a cold and sober material, as well. Glass objects do not have an “aura.” Glass, in a general way, is the enemy of mystery. It is also the enemy of property. The great writer André Gide said one day: each object I want to possess becomes opaque to me. If people like Scheerbart dream of glass constructions, would it be because they are the apostles of a new poverty?”
Walter Benjamin wrote these words in a 1933 article, “Experience and Poverty.” He was expanding on a Brechtian idea regarding communism, “communism consists of the just distribution, not of wealth, but of poverty.” The article argued that much of modern life, from the First World War to the materials favoured in the architecture of Le Corbusier and Adolf Loos tended toward a technically rich new poverty.
This essay will explore the impoverishing role of glass, in the form of the modern city window. Experiences of a couple of consummate urban wanderers from the period, Milena Jesenská and Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, will frame the discussion. Nietzsche’s On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life will provide additional philosophical transparency.
A Distribution of Poverty
“The evening, when the out-of-breathe express slows at the entry of an unknown city, when it passes rows of naked houses, have you remarked the small windows of landings, of kitchens, a woman who makes a bed with a red-striped duvet, a table on which an oil lamp lays a circle of light, a man in a vest, shirt and slippers in the middle of swallowing his soup? Have you recognized a clock on the wall, armchairs close to the wood stove, kids on the floor playing and the canary in its cage in the spinster’s small bedroom? Slowing more and more, the train enters under the arch of the station and a couple of instants later you find yourself in a well-lit street, beautiful and unknown, filled with noise, with reflections, with light. However, you keep in your heart a small pain, the poignant melancholy that gripped you at the sight of those people who, unaware of being observed, showed you for a fraction of a second their home, their monotonous misery, their poor daily life, without charm, their half-lit life.”
Milena Jesenská’s 1921 observations contain two key points. The first is best seen in the expression “naked houses,” but is also evident in the interchangeability of the people and habits observed. The “red-striped duvet” is an exception in a world lacking meaningful embellishments or individual human character. When Benjamin referred to glass, along with other modern building materials, as “a hard and smooth material on which nothing can grab hold,” he was getting at its inhospitable nature for preserving and communicating traces of lived experience.
To underline the point, Benjamin quoted Brecht’s admonition, “Erase your Traces!” from the poem A Manual for the Residents of Cities. The poem was aimed at the “exploited class” and “the city as emigrants discover it in a foreign country.” Jesenská’s description also lends itself to a limited interpretation: the sort of housing and, by connection, the sort of people living along railway lines were marginal and “half-lit” while those in less peripheral locations took on the characteristics of the “well-lit street.”
While Benjamin would not deny the unequal impacts of technical advances on particular groups, his argument was ultimately that by the interwar period all of society was affected. This is why he had to look back in time to find find an example of trace-leaving:
“When one penetrates the bourgeois living room of the 1880s, whatever the atmosphere of cozy intimacy it emanates, the dominant impression is “you have no business here.” You have no business, because there is no corner where the resident has not left a trace.”
“Intimacy” not only implied the material ability to inscribe lived experience in one’s surroundings. For at least a portion of it, privacy or, using Benjamin’s term, an “interior” was necessary. The second key point from Jesenská’s observations is glass’s role in undermining the opacity of the home and allowing for “being observed.”
Benjamin’s best-developed explanation for “interior” is in his 1935 “Paris, Capital of the XIX Century”:
“The interior is the refuge of art. The collector is the true occupant of the interior. The transformation of objects, he makes it his business. The task that falls to him is worthy of Sisyphus: he has to, in possessing the objects, strip them of their character of merchandise. But instead of their value of utility, he only gives them value that they take on for the amateur. The collector transports himself not only to far-away and lost worlds, but also to a better world, where, certainly, men are just as deprived of what they need as in the everyday world, but where the objects find themselves exempted from the drudgery of being useful.”
The breakdown of the bastion of bourgeois property was a positive characteristic for Benjamin. The suppression of spaces where people and things could avoid the yoke of usefulness was not obviously as positive. Glass as “the enemy of property” needs to be read broadly as being both the enemy of traditional and transformed property. “The enemy of mystery,” in turn, would be in regard to both better worlds and cozy living rooms. Both of Jesenská’s senses of poverty, basic material scarcity and a lack of “charm,” were in play.
While this essay focuses on post-First World War windows, it is helpful to keep in mind the context both at the time and over time. The windows were in the midst of increasingly populous modern cities where more and more people like Jesenská could and did observe the inner workings of other households. They were also part of an ever more sophisticated and efficient system of capitalist production that championed utility.
Benjamin, in asking if writers like Scheerbart and architects like Loos were “apostles of a new poverty,” was looking into a future where modern materials would dominate. Surely, a family that can afford a red-striped duvet can find the means to put up curtains. It is less clear how they might have defended their interior charm as windows became bigger and, to go beyond what the apostles likely predicted, technology allowed for virtual windows into the home. The architectural endpoint imagined has, I think, been achieved in the form of the “glass box.” A city planner succinctly drew out its curious characteristics in a recent cartoon1placeholder.
Benjamin was also looking at the technological advances through a historical lens. He took, in “On the Concept of History,” what can be interpreted as a refined and materialized Nietzschean position on the subject. History; as collected, organized monumentally and critically evaluated experience; is an advantage for life so long as it serves life. If the materials of modern existence reduce the breadth of experience, through the ubiquitous imposition of the value of usefulness, and make it difficult to communicate experience through the meaningful traces people leave, life going forward will be all the poorer.
Even under these conditions, windows can be an advantage for life. Jesenská’s reflections offer an example:
“All those who have been gravely ill at some point know the magical charm of a wide-open window. The sick are the beings the most abandoned of all because, with the first degrees of fever, we enter into a field of perception from which the healthy are excluded. No connection between the sick and the person caring for them. They are each in their own world, like two people who do not speak the same language. For the sick person nailed to their bed, streets, cities, meadows become objects of painful desire that they feel shame admitting to the healthy. The bakery in front of which the sick person passed daily appears to them like a lost paradise. It is not only the healthy that abandon the sick, but the sick person who abandons the world of the healthy. Their only possession is the window that opens a breach in their narrow horizon.”
Focusing on general trends, Benjamin passed by a great deal of experiential nuance. He did not consider the possibility that a window could be not only the friend of transformed property but the transformed property itself. That said, the point that the hardness and transparency of the material impacts experience, and that the latter characteristic breaks down the inside/outside distinction, still stands. In order to say more, we need to understand what he meant by “glass objects do not have an ‘aura’.”
Benjamin’s take on aura changed over time from a religious emphasis to something more materialist. A discussion on a modern building material lends itself more to the latter. We will draw mainly from the final 1939 version of The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, following Rainer Rochlitz’s opinion on the subject: “With the ‘decline of the aura’ and the replacement of the ritual functions of art by politics, the essay on The Work of Art [in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction] seemed, in effect, to put an end to all ‘theological’ notions.”
“In the age of mechanical reproduction, what is lost in an artwork is its aura.” “Aura” was used interchangeably with “authenticity” and the “hic et nunc” (here and now). The “hic et nunc of an artwork [is] the uniqueness [or oneness] with the place where it is found.” In other words, the aura is the relation, materially and ritually, between the object and “the tradition,” its context over time.
Highlighting the historical aspect, “that which makes the authenticity of an object is all it contains that is transmittable by its origin and by its material lifespan in its role as historical witness.” While reproduction of art has existed since the ancient world, it has been based on an original and the material lifespan has been able to be determined. Copies, such as those of a master’s original made by his apprentices, were part of the tradition.
Mechanical reproduction ended the reign of the original and thus the here and now of original creation. It makes no sense to label one or all of a series of identical photographs or film screenings as the original, particularly when they can be produced, for all intents and purposes, anywhere at any time. The meaningfulness of an object can no longer be derived from its context when and as it is created.
Benjamin argued, though, that the decline of the aura occurred in the age of mechanical reproduction, not because of it. The process changed material qualities but not ritualistic ones. Changes to the former were important “because they shine a light on the fact that is here decisive: for the first time in universal history, the work of art is freed from a parasitic existence attributed to it in the frame of ritual.”
Art originally had a mystical role that, over time, became religious. During the Renaissance, the ritual lost its sacredness and became a “profane cult of beauty.” In the Nineteenth Century the abstracted ideal faded, bringing to the fore “‘art for art’, which is nothing more than the theology of art.” As the external sources of ritual value diminished, insistence increased to find equivalent qualities in the work itself. It was only because of this broader trend that the rise of mechanical reproduction had such an impact.
Benjamin observed that champions of cinema as art tended to use mystical and religious language in their arguments. He felt it was wrongheaded to shoehorn the new technique into existing concepts. Instead, the concepts needed to change:
“But, once the criteria of authenticity is no longer applicable to artistic production, the entire function of art finds itself shaken. Instead of resting on ritual, it bases itself on another practice: politics.”
This was written in the shadow of the rise of Fascism in Germany and Italy. Benjamin witnessed the aestheticization of politics, and then of war, and art’s role in the development of new rituals. Like history, authenticity and aura can be advantageous, but only if they serve life. Using the example of Futurist founder Filippo Marinetti’s “war is beautiful” position, Benjamin argued these rituals served death.
To put this materialistically, “Fascism wants to organize the recently proletarianized masses without touching the system of property, which the masses tend however to abolish.” Focusing productive power on rituals diverts it from addressing the political economy. The unresolved incompatibility between production and property results in pressure that ultimately can only be released through war.
Not all ritual leads to war and art’s role in aestheticization is not necessarily negative. One instance is the use of photographic portraits “in the cult of memory dedicated to dear, distant or deceased people.” Despite its mechanical production, the portrait takes on a ritualistic value that celebrates life, whether current or past. At the same time, it is only through embracing a new form of production that “brought objects spatially and humanly ‘closer’” that portraits came to be widely used in this manner.
Benjamin saw portraits as the “final defense” of aura, a pocket of resistance of an age that had all but come to an end. In The Work of Art, the position was at odds with the new ritualization he described surrounding cinema. Mechanical reproduction offered an unprecedented opportunity to break with ritual and embrace politics. The shift was by no means inevitable.
Beyond The Work of Art, he argued that aura, by that name or under interchangeable terms, continued. The age of “art for art” was perhaps over, but not the ability to develop contextual qualities over time. This was, for instance, how he presented what Eduard Fuchs was doing with caricatures and erotic images in “Eduard Fuchs, Collector and Historian.” Portraits are used here as a continuing form of ritualization that does not significantly obscure the conditions of the object’s production.
This brings us back to glass. In the context of “Experience and Poverty,” glass lacking an aura contributed to a new form of poverty. It allowed a ritual-politics shift, which is to say the exposure of the structures of society. Only, the ritual lost was that of the cozy living room from which the exploited class was excluded.
Like the photographic portrait, glass started as and will always be a mechanically produced object. It will always lack uniqueness in respect to how, with what materials and where it was created. Unlike the portrait, glass resists the accumulation of traces over time and is not likely to be placed in a shrine for a lost loved one. It is not the kind of object to take on value as a historical record.
The sort of transformation glass resists was noted in the last section. The specific value or values added through the change vary widely, only having in common that they communicate something above and beyond the object being merchandise. The object is “stripped” of being a product only insofar as it is “exempted from the of being useful” in a narrow capitalistic sense. On one side, it will forever lack original uniqueness. On the other, it can become useful in a broader way.
The spatial and human closeness is a result of mass production. The “proletarianized masses” can, for instance, afford to bring many of these objects into their homes and transform them. This is the opposite of the Fascist approach as Benjamin described it, which is to preestablish the rituals and values of mechanically reproduced objects so as to draw the masses away from appropriating property.
The argument is distinct but not incompatible from the better-known call for the proletariat to take control of the means of production. In the end, regardless of who does the producing, the result is a mechanically reproduced object lacking uniqueness. It remains important, then, that people take control of such objects and, in a manner of speaking, humanize them.
Benjamin saw the benefit of this process in his collector-oriented essays. In “Experience and Poverty,” he accepted its loss in order to achieve an equal distribution of poverty. For modern building materials, Jesenská described how such a loss weighed on life:
“Long and empty, the street unfolds toward the sky like a dusty ribbon. You know it well: you would need hours to reach somewhere where you have never set foot. The small boxes of human dwellings aligned along roads in crosses, over kilometres and kilometres, four floors of kitchens, of beds, of litter and small flower pots behind windows, all of it gives you a sudden malaise, disgust, nausea. For nothing in the world will you go up to your place; from below you look with dread at the small pane of your window, incapable of understanding how you were able to live weeks, months, years behind this wall of glass between sky and earth; how you could have lived there with your desires and anxieties, how you could have come home every evening. How five metres deep and six wide were able to support what you call your life while behind the window extends what you call the world? And suddenly you jump onto the platform of the first tramway that comes along, and onward! How you took flight. My God, a tramway, it is truly a fantastic machine! It grumbles and thrums along streets, its body like a cimbalom, its belly regurgitating people, it charges through, busy, hurried, it runs along the rails, swallowing the air into its two steel lungs, it slips further and further into unknown streets and stops in front of strange-looking houses. At an intersection, you descend at random and you take a connection. Suburbs, gardens, a church, a grocery, lighted corners, sinuous streets, in the middle of the noise of the city, you are there, alone. You see hundreds and hundreds of windows just like the one that horrified you and you pass from the terror in face of the absurdity of life to a silent and sad submission to the law.”
The age of mechanical reproduction is the age of masses of people concentrated in modern cities. It is the age of people living “weeks, months, years” behind a small number of the thousands of anonymous windows on any given street and leaving no significant material traces of their passage. As in the first section, though, windows are particular. Jesenská ends her anecdote with:
“Here you are at the terminus, facing a muddy path that pushes into the countryside; you do not know where it goes, but you love it because it goes into the world, you stop yourself at the edge and finally you renounce your desire to follow it and and you turn back toward the entrails of the city, slowly, matured and wiser, without terror, you raise your head toward your window and if by chance it is lit, you hurry up, you open the door and you say, ‘Hello.'”
Transparency is counter to the transformation of property inasmuch as it exposes a household of people and objects to the burden of a narrow sense of usefulness. In Jesenská’s observations regarding the sick, this same transparency can expose people to light, air and diverse forms of life impossible to cultivate between four walls. Here, we see an almost unreasonably basic manifestation of an aura, the light of a lamp shining through a window, that suddenly makes it both unique and compelling.
The window, as a modern mass-produced material, did not change. Further, though Jesenská might have in her horror seen the “hundreds and hundreds of windows” as in all relevant ways the same as her window, they were not. She knew what was behind her particular “wall of glass” and, more importantly, she knew the living being who turned on the light. The main difference between the families in the “naked houses” she saw from the train and the light in the window was the individual connection.
When Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky wrote “to whomever, first window to the left, next to the right entry, third floor, 51, Arbat Street” sometime before 1933, he was not communicating with someone he knew. He was attracted because “when the obscurity reaches its zenith and the hundred windows of your stupid ponderous building go out, only yours stays on, hiding its light behind a white curtain.” In the letter, he frequently forgot the person and directly addressed the window: “Very dear window, whose light is not extinguished, I often chat with you, standing on the opposite sidewalk.”
Without an individual connection and putting aside creative language, the basic aura of light from a window can still set a here and now. So long as it communicates lived experience over some length of time, it meets the minimum definition of Benjamin’s “aura.” For Krzhizhanovsky, the experience read was one of creative insomnia: “Manifestly, sleep is not your best friend. And when everyone has arrived at the end of their daily thoughts and has cut the contact between their two cerebral hemispheres, you pursue your thoughts. And I do too.”
As with the conclusion of the previous section, experiential nuance is a sticking point. The initial intent was to lay out Benjamin’s notion of aura as presented in The Work of Art . In the era of mechanical reproduction, though, almost everyone finds themselves in the role of collector. They transform one of a thousand photographs into a personally meaningful keepsake or the one in a thousand windows always lit during midnight meanders into a personal connection. Objects continue to become or allow for ritual.
The tradition that ran from myth to art for art was a series of imposed rituals. Ironically, they existed ready-to-wear and resisted individual transformation. With the rise of bourgeois values and modern production, objects became literally ready-to-wear and resistant to individual transformation in a variety of different ways. While the cozy living room lasted for a while, it was soon overrun by “cold and sober” materials. Most people were already poor; the new poverty included everyone. And yet, the same processes created a certain form of wealth by bringing “objects spatially and humanly closer.”
The opening example of non-experience in “Experience and Poverty” is that of the first World War:
“The value of experience has fallen, and it has done so in a generation that had in 1914-1918 one of the most horrific experiences of universal history. The fact, however, is perhaps not so surprising as it appears. Did one not notice that people came back mute from the field of battle? Not richer, but poorer in communicable experience. That which was spread ten years later in a flood of war books had nothing to do with any particular experience, as experience is transmitted by word of mouth. No, this depreciation had nothing surprising about it. Because never have acquired experiences been so radically refuted as strategic experience by trench warfare, economic experience by inflation, physical experience by the ordeal of hunger, moral experience by the maneuvering of rulers.”
Information was abundant, and has only become more so since. What was missing was human experience that could be communicated and collected, put together into monolithic narratives and critically pulled apart. Jesenská’s “silent and sad submission” in the face of a modern city whose laws were manifest yet escaped its residents’ grasp, whose materials resisted the dynamics of lives lived, was just another facet of this.
It is only fitting, then, to finish our exploration of the particularities of windows through Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s essay on the subject, from his collection Moscow during the First Year of the War:
“From before the beginning of the war, they had begun to watch out for it: the windows of Moscow. The small crosses and zigzags in paper had come to cover their transparent surface. Working with glue and scissors, we dressed the glass with a white openwork robe. Then mauve and blue ribbons replaced the white. Windows lost with regret their natural nudity. And we too, couturiers despite ourselves, we were under the impression we were bundled up in clothing that obstructed the sun and the eye, clothing cut for other backs, those of Londoners.”
Contrary to Benjamin’s supposition, things “can grab hold” on glass. In this instance, not just any things but transformed objects. Through simple wartime ingenuity, materials were crafted to reduce the chance glass would shatter while allowing for some light penetration and ability to see out.
The new poverty led to a “reinvigoration” of superstitions such as “chiromancy” (palm reading), “astrology” and “spiritism.” Flailing about for meaning and direction was a result of an absence of experience with which to make sense of the world. Krzhizhanovsky’s interpretation of clothed windows is telling:
“Open your hand: on the palm’s surface, lines zigzag and cross. From their pattern, palm readers deduce the owner of the palm and affirm that the network of curves is unique for each among us and that it will not know its double. It is perhaps foolishness. And if however it was not? God knows how many of these “and if however” have swooped down on us from a calm sky since the first day of the war. It very much exists since the Greeks, this chiromancy; so, let it live, if even only as a hypothesis, windowmancy.”
This is the crux of both the force and the limit of Benjamin’s argument. Modern warfare heightened the unpredictability of life and left people even more at a loss to explain the rules of the world. Communicating the experience would end up reading like an absurd non-experience, similar to how Kurt Vonnegut portrayed being in Dresden at the time of the firebombing in Slaughterhouse Five. As a result, historically unhelpful notions of “and if however” spread.
Returning to Nietzsche, one way history belongs to the “living man” is “so far as he suffers and is in need of liberation.” In order to move beyond the inhuman conditions of modern war, along with those of the modern economy, city, etc., he needs to be able to make use of accumulated coherent experience. If not, he will stay lost in speculation and continue to suffer.
In focusing on the historically helpful, however, “windowmancy” could not live:
“The historical sense, if it rules without restraint and unfolds all its implications, uproots the future because it destroys illusions and robs existing things of their atmosphere in which alone they can live.”
Krzhizhanovsky was open about the silliness of the idea. Yet through its lens, he captured the unique transformations of each window, behind each wall of glass. Moreover, he saw the aspects of the transformations that escaped “the drudgery of being useful.” The fundamental purpose of the crosses and zigzags was identical, but everyone, in their role of collector and couturier, ended up imbuing each pattern with an aura, a oneness with the place it was found.
He also made light of the Greek origins of palm reading, arguing facetiously that windowmancy was acceptable because of its relation to a ritual embedded in a longstanding tradition. Nietzsche’s main target for the disadvantage of history for life was the Greek tradition, whose weight stifled attempts of German culture to come into its own. The rise of a chauvinistic German-centred tradition motivated Benjamin to underline the disadvantage of auras and authenticity for life.
“Experience and Poverty”’s force is in pointing out that the new poverty was a consequence of the breakdown of entrenched bourgeois wealth and of their historical narrative. As with the fall of authenticity in the arts, it offered an opportunity to refocus on something better and a risk of clearing the path for something worse.
The argument’s limit is where it assumed the characteristics of a monolithic history. It, along with The Work of Art, discounted experience and aura that did not feed into major, lasting traditions. Benjamin was right in seeing glass as auraless. He did not, undoubtedly in part due to the texts’ length and broader focus, take into account the full range of human interactions that windows permit, both positive and negative. Without addressing experiences such as those windowmancy teased out, however, the argument risks becoming itself a disadvantage for life.
By David Holdsworth, 2017. Used with permission.