Nastiness Diagnosis. Anthropology. Religion. Gender. Justice. A Personal Notepad For the General Public.
We hope Davidson’s nuanced but rooted Marxist approach will help to reclaim Benjamin from the academic swamp and help inoculate practical socialists from a vulgar approach to art and culture.
Neil Davidson, in an excerpt from his new book, defends Walter Benjamin from sectarian dismissals and academic obscurantism.
Mass reproduction is especially favoured by the reproduction of the masses. In great ceremonial processions, giant rallies, and mass sporting events, and in war, all of which are now fed into the camera, the masses come face to face with themselves.” And what they come face–to–face with, of course, is their own alienated selves under capitalism.
At no point in time, no matter how utopian, will anyone win the masses over to a higher art; they can be one over only by finding one nearer to them. And the difficulty consists precisely in finding a form for art, such that, with the best conscience in the world, one could hold that it is a higher art. This will never happen with what is propagated by the avant-garde of the bourgeoisie. … The masses positively require from a work of art (which, for them, has its place in the circle of consumer items) something that is warming. Here the flame that is most readily kindled is hatred.
But what Benjamin means is rather that, in societies dominated by capitalist relations of production, where technology is not used to meet human need but for accumulation, the conflicts which that society generates will lead to technology being used for destructive purposes, in ever more complex and inventive ways, as an obscene parody of the creativity which socialism would bring. As a contemporary illustration, we only need to contrast the extraordinary achievement of the US military in constructing a city in the desert from nothing, prior to the opening of the Third Gulf War, with the lack of resources subsequently made available to the Iraqis for reconstruction following the occupation. In short, there is nothing remotely determinist about Benjamin’s attitude to technology; it simply describes reality of imperialism.
Benjamin certainly makes a number of apparently cryptic utterances about history: “The only historian capable of fanning the spark of hope in the past is the one who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he is victorious. And this enemy has never ceased to be victorious.”This passage reads like poetry, and like poetry, it is not meant to be taken literally. What Benjamin seems to mean is something closer to the party slogan George Orwell has O’Brien make Winston Smith repeat in Nineteen Eighty-Four: “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” The past can be changed to suit the needs of the ruling class and only the victory of socialism will ensure that it remains safe. But where should we look for “the spark of hope” in it? Benjamin’s approach involves considerably more than simply referring to a tradition of “past struggles” to inspire contemporary socialists: it is to question the very nature of that tradition.
With whom does the historian actually sympathise? The answer is inevitable: with the victors.