:: Article

Awakening Benjamin

Eli Friedlander interviewed by Richard Marshall.

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Eli Friedlander has written a book about the philosophical Walter Benjamin, who would be 120 this year. Previously he has written about Rousseau and Wittgenstein. Friedlander is always wondering about our modes of existence. He’s a very soulful kind of philosopher.  
 
3:AM: Your philosophical interests seem to track a prevailing sense of existential crisis. Is this to do with your personality? When did you start recognising that you were interested in philosophical questions, and that these were the questions you wanted to pursue?
 
Eli Friedlander: Even though I wrote on the relation of philosophy and autobiography, or maybe because I wrote on that issue, I wouldn’t wish to move too directly from philosophical preoccupations to the space of life and personality. Without denying the personal dimension of my attachment to philosophical themes and even a degree of identification with the philosophers that concern me in my writing, I think that making that relation as oblique or roundabout as can be, is actually a virtue. The longer it takes to make the way from philosophy to life, the more significant their correlation becomes.
 
What most characterized my philosophical education is that I could not decide which were the questions that I wanted to pursue. I studied for my PhD at Harvard and at some point realized that I would not write the required one-topic dissertation. I availed myself of the option of writing three papers instead: on the relation of feeling and communication in Kant‘s aesthetics, on personal exemplification in Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origins of Inequalities and on the limits of language in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus.
 
I have things to say, to myself and to others, about the connection between the three papers; for instance that they were various ways of developing a problematic of showing versus saying. But the truth is that I was completely taken by three philosophers, who first were my teachers, then became my dissertation advisors, and which, for all my good will and inventiveness, I could not bring together around a single topic. These were Stanley Cavell, Burton Dreben and John Rawls. The result was my disjointed dissertation. One of my advisors referred to this dissertation as a three-headed monster. I think he meant this as a compliment. At least this is the way I took it. I still feel that I am committed to following up the implications of the contingencies of my education. And I still like to write and plan my teaching in such a way that I am drawn, at the same time, to different extremes in this constellation of interests.
 
3:AM: Your 2004 book JJ Rousseau: An Afterlife of Words began with the beginning of the Reveries: “Here I am then, alone on earth.” You say that Rousseau does not merely feel lonely but “writes of being alone.” You cite him a few pages later: “I live here as in some strange planet on to which I have fallen from the one I knew.” You consider the strangeness of the affirmation of solitude, for who is he supposedly affirming it to? You wind back from the ‘then’ in that opening line to the cogito of Descartes. Your philosophical enquiry follows from this affirmation of extreme solitude. Can you say more about the book and why and how you connect Rousseau’s extreme existential situation to the skeptical programme of Descartes?
 
EF: I was concerned in this book to articulate the philosophical dimension of Rousseau’s autobiographical writing in the Reveries. This meant for instance taking the Reveries to be part of the same project as the writing of the two Discourses, or the Social Contract. So I sought ways to relate the autobiographical writing to the problem of the access to the state of nature in the midst of society, or to the formation of society out of nature. But I also wanted to think of Rousseau’s autobiographical turn in relation to other autobiographical moments in the philosophical tradition.
 
Rousseau’s Confessions would probably be best read relating them back to Augustine‘s, but there was no doubt in my mind that the opening of Descartes Meditations and the cogito were invoked in the affirmation of Rousseau’s solitude in the Reveries. This initial insight had numerous consequences and informed many of the themes of the book. Most of all this juxtaposition of Rousseau and Descartes brought out how underplayed the skepticism concerning other minds and the threat of madness is in Descartes’ methodical doubt. Taking Rousseau not only to be suffering from the onslaught of such skepticism but also as seeking ways to address the skeptical ordeal led me to concentrate on the fundamental paradox of reading of the Reveries: What is writing in, and of, absolute solitude? Rousseau writes for himself alone. He writes his memories in the hope that, in the future, he will find a friend in his past self. A rather radical solution to his condition of terminal solitude. But the possibility of establishing a relation to another emerges as we ask what is it, for us, to read this work without denying Rousseau’s solitude? Is there, in the correlation, if not in the communication formed between author and reader, something that can be seen as the last stage of Rousseau’s thinking about the constitution of society out of nature?

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3:AM: If we look at your earlier book Signs of Sense: Reading Wittgenstein’s Tractatus what is striking immediately is that here is another writer who is writing out of a critical existential awareness of solitude, in Wittgenstein’s case, the solitude that comes with the total incomprehension of his peers. The letter he wrote to Russell in 1915 is very poignant where he writes: “I’m extremely sorry that you weren’t able to understand Moore’s notes. I felt that they’re very hard to understand without further explanation, but I regard them as essentially definitive. And now I’m afraid that what I’ve written recently will be still more incomprehensible, and if I don’t live to see the end of this war I must be prepared for all my work to go for nothing. – In that case you must get my manuscript printed whether anyone understands it or not.” Again, it seems you are drawn to a philosopher affirming a deep solitude. Is this right? And is it this incomprehensiblity that it’s what you take the text to be about? What drew you to Wittgenstein and his Tractatus?

EF: You shouldn’t forget that the notes dictated to Moore are notes on logic, and Russell is not one whose ability to comprehend logic you would want to doubt. I say this to point to the peculiar nature of the difficulty involved. It has to do with the way the content of Wittgenstein’s logical insights is always intertwined with what he wants out of them. But you can’t put the goal first and think of the involvement with logic, so to speak instrumentally. Much in Wittgenstein must be read as soberly as possible, with no trace of existential pathos. As opposed to Rousseau who opens straight off with what you called the existential crisis, for Wittgenstein the critical moment comes at the end, with the famous throwing away of the ladder. Yet this gesture comes about after, and most importantly continuously with, the most difficult and rigorous progress through logic and language. Just as you shouldn’t peak ahead to the resolution of a mystery novel, you shouldn’t read the Tractatus for its ending. It must be read in such a way as to go through all its complexity and conceive of it as leading to the necessity of that final reversal. For the point of throwing away the ladder to have the force it does, you must see yourself as arduously climbing up its rungs. There is really an immense challenge of reading this book in a way that keeps together content and form, or logic and its ethical point.
 
This being said, the ending of the Tractatus does constitute, just like Rousseau’s Reveries, a paradox of reading or of communication with the reader: with Wittgenstein true understanding is threatened by all content turning out to be nonsense; with Rousseau no place is left for a reader to relate to the self enclosed solitude of the author. I would even venture to say that, for Wittgenstein, isolation is inherent to the excesses of philosophy and combating it would be one of the highest aspirations of the Tractatus. But, arguing for that would require going back to Wittgenstein’s discussion of solipsism and to what he takes to be the truth in solipsism in the Tractatus. A stage of the advance, of climbing up the ladder, would be the realization that properly placing a subject in language demands the overcoming of an illusion, a fantasy, of solipsistic meaning.

3:AM: As you said above, Stanley Cavell and Burt Dreben were influential on your philosophical development. You approach philosophy as an enquiry into good reading as well as good thinking. How were these philosophers influential on how you approach your work and what do you find important in approaching philosophy from this perspective?
 
EF: This is a difficult question and I will indicate only one way, out of many, in which I think of the influence of these two teachers. Dreben put into practice his understanding of Wittgenstein by reading the history of analytic philosophy. In his hand scholarship became a method for showing how, to quote one of his favorite expressions, “there is no meeting of minds.” In the secret history of the subject he delineated, there was nothing one could call progress. This methodic disintegration of the history of philosophy is to my mind unparalleled. And it required his particular philosophical character, so as not to “chicken out,” meaning not to turn these insights into the writing of a less explosive, positive, history of the subject matter.
 
From Cavell, I learned to find philosophy lurking in unexpected places: in Shakespeare, in movies or in autobiography. But Cavell is always careful not to collapse philosophy and literature into one overarching category, say that of the text or the cultural discourse. And his writing is constantly exemplifying what it means to insist on the utter difficulty of philosophy, especially in relation to such playful contexts as Hollywood remarriage comedies. Maybe putting the two together I would say that I am interested in cases where philosophy tends to thin itself out as a proper domain having its own meaningful vocabulary. That is, where philosophical work is to eventuate on the possibility of taking a stance in the broader scene of our lives. This is how I understand the stakes in Wittgenstein’s throwing away the ladder, the demands made upon us by Rousseau’s written solitude, and Benjamin’s ascetic mode of writing that foregoes all theory for a careful construction out of the most concrete historical materials.
 
3:AM: At the heart of your book you argue that the logical and the ethical are entwined. Can you say something about this?
 
EF: It is quite obvious to any reader of the Tractatus that Wittgenstein is not offering us a positive ethics, or a theory of morality. But nor should we be tempted to read him as delimiting the ethical negatively. The ethical is not the unsayable or ineffable other of a language ruled by logic. I argue that in the progress of the Tractatus there occurs a gradual transformation of our understanding of language as well as of what it is to have language or be in language. To put it much too briefly it is a transformation from meaning to meaningfulness, from the signifying to significance. Having language itself being valuable, or seeing the fundamental dimension of value in terms of the acceptance or loss of the ordinary conditions of meaning, is what I mean by the entwining of the logical and the ethical.

3:AM: Benjamin seems, like your Rousseau and your Wittgenstein, another bereft philosopher threatened by the loneliness of incomprehensibility. Is that right? Is that where you find his appeal?
 
EF: Much could be written about the intellectual isolation Benjamin suffered from during his life, from the rejection of his Habilitationsschrift by the university of Frankfurt resulting in his withdrawal from academia, to his failed attempts to be involved with various intellectual centers such as the Warburg Institute or the Institute for Social Research. His intellectual and personal friendships with Gershom Scholem, Theodor Adorno or Bertolt Brecht were also not unproblematic. But, this is not my focus: I am interested in a certain mode of posthumous isolation that is not incompatible with the growing fame of Benjamin in the intellectual world.
 
It is possible indeed to isolate Benjamin by marveling at his unclassifiable genius and his incomparable precious insights. I don’t think of isolation then as a personal issue but rather as concerning, what Benjamin himself calls the afterlife of works. To combat isolation in this sense meant for me to insist on the rigor of Benjamin’s writing as well as on placing him in a tradition of thinking. That is, it was important for me to estimate his uniqueness by the way in which he engages the past of philosophy. The problem is of course that much of what he writes does not look like philosophy. That is why I think of my book as a philosophical portrait of Benjamin, as gathering his corpus of writings so that it can be recognized as a configuration of philosophy.

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3:AM: Your new book is a reading of the philosophical preoccupations of Walter Benjamin and his Arcades Project. You say that Adorno called “… that juncture at which Benjamin’s work stands the crossroad of positivism and magic.” And you find Adorno retreating from what you take Benjamin’s philosophical practice and demanding philosophical theory. Can you say something about this crucial issue and why you say Adorno’s is a kind of retreat to safer ground from the revolutionary aspirations of Benjamin?
 
EF: Adorno’s criticism must be understood against the background of what Benjamin was trying to achieve: the construction of philosophical history primarily out of the most concrete material. This is evident in the formidable number of quotations he amassed arranged in convolutes bearing such titles as Iron construction, Modes of Lighting, Flanery, Dolls etc… By locating Benjamin’s work at the crossroad of positivism and magic Adorno meant to warn him of two dangers that his method opened him to: his work could collapse into a mere collection of facts, thus be understood as a positivistic history. Or it could lead him to be spellbound by the allure of such things as flanery and the outmoded (as to some extent is characteristic of surrealism’s attraction to remnants of the past). In either case, Adorno could not understand how construction out of such materials could in itself form the basis of a critical standpoint. This is why he insisted that Benjamin formulate a theory be it Marxist or other. You can imagine, given my preoccupation, say with Wittgenstein’s rejection of theory in philosophy, that I take Adorno’s demand to be a retreat from Benjamin’s aspirations in philosophy.
 
3:AM: How does Benjamin link then with a Marxist philosophical tradition. Brian Leiter regrets the moral Marx of Cohen, prefering Marx as a Realist, Naturalist philosopher. How does Benjamin fit with Marxism? Is he really a Marxist in any useful sense of the term?
 
EF: Benjamin’s Arcades Project is the work of a historical materialist. Whatever it is that he is attempting to express, it is clear that it is presented solely by the construction out of material contents. These material contents, quotation material, have to do with the manifestation of life concentrated in or by the Paris arcades. It is a work that is realistic or naturalistic in a very special sense. Benjamin describes what he does for history as paralleling Goethe‘s investigation of the primal phenomenon in nature.  
 
In relation to that material, there is no strong, or substantive use of Marxist terms such as alienation, false consciousness, or ideology. Benjamin foregoes the systematic use of these terms in the framework of a well-defined evaluative language or theory. This is why Adorno feared his work would lose any critical edge and either collapse into materialistic positivism or risk enchantment with the material. But Benjamin recovers what motivates Marx in translating the substantive use of these critical terms into the very articulation of the meaning of the material he works with. Let me very schematically indicate several moments of this translation: Benjamin distinguishes Marx’s attempt to trace the causal origins of culture in the economy, and his own undertaking in the Arcades Project which he characterizes the expression of the economy in the culture.
 
The configuring or arrangement of the material contents, gives, in the first place, expression to what one could call the dreams or wish -images of humanity. These are not understood as fantasies in a psychological sense, but rather are manifest in the meaning emerging out of the material itself. Think of it as a material unconscious. But secondly, and this is the other side of these dreams, what is expressed is the utter poverty that has befallen human experience. It is a poverty in our very mode of experiencing the world significantly, and in our capacity to transmit experience as tradition. One might think of it as the violence we suffer as long as the arrangement and articulation of life avoids the transformation of the economic basis, a violence that Benjamin associates with a renewed rule of myth over life.
 
The last stage in the articulation of the material is what Benjamin calls the interpretation of the dream configuration that is our past. This extreme articulation leads to the dissolution of the wish images and precipitates awakening in the present. Awakening is Benjamin’s revolutionary moment. It is at one and the same time a destructive critique of the past and a mode of realizing or salvaging the truth that was nested in those dreams by revolutionizing the present.
 
3:AM: Finally, you seem to be a literary person where art and books are important rather than merely entertaining. Is that right? Have you always read? What novels and books have been influential to you, as both a person and a philosopher?
 
EF: I will try to avoid this question in an informative way: my kids sometime make fun of me by saying that I forever read the same book. I tend to immerse myself in a book, often in a way that makes me forget the importance and pleasure of reading. So, I am not quite the voracious reader, even if I spend many hours of the day staring at the pages of books. It does help to work on someone who has read a lot, such as Benjamin. Then I can, so to speak, read by proxy, or put together my reading list by following his trail. Still that leaves you a bit out of touch with the present literary world. I try to make up for that by going to the movies and watching TV series.
 
The truth is that I still tend to think of myself as more of a visual than a literary person. I was well under way in my studies in an art academy when I decided to break off for a PhD in philosophy. Not one of my most reflective decisions, I must confess. I am not complaining or regretting it, but, since then, I have been thinking of roundabout ways to make something of these early dreams or failed promise. In recent years I am taking time out from teaching and writing to work as a stage designer in productions of opera that my spouse Michal Grover-Friedlander, is directing. We recently put together a performance of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s The Yes Sayer (Der Jasager).
 
3:AM: And finally, for the smart thinkers here at 3:AM, could you recommend your top five books that we should get our teeth into, apart from yours of course.
 
EF: I will not be very original here, and will only name one book that has been very important for me in recent years: Kant’s Critique of Judgment. It is also, I find, a book to read for the ways it allows us to articulate the present moment of philosophy.

richardmarshall

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
 

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, February 6th, 2012.