When I found Benjamin’s briefcase...

Desperate in the midnight hours

of 27 September 1940, Walter Benjamin died.  Myth claims the cause of death to be suicide... morphine overdose.  That morning, his body was found by his traveling compatriots in a small room in Hotel de Francia in Port Bou on the border between France and Spain.  All were en route on foot over the Pyrenees to escape ensuing fascism.  It is claimed that as Benjamin struggled to carry this heavy, refunctioned camera-bag briefcase, he exclaimed, “I cannot risk losing it.  It is the manuscript that must be saved.  It is more important than I am.”  Amongst Benjamin’s possessions recovered on the day of his death, however, his briefcase along with its contents were nowhere to be found...

“For the tasks which face the human apparatus of perception at the turning point of history cannot be solved by optical means, that is, by contemplation, alone.  They are mastered gradually by habit, under the guidance of tactile appropriation.”

“...burst our prison world asunder by the dynamite of a tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of it far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling.”

“What, in the end, makes advertisements so superior to criticism?  Not what the moving red neon says -- but the fiery pool reflecting it in the asphalt.”

“What matters for the dialectician is having the winds of world history in his sails.  Thinking for him means: to set sail. It is the way they are set that matters.  Words are sails.  The way they are set turns them into concepts.”

“The perception of similarity is in every case bound to an instantaneous flash.  It slips past, can possibly be regained, but really cannot be held fast, unlike other perceptions.  It offers to the eye as fleetingly and transitorily as a constellation of stars.”

“As soon as the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applied to artistic production, the whole social function of art is revolutionized.  Instead of being founded on ritual, it is based on a different practice: politics.”

“What is aura, actually?  A strange weave of space and time: the unique appearance or semblance of a distance, no matter how close it may be.  While at rest on a summer’s noon, to trace a range of mountains on the horizon, or a branch that throws it shadow on the observer, until the moment or the hour become part of myth appearance -- this is what it means to breathe the aura of those mountains, that branch.”

“Our investigation proposes to show how, as a consequence of this reifying representation of civilization, the new forms of behavior and the new economically and technologically based creations that we owe to the nineteenth century enter the universe of a phantasmagoria.  These creations undergo this “illumination” not only in a theoretical manner, by an ideological transposition, but also in the immediacy of their perceptible presence.  They are manifest as phantasmagorias.”

“Here it is not a question of making (ideas) present in a illustrative or vision-based way; but rather, in philosophical contemplation, the idea is released from the heart of reality as the word, reclaiming its name-giving rights... Ideas are given, without intention, in the act of naming, and they have to be renewed by philosophical contemplation.”

“Materialist historiography is based on a constructive principle.  Thinking involves not only the movement of thoughts, but their arrest as well.  Where thinking suddenly comes to a stop in a constellation saturated with tensions, it gives that constellation a shock, by which thinking is crystalized as a monad.  The historical materialist approaches a historical object only where it confronts him as a monad.  In this structure he recognizes the sign of a messianic arrest of happening, or (to put it differently) a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past.”

“The role of the hand in production has become more modest, and the place it filled in the storytelling lies waste.  That old coordination among the soul, eye, and hand which emerges in Valery’s words is that of the artisan which we encounter wherever the art of the storytelling is at home.  In fact, one might go on and ask oneself whether the surrealism of the storyteller to his material, in hum           dialectic in itself a craftsman’s relationship -- whether it is not his very task to fashion the raw material of existence, his own and that of others, in a solid, useful, and unique way.”

“A story does not aim to convey an event, per se, which is the purpose of information; rather, it embeds the event in the life of the storyteller in order to pass it on as experience to those listening.  It thus bears the trace of the storyteller; much the way an earthen vessel bears the trace of the potter’s hand.”

“The writer must not conceal the fact that his activity is one of arranging.”

“No matter how artful the photographer, no matter how carefully posed his subject, the beholder feels an irresistible urge to search such a picture for the tiny spark of contingency, of the Here and Now, with which reality has so to speak seared the subject, to find the inconspicuous spot where in teh immediacy of that long-forgotten moment the future subsists so eloquently that we, looking back, may revolution.”

“What is inevitably felt to be inhuman, one might even say deadly, in daguerreotypy was the (prolonged) looking into the camera, since the camera records our likeness without retuning our gaze.  But looking at someone carries the implicit expectation that our look will be returned by the object of our gaze.  Where this expectation is met (which, in the case of thought processes, can apply equally to the look of the eye of the mind and to a glance pure and simple), there is an experience of aura to the fullest extent”

“The stripping bare of the object, the destruction of aura, is the mark of a perception whose sense of the sameness of things has grown to the point where even the singular, the unique, is divested of its uniqueness -- by means of its reproduction.”

“In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is arcades to overpower it.”

Trauerspiel and North American TV:  Contemporary tele-visual production practices craft mechanical communication into a vast, fragmented, cryptic sign-system -- into a privileging machine for writing non-stop ideological histories.  As the languages and techniques enacted in this machine evolve unchecked and unchallenged, their meaning-making logics are subsumed into the fabric of everyday life.  And here lies the problem.  Anonymous practices within mechanical tele-visualization condition social meaning making with a particular brand of “sensibility”, binding the crafting of content to a host of illogical “sense”.  But how do we go about challenging televisual production?  One starting point is through an innervation of Walter Benjamin’s notion of Trauerspiel: Baroque theatrical staging of allegorical mortification.  That is to say, through the public performance of “putting to death” in the aim of liberation.
    Trauerspiel, in relation to Cultural Farming, is a redemptive act of cultural critique through uncomfortable equivocation: through a hybridization of allegorical lament.  This is to suggest an intentional Janus-faced elevation of common media content by way of rending, via dialectical motion-play, a material critique of the fragility of the symbol.  By freeing the symbol’s prejudice of singular intention via allegorical rescue, peripheral diversifications of meaning creation are encouraged, rather than banished.  Where metaphorical signs are parallel one-for-one comparisons, allegorical re-functioning delimits potentialities for new understanding by challenging disembodied meaning-making through the act of purposefully repeating one thing while “touching” another.  In short, the practice of Trauerspiel reconnoiters the ever-growing gulf between materiality and media.  Thus the performance of Trauerspiel extinguishes totalities so as to revalue the historicity of that which has only “meant” once.  But what is this to Cultural Farming?

Television’s intention, particularly within news and information production, is to exact preferred social truths.  Image is presented as fact, fact is presented as truth, and truth is folded back again into image presentation.  These image-fact-truths are then technologically abstracted into compositions, which, in turn, condition notions of social actuality, and then publicly received with little critical questioning or provocation.  Hence today, we find our technologies have evolved well beyond any reach of “human body-sense”.  Cyclically, this demands a pause for deeper reflection, yet the ratcheting upwards of technological advance has left little time or space for critical contemplation.  Walter Benjamin feared similarities in 1930’s Germany.  While the introduction of new technologies during his time were welcomed for mechanically emasculating the repression of “auras of distance” through reproductive secularization, it was also feared that whomever “sat at the switch” might also produce too-close ideologies that resist public challenge altogether. 

For Benjamin the new, fetishized artifacts of contaminated aura in bourgeois production conflated with the oppressive symbols of Nazism and the Church to constrain public autonomy.  In the knowing hands of the “people”, however, it was hoped aura might be refunctioned, liberated, disambiguated, and made re-productive in service of the masses.  Benjamin reasoned that the expressions of mechanical reproduction, ever-growing throughout daily life, could be re-fused to “work” towards emancipatory ends.  Yet, to merely suggest parallels between today’s reckless media production practices and Benjamin’s premonitions of totalizing, fascistic, mechanical authority in Germany between two world wars is not the point of this project. Rather it is to claim recognition that, as with Baroque’s allegorical response to overt authoritative conceit, 21st Century’s blind-reliance upon all things technological begs for new methods of public, contemplative pause.  Here, one readily available method is Cultural Farming’s innervation of allegory: Trauerspiel.  

Trauerspiel, for Cultural Farming, is a pathway to redeeming both sense-based aesthetic perception and production “against the grain” of TV/media’s blanching sense-making.  It is an exercise for rebalancing totalizing authority with negotiable open-endedness.  Trauerspiel at once smashes aura’s righteous claim to untouchable distance through a leveraging of secular sacrilege, while simultaneously creating spaces for the flow of “necessary” aura into new sensible relationships.  This practice of refunction and redemption coincides with all of Cultural Farming practice.  Indeed, Cultural Farming’s convergence of the material pragmatics of Benjamin, Brecht, and Eisenstein are individual acts of Trauerspiel performance.  In sharper terms, Trauerspiel is a joint performance of the consumer, the intellectual, the critic, and the builder -- filtering authoritative facticity through bodily sense, technological ideology through profane illumination, and digital seduction through materialist cognition.

Illogical contemporary

TV/media production has long ago forfeited its moral claim to “necessary” authority, informational clarity, and social imperative.  Yet today TV/media continues to stand as docent to all media practice despite its perverse spectacular production of communication too often emptied of substance and significance.  In 2010, TV/media, both cause and effect, continue to fundamentally facilitate profound decay of necessary aura through egregious combinations of reflexive and critical neglect.  However, possibilities for redeeming tele-visual discourse live on, though seemingly obsolete within today’s totalizing embrace of technological advance, because each moment of our realization carries opportunities of resistance -- beginning from the initial moment of man’s Fall and continuing with each turn of our reproductive capabilities.  A “cultural farmer’s” revolutionary task, therefore, is not only to dialectically challenge technological perversion within each individual’s profession, but also to lead in its refunctioning of ideological practice into tools of social liberation.  For when our most innovative visualizing elite, along with their tools and practices, are neither understood by bourgeois intelligencia (brain workers) or by the laboring proletariat (body workers), the necessity for cultivating new, public, redemptive, social strategies of “oversight” becomes paramount.

More than one revolutionary method hidden inside the cavernous gape between theory and practice can be excavated amongst the volumes of Cultural Farming’s Trauerspiel project.  Here within this deluge of common TV/media fragmentation, that is to say within purposefully written texts claiming totalizing authority, allegorical transgression and re-functioning keeps us rooted in the material pragmatics of here and now, refraining easy escape into phoney reverences of our disembodied technologies.  The simple practice of longitudinal archiving combined with reflexive, experimental re-composition circumvents intellectual sticky-bogs found in common arguments of “art for art’s sake” versus the professed urgency to “change” social reality -- as well as the binary of avant-garde versus collective praxis.  For allegorical acts of Trauerspiel publicly unveil the private personalized “shocks” of
remembrance – seeing, hearing, feeling, and speaking for oneself, in public, with media tools to a mediated world.  This is about as close as one can get to “true subsistence” within camera-screen discourse.

Trauerspiel, the unfashionable and long-forgotten Baroque dramatic form with seemingly low critical potential, is now regularly discussed in relation to the development of Benjamin’s theoretical stance.  But, Trauerspiel’s practice is seldom explicated and even less attempted.  Indeed, it was precisely this intellectual obscurity that attracted Benjamin... and me.  In the volumes of this project, I attempt a similar “rehabilitation” by exposing the muddles and mis-recognitions of TV/media production to those who shrug-off the import of its hollowing out and impoverishment of meaning creation.  I proffer my provocative responses on several fronts – as a re-understanding and re-evaluation of TV practice on its own terms, rather than as an interpretive caricature of some well-worn, banal and irrelevant media form; a form greedily surpassed by ever newer, more profitable technologies.

Benjamin’s Briefcase is my tele-visual palimpsest.  It is a simple, allegorical construct profanely re-fragmented, felt, then re-membered, and felt again.  Cultural Farming’s Trauerspiel embodies a negation, or demythification, of illogical ideological TV/media reification -- and into a “mortifying performance” of its own reckless ruination.  This project of fifteen volumes represents only a portion of my initial collection of “ritualistic findings” over the course of six years of continuous ethnographic data collection.  They are but a small civic exchange to those untold, reluctant, too-clever-times-two mediamongering producers.  To you I say, “Look what you have done to the very life-blood of contemporary communication.  I intend to castrate your malfeasance, to publicly put it to death, my friends, in the name of liberation, as you have castrated yourselves and us all.”

NOTE: This project was originally uploaded as a fifteen volume video “book” (or “modelbooks” as Brecht would have it).  The “book” moniker was chosen for its ironic jab at the seldom challenged realities of contemporary media scholarship -- that being its own replication of the grab for power and authority we witness throughout corporatized media production.  Considering practice, proclamations of some “public and progressive liberal media” (along with its scholarship) sticks deeply in my craw.  Indeed, it doesn’t take a scientist to see first-hand that contemporary media research is valued first by the funding it generates; media intellectualism is valued first by book sales; media websites are valued first in eyeballs and ears garnered; anthro-ethnographic films and videos are valued first in festival awards and distribution deals.  Indeed, all media ideas today are valued first by the crowds, mobs, clouds, friends, subscribers or followers commanded -- all of which deeply determine intentional production practices.  
Where, exactly, is progressive support of a true provocation for media diversity?  And so, after six decades of continuous media research we find ourselves collectively little farther ahead.  It is because we resist breaking our own production “patterns” of power and authority.  And breaking patterns means exactly that: breaking patterns... through public, allegorical performances of “putting to death” in the aim of liberation.

Maybe this is why Benjamin, though granted the first portion of his PhD, was ultimately denied the second part -- his habilitation -- thus, officially barring his entry into the academy.  And, the title of his rejected habilitation?:  “Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiel”  (The Origin of German Tragic Drama).  My reading of Benjamin suggests, as practiced throughout his Arcades Project, he deeply understood that “meaning” inside any medium is understood through an examination of the medium as method.  It is this notion of Trauerspiel that will soon be shown as a foundational method of (Brechtian) mediaturgy.   But then... “maybe my whole fallacy is wrong.”


                                                                                                                                                            ImagesWalter Benjamin Archive


Ransacking Quotations from Benjamin’s Briefcase:

Allegorical Laments (Trauerspiel)

Convolutes of Ritual and Myth in American Television

The odd conclusion to this story is that I have had

Benjamin’s missing briefcase all along.  Only I did not

understand that until now.  And when I looked, indeed, there it was...

...filled neither with work or art, but instead with maps of the work art must do. 

Maps of strange terrains I had never heard of before, but had traveled well down already.

28 Feb 2010

“Through the hieroglyph of a breath... I can find once more the idea of a sacred theatre” 

- Antonin Artaud,  Theatre,  p134, 141.

“...Myth is the term for everything which exists and subsists only on the basis of language.  There is no speech so obscure, no gossip so fantastic, no remark so incoherent that we cannot give it meaning.  One can always assume a meaning for the strangest language.  ...Myths vanish under the light in us which is generated by the combined presence of our bodies and of our highest perceptions.” 

  1. -Paul Valéry, Selected Writings, p199.

The Philosopher:  Crying doesn’t express sorrow so much as relief.  But lamenting by means of sounds, or still better words, is a vast liberation, because it means that the sufferer is beginning to produce something.  He’s already mixing his sorrow with an account of the blows he has received; he’s already making something out of the utterly devastating.  Observation has set in.”

  1. - Bertolt Brecht, The Messingkauf Dialogues, p47.


An American

resident of Canada, experimenting with new forms of critical media ethnography in Cultural Farming.

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