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Saturday, 6 November 2010

Walter Benjamin: The Subversive Mickey Mouse, or Disincorporation Phobia (1931)


First Mickey Mouse character balloon to appear in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, Thursday 29 November 1934, Broadway and 110th Street, New York: image via William J. Crawford, 2009

Property relations in Mickey Mouse cartoons: here we see for the first time that it is possible to have one's own arm, even one's own body, stolen.

The route taken by Mickey Mouse is more like that of a file in an office than it is like that of a marathon runner.

In these films, mankind makes preparations to survive civilization.

Mickey Mouse proves that a creature can still survive even when it has thrown off all resemblance to a human being. He disrupts the entire hierarchy of creatures that is supposed to culminate in mankind.

These films disavow experience more radically than ever before. In such a world, it is not worthwhile to have experiences.


"Medieval Mickey Mouse" (c. 1300 AD.), detail of fresco depicting St.Christopher on church wall, Malta, Austria: photo by BBC, 2002

Similarity to fairy tales. Not since fairy tales have the most vital events been evoked more unsymbolically and more unatmospherically.

All Mickey Mouse films are founded on the motif of leaving home in order to learn what fear is.

So the explanation of the huge popularity of these films is not mechanization, their form; nor is it a misunderstanding. It is simply the fact that the public recognizes its own life in them.

This post dedicated to Tom Luddy
Mickey Mouse
(fragment): Walter Benjamin, 1931, edited excerpt, translated by Rodney Livingstone in Selected Writings, Volume 2: 1927-1934 (1999)


Mariana Soffer said...

Excelent, supreme comments on the pictures.and I agree with your last reflection on your first image. They are some kind of training that they provide us to be able to survive.

And well what you say after the second picture is superb, it goes beyond, it is a perfect antropological observation of the symbol/image.

But please let me understand why people recognize themselves in them I think is related to a desperate need to identify ourself. Couldn't it be?

TC said...


I think you are right in suggesting that the desire or need to identify is very close to the heart of our "natural" (?) fascination with images of the human -- or perhaps even more so, with images of the exaggerated-human, or cartoon-human (los dibujos). We are always "hungry" for what is lifelike, and this curious mimetic appetite drives us to "feel our way" into images, for better or worse. And the distortions in the images then seem to come to reflect -- or maybe even in some odd way become -- distortions in our images of ourselves... which we would in turn insist on seeing as "normal".

Though of course many of us would prefer the distorted image, and not care to admit there is any distortion at all.

In this sense perhaps los dibujos are more finally "real" than humans.

(NB. In case it's not clear from the title and the attribution, I did not write this text: I have edited it from a fragmentary note written by Walter Benjamin almost eighty years ago, and not published until it appeared in posthumous editions of his collected works.)

TC said...

For some previous considerations of the uncontrollable dimensions of the Cartoon Universe, see:

Comic Interpretation


Anonymous said...

I think this is the craziest (but I like it) thing I have ever seen. When you've lived to a sufficiently advanced age and experienced a number of things that are supposedly unusual and/or extreme, the concept "surreal" gets worn out. "Oh, that again" or just "So?". It happens all the time. This, however, is very, very unusual and really brightens my day, especially the wonderful Macy's photo and the Medieval Mickey Mouse. Apart from my childhood Mickey Mouse watch, Mickey never meant that much to me, but this might change things. I will forward this on to my Walter Benjamin-observant friend in Boston for his thoughts. If he's having a bad day, I think this will change things for him.

TC said...


If you draw a reaction from your friend, do let us know.

About the "beyond surreal" quality of the present moment, I hear you.

Bewilderment, as a state or condition, becomes almost commonplace.

A kind of reality overdose or reality battle fatigue, perhaps?

Chris said...

That first picture is like a blow to the head.

1. For a moment it appeared to be a street in Berlin, and Mickey a part of a military parade. That Benjamin was watching from the edge of the the crowd.

2. Benjamin feared that if he came to America he would have been put on display as the Last European. Perhaps he would have been part of the Thanksgiving Day parade.

3. That Mickey should have been part of Benjamin's world, that his image might have found its way onto an eastbound transport -- this gives one an indefinite pause.

TC said...


These are extremely interesting and relevant thoughts.

Here is Benjamin, from the essay, Little History of Photography, published in September 1931, approximately synchronous with the Mickey Mouse fragment:

"It is no accident that Atget's photographs have been likened to those of a crime scene. But isn't every square inch of our cities a crime scene? Every passer-by a culprit? Isn't it the task of the photographer--descendant of the augurs and haruspices -- to reveal a guilt and to point out the guilty in his picture? 'The illiteracy of the future,' someone has said, 'will be ignorance not of reading or writing, but of photography.' But shouldn't a photographer who cannot read his own pictures be no less accounted an illiterate? Won't inscription become the most important part of the photograph?"

I think it was the neutral or affectless quality in photography that nagged at Benjamin's analytical mind.

Were a crashed and injured Luftwaffe pilot, extracted from the flaming wreckage of his plane, to be helped into an emergency vehicle bearing the image of Mickey Mouse (such as the one in the bottom image), how would he "read" the inscription of that image?

And how would Benjamin have then "read" the pilot's response?

Mickey Mouse, and Disney, and urban crowd photography, were things that "belonged" to the future. Benjamin had a hard time grasping any meaning in futurity. To him, futurity seems to have represented merely processed past. In the manuscript of Theses on the Philosophy of History--which seems to have been the contents of the legendary black briefcase he kept with him in the final doomed struggle over the mountains, said by witnesses to be evidently worth more in his eyes than his own life -- he had after all brought with him not gold, which of course would have been the most useful property, were the prospect of escaping to America ever actually to have become a practical reality, but nothing save the script in the briefcase and enough morphine to kill a horse -- one of the final aphorisms, on 'Messianic time,' contained the prophetic sentence, 'We know that the Jews were prohibited from investigating the future. The Torah and the prayers instruct them in remembrance, however.'

I don't believe he ever really felt that he was "meant" to get to America.

TC said...

By the by, there are two small things that have haunted my mind, since posting this.

First, the two shadowy men on stilts in the lower right corner of the top image.

And second (speaking of 'Messianic time, -- !), Curtis's reminder of the Mickey Mouse watch.

I had one of those too.

Had Walter Benjamin actually survived, and made it to the U.S., and stayed (a series of increasingly unlikely eventualities, as I've suggested above, but still...), he would have been in his late fifties at the time the Mickey Mouse watch went into production.

Let us imagine a further unlikelihood: he marries an American woman; they have a child; the child presents Walter Benjamin with a Mickey Mouse watch as a birthday present; he hides it away in a drawer, out of embarrassment; finally the way becomes clear for a return to Europe; he gets packed up, and has a train/plane/boat to catch; but loses track of the time at the last minute, and remembers the Mickey Mouse watch in the drawer, still ticking away...

What does he do?

Chris said...

Perhaps the men on stilts, looking backward, are Proust's contribution to the scene. What speaks to me is the look of deep distress on the faces of the two figures who march ahead of Mickey. They look as if they would like to cry out, but there is no time. They must march.

TC said...


The need to cry out, the fear of disincorporating, the fear of being crushed -- these hidden polymorphic meanings in all such images seem to be like invisible controlling strings that keep us from ascending into the sky.

(Empty bags full of hot air.)

TC said...

(Chris, the empty hot-air bags reference, of course, did not include present company, except possibly oneself... always looking back toward big sad king Mickey, up there, twisting in the wind, waiting for his realm to be deflated...)

TC said...

By the by, Tom Luddy, the gracious recipient of the dubious honour of being the dedicatee of this post, sends along a link to a very interesting (and quite germane) article posted just yesterday: Stephan Wackwitz: saving Benjamin from his fans.

Wackwitz argues that WB was great writer miscast (largely by the myopic readings of later academic fleas) as a theorist.

The dangers of "misinterpret[ing] a Romantic poet's dream as a research programme" are his subject.

He rates WB not as a philosopher but as an artist in prose, and ranks him alongside Robert Walser and Kafka.

A useful caveat against "stirring [Benjamin's] intricately brilliant but almost entirely false theories into theoretical blancmange".

(In case it is not already obvious, the WB works exhibited here have been presented as poetic works, with all the connotative complexity of poetry -- which one had in fact always supposed them to be.)

Chris said...

It's kind of you to mention that. The charge would have been entirely just.

One of the things there is to love about Benjamin is that he's almost never windy. It's nice to think about how he would have made Adorno's point.

Off to the Veteran's Day parade.

Chris said...

Oops, my last post was a response to the second preceding. Clearly it's time to go. But I can't resist one last observation.

I don't share the happy positivism that allows Mr. Wackwitz to understand which literary theories are out of date and which are still current. However the march of progress in literary theory is conceptualized, I must insist that we would lose something important if, in our zeal to establish WB's poetic credentials, we failed to recognize his essay on Proust as the single best "theoretical" piece ever written on that author. And that is just one example.

TC said...


Thanks again. I have appreciated the conversation.

I presented the Wackwitz link not in advocacy so much as in currency.

The "hard-headed journalistic" and the "theoretical" approaches equally have their drawbacks, obviously.

Placing "theoretical" in inverted commas hedges the bet a bit and perhaps runs the risk of conceding the point being contested, if in fact there is a point being contested, which I doubt is the case, in any event.

What has given theory a bad name, as we know, is the pseudotheorists. This is indeed merely infra-departmental, no need parsing it out.

I suspect all literary theories are simultaneously out of date and current, irrelevant and germane.

They can be pleasant, like ice cream; but life -- and literature -- can also get along without them.

The thing is, I have always understood Benjamin's sure and brilliant grasp of the work of Proust to be akin to the sure and brilliant grasp of the work of Proust that is to be found in Nabokov, or in Beckett, or in Adorno, that is, the respectful and penetrating sympathetic understanding of a great writer by another great writer, from within a tradition.

We stand outside that tradition. We can have theories, make jokes, float off into the atmosphere... but a sure grasp?

In one essay Benjamin opines that a real writer never gives up just because he is tired, or runs out of ideas. The challenge and command of the work, he suggests, is to continue beyond that point. At times one can almost feel him pushing himself beyond the point of (mere!) "common sense" into that next stage... whether one terms that the stage of poetry or the stage of theory doesn't matter much really.

When writing is densely figurative and rich with complex suggestion, one may call it what one wishes, but the primary responses would always have to be gratitude, and reverence.

At any rate I think it probably helps to look at things from beyond the walls of the industry.

I'm not in the business, are you?

Chris said...

That is very nicely said. Thank you.

I dwell far, far away from the Comparative Literature Department. I'm a tax lawyer.