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Thursday 22 May 2014

Walter Benjamin: The Destructive Character


Demolition, Deaconess Hospital, Oakland Avenue, Dogtown (St. Louis) ('...the feeling of the familiar moving rapidly into the past, which is certainly the case with this hospital which has stood in my neighborhood for decades"): photo by chalkdog, 16 April 2014

It could happen to someone looking back over his life that he realized that almost all the deeper obligations he had endured in its course originated in people who everyone agreed had the traits of a “destructive character.” He would stumble on this fact one day, perhaps by chance, and the heavier the shock dealt to him, the better his chances of representing the destructive character.

The destructive character knows only one watchword: make room. And only one activity: clearing away. His need for fresh air and open space is stronger than any hatred.

The destructive character is young and cheerful. For destroying rejuvenates, because it clears away the traces of our own age; it cheers, because everything cleared away means to the destroyer a complete reduction, indeed a rooting out, out of his own condition. Really, only the insight into how radically the world is simplified when tested for its worthiness for destruction leads to such an Apollonian image of the destroyer. This is the great bond embracing and unifying all that exists. It is a sight that affords the destructive character a spectacle of deepest harmony.

NYC -- Queens -- LIC: 5 Pointz -- Dutch Master Rembrandt -- spray painting by etui (Elmer Tuinstra): photo by Wally Gobetz, 11 August 2007

The destructive character is always blithely at work. It is Nature that dictates his tempo, indirectly at least, for he must forestall her. Otherwise she will take over the destruction herself.

The destructive character sees no image hovering before him. He has few needs, and the least of them is to know what will replace what has been destroyed. First of all, for a moment at least, empty space -- the place where the thing stood or the victim lived. Someone is sure to be found who needs this space without occupying it.

The destructive character does his work; the only work he avoids is creative. Just as the creator seeks solitude, the destroyer must be constantly surrounded by people, witnesses to his efficacy.

The destructive character is a signal. Just as a trigonometric sign is exposed on all sides to the wind, so he is exposed to idle talk. To protect him from it is pointless.

The destructive character has no interest in being understood. Attempts in this direction he regards as superficial. Being misunderstood cannot harm him. On the contrary, he provokes it, just as oracles, those destructive institutions of the state, provoked it. The most petty bourgeois of all phenomena, gossip, comes about only because people do not wish to be misunderstood. The destructive character tolerates misunderstanding; he does not promote gossip.

étui: photo by Michael McIlvaney, 7 April 2014

The destructive character is the enemy of the étui-man. The étui-man looks for comfort, and the case is its quintessence. The inside of the case is the velvet-lined trace that he has imprinted on the world. The destructive character obliterates even the traces of destruction.

The destructive character stands in the front line of traditionalists. Some people pass things down to posterity, by making them untouchable and thus conserving them; others pass on situations, by making them practicable and thus liquidating them. The latter are called the destructive.

The destructive character has the consciousness of historical man, whose deepest emotion is an insuperable mistrust of the course of things and a readiness at all times to recognize that everything can go wrong. Therefore, the destructive character is reliability itself.

The destructive character sees nothing permanent. But for this very reason he sees ways everywhere. Where others encounter walls or mountains, there, too, he sees a way. But because he sees a way everywhere, he has to clear things from it everywhere. Not always by brute force; sometimes by the most refined. Because he sees ways everywhere, he always stands at a crossroads. No moment can know what the next will bring. What exists he reduces to rubble -- not for the sake of rubble, but for that of the way leading through it.

The destructive character lives from the feeling not that life is worth living, but that suicide is not worth the trouble.

Walter Benjamin (1892-1940): The Destructive Character, from Frankfurter Zeitung, 20 November 1931, translated by Edmund Jephcott in Selected Writings, Volume 2: 1927-1934 (1999)

Collapsing building, Deaconess Hospital, Dogtown (St. Louis): photo by chalkdog, 22 April 2014


TC said...

Here too it could be shown that such peculiarly affirmative nihilism is, for all its pragmatism, deeply informed by messianic theology. We are once again in the presence of the Word as deed, of a summary justice which brooks no delay, a pneuma that has the force of a pneumatic drill, and is, as in Benjamin's essay "The Critique of Violence," ultimately directed against the bourgeois state and its legal apparatus. The destructive character may thus be said, like the author-cook of Sleeping Beauty, to implement the "world politics, whose method," according to the "Theologico-Political Fragment," "has to be called nihilism." The cheerfulness with which he assents to the provisional nature of his work is, likewise, not unrelated to the messianic celebration of transience in which that fragment culminates. Such an "Apollonian image of the destroyer," who decimates the world without the least trace of guilt or animosity, is the diametrical opposite of the Nietzschean Mensch des Ressentiments, whose contrary, Judeo-Christian nihilism has reduced Europe to its present mess. There is, clearly, nihilism and nihilism. Unlike the decadent nihilist, the "destructive character" is the very picture of health. The secret of his perpetual youthfulness is contained in his Brechtian motto: "Efface the traces" (Verwisch die Spuren). Conversely, resentment is, according to Nietzsche's diagnosis, a crippling inability to efface the traces, and this is in turn the telltale symptom of a moribund culture. If the "destructive character" is miraculously devoid of resentment, this is because he has seemingly limitless powers of evacuation. "He is the eater with the iron jaw who empties the house of the world" (II:554). There is nothing that he cannot ingest, because there is nothing that he cannot expel from his system.

-- Irving Wohlfarth: from Resentment Begins at Home: Nietzsche, Benjamin, and the University (1981)

Benjamin spent much of the decade following his composition of this essay in increasingly apprehensive anticipation of a catastrophe which would in fact occur, though perhaps only to be succeeded by later catastrophes. The cheerfulness of his intellectual affirmation of the destroyer who would clear away the obstructive class baggage of the past now has an ambiguous ring that is created by a kind of historical echo effect.

Hazen said...

Here’s a sci-fi scenario: we've been burning our way through the solar system one planet at a time, leaving ruin and destruction in our wake, to orbit in moribund majesty around a sun that is unable, just yet, to put the quietus to our virulent human spoor.

jesse said...

Quite the images and words to think over as I get ready to leave tomorrow to head up to the big rave in Detroit this weekend. When I go for Movement I try to respectfully, creatively and boldly reflect on what the weekend can show me.

The hospital photos really resonate with my experience in fall 2011 learning (unsuccessfully) to be a physician in Joplin with the hospital across the way still waiting to be taken down. I could see it out most of the patient rooms I worked in, family practice, peds, nursery, recovery, post-partum but not the birthing rooms, which had no windows and may have given them their fraught vibe.

I mostly think it is true that more bold steps of faith would have called forth solid paths in my journey through the rubble. But I also know that one can't easily deal with others bad faith when they don't want it acknowledged. So went around the stretches of bad faith in common view and know that I labored truly and strongly as I could with a healthy amount of it.

I am so in love with what a city can bring forth. I now live in a city that is just big enough to grasp its capability and try to master it this time around.

Living the shared life is something else!

TC said...

Knocking down hospitals and shutting clinics and closing low-end primary care practises are standard operating procedure in a dying society. My wife and I, in our seventies, recently learned, each in our turn, that our primary care physicians were terminating practise -- this knowledge gained by showing up for an appointment, and getting the "notification" even as we sought care. "Sorry, the doctor will not be in any more." It usually has to do with business, rents, office space, contentions for partnership, & c. At the county hospital, only a daylong freeway trip through hell away, you take a number in an arena-sized waiting room -- and wait. "Let's see, you're gonna be number 159 this morning. Hope you brought a book, honey."

But for the old and useless it's anyway always been all one lost weekend rave here in the actuality machine, on the eternally-recurring eve of destruction.

Talking of the Unspeakable Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in the late summer and autumn of 1931 Walter Benjamin seems to have been suffering through a suicidal depression. On 7 August he began a diary on whose first page he declared that he would keep writing in it "to the Day of my Death", predicted that that date would not be "very long" in coming, and stated his intention to put "shrewd, dignified use to [his] last days or weeks". Thoughts of the ways and means of the act of ending his life were so distracting him that, as "incapable of action, I just lay on my sofa and read. Frequently I fell into so deep a reverie at the end of each page that I forgot to turn the page. I was mainly preoccupied with my plan -- with wondering whether or not it was unavoidable, whether it should best be implemented here in the studio or back at the hotel, and so on."

"The Destructive Character" comes from this period of deepening depression. It has been willfully read by some as an elated manifesto embracing destruction. But the essay has a fierce, resistant quality about it. What is Benjamin actually saying? The piece has been sufficiently open to interpretation to become a set-piece at international conferences like "Nihilism, Destruction, Negativity" (are we having fun yet?), two years ago in the Netherlands. Irving Wohlfarth gives a forty minute talk on "The Destructive Character", explaining, more or less, why he's been haunted by the piece for the last thirty or forty years. When WohIfarth defends the essay against claims that it is "a theoretical text", and suggests that Benjamin's real-life template for the destructive character might have been Brecht, I think he makes good sense.

Irving Wohlfarth on "The Destructive Character"

Barry Taylor said...

Tom -

I struggle with Benjamin. Pieces like this read to me like a very precisely plotted and worked-through allegory, the only key for which has been irrevocably lost. So they haunt me and frustrate me equally, but by the same token provoke uneasy further thought. I'm looking forward to hearing what Wohlfarth has to say.

TC said...


Wolfarth is pretty much saying what you've just said -- that the essay has mystified, baffled and intrigued him. And that, in his case, this has been going on for quite a long time. And further, that it's not a theoretical statement but something along the lines you've suggested -- "... a very precisely plotted and worked-through allegory, the only key for which has been irrevocably lost": which is I think a fair enough account of the piece. But as it's been appropriated as a kind of banner for latter-day intellectual nihilism, Wohlfarth, in this conference in Holland, appears to be painted into a corner by those who would wish to avoid the philological and historical delicacies and get straight on with the tearing-down of whatever it may be; most commonly, I suppose anything that is perceived to be in the way. You can see by the fidgety impatience of his (much younger) fellow conferees, as he reads out the Benjamin piece in German, and attempts, almost apologetically, to put forward relevant citations from other Benjamin pieces -- most decisively, the essay on Brecht -- that he is in a roomful of people whose most urgent desire is simply to get on with the tearing down of something or other (so long as any of the applicable ordinances are not violated, of course), and that this anachronistic attention to literary values amounts to little more than a compulsory distraction (such events always take place within the sanctified permission-zones of universities, of course).

Mose23 said...

When Wohlfarth talks about Koine - poverty, commonality, "no man" - it's hard not to think of Odysseus in Polyphemus's cave. I want to look at Dialectic of Enlightenment again.

TC said...

It's always odd, any reference to the common in relation to Benjamin. The obvious discomfort for Wohlfarth in his position of metonymic representative of the Upper Worlds of Philology -- a small Benjaminian allegory in that situation, perhaps -- reminds us "Literature" was always going to be Caviare to the general, toward the end of History. Our own difficulty with the piece maybe has to do with the dissonance between the careful discourse of the parlour intellectual and the involuntary exposure to "actuality" of the historical person. One pictures Benjamin with Brecht as the smart yet timid "sheltered" school lad beside the class tough, tagging along while hesitant to step out of the shadow. Forget about the bombs and the barricades. One imagines the state he'd have been in, merely having to discuss his essay with the "avant-garde" demolition experts who have already patched it into their projects, thank you very much.

When you've been stitched up by a post-Enlightenment academic quilter, is there light at the mouth of the cave?

"So, bearing in mind that this was written in 1931, we can see a claim that in order to move forward we have to rid ourselves of the trappings of the past. We have to blow away all the accumulated clutter of the Victorian or Bismarkian era, of what Benjamin might have known as the Gruenderzeit. The huge history of the long nineteenth century has to be destroyed for the future to emerge. With hindsight, of course, we can see that the twentieth century to come included some horrifying applications of science in the Gas Chambers and with the atomic bomb which are often quoted as the demonic ends of the Modernism that Benjamin seems to be cheering for. During the twentieth century we got considerably better at killing each other efficiently, and some machines have made life worse rather than better. Apollonian thinking is about rationality, clarity, logic, reason and the mind. It is contrasted with Dionysian thinking which concerns the body, pleasure, excess, the material, the earth. It is dark where the Apollonian is light. My little quilt takes these ideas on. It shows the ultimate killing machine, the Death Star from Star Wars."

It's those killer applications one always dreads most.

(I wish someone would have asked Wohlfarth about the "étui man" -- research for the post led deep into the putative history of that mysterious figure. The velvet-lined cases in particular.)