The Uncreating Conscience: Memory and Apparitions in Joyce and Benjamin
Hansen, James A., Mosaic (Winnipeg)
What's a ghost? Unfinished business, is what.
--Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses
They List," Stephen Dedalus tells us in "Scylla and Charybdis," "and in the Porches of their ears I pour" (Joyce, Ulysses 196). With what seems a quintessence of Joycean allusive irony, Stephen revises the haunting words of the ghost of Hamlet's father in order to predict the potential effects that his own demystifying interpretation of Shakespeare may have on the Anglo-Irish intellectuals who listen to his lecture in the Dublin National Library. The critic of a Derridean frame of mind might inquire as to whether this seemingly lethal re-interpretation of the great poet of the Empire is a poison or a cure, or, perhaps more importantly, both poison and cure. "Scylla and Charybdis" underscores the work of revision, and so the potentially dangerous and revolutionary power wielded by those who tell new or different versions of history--or of the texts that work to construct that history. In order to explore such acts of revolutionary retelling, I want to bring together two of modernism's more celebrated thinkers. Though they are rarely mentioned in the same breath, both Joyce and German critic Walter Benjamin see the history of the West as catastrophic, and both move back and forth between theological and aesthetic models in order to find an appropriate paradigm for rereading the past and effecting change in the present.
Dialectical and Marxist appropriations of Joyce have often been rather messy things. As Peter Hitchcock has acknowledged, such criticism tends to "neglect the substance" of Joyce's own positions (56). But much like Ulysses, Marxist criticism has a vested interest in rethinking history. Heterodox Marxism works to produce a revolutionary criticism that, in part, finds its basis in Hegelian notions of totality. Hence, fragmentation becomes intertwined with universality, and the new is often bound up with theories of progress and movement. Though most Marxist critics unite in their aspiration to think historically, they often part company on just what counts as material history and what constitutes a critical resistance to capitalist hegemony. Thus, despite many hard-fought theoretical debates, we remain plagued by an apparently simple, yet hauntingly complex, question: what is it to think historically? For instance, in "Universal Language and Esperanto," Antonio Gramsci suggests that "all human historical activi ty is one," and that in the resolution of any cultural problem lies "the potential resolution of all others" (29). Conversely, Theodor Adorno claims, in a much misunderstood passage from Minima Moralia, that "the whole is the false" (4). For Adorno, a negative theory of history, a theory of the discontinuous, requires a concomitant notion of the pervasive and ideological sociohistorical whole that it intends to criticize. In Aesthetic Theory he explains that emancipation, "principium individuationis," cannot be conceived of without an element of universality (200). Without a theory of the whole, denunciations of totalization flirt with quietism. In other words, Adorno calls for a form of historicizing that strives to work through a dialectic of totality and particularity.
Benjamin's "Theses on the Philosophy of History" offers us non-narrativized, dialectical reformulations of history that trenchantly criticize the coherent stories of the past, but they also recognize that to criticize requires a notion of totality. Benjamin does not simply work to eliminate narrative histories altogether; rather, his approach allows for a reworking of history that foregrounds its oppressed elements and repressed discourses. His unfinished Passagen Werke was to have been an example of this type of historical writing, writing that did not communicate through narrative, but rather through a complex process of montage, gloss, commentary, and juxtaposition (The Arcades Project). In such a critical history, what occurs is precisely a dialectical reworking of the particular and the universal. In the "Theses," Benjamin demonstrates that reworking history is not simply the destruction of the narratives of the past but rather a radical form of recovery. As he explains, "our coming was expected on earth . Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. This claim cannot be settled cheaply" (254). For Benjamin, chronological and progressive notions of history allow the oppressors--those who generally construct master-narratives--to carry the spoils of their many victories along with them through the "triumphal procession" of time and into the future. Such thinking also conceals the "anonymous toils" of the oppressed and liminal. For Benjamin, our "weak Messianic power" is the power that dialectical thinkers must use to disfigure or even to halt the proud processional movement of the "continuum" of history (254, emph. Benjamin's).
For Benjamin, dialectical thinking must resist synthesis and teleology. He refers to his method as "dialectics at a standstill." Such a method works through disruption and disparity. The weak Messianism we have in the present becomes the power to describe certain moments elided from "History," a power that reveals oppression and liminality, that blasts "open the continuum of history" (262). Thus, weak Messianism becomes linked, in Benjamin's thought, to the materialist's role in redeeming history, a role that consists of writing critical commentaries about the past that disrupt our present and our very notions of historical progress. However, a peculiar set of problems arises when thinking about history dresses itself in the garments of theology, a move that both Jurgen Habermas and Rolf Tiedemann have called "conservative." But Benjamin calls for a critical experience with history, and, as he says elsewhere, "experiences are lived similarities." ("Experience" 553). As Andrew Benjamin has argued, in Walter Be njamin's oeuvre Messianism becomes a figure for the "afterlife" of a repressed or forgotten event; it is the phantasmal reincarnation of a past event, a moment of metempsychosis that we experience in the present (41). Walter Benjamin explains that "history is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogeneous, empty time, but time filled by the presence of the now [Jetztzeit]" ("Theses" 261). In seeking to recover in the present those elements of the past that have been excluded as fugitive and discontinuous, he works to write critical histories that rescue semantic potentials from the past, histories that multiply details rather than homogenize them. Recognizing those "endangered semantic potentials" as they flash up in the Jetztzeit, or Now-Moment, becomes a mode of description, an act of revolutionary violence that disrupts those meta-narratives of nation and of history that foster reified, unchanged social relations. To think through this approach to material history, I want to add a single caveat: that Walter Benjamin's historiography, as Adorno was often quick to point out, needs a more fully articulated concept of mediation. The work of memory might provide such an instance of mediation, a moment of critical reflection that brings the problems of historical reification to consciousness.
By placing Benjamin's "Theses" in dialogue with an interrogation of the concealed political implications of the National Library episode in Ulysses, I am suggesting ways in which a certain strain of modernist writing enacts a materialist, uncreating conscience--a cessation of the narrative fetish--as it also works to uncover the trace of the other within the documents that come down to us through history. I want to explore the problems that history presents for Benjamin and Joyce in order to further analyze what "thinking historically" means for critical theory and to enact a dialectic of totality that opposes memory to teleology. This will involve thinking through Stephen's Hamlet lecture, the role that Bloom's Judaism plays in Ulysses, and the ways in which memory simultaneously figures into and disfigures narrative history.
Benjamin's theory holds that the past can be seized only "as an image which flashes up the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again" ("Theses" 255). Moments from the past form a dialectical and associative relationship to the present. Benjamin calls this relationship of dislocation a
"dialectical image," which finds its moment of realization in the Jetztzeit. In such moments, something about history comes into the now in order to serve a critical function, but the critic must be open to recognizing such a moment as an event. Seizing on these moments, however, also presents us with the problem of form. How do we render the claims that the dialectical image has on us without resorting to the same kind of homogenizing history …
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Publication information: Article title: The Uncreating Conscience: Memory and Apparitions in Joyce and Benjamin. Contributors: Hansen, James A. - Author. Journal title: Mosaic (Winnipeg). Volume: 34. Issue: 4 Publication date: December 2001. Page number: 85+. © 1999 University of Manitoba, Mosaic. COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group.
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