Adorno to Benjamin

The “Complete Correspondence of Benjamin and Adorno” (Polity 1999 or Surkamp 199towers1.jpg4) is always a good read on a cold rainy [even snowing] day.

Adorno to Benjamin:

Teddy writes to Walter trying to wean him from his trinket mania, get him to sort out the Arcades, and get him on a boat to New York. Along the way he invents a theory of trinketization. Keen to affirm his solidarity with Benjamin, Adorno is careful not to insist on any orthodox version of Marxism, but he also warns against an abdication from Marxist theory:

‘The impression which your entire study conveys – and not only to me with my Arcades orthodoxy – is that you have here done violence upon yourself. Your solidarity with the Institute, which pleases no-one more than myself, has led you to pay the kind of tributes to Marxism which are appropriate neither to Marxism nor to yourself. Not appropriate to Marxism because the mediation through the entire social process is missing and because of a superstitious tendency to attribute to mere material enumeration a power of illumination which really belongs to theoretical construction … you have denied yourself your boldest and most fruitful ideas through a kind of pre-censorship in accordance with materialist categories (which by no means correspond to Marxist ones)’ (Adorno to Benjamin 10 November 1938, p 284).

This suggests that Benjamin was merely coquetting with the forms of Marxist theory and not thinking them through (coquetting is Marx’s diminutive word in Capital for where he used the language and style of Hegel, in an analysis that went well beyond Hegel, see the Forward to Marx 1867/1967). On Adorno’s reading (of the draft), Benjamin might be confirmed as ‘the [nice, harmless, cute] Marxist that you could take home to meet your mother’ (as someone, I forget who, once said). Adorno is teasing and pushing him to be more inventive and rigorous – at the same time – with his connections. And it is connections to which he is attuned, noting:

‘ a close connection between those places where your essay falls behind its own a priori and its relationship to dialectical materialism … Let me express myself in as simple an Hegelian manner as possible. Unless I am very much mistaken, your dialectic is lacking in one thing: mediation’ (Adorno to Benjamin 10 November 1938, p 282).

Mediation then would be the theorization of connections between the ‘mere’ material observations and fascinations of the Arcades, of the baubles that interest the flaneur, of the observations of the analyst, and of the notations of the writer – mediation is the vehicle of analysis. Adorno marks this as a phantasmagorical and mystical error:

Your ‘anthropological’ materialism ‘harbours a profoundly romantic element … The “mediation” which I miss and find obscured by materialistic-historiographical evocation, is simply the theory which your study has omitted. But the omission of theory affects the empirical material itself’ (Adorno to Benjamin 10 November 1938, Benjamin/Adorno p 283).

At pains not to offend his friend, but also careful to call for something more, Adorno rephrases the same point again and again:

‘To express this another way: the theological motif of calling things by their names tends to switch into the wide-eyed presentation of mere facts. If one wanted to put it rather drastically, one could say your study is located at the crossroads of magic and positivism. This spot is bewitched. Only theory could break this spell – your own resolute and salutarily speculative theory. It is simply the claim of this theory that I bring against you here’ (Adorno to Benjamin 10 November 1938, Benjamin/Adorno 283).

Adorno goes on to write The Dialectic of Enlightenment with Horkheimer, Benjamin ends up sitting bleary-eyed far too long in the cafés of Marseilles, and finally does not make it over the mountain. The suitcase is lost, we do not know if these prods in the direction of theory had recast the manuscript.

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Comments

  • Renegade Eye  On 24/03/2008 at 1:00 am

    I’m waiting for the movie version.

    Like

  • Tom Bunyard  On 29/03/2008 at 5:38 pm

    Hi,

    Can’t remember if you said that you’d already read it, but Susan Buck-Morss’s book is great: The Origin of Negative Dialectics – Theodore Adorno, Walter Benjamin and the Frankfurt Institute. As the name would suggest there’s loads on Benjamin’s influence on Adorno, and she does a wonderful job of making Adorno’s stuff comprehensible.

    Like

  • john hutnyk  On 29/03/2008 at 5:42 pm

    Hiya – yep, have it, but reading her ‘Thinking Past Terror’ has left me in dismay. Will need to go back to Negative Dialectics as soon as that new translation comes out. – J

    Like

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