Backwards

In the context of the second anniversary of Occupy Wall Street

I am aware of the many details one misses at a first—and even at a second and at any point subsequent—reading of an obscure volume like Walter Benjamin’s Über den Begriff der Geschichte [English version here], but this morning I was somewhat surprised by the implicit telling off that a besserwisser Hegel was sending to me through the centuries, and that I finally read—not just passed my eyes over—at the beginning of the fourth thesis, in which Benjamin quotes: “Trachtet am ersten nach Nahrung und Kleidung, so wird euch das Reich Gottes von selbst zufallen” [“Seek for food and clothing first, then shall the kingdom of God be granted to you”]. Purposely arbitrary as these divisions tend to be, this morning I’m willing to split the world between those who would find Hegel’s advice obvious and those—among which I count myself—who would find it simply to be backwards.

Johann Nepomuk Maelzel's chess automaton

Johann Nepomuk Maelzel’s chess automaton

This is not just a commonplace, pedantic distinction, or not to me at this moment, since I’ve been wondering for the last five years how does it make any sense that in our forsaken systems—I mean societies—it is extremely easy to access “the kingdom of God” while the basic means for life are increasingly becoming rather a privilege of sorts.

(I should not have to advise against reading Hegel’s words literally, or at least not to do it while following this blogpost or Benjamin’s fourth thesis on the concept of History, indeed, but people read in such ways these days that it must be said: “the kingdom of God” will be taken here as achieving some kind of integral satisfaction as a human being—happiness, some people would say—I’d call it peace within oneself; amends made with what one has and lacks, with what one was, is and looks forward to being: a metaphor, of course, as also a metaphor is Hegel’s “food and clothing”, which will be understood here as all basic needs for the everyday life.)

The momentary relevance of making this point—the distinction between those who pursue the means of life first to be granted access to the “kingdom of God” and the ones who would walk the opposite path—rests on mirroring the large blocks of people or rather ideas that have defined the West—allowing of course innumerable shades between the poles. Nations, religions, politics, aesthetics. To fully compile in context these strata one would have to write down the fruits of a lifelong research, perhaps in the form of a—fatally condemned to fall short—treatise. I doubt of the worth of such encyclopedic work. But one may glance at what it would be, kind of in the same way Borges imagined endless texts and compilations that, in reality, would be lame for inscrutable. Benjamin started already, of course. He’s quoting Hegel, der Sieger, to immediately disregard him. With his very particular enrichment of Marxism, Benjamin opposes the class struggle to the conformity of the historical-materialist, which reigns nowadays among self-proclaimed intellectuals. At the end of the day, the advice to acquire basic needs in order to find your ontological satisfaction—in other words, to make sense of your place on this world—echoes now in the conservative discourse and policy that rule together a crippled, hungry and unachieved West. It is a call to conformity made by “the victor”, who has sneaked his way to such position helped by the surrendered rhetoric of comfortable intellectuals. This mindset co-opts an enormity of uses of the language—I’m not saying its opposite does not, though. One example of this is the use of the terms “cool” and “uncool” that, in a cultural world completely caught by the logic of the market, have become defining terms of what an intellectual must be. To be cool, to chill, is to go with the flow, to relax; the market demand for intellectuals to be cool is therefore a call to inaction. How does the market make such a demand, though? By the means of distribution of intellectual work. These are obviously many and of different sorts, but no other means of distribution are now as important for their immediacy and directness than social media. This is what social media has done of alleged thinkers and supposed creative people: attention craving, fast paced, memory ill sort of personas. The thinker in social media must compete with everybody, therefore needs to prove a swiping value—and there’s no greater value in social media than coolness. Better show yourself untouched by the everyday life and the headlines, otherwise you might seem ordinary, unsophisticated. This is the unspoken rule—though I don’t know how aware people have become of it—of those who joke and gossip about Hegel, Benjamin and Borges without bringing those names to the ground. People who play with totems and who dream about becoming totems—that is, about dying. They focus on earning the bread to enter the kingdom of God, when perhaps by pursuing a meaningful intervention of their systems would eventually earn them the bread in a more relevant kind of way. After all—if I may paraphrase Benjamin—the refined and spiritual things are alive in the meaningful struggle “as confidence, courage, humor, cunning and fortitude”, and most importantly “Sie werden immer von neuem jeden Sieg, der den Herrschenden jemals zugefallen ist, in Frage stellen” [“they constantly call into question every victory, past and present, of the rulers”]. That’s what people are supposed to do as public thinkers, after all. But I am lecturing, and lecturing is not cool. Perhaps is better to note—without naming anybody—that it is possible to co-opt the proposed triviality of our means of distribution into meaningful tools for thought. Many people have succeeded at that, I believe.

One last word: I would have to be too myopic to not understand the value of achieving ontological satisfaction through the earning of basic needs instead of the other way around. When I first went to Texas, I had the opportunity of exploring that somewhat romanticized labor experience. Basically, me and my partner made some bucks by restoring a warehouse roof during a whole weekend. The kind of life I have had—in which I have worked, of course, but pursuing first some sense and then (often only occasionally!) the bread—allowed me to enjoy the experience snobbishly, because I knew that was a once in a lifetime occasion for me. Regularly, people do not get that privileged perspective. But there is value in it, of course, there is a sense of fulfillment that I until then ignored. I do not think the West should—or even could—give up Hegel’s advice. But it needs to be understood how his words promote passivity—conservatives would call it “stability”, since they lack the understanding of History that I personally owe to Benjamin—now also among thinkers. Surrendering to Hegel’s words is like believing that the magic of our smart-phones comes from the genius of Steve Jobs without noticing that it owes more to an unsustainable social order, which is to say it is like believing the lie of progress. Benjamin already explained all that in his first thesis on the concept of history, when he described the chess-playing automaton of Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, that wicked looking puppet that faked the ability to play chess when it actually was controlled by a chess-master dwarf under the table.

Leave a Reply