Reviewed by Daniel Mourenza
In 2020 Verso presented us with two books by two old rock stars of critical theory and Marxist cultural analysis. In Splinters in Your Eye: Frankfurt School Provocations, Martin Jay returns to a field he never left: the first generation of Frankfurt Schools authors, among which he now includes Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer. In The Benjamin Files, Fredric Jameson also returns to Walter Benjamin, on whom he wrote, as early as 1969, an article called ‘Walter Benjamin, or Nostalgia’. This time, however, Jameson wants to rectify his early misconception of Benjamin as a melancholic – an image he flatly rejects, since we would otherwise miss, he says, ‘the aggressive conversationalist, the alert commentator and diagnostician of the zeitgeist, the ambitious scrivener and journalist, the lover and world traveler’ (69). Jameson successfully brings together these different facets of Benjamin through the different chapters of the book by focusing not only on his most commented texts, but also originally addressing lesser studied pieces. For its part, Splinters in Your Eye is a collection of essays that Martin Jay has written in recent years, most of which have been already published in journals and books, or have been delivered as keynote lectures. The essays cover different themes of the first generation of thinkers from the Frankfurt School and their legacy, ranging from a critical reappropriation of Lukács’ now-famous scorn of them as ‘the Grand Hotel Abyss’, to a tribute to Miriam Hansen and her work on Kracauer; from Leo Löwenthal’s ambivalent position towards the Jewish renaissance, to Walter Benjamin on colour and stamps.
The title of Jay’s book comes from an aphorism of Theodor W. Adorno in Minima Moralia – the book that, interestingly, most often appears throughout these pages, giving title to another chapter (‘In Psychoanalysis Nothing Is True but the Exaggerations’) and informing many others. The aphorism as such says: ‘The splinter in your eye is the best magnifying glass’, which is a play on words on the warning against judging in the Gospel of Matthew: ‘And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?’ What was translated into English as ‘mote’, into German was ‘Splitter’. This is how E. F. N. Jephcott’s translation of Adorno into English ended up with ‘splinters’. Jay celebrates this word choice, because a ‘splinter’ is far more irritating than a ‘mote’ and it is precisely by virtue of this discomfort, according to Adorno, that we may glimpse the truth more clearly. The splinter, though, also permits us to magnify reality. Whereas this can lead to our inability to view the whole, such an exaggeration – if aware of itself – has also the epistemological value of registering the incongruence between idea and object, avoiding thus possible attempts to master reality through conceptual domination. Jay’s disparate essays are brought together by this desire to provide a picture of Critical Theory by looking at the detail and avoid a coherent and normative systematisation (as he, admittedly, did before). While this may sound an excuse to collect his most recent articles together, some of his chapters deal precisely with the work of some members of the Frankfurt School to avoid this conceptual domination – such as chapter 6, on nonconceptuality and the Bilderverbot in Adorno and Hans Blumenberg, and chapter 10, on irony in Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man.
Martin Jay became known for writing the first history of the Frankfurt School, The Dialectical Imagination (1973). This figure of ‘the historian of the Frankfurt School’ flourishes in the book at least in two chapters. In chapter 2, Jay recounts his experience when writing his thesis and narrates his relationship with Max Horkheimer, Adorno, Friedrich Pollock and Felix Weil, their internal disputes about how they thought that the history of the school should be told and some funny anecdotes about how Adorno and Horkheimer wanted Jay to record their interviews. The other chapter, ‘Dialectic of Counter-Enlightenment: Frankfurt School as Scapegoat of the Lunatic Fringe’, is the one that closes the book. In it, Jay talks about his experience when he found himself as an invited speaker in a TV programme of the Alt-Right National Empowerment Television in 1999. The show supported the claim that the Frankfurt School was the responsible for introducing ‘political correctness’ and ‘cultural Marxism’ to the US, defended in a 1992 unfamous article by Michael Minnicino. This same article, indeed, was the source for the conspiracy theorist Daniel Stulin, who in The Secrets of the Bilderberg Club made the absurd claim that the Frankfurt School was funded by Rockefeller to promote rock, pop and popular culture in order to distract the masses – an allegation that could have been overlooked had it not been endorsed by Fidel Castro in an article in Granma in 2010. As Jay argues, this misappropriation of the Frankfurt School ‘would be laughable were its consequences not so tragic’ (xvii). Indeed, the second part of this final chapter, written as an afterword to the article he wrote for Salmagundi in 2011, reflects on how – and if – the Frankfurt School could be used to counteract not only its own misappropriation, but also the raise of the Alt Right in the US and understand ‘the authoritarian personality’ of Trump. Whereas these two chapters can be considered as ‘anecdotal’, the rest are theoretical engagements with specific themes in the oeuvre of different members of the Frankfurt School. The subtitle of the book, ‘Frankfurt School Provocations’, which may certainly scare away some readers, should not be take very seriously, for Jay’s analyses are rigorous and, if anything, very balanced. Even when he sympathises with his mentor Horkheimer on his problematical defence of bourgeois democracy and cosmopolitan humanism, and he attempts to understand his – even more questionable – justification of the oft-vilified photographic exhibition The Family of Man, Jay is critical enough to highlight Horkheimer’s contradiction with his previous anti-individualism, with the concept of Bilderverbot that he had earlier defended and criticise his imperceptive and universalising understanding of family. In another chapter, ‘Timbremelancholy: Walter Benjamin and the Fate of Philately’, we find out that the ‘melancholic’ of the title is Jay rather than Benjamin. As a long-time stamp collector, Jay is more nostalgic towards the waning interest in philately that Benjamin ever was. Nonetheless, he reads through the utopian potential that Benjamin perceived in them – through the second life, freed from utilitarianism, given by the collector – as a form of redemption.
The Benjamin Files is, literally, a book without a bibliography – and I mean this not as an anecdote, but as a definition. Jameson introduces at the beginning his references to Benjamin’s texts, both in German and in its English translation, as if preparing the ground for his own, unmediated reading of Benjamin. There are, nonetheless, a few footnotes, mostly about other authors he cites in his analysis: Baudelaire, Brecht, Adorno, Rosenzweig, Lacan, Michelet, Hölderlin. There is also room for secondary sources on Benjamin. In the footnotes, Jameson suggest us to read Howard Caygill’s Walter Benjamin: The Colour of Experience (1997) for a more thorough discussion on colour, praises Michael W. Jennings’ Dialectical Images (1987) for being the only account that highlights the violence of Benjamin’s ‘destructiveness’ and quotes a footnote from John McCole’s Walter Benjamin and the Antinomies of Tradition (1993). That is all. In other words, Jameson refuses to engage with the scholarship on Benjamin, especially recent ones (note the books’ year of publication). Or, rather, he writes from memory. He acknowledges that with nonchalance: ‘Of the commentaries I have read,’ (139) he says to introduce the above-mentioned book by Jennings; ‘as infrequently as [the term aura] appears in his oeuvre (only three times, I believe),’ (165) which is obviously false, since it appears far more times; and, this time on Marx, ‘in his 1872 rewritten version of the opening chapters of Capital, I believe’ (152). This is, of course, the work of a well-established academic who can (so it seems) dispense with the material inconveniences of research. This becomes evident in many parts of the book, for example when he says: ‘We do not know what role gambling played in Benjamin’s own life’ (93). He could have read Howard Eiland and Michael Jennings’ Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life, which does address Benjamin’s gambling problems.
Jameson’s reading of Benjamin is a very personal one. And, no doubt, many readers will find refreshing his interpretations and erudite commentaries, which go beyond mere philological analysis. In fact, Jameson excels when discussing literary topics, such as Baudelaire in the context of nineteenth-century French literature and politics, the scholarly debates around tragedy and Trauerspiel that he addresses when analysing The Origin of the German Tragic Drama – which he reads as too limited by the rigid format of an academic dissertation – or when he discusses Benjamin’s practice of minor literary genres such as travelogues, book reviews, newspaper articles, letters and diary entries. In fact, one of the nicest parts of the book is when Jameson analyses a minor article, ‘Epilogue to the Berlin Food Exhibition’, as part of this trend. Other readers, however, will feel disconcerted by some of his remarks. For example, Jameson maintains a few times the dubious assertion that Dialectic of Enlightenment is a Benjamin-inspired book, arriving to say that Benjamin, together with Horkheimer and Adorno, is ‘still caught up in the ideology promoted by bourgeois Enlightenment and formulated in a sharp opposition between reason and the irrational’ (56). More problematical is his limiting reading of ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility’ and, more broadly, of Benjamin’s ideas on technology. For example, Jameson argues that the essay is not about film, for ‘no single film is mentioned’ (sic!) (177). He seems especially shocked by the fact that Benjamin does not mention Eisenstein in the essay, assuming that he was first and foremost a fan of Soviet cinema, a point he endorses earlier when pairing Benjamin’s relationship with technology with Dziga Vertov and his ‘triumphant tours of urban Bolshevism’ (21). One thing is clear: Jameson does not understand Benjamin’s critical conception of technology. This is made blatant when he defines ‘first technology’ as the age of the tool and ‘second technology’ as the industrial age (196). The book’s cover, with Gustav Klutsis’ poster design ‘The Electrification of the Entire Country’ (1920), does not help either to revert this opinion, given Benjamin’s unfavourable position towards the uncritical reception of technology in the Soviet Union. Other readers, however, will be more horrified by Jameson’s all-to-easy equation of ‘aura’ with ‘beauty’ (187) or with his very personal assertion that the ‘two great literary figures in Benjamin’s life’ were Baudelaire and Brecht (83), leaving aside none others than Goethe, Proust and Kafka (as well as Calderón, Hölderlin, Rilke, Gide…).
Jameson’s reading of Benjamin is not a selective analysis of this or that work, or this and that theme in his oeuvre. He aspires to portray a whole picture of Benjamin. Jameson develops this analysis through nine chapters which are loosely thematic, allowing him to digress through his oeuvre. The vague titles (e.g. ‘Wind in the Sails’, ‘The Spatial Sentence’, ‘Nature Weeps’, ‘Space and the City’), and the division of chapters in sections only headed by Arabic numerals (clearly emulating Benjamin), bear witness to this purpose. The result is a discursive reading of Benjamin’s anti-systematic thought that probably tells us more about Jameson and his way of reading than about Benjamin himself. The latter may also apply to Martin Jay (as to many well-established authors). However, the difference is clear. Whereas Jameson goes freestyle and intends to paint a totalising portrait of Benjamin, Jay is more cautious and limits himself to ‘details’ of a greater whole. Admittedly, his enterprise is less risky and original (at the end, the book is a collection of already published articles), but this also allows him to be more rigorous in his approach. The eleven chapters of Jay’s book can perfectly be read separately, although – if done together – one will find some pleasure in recognising the late Jay’s particular interests in the Frankfurt School authors, especially in his detailed reading of Minima Moralia. I must admit that both books are enjoyable to read and entertaining for anyone interested in Critical Theory. However, it must also be warned, The Benjamin Files will be more welcome by Jameson followers than by Benjamin fans.
28 March 2021
- 1997 Walter Benjamin: The Colour of Experience London: Routledge.
- 2014 Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- 1973 The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923-1950 Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- 1987 Dialectical Images: Walter Benjamin's Theory of Literary Criticism Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
- 1993 Walter Benjamin and the Antinomies of Tradition Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.