Stevens, Benjamin and Trump
by Adam Staley Groves
We watch screens. That is where we think politics happens. But in truth, politics does not happen beyond one’s feeling for something. And feeling is most practically active in the presence of other people.
If we look to late modernism, the concept of the human remains happily incomplete. Walter Benjamin remarks of such as “the furnished man,” and in another way “the destructive character.” The most significant is his work on “the storyteller” which comes in the same year of his better-known work on technological reproduction, the work of art, and indeed, aura. Without doubt “The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility” carries forth a figuration which ultimately faces a final configuration in Benjamin’s incomplete theses on the concept of history.
Similarly, Wallace Stevens’ “supreme fiction” had a concept of the human which, like Benjamin’s, was incomplete. In both, the imagination was the threshold of incompletion. And without dribbling into digressions on the ontological capacity of objects in hand, or the object which is a frame of viewing things in hand, which resides not only in the heads of humans (but on this screen)—it is rather clear that aura was essentially the imagination without metaphysics—more a force than a power. The poet shared between Benjamin and Stevens says as much. This aura was in Benjamin’s storyteller the decline of experience, a certain experience and, the loss of living efficacy which the storyteller provided in retelling the tale outside of the solitary device called the novel.
So when did the human become more a concept than simply a living thing? And when shall our ability to relate to this self-concept, run out on us? I am not asking you to watch Her, but I am curious if she’d date the latest version of the Joker. I am not talking about the origin of consciousness, rather the loss of an ‘efficacy’ to detect and convene with its displacement; or our ability to perceive what seems no longer our own sense of the here and now.
The problem has perhaps always been technological: was it always a problem because a certain threshold was not crossed? Benjamin was clear enough. Indeed capitalist production was driven by technology and its metabolism of the vital, of life. But his emphasis on technology provided insight that it exceeds the exploitative realities of capitalism.
The earliest works of art (so determined by cave walls) are the first significant abstractions of not only perception, but part of our imagination as viewing power; the very subtle, pre-technical capacity which ties together physus and meta. Once perception was placed there, a natural disembodiment was already underway. We did it to ourselves perhaps unknowingly; or, by what we will eventually understand as “antilogical.” It may well be then, the very first cultural commodity if only named after it appears, rather crosses into consciousness and then into knowledge and ultimately this so-called ‘world picture’.
Indeed, the story unfolds and refolds. It’s not simply one’s hands doing laundry. If this undermining of ourselves was not intentional it seems more a natural intention. To tell a story means to project it, but also to have received it. I assume most operate with the assumption of a parity, which is why parody, humor and irony are good profanations. But increasingly I cannot find anything that sends my stomach muscles into a warm exhaustion when it comes to political comedy.
There was always a violence for any adjectival act, and indeed a quotient, ratings, distribution of force; basic Aristotelian bean counting powered by Plato’s eide. Retention was essential, then simply a flash of numbers. Then those numbers behind the numbers, and then machine language, matter (forget substance, yeah?). Yet the math is quite simple. If I tell a story nine times, to seventy-two people, I may well have a glimpse of the infinite and essential matter, or that which always changes the tune. Yet in the hands of one who claims to be ‘objectively detached’ from what they subjugate by judgment, we have the worst features of the late modern: a cold indifference without regard or retention of their own imagination nor much, so it seems, for its distribution. In my mind, this is the driving feature of what many call postmodern. We don’t seem to care to carry, or to note what is carried. It goes a bit further. Subjectivity is losing. And there is nothing to replace it. Judgment is made in advance. Issues are distributed before arguments could even be absorbed.
Subjectivity is not losing because of objectivity or what it means, could have meant. The matter concerns a reposement of the child within us. Self-figuration is fading away. And that means our ability to give it away in the first place. There is no conversation in American politics, only liars and truth tellers. Liars do not have conversations with others, only with themselves. Indeed they project and tell stories, indeed they want you to retell the tale. And untell the tale preceding it.
Rote learning has helped to destroy subjectivity. Learning in that way has always made a claim on the self. And that means our use and practice of the imagination which is disciplined to make a rote facticity, actual. There was a place and time for the rote’s redemptive practice, which I admire if only it was taught humanely. With all our wealth of technological advancement, we cannot move forward and embrace a meaningful existence as a shared priority.
Loss, as I remarked above, can be seen all around. Perhaps when one wipes their mouth with a napkin which has the American flag printed on it, usually found on most tables during Independence Day, and complains about losing freedom with a mustard-coated onion dangling from lip. When some university promises in a banner or ad campaign that you will become economically useful but also have an intellectual adventure; then they try to deliver. Or when both examples claim they respect the thing which they seemingly have no sense for—which is always why they are wearing college logos or flag shirts.
We all know there is nothing more rote than a machine, and we all know we are often too busy to pay attention to our children, let alone the child which is increasingly reposed within us. And what does this child look like otherwise? Stevens says the Minotaur’s sister, and he also remarks of an intelligence which stands outside of intelligence according to history. Benjamin says a particular Cretan, but at the time he had held fast to a solution in metaphysics. CNN’s Don Lemon tries to be mellow and humorous, and simply points out the incoherence of the current President of the United States who is exemplar of what Benjamin and Stevens examples.
Lemon shows us what Benjamin’s “The Paradox of the Cretan” means in definition, rather “When Epimenides says “All Cretans are liars” of which Epimenides was a Cretan. You should watch the clip. What appears today as politics concerns a Schien, or appearance, or what an apparent “vicious circle” engenders, perhaps generates, or what may well generate the liar’s circle (underlying metaphysical consciousness). Benjamin’s concept says the following:
The logical unassailability of the Cretan’s assertion—since once it has been asserted, its implications are fixed—must prove to be mere appearance … otherwise logic would collapse.
Don Lemon confronts the logic of a president which, still, has yet to collapse. Reading on we find “this appearance must be an authentic—that is, objective—appearance. In other words, it is not, as the modern view of appearance would suggest, an appearance that arises from the accidental or necessary failure of knowledge to correspond to the truth, but rather an appearance that cannot be resolved in the truth—it can only be destroyed by it.” Truth is a destroyer of an appearance, an objective appearance. And truth then comes down to “an autonomous principle of appearance, a principle of deception; or better of lying.” Pascal, as Stevens noted, was also concerned with the most “delusive faculty” or the same principle, what Stevens conceptualizes as a principle of the imagination, what is before and ahead of an imagination which is situated in the world as a plurality of values.
Strikingly, for my eyes, is what Benjamin remarks of next. “This appearance is, as the Cretan paradox proves, of such powerful metaphysical intensity that its roots can penetrate the very depths of formal logic. Objectively, then, it exists not just as a counterweight to reality, but, since it is encountered in a realm that lies beyond that of reality—namely, the sphere of formal logic—it must be encountered as an objective counterweight to truth.”
Benjamin then asks how can such be “dispelled?” So too does Don Lemon, but also it seems, Donald Trump. Wondering and worrying out loud. Displaying an illogic which is nonetheless logic, and by extension perhaps, of this strange formal logic Benjamin thinks on which is tantamount to the machines which desubjectify us on a moment by moment basis. Elsewhere in a footnote, Benjamin calls this “innervation.” To me it is an integration of the flesh with technik. But it is not a new problem. The poet knows this feeling by the text they set into the world. It is, in another way, why I don’t step on gravestones or, walk over graves. It’s not that I can prove innervation as some academic poseur, beyond the occasional writing here, over the years, of the storyteller as politician, as a program which is media. Yet we see Trump’s inexorable fusion into Twitter, his pathological diaper swiping, and so forth, as the rendering and reposement of his very core. Beyond anything else ‘populist’ it is this we relate to most and his dereliction as appeal.
Thus what is going on here concerns an intelligence of an immeasurable. That intelligence will not be intelligence by the means we impose upon children at school. This is clear in Stevens’s remarks. The institutions which they enter are increasingly meaningless. The meaning they make increasingly takes place outside of their auspices. Trump does the same thing. So we face a very troubled time. And why I say subjectivity is desiccating quickly.
For Benjamin dispelling cannot happen within logic. He can only say metaphysics. Stevens’s says the same thing forty years later, but with the exception that it is what we must deal with, whether we like it or not.
In the end, an “I-form”—and not an iPhone (for God’s sake)—“must be sought … in the form of the proposition” that is, of the liar. It is because the subjective mode of this illogical logic “is crucial for it to function.” This strange formal logic and its pre-metaphysical source (let’s just call it the underworld of technik) has constituted the liar that we may all well become, the liar which is the leader of the willing and unwilling.
Benjamin’s conclusion is not entirely congruent with what is about us today, nor is Stevens. However, Benjamin’s conclusion seems to advance a subjectivity and a principle of action which should undermine the appearance, and remains metaphysically grounded. Don Lemon has yet to do that, though he tries. So how to undermine a validity based on a logic which is incoherent, illogic stupidness? For Benjamin it seems this subjectivity and its practice shall be “not alogical but antilogical.”
It seems there is a risk of no benefit to anyone. The antilogical is, so it seems, world destruction unless we take a new understanding of automation, labor, and such. A progressive courage unseen, unimaginable for most. For Stevens the answer is similarly a subjectivity of the irrational, written twenty years after Benjamin’s Cretan piece.
Looking at the stage, where the current opposition party stands to run against Trump, one can sniff the arrogance and total lack of grasping what is going on. There are some good signs, here and there, but ultimately is there enough will, enough presence, enough time? Vigilance shall not be enough, should the antilogical be solely for a creative force wielded by the machines of technik. For there was never a question that once the atom was split and the explosion controlled, it ultimately precipitated a threat that it would not be controllable. Russian election hacking is one form, climate change another.
About the Author:
Adam Staley Groves’s research focuses on the “theory of poetry” of Wallace Stevens and other modernist poets. He is a teaching fellow at Tembusu College, National University of Singapore.