On Paper and the City by Lewis Mumford

To believe, therefore, that human culture has reached a marvelous final culmination in the modern metropolis one must avert one‘s eyes from the grim details of the daily routine. And that is precisely what the metropolitan denizen schools himself to do: he lives, not in the real world, but in a shadow world projected around him at every moment by means of paper and celluloid and adroitly manipulated lights: a world in which he is insulated by glass, cellophane and film from the mortifications of living. In short, a world of professional illusionists and their credulous victims.

The swish and crackle of paper is the underlying sound of the metropolis. What is visible and real in this world is only what has been transferred to paper or has been even further etherialised on a microfilm or a tape recorder. The essential daily gossip of the metropolis is no longer that of people meeting face to face at a cross-roads, at the dinner, table, in the marketplace: a few dozen people writing in the newspapers, a dozen or so more broadcasting over radio and television, provide the daily interpretation of movements and happenings with slick professional adroitness. Thus. even the most spontaneous human activities come under professional surveillance and centralized control. The spread of manifolding devices of every sort gives to the most ephemeral and mediocre products of the mind a temporary durability they do not deserve: whole books are printed to justify the loose evacuations of the tape recorder.

All the major activities of the metropolis are directly connected with paper and its plastic substitutes; and printing and packaging are among its principal industries. The activities pursued in the offices of the metropolis are directly connected with paper: the tabulating machines, the journals, the ledgers, the card-catalogues, the deeds, the contracts, the mortgages, the briefs, the trial records: so, to, plioo, the prospectuses, the advertisements, the magazines, the newspapers. As early as the eighteenth century Mercier had observed this metropolitan form of the White Plague. Modern methods of manifolding have not lessened the disease: they have only exchanged easygoing slipshod ways, which often sufficed, for a more exact record, whose elaboration and cost are out of all proportion to the value of what is recorded. What was a mere trickle in Mercier’s day has now becoming a ravaging flood of paper.

As the day’s routine proceeds the pile of paper mounts higher: the trashbaskets are filled and emptied and filled again. The ticker tape exudes its quotation of stocks and its report of news; the students in the schools and universities fill their notebooks, digest and disgorge the contents of books, as the silkworm feeds on mulberry leaves and manufactures its cocoon, unraveling themselves on examination day. In the theatre, in literature, in music, in business, reputations are made on paper. The scholar with his degrees and publications, the actress with her newspaper clippings, and the financier with his shares and his voting proxies, measure their power and importance by the amount of paper they can command. No wonder the anarchists once invented the grim phrase: ‘Incinerate the documents!’ That would ruin this whole world quicker than universal flood or earthquake, if not as fatally as a shower of hydrogen bombs. That life is an occasion for living, and not a pretext for supplying items to newspapers, interviews on television, or a Spectacle for crowds of otherwise vacant bystanders these notions do not occur in the metropolitan mind. For them the Show is the reality, and ‘ the show must go on!’ This metropolitan world, then, is a world where tears and blood are less real than paper and ink and celluloid. It is a world where the great masses of people, unable to achieve a more fullbodied and satisfying means of living, take life vicariously, as leaders, spectators, listeners, passive observers. Living thus, year in and year out, at second hand, remote from the nature that is outside them, and no less remote from the nature that is within, it is no wonder that they turn more and more of the functions of life, even thought itself, to the machines that their inventors have created. In this disordered environment only machines retain some of the attributes of life, while human beings are progressively reduced to a bundle of reflexes, without self-starting impulses or autonomous goals: ‘behaviourist man’.


Lewis Mumford,The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects, London & New York: Penguin Books, 1961, pp.622-624.

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End of the World of the End by Julio Cortázar


As the scribes will persist, the few readers there are in the world are going to have to change their roles and become scribes themselves. More and more countries will be made up of scribes, and more and more factories will be necessary to manufacture paper and ink, the scribes by day and the machines by night to print the scribes’ work. First the libraries will overflow the houses, then the municipalities decide (now we’re really into it) to sacrifice their children’s playgrounds to enlarge the libraries. Then the theaters will go, then the maternity homes, slaughterhouses, bars, hospitals. The poor use the books like bricks, they stick them together with cement and build walls of books and live in cabins of books. Then it happens that the books clear the cities and invade the countryside, they go on flattening wheat-fields and meadows of sunflowers, even though the Department of Highways manages to keep the roads cleared, even if only between two extremely high walls of books. At times a wall gives and there are terrifying automobile accidents. The scribes labor without let because humanity respects vocations, and the printed matter reaches the seashore. The President of the Republic gets on the telephone with the presidents of the republics, and intelligently proposes to cast the leftover books into the sea, which act is accomplished simultaneously on every coast in the world. Thus the Siberian scribes see their works cast into a sea of ice and the Indonesian scribes etc. This allows the scribes to step up their production as the earth again has space to store their books. It does not occur to them that the sea has a bottom and that at the bottom of the sea the printed matter is beginning to pile up, first in the form of a sticky pulp, then in the form of a solid pulp, and finally a tough though viscous flooring which rises several feet a day and will finally reach the surface. Then much of the water invades many of the lands and there is a new distribution of continents and oceans, and presidents of various republics are replaced by lakes and peninsulas, presidents of other republics see immense territories newly open to their ambitions, etc. Sea water, forced to expand with such unprecedented violence, evaporates faster than ever, or seeks rest, blending itself with the printed matter to make that glutinous pulp, to the point that one day ships’ captains on the great trade routes report that their ships are advancing slowly, thirty knots drops to twenty, to fifteen, the engines sputter and pant and the propellers are wrenched and bent out of shape. Finally the ships stop wherever they are at different places in the sea, trapped by the pulp, and scribes all over the world write thousands of articles and books explaining the phenomenon are filled with an enormous happiness. The presidents and the captains decide to convert the ships into islands and gambling casinos, the public arrives on foot upon the cardboard seas, and on these islands and casinos dance orchestras fill the night and sweeten the air-conditioned atmosphere and the dancing lasts until the early hours of the morning. New printed material is piling up on the seashores, but it’s impossible to put it into the pulp, so that walls of printed matter are growing and mountains are being born on the shores of the old seas. The scribes realize that the ink and paper companies are going to go bankrupt, and their handwriting gets smaller and smaller and they use the most imperceptile corners of each sheet and paper. When the ink runs out they write in pencil, etc. When the paper goes, they write on slabs of wood or rock or on stone tiles, etc. The practice of intercalating one text into another begins to become popular, to take advantage of the space between the lines, or to scrape down the letters already printed with razor blades so as to use the paper again. The scribes are working slowly now, but their numbers are so immense that printed matter now separates the land completely from the beds of the ancient seas. On the earth the race of scribes lives precariously, doomed to extinction, and at sea there are the islands and casinos, or rather the ex-transatlantic liners, where the presidents of the republics have fled to refuge and where they hold enormous parties and exchange wireless messages from island to island, president to president, and captain to captain.


That’s Julio Cortázar’s “The end of the world of the end” from his collection of short stories, Cronopios and Famas.

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Always the Mob by Carl Sandburg (1918)

JESUS emptied the devils of one man into forty hogs and the hogs took the edge of a high rock and dropped off and down into the sea: a mob.

The sheep on the hills of Australia, blundering fourfooted in the sunset mist to the dark, they go one way, they hunt one sleep, they find one pocket of grass for all.

Karnak? Pyramids? Sphinx paws tall as a coolie? Tombs kept for kings and sacred cows? A mob.

Young roast pigs and naked dancing girls of Belshazzar, the room where a thousand sat guzzling when a hand wrote: Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin? A mob.

The honeycomb of green that won the sun as the Hanging Gardens of Nineveh, flew to its shape at the hands of a mob that followed the fingers of Nebuchadnezzar: a mob of one hand and one plan. 5

Stones of a circle of hills at Athens, staircases of a mountain in Peru, scattered clans of marble dragons in China: each a mob on the rim of a sunrise: hammers and wagons have them now.

Locks and gates of Panama? The Union Pacific crossing deserts and tunneling mountains? The Woolworth on land and the Titanic at sea? Lighthouses blinking a coast line from Labrador to Key West? Pigiron bars piled on a barge whistling in a fog off Sheboygan? A mob: hammers and wagons have them to-morrow.

The mob? A typhoon tearing loose an island from thousand-year moorings and bastions, shooting a volcanic ash with a fire tongue that licks up cities and peoples. Layers of worms eating rocks and forming loam and valley floors for potatoes, wheat, watermelons.

The mob? A jag of lightning, a geyser, a gravel mass loosening…

The mob … kills or builds … the mob is Attila or Ghengis Khan, the mob is Napoleon, Lincoln. 10

I am born in the mob—I die in the mob—the same goes for you—I don’t care who you are.

I cross the sheets of fire in No Man’s land for you, my brother—I slip a steel tooth into your throat, you my brother—I die for you and I kill you—It is a twisted and gnarled thing, a crimson wool:
One more arch of stars,
In the night of our mist,
In the night of our tears. 15


From Cornhuskers (1918).

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From ‘Communification’ to Communisation

Today, on the contrary, publicity is achieved with the help of the secret politics of interest groups: it earns public prestige for a person or issue and thereby renders it ready for acclamatory assent in a climate of non public opinion. The very phrase ‘publicity work’ betrays that a public sphere, which at one time was entailed by the position of the carriers of representation and was also safeguarded in its continuity through a firm traditional symbolism, must first be brought about deliberately and from case to case. Today occasions for identification have to be created-the public sphere has to be ‘made’, it is not ‘there’ anymore. Altmann calls this appropriately enough the act of ‘communification.’

— Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992, p.201.


Plenitude is broken, communication is no longer that of separate beings who promise each other recognition in the infinitely distant future of a world without separation, it does not content itself with bringing particular individuals closer, in the intimacy of desire, it affirms itself alone, it does not affirm itself as a movement that affirms what it unites, but negates, a movement itself without fixity, without certainty.

Can we live these two lives? Whether we can or not, we must: one is linked to the future of  ‘communication’, when the relations between men will no longer, insidiously or violently, make them into things, but for this it engages us, profoundly, dangerously, in the world of things, of ‘useful’ relations, ‘efficacious’ works, where we always come close to losing ourselves. The other welcomes communication, outside of the world and immediately, but on the condition that communication be the upheaval of ‘the immediate’, the opening, the shattering violence, the fire that burns without waiting, for that is also, that is first of all, what communist generosity is, this inclemency, this impatience, the refusal of all detours, of all ruses, and of all delays: infinitely hazardous freedom. Certainly, alone, the first relates to a possible ‘truth’, it goes alone — but with what vicissitudes and what pains—toward a world. We can see clearly, however, that it does not take the latter much into account: intimate ‘life’ — because it does not belong to the day — is without justification, it cannot be recognized and could only be recognized by dressing itself up as value. Who is not aware that tragic and possibly intolerable divisions result from this? If there is a tragic dimension specific to our times, it would be found here.

— Maurice Blanchot, ‘An Approach to Communism (Needs, Values)’ in Maurice Blanchot, Political Writings, 1953-1993, Trans. Zakir Paul, Fordham University Press, 2010, pp.5-6.

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Not Peace, but a Sword


Have No Fear

26 “So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. 27 What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. 28 And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.[h] 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?[i] And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. 32 So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, 33 but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.

Not Peace, but a Sword

34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. 36 And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. 37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.


40 “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. 41 The one who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and the one who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. 42 And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.”

Matthew 10 English Standard Version (ESV)

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The Inventory (1959) by Henri Lefebvre


Pieter Breugal the Elder, Children’s Games, 1560

Human life (the praxis of man, indivisibly individual and social being) includes no basic elements or attributes other than those which emerge from the origins of life and physical nature: struggle, play, food, love and reproduction, rest. Let us look at the meaning of the words ‘human nature’ dialectically. Neither for man in general, nor for the specific individual, is there a fixed nature, a strictly determined essence, a kind of biological preformation of what he may and must become. Every man is therefore – virtually – every nature. He has only to recognize possibilities and apply them to himself. While some of these possibilities will be more nearly within his reach than others, and while there exist inclinations or gifts, this given ‘essence’ represents no more than access by one route or another to a more complete existence. We have thought it equally necessary to eliminate the idea of pure plasticity as that of innate endowment. Furthermore, what differs completely – between animal and man, between individuals, between cultures and civilizations, between classes and groups – is the order imposed on innate chaos. It is the way of dividing up moments, perceiving them and distinguishing between them, placing them in a hierarchy, moving from one to another, uniting them.

In socio-individual man, a living and organizing reason tends to separate out what in animal life was mixed up (let us say, for example, rest and struggle) and also to connect what was separated (let us say, grace and power). This reason has an aim. Its work meets many obstacles, arising both from immediate, spontaneous life that suddenly reasserts its demands, and from the social distribution of goods and objects, which are not subjected to the order that this reason attempts to impose.

From living reason at work in civilization, we will say here that it is inclined to constitute ‘moments’. We will not use the ambiguous terms ‘domains’ or ‘regions’ because we are not talking about a theory of knowledge [connaissance] or an ontology (or a critique of ontology), but about the study of a reality that first presents itself at a sociological level, at which the individual is not separate from the social.

Let us consider the moment of play. The highest civilizations, as they become more refined, tend to create forms of play which are specifically nothing but play. Earlier, in the childhood of societies as in that of individuals and in the animal kingdom, it is difficult to distinguish play from action, work, or fighting [Lutte]; it is mixed up with them; the child plays while working or works while playing; ethnographers study societies in which play is a prelude to fighting, or in which dance combines movements of love and war with play, etc. In advanced civilizations, play constitutes a moment. It is not isolated. Figures of war or love are integrated, but are subject to the rules governing the particular game. Thus, chess represents a pitched battle between royal armies, but the configurations are rigorously defined on the field of play. So, card games include configurations of love, but subject to rules of necessity and chance. These particular games do not come into being suddenly, produced by an abstract will to play. The abstract will to play creates only games without depth or reality: trivial social games.

True games derive from magical and cosmic objects. These objects changed their positions as civilization developed, and became subordinate to play as such, while retaining something of the role they originally played in the totality. The movement of magical objects towards games obviously involves radical transformations, such as a very specific kind of formalization: the ‘rules of the game’. The game has its specific categories: the rule, the partner, the stake, the risk and the wager, luck, skill, strategy. The sphere of these categories, the borderlines of play, are not fixed. There is no guard to give the order, ‘Play stops here, the serious starts here.’ The borderlines of moments depend on the moments and on men. Anything can be played at and become a game. Love can be played at and be presenced as a game (but then it is not, is no longer or has not yet become love). The actor plays, the playwright is played (but the actor has a profession; neither art nor theatre is described as a game). Social life can be feigned, mimicked – played; but then frivolity wins our over real interests, those which make social life interesting. Game-playing, with categories of its own, reveals one modality of presence. My partner shows himself to me playing, as a player; and while I may be able to discover in the course of the game the qualities or faults that I see in him in other circumstances, he may appear very different then from the way he does at other times. Finally, because it has its own categories, a game presents a world. I may enter into it to the point of allowing myself to be caught in it. Because a game is a moment, it sets a trap. l become a player. It presents something: an abyss, a potential vertigo. There is an absolute in the moment of the game; and this absolute, like every reality or moment taken to the absolute, represents a specific form of alienation.

This substantiality without substance (in the ontological sense) which is conveyed by the existence of an absolute at the heart of the relative, is expressed as all substantiality by a tautology at one and the same rime meaningful and empty: ‘the game is the game’. This proposition, in appearance identical but empty as logical identity, is categorically not reducible to a pleonasm. In its first part, the game is presented as a specific activity; in the second part, it is a game, all the categories of this specific activity are condensed, which then have to be clarified; in this way identity opens out indefinitely into a non-identity that says what play is: what games are. Play thus has to do with logic, formalism and formalization, and yet it is anything but form and formalism. It is much more about abyss and vertigo, mesmerism, infernal pleasure: alienation. Elementary activity, arising from the murky depths of nature, has taken this transparent form in order to rediscover its murky depths.

The problem of the moment of rest has recently been posed, and in a curious way, using a wide and obscure vocabulary. We talk about ‘relaxation’ and ‘unwinding’, conflating ideology, myth and need. Techniques for resting have existed for as long as civilization has existed, but are rather poorly defined and utilised. Only now do we realise that a science of rest, organizing the objective and subjective conditions of this ‘moment’, has to be created. Resting is not easy for human beings, whose ‘essence’ is activity. It is not enough to lie down in order to relax, to close one’s eyes and block one’s ears to achieve relief or peace. The absence of movement is not in itself methodical relaxation, because it leaves most of the muscles of the body with residual tensions and poorly proportioned. In short, our civilization tries to create the moment of rest consciously and rationally. It institutes it through the use of various elements, some material, some not: bodily techniques, places in which to rest, soothing sounds, etc. The moment of rest as we confusedly try to create it in the ‘modern world’ cannot be reduced to relaxation. Re-creation in and through leisure takes many forms, which are sociological in nature and studied by the sociologist.

About the moment of justice, I have already said almost everything I have to say. Justice and judgement are not formed in nature. This moment exists only in civilized man. To the extent that for a long period of time, ontological thought projected it into the absolute being: God, the supreme Judge. All of life has to do with justice and judgement; however, judgement is no more than a moment. For a long time it was extrapolated into eternity, in the form of the supreme and final judgement. This colossal image, which enlarged the figure of the Judge to the scale of the universe, is becoming blurred. (One day I should like to write a novel in which to bring this magnificent image back to life. It would be called ‘The Last Judgement’.

One day, some day, at a given hour or minute, the last judgement begins; but the people do not know that; they have not heard the angels’ trumpet. But slowly, slowly, they begin ro see their suppressed memories again; actions and events that they had forgotten return with a sour taste to their lips and their consciousness; they begin to show through, one in place of another, beneath their words, beneath their pretences and their masks; they reclaim their past, while their shameful secrets are revealed, their slips becoming more frequent, then their confessions. Slowly, slowly. The Last Judgement has all the time in the world. When the Judge arrives, men will already have judged one another, in their everyday lives: husbands and wives, children, parents and friends, naked, already damned or already saved.

The great Judge has only to carry out the supreme sentence. I should like the novel to take place in the household of a distinguished, right-thinking person, and why shouldn’t he be a politician of the MRP1 sort? Let’s end the digression here.) There is no longer a supreme Judge, and that’s why our consciences are obsessed by the themes of Judge, Trial and guilt. The moment of justice is also defined by a form, a procedure: summons, court appearance, testimony and cross-examination, indictments, pleas, deliberation, application of the law, sentence and the execution of the sentence. This or that partial moment may be missing, or their order may be reversed – it doesn’t much matter. This form is more or less the same in the individual as in the social consciousness. And [for] me, as around me, the ceremonial of justice unwinds with the same gravity and the same absurdity, internal or external. Justice has its machinery and its Time. In both cases, for want of an absolute Judge, the Judge is always both judge and party to the case. Justice is not of this world, and there is no other world. Justice is a modality (and no more than a modality) of presence. It succeeds neither in totally justifying itself, nor in imposing itself, nor in fully legitimizing the sentence, nor in fully ensuring its execution, except when it is unjust. Justice is an absolute, around which we become dizzy. Like every absolute, this one makes demands and alienates. There is an absolute of justice, just as ungraspable as others, as compelling, as urgent; however, as a moment, justice is necessary. I should like to show here how Brecht drew an important dramatic form from the moment of justice, ceremonial becoming spectacle and subordinating to itself the elements of this spectacle: the dramatic moment corresponding with the court appearance, dialogue with testimony and cross-examination, denouement defined by the sentence and the central character with the Judge.2 The absence of the Judge, and the end of the great image of the Last Judgement have led to a major dramatic form. It is a reflection of the despair that no longer believes in the Judge and recreates him in fictional form. Social life may offer a sketch of its basic elements and broad outlines, but a thinker is still needed to grasp them and formulate them within a specific set of circumstances.

There is the moment of poetry, resting solidly on the form of language. An object, a being, a fugitive impression, thus receives the privilege of an unbearable, unbelievable, inexplicable burden of presence. A smile or a tear, a house or a tree become a whole world. They really are, for the moment that lasts, and which fixing themselves in words will recur and be repeated almost indefinitely in the future. In this way a smile or a cloud become eternal.

In this way the poet evokes a specific feeling, which can only be expressed by a tautology, ‘poetry is poetry [la poesie, c’est la poésie]’, this parallelism, with its rich content, being capable of infinite explication. It defines the poetic moment, and its manner of proceeding: melody and sense, the excessive emotional burden of the object, signifying the poet’s whole sensibility. Hence the misunderstanding between lyric poetry and the sense of the serious, so clearly seen in the recent Pasternak affair.3 For a slightly old-fashioned romantic like him, the fall of a leaf is as important as the fall of a State. It was Amiel, I think, who said that in connection with German romantic poetry.4 We can imagine such a poet writing a very beautiful, very pure poem on the fall of a leaf, declaring that it is of crucial importance to him, more important than a world war or a revolution. The moment of poetry is essential to the poet and the person who listens to him. If the poet wished to sing of his love, and the smile or rhe kiss of his beloved, without thereby revealing in it a whole world, he would not write a good love poem. ‘But it’s not real! It’s not true! It’s a joke! The fall of a leaf is of no importance! There are millions, billions of women; there’s nothing special about this one’s smile or her kiss.’ Quite so! Quire so! On second thoughts, the Soviets should be forgiven for many things. In this ‘modern’ world they represent an enormous mass of seriousness not deprived of weightiness. That’s the way it is. You have to take people as they are. You can explain, but explanation is not important here.

For the serious, weighty mind, instants and moments are of equal merit; they’re closely examined for their usefulness, using political criteria. Boredom obviously leads to pedantry. When serious-mindedness takes the poet utterly seriously and exclaims, ‘No, look, you’re being frivolous, socialism forbids us attaching so much importance to a kiss, or trying to move people’s hearts with the fall of a leaf … ‘ , and when this serious-mindedness contemplates the abuse of power, then the situation becomes delicate. We then have to restore the rights of the moment of poetry and the powers of lightness as a moment. The poet does not lie; he does not deceive. He reveals a presence, transferring to it the power that comes from a totality chat surpasses it and surpasses himself: language. He uses magic spells. But do we still burn witches and wizards in the twentieth century?

What therefore, would moments be? They are limited in number, although the list cannot be declared closed: play, love, work, rest, struggle, knowledge, poetry … If the number proved unlimited, they would no longer be moments. However, we cannot stop enumerating them, since it is always possible to discover or to constitute a ‘moment’, in principle, at least, and since there are perhaps ‘moments’ in individual life. Theory ought, if it is to be consistent, to declare a criterion. What is a ‘moment’? What is not? It is not obliged to undertake the task of making an exhaustive list. In order for it to present a coherence that would make it acceptable, it is better to indicate and emphasize a few general characteristics of these ‘moments’.

First of all, a moment defines a form and is defined by a form. Wherever the word ‘moment’ is used in a more or less precise sense, it refers to a certain constancy over time, an element common to a number of instants, events, situations and dialectical movements (as in ‘historical moment’, ‘negative moment’ or ‘moment of reflection’). It thus tends to refer to a structural element that thought must not separate from the conjunctural without precaution. The word clearly designates a form, but this form is specific to each case. What is the form of play? The whole set of rules and conventions (categories of the game). What is the form of justice? An external or internal ritual, a ceremonial that governs the sequence of events, the bond, the summoning or indictment of defendants and witnesses, their appearance in court, etc. What is the form of love? A code of etiquette that prescribes the manner and style, the progression from courtship (declaration, avowal) to acts of possession and voluptuous pleasures. This etiquette excludes brutality and in principle includes shared pleasure as the goal of love. With necessary strictness, it sets – allowing for eventualities and the unexpected – the role of the kiss, of conversation, of boldness, respect, discretion, modesty, immodesty, abandon, renewal, etc.

While the word ‘form’, behind its false precision, is one of the most confused in our vocabulary, we may say (in the hope chat we are making a statement that makes some sense at least), chat every civilization is a creator of forms. In this it differs from society (which consists of an economic structure, a mode of production, property relations, etc.) and culture (which consists of forms of knowledge, of matter learned and facts retained, and of accepted works). It is essential that we connect these three terms without confusing them, and clearly distinguish between them without separating them.

Civilization creates forms whose historical developments would be worth following. Thus we have formality in speech and ritual in gesture, courtesy and politeness, as modes of contact and communication. The long, winding road from archaic societies to civilizations (or civilization in general) allows natural gestures to be stylized and organized into a set of significant gestures.

Social groups take as their starting point magical words and actions, designed to protect a moment, to disarm enmities and to place this moment under the sign of harmony or poetry (formulas that thus become rituals of everyday social life: greeting, blessing, shaking hands). This means chat the theory of civilization does not cover the whole.of reality (praxis). It does not encroach on either the study of society (from economy to ideology) or the study of culture, even though it must take them into account and cannot be separated from them.

The relationship between such forms with content differs from the relationship between content and form in knowledge or productive praxis. The form of civilization allows the introduction of widely differing material element it governs their order and succession, not their materiality. Thus, the summons dictates that certain characters will come before the court, or where the tribunal is concerned, a consciousness of events, impressions, ideas, decisions, remote or immediate feelings. The form, independent of the materiality of the content, does not impose itself on it or distort it; it allows it a degree of freedom, while at the same time assigning it a role and a place within the whole. The material elements of which these forms preside over their making and valorization; can they also be taken from the totality of praxis? Praxis taken as a whole comes under justice, it falls within the sphere of judgement, although, justice and judgement represent no more than a moment. An individual’s entire life may be affected by his love, and his love may become coextensive with his life, even though love is only a modality of presence. The ritual and ceremonial elaborated and stylized within a given civilization (and by specific social groups, peoples and classes, within an historical context) leave nothing out of their stylization – neither everyday objects, nor gestures, nor works of art, despite the fact that the ritual in question was created in daily life and in direct, everyday relationships. The unrigorous forms described here are not completely stable; they oscillate between the extremes of seriousness and frivolity, conventional artificiality and almost spontaneous nature. Despite these oscillations, they continue to have a specific existence, and are confirmed through circumstantial elements.

Each moment, which is a partial totality, reflects or refracts a totality (global praxis), including the dialectical relationships of sorcery with itself, and the relations of social man with nature (in and around him). Each moment perceives the others and is distinguished from them by the modality of apperception.

From such a viewpoint, a rigid boundary between nature and society (or nature and culture) is no longer conceivable. The germs that develop into ‘moments’ exist in the deepest parts of nature, animate or inanimate. Nevertheless, they lie shrouded, buried, at one and the same time mingled together and separated. The forms of civilization take their elements from nature, from natural instincts and needs. They insert the natural into the structures of the civilized consciousness. Thus, civilization ‘reflects’ nature, material or living; but the relationship involved is radically different from a passive reflection. It extracts natural elements from nature in order to profoundly metamorphose them by inserting them into forms: into a human order. ‘Instincts’ can be recognized in it, but sometimes transposed in such a way that their vital animal reality hardly survives in their human form. The process of formation and formalization – in the sense indicated above – involves the distance created by the power of society over nature (man’s power over nature). Civilization, in recovering the natural, making up the distance, closing the loop and recreating the totality, is thus still determined by a distancing of the human and of the natural. There is no barrier, but a space and a time in which forms or ‘moments’ are created. Not without conflicts between the natural and the ‘created’, between which there is no separation. This relationship between nature and society is without an ontology. Being is reflected in social man – in the totality – and not in a privileged act of reflection. Life reflects life, and not pure thought.

These moments thus first appear as sociological realities. Their categories also are categories pertaining to sociology. So the categories of play and games can only be arrived at sociologically. Only sociology is capable of studying the social distribution of games, the groups that play such and such a game, etc. The same goes for love, or rest, or knowing. In those areas there is a sociology of forms, still poorly developed. Could we call it ‘structural sociology’? The term seems shocking. Sociology studies the formation of ‘moments’; rather than moments, it deals with the groups who create them. ‘Moments’ and the theory of moments are on another level, that of philosophy. There is therefore something imprecise and improper about the phrase ‘structural sociology’.

The theory of moments excludes the idea of a boundary between nature and society (or nature and culture); it also includes the idea of a reciprocal immanence between the sociological and the individual. There is no separation between them. The moments that an individual person can experience are developed (formed or formalized) by the whole of the society of which he is a member, or by some social group that spreads its collective creation (such as ritual, or the form of feelings, etc.) throughout society.

These realities pertaining to sociology constitute ‘moments’ in as far as nature and the natural must also form part of the structures of social consciousness. This mutual immanence does not lead to confusion between the psychological and the collective. They are not ‘the same thing’. all the more so since it is not a question of ‘things’. Individual consciousness opens onto ‘moments’ that are also part of social consciousness. Conflicts are always possible, as individual consciousness may reject the form that has been developed socially and historically. It may aspire to other forms. It chooses between propositions that reach it from outside. It alters them, and each one selects differently from the ‘others’ the material elements that become part of forms. It also alters – adapts, amends – their forms. The unity of the individual and the social is manifested in these very conflicts. This dialectical unity can only rend towards an overcoming. From this viewpoint, civilization is conceived of as what arises from conflicts between the individual and the social in their dialectical unity, and it tries to resolve the conflict on the basis of the material and formal elements chat constitute the given problem. Moments, which are social relationships and forms of individualized consciousness, are also forms of communication. The modalities of the presence constituted by them ‘present’ or ‘presentify’ in a single unity nature, others and oneself. This form in which I present myself to the other is also that in which the other presents himself to me. So, in a game, each partner presents himself to the other as playing. As the act does not differ from its communication, its communicability is complete. The fact that my partner does not know my game is part of the game and does not constitute an impenetrable reality, falling outside communication in and through the form.

Such a conception goes beyond pluralism as well as totalitarianism. Distinguishing between a multiplicity of moments, theory belongs to a form of pluralism; all the more so in that it claims to be neither exhaustive nor dosed. It takes into account a variety of different modes of presence and activity; but each modality of presence is itself determined as a partial totality, open to the totality and a ‘perspective’ on it, immanent in this totality. The idea of the natural and social whole, or rather, this whole as such, concretely considered, manifests itself and is understood in a number of different attributes and modes: games and play, love, knowledge, justice, rest, etc. None of these modes is metaphysically privileged. By going beyond ‘ontologism’, we go beyond the antinomies that derive from it and in particular, those that separated the whole from the parts by setting up the multiple in opposition to the total, or conversely. The theory of moments thus repeats with a new meaning the theory of the ‘total man’.

Need we stop here to show that theory attempts to overcome the opposition between the circumstantial and the structural, while leaving a place for each of these aspects of becoming? It is more interesting to show how it overcomes (or aims to overcome) the opposition between ontology and axiology. It excludes ontology, but conceives of ‘being’ as reflected by the human totality or the total man. It excludes the antimony between observing (or discovering) and creating or establishing. The moment I am going to live, I must recreate it in order to live it; I discover it, but as form, in such a way that, in order to make this form my own, I have to reinvent it by reinventing the arrangement of its elements. It is ‘valid’ for me; I receive it, but not as something imposed; I ‘pose’ it for myself, and at the same time I expend my activity in it. So, when I play, I accept the rules of the game and make myself a player, to the full extent. I recreate, reinvent the game through the way I play it, and in a new way on each occasion. Discovery and observation, fact and value, frequency and prescriptiveness thus cease to be mutually exclusive.

The ‘moment’ thus conceived of has its memory and specific time. Repetition is an important aspect of this ‘temporality’. The repetition of moments forces us to refine the concept of repetition. It frees itself from psychology or metaphysics. It is no longer repetition of an ‘ontic’ or ontological nature; nor it is any more a repetition copied to the letter from the phenomena of memory, pushed as far as they will go. The re-presentation of a form, rediscovered and reinvented on each occasion, exceeds previous conceptions· of repetition. And furthermore, it includes them; because it also involves the return and reintegration at a high level – individual and social – of elements of the past and the surpassed. In a general sense, the concept of repetition has to be re-examined and refined in confrontation with the theory of forms. Whether psychological or metaphysical, this concept was too close to materiality. Repetition of a form differs from material repetition; what’s more, material stability, equilibrium and consistency (when observed) should not be confused with formal repetition. Which at this point introduces the project of a general theory of forms, that would finally make a dear distinction between the different uses of this term and the specificities of form.

As for alienation, its concept has a place in the theory of moments. Each moment, a modality of presence, offers an absolute for thinking and living. The criterion reductio ad absurdum [le critere par l’absurde] for the ‘moment’ could even be determined in this way. The moment can be raised to the status of an absolute, or, rather: A MOMENT IS WHAT IS SET UP AS AN ABSOLUTE. There is no moment except in so far as it embraces and aims to constitute an absolute. It is possible for every moment to become hypertrophied, or hypostatized. There is an absolute of play. This absolute alienates and defines a specific alienation. To play is a normal or normalizing activity; the player is an alienated person [un aliene].In any case, there is no clear separation within the moment. The alienated person locks himself in the moment; he makes himself its prisoner; by pushing it to its highest point, he becomes lost in it; his consciousness and his being lose their way in it. There is no demarcation separating love from the madness of love. And yet, although there is no border between them, there is a fundamental difference between moment and alienation. The form of communication becomes a form of isolation and incommunicability. The modality of presence is transformed into a modality of absence. The mode of being or the attribute of existence is transformed into annihilation [neantisation]. Action changes into passion, all the more indistinct the ‘purer’ and nearer to the absolute it is. The absolute is thus defined as a constant temptation, within each moment.

The possibility of this temptation of the absolute emerges as soon as the ‘temporary’ structure is created. If it wished to avoid it, active liberty would settle at the level of everyday life, which offers first of all a mixing of moments: their indispensable, rich (natural and social) material elements and even some formal elements, stylized bur still lacking their most delicate structure. Attempts at ‘structuration’ appear and develop at the everyday level. And yet something further is needed: regulation and control. The everyday is necessary but not sufficient. In it, virtual moments are both mixed together and separated. It re-presents on its own level certain characteristics of natural life. An intervention has to be made in order to add to it an aspect or dimension that can be defined in various ways: style, order, liberty, civilization, but also, perhaps, philosophy? This intervention could well be represented, on the level of everyday life, by a better distribution of its elements and instants into ‘moments’, in such a way as to intensify the vital performance of the everyday, its capacity for communication, for information, and also, and especially, for enjoyment, by defining new modes of enjoyment in natural and social life. The theory of moments is thus not situated outside the everyday, but can be seen as articulated with it by uniting with critique in order to introduce into it what is lacking to its richness. It can thus be seen as tending to overcome at the heart of the everyday, in a new form of particular pleasure united with the whole, the old oppositions of lightness and heaviness, the serious and the lack of seriousness.

While the ‘absolutization’ of the separated moment is alienating, mixing and ambiguity also play an alienating role. Theory indicates a direction and a form of (individual) liberty. From the point of view that concerns us here, it is formed in constant struggle against the alienation that lies in wait for it. If absolute choice leads to mutilation, and thus alienation, to nor choose, to hesitate indefinitely, to remain in a state of formless chaos, is also to risk the alienation of liberty. Liberty cannot make itself effective if it presents itself as arbitrary. le has to use the means and mediations offered to it by everydayness. It is formed by forming ‘moments’, by taking from here and there the material elements on which form is able to confer a higher order. It extricates itself from ambiguity and admixture, without, however, entering completely into a moment; it reserves for itself possibilities, choices and options, disengagement and commitment. The theory of moments thus includes a certain notion of liberty: a form of liberty that does not exclude other forms on other levels.

This is the time to repeat that the ‘theory of moments’ neither claims to be nor presents itself as exhaustive. As a perspective on the totality, it is located on a particular level: the theory of civilization, the theory of forms. It takes elements from other levels, other theories; far from contesting them, it allows them to express their specificities. Thus, it does not encroach on the study of the economic-social formation (the analysis of society considered as a mode of production, with its ideological repercussions) or of culture (knowledge as social fact). In particular, considerations about alienation take nothing away from the theory of fetishism and economic reification. Considerations about liberty in no way eliminate other aspects of liberty. The theory of moments thus respects the sciences of human reality. Nevertheless, it is more closely related to sociology than to political economy, for example.

Is it then to he considered a philosophy? A philosophy of presence? Or the outline of a new type of philosophy?



1  [Editors’ note: Mouvement Republicain Populaire – French Christian-Democratic party between 1944 and 1968.

2 [Editors’ note: Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), German playwright. The reference is probably to his The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1948).

[Editors’ note: Boris Pasternak (1890-1960), Russian novelist. The reference is to the banning of his Dr Zhivago (1957), and his expulsion from the Soviet Writers’ Union.

4  [Editors’ note: Henri-Frederic Amid (1821-81) was a writer and critic, best known for his journal Intime (1883). We have been unable to find out whether he made such a comment.]

5[Editors’ note: An aliene is someone who is alienated, but also a mental patient.]


Henri Lefebvre, ‘The Inventory’ (from La Somme et le reste (Paris: Meridiens Klincksieck, 1989 [1959], pp.642-55), reproduced from Henri Lefebvre, and Elizabeth Lebas, Henri Lefebvre: Key Writings, Ed. Stuart Elden, Trans. Eleonore Kofman, New York; London: Continuum, 2003, pp.166-176.

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The Fate of Words: Glosses on Critical Inutility

Fresh pamphlet made for an exhibition in Copenhagen (info below)




– An exhibition in and against the written language


With works by Ida Börjel, M. NourbeSe Philip, Anthony Iles, CAConrad, Howard Slater, Deirdre Humphrys, Anne Boyer, Jimmie Durham, Adania Shibli, Nanna Anike Nikolajsen, Fred Moten, Christian Yde Frostholm, Lesley-Ann Brown, Ninna Poulsen, Cia Rinne, Henning Lundkvist, Åse Eg Jørgensen, Mira Mattar, Lina Selander & Oscar Mangione, Marcel Broodthaers, Kamilla Jørgensen, BMS, Jakob Jakobsen, Marronage, Just in F. Kennedy, Line Larsen, Maria Berrios, Monica Aasprong & Aron Kullander-Östling, Rasmus Brink Pedersen, Mirtha Dermisache, Thomas Bo Østergaard and Vagn Steen.

Anthony Iles 3

Organized by Mia Edelgart & Joen Vedel

Opening on June 8th. 5pm – 9pm

Performance/talk on June 9th. at 1pm: The Friendly Copenhagen Sabotage Event – Börjel & Plöjel in conversation

Danske Grafikeres Hus*, Sølvgade 19, Kbh. K.


For more info: www.danskegrafikere.org  + FB: https://www.facebook.com/ events/217973525472915/

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Walter Benjamin’s Journals

L'âge du papier de Félix Valotton, Le cri de Paris, 23 janvier 1898

Félix Valotton, L’âge du papier, Le cri de Paris, 23 janvier 1898


Emmanuel Alloa has an interesting article in Boundary 2 which treats various articulations of community and literary community through the journal projects of Novalis, Benjamin, and Blanchot.

Emmanuel Alloa, ‘The Inorganic Community: Hypotheses on Literary Communism in Novalis, Benjamin, and Blanchot’, Boundary 2, vol.39, no. 3 (1 August 2012), pp.75–95. 

In this post I have extracted Alloa’s commentary on Walter Benjamin’s four journal projects, and this is followed by the complete text of Benjamin’s ‘Announcement of the Journal Angelus Novus’ (1922). All quotations are from Alloa unless otherwise specified (important additional information is drawn from the work of Esther Leslie and Erdmut Wizisla). Further exploration of Benjamin’s orientation towards, and criticisms of, intellectual communities and groupings around journals (the association with Bataille could also provide interesting insights into Blanchot’s formation) can be drawn from Michael Weingrad, ‘The College of Sociology and the Institute of Social Research’ in New German Critique, no. 84 (2001): pp.129–61.

Benjamin’s Journal Projects



1/ 1910s: On the Fringes of the Wandervogel Circle

In 1905 Benjamin attended a progressive school in Haubinda, Thuringia, under the tutelege the educational reformer Gustav Wyneken. Wyneken’s Wandervogel youth movement promoted spirituality and intellectual development under a rubric of ‘youth culture’. Benjamin remained in contact with Wyneken up to 1915 when he broke with him over the former’s support for World War I.1 ‘Rather than joining the Wandervogel youth movement, Benjamin participated in the gatherings of the group around the maverick reformer Gustav Wyneken, and from 1910 to 1914 contributed to his journal Der Anfang (The beginning). Benjamin was the spokesperson of the newly founded Sprechsäle, [the forum of the Free Students’ Association] where students could meet and discuss matters of the spirit. Already by that time, as the undelivered speech to students suggests, Romanticism, as well as the idea of the symposium, was an inspiration to Benjamin, who wanted to reach out to some universal spirit, but within an elective community.2 In a conversation with Carla Seligson in 1913, Benjamin drafted his vision of an ideal community, whose only bond would consist in sharing a secret. A community, as a letter to Seligson reads, “is bound by the acute consciousness that solitude remains insuperable.”’3 Benjamin definitely distanced himself from this community, of which the reunions at the Sprechsäle in Berlin constituted the prototype in 1914, after a tragic event. Shortly after the outbreak of war hostilities, Seligson’s companion, Fritz Heinle, with whom Benjamin had plans to publish a new journal,4 committed suicide as a symbolic condemnation of the outburst of globalized violence.’ (Alloa, pp.80-81)


Stefan George’s Blätter für die Kunst, 1907

2/ 1920s: Angelus Novus

Later journal projects—such as the Angelus Novus, on which Benjamin had been working in 1921 on behalf of the editor Weißbach and which would be aborted once more—clearly carried the imprint of an overall rejection of any kind of esoteric publication organ for which the journal of the Stefan George circle, the Blätter für die Kunst, represented the emblem. In the manifesto he drafted for his Angelus Novus journal, Benjamin makes this unmistakably clear:

Nothing appears more important to the editor than that the journal should forgo all appearance and simply express the truth of the situation, which is that even the purest will and the most patient labor among the different collaborators will prove unable to create any unity, let alone a community. The journal should proclaim through the mutual alienness [wechselseitige Fremdheit] of their contributions how impossible it is in our age to give a voice to any communality—even though this common forum might suggest otherwise— and should make plain to what degree even this connection remains on trial only.5

It is no coincidence, then, that Benjamin intended to contribute to his own journal an essay on Goethe’s Elective Affinities, which finally, as it became obvious that Angelus Novus was never going to see the light of day, appeared in the Neue Deutsche Blätter, thanks to Hugo von Hofmannsthal. The essay on Goethe, all too often decontextualized, must thus be reread in the context of research about a literary community, where it becomes almost oracular: a relation not of blood but of distant resonance, and which reminds us of the formula Benjamin had once used when addressing the circle of the Sprechsaal in Berlin in 1915: “not a friendship of brothers and comrades, but a friendship of foreign friends.”6 Or to put it in other terms: thinking about the bonds of community not so much in terms of genealogical provenance but in terms of elective affinities. (Alloa, pp.81-82.)


Emil Hesse-Burri, Walter Benjamin, Bertolt Brecht, Bernard und Margot von Brentano on the Le Lavandou beach, France June, 1931


3/ 1930s: Benjamin and Brecht’s Krise und Kritik

The journal Krise und Kritik, which Benjamin had planned jointly with Bertolt Brecht in the early 1930s […] led to more crises than critique,7

From the autumn of 1930 to the spring of 1931, Benjamin and Brecht, with Bernard von Brentano and Herbert Ihering, and with the help of Ernst Bloch, Siegfried Kracauer, Alfred Kurella and Georg Lukács, were planning to bring out a periodical under the name of Krise und Kritik (‘Crisis and Criticism’), to be published by Rowohlt in Berlin. They envisaged a journal in which the bourgeois intelligentsia can account for itself in regard to positions and challenges which uniquely – in current circumstances – permit it an active, interventionist role, with tangible consequences, as opposed to its usual ineffectual arbitrariness.8

Although not a single issue of the journal was ever published, the project deserves attention as a development in aesthetic politics typical of the years immediately before the Nazi dictatorship – especially since it characterizes more than just the relationship between Benjamin and Brecht.9


4/ 1939: A Journal by Prisoners in Prison the Bulletin de Vernuches: Journal des Travailleurs du 54e regiment

In September, 1939 Benjamin was sent to an internment camp near Nevers, in southern France. After a train ride and a forced march, the prisoners were assigned to the abandoned Château de Vernuches, which had been transformed into a labor camp. (Alloa, p.77)

Benjamin wanted to suggest to the camp commander to publish a literary journal “of the highest level, of course,” a camp journal for intellectuals that would have the purpose of showing to the country who those people who had been incarcerated as “France’s enemy” really were. “Come to my place at 4pm”, he had said. “We will hold our first editorial meeting.” Benjamin dwelled in a shed at the foot of a spiral staircase which formed a sort of roof above his cot. From a piece of cloth, a disciple had fabricated a curtain which cut him off from the others’ gazes. A saint in his cavern, warded by an angel. As I arrived at 4p.m. and swept the curtain aside, not without announcing myself to the angel who was now acting as secretary, two others were already crouched on the straw. The editorial meeting began. From thimbles, we drank brandy which the angel had procured himself from the soldiers, and we discussed the physiognomy we wanted to give to the journal. Benjamin was very serious, almost ceremonious. He didn’t seem to be aware of the comical-macabre side of the situation.10 (Alloa, p.78)

According to Benjamin, the journal, the plans for which were found in Berlin, should have been titled Bulletin de Vernuches: Journal des Travailleurs du 54e regiment11 and was to be distributed not only among the detainees of Nevers but was also gradually to reach “all the other camps disseminated in France.”12 It was to include sociological analyses of camp life, critiques of the improvised musical and theatrical performances within the camp, as well as a book section. The journal was thus to be an ultimate demonstration of the power of the spirit at the moment of its utmost desolation. (Alloa, p.78)


1Esther Leslie, Walter Benjamin. London: Reaktion Books, 2008 contains a substantial treatment of this period of Benjamin’s life.

2“We need a free and beautiful community, so that the universal does not become a commonplace.” Walter Benjamin, “Romantik: Eine nicht gehaltene Rede an die Schuljugend” (1913), in Aufsätze, Essays, Vortrage, vol. 2, pt. 1, of Gesammelte Schriften, by Walter Benjamin, ed. Hermann Schweppenhäuser and Rolf Tiedemann, 7 vols. (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1991), 42–47; Early Writings, 1910–1917, ed. and trans. Howard Eiland and others (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 101. Hereafter, Gesammelte Schriften is cited in the notes as GS. FN#12 in original text.

3Letter to Carla Seligson, August 4, 1913, in Benjamin, GB, 1:162. See also John Joseph McCole, “Benjamin and the Idea of Youth,” in Walter Benjamin and the Antinomies of Tradition (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993). FN#13 in original text.

4Letter to Gershom Scholem, August 4, 1921, in Benjamin, GB, 2:178.

5Walter Benjamin, “Ankündigung der Zeitschrift: Angelus Novus” (1921), in GS, 2/1:246; “Announcement of the Journal Angelus Novus,” in Selected Writings Volume 1 (1913–1926), ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1996), 296. Reproduced below.

6See the self-­quotation in the letter to Carla Seligson, November 13, 1913, in Benjamin, GB, 1:182. FN#17 in original text.

7Erdmut Wizisla, Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht: The Story of a Friendship, trans. Christine Shuttleworth (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009). See the chapter “Krise und Kritik (1930/1931). FN#8 in original text.

8Benjamin, Memorandum zu der Zeitschrift ‘Krisis und Kritik’, GS VI, p. 619.

9Erdmut Wizisla,Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht The Story of a Friendship, (Trans.) Christine Shuttleworth, New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2009.

10Hans Sahl, “Walter Benjamin im Lager,” in Für Walter Benjamin: Dokumente, Essays und ein Entwurf, ed. Ingrid und Konrad Scheurmann (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1992), 120. FN#5 in original text.

11Chryssoula Kambas, “Bulletin de Vernuches: Neue Quellen zur Internierung Walter Benjamins,” Exil 10, no. 2 (1990): 5–30. FN#6 in original text.

12Walter Benjamin, sketch for the camp journal Bulletin de Vernuches (1939), Akademie der Künste, Berlin, Nachlass Walter Benjamin, Nr. 31. Reprinted in Scheurmann, eds., Für Walter Benjamin, 127. FN#7 in original text.


Announcement of the Journal Angelus Novus

By Walter Benjamin

The journal whose plan we present here hopes to create confidence in its content by giving an account of its form.1 This form arises from reflecting on the nature of a journal: a journal should both make a program superfluous and avoid it as an incitement to pseudo-productivity. Programs are valid only when individuals or groups have particular, well-defined goals. A journal that sets out to articulate the experience of a particular way of thinking is always far more unpredictable and unconscious than any expression of will, but by the same token it holds greater promise for the future and is capable of much greater development. Hence, such a journal would be poorly placed to give an account of itself, no matter what terms it chose to express its position. Insofar as reflection is expected of it – and in the right sense no limits can be set to reflection – it should concern itself less with ideas and credos than with foundations and governing principles, just as human beings should not be expected to have full knowledge of their own innermost tendencies but should be conscious of their vocation.

The vocation of a journal is to proclaim the spirit of its age. Relevance to the present is more important even than unity or clarity, and a journal would be doomed – like the newspapers – to insubstantiality if it did not give voice to a vitality powerful enough to salvage even its more dubious components by validating them. In fact, a journal whose relevance for the present has no historical justification should not exist at all. The Romantic Athenäum2 is still a model today precisely because its claim to historical relevance was unique. At the same time it proves – if proof were needed – that we should not look to the public to supply the yardstick by which true relevance to the present is to be measured. Every journal ought to follow


the example of the Athenäum. It should be rigorous in its thought and unwavering in its readiness to say what it believes, without any concessions to its public, particularly where it is a matter of distilling what is truly relevant from the sterile pageant of new and fashionable events, the exploitation of which can be left to the newspapers.

Moreover, for any journal that conceives itself in this way, criticism remains the guardian of the house. If in its infancy criticism was forced to combat commonplace viciousness, the situation nowadays is different. Formerly, the stage was dominated by products that were backward – looking

and tasteless and by producers who were naive bunglers. Now it is confronted at every point by talented fakes. Furthermore, for over a century every grubby literary rag in Germany has advertised itself as an organ of criticism, so that redoubled efforts are needed to restore criticism to its former strength. Both critical discourse and the habit of judgment stand in need of renewal. Only a terrorist campaign will suffice to overcome that imitation of great painting that goes by the name of literary Expressionism.

If in such annihilating criticism it is essential to fill in the larger context – and how else could it succeed? – the task of positive criticism, even more than before and even more than for the Romantics, must be to concentrate on the individual work of art. For the function of great criticism is not, as is often thought, to instruct by means of historical descriptions or to educate through comparisons, but to cognize by immersing itself in the object. Criticism must account for the truth of works, a task just as essential for literature as for philosophy. Such a view of the importance of criticism is incompatible with reserving a few columns for it at the end of each issue, as an act of duty. This journal will have no “critical section ” and will not stamp its critical contributions with the mark of Cain by distinguishing them typographically from the rest of the journal.

Precisely because the journal intends to devote itself to literature as much as to philosophy and criticism, the last-named must not remain silent about what it has to say concerning the first. If we are not deceived, a dangerous and in every sense crucial period for German literature began at the turn of the century. Hutten’s words about the age and the joys of living in it,3 words whose tone seemed de rigueur in the program of every journal, are as difficult for literary artists to adopt as they are for anyone else in Germany at the present time. Ever since [Stefan] George’s recent enrichments of the German language have begun to look obsolete, the first work of every aspiring young writer seems to consist of a new poetic thesaurus. And little as may be expected from a school whose most enduring monument may be seen in its vigorous exposure of the limitations of a great master, even less do the transparent mechanisms of their latest productions inspire confidence in the language of their authors. Even more clearly than in the age of Klopstock – rnany of whose poems sound as if they are what contemporary


poets aspire to – even more completely than for centuries past, the crisis of German poetry coincides with the fate of the German language, a fate that will not be determined by knowledge, education, or taste and that in a certain sense will be decided only once the crucial statements have been ventured. However, once the frontier has been reached beyond which a provisional declaration of intent cannot responsibly go, it is superfluous to state that contributions in prose and verse will bear the above in mind and that the literary contributions of the first issue in particular desire to be understood as decisions in this spirit. Alongside these, there will be space subsequently for the work of other writers who, taking up a place in the shadow of the first group or even under their protection, but purged of the free – floating violence of our celebrated rhapsodists, will strive to tend a fire they have not themselves ignited.

Once again, German writing in its current state stands in need of a genre that has always had a beneficial effect on it in its periods of great crisis: translation. In the present instance, however, the translations of the journal wish to be understood not just as providing models to be emulated, as was the case in earlier times, but also as the strict and irreplaceable school of language – in – the – making. Where the latter is at a loss to discover a substance of its own on which it might feed, important works from other, related cultures offer themselves along with the challenge to abandon superannuated linguistic practices, while developing new ones. In order to make this – the formal merit of true translation – clearer, every work that should be judged primarily according to this criterion will be accompanied by its original text. The first issue will go into the question at greater length.

The intellectual universality contained in the plan for this journal will not be confused with an attempt to achieve universality in terms of content. For on the one hand, it will not lose sight of the fact that a philosophical treatment confers universal meaning on every scientific or practical topic,

on every mathematical line of inquiry as much as on any political question. And on the other hand, it will bear in mind that even the literary or philosophical themes of immediate interest will be given a welcome only because of this approach and on the condition that it be adopted. This

philosophical universality is the touchstone that will enable the journal to demonstrate its true contemporary relevance most accurately. In its eyes, the universal validity of spiritual [geistig] utterances must be bound up with the question of whether they can lay claim to a place within future religious orders. Not as if such orders were already visible on the horizon. What is

visible is the fact that without them, none of the things that are struggling for life can make their appearance and mark these days as the first of a new epoch. For that very reason, it would seem to be the right time to lend an ear not to those who imagine that they have already discovered the arcanum but to those who objectively, dispassionately, and unobtrusively give express-


sion to hardship and need, if only because the journal is not a place for the great. Even less should it be a place for the petty; it should be reserved, then, for those who have found by hard thinking as much as by soul searching that a renewal of things can come about only through confession. This,

however, must be arrived at by an honest path: spiritualist occultism, political obscurantism, and Catholic expressionism will be encountered in these pages only as the targets of unsparing criticism. And even though these pages will eschew the comfortable obscurity of esotericism, they will keep

their distance equally from any easy expectation of greater elegance and accessibility for what they offer. Those qualities can only reward still greater hard, sober effort. Golden fruits in silver bowls are not to be expected.4

Instead we shall aspire to rationality throughout, and because none but free spirits are to discuss religion, the journal will feel free to go beyond the frontiers of our language, indeed of the West, and move to a consideration of other religions. It is a fundamental principle that only in regard to poetry shall we confine ourselves to the German language.

Needless to say, there is no guarantee that the universality aspired to will be fully achieved. For just as in its outer appearance the journal will exclude every direct manifestation of the plastic arts, in the same way – although less obviously – it will keep its distance from all science, because there, far more than in the arts and philosophy, the topical and the essential almost always seem to part company. In the list of subjects to be treated in a journal, science forms a link to the problems of practical life, whose burden of true contemporary relevance is normally obscured beneath the surface and yields itself up only to the rarest philosophical scrutiny.

These limitations count for little compared to the inevitable limitations of the editor. Perhaps he may be allowed a few words to outline his awareness of the boundaries of his own horizons and his readiness to acknowledge them. In fact, he makes no claim to survey the intellectual horizons of the age from on high. And, to continue with the image, he would prefer that of the man who stands on his own threshold in the evening when his work is done and in the morning before he sets out on his daily tasks, and who takes in the familiar horizon with a glance, rather than scanning it searchingly, so as to retain whatever new thing greets him there. The editor regards philosophy as his own special field, and this metaphor tries to express the idea that the reader will encounter nothing absolutely alien in the pages that follow, and that the editor will feel some affinity with whatever will be found there. But an even more emphatic implication of the metaphor is that to assess the degree and kind of affinity is not something which will fall to the public, and that nothing links the contributors with one another beyond their own will and consciousness. For just as the journal will refrain from attempting to ingratiate itself with the public, so too shall we resist the equally dishonest attempts of the contributors to curry favor


or create an atmosphere of mutual understanding and community. Nothing appears more important to the editor than that the journal should forgo all appearance and simply express the truth of the situation, which is that even the purest will and the most patient labor among the different collaborators will prove unable to create any unity, let alone a community. The journal

should proclaim through the mutual alienness of their contributions how impossible it is in our age to give a voice to any communality – even though this common forum might suggest otherwise – and should make plain to what degree even this connection remains on trial only, while responsibility to substantiate it rests entirely with the editor.

This point touches on the ephemeral aspect of this journal – a point that has been kept in mind throughout. For it is the fair price exacted by the journal’s call for true contemporary relevance. After all, according to a legend in the Talmud, the angels – who are born anew every instant in

countless numbers – are created in order to perish and to vanish into the void, once they have sung their hymn in the presence of God. It is to be hoped that the name of the journal will guarantee it contemporary relevance, which is the only true sort.

Written in 1922; unpublished in Benjamin’s lifetime. Translated by Rodney Livingstone. Marcus Bullock and Michael W Jennings (Eds.), Walter Benjamin Selected Writings Volume-1,1913-1926, Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004, pp.292-296.


1On Benjamin’s plans for the journal-which were never realized-see the Chro­nology in this volume. The journal was to have taken its title from that of the watercolor by Paul Klee which Benjamin had recently acquired.

2The Athenäum, which appeared twice a year between 1 798 and 1 800, was the theoretical organ of the early Romantic movement in Germany. It was edited by Friedrich and August Wilhelm Schlegel, and included contributions by Novalis, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and the editors.-Trans.

3Ulrich von Hutten (1488-1523), Reformation theologian and humanist. See his letter to Willibald Pirckheymer, December 25, 1518.–Trans.

4See Goethe’s Conversations with Eckermann (Gesprdche mit Eckermann), December 25, 1825 .-Trans.

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A Glossary or ‘Atlas of Concepts’ from Alexander Kuge & Oscar Negt, History and Obstinacy



From Alexander Kluge & Oskar Negt, History and Obstinacy. (Ed. Devin Fore), (Trans. and Richard Langston, Cyrus Shahan et al), Brooklyn, NY: MIT Press, 2014, pp.389-391.

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‘Only a gleaming leprosy in the sky’: Hegel and Heine on the Stars



Mascat, ‘Hegel and the advent of modernity: A social ontology of abstraction’,


Later Heine wrote: ‘I no longer know where irony ends and the sky begins’


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