I know very little about the origin or original publication of this text, perhaps more about it will turn up with the Brill translation and republication of Sohn-Rethel’s major works. We know Sohn-Rethel spent some time in and around Naples where he seems to have hung out with Walter Benjamin and other German intellectuals associated with the Institut für Sozialforschung. ‘From 1920 Sohn-Rethel was a friend of the philosopher Ernst Bloch, and he met Walter Benjamin in 1921. He came to live in Positano in 1923–24, and Naples: philosophy of the broken recorded his fascination with the relaxed Neapolitan attitude to technology. Between 1924 and 1927 he remained in Italy, “mainly in Capri, where Benjamin and Bloch were staying”, meeting Adorno and Kracauer also at Capri in 1924.’ This text shares Benjamin’s fascination with Naples’ ‘rich barbarism’, a city he wrote on with Asja Lacis in 1925. Sohn-Rethel’s text is indeed Benjaminian itself, recalling One Way Street and the ‘Moscow Diary’ in its attempt to read a city and historical moment through it’s outward signs and objects, attributing to Neopolitan material culture a kind of practical anti-modernism which transforms the rational organisation of the technical world in an impassioned disarray. Benjamin posits as operative in Naples a kind of porosity between building and action which overcomes the rational ordering of other European cities ‘to become a theatre of new, unforseen constellations.’ Sohn-Rethel suggests the Neopolitan attitude to technology, in practice directly subordinates ‘function’ to possession, value to use. Whilst patronising and colonial in its attribution to the Neopolitan ‘natives’ of an ‘inventive capacity is, like that of children’, S-R’s formulation goes further than Benjamin’s attention to ‘the passion for improvisation’ through which the city’s inhabitants articulate and dramatise built space,to arrive almost at a theory of the brokenness, of the broken-down (which suggests a process and not a state), of technical objects which is a way of life there.
Alfred Sohn-Rethel, Das Ideal des Kaputten. Über neapolitanische Technik , in: Das Ideal des Kaputten (Bremen, 1990), pp.33–38, p. 35f. This version copied from:
In Naples, technical devices are, as a rule, broken: it is only under exceptional circumstances and due to some astonishing accident that something will be found to be intact. As time goes by, one begins to have the impression that everything is already broken before it leaves the factory. What we are not talking about are the door handles, which in Naples appear to be among the mythical entities, and are only fixed to doors for symbolic purposes—which is because the doors of the city are only there to be left open and, when they are slammed shut by the current of a draught, to once again open with a horrified shrieking and shaking throughout their entire bodies; Naples with closed doors, that would be like Berlin without roofs on the houses—no, what we are talking about are truly mechanical devices and other suchlike appliances. Not, however, that they are broken because they do not work: for the Neapolitan it is only when things are broken that they begin to work. Even when the wind is up, he will take to sea in the kind of motorboat which we would hardly dare to set foot in. And although things never go as might be expected, somehow they always go well. As if it were the most natural thing in the world, he manages, for example, although just three meters from the cliffs upon which the surge of the waves threaten to smash him, to remove the petrol canister into which water has penetrated and refill it without the motor cutting out. If necessary, he could even, at the same time, rustle up some coffee for his passengers on the motor. Or, in a display of matchless mastery, he succeeds in restarting his broken-down car by, in some impossible manner, attaching a small piece of wood which just happened to be lying in the street—only, that is, until it soon, and this much is certain, once again breaks down. He detests the very notion of lasting repairs and would rather do without a car altogether. What is more, the whole thing is something of which he is not even aware. He would respond with an astonished gaze if anyone were to tell him that this is, indeed, no way to make use of a motor or, for that matter, any other technical device. A view which he would go so far as to energetically contradict: for him the essence of technology lies in making what is broken work. And in the handling of defect machines he is a master whose capacities go well beyond the mere technical. In his tinkering proficiency, always characterised, as it is, by great presence of mind, and thanks to which, in the face of danger, he can often, with laughable ease, turn the very defect with which he is confronted into the advantage that saves the hour, he does indeed have something in common with the American. But, his inventive capacity is, like that of children, greater, and, like children, he always has luck on his side, and, again like children, chance tends to serve him well. That which is intact, on the other hand, that which so to speak simply works, arouses in him misgivings and doubt, because the very fact that it simply works means that one can never know how and to what end it will work.
True, when it turns out that way and, when tested, the thing does in fact function, and indeed in more or less the way he had assumed, he falls into a fit of often patriotic rapture—Evviva L’Italia!—and readily tends to see his country as the very acme of world civilisation. But he never really trusts this stuff and nonsense; in the course of half a century of service, the railway between Castellammare and Naples might gradually have become something of an everyday occurrence; nevertheless, at the last minute, one can never really be sure where the train will take you. At least, that is, according to the philosophy delineated, upon my enquiry, by the station master. At the end of the day, there is nothing one can do, what works works; which cannot even be credited as a great achievement: force majeure, and the ways of God are unfathomable. In any case, the fact that things do eventually breakdown makes them all the more enchanting. And wherever an opportunity presents itself, it therefore happens with the greatest possible speed, and more often than even the most circumspect of men would find necessary. Which might have something to do with the climate, but whatever, it is all for the best, because it is only when things have broken down that one can begin to contemplate the fact that they will, sooner or later, work again. On the other hand, real danger is posed by elements such as electricity, which are apparently indestructible, and which always leave one wondering if they are even of this world. Of course, Naples has its own very special place for this phenomenon.
Such inscrutable spiritual beings as these flow together uninhibitedly with the nimbus of the religious powers, and the festive Osram bulb is united, in Neapolitan saintly images, with the Madonna’s aureole—much to the fascination of reverential spirits. However, one would have great difficulty finding anything more lamentable than the common, that is the actually intended, utilisation of electricity in Naples. One’s heart is seized by positively cosmic pity when faced with the wretched light bulb which, as it in its deathly woe dangles sadly from the ceiling, finds itself ridiculed and derided for its hopeless endurance. Nor is there any explanation for the iron law, according to which, every couple of days or so, the tramscome to a standstill due to a power cut: La corrente non c’è is the simple phrase usually preferred to explain this divine intervention. It is possible that the telephone would work very well indeed if the numbers did not go their own way and the official phone book, or at least telephone enquiries, could somehow be let in on the secret of these numbers. Well, whatever the details of the matter might be, in Naples all this no longer belongs to the realm of the purely technical. What is conceived as technical is that which really begins where man makes use of his veto against the closed and hostile automatism of machines and plunges himself into their world. And when he does, he proves to be leaps and bounds ahead of technical laws. For he does not take control of the machines by studying the manuals and learning how to use them, but by discovering his own body inside the machine. To begin with, he has destroyed the misanthropic magic of intact mechanical functions, but he then installs himself in the unmasked monster and its artless soul and enjoys this literal incorporation: ownership which gives him limitless power, the power of utopian existential omnipotence. He now shuns the technical presumptuousness of the instruments thus incorporated; with his incorruptible gaze he has seen through the illusion and deception of their mere appearance: he knows a piece of wood or some old rag does the job just as well. Of course, the violence of incorporation has to be acted out every hour in a victorious crash. With hair-raising verve he races around in his car, and if this recklessness does not result in something being smashed up, a wall along the side of the street, or a donkey-cart, or even his own car, then it has all been a waste of time. One never really owns something until it has really been knocked around, otherwise it is just not worth it; it has to be used and abused, run down until there’s practically nothing left of it. But by and large the Neapolitan’s relationship to his machines is well-meaning, if somewhat brutal: just the same, in fact, as his attitude to his donkey.
Freed, for the better part, from the limits imposed by their intended purposes, technical devices take the most extraordinary diversions and,with an effect as surprising as it is convincing, assume entirely new raisons d’être. The role of the Osram light bulb in the higher glory of the Madonna has already been mentioned. A further example would be the wheel-motor, which, liberated from the constraints of some smashed-up motorbike, and revolving around a slightly eccentric axis, whips the cream in a latteria. It is, in these unexpected ways, that modern technology is of the greatest service to the practices of this strange throwback to the seventeenth century, surviving, as it does, with the help of electric trams and telephones; of the greatest service also to the freedom of this life, and, what is more, most reluctantly serving as a foil to it. Mechanisms cannot, in this city, function as civilisation’s continuum, the role for which they are predestined: Naples turns everything on its head. In Naples modern technology fares just about as well as that forlorn pair of rails which, lonely and rusty, run down the street on Monte Santo. The battle-cry of bold plans, which, God only knows when, was uttered here,of all places, is now long faded and forgotten. But, with the incomparable energy of a fully-functioning system, jets of water leap out, are channelled along the rails, and spray, to their sheer delight, into the mouths of street urchins, and the neighbourhood rejoices in this more-than-welcome source. This is how, in this city, the most complex technical creations are united to perform the simplest tasks, hitherto considered inconceivable. To this end they are, against their will, completely remodelled, rendering them entirely redundant for their proper purposes.