Art and (Bare) Life: a discussion, performance and book launch (discussion 5.00pm / book launch 7.00pm) Thursday, 25 April, 2019 | Berlin

Art and (Bare) Life: a discussion, performance and book launch (discussion 5.00pm / book launch 7.00pm)

Thursday, April 25

Hopscotch Reading Room

Kurfürstenstraße 14, 10785 Berlin


A panel / discussion with Josephine Berry (writer and Mute editor), Sacha Kahir (artist, filmmaker and writer) and Anthony Iles (writer and Mute editor) – 5pm – 7pm

Josephine Berry will explore the ideas behind her book and some of the outcomes of the stalled dialectic of art’s blurring with life in a biopolitical and neoliberal age.

Sacha Kahir will discuss ‘mytho- poesies’ and ‘rhythmic attitude’ as political strategies of both camouflage and attack, countering a politics of shame and demanding a blackening of the world, focusing on Franz Fanon, the Black Arts movement, and Negritude. Combining several themes ‘Art and (Bare) Life’ engages with.   

Anthony Iles will give a short talk contending that within the entangled cycles of avant-garde and neo-avant garde artistic and political movements the contestation of biopower is entwined with forms of epistemological contestation over claims to the production of critical knowledge of human society.

We will then open up for a group discussion

Book launch of ‘Art and (Bare) Life: A Biopolitical Inquiry’ (Sternberg Press, 2018) with a talk and reading by Josephine Berry, a performance by Sacha Kahir ‘Bare Life and Social Death from the Ghetto to Instagram and Youtube’ and inputs from speakers  – 7pm – 10pm

Info below….

“When power becomes biopower, resistance becomes power of life, a vital power that cannot be confined within species, environment or the paths of a particular diagram.”

– Giles Deleuze, Foucault, 1988

Deleuze’s insight has been central to Josephine Berry’s book ‘Art and (Bare) Life’ and to her decision to develop a biopolitical reading of modern and contemporary art in order to trace out its reflection of this struggle over life. This endeavour relates to a dual tendency within progressive art today. On the one hand, the engine of development by which art moves forward – through abolishing its limits, through embracing the contingency of ‘external reality’, through figuring the previously excluded, and exposing the power relations that constitute its entire system – draws art ever deeper into direct relationship with social and living systems. On the other, its aim to ‘blur with life’ constantly produces the risk of art’s biopolitical assimilation by power. As progressive art acts, therefore, to ‘change life’ we see it emerge as an area of acute biopolitical contestation, in which capitalist power strains to co-opt and enclose its life-affecting aspects (creative economy; culture-led regeneration, participatory spectacles, soft power) while the new lifeforms that art figures reflexively reveal and contest the radical hierarchisation and normalisation of life (racism, sexism, speciesism) that the world around it, and inside it, relies upon.

Art and culture are used to sell luxury developments, municipal programmes, entire city quarters and nation states. While equally artistic movements have galvanised an eruption of the living world and its diversity of bodies and beings into the space of art and, conversely, the insertion of what Adorno called ‘aesthetic beings’ into social and physiological systems – from UNOVIS’s revolutionary street placards, to Negritude and the Harlem Renaissance’s revalorisation of black life, to Situationist psychogeographic dérives, to land art’s new monumental ways of seeing, to feminist body art’s assault on patriarchy, to a cornucopia of abject or ‘deviant’ performances of ‘bare life’.

“With the advent of neoliberalism, we see the “rise of human capital as a dominant subjective form” that does not presuppose any separation between the spheres of reproduction and production. In this economic and subjective transition, the “sovereignty” of reproductive life (the part of life not directly exchanged for the wage) is abolished and entirely opened to the value form. Within this there is a conspicuously convergent relationship between art’s quest to liberate life as aesthetic praxis, to “change life,” and the regulative and aesthetic control of life inherent within capitalism’s subsumption of reproduction.”  – Art and (Bare) Life, p,26

Join us for a panel / discussion in the afternoon exploring the above themes and artistic movements followed by the launch of the book in the evening.

Posted in Books, Events, Philosophy | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

‘I know exactly what the British people feel when they see the Queen’s head on a £10 note’



Quotation from: Esther Leslie, ‘Notes on Notes’, Inventory, Vol. 4 No.2, 2001, pp.28-47.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

SS Prawer, Marx on Literature/Marx as a Bookworm



One concept the older Marx used more sparingly and cautiously than the younger is that of ‘alienation’ — though the notion does still play a significant part in the Grundrisse of 1857-8 and in Capital.5 Marx never had to revoke, however, his early analysis of the manner in which literature functioned in the context of alienation and reification. In the Paris Manuscripts of 1844 he tried to show some of the ways in which literature may be pressed into the service of a ruling class, and some of the ways in which an age given over to commerce and acquisition may prove as unfavourable to the appreciation as to the creation of great literature. He there attempted to demonstrate how imaginative literature may become an instrument of class hegemony or fall victim to modern alienation — how it may become a casualty of the state of affairs in which man is estranged from nature, from himself and his own activity, from his human essence or ‘species-being’, and from his fellow men. 6 But literature, the young Marx believed, may also help us to gain insight into the mechanics of alienation and reification (passages from Goethe and Shakespeare are adduced in support of this view); it may project images that make us more conscious of our de-humanized state or of what we might be in more favourable circumstances (the earlier Marx adduces Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, the later will cite Dante’s Divine Comedy); it may be used as a weapon in the class-struggle (witness the song of the Silesian weavers that Marx admired so much); and like the other arts it will play its part in man’s cultural rehabilitation (Marx uses the example of music to show how the arts help to create the very taste by which they are enjoyed).

The view of literature projected in the Paris Manuscripts never had to be denied by Marx, even though his growing absorption in economic analysis and the growing definition and complexity of his materialist outlook caused him to modify many of his other views. It is supplemented in the later writings by suggestions of further functions and uses, and by aesthetic formulations wrung from Marx by some practical necessity (like that of being asked to judge a specific work). These, as the present book should have helped to show, interlock to such a remarkable extent that a summary of Marx’s literary beliefs and attitudes need not seem a totally hopeless undertaking.
From: S.S. Prawer, Karl Marx and World Literature. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1978.




5 The relevant passages have been collected by I. Meszaros in Marx’ s Theory of Alienation.
6 Cf. Meszaros, op. cit., p. 14.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Munition of Rocks


Vengeance, vengeance, vengeance, Plagues, plagues, upon the Inhabitants of the earth; Fire, fire, fire, Sword, sword, &c. upon all that bow not down to eternall Majesty, universall love; I’le recover, recover, my wooll, my flax, my money. Declare, declare, feare thou not the faces of any; I am (in thee) a munition of Rock, .&c.
Go up to London, * to London, that great City, write, write, write. And behold I writ, and lo a hand was sent to me, and a roll of a book was therein, which this fleshly hand would have put wings to, before the time. Whereupon it was snatcht out of my hand, & the Roll thrust into my mouth; and I eat it up, and filled my bowels with it, (Eze. 2.8. &c. cha. 3.1,2,3.) where it was as bitter as worm-wood; and it lay broiling, and burning in my stomack, till I brought it forth in this forme.

Text quoted in the flyer left, from Abiezer Coppe, A Fiery Flying Roll (1649)

Posted in Events, flyers, Pamphlets | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Theodor W. Adorno’s Advice to Writers

Memento. – A first precaution for writers: in every text, every piece, every paragraph to check whether the central motif stands out clearly enough. Anyone wishing to express something is so carried away by it that he ceases to reflect on it. Too close to his intention, ‘in his thoughts’, he forgets to say what he wants to say.

No improvement is too small or trivial to be worthwhile. Of a hundred alterations each may seem trifling or pedantic by itself; together they can raise the text to a new level.

One should never begrudge deletions. The length of a work is irrelevant, and the fear that not enough is on paper, childish. Nothing should be thought worthy to exist simply because it exists, has been written down. When several sentences seem like variations on the same idea, they often only represent different attempts to grasp something the author has not yet mastered. Then the best formulation should be chosen and developed further. It is part of the technique of writing to be able to discard ideas, even fertile ones, if the construction demands it. Their richness and vigour will benefit others at present repressed. Just as, at table, one ought not eat the last crumbs, drink the lees. Otherwise, one is suspected of poverty.

The desire to avoid clichés should not, on pain of falling into vulgar coquetry, be confined to single words. The great French prose of the nineteenth century was particularly sensitive to such vulgarity. A word is seldom banal on its own: in music too the single note is immune to triteness. The most abominable clichés are combinations of words, such as Karl Kraus skewered for inspection: utterly and completely, for better or for worse, implemented and effected. For in them the brackish stream of stale language swills aimlessly, instead of being dammed up, thrown into relief, by the precision of the writer’s expressions. This applies not only to combinations of words, but to the construction of whole forms. If a dialectician, for example, marked the turning-point of his advancing ideas by starting with a ‘But’ at each caesura, the literary scheme would give the lie to the unschematic intention of his thought.

The thicket is no sacred grove. There is a duty to clarify all difficulties that result merely from esoteric complacency. Between the desire for a compact style adequate to the depth of its subject matter, and the temptation to recondite and pretentious slovenliness, there is no obvious distinction: suspicious probing is always salutary. Precisely the writer most unwilling to make concessions to drab common sense must guard against draping ideas, in themselves banal, in the appurtenances of style. Locke’s platitudes are no justification for Hamann’s obscurities.

Should the finished text, no matter of what length, arouse even the slightest misgivings, these should be taken inordinately seriously, to a degree out of all proportion to their apparent importance. Affective involvement in the text, and vanity, tend to diminish all scruples. What is let pass as a minute doubt may indicate the objective worthlessness of the whole.

The Echternach dancing procession is not the march of the World Spirit;1 limitation and reservation are no way to represent the dialectic. Rather, the dialectic advances by way of extremes, driving thoughts with the utmost consequentiality to the point where they turn back on themselves, instead of qualifying them. The prudence that restrains us from venturing too far ahead in a sentence, is usually only an agent of social control, and so of stupefaction.

Scepticism is called for in the face of the frequently raised objection that a text, a formulation, are ‘too beautiful’. Respect for the matter expressed, or even for suffering, can easily rationalize mere resentment against a writer unable to bear the traces, in the reified form of language, of the degradation inflicted on humanity. The dream of an existence without shame, which the passion for language clings to even though forbidden to depict it as content, is to be maliciously strangled. The writer ought not acknowledge any distinction between beautiful and adequate expression. He should neither suppose such a distinction in the solicitous mind of the critic, nor tolerate it in his own. If he succeeds in saying entirely what he means, it is beautiful. Beauty of expression for its own sake is not at all ‘too beautiful’, but ornamental, arty-crafty, ugly. But he who, on the pretext of unselfishly serving only the matter at hand, neglects purity of expression, always betrays the matter as well.

Properly written texts are like spiders’ webs: tight, concentric, transparent, well-spun and firm. They draw into themselves all the creatures of the air. Metaphors flitting hastily through them become their nourishing prey. Subject matter comes winging towards them. The soundness of a conception can be judged by whether it causes one quotation to summon another. Where thought has opened up one cell of reality, it should, without violence by the subject, penetrate the next. It proves its relation to the object as soon as other objects crystallize around it. In the light it casts on its chosen substance, others begin to glow.

In his text, the writer sets up house. Just as he trundles papers, books, pencils, documents untidily from room to room, he creates the same disorder in his thoughts. They become pieces of furniture that he sinks into, content or irritable. He strokes them affectionately, wears them out, mixes them up, re-arranges, ruins them. For a man who no longer has a homeland, writing becomes a place to live. In it he inevitably produces, as his family once did, refuse and lumber. But now he lacks a store-room, and it is hard in any case to part from left-overs. So he pushes them along in front of him, in danger finally of filling his pages with them. The demand that one harden oneself against self-pity implies the technical necessity to counter any slackening of intellectual tension with the utmost alertness, and to eliminate anything that has begun to encrust the work or to drift along idly, which may at an earlier stage have served, as gossip, to generate the warm atmosphere conducive to growth, but is now left behind, flat and stale. In the end, the writer is not even allowed to live in his writing.

1. Echternach is a town in Luxemburg, whose dance procession at Whitsun advances in a movement of three steps forward, and two steps backward.



Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia, (Trans. E. F. N Jephcott), London: Verso, 2005, pp.85-87.
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

What is the Proletarian Answer to the Modernist Question?

Nick Hubble formulates the question/answer as follows:

‘In Crisis and Criticism, first published in 1937, Alick West identified the question facing modernist writers in the interwar period: ‘When I do not know any longer who are the “we” to whom I belong, I do not know any longer who “I” am either’ (West 1975: 19). This book will argue that much British proletarian literature of the 1930s may be seen as a response to this ‘modernist question’ of the relationship between the ‘I’ and the ‘we’ and took the form, as suggested by West, of an expansion of modernist techniques and scope rather than a rejection of them.’

— Nick Hubble, The Proletarian Answer to the Modernist Question. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

‘I am another’: Marx’s Objective Subject



Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (pp.336-338)

Whenever real, corporeal man, man with his feet firmly on the solid ground, man exhaling and inhaling all the forces of nature, posits his real, objective essential powers as alien objects by his externalisation, it is not the act of positing which is the subject in this process: it is the subjectivity of objective essential powers, whose action, therefore, must also be something objective. An objective being acts objectively, and he would not act objectively if the objective did not reside in the very nature of his being. He only creates or posits objects, because he is posited by objects—because at bottom he is nature. In the act of positing, therefore, this objective being does not fall from his state of “pure activity” into a creating of the object; on the contrary, his objective product only confirms his objective activity, his activity as the activity of an objective, natural being.

Here we see how consistent naturalism or humanism is distinct from both idealism and materialism, and constitutes at the same time the unifying truth of both. We see also how only naturalism is capable of comprehending the action of world history.

(Man is directly a natural being. As a natural being and as a living natural being he is on the one hand endowed with natural powers, vital powers—he is an active natural being. These forces exist in him as tendencies and abilities—as instincts. On the other hand, as a
natural, corporeal, sensuous, objective being he is a suffering, conditioned and limited creature, like animals and plants. That is to say, the objects of his instincts exist outside him, as objects independent of him; yet these objects are objects that he needs—essential objects, indispensable to the manifestation and confirmation of his essential powers. To say that man is a corporeal, living, real, sensuous, objective being full of natural vigour is to say that he has real, sensuous objects as the object of his being or of his life, or that he can only express his life in real, sensuous objects. To be objective, natural and sensuous, and at the same time to have object, nature and sense outside oneself, or oneself to be object, nature and sense for a third party, is one and the same thing. > Hunger is a natural need; it therefore needs a nature outside itself, an object outside itself, in order to satisfy itself, to be stilled. Hunger is an acknowledged need of my body for an object existing outside it, indispensable to its integration and to the expression of its essential being. The sun is the object of the plant—an indispensable object to it, confirming its life — just as the plant is an object of the sun, being an expression of the life-awakening power of the sun, of the sun’s objective essential power.

A being which does not have its nature outside itself is not a natural being, and plays no part in the system of nature. A being which has no object outside itself is not an objective being. A being which is not itself an object for some third being has no being for its object; i.e., it is not objectively related. Its being is not objective.  A non-objective being is a non-being. Suppose a being which is neither an object itself, nor has an object. Such a being, in the first place, would be the unique being: there would exist no being outside it—it would exist solitary and alone.

For as soon as there are objects outside me, as soon as I am not alone, I am another—another reality than the object outside me. For this third object I am thus a different reality than itself; that is, I am its object. Thus, to suppose a being which is not the object of another being is to presuppose that no objective being exists. As soon as I have an object, this object has me for an object. But a non-objective being is an unreal, non-sensuous thing—a product of mere thought (i.e., of mere imagination)—an abstraction. To be sensuous, that is, to be really existing, means to be an object of sense, to be a sensuous object, and thus to have sensuous objects outside oneself—objects of one’s sensuousness. To be sensuous is to suffer. Man as an objective, sensuous being is therefore a suffering being—and because he feels that he suffers, a passionate being. Passion is the essential power of man energetically bent on its object.

<But man is not merely a natural being: he is a human natural being. That is to say, he is a being for himself. Therefore he is a species-being, and has to confirm and manifest himself as such both in his being and in his knowing. Therefore, human objects are not natural objects as they immediately present themselves, and neither is human sense as it immediately is—as it is objectively—human sensibility, human objectivity. Neither nature objectively nor nature subjectively is directly given in a form adequate to the human being.>

And as everything natural has to come into being, man too has his act of origin—history—which, however, is for him a known history, and hence as an act of origin it is a conscious self-transcending act of origin. History is the true natural history of man (on which more later).

Thirdly, because this positing of thinghood is itself only an illusion, an act contradicting the nature of pure activity, it has to be cancelled again and thinghood denied. Re 3, 4, 5 and 6. (3) This externalisation of consciousness has not merely a negative but a positive significance, and (4) it has this meaning not merely for us or intrinsically, but for consciousness itself. (5) For consciousness the negative of the object, its annulling of itself, has positive significance—i.e., consciousness knows this nullity of the object—because it alienates itself; for in this alienation it knows itself as object, or, for the sake of the indivisible unity of being-for-itself, the object as itself. (6) On the other hand, there is also this other moment in the process, that consciousness has also just as much superseded this alienation and objectivity and resumed them into itself, being thus at home in its other-being as such.

As we have already seen, the appropriation of what is estranged and objective, or the annulling of objectivity in the form of estrangement (which has to advance from indifferent strangeness to real, antagonistic estrangement), means likewise or even primarily for Hegel that it is objectivity which is to be annulled, because it is not the determinate character of the object, but rather its objective character that is offensive and constitutes estrangement for self-consciousness. The object is therefore something negative, self- annulling—a nullity. This nullity of the object has not only a negative but a positive meaning for consciousness, since this nullity of the object is precisely the self-confirmation of the non-objectivity, of the abstraction of itself. For consciousness itself the nullity of the object has a positive meaning because it knows this nullity, the objective being, as its self-alienation; because it knows that it exists only as a result of its own self-alienation….

The way in which consciousness is, and in which something is for it, is knowing. Knowing is its sole act. Something therefore comes to be for consciousness insofar as the latter knows this something.

Knowing is its sole objective relation.

It [consciousness] then knows the nullity of the object (i.e., knows the non-existence of the distinction between the object and itself, the non-existence of the object for it) because it knows the object as its self-alienation; that is, it knows itself—knows knowing as object—be- cause the object is only the semblance of an object, a piece of mystification, which in its essence, however, is nothing else but knowing itself, which has confronted itself with itself and hence has confronted itself with a nullity—a something which has no objectivity outside the knowing. Or: knowing knows that in relating itself to an object it is only outside itself — that it only externalises itself; that it itself only appears to itself as an object — or that that which appears to it as an object is only itself.

On the other hand, says Hegel, there is here at the same time this other moment, that consciousness has just as much annulled and reabsorbed this externalisation and objectivity, being thus at home in its other-being as such.

In this discussion all the illusions of speculation are brought together.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Attested Auditor of Books and Teaching Aid by Walter Benjamin


Attested Auditor of Books
Just as this era is the antithesis of the Renaissance in general, it contrasts in particular with the situation in which the art of printing was discovered. For whether by coincidence or not, printing appeared in Germany at a time when the book in the most eminent sense of the word-the Book of Books­ had, through Luther’s translation, become the people’s property. Now every­thing indicates that the book in this traditional form is nearing its end. Mallarme, who in the crystalline structure of his manifestly traditionalist writing saw the true image of what was to come, was in the Coup de des the first to incorporate the graphic tensions of the advertisement in the printed page. The typographic experiments later undertaken by the Dadaists stemmed, it is true, not from constructive principles but from the precise nervous reactions of these literati, and were therefore far less enduring than Mallarme’s, which grew out of the inner nature of his style. But for this very reason they show the contemporary relevance of what Mallarme, monadi­cally, in his hermetic room, had discovered through a preestablished har­mony with all the decisive events of our times in economics, technology, and public life. Script — having found, in the book, a refuge in which it can lead an autonomous existence — is pitilessly dragged out into the street by adver­tisements and subjected to the brutal heteronomies of economic chaos. This is the hard schooling of its new form. If centuries ago it began gradually to lie down, passing from the upright inscription to the manuscript resting on sloping desks before finally taking itself to bed in the printed book, it now begins just as slowly to rise again from the ground. The newspaper is read more in the vertical than in the horizontal plane, while film and advertise­ment force the printed word entirely into the dictatorial perpendicular. And before a contemporary finds his way clear to opening a book, his eyes have been exposed to such a blizzard of changing, colorful, conflicting letters that the chances of his penetrating the archaic stillness of the book are slight. Locust swarms of print, which already eclipse the sun of what city dwellers take for intellect, will grow thicker with each succeeding year. Other de­mands of business life lead further. The card index marks the conquest of three-dimensional writing, and so presents an astonishing counterpoint to the three-dimensionality of script in its original form as rune or knot notation. (And today the book is already, as the present mode of scholarly production demonstrates, an outdated mediation between two different filing systems. For everything that matters is to be found in the card box of the researcher who wrote it, and the scholar studying it assimilates it into his own card index). But it is quite beyond doubt that the development of writing will not indefinitely be bound by the claims to power of a chaotic academic and commercial activity; rather, quantity is approaching the mo­ment of a qualitative leap when writing, advancing ever more deeply into the graphic regions of its new eccentric figurativeness, will suddenly take possession of an adequate material content. In this picture-writing, poets, who will now as in earliest times be first and foremost experts in writing, will be able to participate only by mastering the fields in which (quite unobtrusively) it is being constructed: statistical and technical diagrams. With the founding of an international moving script, poets will renew their authority in the life of peoples, and find a role awaiting them in comparison to which all the innovative aspirations of rhetoric will reveal themselves as antiquated daydreams.


Teaching Aid

Principles of the Weighty Tome, or How to Write Fat Books
I. The whole composition must be permeated with a protracted and wordy
exposition of the initial plan.
II. Terms are to be included for conceptions that, except in this definition,
appear nowhere in the whole book.
III. Conceptual distinctions laboriously arrived at in the text are to be
obliterated again in the relevant notes.
N. For concepts treated only in their general significance, examples should
be given; if, for example, machines are mentioned, all the different kinds of
machines should be enumerated.
V. Everything that is known a priori about an object is to be consolidated
by an abundance of examples.
VI. Relationships that could be represented graphically must be ex­
pounded in words. Instead of being represented in a genealogical tree, for
example, all family relationships are to be enumerated and described.
VII. Numerous opponents who all share the same argument should each
be refuted individually.

The typical work of modern scholarship is intended tu be read like a
catalogue. But when shall we actually write books like catalogues? If the
deficient content were thus to determine the outward form, an excellent
piece of writing would result, in which the value of opinions would be
marked without their being thereby put on sale.

The typewriter will alienate the hand of the man of letters from the pen
only when the precision of typographic forms has directly entered the
conception of his books. One might suppose that new systems with more
variable typefaces would then be needed. They will replace the pliancy of
the hand with the innervation of commanding fingers.

A period that, constructed metrically, afterward has its rhythm upset at a
single point yields the finest prose sentence imaginable. In this way a ray of
light falls through a chink in the wall of the alchemist’s cell, to light up
gleaming crystals, spheres, and triangles.


Walter Benjamin, ‘One Way Street’, in Walter Benjamin Selected Writings Volume-1,1913-1926. Ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings, Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004, pp.444–488, pp.456–458.
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Ideal of the Broken-Down: On the Neapolitan Approach to Things Technical (1926) By Alfred Sohn-Rethel

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.[2] Between 1924 and 1927 he remained in Italy, “mainly in Capri, where Benjamin and Bloch were staying”,[1] 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 [1926], 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.

Posted in Books, walks | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mauss’ Gift


The war of 1914–18 […] almost wiped out the team of brilliant younger scholars whom Durkheim had taught, inspired and gathered around him […] [Mauss] took over the labours of his dead colleagues.’, pp.v–vi

[Mauss] not only wrote about social solidarity and collective sentiments. He expressed them in his own life. For him the group of Durkheim and his pupils and colleagues had a kind of collective mind, the material representation of which was its product the Année [Sociologique]. And if one belongs to others and not to oneself, which is one of the themes, perhaps the basic theme, of the present book [The Gift], one expresses one’s attachment by subordinating one’s own ambitions to the common interest. On the few occasions I met Mauss I received the impression that this was how he thought and felt, and his actions confirmed it. He took over the labours of his dead colleagues. Most unselfishly, for it meant neglecting his on researches, he undertook the heavy task of editing, completing and publishing the manuscripts left by Durkheim, Hubert (who died in 1927), Hertz and many others. — Marcel Mauss, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies, Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press, 1954, pp.v–vi.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment