FROM THE TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT, NOVEMBER 14, 2008
FLOCKS OF GULLS
363pp. Harvard University Press. £19.95
In Benjamin’s -abilities, Samuel Weber takes an innovative approach to Walter Benjamin’s work. In contrast to the burgeoning secondary literature on Benjamin devoted to broad themes (his “messianism”, his “Marxism”, etc), Weber, who has achieved academic prominence with scholarship on the Frankfurt School, psychoanalysis, deconstruction and media culture, opens up a fertile avenue of interpretation by paying close attention to a stylistic idiosyncrasy running through Benjamin’s oeuvre. He points out that the German thinker repeatedly resorts to a “rather awkward, rather unaccustomed word-form”: the nominalization of verbs through the addition of the suffix “-ability” or “-ibility” (-barkeit in German). In pivotal writings from 1915 to 1940, Benjamin formulates key terms in this fashion, including “communicability”, “criticizability”, “translatability”, “reproducibility”, and “knowability”. Weber suggests that this linguistic quirk reveals a fundamental aspect of Benjamin’s thought: his stress on possibility and potentiality rather than existing reality and accomplished fact.
Weber’s focus on this propensity is faithful to Benjamin’s own sensitivity to language. It is also typical of Weber’s work, which often teases out complexities and infelicities in English translations of seminal German texts (as in his incisive essays on Benjamin and Heidegger collected in Mass Mediauras, 1996). Weber traces a continuity between the two decisive phases of Benjamin’s career: his initial work in philosophy, literary studies and aesthetics during his pursuit of an academic post until 1925, when the University of Frankfurt rejected his Habilitationsschrift (the postdoctoral dissertation required for a professorship in Germany); and his later writing as a freelance cultural critic on new media such as photography and film. In Weber’s reading, several of Benjamin’s early theoretical inquiries already anticipate his influential 1935 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility”, in which Benjamin argues that the modern capacity for technological reproduction deprives the traditional artwork of its unique “aura”. Though Benjamin presented “technological reproducibility” as a radically new facet of the modern era, Weber illustrates how Benjamin’s concept of “translatability” in “The Task of the Translator”, first published in 1923, bears a similar relationship to the literary work as “technological reproducibility” does to the work of art. Benjamin characterizes “translatability” as an intrinsic potential of a work of literature, which enables it to “live on” in a different form: translations belong to what he calls a work’s “afterlife”, its legacy and reception.
Such “-abilities” go beyond what is present and actual, testifying to an open-ended potential for repetition and transformation. Weber explains how this conceptual framework is crucial to grasping the “delocalizing effects” of today’s electronic media.
“Translatability” also lies at the heart of Weber’s own method in Benjamin’s -abilities. Weber is a valuable go-between for English-speaking readers of German theoretical writings. His subject matter in this book is inherently difficult: among other things, he deals in depth with Benjamin’s relations to Kant’s aesthetics, Brecht’s epic theatre, and Carl Schmitt’s political theory. One chapter subtitle is “Agamben Reading Benjamin Reading Kafka Reading Cervantes . . . ”; another is “Reading Wagner with Benjamin and Derrida” – and the reader must follow Weber reading these multiple readings in all their intricacies. Fortunately, the author deftly navigates this labyrinth of interpretations, exhibiting a keen sense of Benjamin’s singularly elusive style of thinking and writing: “The general pattern”, he remarks, “is to take one step forward and the next step back, but slightly to the side, slightly skewed”.
The book concludes with Weber’s translation of a short prose-piece by Benjamin entitled “Seagulls”. Composed in 1930, this allegory of a ship passenger contemplating the flight of “two seagull populations, one the Eastern, the other the Western”, exemplifies what is at once seductive and intimidating about Benjamin’s writing. There is something hauntingly prescient about the voyager’s gaze shifting between East and West at a time when Benjamin was considering embarking for Palestine, and a few years before he would go westward into exile in Paris; it was a fateful choice that would lead to his death by a lethal morphine overdose while detained at the Spanish border with other Jewish refugees fleeing from the Nazi invasion. Ultimately, the seagull-watcher becomes “nothing more than the threshold across which the unnamable messengers, black and white, changed places in the winds”. Weber refers to this as “an image that calls for reading”, but acknowledges that it resists legibility. Those who nonetheless feel compelled by its appeal are the readers best suited to the demands of Benjamin’s -abilities.