Unpacking my library

Mark Woods posted an excerpt from Walter Benjamin’s essay “Unpacking my Library” at the exact moment that I was unpacking my own.

I’ve adopted a strategy of imposed order on my books, because as I get older I find that I can’t instantly remember where certain titles are when I need them. There is nothing more frustrating than wanting to confirm or explore something and then having to search half the day to find it. So, I use Delicious Library to record the books as I place them, for reasons of diminishing space, into numbered boxes rather than neatly arrayed (and spine bleaching) rows. Doing archival work inspired my approach. Archives generally lack a consistent organizing strategy but instead are simply placed into random arrays in numbered boxes with a finding guide. That’s how my boxes are done—simply frozen for a moment in the order they fell within reach of the computer, and easily found with a computer’s help. I found Benjamin’s Illuminations in a moment.

Once you have approached the mountains of cases in order to mine the books from them and bring them to the light of day—or, rather, of night—what memories crowd in upon you! Nothing highlights the fascination of unpacking more clearly than the difficulty of stopping this activity . . .

Oh! bliss of the collector, bliss of the man of leisure! Of no one has less been expected, no one has a greater sense of well being than the man who has been able to carry on his disreputable existence in the mask of Spitzweig’s “Bookworm.” For inside him there are spirits, or at least little genii, which have seen to that for a collector—and I mean a real collector, a collector as he ought to be—ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them. So I have erected one of his dwellings, with books as building stones, before you, and now he is going to disappear inside, as is only fitting. (Zohn trans, 66-67)

What I find most interesting about the essay is that it suggests that arrangements of books share the order/disorder of memory. This order is neither alphabetic nor chronological; it is thematic and based in moments, not taxonomies. In my case, this thought was in box B018.

Art Sinsabaugh, Collector

I think looking back as far as about 37 when I was a kid with a cheep, chintzy camera that I had, I really was documenting my home town. In color. Kodachrome slide stuff. So I think it’s just a continuation of that and I don’t think … I think of these things as a collection, like I used to collect sand, I used to collect stamps, coins, rocks … when I had different interests that was supportive or generated the interest I don’t know what. I just think of this as another form of collecting. I know that when I went to Champaign from Chicago I had a hell of a job getting started again, and I suddenly realized that I shouldn’t be bringing back [?] posts and doors and rocks I should stop that. And after about two months I started photographing, bringing back photographs. Otherwise, bringing back the objects was a substitute for it.

Art Sinsanbaugh interviewed by Ralph Gibson (1978) for the book Landscape (1980)

I find the contrast between Art Sinsabaugh’s take on collecting and Sam Wagstaff’s to be really interesting, especially given the parallel disavowal of art. For Wagstaff, collecting photographs was fetishistic in a private sense—a search for erotic pleasure. For Sinsabaugh, it is an extension of seizing the real world and real world objects in a simpler pleasure of possession. Photographs are documentary, but in the sense that you get to take bits of the world home like a souvenir. I seem to recall that Susan Sontag used a line something like “to photograph is to collect the world.”

Continue reading “Art Sinsabaugh, Collector”

What if?

George Steiner offers a fascinating conjecture in his introduction to The Origin of German Tragic Drama by Walter Benjamin:

Allegory and emblem had begun to be studied seriously before Benjamin. Nevertheless, his contribution is at once solid and original. It draws on, it is exactly contemporaneous with Erwin Panofsky’s and Fritz Saxl’s monograph on Dürer’s “Melencolia, I” published in 1923. Benjamin was among the very first to recognize the seminal power of what was to become the Warburg Institute approach to renaissance and baroque art and symbolism. He sought personal contact with the group, but Panofsky’s response to the Ursprung (did he read it?) was dismissive. This marks, I think, the most ominous moment in Walter Benjamin’s career. It is the Aby Warburg group, first in Germany and later at the Warburg Institute in London, which would have afforded Benjamin a genuine intellectual and psychological home, not the Horkheimer-Adorno Institute for Research in the Social Sciences with which his relations were to prove so ambivalent and, during his life time, sterile. Panofsky could have rescued Benjamin from isolation; an invitation to London might have averted his early death. (19)

While Benjamin might have found a more immediately rewarding audience for his dialectical images among the group responsible for iconology, it seems to me that critics would have been deprived of their favorite “failed academic” to hold up as an example of the evil nature of the university system. I think that Benjamin’s insistence on viewing images through the lens of his own peculiar version of linguistic philosophy would have created just as much resistance in other environments. But still, it would have been nice if someone could have provided him with a ticket out of Europe before 1940.

One Down

I had to go ahead and turn in a design proposal pertaining to adapting rhetorical heuristics into three dimensional multi-user computer environments tonight. I should feel relieved that I’ve finally let the thing go, but ultimately I feel pretty badly about it. I’ve already presented the concept to the programmers last week. They seemed to like it—and more importantly, the technology is available to do it within their current alpha state.

The thing that makes me sad is that I only just now figured out why a 3D environment might be a good thing for writers; the answer came from completely unrelated research into Walter Benjamin. In “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” Benjamin argues that new media (in his example, film) would profit from paying attention to architecture.

Buildings, according to Benjamin, are apprehended in a state of distraction—they do not rely on steady concentration to make sense of what they are all about. Aside from an architectural critic who might ponder them for hours, normal people don’t. They navigate buildings through habit. Benjamin saw film, with its emphasis on shock and distraction, to be a possible instrument for changing people’s habits—learning not in spite of a lack of concentration, but because of it. Apprehension through distraction. Buildings do not require, and seldom reward, sustained concentration.

Art, in Benjamin’s view, is apprehended primarily through concentration. I would say the same of writing in general. The confusing 3D interface does not seem a useful tool for someone concentrating on producing coherent writing. However, the set of relationships revealed through the distracting projection of the same words or concepts into three-dimensional space might be pedagogically effective for visualizing new relationships in a state of distraction. Like games, a 3D writing interface might promote entirely new habits. A 2D writing interface, however, remains essential as a method of concentrating attention.

Of course, this thought was too ill-formed to include in my final submission. I doubt that the programmers would have cared that much about it anyway. But I do. Adorno and most of Benjamin’s compatriots wrote at length against his proposed “learning through distraction.” They felt any dilution of concentration was a bad thing. I’m not so sure.


Walking away from class yesterday, there was a strange conversation:

Mind if I ask you something?

No, go right ahead

I’m trying to keep things together that have come out during the class so I just have to ask—you haven’t ever joined a circus have you?

No, I can’t say that I have.

Sometimes it seems like you’ve done almost everything, so I just wanted to make sure that there was something you hadn’t done or been involved with.

Today, the first thing I read was this:

Continue reading “Experience”

Filling Station

The construction of life is at present in the power far more of facts than of convictions, and of such facts as have scarcely ever become the basis of convictions. Under the circumstances, true literary activity cannot aspire to take place within a literary framework; this is, rather, the habitual expression of sterility.

Significant literary effectiveness can come into being only in a strict alternation between action and writing; it must nurture the inconspicuous forms that fit its influence in active communities better than does the pretentious, universal gesture of the book—in leaflets, brochures, articles, and placards. Only this prompt language shows itself actively equal to the moment.

Opinions are to the vast apparatus of social existence what oil is to machines: one does not go up to a turbine and pour machine oil over it; one applies a little to hidden spindles and joints that one has to know.

Walter Benjamin, from “One Way Street” (written 1923-26, published 1928)

April 1939

April, 1939

The technological reproducibility of the artwork changes the relation of the masses to art. The extremely backward attitude towards a Picasso painting changes into a highly progressive reaction to a Chaplin film.

The progressive reaction is characterized by an immediate, intimate fusion of pleasure—pleasure in seeing and experiencing—with an attitude of expert appraisal. Such a fusion is an important social index. As is clearly seen in the case of painting, the more reduced the social impact of an art form, the more widely criticism and enjoyment of it diverge in the public.

The conventional is uncritically enjoyed, while the truly new is criticized with aversion. With regard to the cinema, the critical and uncritical attitudes of the public coincide. The decisive reason for this is that nowhere more than in the cinema are the reactions of the individuals, which together make up the massive reaction of the audience, determined by the imminent concentration of reactions into a mass. No sooner are these reactions manifest than they regulate one another.

Again, the comparison with painting is fruitful. A painting has always exerted a claim to be viewed primarily by a single person or by a few. The simultaneous viewing of paintings by a large audience, as happens in the nineteenth century, is an early symptom of the crisis in painting, a crisis triggered not only by photography but, in a relatively independent way, by the artwork’s claim to the attention of the masses.

Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Reproducibility” (third version)