Bracketed Benjamin

On Fredric Jameson's new book on the works of Walter Benjamin.

If I had access to my office, which I currently don't, I would have scoured through my copies of Walter Benjamin's collected writings looking for some sort of snippet with which to open this piece. It's likely that there would have been something fitting in those volumes - something on the life of a writer perhaps, or maybe on the work of criticism, the problems of concepts, the limits of representation or maybe on the missteps of biography. Walter Benjamin is a writer with a thought for almost any occasion.

I suspect that this analytical versatility is part of the reason for his endurance and also why he remains an enigma of sorts. Scattered with insights, his writings connect into all sorts of matters. Benjamin's partial but evocative tracing of modernity leaves many threads for the reader to pull. Not least, as I try to recall his oeuvre at a distance from my bookshelves, his famous vision, inspired by Paul Klee, of us moving backwards into the future feels particularly prescient at the moment.

The difficulty is how to make sense of this type of ranging constellation of thoughts in something close to their entirety. Titled like a 1960s spy thriller, Fredric Jameson's lively new book The Benjamin Files represents a further attempt to do just that. The existence of this book feels almost inevitable: Jameson is a writer who seemingly had to write something about Benjamin. The surprising thing is that this kind of literary event is only just happening now. I had to double check that this wasn't a reissue of a classic.

In its pages Jameson finds himself roaming across Benjamin's ranging thoughts, looking at, as he puts it, the ‘Benjaminian logic of separation and discontinuity’. Quite a task. The book starts to really warm up at around 20 pages in, seemingly fuelled by an enthusiasm for particular texts. Following this pattern, the text moves in ebbs and flows as Jameson gets caught in the waves of Benjamin's ideas, some propel him more than others. The attempts to resist existing and established readings of well-known essays is perhaps where the book finds most momentum. Jameson articulates a profound feel and fondness for Benjamin's works, adding fresh insights in an already busy field. In this instance it is the embracing of the cross-currents that clears-out new spaces.

Jameson's analysis could be described as multi-dimensional. Operating across scales it draws-in sentences, phrases and even gaps, moving through to styles, writing forms and observations and outwards to Benjamin's theories, ideas and thematic streams. Jameson looks at where Benjamin stops as well as where he goes, using this to think about the limits and boundaries implicit in these writings. We end up with a picture of Benjamin as a thoughtful writer who leaves little traces of his intentions in the content and in the forms of its delivery. Of course, the risk with this, if it matters at all (which it doesn't), is that more can be read into the texts than might be there.

As with its subject matter, there are moments where Jameson's analysis can be overwhelming, maybe even disorientating. The complexity of the subject is partly managed through the strikingly extensive use of brackets. Jameson tucks regular thoughts into bracketed spaces, allowing backward and forward glimpses into the lines of argument or appending little flights of speculation. These appear on almost every page or two (sometimes more than once on a page). Those frequently called upon brackets reveal a struggle to contain things.

These bracketed moments feel almost like jottings that can't quite fit into the text proper. It's like Jameson can't quite bring himself to prevent these spillages (or to delete them). So we get the narrator popping out of the text - a commentary on the commentary. I suspect Benjamin would have approved of the storytelling and it does add a kind of shared-insider-feel to these discussions. Those brackets are almost a central feature of what Jameson is doing. The bracket usage becomes a kind of method in itself. It begs the question if there is something about Benjamin that provokes this particular technique. Perhaps the layering of ideas and thoughts calls for bracketing to make them manageable. Or perhaps it is about creating anchor points to hold together the mobile ideas.

Bracketed text included, the analysis offered in The Benjamin Files is varied and relentless. Jameson observes that with Benjamin ‘each directed gaze is a sentence in the making’. And so an observational and unstinting analytic glance fuels the texts. Jameson turns to Goethe's evocative notion of ‘tender empiricism’ to capture Benjamin's combinations of observation, excerpt and theory. It may only be mentioned a handful of times, yet this notion of tender empiricism is perhaps as close as Jameson's gets to a central take on Benjamin's approach. The term does somehow capture the balance and blend of those texts. Although it might jar a little with aspects of Benjamin's more jagged critical reviews on one side and perhaps with some of the more watercolour moments in his writings on place on the other. Also, I'm note sure that Benjamin’s stop-start narrative-sparse montages of the materiality of modern life entirely fit this description either - they may be the product of a sensitivity toward the subtleties of modernity but they perhaps don't fit comfortably into a notion of tender empiricism. This may be why Jameson doesn't labour the point, plus he offers plenty of other overviews and flickering analyses that suggest Benjamin's approach is not easily contained in a single phrase. Even within Benjamin's essays, Jameson claims, the reader can find the ‘centre of gravity significantly displaced from section to section'. Not so much wandering then as actively adjusting the focus. It is notable that Jameson pushes against the often relied up flâneur as being a singular way into Benjamin's thinking.

A key moment seemingly arrives when the book turns to one of Benjamin's key concepts, if you can think of it in such terms. Jameson notes that:

‘Constellations are, in other words, a kind of montage (…) whose figural implication lies in difference rather than identity. They are a visible argument against system or, if you like, against the systematicity of philosophy itself.’ (77)

A concept for the analysis of difference as well as relationality, Jameson's discussion of constellations seems to hint at his wider take on Benjamin. Appearing as montage, it is a mode of thinking against systems. It is against being systematised yet sections of the constellation still need to be isolated, hence the brackets.