Writing to be deleted
Temporary writing, criticism, Walter Benjamin and Terry Eagleton
Writing on Substack feels quite temporary. A jotting in a notebook. It's quite fleeting. It doesn’t have the status or archival properties of an article. It lacks that type of fixity. It just doesn't feel like it will stick around for very long. In many ways, given it's predominantly an email newsletter format, it’s written under the expectation it will be deleted. It is writing to be deleted.
That also means that it retains something of the moment. Maybe that’s the point of this type of space, to be disposable. It frees up the writer from any notion that the writing will hang around. The posts are retained on my profile page, but they are unlikely to be read much beyond the initial email opens, plus the few people that get to it from other routes.
The temporary and short-term property is perhaps part of the appeal and freedom of Substack. Other types of outlet can feel more permanent even if they aren’t. Looking at writing in more general terms, in the below piece Charles Schifano reflects on its impermanence.
Schifano looks at how even successful writing is usually forgotten fairly quickly. His point is that this impermanence is liberating. It means that we don’t need to agonise as much as we might. If we embrace the likely limited time for which the writing might receive any attention then we can write it on those terms (that might even allow the writing to be more playful in the way that Irina Dumitrescu suggests in the piece below). Maybe it’s best to always write to be deleted.
Last week I was rereading Walter Benjamin’s classic essay on the storyteller, which was published a couple of years ago in a new translation. The Storyteller Essays contains that new translation along with a series of Benjamin’s related pieces from 1922 through to 1936. It’s intended to show how, over time, he developed the ideas that would find their way into that piece. You can see how the threads started to wind themselves together through the fragments and reviews that preceded the storyteller piece. The book also has a section of excerpts by writers who influenced Benjamin or that he cites in the essay.
I learned from Samuel Titan’s editorial introduction that the journal the essay was written for and originally published in only had 35 subscribers. The issue it appeared in ended up being the journal’s final issue. I’m not sure if he knew of it’s small readership, I suspect he must have had at least had some notion. This made me wonder if Benjamin saw his piece as being impermanent or at least that he might have imagined that it would evaporate along with the unstable and esoteric periodical in which it was published. Is this why his writing is so free to explore connections and why he was able to experiment with the combination of threads? If he did expect impermanency or a small readership he would, of course, have been obviously very wrong. Yet the fact he was writing for what he must have known was a small audience may have afforded the freedom with which he roams across ideas. The effort and thought he clearly put into the piece might suggest otherwise though. It feels far from disposable. It’s an amazing piece of writing. Strikingly prescient too.
I’ve long wanted to write something substantial about Benjamin’s work but have never managed to do anything more than a handful of reviews. There are always little thoughts to be built upon within his writings. Writing a book on Benjamin's work would be both appealing and daunting. I have a Benjamin shelf in my office. It contains about a metre of texts. It’s full of collections of his works and a number of books about those writings, including biographical and analytical texts of different types. Looking at the books I’ve gathered over the years suggests how difficult it might be to find anything close to an angle that hasn’t been covered by the existing literature. What is left to be said? Yet I keep gathering new texts, so I’ve not given up - although I tend to use these texts to fuel other thinking about other topics anyway, so it serves that purpose.
There is much in Benjamin's thought, a lot of it is understated, so there might be a hook to be found for something that feels fresh. It might be in the criticism and reviews perhaps. Criticism of criticism. Another idea I had many years ago was to try to interview each of the authors of these books about Benjamin and collect them together in a book under the title Walter Benjamin’s Reception. I’m not sure I'll ever get to that, even though I think it would be a really good way of using dialogue to guide a reader through these works and through Benjamin’s thought. One appealing thing about writing about an enduring thinker like Benjamin is that their presence might lend your writing a bit of a sense of permanence and a longer library shelf-life.
Criticism is a rich aspect of Benjamin’s work. In many regards he was centrally a critic. Of course, along with his intellectual preferences the type of work he did was shaped by his precarious circumstances and his need to scrape a living. Some of his reviews were a peoduct of the conditions. He took inspiration from texts, using them as a way into developing and opening-up ideas. He was open about the types of texts too - which included the types of ephemera used in The Arcades Project, to fairy tales, myths and detective stories through to more literary books. The storyteller essay is an example of that use of criticism. It starts with a book and works outwards from there, spiralling into issues of consumption, information, listening, craft and boredom. A productive form of criticism.
Criticism and reviewing are often sidelined aspects of academic work (I wrote a defence of writing book reviews a few years ago that was republished by the LSE Review of Books last year). Imagine being the social science eqivelent of a literary critic. You could write about and respond to books in the field, reviewing and thinking about debates and ideas. The focus would be on the dialogue around those ideas. Imagine writing review essays as a main outlet rather than more conventional journal articles. Book reviews and studies of thinkers and so on would be the preoccupation of that type of approach.
Alongside that Benjamin essay I’ve also been reading Terry Eagleton's new book Critical Revolutionaries: Five Critics Who Changed The Way We Read. Eagleton, as you’ll probably know, wrote a famous book on Benjamin. This new book deals with five literary critics who Eagleton identifies as having a profound influence on criticism: T.S. Eliot, I.A. Richards, William Empson, F.R. Leavis and Raymond Williams. Probably not a surprising list. I won’t go into details here as I might write a review of it when I’m finished, if there is anything to be said. The book is partly an overview of the approach and style of these five critics. It’s more than an introduction though, it's more reflective than that. Its five long essay type chapters, which contain no subheadings to break them up, delve into some depths. Responding to T.S. Eliot on the importance of criticism Eagleton notes that ‘while criticism still exists, it represents a communal, collaborative enterprise…it provides an antidote to an atomised society’.