In Walter Benjamin’s remarkable essay “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” there is an especially remarkable passage that concisely describes the gesture of modernity. In the context of a discussion of the “shock” of urban experience and contemporary cinematographic and photographic instruments, Benjamin presents the figure of the flâneur, the dissociated observer who studies the physiognomies of the urban experience — the faces, clothes, postures, and gestures of a metropolitan culture. Benjamin pauses over the isolation of the flâneur, and quotes Valéry on the sources of this isolation: “‘The feeling of being dependent on others, which used to be kept alive by need, is gradually blunted by the smooth functioning of the social mechanism. Any improvement of this mechanism eliminates certain modes of behavior and emotions.’” Benjamin continues,
“Comfort isolates; on the other hand, it brings those enjoying it closer to mechanization. In the mid-nineteenth century, the invention of the match brought forth a number of innovations which have one thing in common: a single abrupt movement of the hand triggers a process of many steps. This development is taking place in many areas. A case in point is the telephone, where the lifting of the receiver has taken the place of the steady movement that used to be required to crank the older models. With regard to countless movements of switching, inserting, pressing, and the like, the ‘snapping’ [Knipsen — as in “punching” a ticket, or “snapping” one’s fingers or a photograph, a dual meaning that exists in both English and German] by the photographer has had the greatest consequences. Henceforth a touch of the finger sufficed to fix an event for an unlimited period of time.” Benjamin almost immediately returns to his thesis, using the bridge of the photographer’s button to lead back into his ongoing explanation of the social function of cinema, traffic signals, and related abrupt stimuli of his contemporary urban environment. Though there are areas of his argument elsewhere that suggest something of this passage — such as his mention, later in the same essay, of the distinction between “practice,” Übung, and “training,” Dressur, in the transition from skilled handicraft to unskilled mass production — he never brings up this idea of a gesture of modernity again. However, the transition he draws, from the “steady movement” of the crank to the “single abrupt movement” of the match is a matter of enormous and as yet little-explored importance to our understanding of his work, both as a philosopher of technological modernity — and as a graphologist.
Gershom Scholem, in conversation with George Steiner as recounted in Steiner’s lecture “To Speak of Walter Benjamin,” listed twelve prerequisites a complete reading of Benjamin. These include the historical (the experience of the emancipation of the German-Jewish bourgeoise, the culture of youth movements and discipleship), the literary (the evolution of the German language, the place of translation in German philology), and the personal (the sociology of drug-taking, Benjamin’s failure to enter the academy or to form lasting intimate relationships). The two items which Scholem presents as critical are the twelfth and last, theology; and the seventh, graphology — without understanding that, said Scholem as quoted by Steiner, “then ‘nichts anfangen,’ ‘no use.’” (16) Steiner says that he is unsure why this is an important prerequisite, but suggests two major details: because the practice of graphology provided Benjamin with much-needed funds, and the theory provided Benjamin with ways of thinking about “enigmas of similitude.” Most of the items on Scholem’s list have been studied with varying degrees of depth since Benjamin’s work came to the attention of the humanities community, but Benjamin’s graphology, mysteriously, does not yet have the level of critical attention accorded to his theology, his Marxism, or his youthful years in the Wandervögel.
The mystery of this lack of attention can be easily resolved by pointing out the disrepute and disuse of graphology. Historically, it is one of a series of popular practices based on the interpretation of human anatomy; in our current understanding, it is of no more value than palmistry, and vastly worse for its close association with physiognomy, phrenology, and a group of related “racial sciences” of infamous memory. As a consequence, it has no academic presence save by association, unlike Marxism, theology, and so forth, which are often already thoroughly understood by readers approaching Benjamin. Additionally, despite Scholem’s emphasis on it, it does not appear in Benjamin’s texts with anything akin to the obvious presence of drug experiments or German philology or Marxism. The place of graphology, on first reading, is one of notes, mentions, asides, a radio talk, a few book reviews; many of the incidental graphological moments could be less examples of graphology in practice than of the customary intensity of observation which Benjamin brought to whatever was before him. In an essay on the novels of Julien Green, he writes: “In the unsullied nobility of his voice, there is something that seems to fend off too many words; and like his voice, his handwriting — with its transparent, unadorned letters — advances almost in silence. One is tempted to speak of letters that have learned renunciation.” As an observation, it is almost perfect, and worlds away from the crudity of conventional graphology, which reads voluptuousness into the lobe of a lowercase g, and a miser’s hoarding in the restraint of serifs.
This, however, is the key. The crudity of graphology as a doctrine does not impair Benjamin’s philosophy, because he does not partake of it: rather, it provides him with an almost open field in which to develop his own ideas. Benjamin wrote with theology; he struggled with Marxism; he encountered the poetry of Baudelaire, the writings and conversation of Brecht. Graphology, by virtue of being facile, dubious, and vaguely and poorly argued even in its primary texts, provided a frictionless space in which he could think in a fashion piecemeal and undisturbed — much as he could in other areas then free of much theoretical apparatus, like children’s books and old toys. As he writes of the “new type of researcher” in a 1933 book review (under the pseudonym Detlef Holz), he himself has “the capacity to be at home in marginal domains.” (2, 670) It was in this margin to thought that he could sketch an unfinished but thoroughly relevant theory of the constitutive gesture in a moment of profound historical transition.
Benjamin’s study of graphology is a facet of his larger researches into mimesis and the mimetic faculty — studies which incorporate dance, astrology, physiognomy, forms of prognostication and other activities in which the human eye treated the visible world as legible. This branch of his thought reaches its blossom in a brief study, “On the Mimetic Faculty,” written between the summer and fall of 1933. (2, 720-722) In it he sums up the themes of previous drafts and notes: There is a natural tendency to “the similar” [Ähnlichen] in nature (“one need think only of mimicry”) that is reflected in an biological “faculty” [Vermögen] to “become similar and to behave mimetically.” Benjamin presents the imitative behavior of the child — who “plays at being not only a shopkeeper or a teacher, but also a windmill and a train” — and various behaviors of “ancient peoples,” whose powerful mimetic faculty has grown “fragile” in “modern man.” As the physical capacity for mimesis and mimetic sensibility has decayed in immediate lived experience, it has moved into language, and specifically into written script — “a canon according to which the meaning of nonsensuous similarity can be at least partly clarified.” Written script has become the refuge for the mimetic faculty that connects “microcosm and macrocosm [Mikro- und der Makrokosmos],” the “law of similarity” that governs human consciousness and the natural world alike; and the interpretation of written script therefore falls to the domain of graphology.
We will return shortly to this “nonsensuous similarity”; for now, it must be first observed that Scholem’s seventh prerequisite begins to make definite sense. Benjamin’s graphology gathered several of his disparate concerns into one: the recurrent idea of mimesis and the “mimetic faculty,” of course; and the culture of similarity, which is in relation to, but distinct from, analogy, allegory, and equation; physiognomies and “elective affinities,” which brings in a thread of European thought that runs from Lavater and Goethe to Benjamin’s admired contemporary Ludwig Klages; the capacity for “physiognomic interpretation” that Benjamin was teaching himself to bring to bear on the “fossils” of the Belle Époque; elements of his theory of technics as the interface between humans and nature, expressed by relations between the two; the study of Surrealism and Fourier, who incorporate some of the modes of thinking that graphological mimesis makes available; and a deep meditation on translation, which is critical to his thoughts on language and meaning. Graphology takes its place with the other eleven prerequisites because it was not merely a subject of study but a subject elaborated into a way of thinking.
The theme of translation will help to clarify Benjamin’s graphological interest, and take us one step closer to his theory of gesture and technology. (These ideas are further developed in his famous essay “The Task of the Translator,” but that text brings in a series of related but different issues; the graphological focus is clearest here.) Benjamin, in explicating the “nonsensuous similarity,” starts from astrology. His goal is to assert that the faculty of mimesis has not merely decayed, but undergone a “transformation,” and astrology provides an initial example of the nonsensuous mode, by virtue of the fact that its correspondences now seem meaningless to us. In a fragment on astrology (written sometime in 1932, prior to “On the Mimetic Faculty”), he suggests that the existence of the horoscope as a concept implies “that people in Antiquity had a much sharper mimetic sense for physiognomic resemblances than does modern man”: “As students of ancient traditions, we have to reckon with the possibility that manifest configurations, mimetic resemblances, may once have existed where today we are no longer in a position to even guess at them.” (2, 685) The very unlikeliness of attributing personality traits and historical destinies to observable natal constellations is, for Benjamin, a demonstration that there was once a capacity for certain kinds of visuality that have since declined: “We no longer possess in our perception whatever once made it possible to speak of a similarity that might exist between a constellation of stars and a human.” (2, 696) There was an order of imitation to which we no longer have access — though he does invoke an occasional atavism:
“Modern man can be touched by a pale shadow of this on southern moonlit nights in which he feels, alive within himself, mimetic forces that he had thought long since dead, while nature, which possess them all, transforms itself to resemble the moon. Nevertheless, these rare moments furnish no conception of the nascent promises that lay in the constellation of the stars.” (2, 685)
In the three major writings on this “nonsensuous similarity” — “On Astrology,” “Doctrine of the Similar,” and “On the Mimetic Faculty,” all of them brief, all of them meant for his private consideration alone, written between 1932 and the winter of 1933 — we begin to perceive the working-out of a distinct historical narrative, one which forms the armature of a narrative of gesture and technological change in Benjamin’s work. (There is an additional fragment in this mode, “The Lamp,” written early in 1933, which is specifically connected with his studies of the 19th century. As it also raises certain clear questions of the relation of the theory of mimesis and gesture to technics, we will look at it here later, once we have laid the ground for our technological analysis.) In its simplest form, it runs as follows: at some point in “Antiquity,” people lived in a world that was entirely legible to them, a cosmos of a different order from our own. Benjamin expresses this difference with metaphors of concealed volume: in “Doctrine of the Similar,” the ratio between consciously perceived similarities and those perceived “unconsciously or not at all” is akin to “the enormous underwater mass of an iceberg in comparison to the small tip one sees rising out of the water” (2, 695); in “On Astrology,” the visible experiences of similarity available to us “are nothing more than tiny prospects from a cosmos of similarity.” (2, 684) This capacity — “which was the earlier basis for clairvoyance” (2, 697) — was a form of reading prior to language as we now understand it, “reading from stars, entrails, and coincidences,” which provided “mediating links to a newer kind of reading, as represented by runes.” This capacity for nonsensuous similarity moved, over millennia, entirely into language, and is particularly visible in the relation of the “Shriftbild,” the written form, to the signified. It is a transfer of power from magic, the domain of sympathy and mimesis: “these were the stages by which the mimetic gift, formerly the foundation of occult practices, gained admittance to writing and language … a medium into which the earlier powers of mimetic production and comprehension have passed without residue, to the point where they have liquidated those of magic.” (2, 722) In this history, then, language has two sources and two histories, the semiotic and the mimetic. The former is subsidiary to the latter: the semiotic experience of language, like the tip of the iceberg, rests on a vast submerged apparatus of mimetic sensibility, capable of recognizing nonsensuous similarity.
This is not the place to discuss this idea in depth — as Scholem suggested, it touches on many of the deepest and most esoteric aspects of Benjamin’s thought — but it provides a starting point for an analysis of the gesture of interface in a moment of technological transformation. For Benjamin, several related threads are brought together in the mimetic instinct, of which three are germane to our analysis: cosmic dance, practice (or experience), and legibility. Each offers a separate gate into the meditation on technology, and a different face of that meditation; each offers what Benjamin might call a “primal acquaintance,” a starting point, for the different implications of his ideas.
First, cosmic dance. Benjamin puts dance at the outset of expression, as mimetic understanding is at the outset of reading. In fact, dance is a response to mimetic reading. As he puts it in “On the Mimetic Faculty”: “We must assume in principle that in the remote past the processes considered imitable included those in the sky. In dance, on other cultic occasions, such imitation could be produced, such similarity dealt with.” (2, 721) The “oldest function” of dances was “producing similarities,” and such production was the precedent mode of human consciousness: “Such reading is the most ancient: reading prior to all languages, from entrails, the stars, or dances.” In the fragment “The Lamp,” Benjamin touches on this relation of imitation in a restatement of a passage in “On Astrology”: “Modern man can be touched by a pale shadow of this when he looks through a mask, or when, on southern moonlit nights, he feels mimetic forces alive in himself that he had thought long since dead, while nature, which possesses them all, transforms itself to resemble the moon.” (2, 692) The masking of ceremony, rite, and dance is an expression of the same instinct that feels these apprehensions of cosmic correspondence.
Like contemporary theories that the travels of certain migratory birds reflected the layout of long-sunk antediluvian continents, Benjamin suggests a prior state of the body now expressed only in “a pale shadow”: the sensation of the possibility of bodily transfiguration to match the transformations of the world. Dance was a means to process the richness of experience in a cosmos for which divisions between consciousness and environment, world and destiny, were virtually nonexistent. It was a way of acting within and living by the “originary totality” (2, 695) that Benjamin discerns in the concept of the horoscope: a horoscope is read on “both levels,” as he puts it — “the astrologer reads the constellation from the stars in the sky; simultaneously, he reads the future or fate from it.” (2, 697) Time and the world are one, personal destiny and the cosmos are of a seamless unity. For Benjamin the graphologist, this remains the case, albeit in an increasingly esoteric mode — reading handwriting involves a similar duality, with the semiotic process of reading the language overlaying the mimetic process of reading the graphological content, the “images - or, more precisely, picture puzzles — that the unconscious of the writer conceals in his writing.” This remains, however, but “a pale shadow” of the “originary totality” as an object of direct experience.
The connection between cosmic experience and dance is more directly made each time Benjamin restates it, in successive drafts and notebooks. In the 1934 “Problems in the Sociology of Language” (published 1935), he quotes Paget (“spoken language is only one form of a fundamental animal instinct: the instinct of the mimic-expressive movement of the body”) and Mallarmé (“The dancer is not a woman but a metaphor that may give expression to one aspect of the elementary forms of our existence: sword, goblet, flower, and others”) to obliquely restate his current conclusions: “With such a perception — namely, that linguistic expression and choreographic expression are rooted in one and the same mimetic faculty — we cross the threshold of a physiognomics of language, which takes us far beyond the primitive attempts of onomatopoeic theory, in terms of both import and scientific respectability.” (3, 85) By the end of 1935, in the notes that form the basis for the second version of “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technical Reproducibility,” he writes: “The mime presents a subject as a semblance. (And indeed, the earliest imitation knew only one material in which to work: the body of the imitator himself.) Language and dance (gestures of the lips and body) are the first manifestations of mimesis.” (3, 134) In a footnote to the second version of “The Work of Art,” the latter two sentences have been slightly refined: “And the oldest form of imitation had only a single material to work with: the body of the mime himself. Dance and language, gestures of body and lips, are the earliest manifestations of mimesis.” (3, 127) The idea has reached its simplest and most direct formulation, its public face — recall that Benjamin never intended to disclose the full theory of the mimetic faculty. Here, then, the idea of dance and mimesis becomes almost simple, concealing its antecedent ideas of cosmic communion, nonsensuous similarity, and the birth of language out of magic. (In this public mode, it oddly recalls Vico’s theory of the birth of culture from a peal of thunder, which created architecture, in the retreat to caves, religion, in the fear provoked by the noise, and language, in the imitative, mimetic babble of ur-people attempting to simulate the sound.) Once it has been returned to his private and fragmentary contemplation, in the following 1936 fragment, he begins to elaborate it again, but in a new direction.
“The knowledge that the first material on which the mimetic faculty tested itself was the human body should be used more fruitfully than hitherto to throw light on the primal history [Urgeschichte] of the arts. We should ask whether the earliest mimesis of objects through dance and sculpture was not largely based on imitation of the performances through which primitive man established relations with these objects. Perhaps Stone Age man produced such incomparable drawings of the elk only because the hand guiding the implement still remembered the bow with which it had felled the beast.” (3, 253)
The realm of discourse in the theory of mimesis has grown to incorporate the implement, the tool. With the addition of this new order of relations, Benjamin opens his history to the present day. His addition of the tool to the expressive vocabulary of mimesis — and, critically, a feedback relationship, that the hand which fashions the bow is then slowly, subtly remade by the bow — enables him to conceive of a new form of technological history, one which carries forward in handicrafts, artisanal trades, storytelling, and an elaboration of gesture. It is a history whose murmuring progress Benjamin could only hear in the terrible silence following the First World War. (He spent the war, like many of the Dada group, in Switzerland — in his case, having been found unfit to serve after the spending a sleepless night before his meeting with the draft board drinking dozens of cups of coffee.) Here a brief detour is necessary: Benjamin’s earlier theories of Technik in the 1920s, in the war’s aftermath, set up a relation with his later theory of the mimetic faculty as a communal process, enabling a spark of thought to cross the millennia between the dawn of mimesis and 1914, and light up a new history of technics and the mind.
This detour begins with a passage in the Einbahnstrasse, a work of some seven years previously, titled “This Way to the Planetarium.” This text is a document of the loss of the originary totality that he will name years later. In a similar turn of phrase to his descriptions of the decay of the mimetic instinct quoted above, he writes in “Planetarium” that: “Nothing distinguishes the ancients from the moderns as much as their surrender to a cosmic experience [kosmische Erfahrung] hardly known to subsequent epochs.” He connects the “dwindling” of this experience to the rise of astronomy, in a very specific exchange — a culture of optics, what we might call in the context of graphology the semiotic eye, the eye of the reader, and for Benjamin the eye of modernity, taking the place of the “ecstatic trance” (Rausch) of prior cosmic experience. “Only in this experience,” he writes, “do we assure ourselves of what is closest and what is furthest, and never the one without the other.” The experience of Rausch is physical and collective; it “can occur only within a community [Gemeinschaft].” It is a sign of the debasement of modern thinking to restrict this experience “to effusive individuals on fine starry nights” (which, of course, is echoed by his description of the flicker of mimesis felt by the solitary person under “southern moonlit nights”). The rest of the passage deserves to be quoted in full:
“No, [the need for cosmic experience] comes ever and anew, and neither nations nor generations can elude it. This was made terrifyingly clear by the last war, which attempted a new, unheard-of union with the cosmic powers. Human masses, gases, electrical forces were hurled into the open country, high-frequency currents criss-crossed the landscape, new constellations arose in the sky, aerial space and ocean depths throbbed to the vibrations of propellers, and everywhere sacrificial shafts were dug into Mother Earth. This immense courtship of the cosmos was enacted for the first time on a planetary scale, namely in the spirit of technology. But because the ruling class’s lust for profit thought to have its way with it, technology betrayed humanity and turned the bridal bed into a blood bath. Mastery over nature, so the imperialists teach, is the goal of all technology. But who would trust a school-master who proclaimed the aim of education to be the mastery of children by adults? Is not education above all the indispensable ordering of the relationship between the generations, and therefore, if we are still to use the term, mastery of those relations, not of the children? Likewise, technology is not the mastery of nature but of the relations between nature and mankind. Human beings as a species completed their evolution thousands of years ago; but mankind as a species stands at its beginning. In technology a physis is organizing itself in which mankind’s contact with the cosmos takes on new and different forms from those it assumed in nations and in families. One need merely recall the experience of velocities whereby mankind is now preparing itself for incalculable journeys into the interior of time, there to encounter rhythms from which the sick will gain strength, as they once did on high mountains or Southern seas. The big dippers anticipate the sanatoria of the future. The paroxysm of genuine cosmic experience is not tied to that tiny fragment of nature that we are accustomed to call ‘Nature’. During the nightly annihilations of the last war the human frame was convulsed by a feeling akin to the bliss of the epileptic. And the revolts that followed it were mankind’s first bid to bring the new body under control. The power of the proletariat is the measure of its recovery. If it is not possessed by such discipline to its very core, no pacifist reasoning will save it. The living overcome the frenzy of destruction only in the ecstasy of procreation.”
It’s a stunning rhetorical performance, filled with ideas that unfold (to take a metaphor Benjamin uses elsewhere) like minute paper pills that become huge flowers in water. The deployment of industrial mechanization and electrification to fulfill ancient psychological needs for cosmic experience; a cosmic-techno-Marxist reading of the First World War; education as “the ordering of the relationship between the generations”; technology (Technik, throughout the passage) not as means alone but as interface, a medium for organization of the physis, and a cosmic contract; a new foundation for the social adoption of technology based on a new form of time as well as a new ordering of the political … What makes this collection of ideas particularly intense reading is the reader’s knowledge that they are never to be taken up whole again in Benjamin’s work. There will be touches, here and there — asides in “Theories of German Fascism,” the notes on Scheerbart, on Surrealism, and in places like the one quoted from “Motifs” at outset of this chapter — but a thorough essay on Technik as a whole was not to be. Of course, a significant body of Benjamin’s later work is devoted to the new media technologies, and those, as we will discuss briefly, participate in his broader theories of technology, but they are not sufficient to the program of analysis suggested by “This Way to the Planetarium.” (Perhaps we could speak of a more encompassing aura theory in the penultimate image of “Planetarium” — “the bliss of the epileptic” is one symptom of what has been called, since the time of Galen, the aura that precedes the seizure.)
If the point of contact for our entry into this passage is, in Benjamin’s history, the loss of experience of cosmic unity as expressed through communal Rausch and the movement of dance, the point of egress from the passage and into the center of his meditation on Technik and gesture is the metaphor of education, and here we connect with the second of our points from the theory of mimesis: practice and experience. To present the metaphor of “Planetarium” in simplified terms, technology is not concerned with mastery and exploitation of nature any more than education is concerned with the mastery and exploitation of children. As the ultimate function of education is “the ordering of the relationship between the generations,” so the ultimate function of technology is the ordering “of the relations between nature and mankind.” Education, Erziehung in this passage, is a process of creating continuity between the temporal layers of a society, “what is closest and what is furthest.” As “the relations between nature and mankind” were thrown into monstrous disarray by the botched apotheosis of technology in the First World War, so was there a break in the generational continuity of education. By education, Benjamin does not mean schooling alone — his descriptions of his own schooling, in the Berlin Chronicle for example, are clear depictions of education as mastery of children (as in those lucky schoolboys seated near windows who “could afford to ignore the school clock that held sway above our heads,” and “cut through the invisible bars of our timetable cage.” (2, 602)) The point at which generational continuity enters his discourse is in his discussion of the transmission of experience, and it is here that the break lies, and an aspect of Benjaminian technics becomes visible.
As Benjamin treats Erziehung, it is very close to ErzÄhlung — a narrative, an account, a story; for it is in stories, in parables and proverbs passed from one generation to another, that Benjamin sees the process of coming to Erfahrung, experience, the critical point for our study. In December of 1933, at the close of the period in his writing in which he most completely articulated his theory of mimesis in the texts we have looked at thus far, he wrote the essay Erfahrung und Armut, “Experience and Poverty.” This translation captures in English a similar set of connected nuances to the German: that we speak of someone with practical capacities for a particular trade as someone who is “experienced” (as in the German erfahrener Arbeiter, a skilled workman) and that we can speak of experimental praxis, as in a laboratory, and the data and theorems therefrom (as in Erfahrungssatz, an empirically demonstrable principle). However, the verb erfahren also incorporates ideas of hearing and being told, as well as learning and “experiencing” as it is in English. The social process of learning to do things, of living as becoming experienced, is intimately bound up for Benjamin with the ability to tell certain kinds of stories, and this gathering of experience is inextricably linked to a handicraft technics, a culture of manual skills, tools, and trades.
A historical progression can be inferred here, one that proceeds from the origins of mimesis described above. As the original mimetic faculty retreated from cosmic experience and into language — from stars and entrails to runes and written and spoken text — so the communal experience of continuity, the ordering of the progression from one generation to the next in the collective dance, passed into the skills of the storyteller whose methods are of a piece with the slowly learned and refined crafts that wove each growing generation into the one passing away. (My verbs already betray where I am going with this — technology, techne, the Indo-European teks, at the deepest root miles below the gleaming cloud of metallic chaff we currently inhabit, means to weave. We will see the bind that Benjamin discerns between weaving and storytelling.) In the moment when Benjamin writes, following the vast blood wedding with the cosmos he describes in “Planetarium,” the survivors have lost this point of contact, the continuity of narrative and craft.
The opening paragraph of “Experience and Poverty” sets up plaintive mood, a personal capsule account of what was once shared in the art of narrative. Following a brief tale from a childhood anthology, Benjamin continues:
“… Everyone knew precisely what experience was: older people had always passed it on to younger ones. It was handed down in short form to sons and grandsons, with the authority of age, in proverbs; with an often long-winded eloquence, as tales; sometimes as stories from foreign lands, at the fireside. — Where has it all gone? Who still meets people who really know how to tell a story? Where do you still hear words from the dying that last, and that pass from one generation to the next like a precious ring? Who can still call on a proverb when he needs one? And who will even attempt to deal with young people by giving them the benefit of their experience?”
In the second paragraph, he lays out the critical juncture:
“No, this much is clear: experience has fallen in value, amid a generation which from 1914 to 1918 had to experience some of the most monstrous events in the history of the world. Perhaps this is less remarkable than it appears. Wasn’t it noticed at the time how many people returned from the front in silence? Not richer but poorer in communicable experience? And what poured out from the flood of war books ten years later was anything but the experience that passes from mouth to ear. No, there was nothing remarkable about that. For never has experience been contradicted more thoroughly: strategic experience has been contravened by positional warfare; economic experience, by the inflation; physical experience, by hunger; moral experiences, by the ruling powers. A generation that had gone to school in horse-drawn streetcars now stood in the open air, amid a landscape in which nothing was the same except the clouds and, at its center, in a force field of destructive torrents and explosions, the tiny, fragile human body.” (2, 731-2)
The first sentence of the third paragraph — “With this tremendous development of technology, a completely new poverty has descended on mankind” — leads into the article’s real focus, the state of contemporary architecture and aesthetics. There was more in the first two paragraphs than could be attended to in such a narrow discussion; Benjamin would unfold this break in the ordering of things in much more detail three years later, in “The Storyteller: Observations on the Works of Nikolai Leskov.” The first section of this latter text is a restatement of the opening of “Experience and Poverty,” word-for-word in places. Benjamin opens by arguing that the very fact that a writer like Leskov can be classified as a “storyteller” (der ErzÄhler) is a sign that such a role has become “remote,” is retreating into history. What was given as a question three years before has now become a statement: “One meets with fewer and fewer people who know how to tell a tale properly.” (3, 143) The same thesis of “Experience and Poverty,” compressed, is announced in the second paragraph of “The Storyteller”: “… experience has fallen in value. And it looks as if it may fall into bottomlessness. … Beginning with the First World War, a process became apparent which continues to this day. Wasn’t it noticeable at the end of the war that men who returned from the battlefield had grown silent — not richer but poorer in communicable experience?” And so on, almost precisely (though the “hunger” which contradicted physical experience in “Experience and Poverty” has been replaced with “mechanical warfare” — a felicitous change, since there have been few aspects of historical human experience more constant than hunger).
In the silence of the survivors of mechanized warfare — perhaps akin to the ringing silence Siegfried Sassoon discerned after a shelling — Benjamin could discern the fading voice of the storyteller, which occupied a network of technological practices on the verge of eradication. Here, it should be emphasized that “storytelling” is being used it in a very specific way: it refers to a narrative which has “openly or covertly, something useful,” be it rule, proverb, or advice, within a field of shared experience. (3, 145) “The storyteller is a man who has counsel [Rat weiß] for his readers” — and “counsel woven into the fabric of real life is wisdom [Weisheit]. The art of storytelling is nearing its end because the epic side of truth — wisdom — is dying out. This, however, is a process that has been going on for a long time. And nothing would be more fatuous than to wish to see it merely as a ‘symptom of decay,’ let alone a ‘modern symptom.’ It is, rather, only a concomitant of the secular productive forces of history …” (3, 146) Here, Benjamin is placing his exoteric argument on esoteric footing — it has begun to entwine with his private theories of mimesis, and of the history of communal trance, cosmic totality, expression in mimetic dance, and the slow retreat into language. The recessional of storytelling “into the archaic,” to join the prior mimetic order, is not simply an aspect of modernity — it is the mimetic response of language to changes in the technological processes and infrastructure of society. The affordances of one come to mirror those of the other, as Benjamin suggests that the expressive hand of the painter is changed by having held the bow.
“It cannot come as a surprise that he felt bonds with craftsmanship [Handwerk], but faced industrial technology as a stranger,” Benjamin writes of Leskov, the nominal focus of “The Storyteller.” For Benjamin, storytelling is a specific order of expression which mirrors in mimetic fashion the order of production he gives as Handwerk. It is the heir to the ancient community established by mimetic union with the cosmos in Rausche that he describes in “Planetarium”: storytelling gives a point of access to a Kollektiverfahrung, an order of collective experience that sustains a temporal and cosmic continuity through different arrays of technological development. As he puts it, “All great storytellers have in common the freedom with which they move up and down the rungs of their experience, as if on a ladder. A ladder extending downward to the interior of the earth and disappearing into the clouds: this is the image for a collective experience to which even the deepest shock in every individual experience — death — constitutes no impediment or barrier.” (3, 157) Recall Benjamin’s emphasis, in his successive entries on the mimetic faculty, on the idea that mimesis established a connection between the microcosm, the human experience, and the macro, the kosmos. With the decay of the unity of primal mimesis, the unity exemplified in the flash of cosmic alignment at the natal moment that gives the horoscope, a new cosmic contract has developed. This contract holds the continuity in world and in time, as expressed in Benjamin’s terms by the ladder of cosmic scale, and the woven passage of story and trade from one generation to the next. It is a different form of collectivity, one that derives from the motions of the hand at work rather than the body in dance, and from boredom, Langenweile (a term with roots in protraction, lengthiness, endurance, prolongation) rather than the frenzied trance of Rausche, in which time is suspended as during a clap of thunder.
This boredom is the specific expression of the repetitive elaboration of Handwerk. “Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience. A rustling in the leaves drives him away. His nesting places — the activities that are intimately associated with boredom — are already extinct in the cities and are declining in the country as well. With this, the gift for listening is lost and the community of listeners disappears. … It is lost because there is no more weaving and spinning to go on while they are being listened to. The more self-forgetful the listener is, the more deeply what he listens to is impressed upon his memory. When the rhythm of work has seized him, he listens to the tales in such a way that the gift of retelling them comes to him all by itself. This, then, is the nature of the web in which the gift of storytelling is cradled. This is how today it is unraveling on every side after being woven thousands of years ago in the ambience of the oldest forms of craftsmanship.” (3, 149) Robert Graves once suggested that the sources of certain poetic meters could be found in the rhythm of the pulling of oars and the ring of the blacksmith’s hammer. Benjamin takes a similar idea to a far subtler and vaster level, extending it in every direction from its source at the involution of storytelling and fabrication, teks. The boredom of spinning and carding and weaving are the point at which the “community of listeners” (Gemeinschaft der Lauschenden, a beautiful turn of phrase) is formed, but whence come the stories? From “… the lore of faraway places, such as the much-traveled man brings home,” and “the lore of the past, such as is manifested most clearly to the native inhabitants of a place” (3, 144); and the melding of these two orders “was achieved particularly in the Middle Ages, through the medieval trade structure. The resident master craftsman and the itinerant journeymen worked together in the same rooms; and every master had been an itinerant journeyman before he settled down in his hometown or somewhere else.” Thus, in the boredom of the patient creation inherent in the production of a craft, and in the economics of the training and craftsmen and the distribution of their work, is the most refined form of the mechanism of storytelling as a social, communal process — “that slow piling up, one on top of the other, of thin, transparent layers which constitutes the most appropriate image of the way in which the perfect narrative is revealed through the layers of various retellings.” (3, 150)
As storytelling is formed by the technics of craftsmanship, so it begins its long recessional with the technics of which it was a part. Building on a quotation from Valéry, Benjamin writes:
“With these words, a connection is established between soul, eye, and hand. Interacting with one another, they determine a practice. We are no longer familiar with this practice. The role of the hand in production has become more modest, and the place it filled in storytelling lies waste. (After all, storytelling, in its sensory aspect, is by no means a job for the voice alone. Rather, in genuine storytelling what is expressed gains support in a hundred ways from the work-seasoned gestures [GebÄrden] of the hand.) … A proverb, one might say, is a ruin which stands on the site of an old story and in which a moral twines about a gesture [Gestus] like ivy around a wall.” (3, 162)
The fusion between microcosm and macrocosmos, between past, present, and future, was achieved, at the dawn of Benjamin’s history, by the expression of an understood similitude through dance. The capacity for this similitude, relocated like an ocean in a tectonic shift, moved from dance into the language, but, language being a mimetic and bodily phenomenon, remained in a close and increasingly subtle exchange with gesture, the gesture of craft whose patient refinement is closely akin to the accumulation of experience in a life. It formed a continuity of teaching, telling, remembering that was expressed over time as a loom and in space as a ladder. The mimetic faculty remained constant, the choreographic or kinaesthetic and the linguistic presenting different faces of the same experience to different interpreters. But after the war something changed dramatically. The accumulated mimetic capacity drained out of the community, because a new demographic had been created in a matter of a few years: people who underwent experiences for which there was no prior experience, no proverbial wisdom, and whose culture of gestures — having been eroded for decades — suddenly collapsed at a single decisive point.
Thus from the dance at the arid, stellar starting-place of history, we come to the Knipsen of the photographer. A new order of gestures, developing from a new system of technics, create a new mimetic culture notable for its sharp discontinuity from the prior phases of human experience.
“Continuity” is not an incidental word here. Recall Benjamin’s aside in “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire”: “In the mid-nineteenth century, the invention of the match brought forth a number of innovations which have one thing in common: a single abrupt movement of the hand triggers a process of many steps. … A case in point is the telephone, where the lifting of the receiver has taken the place of the steady movement that used to be required to crank the older models. With regard to countless movements of switching, inserting, pressing, and the like, the ‘snapping’ by the photographer has had the greatest consequences.” The continuous gesture has become a rapid discontinuous movement.
Indeed, a childhood memory of Benjamin’s concerns the expressive continuity of the crank, die Kurbel, as recorded in the section “The Telephone” of his Berlin Childhood around 1900. “Disagreements with switchboard operators were the rule, to say nothing of the threats and curses uttered by my father when he had the complaints department on the line. But his real orgies were reserved for cranking the handle, to which he gave himself up for minutes at a time, nearly forgetting himself in the process. His hand, on these occasions, was a dervish overcome by frenzy. My heart would pound; I was certain the employee on the other end was in danger of a stroke, as punishment for her negligence.” (3, 350)
His father’s expressive dervish hand, in which the child senses a mimetic presence of blows delivered in a rage, is part of a culture of rotary motions which are all beginning to disappear as Benjamin the child grows up. As he says, “lifting the receiver has taken the place of the steady movement that used to be required to crank the older models,” and this was not an isolated development. The crank on the telephone was part of an ecology of gesture that included hand-cranked motion-picture cameras, crank-actuated cash registers, the cranking needed to start a car, and, moving further back in time, the rotary action of a pre-Yale-lock key, whose solidity and elaborate dentation made its operation partake of the weight of the bolt and the door.
The key is an instructive example of this transformation Benjamin describes. (In his memories, he repeatedly turns to the sound of a basket of jingling keys — “… like the jingling of the basket of keys when my mother searched impatiently through it for the purse or notebook that lay at the very bottom” in Berlin Chronicle (2, 629), or “it is the jangling of my mother’s keys in her basket” in “The Lamp.” (2, 692)) Benjamin lived through a metamorphosis of keys, as the series of innovations from the 1830s through the 1850s became more broadly distributed outside the security-conscious world of banks and ministries. The history is ably described by Siegfried Giedion, whose 1947 Mechanization Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous History Benjamin anticipates in the single line “Comfort isolates; on the other hand, it brings those enjoying it closer to mechanization.” (This anticipation is doubly intriguing, in that Giedion’s 1928 Bauen in Frankreich, a book about the development of iron and glass construction, was a major influence on the Passagenwerk. A sentence from Giedion’s text, quoted by Benjamin in Konvolut F, anticipates the Passagenwerk’s central idea as Benjamin’s sentence in “On Some Motifs” anticipates the thesis of Mechanization Takes Command: “Wherever the nineteenth century feels itself to be unobserved, it grows bold.”)
(One of things to note in reading Benjamin’s “Storyteller” with Giedion’s Mechanization is the role of comfort in the reception of the novel as a literary format. For Benjamin, the orality of storytelling is connected with a lack of physical affordances: your hands are busy at their work, or you are traveling and can’t carry much; if it is a tale told at night, the light is poor. “What distinguishes the novel from the story … is the essential dependence on the book,” (3, 146) he writes; the book is an isolating phenomenon. “The novelist has secluded himself. The birthplace of the novel is the individual in his isolation,” and “The reader of a novel … is isolated, more so than any other reader.” (3, 156) And, as we have it from “On Some Motifs,” it is comfort that isolates — in this case, keeping with the Benjaminian mode of analyzing literature from the perspective of “secular productive forces,” the comfort that Giedion documents: in gaslight and electric light, in the creation of new chairs, confortables, upholsteries, and springs. Perhaps in these postural and ergonomic changes we can see an increase in the capacity for solitary concentration and immersion in novelistic narrative. Benjamin uses a metaphor of the fireplace in describing the shape of a novel’s plot, and the type of reading with which one engages a novel (it can be found both in “The Storyteller” (3, 156) and at its origin in his diary on 13 May 1931 (2, 480)). What could be more appropriate for the novel’s audience — or should we say readership? — than the warmth of a banked fireplace, indoors, as opposed to the telling of a tale among people huddled around a firepit?)
The search for burglar-proof locks obsessed engineers from the 1780s onwards — “almost as much as did the solution of the revolving-pistol problem in the late [eighteen-]’thirties, when the most extravagant solutions were proposed for the automatic change of bullets,” writes Giedion (MTC, 54). The comparison is an apt one; the labor of assembling a shot for prior firearms had elements of handicraft (cutting fabric, tapping out quantities of gunpowder, creating a small confection), but the first successful revolving pistols incorporated the assembly line into the mechanism, reducing the interface of the hand to a trigger. The creation of new locks were a deliberate effort to limit methods of interface, to guard against access by the hand or the eye, so that only tools produced by proprietary machine shops could access the lock. The history of keys, as Giedion gives it, is a history of decreasing degrees of bodily effort. The moment of the Yale lock, which remains in common use today, is the moment of the dematerialization of the key. Giedion, after quoting Yale’s patent letter of 1865, expands on the change in functionality that has taken place: “At the same time the square tang of the key, with its bits, or dentation, has disappeared. The key has become small and thin, and can be punched or stamped in a moment. Above all, its function has changed. It does not act directly on the bolt, as it had done ever since man invented the closing mechanism: it merely turns the revolving cylinder. The key is now a mere handle for that purpose.” (MTC, 66) The implications of this are numerous — keys need no longer be proportional to the size of the bolt and the door, for instance, and thus can be mass-produced. Such a development is an illustration of Benjamin’s sketch of the mechanization of gesture. There is still a rotary motion, but the lock has become a standardized “black box” that mediates between the hand and the bolt of the door, replacing with “a single abrupt movement” the ancient actions of ramming the bolt with the key and cranking it into the body of the door.
(A similar set of connections could be made with the work of Charles Kettering, an ex-telephone lineman employed by John Patterson at National Cash Register, who developed a short-burst electric motor to replace the cash register’s crank, which, relying on the human hand, was inadequate to the power required for the production of punch tapes and printed receipts. In 1909, he left NCR to work for an automotive venture capitalist, also from NCR, named Charlie Deeds. Kettering applied the electric motor from the register to the car, eventually succeeding in replacing the crank with a high-torque short-burst electric motor — the self-starter. The point of activation for the self starter was to be the turning a key; naturally, the key would be an industry standard Yale key. Turn it on and it goes: “a single abrupt movement of the hand triggers a process of many steps.”)
This replacement of the gestural language of prior systems of locks was accompanied by a visual occulting — the more difficult it was to see inside a lock, the harder it would be to take impressions of it and make copies of the key. This need to conceal the mechanism led to the “Parautoptic lock” of Day & Newell, in use in the U.S. from the 1840s on, and the cause of some excitement at the London Exhibition of 1851. (MTC, 58) The term “parautoptic,” meaning resisting internal inspection, is telling: it is one of the corollaries of the transformation of gesture that Benjamin describes that the gestures themselves, in mimetic expression of the implements which they operate, contain less and less information for the viewer. A relatively novel motion, the single abrupt movement, the Knipsen, will gradually infiltrate much of the interface between the human body and its surroundings, becoming the first interchangeable mass-produced gesture, with extraordinary consequences, in Benjamin’s reasoning, for the mimetic culture that lives at that interface. This raises the third and last of our threads from the study of the mimetic instinct: legibility.
At this point, it would be worthwhile to pause briefly on the thought of legibility over a sequence from a film. Less than twenty seconds long, it is a rapid montage, from which we will take nine stills, all of hands engaged in actions: typing, turning the crank of a cash register, pulling the slide on an automatic pistol, inserting the plug of an electrical cord into a wall socket, pressing a button, depressing the cradle of a wall-mounted telephone, lifting the receiver from the cradle of a desk model telephone, turning the crank of a movie camera, and playing the piano.
It is Dziga “the Humming Top” Vertov’s 1929 Man With a Movie Camera (which can be more accurately translated as The Human Being and the Cinematographic Apparatus), the great artifact of the kino-glaz style. It is one of the most remarkable films in cinematic history, delineating an extreme of the practice of motion pictures; as Lev Manovich points out throughout his Language of New Media, the film acts an encyclopedia of forms of mechanical and electric information processing. Benjamin has very little to say about it, or Vertov in general; he uses the 1934 Three Songs of Lenin as an example of the creation of the category of the “any person,” the passer-by, in the new works of mass art, and dismisses The Soviet Sixth of the Earth as a “misfire” (2, 13) in “the filmic colonization of Russia.” Regardless, it does not harm our argument to briefly take these stills as being illustrations of the transitional phase of the gesture that Benjamin describes — indeed, it is so close to the Benjamin passage from “Motifs” as to suggest a kind of parallelism. This segment falls towards the first half of the tenth episode (of sixteen, in Graham Roberts’ breakdown), which can be titled “the labor of people and machines.” Telephone operators manage a switchboard, a young woman assembles and fills paper cigarette packets, and during these intercut examples of new activities of production, the flurry of new gestures appears. The montage is very rapid; the cut of the slide being pulled on the handgun is only three frames long, nearly subliminal. It suggests a new dimension of human experience, one that is very fast, that operates with the rapidity and precision of mechanical engineering, and whose essential vocabulary is not a culture of expressive strokes but of “switching, inserting, pressing” — Knipsen.
(Of all these gestures captured by Vertov, one seems not to belong. All participate with contemporary technological artifacts - typewriter, cash register, automatic pistol, electric outlet and button, telephone, movie camera - except the piano. What is the keyboard instrument doing in this passage?
In fact, I would argue, the presence of the piano is part of the true brilliance of this montage, emphasizing that it is not simply concerned with novelties, new and exciting devices, but with a class of fast, precise motions based in the articulation of the fingers pressing keys or buttons. Benjamin, in his 1931 essay “Little History of Photography,” hits a crucial point, arguing that the evolution of photography is an evolution of the discourse of photographers towards their new affordances, their Technik, and quotes Camille Recht:
“‘The violinist,’ he says, ‘must first produce the note, must seek it out, find it in an instant; the pianist strikes the key and the note rings out. The painter and the photographer both have an instrument at their disposal. Drawing and coloring, for the painter, correspond to the violinist’s production of sound; the photographer, like the pianist, has the advantage of a mechanical device that is subject to restrictive laws, while the violinist is under no such restraint… .’” (2, 518))