Thursday, June 9, 2016

complice in humanity

In his 1931 essay “Left-wing Melancholy,” which presents a critique of the poetry of Erich Kästner, Walter Benjamin makes a proposition about the “task” (Aufgabe) of “political lyric”:
Was Wunder, da sie ihre Funktion darin haben, diesen Typ mit sich selbst zu versöhnen und jene Identität zwischen Berufs- und Privatleben herzustellen, die von diesen Leuten unter dem Namen »Menschlichkeit« verstanden wird, in Wahrheit aber das eigentlich Bestialische ist, weil alle echte Menschlichkeit – unter den heutigen Verhältnissen - nur aus der Spannung zwischen jenen beiden Polen hervorgehen kann. In ihr bilden sich Besinnung und Tat, sie zu schaffen ist die Aufgabe jeder politischen Lyrik, und erfüllt wird sie heute am strengsten in den Gedichten von Brecht.

[It is surprising that their [the poems’] function is to reconcile this type of person to himself, and to establish that identity of professional and private life which these men understand by the name “humanity” but which is in truth the genuinely bestial, since authentic humanity—under present conditions—can arise only from a tension between these two poles. In this tension, consciousness and deed are formed. To create it is the task of the all political lyricism, and today this task is most strictly fulfilled by Bertolt Brecht’s poems.]
In this somewhat involuted formulation, Benjamin describes as the task of political lyric its capacity to create “authentic humanity.” In contrast to recourse to a humanity that is actually “bestial” because it is formed through the identity rather than the difference of professional and private life, “authentic humanity” would be formed through the maintenance of this tension. In Benjamin’s estimation, the easy reconciliation, or identity, of professional and private life involves the absorption of “life” into professional interests, constituting the “bestiality” of bourgeois consciousness. The formulation is marked by the indeterminacy of the object (sie) of this task: sie zu schaffen--“to create it,” humanity; “to accomplish it,” the tension between poles; “to form them,” consciousness and deed. This indeterminacy is not merely an index of overdetermination, of the multiply determinate processes invoked by the task, but points to a series of mediating processes that must be moved through in order to oppose humanity and bestiality in such a way that an idea of “genuine humanity” can also be preserved.

This scene, a scene that retains “genuine humanity” as a possible outcome of not reconciling one to oneself, begins to articulate the terms of complicity upon which political consciousness—and political lyric following the Brechtian model—is based. Benjamin values political lyric because it prevents an individual from becoming reconciled with himself—and from this tension, “consciousness and deed” can be seen to arise. Such tension can be described in the terms of guilt that complicity proposes.

Complicity, Mitschuld, or Teilhaberschaft, is defined as “association or participation in or as if in a wrongful act,” and it’s the “complice” part of this that is important, as it sets up a relation between the act, or crime, i.e. what has been done, and a nebulous idea about what counts as “association or participation” in this act. In this sense, then, the problem that underlies complicity—and onto which this work opens—is a problem of part/whole relations, and how one can be seen, or see oneself, as having a part in a wrongful act. It could be said that complicity raises a question about the phantasy or reality of the wrongful act—and this, perhaps, in a way not dissimilar to the stakes of reality/phantasy in Freud’s thinking about seduction. So if complicity begins with an assumption that there is a crime and therefore someone who can assume guilt for it, it ends more speculatively, with relations of guilt as Freud describes in The Ego and the Id (and/or Civilization and Its Discontents), where something like aggression, the need for punishment, pushes guilt into a fantasy formation. Indeed, it becomes easy to see how complicity is a structure of fantasy. I am interested in relations of “associations or participation” that register at the most minimal level, and thus that hold this question of in what way the notion of “taking part” can be construed. If the effective relation of guilt/aggression holds complicity in place, at once offering an explanation for it and suggesting how it contributes to the compelling hold that complicity seems to have in thinking about political agency. 

In what way—in what place, in what time—is living itself a form of complicity; more: in what way—in what place, in what time—is it not?

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