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Experience without a subject: Walter Benjamin and the Novel by Martin Jay

„However paradoxical it may seem, „ Hans-Georg Gadamer writes in Truth and Method „the concept of experience seems to me one of the most obscure that we have.“ 1 “Of all the words in the philosophical vocabulary,” Michael Oakeshott agrees in Experience and its Modes, “it is the most difficult to manage.” 2 Derived from the Latin experientia which means trial, proof and experiment (an acceptation still current in French), it has come to mean a welter of different things. Accordingly, the term has generated enormous controversy. Literary critics like Philip Rahv have denounced the “cult of experience” in American literature, while historians like Joan Scott have bemoaned its privileged role as evidentiary foundation in the work of figures as diverse as R.G. Collingwood and E.P. Thompson. 3 And for all those who resist so-called “identity politics,” in which legitimation comes from who you are – your “subject position,” in the current jargon – and not from the force of what you say, the appeal to something called experience has also become a prime target.


And yet, obscurity and unmanageability not withstaning, “experience” remains a key term in both everyday language and the lexicons of esoteric philosophies. Indeed, Gadamer, Oakeshott and a host of other twentieth-century thinkers, from Buber to Bataille, from Husserl to Dewey, from Jünger to Lyotard, have felt compelled to mull over its multiple meanings and contradictory implications. But perhaps no one has had as profound an effect on our appreciation of its varieties as Walter Benjamin; nor has anyone else made us as senstivie to the crisis of at least one of these varieties. Indeed, experience has rightly been called “Benjamin's great theme...the true focal point of his analysis of modernity, philosophy of history, and theory of the artwork.” 4


As a result, a formidable exegetical literature has developed around Benjamin's discussion of the concept, a literature whose central contributors would include Richard Wolin, Marleen Stoessel, Thorsten Meiffert, Michael Jennings, Miriam Hansen, Michael Makropolous, and many of the people at this conference. 5 It is not my goal in this paper to rehearse their complicated arguments, or to provide a way to adjudicate their differences. Instead, I want to suggest that we might find an important confirmation of Benjamin's theory of experience in a place where he himself never thought to find it: in that modern literary genre he so disdained, the novel. I want to argue that it was in a vital linguistic resource of the novel, which Benjamin for all his fascination with language, failed to explore, that this confirmation can be found.


Before making this case, however, it will be necessary to present in very general terms Benjamin's theory of experience. Most of the attention paid to it has been to his mature reflections, in particular the crucial distinction between Erlebnis and Erfahrung he developed in such works as One-Way Street, “Experience and Poverty,” “The Story Teller,” and “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire.” 6 Benjamin's juxtaposition of these terms was not, to be sure, his own invention. Following the lead of Rousseau and Goethe, Wilhelm Dilthey had contrasted Erlebnis (or sometimes das Erleben), which he identified with “inner lived experience,” to äußere Erfahrung, by which he meant “outer sensory experience.” 7 Whereas the latter was grounded in the discrete stimuli of mere sensation, the former involved the internal integration of sensations into a meaningful whole available to hermeneutic interpretation. Edmund Husserl had likewise disdained the scientific and neo-Kantian notion of Erfahrung, based on conceptual reflection, as inferior to the richer, intuitively meaningful Erlebnis of the pre-reflexive Lebenswelt. 8 And Ernst Jünger had celebrated war as the arena of an authentic Erlebnis absent from the desiccated Erfahrung of bourgeois, civilian existence. 9 In all these cases, Erlebnis was an honoric term for subjective, concrete, intuitive responses to the world that were prior to the constructed abstractions of science or the intellect.


What set Benjamin apart from his predecessors was his disdain for both the alleged immediacy and meaningfulness of Erlebnis and the overly rational, disinterested version of Erfahrung defended by the positivists and neo-Kantians. Instead, he favored an alternative closer to what Gadamer has called a dialectical concept of experience, a learning process over time, combining negations through unpleasant episodes as well as affirmations through positive ones to produce something akin to a wisdom that can be passed down via tradition through the generations. 10 Unlike Dilthey, he did not give the name Erlebnis to such a dialectical process. The immediate, passive, fragmented, isolated and unintegrated inner experience of Erlebnis was, Benjamin argued, very different from the cumulative, totalizing, accretion of transmittable wisdom over time, of epic truth, that was Erfahrung.


Such an historically grounded notion of experience, moreover, was necessarily more than individual, for cumulative wisdom could occur only within a community, which could transmit the tales of the tribe through oral traditions such as story-telling. Thus, it was the Haggadic quality of truth, its ability to be handed down from generation to generation, like the Passover story, through collective memory rather than official historical records, that marked genuine experience. The contrast between the Jewish notion of Zakhor, group memory, and historical science, to which Yosef Yerushalmi has recently drawn attention, was thus implicitly active in Benjamin's antitetical concepts of experience. 11


Benjamin, as we know, was deeply skeptical about the possibility of restoring genuine Erfahrung in the modern, capitalist world. 12 Although he resisted claiming it had been completely extirpated, he spoke movingly about its “atrophy” (Verkümmerung), 13 in particular after the first World War. The continuum of Erfahrung had already been broken by the unassimilable shocks of urban life an the replacement of artisanal production by the dull, non-cumulative repetition of the assembly line. Meaningful narrative had been supplanted by haphazard information and raw sensation in the mass media. Only the Revolution, he contended in his more Marxist moods, might create a new community in which the lost “integrity of the contents” 14 of transmitted dialectical truth would be regained.


But even when his theory of experience can be called most materialist, 15 his doubts about the restoration of the fabric of genuine Erfahrung remained strong. A primary reason for those doubts was the stubbornly theological dimension of Benjamin's work, which was never fully disentangled from its Marxist counterpart. For it was here that a powerful component of his theory of experience can also be found, a component Gershom Scholem called his quest for “absolute experience.” 16 In one of his first considerations of this theme, his 1917-18 essay “On the Program of the Coming Philosophy,” Benjamin explicitly faulted the neo-Kantian concept of experience, exemplified in Hermann Cohen's Kants Theorie der Erfahrung, for being too narrowly empirical and scientific, and thus excluding metaphysical and religious experiences. 17


Although unwilling to make the latter the only source of genuine experience, which he pluralistically called “the uniform and continuous multiplicity of knowledge,” 18 Benjamin clearly thought that without a religious component, experience would remain woefully impoverished. For “there is a unity of experience that can by no means be understood as a sum of experiences, to which the concept of knowledge as theory is immediately related in its continuous development. The object and the content of this theory, this concrete totality of experience, is religion. 19


Religious experience is particularly important, Benjamin suggested, because it transcends the problematic dichotomy of subject and object, which underlay both the scientific notion of empirical Erfahrung and the non-rationalist notion of Erlebnis. It is a “true experience, in which neither god or man is object or subject of experience but in which this experience is based on pure knowledge... The task of future epistemology is to find for knowledge the sphere of total neutrality in regard to the concepts of both subject and object, in other words, it is to discover the autonomous, innate sphere of knowledge in which this concept in no way continues to designate the relation between two metaphysical entities.” 20 Later, in his more Marxist phase, Benjamin contrasted a collective subjective experience, that of the community to be created after the Revolution, to the isolated individual Erlebnis of modern, capitalist life, but here he was arguing for an experience that paradoxically went beyond that of any subject, collective or individual, an experience that might justly be called noumenal or ontological.


Rather than musing on the “varieties of religious experience,” in the manner of William James, Benjamin focused on only one. The locus of that experience, he argued in “On the Program of the Coming Philosophy,” was to be found not in sensation or perception, but rather in language, that region of human endeavor Johann Georg Hamann had been the first to challenge Kant in stressing. “A concept of knowledge gained from reflection on the linguistic nature of knowledge will create a corresponding concept of experience,” Benjamin insisted, “which will also encompass regions that Kant failed to integrate into his system. The realm of religion should be mentioned as the foremost of those.” 21 Here language reveals itself as more than a mere tool of communication in which the feelings, observations or thoughts of a subjective interiority reveal themselves to another subject. Here the divine world manifests itself ontologically, prior to the subjective conventionalism of human name-giving.


A religiously inflection notion of language in which the dichotomy of subject and object is transcended and ontological truth revealed – the early Benjamin is clearly invoking a concept of experience unlike any we have previously mentioned. Kantian Erfahrung is the empirical experience of the transcendental, scientific, cognitive subject; Diltheyan Erlebnis is the inner experience of the contingent subject prior to rational reflection or scientific cognition; event he Haggadic, epic truth transmitted through narrative continuity can be understood as that of a collective subject, a communal-subject beyond the isolated, damaged subjects of modern life. But religious (or “absolute”) experience, as Benjamin describes it, implies a point of indifference between subject and object, an equiprimordiality prior to their differentiation. As Winfried Menninghaus has put it, “his emphatic concept of experience” is “an ultimately messianic category of unrestricted synthesis,” which is linked to forms of meaning that might even be called mythical. 22


As a consequence, suggestive comparisons might be drawn to a similar notion of ontological experience in the work of Martin Heidegger, who was also skeptical of the overly subjective bias of individual Erlebnis and scientific Erfahrung, and had no use for collective meta-subjects either. 23 Or perhaps the poetry of Hölderlin, important for both Benjamin and Heidegger, might be adduced to demonstrate what they were after. 24 It might also be fruitful to situate Benjamin's search for an experience that transcends the subject/object opposition in the context of many other such attempts by twentieth-century artists. The Surrealists, whose writings Benjamin himself claimed were concerned primarily with experience, come immediately to mind. 25 And we might focus on the heterodox means, such as hashish, Benjamin explored to provide non-religious glimpses of absolute experience, those profane illuminations that broke down the barrier between subject and object.


But, rather than follow these well-trodden paths, I want to go down instead the one that Benjamin himself suggested was the locus on non-subjective experience, that of language. And I want to suggest that even if we jettison the religious underpinnings of Benjamin's own complicate theory of language, with its hope for the recovery of divinely inspired names and nonsensuous, mimetic similarities, we can still discover in the highly secular language of the modern novel unexpected warrant for his argument. We can, I want to claim, identify an intriguing example of experience without a subject that is not dependent upon a redemptive, quasi-mythical notion of metaphysical or religious truth, a notion which is bound to make many of us uncomfortable in this age of cynical reason.


Benjamin's own hostility to the novel is widely appreciated. Following Georg Lukac's lead in The Theory of the Novel, he saw it as the genre for an age of “transcendental homelessness” in which the community underpinning the oral transmission of tales was shattered. 26 The invention of the printed book undermined the need for collective group memory through public narration; epic meaning survived only in the endangered form of the tale, “The birthplace of the novel,” Benjamin charge, “is the solitary individual, who is no longer able to express himself by giving examples of his most important concerns, is himself uncounseled, and cannot counsel others. To write a novel means to carry the incommensurable to extremes in the representation of human life.” 27


Although novels center on “the meaning of life,” they never get beyond demonstrating that life in the age of information is inherently meaningless; the experience they depict is thus that of Erlebnis at its emptiest. The fate of its characters, indeed their very deaths, can only provide a simulacrum of meaning for readers, whose lives are deprived of it. Novels rely on psychological explanations instead of depicting the inherent meaning of the world of the epic, a meaning which is self-evident and in need of no external explanatory scaffolding. Even when novels like Proust's A La Recherche du Temps Perdu attempt to restore coherent retrspective meaning, they can only do so through the subjective gloss of memory rather than through a presentation of objectively intelligible experience. 28 Although “involuntary memory,” the technique Proust appropriated from Bergson, was closer than its voluntary counterpart to the anamnestic moment in true Erfahrugn, it was only artificially through the novelist's fiat.


How then, we might ask, can the novel provide any confirmation of Benjamin's belief in the possibility of experience without a subject? How can it serve as the placeholder of an “absolute experience” beyond mere Erlebnis or even the lost Erfahrung of the storyteller? The answer resides in an aspect of the novel, which Benjamin, to my knowledge, never acknowledged: its frequent adoption of a stylistic mode that was absent from virtually all previous genre, a mode which is known in French as the “style indirect libre,” in German as “erlebte Rede,” and in English as “represented speech.” It is further connected to the grammatical variant known as “the middle voice,” which differs from active and passive voices and has been identified by critics like Roland Barthes as characteristic of “the intransitive” writing of modernism. 29 Although the presence of these linguistic phenomena do not suggest that the novel taken as a coherent, generic whole represents a prefiguration of “absolute experience,” they allow us to believe that within certain novels, there exist moments that do.


The “style indirect libre,” first single out for serious analysis by the Swiss linguist and student of Saussure, Charles Bally, in 1912, 30 was given special significance by Proust in his celebrated essay of 1920 on Flaubert's style. 31 A year later, Etienne Lorck coined the term “erlebte Rede for its German counterpart, and in 1924, the Englishman Otto Jespersen introduced the less widely adopted “represented speech” for the English variant. 32 In the year since, a host of linguists and literary critics, among them V.N. Volosinov, Stephen Ullmann, Dorrit Cohn, Roy Pascal, and Ann Banfield, have explored every aspect of its usage. 33 Even intellectual historians like Dominick LaCapra have evoked it to argue tht Flaubert's prose style, rather than his apparently salacious content, led to the trial of Madame Bovary in 1857. 34


Its significance for the issue of experience is suggested, if in somewhat misleading ways, by the fact that the German variant was called “erlebte Rede” by Lorck, who was a student of Karl Vossler, the Romantic linguist of individualist subjectivism. Vossler, an opponent of Saussure, stressed the psychological content of linguistic performance, psychology understood not in positivist/empiricist terms, but in those of Lebensphilosophie. 35 That is, language expressed the internal, subjective state of mind of the speaker, rather than an impersonal sign system, and the linguist studied stylistics and Spracheseele (the soul expressed through style) rather than grammar. Accordingly, as one commentator has noted, “the chief reason Lorck invented the term “erlebte Rede” was to stress the irrational and rapturous in contrast to the informational function of language. It was thus relate to philosophies of 'life' and immediate 'experience'.” 36


How then can we claim that the indirect free style instantiates Benjamin's notion of “absolute experience” prior to the split between object and obect, if it seems to be an example of Erlebnis at its most objectionable? Let us exymine more closely its implications for the answer. Lorck contrasted “erlebte Rede” to the direct discourse he called “gesprochene Rede” (repeated speech) and the indirect discourse he dubbed “berichtete Rede” (communicate speech). Direct discourse or repeated speech is uttered by a speaker, say a hero in a play, as his own thoughts, for eample, Faust saying “Habe nun, ach! Philosophie, Juristerei...” Indirect discourse or communicated speech occurs when a second person cites the speech of a first to a third e.g. “Faust hat gesagt: “ Habe nun, ach! Philosophie, Juristerei...” But “erlebte Rede” takes place when a second person wants to recreate in his own mind Faust's thoughts e.g. “Faust hat nun, ach! Philosophie, Juristerei” or insofar as they are past thoughts, “Faust hatte nun, ach!”


For Lorck, indirect free speech was a means of one person re-experiencing the experiences of another (what Dilthey had called nacherleben) 37, but not of communicating it to a third. Thus, it is not something actually said in normal conversation, but only exists as a literary convention, only, that is, in written prose. If spoken aloud, it would sound more like a hallucination than a communicative speech act. Lorck thus emphasized its function as an incitement to fantasy, an example of language's ability to transcend the intellect and create anew, as evidence of its status as living energeia, to use Humboldt's term, rather than dead ergon.

Subsequent students of free indirect style have agreed with Lorck's claim that intersubjective, public communication is not the goal of language used in this peculiar way. They have further endorsed his belief that it is inherently a written rather than spoken form, showing that language development does not always come from innovations in verbal performance. And they have shared his sense that it provides evidence of a creative capacity in language that calls into question seemingly watertight distinctions like direct and indirect discourse.


But they have vigorously challenged Lorck's Vosslerite assumption that “erlebte Rede” is the re-experiencing of an irrational Erlebnis. Instead, as Pascal has argued, the subjective function of the style is combined with a narratorial one, which is “communicated through the vocabulary and idiom, through the composition of the sentences and the larger passages, and through the context.” 38 That is, there is a subtle distinction preserved in the style between character and narrator, even if the interiorities of the two seem to be perfectly conflated. Similarly, Volosinow claims that we hear a conflict between the evaluative orientation of the character whose speech is reported, and the narrator whose smooth narration is disrupted by its representation. “We perceive the author's accents and intonations being interrupted by these value judgements of another person,” he writes. “And that is the way, as we know, in which quasi-direct discourse differs from substituted discourse, where no new accents vis-a-vis the surrounding authorial context appear.” 39 The result of all this, as Banfield makes clear, is that the self whose thoughts are reported in the indirect free style, is not equivalent to a single, coherent, egocentric subject at all, a subject whose Erlebnis could be nacherlebt. “Represented thought,” she thus argues, “is an attempt to render thought as nonspeech through the medium of language. Language makes this atteympt feasible because it is not synonymous with speech or communication, because speaker and self are distinct concepts, both required by linguistic theory and, hence, both posited as part of the speaker's internalized linguistic knowledge.” 40


In addition to the stylistic expression of this non-personalized notion of experience, there is a grammatical correlate that was most clearly identified by Emile Benveniste in his 1950 essay “Active and Middle Voice in the Verb” 41 Not evident in all languages or equally prominent throughout the history of those where it can be found, the so-called “middle voice” challenges the alternative between active and passive voices, just as the style indirect libre calls into question the opposition between direct and indirect discourse. Voice, or to use the technical term, diathesis, indicates the way the subject of a verb is affected by its action. According to Benveniste, whereas verbs in the active voice signify a process in which the subject is outside the action that it achieves, the middle voice signifies a subject within that process, even it if entails an object as well. The passive voice was only a late off-shoot of the middle voice, produced only when the distinction between agent (subject) and patient (object) came to be regarded as strict. But the middle voice did not entirely die. Familiar examples in French would be “Je suis ne,” I was born, and “il est mort, he died. Another from Sanscrit grammar concerns the ritual of self-sacrifice of a person, who takes the knife in his own hands and plays the roles of executioner and victim (yajate rather than yajati, when the priest does the killing).


Benveniste's stress on the importance of the middle voice has had a powerful impact on recent French theory. In his influential 1968 essay on “Différence,” Jacques Derrida invoked it to explain the meaning of that crucial deconstructionist neologism. Claiming that différence is an operation hat also cannot be conceived either as a passion or an action of a subject, he argued that “the middle voice, a certain nontransitivity, may be what philosophy, at its outset, distributed into an active and a passive voice, thereby constituting itself by means of this repression.” 42 Undoing – or at least deconstructing – this repression, he implied, would be an emancipatory gesture, allowing some more primordial operation to reemerge.


Also extrapolating from Benveniste, Roland Barthes contended, in an essay originally written two years before Derrida's, that the middle voice had recovered its central place in modernist writing, writing in which the authorial function was incorporated into the text, which seemed to write itself. Such writing could thus be called intransitive rather than transitive in the s3ense of not having an object exterior to it. Whereas Romantic writing involved a subject anterior to the actions about which it wrote, modernist writing's subject was interior to and simultaneous with the writing itself. According to Barthes, “in the modern verb of middle voice to write, the subject is constituted as immediately contemporary with the writing, being effected and affected by it: this is the exemplary case of the Proustian narrator, who exists only by writing, despite the reference to a pseudo-memory.” 43


Rather than accepting Benjamin's critique of Proust for providing a retrospective and subective simulacrum of Erfahrung through involuntary memory, Barthes insisted that the writing itself contained what Benjamin was seeking. For here we have example of a linguistic version of experience without the subject, of ecriture withouit an ecrivain. 44 Although Barthes identified intransitive writing with modernism, where techniques like interior monologue are often emplyoed, it would be possible to see its antecedents in the realistic novel in which the style indirect libre also appeared, for example in Flaubert. Thus, both on the level of style and of grammatical voice, there is evidence in the novel of those attributes Benjamin denied to it.


Significantly, several recent theorists have extrapolated from these arguments to find experience without a subject in non-literary phenomena as well. Ann Banfield, for example, has claimed that in certain modern recording instruments, such as the camera, the thermometer and the tape recorder, non-senses sensibilia can manifest temselves without an actual subject present when the event occurs. 45 These phenomena she compares to the style indirect libre in the novels of Virginia Wolf and the narratives of Maurice Blanchot, and employs them to criticize Bertrand Russell's claim that sensibilia always need a subject to do the sensing. “The novel,” she writes, “contains sentences with deictic which can be said to represent the perspective of no one; not objective, centerless statements, but subjective yet subjectless, they render the appearances of things to no one, akin in this to the light-sensitive plate.” 46 Although she does not draw on Benjamin's famous discussion of photography's revelation of an “optical unconscious,” her remarks suggest a similar concern for realities that escape subjective apprehension.47


In another context, the philosopher Berel Lang and the intellectual historian Hayden White have suggested that intransitive writing in the middle voice may be a helpful way to present the historical narrative of events such as the Holocaust that defy traditional attempts to write about them as an objective story. 48 For White, following Roland Barthes, modernism is “nothing less than an order of experience beyond (or piror to) that expressible in the kind of oppositions we are forced to draw (between agency and patiency, subjectivity and objectivity, literalness and figurativeness, fact and fiction, history and myth and so forth) in any version of realism.” 49 This moernist experience, White suggests, is somehow appropriate to that of the Holocaust, “a new form of historical reality, a reality that included, among its supposedly unimaginable, unthinkable and unspeakable aspects, the phenomena of Hitlerism, the Final Solution, total war...” 50


The claims of Lang and White that the unspeakable acts of twentieth-century totalitarianism are best represented in the unsayable sentences we have been calling instances of subjectless experience are, to be sure, controversial; ineed, I have myself vigorously challenged them elsewhere. 51 But they suggest how powerful the appeal of that notion of experience now is. Benjamin's early hope for an “absolute experience,” an ontological experience expressed in non-communicative language prior to the privileging of subjectivity in irrational Erlebnis or scientific Erfahrung, has found an echo in unexpecte quarters, where no explitic residue remains of his theological concerns. Although few commentators have noticed the continuities – Banfield is an exception, as she uses the celebrated lines from “The Task of the Translator,” “No poem is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder,no symphony for the listener” as an epigraph for one of her articles 52 - it is clear that shorn of its religious aura, Benjamin's early theory of experience has shown itself to be remarkably durable.


Can it also be said in conclusion to be persuasive as well? In a recent essay addressing many of the themes we have just been discussing, the literary critic Vincent Pecora has expressed alarm at the way in which Benveniste's work on the middle voice has functioned to short-circuit serious discussions of political agency. 53 Betraying a kind of ethnological nostalgia for an allegedly prior state of undifferentiated unity, its celebrants, he claims, fail to ask the hard question about how we are to find our way back to such a utopian state. “Like the jargon of phenomenology,” Pecora protests, “middle voice only superficially 'dissolves' older logical and ethical dilemmas of subject/object relations.” 54 As a result, it may even prove an unwitting handmaiden of an authoritarian politics, as Heidegger's philosophy, itself based on a search for experience without a subject, unfortunately did.


A somewhat less sinister scenario is suggested, however, by a reading of the style indirect libre that emphasizes its still contestatory impulses as a “dual style.” Volosinov, Pascal and LaCapra all argue for a ialogical rather than empathetic interpretation of it. That is, they stress the ways in which character and narrator remain in tension rather than smoothly absorbed one into the other, as the Vosslerite theories of nacherleben suggest. Volosinov was a member of Michael Bakhtin's circle in the Soviet Union – in fact, some critics have claimed they were actually the same person 55 - so it is not surprising to find the now familiar idea of carnival associated with that of the style indirect libre. According to LaCapra, writing about Madame Bovary in particular, “the effect here is a carnivalization of narrative voice an a dissemination of the narrator – at times the author – in the text.” 56


It would not be the first time, moreover, that Bahktin's notion of carnival has been introduced to flesh out Benjamin's arcane ideas. Terry Eagleton already did so in the early 1980's, even suggesting certain similarities between the theological premises of each position. 57 The implication of thi reading of the style indirect libre is perhaps not quite as nostalgic and affirmative as the one Pecora attributes to those who have used the middle voice as a way to overcome subject/object dichotomies. For it suggests a less settled notion of a unity prior to the split into direct and indirect discourse, active and passive voice. Here experience without the subject turns out to be experience with more than one subject inhabiting the same space.


Although Benjamin's early notion of absolute experience might not at first glance appear congenial to this version, it does fit well wit his contention that the aura involves an interaction of gazes. As Habermas notes, “The experience released from the ruptured shell of the aura was, however, already contained in the experience of the aura itself: the metamorphosis of the object into a counterpart. Thereby a whole field of surprising correspondence between animate and inanimate nature is opened up, wherein even things encounter us in the structures of frail intersubjectivity.” 58 Habermas' version of that intersubjectivity is, to be sure, more harmonious and reciprocal than the dialogic heteroglossia of #bakhtin, but he insightfully recognizes the importance of multiple subjectivities (indeed, of objects metamorphosed into subjectivities) in Benjamin's concept of Erfahrung.


However one interprets the political implications of absolute experience, the style indirect libre or the middle voice, Benjamin's contention that experience is a multi-faceted and internally contested concept has thus been confirmed by the linguistic evidence of novels that Benjamin himself failed to appreciate. Whether or not we then conclude that absolute experience has virtually vanished from the world or that its utopian spark remains hidden in the pages of those novels, waiting somehow to be actualized by their readers in ways that are impossible to foretell, is a question that no one can confidently answer.


Martin Jay

History Department

University of California, Berkeley

1Hans-George Gadamer (1986) Truth and Method. New York, p. 310

2Michael Oakeshott (1933) Experience and its Modes. Cambridge, p. 9

3Philip Rahv (1969) „The Cult of Experience in American Writing.“ Literature and the Sixth Sense, New York and Joan W. Scott (1991) „The Evidence of Experience“ in: Critical Inquiry 17,4 (Summer edition).

4Gary Smith (1989) „Thinking through Benjamin: An introductory Essay,“ in: Smith, ed. Benjamin: Philosophy, Aesthetics, History. Chicago, p. xii

5Richard Wolin (1982). Walter Benjamin: An Aesthetics of Redemption. New York; Marleen Stoessel (1983). Aura: Das vergessene Menschliche. Munich. Torsten Meiffert (1986) Die enteignete Erfahrung: Zu Walter Benjamin's Theory of Literary Criticism. Ithaca; Miriam Hansen (1987) „Benjamin, Cinema and Experience: The Blue Flower in the Land of Technology,“ New German Critique, 40 (Winter); Michael Makropolous (1989) Modenrität als ontologischer Ausnahmezustand? Walter Benjamin's Theorie der Moderne. Munich.

6Benjamin (1979) One Way Street and other writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott an Kingsley Shorter. London; „Erfahrung und Armut,“ Gesammelte Schriften, II.I; „The Storyteller“ and „On some Motifs in Baudelaire,“ In Illuminations (1968) ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn. New York.

7See Dilthey (1957) Das Erlebnis und Dichtung: Lessing, Goethe, Novalis, Hölderlin. 13th edition. Göttingen. For a disucssion of Dilthey's usage, see Michael Ermarth (1978) Wilhelm Dilthey: The Critique of Historical Reason. Chicago, p. 97f.

8Edmund Husserl (1973) Experience and Judgement, ed. Ludwig Landgrebe, trans. J.S. Churchill and K. Ameriko. Evanston.

9Ernst Jünger. Der Kampf als innere Erlebnis. Werke, vol. 5. Stuttgart, n.d.

10Gadamer, Truth and Method, p. 317, where he credits Hegel for a dialectical concept of experience as „skepticism in action.“

11Yusef Hayim Yerushalmi (1989) Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory. New York. Curiously, Benjamin is never mentioned in this remarkable book. For a discussion of the relevance of Yerushalmi to Benjamin, see Susan A. Handelman (1991) Fragments of Redemption: Jewish Thought and Literary Theory in Benjamin, Scholem, and Levinas, Bloomington, Ind. p. 164. It would be fruitful to compare Benjamin's distinction between two types of memory, Gedächtnis (the memory of the many) and Erinnerung (the interiorization of the past) or Eingedenken (the memory of the one) with Yerushalmi's distinction between memory and history. For a helpful account of Benjamin's ideas on this issue, see Irving Wohlfahrt (1978) „On the Messianic Structure of Walter Benjamin's Last Reflections,“ Glyph, 3.

12A similar argument is suggested by Reinhart Koselleck in „Spaces of Experience' and 'Horizon of Expectation': Two Historical Categories,“ in Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, trans. Keith Tribe ('Cambridge, Mass., 1985). Koselleck argues that modernity is defined by the growing gap between experience, which he defines as „present past, whose events have been incorporated and can be remembered“ (p. 272), and an expectational horion which distances itself radically from the status quo. He links this transformation with the notions of „history in general“ and „progress,“ both of which were anathema to Benjamin.

13For a discussion of the implications of this word, see Makropoulos, Modernität als ontologischer Ausnahmezustand, chapter 3.

14Benjamin, „On some Motifs in Baudelaire,“ p. 165. Benjamin's ambivalence about the ability of the masses to recover Erfahrung is discussed in Hansen,“Benjamin, Cinema and Experience.“ She strengthens the links between his concept of aura and experience, and argues that „with the denigration of the auratic imagine in favour of reproduction, Benjamin implicitly denies the masses the possibility of aesthetic experience.“ p. 186

15For an analysis of it in these terms, see Wolin, chapter 7; and „Experience and Materialism in Benjamin's Passagenwerk, in Smith, ed. Benjamin: Philosophy, Aesthetics, History.

16Gershom Scholem (1981) Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship, trans. Harry Zohn. New York. Here Scholem describes the lengthy discussion he had with Benjamin in Muri, Schwitzerland in 1918 over the issue of experience in the work of Herman Cohen.

17Benjamin, „On the Program of the Coming Philosophy,“ in Smith, ed. Benjamin: Philosophy, Aesthetics, History. For discussions of the importance of this essay, see Smith's introduction and Jennings, Dialectical Images, chapter 3. Prior to this piece, in 1912, he published a short essay entitled „Erfahrung,“ in which he attacked the concept tout court. See Benjamin (1977) Gesammelte Schriften, vol.II, ed. Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhäuser. Frankfurt.

18Benjamin, „On the Program of the Coming Philosophy,“ p. 10

19Ibib, p. 11

20Ibib., p. 5

21Ibib, p. 9

22Winfried Menninghaus, „Walter Benjamin's Theory of Myth,“ in Gary Smith, ed., (1988) On Walter Benjamin: Critical Essays and Reflections Cambridge, Mass., p. 321-322. Benjamin, to be sure, was skeptical of certain types of mythic thinking, even attacking Lebensphilosophie as proto-fascist for its interest in myth. (See, „On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,“ p. 158). But Menninghaus shows the extent to which he distrusted the simply myth / enlightenment dichotomy.

23See, for example, his critique of Erlebnis as too dependent on the Cartesianism it purports to transcend in Grundfragen der Philosophie: Ausgewählte „Probleme“ der „Logik“ Gesamtausgabe, vol. 45, ed. Friedrich-Wilhelm von Herrmann. Frankfurt, 1984 p. 149

24For an attempt to do so, see Rainer Nägele, „Benjamin's Ground,“ in Nägele, ed., (1988). Benjamin's Ground: New Readings of Walter Benjamin. Detroit.

25Benjamin (1978). „Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia,“ Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, ed. Peter Demetz, trans. Edmond Jephcott. New York, p. 179

26Georg Lukacs (1971) The Theory of the Novel, trans. Anna Bostock. Cambridge, Mass., p. 41, cited by Benjamin, „The Story Teller,“ p. 99

27Benjamin, „The Storyteller: Reflections on the Work of Nikolai Leskov,“ Illuminatons, p. 87

28According to Benjamin, „the important thing for the remembering author is not what he exeprienced, but the weaving of his memory, the Penelope work of ecollection.“ „The Image of Proust,“ Illuminations, p. 205

29Roland Barthes, (1989) „To Write: An Intransitive Verb?,“ in: The Rustle of Language, trans. Richard Howard. Berkeley.

30Charles Bally, (1912) „Le style indirect libre en francais moderne I et II, Germanisch-Romanische Monatsschrift. Heidelberg. There were some prior discussions in the work of the linguists A. Tobler and Th. Kaplevsky, but it was not until Bally, who one of the two students of Saussure who published the notes of the Cours de linguistique generale in 1016, that a sustained analysis was made. „Libre“ means syntactially independent.

31Marcel Proust (1948) „About Flaubert's Style“, in Marcel Proust: A Selection from his Miscellaneous Writings, trans. Gerard Hopkins. London.

32Etienne Lorck, (1921) Die „Erlebte Rede“: Eine Sprachliche Untersuchung. Heidelberg; Otto Jesperson (1924) The Philosophy of Grammar. London.

33V.S. Volosinov (1930) Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. Trans. Ladislave Metejka and I.R. Titunik. New York; Stephen Ullmann (1964) Style in the French Novel. New York; Dorrit Cohn (1978) Transparesnt Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction. Princeton; Roy Pascal (1977) The Dual Voice: Free Indirect Speech and its Functioning in the Nineteenth-Century European Novel. Manchester; Ann Banfield (1982) Unspeakable Sentences. Boston.

34Dominick LaCapra (1982) „Madame Bovary“ on Trial Ithaca.

35For an account of Vossler and the Vosslerites, see Volosninov, p. 32

36Lacapra, p. 138

37Interestingly, one of the other Vosslerites who worked on erlebte Rede. Gertraud Lerch, used the Diltheyan notion of Einfühlung (empathy) as the key to the style. See the discussion in Volosinov, p. 150

38Pascal, p. 25

39Volosinov, p. 155

40Ann Banfield (1978) „Where Epistemology, Style and Grammar Meet Literary History: The Development of Represented Speech and Thought,“ New Literary History, x, 3, p. 449

41Emile Benveniste (1971) Problems in General Linguistics, trans. Mary Elizabeth Meek. Coral Gables, Fla., chap. 14

42Jacques Derrida, (1982) „Difference,“ Margins of Philosophy, trans Alan Bass. Chicago, p. 9

43Barthes, „To Write – An Intransitive Verb?,“, p. 19

44For an analysis of ecriture in terms of intransitive writing, the middle voice, and the style indirect libre, see Ann Banfield, „Ecriture, Narration and the Grammar of French,“ in Jeremy Hawthorn, (1985) ed. Narrative: From Malory to Motion Pictures. London. She makes the point that the impersonal grammatical function of writing was lost in America when the pragmatists substituted „The Experience Curriculum“ in the 1930's (p. 17 – 18). In the terms we have been using, the „absolute experience“ of ecriture was replaced by Erlebnis.

45Ann Banfield, „Describing the Unobserved: Events Grouped Around an Empty Center,“ in Nigel Fabb et al., eds. (1987) The Linguistics of Writing: Arguments Between Language and Literature. Manchester; Le miroir qui ne reflete personne,“ in Transparence et Opacite: Litterature det Sciences Cognitives, Hommage a Mitou Ronat (Paris, 1988); and „L'Imparfait de l'Objectif: The Imperfect of the Object Glass,“ Camera Obscura, 24 (Fall, 1991).

46Banfield, „L'Imparfait de l'Obectif,“ p. 77

47Benjamin, (1972) „A Short History of Photography,“ Screen, 13, 1. Spring. For a discussion of the links between Benjamin's visual concerns and the issue of experience, see Hansen, „Benjamin, Cinema and Experience.“

48Berel Lang (1990) Act and Idea in the Nazi Genocide. Chicago, and Hayden White, „Historical Emplotment and the Problem of Truth,“ in Saul Friedlander, ed., Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the „Final Solution

49White, „Historical Emplyoment and the Problem of Truth,“ p. 49

50Ibid., p. 52

51Martin Jay, „Of Plots, Witnesses and Judgments,“ in Frielander, Probing the Limits of Representation. The distinction between active agent and passive victim seems to be nowhere as important to maintain as in accounts of the Holocaust; otherwise, we risk the travesty of even-handed remembrance evident at Bitburg and in the work of certain historians during the Historikerstreit.

52Banfield, „Where Epistemology, Style and Grammar Meet Literary History: The Development of Represented Speech and Thought,“ p. 415

53Vincent Pecora, (1991) „Ethics, Politics and the Middle Voice,“ Yale French Studies, 79

54Ibid., p 212

55See the discussion in Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist (1984) Mikhail Bakhtin Cambridge, Mass. Chapter 6; and the translators' introduction to Volosinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language.

56LaCapra, „Madame Bovary“ on Trial, p. 149

57Terry Eagleton, (1981) Walter Benjamin: Or Towards a Revolutionary Criticsm. London, where he claimed that in Bakhtin exists a „Judeo-Christian Mysticism in some ways akin to Benjamin's – that Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (which he takes to be written by Bakhtin) contains as its secret code a theological devotion to the incarnational unity of word and being similar to that which marks Benjamin's own meditations.“ (p. 153 - 154)

58Jürgen Habermas, „Consciouisness-Raising or Redemptive Criticism: The Contemporaneity of Walter Benjamin,“ New German Critique, 17 (Spring, 1979), p. 45 – 46.

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