This week, in a series of blog takeovers, we’re looking at Modernism, Theory, and Responsible Reading with posts from the collection’s contributors.
Guest post by Kathryn Carney
In “Absolutely Small: Anarchism and the Aesthetics of Affirmation,” Roger Rothman draws on Immanuel Kant’s aesthetic thought and Gustav Landauer’s Weimar vein of utopian anarchism to argue for importing anarchist politics into aesthetics. Rothman’s “aesthetics of affirmation,” however, is perhaps not an aesthetics at all but a system of ethics presenting as politics (see also Newman’s discussion of ethics alongside aesthetics in response to Sugimori, xx).
Rothman’s anarchism reveals itself to be a variation of a particularly Levinasian ethics. The political philosophy of anarchism here becomes a template for patterning a broader anti-idealist epistemology. If this is indeed the groundwork for an aesthetic, it is possibly more appropriately termed an anti-aesthetic: an aesthetics organized not around the unfathomable scale of the Ideal, the sublime, but around an approximation of the minute.1 This formulation suggests that affirmation actively inverts the scales, scopes, and sieves of what we could call (capitalist) organizations of experience in modernity, including the “transcendent order [of the ideal] that gives shape, in Kant, to the sublime, and in Schiller, to the state” (xx). To act intimately, responsibly, and affirmatively—reparatively, even: “ameliorating various forms of neglect” (Sugimori xx)— is then to privilege immanence over transcendence, the material over the immaterial, and the (inter)personal over the proprietary.
Why does aesthetics, alongside such organizations of the state and social worlds, matter for discussions surrounding critique, modernism, and responsible reading? As an accepted system of values that guides and actively informs many dimensions of life, aesthetics constitutes a discourse of power—or, as in Theodor Adorno’s formulation, a discourse of powerlessness—much as politics or ethics does (Adorno qtd. in Ngai 843-45).2 A “dilational” model of critique like that which Rothman proposes does not privilege any given scope over another but calibrates itself to accommodate objects of any scale. Similarly, to “read responsibly” surely avoids installing value hierarchies that allow a reader to selectively engage with the possible pluralities of concepts, styles, and politics in a text.
Equity emerges from the distinction between law (often manifesting as “politics as ethics”) and Rothman’s contract, the anarchist inversion that proposes “ethics as politics.” Whereas laws represent inflexible, prescriptive ideals of behavior and state- sanctioned organizations of social relations, contracts develop organically as ongoing, revisable, and fluid relations subject to change. Contracts constitute dialogues rather than edicts or decrees. Agency, care, and respons-ibility are the ethical emphases in a contract: both parties in a contract are answerable to each other. While the Law exists as something “absolutely great” like the sublime—with both the Law and the sublime being insurmountable and unaccountable in every sense as assemblages of potential infinites, absolutes, and ideals—the contract is developed and enforced iteratively as a constellation of affirmative gestures. Rothman advances the same logic in his response to Tang, noting that shifting relationality will always consequently and contextually delimit our definition of responsibility (Rothman xx); an iterative definition, then, is necessary. In this way, contracts are boundless without being absolute. Furthermore, Rothman suggests that a contract’s “strength” develops through sheer intimacy (also understood broadly throughout his essay as care), nothing more than a mutual acknowledgement of visceral vulnerability—indeed, “weakness.” In other words, an anarchist-influenced aesthetics of affirmation depends on the conscious concession to the inherent nonsovereignty of our selves and subjectivities as material bodies. By extension, a mode of responsible reading informed by an aesthetics of affirmation asks its practitioners to enter into a tentative agreement whereby they choose to care for others through and beyond the text.
Nonetheless, Rothman does not attempt or advance towards a wholesale revision of Kant’s aesthetic categories in the service of this project; surely, he leaves this task to cultural theorist Sianne Ngai. Ngai’s own brief discussion of the “ridiculous” in “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde” (2005; the article later became the first chapter of Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting, 2012) sets the stage for an extended conversation about “minor” categories and the qualities associated with “minorness” (perhaps even “minority”) due to their being somewhat “weaker in intensity” than the sublime (811). Ngai subsequently translates “ridiculousness”— “triviality” in Kant’s thought or the “absolutely small” for Rothman—as impotence and inconsequentiality, casting the values of an aesthetic system of absolute “intensity” into harsh relief. Even if “absolutely small” gestures of radical affirmation are trivial in the Kantian sense, what Rothman advocates for is radical in its larger implications: an ethical imperative is precisely that which can potentially overturn sedimented power imbalances that remain active in aesthetics as well as in the theory and philosophy thereof.
Just as Ngai’s invocations of Adorno, the “minor,” and the “pedestrian” evoke Walter Benjamin, so, too, do Rothman’s invocations of Landauer and Comfort (and, elsewhere in this volume, Tang’s historical materialist understanding of affect and the aesthetics thereof insofar as they impact our conceptions of care [xx]).3 Though Benjamin is not cited in the text, the language and intent of Rothman’s piece demonstrate Benjamin’s influence. I take Rothman’s essay as an invitation to further contemplate the resonances and contentions between an anarchist ethics, aesthetics, and affirmation’s possible other, barbarism, alongside Benjamin’s thought. But where does Benjamin’s practice of history intersect with an ethics-cum-aesthetics? In the very same instantiation of the ethical imperative for which Rothman advocates.
Benjamin’s archaeology of the profane and the residual is in and of itself affirmative, reparative, and “redemptive.” His historiographical defiance of progress is not eschatological but utopian, a “utopian-restitutionist structure” (Löwy 47) whereby redemption follows destruction. This raises the question of whether affirmation entails redemption. Perhaps this is the salve of a “post-”: a postcritique, a postmodernism, or even a post-apocalyptic world, as it were—through the term itself we are assured that there is indeed an “after” to the “complete” and “final” end of the world. This suggests that postcritique is redemptive, too (if not utopian). To follow in Benjamin’s footsteps, however, we must dispense with normative dialectics. As I briefly explore below, the function of “barbarism” in Benjamin’s work is an attempt at just that: cultivating an intervention into the trajectory of history to rupture the progressive narrative of modernity.
“Barbarism” appears briefly in Rothman’s essay when he warns us of the current state of critique in which we have forgotten inherent intersubjectivity and our collective responsibilities to others. Citing British anarchist Alex Comfort, Rothman writes, “We have boundless responsibility to every person we meet…barbarism is a flight from responsibility” (xx). While Comfort’s definition suggests that barbarism is the very condition of being contractless (and, thus, response-less, irresponsible), Benjamin imbues barbarism with yet another valence.
Thinkers of Benjaminian barbarism like Kevin McLaughlin, Brett Neilson, and Sami Khatib all draw on “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1939) while returning to an earlier text, “Experience and Poverty” (1933), to probe the potentially radical dimensions with which Benjamin invests barbarism. (Coincidentally, this 1933 piece includes an excerpt reproduced verbatim in Benjamin’s “The Storyteller” . In this selection, Benjamin describes battlefields and “the tiny, fragile human body” [der winzige, gebrechliche Menschenkörper] that pocks them [“The Storyteller” 104]). Winzig can also be translated as minute or infinitesimal; as such, the metric of the destruction of war is the “ridiculously small” bodily instrument. Perhaps another resonance between Rothman and Benjamin’s work manifests therein: in his focus on dance and aural compositions towards the end of the essay, Rothman suggests that a ridiculously small aesthetics of affirmation is registered and performed at the scale of the body— “shrink[ing]—to become small enough to comprehend the ridiculous” [xx]. To “revert” to the “miniscule” and material scale of the body is to eschew abstract grandiosity and grandiose abstraction alike—in short, sublimity. Like a secular ethics, Rothman’s ridiculous aesthetics privileges that which is mortal and minute over the scale of a god.) In an Enlightenment-era understanding of human progress, barbarism is the midway point between primitivism and civilization. In a dialectical understanding of history, it is only through the overcoming of barbarism that civilization can flourish; a particular imperialism or domination of so-called barbarism is the prerequisite to civilization’s fruition. Destruction is the stage of the process (or “progress”) of “universal history” whereby barbarism is overcome by another force—“civilization” in the form of (global, modern) imperialism and its consequent literal and metaphorical reterritorialization (Neilson 79, 88).5 In the seventh section of “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Benjamin writes,
There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism … barbarism taints also the manner in which [the document] was transmitted from one owner to another. A historical materialist therefore dissociates himself from it as far as possible. He regards it as his task to brush history against the grain (256-57).
I understand this thesis to mean that all documents of “civilization” exist as documents of imperial domination insofar as the former could not exist without the latter. While not ontologically negative, barbarism serves as the negative condition of “civilization.” Barbarism supplies the ground for civilization’s articulation.6 For Benjamin, however, barbarism is a liminal interval rather than a stage: in “Experience and Poverty,” he more directly affiliates barbarism with his own concept of Jetztzeit, a sense of the “contemporary” or “now” that breaks up the flow of time and which he associates with Marx’s conception of revolution.7
If Benjamin’s conception of barbarism appears ambivalent, it is because barbarism constitutes ambivalence itself as a limit of (linguistic) knowing.8 It is a literal interruption into the dialogic format and a radical intervention into a trajectory and discourse of power. Barbarism is defined in relation to the imperial; with this in mind, we recognize that it is not the “barbarian” who is unanswering, but the “civilized!” To identify barbarism is to know that the other is talking to us but that we do not understand; “Barbarism is a flight from responsibility” only insofar as, in order for barbarism to exist in opposition to “civilization,” said civilization shirks all responsibility from engaging with its would-be interlocutor.
Consequently, it is the “barbarian” who possesses the most radical potential to disrupt the legacy of violence and inequality instated by the very force that names them “barbarian.” Sami Khatib most elegantly transposes Benjamin’s concept: “the new barbarian is a critical intervention against those self-declared inheritors of culture…culture becomes a reified container, cut off from the experience of the age that claims to inherit it” (136). This disjunction—or injunction—is precisely why Benjamin’s articulation of barbarism, even if ambivalent at best, remains urgent: he conceptualized it as another weapon in the critical arsenal against fascists, those “self-declared inheritors of culture” who claim it on the basis of progression resulting exclusively in scorched-earth “renewal” and the extermination of all that exists beyond said “culture’s” parameters.
Barbarism is surely an other yet not an opposite to affirmation. Affirmation dissolves barbarism altogether as a condition imposed from without, for to be deemed “barbarian” is for inequality to be forcefully (if not violently) instated. On the other hand, the presence of barbarism creates space for affirmation to be had; barbarism disrupts mythologizing narratives of progress to preclude domination. Returning to Benjamin’s seventh thesis, the task of “brush[ing] history against the grain” entails undermining history’s role as a record of inequality by not only changing the practice of history, but affecting change on its course in real time, enacting the “weak messianism” with which the past endows us.
Through the parallel practices of affirmation and responsible reading, each of us effectively possesses the potential to act as stewards not only to other subjects but also to other events through ethical, epistemological, and historical care. With Rothman in mind, we can re-interpret Benjamin’s dictum as suggesting that all documents of civilization testify to the deficits of responsibility that mar accounts of “history,” historical methods, and the language with which they are written. A system that replaces politics with an anarchist ethics must then take up the historiographical task to actively pursue an “aesthetics of affirmation” insofar as it privileges an ethics of care and restores value to the qualities of minorness, even if they elude our understanding.
Per theorist and art historian Hal Foster,“‘anti-aesthetic’is…acritiquewhich destructures the order of representations in order to reinscribe them. ‘Anti- aesthetic’ also signals that the very notion of the aesthetic, its network of ideas, is in question here: the idea that aesthetic experience exists apart, without ‘purpose,’ all but beyond history, or that art can now effect a world at once (inter)subjective, concrete and universal—a symbolic totality…are categories afforded by the aesthetic still valid?” (xv). I believe that Rothman’s “aesthetics of affirmation” enacts a scalar inversion that valorizes the minor and the partial over the total. As such, “aesthetics” feels more connotatively toothless a term than “anti-aesthetic.”
Ngai highlights the ultimate indifference of art as object (rather than action,
body, etc., an understanding of aesthetics surely complicated by participatory art and performance) in Adorno’s aesthetic theory. The “surrender of dignity” Adorno appreciates in art is what we could maybe call the ontological ambivalence of art insofar as it is marked by its (conventional) “purposelessness” (in the terms of Kant by way of Adorno; Ngai 839).
While McNaughlin teases out Benjamin’s conception of barbarism through interrogating passages of The Origin of the German Tragic Drama and The Arcades Project, Neilson focuses on the spatial dimensions of barbarism through reading Benjamin alongside Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, among others. Neilson also draws on Henri Lefebvre to unravel the myth of modernity’s progress: all “modes” of human development represented in the simplified trajectory of primitivism, to barbarism, and then civilization not only coexist in time and space but also simply reflect different systems of representation rather than discrete stages of development. With this in mind, we can recognize that to consider “civilization” or “culture” (an admittedly bourgeois understanding of historical legacy) as “redemptive” in a dialectical sense is to kowtow to the progressive narrative of modernity.
Neilson arrives at the same conclusion: “[Deleuze and Guattari’s] scheme accommodates Benjamin’s views on the mutuality of barbarism and civilization, presenting barbarism not as a historical period that pre-dates civilizations but as a representational system in which civilization becomes thinkable” (Neilson 86).
Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn, Schocken Books, 1969, pp. 253-264.
Benjamin, Walter. “Der Erzähler: Betrachtungen zum Werk Nikolai Lesskows.” Walter Benjamin: Erzählen: Schriften zur Theorie der Narration und zur literarischen Prosa, Suhrkamp, 2007, pp. 103-128.
Foster, Hal. “Postmodernism: A Preface.” The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, edited by Hal Foster, Bay Press, 1983, pp. ix-xiv.
Khatib, Sami. “Barbaric Salvage: Benjamin and the Dialectics of Destruction.” parallax vol. 24, no. 2, 2018, pp. 135-158.
Löwy, Michael. “Revolution Against ‘Progress’: Walter Benjamin’s Romantic Anarchism.” New Left Review vol. 1, no. 152, July/August 1985, pp. 42-59.
McLaughlin, Kevin. “Benjamin’s Barbarism.” The Germanic Review: Literature, Culture, Theory vol. 81, no. 1, 2006, pp. 4-20.
More, Thomas. Utopia, Verso, 2016.
Neilson, Brett. “Barbarism/modernity: Notes on Barbarism.” Textual Practice vol. 13, no.
1, 1999, pp. 79-95.
Ngai, Sianne. “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde.” Critical Inquiry vol. 31, no. 4, Summer 2005, pp. 811-847.
Rothman, Roger. “Absolutely Small: Anarchism and the Aesthetics of Affirmation.” Modernism, Theory, and Responsible Reading, edited by Stephen Ross, Bloomsbury, 2021, pp. xx.
Schwartz, Yossef. “Gustav Landauer and Gershom Scholem: Anarchy and Utopia.” Gustav Landauer: Anarchist and Jew, edited by Paul Mendes-Flohr and Anya Mali in collaboration with Hanna Delf von Wolzogen, De Gruyter Oldenbourg, 2015, pp. 172-190.
Kathryn Carney is a doctoral student in the History of Art and Architecture at the University of Pittsburgh. Her current research explores the historical fungibility of race, disability, and social deviance in turn-of-the-century German visual culture and medicine. More broadly, she is concerned with posthumanist modernisms and the biopolitics thereof, regularly drawing on the insights of critical theory, crip and queer theory, critical phenomenology, and more in her art-historical research. Carney holds an MA from the Centre for the Study of Theory & Criticism at Western University.