In the following pages we present one of Page Pavlov’s two research proposals: The Wind Rose of Success, an instruction manual for its use and a commentary on a homonym text by Walter Benjamin.
The theme of this work is twofold. On the one hand we confront Benjamin’s historical reading and on the other hand some consequences we can draw from its application on the present contemporary situation. The core of the work, which can also be seen as the passage between this two main concerns is constituted by Die Windrose des Erfolges, a short piece he wrote in 1932 and which literally helps to orient the present considerations.
1. Benjamin’s historical reading
Although the dense magma of Benjamin’s writing remains open to sporadic excursions which have no interest in spanning the entire oeuvre of the philosopher and that often even condemn such attempts in Benjamin’s name and for his sake, certainly there have been as many philosophical efforts to investigate ‘his thought’, ‘his concerns’, ‘his method’, ‘his philosophy’. Among the latter, several (messianic and/or materialistic) interpretations of ‘Benjamin’ immediately developed, thanks to Adorno, Scholem and Arendt, just to name some of the most influential authors who also shared Benjamin’s friendship. In a letter he wrote to Scholem on the 26th of July 1932 we read about a Privatdozent who picked Benjamin’s Der Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels for one of his semester seminars: it was the young Adorno.
Between dialectical materialism and messianism, the last years witnessed the development of some deconstructionist readings of Benjamin’s oeuvre which seems to culminate in ulterior attempts at deciphering, already in Benjamin, a more or less clear deconstructive attitude. In this provisional context it may suffice to mention Werner Hamacher, Samuel Weber and Sigfried Weigel among others. Derrida’s La force de loi, critical of Benjamin’s Zur Kritik der Gewalt, and the sole complex study Derrida dedicated to him, probably slowed down but could not prevent the assimilation process of Benjamin as one of the forefathers of deconstruction.
To a certain extent, the present research proposal might be interpreted as a confrontation of Benjamin’s reading with deconstruction, starting from the assumption that Benjamin did confront themes that deconstruction will address more systematically later. One might think again of Zur Kritik der Gewalt (which, not surprisingly, poses great difficulties, also to Derrida) and the 1934 essay on Franz Kafka.
Observing Derrida and Agamben’s confrontation surrounding Kafka’s short piece Vor dem Gesetz, we also encompass a tradition of thought on Benjamin’s work. For summary’s sake, we could refer here to two different concepts of citationality: the idea of suspensive profanation plays in Agamben the role that différance plays in Derrida. We have therefore also two different concepts of justice: where Derrida will affirm (just as he confronts Benjamin) that deconstruction (the movement of différance) is justice, Agamben comes to the conclusion that only in suspension, in interruption, can justice be instantiated. Unequivocally both philosophers refer to movement/s (be it plural or singular, Nancy would have the last word here: singulier pluriel) precluding an alternative (which not even Levinas’ Autre seems to provide): either différance triggers the movement or suspension interrupts it; in either cases all references are to the all-encompassing movement.
This ‘movement’ and a stronger formulation of it in all its variations, seems to have connected Nietzsche, Heidegger and Derrida. This very movement – and this is the presumably strong thesis of the present work – was addressed and also opposed by Benjamin’s work. It was actually identified as “eine Überlieferung, die Katastrophe ist.” The interruption of the movement must be accompanied by a positive, propositive otherness, so that revolution does not simply mean to interrupt the movement but also interrupt it ‘positively’. Benjamin’s studies on dialectical images, illuminations, thought-images are all dedicated to provide this positivity. The meeting between theology and materialism which we meet in all these representative images is turned towards such positivity.
Before skipping to the next part, we will help the reader to visualize the present argument with an image: Tradition might mean the carrying over of the spoils. But such transmission implies their reactualisation every time anew including therefore change, revisitation, contamination. However ‘liberal’ this vision may be, it focuses on the ‘victors’ who transmit their conquests generation after generation (or second after second). From a deconstructive perspective temporality gets enclosed so that second after second is already in the second; the victor must necessarily also be the victim; différance is already in sameness. The ‘victimisation’ of the victor and the ‘victorification’ of the victim do not diminish the argument, indeed strengthen the thesis that such tradition means ‘the tradition following the victors.’ Such fate or destiny would after all but mirror the Heideggerian Unverborgenheit of Being/Truth, where Nietzsche’s impasse already moves towards the différance or aporia between master and slave.
And yet one might give another reading of tradition, following which any ‘reactualisation’ of the spoils would not do justice to the spoils and to the way they ‘talk’ and ‘express themselves.’ They may well be carried over but their ‘voice’ is independent from this carrying over. And this voice would be intimately bound with the oppressed. Their timing in coming to expression would also be totally independent from such carrying over. In this respect, the revolutionary action would certainly imply (1) the interruption of the carrying over but more importantly (2) listening to this voice. One might easily imagine a deconstructive reply. In fact – the argument would run – if the transmission of the spoils is intentionality-based, nonetheless any intention ultimately cannot be disjoined from its unconscious ghost, some sort of im/possible thing-in-itself that deconstructs it. One could likewise also think of the spoils’ voice as the non-intended other which then would be preserved within intentionality. And yet this voice would still be bound and nested within the intention as its inscribed other and ultimately reduced to the différance from the intention – its otherness would be irreducibly reduced: its voice – even where (necessarily) admitted, would not be heard. Exactly the extent of this ‘openness’ to alterity is what makes of such openness the greatest danger, since it implies its most convolute reduction.
Theology and materialism work together for the conceiving of a constellation where such otherness would appear in dialectical images. Therefore, Benjamin’s historical reading means first of all hearing these voices and their traditions: the history of the nameless (or das Gedächtnis der Namenlosen). They don’t have any other relation to their being carried over than a history of violence. To acknowledge such violence and fight against it is a clear demand.
2. Application of Benjamin’s historical reading to the contemporary situation
Having tried to elucidate the relation of the themes in the present work with the history of philosophy, and the way they contextualize themselves in the more or less academic controversies (that is the mobilizations they produce and in which they fit, at once), the second part of this introduction will shortly address that which is more historically needed in the present work. This implies a concrete application of Benjamin’s historical reading to the contemporary situation.
To this aim we will need some sort of transposition of the above mentioned controversy. The hypothesis is that our time is ‘deconstructive’ and deconstruction can help us to read the mediatic nature of quite a long time-span: from the beginning of the European fascist movements of the XX Century to the present times.
One of the first consequences drawn from Benjamin’s argument involves the conception of power, a term that achieves its greatest relevance in the history of philosophy with Foucault. Certainly, although the position taken here diverges from the one the French philosopher adopted, by ‘power’ we understand Foucault’s areas of interpretation of it. Through Benjamin we suggest here to substitute success for power. Only the former seems to correspond more pertinently to an idea of power which is first of all mediatic and deconstructive.
The choice of success rather than the more established term power, far from being a simple stylistic preference, helps us to show the distance we take from any a-historical theory of omni-comprehensive power. Indeed the phenomenon of success is contemporary large-scale and our attempt at imagining it does not imply that we share the assumption that there is no alternative or no other grasp on the state of things. Actually our aim is to present other possible memories and histories which not only disconnect themselves from power but do it positively. In other terms: here lies the difference between (1) thinking of power as a developmental force of periodical change and then enforcement between paradigms and (2) thinking of power as success, that means as a contemporary phenomenon: a contemporary paradigm.
Our assumption is not only that we can do without this contemporary paradigm of success, disconnect ourselves from it and still have plenty of positive images and realities, but also that that is what actually must be done if we want to arrive to such images and realities. To mark here once more the same distance, we can add that deciphering the living traits of a tradition is different from trying to encompass the paradigmatic system of a time. Although the two procedures are apparently similar, the clarificatory, resentful attitude manifested in the latter and the obscuring passion hidden in the former are clear symptoms of a deep conceptual difference; it is the same difference which also lies between dialectical images and genealogical studies. Where the former break the paradigm apart to reach living traditions, the latter seems to be willing to shape paradigms on the basis of limits, of negative determinations.
Success is the paradigm we propose for the contemporary times. The term success constitutes itself at a precise distance from and in dialogue with Nietzsche-Foucault’s lineage on the one hand and with Nietzsche-Heidegger-Derrida’s on the other hand. Our aim then is to deal with this ‘paradigm’ through historical reading, going by a wind-rose of success: positively breaking such paradigm apart in order to imagine revolutionary potentials and rescue sparkles of memory in the very same elements that are otherwise successful and paradigmatic.
Here also, before skipping to mention some insights into the logic of success, we will help the reader to visualize the present argument with an image: a Broadway show perfects in its entirety and complexity living traditions which get spoiled of their inner sense. Great studies and performances are senselessly piled up for sale so that their commercialization deprives them of any living, revolutionary potential. And yet the machine and budget of Broadway production lives on these feasts. To believe in Broadway’s logic would not be of any help. To understand it, on the other hand, would be helpful although not decisive. Instead, a study of the defeated traditions which imbue the show and foster it, while resisting it, suffering from it, keeps alive revolutionary energies. The language (the performances, the show) is certainly the same, but how different! The language of success is in no way different from the language of the oppressed, but how different! To listen to the voice of the oppressed in the language of success means to break the show and the paradigm to rescue living traditions. This requires more obscurity than clarity, less understanding and more reading.
Nonetheless helpful but not decisive insights into the logic of success take up a large part of the present work. Following the logic of re/nommée (cfr. renown), one can discern the deconstructive stakes in success and also the twisting point in which history and language get intertwined in a paradigmatic way. The mediatic process constitutes, through renommée, the ‘ontology’ of the characters, prescribing them their fate. Going by a process of deconstruction, not only of ontology, but more importantly of history and language, the media subsume the latter in renommée, so that the ultimate principle is mediatic and this determines only itself.
Following the principle of renommée the becoming name of the word can be seen. Indeed it seems that the word becomes renown (mediatic) only thanks to its patenting/copyright. Such renommée certainly has huge implications, but it would be wrong to accept certain easy reductions of bio-politics, following which power would have inner control over our bios. It is rather our name that only becomes a name as renown (following the logic of success rather than power); it also means that there is no control over our ontology, rather the media substitute every ontological criteria on the evaluation scale. If there might have previously been a collapse of power and ontology in every applied paradigm, the present age dismisses this stage entering the media time: differences, multiplicities are not set aside rather, like the great span of language/history are brought back to their mediatic principle in renommée. So that, for example, ontology is neither denied nor directly controlled or determined, rather it happens mediatically in re/nommée.
In this perspective the identity card is an anachronistic instrument of renommée. In the same way words are archaic embodiments of pixels and other unities. Their emptiness betrays this state of things where the digital still pretends being analogical, and pixels pretend being words. Actually we only confront names (in renommée). This fact is confirmed, for example, by translation engines, by the proliferation of corporations’ brands in their endless names or also by user names. Statistics and administration are mediatic rulers, as Baudrillard and Luhmann have already taught us.
It seems, to provide a key example, that the translation engine is already substituting grammars to establish the correctness of a sentence. Only when the sentence is clear (taking into account emotional, cognitive and moral contents) and therefore can be translated, is it correct. This is a clear example of the sealing value of the name in the word: it’s translatability and renommée.
We are then confronting a reality which would correspond to a deconstructive reading. Such a reality probably constituted one of the main areas of work and interest for Benjamin in the ´30ies as he was thinking of a book on Kafka. Contemporarily he was working on another form of reading, since his 1921 ´divine violence´ to the dialectical image of the later years. Mentioning the word ´word´ above we are already referring to another perspective which we aim to explore by recourse to Benjamin´s notions of: hope, happiness, translation, character, comedy and tradition.
Indeed the present work aims at presenting an ´instrument´ for such alternative reading of history, language and the media, an instrument which should allow us a positive journey through our time image – not only of suspending a deconstructive attitude, but also presenting another reading reality.
We hope to provide the reader with several good reasons to embrace the thesis presented here, acknowledging the dangers that are implied and, hearing those voices still waiting to be heard but also ever heard, actively moving towards a historical reading which could awake revolutionary powers.
From a stylistic point of view, this project would have the form of a commentary on or, more precisely: an instruction manual for Benjamin’s Windrose des Erfolges which I believe can constitute – much better than a compass – an aid to navigation. Certainly historical considerations of the contemporary situation will not be straightforwardly evinced from the Windrose, and yet it will be literally used as a wind-rose in this journey.
3. The Wind Rose of Success
After the two previous sections, methodological outlines of the philosophical thesis presented here, this third and last part of the work introduces the reader to the real object, the content of this study, the short piece Die Windrose des Erfolges, of which the present work aims at being a commentary (more precisely, an instruction manual). In fact the contents of the first two parts of this proposal will not be explicitly addressed in different sections of the work, rather I hope to lead to a confluence of the themes treated there with the commentary on the Windrose.
Our belief is that the short note on the Windrose with the different drafts and some first preparatory sketches, the drawing Benjamin made of it and some other short texts more or less explicitly related, offer a precious entrance to the idea of historical reading he elaborated and applied. And yet, as it is always the case with Benjamin, methodological considerations are immediately imbued with historical contents. As already mentioned in the second part of the proposal, the concept of success plays a key role; the contraposition between character and destiny also represents a basic dichotomy for our considerations while the choice of a wind rose rather than a compass allows us to think immediately of one of the first methodological notes in Convolute N in the Passagenwerk, where he admits of being much more interested in time-disturbances in navigation than in the successful accomplishment of the journey. After all the Windrose is a metonym, and like metonyms in general, it is the figure of a disturbance in language.
We might try to imagine the Windrose as a compass for historical reading – with the important difference that it cannot be a compass but, to the aim, must indeed be a wind rose. As someone could study the logic of thinking, or more profanely learn a manual for good-writing, be it the philosopher searching for the basics and legitimation of thought or the tourist memorizing “How to learn Spanish in ten days”, we confront the wind rose as a ‘historical transcendental’, a cipher, an image for learning historical reading.
The Windrose des Erfolges was first published in the Ibizenkische Folge, a collection of short pieces Benjamin wrote/assembled during his stay on Ibiza in the spring/summer 1932 and then published in the Frankfurter Zeitung Nr. 410-411, on the 4th of June 1932. A drawing of it was made for Marietta Noeggerath or just eventually addressed to her, in Ibiza on the 17th of May 1932. Presumably around end 1929 he wrote Zu den Thesen über Erfolg which follow with Zur Lehre vom Erfolg a piece Benjamin published in the Frankfurter Zeitung on the 22th of September 1928: Der Weg zum Erfolg in dreizehn Thesen. The connection of the above pieces with the Einbahnstraße is testified to by many letters Benjamin wrote in those years. A fascinating testimony (among many others) for Benjamin’s early questioning of his interest on related subjects (an interest which started long before and probably never abandoned him), which is also extremely important for our argument, is provided by a letter Benjamin wrote to Hugo von Hofmannsthal on the 13th January 1924. Neither here nor in the work will it be possible to provide the reader with all the links between this subject and the rest of Benjamin’s oeuvre, since they are virtually everywhere. The abundance of references the few lines of the Windrose mention makes it equally impossible now to name any other subjects and texts.
Some of the above pieces, which only recently first appeared in German – cfr. Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften: Werke und Nachlaß. Kritische Gesamtausgabe: Band 8: Einbahnstraße, (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2009) – as far as my knowledge goes, have not been translated into any other language yet. Texts and original translations of some pieces will be provided here.
The reader will find in this work an instruction manual for the wind rose of success. S/he knows by now why this dissertation will certainly be an unusual commentary: we will use the Windrose to orient ourselves in contemporary times; meanwhile we hope that a commentary on the short piece will emerge besides.
The Wind Rose of Success
Success at the price of all
Normal case of success
The man without a name
Lack of success at the price of
Genius case of lack of success
The man without a shadow
The man of one
Indifference to both
Success by accepting
Genius case of success
The man without a face
Lack of success
Lack of success by accepting
Normal case of lack of success
Bouvard et Pécuchet or
The man without a head
For Mrs. Marietta Noeggerath
17 May 1932
Walter Benjamin Archive. Bilder, Texte, Zeichen, (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2006), bearbeitet von: Ursula Marx, Gudrun Schwarz, Michael Schwarz, Erdmut Wizisla, p. 194.
Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften: Werke und Nachlaß. Kritische Gesamtausgabe: Band 8: Einbahnstraße, (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2009), pp. 206, 207.
An Hugo von Hofmannsthal, 13.01.1924:
„So versucht ich vor Jahren, die alten Worte Schicksal und Charakter aus der terminologischen Fron zu befreien. (...) Aber gerade dieser Versuch verrät mir heute auf das klarste, welchen, unbewältigt in ihm verbliebnen, Schwierigkeiten jeder derartige Vorstoß begegnet. Dort nämlich wo die Einsicht sich unzureichend erweist, den erstarrten Begriffspanzer wirklich zu lösen, wird sie, um in die Barbarei der Formelsprache nicht zurückzufallen, sich versucht finden, die sprachliche und gedankliche Tiefe, die in der Intention solcher Untersuchungen liegt, nicht sowohl auszuschachten als zu erbohren. (…) Sollte ich, wie es angezeigt wäre, auf die Probleme jener früheren Arbeit zurückkommen, so würde ich den Frontalangriff auf sie kaum mehr wagen, sondern, wie ich es mit dem ‚Schicksal‘ in der Wahlverwandtschaftenarbeit hielt, den Dingen in Exkursen begegnen. (…) Heute läge es mir am nächsten, von der Seite der Komödie her sie zu beleuchten.“
An Gershom Scholem, 4. Februar 1939:
„Wie dem nun immer sei - ich denke mir, dem würde der Schlüssel zu Kafka in die Hände fallen, der der jüdischen Theologie ihre komischen Seiten abgewönne.“