Friday, January 14, 2011

No Ideas but in Things

Here’s a fun little game. First, find a Marxist, which is not that difficult these days. Then, engage the Marxist in a conversation about anything whatsoever. The aim of the game is to defer as much as possible the moment when the Marxist says something like, “Look, you must take into consideration the difference between the structure and the superstructure.” To those who don’t know (or are afraid to ask) what the Marxist means, the following should suffice: poetry and art, philosophy and politics, culture and ideas, laws and institutions, do not exist on their own. They are, rather, only the effects of material conditions that, as a whole, are their causes. Economy determines our lofty human endeavors. The overall structure of these relations and forces of capitalist production is the ultimate foundation of the superstructure of our intellectual achievements.

When Walter Benjamin sent in 1938 the first text that was meant to become a part of his never-finished Arcades Project to the Institute of Social Research in New York, it didn’t take long for its director, Theodor Adorno, to jump the structure/superstructure gun. Benjamin’s project, which was supposed to produce a kind of a philosophy book dedicated to Paris, the capital of the nineteenth century, is really an assemblage of a variety of themes: ancient streets and new boulevards, shady catacombs and shiny department stores, iron and glass constructions, prostitutes and collectors, to name just a few. In Adorno’s eyes, these could all be considered as integral parts of the material structure of Paris. The problem, however, is that Benjamin resists the subsumption of these elements within a single coherent system, and instead treats them as independent fragments or “monads,” as he liked to call them. As a result, any inference from this disjointed basic structure to the higher superstructure is highly suspicious, and so it must be dismissed as a case of “vulgar materialism”--a standard Marxist anathema.

Benjamin did not manage to make Adorno see the value of his “micrological” way of thinking, which resists any integration into a totality. Even in Prisms, published 15 years after Benjamin’s death, Adorno continues to reprimand him on precisely this ground. One must wait another 22 years before Giorgio Agamben mounted his defense of Benjamin’s method against its greatest critic. The distinction between structure and superstructure, Agamben claims, cannot be based on a simplistic causal relationship. The need to figure out the entire material structure before one can go up to the immaterial superstructure is a false need. If anything, Benjamin shows that there is a direct correspondence between the two, which abolishes the metaphysical or dialectical distinction between animality and rationality, nature and culture, matter and form, economy and politics, reality and poetry. By making immediate or unmediated connections between elements of the structure and the superstructure, Benjamin does not practice vulgar materialism, but a courageous one. “The fear of vulgarity,” Agamben therefore snaps, “betrays the vulgarity of fear."

The question remains, however, how can structure and superstructure correspond to each other so perfectly? The answer is that, for Benjamin, these two realms are both manifestations of one and the same thing, or attributes of one and the same substance, which I would like to call infrastructure. What both Adorno and Agamben seem to miss is that, as much as Benjamin was interested in the material structure and the immaterial superstructure of Paris, these two realms only play in his thought second fiddle to a third layer, even deeper than the first two, which is the true subject of his Arcades Project. This is what I call the city’s infrastructure. Infrastructure can encompass everything that we normally mean by this term (train stations, the sewage system, sidewalks, street signs, gas lamps, et cetera), but not only. In Benjamin, infrastructure could stand for anything that is understood in and of itself, that is, before it finds its expression within the fields of structure or superstructure (for example, as an economic or political entity). Before Benjamin even considers the use and exchange values of a thing, or its aura, or its philosophical and poetic sense, his true aim is to never lose sight of the thing itself. Early on in his life, he even tried to make the argument that things possess their own language, by which they communicate themselves to man. By looking at the infrastructure of the city, he was able to finally reveal things in the purity of their singularity, as such, thus.

The paradigmatic example of an infrastructure is the arcades themselves, those covered passageways that were very popular in nineteenth century Paris (though they also quickly went out of fashion, like today’s shopping malls). An arcade is not an expression of ideas, whether they are economic or political, material or formal. Those ideas are expressed in this thing that we call an arcade. Whatever may be the structure or the superstructure of the arcades (are they public or private? Are they some kind of an indoor agora? How do they transform a commodity when it enters their space? And how do they transform the man who strolls through them?), it must come to manifest itself through the infrastructure, and not vice versa. The infrastructure thus becomes the secret key that unlocks the mysteries of the city. Those who try today to undermine the overwhelming power of the metropolis know very well that, while an attack aimed at the structure or superstructure is utterly hopeless, slightly tipping over the infrastructure can bring the city to its knees.

It may be helpful to think about this issue in the simplest Freudian terms. Analyzing what is conscious and what is unconscious in Paris of the nineteenth century, à la Freud’s early “topographical” model of the psychic apparatus, may surely be of value. This, of course, is what it means to look for the city’s structure and superstructure. Yet Freud’s more advanced “structural” model--the id, ego, and superego--becomes an exceedingly more useful tool in Benjamin’s hands, as he dissect the Parisian urban apparatus. Infrastructure is the city’s id, the origin of both ego and superego, underneath both structure and superstructure. But what is this id, according to Freud, other than das Es, literally, “the It.” To come to terms with the city as an It or the It of the city (as in “It is glorious,” “It is expensive,” “It is hectic”), to manage to think not about what the city is, but that it is, is, after all, a work reserved for ontology, or first philosophy, which is what the Arcades Project, in its quintessence, was meant to be.


Joseph C Goodson said...

Well done. Beautiful post.

Urban Orienteer said...

Hi David!

I liked your reading of Benjamin. Reminded me of my disatisfaction with Andrew Merrifields frustratng insistence on the importance of the Marxist dialectic to the thinkers encountered in his otherwise excellent book Metromarxism.

Keen to read more.

Dan said...

Who are the men next to Benjamin and where is the photo from?

Mute said...


The question, to me, is rather 'why' something seems to be the way it is--why does the superstructure-substructure form seem to hold, why does the ego persist, why certain illusions (Kant) and particular ideologies exist and not others, why only 3 (or 4) dimensions (Einstein), why This world Here (Leibniz), why this meaning for this word and not some other (Wittgenstein), etc...something that 'infrastructural' (complexity/emergence) generic and formal theories are not (yet?) able to explain. We already get 'that' substance is, but we don't have a general understanding of 'how' we get from that to what it is (Subject), specifically, actually: OK, so you have this perfect 'direct correspondence'/parallax expression between the political and the economic, etc, but how do you explain that, *nevertheless*, 'causation' and 'mediation' *appear* to be the case, appear to exist? (To extend this question with Benjamin along the same line, what does this divine violence of 'shifting the infrastructure' actually entail, look like?) I don't think we can so quickly dispense with dialectics and metaphysics, for this reason...what do you think? Do you think this is even a philosophical question, one that can be sufficiently answered by/in philosophy? Science?