Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Insurgent Holiday

Hoelderlin, Bowie, Benjamin and the Blackout

"Getting some skin exposure to the blackout (get some protection)
Get me on my feet (get some direction)
Oh get me on my feet
Get me off the streets (get some protection)"

There is a list of blog subjects, an unacknowledged but not indiscernible list, which, were the patience of our readers not a factor, we would happily and endlessly indulge in every week, in much the same way that a fat kid loves cake. Regarding the list ranking, Bowie's Berlin period, indexed by the trilogy Low, Heroes and Lodger, we confess, handily maintains its pole position. We do not enjoy these records. We live among them, among all the little sounds, like fish among the coral.

The most narcotized out-there track in Bowie's discography is the title track from Station to Station. It's the album prior to the Berlin era, and the song is a zenith-point for a bombastic, drug-addled, near-schizoid art-star ego. It's a distillation of the L.A. world that Bowie left for the melancholy experimentalism of Berlin.

From interviews and criticism it's possible to read 'Blackout' as both about power-cuts and about personal blackouts, the one-man shutdown, from drugs, exhaustion, madness, excess. The lyrics index someone exposed during a battle, caught in a cross-fire, in need of shelter, of defense. This exposure on a shared, communal level is what interests me about the political dimensions of electrical blackouts.

In her essay on Martin Heidegger’s reading of Friedrich Hölderlin’s late hymn Andenken, Avital Ronell writes

“Holiday not only means the negativity carved out by the interruption of work, it also implies a pause, a rup­ture with work, which allows one to pause for thought, to ask, to look around, to await something else: it indicates the wakeful pre­sentiment of wonder—the wonder, namely, that there is a world around us that worlds, a world that is being and not nothing; that things are, and we are in their midst; that we are, yet we hardly know who we are, and we hardly know that we hardly know…. “

A consideration of the holiday in Hölderlin is part of a larger project of mine concerning the rhetorics of event in political theology. Why theology? And how can theology be political, especially today, when we might feel that we’re so over it, when we’ve been told so many times about religion, about its evils and its illusions Political theology confronts the impossibility of an immanent foundation of political life. It confronts the fact that in order to keep ourselves together, to preserve a political intensity among us, it is necessary to look outside, to turn to the forces we feel will anchor or ground us.

The way that, in the last century, political theology avoided being an outdated or perversely anachronistic prospect was by having to consider an event as a political ground. That something happens, something greatly strange and unpredictable, around which political life must organize itself.

A black-out is an event that hovers on the edge of politics. Historical accounts of black-outs illustrate how it simultaneously incites and disarms the impulse to radical political action. It remains instead a space that opens onto the political without being able to enter into it.

When the lights go out across town, the blacked-out city becomes host to a multitude of redemption tropes. Most recently, the New York black-out of 2003 was threaded into the contemporary apocalyptic Christian discourse of the popular fiction series ‘Left Behind’: the black-out passed for the rapture, and some of the believers who witnessed it were convinced they were not among the holy elect: “The saddest part of this story is that millions of supposed Christians’ lives have nearly come to a halt, as they lament being ‘left behind.” “I haven’t left my house for weeks,” said Kathy Brighton. “What’s the point now? Eternal damnation isn’t much of a motivator.”

Another trope of the black-out is the romantic communion with nature, derived from Rousseau, which emphasizes what it sees as the spontaneous return of communal bonds, neighborly compassion, and rediscovery of those experiences veiled by the roar and frenzy of a spectacular metropolis. It was evident in accounts pertaining to the 1965 New York black-out:

"That first night, I joined one of the many impromptu parties that sprang up on the front lawn of a low-rise apartment building. A young woman brought out a guitar and played some ballads. We laughed and talked, then someone mentioned that without the harsh glare of the streetlights, we might be able to see thousands of stars in the sky, a sight that is rarely seen in most metropolitan areas because of the relentless spotlights, streetlights, and automobile headlights, as well as security lights around parking lots and businesses. One man out on his roller skates said that people were free to live their lives, instead of watching other people live theirs on television."

Finally, of the three black-outs to hit New York in the past hundred years, (1965, 1977, 2003) looting was most prevalent in ’77, when 3,500 people were arrested during a rampage which saw hundreds of fires lit and thousands of stores ransacked. This particular black-out best demonstrates the quality of the event as a spontaneous or insurgent holiday out-of-joint – during the power failure, “Christmas in July” effectively happened twice. The first was in the ghetto: “When the black-out hit in ’77 the cry echoed through the ghettos: ‘It’s Christmastime, it’s Christmastime!’” Commodity lust during a power failure can reach a fever pitch, a consumer death drive, in which the acquisition of unguarded objects becomes gleeful, senseless, done for its own sake – reports from the time note that hundreds of prayer shawls, bibles and other useless accoutrements were looted as well.

"'Prices have gone too high. Now we’re going to have no prices. When we get done there ain’t gonna be no more Broadway.” Said a man in his thirties grasping a wine bottle in one hand and a TV set in another: “You take your chance when you get a chance.” Added Gino, 19, a father of two: 'We’re poor, and this is our way of getting rich.'"

The second instance of Christmas in July occurred when Shea Stadium went dark at approximately 9:30 p.m., in the bottom of the sixth inning. To pacify the crowd, the organist played Jingle Bells and White Christmas.

‘Christmas in July’ is a very fitting formulation for what I want to call an insurgent holiday – the arrival, out of joint, of a holiday-like suspension of time which has a marked political-theological intensity. My central question in reading the black-out together with Hölderlin and Benjamin is the problem of putting the holiday to work, of recuperating or otherwise making-use of such a caesura. This is as well the central problem for the poem by Hölderlin that inaugurates the modern engagement with the holiday, Wie Wenn am Feiertage, (As on a Holiday), the first of his late hymns.

The language of ‘Feiertage’ is powered by electrical rhetoric: the poet is a kind of political-theological electrician, overseeing in a Promethean register the transference of sacred light, the Blitz, to the people. He’s got to be a current converter, though, wrapping the blitz in song, so that it can become a binding political force. In the midst of this celebration, the poem shudders as the plug is pulled on its capacity to testify: a blank space punctuated by ‘Weh mir!’

Right as the lights are about to go on and mankind is to be newly infused with divine knowledge, there’s a black-out, in which the cause for the shutdown has itself been blacked-out, redacted, effaced. In his exemplary reading of the poem, Peter Szondi argues that what is missing in the gaps of the incomplete eighth stanza can be found expressed in the original prose draft, in which Hoelderlin writes that all is lost when he approaches the divine not as a pure vessel but still bleeding from an inner ‘selbstgeschlagner Wunde’ [self-struck wound]. Ultimately, Szondi’s hermeneutics operate in a manner parallel to the tropings of the black-out: it aims to fill in, cover over, or write off the caesura.

A critique of the drive to fill-in the black-out, and to set the holiday at work, is at the heart of Walter Benjamin’s Theses on History. Despite the repeated engagements with technology, caesura and political theology, Benjamin never directly regards an electrical black-out as an object. This is undoubtedly partly due to historical circumstance, but also, I want to argue, because the stakes of the black-out lie to some extent at the limit-point of his thought. While the black-out would serve as a remarkably fitting allegory for the kind of interruptions in power and history that Benjamin has theorized, the actual experience of a widespread power failure opens onto an experience which cannot be wholly subsumed within Benjamin’s thought as much as this thought seems so strikingly to point towards it.

There is in Benjamin’s work a subterranean convergence between his earlier descriptions of a communal technological ecstasis and his final writings on the explosive discontinuity of history, although he never fully accounts for the possible role of modern technology in a radical politics of history.

In the concluding section to One-Way Street, Benjamin writes:

“man can be in ecstatic contact with the cosmos only communally. It is the dangerous error of modern men to regard this experience as unimportant and unavoidable, and to consign it to the individual as the poetic rapture of starry nights. It is not; its hour strikes again and again, and then neither nations nor generations can escape it, as was made terribly clear by the last war, which was an attempt at a new and unprecedented commingling with the cosmic powers.”

By the time of the theses, the engagement with communal ecstatic experience will have shifted towards a rhetorics of cessation, standstill, and temporal interruption. At the same time, the explicit technological themes will have mutated: in the theses, technology is figured as domination of nature and is coupled with a belief in historical progress. Furthermore, in contrast to Hoelderlin, who on the holiday seeks to receive the divine Blitz, in Benjamin, the electrical energy that appears in holiday-time is reduced to sparks and flashes that are in danger of disappearing as soon as they appear.

To fully circuit between technological emergency and historical rupture would necessitate a new thinking of being-together, and I offer the example of the electrical black-out as the index of such a circuit. The black-out’s technological dimension interferes with the formation of a ‘we’ indispensable for progressive political action, because the community that appears fleetingly under its sign shares nothing other than a mutual alienation from the world of projects, work and intentionality. Benjamin’s thought does not explicitly recognize an opening for this kind of communal experience: for him, the central problem is the communal alienation from history and tradition. This essentially political experience is depicted in the Theses on History as a kind of holiday which takes place unpredictably, if I can say, insurgently.

“The great revolution introduced a new calendar. The initial day of a calendar serves as a historical time-lapse camera. And basically, it is the same day that keeps recurring in the guises of holidays, which are days of remembrance [Eingedenken].”

For Benjamin, only the apocryphal event of the shooting-out of tower clocks during the July revolution in Paris has participated in this historical Eingedenken.

Rebecca Comay writes that “Eingedenken inaugurates repetition as the return of that which strictly speaking never happened: it announces the redemption of a failed revolutionary opportunity at the moment of most pressing danger.” This cessation of happening is a radical recapture of the past which at the same time marks how the past does not belong to us, how we are abandoned by it. In this way it is a work of mourning which pronounces its debt to the past by attempting to fulfill the potential of past failed revolutions.

The three interpretations of the black-out can be characterized as seeking the payment of a debt, a recuperative return of something missing, or the redemption of an alienated life. Each witness understands the black-out as a coming to what is due to them – as humans, as oppressed, as children of God. In Benjamin’s approach, there is a debt to be paid, but it is we who pay the debt to the past, in a moment which does not memorialize the past or render it legible as tradition, but attempts to contend with the potential of past failed revolutions.

Now the question of the agency of this encounter and thus of political action is a difficult one in Benjamin, considering his repeated deconstruction of positing as such. The ‘real emergency’ that he speaks of would constitute not the emergence of a new political force, but rather something like an interruption of emergence as such. Additionally, and crucial for the juxtaposition of the now-time of the theses with the electrical blackout, he as well does not enunciate how this radical encounter with the past in its non-actualized possibilities directly affects the constitution, the being-together, of those addressees produced by the past’s insistent claim. It’s possible that within the theses’ own logic, there can be no us, that the us is cancelled out or held in abeyance. This holding of community in abeyance would be exemplified by the black-out, which contrary to the accounts we have heard, exposes only the sharing of our nothing-in-common…

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