Tag Archives: Walter Benjamin

On an Interview with Eduardo Maura of Podemos

The Platypus Review recently published an an interview with Eduardo Maura, the spokesperson of Podemos.

Two major themes in Maura’s responses are tied up confusingly: democracy and identity. In answer to David Mountain’s request for Maura to specify what he means by “democracy,” Maura states: “Doing new politics means not addressing people in a finalistic way, e.g. ‘This is the goal: socialism, or a society not ruled by classes.’ It’s not like that. Identities are not shaped that way anymore.” The convergence of politics with identity here is striking. Is politics merely a mechanism for forming identities? Not only is there the implication that socialism is too antiquated for the character of identities today, but that today’s “identities” must fundamentally be more progressive than they once were. This is the unfortunate state of the present, in which the past is disdained. Socialism is presumed to be inadequate due to its inability to accept difference.

Bringing the topic of vocabulary or rhetoric into the accommodation of identities, Maura continues, “The language of ‘Left and right’ in Spain has become so discredited that you cannot possibly build upon it. […] But, the words that used to mean those things, like ‘socialism,’ the ‘Left,’ and even ‘communism’—the whole European tradition of making the rule of law and communism compatible, part of the same political project—none of that is now meant by these metaphors of Right and Left.” That Maura associates socialism with reformism is telling. Again he emphasizes the need for new words and their ability to bring democracy into society: “We have new metaphors to help build a better, more democratic society.” Does this mean anything other than the idea that we’d have democracy if only we invented new words for the same ideas?

The question of the distance between society and politics brings about the most symptomatic character of Maura’s, and Podemos’s, ideas. Maura states, “There is no logical transition from the social to the political. Everything is social and everything is political, in different ways, but no political articulation is derived from a social problem.” But why must it appear to Maura that the social and the political are completely separate? As Lenin points out in State and Revolution (1917), this thought-figure is “inseparably tied up with” “petty-bourgeois utopia[n]” thought that amounts to mere reformism, which will never overcome the contradictory mode of production.1

Maura confirms my guess concerning Podemos’s reformist character when he says, “So let’s stick to demands, more than to words. To put it more academically, let’s speak the language of hegemony, rather than the language of ideology.” This is an avowed renunciation of Leftist ideology, and an affirmation that politics might only be approached in the manner of Realpolitik, which forecloses the potential for change. It implies that Leftist ideology is impossible. The spokesperson of Podemos continues, “Moreover, the people have a plurality of demands, and this plurality cannot be deleted. It cannot be easily resolved. So, politics is about framing things. The way you put things, the way you build your position in a symbolic space.” This is a bold admission to opportunism that the interviewers are right to question further. What does this make Podemos if it sees politics as the striving for power through rhetorical flourishes?

One last motif in Maura’s remarks that I picked up on was the continual deference to the emotions or feelings of the people and even himself. I note this because it is made clear that Podemos seeks to channel emotions for the sake of electoral success: “This all [Podemos] allows people to feel part of a process that is greater than simply building a party, but amounts to building new prospects for change. That is something new in European politics” and “What we do [..] is to build a chain of equivalence between political demands and the actual feelings of the people[..]” Maura surprises us by saying that he did his Ph.D. on Walter Benjamin. It’s shocking because Maura finds nothing wrong with conceiving of politics as a frame in which the masses might feel themselves participating. One should remember Benjamin’s statement on Fascism in his most famous essay (and also his most misread essay!): “Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life.”2 After reading that even Maura is “not a rational actor in the political field,” are we supposed to applaud this relegation of reason coupled with the use of aesthetics in place of politics?

1 V. I. Lenin, State and Revolution in Essential Works of Lenin, ed. Henry M. Christman (New York: Dover Publications, 1987), 287.
2 Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

Accumulated Potential

In The Gay Science, Friedrich Nietzsche writes:

Countless things that humanity acquired in earlier stages, but so feebly and embryonically that nobody could perceive this acquisition, suddenly emerge into the light much later—perhaps after centuries; meanwhile they have become strong and ripe. […] ¶ All of us harbor concealed gardens and plantings; and, to use another metaphor, we are, all of us, growing volcanoes that approach the hour of their eruption; but how near or distant that is, nobody knows—not even God.1

In “On the Concept of History,” Walter Benjamin writes:

Thinking involves not only the movement of thoughts, but their arrest as well. Where thinking suddenly comes to a stop in a constellation saturated with tensions, it gives that constellation a shock, by which thinking is crystallized as a monad. The historical materialist approaches a historical object only where it confronts him as a monad. In this structure he recognizes the sign of a messianic arrest of happening, or (to put it differently) a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past. He takes cognizance of it in order to blast a specific era out of the homogeneous course of history; thus, he blasts a specific life out of the era, a specific work out of the lifework. As a result of this method, the lifework is both preserved and sublated in the work, the era in the lifework, and the entire course of history in the era. The nourishing fruit of what is historically understood contains time in its interior as a precious but tasteless seed.2

The pairing of these two might initially seem out of place, but Benjamin was well aware of—and inspired by—Nietzsche’s work.

1 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1974 [1887]), 83-84.
2 Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History” (1940), in Selected Writings: Volume 4, 1938-1940, trans. Edmund Jephcott, et al., eds. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, Massechusetts: Harvard University Press, 2006), 396.

The Function of the Ukelele Today

Although I like the sound of ukeleles in songs, it’s worth mentioning that I think their function today is that of a unique mediator between musician and expression. The ukelele allows the musician to make sounds, but with the protective assurance that the audience knows he doesn’t really mean it. The ukelele’s diminutive shape and range comforts any anxiety of being confronted by any onlookers.

Of course the exposition of the subject’s Inner life is not new, and goes back to Romanticism. Today, however, even that expressive gesture—the fallback of the subject in the face of the world—is under scrutiny by its very participants. Anyone who is sincere is met with smirks. “It’s all been tried by now,” they say. Self-expression as the primary function of art is itself symptomatic of regression in the moment of its birth. That even self-expression is mocked is further proof for the argument that there are no vital forces remaining that strive for human freedom. We are resigned to our lives, and feel anger for what sincerity reminds us of: the unrealized potential of our time.

In “Experience and Poverty,” Walter Benjamin writes on the exhaustion people feel after expending so much effort that still has not realized such potential:

Poverty of experience. This should not be understood to mean that people are yearning for new experience. No, they long to free themselves from experience; they long for a world in which they can make such pure and decided use of their poverty—their outer poverty, and ultimately also their inner poverty—that it will lead to something respectable. Nor are they ignorant or inexperienced. Often we could say the very opposite. They have ‘devoured’ everything, both ‘culture and people,’ and they have had such a surfeit that it has exhausted them. No one feels more caught out than they by Scheerbart’s words: ‘You are all so tired, just because you have failed to concentrate your thoughts on a simple but ambitious plan.’ Tiredness is followed by sleep, and then it is not uncommon for a dream to make up for the sadness and discouragement of the day—a dream that shows us in its realized form the simple but magnificent existence for which the energy is lacking in reality (734).