Rilke-Kandinsky-Benjamin: the Physiognomy of the Abstract Flâneur




the Physiognomy of

the Abstract Flâneur


A. In this text I will extract various fragments from texts by Rilke, Kandinsky, and Benjamins’ hand, and juxtapose these onto each other so as to sketch out modernity’s revolution in the subjectivity, of which the most expressive traits could be sloganized as ‘the physiognomy of the abstract flâneur’.

B. Modernity is the violent turning of subjectivity towards what is coming as new, the uprooting of all concrete and near values, the disenchanting and laughing exposure of tradition, the pressing out of subjectivity’s inner life to an anonymized and generalized circulation of business and pleasure, the enforcing of subjectivity to alone stand out ready for its own exposure.

C. If the opening question is how modernity is to not develop into a tyranny of the new, then the opener question is what the future of the new and the new of the future is. This is so because we can imagine that what is new is open to manipulation no less than the anachronistic maintenance of old traditions. Besides, if subjectivity is structured to orient itself to the new, how do subjectivity resist the mass and the master?

D. As fashion perhaps could be described as the socio-economic conditions of the promise of the future — given that the main revolt of modernity is the decisive turning from past  towards future — we must pay attention to the fashion of the fashion: that fashion is still fashion would mean that fashion as restricted and historically specific phenomena still dominates the general framework of history. This means that whenever there is a theoretical development it will be exposed to the ebb and flow of other earlier theories, as if this was a matter of the contingency of innocent taste. This is precisely what modernity suffers from. Modernity is treated as out of date, threatened from a variety of cultural currents which all strives for a fashionable cultural hegemony. Striving for cultural hegemony is not to be lamented over; what is disturbing is the re-regressive character taken in this phase of  modernity. Since every theory is treated as fashion there will be not only the possibility of regression, spatio-temporally determined, but the repetition of regression. This re-regression is what today truly threatens the promise of modernity. The socio-economic opening of modernity threatens to bolster the very transgression from itself; the opening is the closure.

E. It is not arbitrary that the fracture of the new was not only about modernity as an art form, or a new way of philosophizing; time and space parallels of political experimentations of massive and totalitarian character has to be answered. Already decades ago research focused the discomforting question of the relation between modernity and totalitarian politics. This is the possibility of the uncanny in modernity: what is threatening reveals itself as common economy, that is to say, reveals itself as familiar in strange ways. Indeed there is research claiming an essential kinship between modernity and totalitarianism. But it is also necessary to question the motives and interests of this equivalencing: does these serve what modernity meant it had overcome, does it serve a re-action to pre-modern matters, does it serve the interests of an even harsher repression of subjectivity, or does it serve the interests of a subjectivity that breaches paths even further onto free subjectivity?

F. But the fact of this parallel of given art and political forms does of course not in itself establish a common source and a common will; it could just as well be that the lines of art and politics battled against each other. Art from the first half of the 20. century does, perhaps, contain totalitarian elements. And, perhaps, it does not. And we have to add however incorrect it may be today: even totalitarian elements must be understood, not for their evil faces — this is a ritualistic practice too easy done and thought to be reliable and credible —, but for the circumstances that even make these regimes understandable and inevitable. These are questions that problematize traditional givens inside of our times and spaces. We would also need conceptual questioning. For research to be able to settle on this question, then, it has to agree upon as to the what, why, when, how, and where of art and politics, of modernity and totalitarianism. For instance, do we have pure axiomaticity or perhaps a certain necessity?

G. I will try to restrict this text to a smaller question: is the physiognomy of the abstract flâneur especially prone to suggestive commands and enslavement — just another, but more efficient enforcing of subjectivity, that is —, or does it point towards a simple regression and withdrawal, or does it represent a possible bettering of the conditions of possibility of subjectivity? Does the collagery efforts, then, of Rilke, Kandinsky, and Benjamin entail an even more subdued subjectivity, or does it lay claim to a more freed subjectivity? I will juxtapose fragments from the hands of these hegemonized moderns in a collage fashion to try to open up a possibility of an answer. Because whether they are taken to evince of good or bad, they are central “hegemonics” [“relics”] of modernity.

H. Perhaps we will have to start out with Benjamin through Rilke. José Muñoz Millanes writes: “In the manner of a fetishist, the flâneur subjectively completes his fragmentary perception of the other thanks to a process we could call physiognomic. Since physiognomy consists in the art of approximately interpreting surfaces: of trying to explain a phenomenon by way of scattered indications in the external aspect of the space. Thus the flâneur, unable to communicate verbally with most of the strangers he meets on the street, tries to decipher their individual or group identity based on certain details of their visual appearance, caught by chance.” The flâneur is transformed into physiognomist being, an apprentice in the art of interpretation surfaces and meetings, due to the polyphone urban production, generalized circulation, commerce. We will see, however, that Millanes, through a friend of Benjamin in the 20’s, namely Franz Hessel, interprets Benjamin’s concept of the flâneur as concerned with traces and not with the new. For this flâneur as the tracer of the past Millanes invokes the architect Aldo Rossi as well.

I. I think this violates not only Benjamin’s but also Baudelaire’s flâneur. Let me here only argue in general conceptual terms: what Millanes attempts will anyway fail, since  trace is conditioned by what as yet has not come, viz., the future; only the new will ever be able to carry the trace. As it is always already  new the trace will never be present as in its past — that is to say, if there ever gives meaning to say such of past. Is it really possible? What does the quest for such imply? Anachronicity of time? The trace will always be a trace of itself, and not even barely recognizable, because then the trace would become the transcendental signified: it would restitute the old family picture book where father and son shares the essence. The trace is  never recognizable, if we understands this concept in its necessary meaning. The changing of the new, the différance of the new, if allow me that gramma, will never allow recollection, or representation, no matter what the forces and powers of the given political regime, psychology, and pedagogy: the ontological structure of the new will never comply with pure repetition.  This ever changing of the new will, when attempted domesticated, only produce the dream of this pure repetition — exactly dream since it is strictly not possible. This is the condition of possibility of the dream, and, its impossibility: it remains confined to utopia, it will never take place, we could even, in a strange logic, say that it will remain a remain; so it is the wish for what is not possible. Could we say that only what is possible opens up? Ontological force is  what is possible? The denial and negation of this is, in a certain sense, the meaning and force of “radicalism”,  death wish, annihilation: not celebrating the new of life and the life of the new. I think that the future and the new of the trace and the is what is glimpsed in Baudelaire and Benjamin’s texts; not the estranged urbanist searching in vain for the past glory essence. Due to what does the essence recede? Is not the answer always moralistic and psychologistic?

J. That Benjamin remains irreducible to Millanes is irrespective of his rhetoric of digging up old and barely known  Benjamin texts from the 20’s where, as if by a revelation, Benjamin turns out to say and mean the same as Millanes, only now three quarter of a century after. I don’t even think that these questions of Benjamin is that plastic:


L. Couldn’t an exciting film be made from the map of Paris? From the unfolding of its various aspects in temporal succession? From the compression of a centuries-long movement of streets, boulevards, arcades, and squares into the space of half an hour? And does the flâneur do anything different?

These questions does not signify nostalgia or tragedy; I think there are good reasons for claiming that Baudelaire and Benjamin are more in terms with the thought of each other  than Millanes and Benjamin.  Millanes, however, cites from Rossi’s The Architecture of the City so as to make the thoughts of Rossi and Benjamin the same architecture:

Architecture, attesting to the tastes and attitudes of generations, to public events and private tragedies, to new and old facts, is the fixed stage for human events. […] The city is composed of many people seeking a general order that is  consistent with their own particular environment. The changes in housing and in the land on which houses leave their imprint become signs of this daily life. One need only look at the layers of the city that archaeologists show us; they appear as a primordial and eternal fabric of life, an immutable pattern.

Millanes cites Rossi further into the the horrors of what war does with things. I will not indulge here in that. Anyway, I am not able to make myself believe that Benjamin’s thought was  the belief in the building of arches, archeions; how is it — and here we do write upon the writings of Derrida’s Archive Fever — possible to make Benjamin an archon? In this manner of all? How are we today to be legible affirming these proclamations of  ‘fixed stage’, ‘a primordial and eternal fabric of life’, and ‘an immutable pattern’? Today these notions are hypobolic anachronisms.

J. Perhaps  Millanes simply has to make compensatory appeals to the architecture of architecture to make his de-inscriptions of the pastish flâneur substantial and “lasting”, making, precisely, modernity a gettaway nostalgic? Millanes’ flâneur is subjectivity wanting to get back to, and interpret the signs of, “the first that began to weave” [see ‘weave’], get back to the primordial. This is subjectivity bent back upon itself; it is the return of idealism, a primordial idealism. From this situating Millanes will  ally himself with Rilke as well, namely Rilke’s flâneur Malte Laurids Brigge, in front of a house in demolition — again in the context of war:

One saw its inner side. One saw at the different storeys the walls of rooms to which the paper still clung, and here and there the join of floor or ceiling […] But most unforgettable of all were the walls themselves. The stubborn life of these rooms had not let itself be trampled out […] It was still there; it clung to the nails that had been left, it stood on the remaining handbreadth of flooring, it crouched under the corner joints where there was still a little bit of interior. One could see that it was in the paint, which, year by year, it had slowly altered […] And from these walls once blue and green and yellow, which were framed by the fracture-tracks of the demolished partitions, the breath of these lives stood out–the clammy, sluggish, musty breath, which no wind had yet scattered.

“The city presents itself then, to the diachronic flâneur, as an immense archeological deposit in whose vertical cuts scenes come to light where, in a certain way, lives and events already extinguished still survive,” interprets Millanes Rilke’s Brigge. He says that such a motif is it that augur Benjamin to state that for the flâneur “each street is a vertiginous experience. The street conducts the flâneur into a vanished time” and the entire city constitutes for him “an epic book through and through, a process of memorizing while strolling around.”

K.  If Benjamin once admired his friend of the 20’s, Hessel, for already at that time being able to characterize the new architecture as dominated by the motif of transparency, how would we be able to see reasons for an anterior transparency, what Millanes seems to be revealed in Rilke’s Brigge reflecting on conducts to a vanished time? Particularly suspect with this kind of strategy is the sentimental but that notwithstanding nothing but perversely exploitative war rhetoric. It is one thing to want anteriority; the means for this here, however, are atrocious. Should, besides, the gruesome destructions of European world war point us back to what was? Why? Where is the argumentative logic in such a gesture? We know how much time Derrida spent of his life to write on the quest for resolution and decision, this ridden time of ours,  haunted by the ghost of what had become a Rousseauean attitude, the tear filled glance backward added with this strange certitude — from where could it possibly come? — that  in the shape of the “teorhetor” [the teo, the rhetor the speaker, the theory] speaks frantically of the lost good and the failure of man. In “Différance” he even went so far as to resist what had become the Nietzschean opposite: he urged to non-resolution, not to take position, not to say ‘yes’, neither the ‘no’, to the must of living well in the undecidable,  not foremost because of a moral light, but because there is no flight from undecidability, and because a moral only can come after this recognition, this meaning that the moral is recognized as mediated in general by the structure of destinerrance and by that very token irreducibly linked to the opening of  the arrival of terrible ways. As eventually always have happened throughout history. Why this imperative of the undecidable, the irreducible Two and thereby the always coming possibility of the catastrophic destinerrance? Because we need to think; to act, that is. As for the Two; it is never two but rather the more or less than one and never two.We will here just remind the reader of what is the question in this text: the physiognomy of the abstract flâneur. Rilke-Kandinsky-Benjamin.

To be continued…

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