- 1 For examples of this please see Missac, 1995 ; Taussig, 2002 or Jackson, 2007.
- 2 Benjamin, Walter, The Arcades Project, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2002.
1By the summer of 1938 Walter Benjamin’s critical project stood at the cusp of revealing the secret histories of National Socialism. Most critics assume the most crucial challenge Benjamin was facing at this time was the spectre of his own death; indeed Benjamin’s suicide and the circumstances thereof emerged as a critical cliché in the latter half of the twentieth century.1 This approach fails to consider that there might be far more prescient intersections for Benjamin to negotiate at this critical time in the history of Western civilisation that far and away exceeded the question of his own demise. The crossover Benjamin wanted to indicate perhaps above all, in his final seminal work The Arcades Project, was an affinity between the two ages that set the parameter of modernity itself, the Paris of the nineteenth century and the Berlin of the twentieth.2 Together they would emerge for Benjamin as the ultimate arch of fascism, lending new depth to our understanding of the present historical crisis, as well as acting as an augur for future generations who might survive the present catastrophe of humankind. The other feature of history Benjamin considered in his study of the rise of fascist terror was the threshold that separated the living from the dead, a threshold that had become increasingly ambiguous with the modern advent of global colonial warfare and the government call for the total mobilisation of entire civil populations. Indeed Benjamin became fascinated with charting the social narrative of the would-be dead, whether they existed in a celebrated state as it was the case with heroic suicide or as tragic disposable bodies that National Socialism would eventually excise by deeming them unworthy of life. Included with that category of course was the Jewish individual, a systemic ambiguity not lost on Benjamin as both National Socialism’s chronicler and its intended victim. It was hard to locate a singular perpetrator within the scheme of the new system of violent explosion from the body of the state. Nonetheless Benjamin eventually happened upon an unlikely culprit in the rise of the flâneur as a professional conspirator and his later counterpart in the fascist brown shirt. This strategy of reading the flâneur does much to explain Benjamin’s fascination with Charles Baudelaire as a figure that skirts the limit between hero and villain, occupying an ambiguous moral position, as both a political insider and outsider with regard to the city. Baudelaire has much in common with Derrida’s figure of the voyou, or rogue whose appearance always shares confluence with an atmosphere of social menace.
2The final threshold I wish to indicate in this article is between humanity and animality, in light of Benjamin’s critical inkling that fascism’s emergence bespoke a kind of devolution across the greater whole of Western civilisation. The spectre of the crowd or the masses is never far from this scene of would-be annihilation. For Benjamin, however they also might be seen, as a source of redemption, for it is within the seed of their lives that new values for a humanity to come might yet take root, should they be willing to act in time.
- 3 This quote is taken from the Introduction to One Way Street written by Susan Sontag.
3For the better part of the last fifteen years of his life, Benjamin traced the outlines of these occurrences as explicit junctures leading onto the downfall of Western civilisation. Towards the end of his life, Benjamin became too closely involved with fascism’s protagonists, to turn away from its foreboding implications, choosing as it were to turn the knife on himself” (1997: 14).3 Throughout the course of his Arcades Project, he had been attempting to record a “fundamental equivalence between the age of Louis Bonaparte and that of Hitler” (Witte 1997: 188). Rather than view Hitler as a unique historical figure, Benjamin would insist he was only one of a series of destructive characters found throughout the period of modernity. Bernd Witte argues, in Walter Benjamin – An Intellectual Biography, that Benjamin is able to draw a parallel “between Louis Bonaparte and Hitler”, and between Baudelaire and himself, “because the social conditions between 1841 and 1851 and between 1918 and 1933 remained fundamentally the same” (Witte, 1997: 186). Moreover, Benjamin’s contention was that, “history once it had entered the stage of the commodity producing society, [could] no longer generate anything qualitatively new, but in the sense of Blanqui and Nietzsche, perpetuate[d] itself as a fashionable renewal of a corrupt and forever unchanging world condition” (Witte, 1997: 186). The social conditions forged by Louis Bonaparte’s imperialism as well as the proletariatisation of the petit-bourgeois during this same period were rife for the rise of fascist terror. These conditions would eventually force writers and artists such as Baudelaire into a kind of generative exile, which in turn created a moral ambiguity within their works that at the very least flirted with the idea of Satanism, even if it did not fully succumb to the impulse toward malfeasance that seemed to permeate the greater culture.
4From there it is not hard for Benjamin to start to imagine precursor types to the German fascist. One of these is the flâneur. Often presented today as the figure of the decadent, idle shopper, the flâneur for Benjamin, represents something much more threatening than the appearance of a mere aesthete would at first glance suggest. This is no accident. Indeed the appearance of this figure is “consciously organised to divert attention from capitalism’s persisting domination” (Witte, 1997: 186). Baudelaire knew that this individual “goes go the marketplace as a flâneur, supposedly to look at it but in reality to find a buyer” (Benjamin, 2003: 17). This figure is as yet not fully aware of the risk inherent to his situation, instead he floats through the crowd in a state of reverie, drifting forwards “as a commodity immersed in a surging stream of costumers”(Benjamin, 2003: 31). His casual demeanour belies “the promiscuity at work among the multitude of living things” (Benjamin, 2003: 35). His comportment is “a premonition of what the proletarianised masses actually will become in every part of their being”, that is to say standing reserve for the market (Witte, 1997: 186). Once this process of transformation takes place, the bloody episodes of proletariat revolt documented by Baudelaire, as victorious events in the nineteenth century, by the twentieth appeared hopelessly doomed. “In view of Hitler’s rise to power and the forthcoming world war”, one could scarcely believe that the proletariat would ever have the means to counter the path of destruction leading onto what Benjamin deemed “the seriousness of history’s last days” (Witte, 1997: 186). Humanity had come to a dead-end in terms of the way it organised its society. “For Benjamin it is no longer at the point where society metamorphoses into a new form appropriate to the state of economic productive conditions, but rather the apocalyptic rupture of history as such” (Witte, 1997: 188). His work on Baudelaire can be seen as being directed towards a “messianic vanishing point” wherein a final culminating act of history might take place (Witte, 1997: 188). From there it is not difficult to discern how his unconscious pleasure in circulating amongst the crowd in the nineteenth century could easily be transformed into his conscious participation in mass rallies in the twentieth (Witte, 1997: 186).
5Baudelaire writes: “The pleasure of being in a crowd is a mysterious expression of the enjoyment of the multiplication of number” (Benjamin 2003: 33). The application of such pleasure “would lead to a processing of humanity in the Fascist sense”(Benjamin, 2003: 252). This meant that mankind might become its own source of commodity fetish, thus becoming an object of contemplation for itself. In 1939 Benjamin has cause to write in his essay Art in the Age of Technical Reproducibility that humanity’s “self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic” (Benjamin, 2003: 270).
6A decade earlier, the editor of the proto-fascist, anti-Semitic L’Action Francaise, Leon Daudet observed of contemporary Paris: “the agglomerations of human beings are threatening…A man needs work –that is correct. But he has other needs too…Among his other needs are suicide, something that is inherent in him and in the society that forms him, and is stronger than his drive for self-preservation” (Benjamin 2003: 52).
7Benjamin remarks, “This is the face that the passion moderne which Baudelaire recognised in suicide has received in this century”, (Benjamin 2003: 52). Carried over into this era was a form of society, modernity, that continues to breed within its population the necessity for suicide, and moreover an appreciation of its own inherent divisibility.
8Benjamin’s work on Baudelaire becomes all the more prescient because it is staged as an act of rescue from these diabolical social conditions. Indeed he describes the task of writing it as a gesture of the will, a triumph in a run-off contest between himself and the war, which he mounts day-to-day despite his agonising fears. In April 1939, Benjamin writes a letter to Gershom Scholem, where he describes himself as living “in anticipation of the news of catastrophe breaking on [him]”(Witte 1997: 190). Nonetheless, he proceeds with his ArcadesProject as though he is opening up a Pandora’s box. This repository contains thoughts that he has been protecting for 20 years, even from himself. Therein Benjamin “must thus come to resemble [his] enemies, to corrupt [him] self and threaten [him] self in order to protect [him] self from their threats” (Derrida, 2005: 40). By 1940, it was obvious it was no less than a suicide mission to proceed as he did, without intellectual backing, without funds, without place and without status. Ultimately, Benjamin had hedged his bets against the outcomes of modernity, only to be one of its many victims when the messianic chips fell.
- 4 This comment was originally made in context of the operation of Nazism within the German masses. F (...)
9His was the sort of wager where you bet everything to “stake your death against the death of others” (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987: 254).4 The gamble he took was on something that during Baudelaire’s time was referred to as the culte de la blague (cult of empty talk), which will later manifest itself in various proto-fascist groups, available as early as 1921 to extermination fantasies quoted from Baudelaire’s own writings about the Jewish race. It was not until 1938, however, when Celine released his anti-Semitic volume Bagatelles pour un massacre, its very title going back to a diary entry of Baudelaire’s, that Benjamin fully started to realise how much this manifesto of race was gaining on his own (Benjamin 2003: 5). It was not until that year that he realised how influential the culture of Second Republic in Paris had been in staging that race, taking it from a place of figurative empty talk to one of literal full command, towards its logical culmination. From there it was becoming rather apparent that the line of anti-Semitic non-recognition that had been rigidified in Paris from the time of the Dreyfus affair in 1894 onward would eventually make its way toward a fateful intersection with the rise of National Socialism by 1918, and in due course drawing up its own deadly version of the culte de la blague. “One can always say it is just a matter of foggy talk and ideology, nothing but ideology. But this is not true” (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987: 254). Instead, we follow Benjamin’s inquiry into “the precise formation of statements, which are just as much in evidence in politics and economics as in the most absurd of conversations” (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987: 254).
10Benjamin’s main foundation of understanding the rise of National Socialism does not therefore lie with an understanding of History writ-large, but rather in the analysis of a certain economy of forces that emerge in nineteenth century Paris, and again in twentieth century Berlin, although the second time around in a much more virulent form. This approach forces us to shift our perspective on History from a line of causality to a line of flight emerging from potential forces which are always present, if not always readily discerned.
11Fascism is not a twentieth century phenomenon. It only appears that way through a historicist’s practice of periodicity. Flight, moreover, does not simply go in one direction, but has the ability to emerge in at any point in History. What happens in Nazi Germany is an intense outcome of forces that were already potentially available in the nineteenth century, and indeed, as we will see from Benjamin’s study, underwent their own lines of emergence during that era in Paris. This of course is the Paris of Baudelaire, of the barricade and of the Commune. This is the Paris of the war machine, a Paris that exists beyond State control, and indeed is foreign to it. It then becomes something of a free radical in the body of the socius. The war machine as it is running in nineteenth century Paris moreover will find a vastly more destructive motor in Berlin in the 1930s when it masters a manoeuvre to take over the State. From 1919 to 1932, a period in which no war was officially fought by Germans, the Freikorps, a renegade fighting force hired by the German government waged an underground campaign to purge Communism from the national political scene, specifically by targeting the leftist working classes for annihilation. In line with these developments was a rise in political interest toward the rightist working classes, a crowd Chief Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, was particularly fond of stirring up fifty years onward. Virilio asserts that these masses “are not a population, a society, but the multitude of passersby”(Virilio, 1977: 3). This will have great implications for the way Baudelaire is able to circulate amongst the masses, and in particular in the poem A Une Passante, to isolate one so fiercely from the others as an object of his concentrated effort. Baudelaire is then able in some way to install his desire into the vessel of the passerby, without her conscious recognition. He is able to then spread himself through the Crowd (Benjamin 2003: 323-324). This comes into play when Baudelaire was accused of being a Belgian police spy. He goes to great lengths to contest this publicly. In describing the incident Benjamin concludes by speculating that “he may have taken pleasure in spreading it himself”(Benjamin, 2003: 5). What Benjamin was alluding to was Baudelaire's delight ‘in spreading’ out his identificatory sites as widely as possible; therein creating a large network whereby his projected fantasised selves can come into wide circulation infecting the perceptions of the others surrounding him. This notion of spreading also points the way toward contagion, which is known to happen in cities on an epidemic scale. Therein the man in the crowd is for the first time endowed with death-dealing force, insofar as he is able to infect others, and thus be the cause of widespread death.
12During those years he spent as a professional provocateur, Baudelaire’s comportment was that of a rogue. Jacques Derrida in his volume Rogues, describes the rogue or voyou as an individual “who is at once unoccupied, if not unemployed, and actively occupied with occupying the streets, either by “roaming the streets” doing nothing, loitering, or by doing what is not supposed to be done, that is, according to the established, norms, laws and the police” (Derrida, 2005: 65). His behaviour is suspect and must be called to order, usually at the hands of the police or other civic authorities. His appearance nonetheless does not belie a disorder, but rather the emergence of “a sort of substitute order” (Derrida, 2005: 66). Baudelaire as the consummate voyou attempts to make the streets of Paris the domain of his alternative republic. In an attempt to establish his own voyoucracy he populates his substitute social order with the likes of the crime world or underworld, casting about him on all sides his dubious character, until he finally attracts to him a milieu comprised of rebels, agitators, insurgents, and indeed revolutionaries. What a voyou, such as Baudelaire, offers to the crowd is “a competing power, a challenge to the power of the state, a criminal countersovereignty…which cultivates evil and sexual as well as poetic transgression” (Derrida, 2005: 68) His desire is to unseat hegemony through the use of profane imagery. To establish his aims he relies on the corrupting power of the street, an illegal and outlaw power that brings together the voyoucratic regime, and thus into a more organised and less clandestine form, into a virtual state, all those who represent a principle of disorder – a principle not of anarchic chaos but of structured disorder, so to speak, of plotting and conspiracy, or premeditated offensiveness or offences against the public order (Derrida, 2005: 68).
13Paris emerges as an ideal laboratory for such disruptive activity, corrupted as it were by the taint of degeneracy. Baudelaire screams forth to the crowd, “all of us have the republican spirit in our blood, just as we have syphilis in our bones. We have democratic and syphilitic infection” (Benjamin 2003: 5). Baudelaire the voyou is able to draw open the city’s fouled energy in such a way as to expose its fouled democracy revealing the state’s framework as one draped in violence. These salacious gestures of revelation captivate his admirers, compelling them forth to perform the most reckless acts of civil disobedience in the name of conspiratorial allegiance. In Benjamin’s Trauerspiel of modern political contagion Baudelaire is cast as the supreme voyou.
14It must be understood that demagogues like Hitler are not voyous, rather they are a different sort of predatory figure that emerges alongside modernity. They operate more like a lone wolf, a solitary ruler, that “represents sovereign force that gives law and gives itself the right to…, who reasons about and declares what is right, who gives reasons for why he is right, and who wins over the reasons of the lamb” (Derrida, 2005: 70). The lambs he preys upon for his sustenance are the plebeian masses. As members of his constituency they are far from innocent. Their fundamental desire to comply with the law helps to enact the reasons of the wolf. From the viewpoint of the twentieth century, Benjamin must ask himself at the close of his study of The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire, “where then has he gone, the voyou, I am taking after here?” (Derrida, 2005: 70).
15 The equivalent voyou Benjamin was calling after in the twentieth century turned out to be none other than Joseph Goebbels. Goebbels as a new breed of provocateur was capable of achieving far greater scope and velocity than anything Baudelaire could dream up in his call to popular demise. Through the infectious rhetoric of National Socialism, he would succeed in attracting the mass of unemployed, demobilised soldiers without an occupation after World War I and induce them into a novel function: one of determined movement. For a heretofore aimless body of men the proposition was readily adopted. Goebbels approaches them as one of their own and then stands in the middle of them speaking in what he calls, “the new language of the masses, the first form of expression to be truly animated and galvanizing” (Virilio, 1977: 4). Of course this language was first assembled alongside the birth of the citizen, and its greatest display in revolutionary movements. These movements require the participant/combatant “to obey a law he sometimes doesn’t even know, but that he could recite in his sleep” (Virilio, 1977: 4).
16This law does not fundamentally exist beyond the law of the State, nor is it under the jurisdiction of the police. This is rather the law made natural, the law of man. It is here that Benjamin intercedes and begins his Critique of Violence: The idea is that a man sees in his ‘right’ to move his body in the direction of his desired goal, accords “that violence is the product of nature, as it were a raw material, the use of which is in no way problematical, unless force is misused for unjustified ends” (Benjamin, 1996: 236).
17The problem is that the end is always justified after the fact of violence. I am fairly certain that Baudelaire would be happy to use this as a justification for his pursuit of the passerby. Ironically, Benjamin goes on to add that “the terrorism of the French Revolution provided an ideological foundation for this view” (Benjamin, 1996: 236). Baudelaire of course is a cultural product of this revolution. Finally, it is Goebbels, however, who finishes off Benjamin’s formulation, making his fundamental goal, the “setting of these fanatical beings in motion …” (Virilio, 1977: 4). Indeed the goal of fascist propaganda was the spread of asemic violence, insofar as its commanding officers were determined to leave no logocentric traces, only mnemonic codes in the minds of listeners. “Goebbels: Propaganda must be made directly by words and images, not by writing” (Virilio, 1977: 5). In contrast to audio-visual material, “reading implies time for reflection, a slowing-down that destroys the mass’s dynamic efficiency” (Virilio, 1977: 5). Not surprising given his aims, Goebbels “was a great promoter of audio-visuals in Germany” (Virilio, 1977: 5) and therein one can speculate that the Nazis first target audience wasn’t the highly literate. This brings us back to Baudelaire, and Benjamin’s assertion that Baudelaire was writing for an audience that hadn’t even been born yet. Perhaps Baudelaire was writing instead for the audio-visual age. An age perhaps where violence could be readily and popularly distributed, and media would become truly pathogenic, as Baudelaire believed was the case with the feuilleton section of the newspaper. Let’s not forget that Benjamin’s work mingled in these populist sections, therein he was no stranger to its strategies of public incitement. The outcomes of such stirrings are not born out by rhetoric, but rather by the streets. When the time came, “the various revolutionary groups, as for the Apaches and other shady populations from the city’s outskirts, it will be less a matter … of occupying a given building than of holding the streets” (Virilio, 1977: 4). Herein lay Baudelaire’s fascination with imagery of the barricade. This gets the war machine heated up. By 1931, when the National Socialists are struggling against the Marxist Parties in Berlin, Goebbels notes, “Whoever can conquer the streets, also conquers the State!” (Virilio, 1977: 4). The Paris Commune we know fell from the affects of Hausmannization, and the military’s new capability to close all means of exit, and whilst controlling the boulevards, in effect attacking the people at street level. The Nazis suffered no such defeat because their approach, unlike the State’s, was based on maintaining a principle disorder; a strategy that also formed the foundation of their political rhetoric. Deleuze and Guattari find it “curious that from the beginning the Nazis announced to Germany what they were bringing: at once wedding bells and death, the death of the German people” (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987: 254).
18It was none other than Baudelaire who inaugurated the culte de la blague, which reappears in Georges Sorrel and had since become an integral part of Nazi propaganda. The spirit in which Celine wrote his Bagatelles pour un massacre, and indeed its very title, go back to a diary entry by Baudelaire: “A fine conspiracy could be organised for the purpose of exterminating the Jewish race” (Benjamin, 2003: 5). Benjamin refers to this comment as “macabre humour”, but for our purpose I think it sits more comfortably within the previously manned terms of “devastating irony” (Benjamin, 2003: 5).
19Baudelaire’s brand of humour is indeed humour with deadly consequences. It is that same humour which will bring about the revolution of fascism. It is literally about laughing oneself to death. Adorno tells us that the Germany people found the Nazi propaganda campaigns laughable, such as “the blood and the soil,” at the same time, they soberly revered Hitler as their leader. It is a similar insight that informs Brecht's politics. Gershom Scholem writes about a performance of Brecht's Three Penny Opera he attended in Berlin 1932: “I was astonished when I saw that a middle-class audience that had lost all sense of its own situation cheering a play in which it was gibed and spat at with a vengeance. Three months before Hitler's assumption of power, for anyone who watched such a spectacle with detachment this was a true prelude of what was to come. I hardly could be under any illusions about the fact that a major part of the audience was Jewish” (Scholem, 2003: 223). The political climate, which led to a reverence for such humour from all political sides, will now be explored under the subheading “Jewish” fascism. Such fascism formed a black hole within a black hole, constituting a vital component of the ‘secret’ history of German fascism out of materials reaped from National Socialism’s Others: Jews, gypsies, Communists, and homosexuals.
20This concept of a “Jewish” fascism might seem a mad idea at first, even to Benjamin, until it dawns on him through Brecht’s concept of alienation effects that “progress is inseparable from regression, culture from barbarism, and the so-called exception is the rule” (Wohlfarth, 1997: 55). Who but the forcibly alienated German Jews, exiled by the ever deterritorializing Nazi regime, are ostensibly bound to travel along its periphery, holding on by a hand or a foot to the centre of a culture they believe is still theirs. Theirs was a culture which for over twenty years generated such a black hole within State operations, within its citizenry functioning that no one could remember who they were before the time of war. This “Jewishness” is a schizo position to occupy. Wohlfarth asserts that, “For Benjamin there is no question of his not wanting to preserve the whole of German culture in-tact. It never was “in-tact” for him, as it was for others of his status. Indeed, for him to oppose ‘culture’ or ‘progress’ to ‘barbarism’ in the name of say, the Popular Front was to ignore their complicity. The crisis did not date from the sudden, personal disaster of enforced emigration: the bourgeois humanist heritage was long since shattered. The only viable strategy was, in Hegel’s phrase ‘to enter the enemy’s strength’, the better to turn his destruction against itself” (Wohlfarth, 1997: 48).
21Such strength had been building in Benjamin since his trip to Moscow in 1927. By tracking the movements of this phenomenon in diarist form, beginning with Moscow Benjamin meets some of the demands of creaturality in reading that totalitarianism requires. During his stay in Moscow Benjamin picked up the technique of being on outsider in your own culture through his association with Asja Lacis. At first he understood her as more of an aspiring cultural engineer, later he would see her transform herself before his eyes into a domineering body, so as to better integrate herself with the climate of Soviet socialism. These were profound lessons on the adaptability of those who remained at once ensconced within society and yet profoundly vulnerable to it. Potential use of this new critical response technique was demonstrated when Brecht in conversation with Benjamin spoke of a “worker’s monarchy”, whereupon Benjamin compared this creature with certain grotesque sports of nature dredged up from depths of the sea in the form of horned fish or other monsters (Benjamin et al, 1997: 99).
22In light of the Hitler-Stalin pact this aspiration towards a “worker’s monarchy” was based on a notion of progress that Benjamin could no longer endorse without a sense of both frustration and dread. In the essay On the Concept of History written during the winter and spring of 1940 Benjamin delivers a lethal judgment on the Communist principle of unmitigated social progress (Benjamin 2003: 389-400). This judgment takes place “at a moment when the politicians in whom the opponents of fascism have placed their hopes are prostrate and confirm their defeat by betraying their own cause” (Witte, 1997: 200). Whilst this judgment is ostensibly directed at the Social Democrats, his true vitriol is reserved for the Communists. He specifically condemns “the vulgar-Marxist concept of the nature of labour” (Benjamin, 2003: 393). Benjamin asserts that Marxism recognises only progress in the mastery of nature, not the retrogression of society it already displays in the technocratic features that later emerge in fascism. Among these is a conception of nature which differs ominously from the one advocated by socialist utopians prior to the revolution of 1848. The new conception of labour is tantamount to the exploitation of nature, which with naïve complacency, is contrasted with the exploitation of the proletariat (Benjamin, 2003: 393).
23This moral blind-stop for Benjamin is not the result of a developmental anomaly which emerges in the application of Marxism to a practical Communism, but rather is a symptom of an aporia at the heart of the concept of progress and its privileged use as a concept by the Communist Party which allows it to take decisive action to the point of joining forces with fascism to administer murder, to prevail over nature and at the same time regress to the tactic of brute force to control its population. It is this feature of progress called upon by modern forms of government that make of the ordinary citizen a grotesque sport of nature. At this time in history man, as a species, is hunted and held captive in ever more complex, subtle and complicit ways by the powers-that-be that have meticulously cultivated him. He is promised his own monarchy, his own sovereign freedom, though at a cost. The price is control of his movement and the valuation of his very life.
24Inhabiting this grotesque milieu is the citizen, a walking communications network, a carrier of the contaminants of propaganda, a vessel for internal colonisations, likely to develop into masses, not the least of which manifests itself as the cancerous body of protofascism. What in the popular vernacular of 1848 Paris was referred to as le citoyen, sports a similar type of function to the fascist brown shirt, those masses deemed worthy to act at the forefront of revolution. From the time of his inception le citoyen began to emerge as an increasingly annexed figure, his person compartmentalised from without as well as within. His annexation mirrored that of Paris itself, which ‘since the French Revolution’, had been remade from the ground up to include “an extensive network of controls” capable of “bringing bourgeois life ever more tightly into its meshes” (Benjamin 2003: 26). Throughout the course of the subsequent century the French government made an extraordinary effort “to establish a multifarious web of registrations”, that allowed virtually no citizen to escape its administrative hold (Benjamin 2003: 26).
25It seems that Baudelaire was ‘spurred on’, to use Benjamin’s phrase, by the mass potential pent up in the situation of the citoyen, pursuing its logic to an extreme proportion, so much so that he “recognized the crowd of people in them and wanted to be flesh of their flesh” (Benjamin, 2003: 39). “Secularism, Progress and Democracy were inscribed in the banner he waved over their heads. This banner transfigured mass existence. It was the canopy of the threshold, which separated the individual from the crowd” (Benjamin 2003: 39). Baudelaire prefigured himself as the hero who at once guarded this threshold, separating the individual from the crowd and, at the same time sought to provide refuge through comprising the boundaries of the two forms. Benjamin tells us, “Baudelaire, divorced himself from the crowd as the hero” (2003: 39). What he fails to mention explicitly is the marriage that preceded this arrangement, wherein it is necessary to firstly court death itself. It is through this effort, this wager of one’s own personal strength against a force many times greater than itself, which makes it so compelling for a society to make the choice to discipline itself or alternatively risk annihilation.
26If Baudelaire’s attachment to the citoyen appears a bit schizophrenic to us as a postmodern audience, it is helpful to consult Deleuze’s notion of the dividual, i.e., the individual divided into constituencies from within to gain a better understanding (Deleuze, 1992: 3). In Baudelaire’s model of individuation this meant the individual becoming constantly enclosed in one environment or another. Foucault, in his work on disciplinary societies traces this trajectory of enclosure starting with the family, then the school, then the barracks, the factory, the hospital and even the prison (Deleuze, 1992: 3). Deleuze suggests that this systematic enclosure of individuals is ‘wrought by Napoleon’ (Deleuze, 1992: 3). Also wrought by Napoleon III was Hausmannization, or the razing of old Paris to build wide boulevards. This enables a new street culture to develop, of the unemployed, the destitute and the lower bohème. Their present will later come to materialise into a culture of street fighting known as the barricades, which came to its close with the fall of the Paris Commune:
27At the end of the Commune the proletariat groped its way behind the barricades, as a mortally injured animal withdraws to its lair. The fact that the workers who had trained in barricade fighting, did not favour the open battle … which was partially to blame for the defeat. These workers preferred battle in their own quarters to an encounter with the open field … and if it had to be, they preferred to die behind a barricade built of stones from a Paris street (Benjamin, 2003: 6).
28The barricade had nonetheless fostered an individual, the ‘dividual’, who according to Deleuze was not meant to emerge until post-World War II. Baudelaire’s street fighter however accomplishes this by the middle of the nineteenth century, by establishing a fluid, continuous network of identifications. This takes place both in and outside himself, through commerce with such individuals as the prostitute, the addict and the gambler, the unemployed soldier, all of whom operate outside of the productive economies of segmentation and centralization key to the enclosure of individuals under a disciplinary regime of power.
29Baudelaire has learned to combine these industries, as according to Benjamin, increasingly “the crowd is not only the newest asylum of outlaws, and it is also the latest narcotic for those abandoned” (Benjamin 2003: 31). Therein Baudelaire is able to recognise “the crowd within them, because he too takes part in this underground network of identifications and joinings, through empathy with them. Benjamin remarks: “empathy is the nature of the intoxication to which the flâneur abandons himself in the crowd” (Benjamin 2003: 31). For him to desire to be ‘the flesh of their flesh’ implies a superior understanding of the role fluidity plays in revolution. In Baudelaire’s view, the poet exists as a revolutionary figure insofar as “he enjoys the incomparable privilege of being himself and someone else, as he sees fit. Like a roving soul in search of a body, he enters another body whenever he wishes”(Benjamin 2003: 32). Fascism shares that privilege as a micro-black hole that goes to the centre of an individual and sets up its own communications network with others, one that operates uncannily like ‘a roving soul in search of a body’ spreading itself covertly through a society (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987: 236). In order to do this however it must manipulate certain economies of its own, namely private interest.
30Victor Hugo, Baudelaire’s contemporary and compatriot was of the belief that the Crowd concealed a “monstrous thing about it: the concentration of private persons as such by the accident of their private interests” (Benjamin, 2003: 36). Benjamin then relates this belief to the totalitarian state: “But if these concentrations become evident - and the totalitarian states see to it by making the concentration of their clients permanent and obligatory for all their purposes - their hybrid character clearly manifests itself, and particularly to those who are involved. They rationalize the accident of the market economy which brings them together in this way as ‘fate’ in which ‘the race’ gets together again. In doing so they give free rein to the herd instinct and to reflective action” (Benjamin 2003: 36-37).
31 This hybridity is what enables Fascism on a molecular level to spread itself through the body of the Crowd, acting as a cancer, in proliferating cells of totalitarianism already present in all parliamentary assemblies into a fate for the nation, where the national is reflected in every citizen (Deleuze and Guattari, 1986: 236). For Fascism ‘all bodies are open’, nonetheless “if certain bodies seem closed” to its influence, then initially at least, they are ‘not worth inspecting’ (Benjamin 2003:39). This formulation originally applies to the purview of Baudelaire’s lyrical poet. When applied subsequently to Fascism, the picture becomes monstrous indeed. The potential for invasion is constant, and those not infiltrated in fact become the eventual victims, firstly of non-recognition, and secondly of over-exposure as aberrations to the mass. Baudelaire’s choice to “sunder himself from the crowd as a hero”, choosing to place himself in such disunity toward the crowd meant that he was effectively choosing to hold a suicidal position (Benjamin 2003: 39). For him it was the only counter-reactionary move left for ‘the multitudes maladives in the cities in reactionary times’ (Benjamin 2003: 46). This comes at a time when suicide became familiar to the working masses.
32However, according to Benjamin’s findings all classes experienced a vogue for suicide in this era. Hence, he concluded that “Suicide was the achievement of Modernism in the realm of passions” (Benjamin 2003: 45). Interestingly, Benjamin supports this declaration with a footnote taken from Nietzsche, who is quoted as saying, “one cannot condemn Christianity enough, because it devalued the value of a … great purging nihilistic movement which may have been in motion, always by opposing the action of nihilism, suicide.” (Benjamin 2003: 84 footnote 205). Suicide would experience another era of vogue in Nazi Germany of course, wherein it is presented in various Nazi speeches “not as punishment but as the crowning glory of the death of others” (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987: 254). Herein, it is important to note a kind of heroism that had been associated with death in Baudelaire’s time, which is then echoed in this rhetoric. This sort of thinking is also tied to Nietzschean thought, insofar as it links a will to power, with a “Modernism that must be taken under the sign of suicide, an act which seals a heroic will that makes no concessions to a mentality inimical towards this will” (Benjamin 2003: 45). Therein, Nietzsche’s words can be interpreted that a will to power is also a will onto death, the paramount action of nihilism being carried to its most awesome ends in one’s own demise.
33The societal crisis in the countries of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire meanwhile was being personally felt by all of its citizens. At this time suicide was taking on its own social formations in the Jewish community in Vienna. In the postscript to a letter written in 1939 to Adorno, Benjamin writes: “Listen to this: the Vienna gas board has stopped supplying gas to the Jews. The gas consumption resulted in losses for the gas company, since it was precisely the biggest users who did not pay their bills. The Jews used the gas mainly for the purpose of committing suicide” (Benjamin, 1994, 609). Ironically, there is a degree of heroism in this brand of suicide as well, insofar as it registers a protest against the cruel convergence of a failing national economy with the expiration of its citizenry. Heroism can be garnered from this circumstance insofar that one is making a choice to perish, rather than have the will of others toward your demise imposed upon you. In this instance killing yourself is the alternative to being made to pay to foster an economy of death that is on the rise, one that will get around to you eventually. Few believed that the Nazi regime would be short-lived, and still fewer held out hope that any of its targeted groups would survive to see its end. To survive was to make oneself exceptional, and to live out such an exceptional status was akin to becoming a lone sheep in a pack of wolves. One is as good as dead. Anything prior to that reality is living as a dead man on borrowed time. The living dead, the walking wounded. Many committed suicide simply because they didn’t want to be an exception to the rule, to be isolated from their fate and the fate of others.
34This brand of suicidal impulse first emerges in the Parisian society of the second half of the nineteenth century, ‘not as a resignation’ in response to societal ills of the time, but rather as a private interpretation of the ‘heroic passion’ constitutive of the age (Wohlfarth, 1997: 75). It was housed under the rights of the citizen to exercise his statutory rights. This notion of citizenry effectively equalled death, or at least in the potential to ‘heroically’ kill oneself (and others if need be en masse for the State), resulted in the ideal of a heroic being-onto-death being offered to all Germans some ninety years later in Nazi rhetoric. The question remains: under what condition do these terms, heroism and suicide, become linked in their respective societies? For Benjamin this ideal of death as a heroic, authorial act is the “raw material” that has “deposited in those very strata that turn out to be the foundation of modernism” (Wohlfarth, 1997: 76).
35Though it is not clearly stated, Benjamin implies that raw material for suicide apparently came out of a wider distribution of printed materials, whether they are in the form of pamphlets, newspaper serials, or novels. This distribution of image of the heroic alongside the act of suicide, however, was principally circulated, if not founded, through a poetic enterprise. Indeed, it is Baudelaire himself who will comment: “The majority of the writers who have concerned themselves with really modern subjects have contented themselves with the certified, official subjects, with our victories and our political heroism” which of course includes fervour to die if need be for the sake of ideology (Wohlfarth, 1997: 78). Baudelaire refers to these persons, including himself, as being ‘heroic in another way’ that was of course by inciting to use suicide as means to ‘abjure virtue and law’, and to ‘terminate the contrat social forever’ (Benjamin, 2003: 47). This of course is what happens in Nazi Germany, where according to Virilio the state itself became suicidal, when “the war machine takes over the state, and whose flow of absolute war has as its only outcome the suicide of the State itself. The war machine then takes over with nothing but war as its object until finally it would rather annihilate its own servants than stop the destruction” (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987: 255).
36Again this all starts at the level of conversation, the refuse of idle chatter, from which the heroic subject is ultimately assembled. The ones who start the conversation in Baudelaire’s era are conspirateurs de profession. Marx gives the following description of them: “The only condition for revolution is for them the adequate organization of their conspiracy… They embrace inventions which are supposed to perform revolutionary miracles: fire bombs, destructive machines with magical affects, riots which are the more miraculous and surprising the less rational their foundation is. Occupying themselves with such projects, they have no aim but the immediate one of overthrowing the existing government, and they profoundly despise the more theoretical enlightenment of the workers as to their class interests. Hence their anger - not proletarian but plebeian – at the habits noir (black coats), more or less educated people who represent that side of the movement and of whom they can never become entirely independent, since these are the official representatives of the party” (Benjamin, 2003: 4).
37Marx’s characterisation of the professional conspirator of the 1850s will conform to the appearance of the early ranks of the German brown shirts and Italian black shirts at the dawn of twentieth Century fascistic campaigns. Benjamin is quick to add to this description that “Baudelaire’s political insights do not go fundamentally beyond those of the professional conspirators” which makes for a curious alignment between his rhetorical territory and that of proto-fascism’s (Benjamin 2003: 5). Benjamin assists us in this zoning of Baudelaire’s rhetorical stance when he suggests that Baudelaire’s position “could have been understood in the sense of the final passage in a note which has come down together with the sketches from Belgium …[whereupon he writes] ‘I say ’Long live the revolution!,’ as I would say ‘Long Live destruction!, Long live penance! Long live chastisement! Long live death!’I would be happy not only as a victim; it would not displease me to be the hangman as well –so as to feel the revolution from both sides” (Benjamin, 2003: 5). From these notes is it plausible to conclude that Baudelaire was guilty of spreading such propaganda (for the death of others as well as himself) in those years after the July Monarchy in 1845.
38In Klaus Mann’s novel Mephisto a similar kind of complicity with regimes to spread the heroism of death is depicted, this time using “samplings of entirely ordinary Nazi speeches and conversations”, to bring this mania for death across. Some of it sounds uncannily like a passage from Baudelaire’s own correspondence: “Heroism is something that was being ruled out of our lives…In reality, we are not marching forward, and we are reeling, staggering. Our beloved Fuhrer is dragging us toward the shades of darkness and everlasting nothingness. How can we poets, we who have a special affinity for darkness and lower depths, not admire him? … Fires blazing on the horizon; rivers of blood in the streets; and the frenzied dancing of the survivors, of those who are still spared, around the bodies of the dead!” (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987: 254). These sorts of speeches always seem to contain “the repugnant cry ‘Long live death!’ ” as their crescendo. (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987: 254). Indeed, this is the very crescendo Baudelaire hit in that letter to his mother quoted above. It should not surprise us that Baudelaire has chosen his mother as a correspondent in these matters. In Italian as well as German fascistic regimes, there were women’s death squads. Moreover, there were many public displays of widows and mothers in mourning. (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987: 595 footnote 32). Indeed when we speak of the suicidal impulse, we are also speaking of an act that premeditates a community of mourning. Such a community is organised around the ardour for death inaugurated by Modernism. This affects fashion insofar as it is designed to reflect the public mentality of the day. It is Baudelaire who is the first to chart the advent of an intersection between fashion and mourning taking place after the July Monarchy of 1845, when black and grey colours first began to predominate men’s clothing. In 1846 he wrote, “Regarding the attire, the covering of our modern hero, does he not have a beauty and charm of his own? … Is this not the attire that is needed by our epoch, suffering, and dressed up to its thin black narrow shoulders in the symbol of constant mourning? The black suit and the frock coat not only have their political beauty as an expression of general equality, they also have their poetic beauty as an expression of the public mentality – an immense cortege of undertakers, political undertakers, amorous undertakers, bourgeois undertakers. We all observe some kind of funeral. The unvarying livery of hopelessness is proof of the equality… And haven’t the folds in the material, which makes grimaces and drape themselves around mortified flesh like snakes, their secret charm?” (Benjamin, 2003: 46).
39Benjamin follows this with a comparison to the attitude of the Southern German Democrat Friedrich Theodor Vischer, “whom Fifteen years later wrote a critique of men’s fashion in which he arrived at similar insights to Baudelaire’s” (Benjamin, 2003: 46). Benjamin notes that, despite the similarities with Vischer there is a different emphasis: “What provides a hue for the dusky prospectus of modernism in Baudelaire is a shiny argument in the political struggle of Vischer” (Benjamin, 2003: 46). Contemplating the reaction that held sway since 1850, Vischer writes “to show one’s true colours is regarded as ridiculous, to be trim is thought to be childish. Then how could clothes keep from being colourless slack and tight at the same time?” (Benjamin, 2003: 46). Vischer’s comment configures a strange intersection with another piece of Benjamin’s writing with telling results. In the Critique of Violence, Benjamin cites the German Parliament, men who certainly would have fallen into Vischer’s described category for appearance under the current Bismarckian regime, as “lacking the sense that a law making violence is represented by themselves” (Benjamin, 1996: 245). This lack of a sense of their own violence potential seems to follow a general disdain amongst these sorts of men for showing off one’s ‘true colours’. Indeed these suits are as much about concealment and shiny deflection, as they are about appearing as men in powerful positions.
40Benjamin surmises further that it is no wonder they cannot achieve decrees worthy of this violence, but cultivate in compromise a supposedly non-violent manner of dealing with political affairs. This remains, however, a product situated within the mentality of violence, no matter it might disdain all open violence, because the effort toward compromise is motivated not internally, but from the outside by the opposing efforts, because no compromise, however freely accepted, is conceivable without a compulsive character “it would be better otherwise is the underlying feeling of every compromise” (Benjamin, 1996: 244).
41This final comment is attributed to Ernest Jünger, who of course was a well-known proponent of fascism. He would also be one of the early ones in favour of the shelving of the State workers in their sad, dated attire following the First World War and its losses. Eventually, he will come to favour the militaristic precision of the Nazi uniform, worn by those in ranks of that “superior” political organization. Indeed, even in 1921 it seemed apparent that compromise hung on the parliamentarian like a set of ill-fitting clothes that can’t help but be “colourless, slack and tight at the same time” (Benjamin, 2003: 46). It would soon have to be replaced with a new forward-thinking design, one that made no compromises about displaying its violent foundations as firmly squared on the shoulders of the everyman.
42In Benjamin’s Radio Talk on Brecht he speaks of Brecht’s mentality of poverty that conforms to the body of the modern citizen (Benjamin, 1980: 95). Brecht defines poverty in a truly Baudelairean fashion, through a logic of modernity which dictates that “the state should be rich but many should be poor, the state should be permitted to do much, but man should be permitted to only a little” (Benjamin, 1980: 95). Benjamin “to put in as briefly as possible” categorises the condition that results as “the physiological and economic poverty of a man in the machine age” (Benjamin, 1980: 95). This is the condition of Baudelaire, the lyrical poet in the age of high capitalism. Moreover, this is the condition experienced very similarly for Brecht as the lyrical playwright in the age of high modernism. Brecht like Baudelaire before him wears such characteristic poverty as “a kind of [professional] uniform and well suited to give anyone who consciously wears it high rank” (Benjamin, 1980: 95). This rank however also is accompanied by a fair bit of class rage. Brecht screams out that the Nazis have ‘proletarianised [him]’, which sounds a deep echo of Baudelaire’s lament that Louis Napoleon de-politicised him (Benjamin et al, 1977: 98). For each man respectively, the outrage comes from the regime that comes into power against their personal will to then add a further insult upon them by forcing upon them a literalisation of their political rhetoric. They become damned to live out the ends of their figurative political dictates. One who cries out for depoliticisation will suffer as one depoliticised, one who cries out for proletarianisation will suffer as one proletarianised. Worse still they will suffer as someone silenced by the hand of their own political discourse turned against them. To paraphrase Brecht himself “this is an age which lays hands upon itself” (Benjamin, 1999, 443).
43Benjamin was slated to share the fate of his age. However as Irving Wohlfarth sees it: “At the risk of making too much sense of his suicide, and only to the extent that Benjamin did have some choice in the matter, one might conjecture that he died because he didn’t want to be an exception to the rule, and therein his death was indeed exceptional” (Wohlfarth, 1997: 69). What is exceptional is that Benjamin had already considered himself a dead man as early as 1931. Adorno remarked that Benjamin spoke “as a dead man” – a certain lack of immediacy and corporeality having been the ‘terrible price’ he paid for insights not otherwise known to the living (Wohlfarth, 1997: 79). Indeed, as early as 1931 he described his position as that of a shipwrecked person who climbs to the peak of the crumbling mast, from which he has a chance of sending out an S.O.S. As late as 1938, he continued to refuse leaving his exile base of operations in Paris, claiming in a letter to Adorno, “there are still positions to defend” (Wohlfarth, 1997: 78).
44Indeed, in Benjamin’s collection of letters from the German romantic era, Deutsche Menschen, the letters included are written from 1783-1883, a period which spans the rise and decline of German humanism, a period moreover some would say is far in advance of the crisis of German fascism, and yet Benjamin would have it that they represent “the opening of an age when the bourgeoisie can maintain only its positions, and not the spirit in which they had conquered them” (Wohlfarth, 1997: 51). Benjamin had attempted to reinstate the spirit of this German humanist project when he characterises the task of Deutsche Menschen as being that of “saving a few samples of genuine humanity from antediluvian times” (Wohlfarth, 1997: 53). Indeed, he refers to the project as “an Ark built after the Jewish model”, which might survive when “the Fascist flood began to rise” (Wohlfarth, 1997: 53). There can be no vacillation in staging such an enterprise, because as Benjamin explains in Central Park, “to the image of ‘rescue’ belongs the firm, seemly brutal grasp” (Benjamin, 2003: 179). In choosing to embark on such a mission we must also be prepared to “explore the question of how far the extremes to be encompassed within redemption are those of the ‘too early’ and the ‘too late’.” (Benjamin, 2003: 185).
45Ultimately what Benjamin is asking us to do in terms of collective heroism isn’t a question of waging a battle of liberty as against submission, but only a question of a line of escape, or rather of a simple way out “right, left or in any direction as long as it is as little signifying as possible” (Deleuze and Guattari, 1986: 6). The issue we must confront in grappling with the political systems of Capitalism, Communism or Fascism “is not that of being free, but of finding a way out or even a way in, another side, a hallway, an adjacency” so that we may finally understand civilisation as “a procedure, process, and form” shaped by our desires as a society (Deleuze and Guattari 1986: 7-8). Adopting this understanding of civilisation, for Benjamin remains the only recourse left open for humanity to redeem itself from the threat of annihilation and to allow the stalled juncture of its destructive past to finally, truly yield.