So, having written a lot of stuff about things, I was pretty much bent on leaving things behind. I started picking them back up again, though. Not one by one, but in curious clusters . . . batches and bundles, aggregations and agglomerations, compilations and constellations. . . . You get the point. Still, insofar as famous philosophers and anthropologists are wont to remind us that the etymology of “thing” (“þing,” “ting,” “Ding,” “chose”) discloses the gathering—an assembly—you might say that I’m finally picking up the thing—in its thingness—for the first time—in the mode of assemblage.
Gathering things up in an assemblage mode—it’s part of an experiment that began with the urge to figure out how the material object world, more specifically the world of human artefacts, might contribute to what gets called, these days, “assemblage theory”—a theory most often derived from the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s, Mille Plateaux (1980). It thus depends for its coinage on the translation of their French agencement as assemblage (rather than, say, layout or arrangement or configuration, as in un agencement de meubles, a pleasant arrangement of furniture).
Few sexual metaphors are so striking as Immanuel Kant’s use of a lemon in the Lectures on Ethics. In the paragraph “Of Duties to the Body in Regard to the Sexual Impulse,” Kant critically opposes the sexual inclination (Geschlechterneigung) to the higher love of the human (Menschenliebe) and criticizes those who merely have sexual inclination: “In loving from sexual inclination, they make the person into an object of their appetite. As soon as the person is possessed, and the appetite sated, they are thrown away, as one throws away a lemon after sucking the juice from it.” When comparing sex to sucking out a lemon, Kant appears to be using the word Zitrone as a metalepsis of the English lemon, for in Renaissance England lemons, lemans, or lemmans all figure promiscuous lovers, derivative of the Middle English leofmon or leofman––literally “man-dear” or dear to a man. Hence, we find examples, surprisingly close to Kant’s, of people being used “like an orange, squeezed of its juice, and thrown away.” Around the same time, oranges and lemons serve to figure mistresses, prostitutes, as well as more narrowly the vagina.
If I begin by saying that this is an essay about Raymond Williams’s relation to the institution of Cambridge English, I risk losing two groups of readers I wish to reach. One group, the insiders, may think that the story has all been told before. Williams—author of a dozen and a half wide-ranging books in literary, cultural, and media studies over a thirty-five-year period—is a major figure in late twentieth-century criticism. Much commentary on Williams since well before his death in 1986 has situated his work in relation to the powerful formation of literary studies at the university he attended before and after his military service in World War II. Surely, some will say, all that can be said on this topic has already been said. The other group, the outsiders, simply may not care. Even if they know and admire Williams, even if they grant the continued relevance of his most important books in contemporary criticism, they may not have much interest in Cambridge English. I. A. Richards and F. R. Leavis, the two leading figures in shaping it, are not the household names they once were when, between them, they set the terms for Anglophone criticism in the second quarter of the twentieth century. Yet interest in Richards has revived in recent years, and Leavis’s students, or his students’ students, have until recently held important academic positions throughout the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. The effects of programmatic Leavisism—an ambitious academic initiative that grounded its resistance to modern commercialism both in close attention to literature and in strongly held judgments about such questions as “the great tradition” in the English novel—can still be discerned in those same places, if only as the object of attack in bygone institutional battles. Nor was the influence of Cambridge English confined to literature as such. Scholarship has traced the pioneering media theory of Marshall McLuhan and the distinguished art criticism of Michael Baxandall to their formative years in Cambridge English. And of course one can also point to the illustrious first generation of Richards’s students, which included both William Empson and Muriel Bradbrook.
Media as a term for technologies of communication has become so commonplace that it is easy to overlook the fact that one term designates all or virtually all technologies of communication. When Theodor Adorno noted that differences among film, radio, and the press were diminishing, he coined a critical concept, the culture industry, to indicate the collapse of discrete media technologies into a singular entity, and that this was the very opposite of a rationalizing process. To claim that the media could stand for society was precisely what had to be critiqued, in Adorno’s view.
The Last of the Unjust (Le dernier des injustes) is a film structured by temporal delays, distensions, and reversals––a film that, in dealing with Theresienstadt and its “monde à la renverse,”obliges one to begin at the end and play it backwards. Such an approach is already adumbrated by the word dernier in the title. Start with the last––and the last one––it suggests, and work your way back. To move in this way is to look back from the present to the past and, moreover, to follow Claude Lanzmann who, after a forty-year gap, returned retrospectively to the interviews he conducted with Benjamin Murmelstein, former leader of the Jewish Council in Theresienstadt. Recorded in Rome in 1975, the week-long series of interviews were to have been part of Shoah (dir. Lanzmann, 1985). Yet none of the eleven hours of conversation made it into the film. Indeed, it was as if what had transpired in these sessions could not as yet be processed, could not, as trauma theorists would say, be integrated into a context of significance. Left out of account, and quite literally out of the picture, the interviews nevertheless continued to haunt Lanzmann. If the film demands a retrospective approach, what Lanzmann looks back on is a past that will have remained all too close, one that impinged on his thinking and filmmaking without finding a definitive form of expression, without allowing itself, as it were, to be psychically and artistically worked through.
The legal and political theorist Carl Schmitt is now probably best known for such aphorisms as the one he placed at the opening of his Political Theology: “Sovereign is he who decides about the state of exception.” After Schmitt joined the National Socialist Party in 1933, he contributed quite actively to the radicalization of Nazi positions: in “Der Führer schützt das Recht” (The Führer Protects the Law), he justified the Adolf Hitler-ordered murder of SA members in the so-called Röhm-Putsch; in “Die deutsche Rechtswissenschaft im Kampf gegen den jüdischen Geist,” he advocated excluding Jews from scholarly citations; and in “Die Verfassung der Freiheit,” he praised the legal ban on interracial (“Aryan”-Jewish) marriages enacted by the Nuremberg Laws. But in 1936, he found himself attacked in the SS newspaper Das Schwarze Korps. He was then put under surveillance of the SD (Sicherheitsdienst, the intelligence agency of the SS) and was forced to leave some of his positions. Still, protected by Hermann Göring and Hans Frank, he was able to keep his prestigious law professorship in Berlin and publish more essays and books vying for attention from the Nazi leadership, most notably, Völkerrechtliche Großraumordnung mit Interventionsverbot für raumfremde Mächte (Spatial Organization in International Law Combined with the Prohibition of Intervention by Other Powers), a book he expanded several times during the early years of World War II.
When I was younger, I was talismanically inspired by these lines near the opening of Walter Benjamin’s Convolute N. The passage concerns his place of work, specifically the ceiling with “the painted summer sky.” I didn’t know then why I was so smitten. But now I do.
Let me start at the beginning.
First there is the name itself, Convolute N, a strange and wonderful title especially for the non-German ear, straight out of J. R. R. Tolkien, James Bond, and Alan Turing’s secret code sleuth. Even the English equivalent has a remote and magical ring to it. “Convolute”? What is that? A password for the initiated? Much better than “file.”
Echoing Brecht, I wish to thematize the term Jewish exiles and question the appropriateness of the term to characterize the intellectuals of Jewish provenience who fled Nazi Europe, if the designation Jewish exiles––the emphasis falling on Jewish––is meant to specify some cultural and cognitive specificity, other than the fact that Adolf Hitler’s apocalyptic anti-Semitism obliged them to take refuge in the US and elsewhere. If the label is to be so construed, I should like to pose the question whether the experience of exile of German Jewish intellectuals was qualitatively––phenomenologically––different than that of non-Jewish Germans such as Brecht.