Part 3: Universal language

22 04 2010

In order to gain insight into the opaque texture of Doctrine of the Similar I will read it from the perspective of On Language as Such and on the language of the people, Benjamin’s early writing on language. I do not have an English translation of the text, so I will use the original German version and translate quotes myself.

I consider On language and such … one of the most important texts about the philosophy of language, even though you will not find it in most introductions on this topic. Benjamin’s philosophy of language is certainly an outlier in the field of language theory. It has some points of contact with established theories of language, but in its consequence the position Benjamin claims is one of total opposition. In my opinion the mainstream theory of language (as established by Saussure) does not do any justice to the mystery of language and this is precisely the point where Benjamin has his value.

The philosophy of language developed in On language and such… proposes language as a universal being, language is a flow of communication that runs through the whole universe and thereby connects everything together. The universe is a universe because language binds it together. On language and such… has a huge range of different topics that are all worth discussing. I will spent some time going through them step by step and I attempt to link these topics to Doctrine of the Similar.

The first topic I want to discuss in the universal concept of language:

Das Dasein der Sprache erstreckt sich aber nicht nur über alle Gebiete menschlicher Geistesäußerung, der in irgendeinem Sinn immer Sprache innewohnt, sondern es erstreckt sich auf schlechthin alles. Es gibt kein Geschehen oder Ding weder in der belebten noch in der unbelebten Natur, das nicht in gewisser Weise an der Sprache teilhätte, denn es ist jedem wesentlich, seinen geistigen Inhalt mitzuteilen.

Benjamin claims here that the being of language (das Dasein der Sprache) does not only range over all human expressions but ranges over plainly everything. He writes that there is no event or thing neither in the enlivened nor in the unenlivened nature (weder in ther belebten noch in der unbelebten Natur) that does not in some way participate in language, as it lies in the very essence of every being to express its spiritual being. (I will discuss this spiritual being in one of my next posts, if anyone knows the common English translation of das geistige Wesen, please let me know.)

Language is everywhere, everything expresses itself in the medium of language, how can such a concept of language have any value? Don’t we need a very clear and handy definition of language if we want to work with a concept of language? But must a theory have a function, must philosophy be useful? I think the strength of Benjamin’s philosophy of language lies in its universalism. If we think of language in an ordinary way we think of humans using words either in saying them or in writing them and most theories of language deal with exactly this. Language becomes in this regard a tool people use to express their thoughts and feelings to other people. But how about gestures? And how about art? They also express something but not in words. And how about a stone?

What I find so fascinating and genius about the universal concept of language is that it suspends all the fringe problems theories of language usually deal with.

And just consider the elegant solution this universal conception of language has in regard of  epistemology: How can we be aware of the world around us, how can we recognize anything? Because everything communicates with us in the first place, all things talk to us, show themselves in the medium of language. We can recognize the world around us because everything is integrated into language as such. Of course, this expresses a paradisiacal state of being – and as you know, we have been kicked out a while ago. (I’ll come back to that later.)

So what does this have to do with Doctrine of the Similar. Is Doctrine not dealing with the Similar primarily? I guess we have to do a brave jump ahead here and assume the following: Doctrine of the Similar is an alternative version of On language as such… it expresses the same philosophy (and in doing so opens new horizons). In this regard we should conclude that Language as such in the early writing on language has been translated into the Similar in the late writing on language.  This has a lot of theoretical implications, I am aware of it, and of course Language as such and the Similar are not identical – but they equate.  I claim that this is the key to understand Doctrine of the Similar.


Part 2: The Doctrine in its context

19 04 2010

The work of Walter Benjamin is holistic and difficult to comprehend. This is especially true for Doctrine of the Similar, as this is a text so esoteric in the choice of words and topics that it is actually impossible to understand it without linking it to other texts in Benjamin’s  work. The incomprehensibility  of Doctrine of the Similar also roots in the fact that Benjamin did not intent to publish the text, he wrote it for himself.

Doctrine of the Similar was written in 1933 and is the last of the four texts Benjamin wrote specifically on the topic of language. The first one is Über Sprache überhaupt und über die Sprache des MenschenOn Language as Such and on the language of the people (1916), a text that was also not meant to be published; the second one is Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers – The Task of the Translator (1923), which was published as introduction to Benjamin’s translation of some poems by Beaudelaire; and the Erkenntniskritische Vorrede – Epistemo-Critical Prologue (1928), the introduction to Benjamins (rejected) habilitation.

For the discussion of Doctrine of the Similar the very fist text on language – On Language as Such and on the language of the people – is most important. We know this because Benjamin himself pointed out the deep relation in several letters he wrote in 1933 to his friend Gershom Scholem. Benjamin actually asked Scholem to sent him a copy of his early text on language, so he could compare the two versions. The relation of the two texts is the key to understand Doctrine of the Similar. We can indeed understand Doctrine of the Similar as an alternate version of On Language as Such and on the language of the people.

I am certain that the only way to understand Doctrine of the Similar is by reading it from the point of On Language as Such and on the language of the people, this is the reference point that matters. So before I will get into the reading of Doctrine of the Similar, I will first discuss the philosophy of language as diplayed in the first text on language.

Walter Benjamin Manuscript

Part 1: On Walter Benjamin’s Doctrine of the Similar

19 04 2010

Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin in the library in Paris

I recently found an English translation of Lehre vom ÄhnlichenDoctrine of the Similar, a small text (maybe it is better to think of it as a fragment) Walter Benjamin wrote in 1933. This text has a certain significance to me. To cut a long story short: I wrote my master thesis about it and failed completely. This is the text that showed me clearly the limits of my mind. Until here and not further. However, reading the text in the English version gave me a new perspective of the text. It might be my limited understanding of the English language but I have the impression that the English text does not have the depth of the German original.

What makes the German original so difficult to comprehend is the incredible variety of possible ways to read and to understand the text. Let me give you an example: The word Ähnlichkeit (the similar) is linked by its etymology to the word Ahnen, which – read as a noun – means ancestors. And of course, Doctrine of the Similar has a historical dimension: the history of the mimetic faculty. So it is actually possible to read Ähnlichkeiten (besides its “normal” meaning) in this way. But there is another way of reading the word, because ahnen – read as a verb – means to sense something. So this word is about a certain mode of perception, and of course: Doctrine of the Similar is a text about the human ability of perceiving the similar. This labyrinthine character of this text is what drives you easily crazy.

So I am actually quite thankful to write about this text now in English and not in German and to discuss the English text primarily, as this takes away a lot of weight.

What I want to do with this post is to explore Doctrine of the Similar once again. Why? Because it is an important text. This text is part of Walter Benjamin’s amazing philosophy of language. (And this philosophy of language is certainly the foundation on which Benjamin’s body of work is based on.) I very much believe that Benjamin’s philosophy of language is of significance today, because we do understand language in a very wrong way: as a tool that helps us expressing our thoughts. This primitive (and fatal) idea of language is what Benjamin attacks. And this is what I am going to explore in this series of thoughts dedicated to the Doctrine of the Similar.