Jane O. Newman: Spinoza and ‘Baroque’ Literature


There is an interesting moment in Macherey’s discussion of “illusion and fiction” in the chapter of A Theory of Literary Production with this title that suggests the provenance of his claims about the “baroque” nature of “all literature” there. He (like so many others at the time, including Althusser, Balibar, and Deleuze) turns to Spinoza on the imagination in order to distinguish between the “vague language of the imagination” (the “vehicle and the source of everyday ideology” and myth, Macherey writes) and what he calls “aesthetic activity,” on which Spinoza is “almost silent,” but which Macherey sees as the bookend to his (Spinoza’s) “theoretical activity,” which “fixes language” and ultimately (in what we must assume is the literary “book”) “takes a stand regarding…this myth, exposing it” (62-4). Spinoza’s ‘baroque’ need to use philosophy in this way emerged out of exactly the same period and post-Westphalian political landscape in flames as the mourning plays about which Benjamin writes, plays that, as Benjamin quite rightly understood, I think, used the production of “determinate illusion[s]” (Macherey, 64) on stage not as “act[s] of deception,” but as ways of “exposing” the ideology of the stability of the Westphalian state. Witnessing the de Witt brothers being torn apart by the ‘masses’ in 1672 might have been indistinguishable, for Spinoza, from the “crude theater” of the Trauerspiele of which Benjamin speaks. I’m thus not sure that either Macherey or Spinoza or Benjamin is addressing the power of the literary (imagination) to unmask ideology as a moment of theorizing that ‘transcends history’, as Kahn claims, since for all of them, reflecting on this power as profoundly historical was motivated by events on the ground. How we might understand the chaos of Benjamin’s Weimar Republic or OWS events and police using pepper-spray to create ‘order’ in these terms might also be interesting to discuss. What is the place of literature in the face of such events?

2 thoughts on “Jane O. Newman: Spinoza and ‘Baroque’ Literature

  1. Jane, in a couple of your posts you have underscored the “Westphalian” character of the baroque culture with which Benjamin is engaged in the Trauerspiel book. Since the notion of a post-Westphalian era of sovereign territorial states is so closely associated with Carl Schmitt, I’m curious about the status of Schmitt in your study (especially around the issue of periodization). You note that Schmitt was in Benjamin’s “library” — that he was reading Schmitt in the years the Trauerspiel book was being written — and you point to Benjamin’s debt to Schmitt for certain key concepts (“state of emergency”). For the most part, though, Schmitt keeps a low profile in the book — but is there more Schmitt here than meets the eye? How Schmittian is Benjamin’s baroque?

  2. In a sense I feel Benjamin’s idea of the Trauerspiel is very Schmittian in being a rebuke to modernizing meliorism, an assertion of the always-already latency of the past as a restraint on modern self-assertion. But it certainly is not Schmittian in that Benjamin’s interest in the period is fundamentally not right wing, legitimist, or restorationist. Though it would be simplistic to see Schmitt as yearning for a restoration of the Holy Roman Empire, what is clearly concomitant with Newman’s stress on the Westphalian nature of the Trauerspiel is the tacit renunciation of the HRE as a guarantor of political and epistemological stability, a concession of a multipolar and multi-state Europe.
    Furthermore, Newman’s reminder that the Second Silesian School pointedly avoided German nationalist subjects is salutary. Indeed, they picked subjects so antique or obscure as to evade all manner of debates, including Catholic/protestant and Latin-Vernacular. (That both neo-Latin plays and treatises and vernacular dictionaries flourished in the baroque, as Newman reminds us, is notable). There is, in this way, a disjointedly ecumenical aspect to the Trauerspiel, a nascent cross-bench rebuke to modernity that does not fetishize any particular solution to modernity’s problems. One can see this in examples of the modern baroque in other languages. Few Anglophone intellectuals followed T S Eliot in his profession of royalism, Classicism, and Anglo-Catholicism, yet his neo-baroque espousal of the metaphysical poets became universally accepted across the English-speaking world. Indeed, Newman’s emphasis on the suppleness of the Baroque, the heterodoxy obtainable in it, sheds new light for me on the irenic nature of the US New Criticism and how it combined nostalgic anti-modernity with antiseptic, clinical applicability. Indeed—as Newman alludes to in her citation of the Latin American Neo-Baroque as explored by John Beverley—the baroque can operate in the Global South as a rebuke to Yankee imperialism and its attendant practical, utilitarian modernity, as a more robust and militant version of aestheticism.
    Newman, though, has done us a tremendous service by insisting that we cannot just think, when reading Benjamin, about the seventeenth century through Benjamin’s prism, that we have to look at it for ourselves. Newman renders Benjamin’s work on the Trauerspiel three-dimensional, not just contextualizing it but also animating it, lending it some semblance of its true scope. In this wise, the emphasis on Silesia as the place of origin or practice of so many of the dramatists is interesting, Just as the Thirty Years War was originally precipitated over the question of whether by Bohemia would be politically linked to the German-speaking Empire—a question in a sense definitely answered, at least for the nonce, by the Fourteen Points and the Versailles settlement—so, as far as I understand a complicated geographical situation, Silesia after 1919 was largely in the hands of the newly independent Czech and Polish states. That these authors were on Benjamin’s line at the same time as the Weimar Republic—whatever its problems—presented, for the first item, a unified and democratic Germany indeed more unified than Wilhelmine Germany as the sudsier duchies and principalities which the German Empire had nominally allowed to continue were now gone. It may seem, in retrospect, foolish for Benjamin to have thought there was a place for someone like him in the Germany of the twentieth century, but history at the time he wrote the Trauerspiel book had still not rendered its appalling verdict. Yet whatever murky, tentative hope came out of Benjamin’s evocation of a peal of tragic doom even in the birth pangs of modernity, one cannot see his vantage point towards the past as Schmittian. I think the past and the future were both arenas for Benjamin, fields where he could sketch out the teatime possibilities of the present….

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