For a long time some people believed that if the horror could be made vivid enough, most people would finally take in the outrageousness, the insanity of war. Fourteen years before [Virginia] Woolf published Three Guineas — in 1924, on the tenth anniversary of the national mobilization in Germany for the First World War — the conscientious objector Ernst Friedrich published his Krieg dem Kriege! [War Against War!].
This is photography as shock therapy: an album of more than one hundred and eighty photographs mostly drawn from German military and medical archives, many of which were deemed unpunishable by government censors while the war was on. The book starts with pictures of toy soldiers, toy cannons, and other delights of male children everywhere, and concludes with pictures taken in military cemeteries. Between the toys and the graves, the reader has an excruciating photo-tour of four years of ruin, slaughter, and degradation: pages of wrecked and plundered churches and castles, obliterated villages, ravaged forests, torpedoed passenger steamers, shattered vehicles, hanged conscientious objectors, half-naked prostitutes in military brothels, soldiers in death agonies after a poison-gas attack, skeletal Armenian children.
Almost all the sequences in War Against War! are difficult to look at, notably the pictures of dead soldiers belonging to the various armies putrefying in heaps on fields and roads and in the front-line trenches. But surely the most unbearable pages in this book, the whole of which was designed to horrify and demoralize, are in the section titled “The Face of War,” twenty-four close-ups of soldiers with huge facial wounds. Continue reading →
. Image: Raoul Hausmann, The Art Critic (1919-1920),
“The critic’s technique in thirteen theses” (1928)
I. The critic is the strategist in the literary battle. II. He who cannot take sides should keep silent. III. The critic has nothing in common with the interpreter of past cultural epochs. IV. Criticism must talk the language of artists. For the terms of the cenacle are slogans. And only in slogans is the battle-cry heard. V. “Objectivity” must always be sacrificed to partisanship, if the cause fought for merits this. VI. Criticism is a moral question. If Goethe misjudged Hölderlin and Kleist, Beethoven, and Jean Paul, his morality and not his artistic discernment was at fault. [One can hear echoes of Kant’s Critique of Judgment in this passage]. VII. For the critic his colleagues are the higher authority. Not the public. Still less posterity. VIII. Posterity forgets or acclaims. Only the critic judges in face of the author. IX. Polemics mean to destroy a book in a few of its sentences. The less it has been studied the better. Only he who can destroy can criticize. X. Genuine polemics approach a book as lovingly as a cannibal spices a baby. XI. Artistic enthusiasm is alien to the critic. In his hand the artwork is the shining sword in the battle of minds. XII. The art of the critic in a nutshell: to coin slogans without betraying ideas. The slogans of an inadequate criticism peddle ideas to fashion. XIII. The public must always be proved wrong, yet always feel represented by the critic.
Man Ray, Photo portrait of Virginia Woolf (1935)
“The decay of essay-writing” (1905)
The spread of education and the necessity which haunts us to impart what we have acquired have led, and will lead still further, to some startling results. We read of the over-burdened British Museum — how even its appetite for printed matter flags, and the monster pleads that it can swallow no more. This public crisis has long been familiar in private houses. One member of the household is almost officially deputed to stand at the hall door with flaming sword and do battle with the invading armies. Tracts, pamphlets, advertisements, gratuitous copies of magazines, and the literary productions of friends come by post, by van, by messenger — come at all hours of the day and fall in the night, so that the morning breakfast table is fairly snowed up with them. Continue reading →
. Image:Detail from Gustav
Klimt’s Tragoedie (1911) .
Originally posted on Bret Schneider’s website, quaquaqua.
Some “minor” artworks seem especially indifferent to society. Doubtlessly, it is this affect which exclusively distinguishes them from other artworks, and the idiosyncratic reflection in which this indifference is formed determines their quality. Rather than see indifference as nihilistic, it is a form of apperceptive reflection that is especially insightful, though, towards nothing in particular. This “nothing in particular” is what rubs people the wrong way, but for what reasons? Virginia Woolf’s theory of modern fiction, as well as the essay claimed that there is no detail too insignificant to include in the totality of the work. The philosophy not explicated further in this claim is that we do not know what our values are in the modern age, as everything is free-floating and now yet to be determined. Analogous to film, which Benjamin observed was able to focus on the marginal things which are assumed as materially constitutive of subjectivity, but not recognized as such, literary inclusions of meandering thoughts focus on those things that we know that we know, but don’t know that we know yet. Apperceptive artworks propose that the way to properly perceive the world is no longer dependent on the direct act of standing in front of a painting and straining one’s eyes out the front one’s head, which is a type of muscular reflection obstructed by obsolete moralistic efforts. Rather, apperceptive modes of reflection refine this by an almost peripheral vantage point, postulating that in order to experience something properly, one must not even really look at it. It is a form of indirect experience. Certainly, there is an element of “trying” that is required to train the mind for this type of viewing, but it is a type which doesn’t try to “get it,” or to “experience it,” or “love it,” etc., but a type which is geared towards the development of a second nature of reflection that would render these bourgeois concepts as obsolete as they have truly become, if only in ideal. The development of an adequate apperceptive faculty resides in the self-understanding of one’s perception as not merely watcher, but also watched. That is, reflection imitates the particularly modern condition whereby one is both subject and object, and in which the differentiation from mere objects is in the midst of being processed, so to speak. One grows eyes on the side of one’s head, like a fish, or develops a form of cognition like a fly’s refractive eyesight that takes in ever more distracted objects. The metamorphosis from human to insect is not entirely barbaric — it is a type of second nature. Beckett’s transfiguration of human to static object is not merely a critique of passivity and so forth, but indicates a real perfectability of reflection to a state where it can take in those aspects of nature that are denied to otherwise affirmed humanistic principled. Furthermore, the ability to perceive oneself as an object is a precondition for constituting projected forms of subjectivity.
A young Virginia Woolf
The grand excavation
The broad field of human life turns into a grand excavation, the means of which are brought about by a particular form of insight that is indifferent to, and a development out of, the obsolete forms of perceptive and logical thought. A vulgar analogy comes out of detective stories: the modern detective is contrasted in his peculiar attention to details that would otherwise be overlooked by traditional methods of investigation. At times, it appears that the detective isn’t even paying attention, or is indifferent to the serious matter at hand. In pop culture, this is chalked up to a merely eccentric personality, whereas in truth their indifference is at the avant-garde of distant criticism. An immersive, immediate form of investigation into the object at hand would be hindered by standard forms of perception that take grip of the one who is critiquing the situation. In an indifferent form of cognition, there is a distance from such immediacy, almost as if the indifferent thinker has never once been privy to the laws and rules which seem to apply to everyone else. This sort of character is sanctioned and developed as an anomaly — the anomaly being a result of social refinement. Continue reading →