is hard to be a traitor, it is a creative act. It requires
relinquishing one's identity, losing face. One must
vanish from the picture, remain unrecognized."
essay "The Author as Producer" is an attack
on the "leftist bourgeois intelligentsia"
in Germany of the 1920s and early 1930s. Its primary
targets were the Neue
and a movement from the 1910s that has been largely
forgotten in German-speaking countries, but whose name
sounds surprisingly up-to-date today: the name "Activism"
was applied to a discourse in the shadow of Expressionism
marked by literature and literary criticism and the
loose association of mostly men of letters affiliated
with it. This included, for certain periods of their
work, such diverse authors as Heinrich Mann, Gustav
Landauer, Max Brod and Ernst Bloch. The circle affiliated
with the publicist Kurt Hiller had been developing since
1910, specifically under the label "Activism"
after 1914. Although Hiller and his circle are hardly
remembered today, in 1934 Benjamin could be certain
that the figure of Hiller and the associated positions
would still be familiar to his recipients. Especially
the abusive diatribes and mockery on the part of the
Berliner Dadaists against the "Activists"
were characterized by a remarkable vehemence around
1920 and probably still remembered in the mid-1930s
due to their verbal brutality.
In "Author as
Producer" Benjamin presents Hiller, as the "theoretician
of activism", as a classic example of a purportedly
leftist intellectual tendency that was actually counter-revolutionary.
According to Benjamin, it was revolutionary only in
its mentality, but not in its production.
This difference between tendency and technique and the
neglect of the latter was only one
of the problems of "Activism", the misleading
self-definition another. What was peddled during the
First World War and the years following it as "Activism"
was, according to Hiller's self-definition, "religious
or - in my interpretation - vitalist
spiritism. In addition to eloquent
appeals to and invocations of the "young breed"
("das junge Geschlecht", Heinrich Mann), of
the "New Demotic" ("Neue Volkstümlichkeit",
Kurt Hiller), or the people as "sacred mass"
("heiliger Masse", Ludwig Rubiner), the "Activists"
focused primarily on the hypostasization of the spirit
and the "spiritual" (Geistige).
The term "spiritual", initially a tactical
substitute for "intellectual", was gradually
substantiated by Hiller and others and eventually understood
as a "characterological type".
From Heinrich Mann's seminal text "Geist und Tat"
("Intellect and Action") to Hiller's manifesto-like
"Philosophie des Ziels" ("Philosophy
of the Goal") to Ludwig Rubiner's "Der Dichter
greift in die Politik" ("The Poet Intervenes
in Politics"), the Activism texts wrestle conspicuously often
with themes of religion, mysticism and the church. It
seems that the spirit that haunts the spiritual here
is more of a holy one than Hegel's Weltgeist.
Hiller himself tends to posit paradise more than revolution
and socialism as a utopian goal. "Consecrate yourselves,
you spiritual ones, finally - to the service of the
spirit; the holy spirit, the active spirit."
The two main aspects
of Benjamin's question about the "place of the
intellectual" are its position with respect to
the proletariat on the one hand and the manner of organization
on the other. Benjamin's criticism of "Activism"
thus consists primarily in its self-positioning "between
the classes". This position beside
the proletariat, the position of benefactors, ideological
patrons, is an impossible one.
The principle of the formation of this kind of collective,
which assembles men of letters around the concept of
"the spiritual" beyond any incipient organizing,
is a wholly reactionary one, not only for Benjamin.
This criticism is even more evident, if we include not
only Benjamin's technical, formal insistence on changing
the apparatus of production, but also the attitude
of the "Activists" that was not at all revolutionary:
sometimes their texts are marked by nationalism, are
often even anti-democratic, and in Hiller's circle anti-democratic
tendencies cannot be interpreted as radically democratic
or radically leftist. "Activism does not want a
-cracy of the demos, in other words of the masses and
mediocrity, but rather a -cracy of the spirit, in other
words of the best."
Hiller's principle of spirit-aristocracy propagates
a dominion of the spirit, meaning a dominion of that
which is of the spirit, of the best, finally even of
the "new German master house".
Such an unequivocal
"mentality" inevitably leads to the question
of why Benjamin was even willing and able to sell the
authors of "Activism" as left-wing
bourgeoisie at all. I suspect that has to do not only
with Benjamin's text-immanent intention, which I will
come back to later, but also and especially with the
broader activities of a second branch of "Activism".
Although this branch rarely referred to itself as "Activism",
its organ, the weekly paper the "Aktion",
substantially influenced leftist intellectual and radical
leftist movements in the German-speaking region in the
Although the "Aktion" and its protagonists
were not activists in today's sense either, they were
certainly more politically and pointedly active than
Kurt Hiller's circle. In its early years until the start
of the war, the "Aktion", alongside the "Sturm",
was the leading Expressionist periodical with a clearly
anti-militarist tendency. During the war it was the
only oppositional literature and art periodical, avoiding
censorship with astonishing mastery using veiled writing
and other means, and after the end of the war it increasingly
became an organ of the radical leftist opposition with
a close relationship to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.
Its publisher and editor-in-chief, Franz Pfemfert, radicalized
himself and the paper in several surges from its founding
in 1911 into the revolutionary war and post-war period,
through the Spartacist uprising and the soviet republic.
Whereas the literary
activism associated with Hiller was otherwise marked
by a relatively diffuse will to change, from the beginning
Pfemfert linked Expressionist literature and contemporary
cultural politics in the "Aktion" with (historical)
social-revolutionary texts to form a singular combination.
The focal point of the paper was its anti-militarist
critique, which particularly examined the war-mongering
function of the liberal press and the Social Democrats
and the affirmative stance of writer-colleagues within
the framework of events leading up to the war. It also
published early social-revolutionary texts, anarchist
texts from Russia, essays by Lassalle and Reclus. Texts
by the later Dadaists Hugo Ball, Hans Richter and Raoul
Hausmann were also published in the "Aktion".
As people involved
in earlier associations (the newspaper "Demokrat"
and the Democratic Association) gradually left for ideological
reasons, in the early years the "Aktion" drew
more and more authors and subscribers. At least until
Pfemfert distanced himself from Hiller in 1913,
the "Aktion" was something of a gathering
point for the men of letters who were later to assemble
under the label Activism with Hiller. Hiller's spiritist
ideas were reason enough for Pfemfert to put an end
to the cooperation in the paper's third year. Contrary
to Hiller's reactionary rejection of democracy, Pfemfert's
anti-authoritarianism saw itself as propagating soviet
democracy; the absolute pacifism of Hiller's logocracy
(the revolution of words) was countered by Pfemfert
with an anti-militarism that became increasingly revolutionary
and concretely soviet-communistic during the course
of the war; contrary to Hiller's German nationalism,
Pfemfert's position was anti-national and anti-antisemitic.
In the first months
of its publication, specifically from No. 3 to No. 16,
the "Action" was published with the programmatic
subtitle "Publication Organ for the Intelligence
of Germany". Even though this subtitle quickly
disappeared again, the paper increasingly assumed organizing
functions for a mixed association of artists and intellectuals
throughout the decade. Whereas the literary-activist
circle around Hiller comprised - as Benjamin correctly
describes it - an "arbitrary number of private
existences without offering the least grounds for organizing", Franz Pfemfert was the
pivotal point not only for the "Aktion", but
also for a number of other attempts at an "organization
of the intelligence". Following the start of the
"Aktion" as a weekly paper on 20 February
1911, the publishing company was founded in 1912. To
begin with, Pfemfert published Expressionist literature;
this was expanded beginning in 1916 with the "Political
Action Library", including revolution texts by
Lenin, Marx, Liebknecht and others. Finally, Pfemfert
also recognized the necessity of a concrete location,
a public sphere outside printed material, and opened
the Berliner "Action Book Shop" in 1917 together
with his wife Alexandra Pfemfert and her sister [hat
die Schwester auch einen Namen?], which was open
for exhibitions and events.
One of the anti-militarist
agitation actions against conscription in 1913
even turned into an early instance of communication
guerrilla: to create a broader base for protests against
an extension of the powers of the Wehrmacht in Berlin,
Pfemfert faked the declaration of a bourgeois anti-national
association, "To the German Reichstag", against
the new military laws. This declaration was propagated
not only through the "Aktion", but also with
flyers, which ultimately led to an actual demonstration
through the aspect of media counter-information. Since
conscription was being debated in France at the same
time, the action was extended there to a parallel French
declaration under the direction of the later Nobel Prize
winner for literature, Anatole France. This may be regarded as
an attempt to internationalize anti-militarist resistance,
which also used media guerrilla means to fight for an
expansion and international organization of anti-national
structures; with little success, however, as history
"Activists" increasingly invoked the party
of the spirit,
the German spirit
or the spiritual, Pfemfert founded the Anti-National
Socialist Party Group of Germany (ASP) as early as 1915.
The tiny anti-capitalist, anti-national, socialist party
was "covertly active" until the end of the
war, entering the public sphere on 16 November with
a manifesto in the "Aktion". The party never
grew beyond the status of a special interest group of
a few dedicated artists, yet the reversal of the conventional
relationship between party and newspaper appears to
be an interesting constellation: instead of a party
founding its publicizing organ, the newspaper founded
the organization of a party in an ongoing process. Although
the collectivity and the quantity of the distribution
of endeavors revolving around the "Aktion"
may be debated, Benjamin's question about organizing
must certainly be answered positively in Pfemfert's
case as the process of organizing leftist intellectuals
in the second half of the 1910s, especially because
of the aforementioned attempts to work on organizational
linking and articulation in association with the "Aktion"
and going beyond the paper.
The whole spectrum
of German "Activism" appears to be quite a
disparate arrangement that is fed - roughly outlined
- from a right-wing activism of the spirit, which sometimes
slipped into the margins of antisemitism,
racism and proto-fascism,
as well as from a left-wing activism of the "Aktion",
which from its basis as a literature magazine became
increasingly radicalized and turned into an agitation
platform for radical leftist politics. Especially in
the first half of the 1910s the actors frequently alternated
between the unraveling camps, and naturally there were
"activisms" of all kinds to the right of Hiller
as well. Returning now to Benjamin's essay, which was
based on the draft for a lecture in Paris from April
1934, the answers to the question of why this late attention
is devoted to Hiller in particular may be found in the
context of this lecture.
Benjamin uses the
foil of "Activism" mainly to criticize recognized
leftist, but purely content-focused, agitational strategies,
in other words primarily socialist realism, in a communist
context. At the Paris Institute for the Study of Fascism,
a sham organization that was controlled by the Comintern,
he would have found himself on thin ice with this, as
he was well aware.
Even before Stalin's cultural politics, such diverse
positions as Lenin's, Bogdanov's and Lunacharsky's were
all, despite their very different ideas of proletarian
culture, oriented to the production and presentation
of proletarian contents.
Even in Germany, in the socialist circles of the 1920s
and the 1930s, there was a line of giving precedence
to revolutionary contents over form. Benjamin's attitude,
which focused primarily on the technique and organizing
function of art practice, was the exception. Particularly
before an audience that was skeptical about formal considerations,
Hiller's partly reactionary position was excellently
suited as a negative point of approach. Even though
he represented something completely different from the
content-fixed position of socialist realism, in Benjamin's
lecture Hiller represents the position of being fixed
on content, writing sentences such as these: "But
in truth, all truly great art works [...] were great
not because of the perfection of what was specifically
artistic about them, but rather [...] because of the
sublimeness of their What, their Idea, their Goal, their
Ethos. [...] If one takes away from one of them its
content, its idea, its morality, so that only what is
'designed' remains, what remains is worthless!"
Hiller's attitude is just as clearly idealist as it
is anti-formalist: "Form, though, as such, is empty",
"what remains essential is what is designed".
In the position of the German "Activists"
there were echoes of a debate that was also familiar
from Soviet cultural politics, yet because of its idealistic
orientation, it was impossible to link this position
with materialist cultural politics. In this way, the
discourse associated with Hiller also became a suitable
foil in terms of content, which Benjamin could use to
highlight the practices of Bert Brecht and Sergei Tretyakov
as positive counter-examples of changing the production
Let's stay with this
negative foil for a few more sentences and examine the
question that was central for Benjamin, the position
of the "author as producer" or, more broadly,
the position of intellectuals and artists: in the distinction
between "universal" and "specific intellectuals"
developed by Foucault, Hiller's position would be that
of a representative of the universal. The spiritual
thus corresponds to a universal truth, the carriers
of which, the spiritualists, represent a universality
denoting the conscious and developed form of the unconscious
universality of the proletariat. Here the spiritualists
would be the widely visible role models, exemplary and
illuminating, rising out of the dark form of the proletariat.
Foucault describes the universal intellectual - this
also corresponds to the example of Hiller's literary
"Activism" - using the example of the writer
and the threshold of writing as the sacralizing feature
of the intellectual.
This figure, which
implies speakers articulating the mute truth of others,
must necessarily come under fire in emancipatory, egalitarian
contexts. The contents, according to Benjamin, and the
political tendency have a counter-revolutionary function,
as long as the instruments, forms and apparatuses of
production, in other words the relationship of the "spiritual"
as universal intellectual to the proletariat remains
unchanged. Benjamin uses not only the example of "Activism",
but also that of Neue
Sachlichkeit to describe how even photographs of
misery become an object of enjoyment, how the artistic
processing of a political situation is able "to
achieve ever new effects for entertaining the audience";
in other words, how the bourgeois apparatus of production
and publication is able to assimilate and even propagate
revolutionary themes with the help of the figure of
the artist/intellectual next to/over the proletariat.
Writing work in the
position of a bearer of the law and fighter for
the proletariat, is a presumption; the place of the
universal intellectual is an impossible one. If the
intellectual's solidarity with the proletariat can always
only be a mediated solidarity, then the intellectual,
who has become a bourgeois intellectual due to social and educational privilege, must
become, according to Benjamin, a "traitor to his
This necessary betrayal consists in the transformation
of his position, from someone who supplies
the production apparatus with contents, as revolutionary
as they may be, to an engineer who changes
the production apparatus, who, as Benjamin formulates
it, "sees his task in adapting it to the purposes
of the proletarian revolution".
For a renewal of
this demand that Benjamin poses, that of changing the
production apparatus rather than supplying it, it seems
to me that both aspects are equally important: the first
part of the demand, not
to supply the production apparatus, could be updated
with the help of Deleuze's criticism of representation,
especially the criticism of the framework of media representation
and the function that intellectuals and artists carry
out within this framework. The second part of the demand,
namely that of changing
the production apparatus, is found in an expanded form
in Foucault's exhortation to specific intellectuals
to constitute a new politics of truth. There are echoes
of Benjamin's figures and terminology in both Deleuze
and Foucault: with Deleuze it is the topos of betrayal,
with which the intelligentsia leave their class;
with Foucault it is the "specialist", which
Benjamin in turn took over from the terminological toolbox
of the Russian productivists.
Contrary to Foucault's
assumption of the disappearance of the great writer,
the universal intellectual, ever new metamorphoses of
this type have emerged in recent decades, still in the
pose of the autonomous artist and thinker, but in fact
in heteronomous subordination to structures, in which
their figures fulfill certain functions.
Contrary to this pseudo-revival of the classical bourgeois,
the universal intellectual, who is questioned about
everything and also has something to say about everything,
especially on the surface of the media and instrumental
think-tanks, the point is not to continue supplying
these media and politics with ever new contents, but
rather to refuse to supply, to vanish from the machinery
of the spectacle, to betray the spectacle.
To a certain degree,
to the extent that intellectuals are involved in this
spectacle, this also implies a betrayal of oneself.
Going beyond Benjamin's classical Marxist formulation,
the movement of the "betrayal of the bourgeois
class" could generally be described in the words
of Deleuze/Parnet as the position of a "traitor
to one's own empire, one's gender, one's class, one's
Betraying one's original bourgeois class and adapting
the production apparatus to the proletarian revolution
today would primarily mean dropping out of the framework
of representation. What can be aligned to the grid of
possible images and statements is only that which is
a priori acceptable , and what is acceptable is susceptible
to recuperation a priori. To counter the mechanism of
the media spotlight, which is capable of assimilating
contents today much more radically than the reportage
of the Neue Sachlichkeit
was able to do, it is necessary to vanish from the picture,
remain unrecognized, hide the traces of prominence.
The key to change is not found in the battle of intellectuals
for hegemony in the mainstream media, but rather in
refusing to take part in this show battle, rejecting
the role of commentators and suppliers of keywords in
the framework of the media spectacle. Disrupting this
relationship, preferably developing a form of disturbance
through these kinds of disruptions, this is Deleuze's
adaption of the demand to not supply the production
apparatus: "Creating has always been something
different from communicating. The key thing may be to
create vacuoles of noncommunication, circuit breakers,
so we can elude control."
Pre-Release from Gerald
Raunig, Art and Revolution, to be published in 2005