Sunday, 3 March 2013

Walter Benjamin - the work of learning: writing and thinking as collecting


'Benjamin, always working, always trying to work more, speculated a good deal on the writer's daily existence.  One Way Street has several sections which offer recipes for work: the best conditions, timing, utensils.  Part of the impetus for the large correspondence he conducted was to chronicle, report on, confirm the existence of work.  His instincts as a collector served him well.  Learning was a form of collecting, as in the quotations and excerpts from daily reading which Benjamin accumulated in notebooks that he carried everywhere and from which he would read aloud to friends.  Thinking was also  form of collecting, at least in its preliminary stages.  He conscientiously logged stray ideas: developed mini-esays in letters to friends; rewrote plans for future projects; noted his dreams (several are recounted in One Way Street); kept numbered lists of all the books he read.' (Susan Sontag: Introduction to One Way Street and Other Writings, Walter Benjamin, London: New Left Books, 1979)


 
I once wrote an essay on Walter Benjamin.   I argued that his charcteristic style of writing, collecting wreathes of aphoristic, tentative and often gnomic paragraphs which delineate his themes as it were from the outside, indirectly, rather than presenting them descriptively and directly, could be compared to a gestural, bodily style of communication as opposed to the more direct and familiar use of spoken language. He believed that copying a text was the best way to understand it, as a landscape is best understood by walking through it rather than by flying over it. 'All the decisive blows are struck left-handed'. Benjamin's work first suggested to me an idea which has come to seem more and more important in my work as a teacher: that writing (or drawing, composing music - the making of any cultural artefact, or as Raymond Williams and Stephen Yeo would say, cultural production) - is a mode of thinking and therefore of learning.  But should 'copying' be seen as production in its own right, or merely a stage or tool of the production process?  Ultimately there is no difference - copying is always a process of re-creating, re-contextualising.  My smallest utterance, in whatever form, is both completely original and a 'copy' of other people's work, made new by the act of my uttering it, and the context in which I am uttering it.  All work consists both of archeology and craft, and as well as existing for itself, it also exists to be recycled