Robert Galeta reviews ‘Derelicts: Thought Worms from the Wreckage’, by Esther Leslie (Unkant).
This is an exhilarating and disturbing book. Its contents, explorations and connections between key thinkers and artists in Weimar Germany, are inherently dark: shatterings and displacements, stupefying mass entertainments, then the nasty use of art for politics by the Nazis, mass ‘mendacity’, to borrow from a quote here by Kurt Schwitters. Its content is an instance of our terrible modernity, in the double sense of that adjective, used by Sophocles in one of the Choruses in Antigone, terrible in our capacities.
But this is also a very uplifting book, because of the inherently positive engagement of the thinkers and artists to really look at and try to articulate the lived reality they were in, with the help of philosophers, Marx, and also Freud and the anti-strategies in art concocted by the Dadaists.
But it is, for me, also uplifting because of Leslie’s deft use of language, combined with great scholarship, but not at all bound by it. Here are some extracts to illustrate these points:
From the section ‘Momentous Surfaces’ about IG Farben’s new colour film:
‘Kracauer’s view of film turned pessimistic; film worked on the masses, rendering them half-conscious and atomised in their numbers. This art of light and colour gave substance to the thin veneer of glamour, and entertainment’s distraction becomes intoxication.’
From ‘Comrades and Constellations: Construction Site’ about the relations between Benjamin and Brecht:
‘Effortless consumption is the mode of reception effected by naturalist theatrical mechanisms. Brecht’s aesthetic system, in contrast, is designed to convey the conditions that we are in, and as such runs parallel to our workaday world, but is peeled off from it, made strange, such that aspects of these conditions, these functions of the real, are “discovered”, made recognisable in the perplexing moment of their estrangement.’
I was impressed by Leslie’s language in her earlier 2007 Reaktion book ‘Walter Benjamin’, where she studied essays, articles and essays unavailable to an English reader. But then, having been taken through the death of Benjamin on the Spanish border, you turn the page and she does something truly wonderful, and perhaps, thinking of this new book too, filmic. I won’t say what – do read it.
The book’s structure is very much about connections, for example Samuel Reimarus’ 1760 ‘General Considerations on the Instincts of Animals’ is part of a reflection on our detachment from nature and the importance of the sensual for Marx. This is 74 pages after the following, from a section entitled ‘Immoral Economy: Time and Money’, but this cutting backwards and forwards upsets thinking about what is being re-read, here around Marx’s ‘Grundrisse’:
‘Labour is an energy. It comes from our mind and bodies. It is a natural power. It is part of workers’ vitality. This energy is directed towards making useful things, but it is also calibrated as abstract labour, as quantities of labour. The calculation runs: x amount of labour hours at x amount of cost is carried out by x.’
This structure or configuration, because it is figured, both for thought and emotion, generously brings the Academy out through its doors. This very much supports the last sections about now, about the need and responsibility for critical practices. But this isn’t so much an ending as another pulsing inviting us to read across, to put what has been connected or put alongside into our time of technological noise and mendacity, to be alert.
– Robert Galeta, May 2014, Manchester Left Writers