the politics of time: modernity and avant-garde by peter osborne (1995) (continued)

last time on the politics of time: modernity and avant-garde by peter osborne (1995) blog post:

our project - the development of a post-hegelian philosophy of historical time in the form of a critical hermeneutics of historical existence - aims to hold true to the situation and dilemmas of a secular modernity. (114)

modernity contains a range of possible temporalizations of history within its fundamental, most abstract temporal form. it is the idea of a competition or struggle between these different forms of temporalization, within everyday life, which leads to a politics of time. (116)

what would constitute a politics of everyday time?

for osborne, the good answer is walter benjamin, and the bad answer is heidegger. i'll do the good answer first.

benjamin's 'on the concept of history' is famously a marxist critique of marxist histories, 'an economy of violence dissembling as progress' (141). in place of this, benjamin draws on the messianic tradition to invoke a now-time, an attempt to condense into an explosive, revolutionary moment 'the presence of history as a whole, refracted through the prism of the historical present': 'benjamin's now-time historicizes the structure of instantaneity, to produce it as interruption' (145). but how does this work, if--as osborne painstakingly shows in the first part of this book--historical totality and phenomenological presence miss each other by definition, ships in the night?

osborne's solution is another of benjamin's concepts, the dialectical image. really, osborne's solution is metonymy. the dialectical image of the now-time is metonymic, 'with the part (the now of a specific recognizability) imaging the whole (history as a redemptive totality)' (147). this is where the avant-garde of the title comes in, since what benjamin's after is 'where the truly new first makes itself felt' (i must've glazed over this part in the theses on history before, but it lends a lot of credence to osborne). osborne goes even further, suggesting that benjamin has a radically different theory of mediation, 'a switch between circuits' (151). for messianic time to occur, as osborne points out, is an apocalyptic desire, and should be read as such: 'benjamin wanted to restore the finality of the original version of apocalypse in a new form, freed from the logical constraints of having to posit a narrative completion of history' (157). in a very clever move, it is not the end but the phenomenological present that the apocalypse brings to possibility. to put this another way, the present becomes metonymic for historical totality, on condition of a redemptive interruption.

so that's the good politics of time: bring into the present the possibility of historical totality as redemption. the bad politics of time is heidegger.

osborne rigorously reconstructs heidegger's philosophy, very rarely resorting to a mere historicist association that would contradict his entire method. rather, osborne reads heidegger through the lens of modernity, not tradition, on the grounds of what i'll call the trad paradox:

radical reaction cannot but reproduce, and thereby performatively affirm, the temporal form of the very thing against which it is pitted (modernity). hence the necessity for it to misrepresent its temporal structure to itself as some kind of 'recovery' or 'return.' (167)

heidegger 'turns the temporality of modernity against itself' in just this way (169). heidegger 'narrativizes resoluteness as repetition: the repetition of the heritage of a people' (172). into the very structure of existence, heidegger inscribes 'a specific national (and nationalistic) narrative of originary meaning' (173). osborne in this way establishes the direct continuity between this philosophy and a politics of 'the organic unity of the german people' (174). importantly, this isn't just a conservative regression: 'the destiny of the german people' is for heidegger 'not merely to repeat, but thereby to appropriate, its heritage,' since heidegger--like benjamin--understands the fundamental role of the present in narrativizing the past (177).

how, then, is this different from benjamin? both theorize a complex interplay of new and old that articulates a critique of the present from the standpoint of the past. the key here is a distinction osborne makes between the 'after' time of benjamin (redemption) and the 'again' time of heidegger (repetition). unlike heidegger, benjamin is candid about the simulation of the past, a student of nietzsche's 'on the use and abuse of history':

the 'after' of the after-life marks a temporal difference across which the object must be produced anew in the present, through the destruction of the illusion of its continuity with the past, on the basis of the present itself. only thus can the past be 'put to work' in the present as remembrance. benjamin's remembrance, like the present in which it is produced, is a constructive one. history needs to be constructed, not made through experience. (179)

from here, osborne makes his final, climactic turn to henri lefebvre, the philosopher of everyday life. osborne's politics of time are a politics of everyday life.

'the main mystery in the everyday world of modern capitalism is, of course, the commodity' (182). the commodity is a complex temporal matrix, which hides in its appearance 'the constitutive power of labour, and hence the social relations of mutual dependence'--that is, abstract labor-time--and denies in its mass production 'the corrosive effects of time'--obsolescence and death (184). the ruse of commodities is that their novelty cannot be negated, 'by virtue of their very redundancy' (184).

everyday life, on the other hand, is characterized by a perpetually self-negating novelty, or self-differentiation: every moment different from the next, threatened by familiarity. everyday life is remainder: 'it is 'what is left over' after all distinct, superior, specialised, structured activities' (lefebvre 191). this establishes the link between everyday life, capitalism, and modernity: 'only in the context of the . . . an intensification in the social division of labour - that what lefebvre calls the 'residue' of such activities achieves a distinct social reality . . . capable of investment with utopian force' (192). hence, 'romantic anticapitalism' emerges from 'the disruption of previous life-forms' by which 'the retrospective construction of images in the integrity is the past' is now possible (192), and 'these images become criteria for a critique of the present' (193). (nietzsche and foucault come to mind here.) 'in the past,' for lefebvre, 'the everyday was offset by the interruptive break of the religious holiday, the festival, or the carnival. in capitalist societies, on the other hand, the break from work becomes increasingly routinized within the everyday .... in its everyday form leisure loses its ruptural force' and instead serves as social reproduction or valorization of capital (193).

side note: rita felski butchers lefebvre in her chapter on everyday life in doing time, and i didn't know how badly until i read this. felski suggests that lefebvre's critique of the everyday encodes a misogynistic dismissal of the repetitive time symbolically associated with femininity. here's lefebvre:

the everyday imposes its monotony. it is the invariable constant of the variations it envelops. the days follow one another and resemble one another, and yet - and here lies the contradiction at the heart of everydayness - everything changes. but the change is programmed: obsolescence is planned. production anticipates reproduction; production produces change in such a way as to superimpose the impression of speed on that of monotony. some people cry out against the acceleration of time, others cry out against stagnation. they're both right. (196)

here osborne concludes. 'everyday life is lived in the medium of cultural form' (197), where the progression from older literary forms to the novel and finally image and montage increasingly privileges the present (197). osborne is not a hardline marxist critiquing cultural studies: 'the everyday is no more opposed to history than history can be reduced to war' (198). nor is he a poststructuralist critiquing materialism: 'material processes of socialization . . . cannot be reduced the temporal logic of the sign' (199). his argument is more synthetic, framing 'all politics as centrally involving struggles over the experience of time' (200). this book is a call to interrogate 'temporal structures about the possibilities they encode or foreclose' as well as to work toward 'the social production of possibility at the level of historical time', 'a possibility that must nonetheless by produced as experience' (200-201).

this book is rich. it offers a lot of resources to any project attempting to reintroduce temporality at an existential scale to marxism, especially in its readings of benjamin and lefebvre. it is also an interesting contribution to the debates over 'modernity' as a periodization, and specifically as a temporal form with a function. like the commodity, modernity shows and hides its history at once, fashioning history as a mere sequence of indistinct events and suppressing historical possibility through the narrative of progress. contra bruno latour, then, modernity is not the triumphalist celebration of an artificially severed culture over and against nature, but the mediation of culture and nature by time. i wish there was more here engaging with the postcolonial side of the question, although osborne does engage and critique with thinkers there. more specifically, i wonder what this argument looks like in conversation with sylvia wynter.

good book!