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Walter Benjamin's Love Affair with Death

Author(s): Rey Chow


Source: New German Critique, No. 48 (Autumn, 1989), pp. 63-86
Published by: New German Critique
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/488233
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WalterBenjamin'sLoveAffairwith Death

Rey Chow

Death effects an instantaneous montage of our lives.


- Pier Paolo Pasolini

There is no better way to know death than to link it with some li-
centious image.
- Marquis de Sade

Men say there are two unrepresentable things: death and the femi-
nine sex. That's because they need femininity to be associated
with death; it's the jitters that give them a hard on! for themselves!
- Hdlene Cixous

For some time now, the figure of Walter Benjamin has loomed large
among students of modern culture and cultural theory. If it was once
true that "[t]he fascination of the person and of his work allowed no al-
ternative other than that of magnetic attraction or horrified rejection,"'
critics have increasingly used Benjamin to articulate aspects of post-
modern culture, no doubt because his writings enable readers to fol-
low a trajectory of subversiveness against cultural conformism. Al-
though Benjamin did not use the term "other," his work consistently
turns on the otherness (the "barbarism") of monumental history, posi-
tioning itself in a combat mode that is always ready, not to attack, but
to take off in an unexpected direction. Benjamin's elusiveness makes it
possible for some of his readers to say that his "ground" is "nothing

1. Theodor Adorno, "A Portraitof WalterBenjamin," in Prisms,trans. Samuel and


Shierry Weber (London: Neville Spearman, 1967) 229.

63
64 Rey Chow

but the silent surface of the texts to be read,"2while others are frankly
eager to see him interpreted in a specifically "correct" way.3 Apart
from the well-known conflicts in Benjamin scholarship between inter-
pretations of his Marxistdialectics and his Jewish mysticism, which are
typified by the political positions adopted by Theodor Adorno and
Gershom Scholem, his works have, in the English-speakingworld at
least, aroused the interests of criticsas diverse as Terry Eagleton, Frank
Kermode, George Steiner, and Susan Sontag. Articles on Benjamin
continue to be published by prestigious academicjournals, and his es-
says, notably "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduc-
tion" and "Theses on the Philosophy of History," are often required
readings for undergraduate and graduate theory courses in American
universities.4
In an age when the theorizing of marginalized experiences has be-
come an important part of political consciousness, an acquaintance
with Benjamin's texts is extremely instructive. However, as in the case
of many discourses of subversion that are derived from the close read-
ings of literaryculture, Benjamin's writingsremain ambiguous with re-
gard to the social relations of gender. Exactly how is he ambiguous?

2. Rainer Nigele, "Introduction: Reading Benjamin," in Benjamin'sGround:New


Readingsof WalterBenjamin,ed. Rainer Nigele (Detroit: Wayne State University Press,
1988) 8. This collection of essays was originally published as a special issue of Studiesin
TwentiethCenturyLiterature,volume 11, 1 (Fall 1986).
3. For instance, Terry Eagleton expresses his anxiety in the following manner: "I
have writtenwhat I believe is the first book-length English-languagestudy of Benjamin
in order also to get at him before the opposition does. All the signs are that Benjamin
is in imminent danger of being appropriated by a critical establishment that regards
his Marxism as a contingent peccadillo or tolerable eccentricity." Preface, Walter
Benjamin or Towardsa RevolutionaryCriticism(London: Verso, 1981).
4. See Adorno, Prisms, pp. 229-41; Scholem, WalterBenjamin: The Story of a Friend-
ship, trans. Harry Zohn (Philadelphia:JPS, 1981); Eagleton, WalterBenjamin;Steiner,
"Introduction," Walter Benjamin, TheOrigin of German TragicDrama (London: New Left
Books, 1977) 7-24; Kermode, "EveryKind of Intelligence," New YorkTimesBookReview,
July 30, 1978; Sontag, UndertheSignof Saturn(New York:Vintage Books, 1981) 109-34.
See also Susanl The (riein of Negative Dialectics: TheodorW Adorno, Walter
Benjamin and the Buck-M-orss,
FrankfurtInstilut,' Frce Press, 1977); Julianl Roberts, Walter
(N(.\\ York: Prcss,
Humanities Richard Wolin,
Benjamin (Atlantic Highlands: 1983); Wilter
Benjamin: An Aesthetic of Redemption (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982).
Among more recent publications are David Frisby, Fragmentsof Modernity,Theoriesof Mo-
dernity in the Workof Simmel, Kracauerand Benjamin (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1986), and
Gary Smith, ed., On Walter Benjamin, Critical Essays and Recollections(Cambridge: MIT
Press, 1988). Special journal issues on Benjamin include New GermanCritique,17
(Spring 1979) and 39 (Fall 1986), and ThePhilosophical
Forum,vol. xv, 1-2 (Fall-Winter
1983-84).
Benjamin'sLove Affair With Death 65

This is a question I explore in the following reading through what I


consider to be the complexities of the figures of death that recur in his
works. As VirginiaWoolf says, "When a subject is highly controversial
- and any question about sex is that - one cannot hope to tell the
truth. One can only show how one came to hold whatever opinion one
does hold."5 The issue of gender needs to be raised, I think, not be-
cause gender is a "master" category, but because it forms the basis for
some of Benjamin's most important conceptual moves.
My arguments put Benjamin in the contexts of feminism and psy-
choanalysis. In so doing, I will focus on a categorywhich I feel even his
most conscientious interpretershave neglected: "woman." Paying at-
tention to "woman" does not mean I would accuse Benjamin's texts of
"male chauvinism." For even though Benjamin admired what Bertolt
Brecht calls "crude thinking" ("plumpes Denken"),his own texts remain
extremely subtle and resist such facile labelling. The greatest challenge
for a feminist reader here lies in the fact that the preoccupations of
Benjamin's readings of history - marginality,otherness (e.g., allegory),
lived experience - are also major concerns for feminism. Is his posi-
tion feminist then? If not, how not? The troubling male subjectivityin
Benjamin's texts can be made manifest only through an analysis of
Benjamin'sways of coming to terms with representation,and, in partic-
ular, his ways of formulating the relationship between representation
and politics. What needs to be confronted is not an affirmativemascu-
linity in his texts but the implications, for the politics of gender, of their
subversive, elusive,feminizingmoves.

Could Benjamin'swork be described as necrophilic? A discussion of


this somewhat scandalous, but perhaps to many not incomprehensible,
hypothesis can begin, surprisingly,with Benjamin'sdifficultessay "The
Storyteller."As is well-known to Benjamin's readers, the essay, pub-
lished in 1936 (the same year in which "The Work of Art in the Age of
Mechanical Reproduction" appeared), is often regarded as a nostalgic
piece with implications vastly different from those of "The Work of
Art." If the latter appears to espouse a kind of progressiveness that is
the result of the mechanical reproducibility of art, "The Storyteller"

5. A Room of One's Own (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1929) 4.
66 Rey Chow

appears to reinstate the values of a traditional art form at a time when it


is dying out. As an activity, then, storytelling is the first figure of death
to inform Benjamin's discussion. The kind of interpretation that sees
this essay in terms of "nostalgia" stems from an apprehension of the
death of the very form in which Benjamin's writing invests a strange
enthusiasm. For Benjamin the critic, as for his storyteller, "Death is the
sanction of everything that the storyteller can tell." The storyteller "has
borrowed his authority from death" (I 94).6
But the resonances of death in Benjamin's work are much more far-
reaching than these explicit invocations. What is of interest is not so
much death itself as the way death recurs as a special figure of repre-
sentation that is invested with passion. Benjamin's love affair with this
figure opens onto rather unexpected paths.
Like much of his work, "The Storyteller" raises the political ques-
tion: is Benjamin's notion of narrative assimilable to a progressive pol-
itics? There are, at one level, all the correct ingredients for such a read-
ing. For instance, unlike the novel, which for Benjamin is a form that
concretizes the values of the middle classes through its preoccupation
with psychological connections and with the "meaning of life," story-
telling is a communal activity. While the reception of the novel prod-
uces solipsistic readers who are wrapped up in their own private con-
templations, the processes of transmission involved in storytelling re-
tain a sense of interpersonal immediacy. In a way that is out of step
with our time, Benjamin would go as far as supporting storytellers' in-
terests in delivering morals. Being thus always practical in its orienta-
tion ("An orientation toward practical interests is characteristic of
many born storytellers"), storytelling prevents the making of form -
something inseparable from human life - from becoming abstract re-
flection. The storyteller has counsel for many situations and in this way
"joins the ranks of the teachers and sages":

the storyteller... has counsel - not for a few situations, as the


...
proverb does, but for many, like the sage. For it is granted to him
to reach back to a whole lifetime (a life, incidentally, that com-
prises not only his own experience but no little of the experience
of others; what the storytellerknows from hearsay is added to his
own). His gift is the ability to relate his life; his distinction, to be

6. Quotations from essays in Illuminations,trans. Harry Zohn (New York:Schocken


Books, 1969) are indicated within the text by I followed by page numbers.
Benjamin'sLoveAffairWithDeath 67

able to tell his entirelife.The storyteller:he is the man who could


let the wickof his life be consumedcompletelyby the gentleflame
of his story.This is the basisof the incomparableauraabout the
storyteller.... (1 108-9)
We find in such a passage many ingredients for reading storytelling in
terms of a progressive politics: a pragmatic involvement with life, a de-
tached, sage-like wisdom that is yet not cold and aloof ("gentle
flame"), and a personal liveliness implied in the word "aura." As a
mode of communication which is grounded in the intimacy of lived
experiences, storytelling represents a healthy alternativeto what in the
postmodern period have come to be criticized and repudiated as
"master narratives"with their scientistic, ideology-ridden facade of ob-
jectivity. The storytellercan be considered someone who demonstrates
the dictum "the personal is the political," simply because his activity
mediates between the uniquely personal and the public or communal.
Following criticallythe work of feminist film theorists such as Laura
Mulvey and Stephen Heath, Teresa De Lauretisargues in AliceDoesn't:
Feminism, Semiotics,Cinemathat narrativeis alwaysthe site of desire; it is
desire as narrativity which structureseven the most "obvious" cultural
images around us. If this is the case, one would need to ask: where is
"desire" in Benjamin's configuration of narrative?In de Lauretis'sar-
guments, the understanding of desire through narrativeand vice-versa
is crucialto changing the politics of representationin the West, which in
recent decades has been split into two realms, the realm of semiotics,
which adopts as its formal tools structurallinguistics, and the realm of
psychoanalysis, which deals with what semiotics precludes as merely
"thematic contents" - desires, feelings, wishes, fantasies. This split
owes its origins in part to Saussure'sformulation of the linguistic sign as
the combination between two divided aspects, one strictlysensory and
the other strictly mental (a "sound image" and a "concept," or the
signifierand the signified),and has, over the past few decades, led to an
ideological division of labor between investigationsof linguistic signs on
the one hand, and of iconic signs on the other. While the former fall
into the territoryof semioticianswho busy themselves with the "signifi-
cation" or "production" of meanings in culture, the latter, because
their meanings are presumed to be self-evident,are largelyneglected. It
is thus in the realm of the iconic - cinematic images - that de Lauretis
locates what she argues as the equally signifying, though privatized,
68 Rey Chow

practices of perception and reception. De Lauretis proposes the term


"imaging" - "the articulation of meaning to image, language, and
sound, and the viewer's subjective engagement in that process"'7 - to
suggest the traces of narrativity that are inscribed but invisible in the
"images" that meet our eyes. Only when the full bearing of narrativity
as desire (and these are often sexually specific forms of desire that can
be described in the phrase "the male gaze") is realized, or reseen, in
what appears to be obvious and self-evident, can the cultural apparatu-
ses of representation, which mark the limits of human endeavor, be
rescued for an alternative - for de Lauretis, a feminist - practice.
The digression into de Lauretis's work serves to underscore Benja-
min's very different use of narrativity. I repeat my question: where is
desire in Benjamin's configuration of narrative? As a way of respond-
ing to this question, let us ponder the way in which Benjamin retells
one of Leskov's tales, "The Alexandrite." Rather than quoting the en-
tire passage, I want to draw the reader's attention to Benjamin's man-
ner of introducing his own story/reading:

The lower Leskov descends on the scale of created things the more
obviously does his way of viewing things approach the mystical.
Actually, as will be shown, there is much evidence that in this, too,
a characteristicis revealed which is inherent in the nature of the
storyteller.To be sure, only a few have ventured into the depths of
inanimate nature, and in modern narrativeliterature there is not
much in which the voice of the anonymous storyteller,who was
prior to all literature,resounds so clearlyas it does in Leskov'ssto-
ry "The Alexandrite." (I 106-7)

There is, first, an association of storytelling with the mystical, which is


in turn associated with the inanimate. Benjamin then goes on to retell
the tale in such a way as to recapture the sensory aspects of Leskov's
storytelling. He supports his retelling with these words from Paul Vale-
ry concerning the nature of artistic observation:

Artistic observation can attain an almost mystical depth. The ob-


jects on which it falls lose their names. Light and shade form very
particular systems, present very individual questions which de-
pend upon no knowledge and are derived from no practice, but

7. Teresa de Lauretis, Alice Doesn't: Feminism,Semiotics,Cinema (Bloomington: Indi-


ana University Press, 1984) 46-7.
Benjamin'sLove Affair With Death 69

get their existence and value exclusively from a certain accord of


the soul, the eye, and the hand of someone who was born to per-
ceive them and evoke them in his own inner self. (I 107-8)

Benjamin comments: "With these words, soul, eye, and hand are
brought into connection. Interacting with one another, they determine a
practice." Yet while to all appearances this practice has to do with life -
with specific parts of the living human body - it is at the same time at
the service of the lifeless. "The Alexandrite" fascinates Benjamin because
it deals, after all, with "a semiprecious stone, the chrysoberyl. ... the
lowest stratum of created things" (I 107). As the storyteller sees in this
chrysoberyl "a natural prophecy of a petrified, lifeless nature concerning
the historical world in which he himself lives" (I 107), so the endowment
of storytelling with "life" is in sensorially specific ways inseparable from
death, or rather, from an apprehension of the world as death. The sen-
sorially specific - "soul, eye, and hand" - take on a significance that is
akin not so much to real life as to the surreal. It is Leskov's venturing into
"the depths of inanimate nature" with his human body that gives to his
storytelling its compelling aura, its life-likeness.

II

The desire for the inanimate in Benjamin's work is not limited to his
nostalgia for storytelling. Before coming back to other problems related
to his conception of narrativity, however, we need to make another de-
tour, this time through Benjamin's descriptions of the "aura." The no-
tion of the "aura" is most frequently associated with the ,"Work of Art"
essay, in which he discusses mechanical processes of reproduction in
terms of the declineof the aura, that is, of art's liberation from its tradi-
tional enslavement to rituals. But as Miriam Hansen puts it, "Benjamin's
attitude towards the decline of the aura is profoundly ambivalent."8 The
aura of a work of art refers to "its presence in time and space, its unique
existence at the place where it happens to be" (I 220). Benjamin also
says: "The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of
authenticity. ... The whole sphere of authenticity is outside technical -
and, of course, not only technical - reproducibility" (I 220).

8. Miriam Hansen, "Benjamin, Cinema and Experience: 'The Blue Flower in the
Land of Technology,"' New GermanCritique, 40 (Winter1987): 187. I share many of the
views in this essay, with the exception of the issue of gender as I will indicate below.
70 Rey Chow

What could this last sentence mean? There are at least two possi-
bilities. First, that what is authentic is outside reproducibility: there is
the "authentic" and there is the "reproduced." Second, that once the
process of reproducibility has begun (and it has always already begun:
"In principle a work of art has always been reproducible." - I 218),
"authenticity" itself is always on the outside:it does not really exist. The
first of these interpretations is idealist; the second is poststructuralist.
What the poststructuralist interpretation allows us to see is the cultural
constructedness of the notion of "authenticity," produced at a chrono-
logical moment when what is "authentic" is already superseded. How-
ever, Benjamin's argument does not only exceed the idealism of the
first interpretation but also the persistent human-centeredness of the
second by its organic imagery: "that which withers in the age of me-
chanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art" (I 221, my em-
phasis; the German original: "was im Zeitalterder technischenReproduzier-
barkeitdes Kunstwerksverkiimmert,das ist seine Aura"). Such excess means
that the relationship between the aura and its destruction through me-
chanical reproduction must be given a more allegorical reading than
the one which would take the form of a linear historical development
by positing a progression from the "enslavement" of art - i.e., to aura
- to its "emancipation," i.e., the decline of the aura.
It would be more accurate to think of the aura as a perceptual rela-
tionship between the beholder and the object beheld:

The concept of aura which was proposed. .. with referenceto his-


toricalobjects may usefully be illustratedwith referenceto the aura
of naturalones. We define the aura of the latteras the unique phe-
nomenon of a distance, however close it may be. If, while restingon
a summer afternoon, you follow with your eyes a mountain range
on the horizon or a branchwhich castsits shadow over you, you ex-
perience the aura of those mountains, of that branch. (I 222-23)
These remarks remind one of those made by Benjamin to Adorno in
correspondence concerning his understanding of the aura. When
Adorno suggested that Benjamin clarify the notion of the aura in terms
of the Marxist notion of reified human labor, Benjamin's reply is quite
remarkable: "The tree and the bush that we endow [with an answering
gaze] were not created by human hand. Hence, there must be a hu-
man element in objects which is not the result of labor."9 The decay of

9. Letter from Adorno to Benjamin, 29 February 1940; Benjamin's response, 7


Benjamin'sLove Affair With Death 71

the aura, then, is not simply a matter of the increasing proximity of the
object itself but also that of the loss of the stable distance between the
eye and the object. Within that stable distance, the eye and the object
used to enjoy a reciprocity of "looks":

Experience of the aura ... rests on the transposition of a response


common to human relationships, to the relationship between the
inanimate or natural object and man. The person we look at,
looks at us in turn. To perceive the aura of an object we look at
means to invest it with the ability to look at us in return. (I 188)

Mechanical reproduction, because it no longer offers any fixed point of


view for the viewer, allows the object to be seen in any manner imagina-
ble and thus destroys the sense of "mystery" surrounding the object.
This is the reason for the terror the camera provoked in an artist like
Baudelaire. In "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire," Benjamin compares
the aura to the phenomenon of the Proustian mimoireinvolontaire:

If we designate as aura the associations which, at home in the


memoireinvolontaire, tend to cluster around the object of a percep-
tion, then its analogue in the case of a utilitarianobject is the expe-
rience which has left traces of the practiced hand. The techniques
based on the use of the camera and of subsequent analogous me-
chanical devices extend the range of the mimoireinvolontaire; by
means of these devices they make it possible for an event at any
time to be permanently recorded in terms of sound and sight.
Thus they represent important achievements of a society in which
practice is in decline. To Baudelaire there was something pro-
foundly unnerving and terrifyingabout daguerreotype ... (1 186).
We have thus arrived at what I suggest as the allegorical relationship be-
tween the aura and its decline. For if, as is clear from the passage imme-
diately above, the camera's gaze is what destroys the aura - a kind of
unconscious or involuntary memory - then it is the camera's gaze, too,
which producesprecisely what Benjamin perceptively calls the optical un-
conscious (das Optisch-Unbewusste): "The camera introduces us to uncon-
scious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses" (I 237).
And paradoxically, since the aura is the object's "ability to look at us in
return," then the production of the optical unconscious would also be
the production - and the reproduction - of the aura itself. This leads
us to the question: in talking about mechanical reproduction, how much
72 Rey Chow

emphasis is Benjamin really putting on the word "mechanical" despite


the ostensible title of the essay? If instead the emphasis is on the word
"reproducibility," then what is Benjamin trying to say with "mechani-
cal"? Is the mechanical perhaps an extreme way of stating something
that is always happening, namely, reproduction toward resemblance?
Ironically, in finally perfecting the resemblance always longed for in
artistic reproduction, mechanical reproduction also destroys the ways
of perception that led up to it, that are inscribed in its birth,so to speak.
Just as the story's charm lies in its capacity for being repeated over
and over again, so there is, with the endlessness of mechanical repro-
ductions, a certain uncanny effect of the conjuringof reality even while
the aura has been destroyed. In this respect, the empirical difference
between storytelling and mechanical reproduction - the story is told
differently while mechanical reproduction may give us the "same"
thing each time - is relatively unimportant. What is important is the
repeatability of an experience in the form of a sensorially apprehensi-
ble thing. It is this repeatability which is at once a conjuring of life and
a witness to death.

III

A sensorially apprehensible thing: the link between life and death.


Perhaps a good way of demonstrating this is by retracing some of the
moments in which Benjamin discusses the mechanically-reproduced
image. (1) Atget's photographs: "Atget, who, around 1900, took pho-
tographs of deserted Paris streets. It has quite justly been said of him
that he photographed them like scenes of crime" (I 226). Deserted
streets in Atget's photographs are for Benjamin not the symbols for the
pathos of ordinary life, but rather, images which, like scenes of crime,
have been left empty.What interests Benjamin in the photographic im-
age is the effect of a removal: something is missing. Hence "captions
have become obligatory" (I 226). (2) The shooting of a film from the
point of view of the actor. The actor experiences self-alienation in a
way aptly described by Pirandello: "The film actor feels as if in exile -
exiled not only from the stage but also from himself" (I 229). The actor
performs "live" in order to be changed into an image that becomes
"separable, transportable." The filmic image is a commodity whose
very existence signifies an absence of the corporeality of the actor: "for
Benjamin'sLove Affair With Death 73

the first time ... man has to operate with his whole living person, yet for-
going its aura" (I 229). (3) The filmic image as viewed by the audience:
"Its illusionary nature is that of the second degree, the result of cutting"
(I 233). In other words, the filmic image derives its compellingly "obvi-
ous" and "self-evident" nature from "the thoroughgoing permeation of
reality with mechanical equipment" (I 234); what is seen is seen only at
the point at which the awareness of the process of making is cut off.
These examples bring us to a familiar scenario: that of the male
fetishist in Freud's "Fetishism" and "Splitting of the Ego in the Defen-
sive Process." Freud's little boy, we recall, detected nothing particular-
ly frightening on first encountering the female genitals. It is when he is
caught in his act of masturbation by his nurse, who threatens to report
it to his father, that the female genitals acquire the meaning of "castra-
tion" in a memory.'0 While it is true that the castration complex is or-
ganized around a sight," the order in which the fear of castration hap-
pens is, I think, of great importance. Since it is during the second, not
the first, time the female genitals are "seen" (in retrospect, in a flash-
back) that they become what they "are," we should emphasize that this
"sight" is a mental image and as such already inscribed in the "be-
latedness" of narrative. The mutual implications between Freud's con-
struction of the female body and Benjamin's construction of the filmic
image are clear: the little boy's retrospective look back to the female
genitals is (already) a kind of camera's eye that makes a particular cut in
its optical path; while the "aura" can be rethought as that part of the
male subject that has been split off and transplanted onto an external,
automatized object (much like Olympia in Hoffmann's "Sandman,"
which Freud uses for his theory of "the uncanny"). If Benjamin's read-
ing of modern culture is fetishistic, then Freud's reading of sexual dif-
ference is allegorist. What remains in both cases is an image that bears
the effect of something missing - the "castrated" female body and the
mechanically-produced illusion of reality. Like "scenes of crime," such
images invite investigation. Something has been done. Whodunit?

Schriften1.3: 1130-35; 1132; quoted in Hansen 212.


May, 1940, repr. Gesammelte
10. Sigmund Freud, Sexuality and the Psychologyof Love, ed. Philip Rieff (New York:
Collier Books, 1963) 214-23.
11. "Freud articulatedthe 'discovery of castrationaround a sight: sight of a phallic
presence in the boy, sight of a phallic absence in the girl, ultimately sight of a phallic
absence in the mother. Sexual diference takes its decisive significancefrom a sighting." Jane
Gallop, The Daughter's Seduction:Feminism and Psychoanalysis(Ithaca: Cornell University
Press, 1982) 27.
74 Rey Chow

Instead of theorizing in the direction of rewriting the image - by re-


introducing narrativity, for instance, as de Lauretis does - Benjamin's
work strikes one with a continual and faithful fascination with the cut
itself. In other words, of all the qualities of the image, Benjamin seems
most preoccupied with its detachability.We can, I think, go as far as
saying that, instead of returning narrativity to the image and thus ena-
bling the obviousness of the image to be loosened, Benjamin moves in
the opposite direction - of using the tangible quality of the image to
encase, to harden a particular kind of narrativity, storytelling.
This needs explanation, and we can now return to the otherwise pe-
culiar remarks Benjamin makes with respect to the story in "The Story-
teller." Contrasting the story not only with the novel but also with "infor-
mation," Benjamin asserts that, unlike information which loses its value
once it has been verified, the story is inexhaustible. But what exactly is in-
exhaustible? The story itself or the ways in which it can be retold and re-
ceived? Benjamin's analysis here shifts from describing storytelling as a
process and an activity to describing the story as an object:

The value of information does not survive the moment in which it


was new. . . . A story is different. It does not expend itself. It pre-
serves and concentrates its strength and is capable of releasing it
even after a long time. (I 90)

... There is nothing that commends a storyto memory more effec-


tively than that chaste compactness which precludes psychological
analysis.And the more naturalthe process by which the storyteller
forgoes psychological shading, the greater becomes the story's
claim to a place in the memory of the listener, the more completely
is it integratedinto his own experience, the greaterwill be his incli-
nation to repeat it to someone else someday, sooner or later. (I 91)

Only when the story is consciously deprived of the psychological can


it remain a thingwhich gives pleasure over and over again. The clear dis-
dain Benjamin has for the psychological in this essay is strategically nec-
essary for maintaining the story as something which has been detached
or cut off from personalized processes, and for restoring to it a phantas-
magorically self-contained, imagisticquality. But this explicit rejection of
the psychological as a mode of entry into narrative also arouses curiosi-
ty: what are the psychological traces left by Benjamin the storyteller? In
this frame of mind, two words strike my ears: "expend" ("verausgabt")
Benjamin'sLove Affair With Death 75

and "chaste" ("keusch"). Could we not say that what Vrehave is an inter-
section of two types of discourses - economics and sexuality? Eco-
nomics and sexuality here mark a certain psychic anxiety. To be specif-
ic, I think what we are hearing is a sexuality that is stressed with a cau-
tion against over-spending and exhaustion, which in turn expresses it-
self as a valorization of formal restraint,or formal frugality.This way of
reading Benjamin's language reveals a "classical" theme, namely, the
direct proportional relationship that is often implied between stylized
control and sensual pleasure. As Michel Foucault demonstrates with
regard to the Greek "use of pleasure," this relationship is part and par-
cel of a model of sexuality in which moderation is the sign of virility
and virtue - qualities that are by definition masculine. Accordingly,
excessiveness, or immoderation, is equated with an "effeminate"
yielding to bodily pleasures. Among the Greeks, it is said, the preserva-
tion of erotic energy was often imagined in the form of an encasement
of the semen within the male body.12 In terms of Benjamin's essay, this
imaginary encasement of energy as a resistance to emasculation takes
the form of a theorizing of the story's "compactness" ("Gedrungenheit").
But then, a psychic bifurcation already occurs: while the story is the
seed of energy that is "capable of releasing" its strength indefinitely
and promiscuously (passing from listener to listener), it is at the same
time a representationalform, an externalized object onto which is pro-
jected a chastity.In the light of Freud, the storyfonnrm is already a fetish
that has come to stand in for a certain apprehended loss. Its "compact-
ness," the sign of both male virilityand female chastityin the terms ar-
gued above, is a sexualizedexpression of otherwise nameless energy.
The feeling of nostalgia that is often attributed to the essay now re-
ceives a new light. Not only is storytelling something that is lost, but
also, precisely in the story's "chaste compactness," Benjamin tells of a
world in which the conception of active energy pre-writes but has not
yet "hardened" into Freud's penile model, and to which it is difficult,
if not impossible, to return.

12. See The Use of Pleasure (Volume Two of The History of Sexuality), trans. Robert
Hurley (New York:Vintage Books, 1985), especially PartsII and III. A passage like the
following, which describes dominant Greek attitudes toward sexual discharge, can be
juxtaposed suggestively with Benjamin's formulation of the story: "Whereas women
needed sexual relations so that the discharge necessary to their organism might occur
in a regular manner, men could - in certain cases at least - retain all their semen; far
from causing them harm, strict abstinence on their part would preserve their force in
its entirety, accumulate it, concentrate it, and carry it finally to a higher level" (120).
76 Rey Chow

In contrast to the chaste compactness of the story, the listeners are,


or should be, loose. Benjamin's word is "relaxation":

This process of assimilation [of the story], which takes place in


depth, requires a state of relaxation which is becoming rarer and
rarer. If sleep is the apogee of physical relaxation, boredom is the
apogee of mental relaxation. Boredom is the dream bird that
hatches the egg of experience. A rustling in the leaves drives him
away. His nestling places - the activitiesthat are intimatelyassoci-
ated with boredom - are already extinct in the cities and are de-
clining in the country as well. With this the gift for listening is lost
and the community of listeners disappears. (I 91)

Following from the arguments above, what we can say is that an explic-
itly "feminized" - passive, relaxed, yielding - attitude informs Benja-
min's understanding of story-listening as an activity. While I will return
to the implications of such "feminizations" later, I will focus first on the
interesting shuttling between conservatism and spendthriftness in
Benjamin's concept of narrative. When Benjamin does not describe the
story as an object, his language is an abandoned, unchaste one: the lis-
tener's way of being involved with the story is by being bored. If
attentiveness is a kind of faithfulness, then it is when the listener is un-
faithful, absent-minded, excessive, that he can re-member the story and
integrate it into his experience most deeply. In a way that is contrasted
with the absorbing concentration required by the bourgeois novel, sto-
ry-listening is a kind of straying.Benjamin's point is that it is when the
listener strays away from the "mainstream" that the experience of re-
ception can be most truthful, because most involuntary.
Critics have written on the politically subversive nature of the types
of activities in Benjamin that are akin to "straying."'3 Be it that of the
chiffonnier who picks up the rags of culture abandoned by a progres-
sive orientation toward the future; the Baudelairean flineur who wan-
ders through the streets of Paris, receiving from its anonymous crowds
the stamp of his existence, his occasional sexual shock, and ultimately
his betrayal; the collector who purchases books simply in order not to
read but to possess them; or the allegorist and physiognomist of cul-
tural ruins/runes who reads by way of a constant leave-taking from

13. See, for instance, Susan Buck-Morss, "The Flaneur, the Sandwichman and the
Whore: The Politics of Loitering"; Irving Wohlfarth, "Et Cetera? The Historian as
Chiffonnier." Both in New German Critique, 39 (Fall 1986): 99-140; 142-68.
Benjamin'sLove Affair With Death 77

what is visibly in front of him, Benjamin's work consistently returns us


to a straying, a nonpurposive dispersal of sensuous energies that
amounts to a cultural negativity vis-A-visbourgeois existence. When
describing his own life, the image of the maze or the labyrinth pre-
dominates, and with that image, the art of losing oneself.
Instead of repeating the "politically subversive" motif which others
have elaborated effectively with regard to Benjamin's fondness for
straying, I take another path, and try to understand how and where he
comes to rest, however briefly, in the labyrinth. If the preoccupation
with the imagistic informs Benjamin's writings in a way that can be
understood through Freud's formulation of the castration complex
and male fetishism, Benjamin parts company with Freud once the im-
ages are in place.
While in Freud, fetishism can be read as the sign of an insistence on
something's being present when it is not, in Benjamin this insistence is
absent. Freud's scenario presents a male child who, while knowing that
his mother does not have a penis, insists on believing that she has one
through the twin mechanisms of disavowal and fetishizing. These are
the mechanisms of a defence against "castration." From a woman's
point of view, this emotionally-invested refusal to give up a notion that
is fantastic in the first place is, of course, absurd; it is not her problem
except in so far as that refusal becomes the dominant way in which cul-
ture is symbolically organized to assign to her an inferiority that arises
from a maleneurosis. From the male fetishist's point of view, however,
that refusal may be seen as a wishful insistence on the inseparability
from the mother which some men carry into adult life in a pathologi-
cal form. No matter how disagreeable this may sound to some, in that
wishful insistence lies perhaps the most utopian feeling in Freud;for in
the otherwise thoroughly devastating landscape of civilization that his
work presents, it is this kind of wish for what is consciously impossible,
in the form of a union with one's own mother, that his narrativesmay
in due course be understood as compatible with certain practices of
feminism. In other words, I am suggesting that, however perverse it
may be, it is exactly by coming to terms with "desire" which de
Lauretis emphasizes as crucial to the process of "imaging" - desire
not necessarily in the sense of a subjugating desire for another but also
in the sense of beingdesiredby another, such as the male fetishist's con-
tinual fantasy to be close to the mother in the position of an infant'4-

14. GillesDeleuze's rewritingof masochism is preciselybased on such an idealization


78 Rey Chow

that we could hope to change the hard-set representationalstructures


which have, for the time being, dominated the way we see.
In the essay to which I have already referred, Miriam Hansen re-
marks that Benjamin's "theory of experience hovers over and around
the body of the mother - as a memory of an intensity that becomes
the measure of all cognition, of critical thought."" While this particu-
lar Freudian reading of Benjamin is extremely suggestive in many
ways, I want to attempt instead a slightly different one, by interpreting
"the body of the mother" literally(without, that is, immediately un-
specifying "mother" into the blanket term "woman"). Among the an-
ecdotes that he tells about his childhood in "A Berlin Chronicle,"
there is one that gives us a good idea of the view that Benjamin adopts
toward the mother's body, in a way that shows him to be not exactly
the "classic"Freudian fetishist that some might think. While accompa-
nying his mother on her excursions through the streets of Berlin's city
center, he says, he used to irritateher by "the pedantic care with which
... I always kept half a step behind her." A few pages later, he circles
back to the same childhood memory in this way:

... the flight into sabotage and anarchism ... later makes it so dif-
ficult for the intellectual to see things clearly. Perhaps the same
sabotage of real social existence is to be found even ... in my
manner, already described, of walking in the city, in the stubborn
refusal under any circumstances to form a united front, be it even
with my own mother.16

Unlike Freud'sfetishist,there is no reluctanceon Benjamin'spart to ac-


cept his separationfrom his mother. This may help to explain why the
castrationcomplex that notably structureshis conceptions of modem as
well as premodern forms of representationis not registeredwith the feel-
ing of a wish that gesturesback to a pre-Oedipalor pre-symbolicstage in
the Lacanian sense. While the problems pertaining to the notion of a
pre-Oedipal or pre-symbolic stage cannot be properly dealt with here,'7

of the mother, an idealization that is repressed in Freud. See Deleuze, Sacher-Masoch:


(together with the entire text of Venusin Fursfrom a French rendering
An Interpretation
by Aude Willm), trans. Jean McNeil (London: Faber and Faber, 1971).
15. Hansen 214.
16. Reflections/Essays,Aphorisms, AutobiographicalWritings, trans. Edmund Jephcott
(New York: Schocken Books, 1986) 4, 11.
17. These are the problems that KajaSilvermanaddresses in TheAcoustic
Mirror:The
Female Voicein Psychoanalysisand Cinema (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP,
Benjamin'sLoveAffairWithDeath 79

the comparison with Freud shows that in Benjamin, we find rather the
sensoryeffects of post-castration,effects which, however "alive," are de-
void of any wish or desire, except when it is in the form of a fascination
with the inanimate.
The profound lack of interest in being "at one" with his mother
gives way to another memory. In the lines that immediately follow
from the above, Benjamin mentions how, in his later years, he was to
find in his relationships with prostitutes the significance of a crossing
of class boundaries:

There is no doubt, at any rate, that a feeling of crossing the thresh-


old of one's class for the first time had a part in the almost uneq-
ualed fascination of publicly accosting a whore in the street.'8

What is crucial for an understanding of Benjamin's subjectivity here is


not so much the way in which the fetishization of a generalized female
body becomes a defence against "castration," as the way in which
fetishization takes the specific form of a rejection of the mother - the
woman at home - and an alliance with the whore - the woman on
the street. While a more orthodox Marxist reading could perhaps
legitimize this fetishization along the lines of a "subversive" class poli-
tics, a feminist reading would see to it that this reading be supple-
mented by the implications that the rejection of the mother has for
male sexuality, in this case a male sexuality that privileges "straying" as
a way of resisting oppression. This rejection of the mother is a rejection
of the domestic spheres which are equally crucial for the understand-
ing of modernity. It explains why women, when they appear in mod-
ernist literature by men, typically appear through their relationships
with men in the non-domestic spheres and always, as Janet Wolff puts
it, "via ... illegitimate or eccentric routes ... in the role of whore, wid-
ow or murder victim."'9
Susan Buck-Morss remarks with regard to Benjamin's work that "sex-
ual difference complicates the politics of loitering."20 I suggest a harsher
interpretation: sexual difference, once recognized, de-romanticizes the

1988). See in particularher discussions of the "negative Oedipus complex."


18. "A Berlin Chronicle" 11.
19. Janet Wolff, "The Invisible Flineuse: Women and the Literatureof Moderni-
ty," Theory,Culture & Society:Explorationsin Critical Social Sciences, 2:3 (1985): 44.
20. Buck-Morss 118.
80 Rey Chow

politics of loitering. Benjamin's own doubt about the effectiveness of


this kind of politics is clear from his question that follows from the
above passages: "But is it really a crossing, is it not, rather,an obstinate
and voluptuous hovering on the brink, a hesitation that has lost its
most cogent motive in the circumstance that beyond this frontier lies
nothingness?"2 Once again, much as the activity of "hovering," like
loitering, straying,idling, and bored listening, bespeaks a certain non-
conforming subversiveness, how might this kind of subversiveness be
refracted through the lens of sexual difference?
For many, the interest of Benjamin's work lies in its persistent efforts
to dis-figure. Beginning with TheOriginof GermanTragicDrama, in which
"allegory"is defined as that which "means precisely the non-existence
of what it presents,"22 Benjamin's writings are characterized by a
steady undermining of the notion of symbolic plenitude in Western
representation. Any image, however full, signifies for the allegorist not
the presence but the removal of something; the allegorist'seye is there-
fore one that sees images as the signs or sites of an emptying - to
speak in Freudian language, of a castration;to speak in cinematic lan-
guage, of a cut. In all of these, dis-figurement is inseparable from a re-
moved history and thus alwayscalls for decipherment. In his introduc-
tion to the English translation of his work on Brecht, Stanley Mitchell
comments on the connections between Benjamin's fascination with
the premodern, melancholy Trauerspiel and his fascination with the
modern technological device of montage. He explicitly links here the
politics of allegory and montage to Benjamin's attraction to Brecht's
epic theater, especially through the figure of the sage who prevents a
personal psychologization of drama in the Aristotelian manner.23In
his work on Baudelaire and the Paris Arcades, it is the commodified
19th-century capitalist world spreading itself as ruins that excites his
imagination. Benjamin's fascination with Baudelairefocuses on the ef-
fects of man being looked at rather than man looking - it is a fascina-
tion, that is, with a world transformed into an inanimate object. In this
being-looked-at-ness lies the "sex appeal of the inorganic":

21. "A Berlin Chronicle" 11.


22. Benjamin, The Origin of German TragicDrama, trans. John Osborne (London:
New Left Books, 1977) 233.
23. Benjamin, UnderstandingBrecht,trans. Anna Bostock (London: New Left Books,
1973).
Benjamin'sLove Affair With Death 81

L'homme y passe a traversdesforetsde symboles


avecdes regards
Qui l'observent familiers.

(Manwends his way throughforestsof symbols


Whichlook at him with theirfamiliarglances.)

For Benjamin, Baudelaire's lyric poetry is distinguished by its dis-fig-


uring methods: "Tearingthings out of the context of their usual inter-
relations - which is quite normal where commodities are being ex-
hibited - is a procedure very characteristicof Baudelaire."24The un-
derstanding of the cinematic cut is implied in a statement like this:
"Many of his poems have their most incomparable passage at the be-
ginning - there, where they are so to speak new."25
I have tried to show how, if we use Benjamin as a gloss on Freud, we
can say that for the male fetishist, the female body "exists" already in
the form of Benjamin's allegory in the sense that, as an image,it allows
Freud to talk about something that the little boy believes has been re-
moved. The "castrated"female body, or the image of woman-as-castra-
ted, thus corresponds in a psychological manner to the allegory and the
montage in Benjamin. This intertextuallink between Freud and Benja-
min reveals something else. Freud'stexts attempt creativelyto insist on
(1) the primacy of the penis and hence (2) the little boy's exclusive rela-
tionship with his mother. His essays on female sexuality,which go on at
length about women's jealousy and envy, can be read as belated at-
tempts to write malejealousy and envy, and to articulatethe hostilityfelt
by the little boy Freud toward those bothersome "others" with whom
he had to share his mother. If the constitution of what we now call the
"male gaze" is the result of the primacy of the penis understood in
these terms, then the "male gaze" is not a purely subjugating one. Its
attempts to subjugate already reveal a foundational anxiety.
The "male gaze" in Benjamin's work is not a virile, but rather aim-
less, impotent look. The labyrinthis "[t]hepath of someone shy of arri-
val at a goal ... This is the way of the drive in those episodes which
precede its satisfaction. . . . this is also the way of mankind (the class)
which does not wish to know where things are leading to."26Could the

24. "Central Park,"trans. Lloyd Spencer (with the help of Mark Harrington),New
German Critique, 34 (Winter 1985): 41.
25. "Central Park" 52.
26. "Central Park" 40.
82 Rey Chow

absence of "desire" that I have been suggesting be an effect of this


aimlessness? If so, then Benjamin'swork makes us pose two questions.
First,are all forms of the "male gaze" alwaysalreadyinscribed in a cer-
tain impotence - impotence not so much as a fear of castration(which
is the Freudian model) as a fear of emasculation, exhaustion, and the
inabilityto perform? Second, if indeed it is male impotence, not virility,
that we are dealing with here, what is the relationship between this im-
potence and femininity? I will respond to the second - the more so-
cially specific - of these questions in the remainder of the essay.

IV
It is tempting to equate emasculation with feminization. In this re-
gard, one could say that the subversive politics of straying, in which
Benjamin's work is thoroughly immersed is a "feminized" politics.27
This, however, would be to confuse the movements and spaces that
can be clarified by the simple working diagram below:

The masculine

I1
Indeterminacy

feminine
2The
The feminine

27. Hansen, for instance, argues for an affinity between Benjamin's notion of"dis-
traction" and a certain kind of female spectatorship. Describing the habits of women
film audiences of the early 20th century, she writes: "In the over-identification with
[such] images, in the failure to maintain a narratively stabilized distance, is there not an
element of Benjamin's 'daydreaming surrender to faraway things' . . .?" (218). For
another argument about how Benjamin's conception of modernity as "utopia" with
multiple ambiguous aspects can be understood through the motif of woman, see
Christine Buci-Glucksmann, La Raison baroque:De Baudelaired Benjamin (Paris: Editions
Galilee, 1984). A part of this argument was published in the article "Catastrophic Uto-
pia: The Feminine as Allegory of the Modern," trans. Katherine Streip, Representations,
no. 14 (Spring 1986): 220-29.
Benjamin'sLove Affair With Death 83

Like the work of many modernists, Benjamin's work can be under-


stood in terms of vector 1; it is a downward movement toward the
space of indeterminacy and away from masculinized forms of repre-
sentation that are fixed, authoritative, and assertive. We should de-
scribe this movement more accurately as "de-masculinizing." From a
heterosexual male perspective, this movement is virtually the same as
"feminizing," involving a conscious courting of the "feminine" as
what is socially inferior, debased, etc. In terms of what Naomi Schor
calls the "feminine particular,"28however, even while the space of "in-
determinacy" may represent a dismantling of the conceptual systems
that devalue femininity, this space is at the same time indistinguishable
from the move to de-feminize, to erase what is specific to femininity.
What indeed is specific to femininity? Not so much an eternal female-
ness as precisely the historical devaluation of the "feminine" which
forms the major component of women's experience. The movement
of vector 2 is therefore always much less carefree, lest it run the risk of
erasing this specificity, which is the specificity of cultural representa-
tions. In other words, while vector 1 can head toward indeterminacy
much more easily and justifiably (since the alternative is to return to
the masculine space on top), vector 2 must shuttle back and forth be-
tween the "feminine particular"(femininity-as-image)and "indetermi-
nacy" (femininity-as-gazealso), with a warning against abandoning so-
called "essentialist"positions too soon. This also means that, for a rad-
ical politics, the possibility of movement is much greater within the
bottom half of the diagram, where things are more undecidable, more
prone to disaster, and where, as subjects, women need to alternatebe-
tween positions constantly.
In Benjamin's reading of Baudelaire, the equation between emascu-
lation and feminization evolves in a complex manner, through a third
element: the metropolitan masses. In a way that anticipated Jean
Baudrillard's formulation of the "shadow of the silent majorities,"
Benjamin says of the masses in Baudelaire that they "do not stand for
classes or any sort of collective; rather, they are nothing but the amor-
phous crowd of passers-by, the people in the street" (I 165). Anonymi-
ty takes on the power of a phantom. Because the crowds are simply
there but not in any "signifying" manner, they become all the more
oppressive. The crowd represents an oppression that is nameless; it

28. Reading in Detail: Aestheticsand the Feminine (New York and London: Methuen,
1987) 97.
84 Rey Chow

defies figural representation and yet is felt everywhere as effect. How-


ever, unlike Baudrillard's, Benjamin's discourse remains modernist in
the sense that, in spite of the amorphousness of the mass, he associates
with it the element of shock which is attributed to the nature of Baude-
laire's artistic process. In the modern metropolis, shock is "an artificial
means of propelling the human body into moments of recognition."29
The flrneur's jostlings among the nameless and shapeless city masses
are punctuated with onefigure that emerges from all this amorphous-
ness - the figure of the prostitute or unknown woman. This is appar-
ent in the way Benjamin reads Baudelaire's "A Une Passante":

In a widow's veil, mysteriously and mutely borne along by the


crowd, an unknown woman comes into the poet's field of vision.
What this sonnet communicates is simply this: Farfrom experienc-
ing the crowd as an opposed, antagonisticelement, this very crowd
brings to the city dweller the figure that fascinates.The delight of
the urban poet is love - not at first sight, but at last sight. It is a
farewell forever which coincides in the poem with the moment of
enchantment. Thus the sonnet supplies the figure of shock, indeed
of catastrophe. But the nature of the poet's emotions has been af-
fected as well. What makes his body contract in a tremor - crispe
commeun extravagant, Baudelairesays - is not the raptureof a man
whose every fiber is suffused with eros;it is, rather,like the kind of
sexual shock that can beset a lonely man. (I 169)

Shock, which is general to the experience of the modem man in big


cities, is given a specific name here: "sexual shock." Either the face-
lessness of the mass or the face of a woman: these two aspects of emascu-
lation are joined together in Benjamin's allegorical reading of the poet's
love: "It is a farewell forever which coincides ... with the moment of en-
chantment." But insofar as the poet still sees the woman as such, shock
remains firmly inscribed within what Luce Irigaray calls the "specular
make-upof discourse" that "maintains, among other things, the break be-
tween what is perceptible and what is intelligible, and thus maintains the
submission, subordination, and exploitation of the 'feminine."'30 Within
the terms of this discourse, the coincidence of the fullness of an en-
counter and its immediate dissolution makes it all the more exciting,

29. Hansen 211.


30. This Sex Whichis Not One, trans. Catherine Porter (with Carolyn Burke) (Ithaca:
Cornell University Press, 1985) 80.
Benjamin'sLove Affair With Death 85

shocking. It is, as Benjamin would go on to tell us, not "denied" but


"spared" fulfillment (I 170).
As Benjamin notes in "Central Park," "Baudelaire never wrote a
whore-poem from the perspectiveof a whore."31The unknown woman
is not only what provides pleasures of "crossing"class boundaries and
"hovering"on the brink, she is also retained, quite literallyand in a way
that is shamelessly complicitous with the politics of representationthat
the allegoristwants to demolish, as a figure to organize. I use the word
"organize"deliberatelybecause in our present context the word is fully
resonantwith the meanings of "castration"and "impotence."The figure
of the woman organ-izes preciselybecause on her is superimposed that
part of the male body imagined to have been cut off or gone to waste.
Thus we can safelyconclude that the figureof the woman, howeverfasci-
nating it is for the flineur, is the ultimate figure of death. The beauty of
woman is the surrealbeauty of an organ which is severed, embellished,
and only thus "enlivened."In the elaborate way in which the prostituteis
invested with attention, a process of laboris involved: that of re-organ-
izing the dis-organ-ized.From a feministviewpoint, the question is obvi-
ous: if the modernist poet and allegoristtake as their point of departure
modem culture-as-"castration," why is it that the elaboration,the bela-
boring of castration takes place only in the male psyche and not in the fe-
male, who must exist only as a body and a fetish? Why does woman,
against this background of allegorical dis-figuration,remain a figure?
How did she become the figure, the paradigm "allegory"of all the cas-
trations experienced by the poet in the first place? Why "woman"?
A literary, erudite response would perhaps go something like this.
Woman, because she is traditionallythe allegory of Truth - the truth
that "does not believe in truth itself, because she does not believe in
what she is, in what she is believed to be, in what she thus is not"32- is
already dis-figured. Her apparent "figural"quality in the landscape of
modernism is merely the effect of a dis-figuringof the dis- figured itself,
the troping of a trope, shall we say, or the allegorizing of allegory.
Forgettingthe lesson of deconstruction,we ask: Does it not matter who
is speaking?A similar question along the lines of fetishizing the fetish is
cogently addressed by Schor in "Female Fetishism:The Case of George

31. "CentralPark"42. "Whatis missing in this [modernist]literatureis ... a poem


writtenby 'la femme passante'about her encounterwith Baudelaire,perhaps."Wolff 45.
32. Jacques Derrida, Spurs/Nietzsche'sStyles.Eperons/LesStylesde Nietzsche(Chicago and
London: University of Chicago Press, 1978) 53.
86 Rey Chow

Sand."33 If the radical nature of Baudelaire and Benjamin's modernist


loitering politics relies on an allegorization of a general castration, it is
also precisely in the image and allegory of woman-as-prostitute that we
must insist on reinscribing, if not immediately a female subjectivity, then
at least the narrativity of a sexually specific (male) "desire," which strays
away from sight. In other words, rather than simply accepting the equa-
tion between femininity and such literarypartialitiesas allegory and fetish,
we must sexualize the discourses which perpetuate that equation - not
so much by positing a "female" against a "male" view, as by consciously
retracing, or pathologizing, the already gender-specific distinctions that
are at work in the most subtle ways.
I will conclude by returning explicitly to Benjamin's love of the inani-
mate. What, in fact, is fascinating about the prostitute for Benjamin? If it
is definitely not her subjectivity, then it is not simply her physicality ei-
ther: it is rather the fact that the prostitute is a personified form of the
commodity. The "classic" Freudian fetishizing process thus receives
another turn through Benjamin's gaze. The prostitute gives to all the
amorphous feelings stemming from male impotence, feelings which can
only be felt but not grasped, theconcreteness ofa humanshape.She is, in oth-
er words, "the decline of the aura" allegorically personifiedin the high capi-
talist world, where "[t]he commodity attempts to look itself in the face"
and where "[i]t celebrates its becoming human in the whore."34 This
does not mean that the prostitute "humanizes" those feelings and makes
them psychologically accessible; rather, her human form becomes a con-
venient way of staging and figuring those feelings surreally, in the same
way that the storyteller's "soul, hand, and eye" give to his tale about the
inanimate a unique, life-like aura. Georg Lukitcs saw in Benjamin's no-
tion of allegory the destruction of a human-centered aesthetics that char-
acterizes his own work. We do not have the space to discuss Luk.cs's
problematic position here, but a passage from Benjamin that he quotes
in support of his criticism of the latter continues to instruct us about
Benjamin's love affair with death and its many alluring thrusts:

Allegorical personification has always concealed the fact that its


function is not the personificationof things, but rather to give the
thing a more imposing form by getting it up as a person.35
33. TheFemaleBody in WesternCulture,ed. Susan Rubin Suleiman (Cambridge, Mass.
and London: Harvard University Press, 1985) 363-72.
34. "Central Park" 42.
35. TheOriginof GermanTragicDrama 187; quoted in Lulics, "On Walter Benjamin,"
New Left Review, 110 (uly-August 1978): 86.