My new series: Walter Benjamin: The Destructive Character

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One of the big projects that I have been working on this summer is an artists’ book about a particularly short article by Walter Benjamin, one of my very favourite academic writers.  The article is called The Destructive Character and was published in The Frankfurter Zeitung in 1931.  I chose to look at it because the theme of SCOS, which is the conference I attend every year, in 2013 is Creative Destruction (which is the sort of thing that economists love to talk about).  As I am by no stretch of the imagination an economist, I decided to take the essay by my bonkers and beloved Benjamin and see what it had to say about destruction.  Which was fine until I read it and realised that I didn’t understand a word of it.  Benjamin can be really crystal clear or he can be incredibly difficult.  Sadly this was one of his difficult pieces.  But I had decided that it would be a methodological piece and that I would use techniques borrowed from action research to work on the article.  There is plenty to say about this, but here I will just say that one of my actions or experiments was to make some textile pieces based on my reading of the text, which I did before going to speak with someone to help me understand its academic content.  So I have two sets of ideas – one coming from my inadequate and naive reading of the text and one coming from reading it with a genuine academic with knowledge of the Frankfurt School and their influences.

This first quilt that I want to write about comes from the naive element of the work.

The essay is about the Destructive Character who brings about change by destroying what was there before.  This is the basic idea of Creative Destruction.  Think about Picasso sweeping away academic drawing, or Punk Rock tearing down the elaborations of Prog Rock.  From the rubble something new and vital emerges.  In this passage, Benjamin writes about the Destructive Character clearing out the old to make way for the new and finding the work energising and therapeutic:

The destructive character is young and cheerful.  For destroying rejuvenates in clearing away the traces of our own age.  It cheers because everything cleared away means to the destroyer a complete reduction, indeed eradication, of his own condition.  But what constitutes most of all to this Apollonian image of the destroyer is the realization of how immensely the world is simplified when tested for its worthiness of destruction.  This is the great bond embracing and unifying all that exists.  It is a sight that affords the destructive character a spectacle of deepest harmony.  (p. 301)

So, bearing in mind that this was written in 1931, we can see a claim that in order to move forward we have to rid ourselves of the trappings of the past.  We have to blow away all the accumulated clutter of the Victorian or Bismarkian era, of what Benjamin might have known as the Gruenderzeit.  The huge history of the long nineteenth century has to be destroyed for the future to emerge.  With hindsight, of course, we can see that the twentieth century to come included some horrifying applications of science in the Gas Chambers and with the atomic bomb which are often quoted as the demonic ends of the Modernism that Benjamin seems to be cheering for.  During the twentieth century we got considerably better at killing each other efficiently, and some machines have made life worse rather than better.  Apollonian thinking is about rationality, clarity, logic, reason and the mind.  It is contrasted with Dionysian thinking which concerns the body, pleasure, excess, the material, the earth.  It is dark where the Apollonian is light.  My little quilt takes these ideas on.  It shows the ultimate killing machine, the Death Star from Star Wars.

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The contrast between the Apollonia and the Dionysian can be seen in the quilting – best seen from the back:

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The traditional feather pattern vs the spiky ‘modern’ MEMEMEME quilting.

All this made me think about a phenomenon that I have noticed with my mother and reports from friends with mothers of a similar age: a real desire to start throwing things away, to declutter, to clear their attics and to give away stuff that they have been hanging onto for years.  I wonder if this is a manifestation of the destructive character in everyday life.  I think that there are a few reasons for this desire to brush away the past:

  1. It represents dismantling a nest that is no longer needed.  Even the grandkids have grown up now.
  2. Giving treasures away makes sure that the right people get the right things and avoids the unseemly dash to empty the house by avaricious daughters-in-law after one’s death.
  3. It makes clearing out the house after one’s death easier for the children.
  4. It is an opportunity to divest oneself of material things before going to a better, tidier place.

Cleansing and death, then seem to be in some way connected.  Minimalism can quickly edge into sterility.  For Benjamin who was a product of the Gruenderzeit or high Victoriana, Modernism meant freedom and justice, a whole new set of possibilities after the heyday of imperialism.  But for the 2013 reader, we can see where it has toppled over into the dehumanising cult of efficiency as beauty and goodness (which is why you can no longer see your bank manager, and why you are constantly directed to a website rather than a person – it is more efficient).

So, I found the challenge of this article to be an aesthetic one.  My customary style is heavily ornamented.  I encrust surfaces and stitch on top of stitches.  This essay challenges me to make beauty out of stripping back and taking away, which is just what a lot of modern embroiderers do (see for example, Cas Holmes, Bobby Britnell, Shelley Rhodes).  It’s not a challenge I found particularly easy, and this is because for me, decoration is life, exuberance, abundance, multiplicity and joy.  My favourite colour is red in all its forms, not white or metallic., reflective silver.  I am happy to destroy things in a ‘what if?’ way, but I like to build up rather than tear down.

This is what I love about Benjamin, though, he always makes me think and work.  So, to end, here are some sketchbook/workbook pages:

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