Monash University

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The question of irreducibility in the critical thought of Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes

posted on 2017-02-14, 02:10 authored by Cash, Conall John
This thesis concerns the work of Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes as practitioners and theorists of criticism. Through an analysis of aspects of their work, it is argued that the thought of each writer depends crucially on what I call the notion of irreducibility. Criticism, for both Benjamin and Barthes, entails attending to an element that is irreducible to the formal appearance of the object of criticism and to what can be directly known of this object. A binary is established in the thought of each between the object as given, which can be possessed within knowledge and the properties of which criticism can tabulate, and something greater which acts upon the given object but which cannot be shown or represented within it, and which criticism itself cannot know but can only mark the presence of. This irreducible element functions in Benjamin on a speculative or ontological level as an immanent totality or truth defining existence as such; in Barthes, it is defined as an historical or experiential real that resists the modes of its apprehension provided by culture. In both cases it carries two valences: it is understood as entirely incommensurable with formal and knowable appearance, unable to be represented and taken in as an object; and it is understood as immanent to the appearing and knowable form of the object of criticism - not something outside the object, but invisibly or unrecognisably present within it. The effort to estrange the object of criticism (whether defined as a particular cultural form such as a literary text or a photograph, or, in the case of Benjamin's "Theological-Political Fragment," as the sphere of earthly existence as such) from an assumed stability and enclosed totality entails a critique of two modes of thought which are assumed to make all things knowable: representation and intentionality. The irreducible, for Barthes and for Benjamin, cannot be intended and cannot be brought to representation, for it is itself constitutively irreducible to form. Criticism, for both writers, entails an immersion in the given object which works to bring out its profound entwinement with that which is irreducible to its knowable form, divesting it of its assumed completion by recalIing to it this ineradicable remainder. In so doing, criticism alIows its object to be rethought, raising the question of how culture and its particular objects or products might differently bear their relationship to the irreducible as an unknowable totality or truth, without this relation ever being completed or resolved, without the irreducible being brought to any final identity with the present.


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Andrew Benjamin

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Faculty of Arts

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