Trash-art in the age of Digital Ash

Tetsuo Kogawa

In order to rethink the viability of "trash-art", Walter Benjamin's arguments on 'garbage/trash'(Abfall) and 'rag-picker'(Lumpensammler) are most stimulating. In the past I have called Benjamin's method a "technique of garbage collection"[1]. I dubbed it this considering Benjamin's idiosyncratic materialism that interprets beings as garbage/trash, his historical philosophy which views creation less as output than as rearrangement, and the movements in the methodology of semiotics and deconstruction that developed following Benjamin. In a letter to his friend Gershom Scholem (August 9, 1935), in which Benjamin explains the concept of his later "Passagenarbeiten" treatises, he comments that "this work uses surrealism philosophically and sublimates (aufheben) it, at the same time attempts to capture an image of history in those things that present existence (Dasein) most subtly fixed, in other words in the "garbage/trash" of present existence.[2]

Radical Surrealist montage technique was well-known to Benjamin, but his aim was to develop it into something more profound--a means of historical awareness. In his "Theses on the Philosophy of History," a condensed version of his view of history using montage techniques (or what William Burroughs would describe as "cutup") are the following words: "The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again."[3] That "image never seen again" is not an image from some great event, but an image that appears in the "waste" of no consequence, and those able to bear witness to it are not "heroes" or some class with special privileges, but the "oppressed."

In a review written by Benjamin in 1930 that passed virtually unnoticed, there is a brilliant passage which describes vividly what constituted his "technique of garbage collection." This is a review of "The Employee" (Die Angestellten), one of the early works of Siegfried Kracauer:

A rag-picker who picks up garbage early in the gray morning. Muttering darkly to himself, getting a bit drunk, he spears the remains of speeches and fragments of words with his stick, and throws them into his cart. Occasionally he picks up scraps of these hackneyed phrases like "human beings," "innerness," and "deepen," and flutters them contemptuously in the morning breeze. He is the morning garbage collector, but this morning is the morning of the day of the revolution.[4]

Kracauer, later in exile in New York and battling with extreme hardship and illness, analyzed the details of German film chiefly of the 1920s and 30s--the enormous "garbage of history"--and wrote "From Caligari to Hitler"(1947), which exposed incisively the collective unconsciousness that paved the way for Hitler's rise to prominence and was then flattened by the force of it.

To Benjamin, "garbage/trash" was the trivial part, the detail of enormous things, in other words, the minute. His mode of thinking was called "micrology". His attention to them was a stratagem in response to the movements of an era in which the will for power was still directed toward spatially enormous objects. The latter half of the twentieth century, however, is an era of "posts": "postindustrial," "postmodern," "postcolonial," "postnuclear," "postmassmediatique" . . . each in turn revolves on the axis of time and is sent on its way. Here, trivial things and minute things cease to be alternatives to the will for power, because not only does power itself no longer seek large things, it accepts the trivial and the minute. Therefore, "small is beautiful."

Theodor W. Adorno, while in one aspect having already adopted Benjamin's idea of "only through the details can we hope for a passage to the whole"[5] as his own mode of thought, also indicated to Benjamin his doubts about this method. To Benjamin, "garbage collection" not only gave form to a method of thought, it actually played an "important role" in the debate on the "passages" (arcades) of 19th century Paris. In a 1938 letter to Benjamin from exile in New York, Adorno made the following comment:

The problem is the rag-picker. To my mind the definition of the rag-picker as a marginal character personifying the very lowest level of poverty does not fulfil at all the promise of the term rag-picker when it appears in one of your texts. (abridged) I assume this shortcoming is related to the fact that the capitalist function of the rag-picker, i.e. the function that makes even beggars subordinate to their exchange value, is not made clear. Could I be reading too much into it all[6]?

Adorno, who was eventually to outlive Benjamin, was finally to write: "All post-Auschwitz culture, including its urgent critique, is garbage(Muell),"[7] and this demonstrates the pessimistic perceptions of Adorno in his belief that all "trivia," "details" and "minute things" are ashes and dust, and all that exists is endless ruin. The world would become not a "slum" littered with "garbage/trash" but would resemble a city after a nuclear attack, a ruin in which even the "details" cannot be discerned.

Benjamin's garbage collection technique directly supposes film montage. The reason his technique did not simply remain an application of the film technique known as montage is because he had a firm grasp of several techniques within the basic movements in thought and technology, i.e. the historical threads flowing into film montage--premodern storytelling, the 'rencontre fortuite' of surrealism, and even "quotations" of Berthold Brecht--and understood their meaning at the most basic of levels. However the digital technology that constructs virtually what does not really exist was not within the technological scope of Benjamin. Though things may be broken up, transformed into garbage and lose their wholeness, they do actually exist as extensions of the body. The electronic world of digital technology however, belongs to a level estranged from any extension of the body. This is, so to speak, the virtual "paradise" built on the "waste" and "ruins" of Adorno, and is "Utopia," literally no-place. Adorno's "pessimism" thus reverses itself into a positivism of electronic space.

Cyberspace is a no-place that nothing physical can exist. This is an ultimate form of garbage/trash where no body can survive. Art is an art that something physical flashes up at the instant over the space. Art can continue to exist only in the phase of time. Due to the cyberspace that exterminates physical element, live human body could reactivate itself in the temporal relation with it. Trash-art in the cyberspace will go to live action such as the live streaming.

[1] Tetsuo Kogawa, Shutai no Tenkan (Changing the Subject). Tokyo: Miraisha, 1978, pp. 235-8.
[2] Gershom Scholem and Theodor W. Adorno, eds., Walter Benjamin, Briefe 2. Frankfurt am Mine:Suhrkamp Verlag, 1978, p.685.
[3] Hannah Arendt, ed., Walter Benjamin, Illuminations. Translated by Harry Zohm. New York: Schocken Books, 1968, p. 235.
[4] Hella Tiedemann-Bartels, ed., Walter Benjamin Gesammelte Schriften III. Frankfurt am Mine:Suhrkamp Verlag, 1971, p.225.
[5] Theodor W. Adorno, Ueber Walter Benjamin. Frankfurt am Mine: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1990, p.87.
[6] Ibid., pp.159-160.
[7] Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics. Translated by E.B. Ashton. New York: The Seabury Press, 1979, p.367.

(I appreciate Pamela Virgilio Miki for her help totranslate the original Japanese text into English.)

Isaev Alexsei(ed.): The look from the East, Media ArtLab, Moscow, 2000