Between Angelus Novus & the Mechanical Turk
It is nearly impossible to read the allegorical use of the chess-playing mechanical Turk in the opening passage of Julieta Aranda’s and Ana Teixeira Pinto’s collaborative text and not think of Walter Benjamin’s deployment of the same allegory some seventy-five years ago in “Theses on the Philosophy of History”:
It is well-known that an automaton once existed, which was so constructed that it could counter any move of a chess-player with a counter-move, and thereby assure itself of victory in the match. A puppet in Turkish attire, water-pipe in mouth, sat before the chessboard, which rested on a broad table. Through a system of mirrors, the illusion was created that this table was transparent from all sides. In truth, a hunchbacked dwarf who was a master chess-player sat inside, controlling the hands of the puppet with strings. One can envision a corresponding object to this apparatus in philosophy. The puppet called “historical materialism” is always supposed to win. It can do this with no further ado against any opponent, so long as it employs the services of theology, which as everyone knows is small and ugly and must be kept out of sight.
It is not that hard to see why for Benjamin, Wolfgang von Kemplen’s automaton represented in the eve of the World War II the “fraudulent” technicity of scientific Marxism, which could pretend to operate smoothly only if secretly supplied with a religious belief in Soviet Communism. However, Benjamin’s Theses, as his longtime friend and collaborator Gershom Scholem claims, aren’t just the completion of his awakening from the Hitler-Stalin pact, or as Susan Buck-Morss puts it, a rejection of determinate revolutionary projects in favor of political relativism. In fact, the allegorical use of the mechanical Turk in the Theses is also an about-face from Benjamin’s more positive view of technology expressed in his Work of Art text, marking one of the first ever sightings of the rejection of technopolitical progress in Western Marxist discourse. This clean epistopolitical break from Promethean Marxism only rears its head around the end of World War II and with a rather muted pact between Western leftist intellectuals and the emerging constellation of liberal bourgeois democratic states in Western Europe and North America. Theodor Adorno, Hannah Arendt, Clement Greenberg, and the Trotskyist intellectuals of The Partisan Review are some of the figures which can be said to represent this pact who, by staying out of real politics and refusing to energize and supply the working class with fresh revolutionary platforms, managed to function as the official opposition to the new political and economic order, only not from seats in government, but from their positions in academia.
As the provider of the philosophical justification for such a shift, Benjamin formalized his exit strategy in the forward movement of the backwards-facing figure in Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus. Thus, if proper historical dialectics before the Theses involved a straightforward synthesis of the past and present in the direction of the future, the utter failure of progress in the first half of the 20th century meant that from that moment forward, the past no longer acted as the engine of the future but instead as an anchor for the here and now, a perspective from which the present situation can be critiqued. As for the future, not only was it denied a productive role in Benjamin’s new upside down historicism, but it was also monsterized and casted metaphorically as the catastrophic “storm of progress”:
A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
The irony here is that while the Frankfurt School figures identified the naturalization of political economy as the strategy of capital, they continued to celebrate Benjamin’s own naturalization of the technopolitical essence of progress as an inevitable natural disaster, in effect forfeiting to capital the concept and practice of future.
This reading of Benjamin’s story of the mechanical Turk and Angelus Novus is necessary first of all, because Okwui Enwezor, the curator of the 56th edition of Venice Biennale, has chosen to place the Theses and the angel of history at the center of his exhibition which he has bafflingly chosen to call All the World’s Futures. In addition to this, engaging Aranda and Pinto’s fair indictments against the cybernetic revolution requires a reexamination of one of the central philosophical allegories of twentieth century leftist thought.
As the mathematician and theorist of cybernetics Norbert Weiner put it in his 1950 book The Human Use of Human Beings, the possibilities offered by automation are politically unaligned and can either be utilized in the service of the emerging bourgeois-religious-military-industrial-system in the United States, or as a prosthetic enhancement aiding those seeking a better world.
The political indeterminacy of technology is also confirmed in a different way by the British historian John Agar, who believes that particular machines are often promoted by those who benefit the most from their promotion. Perhaps this is why Aranda’s and Pinto’s charges against our current technological condition, in one way or another, return to the late Benjamin’s change of heart. The emergence of the surveillance state; the splitting of the Internet into the good and the bad; the transformation of citizens to precarious users and the resulting disparities between the digitally obese and digitally lacking; and, finally, the tech industry’s sandboxing of our ability to repurpose technologies - all of these developments ultimately stem from postwar Western leftists’ mistrust of science, technology, and planned progress, and their nostalgic desire to follow the later Benjamin’s advice, to move backwards into the future.
Here, then, are two questions:
To what degree should the present form of advanced media and political technologies, resting within the grip of a corporate-government alliance, be blamed solely on the California Ideology? And, to what degree should it be blamed on the progressive left’s historic complicities, for rarely paying attention to the theory and practice of cybernetics?
Finally, and most importantly, isn’t it time to retire Benjamin’s Theses and abandon its epistopolitical ramifications?
Mohammad Salemy is an independent curator based in Vancouver & New York and an organizer at The New Centre for Research & Practice. He holds an MA in Critical Curatorial studies from the University of British Columbia.