What Will They Keep of Me, and What Will Be Waste: Walter Benjamin and The Stomach of Modernism

2 October 2020

Alessandra Occhiolini, The Graduate Center (CUNY)

What is the character of the modernist stomach, and how does it digest history? Unlike its hyper-functional nineteenth-century predecessor, the stomach of the twentieth century is metaphorically retentive, denatured into retention and distension by the virus that is violence.[1]The work of Walter Benjamin is a particularly clear example of a modernist methodology of historical retention and disorder: Arcades Project (1927-1940) does not pretend to know that the subject can parse the commodity profusion of the past and present that accumulates into history; that the individual is capable of digesting what is useful in a prompt or straightforward manner.[2]Instead, the reading experience is one in which we are forced to retain all without knowing what we will keep of the catalog before us, or if it all is in fact made to waste. The digestive metaphors of the philosopher Georg Hegel provide a useful nineteenth century juxtaposition to Arcades, as his famous “dialectic” relies on the subject’s successful assimilation of the external other.[3]To greatly reduce his point, Hegel believes the subject can digest what is useful, and abject the rest as waste. Using this juxtaposition to historical memory as, at its best, a process of consumption in which the individual internalises the external other, producing waste and keeping needed nutrients, I posit that the modernist stomach is metaphorically disabled. The Benjaminian methodology of retention to the point of nausea refuses to resolve the problems of chronic disturbance, but instead sees them as explosively useful in constructing a case study of the messianic view of history. Hegel is haunted by the dysfunctional stomach, that which retains the consumed material until the point of indigestion and chronic discomfort. Unlike the fever, or the temporary illness, the chronic digestive disabilities that emerge in Hegel resist resolution. That which cannot be digested must be retained. As multiple histories digest each other, Benjamin’s refusal to sort the proverbial waste from the nutrients claims the useful negative potentialities of ceasing to function ‘well’.

As Tilottama Rajan has argued,Hegel is ‘often seen as a thinker who assimilates, or more melodramatically, “digests” otherness, including the self’s otherness to itself.’[4]It therefore follows that the body is a site of great critical interest for Hegel, literalizing the self’s ability to digest external and internal material. This digestion is troubled, however, at the literal and figurative level, by bodily illness and dysfunction. Rajan argues that Hegel ‘favors “acute” illness that reaches a crisis, over “chronic” illness in which the negative is not worked through.’[5]The chronic illness endures as a kind of indigestible phenomenon, anti-dialectical in the self’s inability to systemically respond to internal assault. In Encyclopaedia (1817), a complete summation of his own systematic philosophy, Hegel comments on chronic indigestion as a mechanical failure, writing that:

[…] in Nature, when the higher or organic functions are in any way checked or disturbed in their normal efficiency, the otherwise subordinate category of mechanism is immediately seen to take the upper hand. Thus a sufferer from indigestion feels pressure on the stomach, after partaking of certain food in slight quantity; whereas those whose digestive organs are sound remain free from the sensation, although they have eaten as much.[6]

Even here, the mechanical failure of retention is inherently temporal: the juxtaposition of the ‘sound’subject suggests a proper time frame for gastric emptying and digestive health. Returning to digestion as dialectical metaphor, Hegel’s temporal concerns suggest that history must be digested in a timely manner.

The rebellion of the modernist stomach is its untimely digestion;its constant nausea;its refusal to digest the violence stuffed down its gullet in the name of history. There is no better example of such a rebellious methodology than Arcades, Benjamin’s master-experiment in the retention of commercial ephemera. Arcades is Benjamin’s final and unfinished work, in which he attempts to catalog the commodities of the bygone world of nineteenth century Paris in hopes of creating a montage of commodification through which he might critique the bourgeois guise of the history of the nineteenth century and reveal the true movement of messianic history he felt lay beneath.[7]Benjamin’s memory-work is in fact a direct response to the Hegelian mode of digestion: Martin Jay argues that, ‘[a]s is well known, both Benjamin and Bataille were hostile to the general Hegelian logic of sublimation and sublation that sought to transfigure horror into something culturally elevating […]. Such “digestive” remembering can only be premised on a certain forgetting, the forgetting of everything that resists incorporation into its system, such as the suicides of anti-war protestors, which are then abjected as so much unnecessary waste.’[8]To digest the violence of history ‘well’is in fact to participate in such violence, to lay waste to the bodies who lie in its wake. And so Arcades is a work of accumulation, a deliberate claiming of a digestive modality that the Hegelian logic would understand as chronically dysfunctional. The endless montage effect of commodity upon commodity in Arcades contrasts with Hegel’s contained and concise summation of his entire philosophical system in Encyclopaedia, in which objects only enter the conversation as tools towards explaining philosophical concepts. Although these are historical modes of metaphorical digestion- means of grappling with history and time- the formative nature of the digestive metaphor to Arcades, and the Benjaminian theorization of messianic time, explicitly links such temporal trickery to what disability studies understands as crip time. Alison Kafer theorizes crip time as multivalent, referring at once to ‘reimagining our notions of what can and should happen in time, or recognizing how expectations of “how long things take” are based on very particular minds and bodies’, and the fight against the presumed negative futurity of the disabled subject.[9]The ‘reimagining [of] our notions of what can and should happen in time’is in fact a radical proposal aligned withBenjamin’s messianic time as detailed in Theses on the Philosophy of History (1940). Both push against the presumed positivity of the forward vector of historical motion, dilate the past and present into new and generative focus.

Bodily metaphors have bodily consequences. Arcadesremains unfinished because of Benjamin’s untimely suicide at the Spanish border in a desperate attempt to keep out of Nazi hands.[10]He becomes a body that is ‘abjected to necessary waste’by a fascist vision of history, and Arcades becomes not only retentive, but digestively interminable.[11]Unfinished, it remains chronically in process, an unending catalogue of bygone consumer ephemera, a collection of radically explosive commercial dust. As we take up the task of modernist study, we must take care how we digest our archive, and exactly whom we risk laying to waste in our own forgetting.


[1]E. Melanie DuPuis, Dangerous Digestion: The Politics of American Dietary Advice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015), p. 76.

[2]Walter Benjamin, the Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1999)

[3]Tilottama Rajan, ‘(In)Digestible Material: Illness and Dialectic in Hegel’s The Philosophy of Nature’, in Cultural Taste/Theories of Appetite: Eating Romanticism, ed. by Timothy Norton (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), pp. 217-236 (p. 217)

[4]Rajan, p. 217.

[5]Ibid, p. 219.

[6]George Hegel, The Logic of Hegel: Translated From The Encyclopaedia of The Philosophical Sciences(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1892), p. 339.

[7]Benjamin,the Arcades Project, pp. x-xiv

[8]Martin Jay, ‘Walter Benjamin, Remembrance, And The First World War’, Review of Japanese Culture and Society 11/12 (2000), pp. 18-31 (p. 23).

[9]Kafer, p. 27.

[10]Stuart Jeffries, Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of The Frankfurt School (Brooklyn: Verso Books, 2016), p. 216.

[11]Jay, p. 23.

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