‘To find the sphere of total neutrality in relation to subject and object’

This is perhaps the most specific and yet most mysterious of the demands that he makes in this essay. It gives us a hint of the more fruitful metaphysics of experience that Benjamin seeks to counterpose to the ‘fruitless metaphysics’ underlying the Kantian notion of experience. But Benjamin does not explain very well what he has in mind with a ‘sphere of total neutrality between subject and object.’30 To understand what he has in mind, we might consider: in what sense could Kantian and neo-Kantian epistemologies be lacking in such neutrality? In these philosophies, we could argue that the concern for the structuring of experience by the subject leads to the emptying of the object: the object eventually gets thought as a mere material or incitement to experience, rather than a pole that has its own activity and influence. It was Schiller and the Jena Romantics who first charged Kant with creating a notion of experience in which intellect dominates sense, in which the active subject makes the object too passive. When the subject dominates the object in this manner, it leads philosophy to ignore the role of history in shaping consciousness, what Benjamin calls the ‘historical blindness’31 of the enlightenment. The object is itself always already mediated by concepts, not the timeless concepts of the subject, but the set of interpretations that have led it to exist in the first place. As Adorno and Horkheimer argue in The Dialectic of

Enlightenment, if we take the object as mere nature, as a passive substrate for our cognition, then the subject falls into the pattern of projection, whereby it projects many of its own unconscious drives onto this nature, a pattern of projection that can very well become pathological according to their analysis of racist ideologies.32 Looking forward, Benjamin’s demand for a sphere of neutrality between subject and object leads his thinking in two crucial directions: first, it leads him to his original account of post-Kantian Romantic epistemology as taking place within a medium of reflection. Benjamin argues in his dissertation that for the Romantics, we can only have knowledge of an object if we see the object as itself a subject that is capable of reflection and awareness of its own. The Romantics thus offer Benjamin a more ‘fruitful’ metaphysics of experience, in which the subject does not dominate the object. But secondly, this search for a sphere of neutrality leads Benjamin to a philosophical itinerary that pays special attention to the relative diversity and potency of objects of experience. He writes on subjects such as color, childhood, the experience of intoxicating substances, on artistic media that incite social change. To have an experience means to come into contact with an object that redefines the very nature of experience, because it does not fit any conceptual category or function. Where Benjamin uses the term ‘sphere’ here to designate the greater context that includes subject and object in a neutral manner, his subsequent thinking uses a related term: medium or media. Experience always happens within a medium, which is both historically dynamic and reflective. Yet even more fundamentally, it remains to be examined in the third chapter how much this sphere of neutrality between subject and object is expressed in Benjamin’s controversial turn towards anthropological materialism: the human body shapes its physical environment, but is also at its mercy. The faculty for experience is not a given, for the later Benjamin, but constantly nourished by and threatened by the enormous physical transformations brought on by the restless pace of technological change in capitalism.

 
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