The Destructive Capabilities of Sock-Like Experiences

Not exactly knitting-related but not far off either. I gave this paper to about 50 Critical Theory and/or Modern and Contemporary Literature students on Wednesday as part of a work in progress conference.


“Methodological relationship between the metaphysical investigation and the historical one: a sock turned inside out.” Benjamin wrote this note in the preparation of his text on Trauerspiel. This is without doubt a grand philosophical statement pointing to a theorization of the relationships between elements of philosophy at least as broad in scope as Hegel’s System. It is, in other words, a very large sock. And yet the presence of a sock here is jarring. Why would the relationship between the metaphysical and the historical be a sock, this earthly everyday item of seemingly minimal ideational value?

The ideas I will explore here, in attempting to answer this question, have not been fully worked through. Many of the threads are left with ragged ends, but it seems to me that an exploration of this problem can tell us something about Proust’s notion of involuntary memory, Benjamin’s changing ideas with regard to history and philosophy, Beckett’s understanding of time, and the early development of Adorno’s concept of negative dialectic. I will attempt here, albeit briefly and incompletely, to consider a constellation of thought, literature, and philosophy that shone with some clarity and brightness between 1929 and 1931.

Written in 1930, Beckett’s Proust addresses the notion of involuntary memory, and offers a metaphysical theorization of its status. At the climax of this work, Beckett describes the experience of involuntary memory as “at once imaginative and empirical, at once an evocation and a direct perception, real without being merely actual, ideal without being merely abstract, the ideal real, the essential, the extratemporal.” The context of involuntary memory, for Beckett, is one of second nature, or Habit. Habit, in this context, is the learnt protective screen from the brightness of reality, it is drudgery, “Goddess of Dullness”, and is characterized by its rationally measured and divisible temporality. This temporality is matched by an attitude to the object world, in which each object is treated with regard to its function, demanding a relative mode of experience tuned out from its quality. The world of Habit is the world of disenchanted objects. But for Beckett, the relationship between the disenchanted object and time is one of infection, such that the object in its true form becomes the mere explication of a dominant temporal form of disenchantment. What goes missing in this process is the object’s “ideal” form.  This ideal form corresponds to those qualities that are eviscerated by temporality; it is identical to the qualitative nature of the object, which is the reality of the object, as it would be experienced in extratemporal conditions.

These extratemporal conditions are possible, in Beckett’s reading of Proust, in the experience of involuntary memory. These moments, spurred by the incursion of the memory of the qualitative into the realm of Habit, allow for a type of experience that resists the “Cancer of Time.” “When the object is perceived as particular and unique and not merely the member of a family, when it appears independent of any general notion and detached from the sanity of a cause, isolated and inexplicable in the light of ignorance, then and then only may it be a source of enchantment.” That which sets the process in motion is qualitative, and particular. Furthermore, Beckett argues that it these are moments that resist categorization “on labour-saving principles” by Habit.

But Beckett pushes this system one step farther, in arguing that the nature of the experience of involuntary memory is to negate the Habitual. “Consequently”, he writes, “the Proustian solution consists, in so far as it has been examined, in the negation of Time and Death, the negation of Death because the negation of Time.” It is this process of negation that I would like to call into question, and it is here that we must return to socks, turned inside out.

The second of Benjamin’s sock arrives in a text that is closely related to the Beckett piece on Proust. Benjamin’s 1929 essay ‘On the Image of Proust’ again offers a socio-philosophical analysis of the experience of Proustian involuntary memory.

Proust first became of interest to Benjamin in the 1920s, when he started to write translations of A la Recherche, and remained a preoccupation for Benjamin until the end of his life. Benjamin’s standpoint is rather different from Beckett’s: Although he argues that involuntary memory is infinite, in contrast to the finitude of other modes of experience, it is infinite only in so far as it is a “key to everything that happened before and after it”. The infinity of remembrance recoils into the strata of history and future history.

His concern with remembrance, thus, is not the abstract and absolute negation of second nature in favour of an experience that offers the synthesis of the ideal and the real, but rather of an experience that refracts back into the second nature of society. Remembrance, the time-space of things past, is concomitant with the experience of the present, in aging. And yet, there is something of the present, which, for Benjamin, is worthy of destruction, such that a new type of experience can break through. It is here that the sock is reintroduced.

The similarity of one thing to another, which occupies us in a wakeful state, reflects only vaguely the deeper resemblance of the dream world in which everything that happens not in identical but in similar guise, opaquely similar one to another. Children know a symbol of this world: the stocking which has the structure of this dream world when, rolled up in the laundry hamper, it is a ‘pocket’ and a ‘present; at the same time. And just as children do not tire of quickly changing the pocket and its contents into a third thing – namely, a stocking – Proust could not get his fill of emptying the dummy, his self, at one stroke in order to keep garnering that third thing, the image which satisfied his curiosity – indeed assuaged his homesickness. He lay on his bed racked with homesickness, homesick for the world distorted in the state of resemblance, a world in which the true surrealist face of existence breaks through.

While, for Benjamin, involuntary memory is a very real aspect of modern cognition, and furthermore one that potentially allows a discussion of truth, what really interests him is the moment of induction of involuntary memory. Much like Beckett, this is conditioned by the experience of something that resists categorization under conceptual schema, but for Benjamin it is the mimetic quality of the experience of the thing that allows this type of experience. The “true surrealist face of existence” wishes to break through identificatory modes of thought that deny mimetic experience. But again, we must ask, what exactly is meant by the figure of the sock? And what is it doing here? Clearly what is being suggested is that the sock is an example of a “similarity” of two or three objects (sock, present, and bag), but it is also a referent of their non-superimposability, and that in its final form, a form that destroys the previous ones, desire is fulfilled. The sock occupies an unusual formal place in this argument’s construction: it is both the subject of the thought (as the child thinks about the sock) and the structure of the analogous form of experience. This is not, though, an answer to why the same motif is used for a description of the induction of involuntary memory and also is the relationship between historical and metaphysical investigation.

The final iteration of Benjamin’s sock motif, is a Denkbild, written in 1932, which became part of his Berlin Childhood around 1900.

The first cabinet that would yield whenever I wanted was the wardrobe. I had only to pull on the knob, and the door would click open and spring toward me. Among the nightshirts, aprons, and undershirts which were kept there in the back was the thing that turned the wardrobe into an adventure for me. I had to clear a way for myself to its farthest corner. There I would come upon my socks, which lay piled in traditional fashion – that is to say, rolled up and turned inside out. Every pair had the appearance of a little pocket. For me, nothing surpassed the pleasure of thrusting my hand as deeply as possible into its interior. I did not do this for the sake of the warmth. It was the ‘little present’ rolled up inside that I always held in my hand and that drew me into the depths. When I had closed my fist around it and, as far as I was able, made certain that I possessed the soft woolen mass, there began the second phase of the game, which brought with it the unveiling. For now I proceeded to unwrap ‘the present’, to tease it out of its woolen pocket. I drew it ever nearer to me, until something rather disconcerting would happen: I had brought out ‘the present’, but the ‘pocket’ in which it had lain was no longer there. I could not repeat the experiment on this phenomenon often enough. It taught me that form and content, the veil and what is veiled, are the same. It led me to draw truth from works of literature as warily as the child’s hand retrieves the sock from ‘the pocket.’

Here the sock is returned to its original context: the wardrobe of a young Bourgeois German boy, viewed years later at a distance, from Paris. The everyday object enchanted by the reminiscence of childhood, is just a sock. There is no grand metaphysico-historical system, nor is it a symbol for a moment of psycho-linguistic import. Rather, its meaning, its full and overburdened meaning, is that of its position in the writer’s personal account of his childhood. But the small child’s sock remains wrapped in mystery, or enwraps the mystery. Yet this childhood experience, in which the sock is placed in the most personal setting, is experientially the most distant, the sock becoming a mere analogy for the aesthetic structure of things and criticism.

I would like to make a speculative leap, and argue that for Benjamin the sock, turned inside out, is or represents the dialectical figure of Aufhebung. This is, as is often remarked, a difficult term to translate into English – it is both preservation and abolition, to keep, and to cancel out. The relationship of the sock to the bag, or to the present, is a relationship just of this sort, at least formally. But matters are not this simple – the presence of these three versions of the sock point not to the arbitrary application of dialectical logic to a series of problems, but instead that Benjamin’s account of Aufhebung is a complex personal one, with imbricated layers of meaning: the 1926 sock takes a properly Hegelian form in which metaphysics, that final synthetic moment, sublates history; the 1929 sock sees Aufhebung as the transformation of material desire into fulfillment, the 1932 sock is Aufhebung generalized, at once an enchantment, and yet every present and immanent to the objects of the everyday. One could account for these transformations mark Benjamin’s changing thought: the early idealism, the revolutionary demands of the theorizations of surrealism of 1929, and the archaeological interpretative stance that predicates the Passagenwerk in the 1932 account. But instead I would like to suggest that such an analysis falls short, and that the perdurance of the sock indicates the simultaneity and multi-valence of these modes of critical investigation. Aufhebung, for Benjamin, is sock-like, at times, both in form and in content. It is at once the enchantment of the object, the destruction of history, and his colourful personal memory of a sock against the grey reality presented by instrumental thought.

Returning briefly, then, to the work on Proust, this analysis of the sock as Aufhebung offers an elucidation of the contrast between Benjamin and Beckett. Where, for Beckett, Time is a cancer to be excised from cognition leaving behind the ideal real truth, for Benjamin, time as experienced in the present is sublated by involuntary memory. The truth of modernity’s nonsense is exposed by its involuntary memory, which breaks apart its systemic claim to truth in favour of fragmentation. When Beckett claims that involuntary memory is the negation of time, he in fact develops a theory of the evacuation of time, of timelessness. Time is not the object of any critique here, rather, his intellectual move enters into a different realm. Time is never destroyed, it is just not experienced. For Benjamin, with his dialectical critique, time is exactly that which is destroyed, but persists shattered, by involuntary memory

Without further elucidation, I would like to end by considering how this model of destruction finds itself expressed in the early thought of Adorno. The thought-figure of the sock, finds an analogue in the concept of the riddle in Adorno’s inaugural lecture, given in 1931, The Actuality of Philosophy.

The riddle’s answer was not the “meaning” of the riddle in the sense that both could exist at the same time. The answer was contained within the riddle, and the riddle portrayed its own appearance and contained the answer within itself as intention. Far more, the answer stands in strict antithesis to the riddle, needs to be constructed out of the riddle’s elements, and destroys the riddle, which is not meaningful, but meaningless, as soon as the answer is decisively given.

Negative dialectic is the consistent sense of this destructive aspect of Aufhebung, leading from the qualitative particular to the immanent abolition of the experience of the present, which Benjamin had considered. “The mind (Geist)”, Adorno wrote, “is not capable of producing or grasping the totality of the real, but it may be possible to penetrate the detail, to explode in miniature the mass of merely existing reality.“

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Scarf + Cowl = Scowl

I asked the beginning lace knitters on Ravelry what they wanted from designers a few weeks ago, and the answers were quite interesting. Many felt that it was a problem that too many designs were the same triangle shawl shape, and were also keen that patterns were not just known stitches arbitrarily put together. Finally, there seemed to be a fair bit of demand for patterns that work with variegated yarn. And of course, my concern is to keep things nice and easy. Perhaps stupidly, I have attempted to fulfill all of these criteria with a single project and came up with this:

The photograph was taken in the middle of the night as I was casting off, and obviously it’s just pinned out on my cork-board rather than being blocked, but it gives an idea of the finished piece: it’s a scarf that wears like a cowl, with a structural lace design. It’s also not at all hard to knit, and should work with variegated yarn (or at least I’ll have to see how the test-knits go, but I imagine it will look quite nice in variegated, and the long rows and increases should stop pooling.) I’ll put up a picture of the blocked piece tonight or tomorrow, depending on when I escape the library. For the moment I’ll offer you my midnight scowl as I tried to demonstrate the use of this unblocked piece to the internet at 2am.

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I’ve decided to do a Ph.D. in critical theory (I work on mid-twentieth century art and literature, the intersection of politics and aesthetics, memory, and negative dialectic), but sadly have no money for this. The kind university have agreed to pay my fees, but I don’t really have any money to live on. The challenge, then, will be to survive through knitting and knitting alone. This is perhaps a bit of a stupid plan, but it’s worth a try. I’ll start putting up some patterns in the next few weeks!

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