How can textual cultures escape complicity? This question seems more pressing than ever, as the entanglement of language and politics takes on its 21st century shape. The search for the word that, as Dada poet Hugo Ball put it, is “outside your domain, your stuffiness, this laughable impotence, your stupendous smugness”[1] is, of course, always one that is context-specific. Yet modernist poetics are uncannily relevant again, and not only in work such as Vanessa Place’s “Trumpist Manifesto”,[2] a retake of the avant-garde that leaves the reader suspended in a with Trump’s agenda. “Trumpism, like America, loves a winner, and Trumpism always wins,” she writes, using the president’s own tropes to excess, thus exposing their hollowness.

The texts that I find myself going back to are at the margins of the avant-garde canon despite being written by some of the big names of the time: they are “Denkbilder” (thought-images), so called because they capture the movement of thought as it arises from perceptions, sensations, and the tangible surroundings of urban life.

The Denkbild is liminal in several ways. Published in feuilletons – brief prose pieces with titles such as “Baustelle” (building site), “Frühstücksstube” (breakfast parlour)[3], or “Zwergobst” (dwarf fruit)[4] – it is non-narrative and non-fictional, linking it to the prose poem tradition; especially in Walter Benjamin’s case, Baudrillard is, of course, a main influence. These fragments intervene in a specific historical moment: they mark the challenge of developing a practice of thought in the face of the double-bind posed by the critique of instrumental reason on the one hand, and the appropriation by totalitarian fascism (and, in some cases, the complicity) of what Max Horkheimer calls “irrationalism”[5] on the other hand. Collections such as Adorno’s Minima Moralia, Benjamin’s Einbahnstraße and Kindheit in Berlin, Ernst Bloch’s Spuren and Erbschaft der Zeit, or Kracauer’s Straßen in Berlin und Anderswo attempt to define a new and oppositional practice of thought via writing.

I am interested in how we can understand these hybrid textualities as a modernist poetics-as-practice. Paradigmatic is Walter Benjamin’s association of short prose with a building site in Einbahnstraße. Understood as a “Neuordnung der Dingwelt” (new order of the world of things), this forges new connections instead of representing a given reality; it realizes the impetus of change via the fragmented textual constellation itself. In celebrating the moment of recognition and the ways in which material reality continues to reconfigure itself, Benjamin’s thought-images offer an alternative to the rigid worldview of totalitarian ideologies. Thus, personal relationships enlighten the intimidating urban labyrinth of an unknown neighborhood, as love literally divides space with clusters of light (“Erste Hilfe”). Of course, the messianic qualities are hard to overlook, as is a certain element of nostalgia when observing the ephemeral nature of human perceptions, which are irretrievably altered by habit and time (Fundbüro”).

Yet these apparently individualized visions carry a deeper political significance. It is no coincidence that they respond immediately to the rise of fascism. Without wanting to overburden the parallels to the 1920s and 1930s that keep cropping up in attempts to analyze the new nationalism of the 21st century, these modernist texts enter our present moment because of a shared ambition: to find a voice that resists the making universal of partial truths (or non-truths), but which also speaks independently and not just reactively.

Interestingly, this same ambition is at the core of one of the pivotal debates leads into the core of one of the pivotal debates about modernism and ideology in the 20th century, between Georg Lukács and Ernst Bloch, during which Lukács charged not only expressionism with fascist complicities. He also tied his argument to one particular text type, the aphorism, which, Lukács argued, by way of its precarious form encapsulated the decadence of modernist art. Hovering between philosophy and literature, social critique and aesthetic production, the Denkbilder are related to the aphorism and, as I would like to argue, prove Lukács to be a little short-sighted.

They offer a poetics that develops not power, but strength of vision, because it is conceived from the wound; it is a “traurige Wissenschaft”, a sad science, that opens up new perspectives through the “splinter in the eye” which, according to Adorno, serves as the best magnifying glass. [6] Yet even if this poetics is based in a textual precariousness, it is no less forceful for it, aiming, as it does, to wrestle back from fascism the meaning of sensation, intuition, and the irrational. The poetic use of language opens up the possibility of a different kind of thought, focusing on the non-identical, on difference both in the poetics and the politics of these texts. Through their focus on materiality and sensation, the Denkbilder inscribe resistance into a historical reality that has been hijacked by national socialist ideologies.[7]

This highjacking becomes tangible in particular when Bloch, in his Erbschaft der Zeit, radicalizes Benjamin’s vision. He transforms the building site into a “Handgemenge”,[8] a physical fight against the intoxicating effect of unifying ideological concepts such as ‘soul’, ‘nation’, ‘the unconscious’, and a battle for a position from which to speak against totality. The ambition of these texts to “shock through their enigmatic form and thereby get thought moving, because thought in its traditional conceptual form seems rigid, conventional, and outmoded”,[9] therefore, is in many ways a tightrope walk. It looks to material being to retain its critical, forward-driving force; but it also works against the one-sidedness of a purely analytical or instrumental thought. The Denkbilder of these authors refuse to adhere to an irrationalism that has become complicit with the totalitarian state, which, as Horkheimer puts it, accepts individual suffering as necessity that can be transformed into a positive good.[10] It is therefore no coincidence that one important topic is that of intoxication (Bloch, Kracauer), which these texts try to resist. Instead of promising insights into some essential character of the world, the broken, fragmentary, material poetics of the Denkbild refuses complicity by working against the notion of totality as such.

These short forms, therefore, turn writing into an act of subtle civil disobedience. For Ernst Bloch, writing these fragments is literally an act of punching back. Considering the prevalence of short forms in the digital media, they are precursors on the search for modes of thinking, reading, and writing that can disentangle our speech from the warped public discourse of these times and today.

[1] Hugo Ball, “Dada Manifesto” (read at the first public Dada soiree, Zurich, July 14th 1916).

[2] Vanessa Place, “Trumpist Manifesto.” January 15, 2017.

[3] Walter Benjamin. [1928] 2009. „Einbahnstraße“. Werke und Nachlass. Kritische Gesamtausgabe, Band 8. Edited by Detlev Schöttker. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.

[4] Theodor W. Adorno. [1951]  2003. Minima Moralia. Reflexionen aus dem Beschädigten Leben. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.

[5] Max Horkheimer. (1934) 1993. “The Rationalism Debate in Contemporary Philosophy.” In Between Philosophy and Social Science. Selected Early Writings, translated by G. Frederick Hunter, Matthew S. Kramer, and John Torpey, Cambridge, 217-64. MA: The MIT Press.

[6] Adorno, 55

[7] Bloch, 16-18.

[8] Ernst Bloch. (1935) 1962. Erbschaft dieser Zeit. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 18.

[9] Theodor W. Adorno. (1974) 1992. Notes to Literature. Volume Two. Edited by Rolf Tiedemann, translated by Shierry Weber Nicholsen. New York: Columbia University Press. 323.

[10] Horkheimer, 222.


About the author

Katharina Donn is a lecturer and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Augsburg, Germany, and author of A Poetics of Trauma after 9/11 (Routledge, 2016). She has held visiting fellowships at the Eccles Centre for American Studies, the Institute of Advanced Studies at University College London, and a visiting professorship at the University of Texas at Austin. She is also active as European editor of U.S. Studies Online.