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  • Ideology and Inscription: “Cultural Studies” After Benjamin, de Man, and Bakhtin
  • Christopher Duvenney
Tom Cohen, Ideology and Inscription: “Cultural Studies” After Benjamin, de Man, and Bakhtin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 258 pages.

“Not to find one’s way in a city,” Benjamin writes in “A Berlin Chronicle,” is uninteresting, for all that is required is ignorance of the surroundings. But it is quite a different matter, Benjamin says, “to lose oneself in a city—as one loses oneself in a wood—that calls for quite a different schooling. Then, [End Page 1133] signboards and street names, passersby, roofs, kiosks, or bars must speak to the wanderer like a cracking twig under his feet in the forest, like the startling call of a bittern in the distance, like the sudden stillness of a clearing with a lily standing erect at its center.” The reason why not finding one’s way within a city is uninteresting is that in fact one is not truly lost; for those attachments to the habits and habitations of self, to the supposed order of memories and reflections that abide in a sequential and composed form, and imbue the self with its identity are in no way broached. Having lost one’s way leads to a more rigid, intransigent assertion of those habits of self. One is not really lost until one has learned to lose the veneer of self, of self-ness or self-hood. What follows losing oneself (or one’s self) in this fashion is the opening of a different possibility for reading, in which the familiar signs of the city speak in an altogether other language. To read this other language is to read differently, in an un-schooled way. It is to read, both semantically and materially, out-of-bounds, beyond the acculturated frameworks and paradigms of schools, outside of and apart from the habits of regular (and regulated) comprehension. This loss-of-self, though, is itself a moment of reading, of reading-as-un-reading that disallows by discontinuing reading as an ordering together of disparate elements and signs into a coherent, and thus familiar and recognizable, pattern referable to the regimes of the human self. In the scene of “A Berlin Chronicle,” the gesture of reading the familiar signs of the city in this unschooled way is inaugurated by the sound of a crack or a breaking sound (“a cracking twig”), and what follows is a shrill cry (the cry of a bittern), and finally a sudden and startling apparition (a lily standing erect in a field). The image is startling because, between these two disparate registers—the city, a forest—there is no bridge, no semantic continuity that would allow for a translation from one register—or language, the language of the city, that of the forest—to the other. “Paris taught me this art of straying,” Benjamin continues, “it fulfilled a dream that had shown its first traces in the labyrinths on the blotting pages of my school exercise books.” We may linger here with the fact that Benjamin does not draw an analogical relation, or even one of translation between the city and the labyrinth on the blotter leaves, but instead suggests a kind of metamorphosis in which the leaves of the page are materialized in the city, where words and writing become the detour in which images—signs, and billboards, statues, and shops, breaking twigs, and birds—take on characteristics that defy the types of reading one might learn at school. To follow along these paths and byways, as he says, requires “a completely different schooling,” a different way of reading and hearing.

Tom Cohen’s provocative and daring new book, Ideology and Inscription: “Cultural Studies” After Benjamin, de Man, and Bakhtin is in every respect a continuation of precisely this style of reading. At the level of its presentation, it is an enactment of the transgressive, non-paradigmatic writing-practice inaugurated and pursued by Benjamin throughout his brief but prolific career. Like Benjamin, Cohen is engaged in an effort to unlearn the given, [End Page 1134] the ready-to-hand, habitual ways of framing and composing the past and present. For Cohen...

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