Stop ? Machine ? Which machine ? The machine of the State ? Of war ? Of capitalist exploitation ? Of production?

Marx may have been an apocalyptic thinker (communism’s salvation, the proletariat messiah), but he was also a positivist. He believed in positive science (in the positive nature of science), in progress, in the forward motion of the class struggle’s piston, and in the impending outcome of the world-historical drama. His doctrine is constructed according to the models of natural science; social laws in it apply with physical rigour.

By the 1930s, this belief was already bursting at the seams. The scientific nature of scientific knowledge, its “objectivity” were called into question: Einstein’s theory of relativity, Bohr’s complementarity, Schrödinger’s wave equations, the Heisenberg principle, the “linguistic turn” in philosophy, the discovery of the Indian potlatch, which eroded economic determinism and so forth and so on. In parallel: the aesthetization of politics in the age of technical innovation, the rise of fascism, the conciliatory politics of social democracy, the “unconscious” bourgeois consciousness of the working class, easily satisfied by piece-meat thrown to them by the powers-that-be, propertied, even ready to become entrepreneurial, and finally, the tyranny of bureaucracy, as the “grassroots” worker’s movement was smashed at the heart of the Revolution, back in the USSR.

In the approaching dual twilight of Stalinism and National Socialism, Benjamin re-formulates Marx: the revolution, he writes, is not the locomotive of history, but an emergency-brake, pulled by the passenger heading towards the humanity’s approaching abyss. At this point, Benjamin had already been to Moscow, already been in Kafka’s skin, wandering lost along the margins of inaccessible Revelation, never able to approach the Castle. But where do we wander today, finding the “progressives” incredible and the “conservatives” implausible, even unable to believe in the “left” or the “right” as such, recognizing neither “base” nor “superstructure”, unable to conceive of the very concept of “base” and “superstructure”, disillusioned with both society (“civic values”) and politics, including the politics of “representation” (and “representation” as such)?

Enough ! Stop ! Basta ! A strike, even if it is symbolic and not general, a strike. A strike without demands, because even the most radical demands can be satisfied. No affirmations, only questions. Affirmations as questions. Again, Benjamin: “Thinking involves not only the flow of thoughts, but their arrest as well. Where thinking suddenly stops in a configuration pregnant with tensions, it gives that configuration a shock, by which it cristallizes into a monad. A historical materialist approaches a historical subject only where he encounters it as a monad. In this structure he recognizes the sign of a Messianic cessation of happening, or, put differently, a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past. He takes cognisance of it in order to blast a specific era out of the homogenous course of history…” (W. Benjamin, “On the Concept of History”, 1940, ).

Equivalents of “arrest”, of “coming to a standstill”: walk-out, language strike. Laughter, nothing more. From a metaphysical point of view, laughter is devoid of sense, and what’s more, it is lawless, since its interrupts the literality of the philosophical discourse ( and of any discourse of authority, for that matter). Plato condemns laughter to prison: no kidding. Ideology, endangered by laughter. But a question can also bring any well-oiled machine out of kilter.

Symptom: today, labour hides like something to be ashamed of. Why? It’s not something you talk about, not something you show. It’s as if the money for whatever you talk about and show (goods, services, travel, entertainment, fun…) had come out of thin air. As if society had reached a point at which no one was working anymore, but everyone was earning plenty. Labour is obscene . If it is shown, it will incriminate us. Of what?

Take the “sandwichmen” . There are many of them on our city’s streets, amounting to a “blurred” static of the every-day, “white noise”, difficult to perceive, nearly indiscernible, with empty faces pressed smooth by the iron of consumerist affectation, stepping back and forth at the crowded hang-out on the bridge, freezing up suddenly in torpor, devoid of strength, bereft of thought, to become a statue of animal exhaustion. The placards on their chests and spines carry inscriptions, one and the same, always one and the same (even if they are different from one another, the inscription is always one and the same, I can assure you). Sometimes, there is more than one legend. Sometimes, its captions are lettered in different fonts, sometimes (or so it seems) in different colours. A hand reaches out from its slit silently with a mechanical gesture, passing you a leaflet of sorts.

Stop . Whose hand ? The hand of an advertising agent? (This is already funny.) The hand of the proletariat? The hand of those who have nothing to lose? What exactly are they selling, swaying back and forth in dull motion? Their work ? Their time ? How many hours a day do they work ? For whom ? Until dusk ? What are they producing ? Who is appropriating their labour ? Which consists of what? What exactly do their bodies substantiate, hidden beneath the sandwich shields?

The hand reaches out endlessly. You are sick and tired. You no longer care. You want to turn away and go.

Stop. And again: whose hand, exactly?

Translator’s Note: sandwichman is a slightly anachronistic English term for someone who is paid to stand on street corners as living advertisements, sandwiched between two man-size advertising signs.