Angel wings caught in the winds of progress

Walter Benjamin's Philosophy:
February 3, 1995

Beneath the gleaming surface of Walter Benjamin's exquisitely wrought prose style there rages a savage struggle for survival. The stake is truth itself, and in its cause Benjamin pits Kant against Nietzsche; Nietzsche against Plato; Plato against Freud; Freud against Goethe; Goethe against Hegel; Hegel against Marx and finally Marx, with a little assistance from theology, against all comers. Even more disconcerting for the party faithful, and well in advance of his historical moment, Benjamin's Marx is transformed almost out of all recognition. This is a Marx for the phantasms of the night: prostitutes, journalists, drug takers, rag-pickers, gamblers, grave-diggers. In Benjamin's writings the myth of the invincible proletariat has already decisively vanished into the charnel houses of fascism.

In this collection, Peter Osborne and Andrew Benjamin have brought together an instructive sequence of meditations on this untimely, disruptive manifestations of a will to truth at large in the 20th century under the title "Benjamin''. The sequence opens with the encounter, still on its way to us out of an ever receding future, between Benjamin and Heidegger: "It is there that I shall find Heidegger on my path," Benjamin wrote to Scholem in January 1930, "and I expect some sparks to fly up from the shock of the encounter of our two very different ways of viewing history.'' Shortly thereafter, he wrote again, part Siegfried, part Oedipus, of his intent, with the assistance of Brecht, "den Heidegger zu zertrummern'', to turn Heidegger into rubble. Here is Benjamin the destroyer, releasing philosophy from the bonds in which Heidegger seems to seek to constrain it.

Howard Caygill, in the opening essay, extends a view of the place where that encounter might be thought to take place, making it clear that we do not yet have a concept of experience equal to the task of presenting the event. Caygill identifies the links between Heidegger and Benjamin: their concerns with a critique of the idea of progress, indeed a critique of critique; with the implications of the modernist shattering of tradition; with the transformation of art in the age of technology; and above all with the questions of time and history: with origins, repetition and destruction. This provides an invaluable schema within which to locate the subsequent explorations of Benjamin's deviations from the straight and narrow philosophical path from here to truth and back again. His impact on the great themes of philosophy, truth, freedom, justice, can be read, but only as a palimpsest through the partially eclipsed figurations of delay, destruction and fragmentation.

The last two essays in the collection, those of Andrew Benjamin and Rebecca Comay, return to this problematical encounter. Without registering the double impact of the collisions between a theological theory of sacred names and Goethe's pagan presentation of literature as a domain of natural history and between Nietzsche's eternal return and the impossible idea of progress, this encounter will remain at the level of a rumour of some titanic struggle, which still awaits its chronicler. Caygill manoeuvres expertly around this difficulty in his conjunctions of key texts from 1916, 19 and 1935.

Benjamin's early texts show the signs of an extended engagement with Kant's critical philosophy. Rodolphe Gasche reveals traces of this engagement in an inversion of Kant's critique of distraction, in Benjamin's famous 1935 essay, "The Artwork in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility''. Distraction, for Kant, is characteristically of empirical consciousness, which is incapable of unifying manifold intuitions into a stable representation. Gasche remarks on Kant's warning that "the reading of novels, in addition to causing many other mental discords, has also the consequence that it makes distraction habitual''. Benjamin builds an aesthetics out of this distraction, destroying the sham individualism of the Kantian site of judgement, challenging the possibility of forming stable habits and schemata, and displacing judgement into the domain of collective forms of experience and sensibility, common to whole historical epochs. A schematism of judgement is not to be deduced for all time.

Gasche also insists, against the interpretation put forward by Buck-Morss, on Benjamin's wholly unnostalgic affirmation of the destruction of aura, through which the present may be released from the delusory dreams of 19th-century capitalism. Benjamin's destructive character should be distinguished from that of fascism, but maybe not from that of Heidegger, through the difference between redemption and annihilation.

Alexander Garcia Duttman, in a piece subtitled "Walter Benjamin's Politics of Language'', explores Benjamin's opposition to fascism, in the proposal to develop "a series of concepts completely unusable for the purposes of fascism''. This reveals a continuity between the early concerns with language, exhibited in the essay, "On Language as such and the Languages of Human Beings" (1916), and the later more overtly political concerns. Benjamin's dialectical images, critically in dispute with both Adorno and Brecht, would have presented a series of configurations in which an emancipatory effect is inseparable from their capacity to name what there is. This form of construction brings together the metaphysical task of naming the truth with the political gesture of emancipation.

This early account of language connects with the idea of truth, developed in the notoriously obscure preface to The Origin of German Tragic Drama (19). There, Benjamin rigorously opposes the concern of metaphysics with presenting the truth of what there is in constellations of pre-given ideas, lighting up the night of unknowing like stars, from the concern of epistemology, with making sense of daily life, with possessing knowledge and with constructing concepts out of the evidences of experience. Here the centre for attention is briefly a strictly philosophical opposition, with Plato's concern as to how there can be what there is juxtaposed with Kant's concern as to how it might be known. This focus cannot hold, for Benjamin proceeds to display the counterposed models of temporality at work in the opposition between the supposedly completed symbol and the indefinite self-deferral of allegory, as this in turn works itself out in the romantic preference for the accomplishment of the destiny of the tragic hero, over the interminable work of mourning of baroque tragic drama. The belief that history will culminate in a politics worth having, actualising the idea of justice in the domain of experience, is the belief that history can take the form of completed expiation. For Benjamin, there will be no such completion, and the task is not to complete history but to interrupt it.

Benjamin suggests that Goethe's Werther presents the collective unconscious of late 18th-century Germany, as Freud's Oedipus does that of late 19th-century Europe. Revealing the structures of these scarcely repressed tendencies, to suicide, to envy, reintegrates lost energy back into the culture thus displayed. Neither form of recollection resembles that of Plato's Meno, for whom knowledge is there for the taking, and not dependent on some untimely expedition into an underworld of dreams and false identities. Comay deftly explores the intricate differences between these forms of forgetting and remembering; revealing the parallells and differences between Benjamin's and Freud's return to the images of childhood, between Benjamin's stocking and Freud's cotton reel; and between Goethe's and Plato's invocation of a force of primeval understanding: the one side of the conjunction, Benjamin and Goethe, revealing the specificity of a present moment, the other, Freud and Plato, a false universal. "Waking,'' writes Benjamin, "is the paradigm of remembrance"; and the Marxist task specified in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852), to awaken the living from the nightmare of history, is reaffirmed: "The tradition of dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the minds of the living.'' Benjamin depicts the messianic revolutionary as awakening not the dead but the living, who are immobilised in dogmatic slumber. This is Benjamin's Copernican revolution, making the past and the future, history itself, turn around the completed moment of awakening. The task of the politician is to awaken the living.

Osborne, in a remarkable contribution, explores the thought that theology "stands here for that moment of transcendence of the given, intrinsic to history and politics alike. It can no more be opposed to Marxism than Marxism can be reduced to positivism''. Indeed it is as much a mistake to suppose that Marxism contains no commitment to transcendental structures, as to suppose that theology entails a denial of materialism.

Benjamin's project emerges as the attempt to join the two, historical materialism and theology, in a dialectical image, in which the differences between the political and economic commitments of historical materialism and the metaphysical commitment to truth of theology might be brought together. The condition of possibility for this event is the destruction of conceptions of history as progress, or rather, the destruction not of the conceptions, but of their claim to truth, revealing the phantasmagorical nature of faith in their efficacy. Nietzsche destroys belief in history; Benjamin averts to the Apollonian image of the destroyer, twin of the one who brings destruction on himself. Benjamin destroys belief in progress. The time is ripe for the destruction of the conjunction of the two. In this way the emancipations anticipated by historical materialism might be more than political and economic; and the metaphysical commitments of theology might no longer obstruct the development of a form of experience required for such an emancipation to take place in all its multivalencies.

Osborne explores Benjamin's search for a conception of experience, announced in the early "Programme for a Future Philosophy" (1918), which could meet the requirements placed on it by the continuous transformations at work in modern life. Osborne discusses in turn the essays on Surrealism and on Kafka, moving on to the work in the 1930s on Baudelaire, in relation to the 1940 "Theses on the Philosophy of History''. He identifies Benjamin's emphasis on the capacity of surrealism to reveal the "secret cargo'' of aestheticism, "an experience of history, within the time of the 'now', in which, in the shock of the dialectical image, the continuum, is exploded . . .''. This Osborne juxtaposes with a discussion of the essay on Kafka, as revealing "an archaic experience in the present''. Benjamin insists that Kafka presents the figure of failure: the impossibility of revealing the workings of divine law in modern life. This permits Osborne to draw attention to the significance between the angel of history, whose wings are caught in the wind of progress, who sees destruction mounting on destruction, but who cannot intervene, and the figure of messiah, which brings history to a standstill, in a moment of redemption, in which the truth of time may appear.

The problem for all of these discussions, fascinating and insightful though they are, is posed by the question of style. Benjamin above all works to deploy a style of writing, whether for academics or for the general, newspaper-buying public, in which readers, too, are brought to a standstill; and required yet again to take up the unending task of locating themselves in relation to all that has gone before, all that is now, and all that is to come. In this, Benjamin is the most faithful disciple of Nietzsche and of Hoelderlin, and in this he is in absolute opposition to Heidegger. For Hoelderlin, the caesura of the pure word is the moment when a force outside the language of poetry breaks through and the hero must fall silent. In that silence is gathered together all possibility.

Werner Hamacher in his discussion of Benjamin's essay on violence cites Benjamin citing Hoelderlin to this effect. Hoelderlin's caesura; Benjamin's pure word; Plato's idea are the standstill of history, in which historical materialism and theology combine to provide an experience of truth. The key Kantian juxtaposition in the early "Programme for a Future Philosophy'' is between experience and freedom. Benjamin proposes to rewrite Kant's critical philosophy to reveal the instability of the opposition. In the course of the 1920s, he rewrites freedom as destruction and transforms an infinity of hope, but not for us, into a working image of emancipatory potency.

This richly suggestive collection opens out these themes for inspection, but in a curiously indirect way, neither confronting Benjamin's very real distance from philosophy, as taught anyway this side of the Channel, with its insistence on conjoining theories of meaning and of truth, on debating moral realism and whether ought implies can; nor confronting Benjamin's distinctive mode of insisting on the inseparability of the question of truth from the question of style, a theme which might have been thought to be thoroughly appropriated by Derridean routines, but which turns out all the same to have been a central theme of philosophy from its earliest origins. Benjamin may transpose Plato's questions of truth and justice into the questions of time and destruction, bringing him into perilous proximity with Heidegger's end of philosophy, but his theme is an affirmation of philosophy: how can the truth be presented in local languages?

Joanna Hodge is a senior lecturer in philosophy, Manchester Metropolitan University.

Walter Benjamin's Philosophy:: Destruction and Experience

Editor - Andrew Benjamin and Peter Osborne
ISBN - 0 415 08368 0 and 08369 9
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £40.00 and £13.99
Pages - 298pp

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