Saturday, April 14, 2007

Kabbalistic Kommunism

Before Madonna discovered the Kabbalah, Jewish German Marxist literary critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin viewed the cosmology of the Kabbalah as the out growth of both dialectics and historical materialism. For Benjamin it was a natural gnosis to combine the Kabbalah with a world historical view of the world.

Creative negation, wisdom, understanding, love, power, beauty, endurance, splendor, foundation, sovereignty - the ten dimensions of the Kabbalists' universe form a guide not only to the godhead's inner nature but to the psychological development of the human personality.

I have been influenced by his works and referred to them in my articles on Gothic Capitalism, and magick, modernism;
1666 The Creation Of The World as well as my recent post on the Song of Songs.

If the Frankfurt School which he belonged to attempted to return to Marx's Hegelian roots, Benjamin returned dialectics and historical materialism to its pre-Marx pantheistic roots in the theory of the monad of Cosmic Dialectics and its originator
Joseph Dietzgen

Benjamin's thought was more that of a Libertarian Socialist philosophy than that of traditional Marxism. See my;
Antinominalist Anarchism and Marxism and Religion

And the revival of interest in his work corresponds with the growth of Libertarian Socialism in the New Left in the sixties and seventies.

His work on the mechanical reproduction of art, emphasizing the importance of photography and movies, would underpin later dialectical analysis of underground and avante garde film.

While using the Jewish Kabbalah and Messianic tradition to describe history not as Hegel's Owl of Minerva, but as a process of looking to the past for the possibilities of the future he articulates as well the whole reasoning behind Occult thinking that was so current in his time and popular today. A collective need for Utopian dreams of a golden age past and bright future tomorrow. Thus revolutionary and occult movements historically have coexisted as messianic movements in a particular moment in our history. They did so in his time and do so again now in the movements against Globalization.

This is how one pictures the angel of history:
Where we perceive a chain of events,
He sees one single catastophe which keeps piling
Wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.
The angel would like to stay...and
make whole what has been smashed.
But a storm is blowing from Paradise;
This storm irresistably propels him into the
future to which his back is turned.
This storm is what we call progress.
Walter Benjamin, 1940

Walter Benjamin

...the unique value of the "authentic" work of art has its basis in ritual, the location of its original use value.
...To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility.
...but the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice - politics.

La Violencia

 In his famous essay on the The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
Walter Benjamin discusses the increasing interrelation between politics
and aesthetics in the modern world. Mankind, he says, has become so
alienated from itself that "it can experience its own destruction as an
aesthetic pleasure of the first order".


Walter Benjamin (July 15, 1892 – September 27, 1940) was a German Marxist literary critic, essayist, translator, and philosopher. He was at times associated with the Frankfurt School of critical theory and was also greatly inspired by the Marxism of Bertolt Brecht and the Jewish mysticism of Gershom Scholem.

As a sociological and cultural critic, Benjamin combined ideas of historical materialism, German idealism, and Jewish mysticism in a body of work which was an entirely novel contribution to western philosophy, Marxism, and aesthetic theory. As a literary scholar, he translated essays written by Charles Baudelaire and Marcel Proust's famous novel, In Search of Lost Time. His work is widely cited in academic and literary studies, in particular his essays The Task of the Translator and The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility.

Benjamin, Walter (1892 - 1940)

German Marxist literary critic. Born into a prosperous Jewish family, Benjamin studied philosophy in Berlin, Freiburg, Munich, and Bern. He settled in Berlin in 1920 and worked thereafter as a literary critic and translator. His half-hearted pursuit of an academic career was cut short when the University of Frankfurt rejected his brilliant but unconventional doctoral thesis, The Origin of German Tragic Drama (1928). Benjamin eventually settled in Paris after leaving Germany in 1933 after Hitler came to power. He continued to write essays and reviews for literary journals, but when Paris fell to the Nazis in 1940 he fled south with the hope of escaping to the US via Spain. Informed by the chief of police at the Franco-Spanish border that he would be turned over to the Gestapo, Benjamin committed suicide.

The posthumous publication of Benjamin’s prolific output won him a growing reputation in the later 20th century. The essays containing his philosophical reflections on literature are written in a dense and concentrated style that contains a strong poetic strain. He mixes social criticism and linguistic analysis with historical nostalgia while communicating an underlying sense of pathos and pessimism. The metaphysical quality of his early critical thought gave way to a Marxist inclination in the 1930s. Benjamin’s pronounced intellectual independence and originality are evident in the extended essay Goethe’s Elective Affinities and the essays collected in Illuminations.

The approach to art of the USSR under Stalin was typified, first, by the persecution of all those who expressed any independent thought, and, second, by the adoption of Socialist Realism - the view that art is dedicated to the "realistic" representation of - simplistic, optimistic - "proletarian values" and proletarian life. Subsequent Marxist thinking about art has been largely influenced by Walter Benjamin and Georg Lukács however. Both were exponents of Marxist humanism who saw the important contribution of Marxist theory to aesthetics in the analysis of the condition of labour and in the critique of the alienated and "reified" consciousness of man under capitalism. Benjamin’s collection of essays The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936) attempts to describe the changed experience of art in the modern world and sees the rise of Fascism and mass society as the culmination of a process of debasement, whereby art ceases to be a means of instruction and becomes instead a mere gratification, a matter of taste alone. "Communism responds by politicising art" - that is, by making art into the instrument by which the false consciousness of the mass man is to be overthrown.

Walter Benjamin (1892-1940)

Benjamin was born in Berlin on July 15, 1892. He was an unusual figure in 20th century thought, considering himself a "Man of Letters" and a literary critic rather than taking the more illustrious title of philosopher. His short career carried him through the ten years leading up to WWII, publishing an essay on Goethe's Elective Affinities in 1924 that earned him swift recognition. He had received his doctorate in Switzerland in 1919, but failed to acquire his Habilitation, making it difficult for him to find work well suited to his abilities. The work he had submitted in 1928 was the only full-length study that he published, The Origins of German Tragic Drama, and it was likely misunderstood by its jurors, for it prominently contained a complex network of appropriated quotations. In the period between 1925 and 1933 Benjamin eked out a living as a literary critic and translator, as a freelance writer for journals and magazines, meeting a number of left-wing intellectuals. He befriended Bertolt Brecht, an ally who shared with Benjamin both an affinity with the Left, and a suspicion of dialectics (the dominant concept in use at the time). When the Nazi's took office in 1933, Benjamin fled to Paris, maintaining work as a writer for the Institute for Social Research based in Frankfurt. Paris was an inspiration for Benjamin, and it was during this period that he wrote some of his most influential essays and articles for literary journals, including an ambitious (and hence, unfinished) reading of Baudelaire's Arcades Project in the context of nineteenth-century capitalism

History, modernity, the rise of mass culture in an interrelation of art and technology, as well as nineteenth and twentieth-century literature were particular interests for Benjamin. Due to his philosophies on history and the nature of translation and its effects on languages, time and literature, Benjamin's writings often shocked his contemporaries. Of note is his criticism of linear, causal notions of history preferring the metaphor of a constellation to describe a spatial relation of events/contexts in which the historian should relate the present to the past. Noting further on the relationship of life to history, it is for Benjamin significant that each individual being have a history of its own, therefore having a life of its own, as opposed to each being merely a setting for history. The afterlife of each being is incumbent upon its own striving against its normalization in modern life. That which attests to the confines, the potentialities and possible futuricity of its own status as an historic being experiences something of its life, an imaginary not formed in an image of the "natural" or "nature". Such testimonies of living beings open the possibility of translation, identification, and recognition as historical beings in an undetermined future — they have an afterlife.

Walter Benjamin

In the collection of his works, Walter Benjamin demonstrates complete adherence to the notion of history moving through the necessary epochs set forth by Marx; to human material desire being the prime mover of mankind; to the notions of alienation; and to the proletariat being the class with the ability to move mankind (through revolution) from the current epoch of capitalism, to the next epoch, communism. Benjamin challenges orthodox Marxism, with the notion that the individual participant in the bourgeoisie can come to a full awareness of his of his part in the current disintegration of man, by the structure of his method, and by questioning the deterministic element of Marxism. Benjamin’s method is a combination of an artful use of literary tools, empirical observation, and "transcendent" experience.

Benjamin illustrates historical materialism through comparing the imagery of ancient man demonstrating his regard for nature by pouring out libation, with modern man’s use of technology to strip nature of "her" products prematurely. (76) Benjamin’s essays on the cities, particularly Moscow (98), and his essay One Way(75) present in-depth illustrations of alienation. Moscow alludes to alienation through Benjamin comparing it to Berlin. Moscow is full of almost communist life. Men, and women create and sell their own products, they interact with one another. Whereas Benjamin refers to Berlin in that aspect as an empty city, and a reflection of the bourgeoisie attempt to master nature. (98) Benjamin used the great cities in general as a metaphor for humankind’s alienation, from nature, and from one another. (75) He also used cities to depict the bourgeoisie mind, and its perpetuation of its own illusion. (146)

The Origin of Negative Dialectics: Theodor
W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and the Frankfurt Institute

The Benjamin Papers

Walter Benjamin -- Philosophy Books and Online Resources



by Lloyd Spencer
Senior Lecturer
Faculty of Media
Trinity and All Saints College

Other Voices 1.1 (March 1997), Walter Benjamin's, The Arcades Project

Readings from some elements of Benjamin's exploration of the history of modernity in 19th century Paris.

Walter Benjamin and the "dialectic of awakening"

Benjamin’s writing flashes between poles of revolution and revelation. A scholar of threshold experiences, states of intoxication, and failed philosophies, he is brilliant on the subject of drugs: "The most passionate examination of the hashish trance will not teach us half as much about thinking (which is eminently narcotic), as the profane illumination of thinking about the hashish trance," he wrote. "The reader, the thinker, the flaneur, are types of illuminati just as much as the opium eater, the dreamer, the ecstatic. … Not to mention that most terrible drug — ourselves — which we take in solitude."

He saw thinking as a form of intoxication. He recognized that drug-exploration, the pursuit of visionary experience, could be an extension of a rational and intellectual quest: "The dialectics of intoxication are indeed curious," he wrote. "Is not perhaps all ecstasy in one world humiliating sobriety in that complementary to it?"

Writing in the 1920s and ‘30s, Benjamin smoked hash, tried mescaline, and enjoyed his own trips: "I thought with intense pride of sitting here in Marseilles in a hashish trance; of who else might be sharing my intoxication this evening, how few." Thinking under the influence of hashish was like unrolling a ball of thread through a maze: "We go forward; but in so doing we not only discover the twists and turns of the cave, but also enjoy the pleasure of this discovery against the background of the other, rhythmical bliss of unwinding the thread."

Words Made Flesh

This booklet attempts to show that algorithmic code and computations
can’t be separated from an often utopian cultural imagination
that reaches from magic spells to contemporary computer operating

The flip-side of this critique was hostility of the Situationists to
both artistic experimentation with new technology and philosophical
reflection on computation. This hostility manifested itself particularly
in the repeated Situationist attacks on communication theorist Abraham
Moles (see p. 92). With their polemics against formalism and
for “imagination,” the S.I. clearly continued the ideas of the French
Surrealists who in turn were heavily indebted to romanticism. In
his 1924 Manifesto of Surrealism, André Breton wrote that “We are
still living under the reign of logic: this, of course, is what I have
been driving at. But in this day and age logical methods are applicable
only to solving problems of secondary interest.”18 His surrealism
expresses laconic indifference to new technology: “Radios? Fine.
Syphilis? If you like. Photography? I don’t see any reason why not.
The cinema? Three cheers for darkened rooms. War? Gave us a good
laugh. The telephone? Hello.”19 Along the lines of this technological
scepticism, Surrealist “automatic writing” for example was not computational,
but a psychic automatism that took the unconscious as its
source code, not a calculus. It was still a foreign idea to Surrealism
that computational formalisms could themselves be highly subjective
and culturally coded, as the Pythagorean and Kabbalist tradition and
the “semantics” of, for example, Llull’s “alphabetum” suggest. The
Situationist concept of “psychogeography” had its roots in the aimless
Surrealist drifts through Paris described in Breton’s 1928 novel Nadja
and in Louis Aragon’s 1926 novel Le Paysan de Paris, and meant a
purely subjective, para-scientific exploration of (chiefly) urban spaces
through aimless drift. The surrealist drifts in turn were indebted to
the romanticist “flâneur,” a wanderer “botanising the asphalt” as cultural
theorist Walter Benjamin put it in his essay on 19th century poet
Charles Baudelaire.

Walter Benjamin and the Bible by Brian M. Britt

This lucid and accessible exploration of the category of sacred text in Walter Benjamin's work is an important addition to the already sizeable body of critical literature devoted to Benjamin's writing. Returning the subject of "sacred text" to view is itself a service to Biblical scholars and others in religious studies concerned with the scriptural function of texts-whether "sacred" or not. Britt sees Benjamin as an ally in moving beyond the dichotomy between externalist, historical-critical concepts of sacred texts and internalist, confessional ones. Beyond that dichotomy lies the real world task of regaining "pure language," not reducing language to an instrument for transferring information but encountering the world in every word. The idea of sacred text, Britt maintains, runs through Walter Benjamin's writings-and if Benjamin was right, it runs through the world. Readers unfamiliar with Benjamin will find this a delightfully clear introduction to his work; those who know his work will find a new appreciation for the theology with which it is saturated.
Symposium on Jewish Fundamentalism
Hosted by Esalen's Center for Theory and Research (CTR)

Taking his cue from early German Romantic thought, Fischer labels this entire vision expressivist. Expressivism takes spiritual ideals and clothes (i.e. 'expresses') them in material media (painting, architecture, poetry, or in the present case, society and the state). While the philosophy of expressivism was largely inaugurated by the German Romantics (poets such as Hölderlin and Novalis but also philosophers like Hegel and Schelling), it found its way into Jewish thought during the 19th century when Romantic texts were translated into Hebrew. As Fischer noted, when Hegel, for example, was translated into Hebrew, the translators used Kabbalistic terms throughout as technical equivalents for Hegel's terms. This caused Hegel to appear rather closer to Kabbalistic thought than he may in fact have been, but also caused readers to think of the Kabbalah in Hegelian expressivist terms.

Politically, this alliance between expressivism and religion lends a supposedly divine justification to what are otherwise secular projects and so tends to inculcate a dangerous political extremism. Religiously, this alliance is also suspect, for it too often ends by making an idol of the individual or community's will. In modern Israel, this is most clearly seen in the way that the "will of the people" is regularly taken to express a sort of divine sanction. Here, especially, we can see the extent to which these supposedly conservative religious groups are in fact very modern. Radical religious Zionists should not be understood as regressive defenders of an idealized past, but as peculiarly modern religio-political movements. The absolutizing of the general will is an expression of secular nationalism more than of traditional religion. In modern Israel, the equation (what some what call the confusion) of national will with religious witness has given rise to the slogan: the voice of the people is the voice of God revealed to the prophets.

This Israeli version of the vox populi gets invoked constantly in contemporary Israeli politics and leads to one of two peculiarly modern political stances. On the one hand, a revolutionary populism identifies the vox populi with the discontented and disenfranchised voices of the nation and so calls for political revolution. This is a form of revolutionary modernism (think of Georg Lukacs, Henri Lefebvre, Walter Benjamin, et al.) with a Zionist twist. On the other hand, a Statist party goes further and actually identifies the vox populi with state of Israel, as such, because the state is held to be the entity most representative of the Israeli people in all of their diversity (a position mirrored in secular politics by the Hegelian right). Statist rabbis and movements may vigorously disagree with the decisions of the secular government but will, nonetheless, finally cooperate because they believe that doing otherwise would be to disobey God's voice speaking through the nation-state. The recent disengagement from Gaza, which was opposed by almost all radical Zionist parties, went so smoothly because the settler rabbis were Statists and so faithfully acquiesced to the will of the government, despite their own serious objections to the policy.

As a final practical observation, Fischer noted how this attention to the vox populi explains why radical religious Zionists are eager to dialogue with their Israeli counterparts (whether secular or religious, liberal or conservative) but see little need to dialogue with Palestinians and Arabs. Both Statists and populists see the Israeli people as somehow organically expressing the will of God and so, even if they fiercely disagree, they have to pay attention to each other. Arabs, however, are excluded from this organic conception of the nation and are thus little more than bit players in a drama that centers on the relationship between God and the people/nation of Israel.

Epilogue: Dangerous Memories
Steven T. Ostovich

Walter Benjamin's understanding of memory is bound up with his philosophy of language and history and his theology, but it is based on an experience he characterizes as the "chaos of memories." There is a resistance to narrative ordering and control associated with memory for Benjamin. He specifies this resistance further: "I find in my memory rigidly fixed words, expressions, verses that, like a malleable mass which has later cooled and hardened, preserve in me the imprint of the collision between a larger collective and myself" in which "isolated words have remained in place as marks of catastrophic encounters." Catastrophe engenders memories whose rough and hardened edges preclude placement in smooth-flowing narratives as a form of coming to terms with the past. These memories are disturbing in a manner similar to dreams. Like dreams, these memories involve crossing a threshold and stepping outside the closed world of normalcy. They "arrest" thought: "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 crystallizes into a monad."(...)

Redemption and Utopia


The following is an essay based upon Redemption and Utopia of
Michael Löwy published originally under the title Redemption et
Utopie in 1988 by Presses Universitaires de France. I read the
book in Gustaf Gimdal's Swedish translation Frlossning och Utopi
published by Daidalos in 1990. I intend to use some of
Löwy's themes as a springboard for a discussion of the concepts of time
and victimhood as they apply to progressive thought at the end of
the 20th century.

Nineteenth century German society as Löwy describes it was
characterized by the explosive growth of capitalism and a cultural
reaction against it on one hand and the partial emancipation and
assimilation of the Jews on the other hand. Industrialism spread
at a particularly rapid rate from 1870 until the First World War.
This period also represented the height of the influence of
Romanticism, the cultural reaction to industrialization.
Romanticism was characterized by a harsh critique of modern
society as dominated by rationalism, mechanization, and
secularism. By the end of the century it was the leading
intellectual current and united cultural and political thinkers
across ideological lines.

At the same time 70% of Germany's Jews had left the ghettos that
had been their home for so many centuries and had been granted
formal political equality. However, except for a privileged few,
cultural equality, acceptance into German society, remained as
elusive as ever. This contradiction was especially marked at the
universities, where Jews in 1885 constituted a whopping 10% of the
student population but were denied access to most regular teaching
positions. This partial assimilation made Jewish academics ripe
for the intellectual currents of their time. Though a majority of
them followed the liberal or respectable Marxist trends in German
thought, a number, including the men Löwy treats, became more
enamored of anti-modernist Romantic ideas.

On the one hand, their identification with Romanticism was a
result of their emancipation, their identification with German
society and even the nationalistic elements of Romanticism (for
many of them Zionism was a counterpart to German nationalism). On
the other hand, the contradictory nature of their assimilation was
the very precondition for their rejection of that assimilation,
particularly those aspects that represented acceptance of a
materialistic, secularized society. Thus, many of them identified
early in their careers with those trends within Romanticism that
looked to previous historical periods, in particular the guild
structures in medieval Europe, as a model for a more
spiritualized, participatory society. This tendency often included
an admiration of Christian values and mystical tradition. But as
they, often as a result of exposure to the works of Martin Buber
concerning the Jewish mystical tradition, got in touch with their
Jewish roots, they began to identify with their own messianic

This tradition's outstanding feature can be encapsulated in the
rich Kabbalistic concept of Tikkoun, the obligation of Jews to
work for the restitution of society to a harmoniously functioning
and just entity. The concept in itself is a radical one, among
other reasons because it implies a "return" to a situation that is
not first and foremost "good" or "merciful" as the Christian
mission is often interpreted, but to something holistic, "beyond
good and evil," something like the state of innocence in the
Garden of Eden. It is true that the form in which Jewish
messianism had been propagated through the rabbinical and
Talumudic tradition was rather more reactionary than radical: the
wished-for restitution was expected to occur outside of history in
an indeterminate future through the miraculous intervention of a
personal and charismatic Messiah.

What the men whom Löwy treats accomplished was to re-instate the
radical character of the Jewish messianic tradition through its
integration with 19th century libertarian anarchist ideas: the
restitution, though seen as a total transformation of human life
and its relationship to nature, was expected to occur within
history. Furthermore, its occurrence would be expedited, if not
wholly determined, by the concrete actions of human beings within
history. One of the common denominators of Jewish messianism and
libertarian anarchism that made for such a felicitous match was
the radically anti-authoritarian character of both traditions. The
state and all the forms of domination and control that it
represents were regarded as the chief enemy. Drawing on their
messianic tradition, the anti-authoritarianism of Löwy's thinkers
often took the form of an the belief in an apparently oxymoronic
"theocratic anarchy," i.e. a society in which the very absence of
power relationships among people and of the abuse of nature would
be insured by their absolute obedience to God. This view dovetails
nicely with the most radical elements in Judaism, namely that
human beings through making proper choices can be God's co-workers
and compel her/him to establish a just order on earth.

Though Löwy focuses on the chemistry between Jewish messianism and
libertarian anarchism, he implies that the Enlightenment
influenced many of the thinkers he treats, and I would argue that
rationalism was an important term in the equation as well. L|wy
hints more than once that these men had a more ambivalent attitude
toward the Enlightenment than many of their non-Jewish Romanticist
or anarchist colleagues. One clearly historical reason for their
tendency to be more favorably disposed toward the Enlightenment
was that its ideas of human equality had led more or less directly
to the emancipation of the Jews. But in my view the more
fundamental relationship arose from the fact that the idea of a
just social order that is so central to the Jewish tradition has
strong rationalistic components. The concept of Jews as having a
special mission on earth as God's co-workers has always implied a
reasoned, educated knowledge of just what it is that God expects
people to do and what will work in realizing her/his expectations.
The Romantic rebellion against the Enlightenment, though
satisfying to these Jewish intellectuals in its attempt to
re-infuse spiritual and cooperative values into society,
represented also a threat against significant elements of their
Jewish identity.

Analytic vs. Continental (yet again) (J. Stanley)

Here is a passage from Walter Benjamin’s essay, “On Language as Such and the Language of Man”. It’s an early essay, written in 1916, and it is not one of Benjamin’s influential works. But it nicely illustrates the distinction I’m trying to make:

It is therefore the linguistic being of man to name things…Why name them? To whom does man communicate himself?...Before this question can be answered we must again inquire: how does man communicate himself? A profound distinction is to be made, a choice presented, in face of which an intrinsically false understanding of language is certain to give itself away…Anyone who believes that man communicates his mental being by names cannot also assume that it is his mental being that he communicates, for this does not happen through the names of things, that is, through the words by which he denotes a thing. And, equally, the advocate of such a view can only assume that man is communicating factual subject matter to other men, for that does happen through the word by which he denotes a thing. This view is the bourgeois conception of language, the invalidity and emptiness of which will become increasingly clear in what follows. It holds that the means of communication is the word, its object factual, its addressee a human being. The other conception of language, in contrast, knows no means, no object, and no addressee of communication. It means: in naming the mental being of man communicates itself to God.

The rest of the essay consists of Benjamin’s explanation of the last line of the quote. Benjamin argues that the first two chapters of Genesis are meditations on the creative power of language; in the second chapter of Genesis, Adam provides THE name for each thing; he is not just arbitrarily and conventionally linking up sounds with things (“The human word is the name of things. Hence it is no longer conceivable, as the bourgeois view of language maintains, that the word has an accidental relation to its object, that it is a sign for things…agreed by some convention”). Benjamin is not silly enough to think that names are essential to things (“…the rejection of bourgeois by mystical linguistic theory equally rests on a misunderstanding. For according to mystical theory the word is simply the essence of the thing. That is incorrect, because the thing in itself has no word, being created from God’s word…”). He is clear that humans encounter objects, classify them according to their knowledge, and then give the objects names (only for God, or Adam before the Fall, is naming a creative act). The problem with the bourgeois picture of language is that it completely divorces naming from the creative act, thereby severing its connection to a certain kind of mystical power, which is reflected in our deepest myths.

So Benjamin isn’t at all confused about metaphysics or the problem of intentionality. He just finds no interest in the question of how, by the use of language, one person can communicate something about the world to another. What’s interesting to him is how language is represented in human mythology, and what that reveals to us about the cultural significance of our practice of naming. This kind of question is one that is not apt to be taken up by a philosopher in the analytic tradition. Someone in my tradition might say that the issues that interest Benjamin are questions of anthropology rather than philosophy. Someone in Benjamin’s tradition might say that the issues that interest me are bourgeois.

The Dialectics of Allegoresis: Historical Materialism in Benjamin's Illuminations,

Allegoresis and collection are the twin foci around which the elliptical writings of Walter Benjamin orbit. The former, as a mode of criticism, transforms the latter practice into a version of materialist historicism:

The period, the region, the craftsmanship, the former ownership--for a true collector the whole background of an item adds up to the magic encyclopedia whose quintessence is the fate of his object (60).

This sentence exemplifies Benjamin's tendencies as a writer, with its heterogeneity ("magic encyclopedia ... quintessence ... fate ... object"), its tendency to see in the specific object a grander narrative (just as the allegorist sees noumenal truths embodied in the phenomenal), and its attempt to distinguish "the true collector" from an ostensibly quite similar, but opposed, historical formulation: here, the false collector who is an investor. The grand narrative which the collector discerns in the object collected is not merely its immediate history, its period, region etc., but history itself as it spills out from history's most conservative vessel: the material object. A quotation which Benjamin borrows from Proust argues this position: "the past is 'somewhere beyond the reach of the intellect, and unmistakably present in some material object'"(158). This specific articulation creates for Benjamin a difficult task, as his criticism must strive to capture what is at once "beyond the intellect" and "unmistakable." That this criticism is most aptly embodied in the figure of the collector is not surprising, since he who collects has access to the "magic encyclopedia" afforded by objects and can therefore see "through them into their distant past as though inspired" (61). The magical, or prophet-like function of the collector, its "old-age" image (61), mediates the divide between what is unthinkable and what is self-evident.

Benjamin’s last piece of writing

This, Benjamin’s last piece of writing, echoes many of his early writings set down under the impact of the 1914-18 war. In Benjamin’s work theological insights and the urgent imperatives suggested by historical materialism are never at odds; in this last piece of writing they are crystallised in a series of extraordinarily suggestive meditations.

Many of the arguments of the theses were used by Benjamin in an important article, ‘Eduard Fuchs: Collector and Historian’ written in 1937 for the journal of the Institute of Social Research. In that essay Benjamin’s preoccupations were stated in more mundane, more historically concrete language. In the ‘theses’ they are set down with all the concentration of an incantation or prayer.

Benjamin’s 18 ‘theses’ are couched in the language of Messianism and invoke specifically Jewish themes such as that of remembrance. At the same time these ‘theses’ represent a condensed and encoded statement on the nature of the revolutionary experience of time and of history. The first thesis addresses the puzzle of the continued relevance of a theological perspective in his most materialist impulses.

Walter Benjamin 1940

On the Concept of History

Walter Benjamin

Translation: © 2005 Dennis Redmond;
CopyLeft: translation used with permission, Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike);
Original German: Gesammelten Schriften I:2. Suhrkamp Verlag. Frankfurt am Main, 1974;
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden.

Translator’s Note: Jetztzeit was translated as “here-and-now,” in order to distinguish it from its polar opposite, the empty and homogenous time of positivism. Stillstellung was rendered as “zero-hour,” rather than the misleading “standstill”; the verb “stillstehen” means to come to a stop or standstill, but Stillstellung is Benjamin’s own unique invention, which connotes an objective interruption of a mechanical process, rather like the dramatic pause at the end of an action-adventure movie, when the audience is waiting to find out if the time-bomb/missile/terrorist device was defused or not).


It is well-known that an automaton once existed, which was so constructed that it could counter any move of a chess-player with a counter-move, and thereby assure itself of victory in the match. A puppet in Turkish attire, water-pipe in mouth, sat before the chessboard, which rested on a broad table. Through a system of mirrors, the illusion was created that this table was transparent from all sides. In truth, a hunchbacked dwarf who was a master chess-player sat inside, controlling the hands of the puppet with strings. One can envision a corresponding object to this apparatus in philosophy. The puppet called “historical materialism” is always supposed to win. It can do this with no further ado against any opponent, so long as it employs the services of theology, which as everyone knows is small and ugly and must be kept out of sight.


“Among the most noteworthy characteristics of human beings,” says Lotze, “belongs... next to so much self-seeking in individuals, the general absence of envy of each present in relation to the future.” This reflection shows us that the picture of happiness which we harbor is steeped through and through in the time which the course of our own existence has conferred on us. The happiness which could awaken envy in us exists only in the air we have breathed, with people we could have spoken with, with women who might have been able to give themselves to us. The conception of happiness, in other words, resonates irremediably with that of resurrection [Erloesung: transfiguration, redemption]. It is just the same with the conception of the past, which makes history into its affair. The past carries a secret index with it, by which it is referred to its resurrection. Are we not touched by the same breath of air which was among that which came before? is there not an echo of those who have been silenced in the voices to which we lend our ears today? have not the women, who we court, sisters who they do not recognize anymore? If so, then there is a secret protocol [Verabredung: also appointment] between the generations of the past and that of our own. For we have been expected upon this earth. For it has been given us to know, just like every generation before us, a weak messianic power, on which the past has a claim. This claim is not to be settled lightly. The historical materialist knows why.


The chronicler, who recounts events without distinguishing between the great and small, thereby accounts for the truth, that nothing which has ever happened is to be given as lost to history. Indeed, the past would fully befall only a resurrected humanity. Said another way: only for a resurrected humanity would its past, in each of its moments, be citable. Each of its lived moments becomes a citation a l'ordre du jour [order of the day] – whose day is precisely that of the Last Judgment.


Secure at first food and clothing, and the kingdom of God will come to you of itself. – Hegel, 1807

The class struggle, which always remains in view for a historian schooled in Marx, is a struggle for the rough and material things, without which there is nothing fine and spiritual. Nevertheless these latter are present in the class struggle as something other than mere booty, which falls to the victor. They are present as confidence, as courage, as humor, as cunning, as steadfastness in this struggle, and they reach far back into the mists of time. They will, ever and anon, call every victory which has ever been won by the rulers into question. Just as flowers turn their heads towards the sun, so too does that which has been turn, by virtue of a secret kind of heliotropism, towards the sun which is dawning in the sky of history. To this most inconspicuous of all transformations the historical materialist must pay heed.


The true picture of the past whizzes by. Only as a picture, which flashes its final farewell in the moment of its recognizability, is the past to be held fast. “The truth will not run away from us” – this remark by Gottfried Keller denotes the exact place where historical materialism breaks through historicism’s picture of history. For it is an irretrievable picture of the past, which threatens to disappear with every present, which does not recognize itself as meant in it.


To articulate what is past does not mean to recognize “how it really was.” It means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger. For historical materialism it is a question of holding fast to a picture of the past, just as if it had unexpectedly thrust itself, in a moment of danger, on the historical subject. The danger threatens the stock of tradition as much as its recipients. For both it is one and the same: handing itself over as the tool of the ruling classes. In every epoch, the attempt must be made to deliver tradition anew from the conformism which is on the point of overwhelming it. For the Messiah arrives not merely as the Redeemer; he also arrives as the vanquisher of the Anti-Christ. The only writer of history with the gift of setting alight the sparks of hope in the past, is the one who is convinced of this: that not even the dead will be safe from the enemy, if he is victorious. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.


Think of the darkness and the great cold
In this valley, which resounds with misery.
– Brecht, Threepenny Opera

Fustel de Coulanges recommended to the historian, that if he wished to reexperience an epoch, he should remove everything he knows about the later course of history from his head. There is no better way of characterizing the method with which historical materialism has broken. It is a procedure of empathy. Its origin is the heaviness at heart, the acedia, which despairs of mastering the genuine historical picture, which so fleetingly flashes by. The theologians of the Middle Ages considered it the primary cause of melancholy. Flaubert, who was acquainted with it, wrote: “Peu de gens devineront combien il a fallu être triste pour ressusciter Carthage.” [Few people can guess how despondent one has to be in order to resuscitate Carthage.] The nature of this melancholy becomes clearer, once one asks the question, with whom does the historical writer of historicism actually empathize. The answer is irrefutably with the victor. Those who currently rule are however the heirs of all those who have ever been victorious. Empathy with the victors thus comes to benefit the current rulers every time. This says quite enough to the historical materialist. Whoever until this day emerges victorious, marches in the triumphal procession in which today’s rulers tread over those who are sprawled underfoot. The spoils are, as was ever the case, carried along in the triumphal procession. They are known as the cultural heritage. In the historical materialist they have to reckon with a distanced observer. For what he surveys as the cultural heritage is part and parcel of a lineage [Abkunft: descent] which he cannot contemplate without horror. It owes its existence not only to the toil of the great geniuses, who created it, but also to the nameless drudgery of its contemporaries. There has never been a document of culture, which is not simultaneously one of barbarism. And just as it is itself not free from barbarism, neither is it free from the process of transmission, in which it falls from one set of hands into another. The historical materialist thus moves as far away from this as measurably possible. He regards it as his task to brush history against the grain.


The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “emergency situation” in which we live is the rule. We must arrive at a concept of history which corresponds to this. Then it will become clear that the task before us is the introduction of a real state of emergency; and our position in the struggle against Fascism will thereby improve. Not the least reason that the latter has a chance is that its opponents, in the name of progress, greet it as a historical norm. – The astonishment that the things we are experiencing in the 20th century are “still” possible is by no means philosophical. It is not the beginning of knowledge, unless it would be the knowledge that the conception of history on which it rests is untenable.


My wing is ready to fly
I would rather turn back
For had I stayed mortal time
I would have had little luck.
– Gerhard Scholem, “Angelic Greetings”

There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. An angel is depicted there who looks as though he were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment so fair [verweilen: a reference to Goethe’s Faust], to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm.


The objects which the monastic rules assigned to monks for meditation had the task of making the world and its drives repugnant. The mode of thought which we pursue today comes from a similar determination. It has the intention, at a moment wherein the politicians in whom the opponents of Fascism had placed their hopes have been knocked supine, and have sealed their downfall by the betrayal of their own cause, of freeing the political child of the world from the nets in which they have ensnared it. The consideration starts from the assumption that the stubborn faith in progress of these politicians, their trust in their “mass basis” and finally their servile subordination into an uncontrollable apparatus have been three sides of the same thing. It seeks to give an idea of how dearly it will cost our accustomed concept of history, to avoid any complicity with that which these politicians continue to hold fast to.


The conformism which has dwelt within social democracy from the very beginning rests not merely on its political tactics, but also on its economic conceptions. It is a fundamental cause of the later collapse. There is nothing which has corrupted the German working-class so much as the opinion that they were swimming with the tide. Technical developments counted to them as the course of the stream, which they thought they were swimming in. From this, it was only a step to the illusion that the factory-labor set forth by the path of technological progress represented a political achievement. The old Protestant work ethic celebrated its resurrection among German workers in secularized form. The Gotha Program [dating from the 1875 Gotha Congress] already bore traces of this confusion. It defined labor as “the source of all wealth and all culture.” Suspecting the worst, Marx responded that human being, who owned no other property aside from his labor-power, “must be the slave of other human beings, who... have made themselves into property-owners.” Oblivious to this, the confusion only increased, and soon afterwards Josef Dietzgen announced: “Labor is the savior of modern times... In the... improvement... of labor... consists the wealth, which can now finally fulfill what no redeemer could hitherto achieve.” This vulgar-Marxist concept of what labor is, does not bother to ask the question of how its products affect workers, so long as these are no longer at their disposal. It wishes to perceive only the progression of the exploitation of nature, not the regression of society. It already bears the technocratic traces which would later be found in Fascism. Among these is a concept of nature which diverges in a worrisome manner from those in the socialist utopias of the Vormaerz period [pre-1848]. Labor, as it is henceforth conceived, is tantamount to the exploitation of nature, which is contrasted to the exploitation of the proletariat with naïve self-satisfaction. Compared to this positivistic conception, the fantasies which provided so much ammunition for the ridicule of Fourier exhibit a surprisingly healthy sensibility. According to Fourier, a beneficent division of social labor would have the following consequences: four moons would illuminate the night sky; ice would be removed from the polar cap; saltwater from the sea would no longer taste salty; and wild beasts would enter into the service of human beings. All this illustrates a labor which, far from exploiting nature, is instead capable of delivering creations whose possibility slumbers in her womb. To the corrupted concept of labor belongs, as its logical complement, that nature which, as Dietzgen put it, “is there gratis [for free].”


We need history, but we need it differently from the spoiled lazy-bones in the garden of knowledge.
– Nietzsche, On the Use and Abuse of History for Life

The subject of historical cognition is the battling, oppressed class itself. In Marx it steps forwards as the final enslaved and avenging class, which carries out the work of emancipation in the name of generations of downtrodden to its conclusion. This consciousness, which for a short time made itself felt in the “Spartacus” [Spartacist splinter group, the forerunner to the German Communist Party], was objectionable to social democracy from the very beginning. In the course of three decades it succeeded in almost completely erasing the name of Blanqui, whose distant thunder [Erzklang] had made the preceding century tremble. It contented itself with assigning the working-class the role of the savior of future generations. It thereby severed the sinews of its greatest power. Through this schooling the class forgot its hate as much as its spirit of sacrifice. For both nourish themselves on the picture of enslaved forebears, not on the ideal of the emancipated heirs.


Yet every day our cause becomes clearer and the people more clever.
– Josef Dietzgen, Social Democratic Philosophy

Social democratic theory, and still more the praxis, was determined by a concept of progress which did not hold to reality, but had a dogmatic claim. Progress, as it was painted in the minds of the social democrats, was once upon a time the progress of humanity itself (not only that of its abilities and knowledges). It was, secondly, something unending (something corresponding to an endless perfectibility of humanity). It counted, thirdly, as something essentially unstoppable (as something self-activating, pursuing a straight or spiral path). Each of these predicates is controversial, and critique could be applied to each of them. This latter must, however, when push comes to shove, go behind all these predicates and direct itself at what they all have in common. The concept of the progress of the human race in history is not to be separated from the concept of its progression through a homogenous and empty time. The critique of the concept of this progress must ground the basis of its critique on the concept of progress itself.


Origin is the goal [Ziel: terminus].
– Karl Kraus, Worte in Versen I [Words in Verse]

History is the object of a construction whose place is formed not in homogenous and empty time, but in that which is fulfilled by the here-and-now [Jetztzeit]. For Robespierre, Roman antiquity was a past charged with the here-and-now, which he exploded out of the continuum of history. The French revolution thought of itself as a latter day Rome. It cited ancient Rome exactly the way fashion cites a past costume. Fashion has an eye for what is up-to-date, wherever it moves in the jungle [Dickicht: maze, thicket] of what was. It is the tiger’s leap into that which has gone before. Only it takes place in an arena in which the ruling classes are in control. The same leap into the open sky of history is the dialectical one, as Marx conceptualized the revolution.


The consciousness of exploding the continuum of history is peculiar to the revolutionary classes in the moment of their action. The Great Revolution introduced a new calendar. The day on which the calendar started functioned as a historical time-lapse camera. And it is fundamentally the same day which, in the shape of holidays and memorials, always returns. The calendar does not therefore count time like clocks. They are monuments of a historical awareness, of which there has not seemed to be the slightest trace for a hundred years. Yet in the July Revolution an incident took place which did justice to this consciousness. During the evening of the first skirmishes, it turned out that the clock-towers were shot at independently and simultaneously in several places in Paris. An eyewitness who may have owed his inspiration to the rhyme wrote at that moment:

Qui le croirait! on dit,
qu'irrités contre l'heure
De nouveaux Josués
au pied de chaque tour,
Tiraient sur les cadrans
pour arrêter le jour.

[Who would've thought! As though
Angered by time’s way
The new Joshuas
Beneath each tower, they say
Fired at the dials
To stop the day.]


The historical materialist cannot do without the concept of a present which is not a transition, in which time originates and has come to a standstill. For this concept defines precisely the present in which he writes history for his person. Historicism depicts the “eternal” picture of the past; the historical materialist, an experience with it, which stands alone. He leaves it to others to give themselves to the whore called “Once upon a time” in the bordello of historicism. He remains master of his powers: man enough, to explode the continuum of history.


Historicism justifiably culminates in universal history. Nowhere does the materialist writing of history distance itself from it more clearly than in terms of method. The former has no theoretical armature. Its method is additive: it offers a mass of facts, in order to fill up a homogenous and empty time. The materialist writing of history for its part is based on a constructive principle. Thinking involves not only the movement of thoughts but also their zero-hour [Stillstellung]. Where thinking suddenly halts in a constellation overflowing with tensions, there it yields a shock to the same, through which it crystallizes as a monad. The historical materialist approaches a historical object solely and alone where he encounters it as a monad. In this structure he cognizes the sign of a messianic zero-hour [Stillstellung] of events, or put differently, a revolutionary chance in the struggle for the suppressed past. He perceives it, in order to explode a specific epoch out of the homogenous course of history; thus exploding a specific life out of the epoch, or a specific work out of the life-work. The net gain of this procedure consists of this: that the life-work is preserved and sublated in the work, the epoch in the life-work, and the entire course of history in the epoch. The nourishing fruit of what is historically conceptualized has time as its core, its precious but flavorless seed.


“In relation to the history of organic life on Earth,” notes a recent biologist, “the miserable fifty millennia of homo sapiens represents something like the last two seconds of a twenty-four hour day. The entire history of civilized humanity would, on this scale, take up only one fifth of the last second of the last hour.” The here-and-now, which as the model of messianic time summarizes the entire history of humanity into a monstrous abbreviation, coincides to a hair with the figure, which the history of humanity makes in the universe.



Historicism contents itself with establishing a causal nexus of various moments of history. But no state of affairs is, as a cause, already a historical one. It becomes this, posthumously, through eventualities which may be separated from it by millennia. The historian who starts from this, ceases to permit the consequences of eventualities to run through the fingers like the beads of a rosary. He records [erfasst] the constellation in which his own epoch comes into contact with that of an earlier one. He thereby establishes a concept of the present as that of the here-and-now, in which splinters of messianic time are shot through.


Surely the time of the soothsayers, who divined what lay hidden in the lap of the future, was experienced neither as homogenous nor as empty. Whoever keeps this in mind will perhaps have an idea of how past time was experienced as remembrance: namely, just the same way. It is well-known that the Jews were forbidden to look into the future. The Torah and the prayers instructed them, by contrast, in remembrance. This disenchanted those who fell prey to the future, who sought advice from the soothsayers. For that reason the future did not, however, turn into a homogenous and empty time for the Jews. For in it every second was the narrow gate, through which the Messiah could enter.


Lest We Forget

100 years of the Avante Garde 1905 2005

Oriental Origins of Post modernism


Censorship and Art

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