Walter Benjamin’s Secular Theology Of History

Each act of commodity exchange is at once uniquely differentiated and a monotonous replaying of the same old story.  The epitome of the commodity is thus the cult of fashion, in which the familiar returns with some slight variation, the very old and the very new caught up together in some oxymoronic logic of identity-in-difference.  It is a paradox of modernism that its exhilarated sense of fresh technological possibilities (Futurism, Constructivism, Surrealism) finds itself constantly displaced into some static, cyclical world in which all dynamic process seems permanently arrested. – Terry Eagleton, The Ideology Of The Aesthetic, p. 317

It has been a bit of a long journey, as we wound our way through Walter Benjamin’s “Theses On The Philosophy Of History”.  Before we turn to an overview, it is important that we understand when in history, and Benjamin’s life, these emerged.  These are, perhaps, the last or among the last things Benjamin wrote.  According to the Editor’s note at the end of Illuminations, Hannah Arendt writes that she received a typescript copy of “Theses” shortly before Benjamin’s death.  That sounds innocuous, but in fact Walter Benjamin was on the run from the Nazis.  In southwest France, he was hoping to cross the border to Spain in the Pyrenees.  Benjamin, however, sent his family on ahead of him and shot himself to death in his small room.  The “Theses” were published posthumously, in the German magazine Neue Rundschau, in 1950.

While shot through with a hopeful, perhaps one could even say militant, vision of the possibilities history held for those who grasped its true meaning, Benjamin himself obviously despaired both for himself and the world.  When Benjamin killed himself, the fascists were on the march across the world and there was little realistic hope they could be stopped.  One reason he and his family were fleeing France was the collapse of France with the German invasion.  It would be two years before the Nazi tide ebbed and turned, and no one should blame him for despair.

Yet, he produced what is perhaps the most vibrant set of theses, a vision of history as about to begin even as it ends, even as he and his loved ones ran for their lives.  Precisely because he recognized the fascists for who and what they were – the destroyers, the end of western civilization – he grasped the possibilities inherent in that destruction.  There is always a remnant, something Benjamin understood from his Jewish upbringing.  That remnant would, as he describes in the theses, sift through the rubble left behind and create its own future, rooted in the possibilities that have always existed, latent and untapped, in those history has left behind.  With the advent of the fascists and the coming of war, history was showing itself to be the void it has always really been.  The epitome of international capitalism. fascism demonstrated the empty heart at its center, the desire only for destruction.  History, as lived out and presented by the ruling classes and its official historians, was ending precisely because there was nothing left for it to do.

In the chapter on Benjamin in his book, Criticism of Heaven, Roland Boer claims that Benjamin reads as confused because he wasn’t sure what he wanted to say.  Yet, he goes on to demonstrate that even as early as his first published work, Benjamin was recommending theology as holding a key to understanding that was lacking in other fields.  While I believe Boer is incorrect on several levels, his greatest fault is that he accuses Benjamin of being unsure of his goal without considering that Benjamin’s goal was clear, as evidenced by the text’s Boer cites in the Trauerspiel, from the beginning.  Perhaps theology is, as Adorno would claim in his own criticism of Benjamin, not yet fully theology because it has not overcome itself to become a theology against theology; that, however, was not Benjamin’s concern.  One can criticize Benjamin for many things.  One cannot, however, claim him confused because of his use of theological categories and images, even remythologizing – a point Eagleton makes clear in his chapter on Benjamin in The Ideology of the Aesthetic – what has been demythologized.

The epigraph for this post, taken from early in the chapter on Benjamin, echoes very strongly themes we encountered in the theses: the emptiness of “history” as presented by historicism; the place of fashion as an indicator of that emptiness; the role of the ruling classes in presenting the new as repackaged old.  Eagleton grasps the central point of the theses, even while chiding Benjamin for going to “extremes”.  Eagleton also claims Benjamin does not accept the possibility of secular salvation, because of Benjamin’s invocation of “the Messiah”.  While accepting the role of myth as necessary as Benjamin uses it throughout his works, Eagleton becomes a bit too literal when it comes to the use of this particular word.  Yet the chapter on Benjamin, critical if respectful, echoes Benjamin in what is the central point of the Theses, namely that “history” begins at its ending because it is only as Messianic time, that quality that is understood as the fullness of time, reduced to a monad, a point of decision or kairos, that both history and time truly have their existence.

Benjamin uses the words “Messianic” and “Messiah” not to demonstrate the emptiness of any promise of secular salvation.  Rather, he uses them precisely because of his own understanding of the potency inherent in terms rooted in theological understanding.  Benjamin is not so much restoring an old myth, of the coming of the Messiah, as he is reimagining that myth in secular form.  It is the oppressed class who grasp the truth of history, and as such become the Messiah.  It is the revolutionary class who understand time as Messianic, each moment filled with possibilities and ready to burst forth and end the emptiness and destruction with which we are all surrounded.  History is not the property of God, for there is no “God” in Benjamin’s thought.  It is also not the property of the ruling class precisely because it shows itself to be empty, a nihil that can only end in the complete destruction of itself.  As “Messianic time”, it is solely the oppressed who understand the dialectics of time and history and become the facilitators both of their end and their true beginning.

It is important to note that Eagleton makes clear that the mystical element in Benjamin’s work and the recovery of Kabbalah and mysticism done by his friend Gerhard/Gershom Scholem were roughly simultaneous.  Some of the themes were present in Benjamin’s early work were done before Scholem emigrated to Palestine in 1923, which is where he began his serious work recovering the tradition of Jewish mysticism.  Yet Benjamin was aware of this work and Scholem’s insights certainly play a role in Benjamin’s later, more mature work.  How each influenced the other on this matter is perhaps a subject open to more research.

Even Benjamin’s friends, including Adorno, were deeply wary of Benjamin’s insistence on including theological categories, on his persistent claim that myth, rather than needing to end, needed to be reimagined because it fills an important role in human life, and on the weaving of terms and phrases throughout Benjamin’s work rooted in theological discourse.  Yet, Benjamin did so precisely because, unlike his contemporaries or later critics, Benjamin understood the latent power inherent in this discourse.  It served a very human need, presenting possibilities and concepts that could not be grasped in a demythologized vocabulary.  Despite the contradictions of Benjamin writing such militant, even hopeful, possibilities for the future even as he approached the end of his life by his own hand, there is much that can be mined, both by theologians and Marxists, from the fruitful use of this language in a critical setting.  Contemporary theology should appreciate that a critic understood the power of its discourse even while setting aside the present content; analysts and other Marxist critics should appreciate the simple appeal to the oppressed, in the midst of that terrible war, to stand up and hope that from the rubble a new future could be built, a future that they, the oppressed classes now suffering under the heel of the fascists, would build, ending the endless cycle of emptiness. The “history” of the historicists can only create a political and social black hole that sucks in all that really exists, as was evident by the Nazi war machine.  Walter Benjamin knew his time was ending; he nevertheless gave us a way of talking about the end and beginning of time and history that could be fruitful for humanity.  It may be, as Eagleton says, extreme, but it is the product of extreme circumstances, and as such presented these extremes as colliding and cancelling one another, leaving only the future, a qualitative thing, to those who can sift through the rubble and find those bit and pieces necessary to create a truly human, truly just, future.

It’s Always Now: Benjamin’s Theses On The Philosophy Of History A & B

A

Historicism contents itself with establishing a causal connection between various moments in history.  But no fact that is a cause is for that very reason historical.  It became historical posthumously, as it were, through events that may be separated from it by thousands of years.  A historian who takes this as his point of departure stops telling the sequence of events like the beads of a rosary.  Instead, he grasps the constellation which his own era has formed with a definite earlier one.  Thus he establishes a conception of the present as the “time of the now” which is shot through with chips of Messianic time.

B

The soothsayers who found out from time what it had in store certainly did not experience time as either homogeneous or empty.  Anyone who keeps this in mind will perhaps get an idea of how past time experienced in remembrance – namely, in just the same way.  We know that the Hews were prohibited from investigating the future.  The Torah and the prayers instruct them in remembrance, however.  This stripped the future of its magic, to which all those succumb who turn to the soothsayers for enlightenment.  This does not imply, however, that for the Jews the future turned into homogeneous, empty time.  For every second of time was the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter. – Walter Benjamin, “Theses On The Philosophy Of History,” in Illuminations, ed. by Hannah Arendt, trans. by Harry Zohn, pp. 263-264

These two, not precisely theses but perhaps better understood as assumptions with which Benjamin was working, make clear both what Benjamin understood by “Messianic time”, “the time of the now”, and other terms he would use as well as the ever-present possibility that exists once one grasps that “now” is not a quantitative word, but qualitative.  For Benjamin, “the past” is not a series of events in a causal chain that lead to “now”.  Rather the past is what is what “the present” is for those who live it: the ever-present moment filled with the past-present-future of that moment filled with possibility, or as he writes, “shot through with chips of Messianic time”.  The “now” is not a creation of Marxist theory; it is, rather, the very real, qualitative difference between time understood by the ruling classes and the oppressed.  The latter understand “now” dialectically, as that moment that both passes them by and yet is theirs precisely because it contains the possibilities for a very real, truly human future.  It is the “now” that differentiates historicism and historical materialism.  It is the “now” that demonstrates the differences between the ruling classes, with their filling up of a void with meaningless events, allegedly connected to one another with the oppressed for whom “now” is connected to a human past precisely because it creates possibilities for a human future.

The unique quality of the Jewish celebration of the past, of remembrance, is the explicit model Benjamin uses.  Setting to one side any matter of “predicting” the future, with its seductive magic, this remembrance is a recollection of the life-world of the people not as empty, disconnected moments and events, but as a living thing, the possibility for the future to be made real now.  Each moment, as “the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter”, provides the possibility for the collapse of “time” and the arrival of the “now”, as the present is this always moving, always possible coming of the “end of time”, at least as understood by the historicist – empty, homogeneous, without structure or reference.

This Messianic understanding of the “time of the now” is deliberate.  Benjamin understands history through both Marxist and uniquely Jewish sensibilities (and, I would argue, Christian as well, although only by adoption).  Precisely because the Jews kept history open, their understanding was always qualitatively distinct from those in whose midst they lived.  Like the oppressed everywhere, Jewish communities kept alive the past, not through an empty collection of facts, but through a very real, ritually enacted remembering-as-living-now the Greeks called anamnesis.  And by this remembering, they rendered insensible the idea of “history” thrust upon them, precisely because they lived by a different understanding of time.

Like the revolutionary classes in our day, who live always with the “now” as possibility, the Jewish people live with the “now” as the moment when the Messiah enters and ends history; completes and sustains history; defines and destroys the definition of history and time.  Defining what comes “after” misses the important point that precisely as the “now” always has the potential to end time, we have no need to understand or investigate or think about something that will be meaningless.  There is no “after” is the “now” becomes the real time through the action of the revolution.  It is through an investigation of the past rooted in a materialist theoretical lens that this reality is understood: the past is not “prologue”.  It isn’t even past.

All time is “now”.  In that lies the hope for the oppressed.

The Next Day: Benjamin’s Theses On The Philosophy Of History XVIII

XVIII

“In relation to the history of organic life on earth,” writes a modern biologist, “the paltry fifty millennia of homo sapiens constitute something like two seconds at the close of a twenty-four hour day.  On this scale, the history of civilized mankind would fill one-fifth of the last second of the last hour.”  The present, which, as a model of Messianic time, comprises the entire history of mankind in an enormous abridgment, coincides with the stature which the history of mankind has in the universe. – Walter Benjamin, “Theses On The Philosophy Of History,” in Illuminations, ed. by Hannah Arendt, trans. by Harry Zohn, p. 263

In this final thesis, Benjamin is driving home the point that revolutionary time is qualitative, and distinct, from historicist time.  The metaphor of the 24 hour day is both well-known and well-used as a way to make clear the relative place of humanity, and human “civilization”, in the whole scheme of the Universe.  I remember encountering first 34 years ago watching the first Cosmos hosted by the late Carl Sagan.  Here, however, Benjamin is using it to highlight a social  and political point: the present, as the historical materialist understands the concept, is the close of the day not just quantitatively but qualitatively as well.  For the historical materialist, the present is understood as that moment that is filled with past, present, and future, ready to burst forth in revolutionary possibility for the future.

The present moment is the close of the day, the end of what we have known and understood, and the beginning of a new day.  Precisely because it is present, it has this potential qua present.  It is not a temporal succession.  It is kairos, as written about earlier.  It is the moment of decision, filled with possibilities that, as Benjamin wrote earlier, “blasts open the continuum of history”.  The present, understood as a historical materialist understands it, is always there, ready to be grasped by those who see and know and are willing to risk the coming of a new day.

In this way, Benjamin’s vision is remarkably like that of premillennialist Christians and Messianic Jews such as the Hasidim: the moment for the coming of the Kingdom is always present, and those who understand and believe and live with this present always at hand will be those who move to the New Creation/Kingdom/Messianic future aware that the New Day has dawned.  Even mainstream Christian thought understands the Easter event of the resurrection in this way.  Jesus’s resurrection is the first moment of the new era, the sign sine qua non that the promises of God are being fulfilled.  Christians and Messianic Jews both grasp this, and profess being grasped by this, and live to bring about the completion of this task.  In many ways, such are the revolutionary class, abiding not by the clocks and calendars of the world but by the Time of the Present, the breaking forth of God’s New Creation.

That Benjamin was echoing long-held beliefs, particularly in his case of Messianic Jews, has not been lost on many commentators, both favorable and unfavorable.  Benjamin’s close friend Ernst Bloch would pick up similar themes in his Marxist-Utopian vision set out in The Principle Of Hope.  Christian theologians, in particular, have used similar schemes for making clear an understanding of the Christian faith for our times; both liberation theologians in South and Central America as well as European “political” theologians such as Johann Baptist Metz and Jurgen Moltmann owe much both to Bloch and, much earlier, Benjamin, who was, in turn, indebted to his friend Gershom Scholem, an early interpreter of Messianic and mystical Judaism for the 20th century.

There are two subsequent “clauses”, perhaps best described as background that need to be looked at.  After them, there will be a final overview of the Theses as a whole.

 

Irrelevant Time: Benjamin’s Theses On The Philosophy Of History XVII

XVII

Historicism rightly culminates in universal history.  Materialistic historiography differs from it as to method more clearly than from any other kind.  Universal history has no theoretical armature.  Its method is additive; it musters a mass of data to fill the homogeneous, empty time.  Materialistic historiography, on the other hand, is based on a constructive principle.  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.  A historical materialist approaches a historical subject only where he encounters it as a monad.  In this structure he recognizes the sigh of a Messianic cessation of happening, or, put differently, a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past.  He takes cognizance of it in order to blast a specific era out of the homogeneous course of history – blasting a specific life out of the era or a specific work out of the lifework.  As a result of this method the lifework is preserved in this work and at the same time canceled; in the lifework, the era; and in the era, the entire course of history.  The nourishing fruit of the historically understood contains time as a precious but tasteless seed. – Walter Benjamin, “Theses On The Philosophy Of History, in Illuminations, ed. by Hannah Arendt, trans. by Harry Zohn, pp.262-263

This further elaboration of the methodical distinctions between what Benjamin calls “historicism” and materialistic historiography is fascinating not only because of the use of the qualifier “Messianic”, which we have encountered earlier.  This is the most clear statement Benjamin makes to the effect that “time” as usually conceive of it is hardly relevant to the historical materialist qua historian.  Precisely because “historicism” is nothing more than filling up the empty past without any goal other than to fill the void, there is little to the “history” so produced that relates past, present, and future.  It is a heap of tidbits, the result not so much relevant or not relevant as it is unattached to anything recognizable.  Such historiography is like a garbage heap, a bunch of items jumbled together with the only goal to show the past is past.

The historical materialist, however, precisely because he or she works within what Benjamin calls a “theoretical armature”, encounters the past not so much as “past”, but as a continually moving “present”.  When those moments arise – “a Messianic cessation of happening” – the historical materialist understands this is an event, a person, a work that, as a “monad” contains precisely that fullness of past, present, and future that is the revolutionary moment.  As such, the only thing left for the materialist historian is to demonstrate this fullness, to make this no longer “past”, but past-present-future in precisely the way the revolutionary moment breaks through and “ends” time precisely because it contains the fullness of time in this “moment”.  In doing so, it becomes no longer a “thing”.  It is now, understood properly (i.e., by the method of the historical materialist), what it always was, but hidden: the culmination, and therefore the end – what Benjamin calls “canceled” – of whatever era, person, or collection of works it formerly represented.  It is, understood this way, no longer “past”.  It is now, it is present in the way the revolutionary moment is present – past, present, and future, the end of “time” understood as the “empty time” of the historicist.  Benjamin recognizes the reality of “time”, but makes it clear in the very last sentence that it is of far less concern to the historical materialist than making clear the “presentness” of the past for the freedom of the past and present for the future.  The past for the historical materialist, according to Benjamin, isn’t a temporal category.  It is a quality that has been assigned to eras, persons, works and it is the task of the historical materialist to strip this assignment and grant to those eras, persons, and works that are encountered as “pregnant” “monads”, their real significance.  Time as the historicist and workaday understanding would understand it is there, but only as a “tasteless” seed, relevant only so that it can be overcome by the historical materialist making known the fullness of those eras, persons, and works.

As such, it is Messianic time – the time of the redemption of the oppressed, the end of time as the fullness of time and the setting free of those enslaved to time.

Quality Time & Sexual Metaphors: Benjamin’s Theses On The Philosophy Of History XVI

N.B.: I really want to finish this, and do a (probably too long) wrap-up post, but life keeps interfering!  When life interferes with blogging, you know you’ve got your priorities wrong.

XVI

A historical materialist cannot do without the notion of a present which is not a transition, but in which time stands still and has come to a stop.  For this notion defines the present in which he himself is writing history.  Historicism give the “eternal” image of the past; historical materialism supplies a unique experience with the past.  The historical materialist leaves it to others to be drained by the whore called “once upon a time” in historicism’s bordello.  He remains in control of his powers, man enough to blast open the continuum of history.

OK, so . . .

Where does one begin to unpack this somewhat loaded thesis?  Let us set to one side the question whether Benjamin was deliberate in his use of sexual analogies and metaphors at the end.  This thesis presents far more than a rather striking sexual/gender-based idea of the distinction between historicists and historical materialists.  In each case, i.e. the historicist and historical materialist, Benjamin insists on setting to one side any idea of quantitative time, of history as an unpacking of the past.  Precisely because of the juxtaposition being made, Benjamin is presenting a definition of “history” here  that understands the matter in a qualitative rather than quantitative sense.  Key here is the dialectical use of “eternal”.  Clearly, the understanding of “eternal” of the historicist is erroneous in comparison to the historical materialist’s present, in which time stand’s still.  The eternity of the historicist is an eternity without the reality of the class struggle, the humanity of history laid bare.  The timeless now of the historical materialist is the full-to-bursting eternity in which all time exists in its fullness, is present as possibility.

It is, then, much akin to Romans 8:18-23, in which St. Paul writes of all creation groaning as a woman in labor pains for the coming of the Kingdom of God.  St. Paul adds that it isn’t just Creation, but we ourselves who groan as well, groan for the completion, precisely because we have been granted the Spirit of adoption, not fear.  This is the present in which all time converges to a point, ready to burst forth with the possibility that only comes from understanding that we ourselves are part of this present.  This is, as I stated before, a common theme among mystics (and not just Christian mystics); eternity is presence, a quality rather than any quantity.  It is this “now” in which we come to understand our lives and the world around us, ready to explode with the hope we carry in our lives.

For Benjamin, it is the historical materialist who understands this.  The historicist is like someone in a brothel, “drained by the whore”, while the historical materialist is a man’s man, in control, having a proper relationship with the past and therefore ready to “blast open the continuum of history”.  This final picture is certainly interesting.  On the one hand there is the effete historicist, whose preference is dissipation.  On the other hand there is the historical materialist, “man enough” and “in control”.  Sexuality, power, gender – all are wrapped up here in a bit of a tangled knot of a shot directly at the historicist.  It isn’t only the correct understanding of the present, of history, of eternity that is the center of this thesis.  It is also who is and is not “man enough” to do history correctly.  This is a direct attack upon the strength and power of the historicist.  Armed with the eternal present, the historical materialist is not just “more correct”; the historical materialist is stronger precisely because the historical materialist knows that the present is full, ready to burst forth and, as Benjamin writes as the end, “blast open the continuum of history”.  This is an exemplar of Marx in the eleventh of his “Theses on Feuerbach”, in which he stated that up to now, the role of philosophy was to understand the world.  Now, writes Marx, the point is to change it.

And that change only comes about when the historical materialist realizes his full manhood and control, knowing when and how to blast open history.  Unlike St. Paul, mentioned above, for Benjamin it is humanity that is the agent of this change, armed not only with control, but the proper understanding of the present Benjamin describes.  Unlike St. Paul, then, in which creation and humanity are feminine, “waiting like a woman in childbirth”, humanity is masculine, in control, even knowing not to waste one’s strength in houses of ill repute.  It is a humanity that is not hoping for a future.  It is a humanity that is the agent of the future, a future known and present to the historical materialist.

Judgement Day: Benjamin’s Theses On The Philosophy Of History XV

XV

The awareness that they are about to make the continuum of history explode is characteristic of the revolutionary classes at the moment of their action.  The great revolution introduced a new calendar.  The initial day of a calendar serves as a historical timelapse camera.  And, basically, it is the same day that keeps recurring in the guide of holidays, which are days of remembrance.  Thus the calendars do not measure time as clocks do; the are monuments of a historical consciousness of which not the slightest trace has been apparent in Europe in the past hundred years.  In the July revolution an incident occurred which showed this consciousness still alive.  On the first evening of fighting it turned out that the clocks in towers were being fired on simultaneously and independently from several places in Paris.  An eye-witness, who may have owed his insight to the rhyme, wrote as follows:

Who would have believed it!  We are told that new Joshuas

at the foot of every tower, as though irritated with

time itself, fired at the dials in order to stop the day. – Walter Benjamin, “Theses On The Philosophy Of History,” in Illuminations, ed. by Hannah Arendt, trans. by Harry Zohn, pp.261-262

Continuing to unfold the idea that revolutionary time is not the time of the ancien regime, Benjamin here not only recalls the Revolutionary calendar, but expounds upon the notion of “calendar time” being, in fact, a marker of a particular kind of historical consciousness.  Just as holidays are a kind of anamnesis,  a recollecting and remembering through the recreation of the original moment being honored, so, too, each day of the Revolutionary Calendar was in fact a living out of that first day of Revolutionary Time.

Revolutionary Time, Benjamin is indicating, is in a dialectical relationship with what we think of as “time”.  Indeed, it is the “end” of time as we knew it, with the example of the Revolutionaries simultaneously destroying clocks around Paris an indication of the awareness of time’s end among those who are bringing that end about.  The Revolutionary Calendar, then, is not a way to measure time in any quantitative way.  It is, rather, a social and political statement that time is now qualitative: Each day is the recalling of the first day of the New Era.  Measuring, and thinking about, time has changed with the Revolution.  We are now no longer “in” time.  On the contrary, time is now a quality of the Revolution, those who have brought it about, and no longer “passes”, because each “day” is the Day Of The Revolution.

In many ways, this notion of “the end of time”, the unfolding of the ideas in the previous Thesis, is nothing more or less than a description of Judgement Day.  Time as we once knew it has now stopped.  We are not only in a new era; we are in the era that is no era, but that eschaton that was the dream of the ages, that moment when justice – as the Revolution defined it, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” – is and shall be the rule precisely because it always was the rule; it is a reflection of the qualitative distinction between Revolutionary Consciousness and that of the previous ages, who understood this but did nothing to bring it about.  For Benjamin, the Revolutionary Class is God, not so much exercising Judgement in a casuistic sense as bringing forth the truly human, fully just society.  The Revolution itself, by destroying “time”, and creating a calendar, is shifting our attention away from what was passing, to what has come forth precisely because it always was, “now” is, and always shall be.

It is Judgement Day precisely because those who do not accept this “end of time”, this anamnesis to which we are called by the cycle of days on the Revolutionary Calendar, judge themselves to be unworthy of the justice brought forth by the Revolutionary Class and its destruction of the injustice of age of quantitative time.  This, then, is for Benjamin a mark of the Revolutionary Class: historical consciousness is the recognition that time itself is part of the structure the ruling class uses against the oppressed.  It is the dialectical idea that “historical consciousness” is not “a thing”, but always and only the property of the Revolutionary Class.  It is not an awareness of the past, as the bourgeoisie would insist; it is, rather, an awareness that the Day to come will bring an end even to “time” itself.

Kairos: Walter Benjamin’s Theses On The Philosophy Of History XIV

XIV

Origin is the goal. – Karl Kraus, Worte In Versen, Vol. 1

History is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogeneous, empty time, but time filled by the presence of the now.  Thus, to Robespierre ancient Rome was a past charged with the time of the now which he blasted out of the continuum of history.  The French Revolution viewed itself as Rome reincarnate.  It evoked ancient Rome the way fashion evokes costumes of the past.  Fashion has a flair for the topical, no matter where it stirs in the thickets of long ago; it is a tiger’s leap into the past.  This jump, however, takes place in an arena where the ruling class gives the commands.  The same leap in the open air of history is the dialectical one, which is how Marx understood the revolution. – Walter Benjamin, “Theses On The Philosophy Of History,” in Illuminations, ed. by Hannah Arendt, trans. by Harry Zohn, p.261.

It is perhaps misleading to have copied this thesis as I have.  The translator includes a note after the “now” in the first sentence: Benjamin says “Jetztseit” and indicates by the quotation marks that he does not simply mean an equivalent to Gegenwart, that is, present.  He clear is thinking of the mystical nunc stans.  With this particular piece of information, the meaning of this thesis changes from a somewhat confusing back and forth between Benjamin’s views of Robespierre, the Revolution, and Marx to a far more clear – and far more interesting – statement that Benjamin is clearly indicating not only a difference of opinion with Marx, but that Marx was incorrect precisely because he did not understand the forces at work in the Revolution under Robespierre.

It is important, first of all, to unpack that first sentence.  The view Benjamin is putting forward here is one still present among mystics and theologians: Each moment of time contains all the possibilities of all time, all the past, present, and future.  Benjamin’s view is that history is an unfolding of possibilities.  Each moment is not just “time”, as we understand the flow of time measured by clocks.  Not only is each moment of time filled with all moments of time simultaneously; for those committed to a revolutionary outlook, each moment of time presents us with its unique opportunity to decide how that moment will be lived.  The Greek word for this particular view of time, kairos, came back in to fashion in the early and mid 20th century among those who wrote from a mystical background.  Viewing each moment of time, of life, of history, as filled not only with all possibilities, but with a chance to make a conscious choice as to how that moment will be lived is to fill history with human possibilities.

Benjamin makes the important point that the Revolution invoked Rome as fashion invokes an age; that is, not as an unfolding of the human possibilities inherent in Republican-era Rome, possibilities that were destroyed by Julius Caesar.  No, Robespierre was essentially playing dress-up, and this is precisely how fashion, in the hands of the ruling class, controls and destroys history’s “now”.  By controlling how a moment of time is to be used, the ruling class destroys the historical possibilities of the “now”, both its full possibilities and the humanizing possibilities present as kairos.

Marx, Benjamin points out in the final sentence, thought the revolutionary leap a dialectical one.  By invoking the past in the way it did, the Revolution was unfolding all those possibilities inherent in the “now”, a conscious decision to live out the choice faced by the kairos of the Revolutionary moment.  For Marx, invoking the past was a way of moving to the truly and fully human future the Revolution presented.  Benjamin, on the other hand, insists that Robespierre, for all his seeming devotion to the new, was in fact a dilettante, just another member of another ruling class, stripping the Revolution of its historical content and the choices the Revolution had of being truly human  choices.

This specific thesis, by the subtle use of a particular German word that is impossible to evoke in English, is clearly a not-so-subtle dig both at Marx and his view of the French Revolution as well as the course of the French Revolution under Robespierre.  I believe that Benjamin agrees with Marx that a truly revolutionary “leap” would be both an unfolding of the full content of the “Now” and a truly human choice, allowing others to make truly human choices.  Benjamin, however, does not understand this as what happened with the recollections of Rome by the Revolutionary Committee under Robespierre.  Benjamin is recalling for readers the necessity of acting historically, acting in accordance with the fullness of the possibilities each moment presents us, and to make our choices at each kairos fully human choices.

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