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


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About gksafford

I'm a middle-aged theologically educated clergy spouse, living in the Midwest. My children are the most important thing in my life. Right behind them and my wife is music. I'm most interested in teaching people to listen to contemporary music with ears of faith. Everything else you read on here is straw.
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