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.
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.