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