He wished, in 1930, "to be considered as the premier critic of German literature." (Benjamin, Briefe 2 Bde. hrsg. Gershom Scholem und Theodor W. Adorno (Frankfurt/Main), 1966 2:505.) His output was already impressive. The translator of Baudelaire and Proust, he had authored The Origin of German Tragic Drama, (Note the evaluations regarding its incomprehensibility by Hans Cornelius and Franz Schutz in Walter Benjamin 1892- 1940: Eine Austellung bearbeitet von Rolf Tiedemann et. al. fur den Marbacher Magazin No. 55, 1990, pgs. 72-3; also note the similar reception of Karl Kraus regarding Benjamin's laudatory essay on his work, pg.120ff.) Some unique autobiograpical writings for what would become Berlin Childhood Around 1900, a compilation of aphorisms entitled One-Way Street, a few scholarly books, a remarkable set of literary studies, and numerous articles for major newspapers. But his greatest work, the thousand page compilation of notes and citations for The Arcades Project , was never completed. (On its proposed structure, cf. Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (Cambridge, 1991), pg. 47ff.) Similarly, while his acquaintances ranged from Brecht and Hoffmansthal to Gide and Valery, he was always on the verge of poverty and died fleeing the Nazis in 1940 at the age of 48, virtually unknown. Only due to the efforts of friends like Theodor W. Adorno, Hannah Arendt, and Gershom Scholem -- who themselves only rose to genuine fame after the war -- was his work rediscovered. Decisive for the reception of Benjamin in America was the article, which originally appeared in The New Yorker by Hannah Arendt and then served as the introduction to her edition of Benjamin's Illuminations trans. Harry Zohn (New York, 1969); it was also included in her own essay collection Men in Dark Times (New York, 1973). They published his correspondence, individual works, and volumes of his selected writings in the 1950s. They wrote reminiscences and spread his name around academic networks. Nevertheless, it was only with the popularity gained by the Frankfurt School during the student movement of the 1960s that this wish of Walter Benjamin was truly fulfilled.
His intellectual standing has now reached almost mythical proportions, and it is not Marxists alone who quote him like "holy writ." (Gershom Scholem, "Walter Benjamin and His Angel" in On Jews and Judaism in Crisis ed. by Werner J. Dannhauser (New York, 1976), pg. 198.) Quite the contrary. Benjamin has become a pillar of the literary establishment. He is embraced by everyone from linguistic formalists to fashionable marxists and postmodernists. Excellent work on his legacy has, in fact, been done by a host of scholars. Ironically, however, his extraordinary fame does not simply derive from that. Other factors are at work: his spirituality, his personal idiocyncracies, his preoccupation with the most varied esoteric interests, his Marxism, his submersion in everyday life, his life as an outcast. And then there is a prevailing intellectual cultural climate which not only prizes these values, but renders suspect the very attempt to formulate an internally consistent argument. Indeed, beyond the intrinsic worth of his works, external factors of this sort have helped turn Walter Benjamin into an intelectual cult figure. This has now produced a response from the right. In a superficial piece of intellectual biography, which actually confronts none of Benjamin's important works other than a single essay, an insulting and unscholarly attempt to debunk his influence and achievements was undertaken by Richard Vine. ("The Beatification of Walter Benjamin" in The New Criterion (June, 1990), pgs. 37ff.)
All this would be well and good if the reception did not subvert the critical quality in his thinking. It has. Too many admirers avoid dealing with the gaps in his thought as well as the specific nature of his contribution or the contradictions in his peculiar form of messianic materialism. Simply enjoying his diverse insights into the seemingly insignificant details of everyday existence, suggesting that he is engaged in a postmodern form of "playing" with language," dishonors his achievements. Ignoring the epistemological character and political intent of Benjamin's approach, in fact, undercuts any determination of how his enterprise furthers or hinders the critical enterprise. Superficially viewing Benjamin's work as a "tapestry," while forgetting about his inability to weave together the diverse strands of his thought, thus becomes only a backhanded compliment. Nor is it enough to note that his political naivete and epistemological weaknesses created the interpretive space for appreciating the singular and the unique. Praising the fragmentary and idiocyncratic qualities of his work has only tended to liquidate his most essential concerns.
Exploring these epistemological and political concerns is the purpose of this undertaking. It is a thankless, perhaps even a hopeless, task. Hopeless because no article can possibly assimilate his extraordinary range of interests; thankless because, even on the epistemological level, a multitude of intellectual forces were at play in which the appropriate expertise of the critic is weak with respect to one or the other. That, however, is precisely the allure of dealing with Benjamin. His thinking does not follow a "one-way street." It shifts gears and often stops short. Then it starts and again and takes on speed through each encounter with a new viewpoint or discipline. Benjamin makes good on the promise of the Frankfurt School for an interdisciplinary approach in perhaps the most radical possible manner. His method truly calls into question the strategems and abstractions of "traditional" theory and, whether it succeeds or not, seeks to inform the quest for emancipation.
Reflection takes on new objects of concern; it turns upon itself. Materialism seeks a hermeneutic underpinning while the messianic encounters history. Benjamin's thinking exposes the problems associated with simultaneously seeking to follow paths which, even while they occasionally intersect, still ultimately separate as they recede from view. It was a perilous intellectual undertaking. Nevertheless, if his "hermeneutics of danger" provided him with an existential way to survive fascism, (Ottmar John, "Fortschrittskritik und Erinnerung: Walter Benjamin, ein Zeuge der Gefahr" in Edmund Arens, et.al. Erinnerung, Befreiung, Solidaritat: Benjamin, Marcuse, Habermas und die politische Theologie (Dusseldorf, 1991), pgs. 13ff.) his intellectual biography does not simply follow a chronological sequence.
Active in the youth movement, Benjamin breathed its air of "romantic" opposition to bourgeois conformity. The experiments of the modernist avant-garde also became known to him early in life through his association with dadaists like Hugo Ball and expressionists like Kurt Hiller, Ludwig Rubiner, and Franz Pfemfert. Also in his youth, Gershom Scholem, Martin Buber and Hermann Cohen exposed Benjamin to jewish theology which, in turn, profoundly influenced his later hermeneutics and theory of language. Neo-kantianism, furthermore, fostered his desire to overcome the tension between reflexivity and experience, the metaphysical and the material, abstraction and the particular. As for Marxism, Benjamin's interest was awakened after Scholem left for Palestine in 1923. (Note the discussion by Eugene Lunn, Marxism and Modernism: An Historical Study of Lukacs, Brecht, Benjamin, and Adorno (Berkeley, 1982), pgs. 188ff; Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship trans. Harry Zohn (New York, 1981), pgs. 121ff, 227ff.) Around that time he also met Asja Lacis, a communist and innovator of children's theater, with whom he would fall deeply in love. It was primarily in order to visit Lacis, who had fallen ill, that Benjamin made his only trip to the Soviet Union. His stark description of live in the increasingly authoritarian workers' state, along with the difficulties of following the official line in his work, led him to decide against joining the German Communist Party. (Cf. Walter Benjamin, "Moscow Diary" trans. Richard Sieburth in October No. 35 Winter, 1985), pgs. 9-121.) Already influenced by the messianic radicalism of Gustav Landauer and Ernst Bloch, Benjamin was introduced by her to Brecht and Korsch. Indeed, while the new worldview did not effect his dissertation or habilitation, It is interesting, however, that Benjamin should already have published a somewhat stilted review of the Lenin-Gorky correspondence in 1924. (Cf. Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften III , hrsg. Rolf Tiedemann und Hermann Schweppenhauser (Frankfurt/Main, 1972), pp.51ff.) And, its impact on his thinking was profound.
Utopian speculation played a role in all these traditions and Benjamin never surrendered the insights and perspectives of earlier days. That there is no simple break between the early and the mature Benjamin is emphasized by Sandor Radnoti, ("The Early Aesthetics of Walter Benjamin," International Journal of Sociology (Spring, 1977/ Vol. VII, No. 1), pg. 76 as well as in Rolf Tiedemann's "Nachwort" to Walter Benjamin Charles Baudelaire: Ein Lyriker im Zeitalter des Hochkapitalismus (Frankfurt/Main, 1969). The concerns of his dissertation entitled The Concept of Artistic Criticism in German Romanticism, for example, stayed with him. Immanent criticism, utopian longing, spiritual crisis, historical rupture, the importance of tradition and the dangers of its manipulation, as well as the self-renewing set of intepretive possibilities within the work of art, would prove crucial for every aspect of his future work. (Note the letter to to Scholem of June, 1917 where Benjamin describes romanticism, which reproduced the inner unity between the religious and the historical in thinking and life experience, as the last movement seeking to explore the transcendent element of tradition. (Walter Benjamin, Briefe 1 :137ff.) Perhaps, in the future, he gave up on the attempt to develop a standpoint "on the ground of the kantian system." Benjamin, "Uber das Programm der kommenden Philosophie," (pg. 27.) But he preserved the theological terminology and symbolism no less than the preoccupation with experience beyond the rational. He could thus approvingly note that when children think about a story they become "directors" and do not bother about what makes sense in conventional terms. The element of play and the attempt to free objects from "use" are utopian themes which recur throughout Benjamin's writings. (Cf. Walter Benjamin, "Aussicht ins Kinderbuch," in Angelus Novus, pg. 151ff.) This interest, in fact, led Brecht to criticize his friend for retaining elements of "mysticism in spite of an anti-mystical attitude." The concern with experience, however, enabled Benjamin to maintain his commitment to subjectivity in a world increasingly dominated by totalitarian terror and the commodity form. Thus, his attempt to "refunction" dialectical materialism and messianism while fusing the facticity of historical with the experience of myth. Somewhat simplifying the issue and exaggerating the similarity, one important critic could claim that: "Benjamin's intellectual dilemma was essentially the same as Adorno's: how could he reconcile his Marxist commitment with his Kantian effort in philosophy, especially when, furthermore, he considered religio-mystical and philosophical experience as one ?" (Susan Buck-Morss, The Origin of Negative Dialectics. Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and the Frankfurt Institute (New York, 1977), pp. 21ff.)
An emphasis on "experience," the limitations of traditional "systems," and "concrete" philosophy defined the intellectual climate of his youth. Note, in this regard, the beautiful essay which links memory to the experience of eating, or that of smoking hashish. (Cf.Walter Benjamin, "Essen," Angelus Novus: Ausgewahlte Schriften 2 (Frankfurt/Main, 1966), pp. 161-9; also, Walter Benjamin, "Hashish in Marseilles," in Reflections edited by Peter Demetz and translated by Edmund Jephcott (New York, 1979), pgs. 131ff.) The similarities with the exponents of existentialism and phenomenology, who were gaining popularity in the 1920s, is striking. In fact, whatever their protestations to the contrary, that is the case for many within the camp of critical theory. With Benjamin's thinking in particular, however, "the philosophical faculty is extended to non-philosophical objects, to seemingly blind, unintentional materia." Theodor W. Adorno, Uber Walter Benjamin (Frankfurt/Main, 1968), pg. 11. And this interest in bringing the objects of everyday life into the purview of philosophy stayed with him even after his conversion to Marxism. Thus, Ernst Bloch could note that: "Benjamin had the quality which was so extraordinarily lacking in Lukacs. He had a unique eye precisely for the important detail, for that which lies by the wayside, for the fresh element, which breaks open in thinking and in the world, for an unusual and unschematic disconnected singularity which doesn't fit any preconceived purpose, and which therefore earns a completely private attention that turns one inward." (Ernst Bloch, "Erinnerung" in Uber Walter Benjamin , pg. 17.)
Walter Benjamin called upon dialectical thinking to confront the particular and the exception to the rule. It was the "rubbish" of history that a radical messianism should reclaim. A boulevard, postage stamps, children's books, unpacking one's library, eating, and untold other elements of everyday life became the objects of critical scrutiny and manifold associations; each takes on an allegorical, mythical, significance. A view of this sort obviously set him in opposition to the vagueries of official Marxism and placed him squarely within a certain current of critical theory best exemplified in the writings of Siegfried Kracauer and Theodor Adorno. Their unique form of analysis wished to show how the macrocosm is mirrored in the microcosm. Unique to Benjamin, however, is that he always let the object speak for itself; its singularity was never lost. "The thing," according to Benjamin, "must not be grasped as a mere instantiation of some universal essence, instead, thought must deploy a whole cluster of stubbornly specific concepts which in Cubist style refract the object in myriad directions or penetrate it from a range of diffuse angles. In this way, the phenomenal sphere is itself persuaded to yield up a kind of noumenal truth, as the microscopic gaze estranges the everyday into the remarkable." (Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (London, 1990), pg. 328.) Nevertheless, therein lay the danger.
No less than his friends, Benjamin was never tempted by empiricism; indeed, he wished to perserve the dialectic. But, while he might have had that sense of the singular and the exceptional lacking in Lukacs, he also lacked what Lukacs had. Rejecting the structured and mediated concept of "totality" in favor of a constantly shifting "constellation, wherein the relation between objects and the perspective of the viewer is always in a state of flux, "Ideas are to objects as constellations are to stars. This means, in the first place, that they are neither their concepts nor their laws. It is the function of concepts to group phenomena together, and the division which is brought about within them thanks to the distinguishing power of the intellect is all the more significant in that it brings about two things at a single stroke: the salvation of the phenomena and the representation of ideas." (Walter Benjamin, The Origins of German Tragic Drama (London, 1977), pg. 34; also cf. Buck-Morss, The Origins of Negative Dialectics, pgs.96ff.) Benjamin neither situated his objects of concern within what Marx termed the "ensemble of social relations" nor invoked abstract categories to structure it. Even worse, while his method was thus rendered "non-systematic" in form and inherently experimental in content, this "essential corrective to a narrowly totalizing ideology at the same time (risked) hardening, like certain contemporary theories, into no more than that ideology's inverted mirror-image, replacing a theoretical myopia with a corresponding astigmatism." (Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic , pg. 334.)
Allegory and the commodity form alone remained to shoulder the analysis. "Metaphors are the means by which the oneness of the world is poetically brought about. What is so hard to understand about Benjamin is that without being a poet he thought poetically and therefore was wound to regard the metaphor as the greatest gift of language." (Hannah Arendt, "Walter Benjamin, pg. 164.) And these two constructs tore at one another. Benjamin never produced the internally consistent worldview of Lukacs or Bloch either for that matter. Which is not to say that he didn't want one. Rejecting fixed systems is not the same thing as denying the need for coherence. Centering on the experience of the object immanently calls for uniting history with the conditions which make such experience possible and comprehensible. It thus makes sense that history should have been viewed by him as early as 1915 as "the objective element in time, something perceptibly objective." (Scholem, Walter Benjamin, pg. 13.) Such an undertaking, central to neokantianism, is actually part of a tradition extending from Fichte to Lukacs. It implies overcoming the tension between immanence and trans- cendence or the metaphysical and the historical. And this attempt was already made in what is perhaps his greatest essay: the study of Goethe's Elective Affinities.
Gershom Scholem was correct in noting the importance of this work for Benjamin's career insofar as "his speculative talent was aimed no longer at devising something new, but at penetrating something existent, interpreting and transforming it." Prior inquiries into language and the form philosophy should take in the coming period give way to a standpoint dependent upon the existence of an empirical object. His essay thus notes that "critique" is intrinsically related to unearthing the transcendent "truth content" (Wahrheitsgehalt) of the work while "commentary" is concerned with its immanent "subject matter" (Sachgehalt). Originally, in the production of a completed work, the two are bound together; they divide, however, once it enters the public realm. How to reconnect them was never made clear. Nevertheless, Benjamin claimed that the more compelling the "truth content" the more intimately is it bound up with the "subject matter" of the work.
Truth resides within language; ". . . the expression that is linguistically most existent (ie. most fixed) is linguistically the most rounded and definitive; in a word, the most expressed is at the same time the purely mental. Exactly this, however, is meant by the concept of revelation, if it takes the inviolability of the word as the only and sufficient condition and characteristic of the divinity of the mental being that is expressed in it." (Walter Benjamin, "On Language as Such and on the Language of Man," in Reflections pg. 321.) And the "true," in this sense, is the "whole." Unfortunately, however, it is precisely this wholeness which history has rent asunder. This "totality," not the infinitely mediated category of Hegel and Lukacs, is the one Benjamin initially wishes to restore. It is a wholeness associated in the works of various of Benjamin's contemporaries like Martin Buber and Karl Jaspers with the mystical and the God-head. In contrast to these thinkers, however, Benjamin never assumes its existence "behind" reality. In fact, according to him, it is the very loss of this wholeness which necessitates language. Only in language can the comprehension take place of an experience which "makes uniform the continuous multiplicity of knowledge." (Benjamin, "Uber das Programm der kommenden Philosophie," Angelus Novus, pg. 321.
Allegory is to language what ruins are to things. (Benjamin, The Origins of German Tragic Drama (London, 1977), pg. 178ff.) It gives power to memory and creates the "horizon" wherein transcendence becomes possible.
"Allegory is alwyas a symptom that, in a certain respect the Subject-object distance has been sublated (aufgehoben), that the object-world has been transformed in its singification, that it was been worked through by the subject . . . Thus we approach the essence of alllegory only then when we recognize it as a possibility which lies in the depths of the essence of language" in Hans Heinz Holz, "Prismatisches Denken", Uber Walter Benjamin, pg. 77.Allegory, or so it is argued in The Origins of German Tragic Drama , provides a structure for conceptualizing the past no less than the mutability of all significations; it allows the shapelessness of materia to take an eternally mutable shape within an immutable context. Allegory makes a continual substitution of disparate particulars possible precisely because "things and occurances do not meaninglessly stand next to one another, but rather refer to one another." (ibid., pg. 76.) The concept, after all, has scholastic roots and it was traditionally used to explain the manner in which secular reality is linked to the beyond and, epistemologically, how a conception of the beyond can arise. (Georg Lukacs, Aesthetik 4 Bde. (Darmstadt, 1972) 4:164.) Indeed, through the ability of allegory to provide every particular with symbolic properties, language presents both the possibility of giving and transforming the meanings of things.
Neither "political" nor by "formal" analysis can then exhaust the meaning of an artwork. That belief would separate Benjamin from many contemporaries and followers; it would also inform The Arcades Project which, in its attempt to provide an "ur-history of modernity" entirely through the use of quotations, necessarily presupposes the existence of transcendent possibilities within works of the past as well as a sociological standard with which to judge their relevance for the emergence of the "modern." Benjamin was no relativist. More open than others in the Frankfurt School to film and popular culture, he nevertheless told Scholem of his need for "texts of canonical importance in order to develop his philosophical ideas adequately to comment on them." (Scholem, "Walter Benjamin and His Angel," pg. 203; Scholem, Walter Benjamin, pg. 135.) Nor was he afraid to thematize reality; The Arcades Project is an attempt to offer a "grand narrative," albeit built on fragmentary foundations, which also evidences his desire to connect transcendence with immanence. Indeed, the belief in the existence of such a connection created the basis for his famous claim that there is no cultural artifact of civilization which is not at the same time an expression of barbarism. (Cf. Walter Benjamin, "Eduard Fuchs, der Sammler und der Historiker," Angelus Novus, pgs. 302-360).
Commentary, in short, is unthinkable for Benjamin without critique. His aim was not to engage in word-games, but overcome the academicism of literary criticism and give it a political purpose. Thus, "the art of the critic in nuce: offer slogans without betraying ideas." (Walter Benjamin, "The Technique of the Critic in Thirteen Theses" in Marbacher Magazin, pgs. 112ff). This purpose is less negative than positive; it is not deconstructive, but rather reconstructive. Restoration as the function of commentary is made evident in the Talmud; (Note the superb essay by Jurgen Habermas, "Gershom Scholem: The Torah in Disguise" in Philosophical-Political Profiles trans. Frederick G. Lawrence (Cambridge, Mass: 1985), pgs. 201ff.) The past is a set of "ruins" in need of restoration and the present is more than what first meets the eye. These ruins harbor an untapped content. Works of art no less than philosophy forward a truth in need of judgment. But the evaluation is never final. Judgments and verdicts, as Benjamin said in the prospectus for his proposed journal Angelus Novus, always remain open to renewal.
The critical essay, in keeping with the Lukacs of Soul and Form, transforms itself into an artwork deserving of further commentary. Translation, for example, is understood by Benjamin as a form sui generis. Again, in talmudic terms, the redemptive power of language comes into play. (See the intelligent discussion by Susan A. Handelman, Fragments of Redemption: Jewish Thought and Literary Theory in Benjamin, Scholem, and Levinas (Bloomington, 1991), pgs. 25ff.) It is an attempt to grasp the transcendent potential within a work. An emancipation from the original linguistic assumptions immanent to its creation thus necessarily takes place so that it can speak to a new audience in new conditions. But, in turn, this obviously implies that the viability of the translation will pass and a new one will become necessary. (Walter Benjamin, "The Task of the Translator" in Illuminations trans. Harry Zohn (New York, 1969), pgs. 69ff.) An ongoing process of constitution and reconstitution of the connection between the immanent and transcendent properties of a work takes place. Thus, Benjamin could write that "the critic inquires about the truth whose living flame continues burning over the heavy logs of what was and the simmering ashes of life gone by." (Walter Benjamin, "Goethes Wahlverwandtschaften" in Schriften 2 Bde. Frankfurt, 1955) 1:56.)
Without some form of prior or contextual justification, however, his claims appear tautologous since the critic seems engaged only in determining the content of concepts arbitrarily imposed on the object in the first place. Which way to turn ? Epistemology might define their logical standing, but it is inherently abstract and Benjamin knew that a theory of knowledge can provide neither an ontological nor a material foundation for any particular form of inquiry. Ontology, of course, would ground his project; but, the undertaking of Ernst Bloch notwithstanding, it would do so only in the "systematic" terms against which Benjamin always rebelled. The teleological assumptions of dialectical materialism had proven false. As for a purely heuristic justification, whatever its benefits, he knew it would turn his categories into little more than ahistorical techniques. Not many doors remained open.
Jewish theology provided a way out. And he would employ it in a far more innovative way than either Max Horkheimer or Erich Fromm. This form of thinking, in contrast to popular belief neither presupposes a teleological structure within history nor an abstract epistemology. Theology was not merely an unintegrated component of a fragmentary worldview developed by a philosophical iconoclast. (Cf. Michael Lowy, Redemption et Utopie: Judaisme liberatrice en Europe Central (Paris, 1988). That is reading the story backwards. Theology served a positive function in Benjamin's theory. His aim was to show how aesthetic experience and then historical insights are bound up with theological categories. And for good reason. His method, by relying on the theological moment, would thereby gain a foundation of sorts without recourse to an articulated ontological system. It thus becomes evident from employing what Benjamin himself termed an "epistemologico-critical" approach why the theological component should have remained with him even after he had lost his belief in God around 1927 and turned to Marxism. His ties were to a "mystical tradition and to a mystical experience which nevertheless was a far cry from the experience of God, proclaimed by so many oversimplifying minds as the only experience deserving to be called mystical. Benjamin knew that mystical experience is many-layered and it was precisely this many-layererdness that played so great a role in his thinking." (Scholem, "Walter Benjamin and His Angel," pg. 201; also note the discussion by Irving Wolfarth, "On Some Jewish Motifs in Benjamin" in The Problems of Modernity: Adorno and Benjamin ed. Andrew Benjamin (London, 1989), pgs. 157ff and Michael Lowy, "Releigion, Utopia, and Countermodernity: The Allegory of the Angel of History in Walter Benjamin" in On Changing the World: Essays in Political Philosophy, From Karl Marx to Walter Benjamin (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: 1992), pgs. 164ff.)
God, for the young Benjamin, existed as the unattainable center of a system of symbols intended to remove Him from everything concrete and everything symbolic as well; (Cf. Handelman, Fragments of Redemption, pgs. 137ff.) it would only make sense then that, insofar as philosophy participates in such a system, it will reflect an absolute experience symbolically deduced in the allegorical context of language. (Scholem, Walter Benjamin,pg. 56; also Benjamin, "Programm der kommenden Philosophie," pg. 41.) What remains without God, which explains the superficial allure Benjamin holds for various postmodernists, is thus an allegorical world of symbols capable of endlessly transferring and multiplying the signification not merely of objects, but of categories and philosophical systems as well. The existence of such a world legitimates his fusion of diverse insights from a multitiude of sources and what would originally appear as mutually exclusive systematic claims.
Only montage can, in literary terms, adequately reflect a world dominated by rupture and incoherence. It becomes the theoretical point of entry into the content and the form of The Arcades Project as well as his earlier Origins of German Tragic Drama. Both demonstrate a preoccupation with spiritual rupture and the possibilities of montage for explicitly sociophilosophical purposes. The boundaries between disciplines fades in both. The blending of the historical, the theological, and the epistemological also results in a constantly shifting foundation for the critical inquiry. Justified by the existence of a metaphorical world, however, the fusion of marxian materialism and messianic judaism offers a standpoint for Benjamin with which to overcome relativism. Indeed, for all the emphasis on the fragmentary and the singular, both tendencies seek a harmony lost to the modern world.
Utopia remains. Only, with Benjamin, it is a reflexively comprehensible yet materially unattainable condition ripped from any interconnection with unilinear progress. And that is because progress does not simply extend into the future, but depends upon the manner in which the past is appropriated. Thus, the famous image of Klee's painting entitled "Angelus Novus," which
"shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. . . His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catstgrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress." (Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History," in Illuminations, pg. 258.)The affirmative notion of unlinear progress, subverted in any event by the experience of World War I and the rise of fascism, is contested in the name history. Its unrealized possibilities gives content for utopia which, in turn, provides a positive foundation for critique. Every element of the past becomes open to redemption on the messianic Day of Judgment. "Nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history. To be sure, only a redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past -- which is to say only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments. Each moment it has lived becomes a citation a l'ordre du jour -- and that day is Judgment day." (ibid., pg. 254.) Giving the apocalypse secular shape thus permits reintroducing an emancipatory point of reference just as the possibility of instituting a genuinely classless society was becoming ever more remote. A theological notion of remembrance, which finds its way into the thinking of Marcuse and Adorno as well, contests the perversion of history by totalitarianism. It becomes the only way to deal with that "single catastrophe" on which one gulag after another "keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage." (ibid., pg. 257.)
Such a view places new responsibility on the critic; Walter Benjamin was aware that "the task of history is not only to give the oppressed access to tradition, but also to create it." The past stands in need of "reawakening," which is precisely where the theological moment enters and converges with the modernist emphasis on montage and the unconscious. A critical intervention is necessary to shake the audience from its complacency. The "memorie voluntaire" of Proust was thus considered insufficient for turning history into "the object of a construction whose foundation is not that of homogeneous and empty time, but rather that of a time filled and informed by the present time (Jetztzeit). (ibid., pg. 261.) A reflexive and experiential "tiger's leap" into the past had become necessary to crack open what is usually considered dead within the continuum of time and reaffirm it for a contingent future. "Only the historian is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe fron the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious." (ibid., pg. 255.) And so, for Benjamin, "to interpret phenomena materialistically meant not so much to elucidate them as products of the social whole but rather to relate them directly, in their isolated singularity, to material tendencies and social struggles." (Theodor Adorno, "Walter Benjamin," in Prisms, pg. 236.) Whether he ever made good on this intention, however, is a highly debatable proposition.
Walter Benjamin wished to retrieve what Hegel had thrown into the historical dustbin. He sought to discover an unrealized emancipatory potential from the facts considered useless and irrelevant by the dominant classes. The question involved how to make that potential recognizable. And, in this respect, Benjamin never had a clue. Revolution, for him, was always a messianic projection or a romantic longing; reform and organization were tedious and boring. "Never in politics," he could write in January of 1913, "does the Idea appear, always the party." And so, in his youth, Benjamin became interested in Sorel and reached the preposterous conclusion that "law" -- in contrast to "justice" -- is an order capable of being established only in a world of myth. (Walter Benjamin, "Zur Kritik der Gewalt" in Angelus Novus, pgs. 42ff.) His naivete regarding the world of politics was simply extraordinary. His analysis of fascism was blind to conflicts between political parties, economic imperatives, and institutional interests. Indeed, Benjamin never understood anything of institutional constraints or the concrete options facing the working class.
His response to the petrification of theory and practice under Stalin was to argue that each moment held a revolutionary potential and that it was time to reconsider the legacy of Blanqui. (Rolf Tiedemann, "An Interpretation of the Theses `On the Concept of History'" in The Philosophical Forum 2 :1-2 (Fall/Winter, 1983/4), pgs. 91ff.) There is barely a word in his Moscow Diary on the momentous struggle between Stalin and Trotsky nor did his sojurn in France show any insight whatsoever into the Popular Front which he basically opposed in favor of the spontaneous strike wave of 1936. He seemed completely unaware that the strikes were purely economic in character, that France stood on the brink of civil war, that the parties of the working class neither constituted a majority nor were prepared for military conflict, or that the overwhelming majority of workers embraced Leon Blum's call for a "reform of the structure." His position was sectarian from the start and evidenced a bohemian romanticism common to others of his circle like Brecht and Bloch. Benjamin's actual political commitments are rarely discussed and when they are, even in the otherwise superb study by Susan Buck-Morss, an uncritical stance incapable of relating them to his metaphysics is generally the norm. (Cf. Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing , pg. 317ff; also, for my own interpretation of this event, see the chapter entitled "Leon Blum and the Legacy of the Popular Front" in my Moments of Decision: Political History and the Crises of Radicalism (New York, 1991), pgs. 57ff.)