Given his immersion in the history of 19th century France and his admiration of Blanqui, always a favorite of Lenin and Marx to a lesser extent, his thinking reflects a tentative left-Leninist critique of Stalin; his discovery of "the eternal prisoner," in conjunction with his messianism, thus led him to argue that an immanent revolutionary possibility presented itself with each moment in time.
"We know that the Jews 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." (Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History," pg. 264.)Attacks on "contemplation" abound in Benjamin's work. But his thought yields no insight into the relation between theory and practice. Mistakenly, in the "Theses on the Philosophy of History," he even identified Marx's idea of revolution with "a leap into the open skies of history."
It was a strange form of Marxism embraced by Benjamin. (Note the discussion by Richard Wolin, Walter Benjamin: An Aesthetic of Redemption (New York, 1982), pgs. 213ff; also, Arendt, "Walter Benjamin," pg. 164.) His interpretation involved the puzzling combination of a rather orthodox technological reductionism with a completely exaggerated conception of the method's utopian capacities. The point of Marxism for Benjamin was less to inform the creation of a "socialist" society than to provide the foundation for a utopia ultimately brought in from the outside. And to speak of a "materialist theology," in this sense, is merely playing with words. Neither the proletariat nor any other earthly agent could help in realizing what Benjamin wished to achieve. Marxism is gutted of its content and purpose; its usefulness is relegated to certain key concepts like the commodity form and perhaps the manner in which it can function as a "myth" (Sorel). It is logical, in a way, that Carl Schmitt -- the brilliant legal thinker and fascist collaborateur-- , should have expressed his admiration for Benjamin's essay on Sorel. (Cf. Jurgen Habermas, "The Horrors of Autonomy: Carl Schmitt in English" in The New Conservatism: Cultural Criticism and the Hisorians' Debate ed. and trans. by Shierry Weber Nicholson (Cambridge MA: 1992), pgs. 137ff.) The romantic conception of "violence," the exaggeration of revolutionary possibilities, becomes a temptation for all who don't have to deal with power and it was prevalent in the thinking of Bloch and most members of the Frankfurt School as well. Benjamin, however, gave it a particularly radical stamp and was unafraid to expose the theological foundations for a Marxism of this sort. Indeed, Scholem was surely correct when he called his friend "a theologian marooned in the realm of the profane." (Scholem, "Walter Benjamin," pg. 187.)
Benjamin's attempt to fuse theology with historical materialism, for all its grandeur, was questionable from the beginning. The theologizing terminology of the theses "attempts to preserve the content of the proletarian revolution within the concept of the Messiah, the classless society within the messianic age and class struggle within messianic power. At the same time the revolution which does not come is supposed to be standing at the gate at any moment, like the Messiah. There, in some historical beyond, it can quickly put together a classless society, even if it is nowhere to be seen around here. The retranslation of materialism into theology cannot avoid the risk of losing both: the secularized content may dissolve while the theological idea evaporates." (Rolf Tiedemann, "Historical Materialism or Political Messianism?, pg. 91.) The "secular" (Diesseitigkeit) is only metaphorically compatible with the "beyond" (Jenseitigkeit). (Note the discussion by Karl Korsch, Karl Marx (New York, 1938), pg. 84; also note Karl Marx, "Theses on Feuerbach" in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works 3 vols. (Moscow, 1969) 1:13; also, Handelman, Fragments of Redemption, pgs. 163ff.) The proletariat may have had "no goals of its own to actualize" which, originally, was meant as a call to realize the unrealized democratic goals of the bourgeoisie. The belief that it is impossible to confront the proletariat with preconceived utopian tasks is a constant in the work of Marx; the remark about the proletariat not having goals of its own to realize must be set in the context of the young Marx's concern with extending democracy from the realm of the state into civil society in works like On the Jewish Question and The Holy Family. (Note my discussion on the political development of Marx's thought in Socialism Unbound (New York, 1990), pgs. 1-30.) Whatever Marx meant by the phrase, however, he surely did not wish to suggest that everything in the past -- including the dead -- is capable of resurrection through some apocalyptic moment of redemption. Indeed, alluding to this point, Horkheimer stated the obvious when he chastized his friend in a letter: "The injustice, the terror, the pains of the past are irreparable;" (Cited in Buck-Morss, The Origins of Negative Dialectics, pg. 57.) Benjamin, of course, wished to confront the unilinear and teleological view of history inherited by Marxism from the Enlightenment. His undertaking was marked by compassion for what had been irretrievably lost and a new view of the past as open and capable of constant reconstruction. (Cf. Christian Lenhardt, "Anamnestic Solidarity: The Proletariat and its Manes" in Telos No. 25 (Fall, 1975), pgs. 136ff, 141ff.)
A messianic hermeneutic renders whole or gives cohesion to what has become fragmentary and redeem the suffering of the past. Utopia, previously conceived by Marx as immanent within history, is now transformed into an external standpoint with which to judge progress. (Lowy, "Revolution against `Progress': Walter Benjamin's Romantic Anarchism" in On Changing the World, pgs. 143ff.) It becomes, in keeping with Sorel, a form of myth. History now becomes, in keeping with Nietzsche, a product of the subjective will. Arbitrary, without derivative categories for coherent interpretive judgment, its employment is an experimental exercise without any coherent relation to economic development, actual movements movements, or even cultural traditions. The historical standpoint thus retains assumptions that provide an insight into the sympathy so often expressed by Benjamin for the revolutionary voluntarism of Blanqui.
Just as voluntarism confronts history, apocalypse confronts revolution; the end of time is not equivalent, except metaphorically, with the substitution of one class for another and one order for another. Nor is qualitative change the same as rupture especially since, from a dialectical perspective, the counterconcept of continuity alone gives it meaning. Rendering a judgment about quality, no less than defining the empirical content of such change, becomes impossible since everything outside utopia is necessarily painted with the same shade of grey. For that very reason, however, Benjamin must envision a new messianic form of appropriating of the past. The problem is that a determination of the conditions under which such an appropriation can occur is liquidated in the same instant that the wish materializes.
Remembrance is introduced into the science of orthodoxy. But its actual relation to critical interpretive work remains unclear since the criteria for employing it are never brought into play. Nor is it sufficient to remain content with the truism that all attempts at liberating the past must remain fragmentary. The plea to forget nothing turns into its opposite. Coherent attempts to appropriate the past presuppose a systematic view of history, which Benjamin's "Theses" render impossible. Materialism has subverted everything except the messianic will to redemption. Theology, for Benjamin, thus offers the last desperate expression of human freedom under actual conditions which, with the onset of the war and the failure of the radical uprisings in France and Spain, rendered hope impossible. Thus, the connection between these last jottings of Benjamin and the essay on Goethe's Elective Affinities which ends with the beautiful and oft-quoted line: "only for the sake of the hopeless is hope given us." (Walter Benjamin, "Goethes Wahlverwandtschaften," pg. 131.)
Walter Benjamin wrote much about the social condition of the writer. For him, however, he always "remains the figure on the fringe who refuses to take part." (Leo Lowenthal, An Unmastered Past ed. Martin Jay (Berkeley, 1987), pg. 227.) Benjamin was aware of the danger western concepts of consumerism and egoism posed for the ideology of a newly emerging workers' state, but unaware of how the strategy of modernization would introduce precisely these values. Along with Bloch, he recognized the role of utopian motivation in revolutionary commitment and, following Lukacs, anticipated the manner in which the commodity form would produce a "poverty of the interior."
"How misery, and not just social misery but rather architectonic misery as well, the misery of the interior turns enslaved and enslaving things into revolutionary nihilism, of that no one before these seers and astrologers has been aware . . ." (Benjamin, "Der Surrealismus: Die letzte Momentaufnahme der europaischen Intelligenz," Angelus Novus, pg. 204.)But, while his call to reinvigorate revolution with the surrealist spirit of revolt may have later endeared him to the enrages of 1968, it was little more than a metaphysical gesture from the very beginning. His desire to offer an alternative mode of praxis remained at the intellectual level of challenging the dominant notion of progress, reaffirming "the radical concept of freedom," obliquely criticizing the communist party apparatus, and demanding revolution for its own sake. And when it was finally too late, anticipating works like The Dialectic of Enlightenment, Benjamin extrapolated one terrible moment of horror into the future. "Whereas earlier interpreters have seen his pessimism regarding the course of history as a late characteristic of his thinking, coming as a response to the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact or the impending war, the Passagen-Werk makes it clear that it was his long-standing (if intensifying) concern." (Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing, pg. 79.)
Most assume that, unlike Adorno, Benjamin sought to find the potential for transcending the given order immanently or from within its contradictions. (Eugene Lunn, Marxism and Modernism, pg. 166.) Actually, however, this was more a wish than a reality. The "dialectical image," through which the past offers itself to immediate experience in the present, is insufficient for such a task. Not only does it presuppose a revelatory "shock" of recognition on the part of the audience, whose unity and ability to appropriate the object depends upon a vaguely defined notion of collective unconsciousnessness, but it does nothing to help define the criteria for constructing a new history which "brushes against the grain." More is subsequently involved than Adorno's criticism that metaphysical essences do not become immediately manifest in facts. The real question is whether such essences exist at all or whether a prior world-view, external to the derivation of any potential within the image, is necessary to set the political context for appropriating the unrealized emancipatory potential within the object.
Marxism provided an "epistemologico-critical" context of this sort. Only from within such a normatively inspired and concrete context would the audience gain an "interest" in the work and a "reason to think" (Brecht); only with such a set of presuppositions could "crude" dialectical images begin to speak for themselves. (Walter Benjamin, "What is Epic Theatre ?" in Understanding Brecht trans. Anna Bostock (London, 1973), pg. 2,4,8.) The problem was, however, that Benjamin could not uncritically embrace the necessary assumptions. He may have used Marxism to illuminate the commodity form, but he doubted its teleological claims. He may have stood in solidarity with the proletariat, but he was skeptical with respect to the party; he may have publicly embraced materialism, in his own unique way, but it was always qualified with theological messianism. His life and work were undoubtedly marked by empathy with suffering and the exploited. (Lowenthal, An Unmastered Past, pg. 224.) But he never articulated even the beginnings of an ethic or a theory of socialist democracy. There are only the ongoing references to freedom and the power of fantasy.
Dialectics may have been Benjamin's preferred mode for reconstructing the lost possibilities within the phenomenon. But, in his theory, the particular is neither open to manipulation through transcendent categories nor situated within contradictions projecting determinate emancipatory possiblities. The transcendent potential of the material object, in messianic fashion, is simply presupposed; making that potential manifest is, in keeping with Blanqui, turned into a matter of arbitrary decision. The two perspectives complement one another. Existing in a metaphoric universe, wherein each element of the past is recoverable in messianic terms, the signification of an object appears directly in relation to that of other objects. There is no place for genuine "mediation." Thus, in keeping with Benjamin's refusal to accept ideas which did not somehow take an immediately outward shape, "The construction of life at the moment lies far more in the power of facts than in convictions." (Walter Benjamin, Einbahnstrasse in Schriften 2:515.), it makes sense that he should have sought to relate elements of the superstructure directly to one another and sometimes even to the economic base.
The Arcades Project was, of course, an attempt to create an objective context of signification wherein the subject might orient his or her choices. But, if this much is clear, obvious problems arise if it is true that Benjamin "charts philosophical ideas visually within an unreconciled and transitory field of oppositions that can perhaps best be pictured in terms of coordinates of contradictory terms, the 'synthesis' of which is not a movement toward resolution, but the point at which their axes intersect." (Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing, pg. 210.) Benjamin may well have sought to explode the immediacy of the present and any sense of linear development by creating "constellations" of dialectical images; he knew that recovering the past is a political act. But the approach was incapable of providing a determination of specific contradictions or any positive way of resolving them. Any connection between the physical and the metaphysical, the historical and the speculative, the historically concrete and the allegorical, falls asunder. Each cancels the other, so to speak, and what remains in the chasm are fragments, objects within an experiential "horizon," seemingly unviolated by the imposition of external categories and open to a relentless continuum of transformation disguised as historical appropriation by the oppressed. In discussing allegory's scholastic and formal nature, Lukacs notes that: "after all, in such actions interchangeable things and details are only sublated (aufgehoben) in their being-as-they-are (Geradesosein). The act of sublation directs itself only to their character at the particulat time and substitutes something which is exactly the same from within their inner structure. Thus, insofar as it is only a particular which is being replaced by something just as particuar, this sublation is nothing more than the restless reproduction of their particularity." (Lukacs, Aesthetik 4 :169.) Indeed, much more clearly than Adorno, Benjamin had a presentiment of the problem when he spoke of "dialectics at a standstill."
His theory, in any event, divides against itself by mirroring the object under consideration from two irreconcilable positions simultaneously. Allegory provides the object with signification and the endless possibility of transformation even as it subverts the concern of historical materialism with determinacy and mediation. By the same token, however, dealing with such concerns will rob the object of its allegorical transcendnece. And so, while the need for a concrete appropriation makes an allegorical interpretation impossible, the emphasis on allegorical transcendence undercuts the ability to offer a concrete mode of appropriating the object. Nevertheless, Benjamin's undertaking shifts the focus of traditional cultural inquiry and raises concerns crucial for the development of any emancipatory aesthetic.
Benjamin maintains that the cultural inquiry must evidence a commitment to freedom. This places him squarely within the tradition of critical theory. His recognition of the need for oppressed groups to reappropriate the past, however, suggests that critique rest upon a positive sense of purpose. Benjamin was content to "show," not to tell; the objects were to speak for themselves. If this desire along with the importance attributed to montage appears in the collection of letters by historical personalities, which appeared individually in the Frankfurter Zeitung in 1931/2 and were then published by Benjamin under the pseudonym Detlef Holz in 1936, the need for introductions to them -- no less than their importance -- evidences the difficulty of the having aesthetic or historical objects speak for themselves. (Walter Benjamin, Deutsche Menschen: Eine Folge von Briefen (Frankfurt, 1984). But the problem is precisely that they don't or, even if they do, the language will change with each appropriation by any particular group; this will either relativize the import of the phenomenon in question or, even worse, turns it into little more than an object of contemplation.
"Interest," as Horkheimer knew, cannot serve as the criterion of "truth" since truth will then always remain in the service of the strong. (Max Horkheimer, "Notes on the Crisis" in Critical Theory and Society: A Reader eds. Stephen Eric Bronner and Douglas Kellner (New York, 1989), pg. 52.) The choice, however, is not restricted to either imposing impose abstract categories or letting the object speak for itself. Perhaps aesthetic inquiry, whatever its unique practices and claims, is always informed by a broader social theory whose empirical and ethical justification stands are external to it. The inadequacies of his approach make clear how the valid use of a genuinely interdisciplinary standpoint will depend upon the ability to differentiate between disciplines and the areas of their relevance. Benjamin, however, did not see that. He was thus condemned to leave his materialist aesthetic hanging in the abstract and skirt any coherent encounter with the problem raised by his own analysis: How is a critical appropriation of the past possible without teleological assumptions ?
Surely the inability to deal with this question systematically derived from Benjamin's opposition to the totalizing impulse. But, interestingly enough, his most important contribution emerges from its embrace: his willingness to offer a material explanation for the aesthetic experience. Rereading his early essay on "Experience" in 1929, Benjamin noted: "In an early essay I mobilized all the rebellious forces of youth against the word 'experience.' And now that word has been carried over into much of my work. I nonetheless remained true to myself since my attack cut through the word without destroying it. It forced itself into the center of concern." (Cited in Marbacher Magazine pg. 45.) And he was right. His aesthetic ultimately highlighted the metaphysical experience of the commodity form, the interplay between technological development and fantasy, and his original preoccupation with transcendence.
An emphasis on specificity and mediation does, in a way, make itself felt. Benjamin may have been pessimistic with regard to progress, but his perception of technology is another matter entirely. There is, admittedly, something objectionable about simply divorcing the two. Progress, from such a standpoint, becomes a matter of the spirit without a material referrent while technology loses its normative justification. (Cf. Lowy, "Fire Alarm: Walter Benjamin's Critique of Technology" in On Changing the World, pgs. 175ff.) Benjamin, however, does not mechanically pit the two against one another; the sense of historical decay and the openness to the possibilities of technology exist in a state of tension. He subsequently never reifies the concept of technology like others within the Institute's "inner circle." Nowhere does this become more evident than in the famous analysis of the "aura."
The concept is difficult and it underwent a series of permutations before receiving its final elaboration in Benjamin's study of Baudelaire and his essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." It apppears in an earlier essay entitled the "Short History of Photography," for example, where Benjamin notes that early photographs by Eugene Atget retain elements of the aura which they would later lose owing to commercial exploitation. (Note the critique of Benjamin's mechanical juxtaposition of the auratic against the mass produced in T.W. Adorno, Aeshtetic Theory translated by C. Lenhart and edited by Gretl Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann (London, 1984), pg. 82-3.) Espeically the latter, for all the criticism it has undergone, is a landmark in the history of aesthetics. Never before did the moment of aesthetic recognition become open to scrutiny in material terms. And, just as the experience of an artwork becomes interwoven with the conditions of its production and reception, so do the most basic alternatives of the commodity form emerge. In any event, however, the basic idea is that. . . experience of the aura rests on the transposition of a response common in human relationships between the inanimate or natural object and man. The person we look at, or who feels he is being looked at, looks at us in turn. To perceive the aura of an object we look at means to invest it with the ability to look at us in return. (Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism trans. Harry Zohn (London, 1973),pg. 148.)
Andre Malraux told the story of how peasants fell to their knees before religious masterpieces when they were paraded through the streets, thinking that these were not simply objectifications of holy figures, but rather their living embodiments. Benjamin understood how the singular experience of the work, in an inherently premodern and religious context, provides it with a nimbus, a glow, as well as an anthropomorphic quality. The primacy placed on revelation, on faith, on non- instrumental forms of thought, and the embeddedness of the work within a tradition and an organic community, make this possible. Mediation vanishes and determination as well. The work of art is the intermediary between communicating subjects even as it is nonreflexively imbued with their experiences.
Technology liquidates the singularity of the work and even renders aesthetic forms obsolete; Adorno is correct when, concerning Benjamin's compilation of historical letters, he observes that "a historical judgment over the letter as form [has been rendered]. It is anarchronistic; who is still able to write them highlights capacities grown archaic; actually, letters can no longer be written. Benjamin provided them with a monument." (Theodor Adorno, "Afterword" to Deutsche Menschen, pg. 95.) The experience of the work no less than the work itself is ripped from the sociohistorical context and the preconditions for an organic community are destroyed.
"One might subsume the eliminated element in the term `aura' and go on to say: that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art. This is a symptmatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art. One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced. These two processes lead to a tremendous shattering of tradition which is the obverse of the contemporary crisis and renewal of mankind." (Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" in Illuminations, pg. 221.)Photography and then film, for the historical creation of the one "dreamed" the other, made the reproduction of the original work possible. The consequences of this situation are extraordinary. Art now becomes an object for the masses; the conditions for its production no less than for its distribution are made more democratic. A scientific worldview and the application of technology create a secular attitude which impinges upon the interaction of the individual with the work; the religious quality of awe is lost and the aura is conquered. The immediacy of experience and the aura give way before something new.
Artistic experience is no longer singular. Fashion substitutes itself for the myths of old and the movie-stars replace the demi-gods. But this does not mean that the mythical element is liquidated. Quite the contrary. Technology enables it to take new forms. Immediacy defines the changed historical situation. The technological ability to detach the object from tradition seemingly obliterates all mediations and creates new possibilities for propaganda. This becomes particularly evident with film wherein the alternatives of the new situation present themselves most starkly.
Of course, in the beginning, new methods of production are still intwerwoven with the old and and "dialectical images" still arise from which it is possible to deduce various collective ideas of wish-fulfillment. The past still retains its utopian residue. But, especially with the increasingly pronounced effect of technology upon art, the existence of old forms will become ever more precarious; "Novels did not always exist in the past, nor must they necessarily always exist in the future; nor, always, tragedies; nor great epics; literary forms such as the commentary . . . we are in the midst of a vast process in which literary forms are being melted down, a process in which many of the contrasts in terms of which we have been accustomed to think may lose their relevance." (Walter Benjamin, "The Author as Producer" in Understanding Brecht, pg. 89) the ability to fasten upon the utopian residue of painting, for example, could then become ever weaker. It all depends upon a commitment by the audience and the artist that is at once philosophical, political, and aesthetic. With the loss of aura, after all, it only follows that the traditional notion of the masterpiece should make way before the work of "intervention." An "organizing function" thus defines the artist in the new era since art is now a mass phenomenon. A choice between conformism and individuality, irrationalism and reflection, also presents itself to the audience. Indeed, just as technology makes possible new forms of mass manipulation, the loss of aura opens the way for for political analysis and what Benjamin termed a "heightened presence of mind."
This is why he showed such respect for Brecht and his notion of "epic theater." Not merely did the author of The Three-Penny Opera emphasize the need for "crude thinking," which might make the determination of "dialectical images" somewhat easier, but his "estrangement-effect" also prized reflection, concentration, and sobriety in coming to grips with reality. Making the audience aware of how it is being fooled creates an interest in knowledge; keeping it simple enables it to comprehend the complex; forging a sense of distance from the play increases the outrage over oppression; politics mixes with fun; indeed, commenting on Brecht's technique, Benjamin put it nicely when he wrote that "there is no better starting point for thought than laughter; speaking more precisely, spasms of the diaphragm generally offer better chances for thought than spasms of the soul." (ibid., pg. 101.)
Reflection and social reality are not simply juxtaposed against experience and fantasy. If Benjamin illuminated the manner in which a structural transformation takes place between experience and the productive forces of society, he also recognized that commodities hide a desire which takes new shape with each change in fashion; the commodity is always "bathed in a profane glow." (Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire, pg. 105.) An analysis of commodity fetishism therefore cannot rest at the economic level of production, but must also include the experience of consumerism. Consequently, the experience of commodity fetishism will appear only in the analysis of the particular phenomenon.
Critique, for Benjamin, always demands an empirical object. And here, in contrast to so much contemporary literary discussion, Benjamin stood with Schlegel when he wrote that "in what is called philosophy of art usually one of two elements are missing -- either the philosophy or the art." The experience demands its material or constituitive referrent. Perhaps this often led Benjamin to make reductivistic claims regarding the relation between a poem or an image with the existing productive forces. This is why Adorno could attack the notion of "dialectical images," and further claim that Benjamin's Baudelaire manuscript "lacks one thing: mediation" (in "Letters to Walter Benjamin," New Left Review 81 September-October, 1973), pg. 70; also note the evaluation of the dispute by Wolin, Walter Benjamin, pgs. 163ff.) While he may have exaggerated the relation, however, his approach made it possible to show how artistic innovation no less than its experience is anchored in those forces. Indeed, for this very reason, it makes no sense to condemn the entire realm of mass culture in the manner of Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse.
"The separation of the true from the false," Benjamin could write, "is not the starting point, but rather the goal of the critical method." (Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire, pg. 103.) It is with the particular object rather than with a judgment of the general form that an inquiry must begin. The culture industry engages in manipulation, but produces works incarnating forgotten dreams. Reconstructing those dreams seemingly crushed beneath the boot of fashion is the only way to rub history "against the grain." There is nothing too small, too insignificant, from which to draw pictures of unfulfilled wishes. That is the injunction behind the aphorism from The Arcades Project which runs : "Those who are alive at any given time see themselves in the midday of history. They are obliged to prepare a banquet for the past. The historian is the herald who invites those who are departed to the table."
But the banquet is composed of left-overs. It is not meant for those who "sit at the golden tables" (Brecht). An undertaking of this sort will thus employ an allegorical frame of reference to interpret the commodity form. Only then will the inquiry into the commodity illuminate a repressed desire that confronts the course of history. There is no theoretical mesh between these two constructs and it is true that, incompletely integrated into either perspective, the object ends up suspended between them. That was why, whatever his antisystemic tendencies, It is subsequently legitimate to claim that "for all his renunciation of system, his thought, presented as that of a fragmentarian, yet retains a systematic tendency. He used to say that each great work needs its own epistemology just as it had its own metaphysics." (Gershom Scholem, "Walter Benjamin," in On Jews and Judaism in Crisis, pg. 182.) He wished to fuse the messianic with his own brand of materialism. Only in that way would it become possible "to rescue the metaphysical experience of the objective world." (Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing, pg. 221.)
This hermeneutical undertaking, according to Benjamin, is justified insofar as the loss of aura is a symptom of what Max Weber termed the "disenchantment" of the world. Did Benjamin then wish to "re-enchant" it? That depends. An affirmation of experience deadened through the reification process is an obvious derivation of his position. He was fascinated by the thought processes of children; hashish fostered visions; the occult held an allure. Experience, however, still retains a material referrent. Innovation, new experience, will thus make it incumbent upon artists to exploit new technical innovations. Just as photography forced painting in the directions of cubism and expressionism, and film transformed the meaning and experience of the photograph, so will holographs provide a new impetus for film.
Fashionable claims about the "end of art" appear foolish from such a perspective. Artistic innovation, now interwoven with the development of technology, will survive so long as technology survives. Nor should there be any mistake. Benjamin's materialist insight is not some paen to technology; he does not claim that every artistic innovation is positive because it employs new technological forms. He is aware that innovations can be introduced from any political perspective. A definition of the relation between literary and political judgments thus becomes necessary. Indeed, this is of crucial importance precisely because the new mass media tends to blur the distinction between art and politics. (ibid., pg. 142.)
Disentangling the one from the other, rather than engaging in some form of postmodern resignation, becomes the task of the critic whom he termed, "the strategist of the literary struggle." (Benjamin, "The Technique of the Critic in Thirteen Theses," pg. 112.) Without a framework with which to evaluate the existing political situation, or determine the normative conditions for the appropriating the emancipatory potential within an object, judgments will become arbitrary. And the fact is that Benjamin the critic was not exempt from such arbitrariness; thus, he could appreciate Leskov and Gide, but summarily dismiss Bulgakov by claiming that "the tendency is completely counter-revolutionary." (Walter Benjamin, "Die politische Gruppierung der russichen Schriftsteller" in Angelus Novus, pg. 193.)
The need for criteria to render judgments thus, once again, asserts itself. Benjamin knew that neither epistemological categories nor aesthetic standards can arise from literary criticism "commenting" on itself or trying to appear as philosophy in a new guise. Nor was he content to accept criteria derived a priori. Especially in his early writings, but also from a certain view of The Arcades Project, they emerge only from an analysis of the particular text. Benjamin's emphasis upon the object in its uniqueness, the particular text and the practices capable of being inferred from it, is the strength -- the genuinely materialist aspect -- of his method. But his work offers neither the necessarily transcendental coordinates with which to make sense of the particular nor an insight into the sociological dynamics of its constitution. How then to secure the conditions for a "rescue"?
The answer could emerge only by analyzing the conditions for mechanical reproduction defining the new age. Given the new connection between technology and art, he believed, a "political tendency which is correct [will] comprise a literary tendency which is correct." (Benjamin, "The Author as Producer," pg. 86.) Benjamin did not wish to argue that the positive judgment of literary works depends upon the manner in which they provide a "correct" depiction of political concerns. Quite the contrary. In keeping with his emphasis on technical innovation, and the "organizing function" of the writer, he emphasized that :
Commitment is a necessary, but never a sufficient condition for a writer's work acquiring an organizing function. For this to happen it is also necessary for the writer to have a teacher's attitude. And today this is more than ever an essential demand. A writer who does not teach other writers teaches nobody. The crucial point, therefore is that a writer's production must have the character of a model: it must be able to instruct other writers in their production and, secondly, it must be able to place an improved apparatus at their disposal. (ibid., pg. 98.)
The implications of this statement confront both the fashionable notion that form alone counts as well as the belief that the content of the work is the criterion upon which a judgment rests. Bob Dylan is a case in point. Judging the singer on his various religious conversions or the manner in which he does, or does not, offer a pathway to revolution is to employ criteria outside the practice in which he is engaged. The extent to which he articulates utopian wishes and dialectical images, the degree to which he makes other artists aware of new technical innovations and the ways in which his songs evidence trans-cendence by changing their function, become the criteria with which critics can judge his work and that of others as well.
Progressive use of literary technique and the identification witha progressive political position, however, are not intrinsically connection with one another; T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound employed progressive literary techniques and believed in reactionary politics at the same time; Anatole France or Romain Rolland, on the other hand, employed less sophisticated techniques even as they associated themselves with more progressive political positions. Transforming the political judgment into one of utopian possibility is merely an evasion. Nor is Benjamin's theory of the dialectical image sufficient; indeed, if reference to the struggle is insufficient for evaluating the techniques employed in the work, the use of those same techniques will not depend upon a particular political insight into social reality.
For all that, however, Benjamin saw the work as "a living center of reflection." (Walter Benjamin, Der Begriff der Kunstkritik in der deutschen Romantik (Frankfurt, 1973), pg. 67.) He may have been wrong. Perhaps, using a phrase from Leo Lowenthal, its sparks illuminate only what once was possible. (Lowenthal, An Unmastered Past, pg. 110.) No matter. Even the irrecoverable possibility can become relevant in different ways in changing circumstances. What made Benjamin a great critic was his knowledge that the work is always new and fresh. Endless paths may lead back into the past. But there are others, unnoticed for now, which project new challenges for people with clear eyes and a free imagination. Walter Benjamin did not shut his eyes or close his mind. Indeed, such was the nature of his genius.