Walter Benjamin, Again; or, How Does a Scholarly Field Legitimate Itself?

Walter Benjamin, Again; or, How Does a Scholarly Field Legitimate Itself?
Annika Thiem
“Walter Benjamin… again?” Or “Why still Walter Benjamin…?” Looking at the vast amount of secondary literature on Walter Benjamin that has been produced over the last three decades, these questions might not seem unreasonable. To someone external—or even internal—to the field of Benjamin Studies it may seem that all that could possibly be said must have already been said. This must especially seem so after the appearance of the impressively extensive and detailed intellectual biography Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life by Howard Eiland and Michael Jennings, a biography that has rigorously chronicled Benjamin’s life and intellectual pursuits without ever falling into the hagiographic genre.1 That biography only sharpens the troubling question: Is there anything in Benjamin’s corpus that has not been examined carefully? Is there still more space for ample nuanced commentary? One possibility for scholars is to continue to explore the few existing lacunae, for instance in relation to the yet-unexplored third volume of the Gesammelte Schriften, which contains the wide-ranging book reviews that Benjamin published during his lifetime.2 Another is to try and imagine what bigger questions might still exist, what the contemporary situation demands methodologically and substantively of humanities scholarship. Rather than bemoaning these pesky questions as unfair to Benjamin scholars—why is not the same doubt expressed concerning yet another new study on Plato, Aristotle, or Shakespeare?—we should instead welcome the serious and always-skeptical engagement with the question of how a field legitimates itself in its current environment. Indeed, all fields should persistently engage with questions about their sources of legitimacy, in institutional-political, methodological, and content-related terms. This question of self-legitimation of scholarship is also precisely what I would like to take up in this short essay in conversation with Benjamin and Benjamin Studies, doing so at the same time with an eye to humanities scholarship more generally.
Some might be inclined to point out that this questioning of the legitimacy of fields within the humanities plays into the hands and is therefore a part of the larger neoliberal assault on social structures. Hence, so one might infer, we—Benjamin scholars and humanities theoreticians in general—should refuse such demands for legitimacy from the very beginning. I am not denying that the neoliberal assault that relentlessly commoditizes and eviscerates higher education is serious and the situation dire, as recent figures on the adjunctification of higher education in the U.S. alone demonstrate.3 Yet this realization of how changeable university structures are could also be a wake-up call, reminding us not only that the 19th-century university model has long been buried but that its 20th-century offspring is on its deathbed. More critically, we must acknowledge that both of these institutions did their part in shoring up the emergent dominant powers of their time, as Immanuel Wallerstein shows.4 So why would our own time be different and why would suddenly now non-conforming fields be embraced and fostered? This issue lies at the heart of the question about scholarly legitimacy: Fields that refuse to question their own legitimacy and neglect to build and engage a broader community beyond that of their own specialists are bound to be either co-opted or fall by the wayside. In what follows I will put forth the contention that rather than arguing for the legitimacy of a certain field by seeking to shore up its canonical status and authority, a committed form of legitimacy must derive its power from a serious engagement with social and political issues of the day in terms of content, method, and audiences. 
Benjamin’s 1925 Habilitationsschrift on German Baroque drama, entitled Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels (The Origin of German Tragic Drama), posed a tough methodological challenge to the scholarly conventions at the time—so much so that Benjamin eventually withdrew it, when it became clear that it was going to be rejected by the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Frankfurt. In this work, Benjamin turns to this minor literary genre because of the flourishing interest in the Baroque in Weimar Germany and he questions how the scholarship of his time legitimated itself.5 (A challenge in his case that cost Benjamin the venia legendi, the permission to teach at a university, that would have qualified him to pursue a professorship.) Benjamin’s study focuses on these particular literary texts not because of some overlooked aesthetic superiority. They are in many ways mediocre works of art, as Benjamin acknowledges. But these works provide exemplary material in how they tarry with major political questions of their time, such as political legitimation, sovereignty, political instability, and political temporality marked by emergency and catastrophe. These questions were not only virulent for the Baroque plays in their time, but were also at the heart of discussions in Weimar Germany. Yet the aim of Benjamin’s study is not to develop and defend a normative answer to quandaries, neither for the past nor the present, but to wrestle with how these questions and uncertainties were aesthetically negotiated and how this aesthetic negotiation subtends the emergence and consolidation new plausibilities. 
The epistemological-critical prologue of the study explicitly addresses, albeit relatively briefly, the issue of how a field of study legitimates itself and how it relates to its own contemporary situation. As Benjamin himself exemplifies, addressing this problem requires a critical engagement with the epistemological and methodological presuppositions animating the scholarly work. Taking up Benjamin’s lead, it seems crucial to me to consider the methods of research in our specific fields in the humanities in order to reflect on how we contribute to the broader questions of the present. For the remainder of this essay, I would like to address three vectors in this regard: 
1. For fields, such as Benjamin Studies, that deal with material from different regions and different times, the methods question is also one of the historical and geographic method by which the connections, transpositions, and confrontations are conducted and made. 
2. Humanities work, so my argument goes, is always also theoretical work insofar as we labor on our collective apperceptive apparatus made up of not only of physical infrastructures but equally of concepts and images that shape our everyday experience. 
3. Such theoretical work is not only a matter of contents, but also a matter of reworking the means for creating and disseminating knowledge and of broadening egalitarian participation therein. 
While the first quandary pertains to the epistemological and practical presuppositions under which such contributions are made, the second and third vectors outline more specifically particular ways—rather than topics—for making a contribution to the social and political discourses of the present. In considering the second and third aspects, I will suggest that at stake is not a direct policy outcome of scholarship, but how we understand and foster the broader politicity of thought. 
To ask the first question more concretely, we might reformulate it as follows: How is the privileging of Benjamin’s work as an archive through which a field of scholarship constitutes itself legitimated in the first decades of the 21st century in, for instance, North America? What kind of epistemological assumptions are we (often only implicitly) making about historiography, history, and the historical-theoretical legitimation of scholarship, when we turn to that one archive rather than to another?6 If we agree that we not only study an archive out of reverence for the canonical status of the past but for how it can inform us in the present, it becomes tempting to legitimate Benjamin scholarship by establishing the special usefulness of a particular archive for the present. In keeping with that line of thought, it is alluring to assume that Benjamin’s relevance today derives from an equivalency of the U.S. in the present and the Weimar Germany of his time. But the problem with such an approach is twofold. First, it is a historical logic that joins in the dominant instrumentalism, where any study is valuable only insofar as it is useful to the present local context and where the specificity of the past or the different context evaporates in the subordination to the present and its purposes. Second, an approach that claims privilege for Benjamin on the merits that “his work provides us with useful ideas for today” runs the danger of committing what we might call an “applicationist fallacy” that falls into an ahistorical transculturalism. The problem here is that the present conceptual importance then is based in the assumption that ideas and concepts can be simply repurposed from their original context in order to be implemented into new contexts.7
Hence in searching for an alternative historical-theoretical method, we do well to heed Benjamin’s own criticism in his work on German Baroque tragic dramas concerning his own time’s burgeoning interest in the Baroque. He rejects this inclination of his own time to recognize itself in the Baroque as “fatal, pathological suggestibility”: “Just as a man lying sick with fever transforms all the words which he hears into the extravagant images of delirium, so it is that the spirit of the present age seizes on the manifestations of past or distant intellectual worlds (Geisteswelten), in order to take possession of them and unfeelingly incorporate them into its own self-absorbed fantasizing.”8 This model of the present recognizing itself in an era of the past amounts to an identification that eclipses any significant differences between then and now. Just as Weimar Germany was not Post-Reformation Germany, the U.S. in 2015 is not Weimar Germany. 
On the one hand, if identification with a corpus or era from the past remains agnostic about practical implications, it leads to a sentimentalism that seems apolitical, but hence only eschews its own alignment with the present status quo. Identification is, in Benjamin’s own words, nothing but a pathological Einfühlung, which is “idle curiosity masquerad[ing] as method.”9 On the other hand, such an identification, if it happens in a more explicitly political register, tends to overdetermine the political landscape and produce simplistic policy conclusions. In identifying the present with Weimar Germany, the temptation is to find the present-day equivalent of the dictators of that time, in order to deliver an absolute imperative to intervene and stave off the catastrophe that is certain to follow. Such false clarity produces a pseudo-legitimacy that elides the messiness of the present and hence subordinates the study of the archive to a presentist political agenda.10
The question remains then, however, if scholarly work legitimates itself by contributing to the larger social and political questions that animate the present, then how can we engage archives of the past without falling into modalities of implicit over-identification or canonical appreciation? In The Origin of German Tragic Drama, Benjamin’s answer is oblique and could be read as entirely focused on Kunstpolitik, the politics of artistic production at his time. Commenting on contemporary poets, he appreciates “the desire for a vigorous style of language, which would make it seem equal to the violence of world-events. … Neologisms abound. Now, as then, many of them are an expression of a desire for a new pathos.”11 Poets labor on language, our shared means of apprehending and making sense of the world, but critical literature, such as what Benjamin sees himself producing, needs to develop a different, less pathos-driven relationship to its material: “Only by approaching the subject from some distance and, initially, foregoing any view of the whole, can the mind be led, through a more or less ascetic apprenticeship, to the position of strength from which it is possible to take in the whole panorama and yet remain in control of oneself.”12 The task Benjamin sets for himself as a writer here is quite different from the task he later outlines as a “historical materialist” approach in “On the Concept of History.”13  Different from the later more explicitly political approach, his early scholarly approach is contemplative and, it seems, politically silent, if not complacent. But there still is an important element to retain from the asceticism Benjamin insists on, precisely to avoid a programmatic overdetermination or subordination of the study of the past to the purposes of the present. Benjamin’s approach outlines an intimate relationship to the material of the past that starts in close encounters and only eventually arrives at a panoramic view, but does so without losing its groundedness in its own present. This distance makes it possible to discover the differences and particularities of the archive without assimilating them directly into the present. 
The salience of a past that becomes legible and important to a present, such as the Baroque to Weimar Germany, lies in where the parallels or points of identification break down, which is precisely what renders the archive into one that can provide new and different insights to the present. One aspect where Benjamin’s work provides a perspective that refuses a presentist narrowing is in the discussions of sovereignty, which in the context of Weimar revolved around the state of emergency (Ausnahmezustand) and the status and powers of the sovereign. Benjamin briefly refers to and disarticulates his analysis from the one offered by one of the most influential jurists of the time, Carl Schmitt, who understands sovereignty as either the decision of the exception (Ausnahme) or as a state of emergency (Ausnahmezustand). Unlike Schmitt, who provides a conceptual analysis purely focuses on decisionist power, Benjamin shows how the plays of the Baroque era collectively reveal a theory of the sovereignty of the absolute ruler as developed against the backdrop of the breakdown and loss of cosmological certainties, especially the erosion of salvation history which meant the erosion of an unshakeable faith in how the overarching course of the world would unfold in time. The timeliness that endows scholarship with legitimacy stems from how an archive emerges as appealing and “speaking to” the present. But the difference between Benjamin and Schmitt lies in the underlying historical-theoretical method that they deploy. Following Benjamin, the method becomes one of attempting to seize on the interest but also disarticulating and disrupting that perceived proximity or continuity between then and now in order to broaden and reorient the conceptual assumptions of the present. In the case of the political theoretical discussions around the state of exception and sovereignty, this reorientation and expansion moves from simply focusing on the abstract conceptual characteristics of sovereignty to examining the shifts in the broader cosmological, anthropological, and historical aesthetics genuine to the time. So instead of identifying sovereignty as the ultimate decision or aversion of an extreme situation of upheaval and of the suspension of political order, Benjamin’s analysis unearths how these conceptions of sovereignty—and, by implication, other political theoretical key concepts as well—should be grasped as epiphenomena of the cosmological, anthropological, and historical aesthetic that underlies the conflicts and developments in Post-Reformation Germany, which is also where the early 20th century also easily recognizably differs from the 16th century. 
Benjamin’s later work continues seamlessly with his earlier work in its commitment to refusing identificatory relationships with the past and to refusing historicist aspirations to establish “the way it really was.”14 But unlike his earlier work, this later work ascribes a greater volatility to the moment in which an archive becomes important for the present and outlines a more decidedly political dimension for engaging with archives from the past. In his reflections “On the Concept of History,” Benjamin holds that any instance of the past becomes legible for the present only for a flash and only in a moment of danger. He elaborates, “The danger threatens both the content of the tradition and those who inherit it. For both it is one and the same thing: the danger of becoming a tool of the ruling classes.”15 The danger facing the present extends beyond the oblivion of the past. The danger is to participate in perpetuating the status quo and its dynamics of injustice, oppression, and exploitation. But with the danger of conformism also comes the possibility for intervention, for revealing the injustices of the day and appropriating memory in ways that oppose these. The lesson of Weimar arrives for us today at a time when capitalism and social and political institutions are in crisis and Benjamin, among many others of that time, arrives as a thinker trying to forge theoretical tools to dissect and grapple with that present. Weimar’s answers are not our own, but the constellation of political, social, technological, and economic upheaval, paired with racialized hatred, echoes with our contemporary situation. For Benjamin, as has been often cited by now, the key lies in finding ways of not memorializing the injustices of the past, but harnessing how they can fuel the struggles in the present to oppose their continuation: “The only historian capable of fanning the spark of hope in the past is the one who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he is victorious. And this enemy has never ceased to be victorious.”16 The aim of Benjamin Studies is not to memorialize Benjamin and his archive, but to appropriate them. The continued importance of Benjamin Studies today—and consequently the possibility of the field’s legitimation—is contingent and changeable, depending on the extent to which studying Benjamin’s archive and Benjamin’s Weimar Germany can help us sharpen our grasp of the dangers and possibilities that constitute the horizon of our own inquiries and assist us in developing new conceptual tools for our own context. 
Such legitimation qua contemporary relevance does not mean that all studies are expected to validate themselves by appealing to immediate popularity or by making direct policy contributions that would solve for the pressing issues of the day, such as in our own time, for instance, averting the climate crisis, aiding world peace, and achieving global social justice. To reduce all scholarship to policy would cripple the very critical imagination so desperately needed. Striving for popular appeal is often inimical to trying to think forcefully otherwise. Social justice movements have a long history of depending on and requiring the production of alternative knowledge, and many of these movements have been deeply unpopular in the dominant sectors of society of their time. The anti-slavery, women’s, civil rights, and queer movements all are examples of movements that have not only produced complex bodies of theoretical knowledge, but whose success and impact on society at large also depended—and continue to depend—on their wide scope and ability to refashion our way of thinking, experiencing, relating, and acting in the world. Even if contemporary relevance cannot be reduced to and is maybe not even best indicated by immediate policy adaptability or popularity, the attention to a broader perspective is or should have an impact on the style of our scholarship. 
Benjamin himself is an interesting example regarding the issue of style. His style is certainly not easily accessible, but it is very literary in the sense that formal composition and word choice as well as the timeliness of his work mattered greatly to him. In some preparatory notes for a critique of the style of German academic writers, Benjamin observes “the paralyzing effect of conformism”17 that runs through the academic community when it comes to matters of scholarly style. As a consequence, German writers generally, in his view, do not care very much about the style of their writing at all. In Benjamin’s estimation, this lack of concern for and independence in the style of writing are indicative of how German academics have no sense of the larger role and importance of their contributions beyond their own limited circles. He explains that “Whoever has to be ready for having to step into the breach on the world political stage one day, pays attention to his gait, to his appearance. The writer, who reckons with being cited, pays attention to his style.”18 The style of a work in part gives away the absence or presence of an awareness and aspiration of trying to intervene in larger conversations. Taking this line of argumentation up, we might say that scholarship very well does not need to be immediately popular to validate itself. But the continued legitimation of scholarly work requires that it seeks a substantive dialogue with communities beyond the academy and with the pressing questions of the time—or what ought to be such—beyond disciplinary or even interdisciplinary skirmishes that are still nonetheless entirely internal to the academy.
The specific political valence of Benjamin’s work and of theoretical interventions like his remains a contested issue, especially insofar as all of us have to grapple with the politics of our own role as writers. The biography Critical Life vigorously develops and foregrounds the political valence of Benjamin’s thought. Methodologically, Eiland and Jennings powerfully exemplify a materialist writing strategy in developing the material conditions of Benjamin’s thinking without reducing the ideas to the material conditions, which in turn gives the ideas and arguments a life beyond the narrow context of the biographic interest. In that way Critical Life echoes Benjamin’s thought as an interventionist kind of thinking, insofar as his thought, as well as the biography, always not only examines and chronicles, but also seeks to act upon the theoretical infrastructures of how we experience and how collective experience is shaped. To Benjamin theoretical acuity and theoretical contributions were central to what writers could offer to the larger progressive political efforts. In a fragment collecting thoughts on the political role of writers, Benjamin criticized the New Objectivity movement (Neue Sachlichkeit) and similar trends among new writers, while observing that “Never has there been a generation of young poets so uninterested in the theoretical legitimation of their importance as today’s.”19 He objects to the crude politics of writers aligning themselves with Leftist and progressive politics, insofar as these writers use this alignment to assure themselves of their politically correct attitude while lacking theoretical reflection and refinement. Benjamin observes the problem that solidarity with the proletariat is only an illusion for writers and not possible for writers and intellectuals by living on working class income, “because the bourgeois class gave him [the writer] from his childhood on a means of production, in the form of his education, which aligns him with the bourgeois class in solidarity because of the educational privilege, and which maybe even more so aligns the bourgeois class in solidarity with him.”20 This kind of mutual solidarity between the writing class and the bourgeoisie can be imperceptible on the surface or even seem otherwise, but, as Benjamin argues, it always remains more deeply present than felt, seen, and admitted. And most of all, this privileged and silent underground solidarity always threatens to be “strong enough to withdraw from him for everything he writes the force which derives from the praxis of the struggle which he experienced himself with his own body (der am eigenen Leib erfahrnen kämpferischen Praxis). This force … is called: Theory and knowledge (Erkenntnis).”21 Epistemological-critical capabilities, not simplistic political alignments, are the writer’s ideological critical armor. Theory and knowledge are crucial, perhaps even—if we follow Benjamin here—the primary political battlefield of writers and others mainly involved in working on and producing the ideas, words, sounds, and images by which we know and orient ourselves in the world. But the causal efficacy of any writer’s contribution is always a tenuous one at best. Success is never guaranteed and often the criteria for it are not even clear. Theoretical contributions succeed in changing the realities when the contributions become anonymous, when the ideas are no longer tied to any particular author, but have become instead how we think and talk about things. A theory has succeeded when it has become an integral part of our infrastructures of experience. 
What I am calling here “infrastructures of experience,” which I take to be a core interest threading through Benjamin’s entire corpus, might seem at a remove from what we generally consider the sites of social and political change, namely, building and altering political institutions and social practices. Experience and its underlying structures matter for deep social change, because they are what anchor the basic assumptions and ways of encountering the world that a polity shares. Those shared ways of experiencing mean that certain aspects are considered self-evident and indisputable and largely remain unspoken, unquestioned, below the threshold of becoming objects of experience or discussion themselves. In other words, shared ways of experiencing—such as the underlying conceptions of history, life, power, economics, and so forth—govern the distribution of legitimacy that is felt and sensed rather than discussed and agreed upon. Social and political changes “stick” when they become naturalized, when they obtain the normality of “this is just how it works.” 
Put differently, at stake are also metaphysical questions of maintaining and remaking the objective structures of reality. Time and space are not, as Kant held, universal and unchangeable. They are neither reducible to individual perspectives nor refashionable at will. Instead, they are historically and socially constructed, as Benjamin chronicles by documenting architectonic shapes and social practices of the urban center Paris in the 19th century, the focus in his Arcades Project and the essays surrounding that project.22 In his essay “The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire,” Benjamin observes how the reporting on and circulation of news structures the collective sense of the temporality and spatiality of events that in turn shape the understanding of the social world.23 Boulevards and cafés used to be where information was circulated, but with the introduction of the electric telegraph, the time of circulation accelerates greatly and the space of circulation expands, while the sense of distance contracts. Whereas before the city’s boulevard was the spatial center anchoring the world of newsworthy events, with the spreading of telegraph technology the world from which accidents and crimes are reported no longer has any center. This transformation in the apperception and physical constitution of time and space correlates, as Benjamin emphasizes, with the changing sense of cities and polities as constituted by crowds and masses. In turn this restructuring of core categories of experience lies at the heart of the broader dynamic of the 18th and especially 19th century of the emergence of the modern nation-state and the new sensibilities of mass democracy and society.24 To my mind, the political valence of examining and working on these underlying but not readily recognizable frameworks of experience and perception is what makes the metaphysical thrust of Benjamin’s early works pertinent to his later more explicitly culturally and politically engaged works. Metaphysics, as I read it through Benjamin, is not transcendent, apolitical, pre-political, or ahistorical, but rather as the articulation of the historical structures of reality that produce experience and a sense of the world as a continuous whole. The question is how to elaborate and labor on a material metaphysics in which empirical reality and experience can be understood as sedimenting the quasi-transcendental forms of apperception and sociality, which for Benjamin includes linguistic and imagistic forms in addition to time and space. In order for us to explore a material politics of affect in the face of the encroaching neoliberal regimes of surveillance, biopower, and exploitation, Benjamin’s work remains a timely archive to revisit, among many others, because it chronicles the struggles of developing theoretical tools for critical orientation in the midst of profound social, political, and technological transformations. Working with Benjamin’s corpus is not a matter of inventorying and “getting right” what the archive says, nor a matter of directly transposing answers and responses into a contemporary idiom, but about learning from the ways and methods of theorizing in the midst of dizzying change.
Another aspect of how scholarly fields obtain legitimation is by their reach. However, the issue of reach immediately raises the question of what kind of reach. I would like to orient our attention here, by way of Benjamin, to thinking about reach not merely as a matter of how widely the material is consumed, but how deeply the material works on transforming the infrastructures of our knowledge production. Benjamin himself explored this question in his most explicit call to writerly arms in his essay “The Author as Producer.”25 In this essay Benjamin argues that the political import of any writerly work lies not in concrete policy contributions or political positions explicitly endorsed by authors. Instead of assessing the content, the operative question for Benjamin is whether these works produce tools for proliferating the capacity of anyone to become an author. He holds that the most progressive texts render the distinction between author and reader purely functional and enable readers to become authors themselves in their fields of expertise. For Benjamin, this democratization and generalization of the intellectual means of production introduces “pedagogic potential” as a criterion for authorship. He writes, “An author who teaches writers nothing teaches no one. What matters, therefore, is the exemplary character of production, which is able first to induce other producers to produce, and second, to put an improved apparatus at their disposal.”26 What authors are to teach is less a matter of content than a matter of a practice. Instead of provoking simply agreement or disagreement, the texts must disorient and engage the readers and then enable them to articulate new material themselves. One of the tasks or challenges that Benjamin’s work then poses for Benjamin scholars is how to study Benjamin without limiting ourselves to philological, exegetical, or systematizing aims and how to work on the infrastructures of experience and democratize the production (not only the consumption) of such contributions. 
In critical theory, we revisit the resources of the past not to ordain and enshrine certain heroes, but to forge the tools for our own time by way of a Brechtian Umfunktionieren, re-functioning, both of the conceptual material and the means by which we produce knowledge. This effort must be a collaborative and collective one and include not only shaping the ideas and archives we use, but also transforming the modalities and material conditions for producing knowledge. None of us quite know yet how scholarship and the production of knowledge will change over the next few decades. But most of us understand that important changes are in the making and require that we explore how we could and need to retool the scholarly practices that we have inherited and to which we have apprenticed ourselves. One experiment is to turn to MLACommons as an alternative infrastructure for building knowledge, one with openness and accessibility as core values to enable a more communal process of developing ideas. Perhaps this modality might be one in which proper names fade faster, but ideas and questions stick more persistently, where authors can become collectives, and where producing the infrastructures for making meaning and intervening in our world today becomes the overarching aim that joins our diverse efforts across the many fields that make the humanities today.
1Howard Eiland and Michael Jennings, Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life, Cambridge, MA: Belknap P–Harvard UP, 2014.
2Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften: Band 3, ed. Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhäuser, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1977. The avoidance of the book review corpus may interestingly reveal something about contemporary scholarly orientations. We scholars today are often quite contented to limit ourselves to producing secondary literature, but seem to believe writing on someone else’s book reviews, that is, on secondary materials in themselves, would be too derivative an endeavor. What does that indicate? That while we are trained not to dare to write primary literature, we still have an ounce of resistance in us by refusing to consign ourselves to a pursuit of producing tertiary literature? Or something else?
3According to the 2012-2013 American Association of University Professors’ Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession, less than 25% of all instructional employees at U.S. universities and colleges are full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty. Of the remaining nearly 76% who are precariously employed, part-time adjunct faculty make up over 41%, graduate students close to 20%, and full-time non-tenure track faculty just over 15%. The group that has seen the largest change since 1975 is part-time adjunct faculty, which has gone from below 25% to over 40%. The biggest decline has been in full-time tenure-track faculty, which has decreased from just under 30% in 1975 to 17% in 2013. See American Association of University Professors, accessed April 18, 2015, See also the 2014 report “The Just-in-Time Professor,” compiled by the Democratic staff of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, accessed April 18, 2015,
4Immanuel Wallerstein, World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction, Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2004.
5Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne, London: Verso, 1998.
6I am omitting the geographic aspect in this short essay and will be focusing solely on the temporal dimension. However, for a fuller consideration of the issues at stake here, it would be important to study how all knowledge and practices of knowledge production are emplaced and how we would need to understand history as constituted by time that is spatially distended and space that is temporally distended. In a way, we might say, history is the uneven and layered production of time and space through a patterning of events, connections, and meaning. A more encompassing discussion would need to involve sources beyond Benjamin for the spatial aspect, but also draw on Benjamin’s 1921 essay “The Task of the Translator” and others where he thematizes the study of different times and contexts as complex matters of connection, confrontation, and transposition. Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” in Selected Writings Volume 1 1913-1926, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings, Cambridge, MA: Belknap P–Harvard UP, 1996. 253-63.
7The issue of how to engage with history also resonates with Friedrich Nietzsche’s second meditation in his Untimely Meditations, although a Benjaminian angle introduces an additional set of issues in orienting the politicity of historiography and historical method around issues of justice. Nietzsche distinguishes between monumental, antiquarian, and critical history: “If the man who wants to do something great has a need of the past at all, he appropriates it by means of monumental history; he, on the other hand, who likes to persist in the familiar and the revered of old, tends to the past as an antiquarian historian; and only he who is oppressed by a present need, and who wants to throw off this burden at any cost, has need of critical history, that is to say a history that judges and condemns” (Untimely Meditations, 72). But Nietzsche adds a warning: “Much mischief is caused through the thoughtless transplantation of these plants: the critic without need, the antiquarian without piety, the man who recognizes greatness but cannot himself do great things, are such plants, estranged from their mother soil and degenerated into weeds” (Untimely Meditations, 72). Friedrich Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations, trans. R.J. Hollingdale, ed. David Breazeale, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. Benjamin and Nietzsche are similar insofar as they both understand life as historical through and through. Nonetheless, Benjamin differs from Nietzsche significantly, insofar as for Benjamin it is less a matter of “doing something with history.” For Benjamin generally subjectivity is, if anything, an epiphenomenon of the conditions and dynamics that give rise to something that might be called individuality or subjectivity. But generally, the category of the subject is absent in Benjamin both as epistemological and ontological category. Hence the questions that take precedence are how history constitutes a present and how to relate to these historical circumstances and then harness the possibilities for intervening in them. In other words, for both Benjamin and Nietzsche the engagement with history and historical-philosophical (geschichtsphilosophisch) issues is primarily a matter of finding a critical praxis. But while Nietzsche presumes agency, agency for Benjamin is fractured and something to be struggled for.
8Origin, 53.
9Origin, 54.
10My understanding is that the critique of such an overdetermined production of political urgency is at the heart of Benjamin’s critique of a decisionist paradigm of sovereignty, as put forth especially by Carl Schmitt. For a more detailed analysis, see my essay “Theological-Political Ruins: Walter Benjamin, Sovereignty, and the Politics of Skeletal Eschatology,” Law and Critique 24:3 (2013): 295–315.
11Origin, 55.
12Origin, 56.
13Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” trans. Harry Zohn, in Selected Writings, Volume 4: 1938–1940, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, 389–400, Cambridge, MA: Belknap P–Harvard UP, 2002.
14“Concept of History,” 391.
15“Concept of History,” 391.
16“Concept of History,” 391.
17Walter Benjamin, “Warum die deutschen Schriftsteller einen so schlechten Stil schreiben,” in Gesammelte Schriften: Band 6, ed. Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhäuser, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1985. 211. In my view, it is important to avoid elevating the fragments and very partial drafts to the status of a secret key to the Benjaminian corpus. When we read them, we have to keep in mind that they are often only occasional notes, insights which Benjamin considered and often then also changed his mind about again in later fuller developments. But these notes can still give us insight into the thought processes at work and occasionally deliver poignant observations that are not only helpful for understanding the fully elaborated essays, but also timely insights from which to start thinking further about contemporary questions.
18“Stil,” 211. “Wer auf der weltpolitischen Bühne eines Tages einzuspringen gefaßt sein muß, achtet auf seinen Gang, auf sein Auftreten. Der Schriftsteller, der damit rechnet, zitiert zu werden, achtet auf seinen Stil.”
19Walter Benjamin, <Fragment 143>, in Gesammelte Schriften: Band 6, ed. Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhäuser, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1985. 179-180. “Niemals hat eine Generation junger Dichter an der theoretischen Legitimierung ihrer Geltung sich dermaßen desinteressiert wie die heutige” (180).
20“Weil ihm die Bürgerklasse, in Gestalt von Bildung, von Kindheit auf ein Produktionsmittel mitgab, das ihn, auf Grund des Bildungsprivilegs mit ihr, und das, vielleicht noch mehr, sie mit ihm sich solidarisch macht.” (<Fragment 143>, 180).
21“[S]tark genug, für alles was er schreibt, die Kräfte ihm zu entziehen, die aus der am eigenen Leib erfahrnen kämpferischen Praxis kommen. Diese Kräfte … heißen: Theorie und Erkenntnis.” (<Fragment 143>, 180).
22Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, Cambridge, MA: Belknap P–Harvard UP, 2002.
23Walter Benjamin, “The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire,” trans. Harry Zohn, in Selected Writings, Volume 4: 1938–1940, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, 3–92, Cambridge, MA: Belknap P–Harvard UP, 2002.
24“Paris in Baudelaire,” trans. Harry Zohn, in Selected Writings, Volume 4: 1938–1940, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, 3–92, Cambridge, MA: Belknap P–Harvard UP, 2002. 14.
25Walter Benjamin, “The Author as Producer,” trans. Edmund Jephcott, in Selected Writings, Volume 2, Part 2: 1931–1934, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith, 768-782, Cambridge, MA: Belknap P–Harvard UP, 1999, Cambridge, MA: Belknap P–Harvard UP, 2006.
26“Author,” 777.
Annika Thiem is a professor of philosophy at Villanova University. She is completing a book manuscript on the contributions of Hermann Cohen and Walter Benjamin to critical engagements with theological and religious discourse in the early twentieth century. She is the author of Unbecoming Subjects: Judith Butler, Moral Philosophy, and Critical Responsibility (2008) and of numerous articles in critical theory, political theology, feminist and queer theory.
Image: Robert Leib, Great Market Hall, Budapest, 2015.

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