A Response to the Future of Benjamin Project: A contradictory and mobile whole

A Response to the Future of Benjamin Project: A contradictory and mobile whole

Howard Eiland and Michael Jennings

When we set out to write the first full-scale critical biography of Walter Benjamin, we knew that one of our most difficult challenges was the attainment of a proper balance between the radically varying strands of Benjamin’s thought, interests, and engagements. Carolin Duttlinger poses the problem very well when she characterizes Benjamin’s thought as a “network” and a “labyrinth.” For us, it was not simply a matter of comprehensiveness—though we strove for that as well—but of doing justice to the various strands, of showing the relationships among them at each crucial stage of Benjamin’s life, and, finally, of attempting to define, for each of these crucial moments, the relative importance of each strand.  And the challenge was hardly restricted to Benjamin’s own interweaving of these strands: we knew that we would confront a mass of well-informed readers and critics eager to see whether “their” Benjamin was adequately represented in the book. The critical response to our book—more than 30 reviews from ten different countries—has largely validated our approach, suggesting that, in its comprehensiveness and balance, the biography had achieved its goal: the representation of an inordinately complex life.
Of the many questions generated by this complexity, our treatment of Benjamin’s political filiations and of his relationship to Judaism and Jewish tradition more generally have elicited pointed commentary from a wide variety of perspectives. Two contributions to this forum—Udi Greenberg’s, “A Critical Life and the Politics of Biography” and Brian Britt’s “Benjamin’s Displaced Jewish Tradition”—are of particular interest in this regard. Greenberg’s essay traces a decades-long development that begins with the post-war portraits of Benjamin by his friends Gershom Scholem and Theodor W. Adorno, who each in different ways paint a picture of tragic failure in the writer’s life, of recurring political indecision in which, a willing prey to the fatal influence of Bertolt Brecht, he oscillated between Zionism and Marxism before finally falling victim to the unreconciled extremes of his own nature. This first phase of biographical representation, to which other friends like Asja Lacis, Jean Selz, and Hannah Arendt contributed in their turn, is followed, in Greenberg’s construction, by a second phase beginning in the 1970s, one epitomized by Susan Sontag’s depiction of a hip intellectual whose show of Jewish or of proletarian politics was a prank played on his friends, whose theoretical oscillations are a sign of strength, and who figures for a late-twentieth-century aesthetic culture as a model of “idiosyncratic liberation” and, above all, as a pioneer in helping to open the field of popular culture to serious reflection.
Given this two-part development over half a century, our biography of Benjamin is seen by Greenberg as serving essentially to revive the orientation of the life story presented in the earlier period, but with a perspectival reorientation: taking seriously both the writer’s commitment to a certain idea of Communism and the decisive role of the Brechtian influence in this commitment, though without any demonizing of the person of Brecht himself. “On one level,” he writes, “the biography’s uncompromising focus on the political passion and violence in Benjamin’s thought is a breath of fresh air.” Indeed, Greenberg claims to find in A Critical Life the portrait not just of an exemplary “interwar thinker” but of “an adherent of violent class revolution,” one committed to the overthrow of the state and the annihilation of capitalism. This is a Benjamin who is pledged to “violent politics, especially Communism,” and not for ideological reasons primarily but out of an avidity for the apocalyptic that will have been the source of his nihilism. This emphasis, which also serves as a focus for Nitzan Lebovic’s “Introduction,” stands in telling contrast to the line taken by reviewers in New Left Review and The New Inquiry for whom our Benjamin is excessively “bourgeois” and insufficiently revolutionary.
For a few readers, our biography likewise presents a Benjamin who is insufficiently committed to Judaism and to Jewish tradition—a complaint reminiscent of Gershom Scholem’s repeated calls for just such a commitment. Brian Britt’s “Benjamin’s Displaced Jewish Tradition” offers a succinct, focused counter to such single-minded lines of interpretation: he captures in the spatio-temporal figure of “displacement” Benjamin’s ongoing attempt to find a role for Jewish tradition in his thought. Britt’s approach is fully consonant with our own attempt to chronicle Benjamin’s wavering, hesitant course through and alongside Jewish or, more precisely, Judaic-Christian tradition. Readers who call for increased attention to Benjamin’s “religiosity” tend to conflate religion and theology, commitment to a belief structure and the use of theologemes in Benjamin’s thought. There is no evidence that Walter Benjamin held any conventionally religious beliefs or ever committed himself to any sort of belief structure, however much he may have talked, at various times, of “God’s world” and “solitude with God,” of “eternal transience” and the inconspicuous entry of the messiah. His upbringing in an assimilated German-Jewish family of the haut-bourgeoisie instilled in him neither a training in formal religious observance nor a need to identify with any religious community. This ruthlessly secularized man, the very quintessence of the displaced and alienated denizen of the modern urban jungle, thus clearly distanced himself from all religious practice as such.1
This is not to say, of course, that theology did not play a leading role in his intellectual production. As Benjamin famously put it: “My thought is related to theology as the blotter to ink. It is saturated with it. If it were just a matter of the blotter, however, then nothing that was written would remain.” Yet even as it tries to discern the ink on the blotter, much of the Benjamin scholarship has shown itself content to attribute monolithic theological positions to Benjamin: the rhetorics of the “messianic” or “mystical” Benjamin are only the two most pervasive of these. To take the first example: explicitly messianic motifs play an important role in Benjamin’s work at two widely separated points, the period 1916-1923 and the year 1940. In the years between, roughly 1924-1939, messianism plays no overt role in Walter Benjamin’s writings. The massive torso of The Arcades Project, which spans the years 1927-1940, provides us with a convenient test sample: the terms “Messiah” and “messianic” occur precisely seven times in Benjamin’s text, and all but one of these are either quotations or paraphrases from nineteenth-century socialist and utopian theorists: Fourier, Marx, and Saint-Simon. The sole exception—the short passage: “The authentic concept of universal history is a messianic concept. Universal history, as it is understood today, is an affair of obscurantists” (N18,3)—actually dates from a late stage of the text’s composition. For it is only in the winter of 1939-1940 that messianic motifs reenter Benjamin’s writing in determinate fashion; these are the months in which he read and discussed the manuscript of Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism with Hannah Arendt and Heinrich Blücher. The effect was immediate: he began to interweave messianic2 motifs with the revolutionary historiography articulated in Convolute N of The Arcades Project (which develops its epistemology and historiography in association with a theologically tinged concept of the “now”), and the result is the set of theses on the philosophy of history, “On the Concept of History” of 1940. This example of the variable and intermittent uses of messianism illuminates the extent to which Benjamin’s idiosyncratic appropriation of theological material is always local and always specific to a particular problem. His work deploys a “situational” theology developed through a recombinatory logic that draws freely on elements of Christian and Jewish traditions alike, a situational theology oriented to the task at hand.
If at this point one were to recall Benjamin’s emphasis, in “Critique of Violence,” on the “bloodless” (unblutig) expiatory operation of “divine violence” as opposed to the force of law,3 or his disdainful reference, in the Work of Art essay, to Marinetti’s Futurist aestheticization of warfare,4 or his critique of Ernst Jünger’s storm-trooper literature of the Twenties,5 or his invocation from first to last (but especially in connection with Kafka6) of a profane redemption through study, or finally his quiet sense of humor, all of this treated at various points in the Harvard biography, it would not be to refute readings as sensitive as those of Greenberg and Britt, not by any means—but rather to suggest again that our biography allows for, and even calls for, a multiplicity of readings when it comes to Benjamin’s character and life story. Our “motto,” as reviewers liked to call it, is the formula Benjamin himself once offered in the unmailed draft of a letter to Scholem in 1934: the characterization of his own lifework and set of convictions as a “contradictory and mobile whole [widerspruchsvolle und bewegte Ganze].”7 Or, to put it differently, our biography sets out to be, as another reviewer has written, resolutely “non-tendentious.” It promotes neither a Marxist Benjamin nor a Jewish Benjamin. The restless and even savage “destructive character” of our subject, inimical to all dogma and always at a crossroads, is emphasized together with “that bourgeois rhythm of life [bürgerlichen Lebensrhythmik]” which was “indispensable for every project.”8
Ilit Ferber’s “A Feel for Benjamin” goes to the heart of one of the issues this complexity presents to the biographer. As Ferber puts it: despite his manifest interest in subjectivity and affect as philosophical and critical problems, Benjamin “brackets” the very concept of subject, displacing traditional notions of identity and personhood with a posthumanist understanding of the subject. How, then, were we to write a biography of a man properly without “bios?” Both Ferber and Galili Shahar call attention to the importance of “affectivity” in Benjaminian thinking, and to his invocation of a not-yet-conceptualized nameless and inchoate element at work in all knowledge, whether this element be conceived in terms of Stimmung, emotional disposition (one thinks of Heidegger’s concept of “moodedness” in Being and Time), or of Rausch, emotional transport (and here one thinks of Nietzsche). Ferber focuses on the feeling of melancholy in particular, something with which Benjamin was personally familiar, as we know, and which he understood broadly as a structure of perception. Indeed, from the early meditations on Hamlet and seventeenth-century drama, up through the Trauerspiel book of 1928, and on to the late studies of Baudelaire, Benjamin consistently conceives of melancholy as not just a private subjective experience or “pathological humor” but as a symptomatic expression of the modern age as such, that is, as more than psychological in its import.9 Shahar likewise emphasizes the overcoming of subjectivity taking place in “the return of Rausch.” In the experience of unprecedented velocities and rhythms emerging with the new physis of the planetary technology, according to the concluding section of Benjamin’s One-Way Street, what we like to call human nature is carried beyond itself and, through these material advances, put in touch with something primal-historical.10 Shahar associates this “cosmic” absorption and interpenetration with the phenomenon of study more generally, the “becoming of studying as a path of being,” a self-transcending worldly comportment. In other words, study for Benjamin is not something opposed to the vita activa but is intimately tied to the realm of the bodily existential in its concentration and expansion. This is indicated not just by the preeminence of the figure of the flâneur in his later work, a figure who perceives even through his soles and whose aleatory take on the city is always colored by historical remembrance, but also by such key terms as “bodily presence of mind” (leibhafte Geistesgegenwart) and “tradition space” (Traditionsraum).11
Following on Lebovic’s challenge in the “Introduction” to examine the role played by Benjamin and by the genre of biography in the future of the humanities, a number of the contributors address questions of Benjamin’s “afterlife.” Greenberg, commenting on the protracted “collective obsession with this idiosyncratic thinker,” wonders whether Benjamin’s ideas can still speak to “the hidden norms” governing contemporary society. In fact, as Daniel Weidner suggests, the explanation for Benjamin’s popularity with an educated reading public over the past four or five decades—a popularity, it must be said, that shows no signs of abating today— is not exactly ready to hand. Nor is it clear, after all, where philosophy itself stands, or even what we mean by “philosophy,” in what Weidner calls “this post-Benjaminian world.” But perhaps a key to these two vexed questions—of Benjamin’s popularity and of Benjaminian philosophy—lies in the very fact of our author’s “idiosyncrasy.” We might think of this singular composite quality, first of all, in terms of the perfect marriage of philosophy to literature in Benjamin’s writing—perfect because neither partner in this marriage overpowers the other, each rather allowing and enabling the other to be fully itself, which is to say, something new and different from conventional notions of “literary” and “philosophical.” It may not be too much to suggest, in this context, that a frontal attack on conventionalism is always salutary for a society that considers itself democratic, and not least for one as subject to conformism as ours.
Benjamin’s continuing relevance may be signaled in other ways as well. The issue of the bodily is specifically adduced in Carolin Duttlinger’s discussion of the perceptual shifts engendered through technological innovation, specifically in regard to what is termed attention, and of the network as a basic methodological principle in Benjamin’s writings. This issue ramifies also into the problem-area mentioned in Nitzan Lebovic’s introduction: the schema of dream and awakening, which Benjamin employs from early on in his thinking about youth and history,12 and which he later develops under the influence of the Surrealists. Again, it is a matter of using psychological categories in a manner that exceeds the framework of psychoanalysis and of subjectivism in general. One awakens from “that dream we name the past [jener Traum, den wir Gewesenes nennen]”13 only by awakening to it, to its stratified depths and its reservoir of dream energies. And only in this way does the present waken to itself—waken out of latent myth—waken dialectically. This idea of historical awakening and historical dream interpretation, what Benjamin calls the dialectics of awakening (Dialektik des Erwachens),14 is sketched out in Convolute K of The Arcades Project, and it bears significantly on the theory of the dialectical image developed mainly in Convolute N, the theory involving a sudden correspondence of moments present and past in a critically charged “now of recognizability.” This dialectical conception of historical time—history’s “lightning-like” encapsulation in the dialectical image understood as a perilous moment of awakening—presupposes what Benjamin elsewhere names “intertwined time” (verschränkte Zeit).15
Annika Thiem invokes this dynamic spatiotemporal conception in referring to the “salience of the past.” Critical praxis, as an ever-renewed interrogation of the historical bearing of the present, begins with close reading of materials transmitted from the past. This intimate critical engagement with what has been passed down through generations—inheritance as constitutive struggle—takes place precisely where points of identification with the past founder; it is at such aporetic moments that the groundless ground of the present may emerge. For, as Thiem reminds us, identity and agency are inherently problematic in Benjamin, are always multiple, fractured, to be struggled for and philosophically improvised. Identity and agency in Benjamin, we might say, take the form of montage, the panoramic assemblage or intermittence of individual bits.
We will of course leave it to others to decide the extent to which our work serves to “declare the return of the historical and the biographical to the fore of critical theory.” Taken together, the contributions to this forum, reflecting as they do a rich diversity of disciplinary specializations, suggest the wide applicability of the interwoven concepts of historicity and futurity where the reading of texts is concerned. In the readerly negotiation of complex historical crossings Walter Benjamin has been shown here to be exemplary. We are especially grateful to Nitzan Lebovic for conceiving and organizing the forum, and to each of the individual contributors for their thought-provoking essays.
The question of Benjamin’s “Jewish identity,” in particular, is discussed in our Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), pp. 45-48. Concerning Benjamin’s interest in German interfaith movements in the years following World War I, see pp. 184-186.
2 The Italian philosopher and Benjamin scholar Giorgio Agamben speaks, in this connection, of the “kairological” in Benjamin. See, for example, his Infancy and History: The Destruction of Experience, trans. Liz Heron (London: Verso, 2007), pp. 111-115, and The Signature of All Things: On Method, trans. Luca D’Isanto with Kevin Attell (New York: Zone, 2009), pp. 72-74.
“Critique of Violence,” in Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, vol. 1, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996), pp. 249-250. Greenberg associates this essay of 1921 with a secularized orthodoxy, rather than a revolutionary messianism, in “Walter Benjamin’s Political Theology,” History of European Ideas 34 (2008): 324-333.
“The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” in Benjamin, Selected Writings, vol. 3, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), pp. 121-122.
“Theories of German Fascism,” in Benjamin, Selected Writings, vol. 2, ed. Michael W. Jennings et al. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), pp. 312-321.
“Franz Kafka,” in Selected Writings, vol. 2, pp. 814-816.
7The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem 1932-1940, trans. Gary Smith and Andre Lefevere (New York: Schocken, 1989), pp. 108-109.
8 The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin 1910-1940, trans. Manfred R. Jacobson and Evelyn M. Jacobson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), p. 245 (letter of July 7, 1924, to Scholem). Benjamin’s essay of 1931, “The Destructive Character,” appears in Selected Writings, vol. 2, pp. 541-542.
See Benjamin, Early Writings 1910-1917, trans. Howard Eiland and Others (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), pp. 27, 241-250; Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne (London: Verso, 1977), esp. pp. 138-158; Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), pp. 10-11, 228-387.
10 Selected Writings, vol. 1, pp. 486-487.
11 See, respectively, Selected Writings, vol. 1, p. 483 (“One-Way Street”), and The Arcades Project, p. 851 (“First Sketches”).
12 See Early Writings, pp. 26-32 (“Sleeping Beauty”) and 281-282 (“On Seeing the Morning Light”).
13 The Arcades Project, p. 389.
14 The Arcades Project, p. 908. Compare “constellation of awakening,” p. 458 (N1,9).
15 See Selected Writings, vol. 2, p. 244 (“On the Image of Proust”). On the flâneur, see The Arcades Project, pp. 416-455 (Convolute M) and passim.
Howard Eiland is co-author, with Michael W. Jennings, of Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life (2014). He is coeditor of volumes 2–4 of Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, and has also contributed to the English translation of several Benjamin texts, including The Arcades Project, Berlin Childhood around 1900, On Hashish, and Early Writings 1910–1917.
Michael Jennings, the Class of 1900 Professor of Modern Languages at Princeton, is the author of two books on Walter Benjamin: Dialectical Images: Walter Benjamin’s Theory of Literary Criticism (Cornell 1987) and, with Howard Eiland, Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life (Harvard, 2014). He serves as the General Editor of the standard English-langauge edition of Benjamin’s works (Selected Writings, 4 vols. (Harvard, 1996ff.) and the editor of a series of Benjamin’s writings intended for classroom use. He is currently at work on a biography of Bertolt Brecht.

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