The Benjamin Project: An Introduction1
Walter Benjamin’s name is known for several reasons. He is known as the creator of a rather pessimistic theory of history, of an eschatological reading of time, of a Kafkaesque understanding of law, and of a persistent post-Nietzschean critique of progress. A new biography, written by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, the chief editors of Benjamin’s Selected Writings, contextualizes all these themes in a massive 700-pages volume biography titled Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014). This biography will serve, in the following weeks, as an exit-point for a discussion about the future of Benjamin studies, counting itself four decades of research and thousands of books in different disciplines.
The purpose of this project-- a series of 7 short articles and one response will follow this introduction in the coming few weeks-- is to discuss the relevance and impact of Benjamin on some strands of contemporary thinking, and the significance of this biography in this context.
Summarizing nearly half a century of research in the Benjamin field, the biography raises a pertinent question about the impact of Benjaminian thinking on related fields, and also about the future of the field itself. Some of the questions that contributors to this project will try to answer include: What is left to research after such a grand synthesis? What have the authors of the biography missed? Does the political emphasis of the biography mark a renewed interest in Benjamin’s thinking as a possible “democracy to come,” as Derrida once called it? Or does this thinking belong to a more specific 20th-century context? Has Benjamin’s thought won the attention it deserves in relevant sub-fields?
This project will raise such questions and ask promising young experts to answer them to the best of their ability. Among the contributors to this project are authors from three continents and six disciplines, including Udi Greenberg (history, Dartmouth College), Carolin Duttlinger (German, Oxford University), Annika Thiem (philosophy, Vanderbilt University), Ilit Ferber (philosophy, Tel Aviv University), Brian Britt (religion, Virginia Tech), Galili Shahar (literature, Tel Aviv University), and Daniel Weidner (cultural studies, Humboldt Universitaet). All contributed major works to the Benjamin field in the past. The two co-authors of the biography, Howard Eiland (MIT University) and Michael Jennings (Princeton University), will conclude the series with their own response and commentary.
We encourage readers and participants to respond and comment at the bottom of each article. The purpose of this project is to open a discussion, not to close it down. But first a few words about the biography itself and the “state of the field,” the way I see it:
Eiland and Jenning’s masterful biography seems to declare the return of the historical and the biographical to the fore of critical theory. It ties Benjamin’s life with his critical thinking in every possible way. The biography suggests that from time to time Walter Benjamin slipped into clinical depressions that drove him to wander, somewhat lost, in foreign lands. The biographers ground their claim in a careful historical analysis of Benjamin’s letters, manuscripts, and a host of other archival documents that change the order of known narratives. Like many depressives, Benjamin killed himself, but his famous suicide at the Port Bou checkpoint, on the France-Spain border, took place after a failed attempt to flee occupied France. A melancholic disposition, a life that ended in suicide, and the writer’s fascination with the Angel of History all suggest the demise of high European humanism during a time of radical nationalism. “The idea of suicide,” Eiland and Jennings state, “plays a defining role in [Benjamin’s] theory of modernity,” especially in his later texts (Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life, 362).
There have been previous biographies of Benjamin, but this “critical life” offers the first truly multilayered approach, and the result is a figure seen in the round. The authors’ main task was to rehistoricize their subject, demythologizing and rehumanizing him. Much like the work of Benjamin himself, the book brings together different worlds, shedding new light on them.
Benjamin was, undoubtedly, a melancholic man. As Ilit Ferber, who contributed a short essay to this project, wrote in her interpretation of Benjamin's melancholy: “Beyond being a personal trait or choice of subject, melancholy represents a cornerstone of his epistemological and metaphysical claims.”2 His biographers agree with such evaluations but also remind us that “to treat Walter Benjamin as a hopeless melancholic is to caricature and reduce him. For one thing, he was possessed of a delicate, if sometimes biting, sense of humor, and was capable of an owlish gaiety” (Critical Life, 5). Indeed, the new biography, a masterpiece of its kind, offers no caricatures. It depicts Benjamin as a multifaceted human being whose own sense of self could be characterized, using one of his favorite adjectives, as intense. Examined here are his interests in friends, playful objects, institutions, political mechanisms, culture, religion, art, gender, law, and even gambling and drugs. But beyond everything else he was an obsessive intellectual who pursued his ideas to a self-destructive degree. He hovered between two opposite states: an intense engagement in both spirit and body and a chilly disinterest that was both personal and intellectual. His thinking proceeded through negation: to think about friendship one began with its demise; objects and institutions were seen via the idea of destruction; culture, via decline; religion, via eschatology and apocalypse; law, via its suspension; and so on.
Benjamin scholarship has grown, during the past two decades, into a vast territory. He has inspired societies, conferences, journals, and countless dissertations; the Benjamin name has become a brand. With this has come the growth of a sort of personal myth, to correct which the biography offers an image of a political Benjamin, “although one that operates at a considerable distance from party politics” (9). This political Benjamin is not new, but for the first time it is the key to a wide range of his activities, from the critical to the theological, philosophical, and literary. The richly detailed narrative of a life proves as satisfying for theoreticians as for historians.
For the authors, Benjamin’s fascination with the political was a constant, though it evolved over his career. They link the stress he placed on language and metaphysics in the 1910s with a left-wing political inclination: “Benjamin understood politics at this point in both narrow and broad senses; educational reform subserved the latter” (50). He implemented some of his ideas as the elected president of the Berlin Independent Students’ Association in February 1914. When World War I broke out, he found himself at odds with many of the other members of the association, who supported Germany’s role in the conflict, and so he resigned his post. As the two authors explain, even during his university days, Benjamin’s political engagement could not be detached from his philosophical position.
Benjamin was an interdisciplinary thinker. Theory was never far from practice, and his analysis of culture was never distant from a certain philosophy of life. Linking his theory of life, politics, and a critical reading of culture was that Benjaminian concept of intensity, clear in his reading of the classics, in his political analysis, and even in contemporary descriptions of his gestures. Fifty years later, the historian of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem described his young friend: “I don’t think I ever saw him walk erect with his head held high. . . . He was easy to recognize from behind by his peculiar gait, which became even more pronounced over the years” (77).
Involvement with the conservative revolutionaries Ludwig Klages, Carl Schmitt, and other thinkers associated with Stefan George would leave a deep impression on his thinking about life and politics. As important to him were the distinctively religious anarchism of Gershom Scholem and the anarchic view of Franz Kafka. Benjamin, the authors show, engaged with the political philosophy of his day from an anti-liberal, anti-Kantian perspective (97). During the early 1920s he produced a “multipartite” political theory that merged his interests in philosophy, theology, and aesthetics (127). In 1921 he wrote “A Critique of Violence,” which looked at the con- temporary struggle between Fascists and Communists, the state and its opponents, from a surprising angle. Rather than fall back on the familiar opposition of left and right wing, Benjamin asked what mechanism enabled the opposition. He then proposed a different contrast, between a self-serving, conservative impulse of retaining an existing order and a revolutionary drive to create a new world. Benjamin’s method of analysis drew inspiration from anarchist circles and theory, and the authors see that influence in what they call “a particular coloration” of “The Task of the Translator,” a celebrated essay published in 1923 (130). They write, “Benjamin’s thought is from the outset nihilistic, in the Nietzschean sense of ‘divine nihilism,’ which has a creative dimension” (168).
Toward the middle of the 1920s, Benjamin reacted to the growing Fascist movements by cleaving more closely to Marxist Socialism. He moved in intellectual circles committed to fighting radical nationalism, getting to know many Jewish intellectuals, including Ernst Bloch and György Lukács. It was also during this time that Benjamin’s understanding of language became less metaphysical and more political. Reality itself seemed to become “explosively and extensively temporal,” prompting what Benjamin called the principle of the “now of its recognizability” (193).After meeting Asja Lācis, the Latvian theater director who became the love of his life, Benjamin completed the political shift to Marxism, though he never joined any party. The shift was encouraged by Bertolt Brecht, a friend of Lācis and her husband, Bernhard Reich. (Scholem, always suspicious of Marxists, routinely bemoaned Benjamin’s ideological commitment.)
Although he never held an academic position, the biography claims that this did not hinder his rise to prominence as a literary and cultural critic during the second half of the 1920s (313). The statement rejects two decades of romantic histories that follow Hannah Arendt’s depiction of as “unfortunate” the representative, together with Kafka, of a generational failure.3 In contrast, the biographers assert that the recognition that Benjamin received fits with his image of himself as an “intellectual sharpshooter” and as taking “the role of the intellectual pacesetter” (Critical Life, 272–73)is interests during this period included different mediums of expression, such as the “literary montage,” a confirmation that as the nature of political time changed, so did the rest of reality: “The past moment awakens to a present dreaming of it, at the same time as the present moment, waking to the dream of the past, awakens from that dream and hence to itself” (289). These various awakenings were by and large political.
During the 1930s the rise of fascism and his own sexual turmoil cast Benjamin onto heavier issues; he was forced to consider leaving his wife and his adopted country. Eiland and Jennings do not try to prettify Benjamin’s domestic cruelty, labeling him an insensitive husband and a distant father. Against this difficult background, his thinking grew ever more sophisticated, and his work on theoretical and political hermeneutics gave rise to a series of examinations of “the operative power,” or the “life-blood” of the nineteenth century—the flaneur (329).
At about the same time, Benjamin and Brecht cooked up a plan for a new critical reading circle with an agenda that included “the annihilation of Heidegger, whose Being and Time had appeared in 1927” (346). Heidegger is repeatedly used as a foil in the biography, as the authors show that in spite of a shared opposition to Kant the two thinkers sat on opposite sides of the basic political and intellectual divides of the day. Benjamin’s interpretation of dialectics, for instance, is presented as a reaction against Heidegger (355). The position also constituted, as I have already indicated, a rejection of Scholem, a religious anarchist and sworn foe of atheism who immigrated to Palestine in 1923; he always regretted Benjamin’s failure to join him. In other words, Benjamin rejected both the German and the Zionist, while agreeing with both that the German-Jewish symbiosis has failed. The only sense of belonging left after that, so it seems, was with other radical critics.
Politicizing Benjamin, according to the two scholars, directs our unflinching look at the core of modern culture. In Benjamin’s descriptions, European culture seems always to be on the brink of extinction. His last, monumental project, the Passagen (arcades), feels like the unearthed remnants of a vanished civilization. Post–World War II culture, defined by a globalized American order, lent Benjamin and his grand humanist enterprise the feeling of a myth, something close to the idea of the “last European” Benjamin often mentioned. Eiland and Jennings wryly observe that little would have annoyed Benjamin more than this facile fabulation.
1Parts of this introduction appeared as a review essay in Republics of Letters: A Journal for the Studiy of Knowledge, Politics, and the Arts (4:1) (October, 2014): http://arcade.stanford.edu/rofl_issue/volume-4-issue-1-0 . I thank the editors for their consent to republish this material.
2Ilit Ferber, Philosophy and Melancholy: Benjamin's Early Reflections on Theater and Language (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013), 9.
3Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983), 182.
Nitzan Lebovic received his BA in History and Theory of Literature from Tel Aviv University and his PhD from UCLA. His first book, titled The Philosophy of Life and Death: Ludwig Klages and the Rise of a Nazi Biopolitics (2013) (https://us.macmillan.com/thephilosophyoflifeanddeath/NitzanLebovic) focused on the circle around the Lebensphilosopher and anti-Semitic thinker Ludwig Klages. His second book, about Zionism and Melancholia: The Short Life of Israel Zarchi (https://www.facebook.com/ZionismMelancholy) came out in Hebrew in 2015 is expected soon in English. Nitzan is also the Co-editor of The Politics of Nihilism (2014) (https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/the-politics-of-nihilism-9781623562564/) and of Catastrohe: A History and Theory of an Operative Concept (2014) (https://www.degruyter.com/view/product/205431?format=KOM), and of special issues of Rethinking History (Nihilism), Zmanim (Religion and Power), The New German Critique (Political Theology).
Prof. Lebvic is teaching regular classes about the history of the Holocaust, about the history of total wars, an introduction to modern Jewish culture, and about the history of Fascism. He is particularly proud in having already a small number of students he was able to help in their academic journey, in Israel, Germany, and the United States.
During 2016-2017 Nitzan will be on leave, as a research fellow at the Katz Center for Jewish Studies (University of Pennsylvania) and at the Zentrum für Kultur und Literaturforschung (Berlin, Germany).