December 11, 2015, by criticalmoment
Walter Benjamin and the Unclaimed Present
Increasingly a veteran blogger for us, here’s MA student Max Bacharach reflecting on Benjamin’s ongoing relevance ….
Walter Benjamin’s enduring, if not growing, appeal, his relevance to many of today’s Big Questions, and the steady stream of literature attributed to, and focused on, him – Verso alone have published two recent editions, with another due early next year – is perhaps less a mystery than a mark of how ‘on the money’ much of his sprawling, scattered output was, from the perspective of a fragmentary, precarious and, for many, threatened present. The German critic, philosopher, essayist, journalist, translator and occasional radio broadcaster, who died, prematurely, seventy-five years ago this September, seems to speak to the neoliberal, “supercapitalist” moment in a way few of his contemporaries – among them, Adorno, Horkheimer, Heidegger, Sartre and Lukacs, all giants of 20th century thought – quite do. McKenzie Wark, one of the sharper (and least hero worship-y) of a growing ensemble of Benjamin ‘experts’, suggests that “one thing that seems to connect [him] to the present even more than the content of his writing is the precarity of his situation while writing it”, and while we might argue (pedantically) that the former and latter are, in an important sense, inseparable in Benjamin’s oeuvre, he’s probably right.
Only last week, Britain joined a coalition of nations engaged in a new and frightening – if, sadly, increasingly likely – chapter in the so-called War on Terror, dropping bombs on a ‘fascist’ enemy (and, itseems, powerless Syrian civilians, too) variously referred to as IS, ISIS, ISIL and, more recently (and arguably aggressively), ‘Daesh’. Its ‘toxic ideologies’, so we’re told, threaten ‘our way[s] of life’, while its violent acts, threats and decrees, both ‘here’ (the liberal-democratic, capitalist West) and ‘there’ (the conflict-riven, as yet ‘unstabilised’ Near/Middle East), undermine global peace, stability and security, a message which circulates ubiquitously and oppressively in the former’s multifarious, overlapping digital and broadcast media channels, arguably confirming Baudrillard provocative thesis that “the spectacle of terrorism forces the terrorism of spectacle”, that, at root, “the media … are part of the terror” (Baudrillard, 2002, pp. 30-31). Meanwhile, Europe has, of late, had to confront its self-identity – its image, socially, politically, ‘ethnically’ and territorially, of itself (and, equally, of its ‘outside’) – in a way not experienced since the aftermath of the Second World War. The very concept of the nation state, indeed, seems to be at stake in the context of current debates around, and disturbances within, the EU zone, whose borders (in- and ex-ternal) are hardening in parts, softening in others, and whose uncertain status signals a deep and increasingly pervasive existential crisis. And across the Atlantic, in North America, where Benjamin’s colleagues (of sorts) at the Frankfurt School resettled during the dark days of Hitler’s Third Reich, the ongoing spectacle of home-grown shootings haunts a nation destabilised by a financial crash the effects of which are still at work, and whose role as sovereign guardian of the ‘civilised world’, engaged as it is in all-too-unsavoury neocolonial ‘security’ operations and unable to reinvent itself in the wake of 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, and said crash (not to mention President Obama’s long-forgotten surge to power), is very much in question, if not simply obsolete.
In such circumstances – and this is, of course, only one, partial, ‘local’ picture of an infinitely complex, irreducibly dynamic geopolitical present – the writings of a nomadic not-quite-Marxist with a hallucinatory theory of history, culture and the image, genuine contempt for social-democratic dogmatism, and a genius for making radically precise, if speculative, connections between thoughts, texts, affects and events – fragments of, in his words, “the growing, molten mass from which … new forms are cast” (Benjamin, 2007, p. 231) – can, at times, read like high-voltage electricity. Several of the best of these, including oft-plundered essays on, among other things, translation, Kafka, Baudelaire, emergent media technologies and history-as-lightning-flash-of-danger, are collected in the widely available Illuminations (1999b), introduced, sympathetically, by Hannah Arendt. Elsewhere, as in the epic (and epically unfinished) Arcades Project (1999a), from which “all of Benjamin’s major essays of the 1930s derived their impetus and orientation” (Osborne and Charles, 2015), his focus is the city (in this case Paris), site of “topographic displacement” (Benjamin, 1999a, p. 516), scene of proto-Debordian detours and meanderings (“an intoxication comes over the man who walks long and aimlessly through the streets” [p. 417]), and space, rendered in ink on page, of infinite combinations, clusters and conceptual assemblages, drawn from a vast array of literary and visual sources, past and present. And, in countless introductions, overviews, analyses and extendings – Susan Buck-Morss’s work (1991, 2002), in particular, pulls Benjamin dynamically towards, and into, the present – we get a sense of the powerful breadth, scope and, as I have suggested, applicability of Benjamin’s thought, at the same time as its fragility, provisionality and, at times, frustrating eccentricity comes into full view.
For me, as both a (very early career) ‘researcher’ – a mode of operation and designation of function I’m not at all comfortable with in the current context of neoliberal value (re)production (‘left’ as my particular patch of turf might be) – and ‘practitioner’ – an equally slippery title, for similar, perhaps obvious, reasons – Benjamin feels important. Never really on the ‘inside’ of a group, circle, clique or cabal, nor of academia in general (his ambition to lecture was scuppered), reading him, and about him, forces questions, unsettling as they are galvanising, about what it is to read, to write, to think, to make, and, crucially, to ‘do’, in both scholarly and ‘extra-scholarly’ settings. Disturbing what are, so often, cosily defined and comfortably delimited rules, roles and rationales, his weapon of choice – and this is, I think, key to his work’s positive reception in the image-saturated, textually labyrinthine and symbolically splintered present – was fitting: citation, and ensuing collation, collage and ‘constellation’ (a key Benjaminian concept, put forcefully to work by Buck-Morss [e.g., 2002, pp. 97-211]). Arendt: “Benjamin knew that the break in tradition and the loss of authority which occurred in his lifetime were irreparable, and he concluded that he had to discover new ways of dealing with the past. In this he became a master when he discovered that the transmissibility of the past had been replace by its citability and that in place of its authority there had arisen a strange power to settle down, piecemeal, in the present and to deprive it of ‘peace of mind’, the mindless peace of complacency” (Benjamin, 1999b, p. 43).
Unsettling an already unsettled present: the task has, perhaps, never been more pressing. Indeed, for those of us, witnessing the painful, bloody configurations of late capitalist world history and pained at the predictably bloodthirsty refrains of ‘our’ leaders, who feel that “the world situation is a delay – the delayed arrival of the time when every identity … is integrated into the destiny of humanity in general in an egalitarian and peaceful way” (Badiou, writing in the aftermath of Paris’s first terrible shock of 2015), Benjamin’s writings-in-the-dark, curious, unsettled, unsettling, experimental and, often, pitch black, resonate. They seem to occupy just such a delayed space, one in which reverberations – some oppressive, others potentially emancipatory – do battle, shards of sound in a void occasionally made to sing by them.
For Howard Caygill (one of the Centre for Critical Theory’s upcoming visiting speakers), “Benjamin’s speculative philosophy at its strongest moments does not seek truth in completeness, but in the neglected detail and the small nuance” (Caygill, 1998, p. 152). Echoing Wark, it might well be that we look to Benjamin, his details and his nuances, for a way of looking at the present, a mere three-quarters of a century on, at “a moment of danger” (Benjamin, 1999b, p. 247) the ‘truth’ of which is as radically unfixed, uncertain and unclaimed as, now as then, it always was.
Baudrillard, J., 2002, The Spirit of Terrorism, London: Verso
Benjamin, W., 1999a, The Arcades Project, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press
_____ 1999b, Illuminations, London: Pimlico
_____ 2007, Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, New York: Schocken Books
Buck-Morss, S., 1991, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press
_____ 2002, Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press
Caygill, H., 1998, Walter Benjamin: The Colour of Experience, London: Routledge
Osborne, P. and Charles, M., 2015, ‘Walter Benjamin’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed online: http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2015/entries/benjamin, 06.12.15