On an Aesthetic of Redemption or The Problem With Historicizing Walter Benjamin (Take 1)

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I’m not an intellectual historian.  And while I enjoy reading intellectual history, I always worry about the problem of periodization.   Like any historicization, the risk is to say that on this or that date everything changed with this or that thinker.  The problem with such claims is that – in a Derridian sense – something always remains.  Many intellectual historians, in an effort to make a coherent historical narrative, often leave things out or argue that this or that element of said thinker’s thought took a turn.  While much of this may find support in this or that prooftext, oftentimes one can find counter-texts (and counter-memories, as Michel Foucault might say) to challenge this or that genealogy.   For me, the case in point is the intellectual history of Walter Benjamin.

What makes him such an interesting figure for intellectual history is the fact that he, himself, was an intellectual historian of sorts.  But his history was oftentimes focused on the intellectual history of different mediums (although they would focus on the shift as found in this or that writer, poet, or filmmaker).  In many essays, such as “The Storyteller,” “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” or “Some Motifs of Baudelaire” or in his book, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, Benjamin clearly demarcates the shift from one era to another which can be found in different mediums (the novel, storytelling, film, and poetry).    But although Benjamin made rigorous demarcations, these demarcations were not absolute.  One can see overlap.  For instance, although Benjamin announces the end of the aura in one essay, he still notes that it lives on in others.  And when he argues that storytelling has been displaced by the newspaper, this doesn’t keep him from reflecting on it and bringing out it’s modern proponents (such as Kafka, Walser, or Proust).

To be sure, Benjamin, who read much Freud and incorporated his work into his own, believed that we are haunted by the past. In addition, there are many examples in his work where the past permeates the present and serves as an index of the future.   We see this in his Arcades Project, The Berlin Childhood, One Way Street, his essays on Baudelaire and Proust, his Kafka essay, and his essays that address the Messianic.

Moreover, in his personal reflections he also takes note of what remains.

And although there is room to argue that he was noting his own personal-historical shifts (as we saw in yesterday’s blog entry), he still sees these moments as lingering in the present.    Nonetheless, some intellectual historians choose not to take this into consideration.  One such intellectual historian is Peter Osborne, who argues that Benjamin, after writing his essay on Kafka, turned wholeheartedly to the political and turned away from the aesthetic.  Were one to read Benajmin’s letters to his dear friend Gershom Scholem, however, one would find another narrative.  In that narrative, Benjamin’s interest in the aesthetic and Kafka remain right up until his untimely death.

Richard Wolin’s intellectual history also chooses to leave a few things out, but, at the very least, he does what Osborne doesn’t: he shows how certain elements of Benjamin’s work cling –from the beginning to the end – to the “aesthetic of redemption.”  Wolin’s focus is commendable and merits closer reading.  I would like to point out, however, where he draws the line and what this implies.  (I will be commenting on his book on and off in this blog, so this reading is based on the beginning of his book where he addresses Benjamin’s “origins.”)

In the first chapter of Wolin’s book, Walter Benjamin: An Aesthetic of Redemption, he makes a reading of Walter Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood around 1900.   This reading reflects, on the one hand, an acute sense of how Benjamin looked to “redeem” his past via the aesthetic; on the other hand, it looks to periodize this work and leaves no doubt in the reader’s mind that Benjamin had left this behind.

One of the things that caught my mind was Wolin’s selection of texts to illustrate Benjamin’s vision of himself in the past and how it relates to the present:

He speaks of the unclear vision of intellectuals which results from an innate tendency toward flight from reality; a tendency he claimed to have detected in himself at an extremely early age which in his eyes manifested itself in his staunch refusal to form with others in a united front…”My habit of seeming slower, more maladroit, more stupid than I am, had its origins in such walks (through the city), and has the great attendant danger of making me think myself quicker, more dexterous, and shrewder than I am.”(3)

Commenting on this, Wolin argues that Benjamin “turned to the theme of childhood memories in a time when all possibilities seemed to be blocked”(3).  In other words, Wolin historicizes this line (and the whole book) to argue that if Benjamin wrote about the past, so as to find something hopeful (or even helpful) in it, he did so because his life (when he wrote it, in the 1930s) was bleak.   But, given that reading, we could argue that everything he wrote was prompted by the fact that he saw himself as a loser and was looking, as Wolin suggests, for reasons as to why he produced such bad luck.  In other words, he was looking for how he had become such a schlemiel.    To be sure, in this passage, Benjamin is trying to explain why he appeared so belated and slow (seemingly more stupid than he was): the very characteristics of many a schlemiel who is often too late or too early for this or that thing and who, like Gimpel the Fool, appears stupid when he is not.

Although this seems negative, Wolin, at the very least, notes that Benjmain derived something meaningful from his childhood experience (but, for Wolin, this has nothing to do with the fact that he has many comic and child-like aspects to himself):

What he attempted to capture in these reflections was, above all, a capacity for lived experience associated with an upbringing in Berlin at this time, whose last vestiges were in the process of being extinguished by the world-historical march of the forces of disenchantment. (4)

In other words, the only thing that Benjamin was interested in saving from the past was his “capacity for experience.” The experiences themselves, however, are left behind forever. As Wolin notes, “Berlin existed once upon a time, as it will never appear again.”   This implies not only that this book was a commemoration of a city that is no longer, but that Benjamin cannot go back.  His book was, more or less, a movement away from the childhood and toward maturity and adulthood.  The only thing worth salvaging is something that would always be there: the “capacity for experience.”

While I find the notion of such a “capacity,” interesting, I find it elides too much.  This capacity may be something gleaned from youth but it is ultimately abstract and seems to transcend history like Aristotle’s notion of capacity and potentiality.  Rather than make this move, I’d like to suggest – as I have throughout this blog –that Benjamin was acutely aware of how all of his capacities were haunted by failure.  This historical aspect isn’t redeemed; it is a remnant from his past which pops up in most of his work in the 1930s and in his letters to Scholem.  But this failure has a comic rather than a tragic note.

The problem with intellectual history is that it might find this element to be in competition with the narrative of maturity.  And it is right for thinking this because it is; and Benjamin knew this well.  It remained with him to the end.  And even Hannah Arendt, in her introductory essay to his work (to an American audience), noted the specter that remained with him to the end: she gave it a figure, the “hunchback.”  This figure –the figure of bad luck –haunted his maturation process and it should haunt any intellectual history of his work.  It reminds us that no matter how much there is evidence of evolving thought, something, in Benjamin’s work, remains.  But for Arendt, this has more to do with bad luck as such.  To be sure, in her view Benjamin is more of a shlimazl than a schlemiel (a topic that I will be addressing in my book and in forthcoming essays).

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