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In 1969, when Hannah Arendt edited a pioneering translation of Walter Benjamin’s essays (Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, 1969), Benjamin’s reputation was only beginning to be established. Now, however, he is surely the most famous scholarly writer from the first half of the 20th century, and the subject of a monumental Harvard University publishing project, including a massive volume of the notes for his unfinished Arcades Project.
Benjamin is hard to classify. His doctoral thesis was on an esoteric topic, German baroque drama. But he was not really an intellectual historian. He translated Proust and was an early admirer of Kafka. But he was not primarily a literary critic. He wrote about Marxism. But he could not be called a political philosopher. He published a pioneering study of film. But he was not much devoted to mass culture. He has often influenced art critics. But he was not an art historian. And he wrote the reflective Berlin Childhood Around 1900, but he was not primarily a creative writer.
If you’re interested in Jewish mysticism and its relationship with Weimar Republic Zionism; if you seek a leftist social history of French modernism; if you want a subtle account of the political potential of film; if you desire a radical Marxist historiography — then you will find much of interest in Benjamin.
Benjamin’s discussions of any and every subject he wrote about (and he dealt with many) are compelling. And so it’s hard to think of anyone living better suited to writing about him than the doyen of American Marxists, Fredric Jameson. Thirty years ago Jameson established his reputation with Postmodernism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, which contained chapters on culture, ideology, video, architecture, sentences, space, theory, economics, and film. In its time, G. W. F. Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Mind (1807) was impressive in its breadth. But compared with Jameson, Hegel was only modestly ambitious. And if, as with Hegel, you’re willing to momentarily suspend your critical capacities about both his political claims and mastery of so much detail, then you cannot but be impressed with the sweep of his analysis.
The Benjamin Files explains everything by reference to everything else, in a way that often makes the narrative all but impenetrable. In his account of Benjamin’s stylistic analysis of Charles Baudelaire for example, Jameson says that,
All the great interpretations of so-called “style studies” have always acknowledged a secret allegiance to the logic of the gestus (I think again of Spitzer, or of Sartre’s literary essays, in which the style of a Faulkner or a Dos Passos, of Camus’s Stranger, are grasped as so many metaphysics acts) (J29).
Even if you know these texts by Spitzer, Sartre, Faulkner, Dos Passos, and Camus, it’s not easy to organize these references into a cohesive, clear statement. Still when The Benjamin Files is comprehensible, often it is marvelous. Why, Jameson asks, is there no socialism in America? The “answer would seem to be ‘race’” (J153). Here he plausibly points to a real lacuna in classic Marxist theory. When he notes, just in passing, that Benjamin’s short essay on photography anticipates “all kinds of modern visual analyses (Michael Fried’s absorption, Roland Barthes’s punctum, Rosalind Krauss’s version of the ‘optical unconscious’)” (J190), there’s clearly material for a good academic study.
If you seek a systematic account introducing Benjamin’s writing, then The Benjamin Files, which has many such asides, will be seriously frustrating. Jameson even includes a number of the Greimas semiotic squares, as used by Krauss in her seminal essay “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” (1979), which introduced a Jameson-inspired perspective into art history, but without including any explanation of how they work. When Jameson notes the “incorrigible lack of focus” (J218) of Benjamin’s renowned essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” he could be describing the too-frequently-unhappy effect of his own account.
And yet, the revelatory last chapter, Jameson’s account of Benjamin’s 11-page “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” is worth the struggle needed to get there. In the essay, Benjamin makes a distinction between historicism and historical materialism. Historicists seek to understand the past on its own terms, while the historical materialist aspires to see the past through the material conditions of the present. This leads to Benjamin’s famous characterization of cultural treasures: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” (B 256). Historicists empathize with the victors, a perspective that the historical materialist rejects by rejecting the notion of history as a linear trajectory leading up to the present. Hence the importance of the now-famous painting by Paul Klee, “Angelus Novus,” which Benjamin purchased in 1920 and discussed in this essay. Turned to face the debris of the past, his wings opened, the angel is blown toward the future. And here we see the relationship between Benjamin’s Marxism and his theological thought. As Jameson notes, past events “as definitive as suffering and death . . . demand completion by events in the future; their redemption is not a personal one, not a bodily resurrection, but a reenactment that brings them to realization and fulfillment” (J232).
Benjamin himself, unable to decide between either accepting his invitations to Israel or going to America, killed himself after fleeing the German invasion of France. But his favorite painting eventually made its way safely to the print room of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
That’s an odd continuation of the story told by “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”
The historical materialist recognizes the potentiality for Messianic moments, not the homogeneous, empty time of the historicist, but, Benjamin writes, “the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter” (B264). What’s thus going on is the “construction of a new kind of temporality” (J245). Jameson relates the angel to Benjamin’s employment of a now-famous quote by Kafka: hope exists “but not for us” (J247). In the conclusion, however, Jameson gets one important point wrong. He claims that Klee’s angel “has very little in common with Benjamin’s description of it” (J219). How indeed, as Benjamin says, can a storm be “blowing from Paradise”(B257), that is, from the past where “the pile of debris . . . grows skyward” (B258), while angel’s back is turned to the future? I don’t believe that Benjamin made a mistake here. Rather, for a historical materialist paradise lies in the past, not in some future utopia. The angel looks back at the past from his Messianic viewpoint (in the sense that for him the present in effect masters the past, rather than the other way around), and so sees hope in the past. What would a history of our present by a historical materialist look like? That question remains to be answered — which means that there is reason for us now to have hope.
The Benjamin Files by Fredric Jameson (2020) is published by Verso and is available online and in bookstores.