Monday, September 12, 2011

Walter Benjamin Revisited

In 1940, Walter Benjamin penned the essay "On the Concept of History" (also called "Theses on the Philosophy of History"). It was the same year as his attempt to escape Vichy France and his subsequent death. We have it today because Benjamin mailed a copy of it to Hannah Arendt.

The essay is, itself, both difficult and beautiful. Benjamin moves freely from the real to the abstract, from science to theology, from cultural norms to grand historical designs. It is both a wilting critique of pure historicism and a chiding of the failings of historical materialists, in particular. But Benjamin, an enemy of fascism, ultimately succumbs to a neo-fascist view of history, not wholly unlike the views of Martin Heidegger.

Of course, the heavy literary and philosophical content of Benjamin's works lends itself to similarly heavy and theory-rich critiques, the value of which is somewhat debatable. Yet, the timelessness of Benjamin's observations are still accessible. Consider this passage from the essay:
The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism. One reason why Fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as a historical norm. The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge—unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.
 Note the clarity here: the proclivity of mankind to engage in acts of cruelty, callousness, and barbarity is eternal.  What we think has been "left behind" is with us still. And apparent "states of emergency"--crises one might say--are no less eternal and are the actual framework in which those in power or those seeking power--fascists for Benjamin--operate.

Set aside ideology and consider the truth of this. How many crises have there been in just the last five years? And how many times have some used such crises to further their political ambitions?

Now, consider Benjamin's time and place--1940 and the years before in Continental Europe--and what he was living through. And for him this was not a real state of emergency, a true crisis? In that respect, what true crisis have we experienced?

Cheers, all.

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