In a garden, I’m stretched out on a lawn. There is a certain place in the lawn where the ground rises up in a cone shape. I settle myself so that the nape of my neck is exactly on top of it, so that my head is “thrown back” and I can “see the sky” better.
The first time, I’m with my sister—the one I ask the big questions, the one I trust—I say to her: “…but behind this sky, is there another?”
She laughs and tells me there are many others. I laugh too and say that “of course, since there’s a seventh heaven.” She gets serious and explains to me that we are surrounded by sky, that the earth turns, that the sky has no end.
I stay there a very long time, motionless, dreaming of infinity, trying to imagine infinity physically. A terrible anxiety seizes me, but I do not move and I soon manage to “feel” the earth turning. My head still in this position “was actually and violently turning.”
Each evening, when the noises had died down, I returned there to find this feeling of the earth turning and to feel lost in it, carried away in this vertigo.
—Laure, “The Sacred”
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My contribution for SPLM: Society for the Propagation of Libidinal Materialism, edited by Vincent Le and Audrey Schmidt, and published in 2021 (details here). “Subterranean Imaginary” maps the motifs and symbols that describe the process of descent and the spaces of the underworld. The journey into the depths entails all manner of transformations: the unearthing of secrets in time as well as in space, the loss of distinctions between fictive, theoretical, and ecstatic writing, and the charting of limits across which neither our senses nor faculties may venture.
Francisco de Goya, Atropos (c. 1819–1823).
The late writings of Walter Benjamin are renowned for their attempt to rethink the stakes of historical thought and for their critique of the ideology of progress. In Benjamin’s “Theses on the Concept of History” (1940), especially, history is made into the site of a class struggle over the inheritance and remembrance of the dead, while the belief in progress is criticised for its reduction of historical time to an automatic and unthinking mechanism. In part due to their incompletion at the time of his death, Benjamin’s comments on history and progress have produced divergent readings, with a tendency to view his version of historical materialism as a move away from the Marxist origins of the term, toward a messianic politics of divine intercession in human affairs. Likewise, his critique of universal history has been placed in opposition to the universalising tendencies of Hegelian thought, with its task of grasping world history as a totality.
The goal of this paper is to put pressure on these received readings of Benjamin as a half-hearted Marxist and an implicit anti-Hegelian, by re-examining his late historiographical work in light of his interest in contemporaneous and unorthodox figures within Hegelian Marxism. I will argue for the centrality of the Marxist critique of bourgeois philosophy to Benjamin’s work, and especially the influence of György Lukács on Benjamin’s formulations of universal history, mechanical time, and the ideology of progress. Via Lukács, Benjamin’s commonalities with Hegel’s philosophy will also be elucidated, from their shared suspicion of bad infinities to the contingency that they place at the heart of universal history. Continue reading “Between Absolute Spirit and the Angel of History: On Walter Benjamin and Hegelian Marxism” →