From January 12th to February 9th 2023, I delivered a series of lectures for the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy on Walter’s Benjamin’s final work, the “Theses on the Concept of History.” These lectures examined each of the theses in turn, identifying their core concepts as they are introduced and offering explanations for the more cryptic passages with reference to Benjamin’s earlier works. What follows is a short introduction to the theses and their place within Benjamin’s life and legacy, followed by a table of contents for the lectures. I’ll be tidying up my lecture notes and adding them here over the next few weeks, with this post serving as a hub for those that follow.
Of all Walter Benjamin’s works, few are as elusive, electrifying, and divisive as his “Theses on the Concept of History” (1940). Written in the final months of Benjamin’s life, before his tragic flight from Vichy France, the theses stand as the final statement of his life’s work and a central text for the later reception of his thought. The twenty short fragments that make up the theses put forward a provocative blend of Marxism and messianism to criticise the traditional categories of the philosophy of history, from its ideological notions of progress and its complicity with the atrocities of empire, to its limited conceptions of historical time and the dampening of political spirits that comes with its abdication to the ‘inevitable’ course of history. To make sense of Benjamin’s combination of historical materialism and secularised messianism, these lectures will take up a close reading of the theses, reading each in turn and examining the main themes, images, and concepts as they are introduced. The reading of the theses will be placed in the context of Benjamin’s earlier writings on history, culture, and modernity, to help explicate Benjamin’s last work in the light of his lifelong interests and preoccupations.
Born in Berlin in 1892 to an assimilated Jewish family, Benjamin’s intellectual development shows an early tendency toward eclecticism and a broad search for influences in the intellectual currents of early twentieth-century Germany. As a young man, Benjamin would engage with the neo-Kantianism of Hermann Cohen and Franz Rosenzweig, Jewish mysticism via his lifelong friend Gershom Scholem, and undertake a deep study of German philosophy from Goethe through Fichte to the Romantics. In 1925 his habilitation thesis on German Baroque drama was rejected by the University of Frankfurt, dashing his hopes for an academic post and marking the beginning of his precarious career as a critic and translator. In the 1920s and ‘30s, Benjamin would encounter the works of Marxists such as Ernst Bloch, Georg Lukacs, and Bertolt Brecht, make his own mark on the young Theodor Adorno, and begin collaborating with the Institute for Social Research, then under the directorship of Max Horkheimer. A year prior to the Nazis’ ascension to power, Benjamin escaped into French exile, where he would spend the final years of his life working on a project explicating the forgotten history of capitalism in the Paris arcades. When the French government fell, Benjamin fled to the Spanish border, where he took his own life rather than be turned over to the German authorities.
In the decades following his untimely death, Benjamin’s intellectual legacy was seized upon by his friends and commentators, resulting in the division of that legacy into several competing readings of his work. The most prominent among these are the mystical-theological Benjamin presented by Scholem, the radical Marxist Benjamin inflected by his encounter with Brecht, and the reading of Benjamin as a cultural critic, variably presented as a tragic modernist by Adorno or as an apolitical scholar by Hannah Arendt. Suffice it to say that each of these readings is incomplete in that they prioritise one aspect of Benjamin’s varied work over others and have over the years begotten yet more one-sided commentaries.
As Benjamin’s final work, the “Theses on the Concept of History” have been a lightning rod for these kinds of interpretative differences, and have variably been treated as either an endorsement or rejection of Marxism; a relapse into messianism or a secularisation of theology in politics; a contribution to the philosophy of history or a refusal of philosophy’s justifications for historical catastrophes; and any number of other warring positions. I do not intend to resolve all of these antinomies, although I plan to provide some context for the various readings of Benjamin’s final work, hazard a few readings of my own, and hopefully put you in a good position to make sense of his theses on your own terms.
1. The Soteriological Machine
• I: Benjamin’s opening allegory of the Mechanical Turk, the distinction between historical materialism and historicism, and the place of theology.
• II: The retrospective definition of happiness and the secular counterparts to messianic redemption.
2. What is Historical?
• III: The practices of historian and chronicler; their methods of citation, repetition, and judgement.
• IV: The materialist conception of history as class struggle.
3. To Seize the Truth
• V: Benjamin’s theory of the image, from his early interest in allegory to his late formulation of the ‘dialectical image.’
• VI: The stakes of radical historical work as a means of ‘telling history against the grain.’
4. Documents of Barbarism
• VII: A theory of culture and its complicity in ‘barbarism.’
• VIII: Crisis as an historical concept, and Benjamin’s critique of the generalised concept of catastrophe.
5. What the Angel Sees
• IX: The Angel of History, some readings thereof and a critique of its uptake as a positive model for historical thought.
• X: The perils of escaping the Angel’s melancholy position: the faith in progress that snares us and the problematics of Benjamin’s search for an archaic answer to modernity.
6. Labour, Nature, and Dream
• XI: Conceptions of labour and nature as they relate to utopian desire.
• XII: The figure of the working class and its place in the capitalist dream-world, with a postscript on the role of technology in this relation.
7. The Shape of History
• XIII: Dogmatic progress and the concept of homogeneous empty time, with reference to Benjamin’s early formulations of mechanical clock-time time and historical time.
• XIV: The concept of ‘now-time’ as a secular analogue to messianic time and the forms of historical repetition that return the past to the now.
8. Frozen in Time
• XV: Elaborating on Benjamin’s notion of fulfilled historical time by comparing the time of the festival day with that of the clock.
• XVI: Benjamin’s concept of the dialectical image as a mediation between the past and present, and the broader question of Benjamin’s relation to dialectical thought
9. A Universal History of Decay
• XVII: Universal history, its methods, and its structuring principles.
• XVIII: Natural time in its negative and positive relations to history.
10. The Messianic Remnant
• A: Summing up the structure of historical time presented in the theses.
• B: Summing up the critical reading of Benjamin and bringing to the fore the unresolved problematics of the theses.
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