Documents of Barbarism (Reading Benjamin’s Theses VII & VIII)

Ernst - The Stolen Mirror - 1941
Max Ernst, The Stolen Mirror (1941).


• 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.

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Thesis VII:

Consider the darkness and the great cold
In this vale resounding with mystery.
—Brecht, The Threepenny Opera

Addressing himself to the historian who wishes to relive an era, Fustel de Coulanges recommends that he blot out everything he knows about the later course of history. There is no better way of characterizing the method which historical materialism has broken with. It is a process of empathy. Its origin is indolence of the heart, that acedia which despairs of appropriating the genuine historical image as it briefly flashes up. Among medieval theologians, acedia was regarded as the root cause of sadness. Flaubert, who was familiar with it, wrote: “Peu de gens devineront combien il a fallu etre triste pour ressusciter Carthage!” [Few will suspect how sad one had to be to undertake the resuscitation of Carthage.] The nature of this sadness becomes clearer if we ask: With whom does historicism actually sympathize? The answer is inevitable: with the victor. And all rulers are the heirs of prior conquerors. Hence, empathizing with the victor invariably benefits the current rulers. The historical materialist knows what this means. Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which current rulers step over those who are lying prostrate. According to traditional practice, the spoils are carried in the procession. They are called “cultural treasures,” and a historical materialist views them with cautious detachment. For in every case these treasures have a lineage which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great geniuses who created them, but also to the anonymous toil of others who lived in the same period. There is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is never free of barbarism, so barbarism taints the manner in which it was transmitted from one hand to another. The historical materialist therefore dissociates himself from this process of transmission as far as possible. He regards it as his task to brush history against the grain.

(1) Empathy

At the beginning of this thesis we are joined by the French historian Fustel de Coulanges, whose placement mirrors that of Gottfried Keller in Thesis V and Leopold von Ranke in Thesis VI. While Keller was used as a representative of historicism, to show where that view of history “is pierced by historical materialism,” as Benjamin puts it, and Ranke was presented as the voice of a naïve history that seeks to recover the past in the gradual amassment of details, here Coulanges is identified as the type of historian who wishes not only to summon up the past ‘as it really was’ but to relive it in its entirety. Although such a desire has some similarity to Benjamin’s own position when taken at face value, given his own interest in retrieving something essential about the past, Coulange’s position is characterised as a reactionary one. His is a desire to relive the past by blotting out the present, to live in the past to the exclusion of all the intervening years. As we will see, this is clearly a melancholy position in the way that it refuses to come to terms with the loss of the past, transfixed by an object that it cannot truly attain, and obsessed with fulfilling in thought what cannot be regained in fact.

At the heart of this reactionary melancholia is, Benjamin suggests, a ‘process of empathy.’ Why this strange choice of words? Michael Löwy notes that in Benjamin’s own writing in French, the German Einfühlung is not translated into the French empathie but the idiom identification affective—or what we might call in English an ‘emotional identification.’[1] Such an identification evidently entails not only an emotional attachment to the past and a desire to inhabit it, but also a more direct identification that refuses at sense of division between past and present. For these saddest of historians, it is not enough to know something of the past—the past must be made identical to the present. As Benjamin remarks in the supplemental notes to the Theses, this empathy with the past seeks to make the past present, and “it is secured at the cost of completely eradicating every vestige of history’s original role as remembrance [Eingedenken]. The false aliveness of the past-made-present, the elimination of every echo of a ‘lament’ from history, marks history’s final subjection to the modern concept of science.”[2] Without recognition of the real separation between past and present, everything vital about the work of history evaporates, as it is transformed into a melancholy exercise in imagining the past as if it were present, and vice versa.

(2) Melancholy

This melancholy disposition is one that Benjamin associates with the state of acedia, which is not quite identical with the cardinal sin of Sloth, but can just as well be described as a failure of action, a pathological inability to seize the moment. Those who are afflicted with this indolence of the heart, as Benjamin describes it, are caught in a state of despair for their inability to take a hold of the moment of historical truth as it flashes up. They are too late, they missed the chance, and as compensation they seek out imaginative means of summoning the moment once more. Hence Benjamin’s quotation from Flaubert: imagine the profound sadness of one who would resuscitate Carthage! Imagine replicating the ancient city in every detail, ‘just as it was,’ in one’s mind’s eye, as if it had never been burned to the ground! Note that a resuscitation is quite different, and far more mundane, compared to the redemption and resurrection that motivates Benjamin’s approach to history. Despite the ambiguity of Benjamin’s phrasing we should be wary of missing the object of his critique, which is the historian who empathises with the past but despairs for never being able to bring it back to life.

Certainly, there are some commentators on this passage who identify acedia with Benjamin’s own disposition, and cast its sadness as a suitable disposition for a historian whose practice depends upon chance encounters, involuntary memories, and missed opportunities.[3] But although there is a formal similarity between these positions, the position of the melancholic is one which cannot possibly live up to the moment of recognition that Benjamin’s practice of history demands. To despair is to foreclose the possibility of change and to resign oneself to a state of bereavement without hope of repair.[4] The sadness of the historian who would like to relive the past is therefore quite different from the ‘lament’ that Benjamin sees eliminated in all attempts to make the past present. Melancholia involves a preservation of the lost object in imagination, which is all the more intensely present in the mind the further it departs from this world. In contrast, lamentation is properly speaking a part of the ritual of mourning, which vocalises the depths of grief so that they may be resolved. We are faced here with a difference between an “aberrated mourning,” which holds obsessively onto its lost object, and an “inaugurated mourning,” which announces its loss and makes it legible to a community of mourners.[5]

(3) Civilisation and barbarism

But what is the source of this sadness? As the provocative and famous lines of the second part of this thesis indicate, it is not only the pathetic melancholy of all who wish to resuscitate the past but also the sadness inherent in all attempts to relate to history by way of sympathy. For with whom, Benjamin asks, must historicism sympathise? With the victors. That is, in the attempted resuscitation of the past, ever faithful to the details that have been dutifully recorded and passed down to us in the official accounts, we stumble upon the horrible truth about the contents of that history. We discover that it is little more than the inheritance of marauders and thieves, who have been cast as heroes and conquerors in the official narratives. Just as the oppressed have a tradition that links the earliest slaves to the most modern wage-labourers, their dispossessors possess an inheritance of bloodshed that stretches back to the beginnings of class society. As Benjamin writes in a preparatory variant of this thesis:

“Whoever has emerged victorious in the thousand struggles traversing history up to the present day has his share in the triumphs of those now ruling over those now ruled. The historical materialist can take only a highly critical view of the inventory of spoils displayed by the victors before the vanquished. This inventory is called culture.”[6]

When we speak of culture here, we are not speaking of human social norms and practices in a general sense, but rather in the more specific sense of the accumulated materials and traditions that make up such things as ‘national cultures,’ ‘regional cultures,’ or even so-called ‘civilisations.’ We might think of the acclaimed cultures of Europe, with their emblematic examples: the grand museums of England; the galleries of France; the churches of Germany; and the ancient monuments of Italy and Greece. But, Benjamin reminds us, these stores of culture must be thought alongside the horrors that brought them into being: the despoliation of the globe that filled the English museums and French galleries with loot; the nameless labourers who built the cathedrals, temples, and monuments, whose bodies lie unremembered somewhere in the earth; and, beyond the immediate histories of these cultural artefacts, we must consider the “anonymous toil of others who lived in the same period,” whose labours and sufferings enriched the rulers of their era such that they could accumulate a culture for themselves.[7] To put this in concrete historical terms, we may refer to the words of Frantz Fanon in his condemnation of Europe’s so-called civilisation:

“European opulence is literally scandalous, for it has been founded on slavery, it has been nourished with the blood of slaves and it comes directly from the soil and from the subsoil of that underdeveloped [colonised] world.”[8]

The blood does not wash from culture so easily. Some years after Benjamin’s death, but evidently with his attitude toward culture in mind, Theodor Adorno would write in Negative Dialectics of the failure of European culture, with its traditions of enlightenment and reason, to save itself from annihilating frenzy of fascism, because that culture was already tainted with the smell of past atrocities:

“It [culture] perhorresces a stench, because it stinks; because its palace, as a magnificent line from Brecht put it, is built of dogshit. Years after that line was written, Auschwitz irrefutably demonstrated the failure of culture. That it could happen in the midst of all the traditions of philosophy, art and the enlightening sciences, says more than merely that these, the Spirit, [were] not capable of seizing and changing human beings. In those branches themselves, in the emphatic claim of their autarky, dwells untruth. All culture after Auschwitz, including its urgent critique, is garbage.”[9]

(4) Against the grain

Still, in contrast to Adorno’s pessimism, Benjamin suggests a means of breaking with this cultural inheritance: the work of brushing history against the grain, of revealing the barbarism that underpins culture and thereby dispelling some of its allure. To lend some specificity to this historical materialist practice, and to elaborate upon the previous thesis’s notion of the dead as the ongoing victims of history, I’d like to turn to two texts that I believe exemplify the sort of historical consciousness that Benjamin outlines here.

The first is Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2012 documentary The Act of Killing and its 2014 companion piece, The Look of Silence. Both films are concerned with the legacy of the mass killings that took place in Indonesia in 1965-6, in which the Indonesian military, far-right paramilitaries, and their civilian collaborators attempted a systematic purge of all communists in the country. Altogether up to a million people were murdered, including not only members of the Communist Party of Indonesia (at that time the largest party of its kind outside of the Soviet Union and China) but also perceived communist sympathisers, members of the Gerwani feminist movement, ethnic Chinese, non-conformist and non-orthodox Muslims, atheists, and anyone suspected of ties with those groups. What is especially disturbing about The Act of Killing is its focus on the perpetrators of the killings, who have lived the four decades between the event and the shooting of the film as minor celebrities, revered for their role in defending the nation from a purported communist plot. The subject of The Act of Killing is therefore not only the enforced forgetting of the mass killings, the critical discussion of which is still regarded with hostility by the Indonesian government, but also the false remembrance of those events, which smears the victims of massacre and idolises their murderers as heroes.[10]

In his recent book on the Indonesian mass killings and their place in America’s global crusade against communism, titled The Jakarta Method, Vincent Bevins describes the scene of a beach in southwestern Bali, where hundreds of people, men and women, were murdered and left in the sand.[11] For decades, the families of the deceased would comb through the beach, searching for some trace that could identify their loved ones among the countless scattered bones. Today, the beach has been redeveloped and hosts a luxury resort for tourists—built over the top of the unclaimed remains in a monument to their erasure from official history. Yes, even the dead will not be safe, but they are not yet entirely forgotten: The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence, and The Jakarta Method all stand today as examples of what historical work can do, by working with the ongoing remembrance of the survivors and inheritors of history to gather what memory remains of the event and save it from oblivion. These historians do not work alone and neither do they work upon history as an inert object. Instead, they encounter history as an ongoing experience, as a part of the tradition of the oppressed that preserves in memory the hopes of the dead.

Thesis VIII:

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 accords with this insight. Then we will clearly see 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 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.

(1) State of emergency

In Thesis VIII we find a succinct statement of much of what has been discussed in the previous theses, as they have moved from Benjamin’s opening criticisms of historicism toward a full statement of the historical materialist’s position. As we have seen, historical materialism has been taught by the tradition of the oppressed not to see the violence and horrors of history as exceptional outbursts in otherwise peaceful epochs, but to understand that these atrocities are constitutive of culture itself. The crises of the present—whether those of Benjamin’s time or those of our own—may appear on the surface to be abnormalities, as events that interrupt the course of history, but are in fact the moments when the logic of an historical era becomes most visible.

This is an insight long established within Marxist accounts of economic crisis, which is likewise no longer conceived as an interruption in an otherwise healthy economy, but instead as symptoms of the underlying contradictions of the capitalist system. These contradictions, too, are not momentary hiccups within capitalism, but are constitutive of capital itself, which accumulates and expands in ways that are antithetical to its continued operation. Marx writes, for example, that capital’s global expansion, that allows it to overcome local crises by increasing the rate of exploitation elsewhere on the globe, results in the reproduction of those same crises at a wider scale.[12] Closer to Benjamin, we may also look to Lukács, who writes that “on closer examination the structure of a crisis is seen to be no more than a heightening of the degree and intensity of the daily life of bourgeois society,” which is to say that the constitutive crises of capital are locatable even in granular form at the level of everyday life, which under capitalism means the life of frantic labour, balancing debt, making rent, and all the other crises that dot a person’s life.[13]

Indeed, to return to the nightmarish imagery of Benjamin’s late writings on capitalism, we can find a similar formulation in the Arcades Project, in which Benjamin writes:

“The concept of progress must be grounded in the idea of catastrophe. That things are ‘status quo’ is the catastrophe. It is not an ever-present possibility but what in each case is given. […] Hell is not something that awaits us, but this life here and now.”[14]

What seems an exception is the norm, and what seems to happen by monstrous chance is in actuality an integral part of this life as we live it now. Waves of reactionary violence; exclusion from genuine political life and subjection to economic exploitation; ecological degradation and the snuffing out of our future on this planet—these are the catastrophes of the ‘status quo.’ They are presented by the ideologues of capital as momentary relapses into the barbarism of the distant past, but they are in truth no more archaic than the systems of capitalism, patriarchy, and imperialism to which they are endemic. This is the hell in which we live, and against which a genuine break with history must be sought.

(2) Amazement

In stating his position in such stark terms, Benjamin prepares the way for the apocalyptic imagery that is soon to follow in Thesis IX. Indeed, the shadow of apocalypse appears to hang over this thesis too, given the apparent perpetuity of historical strife, which reigns over this world like an iron law. But as with the melancholy of the previous thesis, we should not mistake this framing as a cause for pessimism. Benjamin has little patience for the expressions of shock and the wringing of hands that follow in the wake of the crises that plague the modern era. The amazement that these sorts of things are ‘still’ possible, that barbarism can still rear its head within the heart of culture, is a bad place to start for anybody who wants to understand the situation. This incredulity in the face of events is a symptom of a feeling of historical stasis, which Benjamin diagnosed as early as the 1920s in his reflections on the years of Germany’s hyperinflation:

“In the stock of phraseology that lays bare the amalgam of stupidity and cowardice constituting the mode of life of the German bourgeois, the locution referring to impending catastrophe—‘Things can’t go on like this’—is particularly noteworthy. The helpless fixation on notions of security and property deriving from past decades keeps the average citizen from perceiving the quite remarkable stabilities of an entirely new kind that underlie the present situation. Because the relative stabilization of the prewar years benefited him, he feels compelled to regard any state that dispossesses him as unstable. […] the assumption that things cannot go on like this will one day confront the fact that for the suffering of individuals, as of communities, there is only one limit beyond which things cannot go: annihilation.”[15]

One can imagine this attitude expressed in any era that fails to recognise its own logic: “This can’t go on! Things must return to normal! What we have known is all there is to know; all we are is all we will be!” It is at heart a mantra of stultification, of maintaining a feeling of stasis, even to oblivion.

So much for the amazement that may be felt at every all-too-predictable turn of events. Although crisis may be the norm, at this stage I would like to hazard against taking Benjamin’s references to the hell of everyday life and the annihilating limits of historical suffering too grimly. Just as there is an amazement in the face of these surprise interruptions to historical stasis, there is also an amazement in the face of all that seems inevitable in the onrush of historical catastrophe. In an unpublished piece written at the end of the 1930s, only a couple of years before the composition of the theses, Benjamin denounces in no uncertain terms the catastrophising view of history that makes of every event a sign of disaster:

“The course of history, seen in terms of the concept of catastrophe, can actually claim no more attention from thinkers than a child’s kaleidoscope, which with every turn of the hand dissolves the established order into a new array. There is profound truth in this image. The concepts of the ruling class have always been the mirrors that enabled an image of ‘order’ to prevail.—The kaleidoscope must be smashed.”[16]

Catastrophe, as the guiding concept for a philosophy of history, is little more than an illusion on the part of the spectator. Certainly, history is dotted with particular catastrophes, but the generalisation of catastrophe to the level of an historical law assumes too much. It makes disaster something inevitable, something present in equal parts at every moment of history. As we will see in the following theses, this universalisation of catastrophe amounts to the inverse counterpart to the conceptions of universal progress that motivate bourgeois historical thought. Both progress and catastrophe are envisaged as immutable laws of history, determining its course in advance such that the doom or salvation of the people within that history are absolutely out of their hands. In this thesis Benjamin insists upon the contrary: catastrophe is not predestined—it is perpetuated because it is everywhere disguised: barbarism masquerades as culture and any explicit eruptions of violence are taken as exceptions rather than the norm. This critique of catastrophe should also be kept in mind when we arrive at the next thesis and encounter the Angel of history and its vision of a single catastrophe swallowing everything up.

(3) A state of exception?

At this point, before we take the plunge into Benjamin’s famous ninth thesis and the turning point in the theses that it represents, there are two points I would like to bring to your attention.

The first is a clarification of whether the state of emergency that Benjamin describes in this thesis is comparable to the state of exception outlined in Carl Schmitt’s theory of sovereignty. Certainly, there is plenty of literature on the topic of Benjamin and Schmitt’s supposed ‘correspondence,’ and the cross-pollination of ideas between Benjamin’s Origin of the German Trauerspiel and “Critique of Violence” on the one hand, and Schmitt’s Political Theology and The Concept of the Political on the other. To cut a long story short, the direct influence of Schmitt on Benjamin has been overstated in the secondary literature, although a critical comparison of their concepts may still bear fruit.[17]

For Schmitt, “the sovereign is [the one] who decides the exception,” that is, they are in possession of the power to suspend the law so as to effectively enforce it.[18] For example, we might think of an absolute monarch’s sovereign right to order or stay an execution, such that they may suspend the laws concerning the taking of life so that they may punish someone who has broken those very laws. As Schmitt writes, “all law is ‘situational law.’ The sovereign produces and guarantees the situation in its totality. He has the monopoly over this last decision.”[19] This is the state of exception in which the power of the sovereign subsists, and it is one which has tended toward a generalised state of emergency as the modern nation state has expanded its security apparatus to scrutinise every aspect of the lives of its citizenry.[20] In this, Benjamin and Schmitt are in apparent agreement: the exception to the rule of law is today the norm, as police and militaries deploy ever greater means of destruction in the name of maintaining order, as rights are suspended in the name of the defence of those rights, and as the line between combatant and civilian, friend and foe, becomes an arbitrary distinction, drawn only after the dust has settled.

So far so good, but Benjamin takes us a step further. While Schmitt’s state of exception describes the normality of violence within the modern state, Benjamin insists that this is not all that is possible at our historical juncture. Having grasped the futility of the present situation within its generalised state of exception, he remarks that we will then see clearly “that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency.” Evidently, this state of emergency must be something beyond the sovereign exception, and here we may turn for illumination to Benjamin’s early essay on the “Critique of Violence.” The critique of the title of this essay does not, as some liberalising scholars have suggested, indicate a mere criticism or dismissal of violence as it pertains to political tactics.[21] Rather, Benjamin’s critique is of the Kantian or Marxian kind, which attempts to uncover the necessary conditions of the concept at hand and to delineate its proper functions and categories. To this end, Benjamin identifies three forms of violence as they relate to the categories of law and justice. The first of these is lawmaking violence, which Benjamin describes as a ‘mythic’ violence because it has to do with first beginnings, the founding of states, and the initial imposition of a sovereign power. The second is a law-preserving form of violence, which can be likened to the sovereign state of exception that Schmitt describes, as it polices boundaries that it cannot justify, utilising its sovereignty increasingly as an end in itself rather than a means for self-preservation. Against these conjoined formations of violence and law stands a third category, justice, and a third form of violence, the divine. Divine violence is not the violence of a sovereign, but of a revolutionary force, which overturns the rule of law so that justice may be meted out.[22] As Benjamin writes:

“If mythic violence is lawmaking, divine violence is law-destroying; if the former sets boundaries, the latter boundlessly destroys them; if mythic violence brings at once guilt and retribution, divine power only expiates; if the former threatens, the latter strikes; if the former is bloody, the latter is lethal without spilling blood.”[23]

In a word, if the normalisation of the exception about which Benjamin writes is comparable to the Schmittian state of exception and its reign of law-preserving violence, the “true state of emergency” to which Benjamin gestures must be of a kind with the divine violence of his early work. Both are situated beyond the everyday state of emergency in which we now live, and both are positioned against the sovereign powers that maintain us in that state.

(4) A loose end

Secondly, a yet more minor point. As some of you may have noticed, there is a peculiar ambiguity in this thesis. When Benjamin writes, in the Harry Zohn translation, that “one reason fascism has a chance is that, in the name of progress, its opponents treat it as a historical norm” we encounter the nearly nonsensical proposition that the reason fascism succeeds is because it is treated as a historical norm by its opponents. Aside from being empirically false, this claim is contradicted by the rest of Benjamin’s statements in this thesis and elsewhere, where his argument is that progressive thinkers fail to recognise the normality of fascism. To be clear, the root of this ambiguity is in the English translation, as no such confusion is to be found in the German text, which reads: “Dessen Chance besteht nicht zuletzt darin, daß die Gegner ihm im Namen des Fortschritts als einer historischen Norm begegnen.” A more accurate translation would run as follows: “Its [fascism’s] prospects are more than a little helped by the fact that its opponents oppose it in the name of progress (which they take) as a historical norm.”[24] That is, as we have seen, the opponents of fascism oppose it to the apparent historical norm of progress, treating it as an exception to the placid course of history.


[1] Michael Löwy, Fire Alarm, trans. Chris Turner (London: Verso, 2005), 47.

[2] Walter Benjamin, Selected Works, vol. 4, eds. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), 401.

[3] See, for instance, the identification of acedia with Benjamin’s own method in Françoise Meltzer, “Acedia and Melancholia,” in Walter Benjamin and the Demands of History, ed. Michael P. Steinberg (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996), 148-9: “For Benjamin, acedia is a problem of a relation to history; it is akin to Proust’s involuntary memory or Baudelaire’s correspondance. It is the ability to extract the whole from the particular and, more important, to retrieve the past by superimposing it on the present, not by representing the present as the culmination, the aggregate, of a past narrative […] Sadness for Benjamin is in such a tradition of the moment upon which is superimposed the recognition of loss […] Benjamin’s sadness springs from the thought that history belongs to the victors […] It is not the scandal of sloth; it is tied to the interruptive notion of memory” (149).

[4] Max Pensky, “Tactics of Remembrance: Proust, Surrealism, and the Origin of the Passegenwerk,” in Walter Benjamin and the Demands of History, ed. Michael P. Steinberg (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996), 172: “Deliverance from the temporal continuum constitutes a neat antithesis to the motion of melancholy contemplation. The latter is determined through the schema of slowness and repetition [unlike the lightning-flash of involuntary memory].”

[5] This is the import which Gillian Rose gives to the opening lines of this thesis, quoted from Brecht, which “express the perception, which is characteristic of Trauerspiel, of history as fallen and allegorical in nature […] This political melancholy [of the Social Democrats] is blasted against Messianic mourning, not the work of remembrance but its eschatology; history is exilic not universal; and thinking as well as its object—history—should be arrested not flowing.” See: Gillian Rose, Judaism and Modernity (London: Verso, 1993), 206-7.

[6] Benjamin, Selected Works 4, 406.

[7] As Michael Löwy notes in “Against the Grain,” in Walter Benjamin and the Demands of History, ed. Michael P. Steinberg (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996), 209: “This principle [that there is no document of civilization which is not also one of barbarism] is the key to a dialectical conception of culture. Instead of opposing culture (or civilization) and barbarism as mutually exclusive poles or as different stages in historical evolution—two classical leitmotivs of the Aufklärung—Benjamin presents them as a contradictory unity.” This unity is expressed most explicitly when the barbarism is apparent in the object itself, as in monuments celebrating the victory of the ruling class (e.g. the fountain in Mainz, erected to celebrate the triumph over the German peasants’ revolt of 1525, which Löwy cites as his main example), or it may be more implicit, as when the anonymous toil of the oppressed serves as the hidden precondition for the production of cultural treasures.

[8] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington (New York: Grove Press, 1963), 96.

[9] Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. Dennis Redmond (, 2021), 332.

[10] The Act of Killing, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer (Final Cut for Real, 2012); The Look of Silence, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer (Final Cut for Real, 2014).

[11] Vincent Bevins, The Jakarta Method (New York: Public Affairs, 2020), 246.

[12] Karl Marx, Grundrisse, trans. Martin Nicolaus (London: Penguin, 1976), 410: “From the fact that capital posits every such limit as a barrier and hence gets ideally beyond it, it does not by any means follow that it has really overcome it, and, since every such barrier contradicts its character, its production moves in contradictions which are constantly overcome but just as constantly posited. Furthermore. The universality towards which it irresistibly strives encounters barriers in its own nature, which will, at a certain stage of its development, allow it to be recognized as being itself the greatest barrier to this tendency, and hence will drive towards its own suspension.”

[13] Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, trans. Rodney Livingstone (London: Merlin Press, 1971), 101.

[14] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), N9a,1.

[15] Walter Benjamin, Selected Works, vol. 1, eds. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), 451.

[16] Benjamin, Selected Works 4, 164.

[17] On the misconstrual of the correspondence between Benjamin and Schmitt, see: Alison Ross, Walter Benjamin’s Concept of the Image (London: Routledge, 2015), 2.

[18] Carl Schmitt, Political Theology, trans. George Schwab (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 5.

[19] Schmitt, Political Theology, 13.

[20] This is the argument drawing from Schmitt made by Giorgio Agamben, in State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2005).

[21] There is a scholarly tradition of misreading the “Critique of Violence” as a work advocating non-violence, which is nowhere stated in the text. Rather, Benjamin’s view is “that in pure revolutionary violence human actors are purified of their own venal interests and act instead in the perspective of the divine” (Ross, Concept of the Image, 2). Revolutionary violence is not only directed against the powers that be, but is performed from a standpoint that is beyond the laws and moralities formerly imposed by those powers. Only from within the order of the old world does this transcendent force of divine violence appear at all comparable to the mundane violence of the state. This argument is not legible to Benjamin’s commentators, who attempt to force the transcendence of Benjamin’s God into their own language of immanence, which is of a piece with the worldly powers of the status quo.

[22] To put it plainer still: Schmitt’s violence is sovereign, divine violence is anti-sovereign. See: Gillian Rose, Mourning Becomes the Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 69.

[23] Benjamin, Selected Works 1, 149-50

[24] The German text and modified translation are supplied by Alison Ross, in Revolution and History in Walter Benjamin (New York: Routledge, 2019), 94.

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