The Messianic Remnant (Reading Benjamin’s Theses A & B)

Adolf Hirémy-Hirschl, Seaside Cemetery (1897).


• 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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Thesis A:

Historicism contents itself with establishing a causal nexus among various moments in history. But no state of affairs having causal significance is for that very reason historical. It became historical posthumously, as it were, through events that may be separated from it by thousands of years. The historian who proceeds from this consideration ceases to tell the sequence of events like the beads of a rosary. He grasps the constellation into which his own era has entered, along with a very specific earlier one. Thus, he establishes a conception of the present as now-time shot through with splinters of messianic time. Continue reading “The Messianic Remnant (Reading Benjamin’s Theses A & B)”

A Universal History of Decay (Reading Benjamin’s Theses XVII & XVIII)

walton ford - falling bough
Walton Ford, Falling Bough (2002).


• XVII: Universal history, its methods, and its structuring principles.
• XVIII: Natural time in its negative and positive relations to history.

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Thesis XVII:

Historicism rightly culminates in universal history. It may be that materialist historiography differs in method more clearly from universal history than from any other kind. Universal history has no theoretical armature. Its procedure is additive: it musters a mass of data to fill the homogeneous, empty time. Materialist historiography, on the other hand, is based on a constructive principle. Thinking involves not only the movement of thoughts, but their arrest as well. Where thinking suddenly comes to a stop in a constellation saturated with tensions, it gives that constellation a shock, by which thinking is crystallized as a monad. The historical materialist approaches a historical object only where it confronts him as a monad. In this structure he recognizes the sign of a messianic arrest of happening, or (to put it differently) a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past. He takes cognizance of it in order to blast a specific era out of the homogeneous course of history; thus, he blasts a specific life out of the era, a specific work out of the lifework. As a result of this method, the lifework is both preserved and sublated [aufheben] in the work, the era in the lifework, and the entire course of history in the era. The nourishing fruit of what is historically understood contains time in its interior as a precious but tasteless seed. Continue reading “A Universal History of Decay (Reading Benjamin’s Theses XVII & XVIII)”

Frozen in Time (Reading Benjamin’s Theses XV & XVI)

van gogh - snow-covered field
Vincent van Gogh, Snow-Covered Field with a Harrow (after Millet) (1890). 


• 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

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Thesis XV:

What characterizes revolutionary classes at their moment of action is the awareness that they are about to make the continuum of history explode. The Great Revolution introduced a new calendar. The initial day of a calendar presents history in time-lapse mode. And basically it is this same day that keeps recurring in the guise of holidays, which are days of remembrance [Tage des Eingedenkens]. Thus, calendars do not measure time the way clocks do; they are monuments of a historical consciousness of which not the slightest trace has been apparent in Europe, it would seem, for the past hundred years. In the July Revolution an incident occurred in which this consciousness came into its own. On the first evening of fighting, it so happened that the dials on clocktowers were being fired at simultaneously and independently from several locations in Paris. An eyewitness, who may have owed his insight to the rhyme, wrote as follows:

Qui le croirait! on dit, qu’irrites contre l’heure,
De nouveaux Josues, au pied de chaque tour,
Tiraient sur! es cadrans pour arreter le jour.
[Who would believe it! It is said that, incensed at the hour,
Latter-day Joshuas, at the foot of every clocktower,
Were firing on clock faces to make the day stand still.] Continue reading “Frozen in Time (Reading Benjamin’s Theses XV & XVI)”