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.

(1) Universal history

We begin this thesis with a recapitulation of the distinction between historicism and historical materialism as it has been developed in previous theses, here turned to the question of method. Historicism and historical materialism are not only different theoretical tendencies with unique repositories of concepts to draw on, they are fundamentally opposed in their methods of historical inquiry. The procedure of historicism is additive: that is, as we have seen in previous theses, it depends upon a conception of time that is homogeneous and empty, the units of which may be added one after the other in a sequence approaching infinity. What results from this procedure, Benjamin tells us, is universal history. It is a mode of history that admits no exclusions from its scope—everything will be given its place in the infinity procession of homogeneous, empty time—but it also admits no difference between its particular moments. The standpoint of universal history accepts no exceptions to its rules, no complaints as to its course: it is a totality without recourse.[1]

But this universal history has no theoretical armature, nothing to maintain it as anything except an infinitely distant goal. Just as the absolute fulfilment of history must wait in the arrival of the Messiah, the universal history that the historicist seeks is not available to us: in the preparatory notes to the theses Benjamin remarks that “only in the messianic realm does universal history exist,” because only the “messianic world is the world of universal and integral actuality.”[2] For us, universal history must be something artificial, something unconvincingly composed from the incomplete and unredeemed history available to us. Benjamin compares this project of universal history to that of the Esperanto language, which attempts to mend the multiplicity of language with a constructed universality, but in fact only adds one more language to the chaos of human speech.[3]

Benjamin’s rejection of universal history marks his decisive break with all prior philosophies of history. In fact, we can say that the end of universal history entails the end of the very concept of ‘history’ as it appears in philosophical discourse. History is demoted from its position as an overriding, general concept capable of ordering disparate events in a single narrative. It no longer has a claim to universality. It has lost the ideality that the philosophers had granted it, and reveals the bare material workings that underpin both its movement and our understanding of it.

Indeed, as Fredric Jameson has argued, Benjamin works to make a distinction between historiography and history proper. Whereas historiography denotes our picture of history, what we are capable of knowing about it within our present worldview, it must be distinguished from ‘History itself’ as it exists apart from our attempts to narrativise it. More than outlining a positive philosophy of history, Benjamin’s theses “are above all concerned with the limits of our historical knowledge and imagination, with the shape of our own historicity.”[4] For all our attempts to impose a universal concept upon history, it always slips from our grasp, leaving us with historiographic disputes over its proper shape and the nature of its ideality.

In the place of the concept of history, Benjamin supplies us with his analysis of temporality as such. The forms of time that he outlines—empty or fulfilled, chronological or interrupted, universal or fragmentary—are not historical concepts per se, but the temporal structures that underpin and determine our perception of history.[5] The historicist does not begin with universal history but with the additive principle of homogeneous, empty time. Likewise, the historical materialist arrives at their own style of historiography by way of a constructive principle, which is capable of arresting the movement of homogeneous, empty time and extracting moments of now-time from it.

(2) Eternal return

How else might our conception of time determine our image of history? The main object of Benjamin’s critique in his theses is the concept of progress and the forms of time upon which it is founded, but throughout the Arcades Project he notes that these forms of time are equally able to beget another narrative of universal history: that of the eternal return. As Benjamin remarks, the notion of eternal return is no less prominent among writers of the nineteenth century than that of progress, as it recurs throughout the historiographic writing of the era as one of the great obsessions of historical thought. It appears most famously in the writings of Nietzsche, who presents it as a heuristic principle for the voluntary life, formulated in the question of whether one could wilfully accept the course of one’s life even if it were to recur endlessly. It is also present in the late writings of the imprisoned communist leader Blanqui, who in his final works speculates on the repetition of all things across the infinite span of the universe. If the universe is without end in both space and time then, he reasons, the limited elements of matter must inexorably repeat themselves, allowing for all possibilities to be realised somewhere unreachably distant from us.[6] Eternal return also shows its face in the reactionary theories of decadence that came to prominence near the century’s close, in which it is conceived sociologically as the rule that all cultures must be born, mature, and grow senescent as in the endless lifecycle of human generations.

In all cases, like the concept of progress, the eternal return involves a homogeneous and empty form of time. It is fixated on the subordination of moments in time to a transcendent and universal order. For the believer in eternal return, any particular moment is an empty shell—a repetition of what has come before and a premeditation upon what will inevitably occur again. The moment is itself meaningless; it needs to be repeated to become significant. But in being repeated it loses its unique meaning as an event, and is transformed into one more homogeneous instance of an endlessly repeating sequence. What differs between this conception and that of progress is nothing substantial, only that progress imagines its sequence of moments stretching linearly into the future while the eternal return imagines the sequence folded back on itself in a vicious circle. But the upward arc of progress and the interminable circle of the return are only pictures given to history, which do not differ in their conception of time as a homogeneous, empty sequence.

For this reason, Benjamin goes so far as to say that progress and the eternal return mirror one another as the complementary concepts that make up the bourgeois view of history:

“The belief in progress—in an infinite perfectibility understood as an infinite ethical task—and the representation of eternal return are complementary. They are the indissoluble antinomies in the face of which the dialectical conception of historical time must be developed. In this conception, the idea of eternal return appears precisely as that ‘shallow rationalism’ which the belief in progress is accused of being, while faith in progress seems no less to belong to the mythic mode of thought than does the idea of eternal return.”[7]

Placed side by side, progress and the eternal return reveal their family resemblance. The eternal return is in a sense the truth of progress, in that it openly expresses the ‘shallow rationalism’ that underlies both concepts. Both are attempts to impose a rational form on history, to make it conform to our view of it, by providing it with a readymade image of the circle or the arc by which universal history is to be constructed. Conversely, the critique of progress reveals itself to belong equally to the mythic way of thinking that houses the eternal return. As myths, these concepts give a primordial justification for universal history, projecting its origin back to the beginning of time. If progress and the eternal return furnish the philosophy of history with useful concepts, they only go so far in conceptualising history itself and lose themselves in the mystifications of eternity.[8]

(3) Totality

Now, it is important to note that the universal history criticised by Benjamin is not necessarily the same form of universal history found in Marxist thought, which is neither mechanistic, additive, nor transcendent of its constituent moments. Here we may refer to Lukács, who writes that:

“History as a totality (universal history) is neither the mechanical aggregate of individual historical events, nor is it a transcendent heuristic principle opposed to the events of history, a principle that could only become effective with the aid of a special discipline, the philosophy of history.”[9]

The philosophy of history is, in Lukács’s terms, the crutch that holds up the notion of universal history as a transcendent form which stands over and above the empirical events of history—in effect, functioning as what Hegel would call a spurious infinity that functions only in its negative relation to its finite parts, which are homogenised and assumed into a transcendent sequence.[10] This philosophical view of history, which is identical with history from the bourgeois standpoint, is opposed by a positively universal history which does not subordinate its moments but grasps their place within and as the totality of history itself. Universal history without a grasp of history as totality falls into dogmatism, as it loses the ability to relate the particular events of history to the overarching structure of history as totality.

Indeed, Benjamin says as much in his supplemental notes to the theses, where he remarks that:

“Universal histories are not inevitably reactionary. But a universal history without a structural principle is reactionary. The structural principle of universal history allows it to be represented in partial histories.”[11]

This structural principle stands opposed to the “transcendent heuristic principle” that defines reified, bourgeois views of history.[12] Whereas the latter of these principles suggests Hegel’s spurious infinity and the subordination of events to an abstract, quantitative view of history, the structural principle points to Hegel’s true infinity, which is not opposed to its particular, finite moments but is rather composed in the unity of finite particulars and infinite universals. In Lukács’s terms, too, the structural view of history means a de-reification of history as a philosophical concept, which no longer stands apart from the events that fill its homogeneous, empty units of time.

(4) Monad

Still, Benjamin’s position does not exactly coincide with that of Lukács or Hegel. While they seek a structuring principle for history in the conception of totality, Benjamin in this thesis clearly prefers another concept: singularity. Reiterating the dialectical view of history outlined in the previous thesis, Benjamin states that the method of historical materialism is motivated by the search for a frozen moment in time. This moment contracts the past and present into a single ‘now’ that stands independent from the continuum of ordinary time. In Benjamin’s words, “the historical materialist approaches a historical object only where it confronts him as a monad.” The historical object—the dialectical image—is a monad because it is both self-contained and indivisible: it has been extracted from the temporal sequence of homogeneous empty time and fixed in place such that its antithetical elements are indissolubly contained in that frozen moment. But the monad is not for this reason cut off from the rest of history. Rather, it exhibits a correspondence to other moments and contracts the totality of history into its singularity. Benjamin relates this process in a way that recalls the appearance of Matryoshka dolls nestled within one another, with the smaller and smaller dolls preserving the image of the larger at ever more contracted scales:

“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.”

When an individual work is viewed as a dialectical image, it sums up the scope of a life’s work in its singular existence. When the life of a person is viewed in this way, their life serves to encapsulate what is essential in their era. And even the era may be taken as a monad that allows us to envisage the full span of history itself. “The logic of the monad, in other words, refracts the totality into its parts, into all its elements, of whatever dimensions.”[13] This is another way of accessing history as a totality, not by a universal combination of its disparate moments, but by paring these moments down to a singular point that reflects the essence of a historical work, person, or epoch. This monad, this “precious but tasteless seed” of history, represents “the entire course of history from a specific perspective,” which may be the perspective of the messianic or the revolutionary event, but in either case its cessation of historical motion serves as the structuring principle for Benjamin’s renewed attempt at universal history.[14]

Thesis XVIII:

“In relation to the history of all organic life on earth,” writes a modern biologist, “the paltry fifty-millennia history of homo sapiens equates to something like two seconds at the close of a twenty-four-hour day. On this scale, the history of civilized mankind would take up one-fifth of the last second of the last hour.” Now-time, which, as a model of messianic time, comprises the entire history of mankind in a tremendous abbreviation, coincides exactly with the figure which the history of mankind describes in the universe.

(1) Natural time, negatively (Trauerspiel)

The conceptions of history as totality and of the messianic event as a contraction of time to a single point here find their most extreme expression. We are shown the whole sum of human history in a flash. But whereas in the previous thesis totality and the monad were placed in a tenuous dialectical relation to one another, with the totality of history reflected from within a monadic moment of time, here we find the barrier between the two concepts grown indistinct. The now-time that had previously been described as a moment plucked from the mass of homogenous empty time is now described as the truncation of that same mass, shrinking recorded history down to an infinitesimally small fragment of time in the history of the planet.

Benjamin’s situating of human history within the expanse of natural time bears some resemblance to his early writing on the cosmic vision of the trauersiel, although in that work the relation of nature to history is conceived primarily in a negative light. In his habilitation thesis on the Origin of the German Trauerspiel, Benjamin maps the distinctions between the trauerspiel—a seventeenth-century genre of Baroque drama best translated as ‘mourning play’—and the classical tragedy. One crucial difference between the trauerspiel and tragedy is their attitudes toward history and transcendence. In the tragedies of the classical era, the hero is defined by their fulfilment of fate. Fate in tragedy is not only the destiny of a character in their external life but is the very substance of their inner character: in the prototypical example, Oedipus only knows his true self when he realises his own predestined undoing. But although the tragic hero may suffer or die in their fulfilment of fate, in so doing they are guaranteed their positions in posterity, transcending the sufferings of their lives to live eternally as heroes of old. In death, the tragic hero survives in the fulfilled time of memory.

In the trauerspiel no such transcendence is to be found. The characters of these dramas suffer greatly but without the recompense of greatness. Instead, the trauerspiel depicts the destruction of all human endeavours and the shrinking of even the greatest of heroes into the backdrop of a decayed landscape. In these narratives the symbol of the ruin reigns over all human history, as the emblem of past epochs that have fallen into decay, overrun by foliage and slowly subsumed into the earth. In Benjamin’s words, “with decay, and with it alone, historical occurrence shrinks and withdraws into the setting” over which nature looms “as eternal transience.”[15] “Tragedy brings history into being by emerging from legend, by overcoming myth; Trauerspiel is condemned to a history without transcendence, which it can only think my means of natural categories, cycles, organisms, the seasons, the eternal return.”[16] Under the cruel gaze of nature, human history appears as something fleeting, full of pain and suffering in each of its moments but empty of all lasting significance in the long timescales of the earth. As in Benjamin’s eighteenth thesis, human history is condensed into a moment, but it is not the moment of messianic time but its opposite: a fallen, creaturely time that has been forsaken by its creator.

(2) Excursus on Anthropocene pessimism

If I speak about the conception of nature found in Benjamin’s Trauerspiel study at length it is because it grants us the opportunity to contrast this early formulation of an unsaved historical consciousness with his later notion of redeemed historical time. It is also because this early account of natural time reveals to us some of the pitfalls of a philosophy of history that naturalises the concepts of downfall and decay. As we will see in a moment when we return to the thesis at hand, the critical account of our historical concepts must call into question all notions of eternal laws or fixed narratives within history, in opposition to the closed systems that philosophy tries to impose upon it.

As a vision of history that is inevitably fated to decline, the worldview of the trauerspiel is one that attempts to think at a cosmic scale without a place for human life. When it thinks the relation between history and nature it comprehends neither the fulfilment of historical time nor the constitutive place of nature within history. Natural time is posited absolutely outside of human affairs, and human history is placed absolutely beneath the unredeemed dominion of nature. As Benjamin writes, the trauerspiel presents a refusal of all concepts of salvation at the level of human life and action:

“One of [the] necessities [of the trauerspiel’s worldview], consequent upon the collapse of all eschatology, is the attempt to find consolation in the renunciation of a state of grace in reversion to the bare creaturely condition. […] The German trauerspiel wholly buries itself in the desolation of the earthly estate. Such redemption as it knows will lie more in the depths of these vicissitudes themselves than in the fulfillment of a divine plan of salvation.”[17]

 Although the object of Benjamin’s analysis is an archaic genre of Baroque drama, the sentiment that he uncovers in this work may appear akin to those that define the present impasse of climate theory. Faced with the reality of a global climate crisis, many theorists have sought consolation in philosophies of nature that seek to view history from a planetary perspective. The watchword for these attempts to think on the order of nature is the ‘Anthropocene,’ or the geological epoch initiated by human activity, which will be visible in the fossil record millions of years from now in the traces of plastics, radioactive isotopes, and the markers of rapid ecological collapse.

Certainly, the concept of the Anthropocene was first adopted by scientists to stress the urgency of reckoning with our impact on the planet, but in the hands of the philosophers the term has become something far more ambivalent. Keeping the terms of Benjamin’s political theology in mind, the eschatological dimensions of Anthropocene theory are never far from the surface. In the words of Déborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, the Anthropocene is an epoch that announces an endless moral judgment on humanity:

“For it is certain that, although it began with us, it will end without us: the Anthropocene will only give way to a new geological epoch long after we have disappeared from the face of the Earth. [It is] a present ‘without a view,’ a passive present, the inert bearer of a geophysical karma which it is entirely beyond our reach to cancel.”[18]

This reference to karma is no mere figure of speech. Long after we are dead and buried, after all our works have been submerged by the rising tides, the karmic weight of humanity’s actions will weigh on the planet like a dead hand. In this view, human history becomes one long trauerspiel: a litany of suffering without hope for salvation. For how could we possibly atone? In this vision there is, properly speaking, no position of human agency from which we could act to avert our fate. The present state of climate crisis is catastrophised as something which we can only passively accept, while the tumult of human history is naturalised as a series of futile struggles against the encroaching time of unredeemed death.

As Claire Colebrook has noted, the declaration of the Anthropocene carries with it an essentially paleontological view of time, in which we must conceive of our own history on the earth as one more stratum in the earth’s crust, nestled alongside the artefacts of other times that are now irretrievably past:

“The positing of an anthropocene era (or the idea that the human species will have marked the planet to such a degree that we will be discernible as a geological strata) deploys the idea of human imaging—the way we have already read an inhuman past in the earth’s layers—but does this by imagining a world in which humans will be extinct.”[19]

Just as the trauerspiel conceives of all human monuments as ruins in the making, this form of Anthropocene theory demands that we envisage ourselves as the fossils of the future. We are already dead—we just haven’t realised it yet. Whatever actions we take must be viewed from an inhuman perspective, like the actions of dinosaurs arguing over the correct response to their imminent extinction.

(3) Natural time, positively (Truncated)

When conceived in its negative aspect, as the annihilation of historical meaning, natural time has a pacifying effect, making all human works appear as a vanity of vanities. But this is not the only role that nature may play within historical consciousness. In Benjamin’s eighteenth thesis the cosmic time of the earth is utilised not to diminish human achievements but to vastly truncate human history into a single moment of the present: “Now-time, which, as a model of messianic time, comprises the entire history of mankind in a tremendous abbreviation, coincides exactly with the figure which the history of mankind describes in the universe.” Far from being composed of fleeting events that sink into the background of nature’s eternal return, history is here filled with a sense of ‘the now.’ Let us recall that ‘now-time’ in Benjamin’s sense is not the same thing as the present that lies caught between the past and future; it is a present that is substantial in itself, informed by its relation to a past that is not truly gone. Indeed, pictured within the frame of natural time, the past appears here as essentially a part of the present moment. Situated within the last one-fifth of a second on the earth’s cosmic clock, the events of one millennium appear as the contemporaries of another, and the beginnings of human history come into focus alongside the struggles that make up its present content.

This provides us with an additional meaning to the messianic time that has dotted the theses thus far. Whereas previously we have seen the messianic as a breach with the continuum of history, and the messianic event as a moment of homogeneous empty time plucked from its sequence and filled with supra-historical meaning, here we discover all of human history situated within one of these moments. Far from being a contingent event within the sequence of historical occurrence, the messianic time of ‘the now’ encompasses all of history as a universal event. This is the most radical expression of the monad as the structural principle for universal history: the totality of history is recapitulated in every one of its moments, because when filled with ‘now-time’ each moment is essentially coterminous.[20]

(4) Abbreviating capitalism

Moving further beyond the dismal natural history of the trauerspiel, this truncation of human history into a single moment allows us to grasp what is at stake in our worldly struggles. As we have seen, Benjamin conceives of historical truth as something that flashes up at a moment of danger, typically in the most fleeting and fragmentary details of a past that every day recedes further from vision. But here it is the entirety of human history that appears as this moment of danger, and its meaning as either totality or monad is the image that flashes up for us to seize or let slip from our grasp. The history of the earth is presented as a long period of stasis, at the end of which the brief moment of human history flashes out of the dark—everything we have known and can know lies within that moment, and whether that moment is sustained beyond the one-fifth of a cosmic second rests entirely on our collective fight for a more equitable, more sustainable society.

The framing of human history within natural time also, paradoxically, allows us to denaturalise what seems most inevitable about our present epoch. One lesson of Benjamin’s image is not that human history is futile, but that the present period of globally destructive capitalism is but a moment in a much longer history. In the cosmic timescale, in which we are the contemporaries of all of humanity, the past five centuries of capitalist expansion must be set against the hundreds of thousands of years during which humans lived without states or classes—let alone capital. As the anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan writes in a passage that Marx recorded in his notebooks, “the time which has passed away since civilization began is but a fragment of the past duration of man’s existence; and but a fragment of the ages yet to come.”[21] Or, as Massimiliano Tomba has noted in his work on Marxist theories of time and history:

“Calculated in terms of successive generations, capitalist modernity amounts to approximately twenty generations. It is a small episode in the history of humankind, which was, however, able to produce a new type of individualistic and selfish human being. The coexistence and the clash between different temporalities show that historical possibilities do not collapse in the one-way temporality of capitalist civilisation. Instead, we see that alternative routes are constantly being reopened. It is a matter of reading the convergence of historical times that are able to make the present explode.”[22]

As Benjamin is at pains to show, our most utopian desires have a primordial source, but this source is in truth not so distant from our present day. If the promise of fulfilled historical time means anything, it is the promise that the travails of recorded history exist only in the blink of an eye, situated between a vast period of prehistoric, classless society and a coming epoch of humanity’s redeemed existence.


[1] Theodor Adorno, History and Freedom: Lectures 1964-5, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge: Polity, 2006), 146: “It follows, as Benjamin continues, that the concept of universal history—which we have discussed at some length—cannot be salvaged. That idea was plausible only as long as we could believe in the illusion of an already existing humanity, coherent in itself and moving upwards in a unified manner. If humanity remains trapped by the totality it itself creates, then, as Kafka observed, no progress has taken place at all, while mere totality, the idea of totality, allows progress to be entertained in thought.”

[2] Walter Benjamin, Selected Works, vol. 4, eds. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), 404: “The messianic world is the world of universal and integral actuality. Only in the messianic realm does a universal history exist. Not as written history, but as festively enacted history.”

[3] Benjamin, Selected Works 4, 404: “The multiplicity of ‘histories’ is closely related, if not identical, to the multiplicity of languages. Universal history in the present-day sense is never more than a kind of Esperanto. (It expresses the hope of the human race no more effectively than the name of that universal language.)”

[4] Fredric Jameson, The Benjamin Files (London: Verso, 2020), 235: “I will argue that the burden of Benjamin’s theses on history is the effort to separate historiography from history, that is, to get us to distinguish what we can know about history, what we can represent or imagine—our historical ‘picture’ or worldview—from History itself, the real direction in which the wind of history is blowing in these ‘final two seconds’ at the close of world history’s ‘twenty-four-hour’ day. There is a philosophy of history implied here, certainly, but the theses on history are above all concerned with the limits of our historical knowledge and imagination, with the shape of our own historicity.”

[5] Jameson, Benjamin Files, 236-7: “Here [after the Angel and the general denunciation of culture], the distinction between history and historiography becomes refined, for it is being shown that the vision of history that informs [page break] historiography has very real effects on history itself. Benjamin therefore directs his inquiry in a new way, which comes at our notions of history from that of temporality as such (homogeneous or empty, chronological time, the time of ‘universal history’ of continuities versus the flash of the monad, the glimpse of the Jetztzeit).”

[6] See: Louis-Auguste Blanqui, Eternity by the Stars, trans. Frank Chouraqui (New York: Contra Mundum, 2013).

[7] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), D10a,5.

[8] Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, trans. Rodney Livingstone (London: Merlin Press, 1971), 48: “While bourgeois thought is indeed able to conceive of history as a problem, it remains an intractable problem. Either it is forced to abolish the process of history and regard the institutions of the present as eternal laws of nature which for ‘mysterious’ reasons and in a manner wholly at odds with the principles of a rational science were held to have failed to establish themselves firmly, or indeed at all, in the past. (This is characteristic of bourgeois sociology.) Or else, everything meaningful or purposive is banished from history. It then becomes impossible to advance beyond the mere ‘individuality’ of the various epochs and their social and human representatives. History must then insist with Ranke that every age is ‘equally close to God,’ i.e. has attained an equal degree of perfection and that-for quite different reasons-there is no such thing as historical development.”

[9] Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, 151-2.

[10] Alison Ross, Revolution and History in Walter Benjamin (New York: Routledge, 2019), 6: “In Benjamin’s thinking, the ‘irresistible movement’ of history, borrowed from astrology, sooner or later leads to the closure of eternal return and hence the fatalistic schematisation of human life. Benjamin counters the borrowed term and its surreptitious totalisation with the quasi-mystical notions of ‘time to come’ and ‘caesura,’ the transcendent moment, understood first and foremost as the point of escape or the destructive breach that would undo immanent totalisations, be it history or nature.”

[11] Benjamin, Selected Works 4, 404.

[12] Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, 152.

[13] Jameson, Benjamin Files, 238: “But then Benjamin has one of those turns of thought which characterize the freshness of his thinking in the immediate and the unprejudiced, the undogmatic and unforewarned—the unexpected interrogation of those circumstances under which universal history might nonetheless be possible and allowable, or at least imaginable […] The logic of the monad, in other words, refracts the totality into its parts, into all its elements, of whatever dimensions. The monadic story, if it can be called that, comes in all shapes and forms; its smallest element, its most insignificant human component, projects a story or at least a figure, which is assumed and captured in its most dramatic adventures.”

[14] Ross, Revolution and History, 105-6: “The materialist historian, Benjamin says, takes cognisance of a phenomenon in the ‘homogenous course of history’ because it represents, (supposedly) as a monad, the entire course of history from a specific perspective, namely that of the messianic exit from the catastrophe that history is. The emphasis on the ‘arrest’ or ‘caesura’ in the ‘movement of thought’ here and elsewhere is probably meant to reflect the possibility of the messianic cessation of history.”

[15] Walter Benjamin, Origin of the German Trauerspiel, trans. Howard Eiland (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019), 190.

[16] Jameson, Benjamin Files, 68.

[17] Benjamin, Origin of the German Trauerspiel, 67-8.

[18] Déborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, The Ends of the World, trans. Rodrigo Nunes (Cambridge: Polity, 2017), 5.

[19] Claire Colebrook, The Death of the PostHuman (Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press, 2014), 28.

[20] Peter Fenves, The Messianic Reduction (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), 243: “Every time recapitulates, without ever exactly repeating, all of time. The circular or cycloid character of the ‘eternal return of the same’ is thus broken open—without time taking on a telos in the process.”

[21] Passage cited in Massimiliano Tomba, Marx’s Temporalities (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2013), 177.

[22] Tomba, Marx’s Temporalities, 178.

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