Labour, Nature, and Dream (Reading Benjamin’s Theses XI & XII)

Klutsis_(1920)_Electrification_of_the_Entire_Country 2
Gustav Klutsis, Electrification of the Entire Country (1920).


• 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.

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Thesis XI:

The conformism which has marked the Social Democrats from the beginning attaches not only to their political tactics but to their economic views as well. It is one reason for the eventual breakdown of their party. Nothing has so corrupted the German working class as the notion that it was moving with the current. It regarded technological development as the driving force of the stream with which it thought it was moving. From there it was but a step to the illusion that the factory work ostensibly furthering technological progress constituted a political achievement. The old Protestant work ethic was resurrected among German workers in secularized form. The Gotha Program already bears traces of this confusion, defining labor as “the source of all wealth and all culture.” Smelling a rat, Marx countered that “the man who possesses no other property than his labor power” must of necessity become “the slave of other men who have made themselves owners.” Yet the confusion spread, and soon thereafter Josef Dietzgen proclaimed: “The savior of modern times is called work. The … perfecting … of the labor process constitutes the wealth which can now do what no redeemer has ever been able to accomplish.” This vulgar-Marxist conception of the nature of labor scarcely considers the question of how its products could ever benefit the workers when they are beyond the means of those workers. It recognizes only the progress in mastering nature, not the retrogression of society; it already displays the technocratic features that later emerge in fascism. Among these is a conception of nature which differs ominously from the one advocated by socialist utopias prior to the Revolution of 1848. The new conception of labor is tantamount to the exploitation of nature, which, with naive complacency, is contrasted with the exploitation of the proletariat. Compared to this positivistic view, Fourier’s fantasies, which have so often been ridiculed, prove surprisingly sound. According to Fourier, cooperative labor would increase efficiency to such an extent that four moons would illuminate the sky at night, the polar ice caps would recede, seawater would no longer taste salty, and beasts of prey would do man’s bidding. All this illustrates a kind of labor which, far from exploiting nature, would help her give birth to the creations that now lie dormant in her womb. The sort of nature that (as Dietzgen puts it) “exists gratis,” is a complement to the corrupted conception of labor. Continue reading “Labour, Nature, and Dream (Reading Benjamin’s Theses XI & XII)”

What the Angel Sees (Reading Benjamin’s Theses IX & X)

Caron - Dionysius the Areopagite Converting the Pagan Philosophers 1572
Antoine Caron, Dionysius the Areopagite Converting the Pagan Philosophers (1572).


• 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.

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Thesis IX:

My wing is ready for flight,
I would like to turn back.
If I stayed everliving time,
I’d still have little luck.
—Gerhard Scholem, “Greetings from the Angelus”

There is a picture by Klee called Angelus Novus. It shows an angel who seems about to move away from something he stares at. His eyes are wide, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how the angel of history must look. His face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise and has got caught in his wings; it is so strong that the angel can no longer close them. This storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky. What we call progress is this storm. Continue reading “What the Angel Sees (Reading Benjamin’s Theses IX & X)”

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. Continue reading “Documents of Barbarism (Reading Benjamin’s Theses VII & VIII)”

To Seize the Truth (Reading Benjamin’s Theses V & VI)

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Nicolas Poussin, Landscape with the Ashes of Phocion (1648)


• 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.’

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Thesis V:

The true image of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image that flashes up at the moment of its recognizability, and is never seen again. “The truth will not run away from us:” this statement by Gottfried Keller indicates exactly that point in historicism’s image of history where the image is pierced by historical materialism. For it is an irretrievable image of the past which threatens to disappear in any present that does not recognize itself as intended in that image. Continue reading “To Seize the Truth (Reading Benjamin’s Theses V & VI)”

What is Historical? (Reading Benjamin’s Theses III & IV)

Klutsis - Lenin_and_socialist_reconstruction_Design_for_poster_-_Gustavs_Klucis
Gustav Klutsis, Lenin and Socialist Reconstruction (1920).


• III: The practices of historian and chronicler; their methods of citation, repetition, and judgement.
• IV: The materialist conception of history as class struggle.

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Thesis III:

The chronicler who narrates events without distinguishing between major and minor ones acts in accord with the following truth: nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost to history. Of course only a redeemed mankind is granted the fullness of its past—which is to say, only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments. Each moment it has lived becomes a citation a l’ordre du jour [a citation to be taken up as (part of) the business of the day]. And that day is Judgment Day. Continue reading “What is Historical? (Reading Benjamin’s Theses III & IV)”

The Soteriological Machine (Reading Benjamin’s Theses I & II)

Varo - The Juggler - 1956
Remedios Varo, The Juggler (1956).


• 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.

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Next section (III & IV)

Thesis I:

There was once, we know, an automaton constructed in such a way that it could respond to every move by a chess player with a countermove that would ensure the winning of the game. A puppet wearing Turkish attire and with a hookah in its mouth sat before a chessboard placed on a large table. A system of mirrors created the illusion that this table was transparent on all sides. Actually, a hunchbacked dwarf—a master at chess—sat inside and guided the puppet’s hand by means of strings. One can imagine a philosophic counterpart to this apparatus. The puppet, called “historical materialism,” is to win all the time. It can easily be a match for anyone if it enlists the services of theology, which today, as we know, is small and ugly and has to keep out of sight. Continue reading “The Soteriological Machine (Reading Benjamin’s Theses I & II)”

Reading Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Concept of History (Contents)

benjamin reading

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. Continue reading “Reading Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Concept of History (Contents)”

Year of Reading in Review (2022)


Over the course of 2022 I maintained a Twitter thread of the books that I read, with short reviews, comments, and thoughts attached. The thread (which you can find here) ended up with 79 individual posts, making it nearly unnavigable through Twitter, so I have decided to put it all in one place in a slightly neater format. As with last year’s reading summary, I have sorted the entries into broad topics, but have attempted to retain some kind of chronological order overall. Continue reading “Year of Reading in Review (2022)”

The Last Laugh: Hegel’s Catastrophic Comedy

Prado_-_Los_Disparates_(1864)_-_No._17_-_La_lealtad BW
Francisco de Goya, Loyalty (c. 1816-19).

I. Introduction: An Absolute Comedy of Spirit?

Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit has long been described as a work of comedy, propelled by misunderstandings that lead gradually and painfully to the reconciliation of its warring parties in a higher unity. In the book’s opening chapter there is the farcical situation of ‘natural consciousness,’ which believes itself in possession of an immediate, sensuous certainty about its reality, is repeatedly embarrassed, and is made to stumble from one mishap to the next on its path of despair. Throughout the chapters on ‘Reason’ and ‘Spirit’ we encounter paired figures—such as the heartful and the conceited, the virtuous and the cynical, the faithful and the enlightened, the beautiful souls and those they accuse—who are set at odds with one another, voice their right to condemn one another, and speak past one another until they happen upon some hidden, happy truth that unites them as one. The entire chapter on ‘Religion,’ with which Hegel ends his narrative, might be described as a retelling of human history in the mode of a divine comedy, in which the holy spark is revealed not on high but in the human community “as something concrete, summoned into action and put in movement.”[1] As Gillian Rose remarks, the Phenomenology functions as an “absolute comedy” for the modern era, which seeks out the necessary steps by which the sufferings of history can be redeemed.[2] For this comedy to be absolute it must be capable of accounting for the whole range of historical phenomena, both good and ill, granting them a place in a narrative that progresses by way of its bad turns just as much—if not more so—than its good ones.[3]

To describe the Phenomenology as a comedy is for this reason not an unambiguous designation of its genre, as it bears directly upon the philosophical stakes of the work and the sort of world that Hegel purports to describe in its pages. Indeed, we should not let the comedic course of the Phenomenology obscure the deep ambiguity of comedy itself in Hegel’s narrative of world history, in which it appears at two significant moments of historical rupture. The first of these is presented in the Phenomenology when Hegel describes the end of classical life, when the laws of the city and the gods had become laughable, and the arts of comedy and satire stepped in to salve the wounds of a dying culture. The second is found in the Lectures on Fine Art, in which comedy is presented as the last of the modern, romantic arts, and signals the end of art itself as an independent field of work. In both cases, comedy is positioned at moments of crisis, when the substance of a culture has become insubstantial, when the old ways of thinking and living have become defunct, but into which no new form of life has yet emerged. As we will see in more detail in a moment, rather than a sign of a flourishing, living culture, comedy is for Hegel a marker of cultural exhaustion.

The repeated moments of comedy—one ancient and one modern—cannot but disturb, because they direct us toward the rift at the core of Hegel’s account of modernity, which is at once ancient and incomplete. In respect to its antiquity, modernity for Hegel can only have begun two millennia ago, with the end of the classical era and the death of its ethical form of life. In the place of the ancient ethical life, as Hegel tells it, emerged the dominion of abstract law, propped up by the invention of the legal person, which has continued down from the Roman empire to the present day. In this respect, our modernity is already ancient, and to draw a phrase from the subtitle of Gillian Rose’s Broken Middle, Hegel’s comedic project is one which must draw us “out of our ancient society” and into the light of a new historical epoch.[4] As regards its incompletion, Hegel’s modernity is one which has never truly taken place. The past two centuries have not seen the realisation of philosophy’s promise but its ruin, and the delay of a properly modern age, usurped by the reign of an unconscious, unquenchable capitalism.[5]

Hence, with the doubleness of comedy in mind, there is still more to be said about Hegel’s own comic tale, which, this paper argues, is not only a narrative of misunderstanding and reconciliation, but also the ruin of all forms of life that have become exhausted and therefore laughable. Continue reading “The Last Laugh: Hegel’s Catastrophic Comedy”

The Sea of Memory and Forgetfulness: Inherent Vice and the Figurations of Fossil Capital

courbet the-beach-at-trouville-at-low-tide-1865-1 (1)
Gustave Courbet, The Beach at Trouville at Low Tide (1865). 

Inherent Vice (2009) is a novel which, despite the overriding nostalgia of its setting and the hardboiled trappings of its plot, is decidedly contemporary in its dual preoccupations with globalised capital and environmental destruction. The Golden Fang, the mysterious organisation which occupies the centre of the novel’s mysteries, appears as a figuration of global networks of exchange, influence, and domination. The specifically trans-Pacific operations of the Golden Fang recall Pynchon’s early preoccupation with the sublimity of the ocean in V. and The Crying of Lot 49, but whereas those novels saw the Pacific and the Mediterranean as sites of pre-human nature, in Inherent Vice the sea is a space of transit for the forces of empire and a territory ensnared in global capital.

Throughout the novel, this global dimension is repeatedly posed against the hippie myths of Lemuria and Atlantis, which are said to have been destroyed for their transgressions against nature, and specifically for their use of fossil fuels to gain dominion over the earth. Through these myths, Pynchon expands the spatial dimensions of the novel into the deep temporalities of history, to ask not only how the global structure of capital manifests within the limited perspectives of individuals such as his protagonist, but also what fate awaits a world wracked by ruthless extraction and financial accumulation. With reference to Andreas Malm’s concept of ‘fossil capital,’ this paper aims to show the necessary link between Pynchon’s figurations of global capitalism and ecological disaster, which are entwined and expressed in the novel’s recurrent conspiratorial themes of international exchange, financial speculation, and imperial expansion. Continue reading “The Sea of Memory and Forgetfulness: Inherent Vice and the Figurations of Fossil Capital”