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)”

The Shape of History (Reading Benjamin’s Theses XIII & XIV)

Chernikhov - image-1
Iakov Chernikhov, from Cycle of Architectural Landscapes (1930).


• XIII: Dogmatic progress and the concept of homogeneous empty time, with reference to Benjamin’s early formulations of mechanical clock-time time and historical time.
• XIV: The concept of ‘now-time’ as a secular analogue to messianic time and the forms of historical repetition that return the past to the now.

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Thesis XIII:

Every day, our cause becomes clearer and people get smarter.
—Josef Dietzgen, Social Democratic Philosophy

Social Democratic theory and to an even greater extent its practice were shaped by a conception of progress which bore little relation to reality but made dogmatic claims. Progress as pictured in the minds of the Social Democrats was, first of all, progress of humankind itself (and not just advances in human ability and knowledge). Second, it was something boundless (in keeping with an infinite perfectibility of humanity). Third, it was considered inevitable—something that automatically pursued a straight or spiral course. Each of these assumptions is controversial and open to criticism. But when the chips are down, criticism must penetrate beyond these assumptions and focus on what they have in common. The concept of mankind’s historical progress cannot be sundered from the concept of its progression through a homogeneous, empty time. A critique of the concept of such a progression must underlie any criticism of the concept of progress itself. Continue reading “The Shape of History (Reading Benjamin’s Theses XIII & XIV)”

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)

poussin - The_ashes_of_phocion_collected_by_his_widow_1648
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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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)”