Between Absolute Spirit and the Angel of History: On Walter Benjamin and Hegelian Marxism

Atropos_o_Las_ParcasFrancisco de Goya, Atropos (c. 1819–1823).

The late writings of Walter Benjamin are renowned for their attempt to rethink the stakes of historical thought and for their critique of the ideology of progress. In Benjamin’s “Theses on the Concept of History” (1940), especially, history is made into the site of a class struggle over the inheritance and remembrance of the dead, while the belief in progress is criticised for its reduction of historical time to an automatic and unthinking mechanism. In part due to their incompletion at the time of his death, Benjamin’s comments on history and progress have produced divergent readings, with a tendency to view his version of historical materialism as a move away from the Marxist origins of the term, toward a messianic politics of divine intercession in human affairs. Likewise, his critique of universal history has been placed in opposition to the universalising tendencies of Hegelian thought, with its task of grasping world history as a totality.

The goal of this paper is to put pressure on these received readings of Benjamin as a half-hearted Marxist and an implicit anti-Hegelian, by re-examining his late historiographical work in light of his interest in contemporaneous and unorthodox figures within Hegelian Marxism. I will argue for the centrality of the Marxist critique of bourgeois philosophy to Benjamin’s work, and especially the influence of György Lukács on Benjamin’s formulations of universal history, mechanical time, and the ideology of progress. Via Lukács, Benjamin’s commonalities with Hegel’s philosophy will also be elucidated, from their shared suspicion of bad infinities to the contingency that they place at the heart of universal history. Continue reading “Between Absolute Spirit and the Angel of History: On Walter Benjamin and Hegelian Marxism”

Apocalypse Never: Walter Benjamin and the Deferral of the End

Klee_Fermata - 1927
Paul Klee, Fermata (1927).

“This time, then once more I think, then perhaps a last time, then I think it’ll be over, with that world too. Premonition of the last but one but one. All grows dim. […] I’ll manage this time, then perhaps once more, then perhaps a last time, then nothing more.”[1]

With these words from Molloy, Samuel Beckett evokes a curious sense of temporality. The end has already come, yet never seems to arrive; the world appears in its final dying form, but it is only the first of an endless precession of death masks. The end of time doubles back on itself, replaying its last moments like the skipping of a record player.

What appears in Beckett’s novel as a narrative at the limits of the sensible is perhaps no longer so rare an experience. Today there is no shortage of proclamations on the end of days, either in the mode of imminent catastrophe or in the grim acknowledgement that it is already too late to change our fate. It is said that our actions on this planet have inaugurated a new geological epoch—the Anthropocene, the era of humanity—and that this epoch also marks our doom, as an era of inevitable catastrophe and extinction. The concept of the Anthropocene carries within it a temporal ambiguity, as it signifies both “that there will not be complete annihilation but a gradual witnessing of a slow end, and that we are already at that moment of witness, living on after the end.”[2] To call this situation apocalyptic or even post-apocalyptic would be a misnomer, because the catastrophe is one without a moment of revelation, much less a redemptive relation to the history that preceded it. The end is embedded in the earth itself, and made into something always already present, as a simple fact of the human era.

It is the argument of this paper that this vision of an end to human history that is at once finished and unfulfilled is not an innate fact of our ecological predicament but is rather symptomatic of our present historical juncture of late capitalism—which is itself interminably caught on the verge of global climate catastrophe but seemingly without alternatives. To attribute the ecological disasters of a historically novel economic system to the geological epoch of humanity itself risks reifying that system into something ahistorically innate to human nature, and therefore without changeability or recourse. The narrative of the Anthropocene is thus characterised by a mournful order of time—which shrinks from historical consciousness and envisages humanity as fossils in the making.

To make sense of this melancholic disposition, I will turn to the works of Walter Benjamin to give a typology of the forms of time available to us. Specifically, I will examine Benjamin’s early writings on Baroque drama, which stages a model of history in which all human action sinks into the mute eternity of the natural world. This form of time will also be compared with Benjamin’s more famous formulations of industrial capitalism’s homogeneous, empty time and the Messianic time which marks the moment of historical fulfilment. Having examined the temporalities of natural history, mechanical time, and Messianic fulfilment as they are drawn by Benjamin, the final part of this essay returns to the present predicament of the Anthropocene and the possibility of reading this new epoch according to Benjamin’s typology of temporalities. If, as per Benjamin, the funereal vision of nature’s eternity is a mark of historical failure, we are today confronted with a failure of world-historic proportions that threatens to sweep up even the most critical minds in its tide. Continue reading “Apocalypse Never: Walter Benjamin and the Deferral of the End”