Saturday, December 17, 2011


My weekly blog-post is a bit late this week, due to having too good a time at the annual conference of the Australasian Society for Continental Philosophy conference on "The Times of Our Lives," held at La Trobe University in Melbourne.

One of many highlights was a key-note paper by Elizabeth Grosz, on "Deleuze, Ruyer and becoming-brain: the music of life's temporality." In question time, she expanded on the notion of consciousness as "self-enjoyment" by saying that when you have an idea, "and it doesn't happen very often," suddenly everything changes, you see and feel everything differently.

In this spirit, here's taste of the paper I presented. Prepare yourself for a brief tour of...

          Walter Benjamin's famous Construction Site of History!

At the entrance, you are invited to play chess with an automaton, a puppet in Turkish attire seated before a chess board placed on a large table. Ingeniously hidden inside the table is a hunchbacked dwarf, a master at chess, who manipulates the puppet so that it wins every game. This was a real device which amazed audiences in the Nineteenth century. In Benjamin's version, the puppet represents historical materialism, while the dwarf is theology, which today, as he says, “is small and ugly and has to keep out of sight.”

I Progress and catastrophe

During the game, you are permitted to observe the secret heliotropism of past events as they turn like flowers toward a sun rising in the sky of history. The almost inconspicuous change in their orientation is brought about by sheer bogan confidence, courage, humour, cunning and fortitude, energies that constantly call into question every victory, past and present, of the rulers. We can turn the past in our favour, secretly, gently, almost imperceptibly, if we know how to play with the qualities that are the living spoils of the class struggle.

Paul Klee's Angelus Novus

This sunny vision gives way to a more troubling one, however. The sky clouds over and we see 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 the angel of history. “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.”

(As Gershom Scholem, a great scholar of Jewish mysticism, and one of Benjamin’s closest friends, puts it, “Jewish Messianism is in its origins and by its nature – this cannot be sufficiently emphasized – a theory of catastrophe.”)

I will leave you to imagine the images of wreckage and of the dead that the angel of history is staring at. Literally, of course, he is looking at us.

II Heroism and Utopia

You may wish to turn away from this vision of catastrophe. Let us leave the storm of progress behind, and focus on the heroic utopian possibilities offered by Now-time (Jetztzeit). 

In this very instant, you are encouraged to attempt a fashionable or even revolutionary tiger’s leap into the past.

(The utopian, redemptive element in the Messianic vision involves the “wild indulgence of fantasy” but also “fascinating vitality to which no historical reality can do justice” – Scholem.)

Robespierre demonstrates this move as he performed it during the French Revolution, “citing Rome exactly the way fashion cites a bygone mode of dress.” Recall that Robespierre was known as “the incorruptible” for his high and inflexible standards of personal morality. He famously defended revolutionary terror, and eventually fell victim to it.

Like all stylish and heroic activities, leaping into the past comes with a standard warning: beware of sirens, in particular a whore called “Once upon a time,” who pedals the eternal image of the past in historicism’s bordello. Here, Benjamin tells us, only the historical materialist remains in control of his powers – “man enough to blast open the continuum of history.”

III Contemplation

As tension mounts, the historical materialist (or is it the dwarf of theology who secretly animates him?) performs the astonishing feat of arresting thought, provoking the crystallization of a historical object in the form of a monad. This is a sign, ladies and gentlemen… “the sign of a messianic arrest of happening, or (to put it differently) a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past.”

What does it mean to seize this chance? Witness the historical materialist blast an era from the homogenous time of history, a life from the era, a work from the lifework! “As a result of this method,” says Benjamin, “the lifework is both preserved and sublated 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.”

In Benjamin’s method of immanent critique, the time of the world is finally encapsulated and redeemed in each historical object and the work of critical understanding through which it becomes crystallized.

This completes the show. But to take home with you, the souvenir-pack with everything:

“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.”

(Except where otherwise indicated, all quotes are from Walter Benjamin's essay "On the Concept of History," also known as his "Theses on the Philosophy of History.")

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