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Notes from Walter Benjamin's ILLUMINATIONS

miércoles, 8 de abril de 2015

Notes from Walter Benjamin's ILLUMINATIONS

Notes taken c. 1988, from Walter Benjamin's book Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn; introd. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1969). Original German ed., Illuminationen (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1955). Numbers on the left or between parentheses refer to the pagination of the American edition.

Introduction: Walter Benjamin: 1892-1940  (1-55) (by Hannah Arendt).

4- Benjamin: "Critique is concerned with the truth content of a work of art, the commentary with its subject matter." "The work's truth content is the more relevant the more inconspicuously and intimately it is bound up with its subject matter." They become separated in the text's afterlife. The basic question of criticism is (5) "whether the work's shining truth content is due to its subject matter or whether the survival of the subject matter is due to the truth content."  History prepares critique. The critic is an alchemist: he is concerned with the flame; the commentator is a chemist, concerned with ashes.

12- Benjamin's belief in Goethe's Urphänomen, the concrete thing which is at once an archetypal phenomenon. Things reveal secret meanings to the flâneur. These are metaphorical, not rational or generally valid statements—they are all un-Marxist. The relation of superstructure to substructure is seen by Benjamin as metaphorical; that is why he looks "crude" or "undialectical." What gives Kafka or Benjamin the bitter sharpness of their criticism (32) "was never anti-Semitism as such, but the reaction to it of the Jewish middle class, with which the intellectuals by no means identified." Benjamin was both a Zionist and a Communist for years, then bitterly opposed ideologies. For him, truth concerns a secret which must be revealed (theological inspiration). But truth must be transmissible and revelable. Quoting is seen as breaking the spell of tradition and making it transmissible again. Collecting he sees as giving things an intrinsic worth, apart from use value (similar to works of art). Against the tradition: collecting is chaotic, guided by the uniqueness of the object. The collector levels all differences, versus the discriminative tradition. The early 20th century break with tradition is what makes valuable Benjamin's collector viewpoint. He has more in common with Heidegger than with the Marxists. His ideal of producing a work entirely of quotations. He holds an idea of the intrinsic value and meaning of things apart from their effect on society.

Unpacking My Library: A Talk about Book Collecting (59-67)Benjamin-sm.

60- The profound disorder of collections. Items are not appreciated because of their use value; rather, they are loved as the scene of their fate.
61- "For him [the collector], not only books but also copies of books have their fates"; "to a true collector the acquisition of an old book is its rebirth." "Writers are really people who write books not because they are poor, but because they are dissatisfied with the books which they could buy but do not like." Collectors don't read their books. Books are bought to give them their freedom on the collector's shelves.
67- "ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects."
(My commentary here, "Unpacking Benjamin",  JAGL).

The Task of the Translator: An Introduction to the Translation of Baudelaire's Tableaux Parisiens (69-82)

69- "In the appreciation of a work of art or an art form, consideration of the receiver never proves fruitful". Against the notion of an "ideal" receiver. Art posits man's existence but is not concerned with his response. "No poem is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the listener." Translation conceived as transmission of information is inessential. Translation must not undertake to serve the original - just as the original is not for the reader. [Benjamin fija los valores absolutos, el contemplador perfecto, ¡en la mente de Dios!]
71- "Translatability is an essential quality of certain works." The works have a non-metaphorical life. The translation issues from the afterlife of the original, not from its life. The life of the original, anew in translation.
72- "the ultimate purpose toward which all single functions tend is sought not in its own sphere but in a higher one (...) Translation thus ultimately serves the purpose of expressing the central reciprocal relationship between languages." Languages are interrelated in what they want to express—There is a convergence. Against the traditional theory of rendering the original as accurately as possible.
73- "in cognition there could be no objectivity, not even a claim to it, if it dealt with images of reality"; likewise, "no translation would be possible if in its ultimate essence it strove for likeness to the original." The original has changed in its afterlife (f.i., it has become hackneyed). The translation changes alongside with the language (showing the manifest kinship of languages), while the original remains. Intentions underlying each language supplement each other, and form the intention underlying language as a whole. A translation is provisional.
75- "In translation the original rises into a higher and purer linguistic air, as it were" (...) "The transfer can never be total, but what reaches this region is that element in a translation which goes beyond the transmittal of subject matter." "thus translation, ironically, transplants the original into a more definitive linguistic realm since it can no longer be displaced by a secondary rendering" [¿Que no puede? Si es provisional. JAGL] This is different from the task of the poet:
76- "The task of the translator consists in finding that intended effect [Intention] upon the language into which he is translating which produces in it the echo of the original." —The poet's is an effort directed at language as such, as opposed to the translator's (who deals with language in context). [Ojo, en este punto la traducción inglesa es engañosa, y la he corregido. Siempre es recomendable acudir al texto original—JAGL]
77- There exists a philosophical yearning for a language beyond languages. A translation
78- "must incorporate the original's mode of signification, thus making both the original and the translation recognizable as fragments of a greater language, just as fragments are part of a vessel" [Esto es platonismo puro- JAGL]. "In the realm of translation too, the words en arkhe en o logos apply." Benjamin proposes literal, word-for-word translation. It is free translation, too:
80- "For the sake of pure language, he [the translator] breaks through decayed barriers of his own language." Translations are untranslatable [? - Quite often, though, translations of a translation are detectable! - JAGL]
The unique place of Holy Writ: it is unconditionally translatable because it is the true language in all its literalness.

The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov (83-109)

Storytelling belongs to the past; the ability to exchange experience is taken from us. Experience has fallen in value in the modern world. Storytellers: travellers, vs. residents, even in later literature. The storyteller has "something useful" for his readers—counsel, information. "Wisdom", "the epic side of truth", is dying out, too. Narrative is being removed from the realm of living speech. The novel is not the same as a story or an epic, because it depends on the book form. (87) It has its birthplace in the solitary individual, uncounseled and uncounselling. The novel and the Bildungsroman as its natural form; an inadequacy to reality. The novel develops with the bourgeoisie. A new form of communication, too: the newspapers, dealing in information, vs. intelligence from afar. The explanation kills the story. Leskov does not explain: (91) "There is nothing that commends a story to memory more effectively than that chaste compactness which preculdes psychological analysis". Repeating stories is essential to storyteling: the listener must be bored and self-forgetful. The thought of eternity has declined nowadays; that of death too: it is less omnipresent and vivid, it is no longer a public process. The authority of the dying is at the source of the story. Repetition without explanation. Cf. the difference between chronicles and history. The listener's naive relationship to the storyteller is determined by his interest in retaining the story in his memory. The reader of the novel is alone (not with the storyteller). There is a need to determine characters by their death—or, alternatively, their figurative death: the end of the novel. The reader is warned with the character's fate in a way he never is by his own. The fairy tale is mankind's reaction to myth. There is a sympathy for idiots, crooks and tramps in storytelling. Brutality borders mysticism in Leskov. Storytelling bears a vital, craftsmanshiplike relationship to human reality.

Franz Kafka: On the Tenth Anniversary of His Death  (111-40)

An opposition between the holders of power vs. the obliging and puzzled victims. Officials are similar to fathers in Kafka; the oppressive secret of the written law is beyond the accused. Only "assistants" are beyond the family circle. All are rising or falling in Kafka. The gesture in Kafka: like El Greco, Kafka tears open the sky, behind every gesture.
122- "In every case it is a question of how life and work are organized in human socity." The wide designs of mankind are beyond comprehension of the ordinary man. Kafka wants to be the ordinary man. In Kafka things ought to have been known, they have been forgotten. There is a veiled asceticism in Kafka: being awake, fasting.
134- "Even if Kafka did not pray—and this we do not know—he still possessed in the highest degree what Malebranche called 'the natural prayer of the soul': attentiveness."

Some reflections on Kafka (1938)

141- "Kafka's world is an ellipse with foci that are far apart and are determined, on the one hand, by mystical experience (iin particular, the experienve of tradition) and, on the other, by the experience of the modern big-city dweller." Also the experiences of today's physics; the individual is confronted with "that reality of ours which realizes itself theoretically"—no longer that of the individual; theres is a sickness of tradition. The consistency of truth has been lost. Kafka sacrificed truth for the sake of clinging to its transmissibility. There is no longer wisdom: only the products of its decay—rumour and folly. There is hope, but not for us—this is Kafka's hope, and the source of his serenity.

What Is Epic Theater? (147-54)

The Relaxed Audience (Vs. normal theater, and similar to novel-reading) in epic theater; creating interest and reacting in a well-considered way. Not an 'artless' presentation. Brecht: the masses "do not think without reason"; Benjamin thinks that the masses have a limited practice of thinking. (Benjamin parece contemplar la voluntad política como un medio para interesar a las masas en el teatro! - JAGL).

The Plot. Best dealing with familiar incidents (vs. the sensational and vs. suspense); the plot may cover the greatest spans of time (as against the Oedipus).

The Untragic hero. A thinker or observer as hero (cf. the French noblemen sitting onstage). There is an important and untheorized line of untragic drama since Christianity, —> Brecht. Epic theatre vs. dramatic theatre.

The interruption. Brecht eliminates the catharsis, producing astonishment, not empathy: (150) "not so much the development of actions as the representation of conditions", alienating them to discover them through the interruption.

The quotable gesture. Quoting as interruption An actor spaces his gestures [Benjamin refers to the actor's taking distance from his own gesture]

The didactic play. An interchange actors-spectators. The spectators particiapte; vs. the excitement of the public.

The actor must show his subject and show himself—a possibility of stepping out of character artistically, reflecting about his part (but not as in romantic irony, because here it has a didactic aim).

Theater on a dais, no orchestra pit. Thought the stage is still raised, it is nearer.

On Some Motifs in Baudelaire (155-200)

I. The first poem in Les fleurs du mal addresses unreceptive and spleenetic readers, the least rewarding audience. It marks the confinement of lyric poetry as a particular genre and the end of its widespread appeal; (156) "only in rare instances is lyric poetry in rapport with the experience of its readers". This is linked with the appearance of the difference between "true" vs. "standardized" experience; Dilthey, Jung—> and Fascism. Bergson's conception of memory springs from the age of big-scale industrialism, but he rejects any historical determination of memory.

II. His subject can only be a poet. Cf. Proust, but in him memory is involuntary, not a free choice as in Bergson (against voluntary meory at the service of the intellect). Newspapers now isolate news from the reader's experience; information is disconnected, and does not enter tradition. There is an increasing atrophy of experience in contemporary society. Proust represents an attempt to restore the story-teller. Both kinds of memory merge in rituals, ceremonies.

III. Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle. (160): For Freud, "consciousness comes into being at the site of a memory trace". Unconscious memories are the most powerful. Consciousness is conceived as protection against stimuli. In Valéry, recollection is an organization of past stimuli. Lyric poetry has as its basis an experience for which the shock experience (beyond consciousness into involuntary memory) is the norm. Related to the unconscious. (Aquí presenta Benjamin un cierto precedente de la "anxiety of influence" de Harold Bloom - JAGL).

IV. The shock experience is at the heart of Baudelaire's work. A close connection of contact with metropolitan masses, amorphous crowd—not a collective.

V. Marx's aim: to forge an amorphous mass into the proletariat. Vs. Sue's mass literature. Baduelaire feels the allure of the masses, he must defend himself. This is a part of him rarely described in his works—cf. "À une passante."

VI. "The Man of the Crowd" - Baudelaire attracted to the crowd, but recognizes it as inhuman. This is the ambivalence of "Crépuscule du soir".

VII. Man in the Crowd: a flâneur for Baudelaire; a man of leisure looking upon the crowd.

VIII. The crowd inspires fear, revulsion and horror in Poe, Heine, Hoffman; later, it is OK; the crowds need urgent stimuli, e.g. film, perception in the form of shocks. Marx says the workers learn to coordinate their movements to those of the machines. The crowd brings uniformity. Creation of skilled vs. unskilled workers.

IX. The shock experience of passers-by in the crowd is similar to that of the worker at the machine. Work vs. gambling: gambling precludes the use of experience.

X. The actualization of durée rids us of obsession with time. "Correspondances" are seen as something that is disappearing; something which sets to establish itself in a crisis-proof form. They are the data of remembrance, they are not simultaneous. Proust reverts to Baudelaire in Le Temps retrouvé. Spleen is associated to time; Baudelaire is past experiencing now, there is no consolation.

XI. (186): "If we designate as aura the associations which, at home in the mémoire involontaire, tend to cluster around the object of a perception, then its analogue in the case of a utilitarian object is the experience which has left traces of the practiced hand." Baudelaire was against photography; he denies it the spiritual realm. The contemplation of a photography is utilitarian; that of a picture is never satisfied. (187): "What prevents our delight in the beautiful form ever being satisfied is the image of the past." Photography is implicated in the phenomenon of the decline of the aura. Aura defined here by Benjamin as investing objects with the human quality of looking at us in return; it is linked to involuntary memory. In Baudelaire; always (189) "the expectation roused by the look of the human eye is not fulfilled"—he records the loss of aura, finds a mirrorlike blankness (cf. the eyes in the modern city, in public transport). Baudelaire is jostled by the crowd—the lyrical poet loses his halo.

The Image of Proust

I. All great works are unclassifiable: they found or dissolve a genre. Proust's conditions, not a model but exemplary: the greatest opposition between literature and life. Not the author or the plot, but the act of reflecting gives unity to the text. A frenzied quest for happiness. Discovering of similarities: an "elegiac" dialectics of happiness, an eternal repetition. Thence the image and its appearance.

II. Proust as the voice of the nineteenth century. A comic writer, shattering by laughter the pretensions of the bourgeoisie. (207): "Their return and reassimilation by the aristocracy is the sociological theme of the work." He finds a secret language of society beyond words; he is a connoisseur of ceremonies; his curiosity—a passion for servants. Analysis of snobbery, at the center of the work (beyond the apotheosis of art). Snobism as a view of life from the consistent point of view of the consumer. Feudalism as a mask—a class which camouflages its material basis. Much satire is still undiscovered (it is not yet perceptible).

III. A world of remambrance: of associations, correspondances, There is a constant attempt to charge an entire lifetime with the utmost awareness. Proust directs the reader, does not touch him. A symbiosis between his work and his malady.

The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction  (217-51)

An epigraph by Valéry on the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Marx predicts the development of capitalism: it will create the conditiosn to abolish itself. (217): "The transformation of the superstructure, which takes place far more slowly than that of the substructure, has taken more than half a century to manifest in all areas of culture the change in the conditions of production." Development of art under the conditions of production—vs. the notions of "creativity", "genius", "eternal value", etc.

I. History of mechanical reproduction.

II. A reproduction can't capture uniqueness or authenticity. The presence of the original is a prerequisite to the concept of authenticity. [Benjamin mete en el mismo saco las fotos de catedrales y las grabaciones de obras musicales—que no es lo mismo.—JAGL].The quality of presence is always depreciated; its authority is undermined. [Benjamin no entiende la oposición cine/teatro. Concibe el cine como teatro fllmado.—JAGL]. (231): "that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art." The object is detached from the domain of tradition. This is connected with contemporary mass movements. The social significance of film is limited to the liquidation of the traditional value of the cultural heritage. [!!]

III. Sense perception is not merely natural: also historically variable; it expresses social transformations. Neow there are social causes for the decay of aura. Aura = distance; the mass brings things "closer". It is the symptom of a perception that senses the universal equality of things; an adjustment of reality to the masses, and vice-versa.

IV. Art had had been integrated in tradition (originally in cult); later it always has a ritual function; the original use value is then displaced by authenticity. A secular cult of beauty from the Renaissance. Art pour l'art, a theology of art, against the first mechanical reproduction, photography.  Now the work of art is emancipated from ritual: (224) "To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducitility." Film (a good analysis of sound films - JAGL).  The work of art begins now to be based on politics— the authenticity criterion ceases to be applicable. (Eran los años 30... - JAGL).

V. From cult value of the work of art to exhibition value. It is a quantitative shift, but there is a qualitative transformation of the work (Brecht: now the work of art is a commodity).

VI. The cult value resists in photography in the form of the human countenance. When this disapperars, this has political consequences. Captions are needed (In film, previous images act as a caption).

VII. When the cult basis disappears, so does the semblance of autonomy of art. In the 19th century, a debate whether photography is an art. This does not raise the issue that photography has transformed the nature of art. Later, ritual elements are read into film—and the same happens.

VIII. Consequences of the presentation of an actor's performance by menas of a camera. There is no personal contact between the audience and the actor. An identification with the camera, "testing" approach, not a cult value of presence.

IX. The actor no longer acts for an audience, but for a mechanical contrivance. The aura is tied to man's presence. No replica is possible.

X. The actor and the ruler are similar. Their images are trasnported for the public. The shriveling of aura is responded with the artificial build-up of the star system.  But also, any man can lay claim to being filmed (only in Russia, though (¿¿¿!!! - JAGL)). The press undermines the difference author/public—anyone can publish.

XI. The opposition between painter and cameraman is similar to the one between magician and surgeon— i.e. opposition between a natural distance from reality vs. penetrating into it; or the total picture vs. multiple fragments assembled under a new law. For modern man, film is truer, it offers "precisely because of the thoroughgoing permeation of reality with mechanical equipment, an aspect of reality which is free of all equipment. And that is what one is entitled to ask from a work of art."

XII. A fusion in film of progressive reaction of the audience and of progressive creation. (234): "The greater the decrease in the social significance of an art form, the sharper the distinction between criticism and enjoyment by the public" —vs. painting (Painting is never in a position to offer simultaneous collective experience).

XIII. Film has brought along a deepening of apperception—filmed behavior lends itself more readily to analysis. The artistic function of film is a scientific function, it introduces us to unconscious optics.

XIV. A historical lag: the aspiration of one art form can often be realized in a new art form. (Dadaism is natural in film). Dadaists attacked the aura. There is an endless destruction of the object of contemplation by the moving image.; a physical shock effect, away from moral Dadaism.

XV. The mass has produced a qualitative change in art, the mode of participation is new. Cf. the "tactile" appropriation of architecture through use and habit.  Reception in a state of distraction (film) may form such habits, putting the audience in a critical position, but absent-mindedly.


In fascism, an use of aesthetics to give the masses their image and cheat them from property. (241): "All efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war". Communism responds to fascism by politicizing art.

Theses on the philosophy of History

(Notes from 2015):

I. Historical materialism as a trick, the Turkish chess player moved by a hidden midget—Theology, "which today, as we know, is wizened and has to keep out of sight" (253). (A self-critique? - JAGL).

II. We are free of envy from the past, happiness is bound to things we know, "indissolubly bound up with the image of redemption" (?). The past is also referred to redemption, "There is a secret agreemnt between past generations and the present one", we have "a weak Messianic power" (Here Benjamin seems to recognize our hindsight bias on the past, but not really to critically see it as a distortion - JAGL).
  III. A chronicler who records everything is writing for Judgment Day: "only a redeemed manikind receives the fullness of its past". (Another critique of retrospection - but retrospection and hindsight bias is necessary for a non-redeemed mankind, then - JAGL).

IV. Spiritual things come from the class struggle. (Cf. Darwin- JAGL). But they are not the result of the spoils, they are not carried away by the victor: rather they are the "courage, humor, cunning, and fortitude" (of the oppressed and the defeated, one understands. Cf. Hegel on the master-slave relationship - JAGL). "They have retroactive force and will constantly call in question every victory, past and present, of the rulers" (255). (Here Benjamin understimates the spiritual benefits of victory and dominance - JAGL). (Another image of hindsight bias in our understanding of the past follows now - JAGL):  "As flowers turn toward the sun, by dint of a secret heliotropism the past strives to turn toward that sun which is rising in the sky of history. A historical materialist must be aware of this most inconspicuous of all transformations" (255).

V. Historical materialism vs. Gofffried Keller's notion that the truth (of the past) remains: "For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably" (255). (I.e., the survival of the past is a function of present concerns. Cf. G. H. Mead's notion of the past as an operation in the present, a kind of self-communication for future use, within the present. See his Philosophy of the Present- JAGL).

 VI. Vs. Ranke's notion of the retrieval of the past "as it really was". The retrieval of the past is linked to danger (Or, one might say, to present concerns & future plans. Danger is only one case of these present concerns—JAGL). Tradition must be continually wrestled away from conformism; "The Messiah comes not only as the redeemer, he comes as the subduer of the Antichrist" (255) (Cf. Bakhtin's notion of the word as a space of confrontation and dialogical debate - JAGL). One must be aware that "even the dead will not be safed from the enemy if he wins" (i.e., victors write or rewrite history, and the past of the tradition is retroactively generated - JAGL. One might link this notion to other perception of retroactive dynamics, see e.g. "Understanding Misreading").

VII. (One of the most celebrated passages in this work - JAGL:) "To historians who wish to relive an era, Fustel de Coulanges recommends that they blot out everything they know about the later course of history." (This would seem like Michael André Bernstein's diatribe "against apocalyptic history" in Foregone Conclusions, but for Benjamin historical materialism must beware of this; he associates this view to Romantic melancholia, Flaubert, etc. Adherents of historicism always empathize with the victor; historical materialists criticize this identification with the rulers. "Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which the presen rulers step over those who are lying prostrate. According to traditional practice, the spoils are carried along in the procession. They are called cultural treasures, and a historical materialist views them with cautious detachment. For without exception the cultural treasures he surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another. A historical materialist therefore dissociates himself from it as far as possible. He regards it as his task to brush history against the grain." (256-57). (Cf. the Darwinian view of complex and beautiful life-forms being produced by widespread death, natural selection of the fittest, and the struggle for life. Benjamin sides with the victims of history, Fanon's "wretched of the Earth"—but by his own argument we students of the Documents of Civilization count ourselves among the survivors and among those who stand on the pile of horrors - JAGL).

(257) VIII.  "the 'state of emergency' in which we live is not the exception but the rule"; "The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are 'still' possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical" — this rests on an untenable theory of history; out theory of history must come to terms with this (OK so far, JAGL) and "it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency" (?? —meaning, subordinating the task of the historian to a revolutionary project? This is not very clear, and if this is what Benjamin means, it is not very historiographic, at least not in a praiseworthy sense - JAGL).

IX. (The famous passage on the Angel of History. I commented on this one here, "El ángel de la historia").  (Epigraph from Scholem, "Gruss fom Angelus", the angel who can't stay, "ich kehrte gern zurück"—this angel seems to want to turn back TO HEAVEN, not the point here anyway). The angel of history seems to pity the victims of history, and to look back on them, but is caught in history himself and is hurled into the future "to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him (i.e. in the past) grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress" (This seems to be associated with retrospection, as I comment in my paper—but the question seems to be the difference between his perspective and "ours"—who are "we"? Men, no doubt; we see "a chain of events" whereas he sees "a single catastrophe". Benjamin, as an "angelic historian", seems to partake of this supernatural vision, and to be likewise horrified; a critique of "progress" then, a progress built on oppression, war, etc., as he says in section VII. But note that the "we" in "we see", "we call progress", is ambivalent; Benjamin dissociates himself from "our" common views, but cannot really escape and must acknowledge that he, too, calls this progress. We are no angels, etc.).

X. Further dissociation from the current ideal of "progress"; "opponents of Fascism" (Stalin, the Communists, I guess? - JAGL) betray their own cause and place their faith in progress, their "mass basis", and servitude to an uncontrollable apparatus. Benjamin as a monastic ascete, turning away from the world in order to be able to conceive a different view of history.

XI. Mistaken and corrupted identification of German workers with progress and industrialism. Vs. glorification of work as dignity (if it involves explotiation); it is manipulative, Fascist. Benjamin pro Fourier, vs. this exploitation of nature and of the worker alike. Benjamin advocates cooperation between workers and with Nature, "delivering her of the creations which lie dormant in her womb as potentials" (259). Vs. the corrupted conception of labor against nature. (One wonders, though, how one might extract the "dormant creations" of nature without the industry necessary to do so... JAGL).

(260) XII. The oppressed class as the depository of historical knowledge. A critique of the Social Democrats who make the working class forget oppression and hatred, by assigning to the working class the role of redeemer, forgetting "enslaved ancestors". (Not easy to understand what Benjamin is aiming at. Unless he is really aiming at the Soviet continuing oppression of the peasants, in the name of the industrial worker, in a nation of peasants not industrial workers? One wonders—JAGL).

XIII. Further arguments against the "Social Democrat" notion of the progress of mankind, conceived as "the progress of mankind itself (and not just advances in men's ability and knowledge)." Benjamin rejects its boundelessness and infinity, or its irresistible nature. Ultimately, this mistaken notion of progress of mankind rests on "the concept of its progression through a homogeneous, empty time" (261).

XIV. Epigraph: "Origin is the goal" (Karl Kraus, Worte in versen, I— (An emphasis on hindsight bias- JaGL). "History is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogeneous, empty time, but time filled by the presence of the now [Jetztzeit]" (Again, like G. H. Mead, an argument against abstract time and in favour of conceiving both past and future as functions of the present and its needs—JAGL). (E.g., Robespierre saw Rome as a Republican model). But this takes place "in an arena where the ruling class gives the commands". (An unclear phrase about Marx's understanding of history dialectically, as the same "leap in the open air of history". Benjamin's metaphors do not always make for clarity—JAGL).

XV. Calendars as celebratory time, the exceptional and inaugural time of revolutions, which institute a new history (vs. clock time). (262): French revolutionaries firing against the clocks of the towers in Paris (trying to stop history).  (Curiously enough Benjamin only records, somewhat amused, this attitude of revolutions—is its ABYSMAL STUPIDITY to be presupposed? Not really, it seems. But nothing could show in a clearer way the difference between a revolutionary and a historical materialist. Benjamin is a historical materialist, but he is fascinated by revolutionaries to the point of foggy thinking— JAGL).

(262) XVI. "A historical materialist cannot do without the notion of a present which is not a transition, but in which time stands still and has come to a stop. For this notion defines the present in which he himself is writing history." (A confusion. A historical materialist must be aware that history is written from the present, retroactively, with hindsight bias, etc. But this does not mean, not in the least, that the present should not be concieved as far as it is possible to do so as a transitional time!  It is significant that (after the image of the revolutionaries shooting clocks in  §XV, Benjamin now shoots his own clock and commands time to stand still and come to a stop—a notion which is as remote as can be to materialist thought, or to thought in general. "Historicism gives the 'eternal' image of the past; historical materialism supplies a unique experience with the past." (But it is the experience of a present NOT UNRELATED with the past, not an exceptional present, but one continuous with the past. An excessive emphasis on the present as experienced is not critical, or materialist - JAGL). "The historical materialist leaves it to others to be drained by the whore called 'Once upon a time' in historicism's bordello. He remains in control of his powers, man enough to blast open the continnum of history". (A curious image of sexual continence as giving the energy for revolution. Because this "historical materialist" is evidently enough a revolutionary activist, a man of action, not one who observes and understands history, but one who acts upon it with a certain violence. Revolutionary aims seem once more to be the priority and the guiding aim of the radical intellectual, rather than a balanced and detached understanding of history. He is a partisan, a Party member, or at the very least a sputnik. Much materialism, not to mention other matters, is lost along the way in these allegiances; Benjamin is once more a paradigmatic 20th-c. intellectual.— JAGL).

XVII. Materialistic historiography vs. the historicism which culminates in universal history. "Universal history has no theoretical armature. Its method is additive; it musters a mass of data to fill the homogeneous, empty time. Materialistic historioraphy, on the other hand, is based on a constructive principle" (262). Materialist thinking arrests and crystalizes history into a monad, "the sign of a Messianic cessation of happening, or, put differently, a revoliutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past" (263). Again, "blasting" an era out of the course of history; "or a specific work out of the life work"; this messianic time is aufgehoben.  (Again the notion of the "special" or "messianic" time of the present associated to the Revolution - JAGL).
(263) XVIII. "In relation to the history of organic life on earth," writes a modern biologist, "the paltry fifty millennia of homo sapiens constitute something like two seconds at the close of a twenty-four-hour day. On this scale, the history of civilized mankind would fill one-fifth of the last second of the last hour." The present, which, as a model of Messianic time, comprises the entire history of mankind in an enormous abridgment, coincides exactly with the stature which the history of mankind has in the universe." (Benjamin on Big History as "empty clock time". He opposes to it his model of "Messianic" time, time not physical but eventful and significant. The equation goes thus: Universal time (empty) vs. human history (eventful) / human history (empty) vs. present occasion (eventful). But the present needs the perspective of the past history, just as human history is understood better (in its significance as an event) when placed in the context of Big History - JAGL). 

A) (On hindsight bias and the retroactive generation of "historical events" through a critique of causality - JAGL): "Historicism contents itself with establishing a causal connection between various moments in history. But no fact that is a caue 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. A historian who takes this as his point of departure stops telling the sequence of events like the beads of a rosary. Instead, he grapsts the constellation which his own era has formed with a definite earlier one. Thus he establishes a conception of the present as the 'time of the now' which is shot through with chips of Messianic time."

(One might deduce from this that the "Messianic" significande of the present can never be a historical event in this sense, since it will be the future events that will determine the historicity of the present. The way in which the present is significant —a "Messianic" significance— is different from the way the past is significant. And yet the whole of the past, not just that "definite earlier time" grasped by the materialist historian, is a function of present needs and priorities. Only those priorities are not too narrowly defined. Again the danger of the deliberate distorition of historical clear-sightedness because of a political agenda rears its head here— JAGL).

(264) B) The (future) time of soothsayers is not homogeneous or empty; nor is the time of remembrance of the past (again, the time of history is significant time, focusing on significant events - JAGL). "We know that the Jews were prohibited from investigating the future. The Torah and the prayers instruct them in remembrance, however. This striipped the future of its magic, to which all those succumb who turn to the soothsayer for enlightenment. This does not imply, however, that for the Jew the future turned into homogeneous, empty time. For every second of time was the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter."

(—And yet the Jews are defined as those who, by definition, will keep on waiting for the Messiah until the end of time....  This would seem to be an unconscious acknowledgement of the utopian nature of the Revolution as a funcional, regulatory ideal, really a mythical one. The revolution will forever be in the making, never to be realized. And yet Benjamin seems both to propose this critical view and to share in the Jewish hope that the Messiah might just come this minute, although the other half of his head knows this won't happen until the End of Time, which is by definition not immediate at all. Perhaps this ambivalence, in both skeptically analyzing the Messianic revolution and partaking of the myth is the theological midget, wizened and hidden within the falsely mechanical chess player of Historicism—JAGL).

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José Ángel García Landa

(Biescas y Zaragoza)
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