Jane O. Newman: Re: Periodization and History


Kahn’s question addresses my own interests as a scholar of European literature and culture of the Renaissance and early modern periods in the footprints left by early modernity on the landscape of modernity and, for that matter, in the afterlives of these earlier periods in our own post-modern world. The reason why Benjamin’s reading of the Baroque is a compelling object of study today is because it asks us to consider, first, the ideological investments of the Renaissance of the Baroque that occurred in the early twentieth century in particular and, second, the implications of periodization schemes overall (up to and including the so-called post-modern). There is, in other words, something about turning to the past that always seems to involve either the desire to become the master inheritors of a proud cultural legacy and to christen that inheritance as progress, or the desire for a ‘do-over’, a critical rearrangement of the narratives of cultural and political evolution so that they point to another, different way of moving forward. Both approaches imply a progressivist theory of history that is seldom articulated or questioned in studies of the Renaissance and early modern periods today. Thus while Jennings suggests that in restoring Benjamin to his era, it is he who becomes more interesting and more important, I would counter that it is in observing how Benjamin figures the German Baroque as a past that the nation cannot leave behind that allows his era to become visible to us as a model of how periods of crisis like our own engage or refuse their own embeddedness in history.

3 thoughts on “Jane O. Newman: Re: Periodization and History

  1. I so much appreciate this approach, demonstrating how Trauerspiel as an idea resonates with history and not just literature, in the Baroque and in Benjamin’s time. But with limited time to read, Jane, my question is: if indeed there is special relevance to OUR time, what is that special relevance? do you take up that question in the book?

  2. My work on the Trauerspiel book and on Benjamin’s reception of the 17th century has led me recently to investigate just how much he understood of the culture of the Baroque in which he was interested as literally post-Westphalian, e.g. the Silesian plays as written and performed (as they were) in the aftermath of the Treaty of Westphalia, 1648, which is much hailed as having brought the Thirty Years War to an end. Westphalia is often said to have been the founding moment of the modern international system of sovereign territorial states; many International Relations and political theorists today claim we are in the post-Westphalian era. I would disagree; Benjamin’s very deliberate interrogation of the dangerous outcomes of the Westphalian dispensation visible in the plays – tyranny, the failure of diplomacy, the destruction of humanity necessary for political or any other kind of redemption – show us precisely how Westphalian our world still is.

  3. Is the global sensibility of the Arab Spring/Occupy Wall Street movements meaningful as a critical response?

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