Victoria Kahn: What about Messianism?

Victoria Kahn

I feel that Newman’s last comment doesn’t really address my question about how we are to understand the messianism of the Trauerspiel book. At one point, Newman draws parallels between Benjamin’s philosophy and theory of history, the Annales school, and methodology behind Lucien Febvre’s work on problem of unbelief. At another, she describes Benjamin’s “strongly Barthian refusal of commerce between the kingdom of Man and the kingdom of God.” What’s the relationship between these two statements? And what, finally, does Benjamin mean by redemption? Should we, for example, accept Marcuse’s argument that for Benjamin “redemption is a materialist political concept: the concept of revolution?”

2 thoughts on “Victoria Kahn: What about Messianism?

  1. I’ve read the increasingly sprawling conversation about Jane’s book with deep interest, and feel it has been getting a bit knotted in that a number of related yet different issues have emerged without quite getting into conjoined focus. For instance, there’s the philological thread insofar as it bears on what we stand to gain from a contextualized reading of the Trauerspiel book and what light such a reading might throw on Benjamin’s evolving project (or projects) generally. There’s the question of allegory as we meet it in the German baroque drama itself (or at least in the plays of the Second Silesian School), as we meet it in Benjamin himself, and as we meet it in later theorists (Macherey, Deleuze, and the rest) for whom Benjamin is an at least intermittent reference. Then there’s the messianic question and, in (to my mind) slightly confused tandem with it, the question of Spinoza’s theory of imagination, and how these in turn relate to Benjamin’s thoughts about redemption. And then there’s the question of Westphalia and the post-Westphalian system of nation states. I’m sure there are still other issues, but these are the ones that leap out at me.

    It strikes me that it might help to return to what is new and valuable in Jane’s book read, to begin with, as a philological exercise.

    Whatever its other graces, and they are many, the key thing about the book is the way it restores the Trauerspiel book to its historical moment, and so to historical time. However conflicted his messianism may have been, Benjamin was of course a messianist, as too (and perhaps nowhere more conspicuously than in the erkenntniskritische Vorrede) a Platonico-Kantian idealist for whom Truth (= der Tod der Intention) doesn’t exist in time at all but is, rather, a constellation of disjunct Ideas it is our duty as well as privilege to contemplate in nocturnal isolation from active engagement in the world. Part of the historical claim (and it IS an historical claim) Benjamin makes about German baroque Trauerspiele is that, explicitly or not, that’s how they perceive, fitfully portray, and so enable readers if not audiences to apprehend Truth as well. To be sure, Benjamin was also at least a kind of historical materialist–History is in fact a member of the constellation of Ideas toward which he lifted his myopic contemplative eyes. But this seems to be what he saw not only in the era that he and his contemporaries called “baroque” but also in Second Empire Paris and Weimar Germany: historical moments a distinctive feature of which–indeed, whose “originality” or Ursprunglichkeit–lies in their being sprung from the historical process of “appearance and disappearance” in such a way as to enable us to glimpse the fundamental identity of Truth and History as such–of Truth as “the death of intention” and of History as the process of ineluctable destruction that converts human works into the ruins in which death-dealing Truth becomes truly legible.

    Heady stuff! And, as Adorno might have said, bewitching stuff, too. The bewitchment, indeed, goes far toward explaining our ongoing fascination not only with Benjamin himself but with the whole kind of thinking to which Benjamin belongs–most of what we call “theory,” in fact, as Adorno, Deleuze, Macherey, and company have done before us. What Jane’s reading of all this enables us to do is to take a step back. When we read, say, “the baroque” _with_ Benjamin, it’s hard to avoid getting as starry-eyed as he was because it’s hard to ask questions about that style of reading’s premises. (You’ll recall that another feature of Truth in the Trauerspiel book is that, unlike the concepts of ordinary empirical or historical science, it isn’t “open to question.” That’s indeed one of the ways in which we measure its absoluteness relative to our fickle and inconsequential moral dealings here below.) However, if, as Jane enables us to do, we recognize that, however loftily as well as melancholically transcendental his impulses and ambitions were, Benjamin was an, as it were, a-typically typical exemplar of his own historical epoch, born into and borne along by currents and traditions of thought as subject to historical question as anything else, we’re no longer obliged to see things as he did, or to try to see them through some understanding of how he did.

    This stepping back does a number of things for us. One is to enable us to read the plays themselves again, with renewed open-mindedness and attention. Another thing is that it invites us to get the history right. For instance, while Westphalia cemented the modern system of nation states, especially in Western and Northern Europe, elsewhere, and in particular in German- and Slavic-speaking areas, it engendered an appetite for nations without creating any, and certainly none that were destined to be stable. Which goes, among other things, to remind us that much of the dark violent energy that went into creating modern Germany was an expression of what turned the Pale of Jewish Settlement from the Baltic to the Black Sea into the “bloodlands” of Timothy Snyder’s sobering book on the subject.

    But it also invites us to rethink other thinkers whose work has become caught up in these debates–and among them Spinoza.

    To my mind, Spinoza is horribly misunderstood, both in his text and in his historical testimony, and nowhere more conspicuously than in those of us who find ourselves writing about him in the company of Benjamin or Macherey. (I except Deleuze here, who generally does a good job with Spinoza. Where he comes off the rails is with Leibniz, who not only colors his own interpretation of “the baroque” but contributes far more deeply to his original philosophizing than Spinoza.) To take the example that has arisen in the present discussion, mention is made of Spinoza on the imagination and how this might help us sort Benjamin out. But what actually IS Spinoza’s theory of imagination? Needless to say, I’ve already gone on way too long, and giving even a fullish account would make maters worse! But any attempt to think about Spinoza on imagination has too begin by noting that, while it is defined in the first instance as the basic faculty of sensory perception of any kind, i.e., as that faculty that enables us “to see things,” it is also defined as that faculty that CAUSES us “to see things,” i.e., to see things that aren’t really there or to see things in a form other than their real one, which is as such ONLY accessible to pure intuition and the pure because non-representational ideas alone capable of being clear, distinct, and adequate. If, then, a Spinozan theory of imagination could be of any use to us here, it would be as a means of asking critical questions of the kind that bring us back to earth in the way Benjamin’s doctrine of Truth tends to prevent us.

  2. I fully agree with Mike Jennings’ comment that one of the great virtues of Benjamin’s Library is that it deals in detail, “with the actual materials about which Benjamin wrote – the dramas of the Second Silesian School . . . ” In the book Jane Newman reminds us that the Habilitation thesis submitted in 1925 did not include the “Epistemo-Critical Prologue,” which then, in the work’s “afterlife,” has gotten the bulk of attention from critics. In one of the sections of Ch. 1 Jane contextualizes a number of points in that Prologue that show Benjamin responding to contemporary scholarship on historiography and periodization. Still, it has not be easy for readers of the Trauerspiel to appreciate the complex, in many ways highly abstruse, argumentation that comes in the first dozen pages of that Prologue, until finally Benjamin comes explicitly to the idea of Trauerspiel, and indeed, why it is an “idea”. For this he had felt it necessary to lay out his own version of the Platonic Ideenlehre.
    Let me also make a comment on Victoria Kahn’s very pertinent – and immense – question about redemption and messianism. While this issue is generally treated in terms of later writings, especially “On the Concept of History” (the Theses), it was in fact a life-long preoccupation of Benjamin’s. Witness these lines from the talk he gave as a young man to the Berlin student body: “The historical task is to disclose this immanent state of perfection and make it absolute, to make it visible and dominant in the present. This condition cannot be captured in terms of the pragmatic description of details (the history of institutions, customs, and so on); in fact, it eludes them. Rather, the task is to grasp its metaphysical structure, as with the messianic domain or the idea of the French Revolution.” (“The Life of Students,” 1914-15) Of course, this complex of issues underwent many mutations in the course of his thought. It is certainly relevant to ask just how it is formulated in the Trauerspiel. Of various possibilities, I would look first at the discussion of Ursprung, origin, in the Prologue. Jane, in one of her posts, brings up Auerbach’s figura in this connection. It is a tempting analogy, but one I am very hesitant to follow. Auerbach’s model involves a principle of Christian temporality. Jane cites Auerbach to the effect, “that figural reading allows the ‘interpretation of one worldly event through another; the first signifies the second, the second fulfills the first. Both remain historical events.’” Although figura is certainly illuminating for Auerbach’s reading of Dante (from whom he drew this concept), I am not persuaded that he succeeded in making it equally applicable to the instances from modern literature in Mimesis. But more relevant would be to ask whether this essentially hermeneutic principle, that is, one oriented to reading and interpretation, is appropriate for what Benjamin loads on Ursprung, on the monad, on the fundamentally formative capacity that he terms “natural history” (on which Susan Buck-Morss did pioneering work) in that page of the Prologue. It seems to me that Benjamin’s sense of counter-history and retrograde temporality cannot easily be accommodated to the figura model. I put all this hesitantly, but these exchanges have raised the questions.

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