Victoria Kahn: Historicism and Critical History

Victoria Kahn

My posts this week have all been informed one way or another by the methodological question of how to understand the kind of historical contextualization Newman offers in Benjamin’s Library. I am very partial to such contextualization and I think in Newman’s case it has produced an extraordinarily rich and provocative book, one with implications for other studies of modern readers of early modern texts. (As Newman’s own posts have shown this week, Benjamin is not the only scholar to have turned to the early modern period in an effort to make sense of the horrors of World War I and the uncertainties of the interwar period.) But I do have some lingering questions: Is such contextualization an addition to existing interpretations of the book or does it fundamentally alter our understanding of what Benjamin is up to in the Trauerspiel book? For example, I am completely persuaded by Newman’s argument that Benjamin was engaged with early twentieth-century discussions of the baroque as “part of a specifically German narrative of nation,” and that his conception of origin may have been designed in part to contest existing nationalist narratives. I am also persuaded Benjamin was preoccupied with the question of “Which version of the origins of modernity was the Baroque . . . supposed to represent in Germany and for whom?” But I also think Benjamin was not himself a historicist, if by this we mean someone for whom the meaning of a text is determined by its historical context. In fact, his return to the early modern period to answer modern questions suggests as much. The same rejection of historicism (or rejection of the identification of historical contextualization with historicism) may be implicit in Newman’s reading of Benjamin’s reading of the Baroque. So I would like to hear Newman reflect a little in conclusion about balancing historical contextualization and what Nietzsche called a critical sense of history.

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