I have been reading Ernst Cassirer’s The Myth of the State (1945) recently and turn to a particular moment in that text by way of responding to Kahn’s question regarding historical contextualization and, as she correctly sees, my rejection of the conventional reduction of historical contextualization to historicism. Cassirer is (logically enough) quite exercised by historicist claims in his book, and nowhere so vehemently so as in the first of two chapters there on Machiavelli. His account of Machiavelli reception is complex and I won’t go into it here. What interests me is his characterization of “the historian’s fallacy” as an “optical illusion”; when one reads Machiavelli only through the lens of one’s own time, he argues, we fail to understand what he ‘actually’ had to say. Cassirer’s position is problematic for several reasons, not the least of which is that he is of course himself interested in reading Machiavelli as a “universalistic” historian committed to seeing in how history “repeats itself” for his (Cassirer’s) own very specific historical reasons. But it is the misplaced rhetoric of distortion here I would like to address, especially when Cassirer uses it to consider how any given present – Cassirer’s or Benjamin’s or our own – reads the past (Machiavelli, the Baroque). Gadamer (to whom I alluded earlier this week) argued that out of the writing of every great historian there emerge traces of his/her own time. But this doesn’t mean that the historical account is question is distorted. Rather, these traces are evidence of the way new questions about the past may be asked at any given moment of history in ways that allow new dimensions of the past to come to light. Benjamin’s Library was written at the intersection of several such historical moments, including a moment in and of Benjamin criticism that was less than concerned with the subject matter of text he so often referred to as his “Baroque book,” but, perhaps more importantly, when questions of the origins of the nation state in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the complicity of our ways (in the academy) of thinking about these origins were becoming particularly pressing. Those moments mark its method and claims about the importance of contextualizing Benjamin’s thought in terms of issues of nationalism and modernity as they were discussed during the inter-war years. But to contextualize his thinking about the Baroque in this way seems to me to actually begin to set his inquiry into this specific moment of the early modern past free from that particular history so that it might circulate into our own time, rather than to confine it. This is thus not historical reading as ‘deterministic’. Instead, what I am interested in asking is what kind of optic our own (post)modern inquiries into these same periods provide, what becomes newly visible in both the past and the present, in other words, when we read them with and through one another.
I agree with Alex Gelley that Auerbach’s unpacking of figuration is a question of hermeneutics, of the reading and interpreting of historical events, different than Benjamin’s interest in allegory perhaps, but of close enough filiation for them to have perhaps talked about it in Berlin when Benjamin was working on the Trauerspiel book, as they talked about Baroque emblem books during those years. (It might even be that it is in Benjamin’s reading of how the actual emblems of the Baroque worked that we can see similarities. To go into this comparison would make this post too long.) In any case, it is difficult for me to imagine that Auerbach and Benjamin were not participating in the more, well, inclusive, ecumenical – or perhaps better, cross pollinating (and thus mutually contaminating…) – conversations about allegory going on at the time (cf. Warburg, Panofsky, etc.). These are the kinds of conversations that I try to listen in on in Benjamin’s Library, as I state there on p. 12, as part of a project of creating a new ‘horizon of meaning’ for Benjamin’s claims about allegory, redemption, messianism, Ursprung, and so on. Such claims would then be precisely not “utterly idiosyncratic” – although they are often stated in mystifying ways. Braider’s formulation in his post is cunning: “We’re no longer obliged to see things as [Benjamin] did, or to try to see them through some understanding of how he did,” from within his famously “abstruse” system and logic, in other words. Rather, it is (I argue) only from a position outside of his own that Benjamin’s reading of the Baroque made be allowed to make a new kind of sense.
Thanks to Chris Braider for sorting out the strands in his comment and for restating with clarity precisely what it is that I am interested in, namely what turned out to be the ultimate weakness of both the system of states (and of several individual states) allegedly founded in 1648, and the violence to populations both within territorial borders and without undertaken in the name of these dangerously self confident, but unstable nations. Understanding Benjamin’s messianism in this context is, as Braider indicates, a complicated, complicated thing, and is surely related to other holdings in his library (Rosenzweig of course, but also Ehrenberg and Lukacs) that would need to be interrogated (or so is the thesis of my book) in the company of texts from the period of the Baroque proper as well as in terms of how that period was constructed and received. Another way of putting this is that my association of the term ‘redemption’ with Benjamin’s political stance on the war might be best understood as derived from and pointing to my interest in locating Benjamin’s position within early twentieth-century discourses of confessio rather than within those of fides (or, for that matter, of Truth), as those two versions of religion were sorted out by Hobbes and of course Spinoza as well, in order to create the conditions for understanding the significance of his repeated insistence that the Silesian playwrights in whom he is interested were Lutherans, a point upon which little criticism about Benjamin has touched. Redemption, messianism are part of a vocabulary associated with the kingdom-to-come as it may or may not break in on the now, regardless of what men do. (On Benjamin and messianism in a context somewhat different than the one in which I am interested, see James Martel, “Waiting for Justice: Benjamin and Derrida on Sovereignty and Immanence.” Republics of Letters: A Journal for the Study of Knowledge, Politics, and the Arts 2, no. 2 (June 1, 2011): http://rofl.stanford.edu/node/92). Germany’s attacks on Belgium and France were undertaken precisely by men and under the confessional banner of Lutheran war theology as it led the way into battle in the here-and-now of a very concrete holy war. There was an earlier period when state-identified confessions had provided both the impetus and the mask for countless acts of ‘righteous’ violence similar to these, namely, the Baroque (although also earlier too). One reading of Spinoza in this context that Braider does not mention, but that I like in this regard is Etienne Balibar’s in his Spinoza and Politics (orig., 1985, transl. 1998), which brings us very much down to earth as to how “illusions” became so dangerous in the period about which Benjamin was writing and allows us to return to Andreas Gryphius’ Carolus Stuardus play (1649) about the execution of Charles I, for example, and see it in a new light.
The issue animating these posts is precisely the question of allegory, or, as I would prefer to frame it (following Erich Auerbach, but without his emphasis of the “ultimate fulfillment” of the figure): Figuration. Why read the baroque (or the Renaissance or Weimar) at all? Or more precisely: How are we to read them? Auerbach writes 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.” In the sense that each historical moment is “empty” if not read figurally, I suppose that Jennings could be correct. Auerbach would counter, however, that all of history, “with…its concrete force,” always already “remains…a figure, cloaked and needful of interpretation.” All historical moments are thus by definition potentially full (see Birns’ excellent comment here re the complex fullness of the post-1919 Silesian situation is relation to the Weimar Republic), both dis- and refigured in our reading and representation of them. When Benjamin reads the Baroque – and we read him reading it – he uses it as a platform, a constitutive horizon (a bit of Gadamer peeks in here), from which to observe his and our present through a Macherey-ian “mirror”: “The mirror extends the world: but it also seizes, inflates and tears that world. In the mirror, the object is both completed and broken: disjecta membra” (“Lenin: Critic of Tolstoy,” 134). In my more recent work, I have been circling around precisely this ‘mirroring’ effect in the case of what this generation (Benjamin included) did in fact know of what I am calling the Westphalian dispensation (the reception of the actual treaty and its consequences for the future of the European state system) and its afterlives. ( I do so because of current claims about the post-Westphalianism of our globalized, border-busting, networked world.) For these men (and at least one woman, Hannah Arendt), commentary on Westphalia may be somewhat “subterranean,” but it wasn’t really all that far down. See Benjamin’s commentary on the “constitutional doctrine” and the emergence of the early modern forms of sovereignty in the Trauerspiel book, for example. He of course famously cites Schmitt here, but lots of other source texts as well from the virtual industry of parsings of the political consequences of 1648. (I have come to think of his relation to Schmitt on these issues as a matter not of influence or dialogue, then, but, rather, as ‘parallel play’ and I look to Schmitt’s earlier essay on “The Visibility of the Church” (1917) or his later book on Hobbes (1938) (where he reads the issue of “indirect powers” as they emerge out of Hobbes’ Leviathan in their implications for the “machine”-state coalescing around him (admittedly, partially with his help). As a result, I prefer to embed both his and Benjamin’s commentary on the emergence of a doctrine of the ‘state of exception’, say, in a larger mosaic (see disjecta membra above) of figural readings of the post-Westphalian (literally, post-1648) world.) Others writing at this point were rather less figural; see Franz Rosenzweig’s Globus, 1919, for example, where he tries to wrestle the details of this historical trajectory to the ground, even as he was also writing Star. Kahn is correct in this respect to problematize the suggestion that Benjamin actually thought modern Germany’s soul could be saved. But by looking at the afterlives of Lutheranism both in the 17th century Silesian plays and in WWI war theology, he demonstrates the power of a text to offer what Macherey calls an “oblique” description of how it was lost. His own text, the Trauerspiel book, can function this way for us too.
There is an interesting moment in Macherey’s discussion of “illusion and fiction” in the chapter of A Theory of Literary Production with this title that suggests the provenance of his claims about the “baroque” nature of “all literature” there. He (like so many others at the time, including Althusser, Balibar, and Deleuze) turns to Spinoza on the imagination in order to distinguish between the “vague language of the imagination” (the “vehicle and the source of everyday ideology” and myth, Macherey writes) and what he calls “aesthetic activity,” on which Spinoza is “almost silent,” but which Macherey sees as the bookend to his (Spinoza’s) “theoretical activity,” which “fixes language” and ultimately (in what we must assume is the literary “book”) “takes a stand regarding…this myth, exposing it” (62-4). Spinoza’s ‘baroque’ need to use philosophy in this way emerged out of exactly the same period and post-Westphalian political landscape in flames as the mourning plays about which Benjamin writes, plays that, as Benjamin quite rightly understood, I think, used the production of “determinate illusion[s]” (Macherey, 64) on stage not as “act[s] of deception,” but as ways of “exposing” the ideology of the stability of the Westphalian state. Witnessing the de Witt brothers being torn apart by the ‘masses’ in 1672 might have been indistinguishable, for Spinoza, from the “crude theater” of the Trauerspiele of which Benjamin speaks. I’m thus not sure that either Macherey or Spinoza or Benjamin is addressing the power of the literary (imagination) to unmask ideology as a moment of theorizing that ‘transcends history’, as Kahn claims, since for all of them, reflecting on this power as profoundly historical was motivated by events on the ground. How we might understand the chaos of Benjamin’s Weimar Republic or OWS events and police using pepper-spray to create ‘order’ in these terms might also be interesting to discuss. What is the place of literature in the face of such events?
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.