Michael Jennings: The Distorting Mirror of Allegory

Michael Jennings

Newman’s book achieves something wholly new and remarkable as it teases out the manner in which debates on the role of “baroque” play into the construction of a German nationalist ideology after 1871. Benjamin’s practice in this regard was, as she shows so convincingly in Benjamin’s Library, “profoundly historical.” I am less confident that she is correct in claiming in her last blog post that Benjamin’s “determinate illusions”–that is, his reconstruction of the practice of allegory in the Trauerspiele themselves–served to expose “the ideology of the stability of the Westphalian state.” That strikes me as an interesting example of reading the Trauerspiel book back through the lens of the Arcades Project–where our own penetration of our own phantasmagoria is made contingent upon our understanding of the ways in which Benjamin’s work on urban capitalist modernity in nineteenth century France explodes and exposes the ideological structures of that era. In the Trauerspiel book, by contrast, political reference and analysis remain subterranean: coded so as to remain implicit. Working that out is the central achievement of Newman’s readings. Allegory, though, is not finally a distorted image of the political: it is the attempt to conjure meaning in an empty world. If there is a systematic relation between the era of the Trauerspiel and our own, it surely lies in our desperate, deeply subjective attempts to construct and impose meaning in an increasingly hopeless situation.