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.
I agree with Alexander Gelley’s rejection of Newman’s comparison of Benjamin on allegory to Auerbach on figura. I don’t think Benjamin’s conception of allegory was informed by Christian typology. Moreover, we should remember Benjamin’s utterly idiosyncratic idea of and relation to theology, as when he writes, “My thinking related to theology like blotting paper to ink. It is totally soaked in it, but if the blotter had its way, none of the writing would remain.” GS 1(3): 1235.
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?”
I want to respond to Jennings’s definition of allegory as the attempt to conjure meaning in an empty world, both in the seventeenth century and in Benjamin’s own time. Newman brings out the significance of Benjamin’s dubious claim that all the writers of Trauerspiele were Lutherans by linking it to the Lutheran war theology of World War I. She notes Benjamin’s critique of WWI war theology in his comments on “the empty world of inauthentic actions” of the German baroque. But her claim that Benjamin is really criticizing Germany for the failure to develop “a religious program in any more than a merely instrumental way” seems questionable. Can we really read the Trauerspiel book as “an allegory of modern German’s blocked path to redemption?” If so, how literally are we supposed to take redemption?
I want to open up a different avenue of exploration. Newman does a brilliant job of reconstructing the historical arguments about the baroque and their relevance to debates about German nationalism. But there is another, more familiar dimension to Benjamin’s argument that transcends history altogether. In A Theory of Literature Production, Pierre Macherey seems to capture Benjamin’s own insight in the Trauerspiel book: “We have defined literary discourse as parody, as a contestation of language, rather than a representation of reality. It distorts rather than imitates.” But he then goes on to admit that “the idea of imitation, correctly understood, implies distortion, if, as Plato suggests in The Cratylus, the essence of resemblance is difference. The image that corresponded perfectly with the original would no longer be an image if it remains an image by virtue of its difference from that which it resembles.” And here’s the connection to Benjamin: “The aesthetic of the baroque merely takes this idea to its paradoxical extreme: the greater the difference the better the imitation, culminating in a theory of caricature. In this sense, all literature is ultimately baroque in inspiration.”  One question for Newman is whether her historical contextualization of Benjamin alters or fundamentally contests this insight.