Reading Walter Benjamin Politically

Against the Current No. 214, September/October 2021

Joe Stapleton

The Benjamin Files
By Frederic Jameson
Verso Books, 2020, 272 pages, $29.95 hardcover.

IN THE ACADEMIC fields of cultural studies and critical theory, Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) is generally read in a particular way. He is more often than not mobilized to critique so-called “grand narratives,” to alert us to the ways narratives of historical progress paper over history’s more barbaric side, casting his dour gaze toward the cuts and the breaks that erode modern society’s pretensions to continuous improvement.

The dominant focus on these themes in Benjamin can hypostatize his thought as timelessly critical of political projects and historical thinking as such. As a result, he is at times categorized as some sort of apolitical early postmodern thinker, suspicious of any totalizing project, even the socialist project of the total transformation of human society, to which he was actually committed from the Bolshevik revolution until the end of his life.

In his newest book The Benjamin Files, the Marxist cultural critic, Fredric Jameson attempts to bring Benjamin back to political consciousness by showing the one-sidedness of this interpretation.

Jameson is certainly not the first writer to re-politicize Benjamin: the fight over Benjamin’s theoretical legacy is nothing new. But of course, readers will not pick up this book for an introduction to Walter Benjamin. When a theorist of Jameson’s stature addresses someone like Benjamin, we read to see what Jameson does with him.

Through a series of investigations into Benjamin’s work, from his early Origins of German Tragic Drama to his final writings on history, Jameson gives the reader a Benjamin for whom responding to the political and historical moment was his primary task of writing. This foregrounding of the political gives a new energy to the well-known diversity of Benjamin’s theoretical registers (Jameson will call them “language fields”) — among them theology, Marxism, philosophy and historiography.

It also, perhaps inevitably, makes Benjamin “speak” in Jameson’s language and address the latter’s preoccupations. Even if  Benjamin scholars will certainly quibble with aspects of Jameson’s interpretation, readers will find it easy to forgive him, given the insights that Jameson’s reading of Benjamin yields.

Connected Thematic Essays

The Benjamin Files is structured as a series of relatively autonomous essays. Some are on specific works by Benjamin, like “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility” and “One-Way Street.” Others examine a whole area of Benjamin’s work through attention to a specific work — Jameson treats Benjamin’s literary criticism through examining his essay on Eduard Fuchs.

But the essays are only relatively auton­omous, connected by themes arising in Benjamin’s work that strike Jameson’s eye. The concept of “similitude,” for example, which Benjamin uses to elaborate his theory of language, is given political and historical weight when Jameson sees it as replacing historical causality in Benjamin’s later writing.

Similarly, Benjamin’s idea of cultural “regression” and its reconciliation with Benjamin’s non-progressive concept of history is a theme throughout the book, with Jameson reading it as “aestheticization,” or the flight from the political in art that Benjamin aligns with fascism.

The question of our “access” to other historical moments and time periods is a concern, from the opening pages through the discussion of Benjamin’s historical “monads” in chapter four all the way to the end of the book, when the relations of discontinuity between the past and present become the fulcrum of Benjamin’s concept of history.

It’s no surprise that Jameson privileges this last one given his own preoccupation with this question, though it would be more accurate to see this as a question Jameson inherited from Benjamin himself rather than importing his own concerns into Benjamin’s work.

Themes like these are sustained throughout by constant references to future discussions (“we will return to this later on …” etc.), and many of them do find something of an “end point” in the final chapter on history. However, this shouldn’t suggest some sort of linear narrative to the book itself.

Re-politicizing Benjamin

While it is difficult to categorize Walter Benjamin, this hasn’t stopped people from trying. From the early fight over his legacy — was he a Jewish mystic or a heterodox Marxist? — to the more recent efforts to make him an “anti-totalitarian” (whatever that might mean) early theorist of the postmodern, writers working with Benjamin tend to see their own interests and commitments reflected back at them.

This is certainly true of Jameson’s book. But to categorize Benjamin is to miss the point and Jameson recognizes this. The coexistence of Benjamin’s different language fields (say, messianic theology and historical materialism) allows him to “translate” the one into the other depending on the political situation.

That Benjamin’s translation work was responding to the concrete political movements of his day should attune us to the requirements of our own concrete historical situation. As Jameson says, learning to recognize in our own time “the forces of communism and fascism at work beneath the surface of world politics” is in fact the key to drawing “new energy from (Benjamin’s) prophecies.”

Keeping Benjamin’s thought moving, or keeping lines of communication between language fields open, thus becomes one of the aims of The Benjamin Files, which makes sense given the thrust of Jameson’s general historicizing project.  “Historicizing” for Jameson is not some banal “placing a work in its context,” which presupposes a sharp division between the work and its context.

For Jameson as much as for any other Marxist, “history” is another word for the class struggle and the class struggle literally forms the productions of the superstructure, to the point that through these productions we can catch the movement of history itself.

This movement is systematically obscured by the tendency of capitalism to reify not only its social relations as a mode of production but its cultural forms (and even the methods by which these forms are analyzed). In other words, they are made to appear “natural” or beyond the possibility of historical change.

This problem — the way cultural productions systematically reveal and obscure their own being as historical — animates Jameson’s dialectical perspective. In Jameson’s work, reified or naturalized elements of capitalist society can once again be set in motion and seen clearly: not as static objects to be interpreted but as historical elements of a living world to be changed.

As Jameson points out, history works on cultural production in a double sense, both on its form and its content and few critics have a better eye than he for the interaction between form and content in a work.

Take one formal element of Benjamin’s work: his obsession with taking quotations from a work and placing them alongside others from different works (“A criticism consisting entirely of quotations should be developed,” Benjamin says).

Benjamin’s quotations have often been read as a way of breaking up a given text as a critique of its pretension to wholeness. This is, in its own way, a statement about the relationship between form and content in Benjamin’s work: it takes the form of the quotation and interprets it as its own content (a comment on wholeness as such).

Jameson, however, has a different, fuller reading of the formal question of the quotation. By bringing to bear Benjamin’s writings on Baudelaire and historical materialism, he shows how it is just as important that the quotation forms a “new thing” that “has a generic life of its own.” This in turn illuminates the ethical ambiguity of the destructive act for Benjamin.

While it’s true then that “wrenching” a quote from a text vitiates the presumptive wholeness of that text, it does so in the course of creating a new whole of which new interpretations are possible. Observations like this one show how paying attention to the function of concepts in Benjamin’s multiple language fields can yield new insights about those concepts.

The Concept of History

One episode that strikes a chord with our current moment comes during a discussion of Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility.”

In this essay, Benjamin examines how both what constitutes art and how we perceive art changes drastically with the advent of mass culture after World War I. What previously had made art recognizable as such — its uniqueness, its authenticity, its connection to some ritual or another — dissolves with its technological reproduction for a mass audience.

At this point, two options open for art, each with a distinct political valence. Aestheticization, “art for art’s sake,” is an attempt to get back to the work of art’s lost authenticity — for Benjamin, this is aligned with fascism; politicization, the democratization of art for the formation of new revolutionary habits appropriate to the masses — this is aligned with communism.

One of the themes Jameson picks out of Benjamin’s work during the period of this essay is how new mass political movements developed new ways of seeing and thinking suited to the age. These call forth concepts that, in Benjamin’s words, “neutralize” the traditional categories like “creativity” and “genius” that are more suited to the individual — and are more easily manipulated by fascism.

Jameson posits that we have in fact “regressed” in our own time from “a world of class struggle to a world of virtue and corruption, an eighteenth century world.” This is difficult to deny, as in our current climate in the United States even the political itself has not escaped aestheticization, becoming little more than personal branding and symbolic gestures by individuals.

Here we can see how Benjamin’s translation between the language fields of aesthetics (the work of art), economics (mass production), and politics (the two roads for art of fascism and communism) has the effect of eroding one of them. As Jameson notes, economics appears to signal the end of art in politics.

In the mesmerizing final chapter, Jameson engages the endlessly-discussed passages that make up Benjamin’s theses “On the concept of history,” written in early 1940 near the end of his life by suicide after attempting to flee from the Nazi occupation of France.

For Jameson, the theses constitute an effort “to separate historiography from history,” or concepts of history from the movement of history itself.

Benjamin stands resolutely against any attempt to impose some contrived progressive narrative onto the fullness of history. According to Benjamin, Germany’s Social Democrats imposed precisely this narrative onto history. Their sanguine faith in the inevitability of the progress of mankind toward socialism, made revolution fade ever further into the distance or neutralized it altogether as an “infinite” task.

But we don’t need Benjamin to convince us of the dangers of progress narratives — we here in the United States are certainly familiar with their sedative effects. What’s important is that this concept of history as human progress — “universal history” — is indissolubly bound up with a certain concept of time as empty and homogeneous, just waiting to be filled up chronologically with one thing after another.

Such a concept of universal history doesn’t have what Benjamin calls a “constructive principle.” Historical materialism, however, has such a principle, called revolution. This principle is based on a very different concept of time — rather than empty, homogeneous time, the time of history is already full with what is often translated in Benjamin as “now-time” and Jameson conveys as the “now of recognizability.”

This is a past time made present, unlocked by a given political situation or revolutionary possibility. If we no longer can relate past events or historical periods to our present one through a narrative or series of continuous casual events, they are now related through discontinuity — that is, they are related politically.

It is the political situation of the present that renders the past accessible, the current crisis from which, as Jameson says, the past moment “draws enough energy to gain a new (and perhaps only momentary) lease on life.” The present moment of the class struggle grants us access to the past as it imbues the past with new life.

A Living Task

But how is this past moment related to this present moment? Now that the former is “charged with now-time,” what is its relation to the latter?

This is where the theological language field becomes necessary for both Benjamin and Jameson. Benjamin uses the language of the messiah and redemption, while Jameson uses the language of allegory and fulfillment. The former draws upon the Jewish messianic tradition, the latter on medieval Christian biblical exegesis.

The upshot is that the past stops being something dead, or an artifact, or even an inert store of historical “lessons.” Instead it becomes a living task, an event we experience again but in a new way, an incomplete project we are called upon to finish. The failed revolution is merely incomplete — it becomes a prefiguration as soon as the present situation calls for its fulfillment.

Not only is the past made present, but the present is made past. Our present, through contact with this past moment, takes its own place as history. We historicize ourselves, becoming alive to the historical nature of the present as a task to be completed in time.

As Jameson notes, Benjamin’s concept of history calls for “action and activism, for reenactment and completion on a higher plane.” In fact, this concept of history calls for us to make it ourselves.

As we can see, to stop reading Benjamin at the famous thesis IX — where history is nothing but a single catastrophe and historiography itself little more than its valorization — is to miss the revolutionary force of Benjamin’s thought. In the Benjaminian spirit, we might translate it into Christian parlance and say it is to end the story on Good Friday, the day of Christ’s execution, rather than Easter Sunday, the day of resurrection.

But this way of reading Benjamin is what has led many to take him as a melancholy theorist of the “end of history” or at least the end of historical thinking. Jameson’s book is one of the most forceful yet to revivify the centrality of the political in Benjamin’s thought which in turn makes history come alive again.

This is not to make Benjamin some sort of “optimist” — Jameson’s final, provocative thoughts on hope and redemption make that reading impossible. It is simply to understand that for Benjamin, the class struggle continues: we are in it, and it is not over.

This book probably won’t end up on the reading lists of many union study groups outside of university faculty and graduate student unions. Like Benjamin, Jameson uses his own fair share of language fields — Marxism, psychoanalysis, continental philosophy, linguistics, etc. — and unfamiliarity with these can occasionally make his work difficult to comprehend.

Jameson is short on concrete political proposals — you won’t find any call for independent, mass working-class organization at the end of his books — but that isn’t really his job.

I still believe that not only academics but also militants should read Jameson. Simply put, Jameson’s work offers one of the most compelling, comprehensive, and rigorous examples of what it means to think like a Marxist. The Benjamin Files is challenging but in a good way, and the payoff is worth it.

September-October 2021, ATC 214

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