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WORKING W ITH W WALTER O R K I N BENJAM I N G W I T H W Recovering a Political Philosophy A L T E R B E N J A M I N A N D R E W B E N J A M I N ISBN 978–0–7486–4898–6 ANDREW BENJAMIN Wanted by 18 March, or possibly end of month Working with Walter Benjamin My father remained fascinated by the fact that there was a philosopher with ‘our name’. To which I always added, ‘another philosopher!’ It is perhaps in the space opened by the possibility of being ‘another philosopher’ that most of the work I have done has itself taken place. It seems fitting therefore to dedicate this book to the memory of my father’s fascination. Working with Walter Benjamin Recovering a Political Philosophy Andrew Benjamin © Andrew Benjamin, 2013 Edinburgh University Press Ltd 22 George Square, Edinburgh EH8 9LF www.euppublishing.com Typeset in 10.5/13 pt Sabon by Servis Filmsetting Ltd, Stockport, Cheshire, and printed and bound in Great Britain by CPI Group (UK) Ltd, Croydon CR0 4YY A CIP record for this book is available from the British Library ISBN 978 0 7486 3434 7 (hardback) ISBN 978 0 7486 4898 6 (paperback) ISBN 978 0 7486 3435 4 (webready PDF) ISBN 978 0 7486 9160 9 (epub) The right of Andrew Benjamin to be identified as author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. Contents Acknowledgements vi Introduction 1 1. Opening 15 2. The Meaning of Time in the Moral World 46 3. Fate and Character 69 4. Towards a Critique of Violence 94 5. Theological-Political Fragment 144 6. On the Concept of History 162 Appendices A. Boredom and Distraction: The Moods of Modernity 203 B. Benjamin and the Baroque: Posing the Question of Historical Time 222 C. The Illusion of the Future: Notes on Benjamin and Freud 244 Bibliography 255 Index 264 Acknowledgements Work arises from contexts. This final form of this book was developed in a seminar at the London Graduate School at Kingston University and then in a graduate seminar in the Department of Philosophy at De Paul University in Chicago. The members of both seminars worked to provide an exemplary context in which to develop this project. I also want to thank friends, colleagues and students with whom I have discussed the detail of Benjamin’s work. This took place in semi- nars, supervisions, private discussions (face-to-face as well as on Skype) and email exchanges. I have learnt a great deal. The limits are of my own making. In particular I would like to thank Peg Birmingham, Howard Caygill, Michael Fagenblat, David Ferris, Heidrun Freise, Joanna Hodge, John Lechte, Lucie Mercier, James Muldoon, Peter Osborne, Tony Phelan, Eleina Steikou, Uwe Steiner, Gerhard Richter, Elizabeth Rottenberg, Dimitris Vardoulakis, Henrik Wilberg, Christopher Wallace and Jess Whyte. I would also like to thank Keren Shlezinger and Samuel Cuff Snow for their assistance with the preparation of the manuscript. The Appendices are rewritten versions of papers that have appeared earlier. They have been modified to a greater or lesser degree in order to accommodate being placed within this larger project. They initially appeared as: ‘Boredom and Distraction: The Moods of Modernity’, in Andrew Benjamin (ed.), Walter Benjamin and History (New York: Continuum Books, 2005), pp. 156–70.  ‘Benjamin and the Baroque: Posing the Question of Historical Time’, in Helen Hills (ed.), Reframing the Baroque (London: Ashgate Press, 2011), pp. 161–79. ‘The Illusion of The Future: Notes on Benjamin and Freud’, in Andrew Milner, Matthew Ryan and Robert Savage (eds),  Imagining the Future: Utopia and Dystopia, Arena 25–26 (2006): 193–204. Introduction All philosophical knowledge has its unique expression in language. Walter Benjamin These are the days when no one should rely on his ‘competence’. Strength lies in improvisation. All the decisive blows [Alle entscheidenden Schläge] are struck left-handed.1 So wrote Benjamin in One-Way Street. To introduce a work that is orientated around the possibility of Benjamin’s philosophical project having an effective afterlife is an undertaking that is marked by a number of inherent difficulties. The difficulties do not stem from the presence or absence of ‘competence’. On the contrary these difficulties become clear once there is an attempt to avoid subordinating Benjamin’s work to moral or political frameworks where the latter are based on a refusal to allow the complexities and the nuances within his own work to emerge. What has to be maintained is the ‘left-handed blow’.2 In this context the act of ‘introduction’ has a specific meaning. To introduce is to stage. Rather than an Introduction assuming that what is brought into existence appears as though it were either untouched or already completed, here other hands have been at work. Benjamin’s work has received specific forms of direction. With Walter Benjamin there had been a prevailing supposition. The choice had always been clear: Marxist rabbi or merely Marxist. As with all clear choices the clarity of both the structure and its content is merely apparent. What should in fact be at work is a radically different philosophical project, one which will have already received another type of direction. The latter – the other direction – might be described as proceeding within the ‘diversion’ (Umweg) that Benjamin names as ‘method’. If theology remains – and it is the presence of theology that 2 Working with Walter Benjamin in certain instances allows for the bridge bringing elements of Judaism into his work – then it stands opposed to religion.3 Benjamin’s work introduces a specific thinking of the opposition between theology and religion. Theology continues as an effective presence structuring his philosophical project. Introducing Benjamin therefore must stage this opposition as integral to its own Introduction. It should be noted at the beginning therefore that the nature of the opposition between theology and religion demands detailed clarification in its own right. Hence, it is essential to be clear as to what a critical engagement and thus a genuine counter to religion is like (and in addi- tion the figure of religion that such a counter maintains). In general terms what is meant here by an effective and thus genuine counter – what will be identified henceforth as a counter-measure and which needs to be understood as a form of critique – has a two-fold designation. (The term – counter-measure – will continue to be deployed through- out the chapters to come.) In the first instance the counter-measure is a counter-movement that retains the centrality of measure. However, what is measured and the nature of the measure will have a different quality. The second is that it involves the repositioning of the object of critique in terms of that which has a determining effect on the object in question. What this then means is that it is possible to generate an effec- tive counter to the assumption of continuity. Within that setting – the setting created by the opposition of religion and theology – there are failed attempts to think the limit of religion. They become failed coun- ters that signal no more than mere revolt. Perhaps the most banal form that an opposition to religion might take is atheism. Atheism entails the identification of religion with a claim about knowledge and in which the knowledge of a deity forms the basis of religion. Consequently, if religion were to be identified as defined in purely epistemological terms, then it would indeed follow that the introduction of any form of episte- mological uncertainty could then be taken as having brought the force of religion into question. However, central to Benjamin’s project is that such an approach to religion fails to grasp the effect of religion and thus what religion actually is. Moreover, the attempt to counter religion with the assertion of atheism is equally premised on a failure to grasp the way in which religion is deployed within the political. Taken generally religion is a force within conservative politics not because it maintains a deity at its centre but because, as Benjamin suggests, it is from the outset ‘practical’.4 Practicality here is the way in which religion structures every aspect of life and thus every subject position, even that subject position that defines itself as ‘irreligious’. Hence the response to religion has to be a political one and not the evocation of the critical paucity of atheism. Introduction 3 Atheism is an inherently apolitical position – hence it will be more closely allied to a conservative political position than to one that seeks a transformation of structures of normativity and relations of power. What is clear – and this is a position that can be linked to thinkers as diverse as Marx, Weber and Tawney – is that there is an important symbiosis between religion and the structure of capitalism.5 The futility of atheism as a response to religion is that it conflates a set of personal beliefs – what might be described as the religious – with the presence of a political order. If atheism were thought to be the counter-measure to religion then such a move would be premised on a radical misunder- standing of the nature of religion. The investigation of the ways religion and theology differ – a difference in which undoing the imposed continuity of the former is what theology allows – is a topic to which repeated returns are to be made in this particular encounter with the work of Walter Benjamin. If there is an element that might deflect the centrality of the relation between theology and religion as an uncritical presence while providing the means by which it can be reconsidered then it can be located in ‘life’. Indeed, part of the contention to be made throughout the following chapters is that ‘life’ is one of the key terms in Benjamin’s work. Life of course has to be differentiated from that which would have been taken at the time Benjamin was writing as a Lebensphilosophie.6 Equally, life, in Benjamin’s renewal of the term, has to be stripped of its connection to both neutrality and any determination that would have been derived from biology. The question then is how is that rethinking of life to be understood? This question – as will come to be seen – continues to introduce Benjamin’s work. Informing any answer to that question – the question of how life is to be understood – is the conjecture that ‘life’ as the term is present within Benjamin’s thought is not simply human life as though the latter were a given. Rather, it pertains to the possibilities and the potentialities already inherent in that life. Life brings with it a life to come. Given this formulation the project that then arises concerns the recovery of that other possibility for life. The key point here is that it is a possibility within life. The future is a condition of the present. The future cedes its place therefore to the present as a site of potentiality.7 Once the assumption is that there is a potentiality within the life that is already there, then it is clear that what is involved is not a claim about either ‘mere life’ or that life which is at hand. Rather, it is a claim made about the being of being human.8 (Potentiality and life define human existence.) Potentiality is a possibility within being. And precisely because it is a possibility within being, what is then of significance is how there can be an account of the move from potentiality to actuality.

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