Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Reflections on Benjamin's Theses Part 3: what sort of redemption?

Benjamin contrasts the 'chronicle' (which does not distinguish between 'major' and 'minor', significant history and insignificant fact) to 'history' - or historicism, which is shortly to be critiqued.

Only a redeemed present enjoys, or receives, the fullness of history. That is, an 'unredeemed' present, one where the victors of the past are still in control because we have not yet fixed their errors, cannot fully understand its past. That kind of present will only see the parts of the past that benefit its victors. When the present seeks to fix the errors of the past, the past unfolds fully.

III. A chronicler who recites events without distinguishing between major and minor ones acts in accordance with the following truth: nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history. To be sure, only a redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past-which is to say, only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments. Each moment it has lived becomes a citation a l'ordre du jour — and that day is Judgment Day.

Reflections on Benjamin's Theses Part 2: A Weak Messianic Power

A Weak Messianic Power

What is the relationship between happiness and time, happiness and history?

If we believe the world is getting better, why don't we envy the future?

This is because, Benjamin argues, we don't envy what will come, but we regret the things that might have happened - pasts that have permanently passed. Things that could have happened, but didn't.

When we look at the past, our evaluation of it is bound up in judgements about how that past should have been. When we think about how it should have been, that is where we locate the promise of happiness. If only such and such had happened in the past, we would be happy.

So we, in the present (and in every present, including the ones that came before), have this 'weak messianic power', this responsibility to redeem humanity from the should-haves of the past. And still, we don't look to the future, our redemption is bound up in the past that (in the present) we will fix.

That means that the people of the past have a claim on us, we are their weak messiahs who (before we even existed) promised to fix the the things they did wrong, or failed to do.

It is hard work.

II. 'One of the most remarkable characteristics of human nature,’ writes Lotze, ‘is, alongside so much selfishness in specific instances, the freedom from envy which the present displays toward the future.’ Reflection shows us that our image of happiness is thoroughly colored by the time to which the course of our own existence has assigned us. The kind of happiness that could arouse envy in us exists only in the air we have breathed, among people we could have talked to, women who could have given themselves to us. In other words, our image of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the image of redemption. The same applies to our view of the past, which is the concern of history. The past carries with it a temporal index by which it is referred to redemption. There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply. Historical materialists are aware of that.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Reflections on Benjamin's Theses: Part 1, The Puppet

I am teaching historiography at the moment and it is causing me to reflect on Walter Benjamin's 'Theses on the Philosophy of History' published as the last item in Hannah Arendt's collection of Benjamin's work Illuminations and reproduced on this website.

This is therefore the first of a series of reflections. Hopefully I'll get through each thesis. Benjamin's theses are just numbered, but I am going to give them titles. This one I am calling The Puppet.

The Turk was a chess playing automaton that toured in the eighteenth century, beating humans at chess, exposed as fraudulent in the nineteenth century - it was in fact a puppet, worked by master chess players.

Benjamin - who loves metaphor, it must be said - imagines this puppet to be historical materialism, which beats every other argument - we will come to understand how and why it beats every other argument better as the theses unfold.

But what is interesting in the first thesis, is the puppet master: a hunchback. Arendt in her introduction helps us out here. The little hunchback, she explains, is a mythical creature from Benjamin's German childhood, the source of pain and misadventure - mothers would say "did that naughty little hunchback trip you?" that sort of thing.

We should recall when this was written - January 1940, when the alliance between Hitler and Stalin was just months old and uncertainty hung over Europe. The pain and cost of historical development was exceedingly clear.

In the midst of this pain and uncertainty, Benjamin seems to be beginning to articulate a belief in causality, a longstanding preoccupation of German thinkers. Historical materialism defeats all other arguments to be sure, but it is a costly victory, for it is driven by the source of pain and misadventure, the little hunchback.

The place of theology here is interesting, a reference I suspect to the replacement of the medieval metanarratives with new metanarratives of liberty and revolution, whose language veils their theological nature. Perhaps we will see more about this later.

I. The story is told of an automaton constructed in such a way that it could play a winning game of chess, answering each move of an opponent with a countermove. A puppet in Turkish attire and with a hookah in its mouth sat before a chessboard placed on a large table. A system of mirrors created the illusion that this table was transparent from all sides. Actually, a little hunchback who was an expert chess player sat inside and guided the puppet’s hand by means of strings. One can imagine a philosophical counterpart to this device. The puppet called ‘historical materialism’ is to win all the time. It can easily be a match for anyone if it enlists the services of theology, which today, as we know, is wizened and has to keep out of sight. 

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Swimming in history

The most numerous moments are the discomfort, the fatigue of a forced march through a grim historical region of petty and faded motives, one that is in fact too close to the historian-traveller. This is what Michelet calls 'rowing' ('I am rowing through Loius XI. I am rowing through Louis XIV. I swim laboriously. I am rowing vigorously through Richelieu and the Fronde'). Yet the plunge involves an incomplete assimilation of History, a failed nutrition, as if the body, thrust into an element where it does not breathe, found itself stifled by the very proximity of space.

- Roland Barthes, Michelet, p.22 

Monday, 20 August 2012

PhD awarded, Thesis Online!

Somehow in all the excitement I forgot to put the important news on the blog that has recorded my progress since 2008 Thesis done, PhD awarded, dissertation online at http://ses.library.usyd.edu.au/handle/2123/8606