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. 

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