:: Article

Benjamin’s Shadow

By Eugene Brennan.


Eli Friedlander, Walter Benjamin: A Philosophical Portrait, Harvard University Press, 2012.

A surge of academic interest in the work of Walter Benjamin was triggered in the 1980s when his incomplete Arcades Project was finally published. Now approaching something of an academic industry, Benjamin’s work has also been of great interest in certain strands of theory and criticism in which there has been a renewed enthusiasm for modernism, and a preoccupation with the notion of hauntology. Developed by Jacques Derrida in 1993’s Spectres of Marx, ‘hauntology’ was originally considered in relation to the spectre of communism over the post-1989 world in which, it was claimed, history had reached its end. Transcending the divide between academia and pop culture, hauntology has since come to broadly evoke the spectral presence of remnants of the unfulfilled past within the present. From Simon Reynolds’s analysis of pop music’s increasingly self-referential return to its own past in Retromania, to Owen Hatherley’s re-reading of the failed social projects of the twentieth century in Militant Modernism, the spectre of Benjamin himself has been increasingly evoked during an intensively retrospective period of culture and theory.

With the Arcades Project, Benjamin tried to crystallize a unique philosophy of history, and to present the possibility of a radical experience of the present time through its relation to the past, namely 19th century Paris. For Eli Friedlander, the Arcades Project is Benjamin’s most extreme attempt to realize his philosophical task. Benjamin has not usually been considered a philosopher in his own right, partly due to the inter-disciplinary scope of his work as well as the esoteric method used. The Arcades Project is famous for the lack of actual commentary itself, mainly consisting of a collage-like presentation of quotations. However the thrust of Benjamin’s philosophical project is not contained in the theoretical commentary. Instead, Friedlander emphasises, the presentation of the material itself was for Benjamin a philosophical project, ‘a philosophical investigation of historical experience’.

The abundance of quotations and preoccupation with fragmentary images has often given rise to reductive readings. Friedlander’s rigorous analysis is particularly interesting for assessing those basic facets of Benjamin’s thought which have often been reduced to cliché. He undermines the myth and fetishization of incompleteness and fragmentation which surrounds Benjamin’s work. To Friedlander, the use of quotation should not be identified with Romantic use of the fragmentary form or with the Baroque penchant for ruins and remains. The method of quotation is not merely a result of the unfinished state of Benjamin’s project either. The methodology is guided by a philosophy whose main aim is to provide an emergency exit out of a sense of historical ‘progression’. Benjamin’s historico-philosophical schema, the difficult concepts permeating his work – the dialectical image, historical catastrophe, etc. – are all guided by the assertion of human agency and the possibility of revolutionary change amidst apparently deterministic historical development.

While Benjamin reads the tiniest historical details as crystallizations of historical truth, the dialectical image does not refer to these historical fragments but to what emerges from the use of such fragments. To take the obvious example then, the arcades as an historical image are ‘destructive’ as pillars of the rise of capitalism while at the same time containing ‘constructive’ possibilities as a new social approach to space. As a ‘house no less than street’, they point the way to a conception of space which transcends divisions between the public and the private. The potency of the dialectical image can only emerge when such images are taken out of context, in order to break with a sense of linear historical development. In his historiography Benjamin seeks to emphasise and exacerbate the dialectical tension, the polar extremes, within historical subjects. Polarizing intentions would constitute the present as a decisive moment. As Friedlander puts it, ‘recognizing the stakes of history would bring the present into a critical state’.

A coherent portrait of Benjamin emerges in which he is neither stifled by a melancholy gaze towards the past nor a utopian conception of the future. Benjamin’s philosophy was instead guided by an urgency to realise a radical experience of the Now:

Messianic temporality as a scheme of actualization does not involve the projection of a utopian end in a more or less distant future but rather the urgent revolution of the present by way of the recognition of its bond with the suffering of the past. The present transformed, what Benjamin calls the Now, rather than any dreams of the future, is the focal point of the messianic passion.

Some of the most interesting and frustratingly opaque aspects of Benjamin’s philosophy of history are examined in the final chapter on Remembrance. Friedlander deftly probes the clash in Benjamin’s thinking between theology and revolutionary politics. We get a lucid insight into the development of Benjamin’s philosophy in his later writings, which shifted from an emphasis on a Platonic scheme, towards a highly esoteric conception of messianic time which culminated in his final essay, the cryptic ‘On the Concept of History’. Nevertheless Benjamin’s thinking is revealed as more sober than has often been interpreted. A major facet of Benjamin’s philosophical project is, as Friedlander tells us, to transform Kantian philosophy by enlarging ‘the scope of metaphysical doctrine not only to nonmathematizable domains of scientific knowledge but also to domains of experience that are not domains of knowledge’. However, while Benjamin seeks a philosophy of experience beyond knowledge, the mysticism implicit in much of his writing is not conceived of as a mysticism beyond language. Mysticism is not invoked as a road to the ineffable.

Friedlander also demystifies the apocalyptic elements of Benjamin’s writing. The apocalyptic destructive character of messianism does not mean that Benjamin thought destruction must be wrought in order to transform society:

It is imperative to keep in mind how for Benjamin the catastrophe has already occurred; it is the past as the present forces it to appear. Catastrophe is the constant condition of the present until revolutionary measures are taken.

While philosophically examining Benjamin’s understanding of more unconventional themes such as embodiment, Friedlander also devotes a large proportion of the book to familiar Benjamin themes such as time, history, and the dialectical image. However, in returning to these themes from a strictly philosophical perspective, we gain new insights into the most frustrating and complex issues of Benjamin’s philosophy of history. There’s a relatively consistent effort to relate philosophically abstract issues to concrete examples, while the unusual structure of a ‘Remarks’ section at the end of each chapter allows for more tangential elaborations of philosophical themes raised in the preceding chapter. Thus the reader gets a clear picture of Benjamin’s debt to, and divergence from, philosophical heavyweights such as Kant and Hegel.

Benjamin’s shadow over the contemporary preoccupation of theory with all things hauntological is fitting, particularly in the treatment of melancholy and history. From Zizek and Badiou, to Zero Books publications by Mark Fisher and Owen Hatherley, contemporary theory’s return to modernism has been marked by a self-conscious attempt to avoid the burden of melancholy affecting our relationship to the past, often characteristic of failed leftist projects. Thus in searching for a call to arms for a new modernist outlook in Militant Modernism, Hatherley opts not for Beckett’s “Fail again, Fail Better” but Brecht’s more assertive ‘Forwards! Never Forgetting’. Benjamin’s philosophy of history is similarly sensitive to resisting a lapse into melancholy, as Friedlander repeatedly emphasises.

Implicit in reducing Benjamin’s work to an obsession with fragmentation, is the view of his project as a kind of melancholy meandering through the ruins of modernity. Friedlander , however, depicts a more positive portrait, which asserts the potency of Benjamin’s thought, and implies its ongoing relevance. While not denying the use-value of Benjamin’s thinking however, this philosophical portrait also makes a welcome invitation to reconsider our most fundamental perceptions of Benjamin’s thought.


Eugene Brennan is a writer/researcher based in Paris. He is currently working on a PhD on the theoretical legacy of Georges Bataille.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, February 27th, 2012.