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Monday, June 10, 2013

CLOUD ATLAS: A Reading Through Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project, By Friedlander and Fenves

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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. - WALTER BENJAMIN - THE ARCADES PROJECT

Walter Benjamin -  Ayala Tal
In a coda, The Messianic Reduction fast-forwards to the 1940 essay, “On the Concept of History,” finding the non-linear “shape of time” writ larger here in the late philosophy of history: now the messianic is the making-congruent of the local shape of time and the larger shape of history, and the messiah is a name for the force that accomplishes this temporal structuring. Peter Fenves’s The Messianic Reduction: Walter Benjamin and the Shape of Time

“Walter Benjamin” in this second study should not be considered a person, but, first, as a prodigious structure of capacities, capable of gathering thought into form, creating written images which address, absorb and ultimately reshape historical time, and, second, as the corpus of significant texts made in the crucible of this knowledge. All that matters is what has been read and what comes to be written. There is no need, in this analysis, for Berlin or Port Bou, Dora or Asja, the angry father or the neglected son. FENVES

The messianic, for Benjamin, was nothing so simple as a redeemer arriving to call time and distribute justice at the end of days. Rather, it referred to something like a structure of temporal experience, but an “experience” that goes beyond the individual and even the social. To use the Benjaminian terminology that Fenves brings into sharp relief, it is the immanent tension that is the fact and the force of divinity in the world, permanently present, endlessly mutable

For Benjamin, the “reduction” mediated a sphere of experience beyond the conditioned framings of conscious thought. But, as Fenves reads him, Benjamin granted this subjectless experience of pure receptivity a near-mystical valence. The “reduction” was an opening onto a kind of paradise; the stubborn “natural attitude” was both analog and agent of the fallen, guilty state of mankind. This also underlay Benjamin’s disagreement on questions of method. Unlike Husserl’s willed “bracketing” of philosophical assumptions — a carefully prescribed method for dismantling the self-evident — for Benjamin, getting beyond the “natural attitude” was not a matter of decision, for the philosopher or anyone else. Not that the impossibility of a chosen path implies the non-existence of the divine, or even, strictly speaking, its inaccessibility: the divine is something that can be thought and experienced, but always as the irruption or appearance of an outside, never commanded forth by a direct action of human will. The “reduction” was done to the philosopher, not by him. ( Can we think of this moment as a moment of salvation?)

Reflecting on his method, Friedlander alludes to Benjamin’s notion of “origin,” developed in The Origin of the German Tragedy: not the start of a linear development, but an intense vortex of transformation, in which elements of the past undergo a complex process of rearrangement and recognition, disappearance and endurance. Via restructuring, the dialectical image — Benjamin’s work — appears as a higher form of origin, a node of immanent intensity in which the potentiality of created nature is made manifest, and truth and life are concentrated and brought forth anew. 

It is the forceful insistence of these metaphysical claims that, more than anything else, distinguishes Friedlander’s book from other recent unpackings of Benjamin’s philosophical baggage, as his intervention commits itself to an extraordinary degree, venturing far beyond the safe ground of academic analysis. In this reading, Benjamin’s amalgam of temporalities fabricates a framework for the manifestation of “divine force,” the display of “divine power.” The divine here, as with the “messianic reduction,” is not a transcendent or static godly presence; it inheres in the weave of earthly existence, immanent and intensive. Crucially, however, Friedlander’s reparative vitalism is also a work of memory. The creation of the dialectical image bids farewell to the past in order that life — bare life, creaturely life, inorganic life, historical life — can go on. To put it in terms worn down from overuse — and at the risk of banalizing a book that is, whatever else, hardly banal — the force within Benjamin’s work enables a coming to terms with the past. While never made entirely explicit, it is not hard to read Friedlander’s book, above all his concluding chapter, as a response to the concrete atrocities and losses of twentieth-century history, with theories of trauma and memory wrought into a philosophy of history in which Benjamin’s work serves as the central mediating device.

Walter Benjamin: A Philosophical Portrait - Friedlander

Neither the reasons for Benjamin’s choice of material, nor the political stakes of his work, then or now, ever becomes clear. Granted, it posits a construction of truth in one sense — located in the dialectics of recognition that passes between past and present — but historically specific regimes of truth are neither a fact nor a problem. The power that invests knowledge here is of a spiritual and divine order, emphatically not a social or socio-epistemological one. And as truth is re-enthroned, problems of textuality evaporate. 

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