The following text has been automatically reproduced by an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) algorithm. It may not have been checked over by human eyes. For matters of precision please consult the original pdf.

Philosophizing beyond philosophy

for all its voluminousness. This is testament, no doubt, to the historical power of Benjaminʼs writings, but also to a certain more contemporary need for what they have come to represent. For if Benjamin has prospered, in part, from the notorious multiplicity of his personae – and hence from a seemingly endless capacity for reinvention – how much more deeply has his writing been felt as the site of the possibility of their convergence? Thus has the enigma of Benjamin the man (multiple yet one) come to underlie and secure the continued productivity of the work.

It is not the actualities of Benjaminʼs life which have been important here, so much as the image of victimhood – condensing Jewish, communist, and intellectual identities – with which it has become associated, thanks in no small part to the widespread reproduction of his photographic portraits. The promise of the writings is sustained as a promise, frozen, ʻlike time in a photographʼ, because the life was cut short. A study in interiority, the eyes in Giséle Freundʼs famous photograph (reproduced on the cover of Illuminations) cast a downwards glance, but they see only inwards. In the face of such images, it is all too easy to project Benjaminʼs end backwards, as unworldliness, into his life, suffusing it with the light of tragic resignation, as if this were its essence. Yet this is to appeal to precisely that ʻcommonly regarded causal connectionʼ More books on Benjamin,* and still the pile grows. If the previous fin de siècle in Europe ushered in an age which (in Wildeʼs phrase) ʻreads so much that it has no time to admire, and writes so much that it has no time to thinkʼ, how much more true is this of the academy today, as it gears up to full capacity, putting even its most industrious predecessors to shame. Benjaminʼs prose breeds commentary like vaccine in a lab. There are already half a dozen monographs in English which take Benjaminʼs name for their title – quite apart from such staples of the secondary literature as Michael Jenningsʼs Dialectical Images (1987) and The Dialectics of Seeing (1989) by Susan Buck-Morss – to which Brodersenʼs biography (a revised version of the German edition of 1990) and Howard Caygillʼs fine study may now be added. Brodersen refers his readers to a ʻvery limited choiceʼ of twenty-nine volumes on Benjamin ʻeasily availableʼ in English. And all this prior to the founding in Amsterdam last summer of an International Walter Benjamin Association. Meanwhile, the long-awaited magnum opus by Irving Wohlfarth, No Manʼs Land – rumoured to have sprouted into several volumes – broods ominously in the wings. Words enough, one might think, to blunt even the keenest enthusiasm. Yet still the pile grows.

It is remarkable that the literature on Benjamin in English maintains so high a standard of commentary,

Philosophizing beyond philosophy Walter Benjamin reviewed

Peter osborne

* Momme Brodersen, Walter Benjamin: A Biography, trans. Malcolm R. Green and Ingrid Ligers, ed. Martina Dervis, Verso,

London and New York, 1996 (1997 pb). xvi + 334 pp., £25.00 hb., £ 14.00 pb., 1 85984 967 9 hb., 1 85984 082 5 pb. Howard Caygill, Walter Benjamin: The Colour of Experience, Routledge, London and New York, 1998. 184 pp., £40.00 hb., £13.99 pb., 0 415 08958 1 hb., 0 415 08959 X pb. Gerhard Fischer, ed., ʻWith the Sharpened Axe of Reasonʼ: Approaches to Walter Benjamin, Berg, Oxford and Washington DC, 1996. viii + 229 pp., £34.95 hb., £14.95 pb., 1 85973 044 2 hb., 1 85973 054 X pb. Michael P. Steinberg, ed., Walter Benjamin and the Demands of History, Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 1996. 252 pp., £33.50 hb., £13.95 pb., 0 8014 3135 2 hb., 0 8014 8257 7 pb. Sigrid Weigel, Bodyand Image-Space: Re-reading Walter Benjamin, trans. Georgina Paul with Rachel McNicholl and Jeremy Gaines, Routledge, London and New York, 1996. xvii + 204 pp., £40.00 hb., £12.99 pb., 0 415 10955 8 hb., 0 415 10956 6 pb.between character and fate which Benjamin himself (in his 1919 essay, ʻFate and Characterʼ) argued was ʻtheoretically untenableʼ, since ʻno definition of the external world can disregard the limits sets by the concept of the active manʼ: ʻwhere there is character there will, with certainty, not be fate, and in the area of fate character will not be found.ʼ For Benjamin, fate was the ʻguilt context of the livingʼ, and as such essentially pagan. It is associated with nature and law, not religion or ethics or politics. It is always mythic in structure. Suicide, on the other hand, was for many of his generation (in the wake of Nietzsche) a heroic passion, a paradigmatic if paradoxical example of a free act.

This is just one instance of the pitfalls placed by conventional modes of interpretation in the path of a proper response to Benjaminʼs work. It might seem fitting that Benjamin, philosopher of the image, should find the reception of his works so dominated by a particular set of images. (There are two films about him – drama-documentaries – in distribution.) Yet it is as an illustration of the highly charged ambiguity of imagistic attraction, alone, that this is so: that innervating immediacy which can swamp, as easily as it can ignite, the immediacy of reflection. For there is no critical power in the image here. No disruption of the false continuities of narrated time. No rearticulation of historically disparate elements. Indeed, it is a mark of the mythic function of Benjaminʼs photographic image that it is used so often as the frontispiece of books, establishing identity without reflection, as a kind of logo for enigmatic intellectuality: a guarantee of quality indifferent to what lurks between the covers.

It was a heightened sense of the dangers of the ecstatic side of the image which drew Benjamin away from surrealism in the mid-1930s, with the rise of fascism, towards the affective rationalism of Brechtʼs notion of the epic; although the productive tension between these two poles of his thought was unresolved. It is ironic that Benjaminʼs writings, famous for their refusal of biographical criticism (he considered his contribution to German literature to lie in his abstinence from the word ʻIʼ), should become so dominated by their authorʼs image. Hardly surprising, though, from the standpoint of their analysis of aura, commodification, and cultural form.

Biography and self-mythologization

It is a virtue of Brodersenʼs Walter Benjamin that it largely avoids the mythologization of Benjaminʼs life, forgoing reverence for its subject in favour of reverence for the facts. Meticulous in its reconstruction of the historical context and details of Benjaminʼs childhood and student years (nearly half the book), and of the sources and publishing history of his writings, at times it feels less like a biography than a biographical source-book: a reservoir of information, a hagiography of fact. The concentration on the early years is both frustrating and fruitful. It is as if, in flight from the impossible demand of throwing new light on the end of Benjaminʼs life, Brodersen has buried himself in Benjaminʼs childhood and refused to come out. This is probably as much a result of which archives were open to him, as of any conscious choice: both the Benjamin estate and the Adorno archive refused access.

The gains of the focus on the early years are a powerful evocation of a particular class life in Berlin in the decades either side of the beginning of this century, and a stronger sense than has previously been conveyed of the abiding significance for an understanding of Benjaminʼs life of the period of his involvement in the German Youth Movement, prior to the First World War. The former relies a little too heavily on Benjaminʼs own, by now well-known, reminiscences to be fully convincing, biographically. (The use of autobiographical materials here converts Brodersenʼs objectivism into an oddly affectless subjectivism.) But the latter pays dividends in the contribution it makes to undermining the image of Benjamin as victim, haplessly subject to forces beyond his control. As Brodersen shows, the young Benjamin may have been forbiddingly intellectual, but he was stridently opposed to the German university in its existing (and any likely) form. He was enormously ambitious intellectually and supremely confident in his powers. His notorious rejection by the system (his failure to place his Habilitation thesis on the German sorrow play) must be placed in this context. For even if the outcome of the Habilitation had been different, it is hard to imagine him, in the long run, restricting what Brodersen calls his ʻdesire for cultureʼ to the disciplinary regimes of academe. Rather, the whole tenor of Benjaminʼs life up to this point gestures forcefully towards the self-appointed role of ʻstrategist in the literary battleʼ that he would subsequently adopt.

The claim that The Origin of German Tragic Drama was critically neglected, when it was eventually published in 1928, is an important component of the conventional image, since it reinforces the idea that its rejection as a thesis was a great personal disaster. Yet Brodersen shows that this is nothing less than a myth initiated by Benjamin himself: ʻIf ever one of Benjaminʼs books received universal attention during his lifetime, it was this one.ʼ It was favourably reviewed in a large number of the most renowned newspapers and periodicals of the day, including several abroad. By 1928 Benjamin had been a regular reviewer for the Frankfurter Zeitung and the Literarische Welt for three years. On Brodersenʼs count, he contributed well over one hundred pieces to the latter – which by 1929 was selling nearly 30,000 copies of each issue – in the space in eight years. He also made more than eighty radio broadcasts in Frankfurt and Berlin between 1929 and 1932. And despite the wartime interruption of his education, all this before his fortieth birthday. In contrast, his most successful piece of academic work, his doctoral dissertation, The Concept of Art Criticism in German Romanticism, published as a monograph in 1920, sold no more than a few hundred copies, and left almost no trace on the cultural consciousness of the day.

At its best, Brodersenʼs Walter Benjamin eschews biographical criticism for biography as criticism of myth. After giving up on the academy, Benjaminʼs stated goal was to become ʻthe premier critic of German literatureʼ, and in the process, ʻto recreate criticism as a genreʼ. And by the beginning of 1930, he considered he was ʻgetting closeʼ to this ʻat lastʼ. However, if Brodersen is good on the institutional dynamics and cultural coordinates of Benjaminʼs life (reflecting his archival researches), he is far less impressive on his personal relationships, his years in exile (given half the space of his early life), or the developmental logic of his work. We learn next to nothing about Benjaminʼs life in Paris in the mid-1930s, for example; and very little about the Passagen-Werk, or Arcades Project, the massive, posthumously published collection of notes and materials which formed the centre of his intellectual existence in his final years.

To write the biography of a bibliophile is in large part to tell the tale of the books he or she loved. And it is certainly texts and their cultural life – including the text of the city – rather than women which hold centrestage in Brodersenʼs book, in stark contrast to some other recent biographies of philosophers. (See Jonathan Réeʼs review of Ray Monkʼs Bertrand Russell, ʻPoor Bertieʼ, in RP 81.) Yet one should not mistake Brodersenʼs Walter Benjamin for an intellectual biography. It is not sufficiently interested in ideas. Bernd Witteʼs Walter Benjamin: An Intellectual Biography (Wayne State University Press, 1991; translating the German edition of 1985) is far superior on that score.

The real delight of Brodersenʼs book is its pictures:

elegantly displayed photographs and reproductions, over two hundred in all, scattered liberally throughout, nestling in the wide margins of the text and trumpeting themselves across the pages – great slabs of grey. Brodersen immerses the images of Benjamin himself (of which there are about fifteen) in a sea of buildings and street scenes, postcards and documents, portraits of friends, associates and family, letters, journals and book covers – dissolving their claim to uniqueness into the historical stream from which they have become detached. Brodersenʼs historiographical method is by no means Benjaminian. The book is free of excessive methodological self-consciousness. But if Benjaminʼs extraordinary intellect at times appears – as Benjamin himself appeared to Asja Lacis when he turned up unexpectedly in Riga – ʻto have arrived from another planetʼ, Brodersen reminds us that itʼs the one we are living on.

Romanticism and art criticism

The Concept of Art Criticism in German Romanticism may have sold no more than a few hundred copies, but it is central to an understanding of Benjaminʼs thought. Until now, the reception into English of Benjaminʼs early writings, prior to the ʻcaesuraʼ of 1924 – Marxism – has mainly been restricted to an unpublished fragment of his mystical philosophy of language (1916), an essay of messianic political philosophy, written under the influence of Georges Sorel (ʻCritique of Violenceʼ, 1921), and the introduction * Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume One: 1913–1926, eds, Marcus Bullock and Michael W, Jennings, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA and London, 1997. 520pp., £23.50 hb., 0 674 94585

9. ^ Hereafter cited as his German translation of Baudelaireʼs Tableaux Parisiens (ʻThe Task of the Translatorʼ, also from 1921). More recently, attention has been drawn to the systematic import of the conception of experience outlined in the quasi-Kantian ʻOn the Program of the Coming Philosophyʼ (1918, another posthumously published piece). Yet these are in themselves by no means the most significant or representative of Benjaminʼs early works, or the ones which best help us to comprehend the complex, fractured continuity of his life-work.

Now, the philosophical ground of Benjaminʼs oeuvre is finally available, in the first volume of his Selected Writings.* This includes The Concept of Art Criticism in German Romanticism and Goetheʼs ʻElective Affinitiesʼ (completed in 1922, and published in two instalments in 1924–5), along with ʻTwo Poems by Friedrich Hölderlinʼ (1916) and a range of other manuscript materials and short pieces. With the appearance of this book, all of Benjaminʼs most important writings are now accessible to the English-reader, with the crucial exception of the Passagen-Werk, the culminating torso of Benjaminʼs life-work.

Benjaminʼs early writings are marked, not by Jewish mysticism as such, so much as by its influence on his reception of German Romanticism. It was in the context of this relationship that Kantʼs work acquired its peculiar significance. For in providing a systematic structure for their mediation, it embraced them within the horizon of a specific philosophical task: ʻthe epistemological foundation of a higher [metaphysical] concept of experienceʼ (SW, p. 102). Benjaminʼs early thought is dominated by this idea. Its elaboration is only sporadically philosophical, in any direct, disciplinary sense. Yet it is here – in the entanglement of epistemological and what he called ʻextralogical, aesthetic determinationsʼ – that the deepest philosophical impulse of his thinking lies. It provided the impetus for Benjaminʼs development of a quasi-Romantic theory of criticism, which he would subsequently generalize beyond the work of art, into the philosophical ground of his own distinctive experimental form of experiential cultural history.

It is in the relationship of philosophy to art, mediated by the concept of criticism, that the key to Benjaminʼs early writings is to be found. It is in this context that his metaphysical conceptions of history and politics are to be understood. His dissertation on Romanticism was originally to have been about Kantʼs writings on history, and he viewed the two topics as being in close contiguity with one another. In the dissertation itself, Benjamin insists that it is only from the standpoint of messianism – an orientation towards the future energized by the prospect of the fulfilment of history – that the essence of Romanticism can be grasped. And he associates this standpoint with modernity: the idea of the French Revolution, the realization of the kingdom of God on Earth. From the point of view of this metaphysical structure of history, the task of criticism is ʻto liberate the future from its deformations in the present by an act of cognitionʼ (SW, p. 38) – a formulation that appears as early as 1915.

Reading The Concept of Art Criticism in German Romanticism today is an extraordinary experience. Not only does it throw light on various aspects of Benjaminʼs (and Adornoʼs) later work, but it speaks directly to the current philosophical conjuncture in a number of ways. There has been a revival of philosophical interest in early German Romanticism going on for some time now, and a spate of translations.* For those dissatisfied with the evasions of pragmatism and quasi-transcendental method, yet disinclined to embrace either of the main metaphysical alterna-tives (negative-theological Hegelianism and libidinal energetics), the decline of the intellectual culture of Marxism has left the field open to Romanticism, as the main competitor to deconstruction in providing a framework for the exploration of the implications, limits, and destruction of Kantianism. Romanticism appears here as an explicitly literary form of philosophical hermeneutics through which concepts of representation and truth may nonetheless be critically maintained. Adorno, Benjamin and Heidegger can all be re-read productively from this point of view. (See Andrew Bowie, From Romanticism to Critical Theory, reviewed by Austin Harrington in RP 87.) The first part of Benjaminʼs dissertation marks the relation to Kantianism through its account of the transitional role of Fichteʼs concepts of reflection and positing in laying a path from transcendental logic to experience of the absolute, via the infinity of the ʻIʼ. The decisive move made by the Romantics is the retention of the idea of ʻreflection in the absoluteʼ in the context of the rejection of Fichteʼs ʻIʼ (on the grounds of inconsistencies in its relation to finitude). The Romantics replace Fichteʼs ʻIʼ with the work of art as the medium of reflection of the absolute. This has a series of consequences for the constellation of the work of art, systematic philosophy, and art criticism, which are foundational for Benjaminʼs thought, across all differences in its subsequent contexts of application and discursive modes.1. The work of art is irreducibly individual. As a functional unity of perceptual and intellectual properties, it reflects the individuality of the absolute. This sounds similar to a view of the artwork based on Kantʼs notion of aesthetic judgement. However, there is nothing specifically artistic about the objects of such judgement in Kantʼs view. Here, on the other hand, the experience of artworks is transcendentally dependent on the idea of art, whilst the works themselves are nonetheless relatively autonomous, as individual works, via-à-vis this idea.2. This notion of the irreducibly individual work of art as a ʻmedium of reflection of the absoluteʼ destroys the possibility of systematic philosophy (the aspiration to grasp the infinite connectedness of the real in the form of a conceptual totality), on account of the plurality of works. The infinity of art is fulfilled only in the totality of individual works (SW, p. 183).3. However, this does not effect the necessity for philosophy to be systematically oriented, since as Friedrich Schlegel put it: ʻthe spirit of system … is something entirely different from a systemʼ. The concept of systematic intention can thus be saved from the impossibility of systematic exposition.4. The ʻsystematic referabilityʼ of the work of art (the fact that it gains its meaning as art as a reflection-medium of the absolute) is demonstrated in the possibility of a systematic commentary. It is the role of art criticism ʻto grasp the system absolutelyʼ (SW, p. 138) through the analysis of the systematic intention of the individual work. This is the mysticism of Romanticism.5. Criticism does this through the analysis of form. (Form is understood as ʻthe objective expression of the reflection proper to the work, the reflection that constitutes its essenceʼ [SW, p. 156].) Art criticism ʻdissolves the form in order to transform the single work into the absolute work of artʼ (SW, p. 163). This is what it means to ʻromanticizeʼ it.6. Art criticism is thus ʻfar less the judgment of a work than the method of its consummationʼ (SW, p. 153). It completes the work. Indeed, in Romanticism, art criticism is ʻvalued more highly than works of artʼ (SW, p. 185).

To sum up: only in criticism, criticism of art, can we find a form of experience adequate to the metaphysical notion of truth, which rationalism attempted to preserve in the face of modern epistemology through the system. As Benjamin puts it in a fragment composed shortly after his dissertation: works of art are ʻconstructs that bear the deepest affinity to philosophy, or rather to the ideal form of its problem, without constituting philosophy themselvesʼ. What critique seeks to prove about a work is ʻthe virtual possibility of the formulation of its contents as a philosophical problemʼ. Thus, ʻevery great work has its sibling (brother or sister?) in the realm of philosophy.ʼ (SW, pp. 217–19) Given the importance of the idea of art here, it is something of a scandal that the Selected Writings should have omitted the word from the title of their translation of the dissertation: rendering Kunstkritik * Theory as Practice: A Critical Anthrology of Early German Romantic Writings, eds and trans. Jochen Schulte-Sasse et al., University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis and London, 1997. x + 479 pp., £50.00 hb., £18.95 pb., 0 8166 2778 9 hb., 0 8166 2779 7 pb. Friedrich Schlegel, Philosophical Fragments, trans. Peter Firchow, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis and London, 1991. xxiii + 112 pp., £11.95 pb., 0 8166 1901

8. ^ Novalis, Philosophical Writings, ed. and trans. Margaret Mahony Stoljar, State University of New York Press, Albany, 1997. x + 194 pp., £37.50 hb., £10.00 pb., 0 7914 3271 8 hb., 0 7914 3272 6 ʻcriticismʼ, to give us ʻThe Concept of Criticism in German Romanticismʼ, and translating the generic Kritik by the English ʻcritiqueʼ, to make up. There are at least two dubious assumptions here. One is that the English ʻcriticismʼ implies ʻartʼ so strongly as to render its qualification redundant. The other is that the English ʻcritiqueʼ has the same breadth of application as the German Kritik. The former is problematic not only because it excludes the possibility of criticism of other kinds of object (social or political criticism, for example); but also because, in so far as it has any validity, such usage applies to literary works alone. Some justification for this might be sought in the Romanticsʼ own restricted use of the term ʻartʼ (Kunst). But Benjamin himself points out that this equivocation … designates a fundamental lack in the Romantic theory of literature, indeed of art generally. Both concepts are only unclearly distinguished from each other, to say nothing of their being oriented towards each other so that no understanding of the peculiar nature and the limits of poetic expression vis-à-vis other arts could arise. (SW, p. 118)To try to eliminate the equivocation terminologically, in the translation of a text which explicitly draws our attention to it, is seriously to diminish that work. Not only does it cut off the Romantic heritage from those areas of its greatest contemporary relevance – music and the visual arts – but it conceals the extent to which the subsequent radical cultural generalization of the theory by Benjamin has its conceptual condition in the Romantic theory of art itself.

Commentary and critique

The Concept of Art Criticism is a strong reading of an existing body of theory. Goetheʼs ʻElective Affinitiesʼ, Benjaminʼs next main work, develops that position theoretically and applies it to a particular work. More specifically, it takes up the historical dimension of interpretation, which Benjamin had noted but set aside in his doctorate, in order to render the Romantic theory of criticism explicitly historical, and thereby to make it Benjaminʼs own. The theoretical dimension of the text hinges on a distinction introduced on the first page: ʻCritique seeks the truth content of a work of art; commentary, its material content.ʼ This is the fruition of a distinction first raised in ʻTwo Poems by Friedrich Hölderlinʼ, where Benjamin distinguishes between ʻaestheticʼ and ʻphilologicalʼ commentary, associating the former with Goetheʼs notion of content as ʻinner formʼ. In the dissertation on Romanticism, ʻsystematic commentaryʼ takes the place of aesthetic commentary, but the thesis ends with a comparison of the Romantic theory of art with Goetheʼs, which notes the inadequacy of the account of content in the Romantic view. For the Romantics, the relation of artworks to ʻartʼ (the idea of art) is defined as ʻinfinity in totalityʼ or ʻpure formʼ; for Goethe, it is defined as ʻunity in pluralityʼ or ʻpure contentʼ. The theory of criticism expounded in Goetheʼs ʻElective Affinitiesʼ may be read as an attempt to resolve this antinomy by giving an account of the relationship of the ʻtruth contentʼ of a work of art to its ʻmaterialʼ or historical content.[This relation] is determined by that basic law of literature according to which the more significant the work, the more inconspicuously and intimately its truth content is bound up with its material content. If, therefore, the works that prove enduring are precisely those whose truth is most deeply sunken in their material content, then, in the course of this duration, the concrete realities rise up before the eyes of the beholder all the more distinctly the more they die out in the world. With this, however, to judge by appearances, the material content and the truth content, united at the beginning of the workʼs history, set themselves apart from each other in the course of its duration, because the truth content always remains to the same extent hidden as the material content comes to the fore. More and more, therefore, the interpretation of what is striking and curious – that is, the material content – becomes a prerequisite for any later critic. (SW, p. 297) The critic must begin with commentary and move through it towards critique.

The failure of German literary criticism, on Benjaminʼs view, was that it failed to make this transition. Not only was it stuck at the level of material content, but, because it was stuck there, it failed to grasp its relationship to the work as a whole, and was thus inadequate as commentary as well. The famous polemic against the biographical criticism of Gundolfʼs Goethe – ʻthe legally binding condemnation and execution of Friedrich Gundolfʼ, as Benjamin put it in a letter to Scholem – and against the ʻthoughtless dogmaʼ of the George-inspired ʻGoethe cultʼ more generally, must be read in this context. Although it was also the means for Benjamin to draw attention to himself before a wider audience. Picked up by Hugo Hofmannstahl for his journal Neue deutsche Beiträge, this essay was Benjaminʼs ticket for the first stage of his journey out of the academy, into a broader, more influential, and more polemical literary world.

In accordance with Benjaminʼs own analytical position, it is the ʻmaterial contentʼ of the polemic against Gundolf which stands out most obtrusively today. Its diminished relevance is often cited to explain the previous failure to translate the piece. Yet the textʼs primary interest lies in its theoretical content, and its relationship to its own literary form – especially, as an ancestor to Adornoʼs Aesthetic Theory. For we find here in fragmentary form a systematically oriented exposition of the constellation of concepts: truth and form; material content and technique; beauty, semblance and reconciliation; the expressionless, the spell and the caesura; mystery and hope. The pages on hope also connect directly to Benjaminʼs later essay on Kafka, in a series of textual continuities which inverts the conventional picture of the relationship between thought and language in intellectual development.

The transition from commentary to critique is registered within the text in the rhythm of the prose, whereby the fluidity of descriptive exposition is suddenly interrupted by dense, aphoristic, theoretical sentences, which pull the reader up short and require re-reading. It is necessary to traverse these passages again and again, not because they are grammatically obscure, but because they possess the exact measure of semantic opacity required to stimulate philosophical thought. It is precisely these kind of passages which contemporary intellectual culture edits out of public discourse as impenetrable diversions. The famously obscure ʻEpistemo-Critical Prologueʼ to The Origin of German Tragic Drama is constituted almost wholly at this level. Here, in Goetheʼs ʻElective Affinitiesʼ, they act as a punctual counterpoint to a commentary which would otherwise be in danger of lapsing into a mere recovery of material content. The essay marks a deepening of Benjaminʼs interest in philosophical form. Anyone with a serious interest in Benjamin, Adorno, or the relationship of the philosophy of art to cultural theory more generally, has much to gain from studying The Concept of Art Criticism and Goetheʼs ʻElective Affinitiesʼ closely. It is a pity that the editors of Selected Writings have diminished its usefulness by failing to ensure the provision of a subject index.

The distinction between commentary and critique is a useful one to apply to the secondary literature on Benjamin, as a test of how much intellectual work is being done in his reception; how much ʻthe striking and the curiousʼ has become a barrier, how much a route, to criticism.

The colour of experience

Caygillʼs Walter Benjamin: The Colour of Experience passes the test admirably. It is an excellent, idiosyncratic book. Setting aside what it describes as ʻthe proliferation of à la carte Walter Benjaminsʼ, it opts for what it takes to be Benjaminʼs own method of immanent critique. Such a method is immanent, not merely to the norms of the texts in question, but to the historical time of their after-life: the time that determines which ʻconcrete realitiesʼ rise up most distinctly because they have ʻdied out in the worldʼ. Caygillʼs book is organized around the relation between two such realities: the philosophical dimension of Passages, Dani Karavanʼs monument to Walter Benjamin, inaugurated on 15 May 1994Benjaminʼs concept of experience and his brief early writings on colour and visual experience, several of which are now conveniently available in English in the Selected Writings. However, although the latter provide Caygill with his distinctive angle and his title (giving him a ʻbrandʼ in the competitive market of Benjamin commentators), the former constitutes the conceptual heart of the book – the place where the work is being done, the truth content uncovered, the claims made. The movement of the book is from a direct approach to the philosophical structure of Benjaminʼs project (concentrating on the early years) to a demonstration of the richness of its actualization as a new, speculative form of cultural history, through analyses of the later writings on modernism, the work of art, and the experience of the city. The main argument of the book is that Benjamin turns cultural history into a medium for speculative critique.

Setting out from the now generally accepted position that Benjaminʼs project develops out of the Kantian concept of experience, Caygillʼs reading is distinctive in four main ways. First, it argues for the ʻanti-Hegelian but nevertheless speculativeʼ character of Benjaminʼs version of this concept. Second, it claims that this is developed out of Kant ʻthrough an extension of a Nietzschean method of active nihilismʼ, as ʻan exploration of the ambiguity of nihilismʼ. Third, it suggests that the paradigm of experience here is not linguistic, as is generally supposed, but rather the intuitive intensities of ʻchromatic differentiationʼ. Finally, and most dramatically, it downgrades the messianic dimension of Benjaminʼs thought to a dogmatic residue, fit only for critical excision.

The advantage of this approach is that it situates Benjaminʼs oeuvre in the mainstream of nineteenthand twentieth-century European philosophy as an invasion and ruin of philosophy by experience. (As Caygill comments nicely on Benjaminʼs essay on Naples: ʻthe Neapolitan staircase walks all over the Critique of Pure Reason, disobeying all the rules which would qualify it to be an object of a possible experience.ʼ) The ʻdiscontinuous experience of the absoluteʼ which Benjamin seeks ʻexceeds philosophyʼ, but its meaning derives from this overstepping of its limits. Benjaminʼs is a ʻphilosophising beyond philosophyʼ. Caygillʼs account of the transformation in the relations between the transcendental and the speculative which this involves is a brilliant feat of condensed philosophical exposition. Kantʼs conditions of the possibility of experience are re-read, first, as conditions of legibility, and, second, as just one of an infinite set of such conditions, the relation to the whole of which defines the speculative aspect of experience. The transcendental thus reappears, semanticized and historical, yet still within the field of the absolute, as ʻa fold in the surface of speculative configurationʼ. Caygill detects two ʻinconsistent and even contradictory waysʼ in which Benjamin inhabits this speculative position: one which is open to ʻthe complex patterns and distortions of spatio-temporal experienceʼ, another which tends towards ʻa closed “redemptive” immanenceʼ. It is the latter, associated with the theme of the messianic, which is cast aside by Caygill as ʻdogmaticʼ. The eccentric emphasis on Benjaminʼs writings on colour is the flip-side of this rejection of the messianic: the non-dogmatic alternative to the imagined closure of time as a figure of totality. Colour becomes the figure for an openness to the contingencies of experience which compels philosophizing to ʻmove beyond classical philosophical problems and texts into the critical reflection upon literature, art, and culture in the broadest senseʼ.

So far, so good. However, without some interpretation of, or substitute for, the messianic, what figures the infinite set of conditions of legibility as a totality (as unconditioned), such that it can provide a specifically speculative dimension to experience? Why is totality immanent to experience? Having lopped off the messianic as dogmatic (because ʻexternalʼ), Caygill doesnʼt have an answer to this question, despite his repeated invocations of ʻthe absoluteʼ as the ultimate, albeit impossible, object of experience. As a result, ʻthe absoluteʼ tends to appear within his text as an abstract, dogmatic door-stop, much as it does in the Hegelianism of his mentor, Gillian Rose, to whose memory the book is dedicated. Thus, while we seem to be offered a Benjamin who is an eccentric neoKantian (the retrospective revenge of neo-Kantianism on phenomenology, in fact – Caygill is the author of Blackwellʼs Kant Dictionary) it is actually a Hegelian Kantianism much closer to Adornoʼs that is proffered: transcendental dialectic as a negative form of speculative experience. This is the consequence of trying to reconstruct the shape of Benjaminʼs project from such very early texts, without consideration of the relation to Romanticism. For it is only with the latter, with the idea of the work of art, that the notion of immanent totality acquires plausibility, below the level of a messianic conception of history. (In fact, even the work on colour is implicitly dependent on the idea of the work of art, in the painterly idea of the ʻgiven surfaceʼ.) However expansive Benjaminʼs subsequent sense of the objects of cultural experience and analysis would become, he continued to treat them on the Romantic model of artistic autonomy. Failure to recognize this (because of a conflation of the ideas of artistic and aesthetic autonomy, in the Kantian sense) has been the main barrier to a proper understanding of the analytical structure of Benjaminʼs later work – and its relationship to Adornoʼs – for years.

Fortunately, Caygill soon leaves the philosophical formalism of his interpretation of the earliest works behind (elegant as it, in its technical austerity), to chart the transformations in Benjaminʼs writings brought about by the shift in their register towards the experience of modernity. Although the basic philosophical position is repeated, in condensed form, with metronomic regularity, as a kind of mantra: a spell which must be continually recast to ward off the messianic, as it emerges again and again from inside Benjaminʼs texts – initially, in the Hölderlin and Goethe essays and The Origin of German Tragic Drama, through the figure of death; later, in the multiple forms of a temporal dialectics of desire and remembrance, investing the commodity-form and released in the bottled-up futurity of the outmoded.

The second half of the book concentrates on selected essays from the late 1920s and 1930s, leaving aside the Passagen-Werk and the famous theses ʻOn the Concept of Historyʼ. The chapter on the work of art wonʼt let go of the bone of vision, but its reading of the over-quoted but still misunderstood ʻWork of Artʼ essay, in its various versions, is a model of lucidity. It is followed by a free-ranging discussion of ʻthe experience of the cityʼ in which the early fragment ʻCapitalism as Religionʼ is used as a frame for the interpretation of the writings on Paris. The book ends with a brief (and, to me, unconvincing) apologia for its relegation of the messianic motif, in which Benjaminʼs Nietzscheanism momentarily reappears, in Rosean guise, as the abstract promise of ʻthe advent of a new lawʼ. Caygillʼs Walter Benjamin is not for the philosophically faint of heart, but it repays close attention. It is by some distance the most philosophically sophisticated work on Benjamin in English. Readers inclined to disagree with it will need strong grounds for doing so. Those who want their cultural theory without philosophy will have to stop reading Walter Benjamin.

IN the light of the present

Brodersen and Caygill offer different ways to read Benjamin – the life and the work – as a whole. The remaining three books under review are concerned with more specific aspects of his thought, and, in particular, the vexed question of its ʻactualityʼ or contemporaneity. The question is vexed, first, because how we are to go about determining the historical meaning of the present is one of the main things at issue in Benjaminʼs thought; and, second, because, under the influence of various French thinkers of the 1960s and 1970s, contemporary Anglo-American literary and cultural theory operates at considerable remove from the philosophical presuppositions of Benjaminʼs work.

Weigelʼs Bodyand Image-Space is made up of eleven loosely related essays on Benjamin, subdivided according to the themes of ʻimages and bodyʼ, ʻgenderʼ, and ʻmemory and writingʼ. ʻWith the Sharpened Axe of Reasonʼ presents papers from one of the international conferences commemorating the centenary of Benjaminʼs birth in 1992, held in Sydney, Australia. Walter Benjamin and the Demands of History collects pieces first delivered in the North American academy. All three books are actively concerned to insert Benjaminʼs work into new intellectual contexts in order to uncover hitherto concealed or neglected dimensions of its productivity: the modernism/postmodernism debate (the Fischer and Steinberg collections), poststructuralism and feminism (Fischer and Weigel), psychoanalysis (Weigel), and cultural and post-colonial studies (Steinberg). The determination to avoid what Fischer calls ʻthe adulatory-identificatory approachʼ is refreshing, but thinking through such engagements critically is a trickier business than some of the contributors here seem prepared to acknowledge. For example, it is not particularly useful or illuminating to be told that Benjamin ʻanticipatesʼ poststructuralist theories of textuality and ʻvarious motifs of Postmodernismʼ (Docker, in Fischer, p. 76); or that his idea of ʻthe language of thingsʼ represents ʻan expanded concept of writing (anticipating Derrida)ʼ (Weigel in Fischer, p. 96). Not only do such parallels lack all theoretical specificity or point, but the language of anticipation tends to be used in a crudely historicist manner: as if the more recently propounded theory is for some mysterious reason preferable on the sole grounds that it occupies a chronologically subsequent time. Benjamin himself, of course, was insistent on the theological character of such implicitly providential historicism. It is odd that Weigel should lapse into this way of writing, since elsewhere she is, at least formally, fairly ferociously anti-historicist.Bodyand Image-Space opens with a polemic against the concept of actuality in use in most of the centenary commemorations, in the name of Benjaminʼs own conception of actuality, as it is found in the extraordinary, ecstatic conclusion to his ʻSurrealismʼ essay, defined in terms of bodyand image-space, as the mediation of the material and the intelligible, or ʻpresence of mind incarnateʼ (leibhaftige Geistesgegenwart). This leads into the second, most important, chapter, in which this idea is traced through Benjaminʼs corpus. It is here that the bookʼs main thesis – that Benjaminʼs work is characterized by a distinctive way of thinking in images – achieves its most direct presentation. Central to this is the idea of distortion (Entstellung) as an essential feature of Benjaminʼs thought-images and their link to psychoanalytical theory. Indeed, Weigel goes so far as to argue that it is contemporary readings of Freud that provide the condition of possibility of a productive re-reading of Benjamin, including the messianic aspect of his thought – a claim that is tested by the reading of the famous figure of the angel of history in Chapter

4. ^ Chapters 8 to 11 extend this approach to Benjaminʼs writings on memory and the theory of language. Together these chapters constitute the bookʼs theoretical core. They are a distinctive contribution to the burgeoning literature, and an important counter to the cognitivism of Caygillʼs approach.

However, this is only part of the bookʼs argument.

There are two subsidiary themes – poststructuralism and gender – which follow a rather different course. For whereas Benjaminʼs notions of distortion and the dream-image provide an opening onto psychoanalytic theory, which can then be turned back upon Benjaminʼs work, the way Weigel articulates the relation to poststructuralism and feminism places them at considerably greater distance from both Benjaminʼs texts and politics. The comparisons with Foucault and Kristeva (Chapters 3 and 5) operate at a broad thematic level only. And the treatment of gender is so overdetermined by a Kristevan notion of ʻthe feminineʼ that it is hardly appropriate to use the term ʻgenderʼ, which Kristeva avoids. It is representations of sexual difference, not ʻgender differenceʼ, which is the actual topic of Chapter

5. ^ This is hardly surprising given Benjaminʼs historical location, but it is misleading to pretend otherwise. In fact, it is not clear that Weigel herself accepts the concept of gender in the Anglo-American feminist sense of the term. For all the writing about ʻgender imagesʼ (generally of a mythic kind), for example, there is no discussion of Benjaminʼs claim that in Baudelaireʼs poetry ʻthe lesbian is the heroine of modernismʼ, which promises an alternative approach. Those seeking a more direct confrontation between Benjamin and feminism will have to wait for Jodi Brooksʼs forthcoming Benjamin for Girls.

As might be expected given its provenance, ʻWith the Sharpened Axe of Reasonʼ is a mixed bag. Critics in flight from the pull of mimetic adaption can land up in strange places. Even the title is puzzling, since this most uncharacteristically ʻEnlightenedʼ of Benjaminʼs phrases hardly describes the tendency of most of the contributions. These axes have been blunted by the sheer weight of trees in the forest of signs. Readers with interests in particular bits of Benjaminʼs oeuvre that are directly addressed here will no doubt dip in and take their chances. It is worth mentioning that there are four essays on the related topics of childrenʼs literature, childrenʼs theatre, and performance.Walter Benjamin and the Demands of History is a more focused affair. Concentrating on what Benjamin has to offer current practices of cultural history, it ranges from critical reconstructions by established Benjamin scholars (Kittsteiner, Löwy, Pensky, Wohlfarth), via Rancièreʼs nuanced but biting scepticism about the ʻtoo-easy projectʼ of a Benjaminian cultural history (Benjamin as the author who both ʻachievedʼ and ʻdismemberedʼ the mystical body of Marxism and modernity), to reflections on the use of Benjaminʼs work as a path to ʻdifferent cultural imaginariesʼ (Harootunian, Hinsley, Abbas). It is these latter three pieces which carry the promise of putting Benjaminʼs analytic of modernity to work on new materials: Japan in the 1920s and 1930s, the 1893 Chicago World Fair, and contemporary Hong Kong (through the eyes of premier film-maker, Wong Kar-wei), respectively. This is a rather different sense of ʻactualityʼ to Weigelʼs surrealist Benjaminʼs fulfilled ʻworld of universal and integral actualityʼ: the ʻactualisationʼ (Verwirklichung) of the Passengen-Werkʼs Konvolut ʻNʼ. A fitful and uneven process – part will, part method, part contingency – of constructing new constellations of concepts, new thought-images, in order to reorganize experience historically, to grasp the political meaning of the latest cultural forms.

Who will give us a Benjaminian reading of Happy Together, Wongʼs latest film?

Download the PDFBuy the latest issue