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A Critical Present: Walter Benjamin and the Arcad

A tension exists between the social and political applications of modern Philosophical texts, and thought that is more in line with a post-structuralist political methodology. It has become quite obvious that terms such as modern, and post-structuralist have become so used (and misused) that they begin to lose a locatable identification. A difference between the two, which is imperative in the possibilities for political action that each line of though holds, is the division between a monist conception of history, values, and ethics, and a pluralist framework of history, values, and ethics. Modern philosophical thought embraces a monist schema of history. While some thinkers, for example Hegel, may allow for differing epochs in history, these epoch are always united into a linear historical monad by some overarching universal phenomenon, such as Reason. Furthermore, a teleological schema which can be read in Hegel’s early works and which can be found in a particular reading of Marx is, if not in accordance with modern thought, at least the antithesis of post-structuralist thought. The dangers of a continuous, teleological view of history have been illuminated by recent thinkers such as Foucault and Derrida. And while Walter Benjamin came decades previous to the birth of post-stucturalist thought, an arguably post-structuralist critique of historical continuity and political teleology is very present in his magnum opus, The Arcades Project.
   The Arcades Project is Benjamin’s incomplete masterpiece. It’s development was halted in 1940 when he fled from Paris and the Nazi occupation only to be stopped at the Fraco-Spanish border where he ended his life with a morphine overdose. The earliest entries into the Arcades Project date as far back as 1928, so themes throughout Benjamin’s entire body of work can be found in the disjointed convolutes of the Arcades Project. The entire volume – which consists of preliminary exposés and drafts of the Arcades Project, thirty-seven convolutes, and a massive collection of pictures, notes, secondary essays, and index notations – compiles a book of over one thousand pages. Furthermore, this titanic text is extraneously difficult to read. The convolute entries are discontinuous fragments, most of which are not Benjamin’s original work. These quotes rarely have supporting text and sometimes contradict eachother. But this is not to say that the Arcades Project is not worth reading. Far from it, in fact. The Arcades Project is an insightful and provocative political/philosophical text that has illuminations which are relevant to current critical social thought. Unfortunately, due to the inchoate nature of the book, a competent understanding of the book will, in most cases, require a previous familiarity with Benjamin’s work.
   Reading the Arcades Project for an introduction to Benjamin is the last thing I would advise. If one were to read the Arcades Project for their initial exposure to Benjamin, then I would suggest that they read it in conjunction with his finished work, for example, Illuminations or Reflections. Most if not all of the themes which are explored in the short essays contained within these books appear in the Arcades Project.   For instance, I would advocate a reading of “Some Motifs on Baudelaire”, or “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century” in conjunction with convolute J: “Baudelaire.” Furthermore, a reading of convolute N: “On the Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Progress”, would enhance the understanding of Benjamin’s famous essay, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”. Susan Buck-Morrs has also composed an insightful book which would be helpful in conjunction with a reading of the Arcades Project. This volume is called The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project.
   Beyond these small logistical suggestions of how one might go about reading the Arcades Project, I have far more pressing concerns. But to get to these matters I must first perform an exegesis of certain imperative aspects contained within the Arcades Project. In convolute N of the Arcades Project, Benjamin expounds a rigorous critique of a teleological notion of history. Such a conception of history can be seen in the early work of Hegel. A teleological framework of history establishes the development of history as a linear succession of events which naturally progress towards a pre-determined goal. For example, in Reason in History, Hegel sees absolute freedom as the end of history, and subsequently all points in history that proceed a state of absolute freedom are just subaltern events which are consequents of a telos that determines history’s outcome.
   A political danger pervades such thinking. Hegel’s teleological schema of history throws a warm blanket of utopic determinism over history. By positing a state of absolute freedom in the future, Hegel allows the present to be placidly comfortable with current injustices. To put it in Marxist terms, a utopic telos neutralizes the proletarian revolutionary spirit. The most horrid malfeasance is accepted as a natural event in the utopic development of history. If history is necessarily heading towards absolute freedom, then what incentive is there to fight for change?
   To contrast a political methodology that focuses on the future at the cost of the present, Benjamin develops a notion of a messianic redemption (revolution) which is an affirmation of the present. For Benjamin, the future is sequestered to a certain extent. Although concern for the future is not entirely rejected, Benjamin sees any attempt to articulate the future into a telos (utopic or dystopic) as the greatest violence to the present. The future is seceded and left entirely indeterminate. This keeps the field of possibilities open for a new political direction. A teleological view of the future keeps all doors closed except for the one leading to the predicted goal.
   Relating to this same point is a certain notion of historical discontinuity that can be found in the Arcades Project. In terms of the historical content of the Arcades Project, the text is primarily a critical social study of nineteenth century Paris. The reason Benjamin chooses this particular time and place is because nineteenth century Paris was the locust of a booming capitalist epistemology. The rapid development of technology, ranging from the invention of photography to the introduction of gas lighting on the streets of Paris, to steel and glass construction used in the Arcades, spawned a plethora of utopic vision for the future. These optimistic predictions coupled with a dehumanizing and alienation capitalistic epistemology established a historical epoch in which Benjamin found himself immersed, and one that today still shows few signs of being eclipsed. But it was and is exactly this detrimental state of society that necessitates a certain thinking of a historical discontinuity.
   In the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Marx warns of the dangers a historical continuity presents to a revolution:

“The tradition of the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the minds of the living. And, just when they appear to be engaged in the revolutionary transformation of themselves and their material surroundings, in the creation of something which does not yet exist, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they timidly conjure up the spirits of the past to help them.” [1]

Continuity is the catalyst for a failed revolution. Revolutionaries who hold on to the past by imitating banners or slogans establish a link to the very social epoch in which they are trying to subvert. A clean break must be made. A general revolution must create a new historical epoch which obscures the preceding social and material conditions to the point of unintelligibility or complete disappearance. Marx advocates this historical discontinuity with this analogy,

“In the same way, the beginner who has learned a new language always retranslates it into his mother tongue: He
can only be said to have appropriated the spirit of the new language and to be able to express himself in it freely when he can manipulate it without reference to the old, and when he forgets his original language while using the new one.” [2]

Marx’s general revolution intends to expel the past into the arcane. Although it cannot be said that an omnifarious epistemological transformation is made, it is just this kind of radical subversion of the old that must be sought. The “tradition[s] of the dead generations” must be buried with the dead.
   Historical continuity and teleological progress both imply politically conservative standpoints. Historical continuity establishes elements which persist unchanged throughout time. The danger in granting the possibilities for universal principles is that the authority of a timeless law has the capabilities to reify the unjust. The weight of time and tradition can make ethical principles and institutionalized laws appear as if the have always been and always will be, regardless of whether they are empowering or harmful. The effect of apparently timeless injustices is a bitter political apathy. It affirms the resigned attitude of “that just how things are”. This neutralizes any radical change and conserves the present state of order. Similarly, a utopic teleological political vision deters radical action. As I explained before, a utopic telos sacrifices the present by cognizing on the future. Present injustices are rectified and validated on the basis of being part of the natural order of history towards utopia. If there is a quasi-determinism towards social and political perfection, then there is little need to fight for change. A dystopic teleology will create a similar effect insofar as a certain determinism is implied. Teleological view of history and politics closes off possibilities in the present by positing a fixed end to history and reducing all preceding events to subaltern elements in the larger scheme of things.   With a telos, the past and present become contingent on the future rather than the future being contingent on the past and present.
   An emphatic rejection of teleological progress, and language implying historical discontinuity can be found scattered throughout the Arcades Project. Although a good deal of Benjamin’s efforts are deployed on the past, it is always for the present. And the constant deferral to articulate a post-revolutionary state further emphasizes Benjamin’s concern with remaining cognizant of present political affairs. For Benjamin, the past was culminated in the present as historical voices professing of the years of injustice. This was his idea of “arresting” time in one moment (the present), and blasting history out of a linear progressive framework. Benjamin’s meditations went no further than this messianic redemption (revolution), because he was lucidly aware of the dangers of closing off possibilities for the future with one static vision. Furthermore, he saw the necessity to make a clean break from the current state of order. Although he does not explicitly state this, the Arcades Project is littered with locution about the present capitalistic state of affairs being a “dream state”, and the revolution being the “awakening”. In addition, language about ” blast[ing] a specific era out of a homogenous course of history” can be found in both the Arcades Project and his famous essay on the philosophy of history.
   I have expounded two different political approaches in this essay. One is in accordance with historical continuity and teleology; the second advocates a historical discontinuity and a deferral of the articulation of the future for the sake of the present. The former is conservative, the latter is radical, and the possibility of danger is present in both. I have already explained the dangerous political implications that historical continuity and teleology hold, but as for the Benjaminian approach – which is in line with a post-structuralist concentration on deconstructing the present systems of order and placing virtue in keeping possibilities open – a certain danger pervades as well. In deferring the articulation of the future, no guideline is given for the reorganization of order in the post-revolutionary state. In other words, while this approach maximizes the amount of possibilities, it also does nothing to rule out threatening possibilities, for example, fascism. One can only hope that when a radical deconstruction of institutionalized law, or a revolution, occurs that the people of that present will find the means to establish a just social state. In weighing the options of a conservative approach to politics, or a radical Benjaminian/post-structuralist methodology, we must calculate what the present times call for. Are we at a place where the dangers of an open future must be risked, or shall we remain placidly comfortable with the assurances of an acceptable present and a utopic future?  

Timothy Wong



[1] Marx, Karl. Surveys from Exile, Political Writings: volume 2. Penguin Books. New York, NY 1992. P.146

[2] ibid. p.147
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Shocken Books. New York, NY. 1968. P.263

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