On Walter Benjamin's Concept of History
by Alfredo Lucero-Montano
1. The reflection on history seems a constant theme in Walter Benjamin's thought (1892-1940). From his early works to his last texts, this concern constitutes the conducting thread, which grants to his diverse work an underlying unity. For Benjamin, the fundamental question seems to be how to interweave "the theory of historiography with the theory of the real course of history," how "history itself is referred to its 'making' political praxis," [Tiedemann 1983-84, 91] that is, how to generate a certain interrelationship between history and politics. This question refers us not to the nature of the historical process but to the way we acquired historical knowledge, not to historiography but to philosophy of history. Here the implicit issue is the construction of a new concept of history.
Benjamin draws his concept of history through three differentiated answers: In the first phase, On Language as Such and on the Language of Man (1916) and The Task of the Translator (1923), he propounds a theological paradigm of history. Later, in The Origin of German Tragic Drama (1928), he develops, concerning history, an aesthetics paradigm. And finally, starting from 1925-1926, which marks his Marxist turn, Benjamin steadily develops a political paradigm of history, which its clearer claim is The Arcades Project (1927-1940) and the theses "On the Concept of History" (1940). This article only deals with Benjamin's political paradigm, which is the synthesis of his historico-philosophical thought.
In thesis XVII, Benjamin distinguishes between a history, whose "procedure is additive: it musters a mass of data to fill the homogeneous, empty time," and another by virtue of which "thinking suddenly comes to a stop in a constellation saturated with tensions, it gives that constellation a shock, by which thinking is crystallized as a monad." [CH, thesis XVII, 396] Benjamin illustrates the relation between these the two models of history with the chess game between an automaton perfectly programmed to win, and a Turkish puppet moved by a little hunchback, cleverly camouflaged, which is an expert chess player. The puppet can win the chess game provided that it can make use of something underestimated by enlightened reason, namely, a political-theological reason, that is why the latter is represented by a little hunchback clown hidden to avoid hurting the sensitivity of his contemporary fellowmen. To put it another way, Benjamin's analysis of history draws a distinction between two philosophies of history: on the one hand, a philosophy of history that refers to historicism (Enlightenment's idea of progress), and on the other hand, an "interruptive" philosophy of history (political messianism).
For Benjamin, the notion of the past turns into the keystone of all conception of history. We could think that the future might dissolve the priority of the present. But the future is really such, as a new radical possibility, when it becomes something else than just the continuity of the present. It seems that the future assumes the breakdown of the present, but the breakdown of the present is only a matter between the present and the past. "In order for a part of the past to be touched by the present instant, there must be no continuity between them."[AP, 470, N7,7] Benjamin's concern is to dissipate the illusion of continuity in history, and that it is possible only if the past and the present are polarized, that is, if the past puts in critical condition the present. This is Benjamin's view of history as interruption of time, or in his own words, as "dialectics at a standstill." [Ibid., 463, N3,1]
Benjamin breaks, then, with the classical model of the philosophy of history, namely, the theory of progress. Philosophy of history's idea of progress is a unilinear, homogeneous and continuous process capable of self-fulfillment. The telos of history is precisely this self-fulfillment. This immanent progress we could call humanity, absolute spirit or communist realm of freedom. But all these abstractions reveal is that for all modern philosophies of history what really counts are not the details of everyday life, but the history of events, not the individual destiny, but the history of the species. In other words, what constitutes the heart of these philosophies is not the historical subject, the man of flesh and blood, but the subject of history the ultima ratio of history. The everyday life and the transient, the grief and the misery, are just temporaries all that has no historical interest.
Thus Benjamin does not stop with an ideal model of progress that would identify the historical process with the endless process of history to self-realization. What Benjamin does not accept is the belief in progress as a kind of indefinite self-realization that determines almost automatically the evolution of mankind. Moreover, Benjamin splits up himself from this kind of history:
The concept of mankind's historical progress cannot be sundered from the concept of its progression through a homogeneous, empty time. A critique of the concept of such a progression must underlie any criticism of the concept of progress itself. [CH, thesis XIII, 394-5]
2. In contrast to those philosophies of history, that usurp and devour the concept of utopia reducing it to a mere continuity of the present, Benjamin suggests the image of his Angelus Novus (the "Angel of History"). The nature of that image force us to assess all the details, for all of them are loaded with meaning. The story goes like this:
There is a picture by Klee called Angelus Novus. It shows an angel who seems about to move away from something he stares at. His eyes are wide, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how the angel of history must look. His face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise and has got caught in his wings; it is so strong that the angel can no longer close them. This storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky. What we call progress is this storm. [Ibid., thesis IX, 392]
Two details call our attention: the eyes and the wings. The angel has his gaze turned back, toward the past. It is a gaze of horror, shaken, frightened by what he sees. What does he see? It is pertinent to stress that the angel does not see in history what we see. While he sees a catastrophe, a pile of debris that grows incessantly, what we see is a chain of events, with its logic and its explanation. The angel is set to fly for he has his wings opened. But here it is significant, that he would like to stop but can't. In front of such misery, he would like to help; moreover, he would like to resuscitate the dead and to rebuild the many ruins. But he can't. The power of a stormy wind (progress), which comes from Paradise, does not let him close his wings but propels him forward, toward the future, a future that the angel turns his back on.
If we follow Benjamin's hermeneutic pathway, we discover a double view of history, the angel's and ours: What seems for us to be the logic of events, for the angel is pure catastrophe. Benjamin illustrates, then, the existence of two conflicting philosophies of history: the one, symbolized by the angel, and the other, symbolized by the storm. On the one hand, the storm, which is wind and spirit, refers to a conception of history as power and dominion. Thus enlightened man the one fallen and expelled from Paradise has hoped to gain with his own forces the happiness that he had once in Paradise by means of progress. On the other hand, the angel of history, as a good angel that he is, unveils his significance in a biblical mode. According to the Bible, there is only the past that paradoxically is what is before us, and the future is what we are turned away from, what is hidden behind our back. Nevertheless, Benjamin does not want to take comfort from this theological interpretation of history; and that is why his angel cannot find consolation by raising the dead or repairing the ruins. He also does not find consolation in the philosophy of history we take for granted, because he understands that so many sacrifices, past and present, cannot be understood as the price of the future. For the angel of history, the future is other, namely, the hopes brought from Paradise and maintained by tradition. But Benjamin does not think that an apparent tradition (the ideology of progress), which establishes continuity (historicism), can fulfill those unsatisfied hopes:
It may be that the continuity of tradition is mere semblance. But then precisely the persistence of this semblance provides it with continuity. [AP, 486, N19,1]
Benjamin claims for an authentic tradition, for he believes that all those hopes of happiness must pass on to philosophy an irruptive philosophy. In this respect he writes: "It is the inherent tendency of dialectical experience to dissipate the semblance of eternal sameness, and even of repetition in history."[Ibid., 473, N9,5] If philosophy takes charge, it is not to mechanically reproduce the same old answers, but to actualize and illuminate new questions.
Benjamin's specific point of view is to seek the future in the past. But, what is meant when he puts the hope in the past? Maybe the key is in Benjamin's claim about his angel of history "who preferred to free men by taking from them, rather than make them happy by giving to them." [Benjamin 1931, 456] Opposite to the philosophies of history whose abstract issues promise the happiness of men, Benjamin stresses the power of liberation of those who can have reasons for hope. The reasons and hopes of the oppressed who claimed their rights not settled the past and present suffering and injustice is not the last word. In this Benjaminian circle, the possibility of history is at stake.
Benjamin opposes to the teleological principle that rationally determines the course of history the memory of men that relates liberation with the grasping of those voices of the past that claim justice. For Benjamin, liberation lies on receiving a gift anamnesis from those of the past and the present that have nothing. According to Benjamin "only for the sake of the hopeless ones have we been given hope."[Benjamin 1919-22, 356]
However, if happiness is liberation from chains, can we be happy remembering the chains of our ancestors? Can we be happy remembering the frustrated hopes of our ancestors? Is not this a condemnation to unhappiness? No. Hope does not arise from satisfied men but from unsatisfied ones. Only if the present generation makes the hopes of the past generations its own hopes, can it break the present, and hope something different from what already it is. In Benjamin's words:
There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Then our coming was expected on earth. Then, like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak messianic power, a power on which the past has a claim. [CH, thesis II, 390]
Benjamin's language seems to us unintelligible and unacceptable, if we take a theological reading of it. Let us consider, to understand that thesis, Tiedemann's gloss on it: "Succeeding generations cannot simply ratify the fact that what has been lost (the loser's own praxis) has been lost for all time, and that the dead have no more access to any praxis, for another praxis is within reach," [Tiedemann 1983-84, 79] that is, our own praxis "on which the past has a claim." However, according to Mate, there is a philosophical translation, in ethical code, of Benjamin's theological reflections:
While the cause of the oppressed does not prevail, the victors of yesteryear would continue to produce victims, new victims. That entails the acknowledgment of solidarity between generations; the noble causes of the past generations make it possible to overcome the injustices that are committed against us. And they will not die again in vain if their cause would triumph in posterity. [Mate 1991, 215]
Benjamin, like his Angelus Novus, does not forget the face of the past. It is true that the angel's face seems terrified by what he sees, but at the same time he is trying to say that today those who lightheartedly speak of happiness do so because they do not dare to see the past. The modern victors see the past as the price of history we have to pay and leave it behind; the angel of history sees with horror the past, but wants to take charge of it. That is the difference.
3. In Benjamin's view, the past that really matters the liberating past is the one that is not present. For the theories of progress, the past assumes the cost of the future; for historicism, the past is the substance of ideology that legitimates the present, and facilitates the reproduction of the past, that is, the relations of domination and power. But Benjamin grants the past a new meaning. He seeks for that past capable of shaking the actual structures, capable of stopping the trade of present happiness for past suffering, capable of stopping the reproduction of past misery and injustice. It is a special past, which must reveal a new dimension of history. He describes the nature of the past as follows:
The true image of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image that flashes up at the moment of its recognizability, and is never seen again. [...] For it is an irretrievable image of the past which threatens to disappear in any present that does not recognize itself as intended in that image. [CH, thesis V, 390-1]
The past that Benjamin is interested in is that, as hitherto, unknown side of reality that could rise in the light of the present. We can discover this hidden past in the debris of history. Benjamin is not looking for what is most valuable: his gaze is fixed on the debris, on the insignificant. The pay off is an unknown light to discover the present. Here we must assume an emergent link between the historical subject who seeks to know the past, and the object of his attention, which tries to make itself present: "knowledge comes only in lightning flashes." [AP, 456, N1,1] There is a convergence between the instance of the object of knowledge (the past) and the momentum of the subject of knowledge (the present). In order to avoid mere tautology or reconstruction, as conventional historiography does, and to have the possibility to reach the unknown, the subject must be an unsatisfied man, a subject unsatisfied about what he knows of the present, because it throws him into a loss of his dignity and freedom, and consequently, to an alienated condition.
The relation established by Benjamin between the past and the present is really original. Whereas historicism goes from the present to the past, Benjamin comes to the present from the past. The change of direction is dialectical:
For while the relation of the present to the past is a purely temporal, continuous one, the relation of what-has-been to the now is dialectical: is not progression but image, suddenly emergent. [Ibid., 462, N2a,3]
Past makes its present appearance as an assault, interrupting the nowadays. Time is stopped, as the French revolutionaries wanted "to make the day stand still," [CH, thesis XV, 395] the same first day of the Revolution, shooting on clock tower faces which strike the time that was not their time. The revolution irrupts in the relationship within which subject and object, present and past, meet in a historical perception:
Formerly it was thought that a fixed point had been found in 'what has been,' and one saw the present engaged in tentatively concentrating the forces of knowledge on this ground. Now this relation is to be overturned, and what has been is to become the dialectical reversal the flash of awakened consciousness. [AP., 388, K1,2]
According to Benjamin, the historical consciousness must start with an awakening. This image of awakening is an inversion:
The new, dialectical method of doing history presents itself as the art of experiencing the present as waking world, a world to which that dream we name the past refers in truth [...]. Awakening is namely the dialectical, Copernican turn of remembrance. [Ibid., 389, K1,3]
The image of awakening refers, then, to a dialectical inversion, a qualitative metamorphosis of consciousness: In the extreme limits of sleep, what seemed to belong to the realm of dreams is transformed into the real, while what we have taken as reality retrospectively turns out to be merely dream-like imagery. This is an essential moment of consciousness: What has been lived as reality loses its veil, and reveals itself as an illusion awakening is a metaphor for demystification. For Benjamin, then, the historical consciousness of what-has-been "has the structure of awakening" [Ibid., 389, K1,2] political awakening. In this threshold of consciousness, precisely, "politics attains primacy over history." [Ibid., 388-9, K1,2]
4. Benjamin understands historical intelligibility not as the establishment of a causal connection between two events, but as the clash of a moment of the past and a moment of the present "in which time takes a stand and has become to a standstill." [CH, thesis XVI, 396] From this sudden clash does not rise any new scientific paradigm committed to discover the laws of history, but one based on a hermeneutic model which offers an interpretation of events; one that enlightens its meaning. From the clash between these events not in a continuous sequence arises, then, a new figure of thought, where the present enriches the past, and awakes the forgotten or repressed meaning within it, as the past recovers, in the very core of the present, a new actuality (remembrance). This clash of the present and the past functions according to the metaphor model, where the coincidence of two signifiers belonging to different semantic frameworks raises an absolutely new third signifier. Here present and past are not absorbed in a common concept; on the contrary, from their conjunction rises a new reality. This new reality takes the form of a "dialectical image."
In Benjamin's thought the concept of "dialectical image" is loaded with historico-philosophical implications. But what is the logic of the "dialectical image" in Benjamin's political paradigm of history? This logic does not form a discursive system, but an instantaneous flash where the past is illuminated precisely at the moment of its disappearance into the present:
Every present day is determined by the images that are synchronic with it: each "now" is the now of a particular recognizability. In it, truth is charged to the bursting point with time. (This point of explosion, and nothing else, is the death of the intentio, which thus coincides with the birth of authentic historical time, the time of truth.) It is not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation. [AP, 462-3, N3,1]
On the one hand, the dialectical image illuminates truth as historically fleeting: "The dialectical image is an image that emerges suddenly, in a flash. What has been is to be held fast as an image flashing up in the now of its recognizability." [Ibid., 473, N9,7] This fleeting image "is not a process of exposure which destroys the secret, but a revelation which does justice to it." [Benjamin 1928, 31] For "truth [...] is bound to a nucleus of time lying hidden within the knower and the known alike." [AP, 463, N3,2] Hence, truth is not a philosophical construction, but an immediate grasp of a dialectical image. The cognitive experience provided by it is a historical perception. This perception within a charged force field of past and present produces political electricity in "lightning flashes," that is, generates a tension-filled constellation within this "nucleus of time" that becomes politically charged, dialectically polarized:
Every dialectically presented historical circumstance polarizes itself and becomes a force field in which the confrontation between its fore-history and after-history is played out. [Ibid., 470,N7a,1]
On the other hand, the political nature of the articulation of these two moments of the past and the present is clearly showed in thesis VI: "Articulating the past historically [...] means appropriating a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger." This danger, writes Benjamin, "threatens both the content of the tradition and those who inherit it."[CH, thesis VI, 391] Benjamin understands by "those who inherit it," the oppressed of history, those that are suddenly aware through a historical consciousness-raising shock of their "tradition," the meaning of their hope, which is in danger of being forgotten. Here the awareness of danger has an ambiguous meaning: either "the spark of hope" is about to become extinguished or "the awareness that they are about to make the continuum of history explode." [Ibid., thesis XV, 395] However, the consciousness-raising shock is linked to political praxis; by virtue of which the subject of tradition recognizes the sign of "a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past."[Ibid., thesis XVII, 396] This means that there is a chance to introduce a revolutionary change into the present.
From this point on, history is constructed in a politically explosive "constellation of past and present," as a "lightning flash" of truth. Thus hope is now historically "actual" in the sense that it is realizable "time filled full by now-time (Jetztzeit)." Past and present overlap in a political possibility; they remain disconnected until political action explodes the continuum of history and blasts humanity out of it like "the tiger's leap into the past [....] The same leap in the open air of history is the dialectical leap Marx understood as revolution."[Ibid., thesis XIV, 395] Political action is, then, the link between the past and the present. This link is possible because the history of the individual recapitulates that of mankind, as the "now-time, which, as a model of Messianic time, comprises the entire history of mankind in a tremendous abbreviation." [Ibid., thesis XVIII, 396] The truth of history is verified by the historical subject's experience. It is the unfulfilled potential for happiness of our own recollected past that give us insight into the possibility of the present. In other words, our experience of the past is the condition of our insight into the present historical time, as one that does not exhaust the potential of reality:
The idea of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the idea of redemption. The same applies to the idea of the past, which is the concern of history. The past carries with it a secret index by which it is referred to redemption. [Ibid., thesis II, 389-90]
The subject of knowledge establishes the substance of the relation between the past and the present when he "grasps the constellation into which his own era has entered, along with a very specific earlier one. Thus, he establishes a conception o f the present as now-time shot through with splinters of messianic time."[Ibid., thesis XVIII A, 397] The Messianic time must be understood as a break in the course of history the "time of the now" or interrupting time and not its culmination, as a potential present that charges dialectical images in the consciousness of man with explosive power in the political sense. At this point, Benjamin's political paradigm of history turns into his political philosophy of history.
1. See Stephane Moses, El Angel de la Historia, trans. Alicia Martorell (Madrid: Ctedra, 1997).
2. Hereafter the references in the text to "On the Concept of History" (CH) and to The Arcades Project (AP) are given by its abbreviation.
3. The references given in letters and numbers adopt the German editor's, Rolf Tiedemann, referencing form to The Arcades Project.
4. In particular I draw heavily on the work by Reyes Mate, La Razon de los Vencidos (Barcelona: Anthropos, 1991), 204-208.
5. The reference is to Paul Klee's ink-wash drawing Angelus Novus (1920), which Benjamin owned for a time.
Benjamin, Walter. (1919-1922) "Goethe's Elective Affinities." In Selected Writings, Vol. 1. Ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996.
___. (1928) The Origin of German Tragic Drama. Trans. John Osborne. New York: Verso, 1998.
___. (1931) "Karl Kraus." In Selected Writings, Vol. 2. Ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland and Gary Smith. Trans. Rodney Livingstone et al. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.
___. (1940) "On the Concept of History." In Selected Writings, Vol. 4. Ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings. Trans. Edmund Jephcott et al. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003.
___. (1927-1940) The Arcades Project. Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.
Mate, Reyes. La Razon de los Vencidos. Barcelona: Anthropos, 1991.
Moses, Stephane. El Angel de la Historia. Trans. Alicia Martorell. Madrid: Ctedra, 1997.
Tiedemann, Rolf. "Historical Materialism or Political Messianism? An Interpretation of the Theses 'On the Concept of History.'" In The Philosophical Forum, XV, 1-2 (fall/winter 1983-1984): 71-104.
© Alfredo Lucero-Montano