An Artist of Ideas: Walter Benjamin's "Theses on the Philosophy of History" / by Travis American

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Like a lot of the people—or, I guess, a lot of English majors—I first encountered capital-T Theory in college. As a term of categorization, Theory is broad almost to the point of uselessness. Its various schools of thought—post-structuralism, Western Marxism, psychoanalytic theory, semiotics, and on and on—are like hydra heads just as apt to snap at each other as work in concert. But for a student with certain pretensions, Theory presented something like a coherent image. It’s nerdy, but, like, sexy nerdy. It projects—or at least, I thought it projected—intellectual heft, political radicalism, and a playful libertinism all at once. Just look at its rock stars. Michel Foucault was a leather daddy who called a Death Valley acid trip “the greatest experience of my life.” Frantz Fanon wrote books with titles like Toward the African Revolution, and then went and literally made revolutions. Dowdy, old-school Philosophy had, I dunno, Kant? A guy who Wikipedia says was known “for his modest, rigorously scheduled habits, which have been referred to as clocklike”? I’ll give you one guess as to which side the callow 20-year-old me wanted to align with.

All that is to say that I liked the idea of Theory more than I liked grinding through its actual ideas. A lot of its seminal texts are borderline impenetrable, full of words I didn’t understand and arguments I didn’t follow. Reading Baudrillard or Foucault or Judith Butler was like panning for gold, sifting through a muddy river of words to occasionally find a little nugget of insight, which I’d then hold aloft and show off as ostentatiously as possible. (Campus publications printed both my critique of Ice Cube’s gender essentialism and an analysis of the Greek scene titled “The Postmodern Frat Boy.” Yeah.) Deep down, though, I wasn’t convinced. The old guard—the clocklike guys in the powdered wigs and their analytic heirs in university philosophy departments—comes at you with these walls of logic. Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason feels like a perfectly crafted machine. Derrida, on the other hand—what even is Derrida?

I kept with it, though, and started a master’s program at NYU where those nuggets I’d salvaged were the currency of the realm. I wasn’t sure what kept drawing me to this body of books that I didn’t even like reading. Was it the satisfaction of working through something hard? The desire for a more imaginative way of processing the world than other, more systemic intellectual fields offered? Or was I just a poser, running toward the radical and weird because it made me feel cosmopolitan or avant-garde? In the second semester of my program, I took a class called “Major Texts in Critical Theory” that finally unlocked things for me. Or rather, one of those major texts did the unlocking. As you cannily deduced from the title of this post, it was Walter Benjamin’s essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”

Benjamin was a German Jew at a time and place where that combination deadly, for him and many others. In September of 1940, he attempted to flee to the US from his adopted home in Nazi-occupied France, but his party was turned back at the Spanish border. His hopes of escape seemingly dashed, Benjamin killed himself. “Theses,” written earlier that year, was his last major work.

Given the historical moment and Benjamin’s situation within it, the essay’s apocalyptic tone seems wholly appropriate. Its structure—18 numbered theses and two lettered postscripts—might suggest a tight, logical argument, but Benjamin offers quite the opposite. Each thesis is a funnel of dense mystical language where, as Susan Sontag put it, each sentence “had to say everything before the inward gaze of total concentration dissolved the subject before his very eyes.” To put it mildly, this makes his intended meaning difficult to divine. Smart people disagree about whether “Theses” constitutes a renunciation of historical materialism—the Marxist understanding that history is determined by material conditions rather than ideas, deities, or the will of Great Men—or an attempt to redeem it.

I’d always seen this kind of ambiguity as a weakness of Theory. Why couldn’t Benjamin just say what he meant? He’s a fantastic writer, after all. Poetic, even. Maybe it was this realization—that each thesis resembled a cryptic prose poem—that made me start to think about the essay differently. Unless you’re someone who sucks, you don’t complain about poetry not saying what it means. It means in a different way. And so I started to think that maybe Benjamin does, too.

Benjamin wrote “Theses” at what was perhaps Nazism’s high tide. Hitler was still extending his domain, and to the disgust of the Marxist Benjamin, the Soviet Union had entered into a non-aggression pact with Germany. (The Nazis reneged the year after Benjamin’s death with their 1941 invasion of Russia.) And the spread of totalitarianism entailed the destruction of people and communities who didn’t fit within its vision. Benjamin writes:

Those who currently rule are however the heirs of all those who have ever been victorious. […] Whoever until this day emerges victorious, marches in the triumphal procession in which today’s rulers tread over those who are sprawled underfoot. The spoils are, as was ever the case, carried along in the triumphal procession. They are known as the cultural heritage. […] There has never been a document of culture, which is not simultaneously one of barbarism.

By my reading, he’s suggesting that the big stories that countries and societies tell themselves—"metanarratives” in the theoretical parlance—are inherently authoritarian. They are able to offer an illusion of continuity only by strategically obscuring the conquered, by “tread[ing] over those who are sprawled underfoot.” Benjamin felt that he would soon be among the sprawled, and this, I think, profoundly shapes his understanding of how history can and should be interpreted.

Think about your high school history book. If it was anything like mine, it was essentially a recitation of how we—“we”—got from there to here, allowing, as Benjamin puts it, “the consequences of eventualities to run through the fingers like the beads of a rosary.” It shows history’s winners swinging, Tarzan-like, from vine to vine, while those on the jungle floor are passed over in silence.

This is decidedly not the kind of historical project Benjamin wanted to engage in. Seeing such narratives as inherently selective and false, he proposes a radically democratic approach to the past. History shouldn’t be a plod through a museum of victor’s spoils. Instead, it should be a search for the useful, where everyday people—the “working class” for Benjamin—can pick up the shards of what has been and wield them like weapons. Don’t accept the history you’ve been sold. Find the glints of the past that will help you fight for the future. Benjamin:

To articulate what is past does not mean to recognize “how it really was.” It means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger. For historical materialism it is a question of holding fast to a picture of the past, just as if it had unexpectedly thrust itself, in a moment of danger, on the historical subject. 

Viewed in this light, Benjamin’s obscure style makes sense. He’s incredibly reluctant to tell you what to think, a compunction that the clocklike analytic philosophers didn’t share. Our friend Kant was happy to tell you what to think about history—that you should celebrate the bloodthirstiness of the conquerors. “Thanks be to Nature, then,” he wrote, “for the incompatibility, for heartless competitive vanity, for the insatiable desire to possess and rule! Without them, all the excellent natural capacities of humanity would forever sleep, undeveloped.” Kant speaks in declarations. Benjamin speaks as a poet, using his own words and the art of others to approach the truth obliquely, letting you find your own meaning. He quotes the mystical poetry of Gerhard Scholem, cites the plays of Bertolt Brecht, and, in the essay’s most famous passage, he meditates on a painting by Paul Klee.

Narrative has no place here, because in this context, narratives are authoritarian. They are the tools of the ruling classes, in which meaning is dictated from author to reader. Narrative tells you what happened and why, foreclosing the reader’s ability to participate in the meaning-making. Benjamin sees narrative as something to be defied, to be compressed to the point that it collapses in on itself. Poetry is democratic. Painting is democratic. Mysticism is democratic. Each exists outside of time and exempt from the temporal chain of causality that characterizes the historicist tradition. As each thesis is impossible to distill into one true or articulatable meaning, the responsibility for interpretation falls on us, the readers. We wrestle with Benjamin’s theses alone in our minds, outside of the jurisdiction of the ruling classes that perpetrate the violence of history, just as Benjamin wrestled with Scholem’s lines and Klee’s paint. In its rejection of the nonmaterial, historical materialism divorced itself from the mystical tradition. Without that influence, leftists cordoned themselves off in the narrative realm, creating counternarratives of exploitation and revolution that, while became as oppressive as the stories they were meant to counter. I read “Theses” as Benjamin’s attempt to restore the liberating atemporality of mysticism to the historical materialist tradition. He is gesturing at a mystic theology that has no need for god.

I came to understand Walter Benjamin as an artist of ideas. And through him, I was able to find what was good in Theory. Maybe its characteristic style—so often so difficult—is chosen for a reason. The style cannot be separated from the arguments presented. The best Theorists are meaning in a different way, one that’s closer to literature than to the clocklike analytic philosophers. Let their words wash over you, then struggle with them and see what you get. The results will vary from person to person. Just as you’re likely to get something from a painting that I don’t, you’re likely to take something from Benjamin that never occurred to me.  

This isn’t, of course, to say that all Theory is good. (What even is Derrida? What even is Avital Ronell? For me, at least, not much.) Not all poems or paintings are good, either, and you and I are likely to disagree on which are and which aren’t. That’s kind of the point. What Benjamin taught me was a different approach to history, to philosophy, to scholarship. He trusts his audience. He expects us to rise to his challenge and meet him halfway. He wants us do to the hard thing, to think and grapple and make up our own minds. And at a time when every news cycle comes with a million pundits and tweeters clamoring to tell you what to think, “Theses” serves as a powerful call to defend your own mental landscape.