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Reviews151 Walter Benjamin and the Antinomies of Tradition, by John McCoIe; xiii & 329 pp. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993, $43.95 cloth, $18.95 paper. This sophisticated yet reader-friendly study represents a significant advance in American criticism on Walter Benjamin—not least of all because it provides a powerful antidote to Leo Bersani's recent indictment of Benjamin's methodology in The Culture of Redemption. Expanding the theologically charged antithesis between destruction and redemption into a dialectic between "liquidationist" and "culturally conservative moments" (p. 17), McCoIe sees what Bersani overlooks: at the heart of Benjamin's project lies the paradigm of immanent critique, articulated early on in his dissertation on "The Concept of Art Criticism in German Romanticism." Deriving his own method from Pierre Bourdieu's theory of the intellectual field, McCoIe applies to crucial stages in Benjamin's development what amounts to an historicized version of immanent critique, defined as "a critique 'from within' that intervenes in the dynamics of a tradition by playing off certain of its moments against others" (p. 27)—a strategy that fully acknowledges the critic's traversal by "the problems and rhetoric of an intellectual culture," even as it works toward making these "unconscious assumptions explicit, assumptions that may be shared by orthodox and heterodox alike" (p. 27). Such a method, McCoIe intermittently confirms, is predicated on the critic's reduction of subjectivity to the point where it functions primarily as an objective register of cultural phenomena— precisely the opposite of what Bersani denounces as the Benjaminian critic's impulse toward quasi-divine authoritativeness. Perhaps because of this cultural perspective, McCole's examination of the antithetical impulses toward liquidation and conservation in Benjamin's works strikes me as most provocative whenever he explores a concept—e.g., aura in the Introduction or myth and technology in Chapter Four—that allows him to take the larger view of the intellectual historian by cutting across various ideas and texts in Benjamin's oeuvre; conversely, whenever McCoIe interprets Benjamin's essays that focus on individual authors and dieir works—e.g., Goethe (Chapter Three) or Proust (Chapter Six)—his conceptual grid does not always deliver the same complexity of insight. McCoIe himself suggests that the strength of his approach lies in its illumination of hitherto "neglected aspects" of Benjamin's early career—"above all, the formative influence of the youth movement, the tenacity of his critique of idealist aesthetics, and the importance of his immanent critique of romanticism" (p. 28) . I would agree. These topics define the content of the first two chapters in McCole's book and, in addition to the fourth chapter concerning Benjamin's relation to Weimar modernism, seem particularly amenable to the audior's deft interweaving of litde-known background information with succinct literary and philosophical analyses. Indeed, in these chapters, McCoIe successfully illuminates both 152Philosophy and Literature Benjamin's situation within a specific intellectual tradition and die general dynamics of early twentieth-century German culture itself. I must confess to feeling slighdy shortchanged, however, after reading Chapter Five on Benjamin and surrealism, in which I sensed a certain thinness of contextualization. Although I found McCole's discussion of Benjamin's short piece on "Dreamkitsch" enlightening—the "central insight" of which (per McCoIe) is that, 'just as kitsch has penetrated into dreams, so 'real' kitsch in the everyday world can be regarded as the product of a dreamlike state" (p. 214)—I was disappointed with the cursory references to André Breton et al., for which the ensuing analysis of Louis Aragon's Paris Peasant did not seem sufficient compensation. It may be true that this surrealist text warrants close consideration, because it decisively influenced Benjamin's formulation of the Arcades Project, yet an additional glance at Breton's works (discussed in both essays on surrealism), at the very least, might have more thoroughly established aesthetic-historical context. Don't misunderstand me, however: I endorse Irving Wohlfarth's statement that this is "the best book-length study of Benjamin yet to have appeared in English" (back-cover blurb) and enthusiastically recommend it to novice and devotee alike. Stanford UniversityLynne S. Vieth Literature and Moral Understanding, by Frank Palmer; xii & 259 pp. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 151-152
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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