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Benjamin redux

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 20, Number 1, April 1996
pp. 200-217 | 10.1353/phl.1996.0010

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Philosophy and Literature 20.1 (1996) 200-217

Critical Discussions

Profane Illumination: Walter Benjamin and the Paris of Surrealist Revolution, by Margaret Cohen; 271 pp. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993, $35.00 cloth, $14.00 paper.

Walter Benjamin and the Antinomies of Tradition, by John McCole; xiii & 329 pp. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993, $45.00 cloth, $18.95 paper.

Walter Benjamin's Passages, by Pierre Missac, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholson; xvii & 221 pp. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995, $25.00.

Walter Benjamin's Philosophy: Destruction and Experience, edited by Andrew Benjamin and Peter Osborne; xiv & 298 pp. London: Routledge, 1994, $65.00 cloth, $18.95 paper.

The word of ambition at the present day is Culture. Whilst all the world is in pursuit of power, and of wealth as a means of power, culture corrects the theory of success," writes Emerson in his 1860 essay "Culture." Perhaps at no point since the publication of Emerson's essay has the diagnosis it advances been more relevant than today, some 136 years later, when "Culture," at least in the methodological and political struggles within the academy, has again become the word of ambition. As in Emerson's nineteenth-century America, those who today pursue that word most ardently also tend -- in their struggle to explicate history and culture -- to shy away from the persistent instability of meaning with which the texts that they take as their objects of study are vexed. In other words, they are afraid of earthquakes. For Emerson continues: "There are people who can never understand a trope, or any second or expanded sense given to your word, or any humor; but remain literalists, after hearing the music, and poetry, and rhetoric, and wit, of seventy or eighty years. They are past the help of surgeon or clergy. But even these can understand pitchforks and the cry of fire! and I have noticed in some of this class a marked dislike of earthquakes."

It has become one of the methodological orthodoxies of the new contextualism, the increasingly prominent engine driving a continuing metamorphosis of what is perhaps no longer usefully called "Humanities," to posit a relatively transparent, unproblematic relationship between a textual artifact and its larger cultural or historical context. It is precisely this complex relationship between text and culture -- and the theoretical possibility of doing justice to it -- that this review of four new publications on Walter Benjamin will revisit.

The urgent promise to think through the complicated relationship between text and culture, between the idiomatic artifact and its historical formation, has yet to be fulfilled. How does one account for the singularity of a specific instance of signification, be it a literary text, a film, or a neon sign, articulating the relationship between it and the cultural paradigm that gave rise to it and to which it gave rise? How might one talk about a text's historicity without forcing a hasty assimilation of it into a crudely mimetic model? One way out of the difficulty, of course, is to suppress the vicissitudes of language altogether, with an eye to hastening the assimilation of a text, seen primarily as illustrative or evidential material, into pre-established assumptions. An example of such a dissatisfactory answer can be found in the introduction to a recent programmatic publication, in which the editors triumphantly proclaim: "Thus, for example, although there is no prohibition against close textual readings in cultural studies, they are also not required." A marked dislike of earthquakes is at work here. What is more, the logic of such a statement goes as follows: because close reading is no longer necessary, it is dispensable, and therefore eventually no longer performed at all. One is tempted to invoke the famous language of Kafka's chaplain in The Trial who reprimands Joseph K. for his failure to read closely: "You have not enough respect for writing and you are altering the story."

Such methodological difficulties only get worse when one considers the particular problem posed to scholarship by the case of Walter Benjamin, the German-Jewish critic, writer, and philosopher now widely regarded as one of the most significant theorists of our century. On the one hand, Benjamin's texts...


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