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CR: The New Centennial Review 5.2 (2005) 189-213
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In Walter Benjamin and the Corpus of Autobiography (2000), Gerhard Richter tells a rather remarkable story about his remarkable subject:
[I]n September 1939—on the eve of the Vichy regime—Benjamin, along with thousands of other Parisian exiles of German and Austrian descent, [End Page 189] was forced by the French authorities to report to one of the local collecting stations. He was subsequently transported to the gruesome French internment camp at Vernuche near Nerves. Within a few days of his arrival at the camp, which made few concessions to its prisoners' human dignity, Benjamin began to hold an outdoor seminar "for advanced students," charging a tuition fee of three cigarettes, or alternatively, one button. Along with a small group of interested inmates, he convened regular meetings on straw-covered ground beneath a suspended blanket in order to launch an academic camp journal. Drinking contraband schnapps from a thimble, Benjamin, to the amazement of the other prisoners, conducted these editorial meetings with a ceremonious rigor that stood in marked contrast to the camp's macabre living conditions. (19–20)
Benjamin's phantasmatic seminar testifies in rather heart-wrenching ways to the necessity of theory in a crisis, as well as to the perseverance of Benjamin's thought well after he took his own exiled life on the border between France and Spain almost exactly a year later. In the famous final "Theses on the Philosophy of History," Benjamin insists that the "state of emergency" is "not the exception but the rule," for "[t]he current amazement that the things we are experiencing are 'still' possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical" (Benjamin 1968b, 256). Indeed, what is philosophical for Benjamin is the restless pursuit of philosophy itself, the rescue that comes with Thought. Neither a state of cessation or exception, the internment camp is here what Giorgio Agamben calls "in some sense . . . the hidden matrix and nomos of the political space in which we still live," the space out of which Benjamin came to understand more intimately the "barbarism" undergirding both law and history (Agamben 2000, 37). But the tableau also bears witness to Benjamin's assertion in One-Way Street that "work is the death mask of its conception," a cryptic formulation which signals not political nihilism or philosophical solipsism, but a recognition of a future responsibility disconnected from the myth of origins, of work performed in the name of something else and to come (Benjamin 1996a, 459). If Benjamin's lifelong commitment to unmasking historicism's [End Page 190] self-confidence in favor of a theory of radically open-ended and immanent experience became more urgent with the rise of fascism in Europe, then perhaps we can view Benjamin's uncanny discipline at Vernuche as a summons to think with Benjamin again, now, as certain political imperatives in our own time urge us to linger over his example.
It is by now a critical commonplace to observe and bemoan the "Benjamin industry" that has delivered dozens of scholarly monographs, essay collections, special issues of journals, multivolume translations of the selected writings, and literally hundreds of critical articles since the early eighties. Indeed, it might be argued that it is increasingly difficult to think modernity, or visual culture, or historical materialism apart from Benjamin's shaping, if always elusive, influence: moreover, the breathtaking range, lyricism, and esoteric nature of his thought tempts readers from an array of disciplines to find elective affinities with...