- The Cambridge Companion to Walter Benjamin
Readers of most philosophers working in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s approach their subjects with a degree of caution and suspicion, and their appreciation is challenged by the biographical obstacles of dubious affiliation, political complicity or questionable integrity. Few people, for example, now read Heidegger or Schmitt or Lukács or Bloch, or in fact even Adorno, in the belief that everything they wrote should be accepted or interpreted literally, and few claim that their ideas should be internalized and viewed as incontrovertibly valuable by intellectuals working and thinking in the present. The works of these philosophers are now read reconstructively, with a view for the meanings beyond the literal meaning and for the wider implications and connections of the immediate text. Benjamin, however, stands out amongst other philosophers of his era because of his status as a catastrophic victim of Nazi persecution, and the sense that his work forms a document of uncontaminated victimhood has had a pervasive influence on assessments of his theoretical importance. His writings are only rarely the object of genuinely critical reconstruction, and, ironically for a theorist committed to salvaging and actualizing critique, they are usually visited either in a straightforward hermeneutic or in rather annoyingly eclectic style, by academics seeking neatly formulated dicta to support their own perspectives.
In my view, Benjamin has not benefited from the lack of critical scrutiny and self-scrutiny on the part of his readers, and we still await a compelling work which seeks critically to sift his thought, and to explain which elements of his œuvre warrant serious elaboration, and why this is the case. It should not be forgotten that Benjamin said many things which, viewed in the clear light of day, are – at best – unable to withstand critical inquiry, or – at worst – palpably irresponsible. He argued for example that history should only be [End Page 411] theologically, under the aspect of eventual redemption, and that historical interpreters are engaged in an intuitive-religious relocation and restitution of their historical objects. He suggested that mass-produced cultural artifacts are bearers of creative energies which cannot be effaced by their commodification and which committed interpreters can reactivate. He also claimed, more worryingly, that the conditions and possibilities of justice in modern societies are impeded by Social Democracy and by parliamentary models of deputation and representation, and he added to this argument the utterly spurious assertion that authentic justice can only be envisioned as a divine gift or as a deferred moment of religious praxis. Benjamin, in short, has been very lucky to avoid more critical revision and selective reconstruction.
It is perhaps too demanding to expect that a volume of introductory readings should discuss why these readings are necessary and examine what is really tenable and worthwhile in the works which they address. In the case of this collection, moreover, the focus of the essays provides an implied statement regarding the aspects of Benjamin's work which deserve continued comment. Approximately half of the chapters here contain sections on Benjamin's interventions in historiographic debate. Much of this volume thus considers the 'disjunctive conceptual montage' of Benjamin's historical hermeneutics (210), and his attempt to develop a destructive method of historical interpretation to capture the fragmentary and suppressed moments of historical experience (181) and to undermine linear and hegemonic constructs of historical life is clearly designated as the centerpiece of his entire theoretical undertaking. We are therefore led to assume, surely not inappropriately, that it is in debates on historical method and interpretive praxis that Benjamin's enduring importance lies.
It is nonetheless regrettable that only one chapter in this book, that by Max Pensky on Benjamin's dialectical images, is prepared critically to reflect on whether Benjamin's work possesses 'continuing relevance' (179). Otherwise, the chapters opt for an approach which (especially for a work largely organized around ideas of critique and anti-hermeneutics) is at times far too textual, straight-faced and affirmative. At one point, for...