- Walter Benjamin’s Other History: Of Stones, Animals, Human Beings, and Angels
That a rethinking of the concept of history is one of the most urgent impulses in Walter Benjamin’s celebrated oeuvre is well known. His readers, however, have differed radically in their understanding of the historical model that emerges from his variegated writings. For Benjamin, the task of thinking historically begins with the explosion of conventional historicism’s claims to transparency, teleological linearity, and subjective agency, that is, with the destruction of the notion of historical progress. While traditional historicism privileges universal norms and the vantage point of an objective ideality, he views historical phenomena as most fully themselves when they are in the process of becoming something else. In Benjamin’s philosophy, history must be brushed against the grain so that the logic of what historicists consider self-evident is undermined by sudden flashes, shocks, and blind spots that expose us to the danger of reading historically. Because for him all construction presupposes destruction, the explosion of conventional historicism is not merely an exercise in nihilism or anti-Enlightenment solipsism. Rather, because it is performed in the name of something else, the explosion affirmatively prepares the way for a responsible thinking of what is yet to come.
While Benjamin famously defers the specification of a unified theory of history, it is nevertheless possible to discern rhetorical movements and material figures that speak to these concerns throughout his corpus. Since all his thoughts on a given subject are never collected in a single place, a rigorous analysis of his rethinking of the concept of history must proceed from his early “metaphysical” period, through his apprenticeship in German and French literature, to his mature historical-materialist phase. Beatrice Hanssen’s original and penetrating study rises to this challenge.
A major contribution of her scholarship is the argument that Benjamin’s “other history” can best be understood by examining his mobilization of postanthropocentric figures such as stones, animals, and angels. Excavating the ways in which Benjamin employs images and figures of natural history, both in his famous 1928 book on the Baroque German Trauerspiel (mourning play) and in related writings, Hanssen’s study shows that Benjamin does not regard the human subject as the sole site of experience. To elaborate this reading, she revisits notions of animality and the creaturely in which Benjamin privileges natural or nonhuman history over the claims of the idealist subject. In order to explicate Benjamin’s engagement with natural history, Hanssen skillfully compares it with the projects of two of his contemporaries, Theodor W. Adorno and Martin Heidegger, who shared his interest in natural history.
Her study also succeeds in establishing connections between Benjamin’s alternative reading of history and its ethical and political consequences. Borrowing a term from Jacques Derrida, Hanssen links the ethico-political dimension of Benjamin’s concept of history to the radical “de-limitation” of the subject. The figure of de-limitation captures the contradictory movement that works to establish norms and boundaries while simultaneously transgressing or undoing them. Unlike conventional models of theology to which Benjamin always stood in [End Page 168] a highly ambivalent relationship, his de-limiting ethics can best be approached in terms of an attentiveness to the other. In forging a connection between Benjamin’s image of history and his notions of responsibility, Hanssen attempts “to recover an ethico-theological potential from under the mystical and mythic images that traverse his work” (6). Her study makes clear that, on the far side of the normative programs of an Aristotelian or Kantian ethics, Benjamin’s aporetic sense of ethics and justice ultimately is closer to that of Emmanuel Levinas, whose idea of responsibility exhibits parallels to Benjamin’s sustained interest in the “righteous man.”
Another significant lesson of Hanssen’s scholarship is that Benjamin’s image of history is most fully itself when it is expressed in the guise of something else. The historicity of his phenomena is always tied to their figurative or allegorical dimension—even to such...