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  • Iconoclasm and Messianism in German-Jewish Thought:The History of History, Part 2
  • Jeffrey Bernstein (bio)
History and Freedom, by Theodor Adorno, translated by Rodney Livingstone. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2006. 348 pp. $69.95 (c); $29.95 (p). References occur as (HF: page number).
The Jewish Writings, by Hannah Arendt, edited by Jerome Kohn and Ron H. Feldman. New York: Schocken Books, 2007. 559 pp. $35.00. References occur as (JW: page number).
The Promise of Memory: History and Politics in Marx, Benjamin, and Derrida, by Matthias Fritsch. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005. 249 pp. $24.95. References occur as (PM: page number).
Picture Imperfect: Utopian Thought for an Anti-Utopian Age, by Russell Jacoby. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005. 211 pp. $17.95. References occur as (PI: page number).
Reading Leo Strauss: Politics, Philosophy, Judaism, by Steven B. Smith. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. 256 pp. $18.00. References occur as (RLS: page number).

Perhaps the time will never come when debates over 20th century German Jewish social and political philosophy will have finally been settled. Discussions continue raging over the respective legacies of Leo Strauss, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and Hannah Arendt. Was Strauss directly implicated [End Page 147] in his followers' bids for power in various presidential administrations? Did Walter Benjamin actually provide a consistently materialist philosophy, or was he beholden to a theological world-view? Did Theodor Adorno's trenchant critiques of society amount to pessimism concerning the possibility of societal improvement? Finally, just how conflicted was Hannah Arendt's relation to Jewish history and society? To simply rehearse these debates in the limited space of this review essay would not merely be derivative, but in fact, futile. Paraphrasing Adorno's famous opening sentence of Aesthetic Theory, one might say that it is self-evident today that nothing about German-Jewish social-political thought of the past century is self-evident anymore. The aforementioned figures provide intellectual resources more by virtue of the event—and force—of their thinking than by virtue of an ideal consensus or continuity of their positions or lives. Their texts bear urgent and sustained witness to the problems of exile and catastrophe in the last century, and they also provide occasions for us to begin to work through their insights. Consistent and self-identical models they were not and probably never will be.

If we accept the claim that interpretation (insofar as it emerges partly from the process of decision-making) is an ethical act, Jewish intellectuals have currently been presented with another opportunity to take up this particular philosophical legacy. With the recent plethora of publications by and about Strauss, Benjamin, Adorno, and Arendt, the context now emerges for the latest re-assessment of this period. I would suggest that the questions mentioned above are all moments of one over-arching issue: Is this period of German-Jewish thought best understood through the category of iconoclasm or messianism? Does its social and political impetus bespeak a desire to project a utopian future, or does it rather express a reticence or critical impulse with respect to theological-political idolatry? Given the current state of research, I believe that a strong argument can be made for construing this historical legacy under the aspect of iconoclasm. Therefore, a re-assessment of these thinkers will amount to yet another re-assessment of modern Jewish intellectual history. And given that the aforementioned figures all inevitably articulate their views of society and politics historically, this re-assessment is yet another re-assessment of the history of history.

If the works of Strauss, Benjamin, Adorno, and Arendt constitute the source texts of this tradition, Russell Jacoby's Picture Imperfect serves as a strong initial midrash. For Jacoby, the issue of iconoclasm and messianism needs to undergo further differentiation; he distinguishes between "iconoclastic utopians" (i.e., utopians whose "dream of a superior society" [PI: xv] can be traced to the Jewish ban on graven images [PI: 33]) and "blueprint utopians" (i.e., utopians who work out in detail what such a future society would [End Page 148] look like [PI: xiv]). Unwilling to concede that all utopian thought and every impulse...


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