- Benjamin’s Imaginary
Those seeking a common thread running through Walter Benjamin’s oeuvre are confronted with many difficulties. The uneven topography of his thought, moving across theological, aesthetic, linguistic, and political considerations, calls for a supple approach, sensitive to the play of continuity and difference in his writings. Now-Time/Image-Spacesuggests that Benjamin’s rethinking of the temporality of these categories will shed light on the fluid relationship between them. Lindroos explores the ‘temporal character’ of Benjamin’s concepts, their ability not only to depict but actualise the ‘change, critique, and transformation of phenomena’. Orienting itself around Benjamin’s life-long commitment to a politics of transvaluation, Now-Time/Image-Space seeks to provide a much sought-after bridge between the early theologically- inflected theorist of language and the later materialist critic. For my part, adhering strictly to Friedrich Schlegel’s dictum that the reviewer should ‘supplement, foster, join’, I’ll try to illuminate some of the most promising features of Lindroos’s analysis.
Lindroos weaves together various strands of Benjamin’s writings and correspondence, revealing an activist intent on assaulting chronological and homogenous ideas of historical time. In order to combat the complacent progressivism that dominated both liberal-capitalist and Marxist historical narratives, Benjamin had to make conceptual language the ‘target and subject’ of his critical efforts. Thus, Benjamin should be understood as a conceptual historian avant la lettre, revising and continually problematising his terms, deploying neologisms to re-formulate the politics of experience. Lindroos argues that political and conceptual critiques unite in Benjamin’s revision of chronological in favour of ‘cairological’ or ‘qualitative’ time. Benjamin’s achievement is to suggest multiple and singular temporalities that discursively unite past and present moments. Such a time-concept suggests an alert ‘mental-presence’ that can strategically cancel the formal intervals of time and space.
Now-Time/Image-Space argues for a ‘commital’ Benjamin whose re-evaluation of temporal experience ‘demands action’. It offers a detailed genealogy of Benjamin’s life-long valorisation of the creatively discontinuous experience of time and memory. This leads us into Benjamin’s famous formulation in his modernist writings, of a disconnected, interested form of experience, Erlebnis, the vantage-point from which Benjamin explored the revolutionary possibilities of the post-industrial habitus. It follows that the most consistent targets of Benjamin’s critical efforts were the attenuated experience of empiricism and historicism, the rationalist separation of subject and object, and the asceticism of ‘disinterested’ versions of aesthetic and historical criticism.
Lindroos explores the complex historical background of Benjamin’s rethinking of temporality. His critical efforts were geared to perform a ‘tiger’s leap’ over the stable empirical subject, the ‘empty’ world-historical time of the Enlightenment. For Benjamin, the Aufklarung’s homogenous and imperious idea of time represented a nadir, an unprecedented ‘zero-point’ of experiential possibilities.In contrast to its reigning empiricism, Benjamin’s project recovers ‘singular temporalities’, and suggestively explores the states of exception, the crisis of sovereign decision-making, of which they are indices.
Lindroos points to two seemingly divergent but overlapping discourses, Jewish messianic thought, and the Pagan, demonic idea of fate or destiny. These time-concepts should be opposed to the internalised, chrono-logical acquiescence to history represented by the Christian/Augustinian tradition, where redemption only pertains to the inward reformation of the soul. For Benjamin, the most salient aspect of messianic exegesis is its ability to actualise redemption on the ‘stage of history’; the creative power of each sign of divinity - fragments of memory, dreams, imagination- must be intellectualised and performed. Such fragments may open a window to a catastrophic rupture, a utopian awakening from a slumbering historical trajectory.
Benjamin was fascinated by the demonic experience of time in the baroque drama of fate, a preoccupation of his early writings. The time of fate, as embodied in Greek tragedy, religion, and mysteries, is immanent: the experiencing subject knows no release from the fateful contingency of events. Such a time cannot be ‘abstracted’ from individual experience; no chronological ‘ratio’ can organise the...