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  • “Combustion-Focal Point”Studying the Image in Benjamin’s “Life of Students”
  • Peter Fenves (bio)

At the beginning of the first essay he published in a widely read journal, Walter Benjamin makes a series of strongly worded claims that can be understood, in retrospect, as the nucleus of his subsequent reflections on the concept of history. Entitled “The Life of Students,” the essay appeared in two versions during the early years of the First World War. Because the essay is closely related to a series of speeches Benjamin made in conjunction with his election to the presidency of the “free student-body” organization in which he actively participated, it is far more closely associated with a specific social-political program than anything else he ever wrote. After its opening paragraph, much of the essay consists of detailed programmatic directives. The point of examining its opening paragraph is not to establish the continuity of Benjamin’s thought—as if this were a value in itself—but rather to identify its abbreviated but consequential theory of the image. And the point of describing this theory is to assess a more general question: what happens when a concept of history is so thoroughly permeated by a theory of the image that concept and image cannot be disentangled from each other?

One response to this question can be found from one of the very first readers of “The Life of Students.” The response runs as follows: any concept of history that is thoroughly entangled with a theory of the image must be contemplative and therefore conservative. Such is the verdict of Kurt Hiller, who republished Benjamin’s essay in the first number of a yearbook entitled Das Ziel: Aufrufe zu tätigem Geist (The Goal: Appeals for Active Spirit). It is not readily apparent why Hiller decided to incorporate Benjamin’s essay into his volume, especially since the opening paragraph of the essay denies that it represents [End Page 182] an “appeal to active spirit.” There was thus something of a mismatch between the essay and the volume, and Hiller, for his part, came to regret his decision to republish “The Life of Students.” Writing to Theodor Adorno in the 1960s, as another student movement was beginning to emerge, Hiller reiterates the distinction between his “activist” program and the putative passivism that pervades Benjamin’s writings, beginning with the essay he included in the inaugural edition of his yearbook:

I published [Benjamin’s essay] in the first volume of Das Ziel, in 1916—not because “I recognized his genius” (I still don’t recognize it now) but because I wanted to encourage a twenty-something student (I was thirty), whose direction of thought then accorded with my own. With some effort, I overlooked the rather banal and secondary sides of his not untalented essay. . . . Soon after the volume appeared he turned away from me and everyone else. He considered the (humanitarian) activism to be shallow and false. The right path was analytic contemplation—not to change the world but to try and grasp it. In this way, as I saw it, he switched onto the Hegel-Husserl-Kassner line.1

Despite the condescension that characterizes this account of Benjamin’s apostasy from the “activist” movement to which he never aligned himself, Hiller identifies the basic question that emerges in the opening of “The Life of Students” and gives direction to much of Benjamin’s subsequent thought: by making the theory of the image an essential element of his concept of history, Benjamin appears to reverse the last of Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach,” insofar as he favors “analytic contemplation” over active engagement that aims to change the world. The impression that Benjamin’s concept of history stands in stark contrast to a Marxist one is only exacerbated by Benjamin’s apparent disavowal of the tenets of historical materialism when he positively refers to “utopian images” at the beginning of his essay. In appealing to such images, moreover, Benjamin introduces an image of his own: an ambiguous one in which the explosive character of combustion and the focal nature of concentration are curiously combined. It is by means of this image, which is itself a...


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pp. 182-188
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