- Inheriting Walter Benjamin by Gerhard Richter
For Gerhard Richter, posing the question of what it means to inherit Walter Benjamin first requires an interrogation of what it means to inherit. Alluding [End Page 782] to Jacques Derrida's understanding of inheritance, Richter stresses the importance of the undecidable—or "unprogrammable"—nature of inherited knowledge or transmitted legacies (6). Walter Benjamin cannot be inherited without coming to terms with the radical openness of his legacy—an openness that is the very condition of inheritance. For Richter, Benjamin's legacy is not a self-identical one consisting of readily transmissible concepts or a stable philosophical system. Rather, Benjamin's legacy is composed of a rigorous engagement with language that resists determinacy and easy appropriation. Richter claims that "to inherit means to interpret," and thus every event of inheritance is necessarily an act of reading (9). To inherit Walter Benjamin is to read his intellectual legacy, to confront each text's singularity anew every time, and to interpret the unforeseeable that springs forth from the "dangerous, critical moment that lies at the ground of all reading" (121).
Rather than attempt to trace a systematic and linear approach to Benjamin's oeuvre, then, Richter's new book, Inheriting Walter Benjamin, seeks to be faithful to Benjamin's legacy by engaging in "act[s] of innovative, rigorous, open-ended reading[s]" of specific passages (12). Richter follows these particular Benjaminian passages and tropes as they both yield to and resist our understanding, thus inviting "future acts of receiving the remains of a heritage" (11). Forming a Benjaminian constellation of "subtly shifting vantage points," Richter's chapters, above all else, attempt to re-read and thus re-inherit the beauty, density, and inexhaustibility of Benjamin's sentences, figures, and images (13).
Chapter 3, for instance, takes on the conceptually difficult trope of "Benjamin's Blotting Paper." Guided by Benjamin's own methodological gesture in The Arcades Project of "recognizing in the analysis of the small singular moment the crystal of the total event" (qtd. in Richter 41), Richter offers a reading of the blotting-paper passage that treats the singular and idiomatic nature of Benjamin's figure while recognizing the broader implications the passage has for the status of theology in Benjamin's thought. Richter's central aim in this chapter is to articulate the inextricability of the theological from the rhetorical in Benjamin—that is, from the literary, textual, and linguistic iterations in which matters of theology appear. The passage is, as Richter points out, a question of the relation between theology (théos: God, and lógos: study, thus, the study of God ) and thinking. Benjamin writes, in Convolute N 7a,7 of The Arcades Project,
My thinking is related to theology as blotting paper is related to ink.
It is saturated with it.
Were one to go by the blotter, however, nothing of what is written would remain.
Tracing the various meanings of the German word Löschblatt, which is translated into English as "blotting paper," Richter describes the many relations at stake in the passage, not least of which is the self-reflexivity of writing, of a writing "mirrored" in the reflection of the blotting paper that is meant to erase the excess or remainder of what has been written. The figure of the remainder [End Page 783] or remnant is significant here since the relation between theology and thinking always leaves a trace—that which is simultaneously erased and preserved.
Rather than attempt to delineate what the theological means for Benjamin, Richter is interested in the specific turn of Benjamin's trope: how, in this simile of the relation between thinking and theology, Benjamin formally aligns thinking with the Löschblatt and theology with ink. Theology, then, "generates writing, belief and presentation, while thinking [. . .] is there to cancel, to erase, to undo, to extinguish" (49–50). In this double movement of generation and extinction, of writing and erasing, of belief and critique, Richter articulates the "scandal" that Benjamin's passage reveals: "the scandal of the latent presence of theological remnants [. . .] in a gesture of critique...