The Angel Of History And The Ruins Of Paris – Walter Benjamin In France, Part 1 (Richard Rottenburg)

The following is the first of a three-part series.

History is like Janus; it has two faces. Whether it looks at the past or at the present, it sees the same things.» -Maxime Du Camp, Paris, vol.6, p.315

“The subject of this book is an illusion expressed by Schopenhauer in the following formula: to seize the essence of history, it suffices to compare Herodotus and the morning newspaper.

Walter Benjamin, Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century, Exposé of 1939

“How could they not have foreseen?” asked Isabelle Stengers to the readers of Le Monde after the catastrophe of Fukushima in 2011. “How could they – the experts and decision-making elites – not foresee, that an earthquake of exceptional magnitude, followed by a gigantic tsunami, would certainly devastate an overpopulated seismic island and contaminate durably the neighboring Pacific ocean by causing a massive rejection of radioactive waste?”

This was actually more of a rhetorical question, as the philosopher of sciences seemed already to know the answer: The only compass which now seems to define our future is the upholding of economic growth and competitiveness (…) Tepco had been, for example, very efficient in the rationalization of the production costs and the securing of profits. The experts, on their side, had to collaborate in a constructive manner in the mobilization for innovation and progress”.

At a time when the “principle of precaution” could be suppressed from the French constitution in order to be replaced by an ambiguous principle of “responsible innovation” – which could, indeed, but does not refer to the “imperative of responsibility” developed by Hans Jonas (1979) – and despite the major nuclear risk still threatening French national territory, Jean-Pierre Dupuy called on his part not only for the advent of a “slow science” (Stengers 2013) but rather for the advent of an “enlightened catastrophism” (un “catastrophisme éclairé”) (Dupuy 2004; 2012).

Beyond the risk paradigm – or the intuition of a “risk of risks” – of our late modernity, which would simply be another avatar of modern rationalist thought and have proved several times its inefficiency, a catastrophist consciousness at a global “time of catastrophes” (Stengers 2009) – when the impossible has not just become possible but is precisely ineluctable – should recall us that we are not only, in the words of Heidegger, “beings-towards-death” but also, unavoidably, “beings-towards-catastrophe”.

The intuition that modernity has created the conditions of its own disasters had already been formulated long before the institution of a “risk society”. Inn the aftermath of the destruction of Lisbon in 1755, after that Voltaire had lamented on divine perversion and abandoned the optimism of Leibnizian theodicy in his Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne (1756), Rousseau defended in his Lettre à Voltaire the idea that neither God nor Nature were to blame.

If this earthquake, followed by this tsunami coming from the Atlantic, have had a so high faculty of destruction, it was precisely because man and society had concentrated human populations in huge cities, confined them in precarious constructions and created social inequalities which made the poorest of them mostly vulnerable in such disastrous contexts. Rousseau’s intuition forged the motive of an upcoming social progressism that was interwoven with the idea of a perfectibility of human condition and therefore a certain linearity in the progress of human history, one of the major topics of the Enlightenment, even if Rousseauist skepticism already denounced the discrepancy between technical progress on the one hand, and “human” progress on the other hand.

If the tragedy of Fukushima could in part be explained by “capitalist sorcery”, according to Pignarre and Stengers, the Soviet context which allowed the disaster of Tchernobyl in 1986, it also shared a belief in the infinite progress of technique: catastrophes, in this sense, are spectacular events blowing up – but never for a long time – the expectations of a continuum thought as the guarantee of better tomorrows.

Walter Benjamin died before the catastrophes of Tchernobyl and Fukushima. He died even before the atomic bombings of Hiroshima, in 1945. He committed suicide in the village of Port-Bou before reaching the Spanish border, in 1940, when he understood that he would certainly be sent to Auschwitz. But because he did not believe in the modern mythology of progress, he did not believe either in the potentiality of risks, understood as its collateral damages. “The concept of progress has to be based on the idea of catastrophe.”

But the fact that things are still going on this way is precisely the catastrophe. It is not what could await us, but indeed what already happened”, as he wrote in his text On The Concept of History a few months before his death, nineteen theses which could be considered as his philosophical testament (3). In it, the allegorical figure of the Angel of history, inspired by the Angelus Novus of Paul Klee, has got caught his wings in a storm that propels him irresistibly into a future which he nevertheless refuses, this storm being the principle of progress. The accumulation of ruins (Trümmer auf Trümmer), forming the landscape in which the angel is being forced to evolve, evokes the ineluctable obsolescence threatening all material creations of modernity: under such conditions, the “state of emergency” usually declared in exceptional cases of catastrophes, represents in Benjamin’s catastrophism the rule, and not the exception.

His theses On the Concept of History, written in the hectic runup to the Second World War, were a critique of conservative historicism, positivism and evolutionism, three very modern trends of thought which he identified as being common to the pressing dangers of fascism and Stalinism, but also to social democracy. During more than a decade before dying in Port-Bou, Benjamin spent most of his time in exile in the rooms of the Bibliothèque Nationale of Paris, where he could collect materials in order to write his “prehistory of modernity” (Urgeschichte der Moderne), set in the context of the French nineteenth-century.

The Arcades Project, through the use of “dialectical images” assembled in a montage at a standstill, through constellations of voices coming from the past, represents an attempt to write a counter-history of nineteenth-century’s Parisian life. Thought as a chronicle from below, it refuses to celebrate the triumphant continuum of progress: Parisian arcades and gas lightings, Haussmanian boulevards and crinolines, railroads and locomotives, portrait paintings and photographies, panoramas and universal exhibitions, form altogether a landscape of ruins to be explored by critical posterity

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. (…) The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge – unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.” – On the Concept of History, These VIII, 1940

Dealing with uncertainty regarding the future is as much a collective as an individual burden. After all, as Nick Bostrom argues, “the future of humanity comprises everything that will ever happen to any human being, including what one will have for breakfast next Thursday and all the scientific discoveries that will be made next year” (1). As we have chosen to think of Benjamin’s Theses of 1940 as a methodological introduction to his Arcades Project, this forces us to begin our analysis with the end, Benjamin’s end, as the starting point of a genealogy of catastrophe. Could Benjamin have foreseen what awaited him in Port-Bou?

After the announcement of the Hitler-Stalin Pact in August 1939, which beyond the symbolic shock of seeing communism joining the ranks of fascism, changed drastically the situation of refugees in France, he already had to endure a traumatizing internment of three months in the Nevers Camp and wrote in a letter to Horkheimer: “the future prepares for sure even worse events for us”.

With the instauration of the Vichy Regime in July 1940, Benjamin had to flee towards the South of France, like millions of other refugees. He would undertake an exhausting two-days long crossing of the Pyrenees. Benjamin was a heavy smoker and had a heart condition – together with a little group of travelers guided by Lisa Fittko. After having reached the promised border, he would finally realize that the Franquist authorities would not let them pursue their path, for him towards Lisbon, and finally America. As Taussig notes, “refugees carried vials of poison in their vest pockets, just in case (…) and Arthur Koestler claims he was given large amounts of morphine by Benjamin in Marseille, just in case”, amounts that were surely “enough to kill a horse” (307).

Benjamin had never been a “débrouillard”, as Lisa Fittko wrote later, singling out “his lack of adaptability, a euphemism with her for a variety of incompetence that, it so appears, was all too common among these refugee intellectuals, lacking what today we call survival skills or street smarts. (…) But of course the practicalities of suicide were not beyond reach – as if the lack of adaptability had a certain ethical principle behind which was, precisely, not to adapt” (12). During his crossing of the Pyrenees, Benjamin had refused to get rid of a heavy black suitcase which was slowing the progression of the group

We can’t resist here to quote the words of Lisa Fittko, as quoted in Taussig:

The apocalyptic atmosphere in Marseille in 1940 produced its daily absurd story of attempted escape : plans around fantasy boats and fable captains, visas for countries unknown to Atlas, and passports from countries that had ceased to exist. One had become accustomed to learning through the Daily Grapevine which foolproof plan had suffered today the fate of a House of Cards. We still were able to laugh – we had to laugh – at the comic side of some of these tragedies. The laughter was irresistible when Dr. Fritz Fraenkel, with frail body and gray mane, and his friend Walter Benjamin, with his sensitive scholar’s head and pensive eyes behind thick glasses, were, through bribery, smuggled on a freighter, dressed up as French sailors. They didn’t get very far, towards Spain: some say he was carrying an important manuscript with him, which he didn’t want to leave to the nazis; this was perhaps a revised version of the Theses on the philosophy of history together with a final version of the Arcades Project. When Rolf Tiedemann tried to find it again years later, it had disappeared. (9).

The Angel of History

A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. – Walter Benjamin, On The Concept of History, These IX, 1940

The first reference to the document of the nineteen theses appears in a letter to Horkheimer dated from the 22th of February 1940, originally written in French: Benjamin claims in it that he wishes to “establish an irremediable scission between our way to look at things and the legacies of positivism”, which haunt even to the historical conceptions of the left (29). In the words of Victor Serge (1939), it was “Midnight in the century” when Benjamin undertook this work; in his last letters to Gretel Adorno, who was already in New-York with her husband, he writes: “war and the constellation which it has formed have conducted me to lay down on paper thoughts, of which I could say that I keep them on me – and even in me – since approximately twenty years.” (30).

Twenty years earlier, he had made the acquisition in Munich of Paul Klee’s painting which exerted on him a deep fascination; he certainly had the time to contemplate it on the walls of his Berliner bedroom during a few years, but in exile from the beginning of the 1930’s, he had decided to leave the Angelus Novus to Gershom Scholem, who settled later in Jerusalem, where the painting stayed since then. The symbolic interpretation made of the Angel by Benjamin is certainly very personal and quite arbitrary, but it can be used as an entrance door to his philosophy of history.

“But a storm is blowing in from Paradise”: if the allegory of the storm was also used by Hegel in his Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Weltgeschichte as “the tumult of world events blowing in the present”, Benjamin pursued an implicit confrontation with the Hegelian philosophy of history, a rationalist theodicy legitimating each “ruin” and each historical faux-pas as the necessary step on the necessary and triumphal progression of Reason and as the realization of the Progress of humanity towards the consciousness of liberty.

This linearity and necessity in the modern conception of history has left in Benjamin’s perspective its legacy in a denominator common to the most “vulgar” form of Marxism, to social-democratic evolutionism and of course traditional historicism. Adorno and Horkheimer also made a use of the angelic allegory in their Dialectik der Aufklärung, evoking thereby the expulsion from the Garden of Eden: “the angel which has hunted humanity from paradise towards the path of technical progress, is itself the sensible image of this progress”.

But what would be this profane equivalent of a lost paradise which progress, in its irresistible progression, keeps keeping away from us? It could be read  as the old topic of primitive classless societies, in continuity with Rousseau’s Bon Sauvage: in an article on Bachofen’s Mutterrecht (1861) published in 1935, Benjamin celebrated the imaginary of ancient matriarchal communities, understood as “communist societies at the dawn of history”, thought as profoundly egalitarian and peaceful, and combining themselves with new realities in order to give birth to utopia (82).

In his Theorien des deutschen Faschismus , Benjamin had on the contrary already described his representation of Hell: years before the rise of nazism and the engagement of final solution, he announced that “millions of human bodies would certainly be torn to bits and eaten up by gas and iron” in a foreseeable future. In order not to emphasize too much his prophetic abilities, we have here to recall that Benjamin belonged to a generation which had made a sensible experience of the First World War.

In this event, an intimate relationship was built between technical progress and exaltation of warfare, rendering hereby the discrepancy between the potentialities of technical innovation on the one hand and the state of “moral elucidation” that should accompany it on the other hand, more obvious (267). Klee himself had suffered in his flesh from the insanities of the First War, and took in the 1920’s the habit to paint caricatures of the Emperor Wilhelm II as commander in chief of the German armies, under the traits of a monstrous “Eisenfresser”. For the same reasons, Benjamin would write in his theses of 1940 that “there is not a document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism”.

If the total administration of camp systems, followed by the industrial extermination of Jews and Gypsies in death “factories” would only be fully engaged one year after his death, Benjamin had already sensed that nazism would perform a new perverse alliance between the love of technique and modern barbarism. The personal experience of antisemitism had of course formed in him an acute sense of danger. In August 1933, just after the beginning of the national-socialist dictature, he mentioned for the first time the Angelus Novus in an autobiographical text named Angesilaus Santander, in which he reflects on the secret non-Jewish names given to him by his parents, in case he would become a writer . Seven years later, he would write in his theses: “one reason why fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as a historical norm. The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical”.

Against the social-democratic thought making of fascism an anachronical and pre-modern vestige of the past, like in the writings of Karl Kautsky, explaining in the 1920’s that fascism was after all only possible in an agrarian country like Italy, but certainly not viable in a modern and industrialized nation like Germany, Benjamin wishes to recall on the contrary the intimate relationship entertained by it with industrial capitalism, and therefore its very modern character, criticizing hereby the illusion of those blinded by the idea that scientific and technical progress would be incompatible with political and social barbarism.

At a moment when the politicians in whom the opponents of fascism had placed their hopes are prostrate and confirm their defeat by betraying their own cause, these observations are intended to disentangle the political worldliness from the snares in which the traitors have entrapped them. Our consideration proceeds from the insight that the politicians’ stubborn faith in progress, their confidence in their ‘mass basis’, and, finally, their servile integration in an uncontrollable apparatus have been three aspects of the same thing. It seeks to convey an idea of the high price our accustomed thinking will have to pay for a conception of history that avoids any complicity with the thinking to which these politicians continue to adhere.

In his tenth thesis, Benjamin wishes to settle accounts with communism in its Stalinist version, referring implicitly to the traumatizing event of the Hitler-Stalin pact, which had sounded the death knell of the hope of a consequent opposition to Hitlerian fascism. Like Adorno, Benjamin had embraced quite late Marxist theories through the reading of Lukacs’ Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein (1923), but before the vast majority of the left intellectuals of the period, he had already identified the tendencies making of Stalinism a dead end, problems which were to be acknowledged decades later: the illusory promises of the left, interwoven with a blind faith in the infinity of progress, would have neutralized the real capacities of thought and action of the people, in submitting them to a bureaucratic apparatus and the fetishism of the party as an end in itself.

But social democracy was in Benjamin’s perspective only another false alternative to the deadly duo of Nazism and Stalinism In his eleventh thesis, he asserts that “the conformism which has been part and parcel of social democracy from the beginning, attaches not only to its political tactics but to its economic views as well. Nothing has corrupted the German working-class so much as the notion that it was moving with the current. It regarded technological developments as the fall of the stream with which it thought it was moving. From there it was but a step to the illusion that the factory work which was supposed to tend toward technological progress constituted a political achievement. The old protestant ethics of work was resurrected among German workers in a secularized form”.

Beyond the denunciation of the conformist progressism of social democracy through fragments of the discourse of Josef Dietzgen in his Religion der Sozialdemokratie (1906) – “every day, our cause becomes clearer and the people get smarter” – Benjamin criticizes here the sanctified productivism defining, in the words of the Gotha program of 1875, labor “as the source of all wealth and of all culture”. His further denunciation of the effects which this ideology and its practice have on “Nature, which, as Dietzgen puts it, would exist gratis” as raw material for the progress of humanity, and its identification as “a complement to the corrupted conception of labor” could appear avant-gardist.

At a time when environmental preoccupations were far from being a priority, Benjamin made a radical critique of both capitalist exploitation of nature and its continuity in the positivist and technocratic ideology of both “vulgar” Marxism and social-democracy. In echo with Marx’s Critique of the Gotha program, Benjamin wishes to recall the intuition of the first socialist utopias – before the failure of 1848’s revolutions and the triumphal ascension of capitalism in the second half of the nineteenth century, which at the time did not oppose the exploitation of labor forces to the exploitation of nature.

He wrote that “the new conception of labor amounts to the exploitation of nature, which with naive complacency is being contrasted with the exploitation of the proletariat. Compared with this positivistic conception, Fourier’s fantasies, which have so often been ridiculed, prove to be surprisingly sound”. Benjamin’s fascination for Fourierist utopia and the indeed non- productivist system of Phalansteries can be viewed in parallel with his sympathy for Bachofen’s fantasized Matriarchy, in the Rousseauist romantic ideal of the reconciliation of Man with a Mother Nature which had been declared as an enemy to be, in Cartesian terms, “mastered and possessed” by positivist modernity.

The Doll and the Automaton

I- The story is told of an automaton constructed in such a way that it could play a winning game of chess, answering each move of an opponent with a countermove. A puppet in Turkish attire and with a hookah in its mouth sat before a chessboard placed on a large table. A system of mirrors created the illusion that this table was transparent from all sides. Actually, a little hunchback who was an expert chess player sat inside and guided the puppet’s hand by means of strings. One can imagine a philosophical counterpart to this device. The puppet called ‘historical materialism’ is to win all the time. It can easily be a match for anyone if it enlists the services of theology, which today, as we know, is wizened and has to keep out of sight. – Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History, Thesis I, 1940.

Benjaminian philosophy of history can be considered as the fusion of three schools of thought which apparently have nothing in common: German romanticism, Jewish messianism and Marxist materialism. One of Benjamin’s first articles (Romantik, 1913) insisted on the need to restore “the romantic desire for beauty, the romantic desire for truth, the romantic desire for action”, understood as a global Weltanschauung, a “structure of sensibility reaching from Rousseau to Schlegel and Novalis, up to the Surrealists” and a longstanding “cultural critique of capitalist and industrial modernity”.

In his Dialog über die Religiosität der Gegenwart (1913), he evokes also his neo-romantic aspiration to a new religion and a new socialism, forming in his ideal a new social religion which would have Tolstoy, Nietzsche and Strindberg as prophets. 

Here lies the orientation of Benjaminian romanticism, which indeed is not directed towards a pre-modern and conservative past, but rather towards revolution, only under the curious traits of a messianic advent. In the introduction to his doctoral thesis (Der Begriff der Kunstkritik in der deutschen Romantik, 1919), he also mentions that a certain messianism should be at the core of a romantic conception of time and history. In this text, he opposes already the qualitative conception of time corresponding to the thought of romantic messianism, for which the life of humanity should ideally represent a true accomplishment, against a constant and sterile run after novelty and future, to the quantitative emptiness of time characteristic of the modern ideology of progress (65-66).

The alliance of these two contradictory forms of utopian eschatologies – messianism and revolution – is explicitly contained in the very first thesis On the Concept of History, under the paradoxical association of theology and materialism. The double allegory of the Doll and the Automaton was certainly inspired by a story written by Poe in 1836 and translated in French by Baudelaire a few decades later (1871), “The chess player of Maelzel”, telling the fascination exerted by an automaton dressed as a Turk and reputed to be able to play chess even better than a man, which was presented at the Viennese Court in 1769 and finally showed across the United States by an inventor responding to the name of Johann Nepomuk Maelzel. 

The trick consisted in the presence of a hunchbacked dwarf acting as the spiritus rector of the Turkish doll, which was only in appearance an autonomous automaton. In a rationalized and disenchanted modern world, Benjamin identifies theology to this dwarf, which has to stay out of sight in order to let the puppet of historical materialism win. Benjaminian philosophy of history wishes to assert a dialectical complementarity existing potentially between the dwarf and the doll, messianism and revolution, theology and materialism.

The second thesis On the Concept of History goes further in the evocation of Benjaminian profane theological conceptions with the introduction to the messianic concept of “redemption” (Erlösung): “the past carries a temporal index by which it is referred to as redemption. There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim”. 

The endowment of redemption inherited from past generations by posterity in the present can be understood as “remembrance” (Eingedanken) of the past failures and sufferings of the successive oppressed. Through the long influence of Gershom Scholem, Benjamin had been in contact with Jewish theology . The kabbalistic equivalent of christian apocastasis – the final salute of all souls in the return to origins, the re-establishment of Paradise – is defined in his Encyclopaedia Judaica (1932) as the tikkun olam, the reparation of the world, necessitating the shevirat hakelim, the breaking of the vases, and relying rather on a cyclic than a linear conception of time (Fleury 1992: 174). Without explicitly referring to it, Benjamin had also read Franz Rosenzweig’s Stern der Erlösung (1921), which was, like his concept of revolutionary messianism, inscribed in the dissident tradition of the dohakei haketz, or those who wish to activate and precipitate the Apocalypse and hereby the advent of the Messiah. 

The so-called “messianic power” inherited by each generation is in this sense the contrary of contemplative expectation, and the redemption, understood as reparation and emancipation of the oppressed, is only possible through the advent of apocalypse in a cyclic course of time, in which the dialectic of destruction and restoration never ends. Like in the words of Kraus, cited by Benjamin in his fourteenth thesis, “origin is the goal” (1916) and like in the words of Hölderlin, who was also a good read of Benjamin, “where the danger is, grows also the saving power”.

Against what he identifies as the vulgar evolutionism of Marxist eschatology – which can of course be found in the writings of Marx and Engels themselves – Benjamin does not conceive revolution as the natural result of a mechanistic historical materialism conducting automatically to the final crisis of capitalism and the dictature of proletarian masses. The automaton of Marxist historical law had after all several times lost the game and would need the help of the dwarf of theology in order to potentially obtain victory. Benjamin delivers indeed a quite heterodox version of Marxism, in denouncing its optimism towards the future. Like the French dissident communist and surrealist Pierre Naville, he asserts the need of an “organization of pessimism”, a strange apology which found no echo in the communist culture of the period, still full of hopes. 

Like Naville, who would be excluded from the French communist party soon after the publication of his writings, Benjamin did not fit in the orthodox mould with his own reinterpretation of Marxism, which should in his perspective include pessimism and hereby the consciousness of a constant catastrophe in its revolutionary theory and method Benjamin did not believe in the lendemains qui chantent. His Marxism, nourished at the source of Lukacs’ exegesis, relied on the concept of class struggle, but evacuated the Hegelian linearity justifying the past victories of the oppressors over the oppressed by the upcoming advent of its achievements. In the association of material issues and spiritual motives, his revolutionary messianism claims the illusions of modern progressism. The constant state of emergency can only be broken by revolution in the present, not in the awaiting of the future.

Richard Rottenburg is professor of science and technology studies at WiSER at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. He has founded at the Martin Luther Universität at Halle-Wittenburg, Germany, a research network focusing on the anthropology of “Law, Organization, Science and Technology” (LOST). Inspired by social studies of science and technology and renditions of pragmatist social theory, the emergence of material-semiotic orderings and their institutionalizations are at the heart of his current work.

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