The Angel Of History And The Ruins Of Paris – Walter Benjamin In France, Part 3 (Richard Rottenburg)

The following is the second of a two-part series. The first can be found here, the second here.

The Eternal Return of the Same, or the Temporality of Hell

“Fashion: Madam death! Madam death!

-Giacomo Leopardi, “Dialogue between Fashion and Death”

(…) For fashion was never anything other than the parody of the motley cadaver, provocation of death through the woman, and bitter colloquy with decay whispered between shrill bursts of mechanical laughter. That is fashion. And that is why she changes so quickly; she titillates death and is already something different, something new, as he casts about to crash her. – Walter Benjamin, Arcades Project, 1999, p.62-63

The phenomenology of a world submitted to phantasmagorias, understood as seductive images hiding the reality of social relationships of production, would not be complete without including the topic of fashion. Benjamin, who had for sure read Simmel’s Philosophie der Mode (1905), dedicates his second Convolute to the subject, with explicit references to the German philosopher. Simmel calls attention to the fact that

…the inventions of fashion at the present time are increasingly incorporated into the objective situation of labor in the economy…Nowhere does an article first appear and then become a fashion; rather, articles are introduced for the express purpose of becoming fashions’. (…) Simmel explains ‘why women in general are the staunchest adherents of fashion… Specifically: from the weakness of the social position to which women have been condemned for the greater part of history derives their intimate relation with all that is etiquette (…) Simmel asserts that ‘fashions differ for different classes – the fashions of the upper stratum of society are never identical with those of the lower; in fact, they are abandoned by the former as soon as the latter prepares to appropriate them’ (71).

The fascination for novelty would have the characteristic feature to move from top to bottom. Paul Valéry’s voice is also to be heard on the topic: “Our ideals are good for ten years! The ancient and excellent reliance on the judgment of posterity has been stupidly replaced by the ridiculous superstition of ‘novelty’, which assigns the most illusory ends to our enterprises, condemning them to the creation of what is most perishable, of what must be perishable by its nature: the sensation of newness…” Beyond the social motive of fashion, understood as “the effort to distinguish the higher classes of society from the lower” (…), Benjamin mobilizes the words of Brecht in order to define once again fashion as the antithesis to revolution: “Rulers have a great aversion to violent changes. They want everything to stay the same – if possible for a thousand years.” (72).

Indeed, fashion would only be a disguised “eternal return” (if the words are from Nietzsche, the signification is here far from being existential) of the same, exactly like modernity itself, a false change permitted by a collective dream and amnesia, an illusory and sterile perpetuum mobile: “Definition of the ‘Modern’ as the new in the context of what has always already been there.(…) This constitutes the eternity of Hell. To determine the totality of traits by which the ‘Modern’ is defined would be to represent Hell. (…) On the motif of the heaths scapes in Kafka’s Der Prozess: in the time of Hell, the new is always the eternally selfsame.” In fact, “the eternally up-to-date (das Ewig-Heutige) escapes historical consideration; it is truly overcome only through a consideration that is political (theological)” ( 543). Fashion, like sole technical progress, would be the symptom of a “regression in progression”.

Quite emblematic of the fashion of the Second Empire was the puffed-up and frequently ridiculed crinoline:

…the ascendancy of the bourgeoisie works a change in women’s wear. Clothing and hairstyles take on added dimensions…(…) Women, thus accoutered, appeared destined for a sedentary life – family life – since their manner of dress had about it nothing that could ever suggest or seem to further the idea of movement.” (74).

The Monarchie de Juillet had already from the beginning of the 1830’s marked a clear orientation of the bourgeois order towards the domestic shell of the Interior, understood as the dialectical pendant to the public and collective realm of the streets and arcades explored by the idle, contemplative flâneur: “Under the reign of Louis Philippe, the private individual makes his entry into history. For the private individual, places of dwelling are for the first time opposed to places of work. The former comes to constitute the interior, and its complement is the office.”

Characteristic of the nineteenth century’s societal development, the art of “dwelling” would have found its best expression at the end of the century in the “invention” of Jugendstil, whose most characteristic work was “the house. More precisely, the single-family dwelling (…), while the occupant himself loses the power of moving freely and becomes attached to ground and property” (550). Benjamin mediates furthermore the Surrealist critique of the trend: “What is Jugendstil, I am tempted to ask, but an attempt to generalize and to adapt design, painting, and sculpture to dwellings and furniture?” (549). Just like women’s wear, which in the aftermath of Restoration and the loss of revolutionary ideals, is being increasingly directed towards family life, furniture wishes to “take root” in the ground of the fetishized Interior, at a time when the sirens of domestic comfort would tend to bury the horizon of collective utopia.

In Benjamin’s perspective, the only remedy to the “eternal return of the same” would be the breaking of the “temporality of Hell” through the institution of a new social and temporal order. In his Convolute about fashion, he mentions the fantasies of Etienne Cabet in his utopian novel Voyage en Icarie (1840): “Cabet had in fact tried to prove in the novel, which contains his system, that the communist state of the future could admit no product of the imagination and could suffer no change in its institutions. He had therefore banned from Icaria all fashion (…) and had demanded that dresses, ustensils, and the like, should never be altered.” (71).

We already mentioned the fascination of Benjamin for the first socialist utopias, which after the defeats of 1848, tended to be forgotten. At a time when, out of alienation and despair, “suicide was familiar in the mental world of the workers” (721), the imagination of Fourier was still full of this “anthropological materialism” which would have been lost with the later rigidification of Marxist orthodoxy: “only in the summery middle of the nineteenth century, only under its sun, can one conceive of Fourier’s fantasy materialized. (…) One readily grasps the importance of the culinary in Fourier: happiness has its recipes like any pudding. It is realized on the basis of a precise measuring out of different ingredients.” (638).

Fourier’s recipe was that of the Phalanstery, compared by Benjamin to the covered architectures of the Arcades, and its ingredients were participation in an harmonious collective, equality, prodigality, leisure, the suppression of patriarchal authority, plus a reconciled relationship with nature. Indeed, Fourier reproached “Descartes with having, in his doubt, spared ‘that tree of lies one calls civilization’ ” as enemy of natural elements (642): “one of the most remarkable features of the Fourierist utopia is that it never advocated the exploitation of nature by man, an idea that became widespread in the following period”.

But above all, Fourier’s system relied on an efficient “functioning of society, whose motive forces are the human passions”, and a “colossal conception of Man” defended by Marx himself. Furthermore and more surprisingly, “the secret cue for the Fourierist utopia was the advent of machines” in an ideal context where “the integration of the technological into social life” would not fail through the double exploitation of Nature by Man, and of Man by Man himself. But in too soon ridiculing Fourier’s fantasies and letting itself being dominated instead by its own phantasmagorias, the century would have been “incapable of responding to the new technological possibilities with a new social order.”

But despite Haussmann’s efforts to avoid further uprisings after 1848, “the barricade is resurrected during the Commune. It is actually stronger and better designed than ever. It stretches across the great boulevards, often reaching a height of two stores, and shields the trenches behind it. Just as the Communist Manifesto ends the age of professional conspirators, so the Commune puts an end to the phantasmagoria that dominates the earliest aspirations of the proletariat. It dispels the illusion that the task of the proletarian revolution is to complete the work of 1789 in close collaboration with the bourgeoisie. But the bourgeoisie never shared in this error. Its battle against the social rights of the proletariat dates back to the great Revolution, and converges with the philanthropic movement that gives it cover and that was in its heyday under Napoleon III (…) The burning of Paris is the worthy conclusion to Baron Haussmann’s work of destruction.” (Benjamin, Exposé of 1939, “Haussmann, or the Barricades”).

In his theses On the Concept of History, Benjamin also mentions the revolutionary figure of Auguste Blanqui, imprisoned in the Fort du Taureau during the Commune just before being executed, a fortress from where he wrote his own philosophical testament called L’éternité par les astres (1872), which in its “resignation without hope”, would have “completed the century’s constellation with one last cosmic phantasmagoria which implicitly comprehends the severest critique of all the others. Just like Benjamin in his last text, on the threshold of the grave, Blanqui must recognize that “there is no progress. (…) Always and everywhere in the terrestrial arena, the same drama, the same setting, on the same narrow stage – a noisy humanity infatuated with its own grandeur, believing itself to be the universe and living in its own prison (…). The same monotony, the same immobility, on other heavenly bodies. The universe repeats itself endlessly and paws the ground in place. In infinity, eternity performs – impertubably – the same routines.” (75). In his fourth Convolute named “Boredom, eternal return”, Benjamin would then note: “Counterpart to Blanqui’s view of the world: the universe is a site of lingering catastrophe”. (111).


If one could say that “each epoch dreams the one to follow” (150), Baudelaire would respond, surely with the approbation of Blanqui, that one must not forget that “all these old things also have a moral value” (203). “To interrupt the course of the world – that was Baudelaire’s deepest intention, the intention of Joshua.” (318); “what makes itself felt through the evocation of Paris in Baudelaire’s verse is the infirmity and decrepitude of a great city” (332); “Baudelaire’s opposition to progress was the indispensable condition for his success at capturing Paris in his poetry (…): Spleen is the feeling that corresponds to catastrophe in permanence.” (Benjamin 1999: 346). If the writer of Les fleurs du mal – which Benjamin translated, like Proust’s Du côté de chez Swann, from french to german – plays a central role in the Passagen-Werk, his experience of Parisian modernity was present in many other contemporary discourses, which also had the intuition of a catastrophe threatening permanently the megalomaniac Ville-Lumière.

Benjamin, who had with patience collected these complaints during more than a decade in the archives of the Bibliothèque Nationale, wishes to make their voices well heard by posterity, in the moral act of remembering required by the “Copernician revolution in historical perception” he theorized: “the new, dialectical method of doing history presents itself as the art of by their labor and who are deprived of political rights!’. Judge: ‘Well, so be it. Let the clerk record that the accused is a Proletarian…’.” (735).

experiencing the present as waking world, a world to which that dream we name the past refers in truth22. To pass through and carry out what has been in remembering the dream!- Therefore: remembering and awakening are most intimately related. Awakening is namely the dialectical, Copernician turn of remembrance.” (Benjamin 1999: 389). Benjamin’s “revolution” consists in the replacement of an “homogeneous”, “empty” continuum (from past to present, towards future) by an empathic and dialectical correspondence between past and present, in a double effort to re-actualize the past and to re-historicize the present, attempting to make its constant projection forwards in the creation of a “past future”, obsolete.

If on the contrary for Ernst Bloch, Benjamin accords in his “melancholic” Marxism more significance to “the organization of pessimism” than to “the principle of hope”, it is certainly because dystopia was to him more sensibly palpable than utopia. Indeed, Benjamin refers to a Paradise which, like Bachofen’s matriarchal harmony, certainly never existed, while the Hell he describes had already traumatized a whole generation; referring to the same damnation, Paul Valéry would write after the experiences of the First World War: “we, later civilizations…we too, now, know that we are mortal” ( 1).

In his Einbahnstrasse Benjamin had warned of the fires that were still to come without an active conversion of consciousness: “we have to cut the rope before the spark attains the dynamite”. The spark had already reached the dynamite when Benjamin undertook to write his theses On the Concept of History and the pessimism of his philosophy of history found a solid ground in the events threathening the European continen. In his text on Surrealism, he would write an ironic premonition: “Pessimism all along the line. Absolutely…but above all, mistrust, mistrust and again mistrust in all mutual understanding reached between classes, nations, individuals. And unlimited trust only in IG Farben and the peaceful perfection of the Luftwaffe”.

Of course, Benjamin could not have predicted what kind of disasters the Luftwaffe would inflict to European cities and civilians during the next war, nor that the IG Farben would illustrate itself twelve years later in the fabrication of the Zyklon B gas which would help rationalize the Holocaust; but his “organized pessimism” let him already envisage all documents of culture as potential instruments of barbarism, rendering hereby the continuity drawn by him between the materials of the Parisian Arcades and the materials of mass destruction and genocide used during the two World Wars, less arbitrary.

To the image of a locomotive marching irresistibly towards its destination, Benjamin opposes, in a prophecy rather turned backwards, the paradox of a catastrophe which constantly threatens to be imminent because it has already happened and is durably established. In its denunciation of the progressist optimism common to industrial capitalism, orthodox Marxism and social democracy, Benjamin’s philosophy of history has to draw from the doll of historical materialism (a tradition mostly valued by the later interpretations of Brecht) and the dwarf of theology (especially defended by Scholem in his exegeses of Benjamin’s work), making his position somehow lack of unity; together with Habermas, we can ask ourselves if any attempt to systematize this poetical thought would, after all, not be vain.

Furthermore, the drastic Benjaminian preference for the realm of “past experience” (Erfahrungsraum) to the detriment of an “awaited horizon” (Erwartungshorizont) – from the name of the two principles of time consciousness defined by Koselleck – could lead some commentators to consider less the revolutionary character of his “redemptive criticism” than the “eminent conservatism” of his thought – a conservatism namely contained in the constant reference to tradition required by each present generation, endowed with messianic power, and responsible to fulfill all disappointed expectancies imputed to past generations in an act of “remembrance”. The “principle of responsibility” defended decades later by Hans Jonas towards the generations to come is here being inverted: the present is with Benjamin morally responsible for the past, not for the future.

The key to all this might be, as Hannah Arendt suggested it, that Benjamin was indeed more of a melancholic homme de lettres than a rigorous philosopher. Like Baudelaire in his own time, “he had to lay claim to the dignity of the poet in a society that had no more dignity of any kind to offer”. Benjamin, like in the allegory of the Baudelairian poem, was an Albatross used to the lightness of the airs, condemned to manifest his impracticality and inadaptability in a very down-to-earth modern world, which he refused. The testimony of Hans Sahl, who was interned with Benjamin, gives echo to the words of Lisa Fittko: “as he tried to orient himself to reality using his intelligence and his historical-political understanding, he distanced himself ever further from it” (647).

After the catastrophe of Fukushima, Jean-Pierre Dupuy held a conference in Tokyo in which he recalled the reflexions which Günther Anders held in his journal during his visits to Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1958: “From the catastrophe, they speak of as if it was an earthquake, an asteroïd, or a tsunami (…) At the instant when the world becomes apocalyptic, and thus of our own fault, if offers the image…of a paradise inhabited by murderers without evil intentions and victims without hatred. Nowhere is any trace of malignity to be seen, there are only ruins”.

The philosopher of catastrophe had like his former wife come to identify a certain “banality of evil”, as Arendt called it, summarized in the idea of a “Promethean discrepancy” between human innovation and foresight; Jean-Pierre Dupuy sustains that the autonomization of mischief from the real intentions of social actors would render the principles of precaution and responsibility before risks fully sterile. The paradigm of a “risk society” which would have – finally – gained its reflexivity in adopting the incertitude proper to late modernity would, in this perspective, still inscribe itself in the modern project of mastery and in its teleology of progress.

The catastrophe of Fukushima took place, after all, in a society very different from the Soviet Union where Tchernobyl had happened. Have we really become more reflexive? Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s theoretical answer is to replace an incertitude before risks by a certitude towards catastrophes, and his “enlightened catastrophism” could recall Benjamin’s claim to an “organized pessimism”, set this time in the context of a post-modern society which dreams itself as being both reflexive in its present praxis and responsible towards its future. The methodology of apocalypse is common, as Zizek notes, to other contemporary discourses. After all, since the “end of history” has been declared, “it has become easier to envisage the end of the world, than the end of capitalism itself.” (30).

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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