Below are my notes from class on Monday. I cleaned them up and also posted some of the passages that were brought up during discussion. Feel free to post any questions or comments that you might have. Hopefully this will come in handy later on!
In Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History”, Benjamin focuses on the differences between historicism and historical materialism in his greater discussion of what it means when we talk about history. The tensions between historicism and historical materialism are found between their different approaches to the story that history offers to us in the present; of the differences between allocating a “cultural treasure” within a singular event and without hindsight and of approaching the past through a redemptive perspective.
For Benjamin, historicism remains concerned with understanding the past in relation only to itself; in sequential time whereupon understanding the past becomes allocating history to a specific time, an era. But in approaching history in the guise of “how things really were during that time”, what problems arise? What kind of history are we left with when its approached in this manner? What happens when the presentation of historical events renders them as singular and without relation to each other when we discuss the state of the present? For Benjamin, tales of cultural treasures and the like point to how pervasive the historicist’s perception of time is in our everyday speech. Historicism does not see the barbarism in a cultural treasure; barbarism is missed in the isolated event. Without relation to the past, present or future, the pain and suffering of the “making” of a cultural treasure is left out of the epic story that goes along with it.
The historical materialist, however, views history as folded into different moments of time. The event is no longer isolated within itself; historical materialism then opens a space for the pain and suffering of the event to come to light. Historicism takes the victor’s story as the story of the era itself. In historical materialism there is a redemptive story. It rejects the historicist’s position of one seeing the past always from a set position. Therein to say that you only see the past from the present is placed in conflict with the ability to see the past from nowhere at all. The historical materialist takes the present seriously; its appreciation of time makes the present inform the past and vise versa. The superfluous can become incredibly crucial; historical materialism can revive and redeem. The cultural treasure remains as a marvelous relic of a shared past glory, but what we don’t see is the barbarism and violence that was a part of it. Historical materialism is then a dialectic between a conservative voice and a revolutionary voice. Within a Marxist historical materialism there is a building conflict within the oppressed which is to come to a head in a revolution. For Benjamin, Marxism, however, is tempted by redemption—of cashing out the pain (or glory).
A messianic hope is both weak and strong for there are victors and losers. For every cultural treasure there is barbarism or violence. New cultural treasures mean other barbarisms; Europe in the twentieth century best exemplifies this.
Is Benjamin’s logic of historical materialism ever complete? Does it give rise to another critical form of history? Or a constant negation? Can history—and culture for that matter—exist without a mark of barbarism? Of violence?
“The class struggle, which is always present to a historian influenced by Marx, is a fight for the crude and material things without which no refined and spiritual things could exist. Nevertheless, it is not in the form of the spoils which fall to the victor that the latter make their presence felt in the class struggle. They manifest themselves in this struggle as courage, humor, cunning, and fortitude. They have retroactive force and will constantly call in question every victory, past and present, of the rules. As flowers turn toward the sun, by dint of a secret heliotropism the past strives to turn toward that sun which is rising in the sky of history. A historical materialist must be aware of this most inconspicuous of all transformations”(Benjamin, 254-255).
“To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was’(Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger. Historical materialism wishes to retain the image of the past which unexpectedly appears to a man singled out by history at a moment of danger. The danger affects both the content of the tradition and its receivers. The same threat hangs over both: that of becoming a tool of the ruling classes. In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it. The Messiah comes not only as the redeemer, he comes as the subduer of Antichrist. Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious” (Benjamin, 255).
“They are called cultural treasures, and a historical materialist views them with cautious detachment. For without exception the cultural treasures he surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another”(Benjamin, 256).
“A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixed 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 towards the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees on single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon 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 from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This 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” (Benjamin, 257-258).
“Historicism gives the ‘eternal’ image of the past; historical materialism supplies a unique experience with the past. The historical materialist leaves it to others to be drained by the whore called ‘Once upon a time’ in historicism’s bordello. He remains in control of his powers, man enough to blast open the continuum of history”(Benjamin, 262).
“Where thinking suddenly stops in a configuration pregnant with tensions, it gives that configuration a shock, by which it crystallizes into a monad. A historical materialist approaches a historical subject only where he encounters it as a monad. In this structure he recognizes the sign of a Messianic cessation of happening, or, put differently, a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past. He takes a cognizance of it in order to blast a specific era out of the homogenous course of history—blasting a specific life out of the era or a specific work out of the lifework. As a result of this method the lifework is preserved in this work and at the same time canceled; in the lifework, the era; and in the era, the entire course of history. The nourishing fruit of the historically understood contains time as a precious but tasteless seed”(Benjamin, 262-263).