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Archive for the ‘historical materialism’ Category

Jurgen Habermas tries to explain and criticize Walter Benjamin’s philosophy and communicate new ways of using this philosophy in “Walter Benjamin: Consciousness-Raising or Rescuing Critique.”
In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin argues that art is no longer profanely illuminating–life no longer seems inexplicably magical– because the aura (the unconsciously mirroring symbolic structure) is removed from material processes (aura is not possible with reproduction).
Myth is the product of a human race that is denied access to a good and just life because they are trapped in a system of material reproduction. The “mythic fate,” synonymous with modernity’s concept of progress, can only be halted in a moment where time has stopped (which only happens theoretically but not really). It is in this moment that Benjamin attempts to reconcile, or rescue, the past from all that barbarism. Historical materialism uses an interpretation of history at a moment of danger and then it is gone.
Benjamin was ambivalent about the loss of aura seen in art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Aura held in it, to him, the ability to “transpose the beautiful into the medium of the true” (106). Aura is the beautiful veil draped over complex experience. Aura is what makes beauty accessible to us. In this aura, Benjamin sees the potential for happiness, but at the same time he views the loss of aura as a good thing. With the loss of aura, solitary enjoyment of art disappears. However, the loss of aura opens up the possibility of a new, more universal experience of beauty. Habermas goes on to say that Benjamin’s break from esotericism, in the face of fascism, is indisputable. He quotes Benjamin, describing the break as the “overcoming of religious illumination…a profane illumination, a materialist, anthropological inspiration” (109). Benjamin uses the word “profane” to characterize happiness because he conceived of mystical illumination as both spiritual and sensual, and an experience for the masses. By looking at this quote, we see how Benjamin’s theory of art is more a theory of experience than one of the critique of ideology.
Benjamin’s mimetic theory of language focuses on the gestural connection that links human language to all animal languages–the expression of the continuous connection between the organism and the environment. It is this mimetic capacity that produces meaning in the form of human needs, which change throughout history. Thus, semantic potential can be changed but not increased. The mimetic capacity is the imprint of a dependence on nature, which is preserved in myth. The profane content of the messianic promise is that humanity will become independent of the environment without losing the mimetic/artistic power to project human needs/meaning onto the world, thus humanizing it. Benjamin conceived of the history of art as the attempt to do the above. “Benjamin called these attempts divine, because they break myth while preserving and setting free its richness” (112). Thus, to Benjamin, the source of such perfect dialecticism (to be at once liberated from the environment while preserving its splendor) must be God (the relation with Whom is “profane” because it is a rejection of His dominion- the power of the environment to force adaptation). However, his political feeling of knowing the materialist enemy opposed his nonsecular mimetic theory as a theory of experience. Thus, in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Benjamin tries to unite his messianic conception of history with historical materialism. Habermas argues that he fails to do this because, when conceiving of the philosophy of history as a theory of experience, “a materialist explanation for the history of art–which, Benjamin, for political reasons, does not want to give up–is not possible in any direct way” (113). Recall that, in the Theses on the Philosophy of History, the puppet of historical materialism is in the service of the hunchbacked dwarf theology. Habermas’ “thesis is that Benjamin did not succeed in his intention of uniting enlightenment and mysticism because the theologian in him could not bring himself to make the messianic theory of experience serviceable for historical materialism” (114).
Adorno, who wanted to explicate the dialectical relationship between culture and social process, was wrong to assume that Benjamin had the same intentions behind his ideological critique. Benjamin, on the other hand, wanted to understand nearly forgotten ways of making meaning to gain insight into the collective unconscious through the interpretation of dialectical images. Through modern collective images, he wanted to link old ways of making meaning to capitalist conditions of life.
Benjamin assented to the instrumental politicization of art in the name of Communism and its utility in the class struggle. With this endorsement, Benjamin “mutely admitted” that his theory of experience is not translatable into political practice (“profane illumination is not a revolutionary deed” (120)). Benjamin failed in using historical materialism for his theory of experience because he proved to be uncomfortable in uniting ecstasy (liberation of meaning from tradition) and politics (liberation from domination)–the messianic promise is separate from the class struggle. Instead, Habermas feels it is useful to use Benjamin’s theory of experience for historical materialism.
Habermas notes (as Marcuse notes in One-Dimensional Man) that capitalism has come to “differentiate between hunger and oppression” while “uniting repression with prosperity.” Thus, Benjamin has been useful in offering something beyond prosperity and liberty: namely, happiness, which he named profane illumination, and which he saw as “bound up with the rescuing of tradition” from the barbarism of the ruling elites who triumphantly parade around with it. Thus, we can only be happy if we can exercise our artistic/mimetic powers while disentangling the tradition that formed our needs from myth.
In response to pessimistic counter-enlightenment’s claim that utopian images are fictions that drive us on, Benjamin’s theory of experience as a core of historical materialism offers “a grounded hope”- a promise that the ideal is always worth striving for. In response the dialectical theory’s claim that emancipation and fulfillment are inevitable, Benjamin’s theory offers “a prophylactic doubt”- a promise that we will never reach the ideal. A theory of linguistic communication that wanted to reconcile with a materialist theory of social evolution would need to combine two of Benjamin’s ideas: language is non-violent, mutual understanding, and mistrust any reciprocal understanding except those in fascism

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In Max Pensky’s “The Trash of History,” taken from the larger Melancholy Dialectics: Walter Benjamin and the Play of Mourning, Walter Benjamin’s use of the objective dialectical image is viewed in juxtaposition–and unwanted collaboration -with subjective allegorical imagery. The dialectical image, where past and present interact with one another, is Benjamin’s method and subject of critical analysis. The allegorical image that has arbitrary meaning is melancholic: the passing of time is marked by sadness. The dialectic image “cannot be” (Pensky, 211), and yet it is as our history is a “catastrophic history” (Pensky, 211). This issue of imagery is one aspect of the larger subject/object problem and is how Benjamin incorporated Kabalistic elements into his criticism. (more…)

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The Long Friendship: Theoretical Differences Between Horkheimer and Adorno originally appeared in the book On Max Horkheimer: New Perspectives. In this essay Stefan Breuer successfully highlights the contrasting viewpoints that arise when juxtaposing the works of Horkheimer and Adorno.

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       Gersholm Scholem’s main focus is to discuss Walter Benjamin’s fascination with the painting Angelus Novus, by Paul Klee.  He shows how Benjamin’s interpretation follow a dialectic between mystical intuition and reason. His main discussion revolves around the first two drafts found in a notebook in Benjamin’s literary remains in Frankfurt written August 12th and 13th, 1933, named “Agesilaus Santander.”  In it Benjamin discusses the relationship between a Jew and their secret religious name, an allegory for his relationship to Angelus Novus that Scholem exposes. The examination takes a route of literary and philosophical analysis accompanied by the author’s stance that he knew Benjamin on a very personal level.

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Theodor Adorno’s essay, “Reflections on Class Theory”, found in Can One Live After Auschwitz?, combines many of the themes that have been focused upon this semester, particularly Walter Benjamin’s notion of progress and Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s critique of mass culture. Set within a context of how the theory of class has changed into the modern age, Over the course of nine theses on the subject, Adorno puts forth a myriad ideas explaining the duality of the class, how it has been present since prehistory, and how it has perpetuated the impotence of the “exploited”, and extended the rule of the “exploiters”. (94) (more…)

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Below is a summary of the class discussion we had on both Wednesday of last week and this past Monday. Please feel free to add any questions and comments that you might have! (more…)

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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! (more…)

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