Walter Benjamin and the Remains of a Philosophy of History

A Review of Walter Benjamin: An Introduction to His Work and Thought by Uwe Steiner

in Historical Materialism
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Uwe Steiner’s Walter Benjamin: An Introduction to His Work and Thought is a comprehensive and compelling account of Walter Benjamin’s life and work, which will satisfy both newcomers to Benjamin and those with an existing interest. In this review, I argue that Steiner’s account goes beyond similar encounters with Benjamin in two main ways: first, by focusing specifically on Benjamin’s personal and intellectual relationship with ‘modernity’ and, second, by presenting Benjamin’s enduring appeal as a result of the creative interpretation of his work according to changing times and tastes. Yet Steiner’s historicising account of Benjamin also somewhat neutralises his critical potential as a historical-materialist thinker. Drawing on the work of Benjamin’s erstwhile friend and contemporary Ernst Bloch, as well as on Peter Osborne’s concept of modernity as a specific consciousness of time, I argue that the act of interpretation itself requires a weakly teleological concept of history, such as we find with Bloch and, between the lines perhaps, also with Steiner’s Benjamin.

Walter Benjamin and the Remains of a Philosophy of History

A Review of Walter Benjamin: An Introduction to His Work and Thought by Uwe Steiner

in Historical Materialism

References

BenjaminWalter ZohnHarry ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ Illuminations 1968 New York Pantheon

BlochErnst PlaiceNevillePlaiceStephenKnightPaul The Principle of Hope 1995 Volume 1 Cambridge, MA. The MIT Press

EagletonTerry Walter Benjamin: Or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism 2009 London Verso

ErlinMatt ‘Reluctant Modernism: Moses Mendelssohn’s Philosophy of History’ Journal of the History of Ideas 2002 63 1 83 104

JacobsonEric Metaphysics of the Profane: The Political Theology of Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem 2003 New York Columbia University Press

KoselleckReinhart Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time 2003 New York Columbia University Press

LeslieEsther Walter Benjamin 2007 London Reaktion Books

LessingGotthold Ephraim Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts und andere Schriften 1994 Stuttgart Reclam Verlag

MendelssohnMoses ArkushAllan Jerusalem: Or On Religious Power and Judaism 1984 Lebanon, NH Brandeis University Press

OsbornePeter The Politics of Time: Modernity and Avant-Garde 1995 London Verso

SiebersJohan DietschyBeatZeilingerDorisZimmermannRainer E. ‘Novum’ Bloch-Wörterbuch. Leitbegriffe der Philosophie Ernst Blochs 2012 Berlin Walter de Gruyter

SteinerUwe WinklerMichael Walter Benjamin: An Introduction to His Work and Thought 2010 Chicago University of Chicago Press

WitteBernd RollestonJames Walter Benjamin: An Intellectual Biography 1991 Detroit Wayne State University Press

1

Witte 1991p. 9.

2

Leslie 2007p. 9.

6

Mendelssohn 1984.

7

Cf. Erlin 2002.

8

Benjamin 1968p. 257.

9

Benjamin 1968pp. 257–8.

10

Cf. Osborne 1995.

11

Cf. Koselleck 2003.

12

Osborne 1995p. 12.

14

Osborne 1995p. 14.

15

Eagleton 2009; Jacobson 2003.

16

Bloch 1995p. 234.

17

Bloch 1995p. 200.

18

Bloch 1995pp. 202–3.

19

Bloch 1995p. 200.

21

Siebers 2012p. 413.

Figures

  • View in gallery
    A Klee painting called ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as if 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 towards the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one 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. 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.9

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