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.
Ernst Bloch’s Speculative Materialism: Ontology, Epistemology, Politics, Cat Moir offers a new interpretation of the philosophy of Ernst Bloch. The reception of Bloch’s work has seen him variously painted as a naïve realist, a romantic nature philosopher, a totalitarian thinker, and an irrationalist whose obscure literary style stands in for a lack of systematic rigour. Moir challenges these conceptions of Bloch by reconstructing the ontological, epistemological, and political dimensions of his speculative materialism. Through a close, historically contextualised reading of Bloch’s major work of ontology,
Das Materialismusproblem, seine Geschichte und Substanz (The Materialism Problem, its History and Substance), Moir presents Bloch as one of the twentieth century’s most significant critical thinkers.
Ernst Bloch’s recourse to speculative philosophy has guaranteed him the position of a perpetual outsider in the history of Western Marxism. When Jürgen Habermas described Bloch’s philosophy in 1960 as a ‘speculative materialism’, it was to denounce him for crossing the boundaries of critical thought set down as much by Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason as by Marx’s critique of political economy. This article argues that Bloch’s speculative materialism deserves to be re-assessed. Contrary to Habermas’s assertion that speculation is divorced from critique, I argue with Bloch that (1) the speculative hypotheses we unavoidably use to interpret the world around us inform our political beliefs and actions, and (2) to stifle speculative thinking as that creative and inquisitive enterprise which questions and transgresses the given is not only a ‘crime against reason’, as Hilary Putnam once claimed, but also a crime against freedom.