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
Author: Cat Moir1
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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.

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