Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Working with Walter BenjaminRecovering a Political Philosophy$

Andrew Benjamin

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780748634347

Published to Edinburgh Scholarship Online: September 2014

DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9780748634347.001.0001

Show Summary Details

Introduction

Introduction

Chapter:
(p.1) Introduction
Source:
Working with Walter Benjamin
Author(s):

Andrew Benjamin

Publisher:
Edinburgh University Press
DOI:10.3366/edinburgh/9780748634347.003.0001

Abstract and Keywords

This introductory chapter provides an overview of the book’s main themes. Benjamin’s work introduces a specific thinking of the opposition between theology and religion. Theology continues as an effective presence structuring his philosophical project. Introducing Benjamin therefore must stage this opposition as integral to its own Introduction.

Keywords:   German philosopher, Walter Benjamin, religion, theology

All philosophical knowledge has its unique expression in language.

Walter Benjamin

These are the days when no one should rely on his ‘competence’. Strength lies in improvisation. All the decisive blows [Alle entscheidenden Schläge] are struck left-handed.

1

So wrote Benjamin in One-Way Street. To introduce a work that is orientated around the possibility of Benjamin’s philosophical project having an effective afterlife is an undertaking that is marked by a number of inherent difficulties. The difficulties do not stem from the presence or absence of ‘competence’. On the contrary these difficulties become clear once there is an attempt to avoid subordinating Benjamin’s work to moral or political frameworks where the latter are based on a refusal to allow the complexities and the nuances within his own work to emerge. What has to be maintained is the ‘left-handed blow’.2 In this context the act of ‘introduction’ has a specific meaning. To introduce is to stage. Rather than an Introduction assuming that what is brought into existence appears as though it were either untouched or already completed, here other hands have been at work. Benjamin’s work has received specific forms of direction.

With Walter Benjamin there had been a prevailing supposition. The choice had always been clear: Marxist rabbi or merely Marxist. As with all clear choices the clarity of both the structure and its content is merely apparent. What should in fact be at work is a radically different philosophical project, one which will have already received another type of direction. The latter – the other direction – might be described as proceeding within the ‘diversion’ (Umweg) that Benjamin names as ‘method’. If theology remains – and it is the presence of theology that (p.2) in certain instances allows for the bridge bringing elements of Judaism into his work – then it stands opposed to religion.3 Benjamin’s work introduces a specific thinking of the opposition between theology and religion. Theology continues as an effective presence structuring his philosophical project. Introducing Benjamin therefore must stage this opposition as integral to its own Introduction.

It should be noted at the beginning therefore that the nature of the opposition between theology and religion demands detailed clarification in its own right. Hence, it is essential to be clear as to what a critical engagement and thus a genuine counter to religion is like (and in addition the figure of religion that such a counter maintains). In general terms what is meant here by an effective and thus genuine counter – what will be identified henceforth as a counter-measure and which needs to be understood as a form of critique – has a two-fold designation. (The term – counter-measure – will continue to be deployed throughout the chapters to come.) In the first instance the counter-measure is a counter-movement that retains the centrality of measure. However, what is measured and the nature of the measure will have a different quality. The second is that it involves the repositioning of the object of critique in terms of that which has a determining effect on the object in question. What this then means is that it is possible to generate an effective counter to the assumption of continuity. Within that setting – the setting created by the opposition of religion and theology – there are failed attempts to think the limit of religion. They become failed counters that signal no more than mere revolt. Perhaps the most banal form that an opposition to religion might take is atheism. Atheism entails the identification of religion with a claim about knowledge and in which the knowledge of a deity forms the basis of religion. Consequently, if religion were to be identified as defined in purely epistemological terms, then it would indeed follow that the introduction of any form of epistemological uncertainty could then be taken as having brought the force of religion into question. However, central to Benjamin’s project is that such an approach to religion fails to grasp the effect of religion and thus what religion actually is. Moreover, the attempt to counter religion with the assertion of atheism is equally premised on a failure to grasp the way in which religion is deployed within the political. Taken generally religion is a force within conservative politics not because it maintains a deity at its centre but because, as Benjamin suggests, it is from the outset ‘practical’.4 Practicality here is the way in which religion structures every aspect of life and thus every subject position, even that subject position that defines itself as ‘irreligious’. Hence the response to religion has to be a political one and not the evocation of the critical paucity of atheism.

(p.3) Atheism is an inherently apolitical position – hence it will be more closely allied to a conservative political position than to one that seeks a transformation of structures of normativity and relations of power. What is clear – and this is a position that can be linked to thinkers as diverse as Marx, Weber and Tawney – is that there is an important symbiosis between religion and the structure of capitalism.5 The futility of atheism as a response to religion is that it conflates a set of personal beliefs – what might be described as the religious – with the presence of a political order. If atheism were thought to be the counter-measure to religion then such a move would be premised on a radical misunderstanding of the nature of religion.

The investigation of the ways religion and theology differ – a difference in which undoing the imposed continuity of the former is what theology allows – is a topic to which repeated returns are to be made in this particular encounter with the work of Walter Benjamin. If there is an element that might deflect the centrality of the relation between theology and religion as an uncritical presence while providing the means by which it can be reconsidered then it can be located in ‘life’. Indeed, part of the contention to be made throughout the following chapters is that ‘life’ is one of the key terms in Benjamin’s work. Life of course has to be differentiated from that which would have been taken at the time Benjamin was writing as a Lebensphilosophie.6 Equally, life, in Benjamin’s renewal of the term, has to be stripped of its connection to both neutrality and any determination that would have been derived from biology. The question then is how is that rethinking of life to be understood? This question – as will come to be seen – continues to introduce Benjamin’s work. Informing any answer to that question – the question of how life is to be understood – is the conjecture that ‘life’ as the term is present within Benjamin’s thought is not simply human life as though the latter were a given. Rather, it pertains to the possibilities and the potentialities already inherent in that life. Life brings with it a life to come. Given this formulation the project that then arises concerns the recovery of that other possibility for life. The key point here is that it is a possibility within life. The future is a condition of the present. The future cedes its place therefore to the present as a site of potentiality.7

Once the assumption is that there is a potentiality within the life that is already there, then it is clear that what is involved is not a claim about either ‘mere life’ or that life which is at hand. Rather, it is a claim made about the being of being human.8 (Potentiality and life define human existence.) Potentiality is a possibility within being. And precisely because it is a possibility within being, what is then of significance is how there can be an account of the move from potentiality to actuality. (p.4) Part of the argument to be developed in the chapters to come is that this move is staged by Benjamin in terms of different modalities of destruction. That move is there both within and as existence, once existence has a more complex description than that which would have been furnished by having taken the given as an end in itself. The complexity is there in what will be called henceforth the fabric of existence. The latter is a term that identifies human being in terms of modes of relationality rather than isolated subjectivity, a position that is consistent with the modalities of subjectivity developed by Benjamin in a number of the texts that are central to this overall project,9 and which finds precise expression in Fate and Character when he argues that:

No definition of the external world can disregard the limits set by the concept of the active human being. Between the active man and the external world, all is interaction [Wechselwirkung]; their spheres of action interpenetrate.10

While a return will be made to this passage in the context of Chapter 3, it has to be understood as undoing any separation of the human from the world, a separation that then brings with it the related position in which questions of correlation are deemed to be necessary. Staged by passages of this nature is the recognition that human being is already worldly.

Within the fabric of existence there is a potentiality for an eventual identification of life with the just life. The eventual, however, will necessitate that event that enables the possibility of this identification. The acknowledgement therefore of the just life as inherent (as a potentiality) in life necessitates what Benjamin identifies as the infinite postponement of the Last Judgement. This is a postponement that involves the maintained opening of a space. That space, a spacing that allows, will be developed in the argument to come in terms of what will be called a caesura of allowing. The caesura is the term that links destruction and spacing.

As part of the attempt to understand the difference between religion and theology as terms within Benjamin’s writings, the formulation the fabric of existence has to be understood as the creation of a sense of place that stands as a counter-measure to a conception of place as determined by religion. Central to both capitalism and religion, which for Benjamin are defined in terms of each other, is their domination of spaces of experience and the creation of subject positions. Within capitalism as religion, and thus within that conception of religion which is the functioning of capitalism, ‘each day commands the utter fealty of the worshipper’.11 What this means is that if there is a conception of another (p.5) life within that setting – a setting in which every day is a ‘feast day’ – then it is not there as a potentiality within life as it lived out. Another life, a life that is other, would have to be defined in terms of what might be described as a literal ‘afterlife’. This is the life that demands the Last Judgement: the life that is the afterlife. The question of religion’s counter-measure returns, and in so doing it returns as the question of life. As an opening, the first element of a response is going to be that if there is a term within Benjamin’s writings that identifies the way that potentiality within life is to be understood – and thus the potentiality whose presence is already a distancing of religion – then it can be found, at the outset, in the differing permutations of the term Glück.12

At the outset Glück can be translated as either ‘luck’ or ‘fortune’ or ‘happiness’. As a term, however, its interest is twofold. In the first – though this is a position that will be developed in Chapter 1 – its interest can be located in the way it stages destruction. That staging means that it is to be understood as marking potentiality’s actualisation. Secondly – and this is the point to be noted here as part of an Introduction – that interest resides in the way it recalls elements central to Ancient Greek thought.13 Indeed, it is possible to go further and suggest that what is at stake in Benjamin’s evocations of life – life as separate from life as a given or life as biology – has a clear point of reference in Sophocles’ Antigone. To be more precise, the reference is to the last speech by the Chorus. This is a speech in which the Chorus advances the countermeasure to the conceptions of law, and thus the subject positions that such conceptions of law demand, that is at work within the positions that establish the conflict between Creon and Antigone. If that conflict is the tragedy then its resolution and thus the project of delimiting the hold of the tragic is to be found in this counter-measure.14

The first line of the last speech by the Chorus in Sophocles’Antigone reads as follows:

πολλῷ τὸ φρονεῖν εὐδαιμονίας

πρῶτον ὑπάρχει15

A direct translation is the following: ‘The greatest part of happiness is wisdom.’16 Within that translation ‘happiness’ translates eudaimonia and ‘wisdom’ is the translation of to phronein. However, if the translations were into German rather than English, then the former, eudaimonia, could be translated as des Glücks or even der Glückseligkeit. (Ezio Sevino’s Italian translation translates eudaimonia as buona vita.)17 If ‘wisdom’ is indeed linked to ‘happiness’ (eudaimonia) then wisdom allows for the actualisation of a potentiality in life. Wisdom allows for (p.6) the move from mere life to the good life (or perhaps more accurately the just life). The fundamental point is that life cannot be taken as an end in itself. Moreover, there needs to be the possibility for the actualisation of that which endures in life as a potentiality.

Within the framework of Sophocles’ Antigone, ‘wisdom’ (to phronein) functions almost as the sine qua non for the actualisation of the good life. It could be viewed as its trigger. Moreover, the counter indicates that what both Creon and Antigone lack is ‘wisdom’. This should not be understood as a point made only in relation to the play’s closure. Indeed, it is essential to the play’s structure and overall development that the evocation of the centrality of to phronein has occurred at an earlier stage in the play. The last speech by the Chorus has to be understood therefore as recalling and reinforcing the earlier evocation of ‘wisdom’. The positioning is deliberate. At the play’s centre, Haemon, as part of a heated exchange with his father Creon, says the following:

If you were not my father [μη πατερ], I would say that you had no wisdom [ουκ φρονειν].18

The significance of this line is twofold. In the first instance it locates the centrality of to phronein within the play as a whole. In the second it means that any possible attribution of centrality to phronein locates to phronein as standing in opposition to the law on the condition that the law is defined in terms of immediacy. Immediacy stands opposed to mediation. Mediation involves deliberation and thus judgement. (The latter will always have the form of a contestable decision.) Both deliberation and judgement involve a conception of time that is radically distinct from the temporality of immediacy. Judgement has wisdom as its necessary correlate. Present therefore is a form of definition that, on the one hand, notes the radical difference between the conceptions of law evoked by Creon and Antigone and yet, on the other, elides that difference insofar as both conceptions of law are defined in terms of immediacy.19

Moving to mediacy, and as a result countering the exigency of immediacy, holds open the possibility of another relation to the law. Creon and Antigone remain the ‘same’ insofar as both hold to conceptions of law defined by immediacy. What this means is that the counter-measure has a twofold presence. In the first instance it involves the identification of immediacy as being the determining element within law and then secondly opening up the move to mediacy as its counter. Law does come to an end. There isn’t an opening to the measureless. There is a countermeasure. In this context it amounts to a possible reworking of the law (p.7) such that the law is then of necessity interarticulated, from the very start, with the possibility of judgement (where judgement marks the inescapability of mediacy). In other words, what both Haemon’s intervention and the last speech by the Chorus open up as a possibility is a critique of law in the name of law. This is the staging of Walter Benjamin’s project. It is a critique, however, that takes the potentiality for the just life as its point of departure. The modernity in which Benjamin’s critique of law is advanced recalls fundamental aspects of Greek heritage; however, that recall is also a moment of differentiation from that heritage, since fundamental to Benjamin’s position – and this is a position shared by Heidegger – is that access to a founding sense of propriety necessitates the destruction of the given.20 Both Ancient Greek philosophy as well as Ancient Greek tragedy have a different relation to the undoing of both law and fate’s definition in terms of immediacy. Oedipus’ revolt in Oedipus Tyrannous – revolt as the refusal of fate – on the one hand, and Athena’s undoing of the law in the Eumenides on the other, are profoundly different activities. Athena undoes fate. Oedipus’ revolt maintains it. That they cannot be assimilated marks modernity’s separation from the Greeks (while of course underscoring their contemporary relevance).

The evocation of the domain of Ancient Greek tragedy occurs at a distance from Benjamin. And yet there is also a proximity. Distance and proximity are the terms that mark the necessity within Benjamin’s work for a relationship between destruction and life (a relationship whose presence is one of the predominating concerns of Chapter 1). This is the force of the distinction between theology and religion. The latter holds fate in play, holding it while refusing to name fate as fate and thus normalising its presence. As a result, within that process what will have become impossible is the possibility of its yielding an opening in which the potentiality for a world that is other is actualised. Theology is that which occasions just this possibility. Theology names the ‘decisive blows’. Theology is ‘left-handed’. If further evidence is needed for the division between religion and theology – recognising that the latter is inextricably bound up with what Benjamin identifies as ‘profane illumination’ – then it can be found in his identification of the limits of hashish. The limit is located at the divide and in the need for a divide between religion and theology. Benjamin writes:

But the true, creative overcoming of religious illumination certainly does not lie in narcotics. It resides in a profane illumination, a materialist, anthropological inspiration, to which hashish, opium or whatever else can only give an introductory lesson.21

(p.8) ‘Profane illumination’, while named as a ‘creative overcoming’, needs to be understood as another modality of the ‘blow’.

It is important at this point, as these particular ‘blows’ can also be understood as the counter-measure, to return to aspects of the latter’s detail. While the specificity of the counter-measure will continue to return and be developed in the following chapters, it is nonetheless still possible to recall two of its fundamental characteristics. The first pertains to the ubiquity of measure. Countering occurs in the name of another sense of measure. The counter-measure identifies what is being countered such that a limit is established and an opening emerges. In the case of religion the limit that arises is established by the identification of religion as a structured interdependency located between a specific modality of historical time and the subject position demanded by it. (This will be pursued, for example, by Benjamin in Fate and Character in terms of the relationship between ‘fate’ and ‘guilt’.) The limit provides the opening in which time and subjectivity are able to be reconfigured. It is, of course, the opening that is the second aspect of the countermeasure. However, before turning to it, it is essential to note the way the ubiquity of measure figures. If what is being countered is one measure then the emergence of another cannot be arbitrary. What this opens up is one of the most difficult aspects of a project defined by the recovery of a political philosophy for which to advance a sustained and unequivocal argument. The position to be presented here is that what is countered is one conception of life. Moreover, the other measure, thus the countermeasure, is provided by the potentiality for the ‘just life’ that inheres in ‘mere life’. It is the possibility that has already been noted in relation to Sophocles and which comes to the fore when mediacy counters immediacy, and thus when justice counters the law. The counter-measure stages therefore the possibilities afforded by the interconnection of justice, judgement and mediacy.

The second aspect of the counter-measure that needs to be noted pertains to the opening established by the process of countering. While the details of that opening will be developed in Chapter 1 in terms of the relationship between ‘destruction’ and a caesura of allowing, it can still be noted that if what is countered is a form of determination, countering occurs in the name of a necessary indetermination. Determination is a form that already inheres, for example, in the reiteration of immediacy, within which the naturalisation of historical time works to determine in advance what counts as historical as the measure that will have already been set, or where ‘fate’ determines subjectivity such that subjectivity is immediately given.

Indetermination allows for measure since what is retained is the (p.9) opening provided by the non-identification of ‘mere life’ and the just life, a non-identification that inheres in the distinction between actuality and potentiality. The reason why there is an indetermination is that what is not provided in advance is the form to be taken by the actualisation of a potentiality. It is a form that will be the result of work and therefore has to be understood as an activity. Indetermination is such that it provides an opening in which activity will be the finding of form, a finding that is orientated by the possibility of the interplay between justice, mediacy and judgement rather than one provided by the severity of the connection between immediacy and what Benjamin will refer to in Fate and Character as the ‘order of law’.

The distancing of law – which has to be understood as that which determines life but is not integrated into life – can be found in Benjamin’s evocation of ‘doctrine’. He argues, for example, in The Origin of German Tragic Drama that:

In its finished form philosophy will, it is true, assume the quality of doctrine, but it does not lie within the power of mere thought to confer on it such a form. Philosophical doctrine is based on historical codification [historische Kodifikation].22

If Scholem is right in his suggestion that the term ‘doctrine’ needs to be understood in the context of a link between Torah and ‘instruction’, then it would appear that what is at work here is a return of an externality in control of law, a position dependent upon the subsequent identification of Torah with law.23 The resolution to this problem inheres in the differing ways ‘historical codification’ can be understood. On one level it evokes law in its separation from life, and yet while that will always be there as a possibility, the formulation ‘historical codification’ has a doubled presence. On the one hand, therefore, it is a fated presence and as a consequence the historical is present as the already determined nature of law. And yet, on the other, harboured within any ‘historical codification’ is the move from what is there – where its being ‘there’ has to be understood as its already being at hand – to the possibilities that are demanded by the potentiality of the move from ‘mere’ existence to a ‘just’ existence. In other words, rather than read the evocation of doctrine as the assumption of pure fate, which here would be law in its radical separation from life such that in its coming to be connected to life its presence would be immediate rather than mediate, it can be understood as the provision of a ‘guideline’ (Richtsnur). While a return will need to be made to the presence of ‘guidelines’ – a term evoked by Benjamin in Towards a Critique of Violence as part of the distancing and (p.10) eventual ‘depositioning’ of law – what the evocation of the link between ‘doctrine’ and history opens up are intimations of that which takes place with the abeyance of the ‘order of law’. Not only will there have been a transformation of the relationship between subject and law, it will also be the case that the attendant conception of subjectivity and thus being a subject will themselves have been the site of a radical reconfiguration. The interplay between the two – history and subjectivity – reinforces the general argument that the fundamental repositioning of conceptions of historical time are accompanied by transformations on the level of the subject. The subject is not opposed to the work of historical time such that it is the op-position that allows it to become historical. (A positioning that assumed what might be described as the initial ahistoricality of subjectivity.) Rather, subject positions are interarticulated, ab initio, with the different conceptions of historical time that are being worked through in Benjamin’s writings.

If there is a final word that needs to be added in relation to the way the recourse to ‘history’ can be understood, as the recourse to that which undoes the already determined, then reference should be made to the argument in Towards a Critique of Violence in which Benjamin argues that a critique of law – where the latter is defined simply in terms of an oscillation between ‘positive law’ and ‘natural law’ – has to break with the enforced continuity of that movement. Critique demands that which stands ‘outside’ (außerhalb) both. For Benjamin this will result from a ‘philosophico-historical view of law’.24 If ‘doctrine’ emerges then it will be the presence of philosophy taking place after the work of destruction.

Notes

(1) . All references to Benjamin’s writings here and in the chapters to come will be to the English edition followed by the German, that is, to Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 1: 1913–1926, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael Jennings, trans. Rodney Livingstone et al. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996); Selected Writings, Volume 2: 1927–1934 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999); Selected Writings, Volume 3: 1935–1938 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002); or Selected Writings, Volume 4: 1938–1940 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003); followed by reference to Gesammelte Schriften, 7 vols, ed. Rolf Tiedemann and Herman Schweppengäuser (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1980).

Other references to English translations will be to Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne (London: New Left Books, 1977); and The Arcades Project, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).

(p.11) For the most part, the published translations have been used. Where adaptations have taken place this has been done in order to sustain consistency of argumentation, and modifications have not been signalled. The reference in this case is Benjamin, Selected Writings 1, p. 447; Gesammelte Schriften IV.1, p. 89.

(2) . Highlighting the centrality of the ‘blow’ (Schlag) is indebted to the work of David Ferris. See Ferris, ‘Politics of the Useless: The Art of Work in Heidegger and Benjamin’, in Dimitris Vardoulakis and Andrew Benjamin (eds), ‘Sparks will Fly’: Benjamin and Heidegger (New York: SUNY Press, 2014).

(3) . The relationship between Benjamin’s work and Judaism has at least two registers. In the first there are moments at which direct reference is made to elements within Judaism. These occur as much in relation to figures and historical themes as in relation to liturgy or prayer. The other register concerns the compatibility between aspects of Benjamin’s work and elements within Jewish theological and philosophical thought. It is often the case that Benjamin’s thinking is informed by Judaic sources. However, it is precisely these sources which at times can be used to think the opposition between religion and theology and in which they inform – informing by forming – theology’s opposition to religion. In other instances the opposite may be the case. The lack of clarity here attests to the fact that ‘religion’ for Benjamin has nothing to do with religious belief. Rather it has everything to do with the creation of a relationship between a specific modality of historical time and its attendant subject position. The relationship between Benjamin and Judaism has to be investigated on many levels. The only sustained reference made to it here concerns deploying those elements of Judaism that play a fundamental role in a Benjaminian critique of religion. It should be added, however, that ignorance of Benjamin’s relation to Judaism is ignorance of his project in general. In terms of writings on Benjamin’s work that explore directly Benjamin’s relation to Judaism see Brian Britt, Walter Benjamin and the Bible (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2003); Eric Jacobson, Metaphysics of the Profane: The Political Theology of Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003); Bram Mertens, Dark Images, Secret Hints: Benjamin, Scholem, Molitor and the Jewish Tradition (Berlin: Peter Lang, 2007); and Stéphane Moses, L’ange de l’histoire (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1992).

(4) . Benjamin, Selected Writings 1, p. 289; Gesammelte Schriften VI, p. 101.

(5) . Despite the differences in their positions both Tawney and Weber note the interarticulation of capitalism’s development with Protestantism. Indeed Benjamin’s own analysis of Protestantism in his study of Trauerspiel – that is, The Origin of German Tragic Drama – can be understood as a contribution to that overall analysis. See R. H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (London: Penguin Books, 1969); and Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Stephen Kalbe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

(6) . In terms of the relationship between Benjamin and Lebensphilosophie see Nitzan Lebovic, ‘The Beauty and the Terror of Lebensphilosophie: Ludwig Klages, Walter Benjamin and Alfred Bauemular’, South Central Review 23.1 (Spring 2006), pp. 23–39. Lebovic’s superb analysis locates (p.12) the complexities within Lebensphilosophie as it is understood at the time in which Benjamin is writing. It therefore allows genuine philosophical acuity.

(7) . It is interesting here to compare this point to a position held by Leibniz. As a part of his treatment of the Monad he argued – both in the Monadology (§22) and in the Theodicy (§360) – that the present state of the Monad, and the presence of its movement between successive states, is such that ‘le present y est gros de l’avenir’. This can be read as maintaining a position in which the future is always a condition of the present. The difference in regard to Benjamin is not the doubled nature of the present but that this doubling is to be explicated in Benjamin’s work both in terms of potentiality that yields a conception of the present as a site of conflict and the possibility of that potentiality’s actualisation. Potentiality within Benjamin’s work demands a form of ‘destruction’ that ‘will enable its actualisation’. Leibniz’s position is fundamentally different. There are, however, a number of recent attempts – most of which take up other aspects of Leibniz’s work – to locate a greater proximity between Benjamin and Leibniz. See, for example, Paula L. Schwebel, ‘Intensive Infinity: Walter Benjamin’s Reception of Leibniz and its Sources’, MLN 127 (2012), pp. 589–610.

(8) . ‘Mere life’ (bloßes Leben) is a formulation that is intrinsic to Benjamin’s rethinking of life. The formulation marks the reductive identification of life with biological life. ‘Mere life’ is the latter. Equally, ‘mere life’ is the life that is subject to and subjects itself to ‘fate’. The interruption of these identifications – their destruction – occurs in the name of another possibility for life. This is a position that will continue to be developed in the chapters to come.

(9) . In this regard see my The Fabric of Existence: Placed Relationality as the Ground of Ethics (forthcoming).

(10) . Benjamin, Selected Writings 1, p. 202; Gesammelte Schriften II.1, p. 180.

(11) . Benjamin, Selected Writings 1, p. 288; Gesammelte Schriften II.1, p. 173.

(12) . For a detailed discussion of Benjamin’s work in this area and its relation to both Hölderlin and Sophocles see my Leben und Glück (forthcoming).

(13) . There have been other philosophical engagements with Walter Benjamin that have highlighted what might be described as the Greek dimension of his thought. See in particular both Antonia Birnbaum, Bonheur Justice: Walter Benjamin (Paris: Payot, 2009); and Martin Blumenthal-Barby, ‘Pernicious Bastardizations: Benjamin’s Ethics of Pure Violence’, MLN 124.3 (April 2009), pp. 728–51.

(14) . I have developed this interpretation of the Antigone and its consequences for a more general interpretation of the actuality of Greek tragedy in my Place, Commonality and Judgment (London: Continuum, 2010).

(15) . Sophocles, Antigone, Woman of Trachis, Philoctetes, Oedipus at Colonus, ed. and trans. Hugh Lloyd Jones (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), l. 1348.

(16) . Other contemporary translations are: ‘Of happiness far the greatest part / Is Wisdom’, in SophoclesThree Tragedies, l. 1348, p. 45; and ‘Besinnung ist von den Gütern des Glücks / bei weitem das höchste’, in Sophokles, Antigona in Dramen, II. 1348, p. 261. What is important in all of these (p.13) instances is a form of complementarity in regard to the nature of the relationship between ‘happiness’ and ‘wisdom’.

(17) . Sofocle, Antigone, trans. Ezio Savino (Milano: Garzanti, 1989), p. 309.

(18) . Sophocles, Antigone, p. 755.

(19) . The Antigone will always mark as much a clash between family and the polis as it does between female and male. There is an obviously gendered dimension to the play. And yet the recourse made to law’s immediacy – the twofold recourse in terms of Antigone and Creon – while involving gender is not explicable in gendered terms. Were that to be the case then gender would be linked to the immediacy of the law and thus relations between the genders would be inevitably tragic. The play can be read as suggesting that the relationship between genders – a relationship that allows for conflict but resists tragedy – is a relationship that is always already mediated in advance by the complex operation(s) of judgement. Hence, while a concern with either kinship or with slavery is a fundamental element of the play, their presence cannot be thought outside the clash between the immediacy of the law and its mediation (and transformation) by judgement. Positions which differ from this argument but which in the end need not be incompatible with it can be found in the work of both Butler and Chanter. See Judith Butler, Antigone’s Children: Kinship Between Literature and Death (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000); and Tina Chanter, Whose Antigone? The Tragic Marginalization of Slavery (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2011).

(20) . Heidegger in Being and Time, for example, argues that the need for a destruction (Destruktion) of ‘tradition’ lies in the effect of its givenness and thus the assumption that it is already at hand; see Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1962).

Tradition takes what has come down to us and delivers it over to self-evidence; it blocks our access to those primordial ‘sources’ from which the categories and concepts handed down to us have been in part quite genuinely drawn. (Ibid., p. 43)

Overcoming that ‘block’ demands a destruction of the given if the given is taken as an end itself. Benjamin will differ from Heidegger in relation to what it is that is opened up by the process of destruction. However, as will be suggested in the chapters to come, ‘destruction’ is a defining motif within a great deal of ‘modern philosophy’. In fact, it can be argued that one of the dominant tendencies within ‘modern philosophy’ is defined by the presence of different modalities of destruction as well as destruction’s necessity.

(21) . Benjamin, Selected Writings 2, p. 209; Gesammelte Schriften II.1, p. 297.

(22) . Benjamin, Origin of German Tragic Drama, p. 27; Gesammelte Schriften

I.1, p. 207.

(23) . There is an important discussion of the question of ‘doctrine’ that is situated in relation to these passages in Eli Friedlander, Walter Benjamin: A Philosophical Portrait (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), pp. 31–3. Friedlander also connects this passage from Benjamin to Scholem. While the direction of this interpretation is different it should be noted that (p.14) Friedlander underscores the centrality of these references to ‘doctrine’. It might be added here that the discussion of doctrine as it occurs here, if Scholem is correct in linking it to Torah, can be viewed as reoccurring in the exchange between Rosenzweig and Buber known as The Builders. See Franz Rosenzweig, On Jewish Learning (New York: Schocken Books, 1955).

(24) . Benjamin, Selected Writings 1, p. 238; Gesammelte Schriften II.1, p. 182.

Notes:

(1) . All references to Benjamin’s writings here and in the chapters to come will be to the English edition followed by the German, that is, to Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 1: 1913–1926, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael Jennings, trans. Rodney Livingstone et al. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996); Selected Writings, Volume 2: 1927–1934 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999); Selected Writings, Volume 3: 1935–1938 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002); or Selected Writings, Volume 4: 1938–1940 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003); followed by reference to Gesammelte Schriften, 7 vols, ed. Rolf Tiedemann and Herman Schweppengäuser (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1980).

Other references to English translations will be to Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne (London: New Left Books, 1977); and The Arcades Project, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).

(p.11) For the most part, the published translations have been used. Where adaptations have taken place this has been done in order to sustain consistency of argumentation, and modifications have not been signalled. The reference in this case is Benjamin, Selected Writings 1, p. 447; Gesammelte Schriften IV.1, p. 89.

(2) . Highlighting the centrality of the ‘blow’ (Schlag) is indebted to the work of David Ferris. See Ferris, ‘Politics of the Useless: The Art of Work in Heidegger and Benjamin’, in Dimitris Vardoulakis and Andrew Benjamin (eds), ‘Sparks will Fly’: Benjamin and Heidegger (New York: SUNY Press, 2014).

(3) . The relationship between Benjamin’s work and Judaism has at least two registers. In the first there are moments at which direct reference is made to elements within Judaism. These occur as much in relation to figures and historical themes as in relation to liturgy or prayer. The other register concerns the compatibility between aspects of Benjamin’s work and elements within Jewish theological and philosophical thought. It is often the case that Benjamin’s thinking is informed by Judaic sources. However, it is precisely these sources which at times can be used to think the opposition between religion and theology and in which they inform – informing by forming – theology’s opposition to religion. In other instances the opposite may be the case. The lack of clarity here attests to the fact that ‘religion’ for Benjamin has nothing to do with religious belief. Rather it has everything to do with the creation of a relationship between a specific modality of historical time and its attendant subject position. The relationship between Benjamin and Judaism has to be investigated on many levels. The only sustained reference made to it here concerns deploying those elements of Judaism that play a fundamental role in a Benjaminian critique of religion. It should be added, however, that ignorance of Benjamin’s relation to Judaism is ignorance of his project in general. In terms of writings on Benjamin’s work that explore directly Benjamin’s relation to Judaism see Brian Britt, Walter Benjamin and the Bible (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2003); Eric Jacobson, Metaphysics of the Profane: The Political Theology of Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003); Bram Mertens, Dark Images, Secret Hints: Benjamin, Scholem, Molitor and the Jewish Tradition (Berlin: Peter Lang, 2007); and Stéphane Moses, L’ange de l’histoire (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1992).

(4) . Benjamin, Selected Writings 1, p. 289; Gesammelte Schriften VI, p. 101.

(5) . Despite the differences in their positions both Tawney and Weber note the interarticulation of capitalism’s development with Protestantism. Indeed Benjamin’s own analysis of Protestantism in his study of Trauerspiel – that is, The Origin of German Tragic Drama – can be understood as a contribution to that overall analysis. See R. H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (London: Penguin Books, 1969); and Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Stephen Kalbe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

(6) . In terms of the relationship between Benjamin and Lebensphilosophie see Nitzan Lebovic, ‘The Beauty and the Terror of Lebensphilosophie: Ludwig Klages, Walter Benjamin and Alfred Bauemular’, South Central Review 23.1 (Spring 2006), pp. 23–39. Lebovic’s superb analysis locates (p.12) the complexities within Lebensphilosophie as it is understood at the time in which Benjamin is writing. It therefore allows genuine philosophical acuity.

(7) . It is interesting here to compare this point to a position held by Leibniz. As a part of his treatment of the Monad he argued – both in the Monadology (§22) and in the Theodicy (§360) – that the present state of the Monad, and the presence of its movement between successive states, is such that ‘le present y est gros de l’avenir’. This can be read as maintaining a position in which the future is always a condition of the present. The difference in regard to Benjamin is not the doubled nature of the present but that this doubling is to be explicated in Benjamin’s work both in terms of potentiality that yields a conception of the present as a site of conflict and the possibility of that potentiality’s actualisation. Potentiality within Benjamin’s work demands a form of ‘destruction’ that ‘will enable its actualisation’. Leibniz’s position is fundamentally different. There are, however, a number of recent attempts – most of which take up other aspects of Leibniz’s work – to locate a greater proximity between Benjamin and Leibniz. See, for example, Paula L. Schwebel, ‘Intensive Infinity: Walter Benjamin’s Reception of Leibniz and its Sources’, MLN 127 (2012), pp. 589–610.

(8) . ‘Mere life’ (bloßes Leben) is a formulation that is intrinsic to Benjamin’s rethinking of life. The formulation marks the reductive identification of life with biological life. ‘Mere life’ is the latter. Equally, ‘mere life’ is the life that is subject to and subjects itself to ‘fate’. The interruption of these identifications – their destruction – occurs in the name of another possibility for life. This is a position that will continue to be developed in the chapters to come.

(10) . Benjamin, Selected Writings 1, p. 202; Gesammelte Schriften II.1, p. 180.

(11) . Benjamin, Selected Writings 1, p. 288; Gesammelte Schriften II.1, p. 173.

(12) . For a detailed discussion of Benjamin’s work in this area and its relation to both Hölderlin and Sophocles see my Leben und Glück (forthcoming).

(13) . There have been other philosophical engagements with Walter Benjamin that have highlighted what might be described as the Greek dimension of his thought. See in particular both Antonia Birnbaum, Bonheur Justice: Walter Benjamin (Paris: Payot, 2009); and Martin Blumenthal-Barby, ‘Pernicious Bastardizations: Benjamin’s Ethics of Pure Violence’, MLN 124.3 (April 2009), pp. 728–51.

(14) . I have developed this interpretation of the Antigone and its consequences for a more general interpretation of the actuality of Greek tragedy in my Place, Commonality and Judgment (London: Continuum, 2010).

(15) . Sophocles, Antigone, Woman of Trachis, Philoctetes, Oedipus at Colonus, ed. and trans. Hugh Lloyd Jones (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), l. 1348.

(16) . Other contemporary translations are: ‘Of happiness far the greatest part / Is Wisdom’, in SophoclesThree Tragedies, l. 1348, p. 45; and ‘Besinnung ist von den Gütern des Glücks / bei weitem das höchste’, in Sophokles, Antigona in Dramen, II. 1348, p. 261. What is important in all of these (p.13) instances is a form of complementarity in regard to the nature of the relationship between ‘happiness’ and ‘wisdom’.

(17) . Sofocle, Antigone, trans. Ezio Savino (Milano: Garzanti, 1989), p. 309.

(18) . Sophocles, Antigone, p. 755.

(19) . The Antigone will always mark as much a clash between family and the polis as it does between female and male. There is an obviously gendered dimension to the play. And yet the recourse made to law’s immediacy – the twofold recourse in terms of Antigone and Creon – while involving gender is not explicable in gendered terms. Were that to be the case then gender would be linked to the immediacy of the law and thus relations between the genders would be inevitably tragic. The play can be read as suggesting that the relationship between genders – a relationship that allows for conflict but resists tragedy – is a relationship that is always already mediated in advance by the complex operation(s) of judgement. Hence, while a concern with either kinship or with slavery is a fundamental element of the play, their presence cannot be thought outside the clash between the immediacy of the law and its mediation (and transformation) by judgement. Positions which differ from this argument but which in the end need not be incompatible with it can be found in the work of both Butler and Chanter. See Judith Butler, Antigone’s Children: Kinship Between Literature and Death (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000); and Tina Chanter, Whose Antigone? The Tragic Marginalization of Slavery (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2011).

(20) . Heidegger in Being and Time, for example, argues that the need for a destruction (Destruktion) of ‘tradition’ lies in the effect of its givenness and thus the assumption that it is already at hand; see Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1962).

Tradition takes what has come down to us and delivers it over to self-evidence; it blocks our access to those primordial ‘sources’ from which the categories and concepts handed down to us have been in part quite genuinely drawn. (Ibid., p. 43)

Overcoming that ‘block’ demands a destruction of the given if the given is taken as an end itself. Benjamin will differ from Heidegger in relation to what it is that is opened up by the process of destruction. However, as will be suggested in the chapters to come, ‘destruction’ is a defining motif within a great deal of ‘modern philosophy’. In fact, it can be argued that one of the dominant tendencies within ‘modern philosophy’ is defined by the presence of different modalities of destruction as well as destruction’s necessity.

(21) . Benjamin, Selected Writings 2, p. 209; Gesammelte Schriften II.1, p. 297.

(22) . Benjamin, Origin of German Tragic Drama, p. 27; Gesammelte Schriften

I.1, p. 207.

(23) . There is an important discussion of the question of ‘doctrine’ that is situated in relation to these passages in Eli Friedlander, Walter Benjamin: A Philosophical Portrait (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), pp. 31–3. Friedlander also connects this passage from Benjamin to Scholem. While the direction of this interpretation is different it should be noted that (p.14) Friedlander underscores the centrality of these references to ‘doctrine’. It might be added here that the discussion of doctrine as it occurs here, if Scholem is correct in linking it to Torah, can be viewed as reoccurring in the exchange between Rosenzweig and Buber known as The Builders. See Franz Rosenzweig, On Jewish Learning (New York: Schocken Books, 1955).

(24) . Benjamin, Selected Writings 1, p. 238; Gesammelte Schriften II.1, p. 182.