Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Power

By L. T. Koepnick | Go to book overview
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Benjamin's thought is inseparably linked to the idea of historical actuality. A monumentalizing gaze at the past, according to Benjamin, produces blind spots similar to an antiquarian one. The dialectical historian, in contrast, professes to undo any false heroization of historical events: the task is to shatter the burdens of tradition and canonization, to emancipate the symbolic expressions of former generations from fixed interpretations or facile narratives of continuity, and thus to bring past and present into a volatile dialogue. Benjamin's critique of historicism rallies against the idea that we could own the contents of historical recollection like material objects that the time travelers of historiography can put in their pockets and take home to the future. In the view of the historicist, what is mediated in fact expresses immediacy; historicism signifies the flip side of commodity fetishism. It derives from the chimera that the past can be shipped like a product between the markets of space and time - from the chimera that historical events can be traded in the form of distinct, uncontested, and unchangeable containers of meaning. To insist on actuality, then, means not simply to resist the drive toward canonization and unified interpretation; rather, it means that every generation needs to struggle over the meaning of time in the first place - needs to define anew and in light of an everchanging present which kinds of collective memories are of greater or lesser significance. Benjamin's ethics of actuality consequently defies the contemporary rhetoric of cultural memory banks. We cannot store memories in a timeless archive unless we desire to divest the past of the possibility to speak to us. To quote the past in fact makes sense only if it establishes the condition for the possibility of knowing the present. Advocates of actuality decipher the legacy of the past in the present but also unearth what prefigures the present in the past. Canons, uncontested traditions, and linear narratives of historical progress or decline tend to obscure rather than illuminate


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Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Power


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