The Messianic Reduction: Walter Benjamin and the Shape of Time

The Messianic Reduction: Walter Benjamin and the Shape of Time

The Messianic Reduction: Walter Benjamin and the Shape of Time

The Messianic Reduction: Walter Benjamin and the Shape of Time

Synopsis

The Messianic Reduction is a groundbreaking study of Walter Benjamin's thought. Fenves places Benjamin's early writings in the context of contemporaneous philosophy, with particular attention to the work of Bergson, Cohen, Husserl, Frege, and Heidegger. By concentrating on a neglected dimension of Benjamin's friendship with Gershom Scholem, who was a student of mathematics before he became a scholar of Jewish mysticism, Fenves shows how mathematical research informs Benjamin's reflections on the problem of historical time. In order to capture the character of Benjamin's "entrance" into the phenomenological school, the book includes a thorough analysis of two early texts he wrote under the title of "The Rainbow," translated here for the first time. In its final chapters, the book works out Benjamin's deep and abiding engagement with Kantian critique, including Benjamin's discovery of the political counterpart to the categorical imperative in the idea of "pure violence."

Excerpt

In one of the curriculum vitae that Walter Benjamin wrote in 1928, shortly after his hopes of securing an academic position had collapsed, he represents his early philosophical inquiries in terms of four names—Plato, Kant, Husserl, and Marburg: “In particular and in ever-repeated reading, during my time as a student, I concerned myself with Plato and Kant, in connection with Husserl’s philosophy and the Marburg school” (6: 218). In similar documents of the period he says much the same thing—minus the reference to “Husserl’s philosophy.” And the same subtraction is palpable in the reception of Benjamin’s work from its very beginning. Gershom Scholem, who was the first reader of numerous texts under consideration in this volume, and who also co-edited the first collection of Benjamin’s writings, considered his friend something of a phenomenological neophyte: “[Benjamin] gained an indistinct notion of [Husserl’s] Logische Untersuchungen [Logical investigations] during his time in Munich.” The other co-editor of the first collection of his writings, Theodor Adorno, was similarly dismissive—not so much of Benjamin’s training in phenomenology as of the phenomenological program as a whole. The collapse of Benjamin’s academic ambitions followed upon the rejection of his Habilitationsschrift or second dissertation on the Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels (Origin of the German mourning play), the preface to which makes no mention of the founder of phenomenology but at a crucial point quotes a long passage from one of Husserl’s students, namely Jean Hering, from whom Benjamin takes the idea of “essentiality” (Wesenheit). Adorno, after borrowing extensively from Benjamin’s preface for the successful completion of his Habilitationsschrift, conceived of a plan to earn a Ph.D. at Oxford by . . .

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