Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Testament of the Revolution (Walter Benjamin)

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Testament of the Revolution (Walter Benjamin)

Article excerpt

"Our heritage was left to us without a testament." Hannah Arendt repeatedly borrows this formula (from Rene Char) to capture the predicament of revolutionary modernity. Without a testament, without any symbolic means of transmitting the event, there is no way to bequeath the treasure to future generations--to harvest its energy or even to bear witness to what happened. Here's the thought experiment: what if Char's formula needs to be reversed? What if the problem is not intestacy but rather a kind of hyper-testamentarity--not a deficit but a surfeit of testamentary protocol? The past confronts us as a thicket of injunctions, promises, exhortations, incitements--obscure messages from the dead, unsigned and undated but time-stamped and addressed to us uniquely. What if the testament itself were the heritage--or rather, if there were no heritage, only the pressure of a demand as enigmatic as it is insistent?

I've often thought it odd that the posterity of the Frankfurt School has always measured itself in terms of generations--first generation, second generation, and so on. (1) (By some counts we are now up to the fourth or even fifth generation, which means that they must breed them very young.) While feminism surges forward in waves (first-wave, second-wave, third-wave), and Hegelians procreate through mitosis, splitting off horizontally into rival wings or factions (left and right), or vertically (young and old), critical theory for some reason seems to want to propagate dynastically along patrilineal lines.

I'm not sure where exactly Walter Benjamin fits into this line of filiation or if he is even really part of the family. Is he a father, a son, a sibling, a foster child, a cousin? Is he one of those uncles who you never even knew existed until one day he leaves you a bequest that you don't quite know what to do with? The genealogical lines had always been a little tangled--between Benjamin and Theodor Adorno, for example, or between Benjamin and Gershom Scholem, to name just two of the many claimants swarming around Benjamin's legacy. Both these latter functioned variously--sometimes as Benjamin's mentor, sometimes follower, sometimes executor of the estate, sometimes as heir apparent. The setup has some of the complexity of the strange scene of inheritance Jacques Derrida explores in The Post Card, when he contemplates the picture of an aged Plato standing behind--that is, genealogically before--a youthful Socrates, who is shown sitting at his writing desk, taking dictation from his own follower. This genealogical torsion, a kind of time warp within the testamentary circuit, reminds us that the original meaning of inherit was the very opposite of what it means today. To inherit--from the Latin inhereditare (compare with the Old French enheriter)--meant to bequeath, pass on, transmit one's property or title to someone. I inherit you once meant I bequeath to you, I make you my heir, I appoint you as my successor. What, then, does it mean to bequeath backwards, so that we leave something to our own ancestors?

A last will and testament is a peculiar kind of speech act. To write a will is to assume the impossible, namely that after I die my wish can function as a command-in other words, that I can defy mortality. In death I can achieve an agency conspicuously lacking in my own lifetime. I can still the passage of time by willing into a future in which my authority will reign supreme. Max Horkheimer smelled a whiff of piety in Benjamin's obsession with redemption. To respond to the call of "enslaved ancestors" (Benjamin, "Concept" 394) is already to endow the dead with posthumous agency--to confess to a secret faith in resurrection.

This essay is driven by a single question: Can the concept of inheritance be rendered fully profane? When we respond to the demands of the dead, when we hear the past addressing us, do we succumb to the tug of religiosity? Or can undeadness--the relentless pressure of the posthumous--be considered a properly disenchanted category? …

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