Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Comments on Working with Walter Benjamin

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Comments on Working with Walter Benjamin

Article excerpt

Andrew Benjamin's (henceforth "Professor Benjamin") Working with Walter Benjamin is well named. Walter Benjamin (henceforth "Benjamin") is a lot of work and Professor Benjamin has done a lot of it on our behalf.1 I think most people who study Benjamin have long known that someone had to do what Professor Benjamin has now accomplished-a systematic and careful reading of a multiplicity of several of Benjamin's key writings to reveal a system or a method (if we can use such words in regards to such an anti-systematic thinker) afoot in what often appears to be disjointed and fragmented writings. Professor Benjamin shows us early on in his text that these fragments need not be so disjointed (or, more accurately, their disjointedness does not preclude reading them in tandem, or in constellation, to use a Benjaminian term). He cites Benjamin as writing:

Fragments of a broken vessel that are to be glued together must match one another in the smallest details although they need not be like one another.2

For Professor Benjamin, "The point being made here is that these texts do not appear to be the same. And yet, within them there is a singularity of project."3 Here, we see that it is not only possible to read fragments in a larger context but also that fragments as such may better lend themselves to the kinds of reading that Professor Benjamin is looking for in Walter Benjamin more generally, offering a more accurate rendition than any text that was 'whole' or unbroken. Throughout his book, Professor Benjamin looks for what he calls "counter-measures," a form of resistance that does not merely acknowledge our condition, does not futilely struggle against what cannot be changed, but radically "others" the situation, accessing a different form of measure, a different temporality and a different kind of fate than the one we see ourselves as being subjected to in the process. For Professor Benjamin, a text that lies in fragments is less likely to make us believe that it holds an answer that is already available, already clear and predetermined. The fragments force us to work and it is with great gratitude that I acknowledge the work that Professor Benjamin has done on our behalf in this regard.

One of the key insights that Professor Benjamin offers in his reading of Benjamin's work is the distinction between religion and theology. He locates this difference in Benjamin's own texts. Religion is, as Professor Benjamin tells us, part of capitalism, part of what already is, the inevitable, the fated, the law; it offers a false sense of immediacy which we must always oppose. Theology on the other hand lies in the realm of the counter-measure, of mediateness, of possibility and justice. I greatly appreciate this distinction because I, like many Benjamin scholars have long suffered from the kinds of conversations that inevitably come when you try to introduce Benjamin as a distinctly political thinker to a group of leftists. Almost inevitably, someone will say, but why all the religion? What Professor Benjamin allows me to say now is, "Well, actually Benjamin is destructive to religion. Not only in the sense of a productive destruction (it is that) but also in the old fashioned sense of unmaking and ruining religion. Instead, we are leftwith a theology of counter-measures as a way to effect what Benjamin calls 'a real state of emergency' in the world."

Taking this distinction between religion and theology as my main point of embarkation, I'd like to spend the majority of my response discussing the ways that Working with Benjamin has helped to resolve a central theological issue for me, how he shows that what might look like contradictions or even a mistake on Benjamin's part can be read instead as a strategy for counter-measures. This insight is critical because I agree that theology lies at the center of Benjamin's politics and so to get the politics right, we must begin by understanding and coming to terms with his theology. …

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