Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Benjamin, Einstein, Nietzsche: Some Remarks on the Conclusion to the Republic of the Living

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Benjamin, Einstein, Nietzsche: Some Remarks on the Conclusion to the Republic of the Living

Article excerpt

The following remarks were originally written for a colloquium held at DePaul University around The Republic of the Living; although revised, my remarks are still conceived as questions intended for further discussion. When I first read the preface to The Republic of the Living, I was surprised to find it addressing a question that had occupied my thoughts ever since I first encountered the outlines of Giorgio Agamben's Homo-Sacer program more than twenty years ago: what-for Benjamin and, then again, for Agamben-is the counter-concept to "bare life" ("bloßes Leben," "la vita nuda")? Benjamin, who drew the term from Heinrich Rickert's "philosophy of completed life" ("Philosophie des vollendeten Lebens"), provides no ready-made answer, and Agamben, as a gesture of loyalty to Benjamin's legacy perhaps, does not directly address the question. The structure of The Republic of the Living, by contrast, derives from its answer: the counter-concept to bare life, for Vatter, is eternal life. This thesis, as I see it, lends Vatter's volume a certain drama, which reflects its own thematization of tragedy. The drama of the book can be formulated in terms of a question: how can the concept of eternal life-saturated as it is by theological themes, whether of Aristotelean or Spinozistic provenance-be reconciled with an axiomatic materialism? This question was going to be the focal point of my remarks at DePaul; but as I came upon the final chapter of the book, awaiting the denouement of its argument, the focus of my remarks changed, for Vatter explicitly formulates a micro-question that repeats one that has recently troubled me. And it is to this question that I will now turn, with the expectation that it will ultimately provide a way of approaching the overall argument developed in The Republic of the Living.

The micro-question concerns a passage in Benjamin's so-called "Theologischpolitisches Fragment"-the title probably stems from Adorno-where the "problem" of the "mystical conception of history" is illuminated by way of the following image: "just as a force [moving] along its way can promote another force directed in the opposite way, so also the profane order of the profane and the coming of the messianic kingdom."1 Prompted by this image, which seems both to conform to, and rebel against, Newton's third law of motion, Vatter asks: "What theory of physics is Benjamin thinking about?"2 Even in the absence of an answer, the question is itself valuable, for it emphasizes the degree to which Benjamin, here as elsewhere, engages with the theory of the physical sciences. Vatter does not pursue his question from the perspective of Benjamin's broader work-which is completely comprehensible, for The Republic of the Living has no intention of being a contribution to Benjamin philology-but, instead, provides a tentative answer in which the name "Einstein" surprisingly makes an appearance: "In the Newtonian universe, there is one force at work in nature, and that is the force of gravity. This is the force of attraction between bodies. Benjamin and Scholem were both interested in the mathematical revolutions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and I think it is safe to assume that they also followed the revolutionary developments in physics, beginning with Einstein's discovery of special relativity, which shattered the Newtonian view of the universe. In particular, what must have struck their imagination was Einstein's attempt to apply relativity theory to the entire university (theory of general relativity), thereby giving rise to the first truly scientific cosmology."3

Despite some unfortunate formulations-the general theory is not an application of the earlier theory but, as the name indicates, a generalization of its guiding principles-Vatter succinctly captures the novelty of Einstein's 1917 paper, "Kosmologische Betrachtungen zur allgemeinen Relativitätstheorie" (Cosmological Reflections on the General Theory of Relativity), which introduces a modification into the field equations of general relativity that Einstein had worked out two years earlier. …

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