Magazine article Monthly Review

Walter Benjamin in Venezuela

Magazine article Monthly Review

Walter Benjamin in Venezuela

Article excerpt

At first glance, the work of Walter Benjamin and contemporary Latin American politics appear to have nothing in common. It is difficult to imagine a more strictly European figure than Benjamin, a Berlin-born man of letters who was reluctant to emigrate from the continent - whether to Palestine or the United States-even under the life-threatening circumstances of the rise of Nazism. Benjamin has been called a "prototypical modern European intellectual" because, in his work and life, one can trace a commitment to the shaping of a "universal" culture of that continent that went beyond national particularities.1 It is also revealing how Paris exerted a powerful attraction for Benjamin as the "capital" of this cosmopolitan Europe. It seems safe to say that Benjamin belongs authentically and deliberately to the European tradition.

By contrast, the novel political projects that characterized Latin America in the first decades of the twenty-first century appear to have sprung from wholly autonomous, local dynamics. These "processes of change" put into the spotlight charismatic leaders of popular origin, such as Venezuelan military officer Hugo Chávez and Bolivian indigenous leader Evo Morales, who overtly defied the prescriptions of Northern ideologues of both left and right. These two contexts-European intellectual circles and grassroots Latin American politics-thus appear to be literally worlds apart. Yet I will argue that on the contrary, it is precisely in these Latin American political processes of the twenty-first century-and particularly in Venezuela's Bolivarian Revolution-that Benjamin's ideas are most thoroughly played out, receiving not only their fullest "illustration" but also their most productive interrogation.

This thesis runs radically contrary to the dominant way Benjamin's writing has been disseminated. In the global North, interest in his work has grown steadily since Benjamin's death in 1940, driven especially by the German publication of his collected writings in 1955 and by the 1960s student movement. Scholarly study expanded throughout the 1980s and 1990s, bifurcating into two basic tendencies that have been called "commentarist" and "partisan."2

By contrast, Benjamin has been much less present in the Latin American academy, particularly the Caribbean. Yet as so often happens, reality and its dialectic take the opposite course from that of the ideological superstructure. Despite the peripheral place of Benjamin's ideas in scholarship of the global South, it is there that his theory plays out most fully in actual events. More exactly, what in the North is often mere academic shadow play or hairsplitting, in the South's political and social movements takes on a living and factual character. Hence, in the spirit of Mario Tronti and Giovanni Arrighi, who respectively "discovered" Marx in Detroit and Adam Smith in Beijing-because it was there that Smith's and Marx's ideas were actually being fulfilled-I will claim that Benjamin's theory of history is objectively realized in the facts of recent Venezuelan and Latin American history.3 Benjamin is to be found materially in these places in ways that go far beyond the North's merely ideological embrace of the same body of thought.

Reading the Past

Though Benjamin wrote widely and brilliantly on aesthetics, language, pedagogy, and more, here I will focus on the pertinent features of his vision of history. Among Benjamin's key ideas was that there must be a rupture with history's normal course. In Benjamin's view, a certain way of assimilating history weighs too heavily on the political actors of modern life. The past has become an oppressive, even life-threatening force. This idea was widespread at the turn of the twentieth century, most conspicuously in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, who described the suffocating effects of historical knowledge in his On the Use and Abuse of History for Life and later returned to the same theme in Thus Spake Zarathustra. …

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