Walter Benjamin and the Antinomies of Tradition

By John McCole | Go to book overview

Preface

In this book I explore the origins and tensions of Walter Benjamin's dealings with tradition. Few thinkers in this century have been as perceptive about the workings of tradition, as acutely aware of their own relation to it, and as convinced of the necessity of recovering the past in order to redeem the present; of those, no other was at the same time so ready to face up to the complicity of culture in injustice and conclude that humanity would have to "prepare itself to survive culture, if need be." Benjamin at once mourned and celebrated what he took to be an inevitable liquidation of traditional culture, persistently trying to find the right way of salvaging what was useful. His refusal to surrender either of these attitudes and his determination to think both through to their conclusions lend his dealings with tradition their peculiar honesty.

At the same time, this is also a book about how to make sense of this tension in Benjamin's work. It cannot, I argue, be reduced to psychological ambiguity or ambivalence about his social role, nor did it derive from a conception of tradition that can be traced to some intellectual influence. Rather, it was the consequence of a sustained argument with the entrenched orthodoxies of German intellectual culture, an argument through which Benjamin sought to keep faith with the experience of all that was "untimely, sorrowful, and unsuccessful" or, as he came to put it, to vindicate the oppressed of history. The Benjamin who appears here is not (or not just) a virtuoso reader, a micrological investigator of culture, or a master of mimetic interaction with his objects, though at times he could be all of those. The hallmark of his work lies in its paradoxical, antinomial coherence. This coherence, I argue, can best be explained by taking him at his word—"the critic is a strategist in the literary struggle"—and reconstructing his pursuit of long-term

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