Walter Benjamin and the Antinomies of Tradition

By John McCole | Go to book overview

intellectual strategies. These strategies originated in choices he made at the time of his break with the youth movement and were clearly articulated in his immanent critique of German early romanticism. While his strategies continued to develop in response to new circumstances, the formative influence of this early constellation can still be traced in his dealings with baroque Trauerspiel, technology, and aestheticism in his later work.

To reconstruct Benjamin's strategies, I call on Pierre Bourdieu's concept of the intellectual field to propose an approach to doing intellectual history that goes beyond documentary and reductive approaches. An intellectual field is a historically specific structure of orthodoxies and heterodoxies, and Benjamin's project can best be understood as an immanent critique of a specifically German intellectual culture dominated by the peculiar constellation of idealism and historicism that constituted what Fritz Ringer calls the mandarin orthodoxy. My study is not another intellectual biography of Benjamin, though I do hope to establish criteria for one that would be truly rigorous. Rather, it focuses attention on a particular issue, a crucial and previously under-illuminated aspect of his work—what I call his construction of the antinomies of tradition.

My work has been generously supported, in various ways, by a research grant from the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst; the Graduate School of Boston University; the John Lax Fellowship of Brown University, and Peter and Anneli Lax; Harvard University; the Jaroslaw and Helena Stroczan Foundation of Mainz-Mombach; and, of course, my parents. I thank all of them.

Parts of Chapter 7 appeared as " Benjamin's Passagen-Werk: A Guide to the Labyrinth," Theory and Society 14 ( 1985), 497- 509; reprinted by permission.

My debts to individuals are far-reaching, as they must be with a project of this nature. Two are particularly important. Fritz Ringer has been an incomparable mentor. He did not just introduce me to the study of German intellectual culture; he also imparted a vision of intellectual history, why it is important, and how to do it. He was the first to make me realize that I had to argue for my views, and he even succeeded in getting me to do it at times. As a reader, he has never settled for anything less than lucidity; throughout this long project, he managed the wondrous feat of being both a tenacious and a tactful critic. Nancy Lyman Roelker has helped to sustain my work on many levels for many years now; she has been unstinting and resourceful in providing sound advice, thoughtful criticism, and needed encourage

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