Walter Benjamin and the Antinomies of Tradition

By John McCole | Go to book overview

Chapter Four
Owning up to the Poverty of Experience:
Benjamin and Weimar Modernism

In 1933, following his flight from Germany in the face of the Nazis' rise to power, Benjamin composed a short statement titled "Experience and Poverty." With it he refused the conventional gesture of claiming to have brought the heritage of the "good Germany" with him into exile as part of his cultural baggage. "For who can seriously assume that humanity will ever get across the narrow pass that lies before it if burdened with the baggage of a collector or an antique dealer?" (II 961‐ 962). Instead, he called for owning up to the impoverishment of experience—and even more radically, professing it—in order to "begin from the beginning, make a fresh start, make do with little" (II 215). He spoke not of surviving the destruction of a culture threatened by a fascist opponent but, more radically, of surviving culture itself. Those he cited as exemplars of this sensibility— Brecht, Loos, Le Corbusier, Scheerbart, and Klee—had all, he asserted, taken leave of "the traditional image of humanity—ceremonious, noble, decked out with all the sacrificial offerings of the past" (II 216). The appropriate response to the poverty of experience was not to long for any renewal of experience or attempt to rejoin oneself to the great traditions of humanism and idealism: no, "people have 'gorged' themselves on all that, on 'culture' and 'man', and become glutted and tired" (II 218). The order of the day was rather to collaborate in the work of destruction. Anticipating the charge that this would amount to collaborating with barbarism, Benjamin embraced the term frankly and defiantly: "Barbarism? Yes indeed. We say it to introduce a new, positive concept of barbarism" (II 215). This "new, positive" barbarism—"the good kind"—was justified as the only match for the barbaric powers of fascism. 1 Culture is dead,

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1
In "On the Concept of History," Benjamin would take the even more radical position that "there is no document of culture that is not at the same time a document of

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