I do not consider myself a sympathetic reader of Benjamin.
Benjamin: The Sun Is Not Enough
This essay has two aims. The first is to read Benjamin, against prevailing norms, not as a political theorist, nor as a literary critic,1 but as a poet who takes philosophical discourse as his genre and prophecy as his project. This reading is necessitated, I feel, by the unique challenge of approaching Benjamin's writing from the perspective of academic philosophy.2 Though he aspired, ostensibly, to a place in academia, Benjamin's texts are usually more declaratory and prognostic than analytical. Because he dwells between political theory, philosophy, and literature, he is hard to categorize—but some degree of categorization becomes necessary to understanding much of his work, especially the fragments, as he himself will acknowledge in the text of his I take up here. At any rate, my point is not categorization for categorization's sake—I will argue that the difference between understanding Benjamin as a poet or as a straightforward theorist is the difference between finding in his work a writing that reveals, in a way poetry makes possible uniquely, the situation of thought in his time, or writing that simply performs a commonly radical analysis of European society. The second aim of this essay is to show how Benjamin uses the metaphor of constellation to adapt what he sees as philosophy's essentially Platonic character to a post-metaphysical, thoroughly materialist orientation, by re-inscribing Platonic form back over the metaphorical Platonic sun. My essay closely reads “The Epistemo-Critical Prologue” to The Origin of German Tragic Drama, paying special attention to Benjamin's understanding of philosophy as such and what he sees as its innate limits, in order to make the case that the best way to understand Benjamin's project is as a poetic (and atheistic) exercise in prophecy. Crucially, it is not his most explicitly prophetic work, but rather his analysis of truth in “The Epistemo-Critical Prologue” that really makes clear his disposition, tipping his hand and offering some clarification of how to receive his enigmatic oeuvre. Benjamin is a poet in spirit and in method.
When I refer to his prophetic work, I mostly refer to texts such as “Critique of Violence” or “Capitalism as Religion” where he speaks directly about divinity. Because, in my characterization, Benjamin's revelation is poetic—that is, contrived, not inspired by any divinely granted vision but crafted by his own hand—there can be assumed no divinity with which it originates. In the text examined in this paper, the image of the eddy in the stream of becoming is taken to be the metaphor for a purely materialist faith. Whereas in Eastern religion, for example, spirituality is symbolized by the lotus, which emerges out of yet maintains contact with the water, for Benjamin it is the eddy—the vortex, or the Strudel—that symbolizes the achievement of communion with what serves as divinity for him. For Benjamin, the true 'religious' experience is defined, metaphorically, by the turning-back of the water and the formation of an empty space within it. This kind of origin that “emerges from the process of becoming and disappearance,” I argue, reveals the fundamentally poetic quality of Benjamin's writing—he does not aim to advance any particular theory, nor inspire his readers to any particular comportment, but rather he carries out, in his writing, the work of the prophet. His efforts afford us a materialist transformation of divine knowledge—knowledge that is mercurial, irreproachable, and irremediably distant from the ordinary function of theoretical discourse. Yet, for all this, and because it is a scripture without any attendant theology,3 it remains for us more like a poem than anything else, a kind of art-object made of words.4 Benjamin's relative fluency in the German philosophical discourse of his day certainly informs this work, and one could even say that it is crucial to it, but I intend to show how that discourse cannot ultimately claim it as its own. For that reason, Benjamin's corpus should no longer be plumbed for insights simply to be lifted out and redeployed in academic conversations; or, when that does happen, it should be viewed as a literary appropriation, as if one were to press any poem into the service of a didactic argument. Perhaps even more so, the appropriation of Benjamin should be viewed the same way as the appropriation of any religious scripture, since, formally speaking, that is what he gives us.
- Representation as the limit of philosophy
The method of Benjamin's writing is explored, sometimes obliquely but often in an explicit way, in his “Epistemo-Critical Prologue.” It is there we find one of his clearest elaborations of his thinking on the function of philosophy and what he understands to be its limits. He takes up what he terms the Platonic theory of ideas and its understanding of truth:
Again and again the statement that the object of knowledge is not identical with the truth will prove itself to be one of the profoundest intentions of philosophy in its original form, the Platonic theory of ideas. Knowledge is open to question, but truth it not. Knowledge is concerned with individual phenomena, but not directly with their unity.5
The Platonic philosophical paradigm, by Benjamin's reckoning, aims toward the unity of phenomena, which is the concern of truth. Under the Platonic theory, truth resists knowledge, which is defined by possession.6 The method of knowledge is defined as acquisition of an object and its subsequent representation—it having not been represented prior. The method of truth, on the other hand, is defined as the self-representation of a form in consciousness. The unity of knowledge, therefore, can only be conceptual; the unity of truth is essential. Truth comes to be defined by essentiality. Benjamin illustrates the difference between truth and knowledge by examining beauty:
But can truth do justice to beauty? … Plato's answer is to make truth the guarantor of the existence of beauty. This is the sense in which he argues that truth is the content of beauty. This content, however, does not appear by being exposed; rather it is revealed in a process which might be described metaphorically as the burning up of the husk as it enters the realm of ideas, that is to say a destruction of the work in which its external form achieves its most brilliant degree of illumination. This relationship between truth and beauty shows more clearly than anything else the great difference between truth and the object of knowledge...7
The Platonic idea achieves unity through a kind of destruction. As the husk of matter is incinerated, the form is achieved, ephemerally. Presumably, the “realm of ideas” in an inferno because it is, metaphorically, the sun, the form of the good. Benjamin will maintain the cohesion of this general Platonic metaphor, referring later in the “Prologue” to the relation of ideas to objects as directly analogous to the relation of constellations to stars.8 In the case of beauty, truth offers a guarantee that it “can never be devalued”9 which is the guarantee of an authentic Platonic idea. But it isn't, for Benjamin, that knowledge has no role. Concepts, which are to knowledge what ideas are to truth, ferry phenomena into the realm of ideas:
The significance of phenomena for ideas is confined to their conceptual elements. … Ideas are timeless constellations, and by virtue of the elements' being seen as points in such constellations, phenomena are subdivided and at the same time redeemed; so that those elements which it is the function of the concept to elicit from phenomena are most clearly evident at the extremes.10
If they are to be ordered into a constellation, phenomena must first be stars, metaphorically speaking. In order to become fuel for stellar fire, they need the husk of a concept that would be burned away as they ascend beyond the realm of knowledge, up into the cosmic plane that is the realm of ideas.11 Knowledge is subordinate to truth, but necessary, in Benjamin's understanding, for the achievement of the Platonic idea. The Platonic theory requires an employment of concepts to break down phenomena, destroying any artificial unity, so that they might be constellated in order to achieve true unity. But it is important to recognize that for Benjamin, the idea is in this way only represented. The salvation of the phenomena is not the achievement of a phenomenal idea, but a representation of one—“It is the function of concepts to group phenomena together, and the division which is brought about within them thanks to the distinguishing power of the intellect is all the more significant in that it brings about two things at a single stroke: the salvation of phenomena and the representation of ideas.”12 In fact, representation is the limit of philosophy, for Benjamin.13 If the Platonic theory of ideas is the most philosophical theory, for him, then the Platonic form is the most philosophical concept. This is not the form of knowledge, but it is still, to Benjamin, representational.
With the metaphor of constellation, Benjamin complicates the Platonic worldview. He does not subscribe to classical metaphysics, and so the-sun-as-the-good is not a notion that would suffice for him, even metaphorically. By adding the element of constellation to the metaphor, he replaces a metaphysical order for a thoroughly material one. The sun has been modernized—it is no longer a divine mystery, but one star among many. Yet mystery has been brought back into the world, or at least, this universe, now tied not to the one star but to the order and motion of stars in general.14 To discern a constellation in a grouping of stars in the night sky is, for Benjamin, the ur-philosophical gesture. But vision is insufficient to his own ends, which are not strictly philosophical:
The being of ideas simply cannot be conceived of as the object of vision, even intellectual vision. For even in its most paradoxical periphrasis, as intellectus archetypus, vision does not enter into the form of existence which is peculiar to truth, which is devoid of all intention, and certainly does not itself appear as intention. Truth does not enter into relationships, particularly intentional ones.15
The limit of philosophy, then, is found precisely in that it traces the constellation in the sky. That is a necessary step, but for Benjamin it is still only the work of representation. The glimpse of the constellation is not concomitant with the becoming of it. The “form of existence peculiar to truth,” being “devoid of all intention,” cannot by definition be achieved in the conception of a constellation. Only the self-representation of the form—the constellation—in consciousness can be rightly considered as truth.
- The empty origin
So what would it mean for a constellation to represent itself (in consciousness)? This, as I understand it, is the question posed upon reaching the limit of philosophy. The metaphorical constellation is a re-inscription of form back onto what is supposed to be the origin in classical metaphysics, the sun. In Benjamin, the sun is replaced by the eddy. The truth of form inheres in the constellation as the mysterious—divine?16—motion of the stars, not the blinding light of one star.
Origin, although an entirely historical category, has, nevertheless, nothing to do with genesis. The term origin is not intended to describe the process by which the existent came into being, but rather to describe that which emerges from the process of becoming and disappearance. Origin is an eddy in the stream of becoming, and in its current it swallows the material involved in the process of genesis.17
The process by which a constellation comes into being is its conceptualization—but coming into being is not the genesis of becoming. The signification of a group of stars in the sky binds a meaning to a shape. That is historical—but not original. Even the science of the formation of each star, calculations of their gravitational relationship, etc. would remain on the level of knowledge, not truth. The truth is in “the process of becoming and disappearance” that presents the stars, the history, and ourselves. The origin is not the pure light of the sun, but the turn achieved through the knowledge of the constellation. The constellation “swallows the material” analogously to how the transition into the realm of ideas burns away the husk of matter in which the form had inhered. Yet, going one step further, the order of the constellation creates a form that exceeds form. It reveals the stream of becoming by turning it momentarily backwards, creating an ephemeral vortex in which to experience this. That is what I mean by characterizing Benjamin's work in the “Prologue” as a re-inscription of form back onto the sun.
The metaphor of the constellation is poetic not merely by dint of being a metaphor, but by what it accomplishes in thought. Benjamin identifies representation as philosophy's limit. Constellation moves beyond representation by granting access to the stream of becoming. It is clear that for Benjamin, origin can never be manifest in any representation, and hence cannot be accessed philosophically. Theory of any kind is insufficient for his project. So how else to characterize his writing except as poetry? This is not a bad thing at all—especially if we accept Benjamin's own terms, it is the way to carry thinking beyond not only antiquated metaphysics, but beyond the boundaries of representation.
The constellation is a material idea. It is not a coincidence that it is imagined on a cosmic scale. If it is “the task of the philosopher to restore, by representation, the primacy of the symbolic character of the word, in which the idea is given self-consciousness,”18 then it is the task of the poet—Benjamin—I think, to fulfill the self-representation of that self-conscious idea in his own consciousness. What is so nebulous about Benjamin's project, and so mercurial about his writing, is that it isn't clear what exactly that fulfillment entails. But that is precisely why I think we can only read him, ultimately, as a poet. The fulfillment of the self-representation of truth, as an idea—a self-conscious idea, no less—seems thinkable only as writing—more exactly, the experience of writing scripture. What else would the self-representation of truth be except prophecy, divine revelation? Benjamin can only, ultimately, depict this possibility for us by offering up a scripture of his own creation. Without a metaphysics, without a theology, and the scripture's task is simply inscription itself. Benjamin's writing can only succeed in granting us a material idea—the constellation—that in turn opens the possibility (if the project is successful) of thinking the idea, and hence the truth, as material.
Conclusion: The possibility of a material totality
Platonic redemption is achieved in the idea when it attains totality.19 Benjamin seeks to preserve this end in his transformation of Platonic theory from a metaphysical to a material science. Through the re-inscription of form in the metaphor of the constellation, through the doubling-back of the stream to form an eddy, he believes that he succeeds:
The tendency of all philosophical conceptualization is thus redefined in the old sense: to establish the becoming of phenomena in their being. For in the science of philosophy the concept of being is not satisfied by the phenomenon until it has absorbed all its history. In such investigations this historical perspective can be extended, into the past of the future, without being subject to any limits of principle. This gives the idea its total scope.20
The totality of the idea is achieved, materially, through this future-perfect mode of perspectival extension. By pervading the history of a phenomenon, philosophical representation can impart timelessness to the idea. For Benjamin, origin is “an entirely historical category,”21 which means that for him, philosophy is necessary (though insufficient) to truth insofar as it provides the origin its history. If truth is found in the emptiness of the eddy, philosophical representation is its boundary against the turning water. That is the means of its imparting the timelessness proper to the idea. Redemption then means the ephemeral formation of the eddy, from which the stream of becoming can be momentarily experienced.
Now I can make sense of the angel of history, who occupies the eddy in which the idea is totalized and truth inheres:
His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.22
The stream of becoming reasserts itself always. Whatever turning-back is achieved is only temporary. This is because the action of turning is driven by philosophy, and the space within the turned water is held open by philosophical representation. But because it is thoroughly historical, and the water is constantly in motion, philosophical representation cannot maintain this action eternally. Its representations only last so long. Even constellations are in motion, slowly losing their form. Benjamin, by re-inscribing this form over the stars, transforms the Platonic theory of ideas from a metaphysical to a material science. His is a poetic writing that produces an atheist scripture. As he says in thesis X, immediately following thesis IX about the angel of history:
The themes which monastic discipline assigned to friars for meditation were designed to turn them away from the world and its affairs. The thoughts which we are developing here originate from similar considerations.23
If we follow Benjamin, we would be monks without God, pursuing a wholly material divinity. This pursuit could only be communicated poetically.
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken, 2013. Print.
Benjamin, Walter. The Origin of German Tragic Drama. Trans. John Osborne. London: Verso, 2003. Print.
1(nor as a philosopher)
2To be clear, I don't believe the perspective of academic philosophy is the supreme perspective, but rather, for the purposes of this paper, simply the one from which I approach Benjamin's writing. Whether Benjamin himself believes philosophy to have a special supremacy is, in part, what I investigate here.
3That is, unless one counts the emergence of Benjamin as the cult figure of a particular subculture, with its penchant for hagiography and preoccupation with doctrinal matters, as a kind of theology; but I think that would be unfair to theology.
4To be clear, I don't mean that to denigrate his work by calling it art—in fact, one implication of this paper is that reading Benjamin as a poet might be the only way to redeem his writing.
5The Origin of German Tragic Drama, 30
8“Ideas are to objects as constellations are to stars.” ibid, 34
11Here I want to note that, in Benjamin's understanding, concepts have already been linked to the material, by way of their being proper to knowledge rather than truth.
13“It is characteristic of philosophical writing that it must continually confront the question of representation. In its finished form philosophy will, it is true, assume the quality of doctrine, but it does not lie within the power of mere thought to confer such a form. Philosophical doctrine is based on historical codification. It cannot therefore be evoked more geometrico. The more clearly mathematics demonstrate that the total elimination of the problem of representation—which is boasted by every proper didactic system—is the sign of genuine knowledge, the more conclusively does it reveal its renunciation of that area of truth towards which language is directed. The methodological element in philosophical projects is not simply part of their didactic mechanism. This means quite simply that they possess a certain esoteric quality which they are unable to discard, forbidden to deny, and which they vaunt at their own peril.” ibid, 27
14This is the transformation from a metaphysical to a material paradigm.
16The “stream of becoming” seems to be the closest thing to actual divinity in Benjamin's writing, and to inhabit the Strudel seems to be the closest thing to authentic religious experience. (I discuss “authenticity” in this context later, in the conclusion.)