Monday, December 1, 2008
The Paper: Paragraph 1, Benjamin Section, 1st Draft
Walter Benjamin wrote “Theses on the Concept of History” in 1940, shortly before his failed crossing of the Spanish border at Port Bou in an attempt to escape the Nazi menace in France. In a letter to Theodor Adorno dated February of that year, Benjamin writes that the theses “represent a first attempt at pinning down an aspect of history that must establish an irremediable break between our way of seeing and the survivals of positivism which, in my view, mark out so profoundly even those concepts of history which are, in themselves, closest and most familiar to us” (17, 120 Fire Alarm, quoting Gessammelte Schriften, I, 3, p. 1225). In his book The Frankfurt School and its critics (Routledge, 2002), Tom Bottomore laments the imprecision with which the Frankfurt School and its associates used the term “positivism”: “the Frankfurt School thinkers operated with a rather imprecise and variable notion of the object of their criticism” (28). “The connection between positivist philosophy of science,” writes Bottomore, “[…] and an acceptance of the status quo” is “asserted rather than argued” (32, FS). Though he doesn’t include Benjamin in his study, Bottomore would not have found satisfaction with the manner in which Benjamin uses the term here (or likely any of Benjamin’s work). However, it is worth considering Benjamin’s stated aim in more detail. First of all, as Michael Lowy points out in his book Fire Alarm: Reading Walter Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History”, Benjamin considered this essay “a first attempt: “the document was not intended for publication” (17). He circulated the text amongst trusted friends like Adorno and Hannah Arendt, but, Lowy writers, he feared publication “‘would throw wide open the doors to enthusiastic incomprehension’” (17). So Benjamin was aware that the style, terminology and references would be opaque to most readers, and it is perhaps read in the light of this knowledge, or at least the understanding that, as his letter to Adorno suggests, he is working in a fully allusive and dialectical mode. He wants to “pin down an aspect of history” that will provide a break with the positivistic “status quo” yet is, at the same time, close and familiar. His aim itself is dialectic and prefigures the dialectical study of history he puts forth in the essay, the past “flitting” by must be seized by the historical materialist. This essay is the means by which he hopes to effect not only that break between competing viewpoints but within history itself.