Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Paper: Revised 1st Paragrpah for Benjamin section, a more earnest attempt at defining postivism

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 these 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). As elsewhere, Benjamin here fails to provide a clear idea of the exact meaning of some of his terms. Since these terms inform many of his ideas in the essay, a brief consideration of them is in order. In his book The Frankfurt School and its critics (Routledge, 2002), Tom Bottomore laments that “the Frankfurt School thinkers operated with a rather imprecise and variable notion of the object of their criticism” (28). (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 with any of Benjamin’s work.) Nevertheless, he attempts to define that object for them. Adorno described positivism as “an attitude which not only clings to what is given, but takes a positive view of it” (28, FS). Bottomore expands and refines this distaste for the acceptance of the status quo and a refusal to think beyond the empirical, and in doing so helps to clarify why Benjamin felt that an “irremediable break” with a positivistic view of history was necessary. Bottomore lists three primary criticisms:

first, that positivism is an inadequate and misleading approach which does not, and cannot, attain a true conception or understanding of social life; second, that by attending only to what exists it sanctions the present social order, obstructs any radical change, and leads to political quietism; third, that it is intimately connected with, and is indeed a major factor in sustaining, or producing, a new form of domination, namely ‘technocratic domination.’ (28)

Though positivism here refers specifically to a positivistic theory of science, a subject that Adorno and Max Horkheimer attack in The Dialectic of Enlightenment, Benjamin’s concern is with the application of positivism to history. Bottomore complains that “The connection between positivist philosophy of science […] and an acceptance of the status quo” is “asserted rather than argued” (32, FS). When applied to a theory of history, however, the connection gains more force if not a strict logical link. History written from the point of view of those in power is by definition accepting the status quo; and a conception of history as a series of victories does the same. Once history takes a definite, logical and official form—a positivist form—it ceases to account for any possible conflicting conceptions of history. Those who lost the conflicts to the victors no longer have a voice in history and are forgotten. For Benjamin, this concern likely had an intense personal connection: if the forces of fascism triumphed, how would history remember him?

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