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. Looking at positivism in relation to history helps to counter Bottomore complaint that “The connection between positivist philosophy of science […] and an acceptance of the status quo” is “asserted rather than argued” by the Frankfurt School (32, FS). When applied to a theory of history 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, official form—a positivist form—as happens in totalitarian states, it ceases to seriously account for conflicting versions of history. Those who lose the conflicts no longer have a voice and are forgotten to history. For Benjamin, this concern likely had an intense personal connection: if the forces of fascism triumphed, how would history remember him? Such were the stakes of the argument for Benjamin. Though it is rarely mentioned explicitly, positivism lurks over Benjamin’s text, always attempting to smother its truths. A comparison of positivism to Marx’s communist specter is tempting, but a more accurate analogy would invoke Marx’s vampiric capitalism—both are insidious and broadly entrenched systems of thought and action that contribute to a degradation of human existence. And for Benjamin, positivism outstrips even capitalism in its malice because positivism undergirds the philosophies that sustain capitalism and—more pressing to Benjamin—fascism. Thus, it was imperative that Benjamin “establish an irremediable break” from such a threatening philosophy of history. Exactly how constructing an alternate conception of history fights against the menace of positivism and fascism (the two are nearly conflated) will be discussed in more detail below.
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 writes, 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.
History is indeed a struggle, but not one that is won strictly through empirical means. Using the metaphor of a chess-playing automaton that secretly utilizes a “hunchbacked dwarf” to control the puppet, Benjamin suggests that a victory attained strictly through empirical means is not possible. “Historical materialism” might be the apparatus but “theology, which […] is small and ugly and has to keep out of sight” is the engine (“Concept” SW 4, 389). Benjamin is not advocating a revolution driven by religion. Rather, he is framing the conflict between a positivistic conception of history and his own conception of it. The struggle might a “class struggle,” but “the fight for the crude and material things” is only a first step toward refashioning history (“Concept” 390). Material things and changes are necessary but “confidence, courage, humor, cunning, and fortitude” fuel the struggle (“Concept” 390). In other words, history, or any conception of history that would contribute to a meaningful role in the class struggle, needs to take into account things that are not known. Such a conception of history needs to be diametrically opposed to a positivistic conception of history. Benjamin employs a botanical metaphor to illustrate this point: “As flowers turn toward the sun, what has been strives to turn—by dint of a secret heliotropism—toward that sun which is rising in the sky of history” (“Concept” 390). History tends toward the unknown; it turns away from the known past—the past that is chronicled by the victors.
Historical events have determined Jacob’s situation at the outset of the novel and, in this sense, made him a victim of history. But his understanding of his situation forms through his relation to the natural world. He remembers that “the Cossacks had advanced on Josefov,” his hometown, when he was only twenty-five, but he understands where he is now because of the seasons: “here it was the end of summer; the short days, the cold nights had come” (54). The referents with which he marks his past indicate a profound shift in his fundamental understanding of time. Whereas before he was able to measure the past by changes to his social and cultural world, now he had to measure time by the changes in nature. It’s true that the cycle of life—seen so much more clearly and easily in nature—could be said to recur in a small shtetl town as well, the changes have a human front, a personality and elemental humanity that’s hard to shake as eternally revolving, as opposed to the faceless façade of nature. Individual trees may vary, but their differences are not so easily noted as they are in the lined and aged face of a grandmother. Grandmothers may look alike across time and geography, but absent the technology of reproduction, the aura of the person claims a place above anonymous and hidden nature. History, measured against nature, becomes soulless and entirely divorced from the divine residing in the faces of loved ones. The conception of nature would change as well as the perception of it, which could be said to be whatever concrete element against which the subject measures time. If this concrete referent shifts from the personal (that is, the family: the known, the loved) to nature, which is largely a mystery, then it is no wonder that an understanding of the universe and moral conceptions would shift from the religious to the secular—but still retain the ethical element. In other words, religion becomes stripped of theology. Instead of worrying about the nature of God, Jacob begins to worry about the nature of Jacob, and how this nature affects others. God no longer judges Jacob’s actions; he judges his actions against his ideal, God. His religion becomes the pursuit of the ethical, not the face of g-d. This is not a matter of simple-mindedness. Jacob knew the ideas of “Plato, Aristotle, and the Epicureans” and “sought to understand wherever it was possible” (54). Even before the massacre occurred, it was feared in his community: “Hearts had long been frozen with fear, then one day death had struck” (54). Deracinated and cut off from his studies, his homeland and his family, Jacob inhabits a position analogous to our experience of history (or Benjamin’s famous angel of history). For him, the past has no physical manifestation. If he had been able to stay in his village, the buildings and the people and the land would inhabit and reflect the past. The time passed could be marked in people’s faces, the wear of buildings, and the familiar growing gradually older.
Jacob had just turned twenty-five when the Cossacks had advanced on Josefov [his hometown]. He was now past twenty-nine, so he had lived a seventh of his life in this remote mountain village, deprived of family and community, separated from books, like one of those souls who wander naked in Tophet. And here it was the end of summer; the short days, the cold nights had come. He could reach out his hands and actually touch the darkness of Egypt, the void from which God’s face was absent. Dejection is only one small step from denial. Satan had become arrogant and spoke to Jacob insolently “There is no God. There is no world beyond this one.” He bid Jacob become a pagan among the pagansl he commanded him to marry Wanda or at the very least to lie with her. (54)