Andrew Robinson - Theory Blog

Monday, November 15, 2004

Walter Benjamin and the Two Souls of Critical Theory

(draft version)

Lecture on Walter Benjamin – Andrew Robinson

Walter Benjamin: maybe the only person to fail his exams because what he wrote was too complicated for his teachers to understand. A leading figure in central European critical theory in the early twentieth century, he was native to Berlin until forced (as a left-winger and a Jew) to flee when the Nazis took power. He was later to commit suicide after being captured on the Franco-Spanish border, trying to flee after the Nazis invaded France. Although he wrote only two books (both on German literature), he was extremely prolific, and his most important insights are often contained in short articles and snippets.

Primarily a cultural critic, Benjamin’s work often touches on politics because of the way he deals with the context of modernity as a cultural and social situation or system. He looks at the relationship between past, present and future in ways which impact on his understanding of social change. The Theses on the Philosophy of History (the set reading) are a relatively late work, not intended to be published and often rewritten by Benjamin himself; they are the clearest statement of his political position at this time.

Benjamin’s political work stands at the intersection between two distinct traditions,
• Jewish messianism, particularly the tradition of qabalah or cabalism, and
• Marxist and other secular theories of social revolution.

The tradition of qabalah is highly mystical and operates entirely at the level of theology and religious practice. In distinction from many other Jews, practitioners of such mystical ideas would often drop out of social life, and pursue insights into the nature of the Divine through practices of intensive meditation, prayer and asceticism. Their basic assumption is that the Divine, or Sublime or Messianic, dimension is something which can never be realised in the mundane, profane world of historical existence. It can only be glimpsed or touched upon by pushing experience to its limits. Benjamin’s friend Gerhard-Gershom Scholem, who has been influential in studies of Benjamin’s work, is an advocate of this kind of theory.

The other tradition, of revolutionary social theory, is aimed at fundamental social transformation within the field of mundane, profane everyday existence. Benjamin draws on Marxism, on pre-Marxist socialists such as the utopian system-builder Charles Fourier, and on anarchist and libertarian ideas which all tap into this tradition of secular revolution. Here, the aim of social change is typically more limited than that suggested by theological models. It is often connected to models of historical progress. A revolutionary agent is seen as realising potentials which exist in the present, but which are foreclosed or prevented from being realised by powerful social groups. The overthrow of these groups therefore becomes part of a process of emancipating repressed potential within the historical present.

These traditions may at first seem quite separate, but there are important similarities and differences which have bearings on the question of utopia.
• Supposing that utopian energies are conceived in terms of hope, and in terms of the promise held by an as-yet unrealised future, both traditions are very much part of utopian theory.
• They both involve the establishment of a relationship between two very different aspects of thought or “dimensions” of existence: the mundane, historical, everyday world of the present, and an alternative which cannot be touched through ideas of presence and which does not exist in the present.
• This second dimension is where utopian energies are invested, in imagined realities which are irreducible to the present historical order.

However, there are also important differences:
• While messianism maintains that the second dimension cannot be accessed within worldly experience, and consigns it to a mystical and religious sphere, revolutionary theory is grounded on the possibility of the changes it advocates.
• And whereas messianic theory is often committed to the idea of the two spaces as an eternal characteristic of the human condition, revolutionary theory is often conceived in terms of change.
• Also, revolutionaries are often committed to ideas of progress, where things are assumed to get gradually better over time, whereas messianists are sceptical about the possibility of change within the historical sphere.

What Benjamin is trying to do is to create a new kind of theorising about social change and utopian or messianic potential, which draws on elements of both these traditions. He isn’t just putting together bits of each, but trying to construct a new theory which brings them together into a single theoretical apparatus. Michael Lowy describes Benjamin as ‘one of the few authors to whom the elective affinity between Jewish messianism and libertarian utopia led to an authentic fusion – that is, to the dawning of a new way of thinking which could not simply be reduced to its components’ (Lowy 95). The resulting theory is specifically connected to utopian themes. For instance, Benjamin refers to the ‘critical power of utopian images’ (cited Lowy 97). Indeed, the whole purpose of much of Benjamin’s thought – such as the Theses on the Philosophy of History – is to consider the role which utopian thought can play in processes of social transformation.


Benjamin’s starting-point is a rejection of ideas that things automatically get better over time. Rather, Benjamin portrays the present system as something akin to a train with broken brakes, speeding towards disaster. He therefore rejects traditional metaphysical models, both religious and secular, which maintain that disaster or hell is something awaiting us around the corner, if the social order collapses. Rather, for Benjamin, ‘[t]he catastrophe is that things continue to “go on as they are”… Hell is not what awaits us but the life we are living’ (Zentralpark).

This reversal of perspective comes about from reconceiving the events of the present. The disasters of the last few centuries – in Benjamin’s day, the rise of fascism, the First World War and so on; and today we could add things like ecological collapse, nuclear weapons and the atrocities occurring in places like Rwanda, Bosnia and Iraq – are usually seen as intrusions of a violent outside into the peaceful development of humanity. For Benjamin, in contrast, these events should be seen as the norm, and as the real logic of the present system or situation.

Benjamin’s view of progress is made clear from his discussion of a painting by Paul Klee, named Angelus Novus (the new angel).
‘A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. 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’.

In contrast, the messianic or revolutionary moment is to be conceived as an interruption of the existing situation. This is an important idea, because revolutionaries have usually seen revolution as the end-point of progress and of historical development. Revolution is therefore theorised as an element in the norm of progress, whereas disaster and crisis are intrusions. Benjamin turns this upside-down, with revolution becoming the interruption of progress, conceived as a cumulative development of the logic inherent to the disaster which is the present (for instance, the accumulation of greater and greater ecological crises, more and more destructive weapons, more and more insidious methods of social control, and so on). Environmental destruction and catastrophe, as well as the aesthetic “hell” produced by images of destruction in modern warfare, are very much part of Benjamin’s perspective, and for these reasons, he attacks any approach which portrays a brighter future in terms of linear progress.

For instance, the German Social Democratic Party was heavily influenced by a version of Marxism which clung strongly to the idea of inevitable progress, so that German workers were encouraged to believe that historical development would hand them a better world without the need for a fundamental break. Benjamin attacks this view in Thesis 11: ‘Nothing has corrupted the German working class so much as the notion that it was moving with the current’. This belief causes workers to lack urgency in their reactions to the problems of the present, instead waiting complacently for progress to solve the crisis; or it means that opponents take on board the methods of the present system even when trying to overthrow it (as in the case of the Soviet Union).

He also likens the messianic or revolutionary moment to pulling the emergency cord on a train heading towards a fatal crash – not going with the flow of the train’s movement, but doing something drastic to halt it.

The point for Benjamin is therefore ‘to brush history against the grain’ (Thesis 7) – not to go with the flow, but to interrupt the flow of history with something completely different which is, in a certain sense, radically exterior to it. This is one of the ideas Benjamin takes from messianism.

The State of Emergency

Thesis Eight states that: ‘The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “state of emergency” in which we live is not the exception but the rule’.

This refers to the work of Carl Schmitt, who similarly suggested that social and legal order are founded on a moment of exception. This idea has become popular today among poststructuralist authors because of the way it places contingency at the basis of political life, even when politics seems to be ordered and inflexible.

The difference between Benjamin and Schmitt, however, is substantial, because Schmitt invokes the “state of emergency” as a way of maintaining the power of law and social order even when these are collapsing - in other words, law is to be defended through its own suspension. For Benjamin, in contrast, the awareness of contingency is not pegged back onto a defence of fixed structures, but is supposed to open onto new utopian possibilities. In other words, both Schmitt and Benjamin enter a space where the social order becomes contestable, but Schmitt tries to maintain the order in the face of its own contestability, whereas Benjamin’s point is to use this contestability to undermine the existing social system. That’s why Benjamin is a libertarian, whereas Schmitt is a fascist.

In an earlier essay on the subject of the idea of the General Strike, Benjamin distinguished between three types of violence (or power): law-affirming, law-making and law-destroying. Law-affirming violence is the type used to maintain an existing system. Law-making violence is the kind admitted by Schmitt, which defends a social order in crisis or which founds a new social system. Law-destroying violence, however, is of a kind incomprehensible both to liberals and to Schmitt. Its role is to break down institutions of social control and to release messianic energies which can create new social potentialities. The syndicalist idea of a general strike, which Sorel treats as a mobilising “myth” galvanising the masses for social action, is for Benjamin a violence of this kind. (It should be kept in mind that the concept of violence used in this essay is unconventional. It implies the exercise of power to affect social outcomes, and not necessarily physical force. Thus, Benjamin also refers to the general strike as “non-violent violence”).


The idea of time is crucial to Benjamin’s understanding of the difference between the two dimensions – the historical and the messianic. Ordinary historical time takes the form of what he calls “homogeneous empty time”. Time is experienced in a way similar to that depicted by clocks and calendars. Time is homogeneous because it is made up of identical and interchangeable units such as minutes, seconds, hours and days. One day is much the same as any other. It is empty because there are no special moments which give meaning to this type of time – it simply passes, and people fill it with contents which are neutral as regards the frame of time itself. Homogeneous empty time is time which simply passes, in an ongoing present which passes from the past into the future while continuing to be fundamentally the same. It is thus an “eternal return of the same”, in which the new simply reproduces the old as a progression of distinct but structurally identical moments. It is also for Benjamin the time of the “hell” of the present, the very “hell” Benjamin seeks to escape.

This is the experience of time which is most common to many people, but Benjamin insists that it is a historical construct, resulting from the rise of capitalism. The constant replacement and renewal of commodities, through which the commodity system continues its existence, is for Benjamin the techno-social basis of the experience of homogeneous empty time. He says that it is closely related to commodity fetishism and the idea that commodities, including labour time (the time spent working to produce commodities), are exchangeable. It is also linked to the ways in which fashions and new technologies replace one another within capitalist consumer economics, so that the basic system remains the same but the specifics constantly change. The experience of homogeneous empty time has replaced earlier types of experience of time, and can in turn be replaced by new types of experience.

The messianic is therefore a particular temporal mode of existence, which is to say, a way of experiencing time. It therefore interrupts and undermines homogeneous empty time.

Benjamin’s idea of messianic time (also known as “now-time” or “historic time”) is a complex idea, with various aspects, and Benjamin is inclined to explain it in terms of how it differs from homogeneous empty time.
• Homogeneous empty time is quantitative time, whereas messianic time is qualitative.
• Messianic time is “now-time”, time which is experienced as fully immediate, rather than as part of a flow running from past to present. Benjamin states in Thesis 14: ‘History is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogeneous empty time, but time filled with the presence of the now’.
• Messianic time is experienced intensively, whereas homogeneous empty time is experienced in a desensitising, anaesthetising way which numbs feelings. The intensive experience of messianic time combines experiences of immediacy and eternity, and is sometimes expressed by the word rausch – intoxification (an experience such as being drunk or high).
• Messianic time is ruptural – based on ruptures and change – whereas homogeneous empty time is continuous.
• Homogeneous empty time is homogeneous and empty, whereas messianic time is ‘[t]he now of a specific recognizability’.

The distinction is perhaps more clearly expressed in German, because the crucial distinction is between two kinds of experience which would both be expressed by the one English word. Now-being (jetztsein) or now-time (jetztzeit) is the term used for the type of experience occurring in messianic time, whereas the present is marked by experiences of erlebnis (a word which means an experience of the present as what has been lived, and thus, in a certain sense, as past).

The moment of revolution or redemption is the moment at which messianic time enters and overcomes homogeneous empty time. A revolutionary upheaval involves an interruption of the flow of homogeneous empty time in which everything remains the same. It is also clear once again that Benjamin is distancing himself from the idea of linear progress, which requires that one endorse homogeneous empty time.

We can see here how the messianic idea of an outside element which is brought into mundane everyday existence is here incorporated into Benjamin’s work. Thus, in Thesis 10, Benjamin declares that messianism comes from outside the existing world, turning its adherents away from the affairs of this world. This imagery is suggestive of mystical and monastic movements of withdrawal from society.

But it is also clear that the kind of transformation Benjamin wants is not purely spiritual, but also involves social change. It is not the otherworldly which has characteristics of being magical and impenetrable in the present, or which is realised in redemption; it is everyday life itself. Benjamin refers to the messianic moment as a ‘moment of awakening’ which ‘rescues’ history for the present and which ‘ignites the explosives which lie in the past’ and ‘blasts the epoch’ out of homogeneous empty time. The turning-away therefore occurs only at the level of ideas, and is equivalent to the “thinking-otherwise” which occurs in utopian theory and literature. In a sense, this is an escapist logic, but it is not an escapism which seeks to hide from the world. It is an escapism which follows through into escape from the present. The messianic moment is supposed to have a real transformative function of enabling an escape from the present.


Messianism is in a certain sense a transubstantiation, which is to say that a substance of one kind – messianic time – enter and reconfigures a space made up of a different and incommensurable substance – homogeneous empty time. Thus, messianic time is neither wholly within nor wholly outside of history (as the onward march of homogeneous empty time), at least at the moment of its emergence. Associated with ideas of the sublime, folk-religion, the eternal, the supernatural, the mythical and the aesthetic even in Benjamin’s own work, messianism nevertheless becomes part of the very everyday life which it revolutionises. While it may not be the “end of time” as in classical messianic theory, it is certainly the end of homogeneous empty time and especially of commodity fetishism, and the beginning of a different kind of existence. It is not, however, otherworldly, because the transformation occurs, not through awareness of sublimity which exists somewhere else, such as in an inaccessible God, but directly within the objects and relations of everyday life.

Messianic time is supposed to “redeem” the past by reinscribing it in the present in a new form. In Thesis 6, Benjamin argues that one should not try to recognise the past “the way it really was”, but rather, to seize hold of memories as they flash up in moments of danger. In this way, the experiences of past (failed) revolutions are made in a certain sense present in the new revolution, in a way which escapes from homogeneous empty time. It is also supposed to lead to an experience of “Truth”, which is distinct from other kinds of experience. This is because it breaks down the reification and fetishism which occurs in homogeneous empty time, offering possibilities of illumination.

The messianic moment is supposed to be a variety of remembrance of past generations, and also of a “lost paradise”, identified with the classless societies of primitive communism. These past moments become direct aspects of the present emotional and social configuration, removing the gridlock imposed by the eternal return of the same. Benjamin insists that such remembrance be of a kind which enables action in the present, rather than the kind of “once upon a time…” which takes the energy out of present actions by concentrating on the past.

The specific type of “remembrance” involved here is ‘the promulgation of a way of seeing that will open out the missed possibilities of the past as tokens that might yet be redeemable’ (Leslie 79) – a process labelled by Peter Szondi as “hope in the past”. Benjamin ‘locates… hope for the future in past potentials that did not materialize’. If ‘these unfulfilled moments are recognized, a sense of the potential inherent in our own historical moment might be uncovered’ (Leslie 79). This potential is reconstructed as something already present in objects, awaiting release – hence the idea of the objects being “redeemed” by their alternative uses.

The gesture of transforming something through an injection of the incommensurable material of the messianic is termed by Benjamin “redemption”. The word “redemption” is used, for instance, to refer to the reinterpretation and reappropriation of everyday objects and everyday experience in alternative ways which revolutionise experience. One might call this a deconstructive use of objects – their detachment from their customary settings and appropriation of items in bricolage, which is to say, in the creation of a new patchwork of people and things which is not held together by a fixed order, but which is instead open to new and varied uses. Thus, against commodity fetishism and the fixed places assigned to objects in its fashions, Benjamin posits a relationship to objects in which their diverse uses open up potentialities and possibilities which are closed in the present. Redemption is the realisation of the utopian promise which is contained in objects and tokens frozen in place by the commodity system.

Benjamin sometimes refers to this as a need “to discover the new anew” (because the new of capitalism always expresses an eternal return of the same, whereas the very idea of newness undergoes a change when the messianic dimension is introduced). It is an approach he applies repeatedly in his writings on technology and techniques, and in his work on the role of “tradition” in theory and literature. Technology, for instance, is supposed to contain real potential planted in it by the fantastic projections of its own designers, early conceivers of its models, and children and others who look upon it in new ways. Such experimental fantasies give technology a meaning which exceeds its current role in the social system, opening it up to possibilities of “redemption” based on utopian investments of imagination on novel and alternative uses.


One of the problems with studying utopias is the question of whether or not utopias, or a utopian desire, can be realised. There are at least two possible answers, one which sees utopias as revolutionary, and as creating images which can be realised through a process of social construction, and one which sees utopia as a kind of supplement of the present, something which is ultimately unachievable, and which by its very nature is a desire which cannot be satisfied, but which nevertheless has an important role to play in criticising a present which remains always and necessarily unsatisfactory. The first of these views is close to revolutionary social theory, whereas the latter has more in common with traditional messianism, as discussed earlier.

There is some controversy in the scholarship on Benjamin regarding which of these was his own viewpoint, and this is linked to whether Benjamin is viewed as a primarily “theological” or a primarily “materialist” theorist. Peter Osborne and Gerhard-Gershom Sholem are among those who suggest that Benjamin’s idea of messianism was simply a supplement to a present reality which cannot be overcome. However, Esther Leslie, Michael Lowy and others interpret Benjamin as rejecting those aspects of traditional messianism which emphasise unrealisability. They interpret Benjamin as in some sense a revolutionary, calling for an upheaval based on the messianic dimension in which present ways of life are overcome. In my view, the second interpretation seems more consistent with Benjamin’s texts, especially regarding the imagery of ongoing catastrophe, pulling the emergency cord on a moving train, and so on. It is also suggested by Benjamin’s enthusiasm for authors such as Fourier, who he praises for his conception of the possibility of a non-exploiting and non-exploited labour based on models taken from play instead of work.

Other authors agree with Benjamin in this perspective.

• The practice of deconstruction can often be understood as a reappropriation of ideas and objects in ways which open them up to new, creative uses. Roland Barthes in particular distinguishes between writerly and readerly ways of interpreting a text, the former involving appropriations for diverse uses in which the text undergoes changes, whereas the latter treats the text as a fixed object with a fixed function.
• The anti-capitalist theorist Hakim Bey uses the idea of immediacy as a way resisting the mediation imposed by capitalist society, calling on his readers to establish different kinds of social relations based on immediacy.
• The Situationists, such as Debord and Vaneigem, argued for the overthrow of capitalism by workers’ councils, on the basis of a critique of capitalism as generalised disempowerment and catastrophe.
• Deleuze and Guattari have constructed a theory of social transformation based on “lines of flight”. Flows of desire are at present trapped in assemblages which articulate them in repressive ways, and radical practice should direct its energies towards escaping from such fixed systems. Lines of flight which are able to avoid reinscription in closed totalities may enter into rhizomatic social relations, smooth space, and a plane of consistency, which are different kinds of social relations based on horizontal association, creativity and active flows of desire.

However, the perspective which is closer to traditional messianism also finds supporters among theorists who see a role for utopia.

• Lacanian theorists such as Slavoj Žižek and Alain Badiou insist that the human condition is constitutively and irreducibly marked by experiences of lack and negativity. Therefore, the messianic dimension which sometimes explodes into the present must be re-encoded in a new system of the same type as the present system. Žižek, for instance, insists on the importance of a utopian moment in which the openness of potentiality is embraced, producing an Act. However, this Act is to found a new social order. Similarly, the messianic dimension ascribed by Alain Badiou to the concept of Truth is supposed to intrude onto and disrupt the closure and rigidity of systems of knowledge; but the Truth must ultimately be reinscribed in the order of knowledge, which it can never entirely overcome.
• Similarly, Jacques Derrida argues that the messianic dimension expressed in ethical ideals such as justice can only disrupt and not overcome the functioning of necessarily incomplete and oppressive apparatuses such as law, and his views are embraced by some other deconstructionists such as Gayatri Spivak.
• Homi Bhabha praises the revolutionary Frantz Fanon for his critiques of the present, but denounces his belief in the possibility of a better society resulting from transformative action, preferring what he calls his “insights into the darker side of human nature”.

The latter set of theorists are ultimately unable to formulate revolutionary possibilities, and are left with a politics which must stop short of social change and settle itself with some combination of partial reforms and intellectual critique. The former, in contrast, are able to adopt a fully revolutionary politics, conceiving of the possibility of ways of life radically different to those of the present. These approaches therefore lead to very different social functions being ascribed to utopian desires, projects and images.


  • At April 4, 2015 at 6:09 AM, Blogger Garry Clarkson said…

    very much enjoyed (if that's the right word) this summing up of Benjamin's theories. Very useful to a photographer/artist trying to make 'ruptures' in the event history (homogenous time) that I am trying to make critical work on. Many thanks. G


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