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Alfredo Lucero-Montaño

Walter Benjamin's Political Philosophy of History

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CHAPTER V

THE PAST OF THE VANQUISHED

For Benjamin, the past that is not present is the one that possesses “the spark of hope.” He refers to that relegated, unknown past that “has been untimely, sorrowful, unsuccessful,”[1] although its precarious existence is bestowed by remembrance. Thus, Benjamin’s aim is to recover the potentiality of the past by constructing a relationship in which the past and the present meet in a revolutionary historical perception:

 

Formerly it was thought that a fixed point had been found in “what has been,” and one saw the present engaged in tentatively concentrating the forces of knowledge on this ground. Now this relation is to be overturned, and what has been is to become the dialectical reversal—the flash of awakened consciousness.[2]

 

The recovery of the unknown past—“the awakening of a not-yet-conscious knowledge of what has been”[3]—is the battlefield where the future is decided. That is why Benjamin faces up to historicism, whose line of vision of the past is one that only continues the present. Against historicism, Benjamin stresses the idea of interruption. Thus, he warns the historians:


For while the relation of the present to the past is a purely temporal, continuous one, the relation of what-has-been to the now is dialectical: is not progression but image, suddenly emergent.[4]

 

Facing the past, conventional historiography is helpless, and its logic exhausts itself with a mere ontology of the present. Remembrance, then, is going to be the touchstone of the critique of historical reason and its alternative as anamnesis—“to establish [the past] is the affair of memory.”[5] Only a concept of history as remembrance can save the past from the fate of oblivion. As a matter of fact, “what [historical] science has ‘determined,’ remembrance can modify.”[6]

While historical science can settle a past event, remembrance understands it as a pending matter “to which the past has a claim.”[7] For example, historical science will shelve the case of victims who unjustly died for defending a good cause. But only remembrance can open the file and recognize that there are pending rights because it understands that those rights can and must be settled. But, how? Benjamin recognizes that the question for the rights of the victims is a theological question. “In remembrance we have an experience that forbids us to conceive of history as fundamentally atheological.”[8] But nowdays a philosophical answer is necessary, not a theological one.[9]

Benjamin’s philosophical answer settles on a structure of remembrance capable to guarantee “the increasing concentration (integration) of reality,”[10] without leaving out of its angle of vision “that of which the object [of history] was deprived”[11]—the past. It is about a concept of history as interruption (actualization) in contrast with the ideology of the continuum of history (progress). Benjamin does not advocate a fragmentary idea of history by virtue of what historical events lack by way of relation, and therefore, of responsibility. On the contrary, he is trying to point out the most radical universality of each one of our actions: “The [historical] facts become something that just now first happened to us, first struck us.”[12] The Gordian knot of this conception of history is the possibility or impossibility that a single action can compromise the whole. As a matter of fact, there is a specific event capable of compromising a life, a lifework that compromises an era, and an era, the entire course of history. Benjamin thereby uses the expression “to blast” when he asserts that the whole historical process crystallizes in a point—“a monad”—that blasts the homogeneous time of history—a “cessation of happening”—to make room for a new experience: “Every second of time [should be] the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter.”[13] Experience of history is at stake in every single moment. That moment is filled by “now-time,” where the past makes its presence blasting the continuum of history as an interruption of the present time—“a present […] in which time stands still and has come to a stop.”[14]

But Benjamin does not build his hopes up about the critical potentiality of the past: it is “a weak Messianic power,” with the capacity to make us recognize in an instant the pending rights of the past—“the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns.”[15] That Messianic power, unforeseeable, instantaneous, and that comes from the past toward the present, cannot be but a matter of remembrance.

Nevertheless, we have to stress its power. The remembrance of the vanquished—“the tradition of the oppressed”[16]—is capable of questioning every victory, past or present, of the victors; it is capable of exorcizing the heralds of the present, who are, at the same time, the emissaries of the past, willing to repeat history, to serve the oppressed past under new fetters. But the problem of that critical power is that it can be seized—“recognized”—only when “it flashes up at a moment of danger.”[17] That explains why it ends up unnoticed—“flits by.” It is, in effect, so transient, that there is no time to analyze, and so unexpected, that is impossible to integrate it into our experience. This would require a sensitive culture toward the past; one with the capacity to grasp the power of the past: “To articulate the past historically […] means to seize hold of a memory.”[18]

In other words, what Benjamin is trying to warn us about is the responsibility between the past and the present generations. He claims that only those who can understand the spark of the past, which is capable of illuminating the whole history, are convinced “that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins.”[19] It means that, if today the unfulfilled rights of the victims of history are not settled, the enemy will win again. History will repeat itself. Now we can understand that there is a mysterious solidarity between the past and the present: “There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one.”[20]

Benjamin’s language seems to us unintelligible and unacceptable if we take a theological reading of his thought. However, the adequate philosophical translation of Benjamin’s theological reflections might be the following:

 

While the cause of the vanquished does not prevail, the victors of yesteryear would continue to produce victims, new victims. That entails the acknowledgment of solidarity between generations: the noble causes of past generations make it possible to overcome the injustices that are committed against us. And they will not die again in vain if their cause should triumph in posterity.[21]

 

In other words, Benjamin is trying to decipher the fallacy of the ideology of progress—“the concept of […] progression through a homogeneous, empty time”[22]—and to advance an alternative proposal. The approach has two sides: on the one hand, historicism understands history as a “mass of data,” forming an “‘eternal’ image of the past,”[23] with which man can and must identify himself. This is an objective and scientific reading of the past that makes an historical explanation of the facts possible and seeks its legitimization and identity with these facts. Historicism merely reveals a history written by the victors: “If one asks with whom the adherents of historicism actually empathize. The answer is inevitable: with the victor […] empathy with the victor invariably benefits the rulers.”[24] The historical consequence is that the victor never acknowledges the rights of the victims of history. And on the other hand, those that understand history not as the “establishment of a continuity,”[25] but as interruption, true history “has its seat not in the continuity of elapsing time but in its interferences.”[26] That is, history as interruption means that the past would be “rescued” for the present and would endow “a unique experience with the past”[27] through which the present generation must discover its own identity.



[1] The Origin of German Tragic Drama, 166. 

[2] The Arcades Project, 388 [K1,2]. 

[3] Ibid., 458, [N1,9].

[4] Ibid., 462 [N2a,3]. 

[5] Ibid., 389 [K1,2]. 

[6] Ibid., 471 [N8,1]. 

[7] Theses, thesis II, 254. 

[8] The Arcades Project, 471 [N8,1]. 

[9] See Reyes-Mate, La Razón de los Vencidos, 209ff. 

[10] The Arcades Project, 392 [K2,3]. 

[11] Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E.B. Ashton (New York: Continuum, 1995), 19. 

[12] The Arcades Project, 388 [K1,2]. 

[13] Theses, thesis XVIII, 264. 

[14] Ibid., thesis XVI, 262.

[15] Ibid., thesis V, 255. 

[16] Ibid., thesis VIII, 257. 

[17] Ibid., thesis VI, 255. 

[18] Ibid. 

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., thesis II, 254. 

[21] Reyes-Mate, La Razón de los Vencidos, 215. (My translation.) 

[22] Theses, thesis XIII, 261. 

[23] Ibid., thesis XVI, 262. 

[24] Ibid., thesis VII, 256.

[25] The Arcades Project, 474 [N9a,5]. 

[26] Ibid., 474 [N9a,7]. 

[27] Theses, thesis XVI, 262.

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