Walter Benjamin: On the Concept of History
The last known work of the prolific philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin is his brief but dense “On the Concept of History” (alternatively known as the “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”) Comprised of 18 numbered theses—and several more in Benjamin’s notes—“On the Concept of History” represents the most refined arguments for Benjamin’s methodology regarding history, time, and progress and simultaneously some of Benjamin’s most cutting political commentary and convictions. Even as the work has become one of the most cited and quoted texts in the canon of European Marxist thought, it remains enigmatic and challenging, provoking near endless commentary and application. The work is thoroughly Marxist—Benjamin considered himself a communist from the mid-1920s onward—and yet draws on ideas and imagery from the Bible and the Babylonian Talmud. It thinks not only with Marx and Hegel, but also with less commonly known figures like Joseph Dietzgen, Hermann Lotze, Leopold von Ranke, and others; it works not only with scholars but also with literary authors like Gustave Flaubert, Bertolt Brecht, and Karl Krauss. The theses touch on everything from classical history and legal theory to biology and, in related material, physics. They contain quiet meditations alongside exasperated denunciations of the liberal bourgeois imagination. And, as always, Benjamin thinks with and through material objects, from a mechanical Turk to, perhaps most famously, Paul Klee’s painting “Angelus Novus,” which, for Benjamin, sees history not as a “chain of events,” but as “one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet.” How can we understand and what can we learn from Benjamin’s theses, as we live through “this storm” that “we call progress”?
In this class, we will read “On the Concept of History” alongside excerpts and investigations of the vast panoply of authors, works, materials, and phenomena that Benjamin draws on and presents. We’ll proceed slowly through the work, each week examining several theses in detail, alongside their accompanying material. We will read some of Benjamin’s notes, with his sketches of other potential theses, as well as other relevant writing from Benjamin’s corpus, such as Convolute N from the Arcades Project. And although our focus will be on this range of primary materials, we will consider a few secondary readings as well from thinkers like Michael Lowy and Susan Buck-Morss. Why does Benjamin propose a radical re-imagining of history? How were Benjamin’s arguments shaped in response to social and political developments in his era? To what extent can they help us shape responses to our own? We’ll try to account for Benjamin’s style in writing theory—one informed as much by the practices of avant-garde cinema and popular literature as by social theory and philosophy. Above all we’ll want to understand Benjamin’s critique of progress. “Marx says that revolutions are the locomotive of history,” Benjamin writes in his notes, but “perhaps it is quite otherwise. Perhaps revolutions are an attempt by the passengers on this train—namely, the human race—to activate the emergency break.” What do such ideas mean not only for an understanding of “historical materialism,” but also for conceptualizing and practicing politics in a present moment marked by ecological, economic, social, and political crisis?
Course ScheduleWednesday, 6:30-9:30pm EST
October 21 — November 11, 2020
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