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Avner Shapira, "Walter Benjamin, The 120th Anniversary of His Birth"

Walter Benjamin, The 120th Anniversary of His Birth
Avner Shapira

If 2012 is the year our world comes to an end, as
doomsayers predict, that will provide additional
employment for the angel of history, who observes the
past and the wreckage of humanity as described by
Walter Benjamin in his essay "On the Concept of
History." But if the world and its inhabitants continue
to exist, they will be able to observe, next July 15,
the 120th anniversary of Benjamin's birth. His
influence has only been growing in recent decades, and
his writings are increasingly the inspiration for
discussion and reconsideration.

The growing corpus of works about Benjamin is about to
be augmented with the publication, in January, of a
comprehensive study, "Walter Benjamin: A Philosophical
Portrait," by Prof. Eli Friedlander (Harvard University
Press ). Friedlander, head of the Philosophy Department
at Tel Aviv University, discusses Benjamin's approaches
to concepts such as history, mythology, language,
beauty and truth. His aim is to tie together the
threads of thought spun by the philosopher, who
committed suicide in 1940.

"Many people," Friedlander says, "emphasize the
enigmatic and enchanting aspect of Benjamin's writings.
They present him, as Hannah Arendt did, as a kind of
pearl fisherman retrieving precious treasures from the
depths. But the amazement at that marvelous uniqueness
is also a sure way to isolate him and avoid becoming
seriously involved in his thought."

Friedlander's book revolves around the relationship
between history and philosophy, which he elucidates
through Benjamin's unfinished work "The Arcades
Project." "Benjamin's thought is faithful to concrete
historical content, so much so that it sometimes seems
his writing lacks the recognizable form of philosophy,"
Friedlander observes. "Benjamin wrote philosophical
history, or more accurately, wrote philosophy with
historical materials whose ordering and arranging he
worked on for years. The most salient expression of
this commitment to concreteness is 'The Arcades
Project,' which was intended to be a book consisting
largely of quotations focusing on the arcades of Paris
in the 19th century. After Benjamin's death, the
material he had compiled remained divided into
convolutes according to subjects such as 'modes of
lighting,' 'iron construction' and 'the flaneur.' These
are certainly not the typical subjects of philosophy."

Benjamin is often described as a neo-Marxist
philosopher, like his colleagues in the Frankfurt
School, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. Does his
attitude toward history differ from the Marxist
approach?

"When Adorno and Horkheimer received from Benjamin a
draft of the materials from the Baudelaire file in 'The
Arcades Project' in continuous prose, they considered
his adoption of the materialist position forced and
artificial. Adorno even thought that Benjamin's
insistence on writing constructed from those materials
alone, and his conscious avoidance of an explicit
formulation of a theory that would enable critical
distance, courted the danger of being enchanted and
spellbound by the problematic object he was presenting.

"Indeed," Friedlander continues, "Benjamin's writing is
in no hurry to free itself from the semblance of
19th-century bourgeois life in Paris. Nor does it seek
to judge the world in the conventional Marxist terms
such as 'false consciousness' and 'alienation.'
Instead, it immerses itself in the materials of the
past and thickens them until they assume the
configuration of an actual dream, the dream of the
collective. That's why in Benjamin the critical,
revolutionary moment is called 'awakening.' Awakening
is made possible only via an interpretation of the
dream, which for us is the past, and the expression of
its truth for the present. Accordingly, awakening is
also the redemption of the past, an indirect
realization of the wishes of that dream that the past
has become for us, by revolutionizing our present mode
of existence."

Contrary to the prevailing view, which holds that
Benjamin was more a cultural and literary critic than a
philosopher, Friedlander's book seeks to place Benjamin
within the Western philosophical tradition. "Suffice it
to think of two central 20th-century thinkers,
Wittgenstein and Heidegger," he says, "in order to
understand that philosophy can appear in forms
radically different from one another. Some will see
this as a sign that there is no longer any point in
insisting on the outmoded category of philosophy. I
take a more modernist view, above all in that I
perceive the renewed need to think what philosophy is
as the constant question of philosophy. Therefore, in
my view, to see Benjamin as a philosopher means
understanding how he gives new names to the traditional
notions of philosophy, and above all to its sovereign
notion: truth."