Walter Benjamin : presence of mind, failure to comprehend by Benjamin, Walter; Benjamin, Walter; Symons, Stephanie

By Benjamin, Walter; Benjamin, Walter; Symons, Stephanie

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Benjamin’s philosophy of history sets up a structure for a renewal of what was never even present in the first place or, in other words, for a becomingnow of what was thought to have already fully passed. In this way, as Friedlander writes, one might say that Benjamin brings together the two senses of ‘realizing’— realizing as making something real or actual on the one hand and recognizing or seeing something clearly on the other. 28 Benjamin encounters the model of such an authentic understanding of the past in both Aby Warburg’s notion of ‘survival’ or ‘afterlife’ [Nachleben]29 and Proust’s monumental (understood in the double meaning of that term) novel Remembrance of Things Past (1909–1922).

73 The messianic moment therefore does not just renew the past: this becoming-‘now’ of what has gone by comes together with a reference to the future. In a short and early essay entitled The Life of Students (1914– 1915), an illustration of how Benjamin’s ideas on the philosophy of history have remained on his mind from the very start of his intellectual life on, he describes it as follows: [T]he elements of the ultimate condition [Endzustandes] do not manifest themselves as formless progressive tendencies, but are deeply rooted [eingebettet] in every present in the form of the most endangered, excoriated, and ridiculed ideas and products of the creative mind.

51) Habermas thus remains blind to the fact that Benjamin’s interpretation of historical materialism was itself “an anti-evolutionary” one without any “account of progress” and that, as will be expounded later on, “the theologian in him” needed precisely a historical materialist framework to analyze how the lack of redemption of history in toto manifests itself in a specific historical era (modernity). ” New German Critique 39 (1986), 10). Wohlfarth’s view is the latter one, since he makes the claim that the underlying goal of Benjamin’s philosophy was to do without all theology whatsoever but that it was compelled to “enlist its services” on account of the historical conditions, that is, the failure of the communist revolution to take place and the growing popularity of fascism.

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