Actuality and Critique in Walter Benjamin
by Carlo Salzani (Vienna, Austria)
THIS essay is based on the introduction to Carlo Salzani’s 2021 book, Walter Benjamin and the Actuality of Critique: Essays on Violence and Experience. To work as a stand-alone piece, the original has been slightly modified. For in-depth treatments of all topics sketched out here, we enthusiastically recommend the book itself. The material is reprinted courtesy of Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
The Task of the Critic
In April 1930, Walter Benjamin signed a contract with his publisher Ernst Rowohlt for a volume of literary criticism (the working title was Gesammelte Essays zur Literatur) that was to collect his previously published essays on Gottfried Keller, Johan Peter Hebel, Franz Hessel, Marcel Proust, André Gide and Surrealism, plus planned essays on Karl Kraus (already begun in March 1930), storytelling, and Jugendstil. The volume was to be opened by a programmatic essay titled “The Task of the Critic” and to be closed by the 1921 essay “The Task of the Translator.” During the following months, Benjamin worked intensely on the introduction, jotting down notes and a plan, now collected in volume VI of the Gesammelte Schriften under the title “Zur Literaturkritik.”1 This section collects however also notes and ideas relating to another contemporary and cognate project, that of a journal to be titled Krise und Kritik that Benjamin discussed and concretized during the summer of the same year with Bertolt Brecht and for which in September he managed to enlist, again, Rowohlt.2 The financial collapse of Rowohlt the following year meant the demise of both projects.3 In a letter to Gershom Scholem from July 26, 1932, Benjamin counted this as one of the bitterest failures of his life.4 The never-written introduction can nonetheless be taken as emblematic, not only of a period of sustained reflection on the nature and essence of criticism,5 but more generally of a well-defined and consistent “critical approach” that marked Benjamin’s career as a whole. The scattered notes contain in nuce the essence of what in the Trauerspiel book Benjamin had called “philosophical criticism,”6 that is, his own philosophy of Kritik (where the German term translates both the English “criticism” and “critique”) or “criticism as philosophy,”7 not limited to the criticism of literature and art but extended into a proper methodology of reading—the reading of books, art, movies, cities, and history. This critical approach, called here “vollendete Kritik” (accomplished, consummate critique), entails a sort of Aufhebung of polemic and commentary, where the strategic, political thrust of “polemic” merges with an immanent exegesis based on citation and gloss.8 Importantly, against “transcendent” criticism, oriented either towards the author or the audience, this “immanent” Kritik is internal (innerlich) to the work:9 the cornerstone of Benjamin’s philosophy of Kritik is in fact the tenet that Kritik is a “manifestation of the life of the work” (eine Erscheinungsform des Lebens der Werke)10 and “life” is its proper “medium”—whereby “life” becomes therefore also the operative term of this whole theory. Kritik, Benjamin writes, is “a pure function of the life, or rather afterlife [Fortleben] of the work.”11
This terminology clearly refers back to the early Romantics’ theorization of criticism that Benjamin had analyzed in his 1919 dissertation, but the vocabulary of Leben and Fortleben also strongly marks the 1921 “The Task of the Translator,” and it is precisely to this text that Benjamin explicitly refers as paradigmatic also for the task of the critic.12 It is thus not by chance that “The Task of the Translator” was to close the volume that “The Task of the Critic” should have opened. In the translation essay, Benjamin stresses that his use of the vocabulary of life and afterlife is completely “unmetaphorical”: translation stands in a “vital” connection (ein Zusammenhang des Lebens) to the original insofar as it issues from its “afterlife” (Überleben) and marks its “continued life” (Fortleben).13 The work is not a static, self-contained entity, but rather a fundamentally historical one, and it is precisely history and not nature that determines the range of life.14 The concept of “task,” as Howard Eiland and Michael Jennings remark, indicates precisely the “historical dialectic” between the work and the action of the translator/critic.15 Just like translation, also Kritik belongs to the processual being of works, in a fashion that Benjamin, borrowing a term from Theodor Adorno’s musical writings, calls “shrinkage” (Schrumpfung): the action of time, which reduces the work to “ruins,” is completed by the “deconstruction” (Abmontieren) operated by the critic, whose action therefore marks, and belongs to, the “survival” (Fortleben) of the work.16
The critical scholarship of the past five decades has shown and thoroughly analyzed the consistency (and the slight variations) of this form of critical approach throughout Benjamin’s career. Its roots can perhaps even be sought in the 1914-1915 essay on Hölderlin, but it was the dissertation on the concept of criticism in German Romanticism, completed in 1919 and published in 1920, that made explicit and systematized the philosophical idea of criticism and the critical methodology that was to constitute the bedrock of Benjamin’s critical approach from then on. The first part of the essay on Goethe’s Elective Affinities further developed this methodology around the concepts of “truth content” and “material content,” and the book on the German Trauerspiel systematized it into a “philosophical criticism” that, through the “mortification of the works,” aims to “make historical content, such as provides the basis of every important work of art, into a philosophical truth.”17 This methodology guided Benjamin’s readings of literary figures, movements, and schools, but also became, in the 1930s, the cornerstone of his reading of history, and in particular of the “prehistory of modernity.” A telling methodological entry of the Arcades Project in fact reads:
Historical “understanding” is to be grasped, in principle, as an afterlife [Nachleben] of that which is understood; and what has been recognized in the analysis of the “afterlife [Nachleben] of works,” in the analysis of “fame,” is therefore to be considered the foundation of history in general.”18
The “recognizability” and “readability” of the historical event that the materialist historian pursues are functions of its afterlife; the “historical index” that brings an event, a work, a situation to “legibility” is a function of their Überleben, Fortleben, Nachleben, and the task of the historian, just like that of the translator and of the critic, is thus to recognize their truth-content (“what was never written,” as Benjamin quoted from Hofmannsthal19) and make it “present,” “actual.”20
The “durability” of a work (or an event) means therefore that the work lives on, but in a different form, with a life that comes after the “first” or “proper” life, a continued life that spells a processual afterness, a life after life. This also applies, with paradigmatic clarity, to Benjamin’s own work. If Benjamin was not the melancholic outsider that a certain romanticizing fashion liked to imagine (and that recent biographical efforts have corrected), his “fame” (such a central notion in his theory of criticism) certainly belongs to his afterlife. The posthumous popularity of his work (and of his romanticized image) has gone through different phases, when different aspects of his oeuvre have come to “legibility,” but has never waned and keeps returning in waves. The field of Benjamin studies could appear saturated, when so much (everything?) has already been said, analyzed, argued, and written, and what George Steiner named “Benjamin industry”21 does indeed show “signs of exhaustion”;22 however, new waves of interest and new publications keep reviving his “recognizability” in new fields and communities, so that his work survives in the endless work of the critics, it lives after the passing of fashions and trends, it “lives forth.”
Throughout the history of Benjamin’s reception, the question of the “actuality” of his thought kept popping up. The “actuality of Walter Benjamin” became a title for conferences, symposia, articles, and books, but up until at least the mid-1990s the insistence on this topic betrayed doubt and uncertainty rather than assertiveness: is Benjamin’s thought, so embedded in modernist categories, so imbued with theological and messianic concepts, at times so obscure and ambiguous, still “actual” and “useful” for our times? In a sense it was Jürgen Habermas23 who, by precisely questioning this “actuality” in a famous speech for Benjamin’s eightieth anniversary in 1972, started a defensive movement within Benjamin scholarship, which almost felt compelled to justify and demonstrate his enduring relevance. But in so doing it was forced to adopt the terms of the prosecution and fell into the trap of actuality as “topicality” and “usefulness.”24 However, Benjamin’s Aktualität (a term ultimately untranslatable and not reducible to topicality or contemporary relevance) is not to be sought in an instrumental usefulness for problems of current concern, but rather in his enduring afterlife, in the historical index that his work contains and that brings it to legibility—even through, and perhaps precisely thanks to, a certain untimeliness and historical lag—at a certain time. This concept of Aktualität and of Kritik is the task that Benjamin assigned to those approaching his work.25
At the conclusion of “Literary History and the Study of Literature,” a text published in April 1931 in Die literarische Welt and thus belonging to the period of intense reflection about criticism that failed to produce “The Task of the Critic,” Benjamin writes:
What is at stake is not to portray literary works in the context of their age, but to represent the age that perceives them—our age—in the age during which they arose. It is this that makes literature into an organon of history; and to achieve this, and not to reduce literature to the material of history, is the task of the literary historian.26
This is the spirit guiding my readings of Benjamin. The following considerations, though condensing different articles I have written for different occasions, all strive to read Benjamin in a Benjaminian way, merging strategy and exegesis, resting on citation and glosses, eschewing the question of usefulness or topicality, and pursuing instead the “life” that becomes recognizable in Benjamin’s work in the present time.
The Actuality of the Critique of Violence
If the issue of Benjamin’s “actuality” is much less questioned today than in the last decades of the twentieth century, this is, importantly if not largely, due to a renewed interest in a particular text, the 1921 “Critique of Violence.” Probably the only surviving part of a never-completed major project on “Politics,” this text was largely ignored during Benjamin’s lifetime (though Giorgio Agamben argues otherwise27) and, despite the fact that it opened the 1955 two-volume collection of Benjamin’s Schriften edited by Theodor and Gretel Adorno, it was mostly ignored also in the first wave of Benjamin’s posthumous reception. It briefly came to “legibility” in Germany during the ferment and unrest of the radical student movement in the late 1960s: in 1965, for example, Herbert Marcuse published a slim volume of Benjamin’s essays under the title Zur Kritik der Gewalt und andere Aufsätze, also penning a brief though influential afterword focusing on a “revolutionary” reading of the text,28 and in 1968 Oskar Negt used Benjamin’s essay in a critical analysis of the current political unrest. However, the difficult and obscure language of the essay, steeped in religious metaphors and messianic concepts, and Habermas’ disapproval in the early 1970s, soon re-marginalized it in the Benjamin renaissance that started in the 1970s with the publication of the first volumes of the Gesammelte Schriften. Udi Greenberg names two important examples of this marginalization: the fact that one of the first major books on Benjamin in English, Richard Wolin’s 1982 Walter Benjamin: An Aesthetic of Redemption, devoted only three sentences to “Critique of Violence,” and that Momme Brodersen’s important 1990 biography of Benjamin further reduced the scope to one single sentence.29
The “now of recognizability” of Benjamin’s arduous text started when Derrida focused on it (albeit quite critically) in his famous 1989 paper on justice and deconstruction, “Force of Law,” and its current popularity is also due to the substantial wave of deconstructionist readings that followed.30 A second and no less important factor is the central role that Agamben assigned to “Critique of Violence” in his Homo Sacer project, begun in 1995 with the publication of the first volume of the series.31 Since then, “Critique of Violence” has become an unavoidable focus in the contemporary political-philosophical debate. More generally, Simon Critchley argues that what characterizes our so-called “post-secular age” is an ominous entanglement of politics, religion, and violence, and that is why a text such as “Critique of Violence” becomes so “actual”—thanks precisely to those features that made it “indigestible” only a few decades ago!32 The revival of political theology and of a critical engagement with the political theory of Carl Schmitt marks no doubt the “historical index” of Benjamin’s text and exponentially enhances its legibility.33 Our epoch, Richard Bernstein concurs,34 is no longer what Eric Hobsbawm named “the age of extremes” characterizing the “short” twentieth century, but rather a new “age of violence” marked by the bloody beginning of the twenty-first century, which obsessively pushes ever new readers to return to “Critique of Violence” and to take a stand in regard to it. All these factors (and certainly many more) characterize the afterlife of Benjamin’s text and assure that it lives forth.
This obsessive focus also means, however, that “Critique of Violence” is, in Critchley’s words, “massively over-interpreted” (and he states this while proposing yet another interpretation).35 There is hardly a line, a statement, or a concept in Benjamin’s text that has not been analyzed, scrutinized, criticized, and debated, with often contradictory and conflicting results. And the already-huge critical literature on it never stops growing. The following three considerations find their place in this massive critical wave, although they do not tackle Benjamin’s text frontally and in its entirety: they rather focus on some specific aspects that emerge from it and from a number of texts that chronologically and thematically belong to the context of the project generally known as “Politics.” In this sense they are thematically connected and consistent, though they do not build up a comprehensive interpretation. They do share a singular perspective insofar as they all pursue, in different ways, the question of what constitutes, for Benjamin, “true” or “proper” political action. And they do so with an eye on the Aktualität of the Benjaminian notions, which does not mean their “usefulness” in the analysis of current political concerns, but rather their legibility in a constellation of reading bringing together their—dated, out-of-time, “useless”—signification and our own time.
Firstly, the peculiar notion of violence that Benjamin’s text puts forward can be read comparatively with that proposed by George Sorel. For both Benjamin and Sorel, a certain form of violence comes to identify “pure praxis,” pure political action, against a whole tradition that deems instead violence as merely instrumental, and as such non-political or anti-political, neither essential to, nor constitutive of, the bios politikos. Benjamin famously used Sorel’s conceptualization of the “proletarian general strike” as a possible instance of this form of practice, where the identification of pure praxis with the strike, with a suspension of action and thus a non-action, problematizes the definition both of praxis and of violence. The two thinkers came from two different cultural and philosophical traditions, and ultimately produced two different discourses, which meet in Benjamin’s use of Sorel but still remain distant. The two notions of praxis that they propose are nonetheless similar in many ways, especially in the strong ethical emphasis both thinkers put on their concept of pure, political praxis. Commentators usually locate the major difference between the two in their apparently opposed ideas of “myth,” whereby for Sorel myth is a form of heartening narrative aimed at inspiring true political praxis, whereas Benjamin links it to fate and guilt and identifies it with the (anti-political) realm of necessity. It is not however these terminological dissimilarities that truly distance their concepts of praxis: rather, whereas Benjamin identifies pure praxis with a suspension of action, with a “standstill,” Sorel remains instead attached to a metaphysics of action, an exaltation of action for action’s sake. This, I would argue, is the true difference between the two concepts of praxis which also makes alternative their two notions of violence.
We can carry on the focus on “pure praxis” by extending it to the notion of “purity” that marks not only the concepts of “pure means” and “pure violence” in “Critique of Violence,” but also that of “pure language” in Benjamin’s essays on language and, further, the notion of “expressionless” in his aesthetic writings. Here, three essays written around the year 1921 are crucial: “Critique of Violence,” “The Task of the Translator,” and “Goethe’s Elective Affinities.” On the one hand, the “purity” to be found in these is one and the same concept, and, on the other, it is strongly indebted to, if not a by-product of, Kant’s theorization of the moral act and of the aesthetic judgement. In order to substantiate this claim, we must draw on Benjamin’s intense engagement with Kant’s writings in the 1910s and early 1920s (also through the influence of Hermann Cohen): “purity” is a category strongly connoted within the philosophical tradition in which the young Benjamin took his first steps, namely Kantian transcendental criticism. The notion of purity in Benjamin, though deployed outside and often against Kant’s theorization and that of his followers, and moreover influenced by different and diverse philosophical suggestions, retains a strong Kantian tone, especially in reference to its moral and ethical aspects. Whereas Benjamin rejects Kant’s model of cognition based on the purity of the universal laws of reason, and thus also Kant’s theorization of purity as simply non empirical and a priori, he nonetheless models his politics and aesthetics around suggestions that arise directly from Kant’s theorization of the moral act and of the sublime, and uses a very Kantian vocabulary of negative determinations construed with the privatives -los and -frei (motiv-frei, zweck-los, gewalt-los, ausdrucks-los, intention-frei, etc.). Benjamin’s notions of “pure means,” “pure language” and “pure violence” are thus strongly linked to one another and to the Kantian tradition.
Finally, we can add a further connotation to pure, political praxis: its thoroughly profane character. Here, we must turn to the 1921 fragment “Capitalism as Religion,” read in the context of Benjamin’s Politik-project and thus with strong chronological, terminological, and conceptual links to “Critique of Violence.” The core of Benjamin’s important fragment is a critique of capitalism as a thoroughly religious phenomenon that belongs to the realm of myth and is thus characterized by fate and guilt. Reading “Capitalism as Religion” as part of the Politik-project allows to identify a strategy (or the strategy) to counter capitalism in what Benjamin in his correspondence names, in a Kantian fashion, “true politics”: it is only true, i.e., pure, political praxis, that can allow a breakout from the mythic order of capitalism, precisely as, in “Critique of Violence,” this pure praxis is the only way out from the mythic order of law and retribution. And this praxis cannot be marked again by religion, but must be profane, that is, a politics that breaks with the religious logic tout court, and with the capitalist logic of guilt/debt in particular. The reading of this fragment also allows to put further stress on the question of Benjamin’s Aktualität and thus on the task of the critic approaching his work: the differences between the capitalism Benjamin criticized in 1921 and the “late” capitalism of the early twenty-first century evidence a certain “untimeliness” of “Capitalism as Religion.” But it is precisely this cultural and temporal lag that allows to construe a “constellation” between Benjamin’s time and our own and enables his fragment to shatter the continuum of our temporal horizon and to open a way for thought. Benjamin’s fragment, precisely thanks to this temporal and cultural lag, has come today to the moment of its “legibility,” and it is our task to “recognize” and “actualize” it: this is what it means to attempt and think, today and for our time, the urgency of the Umkehr (reversal, inversion) that Benjamin’s text calls for.
The Actuality of the Critique of Experience
The “actuality” of Benjamin’s critique of experience is not as conspicuous as that of his critique of violence, and indeed the “buzz” about this topic is not nearly as intense as that about the violence text(s). However, the importance of this critique has marked every phase of Benjamin’s reception and of his “renaissance” since the late 1960s and early 1970s, and can thus be said to constitute the solid bedrock on which rests Benjamin’s afterlife. In fact, one of the main motors of Benjamin’s posthumous fame in the first waves of his reception was the attention aroused in many different disciplines by his analyses of the media industry, the cinematic experience, the “impoverishment” and commodification of experience, and the new “barbarism” brought about by the media revolution of the twentieth century, whereby his Artwork essay, among other texts, became an unavoidable reference in many syllabi and debates. Despite being strongly marked by his modernist context, Benjamin’s take on media, aesthetics, art, and politics remained much more “actual” and “legible” than, for example, Adorno’s staunch opposition to and critique of the “culture industry.” Benjamin’s writings on technology, media, and industrial and metropolitan life knew a moment of high “legibility” in the heyday of postmodernism and post-structuralism, and this legibility lives on even after the digital revolution and the “virtualization” of experience.36 His Aktualität, it can’t be stressed enough, rests precisely on the temporal and cultural lag that allows for the shattering of the continuum of a homogeneous narrative in the “recognition” of a revolutionary intellectual moment.
What Benjamin identified as the “poverty” of experience caused by modernity with its many revolutions is still our poverty and is still our experience. The technological and cultural transformations that characterize our time were unthinkable in Benjamin’s time (and even in later generations), but the trauma and revolution of experience they brought about—together also with new, perhaps revolutionary possibilities—are analogous to those Benjamin was already able to identify, and are thus still “legible” in a constellation with Benjamin’s by-now outmoded readings. Importantly, unlike many other critics such as Adorno, Benjamin identified a potential for critical intervention even in all this poverty and decay of experience, and thus his legibility is also a call to do the same in our times of hyper-digitalized, hyper-connected, virtualized, and disembodied experience. The task of the critic of this new experience is not (only) that of naming the loss it entails, but is (still) also that of seeking in its poverty, as Benjamin wrote in “Experience and Poverty,” “a new, positive concept of barbarism” that could, perhaps, even “lead to something respectable.”37
A more recent focus on Benjamin’s early writings emphasized how his critique of experience essentially rests on a critique of Kant’s limited concept of experience, but stands at the same time in a relation of dependence to the Kantian theorization, or at least to its “spirit.”38 The roots of the important critique developed in texts such as the Artwork essay, “Experience and Poverty,” or “The Storyteller” are thus to be sought in Benjamin’s critical engagement with Kant during the late 1910s and early 1920s, epitomized by “On the Program of the Coming Philosophy.”39 Attention to the Kantian (and Neo-Kantian) roots of Benjamin’s critique of experience is important in order to fully understand his (mostly implicit) critique of Wilhelm Dilthey and his notion of Erlebnis, then developed by Edmund Husserl, to which Benjamin always counterposed his peculiar concept of Erfahrung. This contraposition is essential for the construction of a constellation between Benjamin’s critique of experience and our own poverty of experience and to gauge its potentiality and its Aktualität. The three following considerations focus on different aspects of Benjamin’s critique of experience, but, as in the case of the previous section, come together in their consistent intention to assay the conditions of possibility for a meaningful praxis.
Firstly, we can relate Benjamin’s critique of experience to his analysis of boredom, which he performed in a number of texts from the 1930s, and in particular in convolute “D” of the Arcades Project (“Boredom, Eternal Return”). This analysis extends to a number of related terms, such as ennui, spleen, and melancholy, which Benjamin often fails to tell apart, and can in turn be read in a constellation with some contemporary literature on boredom, which in the past few decades has witnessed some important developments. Benjamin recognized that boredom is a fundamental component of modern life and of its phantasmagoria, and planned to include its analysis in his work on the prehistory of modernity; this chapter of course was never written, and a consistent analysis of this modern mood is thus not to be found in his writings. Moreover, he never related his notes on boredom to his critique of experience, but I would argue that this connection is not only implicit but also constitutive of his analysis of boredom and of modernity. Boredom is what marks the “crisis of temporality” that characterizes modernity: it is the time of the metropolis and of the machine, the eternal return of the same that destroys any possibility of experience and also any chance of resistance. In particular in the notes for the Arcades Project and the Baudelaire book, boredom can be related to Erlebnis: it is the “malady” that accompanies the disintegration of the traditional forms of experience, which Benjamin called the “atrophy of experience.” However, thanks to its connection to allegory, boredom also plays a fundamental role in Benjamin’s emancipatory project: the melancholy gaze of the allegorist reduces the historical event to ruins, showing its facies hippocratica, its “death mask,” thus exposing the naked truth of the demise of experience. This is the dialectical potential of allegory and thus of boredom.
We can also link the critique of experience to Benjamin’s lifelong interest in childhood, which produced a number of diverse and scattered but ultimately consistent writings. Since the time of Benjamin’s involvement with the Jugendbewegung (where however the place of childhood is taken by youth), the question of the child accompanies, albeit often implicitly or in a minor tone, the critique of experience, and can be said to stand for a concept of “truer” and “fuller” experience as opposed to the hollowed-out experience of the modern bourgeois adult. In Benjamin’s corpus, the child is therefore a figure of/for redemption and revolution. On the one hand, Benjamin absorbed from the early Romantics (who are responsible for the “invention” of childhood) an idea of childhood as prelapsarian innocence and wholeness that precedes the “fall” into lapsarian adulthood, and represents therefore an alternative and a possibility for a “different” form of experience; on the other, the influence of Freud’s psychoanalysis and other “anti-Romantic” suggestions lead Benjamin to associate at times the child with the “primitive” and the “barbarian,” thus with a form of mechanized, non-innocent experience that, external and foreign to traditional, bourgeois, “poor” experience, can help shatter the modern phantasmagoria and re-found experience anew. These two levels are never explicitly defined and never clearly distinguished, so that, rather than a neat opposition, they constitute a dialectics that ultimately construes the child as a figure of anti-bourgeois redemption. Recovering the experience of childhood represents therefore simultaneously a dream of fullness and innocence and an instance of discontinuity that does away with (the traditional concept of) experience as such and foreshadows a mechanical, technological scenario without innocence and wholeness.
As a development of this last possibility, finally, we can open the critique of experience to a number of related suggestions (the question of the body, of nature, the definition of the human, art and mechanical reproduction, etc.) through a reading of the figure of Mickey Mouse as defined and used in a number of Benjamin’s texts and passages, from the 1931 fragment “Mickey Mouse” to “Experience and Poverty,” an entry to the Arcades Project and a section of the Artwork essay. In the Disney figure, the decay and loss of experience is not lamented as a crippling impoverishment but rather saluted as a liberating possibility that, disavowing and destroying the parameters and criteria of traditional, bourgeois, humanist experience, clears the way for a re-founding of experience itself. The visionary tone of these sparse references to Mickey Mouse is not devoid of ambiguity, and Benjamin himself appeared ill at ease when pushed to develop these suggestions into a proper political vision, as in the case of the Artwork essay (where he finally deleted, among other things, also the reference to Mickey Mouse). Moreover, he was fully aware of the danger that the destruction of experience entails, namely that of leading to the “wrong” kind of barbarism, which in his time took the nefarious form of fascism. The questions he raised through his readings of this figure, however, are still relevant for us and retain a high “legibility” when read in a constellation with our time: Benjamin’s texts highlight for us the necessity of deactivating the normative boundaries separating the organic and the machine, the human and the animal, the male and the female; of “inventing” a different relationship between human beings, technology, and nature; of breaking free from the teleology of “biological destiny”; and of reaching thereby a different social, economic, and sexual organization.
1. Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, volume VI, edited by Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhäuser, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1974-1989, 161-184.↑
2. For a “memorandum” about the journal, see Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, volume VI, 619-621.↑
3. See Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life, Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014, 342 onwards; Uwe Steiner, “Kritik,” in Benjamins Begriffe, volume 2, edited by Michael Opitz and Erdmut Wizisla, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2000, 479-523, here 516-517.↑
4. Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem, Briefwechsel 1933-1940, edited by Gershom Scholem, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1985, 23; The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem, edited by Gershom Scholem, translated by Gary Smith and André Lefevere, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992, 14-15.↑
5. It is in this context that Benjamin famously wrote to Scholem, in French, on 20 January 1930, that the goal he had set for himself was “d’être considéré comme le premier critique de la littérature allemande,” which implied the task to “recreate criticism as a genre.” Benjamin, Gesammelte Briefe, volume 3, edited by Christoph Gödde and Henri Lonitz, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1995-2000, 502; The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin 1910-1940, edited by Gershom Scholem and Theodor W. Adorno, translated by Manfred R. Jakobson and Evelyn M. Jakobson, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994, 359.↑
6. Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, volume I/1, 358; Benjamin, The Origin of the German Tragic Drama, translated by John Osborne, London: Verso, 1998, 182.↑
7. Brendan Moran, Politics of Benjamin’s Kafka: Philosophy as Renegade. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, 7. Heinrich Kaulen refers in this respect to no. 44 of Schlegel’s Athenaeum fragments, according to which “every philosophical review should be at the same time a philosophy of reviewing.” Benjamin’s sustained theorization of the “task” of the critic responds to this demand. See Kaulen, “Die Aufgabe des Kritikers. Walter Benjamins Reflexionen zur Theorie der Literaturkritik 1929-1931,” in Literaturkritik – Anspruch und Wirklichkeit, edited by Wilfried Barner, Stuttgart: Metzler, 1990, 318-336, here 319.↑
8. Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, volume VI, 162.↑
9. Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, volume VI, 166, 172.↑
10. Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, volume VI, 171; Benjamin, Selected Writings, volume 2, edited by Michael W. Jennings, Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1997-2003, 373.↑
11. Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, volume VI, 170; see also Kaulen, “Die Aufgabe des Kritikers.”↑
12. Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, volume VI, 171; Benjamin, Selected Writings, volume 2, 373.↑
13. Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, volume IV/1, 10-11; Benjamin, Selected Writings, volume 1, 254.↑
14. The whole formulation reads: “The concept of life is given its due only if everything that has a history of its own, and is not merely the setting for history, is credited with life. In the final analysis, the range of life must be determined by the standpoint of history rather than that of nature.” Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, volume IV/1, 11; Benjamin, Selected Writings, volume 1, 255.↑
15. Eiland and Jennings, Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life, 109. The task, die Aufgabe, is thus far from denoting an aufgeben, a “giving up” in the face of the endless and un-completable (but not for that impossible) work of translation/critique, as Paul de Man (in)famously argued in “‘Conclusion’: Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Task of the Translator’” (in The Resistance to Theory, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986, 73-105).↑
16. Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, volume VI, 174; Benjamin, Selected Writings, volume 2, 415.↑
17. Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, volume I/1, 358; Benjamin, The Origin of the German Tragic Drama, 182.↑
18. Benjamin, Arcades Project, entry N2,3, translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999, 460.↑
19. I want to emphasize the issue of the “truth-content” that is indexed by this methodology of reading, since a certain (for a time quite popular) way of reading Benjamin interpreted instead the afterness of this continued life as a moving away from a notion of self-contained meaning or signification—from “Truth”—, as for example did Samuel Weber in his reading of “The Task of the Translator”; see Weber, Benjamin’s -abilities, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008, 92.↑
20. See e.g., Benjamin, Arcades Project, entry K2,3, 790; entry N2,2, 460. The vocabulary of “actualization” translates in this context Vergegenwärtingung and gegenwärtig machen, “presentification” and “making present.” For a thorough analysis of Benjamin’s theory of reading, see Irving Wohlfarth, “‘Was nie geschrieben wurde, lesen’. Walter Benjamins Theorie des Lesens,” in Walter Benjamin, 1892-1940, zum 100. Geburtstag, edited by Uwe Steiner, Bern: Peter Lang, 1992, 297-344; for an exploration of the concept of “afterlife” in Benjamin, see Daniel Weidner, “Fort-, Über-, Nachleben. Zu einer Denkfigur bei Benjamin,” in Benjamin-Studien 2, edited by Daniel Weidner and Sigrid Weigel, Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 2011, 161-78. Gerard Richter devoted a whole book to the analysis of “afterness” in modern thought: Afterness: Figures of Following in Modern Thought and Aesthetics. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.↑
21. See Udi E. Greenberg, “The Politics of the Walter Benjamin Industry,” Theory, Culture & Society 25.3 (2008), 53–70.↑
22. Daniel Weidner, “The Afterlife of Walter Benjamin,” in The Future of Benjamin: 7 + 2 Articles, edited by Nitzan Lebovic with commentary by Howard Eiland and Michael Jenning, 2015 [18 September 2020].↑
23. Jürgen Habermas, “Consciousness-Raising or Redemptive Criticism: The Contemporaneity of Walter Benjamin,” translated by Philip Brewster and Carl Howard Buchner, New German Critique 17, Special Walter Benjamin Issue (1979), 30-59.↑
24. A paradigmatic example is the volume edited by Laura Marcus and Lynda Nead, published in the wake of the centenary of Benjamin’s birth in 1992 and titled precisely The Actuality of Walter Benjamin (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1998).↑
25. See also Daniel Weidner, “Thinking beyond Secularization: Walter Benjamin, the ‘Religious Turn,’ and the Poetics of Theory,” New German Critique 37.3 (2010), 131-148, here 131-32; Sami Khatib, Teleologie ohne Endzweck: Walter Benjamins Ent-stellung des Messianischen, Marburg: Tectum Wissenschaftsverlag, 2013, 29.↑
26. Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, volume III, 290; Benjamin, Selected Writings, volume 2, 464.↑
27. As is well known, Agamben argues that this essay had a major (though unacknowledged) impact on Carl Schmitt, who supposedly wrote his Political Theology in response to and against Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence.” See Agamben, State of Exception, translated by Kevin Attell, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005, 52 onwards.↑
28. See also Richard J. Bernstein, Violence: Thinking Without Banisters, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013, 56-58.↑
29. Udi E. Greenberg, “Orthodox violence: ‘‘Critique of Violence’’ and Walter Benjamin’s Jewish Political Theology,” History of European Ideas, 34 (2008), 324-333, here 325-26.↑
30. Jacques Derrida, “Force of Law: The ‘Mystical Foundation of Authority,’” translated by Mary Quaintance, Cardozo Law Review 11.5-6 (1990), 920-1046. Beatrice Hanssen’s argument that Derrida’s text “pulled the essay out of relative obscurity” (Hanssen, Critique of Violence: Between Poststructuralism and Critical Theory, London: Routledge, 2000, 8) is only a slight overstatement. But scholars generally agree on this point: see e.g., Sigrid Weigel, “‘In ungeheuren Fällen’ – Benjamin’s Critique of Violence and Constitutional Law,” in Benjamin – Agamben: Plotik, Messianismus, Kabbala, edited by Vittoria Borsò et al., Würzburg: Königshausen and Neumann, 2010, 229-241; Howard Eiland, “Deconstruction of Violence,” boundary 2 44.4 (2017), 113-140.↑
31. On Agamben’s intensive relation with “Critique of Violence,” see e.g., Brendan Moran and Carlo Salzani, eds., Towards the Critique of Violence: Walter Benjamin and Giorgio Agamben, London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.↑
32. Simon Critchley, The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology, London: Verso, 2012; see also Weigel, “‘In ungeheuren Fällen’.”↑
33. Agamben reads it precisely in contraposition to Schmitt’s concepts of sovereign violence and state of exception. See Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998; Agamben, State of Exception.↑
34. Bernstein, Violence: Thinking Without Banisters, 48.↑
35. Critchley, The Faith of the Faithless, 213.↑
36. The bibliography on the Artwork essay, on technology, media, and the cinematic experience is too vast to be even hinted at through some examples. On the “actuality” of his work in the age of virtual reality, one can take as paradigmatic the 2007 special issue that the journal Transformations devoted to “Walter Benjamin and the Virtual,” edited by John Grech [22 September 2020].↑
37. Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, volume II/1, 215, 218; Benjamin, Selected Writings, volume 2, 732, 734.↑
38. See e.g., Phil Quadrio, “Benjamin Contra Kant on Experience: Philosophising beyond Philosophy,” Philament 1, 2003 [1 September 2020]; Tamara Tagliacozzo, Experience and Infinite Task: Knowledge, Language and Messianism in the Philosophy of Walter Benjamin, London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.↑
39. Already at the end of the 1970s, Agamben had analyzed and reworked this link in his Infancy and History: Essays on the Destruction of Experience (translated by Liz Heron, London: Verso, 1993, originally published in 1978), where Benjamin’s “poverty” was upgraded to a proper “destruction” of experience and the link between experience and language was further developed.↑