Howard Eiland, editor and translator of much of Walter Benjamin’s Selected Writings and more recently his Early Writings, will be speaking this weekend (31st May – 1st June 2013) at the conference on ‘Walter Benjamin, Pedagogy and the Politics of Youth’ that I have organized at the University of Westminster in London. Below is my review of his collection of Benjamin’s Early Writings: 1910-1917 (HUP, 2011), which includes his helpful introduction. This review was first published in Radical Philosophy 174 (Jul/Aug 2012) and sections were developed for a talk entitled ‘Les enfants du siècle: Marx, Benjamin, and Pedagogical Materialism’ given at the Fifth International Critical Theory Conference of Rome in May 2012. The best general introductions to the Anfang movement in English are Philip Lee Utley’s ‘Schism, Romanticism and Organization: Anfang, January-August 1914‘ and ‘Radical Youth: Generational Conflict in the Anfang Movement, 1912-January 1914‘.
This translated collection of forty-five of Benjamin’s early writings begins with his first published work, a poem that appeared pseudonymously just before his eighteenth birthday, and follows the tempestuous period of his immersion in and break from the Youth Movement, before drawing to a close with the poetic commentaries of a 25-year-old on the verge of marriage, fatherhood and a short but productive academic spell. There is grist for the mill of the cynic here. About a fifth of these translations have already appeared in Selected Writings, Volume 1: 1913–1926, whose chronological span overlaps that of the Early Writings, 1910–1917 by five years. Most of the significant works from this period of Benjamin’s studies in Berlin, Freiburg and Munich are therefore already available to the anglophone reader. Although the important exclusion from the Selected Writings of Benjamin’s 1915 dialogue on ‘The Rainbow’ – discovered by Giorgio Agamben in 1977 – and its associated fragment has been rectified here, these have been previously translated in the appendix to Peter Fenves’s recent The Messianic Reduction (reviewed by Andrew McGettigan in RP 168). This arouses the suspicion that further delving into the early archive might perhaps only serve the interests of Harvard University Press’s profits, the aura of biographical completeness, or the strategic ‘de-Marxification’ of Benjamin’s thought.
Why else, then, the strange overlap given the differentiation of the Early Writings from the Selected Writings? An explanation for this editorial decision might be found in Benjamin’s own claim, in correspondence from the beginning of 1918, that the ‘six years … since I left school have constituted an epoch, lived through at a monstrous tempo’, which had ended with the commencement of his doctoral studies on Kant at the University of Bern. Admittedly such a span is most properly designated by the years 1912–1917, but it is significant that the work collected in the Early Writings might thus be said to frame a third, overlapping epoch to be added to the self-proclaimed and themselves overlapping ‘Germanistic’ and ‘Parisian’ production cycles (defined in relation to the Origin of German Trauerspiel and the uncompleted Arcades Project). Such a claim challenges Howard Caygill’s designation, in The Colour of Experience, of this first epoch as internal to the ‘Germanistic’ phase. Notably, however, Caygill affords no place in his own categorization of the genres that constitute the latter two production cycles (short reviews, academic treatises, major critical essays) for the works from this epoch. For the texts collected here are mainly expressionist poetic pieces published under the Latin pseudonym Ardor in the journal of the student group Anfang and short polemical addresses on education reform (whose form is derived from the speeches given in the student ‘talking-houses’), which appeared in pamphlets associated with the student movement and, after Benjamin’s break from Anfang, in literary journals such as Der Neuer Merkur and Die Argonauten.
That these texts delineate a distinct epoch in the life of their author is unquestionable; judged in terms of immediate public influence (terms Benjamin himself would not endorse), it perhaps constitutes the most successful period of Benjamin’s career. Nor, unless we wish to contradict the very idea of youth that Benjamin advances here, can we dismiss these works as mere juvenilia (hence the inappropriateness of originally excluding them from the Selected Writings only to reincorporate them differentiated as ‘early’ writings). The ultimate test of such a claim, however, lies in what emerges from this reconfiguration of Benjamin’s oeuvre and to what extent this facilitates the interests of the ‘de-Marxification’ to which Benjamin’s work has so often been editorially subjected.
The idea under which this epoch of Benjamin’s life is to be assembled is that of Youth. It is an epoch marked above all by the personal and intellectual influence of the educational reformer Gustav Wyneken. Benjamin’s philosophical interests first bloom under Wyneken’s gaze whilst schooling at Haubinda in 1905. When he publicly denounces his mentor a decade later, he does so in order to wrest from Wyneken’s grasp the living legacy of his idea. It is one founded philosophically on Wyneken’s blend of an Idealism of Spirit with a Nietzschean metaphysics of Life, and socially on the ‘Youth Culture’ Wyneken promoted first at Haubinda and then at the Free School Community in Wickersdorf. This concept of ‘Youth Culture’ is in part inspired by the philosophy of history contained in the second of Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations, a series of essays that emerged from the unpublished lectures on ‘The Future of Our Educational Institutions’ that Nietzsche gave in 1872, having taken up his professorial position at Basle. Here, Nietzsche attacks the ‘historical culture’ that has sprung from Hegel as one which paralyses the natural philosophical impulse of the young, ‘from which alone, as a fruitful soil, a deep and noble culture can grow forth’. Against this, in ‘The Use and Abuse of History for Life’, Nietzsche declares his ‘trust in youth that has brought me on the right road in forcing from me a protest against historical education, and a demand that man must learn to live, above all, and only use history in the service of the life that he has learned to live’. Benjamin was also profoundly influenced by Wyneken’s insistence that youth must actively create its own culture, one that positively fills in the hollowed-out time between childhood and adulthood, in order to transform spiritually the bourgeois institutions of society that it inherits. In numerous addresses to youth collected in this volume, this idea is deployed to critique existing pedagogical practices. ‘School Reform: A Cultural Movement’ appeared in a 1912 pamphlet produced by one of Wyneken’s ‘School Reform Units’ that Benjamin helped organize at Freiburg University, 10,000 copies of which were distributed to universities throughout Germany. By 1913 Benjamin held a leading role in the Anfang movement, producing its journal and organizing public speakers, a responsibility which brought him into personal contact with intellectual figures such as Buber and Klages. At its height, in 1914, the journal had 1,000 subscribers and the movement 3,000 members (for a more detailed discussion, see P.L. Utley’s ‘Radical Youth: Generational Conflict in the Anfang Movement’).
Benjamin’s report on the First Free German Youth Congress held at Mount Meissner in October 1913, which collected together the different elements of the nascent German Youth Movement, encapsulates what happened next:
A speaker concluded: ‘…with a salute to freedom and German nationality!’ A voice: ‘And to youth!’ The speaker hastily corrected himself: ‘And to youth!’
There was worse. When the prizes for sport were being awarded, the name Isaacsohn was announced. Laughter rang out from a minority.
In February 1914 Benjamin was elected president of the Free Students’ Association of Berlin University, a post he held until the outbreak of the First World War in August. But the chauvinistic, nationalistic and anti-Semitic forces that manifested themselves on ‘High Meissner’ – and against which Benjamin’s ideals of youth were pitted – tore the fragile movement apart. Anfang was wrongly identified as a mouthpiece for Wyneken (whose views were typically less left-wing and liberal than those of the journal’s contributors), and the educationalist was denounced by the Bavarian minister of culture for the right-wing Catholic ‘Centre Party’. Similar accusations were made in the Prussian and Baden parliaments. In Bavaria, Der Anfang was banned and the ‘talking-rooms’ closed. Wyneken was expelled from the Free German Youth and Anfang split into factions, intent either on turning to direct political agitation or, in the case of Benjamin’s more literary circle, withdrawing from the compromise of politics in order to secure a spiritual commitment to ‘unlimited honesty’.
The outbreak of war that summer sent a generation of young men to be slaughtered at the Front. Several members of Benjamin’s circle committed suicide, including Fritz Heinle and Rika Seligson. It is difficult to overestimate the significance of this experience for Benjamin. ‘Only for the sake of the hopeless ones have we been given hope’, Benjamin wrote in the conclusion to his essay on Goethe’s Elective Affinities, meaning: hope is never for ourselves, the living, but only for the dead. As Howard Eiland writes in his introduction to the Early Writings:
After this event, Benjamin effectively ceased his student activism – in a letter two months later, he writes of the need for a ‘harder, purer, more invisible radicalism’ – and he turned away from most of his comrades in the youth movement, including his former mentor, Gustav Wyneken, whom he denounced, in a letter of March 9, 1915, for his public support of the German war effort.
Did Benjamin simultaneously renounce his youthful philosophy? In ‘Dornröschen’ from 1911, in which Benjamin announced his commitment to the Youth Movement, ‘Youth … is the Sleeping Beauty who slumbers and has no inkling of the prince who approaches to set her free. And to bring about the awakening of youth, its participation in the struggle going on around it, is precisely the goal to which our journal aims to contribute.’ It is an image of awakening Benjamin returned to in each of his production cycles. In the secret preface to the Trauerspiel book, he recast himself as the cook whose violence inadvertently awakens the slumbering truth of the plays, so rescuing them from the approaching prince of academic scholarship (‘I would like to tell the story of Sleeping Beauty a second time … The cook woke her up when he gave the scullery boy a box on the ear which, resounding from the pent-up force of so many years, echoed through the palace’). Similarly, the Arcades Project was originally conceived as a ‘Dialectical Fairy-Tale’, a historical version of Sleeping Beauty, predicated on a theory of collective awakening. Indeed, the earliest methodology for the Arcades Project is expounded in relation to the dream-configurations of each epoch that constitute ‘a generation’s experience of youth’. The task of childhood here is to recognize the new configurations of nature and technology by bringing them into symbolic space. Benjamin is drawing on the pedagogical principles he had expounded nearly two decades earlier: ‘The school receives a generation … full of images, which it brings with it from the land of the future’; ‘the most urgent requirement of modern pedagogy is to create space for the emergent culture’. Here, then, the radical pedagogical impetus of Benjamin’s early metaphysics of Youth provides the philosophical framework for his rethinking of the relationship between historical materialism and revolutionary communism.
Benjamin’s later assertion that this dialectics of dream and awakening was no longer a viable model responded in turn to Adorno’s insistence that this was precisely because it remained immersed within and hence could not escape from the utopian dimension of the dream (a charge Benjamin himself had directed against Surrealism). Against this, Eiland’s introduction insists that ‘none of the “romantic” motifs … or the philosophical principles informing them, are absent from the later work’, that there are ‘virtually no false steps in the youth writings’, and so the ‘tendency among some critics to oppose Benjamin’s early “idealism” to his later “materialism” is misleading’. This claim needs to be interrogated. For it to hold true, an emphasis would have to be placed not on Adorno’s insistence that everything undialectical about the construction of the dialectical image in the early drafts of the Arcades revolves around the motto ‘Each epoch dreams the one to follow’, but his insistence that this problematically immanent version of the dialectical image requires a theological corrective of the kind given its fullest explication in Benjamin’s early Trauerspiel book.
The theory of dreaming must be brought back into conjunction with the concept of ruination developed there. But even in Benjamin’s earliest writings, the ‘romantic’ motifs Eiland speaks of were (and increasingly so from 1913 onwards) always distinguished from a ‘false’ or ‘school’ romanticism through the development of nihilistic ‘new’ and ‘sober’ romanticism. According to the false romanticism, ‘we were supposed to see something extraordinary in everything infinitely particular, instead of in the development of the human being, in the history of humanity. Thus, one produces an unpolitical youth, eternally limited to art, literature, and experiences of love.’ Art becomes a narcotic and spirit is reduced to a stimulant.
Opposed to this is ‘the romantic will to action’ which ‘would recognize spiritual connections, the history of labour, and which would transform this recognition into living experience so that, in the most unromantic and sober way, one might act in accordance with it’. For Benjamin, this sober romanticism places youth in the same position as the early Christian Quietists, ‘to whom the world likewise appeared to be so utterly overflowing with the sacred – which could arise in each and all – that it deprived them of the power to speak and act. … And yet its boundless scepticism (which is nothing other than boundless trust) compels it to love the struggle [in which] the figure of the sacred reveals itself.’ This underpins the messianic dimension of Benjamin’s romanticism that Adorno alludes to in his reference to the theological. Hence, when he promotes Rudolf Pannwitz’s quasi-religious definition of education as the ‘propagation of spiritual values’ this should not be misunderstood as an idealist individualism, but as related to the development of an ‘honest socialism’ which recognizes the natural richness and abundance of individuals as more than merely socially determined. One pedagogical consequence of this claim is the belief that ‘personality’ is not the goal of education, but its starting point. But it also informs Benjamin’s focus, in both his early and later writings, on winning over the intellectuals or literati to the revolutionary cause, as a ‘class’ which bears ‘the precipitous living contradiction to the social inertia of our time’ as the ‘deepest abasement to which the modern individual, punished with the loss of social possibilities, must submit’: ‘They want to be the honest ones, want to give shape to their artistic enthusiasm, their “love of the most distant” (to speak with Nietzsche), but society repudiates them.’
A possible danger of this notion of ethical solitude as a precondition of community in Benjamin’s early writings is that it threatens to segue into the vulgar kind of Levinasian communitarianism so popular recently. From the late 1920s onwards, the recontextualizing of this pedagogic function within a historical materialist perspective framed by communism comes to invest technology with a collective educative function, demanding a liberation of the technological means of production as a precondition for redemption. Eiland’s claim that there are ‘virtually no false steps in the youth writings’ therefore downplays the extent to which this resituating involves more than a shift in aesthetic attitude towards cinematic montage. (‘An exception’, Eiland writes, ‘is the attitude toward cinema in 1913. …The montage aesthetics emerges with One-Way Street, which was begun in 1923.’)
Given the radical implications of this materialist refunctioning of pedagogy, it remains to consider what Benjamin’s early critical pedagogy can teach us in the context of the present crisis in education. As Eiland notes, the conception of the university that emerges from this early liberalism is that of
an open-ended working ideal that is the true seat of authority and the basis of any genuine vocation for learning and teaching. … And it was the role of the students, in their propensity for both uncompromising idealism and radical doubt, to constitute an intellectual vanguard in the learning community: to keep alive a space for questioning, for recollection of the underlying crisis of modernity, and in this way to foster ‘the culture of conversation’, thereby preventing the degeneration of learning into a mere accumulation of information and making all study in a fundamental sense philosophical.
Yet Benjamin is also insistent that this metaphysical claim must be distinguished from any empirical reduction of moral education into ‘a peculiar sort of civic – instead of moral – education’. This ‘dessicated humanism’ refuses to look the Greek world from which its classical liberalism takes inspiration fully in the face: ‘that woman-despising and man-loving Greece of Pericles, aristocratic, with slavery, with the dark myths of Aeschylus’ that Nietzsche had revealed. And although Benjamin will later insist that the impoverishment of bourgeois education theory demands a confrontation with ‘the Marxist dialectical anthropology of the proletarian child’, the target of his scorn remained consistent across his work: bourgeois education functions to mediate between the psychological hypostatization of an absolute childhood or youth and the ethical one of an absolute citizenship, tricked out with the attributes of idealist philosophy.
In their conjuncture with our fundamentally pedagogical moment of recognizability, the writing in this collection therefore reconfigures the afterlife of Benjamin’s philosophy anew. Some of the clunkiness of the earlier English translations has been smoothed over, the scholarly apparatus in the footnotes substantially expanded, and – despite my specific reservations above – Eiland’s introduction is exemplary in the clarity of its historical and philosophical contextualization.