The Pedagogization of Culture

Considering Benjamin’s work in the light of our historical present, his broader demand for the refunctioning of art is too directly misconceived as “politicization.” What has tended to be underplayed in Benjamin’s discussion of the crisis brought about by the technological conditions of mass culture is the extent to which this transformation of art and culture involves not so much the politicization of art but its pedagogization.1 When he is being more specific, Benjamin reads the transformation of the use-value of art under the dominance of exchange-value as bifurcating into “entertainment/distraction [Zerstreuung] value” (or what he elsewhere calls “consumer value [Konsumwert]”) and “education value [Lehrtwert]”; in Brecht’s work, he claims, the two converge, “making possible a new kind of learning.”2 Here, we might recall Fredric Jameson’s more recent retrieval of the usefulness of Brechtian method as a modernism which unfolds from the sphere of art into that of pedagogy (supplementing Marx’s task of the “educating of the educators” with Maoist teaching concerning the inevitability of change).3 Reading Bull’s anti-Nietzschean philistinism through Benjamin’s (Brechtian) cultural politics schematically reveals the latter’s anticipation of a further historical shift in value, from the terrain of culture in general to the more specific field of education.

Louis Althusser is perhaps most well-known for detailing such an ideological shift. In the precapitalist period, Althusser argues, the now distinct functions of Culture and Education both lay curled up, amongst others, within the dominant ideological power of Religion.4 But if, as Althusser suggests, Education has now become the dominant Ideological State Apparatus under capitalism, it is important to recognize that until recently Education’s primary purpose was the transition and reproduction of Cultural capital itself (that is, Culture was the fundamental ideological apparatus of the capitalist nation-State). If Bill Readings is correct in claiming that the institutionalization of Cultural Studies itself was symptomatic of the very disappearance of Culture in its ideological function (in an increasingly transnational and multicultural knowledge economy), I think what we are currently experiencing is not the transition to a postideological notion of Education, as Readings argued in The University in Ruins,but the emergence of the discrete ideological functioning of Education itself from within the nested higher sphere of Culture (itself previously nested within the sphere of Religion), producing a direct and corresponding “crisis of education” under the inherited conditions of its own increasing “massification” and “commodification.”

How might we think through such a contemporary anti-Nietzscheanism within our current historical conjuncture, one that Martha Nussbaum has called a “world-wide crisis in education” and in particular a “crisis of humanities”?What is required today is a critical theory of mass education which explores the historical contingencies of our own bourgeois concept of pedagogy and makes a comparable demand for the refunctioning of our educational apparatus under such critical conditions. This demands not a reactionary conceptual retreat to a quasi-aristocratic, quasi-elitist, and individualist pedagogy for the eternal values of “culture,” “cultivation,” and “character” (Nietzsche’s unhistorical appeal to an education for Culture, which continues to resonate within much post-Nietzschean thought in its right and left variations), but instead a rethinking of the educational apparatus through its conditions of “massification” over and against its “commodification.”


The New (Old) Philistinism

We might bear in mind here how the German word philister originally meant not a disavowal of the value of art and culture – the meaning it eventually acquired under the dominance of aesthetics within cultural education in the nineteenth century – but a more general derogatory term to distinguish the ordinary townspeople from educated university students.7 Polemically speaking, a dialectical conception of a new philistinism would be orientated towards a rejection of educational elitism (in all its post-Nietzschean incarnations as “minority education”), a recognition of the complicit role education serves in the reproduction of social inequalities (including the attempt to extend an unrefunctioned bourgeois apparatus into new social spheres), an increasing dissolution of the distinction upon which the philistine value-distinction rests (through an affirmation of “mass education”), and the embrace of the negatively perceived values of “massification” itself as it comes to transform the form and content of academic activity. To sketch out one broad implication of such a perspective, we might begin by noting that bourgeois, humanist concepts of education are predominantly temporal, to the extent they focus on the teleological goal of cultivation.8 The pedagogical correlate of Benjamin’s interruptive understanding of temporal Jetztzeit, I would like to suggest, would be a spatialized concept of educational expansion.

In Anti-Nietzsche, Malcolm Bull suggests that throughout the historical sequence of modern value negations (atheism, anarchism, nihilism, philistinism), the absent negative is repeatedly defined as a subhuman inversion of the positive humanist value within the prevailing system. Bull’s construction of an anti-Nietzschean position, directed against the recovery of Culture and the hierarchical mastery of the Nietzsche’s Übermensch, argues that “there can be no humanist response to Nietzsche” and that we must give “up the idea of becoming more than man and think only of becoming something less.”9 Bull’s subsequent and implicitly pedagogic strategy of “reading like a loser” (that is, identifying – against the grain – with the rhetorically abject subject of a given narrative) therefore dissolves the boundaries drawn around an inclusive reading community, flooding them with the antisocial nihilism of the “mass of abject powerless men who have no communal feeling.”10

Such subhumanism is theoretically anticipated in the figure of the “destructive character” introduced in Benjamin’s essays from this period and identified as a precursor to the Angel of History. In his essay on the misanthropy of the contemporary satirist Karl Kraus, for example, Benjamin recognizes in the satirist’s writings the condemnation of a thoroughly impoverished humanity, played out primarily for Kraus in the erosion of the distinction between “private” and “public” life within journalism.11 Benjamin, intervening within Kraus’s polemics to dialectically rescue the figure of collective emancipation, identifies Kraus’s quasi-Nietzschean reaction against the classical ideal of humanity (his retreat from philanthropy into misanthropy staged as the withdrawal into withered private life) with an effectively unconscious confession of the “materialist humanism” of the early Marx. Similarly, we might identify the apparent asociality that is a leitmotif of Brecht’s work – clearly evident, for example, in his Handbook for City-Dwellers and the Stories of Mr. Keuner – as its “properly utopian feature”: an appeal beyond the individualism of bourgeois humanism to the utopian completion of the individual in the collective.12

Towards the conclusion of his essay on Karl Kraus, Benjamin insists that,

Work as a supervised task – its model being political and technical work – is attended by dirt and detritus, intrudes destructively into matter, is abrasive to what is already achieved and critical towards its conditions, and is in all this the opposite to the work of the dilettante luxuriating in creation […] And therefore the Unmensch stands among us as the messenger of a more real humanism […] [One must have] seen Klee’s New Angel (who preferred to free men by taking from them, rather than make them happy by giving to them) to understand a humanity that proves itself by destruction.13

Here, the figure of the Nietzschean Übermensch is countered with the technologically collectivized and abject posthumanism of the Unmensch: the “monstrous” or “inhuman,” as an inverted Nietzschean pragmatism. For Benjamin, Brecht was one such embodiment of the “destructive character”; taking my cue from his recognition of a “new kind of learning” encapsulated in the pedagogical refunctioning of Brechtian method, I wish to conclude by proposing that a concept of pedagogy theoretically informed by this inverted Nietzscheanism should be grounded not in a temporalized idea of the Humanities but a spatialized image of the Inhumanities.

[Extract from ‘Walter Benjamin and the Inhumanities: Towards a Pedagogical Anti-Nietzscheanism’, in Pedagogies of Disaster (Brooklyn, NY: Punctum, 2013); an earlier extract on ‘Benjamin’s Angel of History as Anti-Nietzscheanism’ is available here.]


1. “Such is the aestheticizing of politics, as practiced by fascism. Communism replies by politicizing art” (Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological
Reproducibility,” in sw3, 122).
2. Walter Benjamin, “Theory of Distraction,” in sw3, 142. [Addendum: Benjamin therefore implies that this “new kind of learning” entails the convergence of “teaching” [Lehre] and “distraction [Zerstreuung]”, or what we might gloss as an “education in distraction”. This insight stands completely opposed to the humanist underpinnings of the modern humanities.]
3. Fredric Jameson, Brecht and Method, 2nd ed. (London: Verso, 2011), 34.
4. Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” in Ideology (London: Verso, 2008), 25.
5. Cf. Bill Readings, The University in Ruins (Cambridge ma: Harvard University Press, 1996).
6. Martha Nussbaum, Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (Princeton nj: Princeton University Press, 2010), 2.
7. Bull, Anti-Nietzsche, 12.
8. “Psychology and ethics are the poles around which bourgeois education theory revolves […] in an undialectical manner. On the one hand, there is the question of the nature of the child (psychology of childhood and adolescence), and on the other, the goal of education: the complete human being, the citizen.” (Walter Benjamin, “A Communist Pedagogy,” in sw2, 273).
9. Bull, Anti-Nietzsche, viii; 42.
10. Ibid., 51. [Addendum: note that this should not imply an straightforward sympathy or empathy with, or pity for, the loser, which diffuses them of their potency through liberal platitudes; rather, it should most properly entail a recognition of the capacity for revenge being sown, which we should experience with fear or awe. An element of this fear and awe is contained in the mystical Fusionism of Louis-Jean Baptise Tourreil, described as the undocumented “messiah” of French socialism in the 1830s, from whom Benjamin quotes in The Arcades Project: ‘The dead are “multiform” and exist in many places on the earth at the same time. For this reason, people must very seriously concern themselves, during their lifetime, with the betterment of the earth’ (L. J. B. Tourreil, quoted in Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, p5a,2). This recognition of “the dead” as a political category deserves more serious consideration; again, it directs us away from the promise of freedom and autonomy inherent to much humanism (or, as Benjamin says, the image of ‘liberated grandchildren’) and towards that destructive vengeance contained in the ‘image of enslaved ancestors’. This implies a further inversion of Nietzsche’s philosophy of history: not the active forgetting of the Übermensch, nor the passive remembrance of the “all-too-human,” but a transhistorical unforgetting which neither ignores nor empathizes with the oppressed dead. I began to elaborate on this idea in terms of “the catastrophic function” in my keynote talk, ‘Not Even the Dead Will be Safe: The Catastrophic Function in Contemporary Culture’, for Lancaster University’s ‘Fragments of Time: An Interdisciplinary Conference on Culture and Social Change’ (16/10/13).
11.  Cf. Benjamin, “Karl Kraus,” in sw2.
12. Jameson, Brecht and Method, 10.
13Benjamin, “Karl Kraus,” in sw2, 456.

Benjamin’s Angel of History as Anti-Nietzscheanism

It is preferable to avoid invoking Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, the watercolour Walter Benjamin owned and with which he famously identified his figure of the Angel of History, precisely because its familiarity today entails the historical loss of its capacity to shock. As Susan Buck-Morss writes, the painting has become “too famous, the words so thickly applied that we cannot see the Klee image without the overlay of Benjamin’s comments on it.”1 In the context of this conference on “Pedagogies of Disaster,” however, it is impossible not to recall the Angel’s disturbing revelation of the course of history as one single great catastrophe, an ever-growing heap of carcasses and detritus.2 As a result of one particular catastrophe – the bitter circumstances of Benjamin’s own suicide in 1940 and its connections to the broader political events evoked in his theses “On the Concept of History” – Klee’s Angelus Novus has, Buck-Morss warns, become “pinned down” by those specific historical determinations, such that a philosophical conception of history has hardened into ontology. Today, we only recall the Angel’s impotent wings and overlook its savage fangs.


In the interests of de-ontologizing this understanding of history, and perhaps re- investing it with the capacity to intervene within the acquiescence of contemporary academic thinking, it is necessary to re-historicize it, bringing it into closer connection with our current moment. Given the topic of this conference, I propose to do so not through an analysis of contemporary political catastrophe but a reconsideration of the ideological terrain upon which Benjamin negotiates his response: turning from the context of the crisis of culture of the early twentieth century to that of the crisis of education at the beginning of the twenty-first.

The initial philosophical-historical point I want to draw from the theses “On the Concept of History” is that Benjamin’s politicizing of history should be understood as a precise inversion of a Nietzschean theory of culture. To provide some political context for this claim, it should be noted that the development of Friedrich Nietzsche’s thought in the 1870s, orientated around the modern crisis of culture heralded by the figure of the “cultural philistine,” is a response to the Pyrrhic victory of German bourgeois imperialism with the founding of the Prussian Empire in 1871 but also the specter of the Paris Commune that briefly flickered the same year: Nietzsche draws upon the cultural elitism of classical antiquity as an alternative to the “pseudo-cultures” of both the German Empire and French socialism.

Celebrating the fall of the Commune in a letter dated 21st June 1871, for example, Nietzsche declares himself in good spirits because not everything had capitulated to what he calls “Franco-Jewish levelling” and “the greedy instincts of Jetztzeit [now-time].”3 Similarly, in “The Greek State” (written in 1871/2), he claims:

Accordingly, we must learn to identify as a cruel-sounding truth the fact that slavery belongs to the essence of a culture: a truth, granted, that leaves open no doubt about the absolute value of existence… The misery of men living a life of toil has to be increased to make the production of the world of art possible for a small number of Olympian men. […] Every moment devours the preceding one, every birth is the death of countless beings, procreating, living and murdering are all one. Therefore, we may compare the magnificent culture to a victor dripping with blood, who, in his triumphal procession, drags the vanquished along, chained to his carriage as slaves…4

Significantly, Benjamin does not object to or criticize this conception of culture in his theses “On the Concept of History,” in which the Angel of History appears, but draws the opposite political conclusion from its recognition to that of Nietzsche:

Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate. According to traditional practice, the spoils are carried along in the procession. They are called cultural treasures, and a historical materialist […] cannot contemplate [them] without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.5

Benjamin’s inverted Nietzscheanism retains a critical suspicion towards bourgeois culture and a nihilistic rejection of its values but – to evoke the Untimely Meditations which proved especially influential on the young Benjamin – is oriented towards a transhistorical remembrance of the oppressed rather than Nietzsche’s unhistorical forgetting of the shameful origins of cultural production. Benjamin’s catastrophic vision of history, a Faustian pact with a fallen Angel, is based on time conceived not as infinitely successive but that revolutionary Jeztzeit (now-time) or interruption of eternity that Nietzsche associated with the “Franco-Jewish levelling” of the Communards.6

 Philistinism, or the Limits of Nihilism

Malcolm Bull’s Anti-Nietzsche not only engages in a comparable inverting of Nietzschean cultural politics but supplements this with an immanent critique of the historical limits of Nietzsche’s own nihilism that will prove relevant – when read back through Benjamin – for understanding our contemporary situation. Bull argues that Nietzsche’s reflections on cultural philistinism and his proposition regarding the aesthetic justification of the world represent not the completion of nihilism but an attempt to arrest or suspend it, since his celebration of the devaluation of all religious and moral values does not extend to the sphere of cultural and aesthetic value as well. Tracing the historical negation of values through the phantasmagoric parade of specters that have been seen haunting Europe – atheism, anarchism, nihilism, philistinism – Bull concludes that “the aesthetic is just the residuum left by the previous history of negation, and philistinism its corresponding but as yet unrealized negative […].”7 Much modern European philosophy and Marxist theory inherits this Nietzschean affirmation, Bull suggests, conceiving art as not merely subject to this dialectic but a position through which the dialectic works.

The implications of the nihilist transvaluation demands not merely the dialectical embrace of philistinism, however, but also the awareness that philistinism itself is only the most recent but not final nihilistic negation of values. Yet when Bull asks, “where are the philistinism’s new seas?” he leaves this incoming wave of the post-aesthetic unexplored.8 Returning to the work of Benjamin is relevant here, I want to argue, not only because its anti-Nietzscheanism is rare in extending to the blind spot of philistinism (in contrast to much contemporary leftist theory, The Philistine Controversy aside)9 but because it also anticipates a movement beyond this position in relation to the post-aesthetic. Specifically, what interests me about Benjamin’s thought is how, most noticeably after his return in 1927 from a stay in the “great laboratory table” of Moscow under Stalin, he engages with the political project of philistinism in essays such as “Karl Kraus” (1931), “The Author as Producer” (1934), and “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility” (1935–9). Whereas Nietzsche, in his lectures “On the Future of Our Educational Institutions” and in the Untimely Meditations, identified the debasement of genuine culture with journalism – characterized by its ephemeral politicality, its leveling down of aristocratic distinctions, and its barbaric corruption of artistic style – in these essays Benjamin suggests that such elements conceal a dialectical political moment for the masses: “…it is at the scene of the limitless debasement of the word – the newspaper, in short – that salvation is being prepared.”10

It was Bertolt Brecht, Benjamin points out, who “was the first to make of intellectuals the far-reaching demand not to supply the apparatus of production without, to the utmost extent possible, changing it in accordance with socialism.”11 In doing so, Benjamin stresses the need for technical innovations that aim to transform the apparatus of bourgeois cultural production, in the interests of the masses, through a process Brecht named Umfunktionierung (refunctioning). In the context of literary culture, the ramifications of this Brechtian idea force a rejection of the Nietzschean denigration of journalism as “pseudo-culture” all along the line, asserting the dialectical usefulness of journalism precisely because of its ephemeral temporality, its fluid sociality, and its antiindividualistic and collectively productive features.

This position, especially when contrasted to the writings of Adorno and Horkheimer (which remain, especially in their observations on “The Culture Industry,” closer to Nietzsche), is often misconstrued as hopelessly optimistic or utopian. But this is to miss the extent to which, already overdetermined by the recognition of its particular catastrophic conditions, Benjamin’s intervention unfolds from a hopeless position of pessimistic or nihilistic extremism, in which measured waiting can appear only as a historical luxury. If such a position has been proved wrong historically, however, this only proves its diagnostic correctness. For Benjamin, the historical moment of the ideological crisis of culture in the late 19th and mid-20th centuries was prepared by the technological forces of “massification” and the economic conditions of “commodification”: the former was predicated on jettisoning the historical contingency of the bourgeois concept of “culture” and the “artwork” in the political interests of the masses; the latter banked precisely on their survival (since the value of art under capitalism resides in the semblance of its antithesis to exchange-value; a semblance which, ironically, increasingly determines its exchange-value in the contemporary art market). In the aftermath of this missed historical opportunity (whose symptom is the very endurance of the bourgeois concept of art and culture as a precondition of the contemporary culture industry), art in contemporary capitalist societies – for all its intrinsic artistic value and specific political form or content – can no longer serve any effective political function; radicality is compromised as marketability. For this reason, I want to suggest, our crisis is no longer that circumscribed by culture and art, forcing us to revisit the historical and political conditions of nihilism today.

[Extract from ‘Walter Benjamin and the Inhumanities: Towards a Pedagogical Anti-Nietzscheanism’, in Pedagogies of Disaster (Brooklyn, NY: Punctum, 2013)]


1. Susan Buck-Morss, “The Gift of the Past,” in The Democratic Imaginary in the Era of Globalization (Barcelona: Academy of Latinity, 2011), 286–7.

2. Cf. Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” in Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings [henceforth, sw], Vol. 4, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).

3. Friedrich Nietzsche to Baron von Gersdorff, 21/6/1871. Works, ed. Schlechta, iii, 1092ff, cited in Georg Lukács, The Destruction of Reason (Atlantic Highlands nj: Humanities Press, 1981), 235.

4. Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Greek State,” in On The Genealogy of Morality, ed. Keith Ansell-Pearson (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 2007), 166.

5. Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” 391–2.

6. For a discussion of Benjamin’s philosophy of history, see Peter Osborne and Matthew Charles, “Walter Benjamin,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta (Winter 2012 Edition), §8.

7. Malcolm Bull, Anti-Nietzsche (London: Verso, 2011), 12.

8. Ibid., 26.

9. Cf. Dave Beech and John Roberts (eds.), The Philistine Controversy (London: Verso, 2002).

10. Walter Benjamin, “The Newspaper,” in sw2, 742; “The Author As Producer,” in sw2, 772.

11. Benjamin, “The Author as Producer,” 774.

The Capitalist University


In Times Higher Education this week, David Willetts makes a compelling case for the destruction of what – in Kantian terms – I have described as the “legislative university”: 

One-third of the chief executives of our top FTSE 100 companies have humanities degrees. I remember hearing the late Eric Hobsbawm reflect that there was no better preparation for running one of these companies than a degree in history.

The good news is that these disciplines are themselves getting much better at defining their tremendous public value. Helen Small’s book, The Value of the Humanities, is the latest to explore these different sorts of merit, from holding democracy to account to improving our understanding of what makes us happy. And of course, we understand that this value must be measured in wider human as well as purely economic terms.

Happily the most likely way to do that is to embrace his policy of higher educational expansionism. Die Widersprüche sind die Hoffnungen!