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.