Eli Friedlander
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Harvard University Press
Pages: 300
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Walter Benjamin is often viewed as a cultural critic who produced a vast array of brilliant, idiosyncratic pieces of writing with little more to unify them than the feeling that they all bear the stamp of his “unclassifiable” genius. Eli Friedlander finds an overarching coherence and a deep-seated commitment to engage the philosophical tradition.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-06302-0
    Subjects: Philosophy, History, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    (pp. 1-8)

    The present work is an all-too-partial unfolding of the conviction that Walter Benjamin’s corpus of writing constitutes a unique configuration of philosophy. Philosophy has appeared in many guises, some eccentric, others more easily assimilable to its tradition. However, the recognition of the unique spiritual character that Walter Benjamin’s writings present faces numerous obstacles. In considering his body of writings, we find, especially early on, some essays that draw on the language of academic philosophy (such as his “On the Program of the Coming Philosophy” or his doctoral dissertation on the concept of criticism in German Romanticism). But for the most...

    (pp. 9-36)

    The greatest obstacle to conceiving of Benjamin’s enterprise as philosophical is probably the sense one gets of the utter contingency of the materials gathered in the convolutes. How could iron construction, dolls, and fashion, to take but a few examples, exhibit the necessity and universality characteristic of philosophy’s concern with truth? It might help therefore to stress that Benjamin is not concerned with truth to the facts but with truth in the medium of meaning, with the possibility of recognizing the meaning of the contingent material. However, one might argue, any genuine concern with historical facts betokens an interest in...

  6. 2 IMAGE
    (pp. 37-59)

    One of the key concepts of The Arcades Project is the “dialectical image.” The endpoint of the work is often characterized in terms of the task of presenting such an image. This imagistic dimension of Benjamin’s thinking is the source of what I take to be pervasive misunderstandings of his philosophical sensibility. I start, therefore, by considering certain peculiarities in Benjamin’s use of the notion of an image, which any account given of it must aim to interpret.

    First, we think of an image as an object of vision, yet Benjamin never uses the word “ ‘see” or even “...

  7. 3 TIME
    (pp. 60-73)

    The archetype whose preeminently spatial figure is the constellation has a temporal counterpart in the notion of “origin.” “Philosophical history” is “the science of origin” (O, 47). That notion of origin is explicitly traced back in the Arcades to Goethe’s understanding of truth as the recognition of an Ur-phenomenon: “. . . my concept of origin in the Trauerspiel book is a rigorous and decisive transposition of [the] basic Goethean concept [of truth] from the domain of nature to that of history. Origin—it is, in effect, the concept of Ur-phenomenon extracted from the pagan context of nature and brought...

  8. 4 BODY
    (pp. 74-89)

    References to the collective as a body with limbs and organs abound in The Arcades Project, as well as in many of Benjamin’s other writings: “. . . just like the sleeper—in this respect like the madman—sets out on the macrocosmic journey through his own body, and the noises and feeling of his insides, such as blood pressure, intestinal churn, heartbeat and muscle sensation (which for the waking and salubrious individual converge in a steady surge of health) generate, in the extravagantly heightened inner awareness of the sleeper, illusion or dream imagery which translates and accounts for them,...

  9. 5 DREAM
    (pp. 90-111)

    We have considered two dimensions of Benjamin’s conception of truth: the one was a quasi-spatial schema at work in the presentation of a dialectical image; the other a temporal schema in the realization of the past in the present. But there is a further dimension to the dialectical image, namely, the transition from dream to truth. Though Benjamin does not treat fantasies in the subjective, individual, sense but rather turns to elements of the collective life in the city landscape centered in the arcades, these materials initially come together in The Arcades Project as what he calls a “dream configuration.”¹...

  10. 6 MYTH
    (pp. 112-138)

    “In this work,” writes Benjamin, “I mean to wrest from primal history [Urgeschichte] a portion of the nineteenth century” (A, 393). Combating the resurgence of myth is an explicit task of the writing of history: “To cultivate fields where, until now, only madness has reigned. Forge ahead with the whetted axe of reason, looking neither right nor left so as not to succumb to the horror that beckons from deep in the primeval forest. Every ground must at some point have been made arable by reason, must have been cleared of the undergrowth of delusion and myth. This is to...

    (pp. 139-156)

    The preceding discussions of embodiment, heroism, and character raise for us the question of the place of individuals in Benjamin’s writings. Many of Benjamin’s literary essays are portraits of individual figures. The image of Proust, as well as the essays on Kafka and Kraus, are attempts to think through the relation between individuals and their times. Yet, specific persons are seldom directly the subject matter in The Arcades Project. Benjamin, it seems, approaches human existence mostly through its material traces in the world. The primary material of the Arcades is the expanse of the city, its places, and its living...

  12. 8 RESCUE
    (pp. 157-189)

    Certain forms of historical consciousness or appropriation of the past are for Benjamin complements of mythical consciousness. It is in contrast to such seemingly objective accounts that one can recognize more precisely the features of Benjamin’s own materialist historical practice. In particular, as opposed to the “narcotic” effects of historicism, it is characteristic of the “awakened” consciousness of the historical materialist to understand the appropriation of the past as its rescue. In a striking formulation of the components of the “elementary doctrine of historical materialism,” we find that “An object of history is that through which knowledge is constituted as...

    (pp. 190-222)

    A Platonic legacy in Benjamin’s thinking is evident not only in his understanding of the task of philosophy as the presentation of ideas, in the inner relation of beautiful semblance to truth, or in the struggle of philosophy against myth. It is also manifest in the understanding that the realization of meaning is achieved in recollection. Recollection is first reconceived in Benjamin’s book on the German Trauerspiel as a form of saving phenomena in ideas: “As the salvation of phenomena by means of ideas takes place, so too does the presentation of ideas through the medium of empirical reality” (O,...

  14. NOTES
    (pp. 223-278)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 279-285)