Britt, Brian. Postsecular Benjamin: Agency and Tradition.
With the recent explosion of interest in Walter Benjamin and religion over the past ten years or so, it was perhaps inevitable that a book would be published that brought the much bandied-about term "postsecular" into close contact with the name Walter Benjamin. Indeed, the title of this book, Postsecular Benjamin, replaces Benjamin's first name with the term, a decision that of course raises the issue of words and/as names in Benjamin had the author recognized it as such. The term "postsecular," the origins of which are never fully explicated by Britt, is, like many "post-" neologisms, as problematic as it is trendy. Britt's main goal is obvious: to illustrate Benjamin's work as making "an important contribution to modern religious thought and offering] resources on current debates over secularism and religion" (3). In a fitting twist on what comes both before and after, whether in name or time, Britt begins his conclusion by suggesting that Benjamin was "postsecular before the term was coined" (175). Unfortunately this claim, accurate as it is, does not amount to much, since most of the authors, critics and theorists to which Britt refers throughout the book, from Scholem and Schreber to Kraus and Auerbach, would fall under the category of "postsecular thinkers." While the term's inception may allow current (and future) critics to label themselves "postsecular," and even to adopt the word as a particular mode of critique, the danger is to beheve that the very act of naming as such would open up a new approach to a particular author whose work predates the term. A peculiar tension thus runs throughout this book's premise, which is not limited to "postsecular" but to the other terms amended to the title, "agency" and "tradition": a tension between Britt's insistence on these terms, which as terms purport at least a modicum of stability or continuity--especially the terms "agency" and "tradition"--and Benjamin's deployment of complex, often unstable and even contradictory theological motifs. Such tension is further exacerbated by Britt's overall agenda, which is to reveal the importance of such terms in Benjamin's oeuvre so as to confirm its relevance to contemporary discussions of (post)secularism and religion. These tensions are nowhere better revealed than in Britt's opening sentence: "No one would deny the place of religion in the work of Walter Benjamin, but no one has been able to build a scholarly consensus around it" (3). Rather than setting up a constellation that reveals new patterns in Benjamin's reflections on religion and their relevance to today, the terms in Britt's title tend to take him down long detours, sometimes making it difficult to return to Benjamin's work.
Since the order of the chapter topics is arbitrary, Britt freely admits that each of the seven chapters could be read on its own (11). Of the seven chapters, two were published elsewhere, in 2010 and 2014. More than any other chapter, the first chapter attempts to justify why reading Benjamin today helps to both understand our contemporary circumstances and grant us a certain "agency" in altering them. However, the agency that Britt recognizes and ultimately champions is difficult to ascertain, in part because of his overt reliance on the term itself. For instance, speaking of the Angelus Novus, Britt suggests that the return gaze of the angel "manifests an aura that connects melancholy to critical consciousness and even a kind of agency" (36). Without reference to specific examples in Benjamin about what this "kind of agency" might entail, Britt nevertheless attempts to specify his argument at the end of the chapter by suggesting "the possibility of a post-secular kind of agency in Benjamin" that is also a "political agency [which] may seem contemplative or even quietistic, but [...] is nevertheless critical"(38). Britt makes some of his clearest statements on "agency" in the opening pages of the Introduction (4-5), but by the end of chapter 1 agency seems to lose the specificity it might have once enjoyed. This trend becomes more troubling as the book progresses: agency involves making a decision (135), is related to allegory (136), takes the form of reading (138) but also quotation (140), is both individual and collective (143), receptive (148), messianic (149), mimetic (152), aesthetic (159), and finally "meaningful action" (179). It has a problematic relationship to both subject (101) and the self (138), but also and perhaps most interestingly, to the human: Britt's sixth chapter is entitled, "Critical Vision, from Simulacra to Creaturely Agency. "Unfortunately the creaturely agency to which Britt refers is limited only to animals that, much like the angel or words, look back at us. But it raises a more interesting question, namely whether the agency that Britt refers to throughout is limited to human agency. In this sense Britt succumbs to what others have similarly failed to recognize when Benjamin refers to body: it need not always be human. But at least Benjamin makes use of the words "Korper" or "Leib": Britt makes no effort to find Benjamins equivalent word or constellation of words for "agency," making the term's applicability to Benjamin's work all the more suspect.
Britt at times links agency to tradition, which is a word that Benjamin employs. Tradition, which Britt often qualifies as religious or "biblical tradition" (chapters 2,3, and 5 in particular), is generally read as redemptive ("redemptive conception of tradition" ), which helps engender or "inform" (176) a new kind of agency that Britt sees in Benjamin's work. But too often, tradition as a term is repeated, like the term "agency" described above. Britt is aware, for instance, that in his critique of violence, "Benjamin only sketches the kind of engagement with biblical tradition that I argue his work implies" (127). Perhaps the most unexpected and revealing analysis on (religious) tradition is found in Britt's chapter on Daniel Paul Schreber (chapter 3), where Britt conceives of tradition "not as a stable body of behefs and practices but as an unstable dynamic of competing practices, beliefs, and institutions" (73). The role of recitation in Schreber's text becomes a fascinating example of religious tradition that for Britt has been "displaced," that is, "transformed but not replaced" by secularization. One of the more memorable passages in the book as a whole, Britt's discussion of recitation, nevertheless highlights how his pursuit of a concept's specific relevance, in this case "tradition," inadvertently obscures a more central, albeit related term: ritual. As Sigrid Weigel has recendy discussed, when "Benjamin talks of religion or ethicality this means first of all his talking of ritual" (Colby Dickinson and Stephane Symons, eds., Walter Benjamin and Theology [2016, 87]). Recitation is one such ritual, and Britt even cites Talal Asad, who accurately describes it as such (74-75). But Britt's insistence on showcasing tradition forces him to conclude in broad strokes that Benjamin's reading of Schreber's Memoires "demonstrates an engagement with tradition that transcends the binary of religion and secularity" (89).
Sections of this book should no doubt be lauded. For instance, the second chapter on Scholem, the longest of the book, is impressive in aligning Scholem's religious anarchism and self-defining "post-assimilationism" with Britt's own focus on the blurred categories of religion and secularity. Taken as a whole, however, the chapter also illustrates how much more applicable Britt's line of inquiry is to Scholem than to Benjamin. Also, much of chapter 5, "Violence and Biblical Tradition," is a careful study of Benjamin's references to Numbers 16 and the Niobe myth in his "Critique of Violence." Part of the reason this chapter is so insightful is because it is one of the few that veers away from the search of the titular terminology and toward specific elements of Benjamin's text and its contexts. But more often than not Britt's terms "postsecular," "agency," and "tradition" raise a persistent methodological ambiguity, one that makes it unclear whether Britt has unearthed another instance of one of these terms in Benjamin's work or whether he is applying the idea to a passage of Benjamin's in order to give it new relevance and interest. Already in the introduction, Britt freely admits that, despite Benjamin's "interests in politics and mass culture, his work falls short in dealing clearly with agency and the role of traditional practices" (12). Unfortunately Britt's work also falls short of making it any clearer, begging the question whether this is the best course of inquiry when confronted with Benjamin's multifaceted and complex references to religion and theology. Perhaps a better approach is a concomitant multiplicity of perspectives from scholars across various disciplines, which is born out in two recent and productive essay collections on Benjamin and religion, Messianic Thought Outside Theology (Anna Glazova and Paul North, eds., 2014) and Walter Benjamin and Theology (2016).
University of Illinois at Chicago
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|Publication:||The German Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2017|
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