Walter Benjamin: Theoretical Questions.
The essays in this volume are based on conference papers delivered in 1991 at Yale University. The conference-title was 'Walter Benjamin and Literary Theory' and the revised papers make for very specialized reading, not for beginners. Their difficulty recalls their provenance, just as the place of the conference signals to the reader Yale deconstruction. So 'literary theory', on the evidence of the book and assuming no papers have been dropped, evokes Heidegger, Derrida, and Paul de Man: there is nothing relating Benjamin to, say Lukacs, surprisingly little on Adorno or on the Frankfurt school, not much on Brecht, nothing on Barthes, and surprisingly little on Nietzsche. The question of Benjamin in relation to Marxism receives little attention, and even Gershom Scholem is hardly there to give the sense of Benjamin in relation to Judaism. Further, the impact of Benjamin on (or the confrontation of Benjamin by) feminist or gender theory, or psychoanalysis is not here (there are a few pages in the essay by Rainer Nagele on Benjamin's reading of 'Beyond the Pleasure Principle' as this appears in Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Age of High Capitalism). Nor is there any sustained attention to Benjamin on Fascist discourse, which has attracted much debate, Benjamin having done much to move discussion of Fascism from considering it predominantly as a political discourse to thinking of it in cultural terms.
While the programme's limited scope, as it may be read from this book with its general if not evasive title, is not necessarily a cause for complaint, it does lead to a narrowing of interest, which the title, missing any specificity of reference, compounds. The question to be asked in reading the book is 'where are we going?', and more of an answer to this would have been welcome. But discussing Benjamin in relation to Heidegger, which several contributors do, most notably Samuel Weber on 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' with reference to 'The Age of the World Picture', seems less thought-provoking than considering him in relation to the Marxism of the 1930s. But for the same implied reason, Benjamin's politics, Derrida's is not the commentary I would want to use for Benjamin. Peter Fenves's essay, 'The Genesis of Judgement: Spatiality, Analogy, and Metaphor in Benjamin's "On Language as Such and on Human Language"', places Benjamin in relation to Husserlian phenomenology. Fenves disagrees with Rodolphe Gasche (who is also represented in this volume, in an essay on Benjamin's dissertation on the German Romantics) when he states (elsewhere) that 'it is ultimately impossible to tie Benjamin to any of the philosophical currents that characterised his time' (quoted, p. 223). Benjamin's relationship to post-Hegelian and to Heideggerian thought, and through Gasche's reported comment, to deconstruction, carries the main weight of this volume.
Everywhere in the text there are ghosts of de Man and of Heidegger, and positions are ascribed to Benjamin about language and the origin of the work of art that evoke these two. The authors of the essays work on details within Benjamin's writings, and I can pick up only a few points. David S. Ferris writes against the assimilation of Benjamin to Heidegger by discussing Benjamin on history, which for Benjamin belongs to the present (p. 10) and discusses interestingly the proposition that 'an image is dialetics at a standstill'. Carol Jacobs discusses the Berlin Chronicle in relation to Benjamin on autobiography, identity, and 'the Penelope work of forgetting'. Punning on names, and replacing biography with topography, she links 'Berlin' to 'Benjamin' (p. 114). Rainer Nagele discusses the work on Baudelaire, and I wonder whether he is right that Benjamin 'valorises' Erfahrung against Erlebnis (p. 127), or whether the matter is less one of preference and more one of the changing conditions of modernity that Benjamin is articulating. Hans-Jost Frey discusses the meaning of the 'constellation' in the preface to The Origin of German Tragic Drama very helpfully (p. 153) and two essays, by Alexander Garcia Duttmann and by Tom McCall, conclude the volume, commenting interestingly on violence in different contexts, in different applications of Benjamin's thought.
<ADD> JEREMY TAMBLING UNIVERSITY OF HONG KONG </ADD>
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|Publication:||The Modern Language Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Apr 1, 1999|
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