HENT DE VRIES: Good afternoon. I'm extremely happy and honored to welcome Professor Michael Jennings to the School of Criticism and Theory for this afternoon's public lecture. Michael Jennings is the class of 1900 Professor of Modern Languages in the Department of German at Princeton University, where he's also an associated professor in the Department of Art and Archeology and the School of Architecture, and specializes and teaches in the fields of 20th century European Literature, Photography, and Cultural Theory.
Professor Jennings studied Comparative Literature at Dartmouth College, Religion at the Yale Divinity School, and German Literature at the University of Virginia, where he received his PhD in 1981. His research over the years was supported by grants from the German Academic Exchange Service, the DAAD, on numerous occasions for studies in Berlin, Frankfurt, and Essen, and by an Andrew Mellon Faculty Fellowship at Harvard.
Professor Jennings was a distinguished visitor at Northwestern University and at the University of London. He serves as the Director of the Alexander Kluge Research Collection at Princeton University, and is the co-director of the Oxford Princeton Research Collaboration in German. He sits on the executive committee as co-chair of the International Walter Benjamin Society, as well as on that of the Uwe Johnson Association, and is a member of the editorial boards of journals such as "Transit: A Journal of Travel, Migration, and Multiculturalism in the German Speaking World", and also of "Cultura: An International journal of Philosophy and Culture."
After serving as master of Princeton's Rockefeller college from 1990 through 1999, and as chair of the Department of German from 1999 until 1912-- 2012, sorry. That wouldn't be good.
Temporal reversals. Why not? During the last two years, he assumed the role of co-chair of the Princeton University's steering committee for its decennial accreditation process, an enormously laborious and consequential task which he has now blissfully complete.
MICHAEL JENNINGS: Your forgot unrewarded.
HENT DE VRIES: Rewarding. Good.
MICHAEL JENNINGS: Unrewarded.
HENT DE VRIES: Oh, OK. This coming year, he will be deservedly on leave as an Old Dominion fellow in the Council of the Humanities at Princeton. His first book, as I do during these days, which I devoured during my student years and entitled, Dialectical Images-- Walter Benjamin's Theory of Literary Criticism, was published by Cornell University Press in 1987.
It brought the interpretation of this difficult, often arcane and misunderstood author, at the crossroads of so many critiques of modernity, traveling between Berlin, Frankfurt, and Paris, to a whole new level of sophistication and conceptual rigor. As others have since shown with regard to Benjamin's contemporaries-- Martin Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein in particular, Professor Jennings, in this book, compellingly argued that dominant readings of Benjamin had made too much off the apparent difference and, say, epistemological or political breaks about 1924, that is between an early or first phase in this author's thought, deeply steeped in metaphysics and German idealism on the one hand, and a later or second phase of a more historical materialist and overtly revolutionary political nature on the other.
Far from denying a certain development of themes and differently accentuated theoretical and ethical positions, Professor Jennings demonstrated the remarkable coherence and consistency of Benjamin's seemingly disparate writings. Combining close readings of Benjamin's more metaphysical, theological, and literary critical texts with the reconstruction of the broader intellectual, cultural, and political-- and indeed revolutionary context-- in which this author sought to situate themselves in the hope and conviction of becoming quote "the foremost critic of German literature", end of quote, and ultimately of imagining himself anti historical materialist, as an angel history who, blown backwards out of paradise into the future, sees one catastrophe pile upon another, Professor Jennings offered a fresh and persuasive alternative.
Too much of the scholastic strife over Benjamin's legacy, the book quickly established him as the preeminent Benjamin scholar in the English speaking world-- and, in fact, well beyond. The book was followed by an enormous and ongoing labor of love as he took upon himself the responsibility of being the general editor of Harvard University press's standard English edition of Walter Benjamin's selected writings.
Since 1996, four huge volumes have appeared in print and have rekindled interest in Benjamin's metaphysical and critical, including as one still says, his Marxist and messianic writings that have allowed readers to approach these on a far more broader scale and more solid basis than was hitherto possible. Indeed, the commentary that has been inspired by these translations, all of them publication events of the first order, has made an impact not just on these shores or in the English speaking world, but in the ongoing international reception of Benjamin's thought as well.
Not least because it has fueled interpretive energies that have also contributed to a genuine debate over the legacy and import of Benjamin's thought as an exponent of and unique phenomenon within Wiemar culture, and as an author that still, or again, perhaps even more and more speaks to us the debate that has only now become possible on solid theological, contextual, and conceptual grounds.
The fruit of such interpretive work, I think, is a recent book by Eli Friedlander entitled Walter Benjamin-- a Philosophical Portrait, published by Harvard in 2012. But this is for another day. The professional combination Professor Jenning's scholarship was reached this early year with the publication of his and of Howard Eiland's monumental 700 page long biography, Walter Benjamin-- A Critical Life, likewise published by Harvard.
This tome is a genuine tour de force in more than one respect, and the first full scale biographical study in any language. It has been widely reviewed in the national and international press, and a dozen translations are already under way. As one commentator noted, "it brilliantly interweaves the conceptual threads of Benjamin's enigmatic work with his no less enigmatic existence."
In addition to the four volumes of Benjamin's selected writings that I mentioned earlier, Professor Jennings edited Benjamin's The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire, published by Harvard in 2006. And together with his colleagues Brigid Doherty and Thomas Levine, he co-edited "The Work of Art in the Age of it's Technological Reproducibility, Writings on Media" published by Harvard in 2008.
His new edition prepared with the latest Mariam Bratu Hansen of Benjamin's one way street is also forthcoming from Harvard this year, and so is an eagerly anticipated, much needed new translation-- again, together with Howard Eiland-- of Benjamin's origin of the German Trauerspiel-- again, also forthcoming from Harvard. Professor Jenning's published work further includes a host of thoughtful articles on the theory of art history, on Elosie Regal, among others, on modernism in its relationship to capitalist modernity, with reference to Robert Musil, Franz Kafka, and Uwe Johnson, on Wiemar culture with excursions into Berlin, Dada, Erfurt, Dublin, and Thomas Mann--
On 18th century aesthetics, with studies of Sturm und Drang, Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz, and Friedrich Holderlin on modern print and media culture, and on German photography, with special emphasis on last Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, August Sander, Albert Renger-Patzsch and Michael Schmidt.
He is the editor, together with Detlef Mertins of a facsimile edition of the avant garde journal JG, Journal of Elemental Form Creation, published by Gary Research Institute in 2010, and with Uwe Steiner of a volume of Uwe Johnson's "Jahrestage", forthcoming from Wilhelm Fink Verlag. And with Tobias Wilke of a special issue of "Grey Room on Walter Benjamin and the Theory of Media", and finally with Stanley Corngold of a special issue of the "Monatshefte" devoted to Kafka's late style.
He's currently finalizing yet another full scale biography, once more for Harvard University Press, and this time on Bertolt Brecht, and he remains also at work on two further book projects, one a collection of studies of the German photo essay in the 20th century, and the other devoted to the remarkable simultaneous resurgence of cylindrical forms in art and writing in German culture during the 1970s.
I first met Professor Jennings in I think October of 2008 at the University of Wisconsin at Madison at a conference devoted to the political theologies of the Wiemar republic. Already then during this presentation, I was deeply struck by the fact that he was unmistakeably one of the very rare scholars in this difficult field who was capable of striking the right balance in weighing the critical and theological and other often conflicting strands in Benjamin's thought.
As I was reminded of my early enthusiastic reading off his first book, it dawned on me that such sovereign mastery of the material was all the more necessary in an area of study where only the greatest and most patient erudition, and only theological acumen paired with analytical rigor brings any profit, leaving paraphrase and mimicry so rampant in our disciplines-- and sadly very often when Benjamin is being recited, wisely behind.
I could not be more happy, therefore, that I found Professor Jennings willing to speak to us this afternoon on what is truly one of the most counter intuitive and controversial, robust yet also elusive theological tropes in Benjamin's earth. The topic of today's lecture will be "Towards the Apokatastatic Will-- Media, Theology, and Politics in Walter Benjamin's Late Work.
There will be ample time for discussion after the lecture, following which you are all invited to reception at the AD White House in Professor Jennings honor. Please join me in welcoming Michael Jennings.
MICHAEL JENNINGS: Thanks, Hent, for so many things. First of all, for this very kind invitation. Secondly, for that overly generous introduction. I'm not sure that was me he was talking about. And thirdly, for the inspiration over the years since we've known each. Listening to Hent is by you-- all of you know by now is always inspiring, always challenging. I'm delighted to be here. I'd like to thank the staff of a school, who've been both extraordinary accommodating and patient with me.
And I'd also just like to say I'm really pleased to be here speaking in front of so many friends, old and new. Some go back quite a long ways, like Mark Hansen. We were once colleagues years ago. And Susan Buck-Morss, who-- if Hent called me some kind of leading scholar of Benjamin, if I could only be mentioned in Susan's category and Miriam Hensen's category, I'd be very happy.
So I'm still going to be beating this horse that Hent mentioned, what the German call the Unity Thesis about Benjamin, about the relationship between elements in his early and his late work. Sort of what I get credit for in Germany is propounding for the first time this Unity Thesis. So you'll see how it goes. And I hope this isn't too far down into the Benjamin weeds. When you've worked on one person for so long, you do become a bit of an idiot savant.
So to begin with the ending-- Walter Benjamin's much discussed and little understood allegory of the Turkish puppet in his last known text on the concept of history raises one central question for the entirety of his work. How exactly does politics take theology into its service, and to what effect? Benjamin's use of theological concepts and motifs is invariably bound to the formulation of a politics.
But how are we to trace the invisible strings that allow theology to ensure that historical materialism always wins? Benjamin's deployment of theological motifs and his political commitments are, of course, in and of themselves complex often contradictory. And they are anything but stable across the full spectrum of his work. It is thus hardly surprising that simplifying myths have grown up around the signature Walter Benjamin.
Of these, those describing the purported forms of his religiosity have been among the most tenacious. I use the word purported because there's absolutely no evidence that Walter Benjamin held any religious beliefs whatsoever. Benjamin's upbringing in an assimilated German Jewish family of the old bourgeoisie provided him neither with practice in religious observance, nor even with the barest trappings of religious thought.
Insofar as there were religious traditions in the Benjamin household, they were secularized Christian customs-- the Christmas tree or the Easter egg hunt. This remainderlessly secularized man, the very quintessence of the displaced and alienated denizen of the modern urban jungle thus never hinted a belief structure to which he adhered. That is not to say, of course, that theology did not play a leading role in his intellectual production.
As Benjamin himself says, "my thought is related to theology as the blotter to ink. It is saturated with it." If it were just a matter of the blotter, however, then nothing that was written would remain. Yet even as it tries to discern the ink on the blotter, much of the Benjamin scholarship has shown itself content to articulate broad and consistent theological positions to Benjamin.
The rhetoric of the messianic Benjamin is only the most pervasive of these. Messianic motifs do play an important role in certain parts of Benjamin's work, but at two widely separated periods-- the period 1919 to 1923, and once again only in the year 1940. The first period follows on the intensive discussions between Benjamin and Gershom Scholem during their exile years in Switzerland.
The period 1919 to '23 is also the period of Benjamin's extensive engagement with both Ernst Bloch's spirit of utopia and Franz Rosenzweig's star of redemption, both of which deploy in varying ways, idiosyncratic understandings of messianism. This involvement surfaces, as many of you know, in such Benjamin-ian texts from the period as theological political fragment and the task of translator.
In the years of followed, though-- roughly 1924 to 1939-- messianism plays no role whatsoever in Benjamin's writings. The massive torso of the arcades project, which spans the years '27 to '39, provides us with a convenient test sample. In that textual corpus, the terms Messiah and messianic occur precisely seven times. And all but one of those are either quotations or paraphrases from 19th century Socialist and Utopian theorists-- from Marx, from Fourier, and from Saint-Simon.
The sole exception, the statement the authentic concept of universal history as a messianic concept, speaks less to messianism, I think, than to the impossibility of universal history. It's only in the winter 1939-1940 that messianic motifs reenter his thought and his writing. These are the months in which he read and discussed with Hannah Arendt and her husband Heinrich Blucher "In Manuscript Scholem's Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism."
The effect was immediate. He began to interweave messianic motifs with the revolutionary historiography that he had developed in convoluted The Arcades Project. And the result is the thesis on the philosophy of history, on the concept of history with which I started. This example of the uses of messianism suggest strongly the extent to which Benjamin's use of theological material is always local and always specific to a particular problem.
His work deploys what we might call a situational theology, oriented to the task at hand, a recombinatory logic that draws freely on elements of the Christian and Judaic traditions. I can't emphasize this last point strongly enough. As Hent's and my common friend, the intellectual historian Urich Greenberg has put it, "Benjamin knew very little about Judaism and a very great deal about Christian theology."
If Benjamin's theological rhetoric is local and specific, his articulation of his political commitments tends to be more consistent and, for the period after 1904 to '24, somewhat better understood. We can discern two broad arcs in his politics. Up to 1924, he patiently constructed an idiosyncratic theological politics. Scholem characterized his position in this period as theocratic anarchism. More recently, Ansen Robin Bach has called it anarchical messianism.
The full publication of Benjamin's letters, together with new archival research, suggests though that neither of these descriptions is fully satisfactory. In the years '20 to '25, he instead mapped out a complex ecumenical in even synchretistic political and theological terrain in which to move, assembling a theological politics in these years that drew in equal measure on Judaic and Christian motifs and positions and resulting in a politics that move gradually from a rather straightforward anarchism at the end of World War I toward a constructive and engaged theological politics situated somewhat to the left of center.
In a famous phrase, his politics was meant always to be radical and never with intended consequences. The story after 1924 is more familiar to most of you-- his gradual movement leftwards on equivocating and shifting identification with two different brands of Marxism and engage class conscious leftism associated with Brecht and a more distanced and hesitant position often associated with the Pierre Dourneau and Max Horkheimer .
In sum, we find a rather consistent political arc punctuated by a shifting situational deployment of theological motifs. In order to demonstrate the resultant complexity at any given point, I will, in what follows, present a kind of a case study, a view onto the eschatology that is implicit in Benjamin's late work. There's of course no explicit eschatology in the key texts here-- neither the series of essays that grew out of the attempt to write a book on Baudelaire, nor the Arcades Project, nor any of the late writings on technological media, speak plainly of the coming of the last days.
Yet I think the attentive readers certainly feels the tug of a kind of under current of eschatological expectations in these texts. Benjamin's theory of modernity is not merely analytical. It subtends an understanding that the proper use of technologized media accelerates the erasure of the conditions that currently obtain. In short, it is an apocalyptic eschatology.
The essay "The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility" examines the possibilities open to human experience under the conditions of modern capitalism. The essay proceeds from the conviction I think is articulated in the little essay "Experience and Poverty", that one of capitalist modernity's principal effects is the destruction of the conditions for an adequate human experience.
Within this broad horizon, the artwork our essay offers a complex and often seemingly contradictory understanding of technological media. For Benjamin, technology is at once a main cause of this destruction of experience and its potential solution. On the one hand, as he puts it in "Eduard Fuchs: Collector and Historian", human experience has been denatured by our own, quote, "bungled reception of technology."
This bungled reception has ensured that modern technology has produced anesthesia, a deadening of the human sensory capacities, while at the same asceticism and masking what are, at their base, brutal conditions of production and domination. It goes without saying that Susan Buck-Morss' work has been essential to our understanding of this aspect of Benjamin's work.
Yet that very technology nonetheless has the potential not so much to liberate human experience from its bondage, not so much to affect the construction of a new emancipated humanity, but rather the potential to reveal the conditions that obtain by performing the Herculean task of simply raising those conditions to the level of consciousness. The art work essay famously attributes to film the capacity to affect profound changes in the very structure and capacities of humans sensorium.
Part of the essay's difficulty stems from the fact that Benjamin uses the term apparatus in two distinct ways without clearly differentiated them. In the first and most evident meaning, the apparatus is the sum of the equipment necessary to produce and reproduce films. The second meaning, on the other hand, is much broader-- designate a conceptual and immaterial, yet absolutely objective arrangement that serves to position the subject as a point of view.
For Benjamin, this latter apparatus is nothing more and nothing less than the phantasmagoria that defines life under modern urban capitalism. Benjamin and Adorno, of course, derive this term itself in 18th century optical device, a kind of pre cinematic Plato's cave. At times, Benjamin understands phantasmagoria as an objective, though largely passive, condition of modern life. We live under phantasmagoria as under a second nature in which everything is illusory, yet we take that same thing to be real and inevitable, with distorting and denaturing consequences for the main subject, for the human subject.
In the artwork essay, however, the term apparatus-- well, in many ways co-terminus with the term phantasmagoria-- is more proactive. In fact, it is largely co-extensive with what Foucault in The History of Sexuality would later call "the Dispositif"-- an assemblage of heterogeneous mechanisms that capture and transform living beings into subjects in the process of which the, in Foucault's term, "dimension of power" plays a crucial role.
Something like this is very clearly what Benjamin intends in a sentence such as this-- "The function of film is to train human beings in apperceptions and reactions needed to deal with a vast apparatus, whose role in their lives is expanding almost daily." The artwork essay is then a demonstration of how this inimical apparatus might be re-functioned and appropriated for human ends-- or, as Benjamin puts it, "for resistance to fascist asceticization."
Freedom from what Benjamin calls "enslavement to the apparatus" can only come when a reformed humanity can come to terms with the new productive forces present, but unexploited, in technology. He thus envisions such a process in one late sentence in the essay, a sentence in which the term apparatus moves from its extended meaning through a more limited and basic meaning and arrives, after a dialectical turn, at a kind of sublated and potentiated form of the apparatus that can now be turned to human purpose.
For the majority of city dwellers, throughout the workday in offices and factories, have to relinquish their humanity in the face of an apparatus. In the evening, these same masses fill the cinemas to witness the film actor taking revenge on their behalf, not only by asserting his humanity or what appears to them as such against the apparatus, but by placing that apparatus in the service of his triumph.
In what, though, might that triumph consist? Surely not in the straightforward transformation of the apparatus. That is the kind of forward thinking to which neither Benjamin or Adorno ever allowed themselves to move. The triumph, presumably, consisted only in the acquisition of new apperceptions and reactions through a kind of extensive retraining that use the apparatus as a kind of prosthesis.
The power of social apparatus cannot be modified, but only annihilated. Benjamin's is not a progressive, not an ameliorist's politics. It is a cataclysmic politics of erasure. The erasure intended here would, in Benjamin's historiography, bring us to the end of days. I've claimed earlier that his work includes no concept of religion. At this point, let me modify that claim.
The late work is shot through with a sense that religious experience might indeed be possible, but only after the end of days, in a transfigured world that might emerge after it undergoes a collective sault immortali. This line in Benjamin's late thought is organized not by the concept of messianism, but by the theological concept of Apokatastasis. Benjamin deploys the term in a variety of contexts, signaling a sense of it's very broad applicability.
I am concerned today with one instance that has largely escaped critical attention. In the section of the Arcades convolutes labeled "social movement", Benjamin speaks, quote, "of the will to Apokatastasis as a resolve to gather again in revolutionary action and in revolutionary thinking, precisely the elements of the too early and the too late of the first beginning and of the final decay."
I will turn later to a fuller reading of the term itself. But for now, let me assert proleptically that the will to Apokatastasis is, in this sense, the political will for Walter Benjamin-- the will to bring an end to what is.
What I hope to have shown you so far is that three aspects of Benjamin's late work flow together in an explosive way-- the theory of modern media, an advanced understanding of the effect of these media on human sensorium, and the relationship of these two elements to Benjamin's late theological politics, here considered under the rubric Apokatastasis. What follows, I hope to reconstruct the discursive field from which this set of keywords-- eschatology, experience, and media-- originally arose.
In a manner utterly typical of Benjamin's patterns of thought, that field was constructed not in 1935 and 1936 with the writing of the artwork essay, but many years before, such that the terms only bubble to the surface at least 10 or 12 years after they first entered his work. He constructed the field, in fact, in the very early 1920s. And the names that correspond to those three keywords are Adolf von Harnack, Erich Unger, and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy.
Let me turn to Unger first. Now Erich Unger it's hardly a household word even in the households of Benjamin scholarship. He was, early and late, a disciple of the Jewish mystigog Oskar Goldberg. Goldberg-- who some of you may know as Chaim Breisacher in Thomas Mann's "Docktor Faustus"-- by the end of the World War had begun to propagate an esoteric doctrine of Judaism that held that the Jews special relationship to God was founded on a set of ritual practices in what he called "prehistoric Judaism", on a Judaism that has left traces only in the Pentateuch.
At the heart of the mythic, pre-rational age that Goldberg purports to have uncovered was the practice of magic. An investment in magic guaranteed, according to Goldberg, not just the proper relation to the divine, but especially a fundamental existential unity that alone could serve as the basis of an integrated, holistic human being, and, in turn, of a proper Jewish people.
For Goldberg, historical Judaism is nothing more than a falling away from this ancient, unified magical Hebraism. For Goldberg, contemporary religious, mysticism, philosophy, and even indeed every cultural practice, are nothing more than disunified, disjunctive approximations of an original magical unity. Scholem famously characterized Goldberg's doctrines as a biological Kabbalah.
In the hands of Goldberg's disciple, Erich Unger, however, these unambiguously religious ideas were given the appearance of a secularized philosophical form. In Unger's "Politics and Metaphysics" of 1921, the word religion appears not a single time, and the terms myth and magic, which of the central concept of Goldberg's project, appear only in a derogatory sense.
As you'll see, however, this apparent secularization was self consciously constructed as the necessary philosophical pendant to Goldberg's project. Unger's theories function as the propaedeutic to the possibility of what he took to be genuine religious experience. The transmission and apparent secularization of Goldberg's ideas through Unger-- excuse me-- would have remained a deeply buried footnote in the history of Jewish esoteric thought if Walter Benjamin had not encountered Unger in the early '20s.
Benjamin's enthusiasm for Unger and for his work in fact knew no bounds. He characterized Unger's book as, quote, "the most significant piece of writing on politics in our time." Now significant shared assumptions laid the ground, to a certain extent, for Benjamin's positive reception. Each man was persuaded that philosophical thought must move beyond a Kantian model that for them was based upon an inadequate understanding of human experience and knowledge.
Each was deeply invested in a polemic against the rationalistic activism of such figures as Kurt Hiller. Each man's politics was informed by deep-seated distrust of democracy and its attendant procedures, such as compromise and negotiation. And each of them saw in the mind body problem a determinant analogy for any understanding of politics. So if Unger's "Politics and Metaphysics" is nothing less than the attempt to re-conceive experience under the conditions of modernity, we have to ask how such a return to a myth might be possible.
As such, the book formulates a metaphysics through which apperception of what Unger calls an ideal condition-- a term that Benjamin first uses in 1914-- might be possible. Thus his credo ex negativo on page one. Every establishment and every survival of uncatastrophic human orders, every uncatastrophic politics, is unmetaphysically not possible. Now--
I understand that some of you are going to see this and say, I thought Jennings knew German. That can't possibly be what it says. So here's the German.
Unger's ideals politics-- that's what he says-- aims to restore to humanity a direct, unified relation to the categories of life, vitality, death. Those categories are unattainable, or attainable only through the organization under the category geist. The question raises itself then, even after this much of Unger, as to just what a thinker of the stature of Walter Benjamin might have seen in this book.
At the core of Unger's book lies a radical theory of the reformation of the human sensorium, a proposal that sets it apart from other positions within the German conservative revolution-- what Fritz Stern famously called "the politics of cultural despair"-- and brings it into implicit dialogue with a range of thought that includes the European avant garde. Unger begins by assuming that geist can intervene in the world in what he calls "corporeal economic existence" without falling prey to the dislocations and ailments of that world because this intervention occurs as a form of distant effectivity, what he calls "Fernwirkung."
The sole evident paradigm for this kind of remote control, and thus for the possibility of spiritual intervention in the catastrophic contemporary world, is the remote control evident in, quote, "the physiological mastery of the body through spiritual factors." Unger begins to stake out new ground when he asserts the spaced or distant intervention of geist in the corporeal world, quote, "according to the manner of the body" is conceivable only if nature, what he calls the, quote, "naturally given elements of the psycho-physiological phenomenon" is itself, quote, "modifiable."
And this modifiability itself can only, in turn, be based on a reformation of the concept of [SPEAKING GERMAN], that German word which here probably means something closest to intuition-- an intuition based on observation of the phenomenal world. Unger calls for the creation of what he calls a pure sensuousness, a [SPEAKING GERMAN]. The reconstruction and reformation of the human sensorium is then, in "Politics and Metaphysics", the key to a reconsideration of the very concept of experience, and more importantly, an expansion of the field constituted by the possible objects of experience.
More and different material circumstances must be brought within the field of vision of politics in order that the physical world might be governed. Any political undertaking fails not because the extensiveness, but because of the restriction of its scope. On this basis, Unger claims that the modifiability of the consciousness of empirical individuals can achieve a potentiation that might produce, quote, "an extension of the borders of accessibility into heretofore closed regions."
The reformation of the sensorium envisioned here allows for the intuition of a broader range of objects, and such a reformation remains the precondition of any religious experience. It's important to underline that, for Unger, these objects of experience are not in themselves religious. Benjamin certainly encountered then for the first time a thorough going argument for the reformation of the sensorium in Unger's book.
Soon after the reading of that book, though, Benjamin's circle of friends and intellectual partners began to intermingle with a very different group of Berlin intellectuals, a group now referred to as the G Group. In late 1922 and in the course of 1923, a new avant garde had begun to form itself in Berlin. The group met in the etauliers of a number of artists and architects, among them Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Mies van der Rohe, El Lissitzky, and Hans Richter. That's not a bad group.
A small inner circle soon formed, a circle intent on propagating a new direction for European culture. But at the edges of this group that was formulating a new direction formed a second group of young German Jewish intellectuals around Walter Benjamin. They included Benjamin himself, his wife Dora, and his good friend Ernst Schoen, a musician and musical theorist who went on to become the cultural director of one of the main radio stations in Germany.
Especially as a result of his conversations with Moholy, Benjamin had, by 1923, begun to rethink the implications of his reading of Unger and Unger's call for the reformation of the sensorium as the pre-condition for religious experience. Under Moholy's influence, Benjamin begins to reformulate this transformation as the result of material and especially of visual processes that are shaped by the human encounter with modern media.
He had by 1923 read Moholy's essay "Production, Reproduction" in which Moholy discriminates two forms of art-- art that merely reproduces the phenomenal world that is characteristic of capitalist modernity, and thus substantiates and perpetuates that world, and art that produces new relationships among its elements. And Moholy claims that this latter art, productive art, is itself the catalyst for major changes in the human sensory capacity, changes that might potentially allow for a revision and new understanding of our world.
The reformation of the sensorium through the encounter with art becomes, for Moholy, the precondition not for religious revival, but for social change. Walter Benjamin, however, clearly envisioned a reformation the sensorium that drew both on Unger and on Moholy in his re-functioning of their ideas. The reformed sensorium alone can raise the actual conditions then obtained to the level of consciousness. Once these conditions are disclosed, he felt that violent social change, revolt, was inevitable.
This account begs the question, of course, as to how the religious experience might be enabled by this process. Benjamin's reading habits at this time provide a third still wider horizon that suggests an answer to this question. He had read prominent liberal theologian Adolf van Harnack's massive three volume history of dogms-- Simon told me last night that Benjamin was not the only one to read the thing in its entirety, which I cannot lay claim to-- while he was still in Switzerland and writing his dissertation.
It's certainly significant that Benjamin read Harnack while in self imposed textile during World War I. Harnack was not merely the leading liberal Protestant theologian in the German speaking world. He was not merely Karl Barth's whipping boy. He was also something like the state theologian of the Wilheim Germany. It isn't a generally known fact, but it was actually Adolf von Harnack who wrote the Kaiser's, the German emperor's, war speech that was delivered in 1914.
Now in 1923 as Benjamin undertook broad preparatory work for his book on the Trauerspiel, he re-read all three of Harnack's volumes. Although we can trace a remarkable number of impulses that go out from Benjamin's reading of Harnack, one is particularly important for us here. Benjamin encountered there for the first time the theology of Origen of Alexandria, one of the earliest church fathers. And the most famous postulate of Origen's theology is the idea of Apokatastasis.
Now the simple version of this term-- and, I have to say, the version of the term that's played a role in my friend Irving Wohlfarth's work on Benjamin, sees it as the belief in universal salvation-- the idea that no soul is ever lost to redemption. How Irving attributed that idea to Walter Benjamin is completely beyond me. I have no idea how you get there. But that's neither here nor there.
The term occurs in only one biblical passage, in Act 3:21, a discussion of the end times. Apokatastasis there points to the possible "restitutio ad integrum", the restoration of all things after the end times. This temporal element is deeply inscribed, not only in the biblical passage, but throughout Origen as well. In Origen, though, the temporal aspect is the residue of a persistent cosmological dimension of the term.
A cosmological understanding of Apokatastasis is typical of Neoplatonism, of Stoicism, and of Gnosticism, all contemporaneous movements at eastern end of the Mediterranean contemporary and just before Origen's time. All these share a belief in the rigorous alternation of ages of cosmic culmination and cosmic restitution. In Stoicism, for example, in general, the term Apokatastasis refers to the idea that in all encompassing conflagration, the cosmos is reduced to it's primal element-- fire. Only then can the rebirth of all existing things come about.
How though do residues of these ideas inform Origen and thus the beginnings of a certain Christian orthodoxy? Origen was a process theologian. He believed that our capacity to understand the divine concepts was a dynamic process, a process that led to a gradual transformation, not just of our knowledge, but of our very being. A central stage of this education was, in fact, the fire of punishment, which is not an instrument of eternal torment, but rather for Origen one of divine instruction and purgation, both of which are necessary preconditions for any Apokatastatic restitution.
Just are there are many stages of our education, many different stages of the soul, there are many ages through which human society rises, falls, or comes to an end. In his major work "De Intibius", Origen offers an explanation of the term Apokatastasis that emphasizes its ontological and especially it's cosmological dimension. The end is always like the beginning. And therefore as there is one end to all things, so what we do understand that there was one beginning. And as there is one end to many things, so there spring from one beginning many differences and varieties, which again, through the goodness of God and by subjecting to Christ, and through the unity of the Holy Spirit, are recalled to one end, which is like unto the beginning. The beginning is thus like unto the end that necessarily precedes it.
This is an assertion of a cyclical pattern in human history-- an understanding of cycles in which each one is brought to an end by some redemptive act. Taking into account these varying strands, Benjamin's evocation of the will to Apokatastasis after 1935 clearly intends a complex action. Through the proper reception and deployment of modern media, this political will might affect a broad historical change in the structure and capacity of the human sense perception.
Such a reformed perceptive capacity might, on the basis of a newly enabled now of recognizability, lead to revolt against the conditions that obtained in the world, conditions that had previously been veiled. And the envisioned erasure of current conditions might provide a new body space, to quote an earlier term of Benjamin's, within which religious experience might once again be possible.
This is admittedly a preliminary and very abstract formulation of the will to Apokatastasis and its effects. In the time remaining, what I would like to do is give you a very specific, if unfortunately little known, example of how this works in the late Benjamin. Next little bit is a little bit polemical. I am an Arcades Project skeptic. I think it's a collection of resource notes and not a book.
And I think the definitive formulation of Benjamin's late work is the unfinished work on Charles Baudelaire, which can be read in a [INAUDIBLE] version that I'll be glad to share with any of you are interested. So that's what I'm going to be talking about now, is this book that unfortunately none of you have read. Benjamin's most important work in the late '30s is the great unfinished book on Charles Baudelaire.
It provides a very concrete example of how the cosmological speculation embedded within the term Apokatastasis might be realized under conditions of modernity. It does so by reading Baudelaire himself precisely as an incarnation of the will to Apokatastasis. The Baudelaire book, which had the working title Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, had a complex genesis.
It grew, beginning in 1937, out of the massive studies undertaken after 1927 for Benjamin's projected books on the origins of urban commodity capitalism in Paris in the 19th century that we now know as The Arcades Project. Convinced by his supporters at the Institute for Social Research in New York to commence work on a project that might yield near term results, as opposed to the perhaps unfinishable Arcades, Benjamin turned his focus to the great French poet, whom he had increasingly come to see as one of the organizing figures of the larger study of Paris.
The basis for the Baudelaire book was thus a systematic revision and reordering of The Arcades materials. Benjamin arrived at a tripartite scheme-- a book comprised of major sections called, one, Baudelaire's allegorist, two, the Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire, and three, the Commodity as Poetic Object. Commodity is subject for poetry, perhaps.
It is this last section that is of particular interest to us here. The chapters of the last section are entitled The Commodity, [SPEAKING FRENCH], Eternal Return, Spleen, Loss of Aura, [SPEAKING GERMAN], and Tradition. The book would have ended thus--
"The ideologies of the rulers are, by their nature, more changeable than the ideas of the oppressed. For not only must they like the ideas the latter adapt each time to the situation of social conflict, but they must glorify that situation as fundamentally harmonious. To undertake the salvage the great figures of the bourgeoisie means not least to conceive them in this most unstable dimension of their operation and precisely from out of that to extract, to cite, what has remained inconspicuously buried beneath, being as it was of so little help to the powerful."
The key phrase here is "in the most unstable dimension of their operation." Benjamin locates this dimension in the construction of cosmological allegories by what he calls the three great figures of the 19th century bourgeoisie, by which meant Baudelaire himself, Friedrich Nietzsche, and August Blanche. He sees in the very audacity of these constructions the potential to reveal the fissures and incoherencies in their harmonious facade bodied forth by capitalist metropolis.
The final pages of the Baudelaire book thus stage a reconstruction of three cosmological allegories. For Benjamin, the allegories of stellar constellations that recur in many of the poems in [SPEAKING FRENCH] make of Baudelaire's poetry a conjuration of the temporal phantasmagoria of modernity, with his main feature, the appearance of newness, from the misery of the second empire. Far from serving as rational analyzes of the state of life under capitalism, these cosmological conjurations condense and exacerbate central, if hidden, features of time as sameness and reputation.
Similarly, Nietzsche's idea of the eternal return reveals the constituent of emotional fantasies of capitalist life as, quote, "the phantasmagoria of happiness of [SPEAKING GERMAN]. These phantasmagorias are much like the modern media analyzed in "The Work of Art in the Age of it's Technological Reproducibility." The product of crisis. Yet also like these media when properly deployed, they have the unusual ability to indicate and intensify that crisis itself." Forgive the long quotation.
"The idea of eternal recurrence transformed the historical event itself into a mass produced article. But this conception also displays, in another respect, on its reverse side, one can say, a trace of the economic circumstances to which it owes its sudden actuality. This is manifest at the moment when the security of conditions of life where considerably diminished through an accelerating succession of crises. The idea of eternal recurrence derived its luster from the fact that it was no longer possible in all circumstances to expect a recurrence of conditions across any interval of time shorter than that provided by eternity. The quotidian constellations quite gradually began to be less quotidian. Quite gradually the recurrence became a little less frequent. And there could arise in consequence the obscure presentment that henceforth one must rest content with cosmic consolations."
The evocation of this obscure pre-sentiment, that the apparent regularity and predictability of life was itself a pernicious illusion is the first still tentative crack in the otherwise harmonious temporal facade of capitalism. An epoch does not simply awaken from the bad dream of history. It must have its uneasy sleep punctuated by a nightmare vision of a cruelty to awaken the dead.
It is in this sense that Benjamin can characterize the buried man as, quote, "the transcendental subject of history." The final hero Benjamin's series is August Blanche, that professional insurrectionist who had the distinction of being incarcerated for every major upheaval of the French 19th century. In the 1939 expose of The Arcades Project, Benjamin called Blanche's book [SPEAKING FRENCH], The Eternity by the Stars, "one last cosmic phantasmagoria which implicitly comprehends the severest critique of all the others."
He ascribes to Blanche's text an extreme hallucinatory power. Blanche's phantasmagoria shows a society, or so Benjamin hoped, about to be nudged by this horror out of it's long phantasmagoric sleep and awaken not like the Allegorist of the Trauerspiel book in the redeemed world, but in a world conscious of its own structures, mechanisms, and perhaps even possibilities. Only then might revolution come. Only then might all things be erased and then restored. Only then might religious experience become possible once again.
This Apokatastatic dimension of the politics developed in the Baudelaire book might well have remain unnamed. Like the ink in the metaphor with which we commenced, it would have remained invisible. Yet the cosmological speculation of the books final chapters, with saturated with Benjamin's very particular inflection of a patristic concept-- an understanding shaped not just by reading Christian dogma, but by his meditation on an esoteric Judaism an on the espousal of a Utopian and avant garde-ist media theory.
Apokatastasis emerges in Charles Baudelaire, A Lyric Poet in the Age of High Capitalism, as nothing less than the theology that must be taken into the service of politics if historical materialism is to have its day. I hope that my remarks today have allowed you at least a glimpse of those heretofore invisible strings that have animated Benjamin's Turkish puppet for all these years. Thanks for your attention.
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Michael Jennings, Class of 1900 Professor of Modern Languages at Princeton, examines some of the intellectual contexts for the media theory developed by Walter Benjamin in the 1930's. Drawing on his reading and experience in the early 1920's, Benjamin integrates aspects of esoteric Jewish thought (Erich Unger's Politik und Metaphysik), patristics (Origen of Alexandria and the concept of apocatastasis), and avant-garde cultural theory (Moholy-Nagy) into the theoretical armature of the essay "The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility" and especially into the central work of his late career, the book Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism."
Introduced by Hent de Vries, Russ Family Professor in the Humanities and Philosophy, Johns Hopkins University