Lowy 2005

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Lowy, Michael. Fire Alarm: Reading Walter Benjamin's 'On the Concept of History'. Trans. by Chris Turner. New York: Verson, 2005.
"He [Benjamin] is a revolutionary critic of the philosophy of progress, a Marxist opponent of 'progressivism', a nostalgic who dreams of the future, a romantic advocate of materialism." (2)
"it uses nostalgia for the past a arevolutionary method for the critique of the present." (2)

draws on German Romanticism, Jewish messianism and Marxism (4)

"occupies a peculiar, unique position in Marxist thinking and in the European Left in the inter-war years" (8)

"Benjamin does not conceive revolution as the 'natural' or 'inevitable' outcome of economic and technical progress (or of the 'contradiction between the forces and relations of production'), but as the interruption of a process of historical evolution leading to catastrophe." (9)
"Nothing seems more derisory to Benjamin than the optimism of the bourgeois parties and Social Democracy, whose political programme is merely 'a bad poem on sprintgime'. Against this 'unprincipled dilettantish optimism', inspired by the ideology of linear progress, he discovers in pessimism the point of effective convergence betweeen Surrealism and Communism. Needless to say, this is not a contemplative sentiment, but an active, 'organized', practical pessimism, directed entirely at preventing the onset of disaster by all possible means." (9)

Gothic Marxism (11)

A Reading of Walter Benjamin's 'These "On the Concept of History"'

Thesis I

theology -- concepts of remembrance and messianic redemption (27)

Thesis II

introduces theological concept of redemption

"He assigns a redemptive theological quality to remembrance, which is capable, in his view, of 'making into something incomplete' the apparently 'complete' suffering of the victims of the past." (31)

past victims -- "a secret pact binds us to them and we cannot easily throw off the demand they make upon us if we wish to remain faithful to historical materialism -- that is to say, to a vision of history as a permanent struggle between the oppressed and the oppressors. Messianic/revolutionary redemption is a task assigned to us by past generations. There is no Messiah sent from Heaven: we are ourselves the Messiah; each generation possesses a small portion of messianic power, which it must strive to exert." (32)

"God is absent, and the messianic task falls wholly to the generations of human beings. The only possible messiah is a collective one: it is humanity itself or, more precisely, as we shall see below, oppressed humanity." (33)
"What distinguishes Benjamin from Marx, however, is not just the theological dimension, but also the extent of the demand coming from the past: there will be no redemption for the present generation if it makes light of this claim of the victims of history." (33)

not just a question of memory but "of winning a game against a powerful and dangerous opponent" (34)

"If Jewish prophecy is both a reminder of a promise and a call for a radical transformation, in Benjamin the violence of the prophetic tradition and the radicalism of Marxist critique meet in the demand for a salvation that is not mere restitution of the past, but also active transformation of the present." (34)

Thesis III

"So long as the suffferings of a single human being are forgotten there can be no deliverance." (34)

Thesis IV

more interested in class struggle than other Marxists; history as "a succession of victories by the powerful" (38); "However, each new battle on the part of the oppressed puts in quesiton not only present domination, but also those past victories." (39)

"The past is lit by the light of today's battles, by the sun rising in the firmament of history." (39)
"The relation between today and yesterday is not a unilateral one: in an eminently dialectical process, the present illumines the past and the illumined past becomes a force in the present." (39)

Thesis V

"His objective is to discover the critical constellation formed by a particular fragment of the past with a particular moment of the present." (40)

Thesis VI

"The moment of danger for the historical subject -- that is to say, the oppressed classes (and the historian who has chosen their side) -- is the moment when the authentic image of the past emerges. Why? Probably because in that instant the comfortable, lazy vision of history as uninterrupted 'progress' dissolves." (44)

Thesis VII

"The modern equivalent of the Baroque courtier is the conformist historian." (48)

Nietzsche and Benjamin -- N emphasizes individual, overman; B, "solidarity with those who have fallen beneath the wheels of those majestic, magnificent chariots called Civilization, Progress and Modernity" (49)

"Brushing history against the grain -- a formula of tremendous historiographical and political significance -- means, then, first of all, the refusal in one way or another to join the triumphal procession, which continues, even today, to ride roughshod over the bodies of those who are prostrate." (49)

Thesis VIII

contrasting progressive history against a history of the oppressed (58)

Thesis IX

angel of history, blown away from the ruins by the storm of progress

"How is this storm to be halted, how is Progress to be interrupted in its unstoppable forward march?" -- task for the Messiah; Revolution (66)

from prepatory notes: "Marx says that revolutions are the locomotive of world history. But perhaps it is quite otherwise. Perhaps revolutions are an attempt by the passengers on this train -- namely, the human race -- to activate the emergency brake." (qtd 66-67)

Thesis X

does Benjamin want historians to be like the monks?

two methods -- "stepping bak, distancing oneself and acquiring perspective on current political events, not in order to ignore them, but to find their deep causes," and "turning away from the illusions and 'temptations' of the century, the cosy, seductive doctrines of progress" (68)

Thesis XI

topical -- "involves a radical critique of the capitalist exploitation of nature and the glorification of that exploitation by vulgar Marxism, which is positivist and technocratic in inspiration" (75)

Thesis XII

like Nietzsche, sees history as a necessity for life (78)

"It is clear the remembrance of victims is not, for him, either a melancholic jeremiad or a mystical meditation It has meaning only if it becomes a source of moral and spiritual energy for those in struggle today." (81)
"For Benjamin the emotions of the oppressed, far from being the expression of an envious ressentiment [Nietzsche] or an impotent rancour, are a source of action, of active revolt, of revolutionary praxis." (81)
"The important point for the author of the 'Theses' is that the last enslaved class, the proletariat, should perceive itself as heir to several centuries or millennia of struggle, to the lost battles of the slaves, serfs, peasants and artisans. Te accumulated force of these endeavours becomes the explosive material with which the present emancipatory class will be able to interrupt the continuity of oppression." (82)

Thesis XIII

"There is, therefore, no 'automatic' or 'continuous' progress: the only continuity is that of domination, and the automatism of history merely reproduces this ('the rule'). The only moments of freedom are intrruptions, discontinuities, when the oppressed rise up and attempt to free themselves." To be effective, this critique of progressive doctrines has to attack their common foundation, their deepest root, their hidden quintessence: the dogma of an homogeneous empty temporality." (86)

Thesis XIV

Tillich, kairos (full historical time) with chronos (formal time)

Revolution -- "the interruption of the eternal return and the coming of the most profound change. It is a dialectical leap, outside of the continuum, first towards the past and then towards the future." The 'tiger's leap into the past' consists in rescuing the heritage of the oppressed and drawing inspiration from it in order to break into and halt the present catastrophe." (87)

"The past contains presentness -- Jetztzeit -- a term variously translated into English as 'now-time' and 'time of the now'. In a variant of Thesis XIV, Jetztzeit is defined as an explosive to which historical materialism adds the fuse. The aim is to explode the continuum of history with the aid of a conception of historical time that perceives it as 'full', as charged with 'present', explosive, subversive moments." (87-88)
"The quotation of the past was not necessarily a constraint or an illusion, but could be a tremendous source of inspiration, a powerful cultural weapon in the present battle." (89)

Thesis XV

"Revolutionary classes -- that is to say, not only the proletariat, but all the oppressed of the past -- are aware of blowing historical continuity apart by their action. In fact, only revolutionary action can interrupt -- for a time -- the triumphal procession of the victors." (90)

empty temporality as clock time -- "It is the purely mechanical, automatic, quantitative, ever self-identical time of the timepiece: a time reduced to space." (91)

"The conception of time proposed by Benjamin has its sources in the Jewish messianic tradition: for the Hebrews time was not an empty, abstract, linear category, but was inseparable from its content. It is, however, in a way, traditional, pre-capitalist or pre-industrial cultures as a whole that retain, in their calendars and festivals, traces of the historicla consciousness of time." (92)
"The revolution is the attempt to arrest empty time by the irruption of qualitative, messianic time" (92)

Thesis XVI

"These energies, which are those of the Jetztzeit, are like the spark produced by a short circuit, enabling the continuum of history to be 'blasted apart'." (94)

Thesis XVII

"It is the task of remembrance, in Benjamin's work, to build 'constellations' linking the present and the past. These constellations, these moments wrested from empty historical continuity are monads. That is, they are concentrates of historical totality -- 'full moemnts', as Peguy would put it." The privileged moments of the past, before which the historical materialist comes to a halt, are those which constitute a messianic stop to events -- like that moment in July 1830 when the insurgants fired on the clocks. These moments represent a revolutionary opportunity in the battle, today, for the oppressed past, but also, doubtless, for the oppressed present." (96)
"The messianic arrest is a rupture in history, but not the end of history." (96)

Thesis XVIIa

"Benjamin reproaches Neo-Kantian-inspired Social Democracy, above all, for its attentisme, the Olympian calm with which it awaits, comfortably installed in empty and homogeneous time like a courtier in the anteroom, the inescapable advent of the 'revolutionary situtation' -- which, of course, will never come. The alternative he proposes is both historical and political, and it is both of these things potentialities. And in it an open conception of history as human praxis, rich in unexpected possibiliies and able to produce something new, stands opposed to any kind of teleological doctrine that trusts in the 'laws of history' or in the gradual accumulation of reforms on the safe and sure path of infinite Progress." (98)

Thesis XVIII

"The messianic monad is a brief instant of complete possession of history prefiguring the whole, the saved totality, the universal history of liberated humanity -- in a word, the history of salvation to which one of the notes refers." (99-100)
"Jetztzeit comprises all the messianic moments of the past, the whole tradition of the oppressed is concentrated, as a redemptive power, in the present moment, the moment of the historian -- or of the revolutionary." (100)

Thesis A

"The 'spliters of messianic time' are the moments of revolt, the brief instants that save a past moment, while effecting a fleeting interruption of historical continuity, a break in the heart of the present. As fragmentary, partial redemptions, they prefigure and herald the possibility of universal salvations." (101)
"By abanding the Western teleological model, we pass from a time of necessity to a time of possibilities, a random time, open at any moment to the unforeseeable irruption of the new." (102)

Thesis B

"Admittedly, from the 1929 article on Surrealism onwards, Benjamin set it as one of his objectives to add a measure of the intoxication and anarchist spontaneity the Surrealist embodied to Marxist so riety and discipline. But his object was not so much to 'decree' revolution as to plead for a conception of history as open process, not determined in advance, in which surprises, unexpected strokes of good fortune and unforeseen opportunities may appear at any moment." (105)

The Opening-up of History

"The 1940 'Theses' represent a kind of philosophical manifesto, in the form of dialectical images and allegories rather than abstract syllogisms, for the opening-up of history. That is, for a conception of the historical process that opens onto a dizzying field of possibilities, a vast branching structure of alternatives, without, however, fallin into the illusion of absolute liberty: the 'objective conditions' are also conditions of possibility." (107)

a Marxism of unpredictability -- "if history is open, if 'the new' is possible, this is because the future is not known in advance; the future is not hte ineluctable result of a given historical evolution, the necessary and predictable outcome of the 'natural' laws of social transformation, the inevitable fruit of economic, technical or scientific progress -- or, worse still, the continuation, in ever more perfected forms, of the same, of what already exists, of actually existing modernity, of the current economic and social structures." (109)

"Benjamin often refers to the oppressed classes as the subject of emancipatory praxis. Now, in the note on the train, he speaks of the whole of humanitiy 'activat[ing] the emergency brake'. This universalist approach -- which doubtless stands opposed to the particularist corporatism of a certain political/trade-unionist ideology, though not necessarily to the decisive role of social classes -- enables us to rethink social emancipation and the abolitoin of domination from the viewpoint of the multiplicity of collective or individual subjects." (114)

"an entire programme that implicitly challenges the categories of a dominant historiography steeped in the ideology of linear, beneficent, inevitable progress" (116)