Walter Benjamin’s Theologico-Political Fragment is among the shortest of works we have from Benjamin’s hand. We are reading it this semester among a handful of works by Benjamin in a course titled “Cultural Production in Modernity.” And for me it might provide the most concise summery of modernity found in any modern work.
The problem I confront in any modern text is two-fold. First, how does this text — any text — display the world in which it is embedded. As Pierre Bourdieu reminds us, this problem is neither the same as the objectivist’s problem, wherein we attempt to draw out the “objective” meaning of a cultural object, nor the same as the phenomenological approach, wherein I try “to make explicit the truth of primary experience of the social world.” This, according to P Bourdieu, is not only because so much of practice is driven by flexible “rules” that go without saying, but also because any map we are likely to develop to grasp either the “objective” meaning, or the “primary experience” of actors within a community will display a practical logic that is ours not theirs. Therefore, to explore how W Benjamin’s text, or any text, displays the world in which it is embedded, I must first, however provisionally, develop a theory of how that world is shaped and must then see whether and how far my theory of practice is validated by the text.
The second question I ask is how well the author grasps the conditions that constrain (in this case) W Benjamin’s cultural production. How well does W Benjamin grasp his own cultural production and therefore the production of his text?
Because Theologico-Political Fragment is an implicitly theological reflection, many of my students particularly here in the former Yugoslavia are inclined to prematurely dismiss its modernist credentials. Insofar as modernism aims at an “objective” if formal grasp of the world as a universal possibility, it strikes many students as inconceivable that a modernist text would invoke a Kingdom of God. Such an invocation strikes them, to the contrary, as at best romantic, particularly because of W Benjamin’s explicit invocation of the sublime.
This temptation to identify W Benjamin’s fragment with romanticism, however, risks falling back into purely formalist categories and periodizations. To avoid this risk, we need to recall that the foundation of modernism — the isolation of the sublime value form of the commodity from its material form of appearance — also shapes the tropes we tend to identify as romanticist, except that under romanticism we are inclined to draw the sublime value form back into relationship with its estranged body and therein risk the annihilation of the latter. In his fragment, W Benjamin is clearly aware of this danger and seems ready at the outset to maintain the modernist isolation of the two from one another. The Messianic order, writes Benjamin, cannot be an earthly, an historical, kingdom. It cannot be such a worldly kingdom not only because, were it to become historical, it would annihilate its body, but because, embodied, it would become a lie. This, then, is the essence of modernism: this qualitative isolation of the sublime value form of the commodity from its material form of appearance.
So too is it clear that W Benjamin recognizes the fundamental antagonism, yet interdependence, of these two mutually constitutive social forms. They each, to use K Marx’s expression, provoke one another into occupying their respective extremes.
Finally, however, in a deliberate, explicit reference to F Nietzsche, W Benjamin insists that the political task involves provoking precisely this opposition, using a method that Benjamin says “must be called nihilism.”
Obviously it would be fairly easy to identify the Kantian and neo-Kantian elements within Benjamin’s fragment, elements which he clearly shared with Ernst Bloch and which both Bloch and Georg von Lukacs might easily have cultivated in Marianne and Max Weber’s Heidelberg Sonntagskreise. But this would still miss the ways that these elements are already socially generalized and form part of generalized social subjectivity.
Was Benjamin aware of the historical and social character of his own interpretive categories? At first glance, it would appear that he was not. Indeed, at first glance it would appear that he has transhistoricized, even transcendentalized the opposition between the sublime value form of the commodity and its material form of appearance.
This would surely help us explain Benjamin’s decision not to follow his friends to Palestine. Insofar as the Messianic promise cannot by definition take an historical form, the very attempt to do so could only lead either to the destruction of the body of the state or to self-destructive deception. The only alternative for Benjamin was therefore to push the purely secular state, the state whose aim is only human happiness.
The hostility between the sublime value form and its material form of appearance appears then to establish itself firmly and eternally in Benjamin’s narrative.
In fact, it is at this point that Benjamin’s invocation of nihilism takes on added importance. For Benjamin aligns this nihilism with nature and with nature’s resistance to the eternal. Nature instead invokes for Benjamin an eternal passing, an eternal fading into nothingness; and, therefore, it is a sign of the Messianic promise. How?
Because if Benjamin had adopted the eternal isolation of the value form from its body, he would simply be repeating the neo-Kantian platitude; if, on the other hand, he had contemplated their eventual resolution, Hegel-like, this would have displayed a profound misunderstanding of the actual relationship between the sublime value form and its body, because it is together that the two compose the commodity.
Instead, Benjamin contemplates the temporality, the historicity, the eternal passing of the Messianic; that is to say, the two-fold commodity form is resolved not by erasing the hostility between its mutually constitutive elements, but by superseding the form as such; it is not the supposedly transcendental, transhistorical dimension of the Messianic that must be realized historically. Instead, Benjamin is contemplating the temporalization, the bodily limiting, the passing of the body; not its destruction, but its embodiment and so its eternal passing, not its realization.
Here Benjamin comes very close to an immanent critique of traditional Marxist theory. Such a critique would entail the realization of the Messianic, not in a victorious form, but in eternal passing. But he misses this critique if only by a hair’s breadth.