chapter  7
12 Pages

Walter Benjamin

ByANGHARAD CLOSS STEPHENS

Very few theorists of international relations have engaged with the work and ideas of Walter Benjamin. This is in contrast to the great excitement for Benjamin’s writings experienced in many other disciplines since the 1970s. His work has been mined for its contributions to the fields of literary criticism, social and cultural theory, philosophy, art theory and human geography. Benjamin lived and wrote in the context of some significant and particularly violent moments in global politics: these include the outbreak of the First World War in 1914; the Bolshevik’s October Revolution in 1917; widespread economic depression; the inauguration of the Third Reich in 1933 and the rise of Nazi power. He experienced a ‘damaged life’ that was common to many of his friends and contemporaries, including Theodor Adorno, Ernst Bloch, Siegfried Kracauer, Bertolt Brecht and Georg Lukács, and which eventually forced him, like so many other of these fascinating figures, into a life in exile. What then can students of international politics learn from reading Walter Benjamin? Or, what ‘illuminations’ can Walter Benjamin’s writings offer a study of international politics? This brief introduction to Benjamin life and life’s works will explore some of the key themes in his writings, which touch on questions of history, representation and methodology. It will suggest that these broad themes are all underpinned by a persistent critique of the idea of time as progress. In concentrating on Walter Benjamin’s reflections on the relationship between time and politics, we encounter some exciting avenues of thought for our studies of international relations. Walter Benedix Schöenflies Benjamin was born on 15 July 1892 and raised

in Berlin, the son of an upper middle class, affluent Jewish family. At the time of the First World War, he was active in the radical wing of the city’s Youth Movement (Jugendbewegung) where he met his life long friend and intellectual companion, Gerhard (later Gershom) Scholem. Benjamin and Scholem found common ground in their backgrounds, in their interest in Zionism, and in their rejection of their parents’ middle class materialism and assimilationist Judaism. It was the cultural and intellectual aspects of Zionism that interested both of them and not the political project. This interest continued throughout both their lives: Scholem became a scholar of Jewish

thought and the Kabbalah and in 1923 fulfilled his ambition to emigrate to Palestine. Scholem never tired of working to persuade Benjamin to join him. Despite Scholem’s pleas, Benjamin never acted on his half-hearted promises to join him (Scholem 2001). Although Benjamin volunteered for military service in 1914, luckily for him, he was rejected by the recruiting board. Later that year, he became devastated at the suicide of two close friends, and after that, Benjamin worked repeatedly to avoid conscription, presenting himself as a palsy victim and later, with his wife Dora’s help, as suffering from sciatica. Benjamin married Dora Pollak (née Kellner) on 17 April 1917, following her divorce from Max Pollak, another member of the Youth Movement. She was the daughter of a well-known, Anglicist university professor, Leon Kellner, who worked as an editor and literary executor for the Zionist writings of Theodor Herzl (Scholem 2001: 27). She grew up in a Zionist environment, was well educated, and worked as an English translator. The couple had a son, Stefan, who was born on 11 April 1918. Benjamin drew his inspiration from a diverse range of sources including

German Romanticism, in particular the works of Novalis, Schlegel, and Hölderlin, Kantianism, Platonism and Jewish mysticism (Buck-Morss 1977). In these early years, he was already writing important essays, including ‘On Language as Such and the Language of Mankind’ (1916) and ‘The Programme of the Coming Philosophy’ (1918), which both engage with Kant’s concept of experience. In 1919, he completed his doctoral dissertation, on ‘The Concept of Art Criticism in German Romanticism’, in which he compared the views of A. W. von Schlegel and J. W. van Goethe on Romantic art criticism. He began to develop his idea of ‘immanent critique’, which involves unfolding the layers of a work of art to reveal its ‘truth content’ (Gilloch 2002). This theme was developed in a critical reading of ‘Goethe’s Elective Affinities’ in 1922. At this point, Benjamin was keen to acquire an academic position as lecturer in philosophy, not least in order to give him financial independence and break from a difficult relationship with his father. But the dissertation marked the beginning of the end of any academic ambition for Benjamin. In 1921, he was given the opportunity to edit his own journal, which he named Angelus Novus (‘The New Angel’ – inspired by the painting by Paul Klee) but the journal failed. In 1925, Benjamin applied for Habilitation (the qualification for teaching) at the University of Frankfurt, submitting a thesis on the Trauerspiel or German mourning-play, a particular form of seventeenth-century baroque tragic drama. Benjamin was interested in the ‘allegorical’ form of these plays, which presented a view of the world through fragmentation and ruination. This particular dramatic form was largely forgotten in literary circles but Benjamin sought to bring new life into it, as he wouldwith many other themes. The examiners failed to make any sense of the convoluted thesis however, and Benjamin was asked to withdraw, ending all prospects of an academic career. For the rest of his life, Benjamin was forced to make ends meet as a freelance writer, translator and reviewer, often under dire economic circumstances and living with long periods of loneliness.