The Archive is Burning: Walter Benjamin in Brazil

By guest contributor Niklas Plaetzer


Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin never left Europe, yet his writings have had a remarkable impact on critical thought around the globe. As Edward Said suggested, the dislocation of an idea in time and space can never leave its content unaffected. “Having moved from one place and time to another, an idea or a theory gains or loses in strength,” so that its “travels” render a theory “altogether different for another period or situation” (226). The plasticity of ideas, their capacity to be torn out of context and made to speak in ever-new constellations, lies at the heart of Walter Benjamin’s own work. Benjamin’s thought never took the form of systematic exposition, but rather unfolded in essays, journal articles, sketches, and thought fragments. This was not just a stylistic choice; in fact, it corresponded closely to his view of a radical break in the linear time of progress—to a splintered temporality, shot through by the unmasterable memories of the oppressed.


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Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, iconically envisioned by Benjamin as “the angel of history”

Benjamin’s syncretic fusion of Marxism, Jewish mysticism, and the German Romantics continues to cast its spell on contemporary readers. Perhaps it is precisely this fragmented character, combined with the palpable urgency of his writings, that can account for the globalized interest in his work. But more importantly still, Benjamin’s relentless emphasis on dialectical reversal—on another kind of history, told from the “point of view of the defeated”—continues to resonate with post- and decolonial projects and a “reading against the grain” of history. Paul Gilroy, in his The Black Atlantic, explicitly drew on Benjamin to write a “primal history of modernity to be reconstructed from the slaves’ point of view” (55). Decolonial scholars continue to find inspiration in Benjamin’s scathing critique of modernity as well as his call to cling to a “humanity-in-the-making” amidst an unending catastrophe. In 2015, the international conference “Benjamin in Palestine: Who Owns Walter Benjamin? On the Place and Non-Place of Radical Thought” was held in Ramallah. It opened new paths for such an engagement with Benjamin from within states of exception, “among layers of rubble and generations of resistance,” escaping the confines of academic canonization (60–64).


Slipping under the radar of Euro-American academia, Benjamin has exerted a particular influence on Brazilian critical theory. In an admirable study on his reception history in Brazil, Gunter Karl Pressler of the Federal University of Pará, Belém, has traced this unusually fruitful interplay of traditions: between North and South as well as between thought and revolutionary practice. What accounts for the elective affinity between Brazilian critical theory and Benjamin’s work? Pressler ties it back to the 1960s, when experimental poet and translator Haroldo de Campos, one of the co-founders of the Concrete Poetry movement in Brazil, took inspiration from Benjamin to theorize translation as “transcreation” [transcriação], as a practice of “parricide dis-memory” [desmemória parricida] (p. 149-153). Haroldo de Campos and his brother Augusto thereby took a decisively “anti-Eurocentric, anti-ethnocentric, deconstructive strategy, beginning with the idea of cannibalism, understood as the appropriation of the vital energy of the Other, beginning with his destruction” (9). In doing so, they read Benjamin alongside a classic of Brazilian modernism, Oswald de Andrade’s Manifesto Antropófago (1928), in which cannibalism is reconfigured as a positive model of cultural appropriation by the oppressed: eating up the potency of the colonizing North, destroying its claim to control, and producing new, unauthorized constellations in the process. Authors like José Guilherme Merquior and Flávio R. Kothe further helped disseminate Benjamin and the Frankfurt School at a time when the Brazilian military dictatorship had taken over and the student movement organized its resistance against heavy repression.

For the Brazilian left, Benjamin’s peculiar Marxism seemed like a way to both articulate critical thought in solidarity with on-going movements, and still open up a gap within Marxist discourse, creating spaces beyond authoritarian orthodoxy. A turn to Benjamin also broke up space for counter-histories of Brazil itself, resonating with the memory of indigenous genocide and slavery. His phrase that “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” has rung true in a society dominated by rural latifundistas (plantation owners) and a state ideology of “Ordem e Progresso” (Order and Progress). It also spoke to theorists who tried to position themselves between an elitist attachment to European intellectual production on the one hand, and the rising visibility of black, indigenous, and landless workers’ movements on the other. As Pressler argues, Benjamin thereby became part of 1970s Brazilian counter-culture, somewhere between Marx and Caetano Veloso.

Two key figures in this creative reception stand out: Leandro Konder (1936-2014) and Michael Löwy (born in 1938). As Löwy puts it,

there is a necessity to look at the past in Brazil—even recent past—from the point of view of the oppressed [derrotados], the poor, Blacks, women, workers, revolutionaries. In Benjamin, this sensibility finds a coherent philosophical expression. I believe that this has helped to develop a current of people in the social sciences, in the historiography of political thought, who are very interested in Benjamin. (200)

What unites Konder and Löwy is their appreciation for the deep melancholia of Benjamin’s thought, which they regard as the truly revolutionary attitude, at odds with a bourgeois belief in progress. For Benjamin as for his Brazilian readers, social critique must begin with a critique of the very idea of progress, including its leftist varities, and fuel a lucid melancholia from which there is no escape. Yet such Benjaminian melancholia has “nothing to do with fatalistic resignation and even less with the conservative, reactionary, prefascist German Kulturpessimismus,” Löwy emphasizes (9). “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). For Leandro Konder, Benjaminian melancholia, “brought into tune with the calls for ‘revenge’ among the traditionally exploited social classes and stimulated by their movements of contestation,” should thus be understood as “melancolérico:” a melancholic kind of anger, organized and fueled by memory.

Löwy’s seminal book on Benjamin, Fire Alarm, was originally published in French, in his Parisian exile, where he has lived and worked since 1969. Born in São Paulo as the son of Jewish immigrants from Vienna, Löwy has not ceased to push Benjamin’s insights to new conclusions—such as ecosocialism—without ever abandoning a practical commitment to the radical left. Unlike many critical theorists, he also remains acutely aware of non-Eurocentric imaginaries at work in social struggles. He has written about the quilombo dos Palmares, the revolution of maroon slaves (fugitives) in the Brazilian North-East, who, until their defeat in 1695, resisted the onslaught of Dutch and Portuguese armies under the leadership of Zumbi dos Palmares. While the Haitian Revolution is today receiving increasing historiographical attention, the quilombo dos Palmares still remains a largely ignored event. Against such enforced forgetfulness, Löwy’s writings place it in an unusual conversation with the history of the 1871 Paris Commune and the struggles of international workers. But what might seem like an arbitrary juxtaposition is better grasped as a Benjaminian constellation of memories in resistance. They not only animate Löwy’s thinking, but continue to fuel the practices of Brazil’s opposition: for instance, when black movements, hip hop artists, or occupations of landless workers draw on the memory of Palmares, invoking the legendary name of Zumbi, as they fight for land reform and against institutional racism. As Benjamin’s Thesis VI puts it, “articulating the past historically does not mean recognizing it ‘the way it really was.’ It means appropriating a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger.”

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“Limpo Seu Historico” (“I clean your record”): street art in Cachoeira in the northeastern state of Bahia. Photo credit: Niklas Plaetzer, August 2017.

In June 2017, in the wake of the (arguably unconstitutional) impeachment of President Dilma Roussef, Brazilian Congress passed a bill that allows for the large-scale burning of historical documents from national archives after their digitization as part austerity plans. Already accepted by both chambers, the “Lei da Queima de Arquivo” (Law of the Archive Burning) is awaiting a final consultation process before going into effect. This controversial reform must be understood against the backdrop of what many consider to be a coup d’état by President Michel Temer. Yet the current political situation can hardly be considered an anomaly. As Benjamin put it, in his often quoted phrase, “the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.”

With the “Lei da Queima de Arquivo,” Löwy’s Fire Alarm has taken up another scandalous reality. Its painful resonance speaks to the ways in which a postcolonial reading of Benjamin cannot be a calm, scholarly addition to a renewed and reconciled canon. The planned burning of the Brazilian national archives remains inscribed in a long history of erasure, of which Palmares is one powerful symbol and of which Brazil’s social movements continue to carry the traces. But reading Benjamin while the archive is burning also speaks to struggles in the present that remain undecided—in Brazil and elsewhere.

Niklas Plaetzer is an incoming doctoral student at the University of Chicago’s Department of Political Science, specializing in political theory. He holds a masters degree from Sciences Po Paris, where he worked on Hannah Arendt’s critique of sovereignty in light of radical democratic thought. At the University of Chicago, he is hoping to do research at the juncture of critical theory, constitutional law, and the politics of social movements, with a particular interest in Brazil. His work has previously appeared in the Journal of International Affairs, the Columbia Journal of Literary Criticism, 3:am magazine, and the Review of Politics (forthcoming).

Ideas of Attachment: What the “Postcritical Turn” Means for the History of Ideas

by contributing editor Daniel London

In the early 1990s literary scholar and queer activist Eve Sedgwick broke rank and attacked what Paul Ricoeur called the “hermeneutics of suspicion” that dominated her discipline. Her early critique of Critique as ontologically rigid, morally cruel, and politically ineffective is now being taken up by a growing number of humanities practitioners, mostly within English departments. How can historians of ideas learn from, and contribute to, this nascent movement towards a “post-critical” sensibility? A fruitful way to begin is to analyze this movement’s most cogent and comprehensive manifesto thus far: English Professor Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique, published by the University of Chicago Press in 2015.

While the methodologies of Critique might encompass a wide range of particular practices, from Foucauldian genealogy to Freudian analysis to Marxist materialism, Felski believes that the purported radicalism and rigor of these practices derives from a singular premise: that the meaning of a text is not based on its empirical form or content, but the “intentions” of those broader social contexts which produced it. The relevant contexts here might be macro structures as revealed by “standing back” from the text (as Marxists or other structuralists might do) or they might be the hidden motivations of the texts’ producers as unveiled by “digging deeper” into the text (as Freudians and gender theorists have long practiced). In either case, the text – whether it be a novel, a painting, or a statistic – is not assumed to speak for itself.

Felski makes short work of the notion that this approach is inherently progressive: climate change deniers and the FBI are both self-identified experts at uncovering “the truth” behind seemingly translucent prose. She also mirrors Sedgwick in questioning the political efficacy of Critique’s pose of absolute resistance, a pose that derives from its more general skepticism of any positive “text” whether it be novels or social legislation. To quote Sedgwick at length and with pleasure,

Reparative motives, once they become explicit, are inadmissible in paranoid theory both because they are about pleasure (“merely aesthetic”) and because they are frankly ameliorative (“merely reformist”).’ What makes pleasure and amelioration so “mere”? Only the exclusiveness of paranoia’s faith in demystifying exposure: only its cruel and contemptuous assumption that the one thing lacking for global revolution, explosion of gender roles, or whatever, is people’s (that is, other people’s) having the painful effects of their oppression, poverty, or deludedness sufficiently exacerbated to make the pain conscious (as if otherwise it wouldn’t have been) and intolerable (as if intolerable situations were famous for generating excellent solutions).

Equally debilitating, however, are the limitations of Critique as a means of understanding texts in the first place. Much of these limitations, argues Felski, derives from its incapacity to identify how different texts, even those purportedly produced within the same “context”, could take such different forms and spark such different reactions among readers.  If all Victorian novels are unredeemably tainted with the patriarchal/racist/bourgeois sins of its context, why is it that we continually focus our readings around some texts– say, the works of Sherlock Homes – instead of others, such as his innumerable hack imitators and predecessors? Why do some texts seem to attract, surprise, and summon something from us in ways that others do not? Why are some texts adopted and appropriated across time and space, while others remain trapped as antiquarian prisoners of their birth?  The drive to contextualize, writes Felski, often cannot explain such differences in the operation, reception, and transmission of particular texts. As Bruno Latour  has cynically noted, practitioners of critique are perfectly realist in their appreciation of things they inherently enjoy – movies, exercising, fishing, etc. Only when discussing texts they do not like do they move beyond the text in question to a (much more articulate) talk of the hidden inputs and outputs that purportedly give it significance.

What is to be done? Felski does not recommend a return to discussing texts as self-sufficient units of analysis, as formalists and new aesthetics have recommended. Nor does she advocate a more gracious form of “surface” or “reparative” reading, however therapeutic. Rather, her stab at a solution proceeds from a redefinition of texts as co-producers of social reality, rather than as entirely reflective or autonomous from it. In language explicitly borrowing from Actor-Network Theory, Felski argues that the discrete characteristics of a text can, under certain circumstances, actively generate certain qualities – identification, empathy, inspiration – among readers. Felski urges literary scholars to attend to these circumstances, to trace the social interconnections, attachments, and productions that emerge through the interaction of readers and texts. Under this paradigm, writes Felski, “interpretation becomes a coproduction between actors that brings new things to light rather than an endless rumination on a text’s hidden meanings or representational failures.”

Felski does not explicitly spell out the broader consequences of such a methodology on the politics and mores of the academy. Nonetheless, her call for scholars to pay greater attention to what texts can enable or allow in their readers seems to echo a political vision that , in the words of Jeff Prunchnik, “places a higher priority on strategies for seizing on the constrained possibilities present within existing systems of social power than on critique as traditionally understood”. Her agenda also offers, I believe, a partial solution to the spiritual and ethical malaise felt by many graduate students (including myself) deriving from Critique’s tendency to “burn through whatever is small, tender, and worthy of protection and cultivation”, in the words of Lisa Ruddick’s must-read essay When Nothing is Cool. Critique is quite proficient at deconstructing and damning expressions of compassion or empathy based on the sins of those who have articulated them in the past. It is quite silent, however, as to why and how we come to generate, cherish and care for certain values and artistic expressions that are not entirely based on ego or interest. A hermeneutics of attachment, along the lines Felski advocates, seems to offer an intellectually responsible way of gaining such an understanding.

How novel, familiar, or challenging should all this sound to historians of ideas or intellectual historians more generally? We should begin by stressing the close kinship of these disciplines to that of literary studies. In both cases, their defining methodologies seems to me a) a close reading of individual texts (novels, philosophical treatises, pamphlets) and b) a spiraling out towards the relation of these texts toward a broader set of contexts (either intellectual “communities of discourse”, institutional structures, other ideas, social/cultural fields, etc). Both disciplines were equally vulnerable to criticism in the 1960s and 70s that their preferred texts and contexts were overly narrow as compared with the more open-ended fields of social and cultural history. And both fields responded by reframing the contexts of their texts to encompass yet broader arrays of texts and contexts, and in so doing reframe their own significance.

Protected by their discipline’s stubborn empiricism, I suspect that historians of ideas have remained, with some notable exceptions, generally uncontaminated by the more totalizing strains of Critique that Felski lambasts within English departments. I also suspect, with less certainty, that histories of ideas as narrative forms possess a thicker vocabulary for defining “context” and explaining the transmission of text-actor attachments over time than can be found in their critique-driven counterparts. Whether their methods are complementary to the Actor-Network Theories Felski vouches for is the subject of another essay. Nonetheless, I am certain that she and many other post-critical theorists can learn a lot from the rich (though often theoretically under-developed) work of intellectual historians. Recent Developments in Book History, and bibliography particular, are also complementary to Felski’s agenda.


Robert F. Westbrook, Joseph F. Cunningham Professor of History at the University of Rochester.

At the same time, I believe the topics historians of ideas pursue can become more aligned with the concerns of post-critical theorists.  This can be seen in the way such scholars attempt to study one topic of seemingly shared interest: the history of morality. In an excellent review essay in Modern Intellectual History, Robert Westbrook identifies several approaches intellectual historians have developed to chart the appearance and disappearances of ethical “oughts” over time. Such methods have generally taken either an “internalist” (tracking changes in the conceptual vocabulary of morality over time) or an “externalist” (examining how the ethical principles of a particular community both informed and were transformed by their own lived experiences) tact. I suspect that Felski would ask for a subtly different explanandum: why do some texts, and not others, summon different moral responses and allegiances from their audience? To answer this question would require examining such audiences and texts in a far more comparative manner than most have done so far.

“Why are we so hyperarticulate about our adversaries and so excruciatingly tongue-tied about our loves”? Felski asks at the beginning of her work. I don’t believe the humanities can unilaterally prescribe what we should love today, but their practitioners  are awakening to the fact that one of the chief values of the humanities lies in asking how these loves have developed, died, and survived in the past and in our own time with self-consciousness, empathy, and rigor.   I believe Historians of Ideas can play a crucial role in this collective moral inquiry, and should take inspiration from the post-critical turn that their efforts will have a waiting audience in the academy – and likely beyond.