By Dibyokamal Mitra
Among the various cudgels raised against the notions of empiricist history, Enlightenment rationality, and civilizational progress in the last century, Walter Benjamin’s particular intervention stands apart for its methodology, scope of critique, and poetical character. While it is true that the prestige accorded to the influential Rankean notion of “wie es eigentlichgewesen” (“as it actually was”) has been seriously questioned from several intellectual quarters, the basic underlying philosophical assumptions of the Rankean doctrine usually make a reappearance in disguise in the arguments of even its strongest detractors. To illustrate this and better prepare the ground for appreciating Benjamin’s distance from other mainstream thinkers of history, it would be instructive to briefly consider the work of the influential Marxist historian E. H. Carr in his seminal work What is History?
Originating as a series of lectures delivered by Carr at the University of Cambridge in 1961, What is History? has become a modern classic and serves as a ready reference for most undergraduate students of history looking to cut their teeth on the philosophical questions of facticity and causality which face the professional historian. In the widely-read first chapter, “The Historian and His Facts,” Carr seems to mark his distance from the Rankean, “empiricist” notion that historical facts are simply “out there” and it is the task of the professional historian to gather these facts as carefully and exhaustively as possible. For Carr, such a disposition neglects the subjective element of history writing since the historian always chooses which fact is worthy enough to be elevated to the category of the historical; thus history writing is not simply an objective affair concerned with the correct ordering and subsequent narration of facts. This leads to the famous closing lines of the opening chapter where history is seen as “a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past.”
On the face of it, this seems like a departure from the empirical notion of history writing. Carr follows this up with a similar pronouncement on causality. Just like the objective fact is not simply “out there”, neither is the objective cause and “the relation of the historian to his causes has the same dual and reciprocal character as the relation of the historian to his facts.”
To take our final reference to Carr, in his chapter on the notion of progress in history, he ties his flag firmly to the mast of progress, declaring his preference for a “constructive outlook over the past” without which history writing lapses into either myth or cynicism. Carr’s idea of progress is an infinite one, one that necessarily takes place in history. According to Carr, those who eschew this idea of progress must take an inevitable detour into either the extra-historical logic of eschatology where the “meaning” of history is decided in advance (myth) or the “senseless” position of literature where history writing can be conceived of as mere tales and legends with no actual bearing on the past, present or future (cynicism).
To sum up, Carr’s intervention into the debate regarding objectivity in history concerning facts and causes can be seen in his emphasis on the subjectivity of the process of history writing. One does not find “true” history in the facts and causes themselves, but to a certain extent one creates it in the act of writing. On the other hand, these facts and causes (however subjective they may be) must necessarily be framed through a narrative of infinite progress in order for it to be counted as history writing proper. Without this “proper” framing, we are left with either esoteric ramblings or writings which amount to amusing stories and not much else.
Benjamin’s critique of Rankean history (and even the history writing being produced under the name of Social Democracy) begins from this notion of progress, and the assumption behind this notion, viz., that one may narrate history only as a linear model of continuous improvement, however unreachable its final point may be. An oft-quoted line from his last major work, “On the Concept of History”: “The concept of the progress of the human race in history is not to be separated from the concept of its progression through a homogenous and empty time. The critique of the concept of this progress must ground the basis of its critique on the concept of progress itself.”
It is this question of time which most sharply distinguishes Benjamin from other thinkers and writers on history, and the point where he draws his distance from the idea of historicism as a whole. For a historicist time is empty; it does not have weight and it can be parcelled into periods and epochs. For Benjamin, the task of the historian cannot be to simply record and express (whether objectively or subjectively) facts and causes which explain how things come to be the way they are. To do this is to already legitimize the way that things stand as they do in the present moment, and amounts to a dereliction of duty on part of the historical materialist. To better flesh out the role of the historical materialist (to be distinguished from the mere historicist), Benjamin uses the term Jetztzeit (literally “Now-Time”, translated here as ‘here-and-now’) to describe his conception of historical time. To take an example from “On the Concept of History”, Benjamin writes: “History is the object of a construction whose place is formed not in homogenous and empty time, but in that which is fulfilled by the here-and-now [Jetztzeit]. For Robespierre, Roman antiquity was a past charged with the here-and-now, which he exploded out of the continuum of history. The French revolution thought of itself as a latter day Rome. […] It is the tiger’s leap into that which has gone before.”
This is not a very usual way of thinking about history. Why, for instance does one need to take a “tiger’s leap into the past”, and what does it even mean? The first point to be noted here is that the past for Benjamin is never simply the past; and for the revolutionary, artist or historical materialist, the present or the now (“Jetz”) must be read into the past. This process seems quite at odds with the usual methodology of the historicist whose task is rather to trace as accurately and objectively as possible how the past has morphed into the present due to various political, economic or social reasons. Benjamin’s historical materialist will not be satisfied with such a procedure, and instead will select an event from history which only receives its proper place once it has been exploded out of the continuum of history with the aid of the present.
Another way to conceptualize this notion of time is to consider Benjamin the historian of breaks; not of continuity. E. H. Carr posits that only an insane mind would believe that the infinite line of progress is without breaks and deviations, and that for a sane mind even the sharpest deviations and regressions would not necessarily disrupt the eventual progression of history. For Benjamin, radical change (or revolution) can only occur when the forward-moving train of progress is derailed with the help of the past. The notion of derailment, stopping, and ceasing is not a mere ornamental part of Benjamin’s edifice, it refers to the subjective position of the historical materialist and also describes the methodology employed by them.
For the historical materialist, history is written from the present, but not the flowing present. Benjamin’s notion of historical time originates from the present, and Benjamin uses the word Stillstellung (literally, “quiet-position” and figuratively more commonly used to refer to an interruption in a machinic process) to refer to the subjective position from which the historical materialist operates. In the words of Benjamin: “The historical materialist cannot do without the concept of a present which is not a transition, in which time originates and has come to a standstill. For this concept defines precisely the present in which he writes history for his person. Historicism depicts the ‘eternal’ picture of the past; the historical materialist, an experience with it, which stands alone.”
Two observations must be made here: Firstly, that history-writing for the historical materialist is not an affair which has any pretentions of “universal history” or objectivity. Secondly, this non-objective history where the subjectivity of the historian is at stake can only be written if the present and a particular epoch in the past are “short-circuited” without care towards the supposed “progress” that has been made in the intervening period. This notion of the present can only be made operational if its additive, empirical and historicist character can be brought to a halt. To quote Benjamin:
Historicism justifiably culminates in universal history. Nowhere does the materialist writing of history distance itself from it more clearly than in terms of method. The former has no theoretical armature. Its method is additive: it offers a mass of facts, in order to fill up a homogenous and empty time. The materialist writing of history for its part is based on a constructive principle. Thinking involves not only the movement of thoughts but also their zero-hour [Stillstellung]. Where thinking suddenly halts in a constellation overflowing with tensions, there it yields a shock to the same, through which it crystallizes as a monad. The historical materialist approaches a historical object solely and alone where he encounters it as a monad.
Thus, to stop the incessant, “homogenous” flow of time necessary to sustain the narrative of empiricist or historicist modes of writing is a productive endeavour for Benjamin. Once the present is not conceptualised as an inevitable outcome of the past, it is free to interact with a particular epoch from the past, whose pressure weighs down on the present as part of its Jetztzeit. The Benjaminian wager here is that the revolutionary hope or chance already is hanging over the present. While Carr sees any non-linear, non-cynical and non-progressive view of history as necessarily belonging to the mythical and eschatological, Benjamin charges this very notion of history as continually changing, progressing and moving forward in a straight line to be highly ideological, and serving the interests of the ruling classes.
It must be clarified that the subjectivity of the historical materialist does not consist in freely choosing which epoch from the past they shall short-circuit the present with. The Benjaminian present is always shot through with splinters of what Benjamin calls “messianic time”. The subjectivity of the historical materialist consists of being able to stop the flow of homogenous and empty time so that every moment becomes one where a revolutionary situation might emerge. Benjamin would go on to say that for Jews looking into the future was forbidden, and the Torah and prayers would instead instruct them in the ways of remembrance and that which returned. What this did was that it prevented the future from becoming an empty one waiting to be filled with infinite, additive phenomena. Instead, it could be experienced as one where the Messiah might enter at any moment.
To conclude, where does Benjamin stand with respect to most mainstream theorisations of history, and why is it worth studying him today? Benjamin’s characterisation of inevitable and infinite historical progress as ideologically subservient to ruling-class ideology, rejection of historicism and empiricism as valid pathways towards generating historical knowledge, and acceptance of a “messianic time” over the empty, homogenous time of mainstream history put him at odds with almost all liberal, conservative or socialist historians working in the field today.
As to the question of why it is worth engaging with his ideas on history today, it is worth mentioning that the current upsurge in far-Right ideology globally is at its greatest peak since the Second World War. Few theorists have studied Fascism with greater sophistication and from closer proximity than Walter Benjamin. To end with his words:
The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “emergency situation” in which we live is the rule. We must arrive at a concept of history which corresponds to this. Then it will become clear that the task before us is the introduction of a real state of emergency; and our position in the struggle against Fascism will thereby improve. Not the least reason that the latter has a chance is that its opponents, in the name of progress, greet it as a historical norm. – The astonishment that the things we are experiencing in the 20th century are “still” possible is by no means philosophical. It is not the beginning of knowledge, unless it would be the knowledge that the conception of history on which it rests is untenable.
Dibyokamal Mitra is a PhD scholar at the Department of English, Jadavpur University, with interests in psychoanalysis, modernism and the history of ideas. He is also a practising musician and a psychoanalyst-in-formation in the Lacanian orientation.
Edited by Rajosmita Roy.
Featured Image: Sculpture by D’Argenta, based on Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory.