Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Arendt on Benjamin

A small warning - this entry will probably only interest a small number of Walter Benjamin-fans ("Benjamin-otaku"?).

I had a look at Hannah Arendt's introduction to Illuminations - a collection of essays by Benjamin translated into English - for the first time today, and was shocked to find what, in my view, must be one of the worst interpretations of Benjamin I've ever seen. It's quite legitimate to start, as she does, with a criticism of Adorno's misunderstanding of Benjamin's intentions in the essay on Baudelaire. Part of Adorno's well-known criticism is that Benjamin's attempt to relate elements of the superstructure directly to “corresponding elements in the substructure” was crude and "undialectical", too reminiscent of vulgar Marxism, and failed to do justice to Benjamin's own insights. By immersing himself in the "wide-eyed presentation of mere facts" - such as barricades or the duty on wine - his study ended up "at the crossroads of magic and positivism", a "bewitched" spot from which the way the elements were "mediated" disappeared from view (letter from Adorno to Benjamin, 10 November 1938).

Arendt defends Benjamin, saying that, yes, he was truly not a good Marxist (“the most peculiar Marxist ever produced by this movement”). She then proceeds to explain that Benjamin’s thinking was “poetical” and “metaphorical”, and that that was why he delighted in material facts. Such facts were metaphors which served to bring out truth.
He had no trouble understanding the theory of the superstructure as the final doctrine of metaphorical thinking – precisely because without much ado and eschewing all ‘mediations’ he directly related the superstructure to the so-called ‘material’ substructure, which to him meant the totality of sensually experienced data. He evidently was fascinated by the very thing that the others branded as ‘vulgar-Marxist’ or ‘undialectical’ thinking. (p.20)
So she rebuts Adorno by claiming that Benjamin’s way of seeing the relationship between superstructure and substructure was a metaphorical one. “Metaphors", she explains, "are the means by which the oneness of the world is poetically brought about”. She then proceeds to compare Benjamin to Heidegger, stressing how "close" they were or how much they had “in common” (p. 50, 53). For instance, they both shared the view that truth resided in language and “understood language as an essentially poetical phenomenon” (p. 54).

She is right in insisting that Adorno misunderstood Benjamin. Benjamin never meant to reduce elemenents of the superstructure to any material basis. Baudelaire's poem to the soul of wine wasn't a reflection in the superstructure of the wine tax in the second empire. However, she goes wrong when she tries to explain how Benjamin uses material phenomena to bring out the truth. Benjamin was not interested in “poetically” diving back into the sensual through metaphors. The entire Trauerspiel-book was an attack on art and the pretensions of art – including poetry – to reveal truth. Poetry is not a relation to Being. What, at heart, she misses is that the relationship between material facts and elements of the superstructure is that of a montage. It is neither that of a causal relationship (as in “vulgar Marxism”) nor a metaphorical one. A montage brings out truth by arranging elements into a constellation through which all the individual elements are turned into ruins, robbed of their mythical appearance of naturalness or self-sufficiency. Its effect is to shock the reader by juxtaposing the heterogeneous. It blows mindfulness to high heavens and does not invite contemplation. The montage is similar to what Benjamin calls allegory in his Trauerspiel-book, and allegory is also among the things that Arendt fails to understand. She contrasts Benjamin’s “metaphorical” thinking to the allegory, trying to portray the latter as alien to Benjamin's essentially metaphorical thought (p.19), and thereby completely misses why Benjamin himself preferred the allegory. She talks about the “spirit of Benjamin’s thought”, but the spirit she presents is Heidegger’s.

Arendt, Hannah (1973) ”Introduction Walter Benjamin: 1892-1940”, pp 7-60, in Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (ed. Hannah  Arendt, tr. Harry Zohn), London: Fontana Press.  



  1. Is this quote yours? I wanna use it: " A montage brings out truth by arranging elements into a constellation through which all the individual elements are turned into ruins, robbed of their mythical appearance of naturalness or self-sufficiency."

    1. I'm glad you liked the formulation. It's mine (of course), but you can find similar passages in Benjamin's own work. If you're interested, I recommend Susan Buck-Morss "The Dialectics of Seeing".

  2. I totally think your critique of Arendt's summation of Benjamin's work is on point. Great insights. Many thanks.


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