Perpetual Passing Away: History as Eternal Catastrophe in Walter Benjamin (ACLA)

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Edward S. Cutler (Brigham Young University),Maria Mercedes Andrade (Universidad de los Andes, Colombia)

Brushing against the redemptive political and theological promise many critics discover in Walter Benjamin, our seminar will investigate the complex figuration of time across his early and later work. "History decays into images, not stories," he proposes in The Arcades Project, a complimentary insight to his earlier assertion in The Origin of German Tragic Drama, that allegory introduces "the decisive category of time" in contrast to the ontological promise that inheres in the symbolic mode. For Benjamin, allegory eschews any eschatological fulfillment wherein "destruction is idealized and . . . nature is fleetingly revealed in the light of redemption." Rather, allegory gathers its iconic significance in the worldly subjection to death.

"Nature has always been allegorical" because the allegorical way of seeing observes the world's significance without symbolic "expression" or even "humanity," but in the form– or inscription–of ruin: "Significance and death both come to fruition in historical development" Benjamin thus holds in The Origin of German Tragic Drama, "for the greater the significance, the greater the subjection to death." Development indicates here and elsewhere not a telos, but the endless deferral of a redemptive end to time. Historical development appears not as "a chain of events" going somewhere but a "single catastrophe which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble," as Benjamin's angel witnesses in Theses on the Philosophy of History.

This seminar seeks to explore the unassimilable ephemerality of the now, relentlessly devoid of an ideal, and the unbridgeable gap between immanence and transcendence. We suggest that Benjamin's early work underwrites much of what recurs in The Arcades Project, especially as regards the dialectical image, allegory, natural history, ruin, catastrophe, the ephemeral, the eternal–even the messianic. Our hope is to better situate the melancholy, nihilistic tenor of Benjamin's oeuvre. We welcome papers that would extend or challenge the perspective we offer here.

(Submissions accepted directly at ACLA web site: