Being 'Another Philosopher'

Andrew Benjamin, Working with Walter Benjamin: Recovering a Political Philosophy

Edinburgh University Press, 272pp, £29.99, ISBN 9780748648986

reviewed by Joel White

Already in 2000, with the second publication of the co-edited Walter Benjamin’s Philosophy: Destruction and Experience, Peter Osborne wittingly remarks that ‘Benjamin’s prose breeds commentary like vaccine in a lab.’ Despite the incessant and industrial abundance of this commentary, the pile of books still grows. The ‘Benjamin Industry’, as it has aptly been called, shows no sign of halting. The only difference at present is that the commentary of yesterday is now the blotting paper of today – the ruinous pile of books and monographs are an emblem of the academy’s destructive perpetuity. Because of this abundance, a great deal of the literature that exists on or surrounding Benjamin serves to simply repeat or comment on his work. It says little that is truly new, serving an ‘industry’ that repeats or reproduces the same in the guise of the ever-new.

Nevertheless, the term is as appropriate for Benjamin as it is for many others figures of European thought. Thinkers who only become ‘figures‘ — in this quasi-transcendental sense — due to the Anglophone academy’s selection and mediation of these figures qua ‘figures’, subsequently elevated above the mundane. Take the categories ‘French Theory’ and ‘Italian Theory’ as cases in point. Their status as capitalised concepts expressed always in the English language only crystallises the ludicrous nature of the industry’s homogenising influence over often diverse European thinkers. It would be naive to think that its continued interest in Benjamin is entirely otherwise.

Insomuch as Andrew Benjamin’s Working with Walter Benjamin: Recovering a Political Philosophy serves the perpetual rhythm of this ‘industry’, it also marks a way out of it. In the dedication, written to his father, he writes, ‘It is perhaps in the space opened by the possibility of being ‘another philosopher’ that most work I have done has itself taken place.’ The questions that necessarily arise from this statement of intention are twofold. Firstly, to what does ‘another philosopher’ signify in this context and, secondly, in what way does being ‘another philosopher’ mark the abeyance of the industry’s reproduction of commentary? A possible answer to these questions can be found in the first part of the book’s title, ‘Working with Walter Benjamin.’ ‘To Work with,’ already signifies something other than ‘to comment on.’ It signifies both an active and a conjunctive engagement ‘with’ the philosophy of Benjamin and not simply an interpretation of it. Here the contention against ‘interpretation’ is borrowed from Marx, who famously remarks in his Theses on Feuerbach that ‘philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; whereas the point is to change it.’ ‘Another philosopher’ is hence defined as one who retains the capacity to change the world through an active engagement ‘with’ the world and not simply through an interpretation of it.

Benjamin’s notion of ‘criticism’ is close at hand. Criticism’s task, in direct distinction to commentary, is to redeem a piece of work by revealing that which is immanent to the work but is as yet dormant or sunken in its content. Criticism achieves revelation by gathering extremities and fragments into concepts and ideas, relating these ideas into novel constellations, and recovering novel unities from within the work itself. Andrew Benjamin’s ‘work with’ Walter Benjamin is strikingly comparable to this notion of criticism. By gathering that which is fragmentarily political in Benjamin’s work, he recovers the idea of the political as a new unity of truth that was always dormant within: hence the second part of the title, ‘Recovering a Political Philosophy.’

As a result of this engagement, the book offers six interrelated concepts that together make up the matrix of a systematic theological-political philosophy distinct from Carl Schmitt, and subsequently, also from Georgio Agamben’s re-figuration or popularisation of the term. These concepts are: ‘modalities of life,’ modalities of destruction,’ ‘fabric of existence,’ ‘being-in-relation,’ and ‘caesura of allowing.’ Although each of Andrew Benjamin’s concepts find their origin through a reading of Benjamin’s work, once gathered together they make for a political philosophy of immanence that moves beyond its textual origins in Benjamin. These textual origins, however, do form the structure and name the chapters of this book. They are: ‘The meaning of Time in the Moral World,’ ‘Fate and Character,’ ‘Towards a Critique of Violence,’ and ‘On the Concept of History.’

The six central and related concepts emerge from out of these fragments, determining a political idea, in the Benjaminian sense, that posits the continuous potentiality of a novel relation between the subject and justice that is distinct from its actual relation with law. Law throughout the book is characteristically Benjaminian in definition and describes that which subjects the life of a person to guilt, through fate. The law’s relation to fate and guilt invokes a political-theology par excellence in the sense that the subject’s relation to law and predetermined guilt is equivalent to a postlapsarian notion of original sin. In the introduction, Andrew Benjamin clarifies the overall project of the book and his position on political theology. He writes that the prevailing supposition between Benjamin as a ‘Marxist rabbi or merely a Marxist’ must be rethought. If theology is to remain as a term and notion in the philosophy of politics then it must remain as a means of both connecting Benjamin’s Marxism to his Judaism but also, and more decisively, as opposing religion. Political theology is hence a means of philosophically speculating the suspension of capitalism as religion. It is not a replacement for it. Atheism, on the other hand, which is taken to mean the simple refusal of religion, becomes inadequate to contest religion as capitalism. An inversion or a refusal is not a suspension nor an end.

The demarcation of the subject’s relation to law already starts to define one ‘modality of life.’ That is, life as guilty and as embroiled in fate. Once life finds itself entangled in fate its relation to the law is as always already guilty. In this subject position every step leads to disproportionate punishment in the name of the law; where the law exists only to reassert itself as law and not in the name of justice. This is equally defined by Benjamin as ‘mythic law.’ Mythic law is violently destructive and acts in the name of law. To exercise violence in order to purely mark existence establishes and preserves the law far more than it punishes any criminal infringement of law. The systematic political philosophy that Andrew Benjamin recovers in this book starts with this position as actual.

One only has to reflect briefly on the disproportional and abhorrent violence used against ‘crimes’ of homosexuality to recognise the actuality of this position. The means to overcome this position determine the system of political philosophy that is recovered through an engagement with Benjamin’s work. For instance, ‘life,’ and the different ‘modalities of life,’ which particularly emerge from Benjamin’s ‘Fate and Character,’ and ‘Towards a Critique of Violence.’ To be exact, the line that Andrew Benjamin principally ‘works with’ in this book can be found in ‘Towards a Critique of Violence.’ It reads, ‘Mythic violence is bloody violence over mere life (das bloße Leben) for its own sake; divine violence is pure violence over all life for the sake of the living (reine Gewalt über alles Leben um des Lebendigen).’ Here the ‘living’ (des lebendigen) denotes a subject position that is distinct to mere life (das bloße Leben). It denotes a modality of life that occurs as a result of divine violence and in opposition to mythic violence. Importantly, divine violence destructively acts on mere life in order for ‘life’ to be other. Present in this pivotal line are two ‘modalities of destruction’ and two ‘modalities of life.’ Each modality of destruction is related to its subsequent modality of life and describes an immanent process of destructive revelation that can alter the relation that life has to law.

The idea is that once divine violence, a category that is as elusive in Benjamin as it is in this book, enacts bloodless destruction on ‘mere life’ and its relation to the law by either suspending or breaching it, a space is opened for ‘the living’ to actualise a new relation with justice. This defines both ‘being-in-relation’ and the ‘caesura of allowing;’ a space that opens up the possibilities for relations to be other. This ‘opening up’ also recalls the dedication, as well as the section entitled ‘opening’ that appears in many other of Andrew Benjamin’s books; a trope used almost to the point of saturation. Although not thoroughly explored in this book, Andrew Benjamin does give indications that tragedy, education, and language can perform the role of divine violence, and some light relief from the dense working through of these six concepts is given in examples taken from Ancient Greek theatre, Shakespeare and the history of art. These examples, if anything, present clearer analogies of divine violence and stop the book from falling into pure abstraction. For example, the figure of Athena is revealed as a proto-messianic figure whose arrival at the end of the Oresteia marks the moment when the law is suspended in the name of justice and when a new ethical and political community appears.

The one concept that permits this process of destructive revelation to occur, and that is not yet detailed in full, is the political immanence implicit in the term ‘fabric of existence.’ What must be grasped from this book, and from Benjamin’s work in general, is that the agency for change is immanent to the world. In other words, if the world is to change, and the sedimented history of revolution reveals this as always possible, then it changes due to the immanent potentiality already given in the ‘fabric of existence.’ Andrew Benjamin’s forthcoming book for Towards a Relational Ontology (SUNY Press, 2014) points to the continuation and importance of this intertwined political and ontological project inaugurated by Benjamin. It points to a philosophical beyond that is defined outside of Benjamin’s work, or so the title suggests. Insomuch as Andrew Benjamin’s Working with Walter Benjamin lays out the possibility of what it means to think in a Benjaminian way today, it also demonstrates that being ‘another philosopher’ is always something other than writing commentary.
Joel White is a freelance writer and graduate student at the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy, Kingston London and Paris VIII, Vincennes-Saint-Denis.