What We Call Progress

Fredric Jameson, The Benjamin Files

Verso, 262pp, £20.00, ISBN 9781784783983

reviewed by Stuart Walton

In his mid-twenties, Walter Benjamin wrote a formative essay on the historical evolution of language. Anticipating by a generation the critique mounted by key figures in the Frankfurt School, in relation to which he was more of a distantly orbiting satellite than a component star, he staged an inquiry into the archaic origins of the linguistic faculty, tracing the route by which its original nominative purity might have ramified into the instrumental version of communication to which more or less all human affairs were now subject. The argument of the essay draws, at an oblique angle, on the theological tradition of the Fall, as much of Benjamin's work would do, all the way to the eve of his probable suicide in flight from the advancing Nazi occupation of France in September 1940.

At the dawn of prehistoric humanity, language consisted purely in a naming function, the application of vocal labels to the physical phenomena, but it soon acquired the practical utility that enabled palaeolithic groups to communicate, cooperate and plan ahead. Nouns were supplemented by verbs, with their flourishing tenses and the emergence of an imperative voice. Different functions, as well as the dispersal of human groups, in due course produced the plurality of languages, of which the myth of Babel offers an account. There are, furthermore, not merely commands now, but judgments too. Judgments help structure the hierarchies of human relations in ways that transcend physical strength and the social standings of age. And then, as Benjamin tentatively ventures, perhaps 'the origin of abstraction, too, as a faculty of the spirit of language, is to be sought in the Fall'.

Composed in 1916, the essay proposes that a spiritual trajectory is inscribed in human language, a transition from the identification of essences to the externalised, mimetic attribution of qualities — good and evil, pre-eminently — to the movements of a speculative reason that has not succumbed to the functionalities of mass society and its administrative structures. It is all referred back to the foundational myth of human development as a decline from a paradisal exordium to an adolescent century already in the thick of its first global conflict. It remains one of Benjamin's most daring and most audacious contributions to modern thought, but it is remarkable as much for its unclassifiable, ultimately unlocatable theoretical core as for its enormous thematic reach.

The Benjamin who emerges from Fredric Jameson's new collection of essays, a summa of the key texts of the German thinker's career, remains as elusive in his orientations as the one who prompted Terry Eagleton, in a now 40-year-old Benjamin monograph, to issue a closing plea by way of a poetic homage: 'Stand now: be spilled, unmade'. He is recognisable as the mercurial figure who dazzled a youthful Adorno in the 1920s with his heterodox approach to the intellectual disciplines and his ready recourse to the kind of theological conceptuality that even the most idiosyncratic Marxists generally shunned. Anybody foolhardy enough to attempt a philosophical digest of his themes and methods will quickly find themselves turning about in the labyrinth that Benjamin once sketched in a Paris café as a graphic depiction of his life to date. What was he about?

Jameson is a sufficiently venerable theoretician not to embark on anything so reductive, and yet these essays manage to capture much of the textural richness and obliquity of Benjamin's literary output. Nor does he succumb to the excessively hagiographical tone, but is ready at certain points to rue the outworn, or no longer supple, limbs of certain conceptualisations. The notoriously elastic notion of the 'irrational', bitterly obvious in Hitler's time as the mass fate of the European publics, seems a cul-de-sac when it is applied, as Benjamin so does, to the supplementary forms of consciousness he diligently sought as the first step to evading that fate. Irrationality surfaces in the Surrealists' interest in dreams — and Benjamin was almost as scrupulous a recorder of his dreams as Adorno would be of his own — and also in such arcane disciplines, if such they be, as astrology and graphology. The umbrella term 'phantasmagoria', inherited from the parlour entertainments of Hegel's day, was ultimately, thinks Jameson, 'a bad concept', for which something more like the aesthetic would serve more resourcefully.

It was the interest in dreams and the oneiric mood that vitiated the great amassment of intellectual collector's items known as the Arcades Project, on which Benjamin began work in 1927, and which remained only a gigantic cabinet of literary and artistic curiosities at the time of his death. The work attempted to stage a reflective portrait of a key cultural era, 19th-century Paris, by means of a constellation of quotations, fragments of philosophical insight, newspaper snippets and snatches of theatrical dialogue, all revolving around the central concept of the evolution of consciousness wrought by shifting cultural style.

Another of the modernist techniques Benjamin explored to bring about a different mode of access to reality was his experimentation with hallucinogenic drugs, including mescaline, the proprietary opioid Eukodal (now known as oxycodone) and hashish, the swallowing of which in 1928 in Marseille generated one of his most scintillant essays. Surprisingly, Jameson only glances at this sub-current in Benjamin's thought, not referring at all to the hashish essay. A minutely detailed critical assessment of the latter forms a chapter in Dave Boothroyd's enterprising volume, Culture on Drugs: Narco-Cultural Studies of High Modernity (2006), where it is considered one of the recourses by which Benjamin tried to fashion elliptical perspectives on a reality whose veil waking consciousness hardly ever manages to pierce. A fatal dose of the morphine tablets he carried everywhere was the means of his final exit, although an enigma lingers as to why they failed to show up in the post-mortem blood analysis carried out by the Port Bou doctor who certified his death.

On the aesthetic and political fronts, Jameson commands the field more surely. The two categories were nowhere near as closely articulated in Benjamin's thinking as they would be among the Frankfurt coterie, albeit in inverse relation in Adorno's conception. Art plays no major part in proletarian emancipation for Benjamin, despite his tenacious association with Brecht, especially in an era where, as the famous essay of 1936 argues, the technology of mass reproduction in the arts, most notably photography and film, has stripped the numinous aura to which classical works could lay claim. Reading is less of an existential experience than the evanescent tradition of oral storytelling, and much less so than viewing a theatrical production. Art forms that command a mass audience, like the cinema, have the advantage over those that speak to individuals, which is one obvious reason, for Benjamin, that Charlie Chaplin was more popular than Picasso, but the fact that film is also subject to the technical treatments of editing and montage construction, whereas a painting is just a single, individually produced artefact, also plays its part.

Although the apocryphal final testament that Benjamin carried in his briefcase on that final torturous escape on foot over the Pyrenees to Spain vanished when the briefcase itself was lost, an affair that has generated a small industry of conspiracy theory, it seems most likely that it was a final version of the 'Theses on the Philosophy of History', one of the century's most strikingly original meditations on the role played by temporality in the human tragedy and the possibility of redemption. Its most celebrated passage proposes Paul Klee's monoprint image, Angelus Novus (1920), now in Jerusalem, which Benjamin had bought from the artist, as an emblem of the angel of history itself. Jameson corrects one or two of the misapprehensions that have accrued around the precise interpretation of the complex image, daring to note, in the spirit of it, that 'theological categories give us access to historical and essentially narrative modes of thinking about mass realities'.

The angel, a gaping seraph with his wings outspread, is caught in Benjamin's allegory in the force of a storm that is propelling him backwards. What he sees in front of him, transfixing him with its horror, is the accumulating trash-heap of human history. 'Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.' He faces not the future but the past, buffeted by a mighty wind which emanates from the Paradise in which history itself began. This history is not a matter of causal chains in the Hegelian manner, or even the orthodox Marxist one, but a continuing monstrous accretion of material disaster, the gale that propels it being, as Benjamin drily states, 'what we call progress'.

Prophecy, both in the rabbinical tradition and the progressive utopian impulse, is forbidden from imaging the future, constrained thereby to deny its own status, which is why the angel cannot see what is to come, but he stands nonetheless for the conception of a history that could be redeemed, in the messianic sense more than through any kind of ideological narrative. Alert to the finest of these nuances, Fredric Jameson has given us a Benjamin whose mental fulgurations can still illuminate a world blown backwards through the thickening dark.
Stuart Walton is Associate Editor of the Journal of Comparative Literature and Aesthetics, and author of Introducing Theodor Adorno, In The Realm of the Senses: A Materialist Theory of Seeing and Feeling and A Natural History of Human Emotions.