This is not to say that Benjamin has no concept of progress at all. Rather, progress properly thought must be removed from all notions of teleology and ends. Progress is imagistic: “[it] has its seat not in the continuity of elapsing time but in its interferences – where the truly new makes itself felt for the first time, with the sobriety of dawn” (AP [N9a,7]). That is to say that progress is emergent, not additive. It comes from the affirmation of the moment as such, emancipating the past from the clutches of traditional progressive historicism. This emancipation, however, is not necessarily inevitable. The viewing of the constellation creates a shock, “by which thinking is crystallized as a monad” (SW 4:396). The monad allows the entire system to be viewed through a single point: seeing the image of this moment allows us to see all moments in their imagistic fullness.
At the same time, Benjamin states that each image “flashes up at the moment of its recognizability” and “threatens to disappear in any present that does not recognize itself as intended in that image” (SW 4:390-1). It is up to us to recognize this image. There can be no inevitability, as this would cause the whole system to fall back into the same trap of progressive teleology against which it has struggled for emancipation. Benjamin states that the image appears “in a moment of danger” (SW 4:391); this moment of danger has to become the moment of decision. For Benjamin, this moment of danger was the looming approach of the fascist war machine, which he saw inscribed in the very foundations of fascism. One could pick out an almost infinite number of instances which could serve as practical examples for a moment of socio-historical crises. In fact, as Benjamin says, this “‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception, but the rule” (SW 4:392). All of history becomes a moment of danger, but this moment of danger is also a chance to grasp the image of the past.
The emancipation of the past is bound to our decision in the present. Benjamin charges the new historian to “bring about a real state of emergency”, and thereby bring about this decision (SW 4:392). In other words, as Cadava writes: “if one wishes for [true progress], one cannot trust to a process of gradual, infinite improvement, but must struggle for a radical break." The affirmation of the moment as moment destroys the continuum of history. The image appears, but it its appearance alone is not enough. The idea that just seeing the image will force the break is an additive process; construction also implies action. That Benjamin makes “literary montage” the method of his project, saying, “I needn’t say anything. Merely show,” (AP [N1a,8]) does not preclude action; rather, it opens up a new possibility for action via a new means of presentation. The image is presented to us, but the grasping of the image in order to see ourselves intended, is still a decision up to us. Thus, Benjamin makes the choice simple: we can deny becoming and continue “to tell the sequence of events like the beads of a rosary” (SW 4:397), the consequences of which invariably lead to fascism; or we can affirm becoming, and in doing so deny the false becomings, which leads to a complete destruction of the historical continuity upon which the power of fascism relies. Weak nihilism passively goes along with the grand march of history, affirming anything that comes along with no ability to deny. Active nihilism transforms the will to deny into a mode of affirmation, liberating history from any notion of narratability, “leading the past to bring the present into a critical state” (AP [N7a,5]). Engagement with the past is now inexorably tied to a critical engagement with the present. Thus, the act of affirmation manifests itself within the realm of politics.
Matthew Calarco has a new book out
3 weeks ago