Tuesday, 16 September 2008

political view of the past

One of the most famous usages of Nietzsche in Benjamin’s oeuvre appears in the History essay:
“We need history, but our need for it differs from that of the jaded idlers in the garden of knowledge” (SW 4:395). This comes from Nietzsche’s essay “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life.” The passage there continues on, saying, “we need it, that is to say, for the sake of life and action. … We want to serve history to the extent that history serves life” (H, 59). Here, Nietzsche prefigures what effects transvaluation might have on history. As we discussed earlier, the problem comes when we choose to evaluate something transitory – as art and history are merely material manifestations of becoming – in terms of something constant. The central problem with history as an academic discipline, as Nietzsche sees it, is that in the name of knowledge, it turns away from living. This is very similar to the problem he has with most academic pursuits: they tend to valuate the valueless – that is to say, the things beyond the realm of value. Becoming has no value; it lacks anything against which to measure it. Man’s fatal error is that he does not see this: “the aberration of philosophy is that, instead of seeing in logic and the categories of reason means toward the adjustment of the world towards utilitarian ends … one believed one possessed in them the criterion of truth and reality” (WP §584). The creation of a true or real world is an act of treason against this one. For both Nietzsche and Benjamin, traditional history is the practice of constructing a “real” or “true” world in the past. But we do not want the real world. If we have abolished the real world – and hence the apparent one – in the present, then it no longer holds true in the past either. Thus, as Benjamin says, the task of the historian does not entail “recognizing [the past] ‘the way it really was’” (SW 4:391). The way things “really were” no longer has any meaning, as the distinction is unintelligible. The issue at stake in history is the same as in aesthetics. Traditional history is the application of stagnant categories of value onto the past: “historicism offers the ‘eternal’ image of the past.” However, what Benjamin, after Nietzsche, is offering is “unique experience with the past” (SW 4:396). History becomes political in that its valuation is no longer tied to any categories other than the categories of becoming. Thus, rather than an evaluation of history, historical materialism translates into an experience of becoming, “[blasting] as specific life out of the era” (SW 4:396).

It is absolutely essential to this conception of history to appropriately understand becoming. Nietzsche equates becoming to living because that is the way humans experience becoming; it is so phrased in opposition to stagnation and “being”. This is not to say, however, that becoming has any vested interest in human life. “Life is a unique case,” Nietzsche says in The Will to Power. “One must justify all existence and not only life – the justifying principle is one that explains life, too” (WP §706). As we discussed earlier, eternal recurrence is dependent on the fact that becoming aims at nothing. It has no master plans, no end. It is nothing more than the unfolding of a series of interactions. Benjamin offers a citation to similar ends in Thesis XVIII of “On the Concept of History”:

'In relation to the history of all life on earth,' writes a modern biologist, 'the paltry fifty-millennia history of homo sapiens equates to something like two seconds at the close of a twenty-four hour day. On this scale, the history of civilized mankind would take up one-fifth of the last second of the last hour.' (SW 4:396)

The idea here is a sort of a non-anthropomorphic, non-anthropocentric concept of the universe, in as much as the past has always existed but humans have not. In other words, the past is everything that has previously happened; history is just human understanding of the past. History, as it is a concept, is entirely a construct of human thought. The problem, as Nietzsche and Benjamin diagnose, arises in as much as people forget the constructed nature of history. Forgetting in and of itself does not constitute a problem, as it can play an essential part in affirmation. However, disregarding the nature of history leads to its ossification as the cult of history. Much like what happens in non-political aesthetics, we create a theory of valuation in opposition to life. Forgetting its origin, it claims to be the only valuation, denying all change and fluctuations. History, like the artwork, is a product of becoming, and as such, its borders must be open.

Transvaluation affects a re-orienting of history, “by dint of a secret heliotropism” (SW 4:390); the center of the historical universe is no longer knowledge but rather becoming. The old categories of history referred back to purely fictitious values. There is much still at stake here for Benjamin. Fascism’s power is not just in aesthetics, but in history as well, turning the past into a historical narrative and ossifying it into the story of the fatherland’s inevitable victory. Thus, Benjamin again attempts to present theories that are useless to fascism in that they expose fascism’s inherent fictions. He writes: “The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge – unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable” (SW 4:392). Once again, Benjamin presents us with a choice: recognize the transitory nature of history and affirm it for what is, or deny becoming and buy into the grand narratives of fascism.

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