Friday, 19 September 2008

the untenability of history

The first step in the transvaluation of history entails the destruction of the old forms of history, which is accomplished via the “most nihilistic thought”, eternal recurrence. Benjamin tells us that “in the idea of eternal recurrence, the historicism of the nineteenth century capsizes” (AP [D8a,2]). This form of historicism is based on much of the same values as the old forms of aesthetics, that is to say, of the historical object having a unique existence in space and time. In the last chapter, it was shown how, given the thought of eternal recurrence as a form of mass production, even unique art objects become mere recurrent reproductions. Eternal recurrence means that in order for a thing to be, it has to recur. As such, everything that is now has already been. This understanding now forces itself on the past, in that it transforms “even the historical event into a mass-produced item” (AP [J62a,2]). As a mass produced item, the historical event can hold no claims to a unique existence; from the point of view of recurrence, the Paris commune is no longer “the” Paris commune, but rather “a” Paris commune. The result of this thought, Benjamin tells us, is that “every tradition, even the most recent, becomes the legacy of something that has already run its course in the immemorial night of the ages” (AP [D8a,2]).

Another aspect of historicism which crumbles under the thought of eternal recurrence is progress. Progress is little more than the ossification of history into a fixed narrative, closing the borders of the past at all points. For Benjamin, there is no such thing as progress. Becoming wants nothing and aims at nothing, and as such it tends only towards itself. The most nihilistic thought attacks the notion of progress, as Eduardo Cadava writes, “within a cosmic process of repetition, the notion of progress belongs to the domain of phantasmagoria.” Given the knowledge of recurrence, belief in any notion of progress seems incredibly foolish; eternal recurrence brings the untenability of traditional history to the fore, exposing it for what it is. Progress implies movement towards something, towards a definite endpoint; it implies improvement. For Benjamin, this manifests itself, via the vulgar-Marxist conception, as the transformation of history into a natural science. History tries to follow the same rules as science, looking for laws and truths with which to claim some authority on the past. This is precisely what Nietzsche is referring to when he critiques the pursuit of historical knowledge. Historical truths and norms are impossible because “[the world] is ‘in flux,’ as something in a state of becoming, as a falsehood always changing but never getting near the truth: for – there is no ‘truth’” (WP §616). Becoming evades all laws and truths, and as such, progress can never approach anything other than becoming itself.

The notion of progress is extremely dangerous for Benjamin, as it is in its name that the opponents of fascism accept its emergence as a “historical norm” (SW 4:392). There is no such thing as historical norms; they are solely the invention of man, forcing some kind of order onto the past. In thesis IX, Benjamin refers to progress as storm which prevents history from righting itself. The angel of history is caught in the wings of progress, helpless to repair the catastrophe of human history as he is ceaselessly blown away. Progress is inherently tied to the status quo; in fact, it creates the status quo. “That things are ‘status quo’,” writes Benjamin, “is the catastrophe” (AP [N9a,1]). Progress refuses to let things be, trying to organize history in to norms, laws and narratives. As such, it subverts human activity: “nothing so corrupted the German working class as the nothing that it was moving with the current” (SW 4:393). The problem lies in that there is no “current” in becoming, it just flows. It moves and unfolds, but it has no ends other than itself. This belief in progress amounts to little more than petty fatalism, pushing towards the inevitable end of the linear course of history, whether it be the victory of fascism or the utopia of the proletariat (SW 4:394). It is precisely this conception of progress that causes the worker to sacrifice his revolutionary potential, as it presents fealty to progress as inherently revolutionary. This conception is impossible, there is no such thing as the end of the course of history (for becoming has no aim). The closest thing to the end of history is the perspective afforded us via the thought of eternal recurrence, which is that existence never ends, it just recurs. The idea of progress crumbles, and “the idea that history is something that can be narrated” dies with it (SW 4:406).

There is a unifying core principle that underlies the various manifestations of progress: “the concept of [mankind’s] progression through a homogenous, empty time.” Benjamin argues that “a critique of the concept of such a progression must underlie any critique of the concept of progress itself” (SW 4:395). Progress relies on the openness of the future, the endless extension of existence; it needs space to operate. Even those conceptions of progress which approach something – revolution, utopia, et cetera – are reliant upon a concept of time as an empty space across which it can march on its way towards destiny. However, in the realm of eternal recurrence, time is always already spoken for. Nietzsche writes that time is eternal, and the changes within time – that is to say history and becoming – are merely how we experience it. Repetition simply reveals to us the fact “that it has always happened thus” (WP §545). This is not to say that Benjamin rejects progress in favor of a fatalistic conception of history, for fatalism means nothing if we do not know what was fated beforehand. The only end – fated or otherwise – towards which existence tends is recurrence. The affirmation of eternal recurrence negates fatalism, turning it into an act of creation. At the same time, Benjamin tells us that instead of empty time, we should see the history as a construction within “time filled full by now-time” (SW 4:395). Now-time is a tool with which the continuity of the discourse of historical progress can be broken, in that it is used to link the present to moments in the past. Now-time as recurrent time means that progress can no longer attain to its narrative of causality, for within eternal recurrence, the motor of existence is “no longer cause and effect” (WP §1059). The eternal repetition of the interaction of forces removes cause and effect, as each element of the cycle conditions all other. Eternal recurrence provides us with a sequence of events, but it does not mean that they necessarily cause each other. Nietzsche explains that “the feeling that post hoc is propter hoc can easily be shown to be a misunderstanding”; rather, the cycle “is comprehensive” (WP §545).

This is not to say that Benjamin – or Nietzsche for that matter – is annihilating history. The Dionysian process means that the old forms of historicism are destroyed in order to make way for a new creation of history. The additive process of historical progress, the accumulation of “a mass of data to fill the homogenous, empty time” (SW 4:396), can never approach becoming, for becoming itself is a process of this destructive regeneration. As such, the new form of historiography must take this maxim into account: “the relationship of what has been to the now is dialectical: is not a progression but image, suddenly emergent” (AP [N2a,3]). The activity of history is now solely concerned with the undertaking of the construction of images.

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