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Beyond the Victors: Three Questions for Aniruddha Chowdhury

Aniruddha Chowdhury’s essay on Walter Benjamin appeared in Telos 143. Nellie Bowles, a Telos Press intern, asks him some questions.

In your essay “Memory, Modernity, Repetition: Walter Benjamin’s History,” you read Benjamin’s jarring take on historiography. He argues that when history-writing and storytelling split (gone are the days of Homer’s epics), something was lost in both. What is the new method of historiography?

Benjamin’s conception of history is avant-gardiste and finds expression in his method of allegory, which he links with the modern experience and sensibility. Fredric Jameson and Peter Bürger, in different ways, have drawn attention to this central aspect of Benjamin’s thought and work.

Allegory, as historical method, is essentially different from the logic of organic and teleological conceptions of history. Allegory de-totalizes. It isolates the element out of the supposed totality of life-context and is, thus, essentially fragmentary. The allegorist weaves isolated elements to produce meaning and to rescue historical objects. “In the field of allegorical intuition, the image is a fragment, a rune. . . . The false appearance of totality is extinguished” (Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama). In allegory, history appears as mortification rather than organic corporeality. In the method of citation and quotation, there is, as it were, a phenomenology of reversed intentionality of object-thing. Benjamin calls the method “profane illumination.”

Though Benjamin’s theories have been well-received in the world of “theory,” history departments resist revisionism, boring down ever deeper into the archives rather than addressing the disruptions in chronology that he describes. How do you explain this resistance to Benjamin?

It may be true that the majority of the disciplinary historians have not responded enthusiastically to Benjamin, which could be due to the hold that positivist social science has on history as a discipline. But I do think that the best of the Marxist/anarchist historiography, for example, the works of E.P. Thompson or C.L.R. James, is not unrelated to Benjamin’s concern. What joins Thompson and Benjamin, for example, is the situationist urgency to “rescue” the “true image” of the past against the grain of progressive history. Here, I refer to the important preface of Making of the English Working Class.

I also think that, at the level of method, Benjamin’s conception of allegory and his method of citation and quotation have similarities with Foucault’s archaeology.

Allegory and the citational method are not anti-archivist. The allegorist is inextricably bound to the work of archiving. In that sense, for the allegorist, relation with the archive is that of passage rather than a detached observation.

Part of Benjamin’s project is examining how the oppressed are put into historical narratives. He writes that to be a historian of the oppressed is, necessarily, to disrupt the logical chain of events that has been laid out. How is this practice, which he brands “actualization,” to be implemented?

Actualization is a work of production of meaning that amounts to the isolation and weaving of specific historical objects out of the supposed totality. The process, as I argue in my essay, is a work of repetition with difference whereby intentionality is displaced. It, therefore, has an affinity with the modernist method of estrangement. Actualization is de-constructive as it produces other meaning through the work of repetition-with-displacement.

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