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Reflections on “Pure Religion” in Benjamin’s Thought

The following paper was presented at the Seventh Annual Telos Conference, held on February 15–17, 2013, in New York City.

In the following, I wish to offer two reflections on the question of religion in Benjamin’s thought, the first of which pertains to the subject of translation, the second of which pertains to history. I will address the former first, for it is here, namely in Benjamin’s concept of “pure language,” that I have derived the eponymous notion of “pure religion.” These reflections will conclude in the form of open-ended questions, which I will elucidate at this time in order to orient my audience with regards to my stakes. The first question is whether the translatability of religious scripture is a condition of possibility for the multiplicity of world religions, and if so, what might the implications of this be. The second question, which I will distill from the first, is whether historicity, or what is in Benjamin the strife between historical materialism and historiography, grounds the essence, or “purity,” of religious experience.

In his introduction to Charles Baudelaire’s Tableaux Parisiens, Benjamin offers a theory of translation that, as its own logic would have it, is counter-purposive to translate into any familiar register of critical discourse, be it the philosophical, the theological, the linguistic. Benjamin begins by outlining what he calls two “modes” of translation. In the first mode, translations perform the mere communicative function of reproducing “what is said” from one text into another, a process that for Benjamin consists essentially in the mere transmission of information. For Benjamin, information is inferior to that conveyed in literary texts. In this effectively mechanical mode of translation Benjamin here describes, the translation misses what even the bad translator would admit is the unfathomable, mysterious, “poetic” character of a text, that which translators can reproduce only if they themselves are also poets. This mode of translation is moreover embedded in a philosophical naiveté of its own account, Benjamin adds in passing: if an original text was not initially intended for the reader of the language into which the text is translated, on what grounds does the translator decide the essential content of what pertains to this newly intended imaginary linguistic domain of readership.

The second modality of translation, or what is for Benjamin translation proper, we could say, is a mode that understands the tensions across semantic meanings of words in languages not as internally antagonistic, but rather as productive. Translation allows languages as a whole to expand their boundaries, the breadth of their sense and reference, precisely, by exposing gaps and fissures in between the spaces of their exchange. In these moments of “arrest,” the historical changes that individual languages undergo in their private existence are halted, made to self-reflect, as it were. Translation thus reveals that languages are not strangers to one another, but are instead, “a priori and apart from all historical relationships, interrelated in what they want to express,” writes Benjamin. As to the question of this interrelation or common wish itself, according to Benjamin, “all supra-historical kinship of languages rests in the intention underlying each language as a whole—an intention, however, which no language can attain by itself but which is realized only by the totality of their intentions supplementing each other: pure language.”

“Pure language,” as the secondary literature of the same proves, is a difficult notion to speak of, no less because Benjamin himself writes that “pure language,” and whatever its significance, is already “hidden” in language: how does one express in language what is already manifest in language itself? (Wittgenstein, Tractatus). “Pure language,” one can at least establish, is not a technical notion. It is not an Esperanto whose creation we may passively anticipate, one that will allow the kind of illusory, perfect mode of communication bad translations rely upon. Of course, this is not to undermine the pragmatic reciprocity across languages that takes place in translation; one of Benjamin’s most illuminating practical insights about translation is that translation consists not only in the linguistic enrichment of the language into which one is translating, but also of the source language translated itself, i.e., the insertion of a foreign word or expression into another language expands the referential possibilities of the language from which that word or expression was taken.

Pure Language is also not a philosophical concept proper. Midway through the essay, Benjamin roughly conflates the notion of “pure language” with Kant’s concept of purposiveness, echoing Kant’s critique of teleology in the second half of the Third Critique, a text with which Benjamin was very familiar. “Pure language” is not teleological, however, at least not in any ordinary sense. Kant’s concept of purposiveness in nature, to be precise, is fused with Gershom Scholem’s Kabbalistic notion of language as a living organism endowed with “life.” Benjamin writes that words undergo “maturing processes,” which we can only reflect upon retrospectively in their “after-life”: “the obvious tendency of a writer’s literary style may in time wither away, only to give rise to immanent [living] tendencies in the literary creation.” Here, it thus strikes me that Hegelian interpretations of “pure language” offered henceforth seem off the mark for obvious reasons, despite convincing evidence to the contrary, bearing in mind the abstract dissolution of languages as a final stage of sublation (Aufhebung), which Benjamin’s theory explicitly asserts near the conclusion of the essay.

A deconstructive reading might have it that “pure language” is all marginal language: discarded notes, punctuation, apocryphal script, and so forth. We should be reminded, however, that Benjamin writes that “pure language” is never found in individual words or sentences: language is in a constant state of flux, that is, until it is able to emerge as “pure language” from the harmony of all the various “modes of intention” that exist across languages. Moreover, marginal language, as we know, is essentially disruptive in the sense that it precludes, precisely, the kind of self-contained, likewise “organic” system of thought as set forth by Kant at the outset of the Critique of Pure Reason. All in all, can these conflicting notions at-hand truly be harmonized? I can only see perhaps returning to a Hegelian model as the solution here, for the crucial exception that these bear a more orthogonal rather than a dialectical relation to one another.

Now, on the temporal dimension of “pure language,” another note altogether: in the measure that “pure language” enables the enrichment of language, it would appear to point to a future time in which some form of linguistic progress is fulfilled. In what is at least for me a critical juncture at the outset of the essay, Benjamin considers the distinction between translation and translatability in the enigmatic form of the following hypothetical scenario:

One might, for example, speak of an unforgettable life or moment, even if all men had forgotten it. If the nature of such life or moment required that it be forgotten, that predicate would not imply a falsehood but merely a claim not fulfilled by men, and probably also a reference to a realm in which it is fulfilled: God’s remembrance.

To interpret, the basic philosophical problem Benjamin is asking is whether experiences never had or forgotten are in principle translatable. The distinction between translation and translatability is here key because the question of why an experience never had cannot be translated is not articulated structurally, in other words, in terms of essential correspondences imposed by a closed system of signifiers and signifieds. Rather, the question of translatability here is understood in terms of what the untranslatable might index beyond its worldly, anthropocentric realm of signification. Among the many possibilities available here, Benjamin speculates the past-time of God’s remembrance. A moment both past and present, thus, one could interpret that the translatability of the text acts as the “pure language” that fulfills its own presence in the Now of an “other” historical time, a time forgotten neither by man or God.

There remains the question of why certain languages and translations survive the past and others not. What makes for a successful language or translation throughout history, and what makes for a forgotten one? Werner Hamacher’s understanding of historical time in Benjamin allows one to further theorize the temporality of “pure language.” He writes:

When past things survive, it is not lived-out (abgelebte) facts that survive; rather what survives are the unactualized possibilities of that which is past. There is historical time only insofar as there is an excess of the unactualized, the unfinished, failed, thwarted, which leaps beyond its particular Now and demands from another Now its settlement, correction and fulfillment.

The same can be said about “surviving translations,” if you will. “Pure language” is not language that merely survives after all languages have settled their quarrels throughout history, but rather a language that contains the full reaches of the translatable throughout the history of human experience. Translations missed in the past remain a possibility for the future just the same, precisely, in the sense that they have not yet found their fulfillment.

In closing, I wish to advance three open-ended questions as re-articulations of my initial two. In practical terms, is translation integral to the possibility of religious experience, in other words, does translation infinitely defer the possibility of a single world religion, or, could the multiplicity of world religions exist within a common language?

In more theoretical, Benjaminian terms, my second question, is whether “pure language” is a path to harmony across world religions. In other words, in a world in which “pure language” were spoken, or in Benjamin’s language, “lived-out” (abgelebt), would this possibility give way to a “pure religion” that might follow a common scripture? (a “pure religion” here understood as the fulfillment of all unactualized religious experiences bound up by a “pure language”).

The third question is whether “pure language” re-shapes historical time in such a way that the very notion of a post-secular age, as has been advanced as the topic of the conference, must be re-thought beyond a standard historiographical model of history. Expressed in another thought, is “pure language” rather a fracture in historical time, a moment neither past, present, or future, that exceeds the temporal bounds of religious experience in the mode of Benjamin’s theory of historical time?

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