The Production of the Subject in Late Benjamin

This article places Benjamin’s late work in dialogue with recent attempts in media theory and structuralism to think the subject and historical contingency together. It argues their apparent incompatibility is reflected in Benjamin’s writing in the form of a recurrent contradiction between historical materialism and transhistorical theology. Through a reconstruction of the theorist’s historicization of an earlier theological theory of the fall of language in his Marxian-inflected work of the 1930’s, it claims that Benjamin initiates a historicist reconceptualization of the impasse of the Kantian subject onto being as the product of a particular field of mediation arising with mass modernity. Yet following the rejection of his nascent version of the Arcades Project by Adorno and the Marxist Institute for Social Research in 1938, theology returns as an attempt to reconceive of an aesthetic-formal break with this impasse. Benjamin’s late theorization of his materialist historiography thus represents a dialectical attempt to think materialism and theology, history and being together, with the aim of mediating not only distraction, but a revolutionary destruction of the subject and the historical order producing it.

Continue reading →

Marrano Universalism: Benjamin, Derrida, and Buck‑Morss on the Condition of Universal Exile

The following paper was presented at the 2015 Telos Conference, held on February 13–15, 2015, in New York City. For additional details about the conference, please visit the Telos-Paul Piccone Institute website.

In my short essay, I would like to outline a new strategy of the universalization of history, which emerges from the analysis of modern Jewish practice of philosophizing. I call it a Marrano strategy, by building an analogy between the religious practices of the late-medieval Sephardic Jewry, which was forced to convert to Christianity but kept Judaism “undercover,” and the philosophical intervention of modern Jewish thinkers who spoke the seemingly universal idiom of Western philosophy but, at the same time, impregnated it “secretly” with motives deriving from their “particular” background.[1] Yet, they did not do it in order to abolish the universalist perspective, but to transform it; for the last heirs of this “Marrano” line, Walter Benjamin and Jacques Derrida, the proper universalism amounts to an after-Babel project of mending the broken whole from within, horizontally, without assuming the lofty position of a general meta-language, but through the effort of multi-linguality.

Continue reading →

Schmitt, Hamlet, and Aesthetic Idlers

In his essay “Political Aesthetics: Carl Schmitt on Hamlet,” David Pan puts forward an interpretation of the relationship between aesthetics and politics in Schmitt’s discussion of Hamlet. Today the question about the relationship of aesthetics and politics in the thought of German jurist is a widely discussed topic. According to one interpretation, which is best represented by a sentence of Jürgen Habermas, “Carl Schmitt’s polemical discussion of political Romanticism conceals the aestheticizing oscillations of his own political thought.” But according to Schmitt’s self-understanding, this interpretation could not be further from the truth.

Continue reading →

Against Schmitt's Political Theology, Prometheus or Pandora? Hans Blumenberg and Walter Benjamin as Political Theologians

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Robert Wyllie looks at Richard Faber’s “The Rejection of Political Theology: A Critique of Hans Blumenberg,” from Telos 72 (Summer 1987).

In “The Rejection of Political Theology: A Critique of Hans Blumenberg,” Richard Faber reconstructs two alternatives to Carl Schmitt’s political theology. Faber draws the first alternative from Hans Blumenberg. Blumenberg, whose later work explores how metaphor orients thought, proposes a “polytheistic” alternative to “monotheistic” political theology. Polytheism is an early modern metaphor for plural sovereignty, underlying the checks and balances of liberalism. Sympathetically, Blumenberg believes a polytheistic political theology turns away from Schmitt’s “monotheistic” picture of sovereignty where one sovereign decides the state of exception. After expositing Blumenberg’s polytheistic political theology, Faber rejects it. Instead, he turns to Walter Benjamin’s eschatological political theology. Monotheists have been promised an apocalypse, a violent divine intervention, to restore justice in the future. Unlike the Schmittian state of exception, this hoped-for intervention would ground no new legal constitution. Benjamin radicalizes the state of exception into the “pure violence” of a Marxist revolution aimed at destroying the political state altogether.

Continue reading →

Laws, Exceptions, Norms: Kierkegaard, Schmitt, and Benjamin on the Exception

Rebecca Gould’s “Laws, Exceptions, Norms: Kierkegaard, Schmitt, and Benjamin on the Exception” appears in Telos 162 (Spring 2013). Read the full version online at the Telos Online website, or purchase a print copy of the issue in our store.

The concept of the exception has heavily shaped modern political theory. In modernity, Kierkegaard was one of the first philosophers to propound the exception as a facilitator of metaphysical transcendence. Merging Kierkegaard’s metaphysical exception with early modern political theorist Jean Bodin’s theory of sovereignty, Carl Schmitt introduced sovereignty to metaphysics. He thereby made an early modern concept usable in a post-metaphysical world. This essay carries Schmitt’s appropriation one step further. Drawing on Walter Benjamin’s replacement of transcendental metaphysics with contingent creaturehood, it reintroduces the anti-foundationalist concept of repetition that was implicit in Kierkegaard’s paradigm but which was not made lucid until Benjamin crafted from the Schmittian exception a vision of political life grounded in creaturely existence.

Continue reading →

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.

Continue reading →