Benjamin’s Discipline: Fragmentary Formulation, Dialectic, Constellation
The first major strand of Benjamin’s first philosophy that I will be drawing together in the next two chapters can be summarized as a definition of experience that is both mobile and foundational to his thinking. However, grasping this definition will require a short consideration of the method of definition that underlies Benjamin’s writing. The theses that Benjamin presents—mostly in different writings from the same period— seem meant to respond to these questions, albeit in a startlingly cryptic manner. Here are a few of the major theses:
Absolute experience is language.21
Lived similarities are experience.22
Philosophy is absolute experience, deduced in a systematic, symbolic framework as language.23
Perception is reading.24
Each of these theses offers a juxtaposition between two or more concepts, with a promise of defining one through the other: philosophy is defined as absolute experience; absolute experience is defined as language; and both experience and language are defined through a mimetic element, the repetition of a lived experience, the recognition of patterns. But the answer withdraws from view, because the definiens is just as under-determined as the definitum. Benjamin defines one term through another seemingly more familiar one, but on closer examination, his use of even familiar concepts entails a good degree of further thought, since he understands language and memory in very specific terms. But the point is not to establish an analytically exhaustive definition, but a constellation in thinking. Benjamin (and after him Adorno) will seek to define terms not through establishing a univocal use of the term, but by establishing a constellation.25 It is precisely by grouping Benjamin’s negative and incomplete answers around each other in such a way that no one thought prevails,
Introduction 9 but what is incomplete in one finds its resonance in another attempt, that we get the sense of a living whole of thought.26
Philosophy generally demands that we provide clear definitions of key concepts. Philosophers such as Plato and Wittgenstein are valuable not so much for their theories or answers, but for the ways in which they wrestle with defining concepts and problems. Their incredible significance as philosophers comes not from the fact that they provide us with straightforward systems based on clear definitions, but that they make us aware of both the importance and difficulty in grasping what we mean by our most laden concepts. As the great Benjamin scholar Burkahart Lindner argues, Benjamin’s way of working with key philosophical concepts often has the quality of a kind of Entwendung, an act of misappropriation or even theft, but one that rescues these concepts for a new way of thinking.27 This book will argue that Benjamin’s status and significance as a philosopher rests on something similar: his remarkable discipline in pursuing philosophically original definitions of big concepts. He might seem initially to some readers to be a writer who throws out terms in an ambiguous and confusing way, or to be a writer who focuses on concrete phenomena over concepts. Even if it is true that Benjamin is an anti-systematic thinker, as often claimed, he is nevertheless a thinker who has a remarkable originality in giving definition to philosophical concepts.28 He argues that philosophy is the kind of enterprise that always has to wrestle with its method of exposition, its own possibility of success. This implies not a mere lack of method to Benjamin’s philosophy, but a method that pays heightened attention to the relationship between thought and expression, a method that is especially aware of its need to give expressive formulation to its own practice.
Benjamin’s method of approaching philosophical problems is characterized by three features: it is fragmentary, dialectical and constellational. Each of these features depends on the others in such a way that grasping only one as definitive would lead to a dead end.
Many of Benjamin’s most important philosophical writings are fragmentary in the most literal sense. They lay out a problem and then break off. Or they offer a solution in stark terms, without enough clarification or explanation to offer much clarity, indeed without even clarifying the problem to which they are a solution. Reading Benjamin as a first philosopher will involve confronting this fragmentary, riddle like quality of his writing on its own terms. The first task to solving the riddle is to see which fragmentary solution belongs with which problem: much of the first and second chapter will involve formulating problems and then seeing various fragments as following through on these problems. But then even the solutions or theses that Benjamin offers seem at first somewhat unsatisfactory, because they are too short, too direct and dependent on concepts that seem to be overloaded with meaning. However, it is my method here in this book to show that this impression is deceptive, or at least that it hides a deeper method. Where Benjamin’s writing might seem undisciplined, confusing or confused, I will show that there is in fact a particular method, a discipline, a will to truth.
The kind of truth that is involved in philosophy is tightly bound up with its formulation: whatever we write, we always have the sense that it could be better formulated. This leads Benjamin to the hypothesis: What if this looking for a better way to formulate what we are saying is actually the philosophical act par excellence? What if the kind of truth that we care about in philosophy is not the kind that can ever be perfectly captured, because it is not an object of knowledge, but a play between language and thought? Then it would follow that philosophy is not so many acts of knowledge that have to be expressed, more or less clearly, but the search for a truth in the very act of expressing. Truth is bound up with its presentation.29 This would make every formulation into a fragment, since it can only be understood or completed in another formulation, by seeing its need for another formulation to gain truth. Benjamin writes in a fragmentary way because he sees each step as provisional, as needing a next step. Interpreting means coming to terms with these various fragments, not by placing them into the context of a system, but rather into a constellation. In the classical understanding of a system, there is a first principle and then a deductive chain of reasoning. But in a constellation, there is a pattern of coherence that is, in principle, infinite. Each element reflects dynamically on each other and enriches our understanding through this interplay.
In supplement to the fragmentary moment, my study will emphasize the dialectical and constellational elements as ways to read what is fragmentary in a more constructive philosophical context. Benjamin gives his most explicit reflections on the dialectical element in his thought in his late work, Convolute N of the Arcades Project. Here he makes clear that the dialectical element in his thinking is a practice of negation that has be understood in a very particular sense:
The very contours of the positive element will appear distinctly only insofar as this element is set off against the negative. On the other hand every negation has its value solely as the background for the delineation of the lively, the positive.30
One of the key elements in his writing is to introduce negations that have the effect of “displacement of the angle of vision” so that a “a positive element emerges anew in it too.”31 In other words, the point of dialectic is not to produce dead ends or to remove a vocabulary from thought, but rather to negate in such a way as to open up new, intuitive juxtapositions of thought that were blocked by a prior assumption. This late methodological thought applies in a profound way to Benjamin’s early practice of first philosophy. Throughout his early, philosophical work, the dialectical moment is found in Benjamin’s recurring tendency to negate a certain settled or familiar meaning of a concept: to define by negating, but also, to negate for the sake of redefining. He will frequently emphasize what experience is not, or what is a one-sided and hence unsatisfactory notion of experience; how not to think of truth or memory; which common notion of language is too superficial or inessential. This negative moment in Benjamin’s thinking is crucial, since it gives his thinking a space to run and a trajectory, but it is also in itself, of course, not fully satisfactory. If it were the case that Benjamin merely strips us of a familiar way of thinking about a concept without giving us anything more, then he could indeed be seen as a nihilistic thinker. The key to getting beyond this impression is to give full recognition to the constellational element in his thinking. It is precisely by grouping Benjamin’s negative and incomplete answers around each other in such a way that no one thought prevails, but what is incomplete in one finds its resonance in another attempt, that we get the sense of a living whole of thought.
The dialectical and fragmentary elements in Benjamin’s thinking are not altogether original or unique to his thinking, and I emphasize them here because they are important to keep in mind while diving into the specifics of Benjamin’s early philosophy, so that we do not take fragmentary elements as mere failures or dialectical negations as mere negative definitions. However, Benjamin does give a truly original and distinctive formulation to the notion of constellation,32 and it is only by placing the dialectical and fragmentary moments in relation to this notion of constellation that we get a sense of how Benjamin actually gives definition to key philosophical terms. “By gathering concepts round the central one that is sought, they attempt to express what that concept aims at, not to circumscribe it to operative ends.”33 Each of the subsequent chapters will take the form of a constellation, grouped around a key concept, and so it is crucial to dwell on how Benjamin understands this practice.
Benjamin is often referred to as an anti-systematic thinker, a claim that might allow us to distinguish him from other German philosophers, but which, in its merely negative form, does not yet fully grasp what is distinctive in Benjamin’s method of philosophical creativity. It is the notion of constellation that allows us to grasp the kind of order or constructiveness that allows philosophy to move from one point to another without the mere sense of moving from one failure to the next, but with the sense of allowing each fragment to gain determinacy through the others. A system, understood in the context of post-Kantian philosophy, means having a foundation (Grnndprinzip) and a deductive chain of ensuing principles.34 In a constellation, by contrast, there is an intuitive configuration of incomplete and ungrounded elements, which refer to each other in a variety of ways, but there is also something else, and something crucial, for making it a constellation, and not a mere multitude: there is an idea. The idea is not itself a concept or principle, for it is nothing more than a way of reading the elements as meaningful and would not exist without the multitude. The constellation is thus the way in which the idea allows us to ‘read’ the relation between various negations, fragments and empirical phenomena. The idea is not itself an act of knowing which grounds other acts of knowing, but an act of interpretation that makes it possible for the truth of various elements to appear. The idea allows us not only to see the relation between fragments, so that one fragment is explaining the others, but it is also what redeems the fragments. It is not what the fragments have in common, but what makes them more than mere fragments. I should thus clarify that my own method of writing modifies Benjamin’s understanding of the constellation in the following manner so as to make it fruitful for interpreting Benjamin’s own work: in his own critical practice, he understands a constellation as a way in which an idea, a philosophical problem, allows various phenomena to be legible. In my own interpretation, the constellation means arranging various partial answers in a definite pattern so that they reveal more than the sum of the parts. It might seem as if this notion of constellation gives them a merely arbitrary status, as if it were merely one chosen schema of interpreting matters, an element that lies outside of the need for any justification. But for Benjamin, it is not just any schema that makes phenomena legible, but the one that redeems them. This is to say that various fragmentary approaches gain their determinate meaning only when placed in an order that respects the ways in which they share vocabulary, but even more, the ways in which they remain incomplete relative to a common problem.
These three elements of Benjamin’s philosophy—the dialectical, fragmentary and constellational—each work together to form a method in Benjamin’s philosophy. It would also help to say a word about the attitude, often misunderstood, to which Benjamin aspired in his thinking: in a word, it is sober. He employs this term to describe the philosophy of early German Romanticism,’5 but as is often the case in his readings of various authors, he demonstrates what he values and aspires to in his own thought through his innovative reading of other authors. As he writes, the sober attitude in thought is found not so much in a detached attitude to the subject, but in an ability to immerse oneself in an object without getting lost, to see with great concentration without giving up on thinking about what one is seeing. Benjamin emphasizes this term, understood in this very idiosyncratic manner, as a corrective to what he sees as an overly irrational or artistic reading of the Romantic philosophers. But this disposition of austere sobriety also becomes in Benjamin’s own work synonymous with taking a deep, open yet critical posture towards the subject at hand. In his methodological prologue, he associates Atemholen— pausing or surfacing to take a breath—with the exemplary posture of the philosophical writer.36 In Benjamin’s later work, the term ‘presence of mind’ (Geistesgegenwart) takes on a similar meaning.37 One of the great obstacles, of course, to receiving Benjamin as a purely philosophical writer comes from his readiness to take the particular empirical phenomenon as a subject for thought. This spirit of sobriety has to be understood as a kind of transcendental condition for maintaining experience amidst such explorations.
As I will argue in the next chapter, much of Benjamin’s conception of philosophy has to do with the ability and patience to pose open-ended questions. He arrives at this notion of philosophy in some of his earliest writings on student life in Germany. He interprets the university as symbolic of a crucial political struggle: the place where the past comes into confrontation with the future, where received knowledge comes into confrontation with questioning, where the cynicism of experience comes into confrontation with the idealism of youth. While the university tends towards professionalization of the young to participate in society, and establishes a division of fields of knowledge that corresponds to such professionalization, the young themselves have not yet been reduced to such categories. They are able to ask questions that go beyond such established fields of knowledge, questions that are not yet guided by an established purpose. Benjamin argues that the discipline of philosophy is precisely the pursuit of these kinds of questions, and not merely another branch of professional knowledge.38 As soon as philosophy becomes walled in as a specific discipline that is isolated by an established method or limited subject matter, as soon as it knows what specific goal it is serving, it ceases to be philosophy. Of course, when Benjamin writes about youth and the life of students in this way, he does not mean a specific phase of life, but more an attitude towards what one knows and can know. “It is worth taking the trouble to describe the contemporary significance of students and the university . . . only if they can be understood as a metaphor.”39 A metaphor of what? As the text goes on to make clear, of an attitude towards history, experience, knowledge and truth that Benjamin associates with the practice of philosophy. And when he writes about philosophy in this way, he does not mean so much a specific academic discipline, but more a certain spirit that can be present or absent in any academic discipline. Of the three moments that I associate with Benjamin’s practice of philosophy, the fragmentary, dialectical and constel-lational, it is clear that the oldest or earliest layer of his thinking is to be found in this very definition of philosophy: the ability to ask questions that negate in a provisional way, clear space for thought, while pursuing new, fragmentary thoughts.
This book follows a hermeneutical principle in reading Benjamin that follows from this text 'The Life of Students’: it is the early and incomplete, the not yet settled, that is the element of philosophy. It is also in this sense that I emphasize the ‘early’ Benjamin over the later Benjamin that is so often the primary subject of most scholarship. It is not that I want to break off this youthful period in order to claim it has more truth or that it could stand alone as a subject of scholarship. Nor do I mean to underplay the tendency of Benjamin to reverse course, change his mind or take on new subjects. Rather, the basic tendency of each of the studies that make up this book is to read Benjamin’s philosophical development forward from what is incomplete in his early works rather than backwards from what seems settled in his late works,40 a method of reading that will emphasize the continuity of questions motivating Benjamin’s work rather than the finality of any one position or answer.
It is in this spirit that I ask my book to be read: to look away from Benjamin’s late thinking long enough to see its seeds in an earlier spirit of wonder and questioning. It is not so much that I want to claim Benjamin for philosophy, or to appropriate him to a specific discipline of philosophy, but more that I hope to illuminate what philosophy meant to this most creative and idiosyncratic of thinkers.
Following Benjamin’s own method, every act of scholarship—or what he would call critique—is a translation, a transformation of the work from one idiom into another. Benjamin’s text ‘The Task of the Translator’ is really a text about the very nature of true engagement with any work. Indeed, the problem of effective translation becomes a metaphor in Benjamin’s thought for what it means truly to understand something: to express in our own words what we find startling and original in another language. And the present work understands itself in this way: rather than myself speaking the language of Benjamin, I seek to rescue certain insights for another idiom, namely the history of philosophy. It is evident that Benjamin breaks with the idiom of academic philosophy at the very point when he becomes most original in his thinking. But in translating from his idiom into that of the history of philosophy, I hope to maintain a certain insight of Benjamin’s: that it is precisely in moving between idioms that language and thought come into their own. We might think that the main goal of translation is fidelity to the original, or perhaps eloquence. But in Benjamin’s own rendering of translation, the deepest task of the translator is actually this: to transform one’s own language through the translation, to bring one language into contact with something that exposes its own limitations to the point where one says more than what one could normally hope to say. This is the sense in which I hope to transpose Benjamin into the language of philosophy: while it might not be possible for me to duplicate Benjamin’s own fluid, anti-systematic philosophy in this medium, I do hope that this medium itself can gain from contact with Benjamin.