Who Owns Walter Benjamin?
On the Place and Non-Place of Radical Thought
Initiative for an International Walter Benjamin Conference and Workshop in Ramallah, Palestine, Dec. 6-11, 2015
Today Walter Benjamin has arrived in the official pantheon of global humanities. His writings belong to the canon of Modern German and European philosophy and literary criticism. There are countless international conferences celebrating his legacy. But can this academic appropriation of Benjamin’s thought do justice to his ‘critical life’ and to the ‘tradition of the oppressed’ that his writings invoke? Given the uncritical if not ideological role of the humanities in today’s neo-liberal capitalism, a merely academic discourse on Benjamin does violence to his thought. Speaking of the legibility of Benjamin’s oeuvre, the question of time and place matter to both the text and its reader.
Born in Berlin in 1892 to an assimilated wealthy German-Jewish family, Benjamin died as an impoverished refugee in late September 1940 while illegally crossing the border from Vichy-France to Francoist Spain. In the small border town of Port-Bou, he committed suicide after he and his group of refugees had been denied entry to Spain. On that particular day, the Spanish border guards received new instructions and did not accept the set of papers and transit visas that Benjamin carried with him.
Benjamin’s death tells the story of the arbitrariness of state power, state violence and its jurisdiction over ‘bare life’. Had Benjamin’s group of refugees only arrived a bit earlier or later in autumn 1940, the Spanish border guards would have let them pass – even without the mandatory exit-visa from France, which was almost impossible to obtain during the days of Vichy France and the chaotic aftermath of the German invasion of France. Benjamin was finally driven to suicide by “normal” state violence and its “exceptional,” yet inherently possible fascist radicalization.
With painful prescience, Benjamin, the essayist, philosopher and translator, authored the landmark essay “The Critique of Violence” (1921), in which he vigorously exposed the violence of the modern state and its jurisdiction, legislation, and executive forces. For the early Benjamin, it was clear that there was “something rotten in the law” – be it the law of monarchy, “normal” democracy or autocratic regimes. From Benjamin’s perspective of a radical critique of violence, justice and the law of the state remain irreconcilable.
In 1940, after the Hitler-Stalin pact and the German invasion of Poland and France, Benjamin was forced to flee ‘old Europe’. He intended to join the exiled Frankfurt Institute for Social Research in the U.S. It was in these last catastrophic months of his life when he wrote his now celebrated “Theses on the Concept of History” in which he drew the image of the ‘angel of history’ and invoked the ‘tradition of the oppressed’. In this last text, he also proposed his understanding of a ‘weak messianic’ undercurrent in history, which, against all teleologies of progress and development, would refer all generations and their failures to redemption.
From these few bio-bibliographical lines it should be obvious that Benjamin’s thought is irreconcilable with apologetic ideologies of state power, violence, and narratives of ‘victors’ history’. As a German Jew and radical left intellectual, Benjamin invoked the partisan, yet universal ‘tradition of the oppressed’ against all forms of domination.
Talking about Benjamin in today’s Palestine is a political act. The international conference and workshop “Who Owns Walter Benjamin?” is part of the attempt to break the de facto cultural and academic boycott of Palestine, implemented and enforced by the occupation regime and its multi-layered web of checkpoints, territorial zones and other juridical-administrative measures. It is an intervention into ongoing debates on occupation, statehood, theocracy, binationalism, and anti-colonial struggles for liberation. If in Benjamin’s heterodox Marxism the different strands of Jewish messianic and libertarian-utopian thought form a relationship of “elective affinity” (Michael Löwy), his name and legacy invoke a constant appeal against the arrogance of any state power and representations of victors’ history. In this vein, Benjamin’s texts not only speak to the international community of Benjamin scholars and critical theorists but also to political struggles in Palestine.
If you would like to get involved and/or participate in this project, please visit our call for participation.