You are on page 1of 17





Is it possible to acknowledge loss without thereby surreptitiously disavowing it?
For whatever cultural and historical reasons, melancholia – the unappeasable
attachment to an ungrievable loss – seems to have a peculiar resonance
today. It might indeed be tempting to see in the very stubbornness of the
attachment – the ‘loyalty to things’ – a certain ethical dimension: the refusal
to perform the mourning work of renunciation through symbolic mediation
might seem to involve an encrypting of alterity within the interiority of
the subject, which would as such divest itself of its illusory sufficiency or
self-containment. Freud’s ‘open wound’1 would be the site of an originary
extimacy as the subject’s own opening to an infinite responsibility. Buried
alive within the vault of a self fractured by the persistence of what cannot
be metabolized, the lost object would seem to assert its continued claim on
those still alive. Melancholia would articulate this claim. Its tenacity would
be the measure of the incommensurability of a loss whose persistence points
both to the infinite need for and to the final impossibility of all restitution.
The issue proves to be somewhat more complicated. Simply to invert
Freud’s infamous hierarchy between ‘normal’, normalizing mourning and
pathological melancholia would be to ignore that the antithesis between
mourning and melancholia finds an echo within the structure of melan-
cholia itself, which displays its own internal conceptual self-division. The
very history of the concept of melancholia shows a systematic oscillation
between denigration and overvaluation – a split which suggests that
whatever the resonance of the concept today it should not be a question
simply of privileging melancholia as somehow most responsible to the
historical demands of an epoch devastated by the cumulative horror of its
losses. Typically stigmatized in the medical tradition from Stoicism through
The Sickness of Tradition 89

Scholasticism (where, not coincidentally, its perils were typically coded as

feminine), valorized in the Renaissance and Romantic tradition (where its
benefits were correspondingly coded as masculine), melancholia has from
the beginning been burdened with a double valency. Linked, on the one
hand, to paralysing pathology (the ‘noonday demon’ of the Middle Ages),
and, on the other, to ecstatic creativity (the ‘divine mania’ of Ficino or
Tasso), the concept of melancholia is itself fissured by a crucial ambiguity.2
The aporia is not simply that the emphasis on the opacity of the lost
object deflects attention from the lost object to loss as such, and from here,
eventually, to the subject of loss – a movement of abstraction which paradox-
ically aggrandizes the subject in its very abjection. Freud, who was to observe
the righteous grandiosity of the melancholic’s self-lacerations, was thus led
to draw the conceptual link between melancholia and a certain narcissism.
More precisely: the preoccupation with an originary loss (‘as such’) logically
preceding the loss of any determinate object could function equally as a
pre-emptive denial of loss which would mask the real inaccessibility of its
object by determining it in advance as lost – thus negatively appropriable in
its very absence. The melancholic attachment to ‘unknown loss’ (SE 18: 245)
would in this way function apotropaically as a defence against the fact that
the object ‘lost’ was in fact never mine for the having. Melancholia would
thus be a way of staging a dispossession of that which was never one’s own
to lose in the first place – and thus, precisely by occluding structural lack
as determinate loss, would exemplify the strictly perverse effort to assert a
relation with the non-relational. (Which is not to say that the assumption
of ‘lack’ – in general – cannot equally function pre-emptively by dissolving
the singularity of contingent losses.) Trauma would itself in this way be
mobilized as a defence against an impossible enjoyment: the melancholic
derealization of the real here functions, as Giorgio Agamben has compel-
lingly argued, not only to aggrandize the subject of fantasy, but in so doing
ultimately to hypostatize what is unreal (or phantasmatic) as a new reality.3
The example of Baudelaire may briefly clarify this recuperative logic of gain
through loss. The strange coalescence of emptiness and plenitude explored in
so many poems – Andromache, for example, ‘bent in ecstasy’ near the empty
tomb of Hector (‘Le Cygne’) – points to the paradox that grief can provide
its own most potent form of consolation. Lack yields its own fulfilment in
the allegorical personifications whereby the poet’s preoccupation with his
own grief – ‘ma Douleur’: capitalized, humanized, hypostatized – comes to
fill the vacuum left by the absent object. In ‘Recueillement’ death itself is
pre-empted by the intensity of the living sorrow which the poet cherishes
like a mother her ailing child. The language of grief in this way comes to
eclipse the loss which occasioned it and – another familiar Baudelairean
gesture – announces the alchemical transformation of black bile into ink.4
It is not the formal dialectic of reversal per se which is my concern here,
but rather what is at stake in it. Nietzsche’s analysis of the ascetic ideal is
90 Walter Benjamin and History

supremely pertinent. Over and above the logical loop evident in the melan-
cholic conversion of privation into acquisition is the spectre of acquiescence
which would – this is Hegel’s beautiful soul – embrace the present in the
gratification of its own despair. There is nothing neutral about the drift to
compensatory gratification. The sublime abstraction which finds power in
disempowerment threatens to evaporate the object into an aesthetic phantas-
magoria which would adapt the subject to the requirements of the present.
The effacement of negativity would still the repetition which is the essential
legacy of trauma – the signature of its inherent historicity – but which is
equally, by that very token, its most generative power. The occlusion of the
traumatic past cuts off any relation to a radically (perhaps catastrophically)
different future.
The structure of melancholia in this way begins to bleed into that of
fetishism – the compensatory construction of imaginary unities in response
to a traumatic loss (‘castration’) which structurally can be neither fully
acknowledged nor denied.5 Perversion not only names the simultaneity
of recognition and disavowal: it hints at the deeper paradox that the very
recognition is the disavowal. There is no acknowledgement of trauma which
in its claim to adequacy (a claim implicit in the very protestation of inad-
equacy) does not efface the loss it would concede. Despite appearances, the
celebrated ‘Je sais bien . . . mais quand même’ structure outlined by Octave
Mannoni in no way neutralizes by partitioning the contradiction it would
announce.6 The fetishistic split which maintains the contradiction between
knowledge and belief – traumatic loss, on the one hand, redemptive totality,
on the other – provides no protective containment of its antitheses, but
rather implicates both within a contaminating porosity and oscillation of
one term into the other.
Could such a perverse simultaneity of acknowledgement and disavowal
be the condition of historicity? Far from indicating a simple deviation from
some norm of repression (together with its counterpart of enlightenment),
fetishism might rather indicate the subject’s irreducible split between two
contradictory imperatives – an antinomy which itself marks the ambivalent
legacy of every trauma. If every relation to history is always at some level a
non-relation to another history – a missed encounter with the other’s lack
and as such a traumatic relation to the other’s trauma – history itself would
be defined by the recursive or reflexive pressure of a loss recognizable only in
its own effacement. Could perversion be the mark of the subject’s impossible
relationship to a loss which is ultimately not its own to acknowledge in the
first place – but so too, equally, the index of a certain promise?
The issue is all the more pressing at a time when the very proliferation
of memorials, the manic drive to museify, threatens to spell the erasure of
memory. It is less a question here of disavowing such disavowal (in the name,
for example, of a demystified or disenchanted mourning) than to consider
what might be at stake in such a contradiction. How to respond to the claim
The Sickness of Tradition 91

of the dead when every response (starting with the piety of the response
which invokes ‘the dead’ as if they were some kind of self-evident corporate
subject) threatens to escalate the amnesia against which the anamnestic
project is directed?


We could begin, for example, by reconsidering the frequently remarked
peculiarity of the contemporary memory industry;7 the recent discomfort
over the cruelly labelled ‘Shoah-biz’ is here symptomatic. At issue is the
dramatically inverse ratio between the current proliferation of memorial
institutions and the experience of direct memory: a ratio which expresses
itself temporally, as the distance between the current spate of mnemonic
products and the tangible experiences they reference; spatially, as the gap
between these products and the subjects who consume them; cognitively,
as the epistemic gap between the intensification of memorials and the
numbing boredom and distraction these so frequently occasion. Rather than
deploring this distance in the name of a more authentic or more inward work
of memory, or simply denouncing the various opportunisms so frequently at
work here, one might examine the precise logic of this dissonance.
What does it mean that memory feeds on what structurally evades it: that
our drive to remember is directed towards memories that essentially are not
our own to remember, or that we perpetually seek our memories elsewhere
– in objects, in places, even in a frenzied theorizing about memory? The
logic of this expropriation needs to be considered. The current lament
that this cultural frenzy of commemoration is a prosthetic substitute for
remembrance – that we make things which will not only tell us how, when,
where, to remember, but which will effectively do our remembering for us
(a complaint which effectively resumes Plato’s denunciation of writing in
the Phaedrus) – only circles around the problem. Slavoj Žižek has elaborated
the amusing and suggestive notion of ‘interpassivity’: you come home from
work, flop in front of the television, tune into the sitcom, and are suddenly
confronted by this eruption of canned laughter.8 Žižek’s point is that this
onslaught of prefabricated response does not simply function, as one might
think, as a tyrannical reminder to start laughing – the notorious superegoic
injunction to enjoy – but that it actually does our laughing for us. And this
not only as one more labour-saving device on a par with the remote control
and the popcorn machine, but rather so as to mark the inescapable condition
of self-dispossession which spells our inscription in a symbolic order.
Such a dispossession was already noted by Adorno and Horkheimer when
in the Dialectic of Enlightenment they observe how the commodified piece
of music ‘hears for the listener’. It was noted by Heidegger in Sein und Zeit
in describing the stubborn condition of Abständigkeit – ‘distantiality’ or
92 Walter Benjamin and History

of self-dissension: the consumerist chain of surrogacy which defines the

experience or rather non-experience of das Man (‘we take pleasure and enjoy
ourselves as they enjoy themselves, we read, see, and judge literature the way
they see and judge’, and so on).9 Where Žižek’s Lacanian formulation differs
from, and just possibly explodes, the residual mandarism lurking in both
Heidegger and Adorno’s earlier renderings is that this surrogacy, rather than
constituting a limit on an authenticity predicated (mutatis mutandis) on the
self-proximity of a subject, becomes the condition for an ‘abyssal’ freedom in
which the decentred subject finds itself overwritten by a signifying network
that exceeds it: its own desire is registered as the desire of the Other.
What would it mean for memorials to do our remembering ‘for’ us? What
Pierre Nora identifies as the need for a ‘lieu de memoire’ can be interpreted
doubly:10 at once the situatedness of memory, memory’s inherent drive to
embodiment, and its inevitable displacement in a place or situation which
usurps it. The lament that memorials take the place of memory assumes too
quickly that memory itself is not from the start defined as expropriation. The
idea that we are not contingently (according to the dictates of the market,
the nation-state, the various pathologies of power) but structurally dispos-
sessed of our own memories may be horrible, but it would at least suspend
any automatic determination of memory as reappropriation, or (a certain
interpretation of) Hegelian Er-innerung or internalization. It may indeed
explain what Hegel could not have possibly meant, but nonetheless almost
said, when he determined in the Phenomenology the für sich (substance-as-
subject) as what presents itself für uns. What appears ‘for us’ is not only a
function of our conceptual mediations but may reveal the impossibility of
every standpoint from which to mediate; the very ‘we’ who we are appears at
once ‘on our behalf’ and ‘instead of us’; experience is effectively determined
as the experience of the impossibility of experience.
The memorial which usurps or pre-empts our memories not only assumes
the subjective attributes of its now reified consumers but inscribes the limits
of the possibility of inscription. If every fetish is a mnemonic registration
of a loss which is simultaneously repudiated (both a victory monument
over and the stigma indelibile of castration, says Freud), then the fetishized
memorial ambiguously commemorates not the lost object per se but the loss
of loss: in staging the coincidence of memory with its own evacuation the
memorial performs an impossible mourning rite for mourning itself and
thereby demonstrates our irreducible eviction from our own experience. It is
mourning as such which is now, ‘impossibly’, being mourned.


The entwined destinies of melancholia and fetishism thus begin to
emerge. This may seem surprising: are not the two attitudes opposed? Is
The Sickness of Tradition 93

not the immediate, banal contrast between the determined misery of the
former and the voluptuous determination of the latter decisive? A grain of
Nietzschean suspicion might go some way here: the defiant exhibitionism
of the melancholic reveals a streak of luxurious enjoyment matched only
by the severity of the fetishist’s commitment to a jouissance which in its
workmanlike assiduity displays a discipline and focus verging on the
ascetic. Both loss and jouissance present themselves here as symmetrically
and reciprocally traumatic. If castration names the trauma of our symbolic
mediation, the encounter with the Real brings the equally devastating
trauma of an unmediated proximity – the ‘hard kernel’ which marks at
once the limit and the possibility of experience. The fantasy of loss can
itself function as a defence against the trauma of enjoyment, just as jouis-
sance itself can be reinflected as a defence against the trauma of castration.
Just as obsessional rituals can defend against the ‘real’ death threatening
to engulf the subject on the battlefield of enjoyment, so too even ‘little
deaths’ can be reconstructed as so many miniaturized defences against the
symbolic mortifications on the plane of language. The operative antithesis
in this case would be thus not between symbolic castration and ‘real’
enjoyment per se, but rather between the imaginary overlay each inevitably
acquires in the face of the other: according to this ‘Borromean’ logic, even
‘trauma’ can be mobilized as a fantasmatic defence against trauma. The
manifest opposition between the experiences of lack and excess is thus
ultimately less decisive than the structures of fantasy which pre-emptively
sustain them.
One might then proceed to schematize the various parallels. Both
melancholia and fetishism involve a doubling or ‘splitting’ of the self in the
face of a loss, the intractability of which structurally prohibits the recog-
nition it thereby, as prohibition, demands. In the terms of ‘Mourning and
Melancholia’ the topological ‘cleavage between the critical faculty of the ego
and the ego as altered by identification’ (SE 14: 249) reflects the ambiguity
of a loss which is simultaneously accepted (by way of metabolizing identi-
fication) and disavowed (by way of literalizing incorporation) – a permanent
‘open wound’ which ambiguously commemorates the original instance
of traumatic wounding in so far as it at once drains away every interior
plenitude of the subject and (the catch) reifies the resultant void of sub-
jectivity as a last, stubborn surd of positivity, thereby reconfirming or
sustaining narcissism in the very injury which would deface it. A lack
congeals, which in its hypertrophy pre-empts the very possibility of the
substitution which it at the same time renders necessary. This brings
melancholia virtually to coincide with fetishism, where the epistemic split
between the affirmation and the denial of lack inevitably reproduces the
very antithesis it seeks to neutralize: the split both retraces and effaces the
castration which it is designed to regulate, in that it functions simultaneously
both as catastrophic fissure and as stabilizing partition.11 The Ichspaltung in
94 Walter Benjamin and History

this way not only creates the very possibility of forming fetishist attachments
but in itself functions as the ultimate fetish.
Various other parallels flow directly from this. The paradoxical relation
to loss in each case leads directly to an intensified attachment to things
whose prosthetic role is neither countenanced nor entirely denied. Thus the
apparent literalism of fetishist desire, the refusal of symbolic mediation,
the irreplaceable ‘thisness’ or singularity of the fetish object, and thus
similarly the peculiar tenacity of melancholia. The ‘cathectic loyalty’12
to the lost object in this latter instance not only does not preclude but
requires the secret construction of a substitute – the remnant of the object
incorporated within the empty interior of the subject – which functions
as a screen memory the very opacity of which remains both refractory
and infinitely tantalizing. (It is ultimately memory itself which gets deter-
mined as the ultimate fetish-object: the veil.) Thus the familiar paradoxes
of recuperation: mourning itself becomes a fetishistic proxy for an object
whose loss is overshadowed by the clamorous grief it occasions, and in
this way furtively stages substitution precisely by insisting on the latter’s
Substitution in each case structurally requires the construction of a part-
object whose fragmentation both prolongs and occludes the traumatic wound
it commemorates. The fetishistic passion for the inanimate – to objects, to
body-parts, and even to the whole body itself now refashioned as its own
synecdoche of itself (the erect body posing as substitute for its own absent
member)13 – displays a chiasmic exchange between unity and fragmentation
whereby the subject finds vitality in the mortification which most shatters it
and thereby retrieves a weird, excessive organicity in dismemberment as such.
The supplement thus both denies and reveals the irreparability of the lack to
which it is consecrated – the part-object functions as the whole object and
as such blocks the syntagmatic completion which it simultaneously incites
and enables – and in this way erodes the opposition between unity and frag-
mentation, an opposition which is in turn elaborated as the opposition
between jouissance (oriented toward the viscosity of life-substance) and
the dead letter of the law. In enunciating the law of enjoyment as his very
own private law – posited without the detour of symbolic mediation – the
pervert effectively elides the structural gap which is the essential condition
of the law as such, and in this way, and through the various literalisms of
his practice, flaunts the law precisely in usurping as exclusive occupant the
site of the law’s own enunciation.
Melancholia displays a similar logic. The incorporation of the object
requires the latter’s abbreviation as a frozen attribute and thereby inflicts
upon it a kind of second death – miniaturization reproduces the death
which it simultaneously reduces – a violence which will in turn reverberate
within the sadomasochistic theatre of grief wherein, famously, it is the lost
object itself which is being whipped by the subject’s most intimate self-
The Sickness of Tradition 95

flagellations. The refusal to admit the object’s lack involves the concession
of that very lack and exacerbation of the latter’s mortifying dismemberment.
Reduced to a part-object within the hollow crypt of subjectivity, the object
persists as living corpse, at once congealed remains and extruding surplus,
whose death accretes like so much cellular efflorescence.


Time here undergoes its own peculiar shattering: a fissure erupts within
the continuum of experience. The melancholic fi xation on the past may
explode the nostalgia to which it simultaneously seems committed, just
as the perverse temporality of suspense or ‘lingering’ may undermine its
own implicit consecration of an embalmed or reified present. This may
seem surprising: how might fi xation yield a form of rupture? At the level of
fantasy, that is, as parallel forms of defence, the temporal registers of melan-
cholia and fetishism surely appear equally and symmetrically conservative.
The melancholic ‘too late’ may function as a pre-emptive assumption
of trauma which evaporates impending catastrophe by insisting on the
latter’s absolute anteriority: no contingency remains; death is installed as
always already accomplished; the sacrifice is over before it begins. This
is Kierkegaard’s definition of recollection as an aesthetic ideology, and it
equally determines the flight from time in infinite resignation: one lives in
the present as if the worst has already happened. ‘Recollection has the great
advantage in that it begins with the loss; the reason it is safe and secure is
that it has nothing to lose’, writes Kierkegaard of the lover who mourns his
beloved in advance, an old man by the second date.14 In a similar fashion the
knight of infinite resignation jumpstarts the dreadful moment of decision,
rushes too eagerly up the mountain so as to bypass the night of Abraham’s
unbearable decision, and thus effectively overleaps time itself so as to win
the payback of an otherworldly compensation: loss is staved off as always
already in the past.
Fetishism displays the same temporal logic in reverse: loss is warded off
as always already in the future. Thus Freud’s emphasis on the ritualized
suspense which defines the temporality of perversion: traumatic belatedness
is perpetually siphoned off to the next moment; perpetual foreplay seeks to
recapture, immobilize and thereby retroactively construct the moment before
the traumatic encounter – to forestall disaster by deferring it to a chronically
receding horizon. I turn back the clock so as to forever relive the very last
flicker of an imaginary innocent anticipation: the worst is forever in abeyance,
I am permanently on this side of danger – I reassure myself with the fantasy
of a permanent not-yet.15 This is Lessing’s explanation of the strange beauty
of the Laocoön sculpture: the sculptor has captured the pregnant moment
just before the full horror strikes – the father’s mouth open but not yet
96 Walter Benjamin and History

screaming, the serpent’s venom not quite completely penetrated, the agony
not quite yet at its climax: the gaze fixes on the penultimate moment so as
to block the revelation of the monstrous void. Penultimacy – incompletion
as such – becomes a defence against a mortifying conclusion.
Melancholia and fetishism would thus seem to collude to produce the
illusion of an intact present – solitary, sufficient, immune from past or
future threat. Indeed they come to coincide: postponement of a death
forever pending consummates itself in the pre-emptive fantasy of a death
always already accomplished. Thus, in Proust, the blink of an eye from
chronic prematurity to chronic, irreversal senescence, from the phantasm of
the blank page to the phantasm of the bal de morts, from perpetual virginity
to premature, perpetual mummification – and into the no less reassuring
fantasy that ‘having already died, I have nothing left to fear from death’.16
What would it mean to ‘traverse the fantasy’ so as to release the present
from a reassuring stasis? To negotiate the switching station between the too
early and the too late, between fetishistic ‘before’ and melancholic ‘after’,
so as to change the terms of both postponement and its obverse? Here
Benjamin’s reflections on history may prove compelling.

. . . This is so true, that the eternal is more the frill on a dress than any idea.
N3, 2

Is there a way of disentangling the dialectical image from the phantasma-

goria of late capitalism? Adorno famously did not think so. The arresting,
sometimes distracting details of the debate between Benjamin and Adorno
at times veil over the depth of the rift between the two thinkers – but so too,
perhaps, their secret complicity. Responding to the sprawling, smorgasbord-
like assemblage of the Passagen-Werk, Adorno charges Benjamin with vulgar
Marxism: thus the ‘lack of mediation’ notoriously discerned in Benjamin’s
various attempts at linkage – from base to superstructure, from sidewalk size
to flânerie, from wine tax to ‘L’âme du vin’, etc. (C, p. 582) – an ‘inference’
which in its metonymic crudity at best overlooks the complex negotiations of
the commodity fetishism chapter in Kapital, at worst falls under the ‘spell of
bourgeois psychology’ (C, p. 497). Vulgar Marxism would in this case conspire
with vulgar psychoanalysis (Jung) in its reduction of the social imaginary
to a dreaming collectivity which in its abstract homogeneity dissolves the
explosive ambivalence – the blend of ‘desire and fear’ – which signals at once
the traumatic burden of the dialectic, the fissure of uncontainable negativity,
but, so too, equally, its ‘objective liberating power’ (C, pp. 495–6).
Implicit in Adorno’s repeated accusation of magical thinking is the
suggestion that Benjamin has succumbed to more than one kind of fetish:
The Sickness of Tradition 97

to elide the dialectic is to veil the social conditions of production as the

ongoing ‘hell’ which defines the modern age (C, p. 496). Benjamin’s
legendary ‘Medusa gaze’ (C, p. 500) would on this reading function
apotropaically to deflect and mask a devastation whose pressure remains
all the more unassailable in being reproduced. Benjamin’s ‘superstitious
enumeration’ (C, p. 583) of partial objects would in this sense plaster over
the ultimate catastrophe fissuring history as a whole – the dissonance of
irremediable class oppression – and as such blunt any demand for total
social change. Although Adorno does not invoke these terms, the logic of
pre-emptive fragmentation discerned here comes close to the psychoanalytic
model. To linger on the disjecta membra (shoe, velvet, shine on nose, etc.)
would be simultaneously to register and to occlude a deeper fragmentation
(‘castration’, death, irrecuperable negativity), and so to function both as
victory monument over and traumatic reminder – stigma indelebile – of
the loss it commemorates.17 Marx’s celebrated analysis of the fetish, which
Adorno does invoke, is in this respect not dissimilar. The animation of
things both reflects and veils the mortification of persons and thereby
provides the compensatory phantasm of unity in the face of an irredeemably
fractured social world. The commodity occludes the alienated labour it
congeals and consecrates, and thereby commemorates a loss – of bodily
and social integrity – ungrievable under existent relations of production. In
both cases the fetish assumes an ideological role: by providing the consoling
image of totality it pacifies any desire for a different world, and this precisely
by freezing time at the moment before the catastrophic insight.
Underpinning Adorno’s charge of positivism is the suspicion of an ideali-
zation that naturalizes what it seeks to mobilize and thereby negates the very
negativity it seeks to honour. Benjamin’s projection of a utopian horizon
for the scraps of actually existing culture occludes the ‘hell’ of a history
eternalized as second nature, and thereby mollifies the demand for radical
social change. ‘Chaque époque rêve la suivante’ (GS 5.1: 46). Benjamin’s
repeated recycling of Michelet is for Adorno symptomatic in that it elides
the radical caesura between catastrophe and its antithesis, and thus absorbs
utopia within the mythic continuum of the ever-same (C, p. 495). The
attempt to read redemptive content directly from the bits and pieces of
phenomenal history presupposes a synecdochal reduction to immanence
– the part stands in for the whole and thus blocks its possibility – which in
its elision of the dialectic of fragmentation (loss) and totality (redemption)
inevitably stifles the last, dwindling possibility of change. The dialectical
image betrays utopia precisely by anticipating or imagining it, and in this
flagrant violation of the theological ban on graven images18 would fetish-
istically disavow the alterity it would thereby acknowledge. The problem
with Benjamin’s micrological patchwork is thus, on this reading, not in fact
fragmentation but just the opposite: Adorno’s less obvious and more painful
reproach is that in renouncing the dialectical continuity – durchdialektisieren
98 Walter Benjamin and History

– of conceptual mediation19 Benjamin only reinstates a kind of identity

philosophy all the more oppressive for going unnamed. If Benjamin abstains
from theoretical totalization, this is only in the end so as to smuggle in a
series of imaginary continuities – within and between the epochs and within
the body politic as such – which in their very inconspicuousness assume an
apologetic form.
Underlying the ostentatious disaggregation of Benjamin’s so-called ‘sur-
realist method’ is there a faith in unity all the more magical for being
unspoken? Fragmentation as such can provide the most perfect alibi for its
own denial; preoccupation with the rubble heap can serve to cloak a deeper
devastation. Benjamin’s position would from this perspective slide inexorably
into that of the pervert whose loyalty to the scattered ‘things’ only prolongs
a commitment to imaginary unities – the phantasm of the revolutionary
collective, of the golden age, of history itself as the site of specular conden-
sation – whose persistence inevitably assumes a consoling or ideological cast
(lingering over the waxworks of the nineteenth century might in this sense
satisfy more than one agenda). However irritating, Adorno’s harangue brings
into perfect focus an ineluctable antinomy at the heart of Benjamin’s project.


. . . the exact point where historical materialism cuts through [durchschlägt]
Theses on History

‘The chronicler who recites events without discriminating between major

and minor ones takes into account the truth that nothing that has ever
happened is to be taken as lost for history’ (GS 1.2: 694 SW 4:390). How
to distinguish the prodigious contraction of messianic Rettung from a
capacious historicism regulated by the consoling teleology of universal
history?20 If the ‘tiger’s leap into the past’ (GS 1.2: 701 SW 4:395) assumes as
its ‘truly problematic’ condition the determination to ‘give nothing up’ (N3,
3) – Origen’s heretical doctrine of apokatasis is always hovering (cf. GS 2.2:
458 SW 3:157) – this flows explicitly from a theological conviction regarding
‘the indestructibility of the highest life in all things’ (N1a, 5).
Do the frozen cut-ups of Benjamin’s ‘montage’ method secretly prolong
the historicism they interrupt? The question reverberates well beyond the
unfinished monster which is the Passagen-Werk. Adorno had no particular
reason to restrict his criticism, nor to reduce it to the notorious terms he did
(arcades, balconies, etc.). If Adorno’s suspicion has any pertinence it should
apply equally to Benjamin’s entire set-up – from the early Trauerspielbuch
to the final Theses on History, the very texts Adorno thought he loved the
best – which is in this respect perfectly continuous from start to end. As the
The Sickness of Tradition 99

metaphysical problematic of part and whole unfurls into the more poignant
‘Benjaminian’ problematic – loss and redemption, death and resurrection
– the political, historical and indeed theological stakes begin to emerge.
The issue here is not just the familiar paradox of capitalist recuperation
– the endless reintegration of every dissonance within the syncopated
continuum of the history of the victors. Nor is it simply a question of
Benjamin’s seemingly limitless capacity to blur antitheses – the exquisite
oscillation of virtually every item on the menu between subversion and
subvention. Does the scavenging operation of, for example, Baudelaire’s
chiffonier disrupt or merely reproduce the consumerist compulsion of
capitalist modernity?21 Does the lingering hesitancy of the flâneur obstruct
the traffic flow (as the transit authorities feared) or, by fostering the illusion
of surplus leisure, secretly reinforce it?22 Does the ‘enigmatic satisfaction’
of the allegorist – the lingering lasciviousness toward the thing-world
– challenge the aesthetic plenitude of the symbolic or supply a brand of
private consolation? Do the obsessional arrangements of the collector defy
the functionality of capital or furnish it with the alibi of aesthetic disinter-
estedness?23 Is the melancholic fidelity to the dead decisively distinguished
from the luxurious despondencies – empathic acedia, ‘left-wing melancholy’
– of the vainglorious victors?24 Such fretful questions (the list continues)
have from the beginning plagued the reception of Benjamin. The symmet-
rical chorus of reproaches – too happy, too sad – circles around, but perhaps
itself shies away from the most intractable aporia.
Does the revolutionary standstill – blasting, freezing, exploding time,
shooting the clocks, pulling the emergency brake, etc. – disrupt the triumphal
procession of the victors or merely invert it (thereby buttressing it, etc.) by
reproducing the crystalline abstraction of alienated labour? The question
is not entirely well-posed, but does have the merit of focusing attention for
a moment on the profound congruity between, for example, the essays on
mass culture and the various reflections on history.25 Photography presents
each time the privileged metaphor and model of temporal contraction: ‘to
seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger’ (GS 1.2: 695
SW 4:391) is to experience a synchronization of past and present which can
be understood in the strictest sense as traumatic: the posthumous shock
inflicted on the past under the pressure of a present danger – which is to
say that history is experienced only as and at an irreversible delay. ‘Where
thinking suddenly stops in a constellation saturated with tensions it gives
that constellation a shock, by which it crystallizes into a monad’ (GS 1.3:
703 SW 4:396). Benjamin does more here than extend Freud’s or Proust’s
celebrated analogy between the deferred action of the photograph and
the structural belatedness of experience. In pointing to the coincidence of
trauma with its own abreaction – the lightning flash retroactively inflicts the
shock it shockingly discharges – he also points to an irreducible contami-
nation between the messianic rupture and the oppressive viscosity in which
100 Walter Benjamin and History

it intervenes. The revolutionaries who shot all the clocks had, in the first
place, to synchronize their watches, had to affirm the historicist continuum
in the moment of negating it, just as, in another register, the moment of
‘awakening’ is negotiated only from within the claustral confines of the
dream: the dream or phantasm not only gropes numbly towards the next
enthralling episode but in so doing (Adorno ignores this part) turns with
stealth and cunning towards its own overcoming (cf. AP, p. 13)

Fetishism informs not only the content of the Passagen-Werk, and not just
the form of its peculiar windowshop appearance. One might set aside the
(by now) tiresome speculations regarding the mimicry at work here: is the
Passagen-Werk itself a kind of literary arcade, a collection, a site of flânerie,
a department store, a museum, a cluttered interieur, a sad inventory; is
Benjamin a shopper, a ragpicker, a brooder, a thief? A deeper and more
intractable ambiguity informs the project: is it a ruin, a heap, a sketch, a
scaffold, a constructivist construction? Is its posthumous, unfinished quality
provisional, accidental, structural: what is the measure of its incompletion?
Is its unfinishedness that of the collection (forever structurally just one item
short – completion both its presupposition and its logical undoing), and if
so what sustains this logic of perpetual penultimacy? Is the fragmentation
pre-emptive, the serial production of a lack generated so as to maintain the
fiction of totality, and as such a kind of fetishism in reverse?
Liminal experiences pervade the Arcades Project and define its most familiar
landmarks – from Metro entrances to railway stations to the twilight zone of
the arcades themselves – and Benjamin repeatedly invokes the ‘magic of the
threshold’ as paradigmatic both of nineteenth-century urban experience and
of the work that commemorates it; the various spatial and optical ambigu-
ities generated architecturally by glass and iron – inside and outside, near
and distant, past and future – correlate with the deep existential ambiguities
between human and non-human, animate and inanimate, living and dead.
The very porosity of these distinctions in the dream-world of Baudelaire’s
Paris speaks to the unease and fascination generated by the ambiguous time-
space of capitalist modernity itself – the birth-pangs of commodity culture as
it pervades the interstices of the big city – and acquires layered political and
historical resonance in the aftermath of repeated revolutionary defeat. In the
architectural phantasmagorias of post-1848 Paris, ruin and sketch converge
– monuments to missed opportunities, ciphers of futures foreclosed.
Writing in 1935, and remarking on the preliminary nature of Baudelaire’s
modernity (that is to say, his modernity tout court), Benjamin insists on
the provisional or penultimate status of the various nineteenth-century
innovations: ‘all these products are on the point of entering the market as
commodities. But they hover on the threshold [Alle diese Produkte sind im
Begriff, sich als Ware auf den Markt begeben. Aber sie zoegern auf der Schwelle]’
(AP, p. 13/GS 5.1: 59). There is a sense in which Benjamin himself, on the
The Sickness of Tradition 101

eve of fascism’s triumph, keeps on lingering on the mid-nineteenth century,

prolonging the quotations, deferring the ending. Like the fetishist who keeps
dwelling on the moment just before the inevitable, irreversible catastrophe,
Benjamin keeps on constructing a retroactive ‘before’ of missed oppor-
tunities, the moment before the final congealing of capitalist social relations,
the flickering of possibilities rendered legible only from the perspective of an
irredeemably damaged present day. ‘Hope in the past’ is just this counter-
factual construction of an anterior future – the retrospective awakening of
a blocked possibility, the ‘perpetually ringing alarm clock’ (cf. Surrealism
essay) which rings all the more stridently for having been set too late.
This defines the peculiar temporality of Benjamin’s messianism – the
rescuing of a past futurity and the retroactive stimulation of a ‘not yet’
forever to come. Its secret fetishism, perhaps, but also the trace of a melan-
choly approaching that of a Kafka, for whom the Messiah always comes a
day too late – not judgement day but always the day after that, the day when
he is no longer necessary, or no longer possible, or both. Arguably, too, by
this token, ‘hope in the past’ is the eruption of what Kafka equally describes
as ‘hope, an infinite amount, but not for us’.
Notes 239

48 Ibid., p. 42.
49 Ibid., pp. 16–17.
50 Ibid., pp. 21–2.
51 Deleuze, The Fold, trans. Tom Conley (London: Athlone Press, 1993), p. 62.
52 Ibid., p. 62.
53 Ibid.
54 Ibid., p. 63.
55 Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, p. 154.
56 Ibid., p. 174.
57 Ibid., p. 31.

1 Sigmund Freud, ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, Standard Edition of the Complete
Psychological Works, ed. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1960), 18: 253.
Henceforth references to this edition are abbreviated as SE.
2 See for some of these vacillations, the various histories provided by Giorgio Agamben,
Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture (Minneapolis, MN: University of
Minnesota Press, 1993); Julia Kristeva, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia (New
York: Columbia University Press, 1989); and, Giulia Schiesari, The Gendering of
Melancholia: Feminism, Psychoanalysis and the Symbolics of Loss in Renaissance Literature
(Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992), together with the inaugural work by
Raymond Klibansky, Erwin Panofsky and Fritz Saxl, Saturn and Melancholy (New
York: Basic Books, 1964).
3 See Agamben, Stanzas.
4 Cf. Jean Starobinski, La Mélancolie au miroir (Paris: Julliard, 1989).
5 See Freud, ‘Fetishism’, SE 21: 155 f. and ‘Splitting of the Ego in the Process of
Defence’, SE 23: 271–8.
6 Cf. Octave Mannoni, ‘ “Je sais bien . . . mais quand même”: la croyance’, in Clefs pour
l’ imaginaire ou l’autre scène (Paris: Seuil, 1969).
7 Cf. Andreas Huyssen, ‘Monuments and Holocaust Memory in a Media Age’, in
Twilight Memories: Marking Time in a Culture of Amnesia (New York and London:
Routledge, 1995), pp. 249–60.
8 Slavoj Zizek, The Plague of Fantasies (London: Verso, 1989).
9 Martin Heidegger, Sein und Zeit (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1927), section 27.
10 Pierre Nora (ed.), Les Lieux de memoire, 3 vols (Paris: Gallimard, 1997).
11 The oscillation is reflected in the contrast between the description in the Abrib, where
the ego structurally assumes the unstable condition of fragmentation and supplementary
accretion it perceives in the object, and the New Introductory Lectures, in which splitting,
now generalized to the point of a universal topographical structure, is ‘dissected’ in terms
of a crystalline division – temporary and recuperable – along stable, pre-established lines.
Thus, on the one hand, ‘Outline of Psychoanalysis’, SE 23: 204:
Disavowals of this kind occur very often and not only with fetishists; and whenever
we are in a position to study them they turn out to be half-measures, incomplete
attempts at detachment from reality. The disavowal is always supplemented by an
acknowledgement; two contrary and independent attitudes always arise and result
in the situation of there being a splitting of the ego. Once more the issue depends
on which of the two can seize hold of the greater intensity.
Compare, on the other hand, New Introductory Lectures, Lecture XXIII, SE 22:
58 f.:
240 Walter Benjamin and History

So the ego can be split; it splits itself during a number of its functions – tem-
porarily at least. Its parts can come together afterwards. That is not exactly a
novelty, though it may be putting an unusual emphasis on what is generally
known. On the other hand, we are familiar with the notion that pathology, by
making things larger and coarser, can draw attention to normal conditions which
would otherwise have escaped us. Where it points to a breach or a rent, there may
normally be an articulation present. If we throw a crystal to the floor, it breaks; but
not into haphazard pieces. It comes apart along its lines of cleave into fragments
whose boundaries, though they were invisible, were predetermined by the crystal’s
12 Cf. Freud, ‘Analysis Terminable and Interminable’, SE 23: 241.
13 Cf. Freud, ‘Medusa’s Head’, SE 18: 273.
14 Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling and Repetition, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong
and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983), p. 136:
He was deeply and fervently in love, that was clear, and yet a few days later he was
able to recollect his love. He was essentially through with the entire relationship.
In beginning it, he took such a tremendous step that he leaped over life. If the girl
dies tomorrow, it will make no essential difference; he will throw himself down
again, his eyes will fill with tears again, he will repeat the poet’s words again.
What a curious dialectic! He longs for the girl, he has to do violence to himself
to keep from hanging around her all day long, and yet in the very first moment
he became an old man in regard to the entire relationship . . . Recollection has the
great advantage in that it begins with the loss; the reason it is safe and secure is
that it has nothing to lose.
Nietzsche’s analysis of the ‘it was’ – the fantasy of the spectator before the
pageant of ever-completed history – is rigorously parallel. Nietzsche, ‘On the
Advantages and Disadvantages of History for Life’, Untimely Meditations and
Beyond Good and Evil §277: ‘The everlasting pitiful “too late!” – The melancholy
of everything finished! . . .’
15 Again, Nietzsche demonstrates the profound complicity between the ‘too early’ and
the ‘too late’ – at the level of fantasy:
The problem of those who wait – It requires luck and much that is incalculable if a
higher human being in whom there slumbers the solution of a problem is to act
– ‘break out’ one might say – at the right time. Usually it does not happen, and
in every corner of the earth there are people waiting who hardly know to what
extent they are waiting but even less that they are waiting in vain. Sometimes the
awakening call, that chance event which gives ‘permission’ to act, comes but too
late – when the best part of youth and the strength to act has already been used up
in sitting still; and how many a man has discovered to his horror when he ‘rose up’
that his limbs had gone to sleep and his spirit was already too heavy! ‘It is too late’
– he has said to himself, having lost faith in himself and henceforth forever useless.
(Beyond Good and Evil §274)
16 Marcel Proust, A la Recherche du temps perdu.
17 Cf. Freud, ‘Fetishism’, p. 154.
18 For a fuller reading of the Adorno–Benjamin entanglement in terms of the theological
Bilderstreit or ‘iconoclastic controversy’ see Rebecca Comay, ‘Materialist Mutations
of the Bilderverbot’, in Andrew Benjamin (ed.), Walter Benjamin and Art (London:
Continuum, 2004), pp. 32–59.
19 ‘Motifs are assembled without being developed’ (C, p. 580). Note how the charge more
or less resumes Lukács’ own earlier opposition between narration and description in
‘Narrate or Describe?’, in Writer and Critic and Other Essays (London: Merlin, 1978),
pp. 110–48.
Notes 241

20 See Irving Wohlfarth’s suggestive essay ‘Et Cetera? L’historien comme chiffonier’, in
Heinz Wismann (ed.), Walter Benjamin et Paris (Paris: Cerf, 1986), pp. 559–610.
21 Cf. Wohlfarth, ‘Et Cetera?’
22 Cf. Susan Buck-Morss, ‘The Flâneur, the Sandwichman, and the Whore: The Politics
of Loitering’, New German Critique 39 (1986): 99–141.
23 Cf. Max Pensky, ‘Tactics of Remembrance: Proust, Surrealism, and the Origin of
the Passagenwerk’, in Michael P. Steinberg (ed.), Walter Benjamin and the Demands of
History (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996), pp. 164–89.
24 Cf. Benjamin’s citation of Flaubert in the Theses on History (GS 1.2: 696): ‘Peu de gens
devineront combien il a fallu être triste pour ressusciter Carthage . . .’
25 See in particular Eduardo Cadava’s exemplary remarks on the conjunction of these two
texts – and on the essentially photographic nature of historical memory (and vice versa)
– in Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press, 1997).

1 Thus the editors of a German collection of essays on Kierkegaard lament the fact
that Benjamin, with the exception of his review of Adorno’s book on Kierkegaard
had nothing to say about Kierkegaard: ‘Leider hat er sich über Kierkegaard ander-
norts [except in the review of Adorno’s book on Kierkegaard] nicht geäubert. Dab
er ihn gleichwohl verarbeitet, läbt zumal seine Geschichtsphilosophie vermuten. In
ihr scheint er geradezu darauf aus zu sein, Kierkegaards theologische Intention aus
ihren idealistischen Fesseln zu lösen’. Michael Theunissen and Wilfried Greve (eds),
Materialien zur Philosophie Søren Kierkegaards (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1979),
p. 80.
2 I am referring mainly to the first version of 1931: ‘Was ist das epische Theater?’ (GS
2.2: 519–31). Translations, if not otherwise indicated, are my own.
3 ‘Worum es heute im Theater geht, läbt sich genauer mit Beziehung auf die Bühne
als auf das Drama bestimmen. Es geht um die Verschüttung der Orchestra. Der
Abgrund, der die Spieler vom Publikum wie die Toten von den Lebendigen scheidet,
der Abgrund, dessen Schweigen im Schauspiel die Erhabenheit, dessen Klingen in
der Oper den Rausch steigert, dieser Abgrund, der unter allen Elementen der Bühne
die Spuren ihres sakralen Ursprungs am unverwischbarsten trägt, ist funktionslos
4 ‘Wenn Du nämlich von meinem “zweiten Entwurf ” schreibst “darin würde man nie
die Hand WB’s erkennen”, so nenne ich das doch ein wenig geradezu gesagt und Du
gehst dabei bestimmt über die Grenze hinaus, an der Du – gewib meiner Freundschaft
nicht – aber meiner Zustimmung sicher bist. [. . .] Der WB hat – und das ist bei einem
Schriftsteller nicht selbstverständlich – darin aber sieht er seine Aufgabe und sein
bestes Recht – zwei Hände. Ich hatte es mir mit vierzehn Jahren eines Tages in den
Kopf gesetzt, ich müsse links schreiben lernen. Und ich sehe mich heut noch Stunden
und Stunden an meinem Schulpult in Haubinda sitzen und üben. Heute steht mein
Pult in der Bibliothèque Nationale – den Lehrgang so zu schreiben habe ich da auf
einer höhern Stufe – auf Zeit! – wieder aufgenommen.’ (Letter to Gretel Karplus, 1
September 1935, GB 5: 151).
5 ‘Das saturnische Tempo der Sache hatte seinen tiefsten Grund in dem Prozeß einer
vollkommenen Umwälzung, den eine aus der weit zurückliegenden Zeit meines
unmittelbar metaphysischen, ja theologischen Denkens stammende Gedanken- und
Bildermasse durchmachen mubte, um mit ihrer ganzen Kraft meine gegenwärtige
Verfassung zu nähren. Dieser Prozeb ging im stillen vor sich; ich selber habe so wenig