Das Echte bleibt der Nachwelt verloren

“Extrapolating from one of Benjamin’s boldest anthropological speculations, one could also see the Red Army Faction as having acted out buried desires of the collective political unconscious. Hence the vestigial ‘aura’ that surrounds them, nowadays trivialized on the T-shirt market. That their strategy would fail was foreseeable. But what alternatives did ‘false’ circumstances permit? How, in a ‘state of emergency’, ‘reach for the emergency brake’? How move in an ‘iron cage’? To act where action is blocked: can this be done without a streak of madness – a passage à l’acte? Not to act when action is needed: is this not the reverse ‘pathology of the normal’, which serves to protect us from such madness? Only if this dilemma were no longer taken in the safe doses with which the media inure us to it could it begin to be resolved.

Benjamin’s fortunes on the cultural market have followed suit. A long initial vogue was borne by the ‘cultural revolution’ initiated by the student movement, whose break-up in the mid-1970s marked the ‘turning of the tide’ (the so-called Tendenzwende). The entry of Benjamin’s writings into the academic canon and the cultural feuilletons was accompanied by a more sophisticated awareness of their complexities, but also by an increasing disengagement from their political stakes. A project that was intended to smash the kaleidoscope of so-called cultural history is now a ‘challenging’, ‘provocative’ part of it. A conference held in 2006 by an international Benjamin society could in all impunity call itself a ‘Benjamin festival’.

The critique of violence, Benjamin argues, cannot afford to stop short at the law and the state. A ‘lesser programme’ will not suffice: the minimum is the maximum. Only the prospect of a ‘way out’ of all previous history – the term is Ausgang, as in Kant’s ‘What is Enlightenment?’ – would enable a ‘critical, discriminating and decisive [scheidende und entscheidende] angle of vision [Einstellung] on its temporal data. It is on this premise, conceived not as a regulative idea, that the Theses likewise rest.”

Irving Wohlfarth, ‘Spectres of Anarchy: Walter Benjamin and the Red Army Faction, pt. III’, Radical Philosophy (March/April 2009)