Walter Benjamin: A Philosophical Portrait by Eli Friedlander

Walter Benjamin: A Philosophical Portrait Eli Friedlander. Harvard University Press. Hardcover, 304 pages. $39

This July will mark the 120th anniversary of the birth of Walter Benjamin, the German-Jewish intellectual who committed suicide in 1940. Since the publication of his collected writings fifteen years after his death, Benjamin’s enigmatic essays like “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” and “The Task of the Translator” have become canonical in fields like media studies and comparative literature, and equally influential outside the academy. But unlike the steady rise of his posthumous reputation, Benjamin’s biography was full of false starts and thwarted ambitions. Rejected for jobs at several universities and forced to flee Nazi Germany, his career was improvisatory and tragically incomplete. Indeed, something about this incompleteness tempts us to try to complete it ourselves. A few years ago, Lutz Dammbeck’s art installation What if he had arrived? invited its audience to fantasize about an alternate world in which Benjamin lived on as an exile in America. A forthcoming book, The Late Walter Benjamin, even extends the story of Benjamin’s death into a “documentary novel” set in the present day.

Partly because of his reception in certain university departments and partly because of his fractured writing style, Benjamin is often read as a literary figure rather than a philosopher. Texts like “Theses on the Philosophy of History” show him at his most aphoristic; the latter features a famous fragment describing “the angel of history” who is “propelled into the future” by “a storm blowing from paradise.” As many of Benjamin’s texts are assembled from disparate scraps and notes, some recent scholarly studies like Walter Benjamin’s Archive have mistaken this aspect of his style as fully reflective of his thought. As one critic remarked, Benjamin is often typecast as “a naturally unsystematic man, a hero of fragmentation.”

Philosopher Eli Friedlander believes the tendency to fetishize Benjamin’s style has become an obstacle to grasping his philosophical rigor. In Walter Benjamin: A Philosophical Portrait, Friedlander attempts to remedy this misreading, portraying him not as a lone literary genius, but as part of a canon of post-Kantian philosophers. Friedlander advanced a similar argument in previous books on Rousseau and Wittgenstein, contending that these authors’ “literary” inclinations—for instance, Rousseau’s accounts of his personal reflections and religious reveries—are inseparable from their philosophical systems. Here too, he claims that to be seduced by Benjamin’s technique is to miss the coherent system of thought that underlies it.
For Friedlander, the focal point of Benjamin’s system is to be found in his unfinished (and some say unfinishable) tract on nineteenth-century Paris, the Arcades Project. This is a work that, as Benjamin put it, doesn’t “say anything, merely shows”; collating quotes on topics like lighting, dolls, and iron construction. A representative passage reads:

“World of secret affinities: palm tree and feather duster, hairdryer and Venus de Milo, champagne bottles, prostheses, letter-writing manuals… primordial landscape of consumption.”

At first glance, this seems more like modernist fiction than metaphysical analysis: Benjamin’s description of the project as a “literary montage” recalls the fragmented novels of Joyce and Döblin more than the arguments of Kant or Hegel. Indeed, Arcades doesn’t look much like philosophy; it seems to convey a stream of sensations without expressing any explicit “theory.”

Yet Friedlander argues that Arcades attempts “a philosophical investigation of historical experience.” This differs from straightforward history, since it doesn’t try to provide objective “knowledge of things as they really were,” nor is it simply a poetic imagining of the past. Instead, Friedlander claims that Arcades is a work of “philosophical history” whose style and substance are systematically interwoven, as they are in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. By reframing “the truth that philosophy has traditionally aimed at” as a matter of “the presentation of historical material,” the project redefines philosophical practice as an activity grounded in concreteness. To quote Benjamin: “philosophy must continually confront the question of presentation.”

Therefore, Arcades’ contribution to philosophy lies in its conception of truth as material and historical. To make this point clearly, Benjamin let his material speak for itself. But Friedlander argues, because Arcades isn’t explicit about this aim, it’s easily misread as literature. Anticipating this critique, Theodor Adorno advised Benjamin to make Arcades more recognizably “theoretical”: he wanted the work to make use of a Marxist theory of history, and to marshal its materials under explanatory concepts like class and false consciousness. Benjamin, however, believed that history had to emerge from his project, rather than be imposed on it, and in this vein he was more of a historical materialist than Adorno made him out to be—although, as Hannah Arendt once remarked, Benjamin may have been “the most peculiar Marxist ever.”

Friedlander is at his best when he brings out the philosophical influences behind Benjamin’s style. One of this book’s most compelling threads traces Arcades’ method of presentation back to the “monadology” of Gottfried Leibniz. Simply put, “monads” are substances that mirror the universe outside themselves, in the same way that Friedlander believes each of Benjamin’s fragments reflects “from within itself the whole of history”. This idea sheds light on Arcades’ depiction of a shop window as a “world in miniature,” and on its treatment of private spaces like the bourgeois living room:

“The private individual needs the domestic interior. The interior represents the universe. In the interior, be brings together remote locales and memories of the past. His living room is a box in the theater of the world.”

Friedlander persuasively shows that the purpose of such passages is to present “history concentrated on a single point." Unlike many philosophers, Benjamin didn’t treat truth as an eternal verity; instead he saw it as something to be distilled from the details of the everyday.

Though Friedlander makes a strong case for the systematic side of Benjamin’s writing, his book isn’t without its weaknesses. Readers in search of context are advised to go elsewhere: Friedlander’s Benjamin seems to stand outside of time, his philosophy almost completely abstracted from his personal experience. When the real world does intrude—as when Friedlander scrutinizes Benjamin’s childhood memories—his overly academic reading obscures how the writer’s life colored his work. It’s easy to see why Benjamin might have yearned to “recapture the taste” of his youth, given the hardships he faced later in life. Yet Friedlander denies him such “sentimental” longings. There are other Walter Benjamins than this, and the real one was surely someone for whom philosophy occurred on the same continuum as living. That said, if this book loses touch with the ways in which Benjamin wasn’t always rational or clear-cut, then it makes up for that by illuminating his thought in a new scholarly light.

David Winters is a literary critic living in Cambridge, UK. He has written for the Times Literary Supplement, The New Inquiry, The Millions, The Quarterly Conversation and elsewhere. He is a co-editor at 3:AM Magazine.