A Little Something I’m Proud Of
On top of journalism, I’m also a philosophy minor. One of the courses I took this semester was Political Philosophy in the twentieth century. It wasn’t a topic I was entirely new to, however, I was definitely not prepared for how in depth the course would actually be. The readings and the essay questions were scary hard, but I worked diligently and came away with some of my best marks. Our second assignment had me scrambling, but I eventually produced this essay as a final product. I received a 95% and got the best mark in class. This is the essay I’m most proud of in my4-year tenure at U of T.
The Angel of Torment
In Walter Benjamin’s essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” the focus is on the reclamation of memory. We live in a linear world, where the passage of time allows for the justification of the future. The past is forgotten, it is in effect dead and gone. The Bourgeois notion of progress, nestled tightly in the confines of linear time, allowed for the suffering of the working class in order to advance society. Generations of class struggle resulted in battles fought and lost, and are thus forgotten by historians who tell only of the victors who were justified in their end goals. But there is a connection between the present and the past. Benjamin says, “Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim,” (254). What Benjamin hopes to accomplish is a standstill, a cessation of happening. By throwing on the emergency brake, the messianic, or the notion of a classless society, can recuperate the memories of the past that have been hidden within history. They can find the future of the past, and form a new constellation. In this essay I will endeavour to explore the key concept of the constellation, and explain its effectiveness in restoring the future of the past. I will discuss the advantages the constellation presents compared to a reading of history told from the perspective of the victors, and how, if carried out methodically, it can assist the notion of a classless society without a telos.
Benjamin wonderfully summarizes the Bourgeois notion of progress with his analogy of the angel. A Paul Klee painting, known as “Angelus Novus,” depicts what Benjamin refers to as the angel of history. Looking toward the past as though it is about to move away, the angel stares fixedly at disaster. He witnesses havoc like a snowball effect, progressively damaging itself more and more as it tumbles. The angel is hopeless, for even though he longs to help those who have suffered and perished and make whole what has been torn apart, the damage is too strong. The winds of torment catch his wings which are spread, and carries him away toward the future, preventing him from ever looking back. Benjamin calls this a storm, and “this storm is what we call progress” (258). The prospect of progress was so important, it legitimized violence to nature and justified the pain and suffering of lesser people. However, the capitalists did not intend for this. As time passed, the churn of economic processes created a class stratification. The capitalist world, striving to achieve perfection and advancement, snared itself in its own trap. It found itself awake in a dream-like state, or a phantasmagoria. This dream-sleep enacted mythical forces, mythical forces which naturalized the present order and class stratification. The key element of the dream-sleep, progress, was depended upon the working class, whose hard work and struggles were regarded as the backbone of the movement. This notion “recognizes only the progress in the mastery of nature, not the retrogression of society. (…) The new conception of labor amounts to the exploitation of nature, which with naive complacency is contrasted with the exploitation of the proletariat.” (259). Though many times the proletariat attempted to lash back at the capitalists who grew rich from their labour, to revolutionize and engage in mutiny, their efforts were for naught. Class struggles were held at bay, and future generations were forced to be born into a divided society. This is where Benjamin’s essay begins to focus, because it is these battles fought in the past that are most important. As Benjamin says, historicists have always told of battles from the victor’s perspective. Only the efforts and plight of the capitalists were recorded; the proletariat made out to be nothing more than rebels. The effects of this are twofold: history manifests the capitalist phantasmagoria in its movement toward the betterment of humanity, and the struggles and hopes of the proletariat are lost. They wash away unrecorded in the sea of time. The future they fought for is forgotten. This is the heart of Benjamin’s essay as the past’s future, or the future of the past, holds a certain power.
The threat of forgetting the future in and of the past is always present. Every past had a future, but it is the recollection that is important. For Benjamin, our connection to the past is the weak messianic power which is inherent in the idea of equality in a classless society. But capitalism has pummeled this image into oblivion, dashing any hopes of freedom. Benjamin envisions much worth in the remembrance of our ancestors, for “every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably,” (255). Instead of letting those images disappear, we must recall the memories that have been rendered illegible by the bourgeoisie idea of progress. The present is imprisoned, helpless to control its past and future. The capitalists have become rich, and flourish thanks to the anonymous efforts of the working class. The working class would do well to invoke the memories and the toils of the nameless who suffered from oppression. We have to use the memories of violence to clutch the proverbial emergency brake, bringing into legibility those who have been subject to the stratification of the capitalist system. It will enable the proletariat to criticize the perceived power of relations. The emergency brake is a standstill, the metaphorical representation of the messianic. It provides an interruption to the capitalist teleological goal, and creates a pathway for perfect equality without a telos. The weak messianic power is nourished by our enslaved ancestors. All the lost chances, failed revolutions, and latent promises remain hidden in history. We must strive to resume this hope the past once carried, and reignite the possibilities of the future of the past. The proletariat need to awaken from the dream-sleep and make the moments of past suffering legible. Resist the failure of the past and redeem the possibilities that once were. According to Benjamin, a constellation opens the doorway from past to present, and allows the transfer of power.
Made popular by the Greeks and Romans thousands of years ago, constellations portrayed images in the night sky. Different combinations of stars created anything from scorpions to twin babies. However these portrayals do not actually exist. Scorpio and Gemini are not real, they are merely projections upon an otherwise blank canvas. Humans imagined shapes like they do with different cloud forms, and brought into proximity groups of stars that would have no relation at all if not for human projection. Because of our prior knowledge, the night sky is rendered legible due to these projections of these shapes. Benjamin argues this concept can be applied to the reading of history. History is a vast continuum, in which any constellation can shine among a tremendous amount of stars. Our vision is mobilized by a classless society that has a weak messianic power. It enables us to crystalize a new constellation from elements of the past. Fleeting moments and memories, which would otherwise be forgotten, become frozen in a standstill. “Where thinking suddenly stops in a configuration pregnant with tensions, it gives that configuration a shock, by which it crystallizes into a monad. (…) In this structure he recognizes the sign of a Messianic cessation of happening, or, put differently, a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past,” (262-263). This emergency brake imagines time more like a montage rather than linear, allowing the oppressed to “blast” open the continuum of history and provide a new chance for hope. The redemption of possibilities of the past is made possible. The messianic standstill, contingent on the awareness that power is finite, opens to a new future; a future which one cannot anticipate. For the purpose is to remove the Capitalist telos. If there was a telos these moments in history would not be legible. Therefore we are not related to it teleologically.
A new constellation, formed from the right moments of history, transfers power from the past to the present. All the effort of those who attempted mutiny, all the strength from those who were oppressed, is brought forth. The present is no longer deprived over its superiority over the past and the future. However, there are several criticisms one must adhere to. The proletariat have to maintain awareness of the capitalist phantasmagoria, and critically analyze it. They must avoid narratives that point toward a future without memories, for they are teleological in nature. Recordings of history without a meaningful relation to human action must be abandoned, as well as the expansion of capital. These criticisms allow one to stay awake during the dream-sleep. Bourgeois myth, reaffirmed by itself through historical means, is defenestrated. Where otherwise human action from past revolutions becomes lost in the skewed recordings of historicists, those moments can now be recognized. Their inherent power can be harnessed and brought to the forefront like a weapon, slamming on the emergency brake. The future of the past is restored, paving the path for the present to strive toward their own, unknown future. Suffering is no longer justified as a means to an end. And most importantly, the flawed concept of progress is abandoned.
For Benjamin, the angel who is caught in the storm of wreckage, havoc and torment, being blown away toward the future, represents progress. The pain and suffering which composes the wind of the storm is justified as a means to an end. However, by crystallizing moments in history and forming a new constellation, the pain and suffering of the past is recognized and harnessed in a messianic cessation of happening. The future of the past is realized once more.