Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” and the politics of “Rausch”

by Mike Crumplar

This is a paper I wrote for “German Critical Thought II” (covering the time from Hegel to Habermas), one of my favorite classes at William and Mary taught by the wonderful Rob Leventhal. I’m particularly fond of this essay, and although it’s not perfect, I think a lot of the points I make will be developed further and recur in later writings. I’ve told various friends to read this so I’m posting it here to have it for reference.

In this paper, I will explain what I find to be the primary arguments in Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History, in which he attempts to rehabilitate historical materialism against what he sees is the corrupting ideology of progress from social democrats that has tainted revolutionary Marxism. I will discuss Benjamin’s use of theological elements of the “messianic” and “messianic time” as well as the Jetztzeit that he contrasts with historicism’s conception of empty time.  I then closely examine Benjamin’s interpretation of Paul Klee’s painting “Angelus Novus” which he uses to illustrate his conception of historical consciousness and progress. After examining Benjamin’s Theses, I draw parallels between his conception of historical materialism and his writings on profane illumination, intoxication and psychedelic experience, drawing from excerpts from his Arcades Project, letters, and notes on his drug experiences.

History is both “materialist” and “theological,” but Benjamin uses the latter term, and its “messianic” implications in a manner that casts aside its metaphysical and religious implications. Historical materialism “enlists the services of theology, which today, as we know, is wizened and has to keep out of sight” (“Theses on the Philosophy of History,” I). According to Benjamin, the human “image of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the image of redemption” (II) which carries over onto how individuals or collectives reflect on past, which “carries a temporal index by which it is referred to redemption” (II). Every generation is endowed with a “weak messianic power” which refers to an immanent tendency in people to repair, heal, or fix that which is damaged. This “weak” messianic power is what motivates revolutions, the breaks and ruptures in the historical continuum “at the moment of danger.” It is “messianic” without a Messiah, “redemptive” without a Redemption. These mystical-theological elements enter Benjamin’s historical materialism through the back door to illustrate the critical, healing, reparative function of memory.

Benjamin contrasts active memory with mere conservative Gedächtnis (remembrance) and Erinnerung. “The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and never seen again” (V). Historical materialism blasts apart the historical continuum; active memory does not understand things as a chain of events, with their causes and effects in a progression of empty time, but as fragments, images “picked up” in reflection in the perpetual Jetztzeit, a word that, unlike Gegenwart (which means “present”), has implications of the mystical nunc stans, the “eternal now.” “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it was’ (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger” (VI). Memory always occurs in the eternal present Jetztzeit, and how the mind selects, picks up, seizes the myriad images of the past is always influenced by the immediacy of the now, “shot through” with messianic influence. Materialist historiography, in contrast to the mere additive method of positivist, empirical, universal history in “empty time,” “is based on a constructive principle. Thinking involves not only the flow of thoughts, but their arrest as well” (XVII). The past isn’t just “out there” somewhere, it is actively built up or pieced together in the present, inevitably influenced by “weak messianic power” of a critical, political perspective; any moment of time in the present is the “strait gate through which the Messiah might enter” (XVII B).

Empirical, positivist historicism is formed around the notion of mankind’s “progress” through time. History is a series of causally linked events that form a constellation whose broad trajectory is the development, advancement, “progress” of the human race. As time moves on, things generally get better: “man” seems to perfect himself, to get more free, comfortable, powerful, technical, and so on. Benjamin cites William Dietzgen’s Die Religion der Sozialdemokratie to illustrate this view: “Every day our cause becomes clearer and people get smarter” (XIII). To Benjamin, progress in this sense is characterized by three dogmatic claims: the first being that progress consists of the whole progress of mankind and not just advancements in man’s ability or knowledge, the second being that this progress is boundless, “in keeping with the infinite perfectibility of mankind,” and the third being that this progress is irresistible and inevitable.

Another flaw of historicism that Benjamin identifies is its inevitable empathy with the victors. Its history is the history of the victors of successive conflicts passed down to their heirs. The victorious rulers hold up the remainders of history as “cultural treasures” which historicists then give an almost totemic value with an empathetic relation to the past, setting them as milestones on a temporal road of the progress of man. But this empathy does not do justice to anonymous toil and suffering of the vanquished or oppressed classes that occurred simultaneously with the triumph of the victor. The historical materialist, by contrast, views these cultural treasures with suspicion and detachment, aware that “they owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is not document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism” (VII). Benjamin’s criticism of empathy in historicism is consistent with his friend Bertolt Brecht’s attacks on bourgeois and Aristotelian theatre. In Brecht’s “epic theatre,” like Benjamin’s rehabilitation of historical materialism, the spectator/audience/historian watches temporally-displaced events on the stage with a distanced, alienated, critical, frozen, messianic perspective, and, as a function of the theatre’s educational purpose, is ultimately oriented towards liberating, revolutionary, messianic activity. The historical materialist is alienated, distanced, estranged from the cultural treasures he studies, dissociated “as far as possible” from the barbarism that taints not just cultural treasures, but also how these treasures are passed down through time.

The political consequence of the historicist notion of progress is conformity and demobilization of revolutionary activity. “Nothing has corrupted the German working class so much as the notion that it was moving with the current.” (XI) The Social Democrats seek to achieve broadly Marxist aims within the framework of existing political structures to “reform” the system through gradual changes while retaining continuity with the past. Yet it is precisely this sense of progress and continuity that prevents revolutionary action, undermining its necessary urgency and opting instead for conformity with the status quo. This ideology of progress, which posits communism as a distant ideal and an endless task, has infected the Marxism of Benjamin’s time. Progress itself must be subject to critique: “The concept of the historical progress of mankind cannot be sundered from the concept of its progression through a homogenous, empty time. A critique of the concept of such a progression must be the basis of any criticism of the concept of progress itself.” (XIII)

Benjamin uses a fascinating metaphor from art to evaluate this problematic notion of progress:

A Klee painting named Angelus Novusshows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what would be smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we would call progress. (IX)

To the angel of history, all time is simultaneously perceived in the now, the Jetztzeit, as a huge, ever increasing pile of wreckage, which he “fixedly contemplates.” It should be noted that this wreckage is something completely material. In his fixed contemplation, the angel does not find patterns and trends in the pile of wreckage, nor does he find that it has some directionality or trajectory in its development as a chain of events. Instead, the wreckage appears as one single catastrophe which only gets bigger as more wreckage is piled on, each new addition another document of barbarism. It appears as a state of perpetual crisis and emergency. The contemplation of this perpetual crisis is theological, messianic; the angel would like to fix, repair, and heal the damages of history and make whole the massive pile of material rubbish because his perspective is shot through with the messianic tendency. But a storm prevents him from setting down and fixing the wreckage, it keeps him in motion, filling his wings and propelling him “irresistibly” into the future. The storm is “progress,” blowing from “Paradise,” the mythic primordial state of human perfection, and its overwhelming force is what prevents the angel from seriously encountering the crisis and fixing the catastrophe. Progress masquerades as something positive and promises the endless perfectibility of man, as it comes from Paradise, but in reality it simply adds more broken stuff to the huge pile of junk. All of the angel’s efforts to repair are in vain because of progress. But perhaps if time were to stand still and come to a stop, or the storm of progress were to be ruptured or broken – truly revolutionary moves – the angel could at least start cleaning up the wreckage. The moment at which the storm is broken and time comes to a stop is the “strait gate” through which the Messiah can enter the world, so it should not come as a surprise that it is an “angel,” a theological image, which seeks to mend the broken pieces.

Just as the angel is perpetually unable to break out of the storm of progress and witnesses an ongoing state of catastrophe, so do the oppressed classes in history experience a sense of perpetual crisis. “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “state of emergency” in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism.” (VIII) In the struggle against Fascism, the oppressed classes must realize that their task is to rupture the temporal continuity of oppression, to think of it as an “emergency” rather than a “historical norm” on the greater trajectory of human progress. It is precisely this sense of continuity that revolutionary activity seeks to rupture: “The awareness that they are about to make the continuum of history explode is characteristic of the revolutionary classes at the moment of their action” (XV). Revolution breaks apart, overthrows the prevailing sense of time-continuum and attempts to enter a new age of history: “The initial day of a calendar serves as a historical time-lapse camera… Thus calendars do not measure time as clocks do; they are monuments of historical consciousness of which not the slightest trace has been apparent in Europe in the past hundred years” (XV). For the oppressed classes, every moment in time is a moment in which a messiah can enter the world to fix it, a moment in which revolutionary action can break apart the time-continuum and impose its new calendar as a monument to its discontinuity, for it wants nothing to do with a whole past of “documents of barbarism.”

The historical materialist likewise seeks to rupture the homogenous course of history in the reflection of historical subjects, which are “crystallized” into monads frozen in messianic time and torn out of the course of history. He “cannot do without the notion of a present which is not a transition, but in which time stands still and has come to a stop” (XVI) in a moment of “unique experience with the past.” Materialistic historiography is built up into a montage of the monads of historical subjects understood in the Jetztzeit of messianic time:

      “Materialistic historiography… is based on a constructive principle. Thinking involves not only the flow of thoughts, but their arrest as well. Where thinking suddenly stops in configuration pregnant with tensions, it gives that configuration as a shock, by which it crystallizes into a monad. A historical materialist approaches a historical subject only where he encounters it as 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 opposed past. He takes cognizance of it in order to blast a specific era out of the homogeneous course of history – blasting a specific life out of the era or a specific work out of the lifework. As a result of this method the lifework is simultaneously preserved, cancelled and elevated in this work; in the lifework, the era; and in the era, the entire course of history. The nourishing fruit of the historically understood contains time as a precious but tasteless seed(XVII).

The historical materialist isolates and crystallizes the historical subject into a monad so as to maintain his critical edge and to avoid regarding it empathetically.

It is important to note the connection in Benjamin’s philosophy between the rehabilitation of historical materialism and the “profane illuminations” offered by the Rausch, or intoxication, of certain psychoactive chemicals. It is impossible, and irrelevant here, to determine which of Benjamin’s ideas, if any, were directly influenced by psychedelic intoxication. But we do know that, on several occasions throughout his life, Benjamin tried hashish, mescaline, and opium, and wrote a series of fragments, or “Protocols,” on his experiences, which he possibly intended to compile into a complete work on the politics of intoxication. Benjamin was interested in the ways in which fundamentally materialistic chemicals enabled users to experience expanded states of consciousness, become caught in a place of not being self-identical, disrupt the subject-object relation and sense of temporality, transform reason and logic, and open doorways to new and alternative forms of aesthetic, philosophical, and political experience. He did not, however, consider psychoactive chemicals the true or only pathway to profane illumination, but that they “can give an introductory lesson (but a dangerous one…)” (On Hashish, 132). In fact, Benjamin was very cautious about using these drugs, which he called “poison,” and only did so for the knowledge gained from their use. What is important about these “profane” illuminations is that are brought forth by fundamentally material objects; there is nothing “sacred” or transcendent about them, even if they induce seemingly transcendent states of consciousness. Profane illuminations offer the possibility of a transformative, liberating experience of reality without recourse to the sacred illuminations in things like religion. They are purely anthropological and materialistic. Indeed, this seeming “transcendence” of the profane illumination is a channel by which theological and mystical concepts of Jetztzeit or the nunc stans, the messianic, and the monadology of historical objects enters historical materialism. Thus, intoxication takes on a political importance. Benjamin writes in a 1938 letter to Max Horkheimer: “Critical theory cannot fail to recognize how deeply certain powers of intoxication [Rausch] are bound to reason and to its struggle for liberation. What I mean is, all the insights that man has ever obtained surreptitiously through the use of narcotics can also be obtained through the human: some through the individual- through the man or through the woman; others through groups; and some, which we dare not even dream of yet, perhaps only through the community of the living. Aren’t these insights, by virtue of the human solidarity from which they arise, truly political in the end?” (145). Rausch offers direction towards a profane illumination, a deep, transformative and revolutionary connection to the world that can already be obtained through the human: “The reader, the thinker, the person who waits, the flaneur, are types of illuminati- just as much as the opium eater, the dreamer, the ecstatic. And more profane. Not to mention that the most terrible drug- ourselves- which we take in solitude” (134). The method of Benjamin’s rehabilitated historical materialism itself is intended to be a sort of profane illumination in an encounter with the past as a collage of frozen monad images shot through with messianic perspective.

Benjamin even describes revolutionary historical consciousness with a psychedelic metaphor in the Arcades Project: “A phrase which Baudelaire coins for the consciousness of time peculiar to someone intoxicated by hashish can be applied in the definition of revolutionary historical consciousness. He speaks of a night in which he was absorbed by the effects of hashish: ‘Long though it seemed to have been…, yet it also seemed to have lasted only a few seconds, or even to have had no place in all eternity’”(On Hashish, 140). The revolutionary consciousness of historical materialism sees reality with a psychedelic sense of temporality in the Jetztzeit, with time stopped, ruptured or broken and the objects of historical consciousness torn frozen as monads and torn out of their place in the historical continuum as they flash by. The psychedelic consciousness is instead on messianic time. “The present, which, as a model of Messianic time, comprises the entire history of mankind in an enormous abridgment, coincides exactly with the stature which the history of mankind has in the universe” (“Theses,” XVIII); one is reminded of a DMT trip in which 15 minutes in “empty” time comprises whole eons in the messianic.

Benjamin also describes an enhanced power of allegory in psychedelic experience. In the Arcades Project, the imagination of hashish intoxication is characterized twofold by “a genius of melancholy gravity, another of Ariel-like spirituality” (On Hashish, 138), and human reason “becomes mere flotsam, at the mercy of all currents, and the train of though is infinitely more accelerated and ‘rhapsodic.’” Under the impression of hashish, objects and language take on distinct, dialectical “faces,” which refer to the “degree of bodily presence that allows it to be searched- as one searches as face” (138). “Face” is the deep, multifaceted psychic content that wells up in and through objects and language crystallized into a whole essence that reveals itself clearly to the intoxicated consciousness; “the opium-smoker or hashish-eater experiences the power of the gaze to suck one hundred sites out of one place” (85). Logic takes on rhythmic form: “truth becomes something living; it lives solely in the rhythm by which statement and counter-statement displace each other in order to think each other.” These faces or images are actively picked up in the moment as they flash by the psychedelic consciousness, which is in a state of total poetic thought frozen in time.

In conclusion, I have discussed elements of Benjamin’s argument in the Theses on the Philosophy of History and connected some aspects his kaleidoscopic montage understanding of history with his idea of “profane illumination” and lifelong experiments with psychoactive chemicals. What I feel is important about Benjamin’s approach to profane illumination is that, unlike some other writers in the incredibly small body of discourse on the subject of psychedelic intoxication (Timothy Leary, Terence McKenna), Benjamin does not fall into the trap of worshipping or mystifying the material objects that bring forth consciousness expansion. Psychedelics are set on the plane of the real, and they provide no insights that could not already have been conceived through the human. Nevertheless, Benjamin’s connection of the revolutionary historical consciousness with the mind on hashish gives a political dimension and urgency to consciousness expansion. I feel that his use of theological terminology in his rehabilitation of historical materialism is thus more “psychedelic” in its intent, rather than religious or dogmatic. Ultimately, I believe Benjamin wanted historical materialism to handle the past similar to how the mind on psychedelics experiences time and reality. Materialist historiography seizes the images of reality as they flash by in an eternal now seemingly outside of time, uncovering and producing allegories and relations between things that before weren’t so readily noticed.  On the level of the individual, Rausch can bring forth illuminations that in the collective could lead to liberating, revolutionary action. It is unfortunate, of course, that Benjamin died before he could fully articulate a revolutionary politics of intoxication, and yet also surprising that so few others have openly explored and discussed such a philosophically potent subject. Perhaps now scholars can approach it with a sharper critical edge, since the manic mass psychedelia of the 1960s has abated and public policies are starting to be developed that evaluate psychoactive chemicals (so far only cannabis) with a more level-headed and tolerant perspective.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Illuminations. 1969. Reprint. New York: Schoken Books, 1976. 253-264. Print.

Benjamin, Walter. On Hashish. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006. Print.