It’s been a while since I’ve read a book-length study of Walter Benjamin. Why read the commentaries when I can read Benjamin in his own words? Besides, no major re-interpretation of his work has appeared in the past ten years.
Eli Friedlander’s forthcoming book, Walter Benjamin: A Philosophical Portrait, doesn’t promise to shake up Benjaminian scholarship on the 120th anniversary of Benjamin’s birth. Friedlander’s Benjamin is a philosopher (there are other Walter Benjamins), so the book focuses on Benajamin’s place in twentieth-century philosophy. Friedlander appears to know his stuff. For example, he gives a good explanation for Benjamin’s attitudes toward Marxism, which were nuanced, so say the least.
Benjamin’s writing is in no hurry to free itself from the semblance of 19th-century bourgeois life in Paris. Nor does it seek to judge the world in the conventional Marxist terms such as ‘false consciousness’ and ‘alienation.’ Instead, it immerses itself in the materials of the past and thickens them until they assume the configuration of an actual dream, the dream of the collective. That’s why in Benjamin the critical, revolutionary moment is called ‘awakening.’ Awakening is made possible only via an interpretation of the dream, which for us is the past, and the expression of its truth for the present. Accordingly, awakening is also the redemption of the past, an indirect realization of the wishes of that dream that the past has become for us, by revolutionizing our present mode of existence.
A whole lot of Benjamin’s beliefs about history and representation are packed into this summary. It’s one thing to eludidate what Benjamin meant by awakening–one of his more original and controversial propositions–and I’m assuming Friedlander does a good job of it. (His book is published by Harvard University Press, which has published a number of books by and about Benjamin.)
As Friedlander indicates, the concept of awakening is important because it bypasses the problems with the concepts of false consciousness and alienation. However, awakening is a daring but incomplete attempt to answer the question: How do we escape from our forgetting and partiality in order to see our age objectively? It’s a question we still struggle with.