By now, it should be clear that I detect an underlying continuity amidst all the change in Benjamin's thought on history, that there are some deep connections between the Trauerspielbuch and the Passagenarbeit and the texts that fall around them. Up until now, I have tarried at the end of the history, at the Eschaton. But what of the other end of history, of the time of Creation and Paradise? In what follows, I focus on Genesis, a word with myriad overlays, for Benjamin returns time and again to the first chapters of the biblical text. I take two instances: the discussion of pure language in the essay 'On Language as Such and the Language of Man' and the prologue to the Trauerspiel book.103
In the language essay, Benjamin lays out a linguistic theory that features Adam, names and the Fall, in short a sustained exegesis of the first chapters of Genesis.104 Here, he sets up his theory of language over against a series of ideological opponents that enable him to construct his response. Collectively, they appear under the empty 'bourgeois conception of language',105 according to which language functions to communicate factual subject matter: 'It holds that the means of communication is the word, its object factual, and
103 Benjamin 1996, pp. 62-74; Benjamin 1972, Volume 2, pp. 140-57.
104 Indeed, in the same way that any biblical critic worth her salt must offer a reading of Genesis 1-3 at least once, so also philosophers, as well as literary and cultural critics, must all take a position on Benjamin's 'On Language' essay. Benjamin brings us all together, of course, by turning his essay around Genesis 1-3.
105 Benjamin 1996, p. 65; Benjamin 1972, Volume 2, p. 144.
its addressee a human being'.106 Further, bourgeois linguistic theory argues that there is an accidental relation between word and object, agreed to by some explicit or implied convention. Language is nothing other than a system of 'mere signs'.107 Yet, Benjamin does not respond to such a position with another; he prefers to account for it within his alternative theory.
Here, we move into an exegesis of Genesis 1-3 and then 11. The key is the Fall, but Benjamin reads the Tower of Babel (Gen 11) as a consequence of the Fall - although he does note that, in the biblical myth, it comes somewhat later.108 And its consequences are multiplicity, of human languages and thereby of translations, and of human knowledge. Further, the prelapsarian nature of language, in which the word is the name, gives way to the human word, 'in which name no longer lives intact and which has stepped out of name-language'. But what is the nature of that new human word? 'The word must communicate something (other than itself). In that fact lies the true Fall of the spirit of language'.109 This is none other than the bourgeois conception of language in which language communicates factual subject matter.
Benjamin then connects this 'externally communicating word' with the knowledge of Good and Evil - a promise delivered by the serpent. This knowledge is 'prattle [Geschwätz]',110 which, in turn, leads to the judgement of expulsion from the Garden. Under the umbrella of prattle we find drawn the language and function of law, empty and communicative bourgeois language, and thereby confusion. Over against prattle, Benjamin is after the essential Edenic connection between the name and a thing, whereas, in the postlapsar-ian, the relation between sign and thing goes awry. All of this returns in the later essay on Karl Kraus,111 where he explicitly argues that capitalism is the postlapsarian world in which Kraus resists the base 'prattle' of journalism, relevance and inauthentic language. Kraus, he argues, holds onto to the ideal language of creation, a latterday Adam for whom the language of naming is still an option in the time between Creation and the Eschaton.
107 Benjamin 1996, p. 69; Benjamin 1972, Volume 2, p. 150.
108 Benjamin 1996, p. 70; Benjamin 1972, Volume 2, pp. 151-2.
109 Benjamin 1996, p. 71; Benjamin 1972, Volume 2, p. 153; italics in text.
110 See Fenves 1996, p. 91.
111 Benjamin 1999b, pp. 433-58; Benjamin 1972, Volume 2, pp. 334-67.
The Fall then becomes the fulcrum of this essay, and, so far, I have lodged on our side of the Fall. But what about the prelapsarian theory of language that is so important for Benjamin? Benjamin argues that, in opposition to the bourgeois theory of language, such a pure language 'knows no means, no object, and no addressee of communication. It means: in the name, the mental being of man communicates itself to God'.112 Language does not communicate through language to another person; rather, by means of the name, it communicates in language with God. The name, 'the innermost nature of language itself',113 has only God as its addressee. What we have here is an extraordinary theory for the auto-generational purity of language itself: the fertility of language can only be retained when man and God communicate with each other in language. It loses its potency when it is disseminated to others. And, as we might have expected, woman is absent - Eve only appears as one named by the man.
Yet all of this is only a beginning, for, once we pass over to the other side of the Fall, Benjamin engages directly with the text. Let us see what we find. Both accounts of Creation (Gen 1: 1-2: 3 and Gen 2: 3-25) emphasise for Benjamin a special relation between language and man through the act of creation. In the second account, it is as a being created from earth and endowed with the gift of language, whereas, in the first, it is the creative act of God that establishes a deep relation between 'Let there be . . .', 'he made' and 'he named'. For Benjamin, this produces the theological point that word and name are one only with God. However, a third feature of Genesis appears with the creation of human beings in Gen 1: 26-31: to be made in God's image means to know in the same language as God. Finally, the connection between human and divine languages is strongest with the name, firstly animal names and then human names. But only human beings give one another proper names (Adam names her 'woman' and then 'Eve'): 'The proper name is the communion of man with the creative word of God (Not the only one, however; man knows a further linguistic communion with God)'.114 It is for this reason that there is an intrinsic relation between words and things.
112 Benjamin 1996, p. 65; Benjamin 1972, Volume 2, p. 144; italics in text.
114 Benjamin 1996, p. 69; Benjamin 1972, Volume 2, p. 150.
Before asking what the implications of Benjamin's biblical linguistics might be, I am intrigued by his use of the Bible. He is not the first to delve into these texts in search of a theory of language, and he is not the first to come to grief. To begin with, his effort to find an emphasis on naming falters. For God's naming is restricted to the first three days of creation - he names day, night, heaven, earth and seas - and, by the time we get to the animals and plants, this power dissipates well before the creation of human beings. It is a push to say that the text focuses on naming at all. Further, even if we grant that language is indeed a concern of the texts that interest Benjamin - Genesis 1-3 and 11 - he still runs into problems with excising Chapter 4-10. For these chapters provide the crucial narrative links between the Fall and Babel, via the murder of Abel by Cain (Genesis 4), the Flood (Genesis 6-9) and the genealogies (Genesis 5 and 10). Further, in Genesis 10, before the Babel narrative, we already find a dispersal of languages - the peoples there are organised 'by their families, by their languages, in their lands, by their peoples' (Gen 10: 31; translation mine; see also 10: 5, 20). Babel may indeed be another Fall narrative, but the links with Genesis 2-3 are problematic at best. Thirdly, not only does Benjamin forget that the serpent and woman also speak, but he slips up with the assertion that 'Of all beings, man is the only one who names his own kind, as he is the only one whom God did not name'.115 But the man actually names cattle, birds and beasts (Gen 2: 20) as well as the woman. In fact, she is on a continuum with the animals rather than of the same kind as Adam, for the purpose of Adam's naming in Genesis 2 seems to be to find a 'helper' - the woman appears as the last in the line of animals (Gen 2: 22-3).
There is trouble in paradise, it would seem. If his exegetical garden is not quite what we might have expected, Benjamin attempts to forestall this pre-lapsarian disappointment at the beginning of his reading of Genesis 1-3:
If in what follows the nature of biblical language is considered on the basis of the first chapter of Genesis, the object is neither biblical interpretation nor subjection of the Bible to objective consideration as revealed truth (offenbarte Wahrheit), but the discovery of what emerges of itself from the biblical text with regard to the nature of language; and the Bible is only initially indispensable for this purpose, because the present argument broadly
115 Benjamin 1996, p. 69; Benjamin 1972, Volume 2, p. 149.
follows it in presupposing language as an ultimate reality, perceptible only in its manifestation, inexplicable and mystical. The Bible, in regarding itself as revelation, must necessarily evolve the fundamental linguistic facts.116
Benjamin's reading is, of course, selective: he is interested in the metaphysics of language,117 particularly as an ultimate reality that connects God and man. However, there is a curious twist that takes place in this passage. Although it begins with an effort to follow the Bible on the question of language, to mine it for linguistic insights, by the end a small inversion takes place. The Bible neither speaks about language, nor can one follow the Bible in order to construct a linguistic theory: the Bible itself is a language, the language of revelation. But note what happens: at the moment when Benjamin appears to dispense with the Bible - it is only "initially indispensable" - he turns again to claim its continuing relevance: 'The Bible, in regarding itself as revelation (Offenbarung), must necessarily evolve the fundamental linguistic facts'.118 In other words, there may be problems in this linguistic paradise, but it is better than the other side of the bourgeois Fall.
If the language of sex, birth and the maternal body forms a backdrop to the language essay - there really is no room for woman in Paradise for all of the creative activity belongs to God and man - then the prologue to the Trauerspiel book brings it all to the foreground. I think here particularly of the famous section on origin, Ursprung. Readings of Benjamin's use of the term tend to locate it in the matrix of German philosophy and the Platonic tradition, but what is missing here is a theological appreciation of the term.119 With the introduction of 'origin' into the discussion, Benjamin focuses yet again on the first chapters of Genesis - a factor simply not noticed by critics. The question of origin ceases to be a profane, human activity, but must now
116 Benjamin 1996, p. 67; Benjamin 1972, Volume 2, p. 147.
117 As Hent de Vries points out: De Vries 1992.
118 Benjamin 1996, p. 67; Benjamin 1972, Volume 2, p. 147.
119 Only Ebach notes in passing that Benjamin's interest in Ursprung relates to Genesis 1-11 (Ebach 1982, p. 63). Ebach's essay, while a welcome consideration of Benjamin's treatment of the Hebrew Bible, goes too far in suggesting the influence of the book of Job, and he understands biblical criticism purely in terms of a now outmoded historical-critical method.
be recast as divine origin. And it should be no surprise that his discussion of origin should not only utilise the biblical material in Genesis, but also the language of birth and sex.
In the second section of the prologue, Benjamin's recourse to the concept of origin is the culmination of an effort to deal with the historical dimension of art. This critique operates at a number of levels: against inductive and empiricist literary history, against the deductive and classificatory principle of genre studies, and against the alternative notion of a 'genetic and concrete classification', which, according to Croce's Grundriss der Ästhetik,120 is not classification at all but History. It is with 'origin' that Croce's 'genetic classification' can be reconciled with an idealist theory of art forms. There follows the by now famous section:
Origin (Ursprung), although an entirely historical category, has, nevertheless, nothing to do with genesis (Entstehung). The term origin is not intended to describe the process by which the existent came into being, but rather to describe that which emerges from the process of becoming and disappearance (dem Werden und Vergehen Entspringendes). Origin is an eddy (Strudel) in the stream of becoming, and in its current it swallows the material involved in the process of genesis. That which is original is never revealed in the naked and manifest existence of the factual; its rhythm is apparent only to a dual insight. On the one hand it needs to be recognized as a process of restoration and reestablishment, but, on the other hand, and precisely because of this, as something imperfect and incomplete. There takes place in every original phenomenon a determination of the form in which an idea will constantly confront the historical world, until it is revealed fulfilled, in the totality of its history.121
The steps by which Benjamin disconnects and reconnects the concept of origin here are quite bewildering. At first, he breaks the link between Ursprung and Entstehung, origin and genesis, all the while keeping origin as an historical category. Already at this point, the biblical reference is obvious: does he want to disavow genesis, or does he argue for the prior status of origin? It
120 Benjamin 1998, p. 45; Benjamin 1972, Volume 1, p. 226, cites Croce, Grundriss der Ästhetik. Vier Vorlesungen. Autorisierte deutsche Ausg. Von Theodor Poppe, Leipzig, 1913 (Wissen und Forschen), p. 43.
121 Benjamin 1998, pp. 45-6; Benjamin 1972, Volume 1, p. 30.
appears to be the latter, for origin is part of the 'process of becoming and disappearance' rather than coming into being - genesis. Is becoming and disappearance the historical process, although it evokes not so much life and death, beginning and end, as the perpetual process itself? Benjamin now turns to specify more closely what 'emerges': 'an eddy (or maelstrom)122 in the stream of becoming'. But he can only do so through the image of a liquid current, a river perhaps with its currents and rapids. Genesis now returns, although in a secondary capacity, its 'material' swallowed by the stream of becoming in which origin is an eddy.
Apart from the inability of commentators to notice that this is theological commentary on the creation myth of Genesis, the tendency of Benjamin to revert to sexual terminology and associations also passes by without notice,123 although it is precisely the point where Christian theology and biblical exegesis merge, both obsessed with the questions of origin and Eschaton. Terms and images, such as coming 'into being', 'emergence', the process of becoming and disappearance, nakedness, rhythm, duality, but, above all, the liquid metaphor - the wetness, fluids and ecstasy of sex, orgasm and birth - with its currents, eddies and swallowing are all charged with a sexual dimension, 'saturated', as are all his texts, according to Eva Geulen, 'with the imagery of gendered eroticism'.124 Yet it is not merely sexual, for such a reading misses the appropriation of maternal birthing for the notion of origin, as well as genesis and creation. But is not Benjamin immersed in the whole question of myths of biblical creation, of which his text becomes yet another contribution? Birth, creation, genesis and so on are, of course, the acts of women, which Benjamin, not unexpectedly, both fails to note and exacerbates in his commentary.
Elsewhere he is more explicit, as in the essay 'The Life of Students' - one among a range of many early texts in which sexual and intellectual activity interact with each other125 - where he argues for the recovery of the eros of creativity in male students. In a utopian manifesto that comes out of the youth movement, he distinguishes between the different forms of creativity
122 Weber 1991, p. 468, translates Strudel as 'maelstrom' rather than 'eddy'.
123 So, for instance, in Weber's (Weber 1991) detailed exegesis that itself smacks of biblical interpretation, or in Pizer's search for the origin of Benjamin's discussion of origin in Goethe (Pizer 1989). See also McCole 1993, pp. 152-3.
124 Geulen 1996, p. 169.
125 See Weigel 1996, pp. 86-7.
by men and women and how they might work together in a new community. He wants to transform the creativity of men - currently caught in the opposition between the autonomy of creative spirit and nature (prostitution) - to include women, 'who are not productive in the masculine sense',126 into a community of creative persons based on love, a revolution of the sexes, as he argues elsewhere, based on Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. But he remains trapped in a distinction between creativity and procreation, the one a distinct act and the other repetitive: 'How could they [men] do justice to the image of mankind and at the same time share a community with women and children, whose productivity is of a different kind'.127 Careful as he is to avoid ranking such creativity or productivity, it still assumes that the creativity of men is somehow sui generis, independent of women. The appropriation remains linguistic: 'Through understanding, everyone will succeed in liberating the future from its deformed existence in the womb of the present'.128 In short, as Geulen notes, the most prominent erotic and gendered dimension of Benjamin's work is sexual reproduction, including pregnancy, procreation, conception, birth and childhood.129
The vigorous feminist responses to Benjamin's work tend to criticise his representations of women and their uses in the structures of his thought,130 or Benjamin's work is taken up as an insightful and political criticism of the uses of women within capitalism, art, philosophy and so on.131 What I have noted in Benjamin's work in terms of creation and the maternal body is not new in itself, especially the appropriation of maternal creation for notions of male artistic creativity.132 However, let me pick up two elements from Eva
126 Benjamin 1996, p. 44; Benjamin 1972, Volume 2, p. 84.
128 Benjamin 1996, p. 46; Benjamin 1972, Volume 2, p. 87.
129 Geulen 1996, p. 162, although she goes on to argue that the most eroticised figure is the child.
130 Chow 1989, pp. 63-86; Stoljar 1996, pp. 99-112; Wolff 1989, pp. 141-56.
131 So Weigel 1996, pp. 85-98; Leslie 2000, pp. 106-14; Rauch 1988.
132 Thus, for Weigel, Benjamin shows how 'the concept of intellectual creation replaces that of natural creation, a process in which the female element necessary to it is consumed and exhausted, while the creator is newly born at the very same moment as the work is completed: as "the first-born male of the work that he once conceived"' (Weigel 1996, p. 70). Yet, Weigel reads Benjamin as too much of proto-feminist critic. For a more balanced critique in terms of Kristeva's notion of 'abjection' (mothers without children), see Geyer-Ryan 1992.
Geulen's excellent essay:133 the ambiguity of gender in his work and the need to reconsider Benjamin's primary philosophical concerns in terms of gender - language, history, experience and materiality. It is less a question of ambiguity, it seems to me, than Benjamin's knack of offering a criticism that simultaneously traps him within that which he criticises. Thus, his criticism concerning the appropriation of women is analogous to his criticism of myth: he sees the problems and yet cannot move beyond them no matter how hard he tries. For instance, even though he registers the profound reification and commodification of women in terms of the prostitute, woman-as-things that shows up the reality of 'love' in capitalism, he is all the same lured by the prostitute as a figure for knowledge. Or, his use of the traditional terminology of birth and creation in entirely foreign, anti-aesthetic contexts, especially allegory and technology, must be seen alongside his usage of such terminology in the most conventional of places, the imagination of a new future beyond the present.134
Such ambivalence is characteristic of Benjamin's treatment of myth as well: the resolute opponent of myth finds that he must use myth - particularly the stories of creation and apocalypse from the Bible - in order to attempt to go beyond myth. But the connection between the question of gender and myth is much closer. Here, I pick up Geulen's suggestion that we need to reconsider Benjamin's major interests in terms of gender. My argument is that the continual appropriation of the maternal body, of conception, pregnancy and birth, is a signal of another problem in Benjamin's writing, namely the perpetuation of biblical myth. In fact, the mechanism by which he appropriates such images of procreation is to signal their removal from women under capitalism, who now become sterile prostitutes, corpses and mannequins, frivolous foci of fashion.135 Any creative process rests entirely with the break from capitalism. And the signal of this link comes in the theses 'On the Philosophy of History' where the prostitute threatens the virility of the revolution; 'The historical materialist leaves it to others to be drained by the whore called "Once
134 In a dialectical move, Geulen (Geulen 1996, 166) goes on to argue that is it precisely ambivalence itself, a characteristic feature of Benjamin's work, that is the mark of sexuality and erotic desire. Her effort to bring in the hermaphrodite in order to deal with such ambivalence sidesteps the question of sexual difference in Benjamin's writings.
135 Benjamin 1999a, pp. 79-81; Benjamin 1972, Volume 5, pp. 130-2.
upon a time" in historicism's bordello. He remains in control of his powers, man enough to blast open the continuum of history'.136 Resisting the emptying of his semen into the body of the whore where it remains unproductive, he holds it back in order to blow into history itself. The anti-maternal figure of the prostitute allows Benjamin to appropriate the maternal function for his own work.
To return to the passage on origin: the more specifically theological structure of this passage appears clearly towards its close. The 'dual insight' required to perceive origin must be aware of a simultaneous process of reestablishment and incompletion, of redemption and the imperfection of that redemption. But this is nothing other than the proleptic view of history characteristic of certain forms of Christian theology: the process of restoration or redemption has already begun but it is as yet incomplete, awaiting the final moment. The model here is Christ, for in his birth redemption began its precarious but certain path, engulfing the earlier patterns of redemption in Jewish thought. Yet, full redemption awaits his final return. But one could construct a similar pattern in strands of the Hebrew Bible where the revelation of the Torah to Moses on Sinai begins a process of redemption that will be fulfilled only with the messiah; Christianity then appropriates this for itself. Benjamin thus works with a proleptic eschatology characteristic of certain parts of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. The Eschaton is not only the moment of redemption, but also the full revelation of that which has been seen dimly until that moment.
Once again we find a peculiar sacred history, or more specifically biblical construction of history, operating in Benjamin's work. This is, in the context of the philosophy of history and art history, an extraordinary move to make, except that Benjamin's usage is always turned in a curious direction. So also with this origin passage, for he seems to remove the notion of origin from its immediate sense of genesis or beginning in order to let it float free in the longer expanse of the history with which he works. The image becomes one of a whole series of 'origins' - he is, after all, speaking about the work of art - that emerge in history, all of which then become part of the proleptic redemption that his philosophy of history postulates.
136 Benjamin 1992, p. 254; Benjamin 1972, Volume 1, p. 702.
Thoroughly immersed in what can only be termed a history of salvation, Heilsgeschichte, dependent as it is on a theological reading of biblical texts - a reading that exacerbates the mythical nature of these texts - I want to return at last the Passagenarbeit. Here, Benjamin seeks a way of conceiving the end of capitalism, itself a hellish myth, in very similar terms, those of the myths of Creation and Eschaton. Not only does he pursue the question of a break out of capitalism, for the Passagenarbeit is itself concerned with origin:
In studying Simmel's presentation of Goethe's concept of truth, I came to see very clearly that my concept of origin in the Trauerspiel book is a rigorous and decisive transposition of this basic Goethean concept from the domain of nature to that of history. Origin - it is, in effect, the concept of Ur-phenomenon extracted from the pagan context of nature and brought into the Jewish contexts of history. Now, in my work on the arcades I am equally concerned with fathoming an origin. To be specific, I pursue the origin of the forms and mutations of the Paris arcades from their beginning to their decline, and I locate this origin in the economic facts. Seen from the standpoint of causality, however (and that means considered as causes), these facts would not be primal phenomena; they become such insofar as in their own individual development - 'unfolding' might be a better term - they give rise to the whole series of the arcade's concrete historical forms, just as the leaf unfolds from itself all the riches of the empirical world of plants.137
Apart from the conventional distinction that occurs here between pagan myth (nature) and Jewish history, the transposition of both origin and the mythic explosion of the Eschaton from his earlier work to the Passagenarbeit, although now with a materialist register, seems complete.
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