24th November 2021

Book in Focus

Walter Benjamin and the Actuality of Critique

Essays on Violence and Experience

By Carlo Salzani

How to Read Walter Benjamin Today

Walter Benjamin is today a very popular author with both academic and non-academic audiences. Despite the temporal and cultural distance, he seems to speak to us in a voice that we recognize and find somehow familiar, as if the troubled times of the Weimar Republic in the 1920s and his Parisian exile in the 1930s formed a constellation with our no-less-troubled age of terrorisms, violence, and pandemics. This popularity appears, however, rather strange for an author whose language and conceptuality are not only embedded in high-modernist and (unorthodox) Marxist categories, but are also so imbued with theological and messianic concepts and are at times so obscure and ambiguous. How can we explain his striking “actuality” and how should we read his work today?

These questions have marked the history of the reception of his work. In particular, it is the question of his “actuality” that keeps popping up almost as a mantra. The “actuality of Walter Benjamin” became for a while a title for conferences, symposia, articles, and books, but up until at least the mid-1990s the insistence on this topic betrayed doubt and uncertainty, rather than assertiveness: is Benjamin’s thought still “actual” and “useful” for our times or is it, instead, outdated and ultimately pointless? In a sense, it was Jürgen Habermas who, by precisely questioning this “actuality” in a famous speech for Benjamin’s eightieth anniversary in 1972, started a defensive movement among Benjamin scholars, who felt almost compelled to justify and demonstrate his enduring relevance. However, in so doing, they were forced to adopt the terms of the prosecution and fell into the trap of equating actuality with “topicality” and “usefulness.” Benjamin’s “actuality” is, rather, not to be sought in an instrumental usefulness for problems of current concern, but in his enduring afterlife, in the historical index that his work contains and that brings it to legibility—even through, and perhaps precisely thanks to, a certain untimeliness and historical lag—at a certain time.

If Benjamin was not the melancholic outsider that a certain romanticizing fashion liked to imagine (and that recent biographical efforts have corrected), his “fame” certainly belongs to his afterlife. The posthumous popularity of his work (and of his romanticized image) has gone through different phases, when different aspects of his oeuvre have come to “legibility,” but has never waned and keeps returning in waves. The field of Benjamin studies could appear saturated, when so much (everything?) has already been said, analyzed, argued, and written, and what George Steiner named the “Benjamin industry” does indeed show signs of exhaustion; however, new waves of interest and new publications keep reviving his “recognizability” in new fields and communities, so that his work survives in the endless work of the critics; it lives after the passing of fashions and trends.

This vocabulary (afterlife, historical index, legibility, recognizability, actuality) belongs to Benjamin’s own concept of criticism, which, therefore, provides the reader with a methodology and with precise instructions on how to approach his work. Throughout his whole career—from his first writings in the late 1910s to the notes for his unfinished work on Paris, Baudelaire, and the “prehistory of modernity” in the late 1930s—Benjamin stayed true to a critical approach and a methodology of reading (not only of literature and philosophy, but also of art, movies, cities, and history) which revolve around two main axes: actuality and critique. The critic (i.e., the reader, the historian) should approach a text (but also a city or a historical event) aiming at understanding its afterlife: the “readability” and “recognizability” of the text/situation/event are a function of its “historical index,” of the constellation of meaning it enters with the present and that the reader/critic/historian must learn to recognize. This is what constitutes for Benjamin the Aktualität (a term ultimately untranslatable and not reducible to topicality or contemporary relevance) of something.

To examine Benjamin’s “actuality” means therefore to adopt this method with respect to his own writings; it means to read him the way he wanted to read history, and to adopt his hermeneutic “politics” towards his own texts. Benjamin’s work asks to be read historically, to be put into a constellation with our present and that our reading recognize its non-sensuous correspondences with our time. It asks to be “mortified” and “ruined” and its truth-content represented. As a cultural artefact, it asks to be violated and read against the grain of both its and our own time, and thus re-inscribed in new practices, re-assembled and re-made always anew. Indeed, the cultural and temporal décalage between Benjamin and us is precisely what allows for his time and ours to form a “constellation” and enables his work to break the continuum of the horizon of our time and to open up a way for thought.

At the conclusion of “Literary History and the Study of Literature,” a text he published in April 1931 in Die literarische Welt, Benjamin writes:

What is at stake is not to portray literary works in the context of their age, but to represent the age that perceives them—our age—in the age during which they arose. It is this that makes literature into an organon of history; and to achieve this, and not to reduce literature to the material of history, is the task of the literary historian. (Selected Writings, vol. 2, p. 464)

This is the spirit guiding my readings in Walter Benjamin and the Actuality of Critique: Essays on Violence and Experience, which, however, also approaches Benjamin’s work with two particular foci: the actuality of his critique of violence and the actuality of his critique of experience.

If the issue of Benjamin’s “actuality” is much less questioned today than in the last decades of the twentieth century, this is, importantly if not largely, due to a renewed interest in a particular text, the 1921 “Critique of Violence.” Probably the only surviving part of a never-completed major project on “Politics,” this text was largely ignored during Benjamin’s lifetime and was mostly ignored also in the first wave of Benjamin’s posthumous reception. The “now of recognizability” of Benjamin’s arduous text started when Derrida focused on it (albeit quite critically) in his famous 1989 paper on justice and deconstruction, “Force of Law,” and its current popularity is also due to the substantial wave of deconstructionist readings that followed. A second and no less important factor is the central role that Agamben assigned to “Critique of Violence” in his Homo Sacer project, begun in 1995 with the publication of the first volume of the series. Since then, “Critique of Violence” has become an unavoidable focus in the contemporary political-philosophical debate. The revival of political theology and of a critical engagement with the political theory of Carl Schmitt marks no doubt the “historical index” of Benjamin’s text and exponentially enhances its legibility, and our “age of violence,” marked by the bloody beginning of the twenty-first century, obsessively pushes ever-new readers to return to “Critique of Violence” and to take a stand in regard to it, ensuring that it lives on.

The “actuality” of Benjamin’s critique of experience is not as conspicuous as that of his critique of violence, and indeed the “buzz” about this topic is not nearly as intense as that about the violence text. However, the importance of this critique has marked every phase of Benjamin’s reception and of his “renaissance” since the late 1960s and early 1970s, and can thus be said to constitute the solid bedrock on which rests Benjamin’s afterlife. In fact, one of the main motors of Benjamin’s posthumous fame in the first waves of his reception was the attention aroused in many different disciplines by his analyses of the media industry, the cinematic experience, the “impoverishment” and commodification of experience, and the new “barbarism” brought about by the media revolution of the twentieth century, whereby his Artwork essay, among other texts, became an unavoidable reference in many syllabi and debates. Despite being strongly marked by his modernist context, Benjamin’s take on media, aesthetics, art, and politics was much more “actual” and “legible” than, for example, Adorno’s staunch opposition to, and critique of, the “culture industry.” Benjamin’s writings on technology, media, and industrial and metropolitan life knew a moment of high “legibility” in the heyday of postmodernism and post-structuralism, and this legibility lives on even after the digital revolution and the “virtualization” of experience.

What Benjamin identified as the “poverty” of experience caused by modernity with its many revolutions is still our poverty and is still our experience. The technological and cultural transformations that characterize our time were unthinkable in Benjamin’s time (and even in later generations), but the trauma and revolution of experience they brought about—together with new, perhaps revolutionary, possibilities—are analogous to those Benjamin was already able to identify, and are thus still “legible” in a constellation with Benjamin’s by-now outmoded readings. Importantly, unlike many other critics such as Adorno, Benjamin identified a potential for critical intervention even in all this poverty and decay of experience, and thus his legibility is also a call to do the same in our times of hyper-digitalized, hyper-connected, virtualized, and disembodied experience. The task of the critic of this new experience is not (only) that of naming the loss it entails, but is (still) also that of seeking in its poverty, as Benjamin wrote in “Experience and Poverty” (1933), “a new, positive concept of barbarism” that could, perhaps, even “lead to something respectable” (Selected Writings vol. 2, pp. 732, 734).

Reading Benjamin today means, in sum, to pursue the “life” that becomes recognizable in his work in the present time, and his current “fame” (such a central notion in his theory of criticism) testifies that his spirit is very much alive.


"Carlo Salzani’s Walter Benjamin and the Actuality of Critique: Essays on Violence and Experience provides a highly original and very carefully developed analysis of significant works and themes from the full breadth of Benjamin’s œuvre. This excellent book will be of interest to scholars and students of Benjamin, but also to anyone concerned with experience in the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries. Salzani’s book critically dialogues, moreover, with interlocutors from several languages, thereby demonstrating a span of critical acumen that is quite unique."
Brendan Moran
University of Calgary

Carlo Salzani is a Research Fellow at the Messerli Research Institute of the University of Vienna, Austria. His research interests include biopolitics, posthumanism, and animal studies.

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