Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Roberts, Julian. Review of WALTER BENJAMIN. NDPR (January 2010).

Steiner, Uwe.  Walter Benjamin: an Introduction to his Work and Thought.  Trans. Michael Winkler.  Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2010.

Is concern with Walter Benjamin a form of political activism? Should it be? This question has divided commentators since the 1960s, when Benjamin served not only as a banner for the student revolt, but also -- in direct contrast -- as a model for the sober scholarship gradually returning to the German universities.

Undoubtedly the latter view has prevailed, if only in the sense that Benjamin today is a staple of the Ph.D. industry. Steiner's book, which in essence is a chronological catalogue of Benjamin's oeuvre, rather confirms this. There is nothing wrong with this, in principle. Certainly there is only a limited amount of mileage to be extracted from Benjamin's career as a martyr, moving though it may be. And his work provides little direct guidance for the class struggle.

Despite this, criticism of the universities, or more generally of intellectual practice in general, underlies Benjamin's whole project. From our perspective, it is not just the oft-lamented failure of Frankfurt University to recognise Benjamin's talents which need concern us. German universities were at the forefront of the whole Nazi "movement", as indeed were other major components of public culture including the legal system and even, in part, the Churches. All these institutions, little changed, still exist. Is it possible to do justice to Benjamin's work without raising questions which bear directly on modern academic life? This is an issue which Steiner, consistent with the sober approach taken by his book, does not pursue. Related topics which have to be mentioned because of their prominence in Benjamin's work, such as the "Strategist in the Literary Struggle", are firmly consigned to scare quotes. At the end of his book, when Steiner raises the question of Benjamin's "relevance", he rather despairingly finds it in the fact that academics seem forever able to discover "new and hitherto overlooked aspects in his oeuvre".

This strikes me as a little disappointing, and it certainly raises the question of what Steiner might have missed in his subject. If one thing is missing in Steiner's basically thorough account, it is not the leftist political background, which he explains quite fully, but something rather different, namely theology. . . .

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