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Benjamin – History and the State of Exception



Die Tradition der Unterdrückten belehrt uns darüber, daß der „Ausnahmezustand“, in dem wir leben, die Regel ist. Wir müssen zu einem Begriff der Geschichte kommen, der dem entspricht. Dann wird uns als unsere Aufgabe die Herbeiführung des wirklichen Ausnahmezustands vor Augen stehen; und dadurch wird unsere Position im Kampf gegen den Faschismus sich verbessern. Dessen Chance besteht nicht zuletzt darin, daß die Gegner ihm im Namen des Fortschritts als einer historischen Norm begegnen. — Das Staunen darüber, daß die Dinge, die wir erleben, im zwanzigsten Jahrhundert „noch“ möglich sind, ist kein philosophisches. Es steht nicht am Anfang einer Erkenntnis, es sei denn der, daß die Vorstellung von Geschichte, aus der es stammt, nicht zu halten ist.

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “state of exception” in which we live is the rule. We must arrive at a concept of history which reflects this. Then it will become clear that our mission is the introduction of a genuine state of exception; and our position in the struggle against Fascism will benefit from it. Fascism has a shot in part because its opponents, in the name of progress, treat it as a historical phenomenon. – But the astonishment that what we are experiencing is “still possible” in the twentieth century is not a philosophical reaction. It is not the beginning of recognition, unless by recognition we mean that the conception of history on which it rests is unsustainable.

Walter Benjamin, Über den Begriff der Geschichte: VIII. geschichtshistorische These (1940) in: Gesammelte Schriften, vol. I/2, p. 697 (S.H. transl.)

Walter Benjamin’s eighth historical thesis seems intended to describe the world following a great calamity. In fact, of course, it was authored in the dark early days of World War II, and it constituted a final comment—written shortly before Benjamin’s death—in an extended dialogue that he had conducted with Carl Schmitt. The Schmitt-Benjamin discourse is one of the most curious intellectual artifacts of Germany in the period between the wars, not least of all because it seems that the arch-conservative Catholic Schmitt held the Marxist secular Jew Benjamin in genuinely high esteem—and vice versa. Schmitt will forever be associated with the notion of a “state of exception,” which as he put it was the essential characteristic of every modern state. “Sovereign is he who controls the exception,” Schmitt writes. But theory cannot be divorced entirely from practice. It was Schmitt who, as the crown jurist of the new Nazi regime, provided the essential road map for Gleichschaltung – the leveling of opposition within Germany’s vast bureaucracy – and it was he who provided the legal tools used to transform the Weimar democracy into the Nazi nightmare that followed it. The experience of America in the period after 9/11 bears some noteworthy parallels to the Schmitt-Benjamin dialogue. America has not, of course, transformed itself into anything approaching a totalitarian state. On the other hand, the American executive in this period did make clever use of Schmittian theories—quietly suspending much of the Constitution through invocation of war-time presidential powers, while arguing publicly that the president’s commander-in-chief powers displaced Congress and the Courts. For Schmitt it was of course essential that this assumption not be a raw exercise of power. It required legal pretense, no matter how frail. The weakness of the actual legal theory could be compensated for with the manipulation of formal legal institutions, such as Justice Ministry officials who would render opinions which were perfect in form though vacuous in substance, and politically loyal judges who would pronounce these absurdities to be the law. The façade of the Constitutional regime would remain, even as the internal transformation was complete. But a keen observer, historically schooled, would see the new construction for what it truly was.

Benjamin’s eighth thesis is clearly the final word in their dialogue, and it takes suitable weight. Benjamin asks us to examine carefully the historical validity of the state of exception—in essence, has the exception become the rule? In Roman history, for instance, the term-limited dictatorship created by special circumstances ceased to be a real state of exception with the rise of Caesar Augustus—the exception was the rule. But in the Germany of the Third Reich, under the exception that Schmitt personally helped to craft, the exception had in fact emerged as a new state. Benjamin is clearly referring both to the transformed Germany of the time of his writing, and to his long-standing dialogue with Schmitt about this process. But Benjamin rebels strongly against Schmitt’s accomplishments. He does so as a historical materialist, with an idealistic vision of history and progress—so he bitterly challenges the notion that fascism’s successes at this point are historically driven. A better grounded historical analysis must recognize that for all its apparent potential (in 1940, as fascism approached its historical zenith), it was not a tenable system—it could not be sustained. This is no less a criticism of the “state of exception” theorizing of Schmitt, which had helped fascism to a legally presentable model of the state.

Benjamin’s writing has obvious significance for America in her current posture. The period of Schmittian exceptionalism has been endured, and a strong critic of those ideas has assumed the mantle of executive power. But it is far from clear at this point that the exceptional powers assumed quietly for the executive will simply be surrendered. The experiences of the oppressed would, as he writes, speak against such an assumption. To the contrary, the gains for the national security state of the past decade are now being hard-wired. In this process, we face the obvious question to which Benjamin alludes: is the exception now being made the rule? Historical judgment is required to answer this question, and as Benjamin notes, such historical judgment cannot be exercised without a philosophy of history.

Benjamin was familiar with Paul Klee’s watercolor entitled Angelus Novus, and he saw in it the angel of history. “It portrays an angel who seems to be about to distance himself from something on which his view is fixed. His eyes are wide open, his mouth is ajar, and his wings have been opened up. The angel of history must look like this. His countenance is turned to the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees a sole catastrophe that steadily piles ruins upon ruins and hurls them before his feet. He would perhaps tarry, wake the dead and reassemble that which has been destroyed. But a storm comes from paradise which is caught up in his wings and which is so strong that the angel can no longer contain it. This storm drives him continuously into the future, to which he turns his back, whereas the ruins before him rise to the heavens. What we call progress is this storm.”

Listen to Robert Schumann’s Fantasy in C Major, op. 17 (1836-37), in a performance by Wilhelm Kempff. This remarkable work seems to me to be something like Benjamin’s angel of history, looking at once backwards and into the future, with many different meanings within its passionate folds. Ostensibly, it is a tribute to Ludwig van Beethoven–in fact, the proceeds from its publication went to support the construction of a Beethoven monument, and it contains several quotations from other Beethoven works, particularly the song cycle An die ferne Geliebte (To the distant loved-one)(1816). On the other hand, Schumann wrote to Clara in 1838 that he had finished the work, “the first movement is, I think, the most passionate thing I have ever composed – a deep lament for you.” The original titles he wrote for the movements were “ruins,” “the triumphal arch,” and “a wreath of stars,” suggesting historical survey, an ecstatic present and a glance into the distant future. The work itself is a marvel of experimentation with form and technique, with daring passages that are chromatic, syncopated, arpeggiated, with chords that run against the melody. T.W. Adorno says it opens an “unexplored and vast space,” and Schumann himself described it by quoting a passage of Schiller: “Through all sounds in the colored earthly dream resounds a quiet sound drawn for him, who secretly listens.” His meaning lies in appreciation of historical past, demonstrated by an engagement with Beethoven that transcends imitation.

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