Space Jew, or, Walter Benjamin Among the Stars

By Benjamin Aldes WurgaftFebruary 1, 2016

Space Jew, or, Walter Benjamin Among the Stars
A version of this essay was first presented at the Errata Salon, December 4, 2014; special thanks to BetaLevel and to the organizers of the Errata Salon, Amina Cain, and Ariana Kelly. Thanks to Alice Boone, Shannon Supple, Corky White, Martin Woessner, and Lewis Wurgaft for their comments. And all hail Momus’s song “Space Jews.”


If all mankind could look through that telescope, it would change the world.

— Griffith J. Griffith

The splinter in your eye is the best magnifying-glass available.

— Theodor W. Adorno


IN DELHI and in four other locations across northern India stand the “Jantar Mantars,” clusters of giant astronomical instruments built by an 18th-century Maharaja, Jai Singh II, many of them so tall they seem to challenge the sky. Here’s an exercise in counterfactual history: If the German Jewish literary critic Walter Benjamin had carefully explored all the possible routes out of Nazi-occupied Europe in the late 1930s, and if he had been quicker to flee Europe than he actually was, he might have escaped via the unusual route of the British-controlled subcontinent. And had he done so, he might have stood in one of the Jantar Mantars during the twilight years of the Raj and experienced the stars (a recurring and powerful motif scattered across Benjamin’s writings) anew. He probably would have reached the Jantar Mantar in Delhi or its counterpart in Jaipur, Jai Singh’s Rajasthani capital, neither of which city, incidentally, would have offered him the same culture of pedestrian flâneurship he had loved in Paris. As compensation, at night he could have looked up at the constellations, or examined the tiles depicting signs of the zodiac, which are pressed into the clay walls of the instruments. He might have appreciated Jantar Mantar’s combination of astronomical and astrological devices, and he surely would have noted the lack of conflict between astronomy and the belief in the influence of planets and stars on human fortune — indeed, the way these practices were still united on these historical instruments. The real Benjamin did not escape Europe; as is very well known, his fate was to commit suicide on the Spanish border during a failed escape to flee occupied France. It was 1940; he was 48. But try to forget this real Benjamin for a moment, and instead follow his counterfactual twin to the subcontinent.

The Jantar Mantars reflect an imagination in which science and magic seek the same targets; in which science does not lead to a disenchanted world, but rather shows how nature’s parts, whether one’s local scientific culture calls them elements or humors or quarks, might participate in the same order of meaning as our souls. The 18th-century court of Jai Singh was thus very different from the early 20th-century German schools where Benjamin was educated. It was in Germany that the sociologist Max Weber announced the Entzauberung der Welt, the end of magic, of destiny, indeed of the en-souled-ness of the world. The poet Friedrich Schiller, from whom Weber derived his picture of disenchantment, had written of an “entgötterte Natur,” an “ungodded Nature,” in his 1788 “The Gods of Greece.” Weber was not only reflecting on the tendency of rationalist science, in particular, to challenge traditional beliefs, but on the loss of a sense of the numinous in modern life more broadly.

Regardless of their relationship with science, the inhabitants of Weber’s world no longer believed (as some of their distant ancestors had believed) that everything in the universe, from staghorn ferns to microorganisms to the crystalline structure of sugar, was infused with gradations of will that arise from gradations of form. Aristotle, the philosopher who spent much of his life as a naturalist, had organized the contents of the universe into a great chain of being, each element partaking of some measure of liveliness, from grubs to gods. William Blake gave voice to another version of this vision when he described a world “where every particle of dust breathes forth its joy.” Such a view of nature — and its accompanying, more diffuse climate of sentiment about nature — got swept away along with magic, and something else came to stand in its place: a secularized version of our religious narratives of redemption, a story we tell about history following a given path. Call this “determinism,” a new master-plot for earthly existence, one that survived the Entzauberung der Welt and indeed thrived in a supposedly disenchanted world, producing myriad visions of the meaningfulness of human events.

The members of Benjamin’s generation in Germany, born in the last decade of the 19th century, began as child witnesses to a dramatically fast version of the modernization process and then became young adult participants in (or for noncombatants, proximate witnesses to) the Great War, the most devastating in European memory, a war in which the German government notably hid their military failures from the German people until the very last moment. Defeat thus came as a shock. To many, it felt as though Germany had been betrayed from within.[1] In their 20s and 30s, the generation of the 1890s saw postwar Germany formed into the short-lived Weimar Republic (1918-1933), an experiment in liberal governance torn between the strong forces of Left and Right; it is an irony that liberals spent most of the 1920s fearing revolution from German communists, while the threat actually came, as we now know, from the right, and from an ideology that would claim to look into nature, in particular the putative nature of human races, and derive from that nature rules for living, ruling, and conquering.

The turn to nature in times of political turmoil can, of course, take many forms; the Nazi interest in “race science” is only one of the most baleful. The metaphor of “revolution” itself summons up the turning of planets and of our planet among the stars; it implies taking a standpoint beyond the human conflicts that are local to the surface of Spaceship Earth. But for Benjamin, looking to the stars could scarcely mean positing that the stars influence human events; in 1932 he wrote a fragment on astrology that would go unpublished, but there is no evidence he was an astrology believer in any conventional sense.[2] Astrology was, as Benjamin’s friend Theodor Adorno put it in an essay on the Astrology column of the Los Angeles Times, an “anachronism,” as outdated as the idea that a series of celestial spheres surrounded an all-important and central Earth. For the two German Jews, who had received some of the best education available in Europe, astrology seemed like a terminal moraine of ice and rock, the furthest point of advance of an old glacier called belief, stranded as its ice age was pushed back by the warming trend of Enlightenment. Furthermore, it reminded Adorno of the irrationalism that had overtaken German life and thought in the third and fourth decades of the 20th century.

Adorno, a more successful exile than Benjamin who not only reached the United States, but thrived there, probably read the astrology column of the LA Times at his home in Pacific Palisades during the War. No celebrant of California spiritualism nor of its workaday cousin, the astrology column, he even saw, in these columns’ fine-grained advice about how to talk with employers or lovers, or how to spend time with friends, a reflection of the highly administrated society into which Californians (like all Americans) were born. Here are a few entries he considered especially noteworthy:

11 November, Libra: Your own A.M. fretfulness and lack of vision alone makes the morning unsatisfactory.

9 January, Cancer: It’s your day to have fun; so contact very active associates, take them to amusement places, and discuss practical goals in these surroundings for excellent results.

27 February, Virgo: Don’t be too disturbed by news or commotions around you. Confine your efforts to the worthwhile activities in connection with your home or place of business. Keep calm, relaxed and ready to cooperate with all people.

Astrology, for Adorno, was not a system of meaning but rather a watery and dilute form of self-help literature, an extra set of rules to comfort people already living under the heavy blankets of un-freedom that bureaucracy lays over us: astrology was false consciousness. The implacability of the stars, their immunity to suasion, was like the implacability of mass society, which no individual’s efforts could change. After the war, Adorno eventually left Los Angeles and returned to Germany, to a society no less heavily administrated than the one he had watched from Pacific Palisades, yet, happily for him, one with less jazz (Adorno’s dislike of jazz remains well known to this day), and of course more German.

In the late 18th century the philosopher Immanuel Kant drew a parallel between the starry sky above him and the moral law within him, considering both phenomena worthy of awe. In the early 20th, Benjamin still acknowledged the heavens as a sign of Creation’s at least figural sublimity, but he described modernity as a gradual falling away from both constellations and moral compasses. This led him to focus instead on the “fallen” character of our lives: the measure of bad luck and suffering we all receive, the wreckage that seems to pile up around us because of our own failures. He might have agreed with Maurice Blanchot, who observed that the word “disaster” has its root in a separation from our stars — dis-aster (Incidentally, the Italian word “fiasco” also means, “a bottle of wine,” which suggests that words for utter failure teach us a lot about ourselves). Benjamin was himself famously dissolute, usually out of work, a bad husband, a bad father, a bad friend, always in debt: he never seems to have been quite up to the challenges of adult life. It is easy to imagine Benjamin blaming his lot on his stars, rather than on his own actions or on sheer random chance — this would have allowed him to accept neither the fact of life’s contingency nor the burden of personal responsibility.

Benjamin likely visited the Berlin Zeiss-Planetarium, a structure built just a few years after the planetarium itself was invented (in Germany, as it happens). Opened in 1926 near the Berlin Zoo, this Planetarium would be seriously damaged during WWII, but during its relatively short life the building contributed to the educations of many Berlin schoolkids, and probably to the education of the then-thirtysomething Benjamin, as well. In a very short fragment, written in 1926, published in 1928 and called “To the Planetarium,” Benjamin argued that we moderns are getting further and further from the heavens. He wrote, with great rhetorical flourish, that if you had to express the teachings of antiquity while standing on one leg (a reference to Rabbi Hillel’s discussion of relating the entire teachings of the Torah while standing on one leg), you would say, “They alone shall possess the Earth who live from the powers of the cosmos.” What this living-from-the-cosmos used to get you, was a kind of wonder — “absorption,” Benjamin wrote — and astronomy (according to this particular story) kills wonder: cosmic experience wanes with the waxing power of lenses. Astronomy was another chapter in a persistent preoccupation of Benjamin’s, namely “the methodical destruction of experience,” as he put it in a 1940 letter to Adorno.

The growth of modern astronomy broke the enchantments of astrology, and on this reckoning Jantar Mantar (as viewed by our counterfactual Benjamin) might seem like a snapshot taken before the separation. Benjamin spoke, in elegiac terms, of the way we lost wonder’s trance, knowing all too well that from the perspective of the Enlightenment it had been good to wake up — sapere aude, “have the courage to use your own reason,” as Kant had said, and conquer unmündigkeit or “immaturity” — but Benjamin was more mindful of what “telescoping reason” had done to our rapport with the heavens. Benjamin’s question would likely have been, what are we to do with the ruins of wonder? Have we the time to build anything from them?



My fantasy about Walter Benjamin standing at Jantar Mantar involves a speculation about what a dead writer and critic might have thought about a site he never saw: what if astronomy and astrology were still allies, still lovers, my fictional Benjamin asks. What if the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment had not severed causation and meaning, the contingency of the universe and our sense of its purposefulness? My fantasy comes from a small but intriguing corner of the lively culture industry surrounding Benjamin: counterfactual fantasies about Benjamin successfully escaping Europe are a very real micro-genre. The expansive sweep of Benjaminiana includes Laurie Anderson’s 1989 album Strange Angels, dedicated to Benjamin and referencing his well-known description of the “Angel of History”; Jewlia Eisenberg’s 2001 album Trilectic, which tells the story of his 1927 trip to Moscow and his relationship with the Communist Party member Ana Lacis; and Charles Bernstein and Brian Ferneyhough’s opera Shadowtime, which is “counterfactual” in the sense that it starts with Benjamin’s suicide and then follows him, as if he were Odysseus or Dante, into the underworld. Very often, the Benjamin industry seems to be fueled by his charisma (his posthumous charisma; the living Benjamin seems not to have possessed that attribute in much abundance) as a weird combination of intellectual wunderkind and schlemiel loser.

Benjamin makes a grand subject for counterfactual inquiry precisely because his abbreviated biography and his writings converge on the very thematic and methodological issue that counterfactuals probe — namely time, contingency, and its relation to meaning. Images of people and things frozen out of time, and thus representing an “eternal present” and a point of possible historical divergence, populate Benjamin’s writings: in “Konvolut N” of the Arcades Project, he reflected on the words of Louis Auguste Blanqui. Imagine, Blanqui posited, an infinite number of alternate earths:

Every human being is thus eternal at every second of his or her existence. What I write at this moment in a cell of the Fort du Taureau I have written and shall write throughout all eternity — at a table, with a pen, clothed as I am now, in circumstances like these.

For some critics of Benjamin, such images of the eternalized present have become emblematic of stalled revolution, of an inability to think through the stages of historical revolutionary change. On a more friendly reading, such images of the standstill reflect the effort to shake off the blinders of teleological thinking.

Norman Klein’s The History of Forgetting, a book whose primary subject is the obliteration of neighborhoods and local memory in Los Angeles, offers us a miniature counterfactual Benjamin narrative: our hero survives his flight from Europe and makes it to Los Angeles by the early 1940s, there to muse about Flash Gordon comic books and pulp detective fiction.[3] Although Klein does not follow his fantasy in this direction, such a Benjamin might have looked at the stars through the telescopes of the Griffith Observatory — he could have looked down on the city spreading out far below and observed the mirroring of the lights of the city and the lights of the heavens, a fabricated cosmos against the hatcheries of stars. The Griffith Observatory, notably, was established through the bequest of Griffith J. Griffith, who thought that stargazing led to enlightenment and that our morality itself would improve if we merely gazed through telescopes. He himself had once gazed through the telescope on nearby Mt. Wilson, and, greatly impressed by the experience, wished for an observatory to be built where he owned land, on Mt. Hollywood.

A Los Angeles counterfactual, like the Jantar Mantar counterfactual with which I began this essay, saves Benjamin from his actual fate: these scenarios seem to resist the shadows that Benjamin’s suicide casts backward onto his earlier works.[4] However, such counterfactuals must be very carefully constructed if they are to tell us something about the historical figure they depict, rather than merely reflecting our own longings and wishes; falling short of that, they often boil down to potentially intriguing but scarcely historical questions: “I wonder what (in this case, Benjamin) would’ve thought about this.” Indeed, most Benjamin counterfactuals differ from the ones commonly used by historians, which are efforts to understand causation in specific historical cases. Such “what ifs” turn up more often in military, economic, or political history than in the history of ideas. This is partly because specific events, like the collapse of a financial market or a single battle that changes the course of a war, are driven by factors we can tweak and adjust with the phrase “what if?” By contrast, the development of an idea or style of thought — like Kant’s notion of comparing the starry skies above him and the moral law within him as phenomena that inspire wonder, or like Benjamin’s habit of drawing Marxism and Jewish mysticism together — is far harder to trace to causes. It is easier to ask, as Winston Churchill once did, what might have happened if a war had gone a different way, as in his essay “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg.”[5]

While brushing aside counterfactuals as “unhistorical shit” or “parlor games” has become habitual for most professional historians, others take them seriously as means by which to expose causation. Still, other historians see counterfactual thinking as present in all historical thinking, whether made explicit or not. Counterfactuals are not, whatever their detractors think, pure leaps into fantasy. They are the renegotiation of empirical data — and yet they obviously flirt with an abandonment of the real, and with flights into fantasy. And beyond their task of illuminating causal relationships among historical developments, counterfactual questions have a kind of hermeneutic power, exposing the logics by which we read historical events, and exposing as well our attachment to different types of determinism.


Similar to Klein’s Benjamin counterfactual, but more grandly scaled, is David Kishik’s The Manhattan Project (2015), perhaps the most idiosyncratically ambitious book about Benjamin ever written. Kishik intends to conjure a New World counterpart to Benjamin’s Parisian Arcades Project, but through the unusual gambit of a book-length commentary on a book that the real Benjamin never wrote, a compendium of documents, ephemera, and reflections on the island of Manhattan. In the counter-world that Kishik imagines, Benjamin survives and lives anonymously for decades in Manhattan, surviving (improbably, given the real Benjamin’s generally bad health) into his 90s (thus dying in the 1980s). In his later decades, this Benjamin occupies a post in the reading room at the New York Public Library, to the casual observer just another disheveled and possibly homeless reader examining the newspapers. Yet this reader is out to gather quotations and evidence in support of his claim that Manhattan is the capital city of the 20th century — the city that most epitomized that century’s historical shifts, from philosophical abstractions to fine art to urban planning and everyday life — just as he had called Paris the capital of the 19th in his Arcades Project. Kishik’s Benjamin becomes a kind of Metatron, the biblical archangel whose task it is to record all the deeds of Israel.

Kishik’s effort finds a kind of warrant in an observation of Benjamin’s: “The historical method is a philological method based on the book of life. ‘Read what was never written,’ runs a line in Hofmannsthal. The reader one should think of here is the true historian.” Benjamin may have intended these lines to imply a book of life whose lines are written by actions and natural phenomena, making reading closer to the work of exegesis or hermeneutics than to the assembly of a chronicle. But his lines could easily also mean an attention paid to possibilities, to all unexplored paths. The scope of Kishik’s book is appropriately broad as he catalogs everything that caught Benjamin’s eye over his New York decades: thus we wander, flâneur-style, from Buckminster Fuller’s proposal to cover midtown Manhattan with a dome to Diane Arbus’s photographs to Jane Jacobs, writing on the Death and Life of Great American Cities in her West Village home. Kishik lingers, perhaps overlong, on the affinities and discontinuities between Benjamin and that cinematic Manhattan flâneur, Woody Allen.

Much as with Klein’s counterfactual, Kishik’s “what if” is not used to prompt new interpretations of Benjamin’s biography or of his thought, but to facilitate an extended imitation of Benjamin’s eclectic methods; call this “late Benjaminiana,” then, a work that emerges at a moment when decades of popular and scholarly Benjamin appreciation have made such a work thinkable.[6] To the extent that The Manhattan Project does properly historical types of counterfactual work, it does so by showing how some of Benjamin’s earlier interests might have developed had he lived longer — but it is difficult to protect this kind of inquiry from shading off into pure speculation. Walter Benjamin, originally a contributor to that branch of Western Marxist thought known as Critical Theory, often emerges, in the writings of the Benjamin Industry (a unique force for the production of academic fan fiction), as nothing more than a projection screen for late 20th and early 21st century academic fantasies — nullifying him as an historical presence.[7]

If counterfactuals open our eyes to contingency, contingency in turn has the potential to disenchant. In many cases, a counterfactual glance at the sweep of human events would reveal no constellations, no signals, just noise, static, wave clutter. No grand unified theory, no ultimately rational emergent world-spirit, just particles, blood, and dust. Benjamin was against patterns, too, or against the search for certain specific historical ones. The myth that events are part of a larger story called “progress” was, for Benjamin, the hallmark of “bourgeois” history. He suggested that a more enlightened and free world (a world that was, among other things, socialist) would instead perceive the virtue of each moment, would daydream in terms of the immediate lived experience of hours, minutes, and seconds, rather than stringing events together over the centuries to make sense of it all. Still, if Benjamin was a Marxist, his Marxism was as selective as his Judaism, stripping away the teleology that still ran through Marx’s own thought, the sense that the logic of history would see our chains fall to our feet. Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” is, in part, an argument for the recuperation of the potential latent in each moment of time, and against subsuming them within a larger progress-narrative; while one reading of Benjamin quite rightly emphasizes his “dialectics at a standstill,” there is another way to read his resistance to historicism: like formal counterfactualists, Benjamin was interested in restoring a sense of contingency to our understanding of the past.

To imagine what might have happened, had Benjamin survived, could be an invitation to rethink the categories of contingency and influence in his own thought. Is there, I want to ask in an experimental vein, a way in which thought experiments could return us to his texts, and perhaps prompt us to think more about what a longer-living Benjamin might have written? To stage such an experiment, let us rejoin Klein’s Los Angeles counterfactual, and take it further than he did.



It is 1943. In Los Angeles, Benjamin, now a 51-year-old in declining form (the real Benjamin had been described as seeming like “an old man,” during his flight from France, though he was only 48), arrives at the Griffith Observatory, taking a shuttle bus up the hill to take in a view of the city as the sun starts to set — he’s had enough of visiting his friends in Pacific Palisades for a few days, schlepping across town from his Boyle Heights apartment. He’s as close to being at ease as he ever is, which is to say, not very close. He’s self-conscious, can’t even see that he’s just one of many travelers from out of town, foreign but not really out of place except in his own head. The sheer expansiveness of Los Angeles impresses him, as does its rapid pace of change; the cities he knows and loves, in a Europe he worries he won’t see again, don’t seem to shift as quickly. He unwraps a stale ham sandwich from its wax paper and shakes some crumbs out of the corduroy jacket pocket where he’d kept it. He finds the observatory charming at a distance. The building reminds him just a little bit of the Zeiss Planetarium back in Berlin (its destruction has not yet taken place), and in fact the Griffith facility contains a planetarium that uses the same Zeiss instruments. The stars begin to come out, and they’re a striking sight; Los Angeles in 1943 is smaller and far less populated than it will be a few generations later, light pollution less fierce, the smog problem just starting to get regular attention in the papers.

The stars appear in full. Benjamin sees Orion’s Belt and Ursa Major. A hobbyist, who’s set up his smaller telescope on the grounds of the Observatory, lets him look through the eyepiece to get a close-up view of the Moon, whose light is weak enough this evening to show the stars as fully as possible. This has an unnameable, disconcerting effect on Benjamin, though he forgets this almost instantly as he moves toward the stairs that lead to the upper deck of the observatory. His mind wanders back to his own earlier musings on the constellations — Benjamin had always likened memory more to a theater, in which images might occasionally parade before us, than to an observing instrument. He climbs the stairs, looking at the deco metalwork that reminds him of Berlin or Paris refracted by an American prism, and he stands in line to look through one of the telescopes, focused on Mars. Benjamin shifts and fidgets. His turn arrives. He looks at a dim dot, which is all the telescope makes of the solar system’s fourth planet: a long wait for a short viewing, he thinks, surrendering the eyepiece to the next viewer after a few minutes, and he questions his own earlier worries about the power of astronomical instruments and their disenchanting power. He follows that train of thought back to his own writings, while gazing over the railing at the city lights spreading out below.

His most recent use of the word “constellation” in a written text had been gnomic. In the “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” which he carried out of Europe in a briefcase, he described the historian standing in a “constellation” with the past, affording a past moment its own dignity, refusing to tie it to the present via a fixed path, mindful of the transit of time between the observer and the events observed. It was not that Benjamin denied that events influenced one another, but that he mistrusted the way we narrate that influence. His “constellation” was a way of expressing hopes for a kind of liberation on the other side of the problem of teleology, or assuming history has both direction and goal: an historical constellation in place of an historical sequence.

But before this late use of “constellation,” images of the stars and planets in Benjamin’s writings had served to describe relations with that primordial and complex concept, “experience,” and to describe the related phenomenon of the human relationship with the cosmos — the very thing whose lack Weber had meant to describe with his Entzauberung der Welt. Years earlier, in the aforementioned “To the Planetarium,” Benjamin had bemoaned the way our ability to read constellations seemed to decline with modernity’s acceleration, and furthermore he regretted the way astronomy’s teachings about stars cost us timelessness — in fact, cost us the conceit that the stars themselves are unaffected by the passage of time. He was right — because of the vast transit of light across space, the stars we “see” are sometimes already exhausted, burnt out, and thus starlight can be a figure not for eternity but for ruin. Modern astronomy produces a new form of literary romanticism, one transfixed not by human-made ruins but, instead, by the ghosts of fusion in space.

As the critic Irving Wohlfarth argues, although Benjamin’s “To the Planetarium” was mostly melancholic, it verged on hope in one regard.[8] Benjamin’s intention may have been — in this admittedly brief, nearly fragmentary piece, published as part of his Einbahnstrasse or “One-Way Street” — that the planetarium’s artifice is intended not to explain natural mysteries and thus make them less mysterious, but instead to allow us moments of enchanted unity with the cosmos. Such moments, needless to say, would not be untouched by the larger culture of scientific disenchantment of which the planetarium was a part. The historian Martin Jay has pointed out that in literary romanticism, “experiment” is intended “to restore some of what had been suppressed by modern science.”[9] Benjamin seemed to mean much the same thing when, in a 1920 essay, he claimed that “experiment consists in the evocation of self-consciousness and self-knowledge in the things observed,” and moreover:

To observe a thing means only to arouse it to self-recognition. Whether an experiment succeeds depends on the extent to which the experimenter is capable, through magical observation, one might say, of getting nearer to the object and of finally drawing it into himself.[10]

This is not mere anthropocentric solipsism, although its incompatibility with the practice of actual astronomy is obvious — and it seems to place Benjamin closer to the enchantments of astrology than some of his readers might wish. Rather, it finds in the planetarium an aesthetic response to modernity’s slow-moving crises of meaning, even as the constellation had become, for Benjamin, a means by which to resist a very different kind of crisis of meaning: the plotting of historical events as if the lines between them told meaningful stories, stories, perhaps, about progress and the ascent of the political and social orders that “deserved” to ascend. Thus did Benjamin’s anxiety over the meaning of experience converge with his concern over the fate of contingency at the hands of historicism.

In the 1933 essay “On the Mimetic Faculty,” Benjamin had mused that our very capacity to copy, to produce patterns originally found in nature, began with dancing in imitation of the shapes in the sky, “reading what was never written,” as Benjamin put it at the essay’s end.[11] He was intrigued by the idea of a naïve, embodied, authentic relation with nature which reached its most tortured form in the bourgeois idea of a “logic of history,” a constellation not in the sky but in earthly events. The division between humans and the stars is a division within us, a story about the way modernity’s alienation works on us. Outer space is inner space. And in “On Astrology,” a fragment that went unpublished in his lifetime, Benjamin imagined an effort to “purify” astrology of its air of magical influence (this may well have meant encountering historical versions of astrology anew, while eschewing contemporary, advice-column versions), and went so far as to say that understanding astrology thusly was the natural result of any effort to understand “scientific humanism.” [12] The fragment directly anticipates “On the Mimetic Faculty” in its discussion of “an active, mimetic force working expressly inside things,” which even existed in stellar constellations. “The horoscope,” Benjamin here wrote, “must above all be understood as an originary totality that astrological interpretation merely subjects to analysis.”

Griffith J. Griffith loved the idea that astronomy could improve us, that to bring celestial bodies near would transform human perspectives — including perspectives on human affairs. His understanding of improvement is, at least, recognizable for anyone familiar with the public face of science, with museums of natural history and observatories and planetariums, which rely on a popular understanding of wonder — and sometimes of the power of cosmic scales to recalibrate our sense of our world — to keep admissions numbers high. His plan for the Griffith Observatory included, from the very first, provisions for public and free viewing through the telescopes, and the creation of other educational facilities. Griffith would likely have had trouble understanding Adorno’s observations that modern science was bound up with instrumental rationality and the domination of nature, or Benjamin’s claims about astronomy and alienation. But Benjamin might have smiled on what was later built in Griffith’s observatory after his death, underneath the telescopes.

Our counterfactual (some say “allohistorical”) Benjamin of 1943 might have moved back down the steps toward a planetarium show that he had heard was about to start, one that might remind him of the shows he had seen in Berlin, an incongruous adult among the children. He might choose to sit in the artificial space of the planetarium, surrounded by shrouded light bulbs and projected light, a complex technological theater driven by the same mimetic impulse he had dwelled upon in 1932-1933. Not the enlightenment of Griffith, then, at Griffith Observatory, but also no rejection of stars and constellations and the notion of a deep relation to them; instead, an experimental journey among the lights we can know best, the ones we make ourselves. The planetarium could have become the site where Benjamin worked through a persistent knot in his aesthetic theory: how to describe the effort to access something in the world beyond our fallen one, whether we name it God or Nature, given the limits of our vision and our language? To him, the planetarium offered not “the stars down to earth,” as Adorno called astrology, but “earth up to the stars”[13] — a modern form of romanticism hiding within public scientific education.


[1] The notion that Germany had been literally betrayed from within by a group of conspirators, became a staple of right-wing (and eventually Nazi) discourse during the subsequent Weimar years. See Paul von Hindenburg, “The Stab in the Back,” in The Weimar Sourcebook, Anton Kaes, Martin Jay and Edward Dimendberg, eds. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).

[2] However, for an alternate reading of Benjamin that takes astrology, and graphology (the study of handwriting) to have been central to his thought — an inspiration in his quest to find models of “redeemed experience,” see Jennifer Zahrt, “The Astrological Imaginary in Early Twentieth–Century German Culture,” Ph.D. Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 2012.

[3] Norman Klein, The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory (London: Verso, 1997).

[4] On “backshadowing” see Michael André Bernstein, Forgone Conclusions: Against Apocalyptic History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).

[5] For a popular survey of the counterfactual genre, see Rebecca Onion, “What If?” in Aeon, posted Dec. 8, 2015: And see Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft, “The Uses of Walter: Walter Benjamin and the Counterfactual Imagination,” in History and Theory Vol. 49, October 2010 for another survey and examination of the uses of counterfactuals for intellectual history.

[6] On the Benjamin industry, see Udi Greenberg, “The Politics of the Walter Benjamin Industry,” Theory, Culture & Society, 25:3 (2008), 53-70.

[7] I made this same argument in a 2010 essay; see fn 5 above.

[8] See Irving Wohlfarth, “Walter Benjamin and the Idea of a Technological Eros: A Tentative Reading of Zum Planetarium,” Benjamin Studien/Studies 1, no. 1 (2002), 65-109.

[9] See Martin Jay, Songs of Experience: American and European Reflections on Universal Theme (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 323.

[10] Walter Benjamin, “The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism,” in Selected Writings, I. 148.

[11] Jay suggests that for Benjamin, astrology — and graphology — may have seemed like residues of a premodern sense of experience. See Jay 325.

[12] Walter Benjamin, “On Astrology,” probably written in 1932, unpublished in Benjamin’s lifetime and here quoted from Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings 1931-1934, Vol. 2 Part 2. 684-5. Rodney Livingstone, trans.

[13] I owe this formulation, and the insight behind it, to Martin Woessner.


Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft’s articles, essays, and writings on food culture have appeared in History and Theory, Modern Intellectual History, Gastronomica, Meatpaper, and other publications, and several books are in the works.

LARB Contributor

Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft is a writer and historian, whose books include Ways of Eating: Exploring Food Through History and Culture (University of California Press, 2023), co-written with Merry White; Meat Planet: Artificial Flesh and the Future of Food (UC Press, 2019); and Thinking in Public: Strauss, Levinas, Arendt (Penn, 2016).


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!