Totally: Fredric Jameson on Walter Benjamin

By Ian BalfourFebruary 3, 2021

Totally: Fredric Jameson on Walter Benjamin

The Benjamin Files by Fredric Jameson

THE WORK OF Walter Benjamin continues to beguile, teach, provoke, enlighten, madden, even inspire. If some of the debates about his work are tired and people have had their fill of the great, generative “Mechanical Reproduction” essay (better “Technical Reproducibility”), and if he is sometimes too easily deferred to as a kind of “Saint Benjamin,” as Michael Jennings terms it, Benjamin remains one of the best figures with whom to think. And one of the most rereadable. This last has to do with what Jameson calls, after Barthes, the “writerly” texture of his work. If common-garden-variety criticism tends to be fairly inconspicuous in relation to its objects of study, a good deal of Benjamin’s work presents itself as writing to be pondered and puzzled over in its own right, the writerly being, for Jameson, conceived as not so conducive to being understood.

There’s no such thing as an ideal reader, but Jameson is far better primed than most to do justice to just those materials and texts that Benjamin engaged with, and not simply because of his formidable powers of analysis and synthesis. One of Jameson’s prime areas of expertise — French literature (and culture and history) of the 19th century — coincides with Benjamin’s main interest of the 1930s. Add to this deep knowledge of the history of Marxism and the attendant politics. Plus, he’s far better grounded in philosophy than most good literary critics, and he’s well versed or conversant in proximate and not-so-proximate disciplines (film, architecture, sociology, urbanism, et al.). Plus, his long-standing interest in and consumption of popular culture parallels impulses in Benjamin. Plus, he’s written book-length studies of two of Benjamin’s three main men: Brecht and Adorno. He’s even something of a Berlin-o-phile. (Full disclosure: Jameson was one of my teachers and he let this slip once in a conversation, in Berlin.) Few people could be more alive to the variety and density of Benjamin’s subject matters and his treatments of them.

Among the many good things about the book is the disposition of its materials. No surprise that there are chapters (file-like, as the title indicates) on history, say, and the city. But chapters on “The Spatial Sentence” and “Cosmos” are much less self-evident things. They are almost unparalleled in the literature on Benjamin, and they deliver on the promise of saying something new. For the first of these, Jameson’s abiding investment in and attention to the sentence as a form yields fine pages on Benjamin’s syntax and syntagms, not least apropos the fabulous One-Way Street, Benjamin’s "only real book," per Jameson. It’s a hard book to talk about and teach. Jameson does the best job I know of, offering a thick, revelatory description of its texture, contents, and protocols. He helpfully disabuses anyone tempted, lazily, to call the short items in that book “fragments.” Indeed, they are carefully crafted little wholes, short and shorter but hardly fragmentary. Discontinuities occur between the small sections not within them. These miniature totalities seem related to Benjamin’s thinking of and through the monad, the Leibnizian category crucial for how Benjamin conceived of epistemological entities in The Origin of German Tragic Drama, the failed academic project that retains fascination and power despite the almost unreadable corpus of plays addressed. (But may we not at last acknowledge that the monad, however cool a notion, is a mystified, mystifying concept?) These little wholes do often suggest something beyond themselves, as do in general Benjamin’s seductive metaphors and brief allegories.

There is hardly a thinker around more committed to the idea and actuality and articulation of totality than is Jameson. Aside from a tendency to want to have certain parts stand for certain wholes, Benjamin usually eschews the dialectical thinking of totality — he rarely had a good word or much of a thought for Hegel. He resisted grand narratives long before it was fashionable to do so, especially narratives of progress, in part because he thought of history — as acted, perceived, and written about — as a matter of a relation between one moment and another. Hence the tendency to think of pointed historical events — most spectacularly, revolutions — as citations of previous ones. [1] And hence the readability — not guaranteed at all times — of history and the contention that “the historical method is a philological one.”

Jameson is fully cognizant of this aspect of Benjamin, noting “his profound anti-continuism,” and is not concerned to make his subject over into his own image on the question of totality. To be sure, they sometimes coincide. Jameson is happy to assert one viable reading of some of the “Theses on the Concept of History,” as they recommend “that we grasp history as the sum total of all human lives and all the instants of those lives, and that we distinguish that impossible totality from the ideological pictures of history abundantly supplied us by the tradition and the category of continuity.” Moreover, Benjamin’s angel of history, his back to the future, sees history as one single catastrophe, which sounds not so far from Jameson’s invocation, on the final (rather Benjaminian) page of The Political Unconscious, of “History itself as one long nightmare.”

In the course of a fresh reading of the Theses on history in the book’s final, virtuoso chapter, Jameson comments of the vantage of the angel that “its vision of history as catastrophe is also denounced.” I’m not so sure it’s a denunciation. The angel’s view seems superior to that of any human being and as a “distanced” observer turned to the past, one who registers non-progress, he is rather like Benjamin’s new-model historical materialist. When Benjamin addressed children and teenagers on German radio, his history lessons often, as Jameson notes, turned on catastrophes, such as the Lisbon Earthquake. Benjamin thinks it’s important for youngsters to learn the lesson of catastrophe and regarding the earthquake that shattered a continent and ways of thinking, Benjamin pondered a “fun” (Benjamin’s term) way to communicate this to kids. Catastrophe is, for Benjamin, it seems to me, the punctual truth of history, even if not the whole story. Which shouldn’t really be a story. Or whole.


Jameson is as attentive to historical particularity as Benjamin himself was, and so we are often treated to a doubly historical — and meta-historical — vantage. For someone schooled in philosophy and steeped in high-canonical culture, Benjamin was, unlike a lot of his fellow intellectuals, intensely interested in his writing in the materialia of daily and nightly life, which drew him, against his own bourgeois upbringing and situation, to working-class culture. Almost nothing cultural was alien to him: as an observer, sometimes a collector (toys, stamps, books), and a writer whose short and long texts were a kind of meditation on objects. Jameson, one of the most voracious consumers of culture around, is more attentive than most to this strain in Benjamin, not least in some fine pages on Benjamin’s neglected essay on collector and historian Eduard Fuchs.

A signal surprise of the book is the reading and high praise of a very short, out-of-the-way essay — a journalistic account — called “Epilogue to the Berlin Food Exhibition,” where Benjamin’s acute powers of perception and explanation are fully in evidence. Jameson observes here how Benjamin “pursues a path from reception through politics to apocalypse in the vignettes he constructs with such gusto and with a writerly pleasure in its own energies quite at odds with his ostensible object.” This is one of numerous fruits of Jameson having rooted around in the whole of the German edition of complete works, including book reviews — Jameson is sensitive to the specificity of this form — not included in the capacious Harvard edition of Benjamin in English.

In The Benjamin Files, the high Jamesonian style, long ago semi-lovingly parodied by Terry Eagleton in the pages of diacritics, is everywhere on display, with the slight difference that the prose in this book seems at once more forthright and more playful than in many of the older works. A late style for very late capitalism? There are some signatures, such as the use of the term “well-nigh,” which could almost be trademarked. (When an admirer such as Sianne Ngai employs it, she’s in effect citing it.) A lot of paragraphs and the odd chapter section begin with “But…”. Ditto with “Yet.” I was taught in school not to start sentences with conjunctions. But one can see the advantage of it for a dialectical procedure, with one sentence or part of a sentence or a chapter section countering another fully as much as unfolds in the push and pull of an ode by Pindar or Hölderlin.

The poet Bruce Andrews pointed out to me the very frequent use of the term “as such” in the last few books by Jameson. Shouldn’t this be an odd, rare phrase for a dialectician? What is the status of the “as such” when presumably the identity of every entity is defined, à la Hegel or Adorno, by the pertinent negatives relating to it? By everything that an entity is not, but some more than others. If Jameson speaks at the outset of “history” as “change as such” that makes good sense, not least as it’s in the throes of discussing how much historicity concepts can bear. But what about when the specter of “theology as such” is raised as “one distinct conceptual language whose identity Benjamin seems to have been willing to respect and to preserve”? We are told in about the next breath that “it is essential to insist from the outset that theology, in his sense, has nothing to do with God.” We have gone briskly from “theology as such” to a conception of theology at odds with virtually all others, almost by definition. Such is the force of pushing a concept to its limits or to a historicized breaking point. But Jameson does indeed have a case for his paradoxical claim and it sheds some light on the odd status of what Derrida has called a “Messianism without the Messiah,” and maybe too on the officially Christian Baroque world so troubled by experiencing a “history without transcendence.” Even Jameson’s mobilization of the “as such” is dialectical.

But it is at the level of the sentence that Jameson is most at home, most suggestive, most illuminating. In the course of a bravura reading of Baudelaire’s “A une passante” (“To a Passerby”), a poem that had been at the core of Benjamin’s great “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” a reading that Jameson extends and exceeds, we come across a sentence like this, a little plenum about absence, failure, and a missed opportunity:

This is, then, at the very heart of Baudelaire’s work, a figure for the absence of the event as such and the boredom and ennui of its omission, the emptiness at the heart of this temporality which blocks narrative in Baudelaire and transforms Flaubert’s L’Éducation sentimentale, for all its teeming detail and movement, into a uniquely anti-novelistic experiment, of which Lukács said that there could only be one of its kind (Theory of the Novel) and which Henry James loathed as the gigantic manifestation in flesh and blood of that narrative futility he may have feared for his own work.

Sentences such as these are almost legion. A number of them are worth the price of admission.

A little more evident in this book than many of Jameson’s, I think, are alerts and pieces of advice to the reader, often followed by exclamation points. We are meant to be on our toes and ready to be directed to do something, as with the famous incipit of The Political Unconscious: “Always historicize!” A hilarious and canny instance of direct engagement with the reader comes at the outset of the final chapter on the “Theses” where we read this: “The Angel, Klee’s famous Angelus Novus (which, entre nous, has very little in common with Benjamin’s description of it) comes from a family of ephemeral angels, those created to praise the moment — the Now, the Jetztzeit — and then at once to vanish along with it.” “Entre nous” — common enough in English not to be italicized here as foreign — is not really something that should be able to be said in print. At the same time as he makes a point that Benjamin’s superfans might not want to hear, he draws attention to the virtual, absent, non-conversing community of readers and author. This author as producer is well aware of the possibilities and limits of the book.

Almost my only “issue” with the book is with its beginning. I’m not sure what to make of the opening gambit of taking a certain figure of speech of Benjamin’s very seriously and plumbing it to its depths and heights — namely, the notion that “[f]or the dialectician, what matters is having the wind of world history in one’s sails.” Jameson riffs on this, perhaps even in a way that Benjamin intended or is congenial to the text. But I found it hard to follow. After that, it’s smooth sailing all the way to the climactic ending on the theses with which Benjamin ended his writing life, theses that shed so much light back on Benjamin’s thinking, to say nothing of history “as such.”

Another very fine chapter reckons with Benjamin’s ambition to be “The Foremost German Literary Critic” and how he went about it, priding himself, for one thing, on not using the word “I” in his criticism. History might have already judged that he succeeded in that, this for a writer who struggled to make ends meet and spent a good deal of the 1930s in the reading rooms of Paris’s Bibliotèque Nationale making notes and writing for a book never to be finished. What did Benjamin’s reading and writing, dialectical and relentless, amount to? Many things — but Benjamin and Brecht, feeling semi-helpless in exile in Denmark where the former periodically visited the latter, thought, when they weren’t playing chess, that their words were a circumscribed, indirect, but even necessary part of the fight against fascism. I think they were. So too, in their way, are Jameson’s, as the specter of fascism once again haunts Europe and so much of the world.


Ian Balfour taught English and Social & Political Thought at York University. He’s the author of books The Rhetoric of Romantic Prophecy and Northrop Frye. He co-edited with Atom Egoyan, Subtitles: On the Foreignness of Film, and has edited collections of essays on human rights, Derrida, and Walter Benjamin.


[1] As for a pointed event, you may have noticed that — thanks to someone in marketing at Verso with a delicate sense of humor — the publication date for Jameson’s book was Election Day in the USA.

LARB Contributor

Ian Balfour taught English and Social & Political Thought at York University. He’s the author of books The Rhetoric of Romantic Prophecy and Northrop Frye. He co-edited with Atom Egoyan, Subtitles: On the Foreignness of Film, and has edited collections of essays on human rights, Derrida, and Walter Benjamin. Recent essays address Hölderlin’s theory of tragedy, adaptations of Jane Austen’s Emma, James Baldwin’s film criticism, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In 2014, he co-curated an exhibition at Tate Britain on William Hazlitt. He’s taught at several universities as a visitor, such as the Goethe University in Frankfurt, Rice, Cornell, and SUNY Buffalo. He is polishing off a book called The Moment of the Sublime and co-writing one, with Alexander Nagel, on titles.


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