Gerhard Richter, Inheriting Walter Benjamin. London: Bloomsbury, 2016; 170 pages. ISBN: 978-1474251242.
Reviewed by Alexei Procyshyn, Monash University.
Gerhard Richter’s Inheriting Walter Benjamin is the latest addition to Bloomsbury’s “Walter Benjamin Studies” series. This series, which began its life with Continuum, before the latter press was acquired by Bloomsbury, has published some of the best scholarship on Benjamin. The essays collected in edited volumes such as Walter Benjamin and Romanticism (2002), Walter Benjamin and History (2005), and Walter Benjamin and Art (2005), the vast majority of which were previously unpublished, have set the scholarly standards for the field, shaped the contemporary reception of Benjamin’s work, and set the research agenda for many Benjamin scholars. The fact that Benjamin is now treated as a thinker in his own right, whose work deserves attention for the range of rich philosophical ideas or positions it formulates and not merely as an informative adjunct, valuable for its heuristic ability to unpack a more significant philosophical project (e.g., Adorno’s), is owed to a great extent to this series, which has kindled and sustained the interest in Benjamin’s thought and brought out its salience for contemporary research.
In comparison to the strength of previous publications in the series, Inheriting Walter Benjamin is unfortunately a disappointment. Consider the bibliographic facts: of its 170 pages, only thirty-three consist of new, previously unpublished material. Specifically, of the six essays included in the volume, only the first (“Inheriting Benjamin Otherwise,” 1–14, which also serves as Introduction) and second (“Erbsünde: A Note on Paradoxical Inheritance in Benjamin’s Kafka Essay,” 15–33) have not previously appeared elsewhere. The remaining four essays were published between 2010 and 2015, and only two of them—“Critique and the Thing: Benjamin and Heidegger” (59–100) and “The Work of Art in Its Formal and Genealogical Determinations: Benjamin’s ‘Cool Place’ Between Kant and Nietzsche” (101–21)—have been revised for the current volume. Close comparison of the revised essays with the previously published versions yields a further disappointment: the revisions consist in minor cosmetic changes which, in merely tacking allusions to the notion of “inheritance” onto the original essays, add nothing substantive nor serve any significant ampliative function.
One might easily push past these initial disappointments. After all, there are good scholarly reasons to republish a set of articles in a single volume. Whether for the ease of reference afforded by having a thinker’s important essays all in one place, or an editor’s hope that gathering together a thinker’s (or group’s) contributions to a specific problem or theme might prompt new insights, collections of previously published articles can be immensely valuable. Richter himself seems to want to position his book in the latter camp, when he writes,
The chapters that follow can be read sequentially or individually, as they each maintain a specific, self-contained focus on a key aspect of Benjamin’s thinking, rather than unfolding in a linear manner a prescriptive proposition about how to inherit Benjamin today.…Collectively, then, these chapters conspire to yield a critical constellation…that illuminates…a heterogeneous yet related network of concerns about the inheritance of the Benjaminian archive and its legacy. (12–13)
Richter never spells out what these heterogeneous yet related concerns about the inheritance of “the Benjaminian archive” are—nor, for that matter, does he ever explain what precisely he means by the locution “the Benjaminian archive,” whether this is to denote the physical Benjamin archive, housed by the Akademie der Kunst in Berlin, or else an “archive” in a more Foucauldian or Derridean sense. Nonetheless, he seems to suggest that Inheriting Walter Benjamin engages with Benjamin’s work and problematizes its reception. In this sense, the collection’s unity is supposed to derive from its efforts directed at destabilizing the received wisdom of Benjamin-scholarship by reinterpreting key notions. Specifically, and going by the collection’s title, its unity is to emerge from the problems associated with the notion of “inheritance.”
Unfortunately, Richter’s discussion of “inheritance” (contained in the first two essays) is yet another source of disappointment—and a particularly acute one at that—because it is nothing short of a missed opportunity. Initially and as a matter of principle, the idea of approaching Benjamin’s corpus or implicit philosophical project via “inheritance” is a very promising suggestion. It would track several persistent themes in his work, and help us collect his notoriously scattered and often enigmatic remarks under something resembling a coherent view of cultural criticism and cultural politics. Early essays like “Metaphysics of Youth” and “Experience” (1913–1914) explicitly touch upon the theme of inheritance. In them, Benjamin argues against accepting the values of a previous generation and extolls the creative potential of radically breaking with one’s cultural heritage in the name of the newness and robust sense of possibility contained in “Youth.” Indeed, Benjamin’s contributions to the Student Youth Movement and German educational reform pre-WWI target precisely the manner in which culture (Bildung) propagates its guiding values, irrespective of their aptness, motivational import, or historical salience. His critique of education—and his enduring love of children’s toys, books, and play—hinge on these concerns. Sketches dating from Benjamin’s middle period, which culminates shortly after the Trauerspielbuch (1928), have similar tenets. His short text “The Destructive Character,” for instance, valorizes the need to clear the cultural ground in order to create something new, and his idea of a “new barbarism” may even be read as articulating a rejection of “inheritance” as the paradigm of culture. Finally, Benjamin’s remarks concerning history and historiography in his late writings seem to hit upon a similar concern with the manner in which we relate to, and take up the past. So there is a genuine sense in which Benjamin’s project can be interpreted as attacking the very idea of a cultural heritage, of an easy transfer of cultural goods from one generation to the next, or indeed the idea that the future will resemble the past that it inherits and builds upon. (For an excellent discussion of this theme, see Caygill 2004.)
Regrettably, these lines of thought are nowhere explored in the essays collected in Inheriting Walter Benjamin. So far as I was able to determine, Richter mentions only one instance of Benjamin’s explicit engagement with “inheritance,” in his essay “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man” (22), but this remains a passing remark in the volume’s second, impressionistic essay, which is devoted to the theme of tradition in Kafka and Derrida. Upon finishing this essay, a reader would be forgiven for thinking that Benjamin is a minor player in it, despite Richter’s “wager that learning how to read the language and logic of a single Benjaminian passage will help us learn to inherit the strange singularity and idiomaticity of his movements of thought and writing more generally.” (20) Although the kind of “monadological” analysis Richter wagers on could be particularly compelling and fruitful—Bettine Menke, for instance, uses the strategy to great effect in her Sprachfiguren (1991)—it would require the kind of focused attention to detail and careful analysis that he never really musters. Indeed, Richter touches on Benjamin’s concern with “inheritance” as one does a springboard: to vault into a discussion of Kafka and Derrida as inheritors of a sense of tradition that itself remains airy and intangible.
Richter, in short, does not mobilize “inheritance” as an interpretative resource to offer a direct, hermeneutical engagement with Benjamin’s corpus. Instead, he invokes it to introduce a meta-theoretical, “quasi-deconstructive” vantage. In his words,
with each turn to a specific Benjaminian passage, the chapters of this book not only engage their respective tropes, they also inquire into the conditions of possibility that reading and inheriting his [i.e. Benjamin’s] corpus pose for us today. Each chapter reads Benjamin and watches itself reading Benjamin, participating in the act of inheriting his resistant legacy while seeking to pose the question of inheritance in relation to the Benjaminian archive always one more time. (2)
Although the precise sense in which the activities of reading and inheriting Benjamin’s work “pose” conditions of possibility for us remains unclear (if that’s even the right way to parse that awkward sentence), on Richter’s account, so far as I can understand it, the process of inheriting Benjamin’s work provides an occasion to reflexively observe one’s own interpretative strategies and to fend off the idea that there is one definitive meaning of Benjamin’s—or indeed anyone else’s—work. Richter’s “inheriting” therefore would be something akin to Bakhtin’s “unfinalizability,” i.e., the idea that the meaning or significance of a work will change over the course of its history as it interacts with its readers without any one meaning or interpretative encounter being definitive or final. As he puts it, “to ‘rescue’ a phenomenon in the Benjaminian sense means to inherit it as the irreducible enigma that it is, and to interpret it always one more time. What remains in this particular form of rescuing is an interminable resistance to closure and completion, in other words, the never-ending act of inheriting.” (10) Again, this suggestion does hold out some promise inasmuch as the idea that meaning is contextual and response-relative is crucial to Benjamin’s own thinking.
Unfortunately, however, even this approach is left unrealized in Inheriting Walter Benjamin. Indeed, Richter’s notion of “inheritance” ultimately does no real work at all in the volume (most of the essays were originally published without any mention of it), and this on account of the two related problems already indicated. First, this idea of “inheritance” identifies a theoretical focus that is only nominally attached to Benjamin’s writings, insofar as Richter’s true interest seems to lie in his own modes of interpreting those writings. This is reflected in his questionable use of the adjectival construction “Benjaminian” throughout the essays collected in Inheriting Walter Benjamin as if it were synonymous with the genitive “Benjamin’s.” This leads to unhelpful ambiguities such as that concerning “the Benjaminian archive.” Worse, though, by attributing a certain “idiomaticity” to Benjamin’s writing, this sort of nominalization seems to run counter to Richter’s intentions inasmuch as it invites the hypostatization of Benjamin’s work and its transformation into the kind of cultural good that others could inherit unproblematically. In this way, Richter’s rhetorical strategies seem to facilitate the very thing he ostensibly wants to avoid.
Second, Richter’s sense of “inheriting Benjamin’s work” remains a defensive gesture, insofar as it justifies not engaging with the extant debates and discussions in the field of Benjamin Studies. This becomes evident when we look at his choice of thinkers or images deployed by Benjamin in his writings: Kafka’s “original sin” (Chapter 2), Benjamin’s image of blotting paper soaked with ink (Chapter 3), the affinities between Benjamin and Heidegger as interpreters of Kant (Chapter 4), and Benjamin’s relation to Kant and Nietzsche (Chapter 5). These themes have all been mainstays in the secondary literature for decades. Yet, somehow Richter manages to disregard competing interpretations and longstanding debates. Although he occasionally refers to a canonical view or scholar in the individual essays, he does so merely as a transition to some other theme. In short, Richter’s notion of “inheritance” does not operate as a “problematizing device” for any sustained engagement with the secondary literature on Benjamin’s work.
These two missed opportunities—that of a direct, exegetical engagement with Benjamin’s corpus, which would mobilize “inheritance” as an interpretative resource, and that of an engagement with the scholarly reception of Benjamin’s writings, which would use “inheritance” as a way of shaking us out of unearned interpretative claims—prevent Inheriting Walter Benjamin from adding to existing scholarship in any significant way. Ultimately, Richter’s book would be best characterized as a personal collection: it documents the thinkers, tropes, texts, and interpretative tendencies that have been formative or valuable for Richter as an academic, and it bears witness to his own struggles to understand and to “inherit” an intellectual tradition. Inheriting Walter Benjamin thus turns out to be less about Benjamin and more about its author. In that sense, it is very much a self-archiving gesture, for which reason it cannot be recommended as a contribution to Benjamin Studies.
Additional Works Cited
Caygill, Howard (2004), “Walter Benjamin’s Concept of Cultural History,” in The Cambridge Companion to Walter Benjamin, (ed.) D. S. Ferris (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 73–96.
Menke, Bettine (1991), Sprachfiguren: Name, Allegorie, Bild nach Walter Benjamin (München: Wilhelm Fink Verlag).