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«Daniel Weidner For a long time Walter Benjamin was figured as the intellectual in-between: as the sole genius who related different if not ...»

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Thinking beyond Secularization:

Walter Benjamin, the “Religious Turn,”

and the Poetics of Theory

Daniel Weidner

For a long time Walter Benjamin was figured as the intellectual in-between:

as the sole genius who related different if not conflicting positions and was

able to overcome outgrown distinctions and to transgress the boundaries of

well-established theories and disciplines. An academic outsider, he became

the forerunner of important theoretical innovations of today. Benjamin’s work therefore underwent numerous renaissances since the 1950s and maintained its actuality in different contexts and epochs of thought.

But is this still true today? If all these assumptions are to be more than mere rhetoric to foster the claim of intellectual prestige for a past thinker, we have to ask if they are still valid in relation to contemporary theory. I would even stress that we have to ask this question in a twofold way. First, is Benjamin’s thought still transgressive in a sense that exceeds his anticipation of radical cultural criticism and media theory? For even if he preceded these movements, they have been quite firmly established by now; thus today Benjamin could hardly be more than a founding father in this context, a past name, a source of authority or of pretensions. If we still believe in the actuality of Benjamin, however, we have to ask if, and in what respect, Benjamin still troubles theory and which kinds of boundaries he still transgresses.

New German Critique 111, Vol. 37, No. 3, Fall 2010 DOI 10.1215/0094033X-2010-017 © 2010 by New German Critique, Inc.

132 Thinking beyond Secularization Second, does our current situation bring forth a new reading of Benjamin’s writings just as the former renaissances of Benjamin’s politics, his mysticism, or his media theory did? According to Benjamin, interpreting a text (as well as translating it) means to put its readability on trial in a specific historical situation; if we accept that, the question of Benjamin’s actual contribution to current theoretical debates coincides with the question of how it is possible today to read Benjamin’s texts: How do we relate to the distinctions they make, and what sense could we make of the categories they imply?

Thus I believe that the question of the boundaries to transgress is always related to the question of Benjamin’s own boundaries. With the latter I mean the distinctions Benjamin draws himself, as well as the demarcations between the different branches or even schools of interpretation that have determined the reading of Benjamin for so long. True, these boundaries have been put into question during the last decades, both the distinction between the early and the late Benjamin and the difference between the materialist and the theologian. Yet these boundaries did exist and they did determine the reading of Benjamin—a fact that would be naive to ignore. Moreover, the fundamental distinctions in Benjamin’s oeuvre are not only a result of its interpretation, they are inherent. Especially in Benjamin’s early texts, there is a strong gesture of distinguishing things as well as concepts from each other, for instance, “fate” from “character,” “myth” from “truth,” and so on. However, as a frontier is more than a mere line of distinction but also a site of movement, of interchange, even of going forward, Benjamin’s distinctions are not stable but become distorted and displaced in writing and rewriting his texts. Assuming that reading involves making sense out of distinctions, out of performing (and thereby distorting and displacing) the binary codes of language, reading Benjamin refers to these early and fundamental distinctions but indirectly, through Benjamin’s own rereading of them in his later texts. Thus reading Benjamin is or should always be a reading of readings. In fact, it is a reading of the reading of the different historical interpretations of Benjamin’s reading of his own concepts. Furthermore, it should not be reading for its own sake, not a mere play of

interpretations, but should relate to the other aspect of the question posed above:

to the boundaries of today’s thought. Thus we should be able to read Benjamin in a way that comes up with the complexities of his thought, with the history of its reception, and with the status of current theoretical and political questions.

To do so, I reflect briefly on which of the pressing questions of today we could relate Benjamin’s reading to before I try to develop step-by-step a mode of reading, taking the short text Capitalism as Religion as an example. This text, by describing the mythical and cultic nature of current capitalism, not only is fasDaniel Weidner 133 cinating, as it seems to address questions of highest importance and actuality today, but also reveals the double reference to modernity and to archaic prehistory that is so typical for Benjamin’s thought. Moreover, these ideas, motives, and figures of thought are highly condensed in Capitalism as Religion, the few pages being the ideal test case for reading in a very literal sense.

The Religious Turn Obviously, the boundaries of today’s theory are multiple. If I am focusing on the boundary of the religious, this is somewhat contingent yet has its reasons, too. We all have experienced religion reentering the theoretical discourse during the past decades. Already in 1999 Hent de Vries stated a turn to religion in philosophy, referring to the works of Emmanuel Levinas, those of Jean-Luc Marion, and especially the later works of Jacques Derrida.1 In cultural studies in a broader sense, there has been a growing interest in religious phenomena since then, one example among many being New Historicism’s “turn to religion,” which has been prominently discussed in recent years.2 An abundance of historical studies stress the dynamic and productive force of religion in historical processes, whereas theoretical approaches reflect on what religion is and how the religious relates to general philosophical and theoretical questions. These no longer conceive of religion as ideology or as part of the superstructure but as an essential force and a theoretical problem of lasting importance even in modernity. They criticize one of the most persistent master narratives of twentieth-century thought: the idea of a progressive “secularization” of the West and a “disenchantment” of the world, according to which religion has been a major integrative force in ancient and medieval times but is now hardly more than a reminiscence or a survival, deserving scant attention apart from the merely antiquarian.





The current renaissance is all the more astonishing, since religion had quite disappeared from the academic agenda in the decades before. Whereas in the 1960s and 1970s there had been a lively debate about the “secularization” of modern society, the shift of theory toward deconstruction, discourse analysis, and postcolonialism in the 1980s turned away from religion. The phenomenon of religion and even the concept of secularization did not disappear, however, for all these new approaches still rely on the silent presupposition that

1. See Hent de Vries, Philosophy and the Turn to Religion (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999).

2. See, e.g., Ken Jackson and Arthur F. Marotti, “The Turn to Religion in Early Modern English Studies,” Criticism 46 (2004): 167–90; Bruce Holsinger, ed., “Literary History and the Religious Turn,” special issue, English Language Notes 44, no. 1 (2006).

134 Thinking beyond Secularization historically, some kind of secularization has taken place.3 But today, facing a global renaissance of religion’s public role—and its increasing influence in the private realm—this assumption seems no longer tenable. Secularization is not enough, religion reenters the discourse of culture and theory, and nary a theoretical approach exists to explain what happens here.

Given this situation, it is well worth going back in time, especially to the first half of the twentieth century, in which the basic conceptions of secularization were developed. The concept has always been more complex than the trivial version of the loss of the sacred seems to imply. We may even say that what reemerges today is the fundamental ambiguity of the idea of secularization, which has been forgotten as long as the process described is considered as self-evident. Thus, if we could better understand the inner structure of the discourse on secularization, we may better understand what religion is today.

The essential assumption of my article is that Benjamin’s thought could help us in this undertaking.

Actually, the study of Walter Benjamin did not remain untouched by the current renaissance of religion. The emerging discourse of political theology proved fruitful, and it developed promising rereadings of Benjamin. I want to point out the numerous readings of the Critique of Violence, the debate about a “messianic without messianism,” and the broad debate over the writings of Giorgio Agamben.4 These discourses are new in the sense that they refer to religion less as an element in Benjamin’s work, something to grasp in order to understand what Benjamin means, but the other way round: they refer instead to Benjamin in order to understand what religion is. This entails a second shift in perspective: religion, which hitherto has been situated at the distant edges of everyday experience and modern life, is now conceived as something central and intrinsic to this very experience. Agamben’s reading of Paul’s letter to the Romans, for example, describes messianism no longer as a strange idea about a distant future, be it religious or profane, but as the structure of the very moment of now.5 This fascination with religion is far from unproblematic. At least in some cases, the enthusiasm for the new and seemingly “other” object overrides differentiation, and one prefers to talk of “Christianism” or even “monotheism” as such instead of going into historical detail. Moreover, as with every renaisSee Vincent P. Pecora, Secularization and Cultural Criticism: Religion, Nation, and Modernity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), esp. chap. 1.

4. See, for an overview, Hent de Vries, ed., Political Theologies: Public Religions in a Postsecular World (New York: Fordham University Press, 2006).

5. Giorgio Agamben, The Time That Remains: A Commentary to the Letter to the Romans (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006).

Daniel Weidner 135 sance, the turn to religion tends to forget its precursors. To give an example, Agamben’s meticulous reading of Romans conceals its references and sources: obviously relying on the categories of dialectical theology, especially Rudolf Bultmann’s “presentist eschatology,” Agamben does not even mention these discourses. And even in Benjamin studies, there is a large gap between the few texts read and their historical and discursive context, which may be expressed by an indicative fact: in the massive and highly useful Benjamin Handbook, edited by Burkhard Lindner, no member of contemporary theology is even mentioned.6 Among the numerous if not countless readers of Benjamin, only Jacob Taubes was sensible to the affinity of Benjamin’s thought with contemporary theology such as Karl Barth’s, suggesting that the Theological-Political Fragment is “dialectical theology outside the Christian Church.”7 If this blend of fascination for religion and neglect of its history, including the history of its interpretation, is characteristic for today, then in what respect could the reading of Benjamin prove fruitful? Or could the current situation help us read Benjamin more thoroughly? Again: where are we today? To begin my reading, let me proclaim, at least ironically, the collapse of old dichotomies: socialism and revolution seem to have disappeared, capitalism and religion remain. This very slogan may lead us, as directly as superficially, to one of Benjamin’s texts, the small piece Capitalism as Religion. At first glance, this short text seems to prefigure the current situation, insofar as it describes capitalism as a religious phenomenon. A closer reading, however, demonstrates that Benjamin’s text precisely resists reduction to its keywords and unfolds a constellation of concepts much more complex than expected. The text’s seeming “actuality” thus reveals itself less as a direct description of our present time than as a poetic transformation of its understanding.

Capitalism as Religion Capitalism as Religion is typical for Benjamin’s writing and crucial for the development of his interests. Comprising only four pages in print, the text is more a draft than a finished work. The original text contains not only a program to be worked out but also a reading list of works on capitalism and religion, including texts by Georges Sorel, Erich Unger, Gustav Landauer, Max

6. See Burkhard Lindner, ed., Benjamin-Handbuch (Stuttgart: Metzler, 2006).

7. Jacob Taubes, Die politische Theologie des Paulus (Munich: Fink, 1993), 104–5. See also

Chryssoulas Kambas, “Wider den ‘Geist der Zeit’: Die antifaschistische Politik Fritz Liebs und Walter Benjamins,” in Der Fürst dieser Welt: Carl Schmitt und die Folgen, ed. Jacob Taubes (Munich:

Schöningh, 1983), 263–91.



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