Friday, April 01, 2011


So, one half of my homework for the weekend is reading Fire Alarm: Reading Walter Benjamin's 'On the Concept of History' by Michael Lowy (I don't know how to put two dots over the "o," or I would).

The premise for the book is that Benjamin's philosophy (criticism? literary approach? nobody really knows) expressed in a document written in 1940 is brilliant:
Walter Benjamin's 'Theses "On the Concept of History"' (1940) constitutes one of the most important philosophical and political texts of the twentieth century. (4)
But it is too complicated for regular people (even regular, brilliant, academically-minded people like Ph.D. students) to figure out, so instead we read Lowy, who is sufficiently smarter than the rest of us to be able to translate.

What I am gathering from the prologue is the following:
(1) Nobody knows for sure what Benjamin was trying to accomplish (prove, argue, express, whatever) in his theses.
(2) The theses are very difficult to understand.
(3) Critics sharply disagree on what Benjamin was saying and with which other thinkers he was aligned.
(4) Lowy is going to translate and make Benjamin's thoughts as clear as possible.

Something about this seems not-quite-right . . .

How do we know if Lowy gets it right?
If nobody can understand Benjamin's writings, how do we know they were brilliant?
If all the critics who read the writings disagree so sharply on what they say, have they really said anything?
It is an enigmatic, allusive, even sybilline text, its hermeticism studded with images, allegories and illuminations, strewn with strange paradoxes and shot through with dazzling insights (Id.).

No comments: