Peter D. Fenves. The Messianic Reduction: Walter Benjamin and the Shape of Time. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011. 336 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8047-5787-4; $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8047-5788-1.
Reviewed by Paula Schwebel (Universiteit Antwerpen)
Published on H-Judaic (August, 2012)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman (Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion)
Walter Benjamin’s Reduction of Mythology and the Messianic as “Total Neutrality”
Peter Fenves’s recent book is a welcome addition to Benjamin scholarship for several reasons: First, it is an expert work of historical excavation, unearthing a wealth of detail about Benjamin’s intellectual formation during his student years (1913-25). Second, Fenves presents a nuanced history of ideas, situating Benjamin’s early work at a crossroads between two major schools of German philosophy in the interwar period--namely, Husserlian phenomenology and Marburg School neo-Kantianism (i.e., Hermann Cohen and Ernst Cassirer). Third, Fenves offers a “systematic” interpretation of Benjamin’s early, mostly fragmentary, work, demonstrating how Benjamin navigated between Husserl and the Marburg School to develop his own philosophical position (p. 16).
Benjamin’s relationship to neo-Kantianism has elsewhere been more fully explored, but Fenves’s suggestion that Benjamin was critically engaged with Husserl breaks new ground. In light of the evidence gathered by Fenves, Benjamin’s engagement with phenomenology can no longer be ignored. In the preface to the Origin of the German Mourning Play (a text written in 1925 that represents the culmination of the period under discussion in Fenves’s book), Benjamin challenges two pillars of Husserl’s philosophy, arguing against the intentional character of consciousness, and rejecting the method of eidetic intuition. Because Fenves restricts his analysis to Benjamin’s early work, he does not address Benjamin’s contention, in the Arcades Project (1927-40), that Husserl’s notion of eidetic intuition lacks a “historical index.” Yet, Fenves’s discussion of “temporal plasticity” and the “shape of time” (chapters 1 and 4) anticipates some aspects of Benjamin’s late philosophy of history, as Fenves suggests in the conclusion (pp. 242-244).
Fenves’s argument does not intend to provide an exhaustive account of Benjamin’s references to Husserl, or his relationship to phenomenology more generally. Rather, under the titular designation of the “messianic reduction,” Fenves explores a specific point where Benjamin diverges from Husserl. According to Fenves, Benjamin does not reject the task of reducing the “natural attitude”--an attitude that Fenves describes as the “mythological” belief that experience results from the causal interaction between substantial things and a conscious subject (p. 165). What Benjamin does dispute, in Fenves’s view, is the intentional character of Husserl’s reduction: it is not within a subject’s power to “turn off” the natural attitude. If such a reduction can be accomplished, it is referred to a “higher power”--an idea that Fenves interprets in the mathematical terms of transfinite set theory, rather than in theological terms.
Fenves argues that Benjamin fashioned various perspectives from which the methodological priority of transcendental consciousness could be “turned off,” such as “a child’s view of color,” the “coloration of shame,” and “the colors of fantasy” (chapters 2 and 3). Notably, these perspectives cannot be willfully adopted by a subject. Colors, as seen by a child, are not defined by an interest in the existence of things, or the judgment of inherence in an underlying substance (p. 63). Hence, Fenves argues that the child’s view of color guarantees the existence of a fully reduced world, or an attitude of pure receptivity to the phenomena (p. 3). But a guarantee of existence is not a method; the child’s view of color, like childhood itself, is “evanescent,” and therefore cannot be intended or universalized (pp. 64-65).
Fenves maintains that Benjamin shares Husserl’s ideal of a fully reduced world, and that Benjamin can thus be regarded as a phenomenological thinker. The goal of the reduction, in Fenves’s account, is to attain an attitude of “pure receptivity” to the phenomena, “without distortions that result from theoretical presuppositions” (p. 3). But Fenves’s claim that Benjamin sought an attitude of “pure receptivity” sits uneasily with his characterization of Benjamin as an adherent to certain tenets of the Marburg School, since the explicit goal of the latter was to eliminate any residue of receptivity to a given “thing in itself,” instead generating objective knowledge from the spontaneous activity of pure thinking.
Fenves finds the link between Husserl and the Marburg School in their common anti-psychologism (p. 227). But the tension between pure receptivity and the pure generation of knowledge runs throughout Fenves’s book without being fully resolved. In contrast to chapters 2 and 3, where Fenves reads Benjamin’s 1915-16 studies on color as aiming towards an ideal of pure receptivity, in chapter 1, Fenves shows the influence of Cassirer’s “functional” generation of reality on Benjamin’s 1915 essay, “Two poems by Friedrich Hölderlin.” Fenves notes that this tension between Husserlian phenomenology and the Marburg School shaped not only Benjamin’s early philosophy, but also much of German philosophy during the first part of the twentieth century (p. 6). It is to Fenves’s credit that he traces these dizzying oscillations in Benjamin’s work, without imposing a simplifying schema.
Ultimately (in chapter 6), Fenves argues that Benjamin “declines” to follow either Husserl or Cohen (p. 167). Whereas Husserl replaces the subject-object model of experience with a primordial “stream of consciousness,” and Cohen replaces transcendental subjectivity with the “fact of science,” Benjamin seeks to ground a new concept of experience in a “‘pure epistemo-theoretical (transcendental) consciousness,’ which no one can claim as his or her own” (p. 167). Fenves parses this complicated idea by describing it as a unity that is “higher” than the transcendental unity of apperception. This unity corresponds to a “sphere of total neutrality,” in which both the subjective and the objective poles of the natural attitude have been reduced (p. 172).
Presumably, such a “sphere of total neutrality” would correspond neither to an attitude of pure receptivity to phenomena, nor to their pure “functional” generation, raising the question of how this sphere enters into relation with the phenomenal world of possible experience. The answer to this question has high stakes, since Fenves suggests that the relationship is, at least structurally, equivalent to the relationship between the profane world and the “messianic.” Fenves’s answer is primarily negative, indicating that this sphere of total neutrality cannot be anticipated or foreseen. But Fenves also employs certain mathematical models to think about the “shape” that the messianic reduction might take. While it is not inconceivable that a mathematical model could leave “open-ended” what cannot be anticipated or foreseen (p. 3)--and Fenves provides the example of a curve that has no tangents (pp. 239-244)--it seems that his negative argument is threatened to the extent that he succeeds in mathematically representing what, according to his own argument, is unrepresentable.
Although Fenves does not explicitly state as much, the unity of his argument seems to revolve around an attempt to think through the meaning of Hölderlin’s notion of “holy sobriety,” which was also a key idea for Benjamin (pp. 38; 45; 77). Sobriety receives various formulations in Fenves’s argument, from a pure receptivity that is “untouched” by objects (p. 49), to the aforementioned “sphere of total neutrality,” corresponding to a fully reduced world. Such sobriety is “holy,” according to Fenves, because it coincides with the elimination of mythology (p. 175). With this notion of sobriety, we also find the underlying link to Fenves’s argument about the “shape of time.” Fenves amplifies the idea of a curve without tangents to include a broader interpretation of the “untouched”: tangentless, the temporal curve is also “inviolable,” and thus “innocent” (p. 241).
Fenves’s “messianic reduction” runs the risk of reducing not only the natural attitude, but also anything resembling the critical capacity of a subject. In the first place, Fenves suggests that Benjamin upholds an ideal of pure receptivity, but if the goal is simply to receive what is given, then any attempt to change the world is deemed impure. Pure givenness is regarded as untouchable, and this untouchability is sanctified as an “innocent” world. As a consequence, the political charge of Benjamin’s messianism is neutralized. Moreover, Fenves’s appeal to a mathematical “higher power” yields to an authority that is untouchable in yet another sense. As Benjamin argues in the preface to the Origin of the German Mourning Play, the inevitability and necessity of mathematical proof is “coercive.” Fenves’s invocation of a mathematical “higher power”--in the name of reducing the “myth” of the psychological consciousness--may yield to the mystification of mathematical truth.
Notwithstanding the density and difficulties of Fenves’s argument, this book performs a great service to scholars of Benjamin, interwar German philosophy, and German-Jewish thought. One of the book’s greatest assets is its inclusion, in an appendix, of Fenves’s original translations of two short texts of Benjamin’s from 1915 or 1916 (“The Rainbow: Dialogue on Fantasy” and “The Rainbow; or, The Art of Paradise”), as well as a remarkable document, attributed to Benjamin and recorded in Gershom Scholem’s diary of 1916 (“Notes toward a work on the category of justice”), which Fenves interprets in chapter 7. In a field that is often moribund due to the repetition of the same few passages, Fenves’s introduction and analysis of this new material makes an exciting contribution to Benjamin scholarship, while preparing the ground for further study of Benjamin’s relationship to phenomenology.
. See, for example, Astrid Deuber-Mankowsky, Der frühe Walter Benjamin und Hermann Cohen. Jüdische Werte. Kritische Philosophie, vergängliche Erfahrung (Berlin: Verlag Vorwerk 8, 2000).
. Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhäuser, 7 vols. (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1972-91), v. 1: 215-16.
. Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, v. 5: 577.
. Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, v. 1: 208.
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Paula Schwebel. Review of Fenves, Peter D., The Messianic Reduction: Walter Benjamin and the Shape of Time.
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